“a covert kind of feminist SF”

In ada, “a journal of gender, new media & technology”, Lucy Baker looks at how Lois McMaster Bujold treats the birthing process in her Vorkosigan series and how it echoes real world feminist concerns:

Lois McMaster Bujold’s science fiction (SF) relies on the symbiotic relationship between the technological and the social. This is often illustrated by the tension between the scientific and medicalized process of reproduction (via uterine replicators, cloning, and genetic modification) and the primal, ‘natural’ process. Varied levels of technological advancement and associated societal changes across the myriad planets within her SF universe allow Bujold to structure this tension as an emotional and social process as much as a medical or obstetrical one, while maintaining a respect for the choices, risks, and vulnerabilities involved in becoming pregnant.


Bujold’s SF work highlights and integrates women’s experiences into the narrative. It is this examination and ultimately hopeful yet practical approach that makes Bujold’s work feminist – it is “Invention…stories and role models and possibilities, that prepare us to leap barriers and scale heights no one has reached before, that prepare us to change the world.” (Gomoll 6).

I only found this because it showed up in my referers one day, linking to my post arguing that Bujold writes hard science fiction. It’s further proof that despite her and the Vorkosigan series massive popularity, she’s still underestimated as a serious and important science fiction author. Partially it must be because the series is published by Baen Books, often somewhat unfairly dismissed as a publisher of cookie cutter mil-sf and other pulp and at first glance it’s easy to confuse the Vorkosigan books as something like the Honor Harrington series: lightweight entertainment.

That her gender also plays a part I’ll take as a given, though I note that hasn’t stopped her from winning an impressive number of Hugo and Nebula awards.

But what may also play a role is perhaps that Bujold is actually not obvious enough with her writing; as Baker argues, she writes “a covert kind of feminist SF”, nowhere near as overtly political as a Joanna Russ or even a Nicola Griffith. That the setting is the familiar sort of semi-feudal, aristocratic stellar empire helps hide this too, as the revolution the uterine replicator brings to Barrayar on the surface looks just like modernisation, not anything really revolutionary. In the same way the uterine replicator itself doesn’t look like hard science fiction because Bujold focuses too little attention to the technological side of things, but rather more on the social impact of it as filtrered through the point of view of her aristocratic protagonists.

(You could even make an argument that the overall story of the Vorkosigan series is showing the start of a bourgeois revolution, as progressive members of the old aristocracy make common cause with the up and coming rich merchants to remake the feudal system in their favour…)

And of course perhaps the most important reason why Bujold is underestimated is that she’s so very readable; you rarely have to struggle with reading her novels and we still tend to think difficulty equals genius.

This is what patriarchy looks like.

It’s no news that Anita Sarkeesian has had to deal with all sorts of horrible filth aimed at her, from rape threats to an unending stream of gendered insults, but seeing only a week’s sampling in the flesh so to speak, is still something else:

Ever since I began my Tropes vs Women in Video Games project, two and a half years ago, I’ve been harassed on a daily basis by irate gamers angry at my critiques of sexism in video games. It can sometimes be difficult to effectively communicate just how bad this sustained intimidation campaign really is. So I’ve taken the liberty of collecting a week’s worth of hateful messages sent to me on Twitter. The following tweets were directed at my @femfreq account between 1/20/15 and 1/26/15.

Which is followed up by tweet after tweet of abuse. It’s hard to read this stuff even as a bystander, somebody who this isn’t aimed at, how much more awful must it be for Sarkeesian and other women who are deliberately targeted by every odious little troll with a persecution complex. What makes it all that much worse is knowing that even men with a similar sort of visibility like Sarkeesian, somebody like John Scalzi say, also noticably outspoken on matters of feminism and privilege, seem far less likely to have to deal with shit like this.

Twentyfive years ago today

Lest we forget:

Geneviève Bergeron (b. 1968), civil engineering student.
Hélène Colgan (b. 1966), mechanical engineering student.
Nathalie Croteau (b. 1966), mechanical engineering student.
Barbara Daigneault (b. 1967), mechanical engineering student.
Anne-Marie Edward (b. 1968), chemical engineering student.
Maud Haviernick (b. 1960), materials engineering student.
Maryse Laganière (b. 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department.
Maryse Leclair (b. 1966), materials engineering student.
Anne-Marie Lemay (b. 1967), mechanical engineering student.
Sonia Pelletier (b. 1961), mechanical engineering student.
Michèle Richard (b. 1968), materials engineering student.
Annie St-Arneault (b. 1966), mechanical engineering student.
Annie Turcotte (b. 1969), materials engineering student.
Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (b. 1958), nursing student.

Wiscon needs to clean its act up

So last year Wiscon had a harassment problem when Elise Matthesen was harassed by somebody who later turned out to be Tor editor Jim Frenkel, who was fired for this and similar harassment. This year Wiscon still has a harassment problem, as Jim Frenkel was allowed to not only attend, but play an active role in the con. Which inevitably led to at least one of his victims being made to feel unsafe.

At best, this is a massive fuckup from a convention that should’ve and could’ve know better, at worst this was a deliberate abnegation of responsibility on the part of the concom.

I mean, this is not some kind of borderline case: Frenkel admitted to what he had done and even his employer found the evidence for his harassment clear enough to fire him for it, so hard could it be to just refuse him entry? As well, both the case and Frenkel are well known enough that anybody on the concom should know who he was and why he shouldn’t have been at the con the moment they saw his name on a membership list or volunteer sheet. Or is that the problem, that he was a well known fan, a friend or acquintance perhaps, who had done something wrong but had apologised and it seemed unfair to punish him further?

But of course, as we all know, to be lenient to a harasser at a con means making your con unsafe for his victims and potential victims, means excluding these people from your con, means you make a choice in favour of harassment. That’s the message that Wiscon has sent out by allowing Frenkel, a year after he was called out for his behaviour, back into the con. Its actions show that it isn’t a safe place, that in fact as an organisation it doesn’t take harassment seriously and thinks the right of the harasser to go to the con trumps that of his victims to feel safe. If I had been harassed by Frenkel or somebody like him, I certainly wouldn’t return to a con that not only hadn’t prevented this harassment, but hadn’t even seem fit to exclude the harasser after the fact.

Again, it’s not as if Wiscon couldn’t have know this would happen, or didn’t have the resources or knowledge to have handled this better, considering the Readercon example, another con that went through a high profile harassment case and then actually took the time to improve both its policies and policing of harassment. Nobody at Wiscon thought to talk to them?

Is it just me, or does this all seem to point at Wiscon not taking harassment at all seriously, thinking that as a feminist convention it couldn’t happen there?

Reclaiming Heinlein

Natalie Luhrs is unhappy about John Wright’s invocation of Robert Heinlein to bolster claims of witch hunts against rightwing science fiction writers:

So when someone like John C. Wright holds up Heinlein as the best SF writer ever, I have to wonder what world they’re living in. An important writer in the genre, absolutely. The best ever? Really? Way to declare the race over before everyone’s even gotten to the starting line, buddy.

Because that’s what he’s doing, right? He’s trying to draw a line around SF. In Wright’s world, there’s no room in SF for people who aren’t like him and, furthermore, no one’s work can ever come close to that of a man who died in 1988. That’s just. No. I don’t want to read that kind of SF anymore. I did my time there and it’s well past time to move on.

It all started when Wright flounced out of the SFWA claiming to have been subjected to harassment, though refusing to provide evidence of this. Wright went on to further clarify his motivation and the situation science fiction was in through a long post at the Intercollegiate Review, claiming that Robert Heinlein could not win a Hugo Award today:

At one time, science fiction was an oasis of intellectual liberty, a place where no idea was sacrosanct and no idea was unwelcome. Now speculative fiction makes speculative thinkers so unwelcome that, after a decade of support, I resigned my membership in SFWA in disgust. SFWA bears no blame for all these witch-hunts, or even most; but SFWA spreads the moral atmosphere congenial to the witch-hunters, hence not congenial to my dues money.

In his article Wright provides several examples of people supposedly chased out of sf fandom or otherwise punished for their opinions, a veritable who’s who of rightwing jackasses confusing criticism for harassment, including Vox Day, Larry Correia, Orson Scott Card and Elizabeth Moon. (The truth is of course rather different than how Wright presents it.)

In her own response to Wright’s article, Rachael Acks wonders why Wright’s so sure a modern Heinlein would’ve been held the same opinions as people like Day or Orson Scott Card in he first place:

I’m also forced to wonder at the implied assumption that, had Robert Heinlein been born in 1977 (or 1967) instead of 1907, he would be writing the exact same stuff in 2014 that he wrote in 1954 (The Star Beast) or 1964 (Farnham’s Freehold–holy shit, I hope not!). Feels kind of insulting to him that if he’d grown up in a different time he wouldn’t have maybe had some different opinions, but I guess that shouldn’t be surprising coming as it is from someone who has attitudes about gender roles that might have been more at home in the Victorian era.

In his article Wright also talked about law and custom and the differences between them, which annoyed somebody who actually makes her living as a lawyer enough to strike back with Heinlein references of her own:

As an aside? I don’t think Dr. Harshaw would agree with your superficial assessment of law versus custom. (Nor with your extensive ramblings on morals, given his comment on “Customs, morals – what’s the difference?” followed by his description of what you consider moral absolutes as “the psychotic taboos of our tribe.” In fact? You’re a textbook example of Harshaw’s definition of a prude: a person who believes “his own rules of propriety are natural laws.” Dr. Harshaw could admit that his own tastes were not the arbiters of what is correct for all people. You cannot.) Yeah, people who think like you don’t have a lock on allusions to Heinlein’s body of work, any more than you have exclusive license to make 1984 references. You will, as they say, deal.

Heinlein died in 1988 so it’s been easy for rightwingers like Wright to hijack his image and twist it into a caricature of the man, into somebody who of course would agree with them and by on their side in their culture wars. But the truth is that Heinlein was always much more complex than that, willing and able to change his views when he needed to and more likely to have laughed at Wright’s pretensions than agreed with them. He may have been rightwing, but he was never the small minded hobgoblin his “fans” want to make him into.

Heinlein after all was the man who went from “homosexuality is a disease” in Stranger in a Strange Land to having his characters not bothered about the gender of the people they slept with in Time Enough for Love and sequels. He’s the man who saw reds under the bed and argued for continued nuclear tests to keep America strong, but who also made the hero of Starship Troopers Filipino, the protagonist of Tunnel in the Sky black.

You cannot reduce Heinlein to a one dimensional “greatest science fiction writer ever”, you have to take his influence warts and all. He was wrong often, but he wasn’t wrong always and he was willing to learn when he was wrong. Science fiction is richer for his contributions, but not if we hold him up as a model to slavishly follow; he himself would be the first to know that would be pointless.