Why Are We Still Having this Conversation: Misogyny and Science Fiction

Heinlein, FridayI woke up this morning to my first, lovely, tiny like on a post.  I followed the digital footprints back to Nicky Magas’ blog, and found her comments on Paul Cook’s article over at Amazing Stories, “When Science Fiction is not Science Fiction.”  Which led me down the rabbit hole into internet asshat-ery.

Cook’s contention is that certain lauded science fiction authors don’t actually adhere to genre standards, “and the novels they write are clearly and unmistakably not science fiction but something else.”  As someone who just wrote a five point list about what good fantasy is, I can’t fault him for talking about what he likes in his books.  It’s more the blatant misogyny that I have a problem with.I’ll focus on his thoughts about Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.  It happens to be a series I’ve read literally dozens of times, and also the juicy heart of Cook’s sexism.  Here’s his comments:

Another writer well-praised (from every corner) is Lois McMaster Bujold. Her great work is the Miles Vorkosigan series. These are supposed to be military science fiction stories, but they are really at their core Romance novels. At first, they were military science fiction novels of a higher order than most. But the romance elements creep in very early on. Bujold tips her hand in the eloquence of her language (normally a good thing) and the attention to detail that only women would find attractive: balls, courts, military dress, palace intrigues, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors. All of this is right out of Alexander Dumas. True, these intrigues and flourishes do happen in the real world (or they used to), but Bujold, over time with novels such as Miles in Love and Cordelia’s Honor, you can see that Bujold is a closet romance writer. Not that this is a bad thing, but some of us aren’t that interested in romance. For me, personally, it takes much of the dramatic urgency out of a story if the hero is already married or if during a skirmish comes back to canoodle or wine or dine with his beloved before rushing back to the fray.

It’s easy to be distracted here by all the small gems of insanity (like how is Alexander Dumas a girly romance writer?  The dude invented swashbuckling, for the love of god).  But I tried to distill the major problems into three pieces:

First, in the normal limited generic sense, I just can’t see how the Vorkosigan saga is a romance series.  Calling it a romance implies that the romantic relationship or pursuit is the primary focus of the book’s plot and characters.  There are absolutely lots of romantic entanglements and relationships in the books—but there’s one or two other things going on.  Like intricate political machinations, the establishment of mercenary organizations, conflicts between massive empires, military coups, and brilliant social commentary on class, privilege, physical disabilities, reproductive rights, and the evolution of cultural mores.  Maybe it is a romance, but only if we’re granting a little more scope and respect to the genre.

Second, Cook’s ideas about what constitutes girly romance seem tellingly skewed.  He loves the sci-fi Big Three (Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein), and there are romantic relationships in those books.  Kind of.  Heinlein is probably the least sexist of the bunch, and he still managed to write a story about an android woman who eventually marries her rapist.  Clarke’s women are mostly toadying weak-kneed sex objects who conveniently show up to confirm the protagonist’s masculinity and independence.  But apparently that kind of romantic relationship doesn’t interfere with the rigid bounds of science fiction.  Whereas Bujold’s relationships are emotionally complicated, intelligently written, and mostly happening between two characters of equal social and literary weight.  See, mutually respectful relationships are just girly stuff interfering with Cook’s spaceships, rivets, and manly posturing.

And finally, there’s just the pieces of this article that are plain, regular, garden-variety sexism.  It’s mostly just exhausting.  Bujold gives herself away with her “eloquence of her language” and “the attention to detail that only women would find attractive: balls, courts, military dress, palace intrigues, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors.”  Only women like that stuff?  For serious, Cook, is this an eighties sitcom where men complain about how long their wives take to put on their makeup?  Women, being people, can like a lot of different things.  Men, also being people, can like a lot of different things, even courts, balls, and political intrigue.  As Foz Meadows so perfectly put it: Christ on a BICYCLE.

As a last side note, Paul Cook and the rest of the League of Extraordinarily Misogynist Asses like to use variations of the same defense: “I’m entitled to my opinion about what science fiction is, and you’re restricting my freedoms by calling me out on my sexist bullshit.”  Actually, let’s go with a real quote from his comments on his own article, “I expressed an opinion. That’s a capital crime, isn’t it. We mustn’t offend anyone these days.”  Yes sir, you can freely express your opinion, no matter how painfully outdated and ignorant it may be.  And then I get to tell you it’s outdated and ignorant.  That’s how the system works.  You can’t mandate that people also like your freely-expressed opinion.

Now go read Bujold.  If you’re not into science fiction at all, go for The Curse of Chalion, which is an absolutely gorgeous fantasy novel set in a fictionalized Iberian peninsula.

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4 comments

  1. Ms. Heintzman, fan-fucking-tastic! I do miss your hateful wit. And thank you for taking Clarke down a peg or two. Except for maybe 2001: A Space Odyssey he’s an overrated hack. And who would look at the cover of Heinlein’s “Friday” and think, “hmmm, you know what? That looks like it’s full of intriguing multi-dimensional female characters.” You have hit on one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to find good sci-fi that isn’t just trite hyper-masculine techno-fetishism.

    Keep it up.

    This damn internet thing better send me emails when you post something new. I’m bookmarking it just in case.

    On a whole separate note, why don’t you reply to the email I sent you a month ago. That’s long even for you.

  2. Yes, this.

    I love that you decided to go for it and start this blog! Now I get to read your witty diatribes long distance. 🙂

  3. Apparently yes, we are still having this conversation. It boggles the mind.

    Also, keep going with the amazing posts. I love the teeth and the humor and I look forward to your reviews.

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