Today I’m delighted to welcome Stephanie Saulter back to the site! Gemsigns, her first novel and the first book in the ®Evolution series, is currently available in both the UK and the US. (I haven’t read it yet—it was recently added to the to-read pile—but I’ve heard it is excellent.) The second novel in this science fiction trilogy, Binary, was released in the UK last year and is available in the US today!
Violent Impulses, or How We Think About Conflict
It’s great to be back at the Fantasy Café, at the end of another month celebrating women in science fiction and fantasy. Last time I was here I argued that gender is part of a narrative of power, privilege and dominance, and that it’s within our power to rewrite that narrative. It got me thinking about some of the other presumptions that are so ingrained we end up reiterating them over and over again: both in the books we write, and in the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works.
This is important, because there’s a connection between the stories we know are fiction and the ones we believe are true. Sociologists and anthropologists will tell you that cultural artifacts such as literature tend to guide and reinforce our understanding of real-life events. Stories help to pattern our thinking; they build up our attitudes towards people and places, institutions and customs, actions and reactions. As someone who writes fiction which draws on the social sciences as well as on genetics and information technology, I’m keenly aware of those patterns of belief and presumption – and given that fiction almost invariably relies on some kind of conflict to provide a sense of significance and urgency, it strikes me that how we resolve fictional conflicts is relevant to how we think about real ones.
We mostly – at least in genre fiction – achieve that resolution via some form of violence.
Think about that, particularly within the context of science fiction. Science is a rational process, scientists are rational, process-driven people – yet in these stories as in so many others, the resolution of the central conflict is often irrational, arrived at by force rather than persuasion or the simple calculations of enlightened self-interest. It doesn’t actually reflect the fundamental truth of what that fiction is supposed to be based on. Nor does it reflect the reality of the way that sensible, decent people tend to deal with danger or threat.
In that earlier essay I grumbled about the phrase ‘strong female character’ for its implicit reinforcement of the idea that it is the default state of females to be weak. Today’s grumble is about another phrase that’s become ubiquitous in popular culture: ‘kick-ass.’ This supposedly positive signifier confers an aura of power and righteousness, not merely on the generic ‘female character’ but on any protagonist with whom the reader is meant to identify and sympathise. I wouldn’t have a problem with that, were it not for what is implicit in the term: the presumption that heroism, the effective exercise of moral authority, requires both the ability and the willingness to beat the other guy up.
If that keeps turning up in our stories, then I am very much afraid it’s an indicator of what we really think. For all that we may decry violence and declare that we know might does not make right, if the capacity for violence is an essential requirement not only of our villains but of our heroes, I’d suggest we’re not all that convinced. And if we really want to be convinced, if we really want to break out of that pattern of belief and presumption that equates strength with force, then we need to be more conscious about the stories we tell.
I do not let myself off the hook here; this is not some smug attempt to hold up my own books as models of non-violent conflict (and let’s face it, you probably wouldn’t be inclined to read them if it were). There is both the threat and the reality of physical harm in Gemsigns, and in Binary, and in the final book of the ®Evolution, Regeneration. I’ve absorbed the standard narrative just as much as you have. But I’ll give myself this much credit: violence in these books is always instigated either by the aggressors – those who seek to repress and to dominate – or by those who have been so badly damaged they are unable to master their own impulses. It is never the first recourse of the protagonists, and they never wish to take it any further than necessary to repel an immediate physical threat. There is a scene in Binary in which one of our heroes, in defense of his own life and the lives of others and for reasons entirely outside of his control, does more harm than he intended. The knowledge horrifies him.
Is he a ‘kick-ass’ character? Possibly. But he’d hate to be described that way. He’d hate the idea that his ability to hurt is what readers would celebrate. He’d hope, as I hope, that if you think well of him it’ll be on account of his intelligence, his determination, his preference for thinking through a problem and his willingness to ask for help. He’d want you to value him for his compassion and his capacity to love, rather than his strength and the damage he can do with it.
He’d like you to remember that doing damage is not a thing to be proud of.
I’d like us all to remember that every time we turn to violence in order to resolve fictional conflicts, we are subtly and subconsciously reinforcing it as a stratagem for real ones. That’s another part of our inherited narrative, and it needs rewriting too.
Photo credit: © Frederique Rapier
Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. Born in Jamaica, she studied at MIT and spent many years in the United States before moving to the United Kingdom in 2003. She is the author of the ®Evolution trilogy, which is set in a near-future London and uses the lens of an altered humanity to take a new look at the old issues of race, class, religious extremism and social conflict. Her first novel, Gemsigns, has been called ‘a powerful commentary on contemporary society and politics’ and was named among the best science fiction of 2013 by the Guardian. It was released in the US in 2014 to considerable acclaim.
Binary, the second book in the series, follows in May 2015. SF Signal commented that, ‘Some books are good, some books are even great. This one is important.’ The final book, Regeneration, will be released in the UK in August 2015 and in the US in 2016.