It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

His master’s voice


So, a couple of days ago I tweeted a short quote from the book I was reading, one of this year’s Clarke Award finalists, and remarked that I was surprised to find the position expressed in the quote in a genre novel published in 2017. Most people who saw my tweet were as dismayed as I was – although, to be fair, they saw only my quote.

Which changes things. Apparently.

The book in question is Sea of Rust by C Robert Cargill, and the exact quote was “Gender is defined by genitalia”, which is spoken by the book’s narrator, Brittle, a robot, in a paragraph in which “she” admits that robots have no gender, it is not something “she” has ever thought about, but she henceforth chooses to define herself as female.

Two people I consider friends – very smart people both, and genre critics whose opinions I respect* – decided to insult my intelligence by questioning by understanding of how narrative works. Because the offending phrase – and it is offensive – was spoken by a character, they stated, that does not mean it reflects the author’s sensibilities. As another friend pointed out, I have myself written fiction featuring Nazis – and I have: ‘Wunderwaffe’ – but that obviously does not make me a Nazi. This is indeed true. Cargill has written a novel about robots, in which the first person narrator is a robot… but obviously he is not a robot himself. I never claimed this.

But the people arguing against my comment were themselves making the same assumption about me they were accusing myself of making against Cargill. Except, I think my position is backed up by the narrative.

When an attitude or sensibility exists in a narrative with no basis in the narrative for it, then it is reasonable to assume it is an attitude or sensibility of the writer. Because of course there’s a distinction between what a character professes to believe and what the writer might believe. But that also assumes the writer has removed every last vestige of their worldview or sensibilities from a text. And that’s frankly impossible. There will be attitudes they have never questioned, and they will likely colour what they write. So when Cargill writes about gendering robots – and, let’s face it, why would the concept even occur to a robot character? – and while there are no dates mentioned in the novel, let’s assume the robots began to appear in the second half of the twenty-first century… True, gender identity could have gone backwards since then, and we’ve certainly seen a lot of backwards social movement since Trump and Cameron/May took power, since the rise of the right… But there’s no evidence in the narrative for the position on gender advanced by the robot narrator. What’s inside the narrative does not apply.

You all know how much I hate Asimov’s fiction. I’ve labelled it “men in fucking hats sf”, because no matter how far in the future it is set, all the men wear hats. And men did indeed routinely wear hats when Asimov wrote his stories in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s a real-world sensibility he unthinkingly imported into his world-building. It is not an attitude of the characters that hat-wearing is normal, it is an attitude of the writer. It is men in fucking hats.

And so back to Sea of Rust. What is in a narrative has to have a foundation in the narrative. Otherwise its foundation is external. In fiction, when a character holds a specific plot-oriented worldview which dictates their actions, that worldview is documented within the text – and, in many cases, the cause of that worldview is also documented… and occasionally actually forms a narrative thread itself. Robots are machines and have no gender. Fine. Robots, for reasons the narrative of Sea of Rust chooses not to explore, adopt gender. Fine. But when a robot character says, “Gender is defined by genitalia”, they’re not parroting a robot position on gender, nor is there evidence in the text they’re parroting a position in the text’s invented world… Ergo, it’s a sensibility of the writer that has leaked through into the narrative. It is a fucking hat, in other words.

So yes, I do understand how narrative works. I also understand how writing works. And while I may not be as accomplished at writing as others… and I may place a higher value on narrative rigour than most people… I stand my original position:

Unless the narrative evidences a foundation for a sensibility or attitude, then it’s reasonable to assume it is a sensibility or attitude of the author that has leaked through into the narrative.

And given that, it is indeed fair to comment on said attitude or sensibility. I stand by the tweet that kicked this all off. I happen to think Sea of Rust is a bad book for a number of reasons – and I’m baffled it made the shortlist – but I absolutely think it’s fair to accuse the author of believing “gender is defined by genitalia” on the strength of the words in the book.

Oh, and for the record, genitals are not gender. And any novel, genre or otherwise, published at this time, needs to justify in its narrative any position opposite to this or risk being called out.

* And whom I still consider friends, of course.

8 thoughts on “His master’s voice

  1. This comes back to the debate about whether an artist’s personal failings make the work of art intrinsically bad. Wagner was an anti-Semite – does that make his operas bad? John Brunner was sometimes personally objectionable to a lot of people – does that make his books bad?

    I’ve though a lot about this in a range of different contexts. I’m coming to the conclusion that these failings are things thrown into the equation of judging merit. So for instance, we have to set the artistic vision of Wagner, his use of leitmotivs, the inner drama of his characters (etc.) on the plus side; we set his anti-Semitism on the minus side. For a Wagner, we then have to decide for ourselves how much the one outweighs the other. If the work of art is deficient artistically, then the failing of the artist will weigh more heavily on the minus side. If the artistic strength outweighs the personal failing, then the work continues to be worthwhile even when attitudes change. People like Wagner despite, and in full knowledge of, his anti-Semitism. We don’t like Wagner’s music because Wagner was anti-Semitic. And if we do, if we don’t see that failing of Wagner’s as a failing, then the fault lies as much in ourselves as in the artist.

    Like you, I share an interest in German military hardware and other subjects from the Third Reich era. But we are civilised people (he said, modestly) and we recognise that there is a dark side to even the most innocent of interests once issues of morality come into the equation. If we recognise it, then we are taking the necessary steps to having the proper perspective and making a sound judgement on matters of artistic merit and (most likely) life generally. Too many people follow their interests – steam trains, model soldiers or science fiction – without engaging their moral faculties. It is important – possibly essential – that at least some of us continue to explore such other interests whilst retaining the ability to say “It’s all very interesting but don’t ever forget that this thing here can lead to that horror there”.

    Another author once said of this, “Do not confuse fascination with admiration.”

    And in a way, this requires that writers in particular allow their sensibilities to influence what they write. If we do not know how a writer feels about issues of gender, or race, or any other subject, then we are not alert to our own attitude; we cannot challenge ourselves if we do not see it in others. And if less enlightened readers say “Why should I have to have my prejudices challenged? I don’t want to read politically-correct stories!”, then I would respond that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. No one has a right not to be offended; that’s what Art should do, challenge and take risks – though be aware that this can cut both ways.

    (As for Asimov’s men with hats; well, isn’t one of the pleasures of old sf seeing where the writer had a blind spot about their future? We all know that sf isn’t prediction; but it’s only human to make the comparison. Sometimes it’s amusing; sometimes it’s informative; and sometimes it’s sobering.)

    • My own rule of thumb is that if the author uses the platform their success has given them to advance their odious beliefs, then I will not read them. Orson Scott Card, for example. Or Dan Simmons. Or Frank Miller. If they’re dead, it’s moot – although I own a book of Pound’s poetry, I draw the line at reading Mein Kampf.

      If a book portrays views I find odious as if they were positive, then I won’t read it. I’m not going to read a book that, for example, tries to present slavery as a good thing because I know it’s not, and life’s too short to put up with shit like that.

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  3. I’m a little confused by one thing. You say that “[Brittle] henceforth chooses to define herself as female.” Doesn’t that mean that Brittle is actively choosing for herself a gender that is not defined by her (lack of) genitalia? Doesn’t that serve as narrative evidence *against* the statement she herself just said? To me, given only the context you supplied, that makes this statement seem hypocritical on Brittle’s part, and while it might be something she consciously believes, it might be something she wishes weren’t true.

    • In the novel, Brittle’s back-story is that was the companion of a young widow, and it’s in discussion with her owner that the comment is made. Her owner says, more or less, that she has always considered Brittle female – it’s projection on her part, of course – to which Brittle’s response is, I can’t be female because gender is defined by genitalia and robots don’t have genitalia. And given that it’s the only time in the book gender is actually mentioned, it seems fair to suspect it’s something the author has unthinkingly put in there.

      Brittle chooses to define herself as female based on her owner’s wishes. She certainly doesn’t come across as a female character – before or after the point where she chooses her gender. There’s no reason given in the text why robots should be gendered at all – and they all are. Or rather, Cargill uses gendered pronouns for them – they don’t actually read like gendered characters.

      I don’t think the paragraph in the book in which gender is mentioned is nuanced because the rest of the novel suggests the author was either incapable of that level of nuance or chose not to use it in his narrative.

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