Though it’s been a while since authors like Orson Scott Card and J.K Rowling have come out publicly as being on the wrong side of history, and the whole Sad Puppies fiasco has thankfully long fizzled out, an article posted just a few weeks ago on Strange Horizons—and a few newer science fiction and fantasy books I’ve read or read about recently—made it clear that though there are definitely authors working to bring a more enlightened and inclusive, more contemporary view of gender into genre fiction, there still seems to be resistance out there.
This puzzles me greatly. After all, aren’t science fiction and fantasy the genres that have, over the last hundred or more years, either helped to move the social dials forward, or at least come along for the ride in ways that other genres or the so-called “mainstream” fear to tread?
In that article, “Hostile Constructs: On Building Worlds From the Margins of Sex,” S.A. Chant wrote:
I’ve come to think of trans-inclusive worldbuilding as an activist project in itself, or at least analogous to the work of activists. When we imagine other worlds, we have to observe what rules we are creating to govern the characters, institutions, and internal logic in our stories. This means looking at gender from the top down, as a regulatory system, and from the bottom up, at the people on the margins whose bodies and lives stand in some kind of inherent opposition to the system itself.
I can’t agree more. And I’ll go that one better: science fiction and fantasy worldbuilding in general is and always has been, at least to some degree, an activist project. The most important novel of the twentieth century, 1984, is a science fiction novel about the dangers of the already-in-place post-war totalitarian oligarchies of the conservative communists and the conservative capitalists, empires that required a constant state of war (Korea, Viet Nam…) to hold their power in place.
That was followed by an awful lot of science fiction that missed the bigger picture and instead parroted the propaganda of the day, so we get lots of obvious anti-communist Cold War fiction like Ayn Rand’s comically overstated Anthem, or the surprisingly ambiguous Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which can be seen alternately as a warning about the conformist nature of life in the Soviet sphere, or the conformist nature of life in McCarthy’s America.
And well before that, as I pointed out in a previous post in which I looked at the hundred year old science fiction novellas The Lord of Death and the Queen of Life. In this amazing book, author Homer Eon Flint used science fiction to examine the horrors of mechanized warfare right after World War I then the confusing but maybe not so bad concept of women’s suffrage the year American women finally got the right to vote.
Around the time I was busy being born, Frank Herbert used science fiction worldbuilding to warn us about the massive danger of an entire global economy based on petroleum, and how bad it’s going to get when the “fremen” (Muslim) world finally decides they don’t like some foreign empire raiding their deserts of their only precious resource.
All of these were not books (or movies) about the future, they were stories about the here and now in which they were written, and in the here and now of 2023 trans people have a voice they didn’t have before, and though there is opposition from conservatives, who cares? I mean, isn’t there always opposition from conservatives? That’s the definition of a conservative, to be opposed to stuff, and often, as with their transphobia, for no discernible reason. But the world moves forward anyway. Conservatives never win in the end. If they did, we would still be living in rigidly patriarchal monarchical empires where most people are either slaves or peasants, maybe 1% of the population can read, and women are traded as wives as though they were semi-valuable pieces of livestock.
Okay, that might be what “Great Again” means to a certain variety of American voter right now, but anyway, in that article, S.A Chant offered this advice:
As speculative fiction writers and readers, we have work to do. The oppressive power of gender flows from its invisibility and ubiquity, its “naturalness,” which allows it to be used as a weapon against people it deems “unnatural.” Crafting stories that lay the workings of gender bare for our readers to see and constructing new possibilities is a way of fighting back; reading critically and seeking out works that include real gender diversity is another. Both are excellent ways to practice noticing how gender functions in the real world.
I love this thinking, and not just in terms of gender, but because the same process drove Flint, Orwell, and Herbert in the above examples, and authors like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany to science fiction-ize race at a time when no other genre fiction was engaged in that issue except as purveyors of the same old stereotypes and prejudices. What if this article was written in 1954 instead of 2023? Would it have read:
As speculative fiction writers and readers, we have work to do. The oppressive power of McCarthyism flows from its invisibility and ubiquity, its “naturalness,” which allows it to be used as a weapon against people it deems “unnatural.” Crafting stories that lay the workings of McCarthyism bare for our readers to see and constructing new possibilities is a way of fighting back; reading critically and seeking out works that include real political diversity is another. Both are excellent ways to practice noticing how McCarthyism functions in the real world.
Science fiction and fantasy moved out of a Cold War world a while ago and are moving forward into a post-transphobic world even as we speak. Thankfully, ignorant people stuck in a loop that has them interfering in someone else’s life is an easier problem to shake off than a total global dependence on oil, but change starts with imagination. What would a future or a world without transphobia look like? And isn’t that exactly what science fiction and fantasy are?
Imagine a future…
Imagine a world…
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Fabulous post. Best ever. Thank you for addressing this crucial topic.
Sci-fi is truly humanistic investigations representing things to come, things that the essayist accepts will occur by drawing an obvious conclusion.