Friday, September 2, 2011

Sex and science fiction, Part Two

Here's Part Two of my notes for a BBC Radio 4 interview for Cat Women of the Moon, a 2-part documentary about sex, gender, and science fiction. (I posted Part One yesterday. You can listen to Episode 1 of Cat Women of the Moon here.)

What does the female-only society offer an author that a mixed society can’t – in terms of the themes or ideas you can explore?

Assuming the writer believes women are fully human, a writer can use a women-only setting to explore anything of concern to people. All the big issues novelists love--growth and change, the effects of violence, nature vs. nurture, belonging, coming of age--you can play with all of it.

With a women-only society you can also do things you can't with a mixed society.

For one thing you can make the metaphor concrete. For example, you can literally make women Other, make them aliens in actuality instead of merely figuratively.

You can also write about all the big themes (growth, change, violence, nature vs. nurture) without gender confusing the result. You can control for gender, take it out of the experiment....

Think about culture as a cult: a group of people with a particular worldview.

How do you deprogramme a cult member? You remove them from the influence of those who inculcate the cultish values.

In real life, you can't isolate women from men completely. But in SF you can: you can run a deprogramming simulation and see what happens.

The female-only society is a common theme – much more common than male-only societies. Why do you think that is? Do you think there’s some of penalty for historical male superiority going on here? Are men incapable of truly accepting gender-equal societies or are women incapable of fully grasping power?

I'm having a hard time taking this one seriously. But, okay, I'll play.

We don't need to explore men-only societies in fiction because history is littered with them. Armies. Monasteries. Prep schools. In those communities the authority figures are male, the fictional characters are male, the leading lights in lessons of history and science are male. Their mores and codes are masculine.

Writing about, for example, a nunnery just isn't the same. The nuns' God is male, their priests are male, they're called brides of Christ; their focus is on a male authority figure.

Your world Jeep isn’t a utopia – tribes of women fight each other and fight the female colonists. Do you think that represents a shift in how women only societies are imagined i.e. it’s not all rosy?

If I can generalise to the point of being simplistic, fiction about women-only societies has gone through a great arc:
  • from the yearning for freedom of women like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Daphne Du Maurier
  • to the old-style inhuman and insectoidal stories of men E.E. 'Doc' Smith and John Wyndham
  • then role-reversal stories in which women do to men what men have always done to women (Edmund Cooper; Suzy Charnas)
  • and wounded/insane protagonists imagining something better (Piercy, Tiptree)...
  • followed by wise kind vegetarian amazon utopias (Gearheart, Tepper, Piercy, Bryant)
  • and, gradually (sometimes, still not always), women as human in, of, and by themselves (and writers feel able to poke fun: Fowler, Duchamp, Sussex, Ryman)
Russ, of course, did many of these things at once in The Female Man.

That's novel's precursor, "When It Changed," was brilliant, but it made me angry. Perhaps I missed the point when I first read it, perhaps I'm still missing the point, but to me it felt like a failure of imagination: why would Janet Evason feel like a second-class citizen when the men come? Perhaps it made sense when Russ wrote it, but it didn't make sense to me in the 80s and it doesn't make sense in the 21st C. But I don't know where we'd be as a genre if Russ (and others) hadn't written this kind of thing.

Perhaps we'd still be stuck with the whole Cartesian dualist thing: good/bad, girl/boy which never worked for me. Computers use binary systems, life does not. Perhaps we'd still be mired in the sex-battle texts (see Justine Larbelestier's work for more on this) of simplistic role reversal.

But now writers can have fun with gender. Gender is no longer necessarily a prison sentence, no longer a war; for some, sometimes, it's a game or a fashion statement.

One of the big challenges in your world – Jeep – is reproduction. How did you get over that?

Through the magic of the virus.

Parthenogenesis is asexual reproduction in which growth and development of embryos happens without fertilisation. You only need females. This happens in some insects, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. Very occasionally birds, too, I think. It can sometimes be artificially stimulated.

So I did a bit of narrative hand-waving and posited a virus that enables parthenogenesis, and diploid i.e. reproductively viable, daughters. It also enables some women on the planet, those with greater than usual control over normally autonomic processes, to select what genes get expressed, and do some mix-and-matching recombination so their daughters aren't clones.

This means that Jeep's population is more varied and therefore more resistant, as a population, to disease.

Mostly, honestly, I think readers don't care; they accept the conventions and tropes of sf without too much explanation (for example, FTL drive)--as long as you don't insult their intelligence of contravene what's known to be known at tedious length.

The Wall Street Journal certainly didn't care. I did an interview with them a long time ago in which the writer stated authoratatively that the women on Jeep reproduce by photosynthesis.

But, in the end, hey, using a virus to have babies has to beat having sex with horses...

Why do you think science fiction has been so interested in procreation?

Well, it's a deep human drive, like the need for food, shelter, companionship. Writers like feeling like god. It's just another way to play What If...

And why has it been such a source of anxiety?

Historically it's been a source of anxiety for men because they don't control the font, the womb. They don't have wombs, they can't make artificial ones.

It's been a source of anxiety for women because, historically, reproduction was the source of our power: the one thing men needed that they didn't control. So of course women were afraid men would control it. You just have to look at the majority of books I've discussed to see that much dystopian feminist fiction involves women's reproduction being co-opted by men--usually involving something metallic, alien (like 'crabs' or 'insects'), and invasive.

On Jeep all the men die off from a virus that the women are immune to. That is real source of anxiety in science fiction isn’t it?

Viruses are a source of anxiety, full stop. They're frightening things. Fast, invisible, deadly.

They're also messy: think of all that hemorraghic spurting and gushing as victims bleed out. It triggers the Cartesian dualist distaste of the body. (Mind= rational, perfect, male; body = emotional, imperfect, female.)

*And in terms of women surviving a man-killing plague, it wouldn't surprise me if, with modern technology (machinery to do all the heavy lifting, artificial insemination), men sometimes wondered if they were even necessary...

Episode 2 of Cat Women of the Moon airs on BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 6th September, 11:30 am UK time.

* This paragraph wasn't in my original notes. I was just musing aloud. I think this is what I said...
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