At Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig writes about Mad Max: Fury Road and Game of Thrones. “So, two very popular storyworlds. Two portrayals of a world where women hold dubious power and are seen as ‘things.’ One of these is roundly criticized for it. One of them is roundly celebrated for it. Game of Thrones catches hell for its portrayal of women and this subject. Mad Max is wreathed in a garland of bike chains and hubcabs for it. What, then, is the difference? Let’s try to suss it out.”
Posted August 8, 2013
“His mother had often said, when you choose an action, you choose the consequences of that action. She had emphasized the corollary of this axiom even more vehemently: when you desired a consequence you had damned well better take the action that would create it.” — Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory
There is an age-old fallacy that science fiction is for boys, by boys. Despite an abundance of evidence that this is just flat-out wrong, many publishers of books and games, and makers of movies, cling to it with dogged tenacity. Lois McMaster Bujold entered into this fray in the 1980s, when the debate about women and minorities in science fiction was not nearly as fiery as it is these days — but that’s because there wasn’t really any debate taking place at all. When she decided to become a science fiction and fantasy writer, she took the most direct route: she wrote a novel. When she was unable to find a publisher, she wrote another and sent it out as well. And then another while she was waiting to hear anything about the first two.
Eventually her second novel, The Warriors Apprentice, caught the eye of Jim Baen and Baen publishing. He agreed to publish all three books (the other two being Shards of Honor and Ethan of Athos). And so was launched The Vorkosigan Saga and the career of the one of the most beloved and decorated modern science fiction authors (five Hugos, three Nebulas, and three Locus awards — don’t even get me started on the number of nominations) in a very (arguably entirely) male-dominated industry. Bujold is not quiet about being a woman in science fiction, and certainly not unaware of her position, but she’s prone to simply letting her career speak for itself and — my words, not hers — serve as a model and an inspiration.
I came to her in the most scientific of manners: by grabbing books at random off a shelf based entirely on their covers. The book that caught my eye was Ethan of Athos, the cover of which looked like a throwback to old pulp art without trying to look like a throwback to old pulp art. Also, there was a guy on it I could swear just wandered onto the cover from a Six Million Dollar Man novelization. I scooped it up and started reading. Much of the book was familiar: a faraway planet with futuristic technology, a space station, a tough wisecracking mercenary woman. Safe science fiction territory, right? Except for one small tweak: the main character, a scientist named Ethan Urquhart, was from a planet populated entirely by homosexual men (save for the small population that has taken a vow of celibacy).
Although Ethan of Athos was one of the first three novels Bujold wrote, it is only tangentially related to the overall series that became The Vorkosigan Saga. The books run the gamut of styles, from sweeping space opera and military scifi to mysteries, political thrillers, comedies, and romance and focus on Miles Vorkosigan, his military father, and his liberal scientist mother. Poisoned while he was still in the womb, Miles is physically frail and underdeveloped in a society that prizes military acumen and physical fitness. Through determination, intelligence, and cleverness (to say nothing of luck), Miles carves a life for himself in this hostile environment. Oh, and on the side he accidentally bluffs his way into becoming one of the most legendary space pirates in the galaxy.
The Vorkosigan family does not appear at all in Ethan of Athos. A supporting character, Commander Elli Quinn of Miles’ Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, from The Warrior’s Apprentice becomes a major character in this story, but the book is otherwise self-contained. It is a slim novel, considered by many to be a light-hearted lark when measured against the greater portion of Bujold’s writing. It is a throwback to the classic scifi pulps of the Golden Age, as well as a subversion of that same age in how it politely forces questions about gender, sexual preference, sexism, and religion. At the same time, the book deals with these elements in a way that is, if not quite breezy, certainly not heavy-handed or preachy.
It is a reflection of the way Bujold handles her own career. Her goal is to write a ripping good space adventure, not a manifesto. The themes of the book emerge organically from the plot. In a perhaps partially coincidental reflection of science fiction fandom, Athos is a planet colonized by a religious sect that figured women were the cause of too much sass in the world, and so everything would be cool if the guys all got together and started their own planet. Some generations later, women have taken on an almost mythical, boogeyman role. This is a problem when their genetic banks are corrupted. Ethan has to leave Athos and seek out a new source they can use to grow their children. This brings him into contact with a host of ramshackle citizens of the galaxy — including these dreaded “women.”
Ensconced as we are now in a necessary but unnecessarily ugly debate on female, minority, and LGBT creators and fans in science fiction, fantasy, comics, and gaming, it’s hard not to see Athos through the prism of men’s rights advocates and juvenile “no girls in the clubhouse” fandom. Bujold attacks the issue, but she does not condemn the person. Ethan is a good guy but is someone who has been raised to think a certain way. He freaks out when his assumptions are challenged. Thrown into a partnership with a take-no-crap woman when, a couple days before he didn’t even know what a woman looked like, Ethan is a more sympathetic and thus hopeful portrayal of male bias than some moustache-twirling villain (the book has its fair share of those, too). The debate that emerges from his gradual evolution is more effective for being polite and reasonable.
Ethan himself is helped along the road to not hating or fearing women by discovering that he himself is subject to ridicule and prejudice. On Athos, homosexuality is simply the way of the world. No one gives it a thought. Off Athos, Ethan quickly discovers homosexuality is not as common or accepted as he assumed (actually, it never even occurred to him he would need to assume that). Suddenly a victim of sneered jokes and aggressive prejudice, it makes his eventual partial — Bujold is not unrealistic about the amount one person can change overnight — revelation about women more convincing.
That is a lot of heavy business, ain’t it? Well, it’s delivered amid a boiling cauldron full of space station intrigue, industrial espionage, laser shoot-outs, wisecracking, and all around adventure. The best way to subvert a genre is to be a great example of that genre, and Ethan of Athos is fantastic scifi pulp. This is no case of wrapping a bitter pill in a tasty piece of cheese. For Bujold, there is no reason a science fiction novel that deals with gender and sexual preference needs to taste bitter at all. She sets her stance in the battle for acceptance of women in science fiction in the most effective way I can think of: by being one of the best goddamn science fiction authors in the galaxy.
Please welcome our new Science Fiction / Fantasy Editor, Keith Allison. Keith guest starred on The Gutter last February with, “The Monster in Me.” You can see more of Keith’s writing at his cult culture website Teleport City.