Feminism (Or “Where Are The Women in My Fiction?”)

I write fiction that is a metaphor for things that are difficult to say in plain, non-fiction prose. I write feminist science fiction set in a single-sexed military that has colonized the Milky Way galaxy. I’m doing the old and revered fictional trope of taking a minority’s experience (women’s) and giving them to members of a majority (men) – to take away that ‘I can’t entirely identify with someone who’s Other’ that sometimes happens in readers’ subconsciouses. I hope this may make my perceptions of women’s experiences clearer to readers who might not pick up the straight-up version of the same thing (an all-female science fiction story – a genre I don’t always finish, myself: ask me someday for my review of Herland or Door into Ocean.)

As a result, readers sometimes ask me why the otherwise tolerant and egalitarian society in my military science fiction has banned women from serving in space. The in-world reason is not complex or nuanced: it is the irrational reaction to the tragic loss of an all-female transport ship a generation before due to an unexplained hull rupture. I’ve sometimes responded to sudden misfortunes by getting upset about smaller, more controllable things: what if an entire planet (and the policies of its representative government) did the same thing on a larger scale?
The male narrators within my military SF stories are very aware that their home planet’s decision is irrational and hypocritical: but they will lose their careers if they advocate for a political point of view while in uniform. (Read my story “Life on Earth” in Expanded Horizons (Jan. 2015) for an example of this.) They are very aware that the human body, with very minor individual variation, can survive only a narrow range of pressures and temperatures – they endured every survivable extreme during basic training (beside women, I might add, who still serve a limited military role within the solar system). Nearly every one of them wants the ban on women to end: they frequently encounter life and death challenges where the training, intelligence, knowledge, strength and problem-solving of women could have made a vital difference, and they say so (if only within their own thoughts while telling the story). These are also stories about how even an unwanted, artificial segregation from part of humanity changes their culture and thinking, as little as they wish either to be changed.

I also write fiction where the pieces of the puzzle are scattered across several stories. A generation later, my narrators do not remember exactly why a transport ship was entirely crewed by pregnant soldiers. In the novels and short stories from the same time there is the mundane explanation that these are the wives of men and women with field assignments on their way to join their spouses at their colonial posts. The maximum galactic travel time is six months, the first three month is the most fragile trimester in a pregnancy: better to serve it on earth (or in a transport ship with a full neonatal hospital). Their later children will be born onworld in clinics with limited medical staff, but their oldest child will have the best start. The truth is, the frontier is an immensely dangerous place to have children – and the transport ship is an attempt to ensure at least some reproductive success.

The exact cause of the all-female transport’s loss is never found: despite investigation, it remains and enigma and a source of conspiracy theories … and homeworld responds by banning women from serving in space. It makes no sense: there’s no ‘why’ but the over-compensation of the human brain in trying to find patterns and avoid danger. A generation later a lot of the details have been forgotten; my narrators have to live with the ban (and almost none of them support it).

At the end of this network of interrelated stories written across the history of this single-sexed military there is a novel: a novel about how and why the ban on women’s service in space is reversed.

I do not share my narrator’s views. I am not writing these stories to advocate for the characters’ individual politics. (I don’t like political advocacy novels from any part of the political spectrum.) I’m asking wider questions about what it means to be human, what the consequences are of asking only part of humanity to be more involved in childbearing (if technology might permit neither or both men and women to have children – by artificial wombs or artificially created full hermaphroditism), and what it means when humanity does not fully use all of the strengths and skills of its whole population (caused by sociological or historical accidents, not a deliberate decision that some portion of the population is not worthy of full consideration.)

So: the men in my stories stand in the place of women. (You can even try it with the non-military SF novella A Day in Deep Freeze.) Read them in that light and see if it makes them less cryptic.

-Lisa Shapter

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One thought on “Feminism (Or “Where Are The Women in My Fiction?”)

  1. This is great. I’ve written a short story collection I decided to call Herland once I realized how all my stories were loose incarnations of yellow wallpaper. The titular story is sci fi. My fiction series tho is all about women not as feminists but as people j as flawed as men. Even as sexist at times. I think making ur characters real is more important than making them heroes. A realist angle of view even in their absence and even in sci fi I think will elevate their reality and tangible effects. Not simply praising. But that entire series is one woman and one man in a room in every scene. So the duality is there but completely up to the reader. I wonder how your book, which sounds incredible, also causes the reader to impart and bring to the surface their own biases. As it sounds like you’ve gotten some flak. Doesn’t this just highlight their own stereotypes? Society’s? Idk.

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