During that fateful panel, I made a comment that basically boiled down to, "not every book needs to tackle sex and gender issues," and the mighty mighty Aaron Lichtov shot back "Yes they do." I replied that there was only so much you could do in 400 pages, and then we sadly never got to have that brawl, because the panel was ending, but since I'm back working on Carnival again it's very present in my mind.
(Aaron is right, for certain angles on the concept of "right." Every story that involves any kind of gendered creature comments on gender roles somehow, even is just by uncritically repeating the author's preconceptions. And any story that removes gender roles from the equation comments, too.)
On the other hand, right now I am being brought hard up against some of the things I couldn't do in Carnival. Which is a book that's about perceptions of sex (skzbrust would yell at me for my sloppy use of the word "gender" if he were reading this, and point out that nouns have gender; people have sex. But I'm trying for clarity here, not grammatical accuracy. See? An example of what I mean by the need for compromise.) and sexuality.
For those of you joining us since last year's thrashing, Carnival is the book I got when I decided that it would be really fun to put "When it Changed" and Farnham's Freehold in a box and watch them fight. It's a Libertarian, dystopian, feminist first contact novel that is almost a black farce. That is to say, Peter Watts noticed it was a farce, but I'm not sure anybody else will.
More specifically, it's a book in which a planetload of gunslinging Libertarian women with some crackpot ideas about biology meet a pair of gay diplomats from a repressive, postapocalyptic Earth (eco-terrorist nanites ate all the white people, and the rest of the planet breathed a huge sigh of relief... ) with secret agendas and their own weird ideas about biology.
One of the plot threads revolves around the moral quandary possessing two of my three protagonists. Which is to say, Vincent and Angelo are on this mission because they are lovers, and gay men have a marginally higher status in this particular society than straight men, who have none. The situation is reversed on Earth; homosexuality is a capital crime (they have a lot of capital crimes; refusing genetic surgery is another one, as is unauthorized childbirth), women have a status roughly equivalent to what they had in the West during the Victorian era, and the alpha males fancy they run the place but really the people-eating nanites have the whip hand. Er. So to speak.
Everybody on both sides of the argument assumes that a bunch of things are behaviorally and genetically fixed. Which is to say, they all think that such things as male aggression and sexual preference are hard-wired and immutable.
Now, I'm doing some things to undermine their assumptions (for example, the alert reader will notice that a lot more than 3% of the people we meet on New Amazonia are queer)... but the fact of the matter is that there's a conversation in which Angelo matter-of-factly asserts that what's "wrong" with him could have been cured by prenatal gene therapy if it had been caught at the time. And I know I'm going to get flack for that. Also, the thought experiment I'm setting up is farcical, to the extent that various things asserted by various characters at various times are complete addlepated nonsense (the New Amazonian assertion that gay men are "gentle," for example. Which is, we might add, not exactly backed up by domestic violence stats.).
But I'm not writing nonfiction, so I have to rely on the reader to notice that the characters are frequently a bit dumb, adept at doublethink, false-binary, and culturally blinkered. I mean, the narrative knows it. But in tight third POV, it's really hard to demonstrate the fallacy in various character assumptions.
So here I sit, waiting the next six months to see if it works, or if I screwed it up.