16 September, 2015

A Spaceship of One's Own*

There persists a notion, among some self-elected spokesmen in the field, that the inclusion of women will--and in fact has--destroyed much of what is excellent in science fiction: the purity of ideas, the emphasis on science, the exhilarating space battles. Be that as it may, I can't help thinking, when I look at the shelves of great science fiction, that perhaps these objectors may have a point after all; for it is patently obvious that women could not, in fact, have imagined the future in literature as completely as men. Let us imagine, then, since facts carry little importance in this debate, that science fiction were written about women, with women serving as the focus and protagonist of such tales.

First consider the victim in this debate, the traditional science fiction hero (let us call him John, though James would equally suffice, or something of suitably English extraction as to be accessible and unthreatening to the reader). After overcoming whatever obstacles the plot offered--military school, jealous fellows, a physical deficiency cured with scientific miracles--John (or James) found himself aboard a spaceship, seeking new civilizations and expanding human horizons or saving Earth or encountering aliens or perhaps all of those things in a series of connected tales. He was a leader among his crew, respected for his prowess in one or another (or all) skills. He crushed the robot rebellion, defeated the physically unappealing aliens, conquered new planets, and attracted the admiration of his peers (and perhaps even his enemies). He was, sometimes, less important to the tale than the scientific imaginings underpinning it; then, John (or James) performed admirably as the vehicle through which the reader experiences those imaginings, as the clearest and simplest representative of Humanity to the audience. And of course, in the end, he triumphed (or perhaps failed spectacularly, as a lesson to everyone), leaving in the readers' minds a possible future, in which men are the prime actors and movers.

Meanwhile, our traditional protagonist's sister--let us call her Alice--finds herself wishing to travel in space. Being clever, or particularly intelligent, or even martially gifted, she follows the same path as her brother. The military academy accepts her, reluctantly, but forces her into roles which best suit her delicate sex. She might be a pilot, or a doctor, or perhaps a captain's personal assistant. When she arrives in space, she is pushed to the margins of major events, left holding the clipboard or taking shelter behind a competent man with a weapon. She will be an inspiration, or a distraction, or a feature of the landscape. She will witness the triumph, perhaps even participate in some small way in its achievement: by understanding a crucial line of alien language at a propitious moment, or throwing the hero his weapon before the tentacled alien strikes. And in the end, she will march bravely into that future on a path paved for her, as much an alien in that future as the tentacled corpses smoking in the John-James' wake, forever Othered in the name of maintaining the status quo.

Thus is science fiction saved.

But let Alice take John-James' place, let her take the lead, and the consequences might be dire. For let us imagine her attendance in the military institution, where she excels in her courses and proves herself as physically capable of wearing an environmental suit and wielding a firearm as her brother. Her skill earns her a place on a spaceship, where she rapidly rises to a position of importance whereby she can influence the plot. Instead of hovering at the edges of important conversations, offering a witticism or a suggestion to be dismissed on the way to the hero's own realizations, she is the primary voice. She listens to her crewmates, and considers their suggestions. Then she chooses the diplomatic route, and after long discussion with the tentacled aliens (facilitated by her linguistics expert, whom we shall call Mary), establishes a tentative cease-fire, and launches humanity into a new era. Or perhaps, Mary's best efforts notwithstanding, no accord is possible, and Alice dons her battle-suit and wades into war. Men and women follow and fight beside her, as do women; and the aliens are defeated. Perhaps Alice and Mary fall in love, along the way; or perhaps Alice mourns the loss of her friends in the battle. Or perhaps both. And so the future beckons.

This may be truth, or exaggeration: who can say, except those self-proclaimed spokesmen for an endangered genre? But I think it is not unreasonable, what they claim: for a woman permitted to write science fiction might expand the possibilities of the future into those in which the contemporary status quo are upended, or elided, or reversed utterly. She might imagine a place in which women may be actors in their own futures, flying spaceships about and getting into mischief, bringing lovers and children and sexual ambiguity aboard, shooting too soon or too late or not shooting at all; she might fall in love with the robot, or teach it to recite Shakespeare, or, like John-James, reduce its fledgling sentient aspirations to slag. She might do, well, anything, diluting the purity of an endeavor whose worth rests on unconscious intellectual privilege to which she is not entitled.

*with a fistbump to Virginia Woolf