Thursday, June 04, 2015
"Just this one teensy, tiny little change..."
There has been a *lot* of ink/electrons expended on comments about this, with opinions ranging from "I just don't like it" to "Hell, yeah, 'bout time!" A lot of those comments, and a lot of the more in-depth analysis of this point in the direction that this background choice must have been done to make some kind of political point. If you were going to say this was a signifier of authorial political intent you could go two ways - either (from the fringe Right) that it's just a case of what could be called "feminist imperialism and co-option" or (from the Left) the views that this is an inevitable consequence and easier to use than he/she/it or heshe constructions and (from the far Marianas-Trench deep end of the Left pool) "Hell, yeah, 'bout time the Goddess set things straight!"))
One of the great divides in SF/F right now is between groups of readers that want to claim SF and Fantasy as purely descriptive entertainment, the epitome of escape literature, just living in shared authorial moments of the storyteller entertaining us at the fair, or in the tavern, with no other motive express, implied or accepted. You pays your pennies on the drumhead for the entertainment and that's all you want to see and hear.
On the other side of the table or those who say that all stories have some ulterior external dimension, some subtext, some "message." There is no choice, there is always subtext, whether the author means for inclusion or not. It is inevitable.
In the Interests Of Full Disclosure, I will tell you that I belong in the second camp: not from any skill at analysis, nor any training in critical literature theory, just cause it seems like the way things are.
From my viewpoint, the very act of reaching for the ability to entertain, or the ability to make any kind of contact with the intended audience requires an assumption of commonality of fundamental background points.
It's the same shared societal assumptions that leads a 17 year-old groundling boy at the Globe watching a boy player dressed in wig, gown or kirtle sees Juliet or Prospero's daughter Miranda.
The analogous Junior in high school watching the young male actor in wig and kirtle, in the same roles, lacking the innate bias about women being on the stage, sees the male actor and needs to consciously transform the perception to the male actor to the role of Miranda. Of course, the Elizabethan groundling would indeed find Robbie, in the role as Caliban, truly monstrous
If this background tic in Ancillary Justice (use of female as the default gendered pronoun) is not essential to the storyline, e.g.: could just as usefully use the masculine, as we do in English, as the default, does that authorial choice *have* to be political?
I don't think it has to be.
Why not view it as "this is an alternative, lets explore what this change from the norm implies for the characters and their society, and what does it provoke in the reader?" Now, isn't that a completely fundamental trope for SF?
And, yes, what *does* the reaction, by the readers, to that single change in the society depicted, and their language choices, tell us about *ourselves?*
And, yes, what does the reaction, by the readers, to that single change in the society depicted, and their language choices, tell us about *ourselves?*
Which is another basic trope in SF.
I mean, if all you are going to do is have shoot-em-ups in starship corridors, spaceships commanded by Fine Upright Admirals and Hard-Bitten Detectives taking appointments by televisor, why not just read Zane Grey, C.S. Forester, Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler? The originals are usually done better, anyway, if all you are doing is copying.
But even there, in the originals, the subtext always carries a message: for Grey it was the larger-than-life legend of the American West he wanted to idealize; for Forester it was the superiority of the British class system; for Chandler and Hammett it was the endemic corruption of the political environment of the time.
Those writers may have been trying to be descriptive, not necessarily pushing a "message," 'though I suspect Hammett was being very deliberate in what his subtext expressed, but the very act of writing to those shared assumptions denies that, if the writers are going to be able to connect with the audience.
The same as those bards and storytellers in the square, tavern or campfire. Their stories are entertaining, but they are also passing along and reenforcing the mores and other shared fundamental understandings of their society.
So, where shall we look for the future in SF? Will we look back to the imitators of Zane Grey and say "this was their peak," or will we look forward, and view Dr. Morbius cast in the role as Propspero?