Monday, April 23, 2012

More thoughts on the status women in fantasy

“If a fantasy world is completely invented by the author, and he can create any kind of magic and government s/he wants, why not make the women completely equal?” This is a recurring question, and a good one. Fantasy books in which the women hold important positions in society set an example for young readers, by saying, this is possible. I believe this strategy, when used on television, has been effective in combating sexism, racism, and homophobia—even when writers accidentally fold biases into the stories.

Of course the society we live in today is more egalitarian than any before it. Women fill leadership positions in everything from universities to government. Unfortunately, it’s not enough, and earlier successes in the United States are beginning to erode. In the last election, for the first time, women ended with fewer seats in state and national legislatures than they had before—and this is important, as new laws are pushed forward which attempt to limit their reproductive rights. When the future is uncertain, it helps to depict the best outcomes in our stories. Doing so both guides and inspires.

But should this be a requirement for all fantasy authors? No. Definitely not. And here is why: it has been only decades, not centuries, since women have had the right to vote. Since a number of women, and not just a lucky few, have held important positions in science departments, hospitals, and businesses. If you go back hundreds rather than tens of years, women had even fewer options.  Does that make them less interesting? No; a woman who achieves any sort of victory in a patriarchal society has a compelling story. I don’t want to abandon it.

Note that ‘few’ options does not mean ‘zero’ options. Much has been discussed today on the topic of historical authenticity, and I must admit, few things make me more nervous than discussing history on the internet. That’s because history is not a series of declarations—nor a battle of citations—but rather a study of available sources that results in an evolving story. However, all available information taken as aggregate, I would rather my daughter live today than five hundred years ago. Easy.

But why go to the past for inspiration? Because it happened. Because our past led to our present in ways we cannot see or understand just from looking. ‘The past is another country’ is something one of my professors used to say, but at the same time it is not; people are people, wherever and whenever they are, and they deserve our efforts at understanding.

But here we enter into dark territory. When you have a society in which women have fewer options, you can narrow their options to almost nothing and turn them into perpetual victims. I wrote before about how uncomfortable I was writing from the point of view of a slave in Knifesworn, and how, if I had planned it properly beforehand, I would have avoided using slaves at all. But once there were slaves there, I could not ignore their story; I had to give them one. I could not let them scrub the floors and carry silk runners, invisible and oppressed, and never explore their situation. I can only hope that I did it well, that I did not make light of the kind of abuse that results from one person having absolute power over another.

Should we avoid writing about people in difficult situations if we can’t do it perfectly? Again, no. Writing is about exploring the human condition. I trespassed when I created an old fighter with trauma; I trespassed when I created people of color; I trespassed when I created someone who had been imprisoned most of his life. I am none of these things, and yet I felt the impulse to explore them, because they are all part of the human experience. In the past I have often been afraid to do something if I cannot do it perfectly—but now I realize that I can only try, and in the trying, learn valuable lessons.

But I digress somewhat. I mean to say that by presenting a woman with less power than the men, a writer is not necessarily making the statement that this is the standard, or that this is what s/he prefers to see. While I cannot speak for all writers I will say that exploring all aspects of human life is not something we should shy away from. If we don’t do it well, we will have to take our lumps—but there is no reason not to try. By trying we say to many women from the past: your story is important. Your struggles, your suffering, and your triumphs matter. I respect them and I want to learn from them.

So in the end both approaches are valid. On the one hand, authors can present the image of what could be—the egalitarian society with female rulers, fighters, mages, and everything else.  The more people read such things, the more they will come to expect it, and that is a good thing. On the other hand we have the other stories, the ones about women who overcame great obstacles for even the smallest achievements. These stories show strength and determination and can be a source of pride.

Every socially conscious writer struggles somewhat with the balance between responsibility and tale-telling, especially where the next generation is concerned. Nothing has surprised me more about writing than the fact I’ve had to face my own basic assumptions and biases over and over—may it never stop—it is educational. But I do not think there is only one way to be fair to women in our stories, nor only one way to present engaging, realistic female characters.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Trouble with Relationships in SFF

I have noticed in daily conversation the habit many people have of comparing real relationships to those in print or film. They might compare their own platonic relationship to that of Hermione and Harry Potter, or speak of tragic love by referencing Buffy and the vampire Angel. Not only does this create a clear picture in the listener’s mind, but it also reveals the end. We know neither Harry and Hermione nor Buffy and Angel ended up together, so we know the people being spoken about won’t get together either—forgetting this is real life, and not a book, movie, or TV show. But we like to know where things belong in the emotional spectrum, how to explain them, and what to expect. 

                I begin to think the same goes for many of our beloved SFF readers. When faced with two characters in a room, they may want to map it. Are they going to be lovers? Enemies? Friends? The intrigue is not in the relationship, but in what will aid or inhibit its progression—for lovers and friends, obstacles, betrayals, and misunderstandings; for enemies, the need to work together. And if they are lovers, then the reader might sense one of two ends by the third book—they will end up together, or one of them will die. If they are enemies, the protagonist will eventually be victorious. If they are friends, they will help one another towards victory and one of them may die. What entertains is less the mystery of what will happen and more the path the characters negotiate to a largely predetermined end.

                Here I am not calling out SFF novels for being predictable (though some are); I am pointing out what readers seem to desire, whether or not the novels provide it: a way to identify and predict, to feel comfortable knowing what story they’re reading. I do it too. I love knowing the friends will stick together through setbacks and misunderstandings. I love not wondering IF the guy and girl (or guy and guy, etc.) will finally get together, but rather when, and how.

                But here is my problem. Relationships are not easily categorized, and life doesn’t move along a storybook path. The guy doesn’t always get the girl (and vice versa). Friends disappear.

With decades of adult life now under my belt, I feel that I can comfortably portray those who are in love, or aren’t; who wish they were in love, or wish they weren’t; who feel attracted to those they do not love, or are briefly unattracted to those they do. I am confident that sex and attraction are not love, that you can have sex with a friend you’re not marrying, and that just because you’re straight doesn’t mean you’ll never look at a same-sex person and think ‘hmm.’ And your friends will not always like you or support you, and sometimes you don’t want them to. Life is complicated and messy and tragically confusing.
           I love the movie The Crying Game for this reason. Fergus is not attracted to men, but he cares for Dil, and Dil for him. By the end their relationship has great meaning to both of them. Is it love? Friendship? Something in between, or something else entirely? The movie does not answer this question for us and leaves us in awe of the complexity of our emotions and ability to care for one another. (By the way, I have never heard anyone say, ‘Oh, it’s just like Fergus and Dil . . .’)

                In The Emperor’s Knife, relationships took a more realistic turn. No two people were destined, and while there was love, it didn’t map to any well-worn path. Reactions to this have been stratified—some readers being put off by the ‘abrupt romances’ that weren’t and the lack of a clear prototype for interactions, while others have loved it.

To some extent this post follows on my covers-as-categorization post. The need to define, categorize, and sort things can outweigh our spirit of exploration. Is real life frightening? Indeed, it is. That might explain why we try to order our emotions among known paths (Bromance! Frenemies! HoYay! True love!) While that’s fun and I can dish like any other pop culture fanatic, I (like many other SFF authors) have trouble writing that way. Humans are complex and hard to define and our relationships even more so.That's what I would rather explore.