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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

exigency and synergy

This post is a direct result of the synchronicity involved in conversations during the Shadow Man panel I was on at WisCon, my current final reread of Carnival, and the conversation ongoing in comments here.

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.


Oh joy. Trying to convince readers to distance themselves from the viewpoint characters' outlooks -- or rather, to assume that the viewpoint characters are intrinsically unreliable -- is bloody hard work; it's astonishing how many readers insist that anything the characters perceive is (a) accurate and (b) what the author really, truly, believes, isn't it?
Oh gosh yes. I mean, I was the idiot who wanted to see what the unholy unlove-child of Russ and Heinlein would look like, mind you, so I bear some of the blame here.

I tried to make it plain by opposing viewpoints--both Lesa and Michelangelo are rather sexist, to start, in very obviously contradictory ways--and by throwing in a (spoiler) fourth, occasional POV which is a bit more clueful than any of my protags.

But yanno. Whatever my characters think must be what I think. Sure.

scalzi seems to be having a bit of trouble with this one too. ;-)
(the New Amazonian assertion that gay men are "gentle," for example. Which is, we might add, not exactly backed up by domestic violence stats.)

It seems Alexander of Macedon failed to get the memo as well. Or Richard Lionheart.

A pity, that. Think of all the trouble it would have saved. ;)
Or Edward II.

James VI/I gave a pretty good crack at conflict-avoidance, though, and was called a pantywaist for his efforts.

I wworked that bit in because of overexposure to mid-80's feminist SFF, wherein gay men were frequently the natural allies of separatist women, and often somehow nicer and better than straight men. (much as matriarchies are inherently better than patriarchies, or whatever.)

Crack of the month club. Hello.
Every story that involves any kind of gendered creature comments on gender roles somehow,

This attitude is a substantial part of what keeps me from writing books.
Alas. It is the nature of the beast. It's hard to either talk about or around something without somebody noticing it and taking offense, or championing one's percieved position.

Which may have nothing to do with one's real position.

I also expect a fuss over the fact that half my protags are vegans and half are carnivores.
Why _Farnham's Freehold_ in particular?

In any case, I look forward to the book.
Because it stands out as the scariest Heinlein book I personally have read. (I actually generally quite like Heinlein. But that particualr book... urghk.)
nanites ate all the white people

Not that I wouldn't be the FIRST up against the wall, but this description makes me happy every time you use it.
Yeah, I'd be right behind you.

But it *is* a handy solution to those northern/western civilization resource inequity iddues.

You're hired.

Well, there is all that stuff with the therapy, and Vincent (spoiler), and (spoiler spoiler) Michelangelo.

And hello, Angelo broken. With a side order of broken. And broken and cherries on top. *g*
but really the people-eating nanites have the whip hand

Gor Lite?
This is a perennial problem. Readers WILL glom onto the viewpoint characters' idiotic opinions and either swallow them whole or furiously attribute them to the author, no matter how you try to point and wave behind the characters' backs, even if you make little devil horns over their heads for the photographer. I once read at Wiscon a scene in which an eleven-year-old and a fourteen-year-old girl are inventing ridiculous theories about boys, reinventing their own weird version of gender essentialism; in the elevator afterwards I overheard two people expressing disgust at my failure to get beyond such nonsense. They didn't have the whole context of the book, but people who did have that context have also had this reaction. I'm always happy to accept the idea that almost any book could have been better written in some regard or other, but only if I'm also given the concession that most readings could also have been more careful and nuanced.

I think it's better to risk the misunderstanding than to do clumsy work or bad characterization or viewpoint violations, or to step away from the shape of the book, but it's certainly vexing.

yes, exactly that.

Of course, I do it too. :-P I get all my exercise jumping to conclusions.
Is this some sort of self-hatred you're exercising here, or are you a writing masochist? You may as well wear a "Ban the Second Amendment" T-shirt to an NRA convention.

Personally, I think sf readers have a harder time separating writer-belief from character-belief. So many of them read the genre because they like to imagine themselves in that future world that they hope it will be idealized according to their personal beliefs ("I read science fiction because I want to live in that world" -- Spider Robinson). They also seem to think writers are creating personally idealized worlds.[1]

Buy yourself some aspirin.

[1] Or if the writer creates a dystopia, it's the negative image of their idealized world.
Actually, it's because I write, generally speaking, because something catches my eye and I find myself going, "but wait, have you considered--"?

And then I get into an argument with myself about it.

I am notoriously bad about picking sides.


Which I guess leads into an interesting point you make, and a Way I Am Weird. I don't believe in idealized worlds. Or, I don't believe there are any solutions that do not result in additional problems.

It's all bloody maintenance. All of it. You fix one thing and another thing breaks. This does not excuse us from fixing things, however.

I suspect I picked up this philosophy by reading too much Diane Duane at a young age. The fact that the devil is going to win does not excuse one from fighting him.

...this is probably why people can find my stories frustrating.
"Every story that involves any kind of gendered creature comments on gender roles somehow,"

Gods, if this doesn't help sum up why I was so giddy all the time at Writer's Weekend. I couldn't turn around without someone's random comment about any subject hitting me like a bolt of lightning. I read the above phrase and nearly jumped out of my seat going "I am so doing that with the first page! How could I have missed how significant that was when I did that!"

so...thanks again. :)
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.

oh, please. that old saw lost its teeth a couple decades ago already. people have sex = biological, and gender = sociological. it's not that hard to accept a word with more than one meaning, especially when it's used in different domains, is it? we have gender studies in universities, for heavens' sakes; let him get with the times.