I’m a Conscientious Objector in the War on Science Fiction

I was directed by a fellow Tweeter (Twitterer? Tweet-smith?) to this article from The Spearhead, an online blog addressing “men’s issues.”  I think the name of the article’s author (“Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech”) succinctly illustrates the point of view of the piece.

I hesitate commenting on the piece as my linking to it may actually give it mileage.  However, as a fan of sci-fi and fantasy and a nascent creator in those forms, I need to rebut this wrong-headed foolishness in my own special way.  Besides, I have faith in my fellow readers and think that it would be far better to shed light on this wrong-headedness than to try and hide it.  Besides, it’s my blog and I’ll rant if I want to…

The overall theme of “The War on Science Fiction and Marvin Minsky” is that television and movies have overly feminized science fiction, diluting it into something other than what it has been or was ever intended to be.  The primary fear of the author is that, as a result of this dilution, boys will no longer be inspired by science fiction to pursue scientific or technological careers.

The opening premise of the piece serves as the foundation of a flawed argument:

Science fiction is a very male form of fiction.  Considerably more men than women are interested in reading and watching science fiction.  This is no surprise.  Science fiction traditionally is about men doing things, inventing new technologies, exploring new worlds, making new scientific discoveries, terraforming planets, etc.  Many men working in the fields of science, engineering, and technology have cited science fiction (such as the original Star Trek) for inspiring them when they were boys to establish careers in these fields.

There are so many assumptions and generalizations in this opening salvo.  I’d love to see some demographic data on the gender breakdown of sci-fi fandom; but, I can concede that conventional wisdom says that most fans are guys.  We’ll set that aside for now.  However, the crux of this assumption of sci-fi being a “very male form” is his assertion of what sci-fi really is: “men doing things.”

According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (1990), science fiction is a “popular branch of prose   that explores the probable consequences of some improbable or impossible transformation of the basic conditions of human (or intelligent non-human) existence.”  Not necessarily male or even male-dominant.  Looking at A Handbook to Literature (2000), it is a “form of fantasy in which scientific facts, assumptions, or hypotheses form the basis, by logical extrapolation, of adventures in the future, on other planets, in other dimensions in time or space, or under new variants of scientific law.”  So far not only is science fiction not necessarily about men…but it’s not even about “doing things”.  It’s about the premise and it’s about the consequences of that premise.  And, so as not to be accused of only using modern “politically correct” sources, let’s look at Benet’s The Reader’s Encyclopedia (1965), where we are discussing “a genre of fantasy.  It has its basis either in scientific fact or in a plausible kind of pseudo-science.”  Nobody necessarily doing anything. 

So much for a priori definitions.  One need only to look at the entire scope of science fiction since the 1930s when Gernsback first coined the term is to see that, while clearly male dominated (especially in the early years), it has since blossomed into a far-reaching genre encompassing fantasy, folklore, horror, mystery, and traditional “hard” sci-fi.  Much like the Prometheus of Mary Shelley’s seminal work, science fiction has become unbound.  The stretch of the horizon and the possibilities inherent in “what if” are what give science fiction its strength as a genre.  Presenting alternate lifestyles, women in strong roles, and exploring human relationships does not weaken the genre but broadens and strengthens it.  To bind it to such a narrow scope is what can ultimately dilute it, weaken it, and finally kill it.  In fact, such an assertion is antithetical to what science fiction is.

Women have been part of the science fiction fan-base from its inception (see this interesting article on female sci-fi authors of the 40s and 50s).  I do not think that it has occurred to the author that the reason much “traditional” sci-fi is male-oriented is that it began in a time when everything was male-oriented.  The “golden age” of the pulps sprang from a male-dominated audience.  But as the culture evolved so did the genre.  And this is a good thing.  We have moved far beyond Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, as much fun as they were. 

The author goes on to rail against the Sci-Fi channel’s admittedly misguided move to “SyFy” and the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica…especially the shift of the character of Starbuck from male to female.  The move to “SyFy” was primarily about copyrights (as the author acknowledges) and is highly face-palm-worthy…as acknowledged by sci-fi fans of both genders across the Internet.  And, I’ll admit, I was taken aback when I heard about the impending sex-change of my favorite Viper pilot.  But, having watched 2 ½ seasons of the series (I stopped buying DVDs for awhile), I assert that good writing always wins out.  They created a compelling and very watchable character in the new Starbuck, regardless (or maybe even in spite of) her origins. 

Homosexuality is another problem for the author as he explains in his paragraph describing the “omnisexual” character of Captain Jack in the new Doctor Who franchise.  I can’t speak much to the author’s statements here as I’ve only seen the first season of the new Who (and thoroughly enjoyed it).  However, it serves as another example of the way in which the author is threatened by any non-traditional male encroachment on the genre.  To this I can only say that many would consider Captain Kirk omnisexual in his other-than-strictly-human sexual exploits. 

The author’s primary beef seems to be the focus on “relationship drama” rather than “space battles”.  Essentially, this is the old debate of character-driven narrative vs. plot-driven narrative…given a sexist veneer of “girls like relationships and boys want explosions”.  In fact, his assertion is that “moronic relationship drama” is written for women, therefore implying that women are, in fact, moronic.  Setting aside the blatant sexism…I think there is room for both types of writing.  One of the most compelling sci-fi series on television was the woefully short-lived Firefly.  It had action, strong male and female characters, and plenty of relationship drama.  And it drew everybody it touched into the story.  No mass-media narrative can be completely one thing and never another.  It won’t work for the market and it won’t work as art.  It’s a special alchemy that only a few very gifted and/or hard-working artists achieve.  And if they limited themselves to only male-oriented plots or female-oriented drama they would have failed.  True, Firefly only lasted 12 episodes.  But it spawned a major motion picture, games, fan-fiction, and a devoted following.  Good writing always wins out.

Our author also goes on to quote Marvin Minsky, an eminent scientist and expert in AI from MIT.  After citing two quotations from Minsky, the author asserts that what the scientist (and the author) are saying is that “its (sic) not science fiction anymore, and men are not interested in moronic relationship drama in space”.  The primary quote from Minsky reads that “aside from the science fiction, I find it tedious to read any ordinary writing at all.  It all seems so conventional and repetitive.”  This comes from a work called “The Third Culture” in a chapter entitled “Smart Machines”.  The piece is essentially an interview with Minsky in which he relates many of his ideas on thought and culture.  The full quotation from that piece is as follows:

Of course, I also read a great deal of technical literature. But aside from the science fiction, I find it tedious to read any ordinary writing at all. It all seems so conventional and repetitive. To me, the science-fiction writers are our culture’s most important original thinkers, while the mainstream writers seem “stuck” to me, rewriting the same plots and subjects, reworking ideas that appeared long ago in Sophocles or Aristophanes, recounting the same observations about human conflicts, attachments, infatuations, and betrayals. Mainstream literature replays again and again all the same old stuff, whereas the science-fiction writers try to imagine what would happen if our technologies and societies — and our minds themselves — were differently composed.

What Minsky describes is essentially my point about the strength of the genre.  Its province is the land of “what-if”.  How do these different technologies, which affect societies, which are composed of the relationships that people have with one another, change those people and the societies that reflect them?  What if people in the 51st Century were largely omnisexual?  What would have caused that?  What are the benefits? Are there drawbacks?  What was gained and lost in the change?  These are the questions that good sci-fi can address. 

Can the author of this article not see that what he proposes is the stagnation of the genre?  What he proposes is the perpetual reworking of the same old male-dominated, plot-driven tropes of days-gone-by.  In fact, he wishes to perpetuate the “same old stuff” of mainstream sci-fi that Minsky himself is against. 

Let’s say that the assertion that most sci-fi fans are male is true.  Why does that dictate what the genre is?  Why does that have to limit what it could be?  If flies in the face of reason.  What if, heaven forfend, all this feminization tips the scales and brings 51% of the population into the fold?  More than anything else, he fears change and he fears the bringers of that change.  And I simply don’t understand the fear.  Perhaps I’ve been too feminized…

Finally, our author is afraid for the boys of tomorrow who will have no “golden age” heroes to spur them to heights of creativity and technological know-how.  He seems to forget that the men of sci-fi haven’t left…they’re still telling stories and creating compelling characters and situations.  There are now simply more stories being told, in different ways, by different people.  Science fiction has always been about exploration…that hasn’t changed.  He also seems to forget that many of our scientists and astronauts and explorers were also inspired by their mothers and their sisters and their aunts and their girlfriends and their wives to create the world in which they all want to live.  That’s what humans do and have always done.

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About Shedrick

I am a professional librarian and a part-time writer that's working to do that the other way around. I currently live in North Texas in the lovely city of Denton (“The Home of Happiness“) with my lovely wife and the obligatory demon-spawn cats. When not writing, gaming, or watching cheezy kung-fu flicks, I can sometimes be found in a pub (or the American equivalent) enjoying a fine brew.
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5 Responses to I’m a Conscientious Objector in the War on Science Fiction

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