I am currently reading a big fat space opera which was published last year. It has received a number of positive reviews – George RR Martin himself even describes it as “kickass space opera” on the front-cover.
Part of the story is set in the Asteroid Belt. In the future of the novel, a number of asteroids have been settled – there are, in fact, some 150 million people living in the Belt – and the largest such settlement is the hollowed-out dwarf planet Ceres (approximately 480 km in diameter, six million population). The society in Ceres, and by implication in other colonised asteroids, is essentially US, capitalist, corporatist, with a few touches of foreign colour. This is neither especially convincing nor especially unusual in space opera – even one set in the relatively near-future as this one is. Ceres also has organised crime, gangsters, protection rackets, corruption, bent cops, poverty, drugs… And prostitution.
So, basically, the author is saying that he wants one half of the human race to exist for the gratification of the other half. He can’t claim “realism” because this is an invented world. He made it up. This is an artistic decision he made. He has put the women in his universe in that position. He includes a few named female characters – with and without agency – and thinks he’s covered his bases. His detective, for example, has a female captain – there, that must be good enough. But. Prostitution. Underage prostitution. Human trafficking. All three are mentioned. All three are taken as givens in this future universe.
Is that the best an intelligent person living in the twenty-first century can do? Create some sort of Randian frontier-town society and think the presence of spaceships and AIs and some big melodramatic space-hopping plot makes it alright? It doesn’t. If you have prostitutes in your sf story, you’d better think damn hard why they’re there. If you have a rape in your fantasy story, you’d better think even harder why it’s there. Neither are acceptable. They are not genre tropes. You have no excuse for creating universes in which women are treated in this way.
Science fiction was created by (mostly) inadequate teenagers who grew up to become (mostly) dirty old men. But the bulk of sf writers these days fit neither of those descriptions. And yet those pioneers set the tone of the genre. After eighty-five bloody years, isn’t it long past time we got rid of that? Isn’t it about time we started treating half of the human race like, well, like human beings in our science fictions? Isn’t it about time we started giving them respect on the page? (Respect in the real world is a given.) It’s not like it’s difficult, it’s not going to hurt, it’s not going to cost you money. You have no excuse for not doing it.
But you know what’s worse than that? The fact this is only one of many battles that need to be fought.