I’ve read 47 of the 100 “best” fantasy and SF novels…
… on the NPR list of “best” fantasy and SF novels and I’m a woman so I should agree with Liz Lutgendorff in recent New Statesman article, who claimed the list was (to paraphrase) outdated due to its lack of women and minorities.
Unfortunately, I think she’s spectacularly missing the point. Let’s take Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke as an example. I read this as a teenager. Liz writes:
While there are more women, almost all are subordinate to the main male lead. There is one female authority figure who is on the Council of Rama (the organisation directing the efforts of investigation), but she doesn’t play a significant role. I also got distracted by the fact that, inexplicably, the male lead sleeps with almost all the women mentioned in the book.Finally, most would fail on the third part of the [..adapted Bechdel..] test because the women characters were all mothers, nurses or love interests. They were passive characters with little agency or character development, like the women in A Canticle for Leibowitz and Magician. They were scenery, adding a tiny bit of texture to mainly male dominated world.
Unlike Liz, I was not distracted by the male lead sleeping with all the women (NOTE: Arthur C. Clarke was probably gay or bi). I was distracted by the story, which is about a scarily-plausible f***k-off huge alien cylinder en route to Earth. I remember thinking,“I wonder whether there is stuff like that out there? And whether any of it is on its way to Earth… right now?” [Shudder].
I’ve read few other books that evoke the same sense of awe and wonder. Perhaps Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space. The possibilities of space travel, alien technology, and the colonisation of other worlds inspired a lifelong passion for astronomy and, later, the physical sciences. Today, I hold a PhD in geophysics.
To read Rendezvous with Rama and write one line about the plot, and two paragraphs about gender, is… well, I’m incredulous. It’s like visiting the Taj Mahal and only photographing the trees and lawn in front.
Yes, of course we should have women and minorities in stories, but no one (sensible, irreligious) is campaigning to keep them out. The argument is that no one needs yet another story where the whole point is gender, ethnic origin and sexuality. SF covered that ground in the 1970s and, if you want to introspect about your feelings, there’s a whole genre called literary fiction that doesn’t require a tagged-on rocketship [NOTE: The genre link is to an excellent novel called In The Line of Beauty, which is the best romance I’ve read and also covers AIDs and Thatcherism in the 1980s].
Today SF has bigger fish to fry: climate change, water wars, urban bioterrorism, telepathic rats that can communicate across continents, uplifted animals, the ethics of children with more than two parents, gun-wielding drones built by teenagers, pandemics in an globalised world, privatisation space exploration, the economics of 3D printing… If I have a complaint, it’s why award-nominated ‘SF’ books like Ancillary Justice completely fail to tackle any of these issues.
When Arthur C. Clarke was writing about space travel, it was a reality. Now we have a different scientific reality and perhaps Liz Lutgendorff should wonder how SF can be progressive and radical when the only ‘idea’ she mentions is non-gendered pronouns.
Note: Hat tip to Vox Day’s blog.
And now for something completely different – a robot bird that flies!