“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.

If you don’t want to be judged by your words, shut up

Current SFWA president Steve Gould smack down its rightwing critics:

Just as SFWA doesn’t control what members and non-members say in non-SFWA spaces, it also doesn’t control what members and non-members say in response to members’ public comments, statements, essays, and blog posts. When persons say things in public that others find objectionable, it is likely they will receive criticism and objections. There is an odd misconception among some that Freedom of Speech includes freedom from the consequences of one’s speech and freedom from commentary on what one has said.

The idea that you be free to be a bigot, but that I shouldn’t be free to judge you on it is of course a cherished one amongst wingnuts, but not one we need to take seriously. Not even if it makes Glenn Reynolds cry, who I see is still up to the same old schtick I called him out on in the New York Times more than a decade ago. Being silent in the face of bigotry is a political choice.

“It’s possible I have bitten off more than I can chew”

I’m more than slightly in awe of Olivia Waite. For the blogging from A to Z in April challenge she decided to do a series of posts on intersectional feminism in Romance, leading to such gems as this review of Sandra Hill’s Frankly My Dear:

This is the petty tyranny of inconvenience — just as the heroine believes that her individual comfort somehow justifies the enslavement of roughly a hundred other human beings, romance readers feel it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable to reflect on the ways the genre not only has marginalized but continues to marginalize not only characters, but also readers and authors of color. This book was not written by an obscure self-published writer with a small niche audience. Sandra Hill is a New York Times bestselling author, a genre mainstay for the past two decades; she is still writing books set in the contemporary South, though I am certainly not going to read them.

In her introduction post she sets out how she will do this:

Every day in April, Sundays excepted, I will post about an author or a book that features something other than the straight white wealthy cis able-bodied mold romance is so wedded to (see what I did there?). These will not be reviews in the usual sense, though I will usually mention whether or not I find a book compelling as a romance. Instead, these posts will be literary or structural analyses with a feminist lens, using as much privilege-checking as I know how to bring. Many of the books are no longer new, so if you can think of more recent releases that grapple with the same issues, please mention them.

Every day in April, Sundays excepted, I will post about an author or a book that features something other than the straight white wealthy cis able-bodied mold romance is so wedded to (see what I did there?). These will not be reviews in the usual sense, though I will usually mention whether or not I find a book compelling as a romance. Instead, these posts will be literary or structural analyses with a feminist lens, using as much privilege-checking as I know how to bring. Many of the books are no longer new, so if you can think of more recent releases that grapple with the same issues, please mention them.

Sometimes, as with Sandra Hill’s novel, this means looking at a problematic work to see what it’s doing wrong and what this means for romance as a genre, sometimes, as with Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension, it means looking at a book that gets it right and show how it does it:

It’s easy to say that Jacqueline Koyanagi’s luscious debut Ascension ticks just about every box on the anti-kyriarchy bingo card: our heroine is a queer disabled woman of color (in space!). She falls in love with a disabled starship captain who’s in a polyamorous relationship with another queer woman: a medic who plans on having children with a man-slash-engineer-slash-sometime-wolf. But like we saw with Her Love, Her Land, this book was written from deeply within the perspective of the identities it represents. The characters’ disability is a plot point, but it’s not The Plot Point — the same goes for queerness and race: they’re baked in, functions of character rather than Moving Moments. Polyamory gets a bit more of the Very Special Episode treatment, but this aspect is presented as bridging a gap between two different planetary cultures, one more sexually conservative than the other.

And all the characters are compelling, and several scenes made me gasp out loud (Adul!), but what I can’t wait to talk about is how this book treats the problem of humans having bodies.

And I’m so glad that finally not only has somebody else heard of Ascenscion, but she seems to like it as much as I liked it. It’s a novel I found only by accident, in the for sale section of a local bookstore and which nobody else online seems to have read, unlike say Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which is somewhat similar.

I’m not much of a romance reader myself, but it is interesting to read these reviews and certainly some of them make me curious about the books reviewed, like e.g. Jeannie Lin’s Jade Temptress or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s impressive not so much to write a post each day — I’ve managed to do that for long periods of time myself — but rather to write such substantial and insightful posts on such a difficult subject day after day.

(Found via Natalie Luhrs, who has a knack of finding interesting, chewy sort of links.)


To call a woman a kenau in Dutch is to call her a harridan, a bitch, harsh, strident, aggressive, taking on masculine qualities. It’s a slur that’s rooted in an actually existing, historical woman, Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer, a Haarlem born widow, woodsmerchant and shipbuilder who became famous due to her role in the siege of her hometown by the Spanish in 1573.

As you of course know, the Netherlands fought the Eighty Years War to liberate themselves from Spanish and Catholic oppression, a large part of which consisted of the siege and countersiege of rebel or loyal cities. Haarlem in the 1570s was one of the richest, most important cities in the north of Holland and when it rebelled the Spanish were quick to put it down. The siege ended in a defeat for the rebels, but not before Kenau’s role in it had become legend.

19th century painting of Kenau Hasselaer on the walls of Haarlem by Barent Wijnveld and J.H. Egenberger

As legend has it, Kenau Hasselaer was the leader of an army of women who fought together with the men on the walls of Haarlem, pouring boiling pitch and water over the Spanish troops attempting to climb the walls. How historical this is, has been disputed, but what’s undisputed was that she was involved in supporting the soldiers on the walls, organising repair works and the like.

But of course the idea of Kenau Hasselaer as the firebreathing leader of a monstrous regiment of women is much more interesting, something that was played up in Dutch propaganda after the siege and which ultimately led to her name becoming the synonym for an aggressive woman, with the connection to the historical figure forgotten. A new Dutch movie, which premiered only this week, seeks to restore that connection, to rehabilitate Kenau as a name of pride, not a slur.

Course, being a Dutch film it’s not likely to be much good, but the idea is interesting.

No one will fail to support my right to exist unmolested

Science fiction fandom doesn’t have the best of reputations when it comes to providing safe spaces, so it’s heartening to hear about when a convention gets it right. When twistpeach got harassed, the Arisia concon took her complaints seriously and made sure her harasser was banned (which, it turned out, he was already) and once it became clear that this wasn’t a one-off incident, other cons were warned about him and several followed Arisia’s lead and banned him too. Twistpeach credits Arisia for having created a place in which she felt secure enough to come forward:

I was confident that I was in a safe place, surrounded by people who I could rely upon to back me up. No one will fail to support my right to exist unmolested in space and time, displacing the room for entitled jerks to have free reign. So I don’t have to be afraid. I am not alone. And yes. I have a right to be here.

I have these things because of activists against rape culture, movements against harassment at conventions in general, Arisia’s policy and personnel particularly, feminism, supportive friends, and a culture that has been significantly altered by them. I am so grateful that somebody told me that I have a right to be here. My community supports that right and it is because of them that I have the conviction to stand up for myself. Thank you to all of you who have made me strong enough to be a warrior.

All of this is excellent news, to see that sf conventions can get it right, that anti harassment policies can and do work and that problem individuals can be identified and do have to take the responsibility for their actions. In an ideal world this shouldn’t have been remarkable or newsworthy, but publicising such positive outcomes help both to restore confidence in sf fandom to clean up its own house as well as make clear fandom doesn’t tolerate harassment. Kudos to Twistpeach as well for being confident enough to write about her experiences so honestly.

Exclusion in comics

So Frank Santoro and Sean T. Collin discuss comics criticism, mentioning in passing the lack of women in this, prompting Heidi MacDonald to write a piece arguing that actually, they and the Comics Journal were part of the problem, in turn inspiring Annie Murphy to talk about what bothers her about the Journal’s culture:

So I’m saying, all this relates to the environment of comics at large, the confidence of women artists, and the inclusion of people besides just straight white men. Groth’s comment about what is ‘good’ or not is the rule, not the exception. I cannot tell you how many women, queers, people of color have told me that they used to draw but stopped completely after someone told them their drawing was not ‘good’, because it did not look like what the straight white men were drawing. I’ve heard this from dozens and dozens and dozens.

What Annie Murphy talks about here struck me as not too dissimilar from what we’ve seen in science fiction fandom, gaming or the skeptics community in the past couple of years, which is not too surprising as these all share the same DNA, the same makeup. These are or were all male dominated spaces, where women (and everybody not white and male) have always been treated with a certain hostility, tolerated if they fit in and pretended to be one of the boys. Some of this is done consciously, by the more meatheaded parts of comics fandom, but much of it is systemic and built into how the industry and the critical community are established and operate.

There’s a lot of unexamined privilege, a lot of systemic racism and sexism at work in the comics industry and not just at the big, commercial publishers; people who point that out are not always welcomed with open arms. In science fiction fandom similar problems are slowly being addressed, but I feel that comics fandom and the comics industry are years behind at this point

To get back to the Journal specifically, it’s culture has always been aggressive, from the Blood & Thunder lettercolumn to the famous Groth editorials. It’s an environment that punishes mistakes harshly and where people take pride in their toughness, again not dissimilar to e.g. programming culture, where it’s long know that this contributes to the lack of diversity within programming.