Women and sci-fi

By Legal Eagle

I came across this interesting post on how to get women more interested in sci-fi writing and film. I’m probably not the best chick to ask about this – all my favourite films are sci-fi films, as well as most of my favourite television series. I also have a large sci-fi/fantasy book collection. I think a love of sci-fi is in part hereditary, but also starts at a young age.

I think my obsession with sci-fi/fantasy started when I was 6, when my father read The Hobbit to me. When I was 7, we read Lord of the Rings together, and my aunt bought me various children’s books written by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke (among others). All of my family loves sci-fi, and so I could dip into Mum and Dad’s book collection whenever I wanted. My sister and I have a shared book collection which might not be the best idea (“custody disputes” eventuated when we both moved out of home).

The reason I love sci-fi is because it asks two fundamental and fascinating questions:

  1. What does it mean to be human?
  2. What is reality?

The question of what it means to be human can be explored in a number of ways. Humans can be contrasted with “made-humans” (robots, replicants, androids, cyborgs etc). Or humans can be contrasted with inhabitants of other planets. The question of what is reality is posed by contrasting real life with an alternate reality which is computer generated or artificial.

Another common thread in sci-fi writing is to try and predict which way society will go in the future. When I was a teenager, I had a penchant for dystopias such as Brave New World, 1984 and Farenheit 451, as well as The Handmaid’s Tale. I think such books explore divisions in society which are already present in our time now. Indeed, I have always believed the central point of Brave New World to be a commentary about the evils of the English class system rather than the evils of genetic engineering. My observation of living in Britain in the 90s is that people are born in a particular class, and they don’t ever seem to be able to get out of it. Unless, of course, like me, their ancestors were transported to Australia as convicts and they come back 7 generations later, having had education and opportunity. No one knows how to pigeonhole you then.

I can tell you what I don’t like in sci-fi writing, which might winnow out some authors.

I don’t like sci-fi which doesn’t have any character development, or in which all the female characters are gorgeous sulky bitches with jutting bosoms. I just want to slap those women with the jutting bosoms. They don’t seem believable to me at all, and plus they are very irritating.

I don’t like sci-fi which is unbelievable. This latter might seem strange to non-sci-fi fans, but it is actually essential that the premise of a book, movie or television series be believable, no matter how outlandish that premise is. It takes a skillful writer to make you believe a really strange premise.

I don’t like sci-fi which is unscientific. Because both my parents are scientists, I have a reasonable scientific background, having taken it in with my mother’s milk (so to speak). Indeed, the only reason I didn’t go into science was because of a notorious GCSE Chemistry prac exam, in which I had to falsify the results (anomalous result and all). I knew exactly what the pH was supposed to be. When I handed it in, the teacher said, “But you haven’t actually done the experiment!”

I said, “I know what to do, I just can’t do it because I’m a klutz. I’ve broken two burettes and a pipette filler in five minutes and flooded my desk with concentrated hydrochloric acid. Would you like me to continue?” She just looked at me and took the paper without a word.

Anyway, I retain a strong interest in science and like to read scientific non-fiction books too. Just don’t ask me to titrate anything.

I have been trying to think of good sci-fi authors to suggest for anyone who wants to get into sci-fi. Of course, there’s always Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Also: Ray Bradbury (beautiful writing style), Dan Simmons (sci-fi/horror cross over), John Wyndham (an early pioneer), William Gibson (cyberpunk guy), Ursula Le Guin (about whom I’ve posted before), Philip K. Dick (generator of ideas for many a great sci-fi movie). I’m sure there’s others, but unfortunately and very sadly half my sci-fi collection is presently in a packing box in the cupboard behind me, so I can’t consult the shelf to help my pregnancy-hormone-inflicted memory.

And if you have any good suggestions for me: please do share!

(Via The Volokh Conspiracy)

Update

It has been pointed out that I missed the first Dune. I remembered this at 4am in the morning when my daughter woke up. I do love that first Dune so much…it’s such a pity he had to keep on going. I never bothered to read any Dune book after No. 3 in the series – it just got really silly.

Another interesting (but very violent and adult-themed) book is Liegekiller by Christopher Hinz, but it’s another one where I wouldn’t bother going on to read the rest of the series.

I have also read lots of H.G. Wells (early proto-sci-fi). Also, my Dad had a record of War of the Worlds which I loved, and I was fascinated by Dad’s description of people actually believing that aliens were invading.

Update 2

Mild Colonial Boy Esq. has alerted me to John C Wright’s definitive guide to Science Fiction, and in particular, this excerpt:

Aha! The first and most obvious of the elements of science fiction is evident from this cover of SPICY PLANET INCREDIBLE WEIRD WONDER ALL-STORY. Science Fiction is primarily about speculation! In this case, the reader is invited to speculate:

  • What if I were soaring along in space with a rocket belt and a space helmet?
  • What if I were blasting aliens with my space ray gun?
  • What if a really glamorous brunette Space-Babe with plenty of va-Voom were soaring along in space in my arms?

This last element is the most speculative, because we science fiction geeks do not know, and have rarely seen, any real-life glamorous brunettes.

To recap: Science Fiction is that genre of cognitive estrangement in a post-Gothic mode, utilizing a willing suspension of disbelief, transcending anthropocentricism and temporal provincialism, where a spaceman, raygun in fist, soars through outer space with a glamorous brunette Space-Babe in his brawny arms.

Ah ha, those women with the jutting bosom. They are definitely more acceptable to male sci-fi readers than female sci-fi readers (for obvious reasons, pointed out by Wright). Indeed, I can think of one series of sci-fi books where my mother and I gave up half way through Book 1 because of the jutting bosom ladies, but my father enjoyed the series to the end, and got rather offended by my mother’s and my pejorative remarks about the female characters.

I believe some women may be put off sci-fi because they think that jutting bosom ladies are essential to the genre, but I don’t believe that they are. They belong to a species of sci-fi which is designed to appeal to the male sci-fi geeks who dream of a brunette Space Babe. Just as those romance novels with square-jawed heroes are designed to appeal to ladies who dream of a hunky man who will sweep her off her feet. So they are actually a kind of romance novel for men.

Perhaps those jutting bosom ladies irritate female sci-fi geeks because we think the male sci-fi geeks should be admiring us, not brunette Space Babes! 😉

43 Comments

  1. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 29, 2008 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    How do women respond to Star Trek? I once read an interesting story about Roddenberry. He was a socialist but knew he couldn’t proclaim his ideas directly so went the scifi route. In Star Trek no money, loss of social hierarchies, achievement is more important than status or wealth, and tolerance is the order of the day. Sounds all warm and fuzzy. I know a lot of people are repelled by that but its better than the alternative.

    For as long as I can remember the first Star Trek series initiated in my head a mind game: how could you have a world without money? When I mention this mind game to people they just roll their eyes as if I’m some crazy dude. But I have neither time or inclination to investigate the anthropology, sociology, and psychology of such a potential society.

  2. Posted June 30, 2008 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    “..a world without money?”

    I recently finished Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy, where the alien Kiint have a money-free society (among themselves anyway). This is due to a technological standard that has eliminated scarcity in everything except knowledge and wisdom and enlightenment, which not surprisingly are the only things still strived for.

    The possibility exists for humans to move beyond scarcity economics, should nanotechnology really take off. I hope I live long enough to see it!

  3. pedro
    Posted June 30, 2008 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Firefly is great, but maybe more of a Western.

    JH, Ludwig von Mises did it for you decades ago. Probably Roddenberry did not read his book, maybe you should.

  4. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted June 30, 2008 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Night’s Dawn trilogy is awesome! I started on Hamilton’s latest ‘The dreaming void’ but not sure about it. Has anyone read it? Is it worth persisting?

  5. Posted June 30, 2008 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    A society without money is easy to do, once you have a Cornucopia machine. I am not referring to the 3D printers already in development at MIT and the University of Bath, although they are one research path that will eventually converge to make them. I am speaking of the alchemist’s stone of nanotechnology, and John von Neumann’s dream: a machine that builds, from the atomic level up, anything you give it a sufficiently accurate description of, including a copy of itself. For the fictional referent’s, see the post-singularity stories of Charlie Stross and Ken MacLeod, like Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise, Cosmonaut Keep, or The Star Fraction. Once you have a Cornucopia Machine, there are no more economics of scarcity, since nothing physical is scarce. This means things of true value are new ideas, new stories, new ways of seeing the world; new ways, in short, of creating new things for the Cornucopia Machines to build to improve the human condition.

    On the topic of “classical literature”, one name says it all for me: Roger Zelazny. His stories were built from cultural platforms that included Greek mythology, Geek mythology, Native American mythology, Hindu mythology, Egyptian mythology, and even Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythology (where Mythology means other peoples core beliefs). He wrote in every classical and modern style ever developed, and would often have a conversation between characters with one speaking all Shakespeare quotes, one quoting from Sun Tzu, and one talking New York Street. The amazing part was, it all worked, even if it did tie your brain into a knot while you read it. Every book or story he ever wrote was world class, on more levels than most authors ever knew there were. To me, he is not only classic science fiction and fantasy, he is the very definition of classical literature.

    Thank you for letting me post in your sandbox. I am not in AU (US for me), I have no legal background, and I am not currently part of any university environment (although I did attend one, and later worked as the computer geek at the library for another). But ever since one of my standing Google Search’s gave me the link to this thread on Friday, I have enjoyed reading all the entries, and felt comfortable enough that I thought perhaps my own contributions might add something to the discussion. If only one person here found one new author to check out based on my comments, then I have at least started to pay back a bit for the new info I have learned from you.

  6. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 30, 2008 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Can you provide me with a specific reference for Von Mises? If his argument is basically about the elimination of scarcity though he is dreaming, it is going to be much more complex than that. As for von Neumann machines, there are some intriguing problems with nanotechnology, one of those being that the atoms can become rather “fuzzy” at times.

  7. Posted June 30, 2008 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    LE,
    Lobster is actually a bl**dy interesting case study in scarcity – strange you should choose it. In Maine and most of New England in the immediate post-colonial period lobster was so common only the poor ate it. There was a lot of labour (or is that labor) unrest when it was fed to workers too often.
    Now it is scarce it is well appreciated.
    This covers it briefly.

  8. Posted June 30, 2008 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Let’s face it – they probably were. I can imagine the job description of any of the (freeish) people in there if it were put into modern employment law.

  9. Posted June 30, 2008 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Great post LE & a deservedly prolific comment-box to go with it. I love sci-fi. There were so many superficially trashy movies in the 50s that used SF allegorically: It Came From Outer Space; I Married An Alien; Earth vs The Flying Saucers; Creature From The Black Lagoon et al. Any film inspired by Philip K Dick is always worth a look. A film based on his life would be sensational!

  10. Posted June 30, 2008 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to make the same admission as LE – I never noticed Star Trek had no money! Christ in a sidecar, that shoots holes in my powers of observation. I think Jerry is right – it would need to be a ‘post scarcity’ society, one where one of the great economic drivers has been put to one side.

    You could still have incentives, though (the other great driver), but they would be for non-material things, I suspect. This is the basis of Iain M Bank’s ‘Culture’ novels, although it does make the society in question a bit less interesting.

  11. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted June 30, 2008 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Red Mars? I’ve read it twice! (Never finished the series though). Don’t remember any of that.

    Star Trek doesn’t need money – they have replicators. James Kirk admits to not having any money (or the need) in the fourth movie (The Voyage home – absolute shocker). They do re-introduce scarcity in Voyager due to the energy shortage replicator credits are rationed (although as the series progressed that bit got neglected).

    (I also seem to recall that they find eating ‘real’ meat disgusting too – they use replicators so they don’t have to exploit animals).

  12. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 30, 2008 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Star Trek is not just about the absence of money, it proposes a different set of motivations for the characters. This is something I have great difficulty with, excepting that human beings are incredibly adaptable so it is dangerous to presume that such a society could not exist.

    An interesting aspect arises with Star Trek: Enterprise. Next Generation I could not tolerate too well because they were all so bloody warm and fuzzy, in Enterprise you see a return to more contemporary like behavior and motivations. Makes sense in terms of the timelines, the idea being that with each succeeding “epoch” humans developed more “evolved sensibilities” to use a phrase by Picard.

  13. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 30, 2008 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    For all the special effects, some of the best programs on TV are cheap animations: South Park, Family guy, American Dad.

    BTW, there is a great movie on a Phillip K. Dick novel. Robert Downey plays the lead. Can’t remember the bloody name, … Scanner Darkly.

  14. Posted July 1, 2008 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I think many theses can and probably have been written about the special effects in sf films and telly shows. There’s obviously a difference in American-style effects, (which are intended to inspire simple belief and appeal to the primal emotions), and British-style effects (Dr Who era, which are more rooted in a stage and costume tradition).

    I always liked the old Dr Who effects because they always communicate something – even if that message is, for instance, ‘here’s a green glowing piece of jelly slithering down the wall, it is obviously a scary alien species about to destroy the world.’

    No one ever really criticised Hitchock for bad costumes and special effects, even though he draws on exactly the same traditions as Dr Who and many of the scenes – especially the murder scenes – are astonishingly hammy and melodramatic. Why is science fiction supposed to have ‘perfect’ special effects when other genres don’t have the same responsibility?

  15. pedro
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Here you go JH:

    http://www.amazon.com/SOCIALISM-LUDWIG-VON-MISES/dp/0913966630/ref=pd_bbs_sr_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1214882213&sr=1-2

    Great read

  16. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Ludwig von Mises’ stuff can be downloaded from here. Other authors are there too – no scifi though.

  17. John Hasenkam
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant, thanks Sinclair, bookmarked.

  18. Posted July 1, 2008 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    I enjoy both the new and old series of Doctor Who, but the original had a special attraction for science fiction fans. Admitted, the special effects budget was around five pounds per episode, but the writers kept churning out complex stories and cultures. To my mind, this was the reason the Companion was so important. Since they couldn’t afford to show you everything that was going on, they needed someone to say What Is It, Doctor, so the Doctor could explain the bits you didn’t see. Which brought it a lot closer to books, in that your inner eye had to be the screen for a lot of what was going on. They even alluded to this process in a Troughton episode, with Jamie and Zoe as the companions, called The Mind Robbers, where what your inner eye saw from book sources changed the nature of the world. I kind of thought the recent episode Silence in the Library was at least partially a homage to that classic tale.

  19. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Turns out the Mars Trilogy has a wiki. Sasha Blumen is huge fan of the series – so I should let him know.

  20. John Hasenkam
    Posted July 1, 2008 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    Pedro,

    Don’t send me on wild goose chases.

  21. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted July 20, 2008 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Just finished Peter Hamilton’s “The Dreaming Void” and really enjoyed it. Started very slow and it almost got abandoned – but about a third of the way in it got interesting. There is a bit of ‘jutting bosoms” and naughtiness that is part of the story and delicate souls might be annoyed. 🙂

  22. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I’m a bit curious. Why is it that eliminating scarcity via replicators in science fiction is seen as a good thing that will promote non-material values, but when the Greens promote a Citizen’s Income in real life (giving all citizens a basic income regardless of status) it is assumed that this couldn’t work because people would NOT be inspired to work?

  23. John Hasenkam
    Posted July 24, 2008 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m a bit curious. Why is it that eliminating scarcity via replicators in science fiction is seen as a good thing that will promote non-material values, but when the Greens promote a Citizen’s Income in real life (giving all citizens a basic income regardless of status) it is assumed that this couldn’t work because people would NOT be inspired to work?

    Mark Twain:

    If work were so great the rich would have hogged it long ago.

    Freud,

    “The great majority of people only work under the stress of necessity, and this most natural aversion to work raises most difficult social problems.”

    “Civilisation and its Discontents”, W.W. Norton, New York, 1961
    Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

    John Gray
    171

    Humans are ill suited to the incessant labour and recurrent migration that go with farming. Cities were created from the yearning for a settled existence.

    195

    Nothing is more alient to the present age than idleness. If we think of resting from our labours, it is only in order to return to them.

    In thinking so highly of work we are aberrant. Few other cultures have ever done so. For nealry all of history and all prehistory, work was an indignity.

    196

    For the ancients, unending labour was the mark of a slave. the labours of Sisyphus are a punishment. In working for progress we submit to a labour no less servile.

  24. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted July 24, 2008 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Well who says this is a good thing?

    In any event, the Star Trek world where replicators have eliminated scarcity are unrealistic, the people there still work because of an academic curiosity about the world. This is somewhat different to how the majority of people might behave. Sililarly in Iain Banks Culture novels, scarcity is eliminated, but it is not clear what the majority of the population do or why they do it. The stories are always about the misfits encountering non-culture civilisations or artifacts.

  25. John Hasenkam
    Posted July 25, 2008 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    Hey Sinclair,

    The elimination of scarcity will not eliminate the need for status. Perhaps that will be the drive for most.

  26. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted July 25, 2008 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    Maybe. Unproductive competition for status is likely to lead to some anti-social behaviour (I suspect). Think Judge Dredd and Mega-City One.

  27. John Hasenkam
    Posted July 25, 2008 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Damn right it will Sinclair, always has! Now you’re raising the possibility that the elimination of scarcity will do the exact opposite of what some think. Evil man … .

  28. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted July 25, 2008 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    Not just evil, m’boy. Those enlightened progressive souls at the ABC called me ‘an evil bald fascist gnome’.

    Also think first Matrix movie (please don’t think of the sequels). Agent Smith tells the Laurence Fishburn character about the previous Matrix that was a ‘golden era’ etc. etc.

  29. Posted July 25, 2008 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    I remember that ‘evil bald fascist gnome’ comment! What show was that on? Someone was clearly losing badly and decided to go through ad-hom and out the other side.

  30. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted July 26, 2008 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    The comment came after the show on the discussion board. I was on “A difference of opinion’, specifically asked to talk about tax cuts in the context of ‘What to do with the budget surplus?’ Obviously we got into discussing spending the money on more welfare or the environment or spending on infrastructure. I stuck to my brief – and got roundly abused during and after the show 🙂 I also got heaps of emails congratulating me on my stance and at a function recently someone came up and thanked me for what I had said. So all good – and I love the comment ‘evil, bald, fascist gnome’. Ahh the impotent anger that lies behind all that hatred warms the soul.

  31. Posted July 26, 2008 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    Tolkien meets Wild Wild West, obviously. BTW have you been watching the ‘MichaelF’ meltdown over at the Cat?

  32. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted July 26, 2008 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    I just saw it yesterday (I hadn’t paid attention to that thread) and Tim Blair has a post on it too. Quite extraordinary.

  33. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted July 26, 2008 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Back OT. The portrayal of women in comics usually involves a lot of jutting bosems – how well I recall my teenage crushes on Dream Girl and Princess Projecta of the Legion of Superheros etc. but yesterday I managed to pick up the graphic novel ‘America‘ – perhaps the finest Judge Dredd ever (I have lost – would you believe – the original versions). For Judge Dredd fans a must see and good portrayal of a female character.

  34. Posted July 26, 2008 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    LOST them? The originals would be worth a packet these days, surely?

  35. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted July 26, 2008 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Yes. Very annoying. When I came to Australia I left a lot of my comics (and books) at my parents house and on my return have found large gaps in the collection.

  36. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted July 26, 2008 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Another 2000AD female character worth reading is Halo Jones – awesome.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By skepticlawyer » We made it :) on July 5, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    […] have turned up to comment here since we started – particularly on Legal Eagle’s epic ‘Women & Sci-Fi‘ […]

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