(I originally drafted this post in April 2012, but never finished it. I am posting it now with a few revisions, paring down references to internet kerfuffles that were current at the time but are ancient history now.)
I want to draw some connections between my previous post on gender roles in scifi and the related discussions that are currently all the rage in the SF community. As you may know, in recent years women have been speaking up more and more vocally about the fact that it’s hard to get taken seriously as a woman in the SF community.
The original motivation for this post came from a blog post written by author and blogger Cat Valente in the midst of a kerfuffle in the spring of 2012. The background is that a male author had written a blog post criticizing the nominees for a major award, saying that they all sucked and none of them deserved the award. In Valente’s post on her livejournal, she posits that if a female blogger had written that stuff about the award nominations, she would be receiving death threats and comments like “I hope you get raped” (not hyperbole; this actually happens). Whereas, when a man writes it, you get a lot of people going “hmm, maybe he’s right; let us now engage in some deep soul-searching about the nature, meaning, and purpose of scifi awards.” In other words, female bloggers take a lot more crap for saying controversial things than male bloggers do — especially in a realm like science fiction, which, despite a lot of progress, is still heavily male-dominated.
Okay, Ms. Valente’s post is well-written and thought-provoking and you should read it, but it’s not the point I’m getting at. What caught my eye was one of the comments on her livejournal post, wherein the commenter took issue with Ms. Valente’s reference to Game of Thrones (which, as you know unless you’re seriously living under a rock, is a hugely popular epic-fantasy book series that is now also a tv series). The commenter essentially said that it’s okay for GoT to portray a misogynistic society, because its “setting is loosely analogous to a late Dark Ages historical drama” and therefore any sexism, racism, etc. in the story is okay because it’s realistic for the setting. Ms. Valente calls bullshit on this, pointing out that GoT also includes, for example, dragons. “Authors make choices,” she says, and this is the crux of the point I was trying to make in my previous post: when an author can choose to take the Dark Ages and add dragons, he could just as easily choose to take the Dark Ages and delete misogyny. Let’s not pretend that this is anything other than a choice — and a lazy one at that.
The trouble is that on the face of it, this argument that “because he based his setting on such-and-so actual historical setting, he has to do x and y” seems to make sense. We go, “oh well sure, he wants it to be realistic, that’s valid.” But that’s only because we are mired in a mindset that’s hard to shake.
And really, what’s realism got to do, got to do with it? Are we really concerned about some reader who’s going to be blowing a gasket going, “zomg this is clearly based on the Dark Ages so wtf with the total lack of rape? NEEDS MOAR RAPE!”? (I say this with tongue somewhat in cheek, knowing that in fact there likely would be some rabid crank saying exactly that…but you know what, fuck that guy.) And sure, some of the elements of misogyny that repeatedly occur in fantasy epics are also useful literary devices (the arranged marriage, for example), but that doesn’t mean that an author “has to” include them. He could use some, you know, imagination to come up with something else that would accomplish the same purpose.
All of this leads me into a book I had just finished reading (at the time I read Cat Valente’s post): The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley Beaulieu. I had a lot of issues with this book on purely technical grounds (plot holes, etc.), but it also fails on the gender-roles front.
Plot overview: This book certainly seems to want to be the beginning of a new fantasy epic in the general vein of Game of Thrones. We have a bunch of duchies located on islands, connected by water and air routes as well as something called “the aether” which is a mystical … force? substance? element? … that links the various landmasses together. We also have a mysterious disease that is killing people left and right, and which may or may not be related to a blight that is affecting the crops and causing people to starve. And we have a mysterious young boy who doesn’t talk but who has amazing magical powers; he belongs to an ethnic minority called the Aramahn, who used to own the land but have been forced out of power by the current majority, called “the Landed.” The Aramahn are still tolerated (read: used) by the Landed, because only the Aramahn have the powers to manipulate the elements, which the Landed need in order to fly their airships between islands. Our protagonist, Nikandr, is the son of one of the Dukes, and has been coopted into an arranged marriage with the daughter of another Duke; neither he nor the woman is thrilled about the marriage, especially since Nikandr is engaged in an affair with an Aramahn woman. As the plot progresses, Nikandr forms a mystical bond with the mysterious boy, and they and various other characters run around trying to figure out what is causing the problems in the world, how the boy is connected to it, and what to do about it.
The primary, most puzzling thing to me about this book is the way it puts a particular magical skill/power exclusively into the hands of the women — only they are able to, while submerged in freezing water, commune with the aether and visualize everything that is happening in the land; they can also manipulate it so as to enable airship traffic — and yet somehow this doesn’t give the women any power in the social hierarchy. We still have the land ruled by Dukes, never duchesses; we still have women being used as currency, effectively, via arranged marriages. Casual reference is made to men beating their wives, and to a Duke who rejected the woman he was arranged to marry because she was too ugly. This is precisely the kind of thing I’m talking about when I say that more thought needs to be given to the larger implications of plot elements. It just does not work for me.
The next element that I found irritating is the question of the nobleman’s mistress. We learn that several years ago she decided to settle in a city of the Landed, as part of a big secret plot among her people; so she moves there, and how does she choose to set herself up?…as a prostitute, of course. This is again the kind of thing that requires some thought. On the surface, in the worldview of Epic Fantasy Up Until Now, it makes complete sense. In that worldview, one might even be tempted to say it’s the only thing that makes sense. Being a whore gets her access to influential men who might let fall a secret or two, or might get her into places or situations that could help her. But let’s not kid ourselves; no matter how much agency the character has in the story, she has nevertheless been devalued by making her The Whore. Just as easily she could have been, oh I don’t know, a tailor? How about a swordfighting instructor, the one to whom all the nobles send their sons AND daughters to learn how to wield a blade? And that’s just two perfectly good examples off the top of my head!
Further compounding the problem, Beaulieu takes the eye-rollingly predictable route of having the whore fall in love with one of her clients, and he with her (maybe…kinda). Just by pure coincidence — or so we’re expected to believe — it so happens that the one man she falls for is also the one who has a mystical connection to the aether and will end up being chosen by spirits from the other side. Or something like that. Honestly, I’m not entirely clear on why Nikandr is the one who gets mixed up in all of this (I mean aside from the fact that he’s the protagonist). For the hero of the story, he seems to have surprisingly little agency; he spends most of the book stumbling into and out of situations, being captured and rescued apparently at random. It begins with what appears to be a chance encounter with the mysterious boy; this causes Nikandr to get dragged into the web of plots and counter-plots being woven by the various factions — but if he hadn’t happened to talk to the boy at that point, would any of it have happened? This to me is bad storytelling. There has to be a reason why this guy gets mixed up in it — and, for that matter, why it just so happens that the two women who get involved in the plot are his lover and his wife-to-be.
The next problem is the scene wherein Nikandr’s arranged wife-to-be, Atiana, is trapped with an enemy who has something she needs on a chain around his neck. What tactic does she use to get it away from him? I bet you can guess. Yes, she seduces the enemy and steals the item when he falls into a post-coital stupor. Awful. And although I hate to belabor the point, once again this is the kind of thing that may seem obvious or necessary if you aren’t applying enough imagination. Why couldn’t she, oh I don’t know, challenge the guy to a drinking contest and get him so drunk that he falls over? Or, heck, even just whack him over the head with something and then run like hell.
Aside from the above, the plot holes and technical issues that I referenced earlier marred my enjoyment of the book as well. For example, near the beginning of the book it appears to be winter (a scene takes place in snow), whereafter a few days pass and suddenly there’s reference to the “summer sun,” and then a page or two later it’s snowing again. In one scene a character is described as lying on the ground unconscious while other characters debate what to do; a page later they are all rushing up a mountain together, the guy who was unconscious is barking orders, no reference ever having been made to him rousing. Atiana witnesses another character seeming to be on her deathbed, then recovered but still weak; later, Atiana hears someone mention that the other woman is ill, and expresses surprise, like, “she always seemed so strong.”
But the issues in the previous paragraph are minor, of course, when put in perspective. The overall problems of lack of imagination are what killed this story for me. Now it’s also certainly true that I am not really the target audience for epic fantasy; it isn’t usually my things; its tropes generally bore me to tears. I feel quite sure there are people — even feminists — who could read this book and not be bothered at all by these things. Because, like I said, you do get stuck in the way things are and it can be really hard, even for the most aware of us, to notice them. Like fish noticing water. But the thing is, once you do start to notice it, you notice that it’s everywhere, and then you can’t stop being bothered by it.