A Misguided Definition of Science Fiction — And Why I’m Proud to Write ‘Girly SF’

There’s been a lot of discussion this week about Paul Cook’s post at Amazing Stories, in which he pontificates on why a lot of science fiction actually isn’t science fiction.  I just read a great post summarizing much of this discussion on Cora Buhlert’s blog.  While I agree, as most do, that Mr. Cook has every right to his own opinion, I also agree that the manner in which he expressed it was offensive.

Whether or not it was unintentional, the article does come across as sexist, and as a big Gene Wolfe fan, Paul Cook’s disparaging attitude toward Wolfe’s work certainly didn’t impress me either.  (He also made the error of claiming that Wolfe’s brilliant tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun, shows the influence of Orson Scott Card, when Card’s work actually came after New Sun.)

One line in Cora Buhlert’s blog post about the reactions to Paul Cook’s discourse particularly struck a chord with me.  While discussing the prejudice against human relationships — both emotional and physical — and the apparent distaste for the human body itself in much hard SF, she remarks about the “dearth of sex, childbirth and descriptions of food” in science fiction.  This made me think of several things I find significant.

The first is that this is similar to what Ursula K. Le Guin was talking about in her essay, “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown”.  (I just looked at my copy of The Language of the Night, and it says that essay was written in 1976 — which would suggest that some things haven’t changed much in nearly forty years.)  In turn, recalling that essay brought to mind Vonda N. McIntyre’s Starfarers.  There’s actually a character in Starfarers whose name is Mrs. Brown — an elderly woman who epitomizes just the sort of character you wouldn’t expect to find on a starship — and I’ve wondered if that’s a coincidence or a deliberate homage to Le Guin’s essay.

In any case, per Le Guin’s definition, the four books in McIntyre’s Starfarers Quartet feature plenty of ‘Mrs. Browns’.  That is, well-rounded human characters — the kind of characters who have realistic human experiences during their journeys.  But Starfarers still qualifies as hard SF — I’ve often seen it labeled that way, and it was reviewed on a site that goes by that name.  Of course it’s about space exploration, and biology is one of the sciences McIntyre explores a great deal in this book — which is not surprising since she has a ‘real life’ background in biology and genetics.  And these ‘natural sciences’ are considered ‘hard’ sciences. (Although I’ve seen one definition of hard vs. soft science that describes biology as ‘intermediate’, for what it’s worth.)

I’ve read reviews of Starfarers that complain that the story moves too slowly because of the heavy focus on familial relationships and politics.  But all that time spent showing the human relationships and their true-to-life aspects — not only passionate kisses and tender backrubs, but the little things people share that enrich life, like the enjoyment of tea, smoked salmon, and silk shirts — is probably what I like best about the book.  (Okay, that and the fact that there’s a herd of miniature horses running around in the fields on the ship!)

When naming books that one might compare to my own SF novel, In the Shadow of the She-Wolf, McIntyre’s Starfarers Quartet comes to mind largely because of the way the relationships and their life-like details are at the forefront of the story.  In particular, some might see similarities in the third volume of She-Wolf, where much of it takes place onboard a ship and the conflicts also involve family relationships and politics.  (And come to think of it, although there isn’t much sex in She-Wolf, I doubt anyone could find it lacking when it comes to childbirth and descriptions of food.) 😉

Incidentally, I suppose it’s a natural part of my obsession with realism that as a reader — and, consequently, as a writer too — I love the inclusion of passages about food.  In the very first version of the manuscript that eventually evolved into She-Wolf, my favorite scene was the one I called ‘the food scene’.  A trillion drafts and a gazillion years later, I still love that scene.  The aspect of culture shock that involves strange foods can be humorous as well as uncomfortable; while illustrating one of the fundamental difficulties of adapting to a new culture, it also provides fodder for comic relief.  (There’s another dining scene in the final volume of She-Wolf that facilitates one of my favorite lines of dialogue in the novel: “Well, we’ve sure opened a mess of worms, but they haint in your lunch.”)

Of course, according to Paul Cook, everything I write is ‘girly SF’.  Unlike McIntyre, I have no training in hard sciences — I studied anthropology instead.  Sociological science fiction is ‘Soft SF’ by definition, because the sciences involved are those that are defined as ‘soft’: anthropology, psychology, political science, etc.  In the Shadow of the She-Wolf focuses on all of these, and I would readily describe it as a very ‘psychological’ novel; for example, the experience of culture shock features very prominently in the book.

In She-Wolf, the high-tech culture uses FTL travel and an extremely powerful kind of ‘directed energy’ weapon.  But these elements function — as is typical in sociological SF — as a backdrop to the story, and  I don’t profess to have any clever theories about how these technologies might work.  I can say that the concept of the weapon is very loosely based on an article I read about new ideas for weapons the military is working on, and that, unlike many SF weapons, it’s definitely not a laser; I visualize this ‘directed energy’ as something more like a captured lightning bolt.  Only, you know . . .  different.  (And if you want to know what this weapon does, you’ll just have to read the book.) 🙂

There’s another thing that lamenting the ‘dearth of sex, childbirth and descriptions of food in SF’ made me think of, and it’s nothing less than a big part of what inspired me to want to write my own books to begin with.  As I mention in my bio here, by the time I started my first novel at age eleven, I knew I wanted to tell stories in which fantastic things happen (whether they involve magic and dragons, or travelling to mysterious planets filled with alternative life forms), yet I wanted to tell them in the way that my favorite ‘real life’ stories were told, with those little intimate details that make a reader feel like they’re actually there, experiencing each moment themselves.

To me, this is what makes the difference between just being told a story about someone else — and perhaps being introduced to an interesting idea or two — and being drawn into a story that enriches you in a way you’ll never forget, leaving you with the feeling you’ve travelled to another world yourself.   Without the human element — yes, all that pesky business about sex, childbirth, and food — you won’t make the trip.  That other world will remain distant and abstract; it will just be a ‘fantasy’.

If Paul Cook can say that SF that strives to recreate the human experience — complete with all the messy stuff — is fantasy or romance and not real SF, I shall assert my own opinion that, au contraire, it’s the kind of SF that’s the most real.  And while Mr. Cook can extol the virtues of his macho ‘sciency’ SF, I’ll keep my ‘girly SF’, thank you very much!

2 thoughts on “A Misguided Definition of Science Fiction — And Why I’m Proud to Write ‘Girly SF’

  1. Hi – I finally found my way here (maryj59 from querytracker). Great essay! I’ve got one like it up on my own website, and I’d love your thoughts. BTW, this really makes me want to read your trilogy, especially since I like McIntyre and Judith Moffat as well as Walter M. Miller and LeGuin.

    But, yeah, why is it realistic to leave out most of what we think about and do in real life?

  2. Thanks, Mary! I’m glad you enjoyed it. As I’ve frequently mentioned here, I’m pretty obsessed with realism, and I like trying to use it in ways that are not often seen in SF and fantasy.

    For instance, I really play up all the ‘bodily function’ stuff in my novel, How to Steal a Demigod, a quirky fantasy that was loads of fun to write. (It’s also the first book I’ve done in which I attempted to include a lot of humor throughout the story.) In Demigod that particular form of realism — which I’m well aware may put some people off! — serves two purposes.

    First, the novel is a bit of an homage to Joseph Campbell (every chapter is headed by one his quotes) and the serious theme it addresses is the universal nature of human mythology. One element that ties into that theme is the inherent difficulty of separating body and soul — a concept that’s common in many mythologies as a way to spiritual mastery — so I use all that ‘messy stuff’ to highlight the fact that the human experience is inevitably shaped by the requirements and urges of the human body, whether we like it or not!

    And the second purpose this serves in Demigod is simply that it provides plenty of opportunities for bawdy humor. 😉

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