Tangent Online Special:
Androgyny Destroys SF Review of Lightspeed
While we applaud Lightspeed‘s recent groundbreaking, progressive Women Destroy SF and Queers Destroy SF special issues, we feel they didn’t go far enough. To effect change one must not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. Women and Queers are not the only groups destroying science fiction, for those who champion such a worthwhile social cause as androgyny are at fault too. These forward-thinking social futurists should be given their just due as androgyny is perhaps the most important social issue facing science fiction practitioners today, and which, for the most part, the SF community has chosen to ignore with its retrograde thinking in regards to the problem of gender inequality and gender bias in its fiction.
With greater frequency (which we welcome, but is still a small percentage of the fiction published in the magazines and in book form today), science fiction stories with nameless protagonists or ancillary characters are at the forefront of the androgynous revolution. But only in the field’s fiction do we see how it might work, as fictive experiments, so much enlightened theory on paper—food for thought and nothing more. If the lofty goal of the Androgyny Revolution is to reveal unconscious bias and prejudice in fiction by rendering invisible the gender of its characters then the same ideology should just as readily reveal bias and prejudice in other areas of the real world, but not if gender assignation is permitted to continue.
Therefore, Tangent Online will show how the philosophy, the core defining predicates of androgyny can be applied to non-fiction as well as fiction and how in other ways it should be applied to areas of our real world lives. Thus, the table of contents for the August issue of Lightspeed below will contain only story titles—no author names; for revealing an author’s name would give immediate rise to the same conscious or unconscious bias we find in so much of our fiction. As well, the name of the reviewer is not mentioned for the same reason. Following the lead of the special Women and Queers Destroy SF issues of Lightspeed, you will find an essay following the review. Its author is also nameless, as it should be. It is the content of the words which truly matter and not who penned them. Content over author or editor is the only way to go in the Androgyny Revolution.
Lightspeed and its companion magazine Nightmare have seen the light and no longer showcase author names on their covers. Only the magazine title and subtitle, issue number and issue date are shown for each. The exception being that the editor’s name is prominently displayed on every cover. We can forgive this seeming contradiction to the basic canons of the androgynous movement because it is a given that the editor’s name on the cover of any magazine is perforce a more lucrative marketing strategy than displaying author names—those who provide the content for which the potential buyer is shelling out their beer money. It works, and so we give it a pass because we all already know the editor is really one of “us” (yes, this previous knowledge leads to bias but since the editor thinks like we do it’s no big deal; insider exceptions are one of our most sacred, binding rules). At least one other monthly science fiction ezine has followed suit and does not promote its authors on its covers—only the name of its editor. This strategy, though inconsistent but forgivable, makes certain that no gender identification or bias is possible, for if there are no author names on a magazine’s cover then any imbalance in the number of female and male authors cannot be determined, thus eliminating possible angry letters-of-comment (locs) to the editor, or irate blog posts working their way around the internet besmirching, smearing, or otherwise second-guessing the editor’s cover selections. It’s a win-win. It doesn’t go far enough, though, for the interior of every magazine includes a full table of contents listing—including author names. This is disturbing and all author names should be removed from tables of contents. We urge supporters of the Androgynous Revolution to make their views known on this serious oversight. We realize these things take time. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
To this end, we are proposing below one possible remedy to the listing of author names in any table of contents for any SF or Fantasy magazine. It is our carefully reasoned position that only the content of the stories is important and not the gender of the author, for by providing author names the inevitable disease of bias is given an open wound to infect, and is a culturally grown mental disorder we wholeheartedly wish to cure.
One final note as to the review. It is a serious review of the stories, though it is written eliminating any references to gender, as it should be. It can be done people, and we’re better off for it in the long run.
I hope you enjoy.
“And We Were Left Darkling” by The Author
Reviewed by The Reviewer
The August issue of Lightspeed contains four short stories involving characters which, unfortunately, are all described as having a gender. Quality stories don’t require distracting details like gender to draw readers into assumptions about people and their relationships, and real SF is beyond such trivial concerns as gender equality (much less gender identity), so this review will present a gender-free look at Lightspeed’s four newest works of fiction to show that gender is overrated as a character detail and thus emphasize the potential for authors to advance SF through the introduction of entirely androgynous stories. Why should authors risk distracting readers from the meat of what might be a quality story by introducing such useless tripe as gender commentary? I mean, who cares – much less worries – about their own gender or its effect on everyday life?
Especially now that the United States Supreme Court has ruled that couples of any gender can marry – and no law can hope to stand if it prohibits couples of any gender to have and raise children – there is no longer any basis to defend the outmoded depiction of gender in SF. Everybody can form a family, have children, you name it – irrespective of the genders of the families’ members. We should get on with something that will really affect the world, like exploring whether ansibles really result in time paradox, and whether we have to reclassify SF that had such tech as fantasy. I mean, that’s where the debate is. Just try walking into a con sometime and announcing during a panel that some beloved staple isn’t SF but F because its science is junk, and see how far you make it without needing a cleric.
And when gender is depicted, what do we learn? Often, that the fiction-writing world is loaded with baseless false assumptions about gender. Take Fantasy, which is so often set in a magic-medieval-European world full of gender stereotypes that don’t reflect at all many of the peoples who resisted Roman invasion, or who thrived after Rome fell. Since history shows the supposedly gentler gender readily raised armies and mounted revolts and fought and sacrificed and suffered martyrdom and earned beatification or became reviled as dictators as corrupt as they come, why should we invite gendered fiction to reprogram readers into false assumptions about the role of people in society, based merely on gender? We don’t even have a vocabulary for gender that works, even two thousand years after Nero’s relationship with “empress” Sporus/Poppaea Sabina. The only thing gendered descriptions can do for fiction is to limit characters, deceive readers, and perpetuate stereotypes that injure everybody. The time has come to end gender in SF, and embrace the androgyny that will set characters – and their stories – free.
The Author’s “And We Were Left Darkling” is a 3,000 word fantasy short set in the modern day. The sense of setting is a fun collision between the waking and real worlds. The surreal dream world is disjointed in time and in factual continuity: the narrator’s dream-child is sometimes an infant and sometimes old enough to leave the house, and wears hair that’s sometimes blonde and sometimes tight black curls, all in no particular order. By contrast, the waking world is full of cues about real-world life: work schedules and the use of Spanish phrases to communicate with a cab driver in Los Angeles, the risk of getting fired. That in Los Angeles the locals would really bring pizza and bottled water to strangers who flew into town to stand on the beach looking for children to emerge from the sea is either an uplifting assertion about Los Angeles, or more evidence the dream world fantasy has bled into reality – and it fits the story nicely that we can’t be sure which. And that, ultimately, is the narrator’s problem: the fantasy dreams, filled with memorable moments from raising a child, are so emotionally compelling they can’t be dismissed on waking – and the waking world won’t wait while the dreamers figure out how to cope.
Unlike some short pieces built on a foundation of mood and setting, The Author’s provides a real story: the protagonist narrator has a problem and makes a choice. The Author’s first-person narration draws readers into the protagonist’s perspective so the narrator’s unreliability has the most impact when things start to fall apart. It’s a fun read, a collision of wild hopes and awful dark possibilities, and The Reviewer recommends it.
The Author’s “Ghosts of Home” is a close-third-person account of a low-level bank’s contractor who fears obtaining full expense reimbursements out of concern for being fired, set in a crash-of-2008 world in which banks send contractors to placate foreclosed properties’ household spirits – beings with the power to do things like, for example, cause roof collapses or mysterious spreading bloodstains. Since the crash multiplied foreclosures, banks held numerous foreclosed properties whose spirits needed mollifying before they went bad. It mightn’t pay much, but it’s steady work. And work had rules. Like … don’t talk to the spirits.
So you already know what happens. What makes this interesting is the broken protagonist’s struggle to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of the financial collapse. The protagonist’s stakes in deciding how to handle choices are raised by a recovering-addict’s history of bad decisions, complicated by personal relationships with the local spirits the bank requires its contractor to placate but otherwise ignore. The Author re-casts the foreclosure surge as a danger to supernatural house-spirits just as much as to occupants ejected from their homes, and suggests the real myth in the foreclosure surge is the argument that home is a tangible dessert granted only to those who prove worthiness through the act of payment – rather than representing something more real and more at-risk and more in need of defending. By imbuing homes with souls, insecurities, and emotional risks, the story places the foreclosure crisis on an entirely nonfinancial plane. The protagonist’s successive decisions to act human, instead of enforcing a bank’s soulless values on its surroundings, each invite wonder whether each represents a mistake – like that last descent into addiction’s grip in a decision to score – or represents a step toward redemption. It’s an exciting story with a feeling of real emotional stakes, set in a world built seamlessly and without pause while characters’ actions rivet readers.
Note that this is a short story that follows a protagonist, and makes little effort to humanize its villains (which would eat word count even if the author cared to try). Readers with strong emotional engagement with JP Morgan or bank officials, or fans of unregulated capitalism, may wish to consider whether their personal views could adversely impair their enjoyment of a story about soulless banks’ heartless employees exploiting contractors and customers with an air of grim self-righteous conviction and the cool confidence of society’s support in all their endeavors. But think before you shrink: Voldemort’s cackling “I’ll conquer the world” villainy didn’t have much more depth either, and we loved the author of the Potter fantasy books’ protagonists just the same. Buck up and read it. Who knows, maybe you’ll get ideas how to handle your own bank.
The Author’s “Given the Advantage of the Blade” presents a cast of fairytale characters in a locked-room knife fight. In a sort of fantasy-sports parody, the contest runs over and over with slightly varying results. Fans of fairy tales will enjoy seeing personalities they know pitted against one another, but the recitation of the errors that lead to death after death lacks the feel of a plot arc. Readers may spend a while wondering who would have arranged the fairytale cage-matches, and why they matter; despite a 2,600-word length, it feels tiringly long. The bald assertion that, locked in the room, they will try to kill each other rather than cooperate to escape promises something interesting, but proves an assertion without any evidence – or even explanation.
Although we’re asked to assume the characters will spontaneously erupt into gruesome violence – presented in enough detail to hint at character traits, but not quite enough to draw devotees of flicks like Saw – we aren’t allowed to see the decision made, we can’t hear the characters’ reasons, and are left walking in on an A-list brawl of fairytale headliners and wondering what’s going on and if someone will have the grace to stop it. And that seems to be the point of the piece: that the fairytale characters won’t cooperate to escape, won’t allow the cleverest of them to free them all, won’t do anything but fight or fail to fight. But there’s no reason presented to convince us: we’ve only the author’s word the world is this way. It’s a fairy tale; the author could manufacture any proof that seemed convenient, and we’d accept it. But we’re just asked to accept it, that people are broken, and that we’re not owed an explanation. If you demand identifiable protagonists, story arcs driven by ascertainable motivations, and a hard climactic decision that proves what the characters are made of, then you might want to skip this one. If you want to see a fairytale cage-match with knives and powerful curses and betrayal – a fantasy homage to Hobbesian brutality – this may be what you’ve waited for.
“The Smog Society” by The Author, translated by Translator A and Translator B, opens in a skyscraper on a day so smogged out the day lies in darkness, cars drive with high beams, and neighboring buildings appear as vague silhouettes. In short, like other days. The protagonist, spending retirement as a volunteer for a private organization that monitors air quality, recalls days when going outdoors was plausible and enjoying nature hadn’t yet become a thing of the past. Regret seems to infuse the story: failure to interact with loved ones before their death, refusal to sing when asked, decisions to postpone children – all lost opportunities. It’s a slow build, and the retiree seems low on motivation so there’s little sense action moves toward a goal.
The setting in China is evident cosmetically in the memory of pagodas in the view from a building’s roof, but more deeply in the climactic conflict. The Smog Society – which had kept a low profile and espoused no controversial beliefs, and claimed only to hold that smog affected mental health as much as physical health – produces a report to the government that effectively ends the organization as its leaders are disappeared. The euphemism employed for their summons, and the matter-of-fact presentation (as though this were not unexpected), create a sense of mental place that’s distinct from the relative Wild West of literature more familiar to most English-speaking readers. Thus deprived of the volunteer employment that consumed the protagonist’s waking hours, the protagonist makes a choice what to do about the knowledge obtained about the smog and the people it affects. Sharing the knowledge – a typical American response that reflects the gritty-reporter-exposes-all-for-the-public-good trope – would guarantee the same fate as the disappeared; the protagonist’s decision is deeply affected by its social and political setting. The Author’s unexpected lone-person-can-make-a-difference conclusion is a surprisingly uplifting capstone for a tale so dour and grey and soaked in regrets, and makes the whole thing a pleasure to read.
Classifying “The Smog Society” is a challenge. The story’s author’s background as an SF author urges SF classification, but the reviewer sees a fantasy: although the data-gathering methods employed by the Smog Society have the patina of scientific methodology (e.g., systematic data collection, reference to statistical analysis, etc.), the mechanism of action used to explain the story problem (and the speed with which it can be affected merely by changing the mood of onlookers) are fantastic beyond even the one-hour DNA analysis that rolls the reviewer’s eyes every time it appears on CSI-style investigation shows (also purportedly grounded in science, but plainly benefitting from the presence of The DNA Analysis Fairy). The author surely means to write something with a near-SF feel, and succeeds in giving the story a near-SF mood. But the conclusion is all magic of the heart, the magic of redemption, the magic of belief – mind over matter. It’s The Force employed against advancing storm troopers. It’s fantasy. But it’s uplifting fantasy and, as in Star Wars, there’s nothing wrong with that.
The Reviewer lives in a brain jar’s bubbling broth, thinking about fiction.
Writing for a Genderless Future
by The Essayist
There are – when aren’t there – multiple competing causes and ideas in science fiction right now, but the most important opinion, in my opinion, would be the fight for genderlessness in science fiction.
The book The Guardian has hailed as a smart gender deconstruction, the important Ancillary Justice, while a step in the right direction failed of the mark by using the female gender pronoun to refer to all characters. Therefore the author’s future is not genderless, the default is simply assumed to be female. This is problematic insofar as a future populated by females begs – nay demands – the existence of a male gender, since the two are paired in reproductive and cultural necessity. The reader is therefore permanently bound to second guessing the author’s use of pronouns for that inevitable if masked male.
So, while a good first step towards writing a genderless future, it falls off the mark and leads one to imagine what a true effort towards changing society and eventually biology might look like.
One trusts it won’t be necessary to prove that gender is a social construct, a fact established in the seventies and taken for granted in all our gender study classes.
It should go without argument therefore that being a social construct gender can be abolished by social practice. One can’t help but applaud the parents in Sweden who are raising their child genderless.
The question is how to make this practice more widespread and how to marshal technology in pursuit of such goal.
The benefits of achieving such utopia cannot be doubted.
Gender is, as noted sex researcher D. Lisak has proven, the root of heinous crimes of aggression and oppression.
To quote D. Lisak:
“Gender – the division of human qualities into two mutually exclusive categories, each associated with a biological sex is central . . . to the motivations for rape. . . . this gendering pervades our culture and . . . while it is purported to be founded on biological differences, it is actually a production of culture.”
Since part of D. Lisak’s work has been proving that our colleges are veritable havens of rape and oppression in which one in five women get assaulted (a risk of rape far higher than, say, in Beirut), the only thing to be done is to abolish gender altogether. And in pursuit of such goal, the serious futurists of science fiction must take the lead. To the extent the dreams of the future can shape the future, it is our duty as writers of speculative fiction to make it genderless.
To such an end I’d like to suggest the adoption of agreed-upon genderless pronouns that shall be used in all novels. At the same time we must eschew the reference to stereotypical gender behaviors, such as shaving or giving birth. Needless to say, reference to PIV intercourse must also be eliminated. At any rate, the blog Radical Wind has made a cogent case for PIV being always rape. The character’s gender shouldn’t be merely masked and waiting for the reader to divine it, it should be non-existent.
While this might limit the type of stories that can be told, it opens the door to far more stories. There is an entire universe of genderlessness to explore. After all, aren’t most notable experiences of the mind, and isn’t the mind genderless beyond the marks imposed on it by the society in which it is raised?
More importantly, though, we as a science fiction community must embrace genderlessness in our social interactions, not only the virtual ones, where the elimination of first names and the avoidance of photographs suffices, but in all interactions. I’m not sure, yet, not having had time to ponder it if this means the end of science fiction conventions, or simply that all attendees of such gatherings must at all times wear a burka-type-garment. This would have the advantage of doing away with the need for safe spaces by making everyone not only genderless, but also devoid of race, shape or other characteristics used by human beings to discriminate against their acquaintance.
This will, at first blush, go counter to the attempts over time to make science fiction more diverse and inclusive, but in fact it might generate a more equitable and diverse future than we can dream.
In a future in which we are all equally genderless, diversity of thought can flow as never before, provided it doesn’t stray into attempting to bring back the old oppressive ideas of gender classification, of course.
And in time, we can do away with the need for anyone to give birth or have PIV altogether. Perhaps technology can make us capable of wholly in vitro, technologically enabled reproduction.
If this doesn’t materialize, then we’ll be leaving the earth pristine for humble creatures like the pine tree and the beetle to enjoy without interference.
A future without gender is the future of a pristine Earth devoid of over-population and pollution.
What better goal could one advocate?