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When a thing is not a thing

Over at Amazing Stories, Paul Cook decided to poke the anthill with a post titled When Science Fiction is Not Science Fiction. He says a number of rather silly things about science fiction that isn’t really science fiction, but the silliest is this bit right here:

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.

So… Lois writes stories which appear to be military science fiction, but they are really secretly romance novels, although they used to be better-than-average military science fiction, with secret romance elements, which include deceitfully eloquent prose, and ICKY GIRL STUFF, just like Alexander Dumas (who is known for writing girl stuff).

There, did you follow all that?

Genre policing is my least favorite type of artistic criticism, especially when gender essentialism gets involved. Arguments about whether something is really science fiction (or whatever) are at best pointless, at worst downright offensive. Cook strays heavily into offensive territory here, with his petulance and misogyny and weird paranoia. Oh, poor baby, did somebody trick you into reading about human relationships by promising you exciting space battles instead? My, how you’ve suffered!

Tell me — is Star Wars really science fiction? By what measure? The science? Because there isn’t any. It’s science fiction because it’s set in space. That’s pretty much it. Also? The Empire Strikes Back is basically a romantic comedy, WITH SPACE BATTLES. Which is pretty awesome, sure, but it hardly makes the case that smooching and exciting space battles somehow don’t belong together.

Or maybe you think Star Wars is one of those things that isn’t really science fiction, because there’s no science in it. What about Star Trek? Is that science-y enough for you? Even though teleporters and warp drives don’t exist, and probably can’t exist? When Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about Mars, was that science fiction? Well, there’s no science to it — the more we study Mars, the more certain we become that it does NOT have a vigorous and diverse ecosystem including human-like life forms. He was just making stuff up. How about alternate history novels? Are those science fiction? Well, where’s the science to them? What about time travel stories, are those science fiction? Really? Do you seriously think back-and-forth time travel is scientifically plausible?

The point I’m getting at, is that almost any well-known science fiction story or trope could be said to be not really science fiction, by somebody who felt like making that claim. And the bulk of SF fandom is still not going to care. Star Wars fandom is not going to disappear from the halls of Norwescon just because a few pedantic nerds wail to the heavens that it’s really science fantasy, or whatever. The science fictional aspects of the most recent Star Trek movie were atrocious, even by Star Trek standards, but the point isn’t that it’s not really science fiction. The problem is that it’s not any good.

Regarding works of Lois, I might even know, sort of, a bit, what Mr. Cook is talking about — earlier books in the Vorkosigan saga were more likely to be swashbuckling military-ish space adventures, while later books more often have plots driven by romance or intrigue. But it’s still romance and intrigue set in a high-tech spacefaring culture, or rather, several different cultures which often clash in interesting ways. You might not like them as much as the earlier books, but it’s not because romance in space is inherently less science fictional than military battles in space. It’s just a different kind of story — set in space. Is that good enough for Star Wars? Why isn’t it good enough for the Vorkosigan books?

What I suspect — especially because of the unfortunate gender essentialism in the quote above — is that Mr. Cook is simply not thinking his own prejudices through. Space battles get an automatic pass as science fiction because, you know, they’re space battles. That’s what his inner fourteen-year-old boy wants to read about. Space romance, though? That’s automatically not really science fiction. Why not? Because romance is a less scientifically accurate proposition than laser cannons? I very much doubt it. No, it’s because his inner fourteen-year-old boy doesn’t want to read about that stuff.

Genre policing is one of those insidious gatekeeping activities, like fandom policing, that simply cannot end well, and if you catch yourself doing it, you need to sit down and engage in some deep soul searching. Why do you presume yourself to be the authority here? Why do you think the rest of us will cede that authority? Why do you expect your arrogance to go unremarked? Who died and made you keeper of the flame?

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 11th, 2013 09:48 pm (UTC)
Seriously, F that guy. "Details only women are interested in"? How does he know? Has he polled every male for their preferred fictional verisimilitude?

Can I punch him? It would make me feel better.
Sep. 11th, 2013 10:43 pm (UTC)
Alas, I cannot condone violence in this interest. I think maybe metaphoric punching on the internet & stuff would work.

Edit: Instance. Violence in this instance. What is wrong with my brain?

Edited at 2013-09-12 03:18 pm (UTC)
Sep. 11th, 2013 10:10 pm (UTC)
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.

And Cook tips his hand right there.

What's unfortunate is that once again genre policing is crossed with gender essentialism. There are a LOT of women who are into science fiction. There are a LOT of women who love the Star Wars films, or read Asimov. There are a LOT of women (myself included) who do not read or enjoy "romance novels" although I don't want my stories to exclude human interrelationships.

And please tell me WHY eloquent language is a thing to be praised when talking about ships and battles and men being men together, and not about any other subject?

No, it’s because his inner fourteen-year-old boy doesn’t want to read about that stuff.

Nail, head.

Sep. 11th, 2013 10:52 pm (UTC)
Seriously. And there are men who like romance too. I'm not a huge fan of romance per se -- I tend to prefer it mixed with other genres -- but the idea that it's somehow an inherently inferior genre compared to ones favored by men is a big pet peeve.

Sep. 12th, 2013 01:53 pm (UTC)
Well anything labeled "feminine" must be inherently inferior, right? Soap operas, "women's weepies", melodramas; the worst insult you can give a man is "gay" (horrors!) because gay men are supposedly more feminine and therefore not real men.....etc. The notion is so old and so ingrained in our culture, back to the ancients. Women are less intellegent, less rational, less capable of decision making, blah blah bitty blah - hell, even the current Buffy comics reflect those ideas.

The highest compliment is to be strong, rational, "manly" - but if you're a woman? Not TOO much so, or then you're unfeminine (think Hillary Clinton, etc).

Woman have been the inherently inferior gender for so many centuries that a few decades of "women's rights" is not going to undo that.
Sep. 12th, 2013 03:22 pm (UTC)
I wonder about that sometimes -- why is sexism so pervasive and inescapable? Why does it persist the way it does even in the face of conscious efforts to root it out?
Sep. 12th, 2013 06:33 pm (UTC)
Or sexism, racism, etc - THAT is the million-dollar question and I have absolutely no answer to it. Except that - perhaps there are more people dedicated to changing the status quo than there are people dedicated to changing it? That humans don't adapt well to change? (We can't even handle the introduction of a new silver dollar.) And yet human beings are marked by our adaptability.

So, I've got nothing.
Sep. 11th, 2013 10:24 pm (UTC)
Y'know the scene in Pacific Rim where Pentecoste takes Mori's clipboard with a quiet "Finish him" look?

...that's kinda how I feel when someone disses Bujold, or claims her work isn't SF. Hold my clipboard, people. I have beating to do.

EDIT to add: As well as the whole "Set in Space" thing, I would argue that the Uterine Replicator is a HUGE sci-fi idea -- which she explores in numerous ways. SF as sociologically speculative fiction has a long and proud history, and she NAILS it.

Also, I was talking with Elizabeth Ann Scarborough once, and she said that classic sci-fi -- so often lacking the 'human' element -- "clanked." I think that's a perfect description, and now whenever I see one of the old guard getting all dogmatic I think, 'yeah, yeah. You only like it if it clanks.'

Edited at 2013-09-11 10:27 pm (UTC)
Sep. 11th, 2013 11:00 pm (UTC)
Hold my clipboard, people. I have beating to do

Hee. That deserves memehood.

SF as sociologically speculative fiction has a long and proud history, and she NAILS it.

Absolutely. And I really appreciate her commitment to letting characters grow up and get married and stuff -- as if cementing alliances and all wasn't a real component of genuine military history anyway.

When it comes to that old guard of SF -- sometimes I like it, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I have... very mixed feelings. But there's no denying that a lot of classic SF was more about the boys' own adventure tales than about any serious speculative element, and somehow the old guard always gives that stuff a free pass.
Sep. 12th, 2013 01:51 am (UTC)
Between the two of you, I am now convinced that I've found the next author I need to collect. Thank you!
Sep. 12th, 2013 01:55 pm (UTC)
Sep. 12th, 2013 03:28 pm (UTC)
Well, if you haven't already read Lois, in my opinion, you are in for a big treat. I do like the Vorkosigan series better than her fantasy -- her fantasy isn't funny the way the Vorkosigan books are. But she's written a couple of books in that same universe that aren't Vorkosigan per se -- Ethan of Athos (once described as a feminist paradise inhabited wholly by men) and Falling Free, which is actually one of my favorites in spite of having no Vorkosigans in it.
Sep. 12th, 2013 04:13 pm (UTC)
I like both, though the fantasy one with the hunters didn't really do much for me. One of her strengths is highly atypical protagonists, and that comes out in Cazaril and Ista.

I'm glad you mentioned Falling Free, though -- that book actually has so much more science than most science fiction I've read! The descriptions of how they make the mirror are AWESOME.
Sep. 12th, 2013 04:12 pm (UTC)
Oh, Freddie, YES! You'll love her. I think you know how much I dislike trying to pick 'favorites', but Bujold is pretty much my writing idol. She does characters and dialogue like no one else, and her work runs the gamut of emotion -- it's not Somber Serious or Comedy, it's all mixed. Like life.

...I really have to work at not gushing.
Sep. 12th, 2013 05:09 pm (UTC)
Lois has earned the gushes!
Sep. 12th, 2013 02:02 pm (UTC)
so often lacking the 'human' element -- "clanked."

THIS. The boys do love their toys, don't they?

It's ironic that "modern" fanfiction got it's start because Star Trek viewers were interested in exploring the human interrelationships that the show often failed to. The creators of the British Sci-fi series Blakes 7 went to darker places than most tv sci-fi series had up to that point, but they didn't want to put two characters together in a relationship because they didn't want the series to "become a soap opera". Never mind that the two actors in question had TONS of chemistry and there was definitely sexy, snarky banter onscreen between them. As long it's OTDL, a tease, I guess it was ok?
Sep. 12th, 2013 03:31 pm (UTC)
fanfiction got it's start because Star Trek viewers were interested in exploring the human interrelationships that the show often failed to

Hee. I giggle inappropriately, because the first place I ever heard about "slash" it wasn't even called that -- it was Kirk/Spock stories, and I was told that this erotic fanfiction subgenre was largely produced and consumed by heterosexual females.
Sep. 12th, 2013 06:50 pm (UTC)
I never heard of fanfiction until college when a friend introduced me to the concept.She wrote ST-DS9 fic herself as an old-fashioned 'zine (this was in the '90's before internet was common.) She told me about the history and where the term slash came from - literally from the slashmark in Kirk/Spock. So at first it just denoted a sexual or romantic relationship between characters and not specifically the gender of the pairing.
I don't know when the word "slash" started being used to denote same-sex pairings.

I admit that the continued use of the term bothers me, especially when I see "slash" and "femmeslash" as separate catagories in fic awards. I mean, we're in the 21st century, and part of what the LGBT community has fought for, what I've fought for, is ending the cultural "gay ghettos" or "lesbians ghettos", the de facto, legal or symbolic separation of "straights" and "everyone else". What's important to me is the quality of the writing and storytelling. the idea of creating separate catagories "best het" and "best slash" seems odd to me. the unintentional or symbolic implication is that the two can't compete against each other and hold their own. (Think of Billy Jean King beating Bobby Riggs on the tennis court and proving that yes, a woman athlete could hold her own against a man.)

this erotic fanfiction subgenre was largely produced and consumed by heterosexual females.

The phenomenon has been studied a little bit, apparently, in regards to female heterosexual viewers and creators of m/m anime in Japan. One of the theories is that it allows girls and women to imagine a relationship between two people who are, theoretically, cultural equals; there isn't the hierarchial notions of "male/female", or "othering" to get in the way.

Of course every relationship has hierarchies based on age, knowledge, education, income, and personality. No relationship is equal all the time. And yet I admit I've started reading a little Spangel fic (not the graphic stuff) and have become interested in that ship because the characters are so damned interesting.

that's another rationale, I think - there are far more interesting and well-rounded male fictional characters available to play with than female ones. So it's partly a numbers game IMO.
Sep. 12th, 2013 01:49 am (UTC)
Sep. 14th, 2013 08:00 am (UTC)
I had this discussion with Jon not too long ago, because I thought all guys thought like this, and was surprised that Jon didn't. He does anime, and I all these years i thought he was choosing the more romantic ones for me, but now he's kind of watching them on his own as I choose sleep, and he's still watching the more romantic ones. Sleep is nice.
Sep. 14th, 2013 02:15 pm (UTC)
I suspect there are some guys out there who think they don't like romance because they've never read/watched it much. Then when they do watch it, they find out that they like it.
Sep. 14th, 2013 07:30 pm (UTC)
He said that character development was more interesting to him because just giant robot apocalyptic dystopia mecha vampire aliens can get boring sometimes.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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