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Today’s guest is Rachel Cotterill of Strange Charm! If you’re interested in discovering more science fiction and fantasy books written by women, you’ll want to check out Strange Charm: it’s dedicated to showcasing speculative fiction by women and often features books not being mentioned all over the blogosphere. Rachel and her co-blogger Joanna post new reviews and interviews on Mondays and Thursdays, and they also review some books based on fun themes. For instance, Rachel is reviewing some books with Foodie Magic, such as The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Flesh and Fire by Laura Anne Gilman, this spring. In addition to her work at Strange Charm, she also writes books herself and is the author of Watersmeet and the Chronicles of Charanthe.

Strange Charm

Idealism and Realism of Representation in SFF

Almost everyone agrees that increasing representation of minority and marginalised groups in fiction is a noble goal. If you’re reading this because you’re following the Women in SF&F Month, for example, you’re probably on board with the basic idea that it would be good to see more women in sci fi and fantasy. However, look a little closer, and there often emerge sharp divisions of opinion when it comes to the way this should be achieved.

The discourse of representation in SFF usually sees people taking up one of two positions, which for now I’ll term “realist” and “idealist”.

In the realist corner:

“It’s important that SFF reflects all the complexities and inequalities of human society.”

And in the idealist corner:

“You can imagine dragons and magic—why can’t you imagine social equality?”

What makes this interesting to me is that it’s an almost uniquely speculative problem. For contemporary and historical settings, this isn’t hypothetical. Authors can choose to brush over prejudice and inequality, or to reflect it in the background, or to place it front and centre as a primary theme, but for any real-world setting there’s some established ground to build on.

In secondary world fantasy, or an alien culture in a far-flung corner of the galaxy, there is no such context. Authors can do anything, which gives the idealist camp a position they couldn’t really take in other genres. Want women to be equal? Give them the same jobs and roles as the men in your story, have people treat each other the same regardless of gender, and eliminate sexist language from your (and your characters’) vocabulary. Want racial equality? Design society that way. Equality for queer folks, the disabled, the old? Just write it. And given that you can, why wouldn’t you?

Considering this dichotomy of approach in relation to the books I’ve been reading lately, I note that many of my personal favourites take an idealistic approach to some aspects of society, while leaving other areas unbalanced and available for a more nuanced exploration of social issues.

Take Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which famously sets up a society completely devoid of gender as a concept of identity or presentation or even linguistic distinction, thereby removing all gender politics in-world (though back in the real world, Leckie’s decision to use ‘she’ as the unmarked pronoun caused no shortage of debate amongst literary critics and linguists alike). Yet the Radch is far from idealistic in other respects, presenting a sweeping study of ruthless colonisation which draws heavily on the empire-building philosophy of ancient Rome, applied on an interplanetary scale. The Radch takes indigenous cultures and absorbs them whether or not they wish to be absorbed, and murders those who dare to protest while claiming to be bringers of peace.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie Goldenfire by A.F.E. Smith

On the fantasy side, there are some distinctly idealist strains in A.F.E. Smith’s construction of the Darkhaven world. This is perhaps most obvious in the matter-of-fact inclusion of gay and lesbian couples: the LGB characters encounter and tackle plenty of interesting problems, just like everyone else, but never directly related to their sexuality. In Goldenfire (book two) there are characters who face the emotional complexities of adoption, and alcoholism, and mental health issues, all of which are integrated seamlessly into the story, and which are presented as internal struggles to be handled with the help and support of loved ones, rather than sources of ridicule or prejudice from others. And then there’s a disturbingly accurate portrait of a young woman determined to become a Helmsman. There are a lot of “sole female warrior” stories in fantasy, but Smith gives us a twist in the form of a second female student. By examining the competition and, yes, blatant sexism which can manifest between two women trying to carve out a shared space in a male-dominated field, this narrative captures elements of what it is to be a minority in a professional environment, in ways I’ve seldom seen explored in fiction of any genre (although XKCD has done quite a good job of capturing the root of the problem in two panels).

The deliberate construction of a more-idealised society can also be a narrative theme in itself. The Mangoverse series by Shira Glassman sees Queen Shulamit, a young woman new to her throne, take on the world as she grows into her power and tries to shape the society she wishes to live in. Her investment in change is deeply personal, as a lesbian in a world where non-heterosexuality is seldom acknowledged, and it’s fortunate that as Queen she’s in a position to challenge this directly—but Shula’s sense of justice reaches far beyond her personal concerns. In Climbing the Date Palm, the second volume in the series, two men from a neighbouring state are victimised for their love, and it’s down to Shula and her friends to save them, while averting a war and ensuring that a group of construction workers are fairly paid. The Mangoverse series also stands out as a rare example of Jewish culture in secondary world fantasy.

Climbing the Date Palm by Shira Glassman The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

To name but a few more examples: In “Flight Risk” by Talya Andor (one of five stories included in gay romance anthology Keep the Stars Running), gay relationships are normalised, but the couple in question must fight the stigma of disability to be together. The Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black’s recent fairytale, gives us a gender-flipped take on some standard fairytale tropes: there’s a female knight, a male Sleeping Beauty, and a gay love story. Meanwhile, with these traditional elements quietly inverted, the focus of the story shifts from the classic battle of good and evil to a more subtle clash of wills. Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson gives us a contemporary Islamic fantasy setting, featuring a genius computer hacker who is dreadfully sexist even when he’s trying hard to do better.

There’s another kind of social inequality narrative that’s limited to the speculative arena, and that’s the introduction of fantastical or alien analogues to real-world prejudice. This gives the opportunity for an extended social metaphor, of which the substitution of cross-species prejudice for racial prejudice is probably the most blatant and also the most common example.

In Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani, creatures known as Breathers are a kind of energy vampire that are generally reviled and feared; through the story, we see at least one example who is kind and considerate despite being widely hated. In Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey, it’s ghouls who are the social pariahs. Sometimes, as in Rabia Gale’s Rainbird, there are two communities living side by side in a broadly tolerant manner, but deliberately separated, with half-breeds excluded by both groups. Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet uses a range of alien species to explore issues of gender and race without being limited to the existing structures of human society or even human biology.

Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani Poison Kiss by Ana Mardoll

I suggested that contemporary settings could be excused from this discussion, but in a few rare cases, a speculative element allows for even present-day settings to be separated from their systemic prejudices. Poison Kiss by Ana Mardoll is a case in point. The main cast of characters have returned from the faery realm without their memories, and their prejudices and biases have been erased along with their names and histories. This results in a mixed-race community, bound together by circumstance rather than heritage, all of whom are discovering and shaping their identities together. The resulting group has a higher than average number of non-straight, non-monogamous relationships, a significant proportion of trans and genderfluid characters, and almost no prejudice towards any of them, nor towards those who are struggling with mental health issues as a result of their trauma.

The realist argument usually stems from the idea that fiction should educate us as it entertains us, by giving us an imaginary background to some very real social struggles. But if I’ve learnt one thing from considering this question, it’s that idealist fiction can also be educational: set against the background of our own world, it’s in the differences that we see our flaws reflected. And the idealist vision can give us a glimmer of hope, and a sketch of something better to aspire to.

I don’t think there’s a single right answer, and I suspect those who take up these positions in debate don’t really think it’s all or nothing, either: they’re usually reacting to a perceived imbalance in the current state of things. The realists have seen too many decades of mainstream SF books where there are precious few women, fewer black people, no gay couples, and no recognition of the struggles that marginalised groups regularly face. The idealists have noticed trends that represent without empathy: tropes of slavery and dead lesbians, where the only available stories seem to be tragedies, or cases of tokenistic representation, cardboard stereotypes with only minor roles to play. Both groups challenge us to do better.

Rachel Cotterill Rachel Cotterill grew up hiding from the real world in a succession of imaginary lands, and still likes to spend her holidays there. She likes fast-paced plots, greyscale morality, and characters who remain believable when they find themselves in situations that are anything but. She’s always searching for her next favourite author, and is half of the feminist SFF book blog Strange Charm, which exists to showcase the best in speculative fiction by female authors. When she isn’t reading, Rachel is professionally and perpetually indecisive, splitting her time somewhat haphazardly between writing, computer science, linguistics, recipe development, and travel. Rachel’s third novel, Watersmeet, is a romantic and optimistic fantasy published in 2015.