Look, any book whose title is taken from a Tiptree story – and “The Women Men Don’t See” no less – is likely to be very appealing to me. And ta dah! It was.
This delightful feminist, academic, personal, humorous, thoughtful, and passionate examination of women in science fiction and women writing science fiction came out in 1988. So yes, it’s dated – of course it has. There have been lots more stories written in the last (oh heck) nearly thirty years that have a variety of female characters, and of course more female authors challenging and playing with science fiction ideas. But I think that the categories that Lefanu considers – Amazons, utopias and dystopias, women in love, and so on – these categories often still apply to the ways that women appear, or are thought that they should appear, as characters. So I certainly found these chapters resonant and not only from a historical perspective.
The second half of the book was the bit that I really loved, though. James Tiptree Jr, Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas and Joanna Russ: what a magnificent set of women, and a magnificent set of stories between them. Lefanu examines a set of the novels and short stories of each of the women (in Russ’ case, almost all her science fiction) and dissects the ways in which they present women. She’s not always flattering – she has some issues with Le Guin’s early female characters, which I don’t entirely agree with – but she is always interesting and insightful.
One of the things I really appreciated and enjoyed about this book is that while Lefanu is absolutely writing an academic piece and interrogating issues of feminism and how science fiction fails or encourages women, there are also personal moments that didn’t feel at all out of place. I really, really like this idea that the writer actually exists and has an opinion – that the book isn’t pretending to be a disembodied, clinical examination but acknowledges the very real body behind the … well, typewriter probably.
If you’re interested in feminist science fiction, in women in science fiction (in all senses), or have a somewhat historical literary bent, this is a really great book. It’s very approachable and even if you haven’t read the stories Lefanu examines (I’ve only read one of the Charnas books), she explains them enough that her analysis makes sense… and I still want to read the books.
Also, Molly Meldrum.
Letters to Tiptree 99 cents! Bestseller on Amazon!
Tansy’s new podcast plug! Sheep Might Fly & Fake Geek Girl
Kickstarter for Ursula Le Guin documentary.
Nominating for Hugos (til end of March) don’t forget.
And Part 1 of the University of Oregon’s Tiptree Symposium, with Julie Phillips (Alex says: sorry not sorry, Tansy)
Tansy: Hellcat by Kate Leth & Brittney Williams, Archie by Mark Waid & Fiona Staples, The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar, The Beatriceid by Kate Elliott, “Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor, “The Heart is Eaten Last” by Kameron Hurley (note: Kameron says any new Patreon subscriber automatically gets access to all the stories she has posted so far including this one – bargain at as little as $1 a month!)
Alex: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susannah Clarke; Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman; The Just City, Jo Walton; Walk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas. MOLLY.
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As with Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, if I had not known that this was highly regarded amongst feminist sf types I would have given this book up in the first couple of pages. Charnas is utterly devastating in her representation of men and their attitudes towards one another, and their attitudes towards women – “fems” – and towards history and power. While I don’t honestly think things would go this way, it still works as a horrifying critique and savage prophecy of the outcomes of patriarchy.
Charnas writes in a post-apocalyptic world where it seems that only a tiny proportion of white men, and fewer women, have survived to try and rebuild some sort of civilisation. And we know they are all white because there is specific mention of how excellent it is that one class of unmen – the Dirties – are gone, and in case the reader was really obtuse there’s a song enumerating just who the Dirties were. I cannot imagine reading this as a non-white person, given it was hard enough as a white woman. Anyway the destruction of the world has been blamed on the unmen – beasts, Dirties, and fems. The inclusion of beasts in this list is the most bizarre bit to me, because would men really have forgotten that animals were not human and had no connection to civilisation and therefore its destruction? I guess if there were no animals left and you were creating a story to apportion blame, you might. Anyway the Dirties apparently fought against the righteous actions of the true (white) men, and fems were witches who constantly fought against men because they’re agents of chaos and the void.
Not content with this level of terrifying prediction, Charnas also suggests that patriarchy would (d)evolve into ruthless competition between, basically, sons and fathers. To the point of de-identifying familial ties so there can be no seeking out and killing progenitor/descendent; and to the point of reinterpreting Christianity as the Son defying the Father and being punished as a result. (Which is magnificent and disturbing and just whoa.)
The story revolves around the quest of a son for his father – because he’s unique in knowing this information. At heart it’s a very simple and straightforward story but the world that Charnas has created for it is anything but. Through the quest the reader sees basically the entirety of the new civilisation, as well as how the various segments of society work and all the dangerous undercurrents that are at play. The four different points of view, giving very different perspectives, all work seamlessly to develop Charnas’ vision – which is really a warning.
This book is brilliant and terrifying and not for the faint of heart not because of violence to persons but because of violence to notions of civility and humanity. Well, mine anyway; maybe I’m just a bleeding heart liberal. I can’t imagine what would happen if an MRA dude read it; I’d be rather scared they’d miss the irony.
I actually read this as the first in the Radical Utopias omnibus. The next is The Female Man, and I’m not sure my brain can handle rereading that. The third is a Delany that I’m pretty sure I haven’t read, so I will certainly get to that soon.
I got hold of a copy of this amazing novelette (I think? 17,000-ish words) from one of Galactic Suburbia’s wonderful listeners, who is the Editorial Director of a new digital publisher, Snackreads – he sent through a copy because he thought it would be up our collective alley. To which the answer, I think, is OH YES.
A future where there are space ships carrying cargo between planets as easily as trucks do today… but where there is, for some unknown reason, a societal reaction (on some planets) against women having the freedom of movement to do things like be in space. Dee has taken over a freighting company from her formidable aunt, but is facing difficulties in the shape of her sister, her sister’s husband, and mounting debt. When she has to land on New Niger, things appear to be as desperate as they can be, so she ends up making a deal with a competitor… and things go from there.
The things I love about this story are many: I love Dee’s voice as she makes clear just how much it means to her, to be a pilot, and just how much she hates the idea of being trapped by her brother-in-law. I adore the idea of New Niger (although I must admit I don’t know how accurate Charnas is in her descriptions of Old Niger, and it may well be that there are some things that are offensive/otherwise wince-worthy, and if there are I’d love to hear it) – people of colour in space! Who would’ve thought it! I particularly love (although see previous brackets) the way that one character there, in particular, plays on racial stereotypes very consciously to her own advantage. The denouement had me quietly cackling with glee. I enjoyed the pace of the narrative, the action overall, the ‘domestic’ setting (family feuds) commenting on larger social realities…
I should get me some more Charnas to read, I guess.