It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


The future’s so bright, you gotta wear chains

While reading Marianne de Pierries’ Dark Space last week (see here), it struck me that sf writers are all too keen to extrapolate or invent science and technology in their fictions – FTL, AI, anti-gravity, etc. – but they then insist on imagining socially regressive societies. The world of Araldis in Dark Space is markedly sexist – the women are either wives or mistresses, and have no say in Araldisian society. Why would a writer do that? After the decades of struggle for gender equality, to then write about a society in which women are once again second-class citizens just seems stupid. It’s not even a failure of the imagination because it was plainly a deliberate artistic choice.

But this is not unusual in space opera. Writers invent galaxy-spanning empires with magical technology… and then populate them with tyrants, slave traders, mass-murderers, pirates and all manner of scum and villainy, design them with systemic inequality, inequity, injustice and unfairness. True, scum and villainy exists in modern-day society, and even the twenty-first century has its share of inequality and inequity. But they don’t define it.

Space opera is an inherently right-wing subgenre. As is military science fiction. There are exceptions but, as a general trend, both subgenres tend to the right of centre. It is, I suspect, a consequence of the form, since not all writers of space opera or military sf cleave to the political right. But the vast majority of those writers – Anglophone ones, as that’s the bulk of my reading, and the area about which I know most – live in developed nations, where slavery is illegal, where everyone has the vote, where fairness in many areas of life is either legally or constitutionally protected. And yet these same authors can happily invent a future universe in which sentient beings are treated worse than animals, the first solution to any problem is unregulated violence, and inequality is institutionalised… And that inequality is all too often ignored by the protagonists, because typically they’re among the privileged. (This latter is especially true of secondary-world fantasy, with its penchant for adventuring princes; but that’s an argument for another day.)

There are, I noted above, exceptions. Iain M Banks, Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, for example. These exceptions are usually British. Having said that, while Banks’s Culture is famously a post-scarcity utopia, he still populates his novels with plutocratic shits (possibly a tautology) and the like – if only to give Special Circumstances something to do…

I’ve been wondering why space opera / mil sf needs to be so socially regressive / right wing. Is it a consequence of science fiction’s history? Military science fiction often appears to be little more than fancied-up Horatio Hornblower in Space, and so copies 17th Century British society – in all respects but the technology. It could be that Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, famously based on Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, led to the Roman Empire as a model for galactic empires in space operas. Personally, I suspect US science fiction owes an unconscious debt to Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. The similarities are striking.

And why are the exceptions mostly from the UK? Is it just a consequence of domestic politics? I’d like to think British sf owes an equal debt to HG Wells, but it was plainly dominated by the US mode – at least until the advent of the New Wave. Admittedly, the last couple of decades has seen more Wellsian sf creeping into British sf, though his influence continues to be ignored by US science fiction. Which is odd, historically, as HG Wells – and Jules Verne – were both extensively reprinted in magazines during the early days of the genre in the USA.

Some have argued that space opera and military sf require conflict, that without it there’d be no story. But conflict is not the only delivery mechanism for drama. There are others – exploration and puzzle-solving are two alternatives, for example. Literary fiction does not require rapes, murders, slavery, genocide or global wars to provide drama. Further, science fiction is, above all else, about the present. And present-day society – for the majority of those who read and write Anglophone sf – is mostly fair, and has become increasingly so over the centuries. (Bar current Tory policies designed to profit the few at the expense of the many.) That fairness is not universal, true; but even those who do not currently experience it are generally better off than they would have been in earlier decades and centuries.

Perhaps it’s simply that space opera / mil sf are predominantly escapist subgenres. Perhaps they can’t aspire to anything higher. If they were to comment on unfairness, if they were to justify their regressive societies as story qua story, you’d expect to see some discussion of those it effects most in the real world. But the Other is also noticeably absent from both subgenres. Both are still characterised by the privileged expressing their privilege – mostly using awesome weaponry.

The history of space opera and military science fiction, from EE ‘Doc’ Smith through Poul Anderson and John Brunner to CJ Cherryh and now Peter F Hamilton, is almost entirely populated with examples which demonstrate the above. It has become axiomatic. That needs to be questioned. A regressive society is not, in and of itself, implicit in space opera, and should not be treated as such. Space opera need not primarily be escapist; and escapist fiction need not be defined by unfairness in its invented universe.

It’s time to think a little more intelligently about the universes we create for our fictions. It’s time our fictions reflected our ambitions and didn’t simply parrot the assumptions of past decades.

It’s time we dragged space opera, and military science fiction, into the twenty-first century.

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Oops – not a mistress, then

It has just been pointed out to me that one of the writers on my sf mistressworks meme list isn’t actually, er, female. I forget where I got the name from, but I should have realised straight away – because if Francis Leslie Ashton was female, “her” name would be Frances Lesley Ashton. There aren’t many names in English which differ in spelling by gender, but Ashton has two of them… and I still failed to spot it. Oops. So thanks to Dave Post of Worlds without End for pointing it out.

Because the meme list has already spread, I won’t bother posting a corrected list, merely updating the original one. At some point, I hope a consensus meme list might be generated and, if so, the makers might take note of Ashton’s gender.

Meanwhile, I’m still working on putting together a list of 21st century women sf writers… and I’ll make sure they are all actually women.


Women in sf reading challenge #3: Dark Space, Marianne de Pierres

Marianne de Pierries is one of several Australian authors published in the UK by Orbit. Her first book, Nylon Angel, the first of the Parrish Plessis cyberpunk trilogy, was published in 2004. Dark Space is the first book of her second series, The Sentients of Orion. It is space opera.

A lone mineral scout with less-than-appealing personal habits accidentally discovers a huge and mysterious alien which lives in the vacuum of space, and which appears to have near-divine powers – he dies, and it resurrects him. His discovery makes him rich, and an industry springs up around Sole, as the alien entity is named, in which applicants to “godhead” have their brain chemistry altered by it. Tekton, a “humanesque” from the planet Lostol, is one such applicant. He has politicked his way to Belle-Monde, the artificial world where candidates for godhead are tested.

Meanwhile, on the planet Araldis (with its unfortunate likeness to the name of brand of glue), Baronessa Mira Fedor has just learnt that she is not to be First Pilot. The heir apparent, Principe Trinder Pellegrino, is, even though he does not have the Inborn Talent which allows him to interface with the world’s sentient organic starship, Insignia. But on Araldis, the men are in charge, and the women are good for nothing but being wives or mistresses. Araldisian society is also strictly hierarchical, with a nobility, a hereditary servant class, and peasant miners. The world’s wealth is derived from its minerals. Its climate is hot and arid. Its culture is Italianate.

Mira runs away. Trinder offends his father by flirting with his new mistress, and is subsequently banished to a Carabiniere outpost in a remote town. And then someone invades the planet, sabotaging foodstocks and the mines, and loosing Saqr, rapacious barely-sentient aliens. Both Trin and Mira survive; they are the last of the nobility. With the help of Rast, a mercenary hired by Araldis’s ruler, Mira must take Insignia to the Orion League of Sentients to beg for help to repel the invasion. Dark Space ends with the launch of Insignia.

There is no “dark space” in this novel. In fact, the first line of the book is, “Dark space is not really dark”. Given that the phrase “dark space” is not common, in science or science fiction, it seems an odd choice for a title. Nor does the prologue into which that opening line leads instill confidence – it is crude exposition, cast as the testimony of Sole’s discoverer, a thoroughly unlikeable rogue.

Happily, the narrative set on Araldis is much better. Mira is an engaging protagonist, and the planet and its culture is interesting. However, the Italianised vocabulary is over-used. I can understand its use for titles, perhaps even for objects unique to the culture such as clothing. But I see no good reason why babies are referred to throughout as bambina and bambino, why children are called ragazza and ragazzo. It’s entirely unnecessary.

Tekton’s narrative is less satisfying. He dominates it and he is not at all sympathetic. He is arrogant and self-centred. His race display their naked bodies in much the same way as people on this planet display their wealth. But then Tekton is pretty much characteristic of all the male cast of Dark Space. I’m all for redressing the gender balance in genre fiction. But to me that means writing strong female characters, writing stories that pass the Bechdel Test. It doesn’t mean populating a story with male characters who are entirely shits. Even Trinder, the male protagonist of Dark Space, is far from sympathetic – and his relationship with Mira is symptomatic of his attitude. Of course, the culture of Araldis is chiefly to blame for the unlikeability of the men… except not all of the men are Araldisian. Tekton isn’t. The rogue who discovered Sole isn’t.

Perhaps I shouldn’t complain. After all, male genre writers of the past and present have treated their female characters as badly, or worse, since the days of Amazing Stories. But the correct response to an imbalance is balance, not a swing in the completely opposite direction.

Yet, despite all this, I actually enjoyed reading Dark Space. I have books two and three of the quartet, and will likely read them too. While I can rue de Pierres’ ham-fisted characterisation of her male cast, her clunky info-dumping, her bizarre choice of vocabulary to render into cod-Italian… none of these actually spoiled my enjoyment of the book.

So, not as successful a read as Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman, nor as interesting a novel as Liz Williams’ Winterstrike – but definitely a more enjoyable read than the latter.


The laden mantlepiece

I must not buy so many books. I must not buy so many books. I must not buy so many books. I tell myself this every day, but it doesn’t seem to work.


Some mainstream fiction. Strangers and Brothers, CP Snow, the second book of the series of the same name (although the first written). I read the first, Time of Hope, a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it. Fielding Gray, Simon Raven, the first book of his Alms for Oblivion series, which I was told is similar to Snow’s. The Boat of Fate, an historical novel by Keith Roberts, an excellent sf writer best-known for SF Masterwork Pavane. The Rings Of Saturn, WG Sebald, a writer I admire much. My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, Liz Jensen – a charity shop find, which I picked up because I enjoyed her The Rapture (my review here). And Underworld, also a charity shop find, because I’ve been meaning to read some Don DeLillo for ages.

Some science fiction: Stained-Glass World, Ken Bulmer, a British sf writer of the 1960s and 1970s. A bit of a hack, by all accounts, but we’ll see. JG Ballard’s The Complete Short Stories: Volume 1, Engineering Infinity, Arslan, and More What If? I’m looking forward to reading. The last one was a charity shop find, the other three were birthday presents.

Some first editions. The Universe of Things is for the Gwyneth Jones collection. Down to the Bone is the last of Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series. Back of Town Blues is for the DG Compton collection. Heat of Fusion and Other Stories, John M Ford, because he is apparently a writer of excellent sf short fiction.

A bit of a mix. Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels, David Pringle, which is sort of not the companion volume to Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, because the actual real companion volume to that is Fantasy: The 100 Best Books by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn (which I also own). Red Plenty, BSFA Award-shortlisted non-fiction/fiction, which many folk have told me I will like (I was going to wait for the paperback, but what the hell). And Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures, a signed and numbered limited edition chapbook of Michael Swanwick short stories.

Three space books. Seven into Space, kindly donated to the Space Books collection by Adam Roberts. The Space Station and Island in the Sky were both bargains from eBay.

Finally, a pair of coffee-table books. Spomenik, Jan Kempenaers, is the book of his photographic exhibition. The title refers to WWII monuments in the former Yugoslavia. Many have been destroyed, or left to fall into ruin, but Kempenaers’ book contains photos of twenty-two of the best-preserved ones. Strange, but quite beautiful, stuff. CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin, is a ginormous book of photographs of many gloriously modernist buildings from the former USSR. Also strange, but quite beautiful, stuff.

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The future we used to have, part 2

Here’s yet more pictures and photos from around the internet. This is how we could be living now, instead of watching powerlessly as our scumbag Tory government robs us and stuffs the proceeds into the pockets of the filthy rich. The twentieth century, despite – or perhaps because of – two world wars, seems like it may have been a great social experiment; and we’re rapidly returning to the good old days of inequity, inequality, rampant greed and systemic abuse of privilege. Last century, they reached the peak of the world’s tallest mountain for the first time; they put twelve men on the Moon; they visited the deepest part of the ocean, where the pressure is seven tons per square inch…

This century we can’t even agree to save our own dying planet.

So let’s look at some nice pictures of where we could have been instead.


Oscar Niemeyer's University of Constantine, Algeria, 1968

Oscar Niemeyer's Cathedral of Brasilia

data centres

An IBM mainframe

IBM 360 mainframe, 1964


Air launch is the way forward

Rockwell X-30 spaceplane

houses of the future

Alison and Peter Smithson in their House of the Future at the "This is Tomorrow" exhibition, 1956


Vacation House of the Future c. 1957, James R. Powers


Credit: NASA

(This, incidentally, is as near I plan to get to escapism with my science fiction…)

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A few notes about the sf mistressworks meme

The meme has been out there now for a week, and a number of people have picked up on it. This is excellent. There have also been a few comments about the books which appear on the list. So here’s something of an apologia…

Yes, there are many authors I should have included but missed – Kit Reed, for example; or Wilhelmina Baird. Mea culpa. There are also a few I have read but didn’t feel were strong enough to appear on the list. Plus many who have written more, and better, books this century than last (in several cases, it’s only their debut novel which sneaks into the tail end of the twentieth century). In fact, it’s likely a few names will even appear on both the sf mistressworks list and the 21st century sf mistressworks list…

There are a couple of books which shouldn’t be on the list, as well. Jirel of Joiry, which I’ve not read myself, is apparently fantasy, not sf. The year given is the year it first appeared in book form, according to Orlando… well, the central device is fantasy inasmuch as it’s unexplained and unexplainable. But the story feels more sfnal than fantastic. Ash: A Secret History is certainly science fiction, and was even shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award.

In several cases, I perhaps didn’t pick the best-known or most highly-regarded book by an author, but instead chose one that I’d read myself. For example, Alison Sinclair’s Cavalcade was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1999, but I’ve only read her Legacies. On the other hand, while I prefer Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness to The Dispossessed, I think the latter is a more interesting novel.

This, I hope, helps explain some of the (seemingly) odd choices in the list. But at least the meme is getting out there, at least people are spreading it across the internet. It’s changing as it spreads, but I’m perfectly happy with that. It should evolve – it was, after all, put together partly from my own taste in science fiction (and my ignorance regarding some of the authors and titles).

And if you’ve not seen it yet, it’s here.


The Women’s Press science fiction

During the mid to late 1980s, The Women’s Press published a line of feminist science fiction novels by women writers. The books all boasted the same cover design: a grey border and spine, and distinctive cover-art. The books were a mixture of new works and older classic books. I remember the books quite well, and bought several of them. While I was researching my SF Mistressworks meme, I was reminded of The Women’s Press novels and it occurred to me that their list too made for a good meme.

So let’s do it again. Bold if you’ve read it, italics if you own it but haven’t read it. Obviously, it doesn’t have to be The Women’s Press edition, but bonus marks if it is…

As far as I can determine, this is the full list:

1. Kindred, Octavia Butler
2. Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, Suzy McKee Charnas
3. The New Gulliver: Or The Adventures of Lemuel Gulliver, Jr. in Capovolta, Ésme Dodderidge
4. Machine Sex and Other Stories, Candas Jane Dorsey
5. Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin
6. The Judas Rose, Suzette Haden Elgin
7. The Incomer, Margaret Elphinstone
8. Carmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller
9. The Fires of Bride: A Novel, Ellen Galford
10. The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart
11. Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
12. Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, Jen Green & Sarah LeFanu
13. The Godmothers, Sandi Hall
14. Women as Demons, Tanith Lee
15. The Book of the Night, Rhoda Lerman
16. Evolution Annie and Other Stories, Rosaleen Love
17. The Total Devotion Machine, Rosaleen Love
18. The Revolution of Saint Jone, Lorna Mitchell
19. Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison
20. The Mothers of Maya Diip, Suniti Namjoshi
21. Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer
22. The Watcher, Jane Palmer
23. Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy
24. Star Rider, Doris Piserchia
25. Extra(Ordinary) People, Joanna Russ
26. The Adventures of Alyx, Joanna Russ
27. The Female Man, Joanna Russ
28. The Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ
29. The Two of Them, Joanna Russ
30. We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ
31. Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton
32. Travails of Jane Saint and Other Stories, Josephine Saxton
33. I, Vampire, Jody Scott
34. Passing for Human, Jody Scott
35. A Door Into Ocean, Joan Slonczewski
36. Correspondence, Sue Thomas
37. A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories, Lisa Tuttle
38. Across the Acheron, Monique Wittig

Oh, well – I’ve not done so well on this one, although there are a number of titles I plan to read (as soon as I pick up copies).