Wednesday, June 10, 2009

are women human?

Joe Sherry, the blogger who wrote yesterday's lovely review of Ammonite, has today reprinted (with my permission) my Author's Note, written in 1992:

"Are women human?" That question forms the subtext of more speculative fiction novels – fantasy, SF, horror, utopia and dystopia – than I can count. I intended Ammonite as a body blow to those who feel the question has any relevance in today’s world.

I am tired of token women being strong in a man’s world by taking on male attributes: strutting around in black leather, spike heels and wraparound shades, killing people; or riding a horse, swearing a lot, carrying a big sword, and killing people; or piloting a ship through hyperspace, drinking whatever pours, slapping boys on the back, and killing people. I am equally tired of women-only worlds where all the characters are wise, kind, beautiful, stern, seven-feet-tall vegetarian amazons who would never dream of killing anyone. I am tired of reading about aliens who are really women, or women who are really aliens.

Women are not aliens. Take away men and we do not automatically lose our fire and intelligence and sex drive; we do not form hierarchical, static, insectlike societies that are dreadfully inefficient. We do not turn into a homogeneous Thought Police culture where meat-eating is banned and men are burned in effigy every full moon. Women are not inherently passive or dominant, maternal or vicious. We are all different. We are people.

A woman-only world, it seems to me, would shine with the entire spectrum of human behavior: there would be capitalists and collectivists, hermits and clan members, sailors and cooks, idealists and tyrants; they would be generous and mean, smart and stupid, strong and weak; they would approach life bravely, fearfully and thoughtlessly. Some might still engage in fights, wars and territorial squabbles; individuals and cultures would still display insanity and greed and indifference. And they would change and grow, just like anyone else. Because women are anyone else. We are more than half of humanity. We are not imitation people, or chameleons taking on protective male coloration, longing for the day when men go away and we can return to being our true, insectlike, static, vacuous selves. We are here, now. We are just like you.

But Ammonite is much more than an attempt to redress the balance. It’s a novel. One about people – how they look at the world and how the world makes them change; one that attempts to look at biology, and wonder What If... ; one that shows readers different ways to be; one that takes them to other places, where the air and the temperature and the myths are not the same. If, a week after reading Ammonite, you pause over lunch, fork halfway to your mouth, and remember the scent of Jeep’s night air, or on your way to work daydream about the endless snow of Tehuantepec, or wonder for a moment as you climb into bed whether or not a virus could enhance our senses – then I’ve done my job.

--Atlanta, 1992.

I wrote this seventeen years ago--as a combination rant, explanation, and PR exercise. I read it again today for the first time in years and wondered if I would write it now--wondered if I would need to.

I decided that, yes, I might, because, in a way, this piece is a potted history of the way women-only worlds have been represented in science fiction, from E.E. 'Doc' Smith's Lyranians, to John Wyndham's Consider Her Ways..., to Edmund Cooper (shudder). Women have played this game, too: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Daphne du Maurier, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Sheri Tepper, James Tiptree Jr, Sally Miller Gearheart (shudder). (This is not nearly an inclusive list. There are many books on the subject. See, for example, Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.) A couple of brave souls have tried even tried boys-only worlds (the most recent being, I think, Lois McMaster Bujold's Ethan of Athos).

I don't think anyone's tried a single-sex world for a few years, but women are still Othered. And women are still deemed uninteresting enough in our own right, particularly in genre fiction (and doubly so in YA): we still must disguise ourselves as boys, take on boy attributes and boy roles in order to carry a Good Story.

Why is that? Why are there no templates for exciting women-as-women stories? Romances, of course, are prototypical Women's Stories, but they're largely concerned with finding, charming, landing a man. Are there any women-as-women-whose-sole-purpose-is-something-other-than-finding-a-mate stories?

In the last twenty years there's been an explosion of crime novels with female protagonists. It took a long time for them to get past the whine-about-being-a-woman-in-a-man's-world stance and just start being human in the world. But I think they're getting there. As women. (Admittedly, in a traditionally male occupation.)

Ever since I started working on Hild I've been struggling with what I think of as The Woman Question: how to write a truly stirring, exciting, provacative tale of a woman of her time and place who is truly a woman, doing womanish things--not learning the sword, not leading battles, not casting spells: a woman, plain and simple. Now isn't the time for that essay (too many things to do today) but I think it's coming soon.

Meanwhile, what do you think? Are women (and men) portrayed more human(e)ly and less stereotypically these days, or just differently--or has there been no significant change at all?

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