Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why Is That So Hard?

One of the hot sf novels of the season, Neal Stephenson's Anathem, has been getting feminist scrutiny from Nic at Eve's Alexandria, who found the novel "heavy-going," and from Liz Henry at the Feminist SF blog, who writes "I love the book, I think it’s fabulous, I wallowed in it and couldn’t stop reading it" but was constantly jolted out of her enjoyment by the book's "unnecessary sexism." After looking at specific instances of this, Liz writes:

A general complaint, not directed in particular at Stephenson. I don’t ask that every book be all things. But this book tries to be so much, and it fails so notably at this thing which to me seems so simple. Just make women characters as human as the male characters. Why is that so hard? How can anyone so smart and cool write something that fails to do that simple thing? Why do we as female readers and geeks so often get left behind and disappointed in this way by male writers? I am haunted by these questions in general while reading science fiction. Men, and heterosexual ones who claim to love and appreciate women and who in their daily lives surely do just that, fail to be able to write STORIES where women have full human agency and are important in any way other than romantic symbols or sadly cardboard sops to “strong female hero”.

Yeah. What you said, Liz.

Both are insightful, incisive reviews worth checking out.


claire said...

don't forget that they're disappointing male readers, too, even if many male readers don't realize it.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I am reminded that when I read Cryptonomicon (I haven't read Anathem), I felt like someone had opened the head of the modern man (or, at least, the U.S. variety) and let me see the inner workings. Suddenly, I had a greater grasp on why men did certain things that had previously made absolutely no sense to me. I really appreciated this honest insight into how men -- or at least, some men -- think. True, the women in Cryptonomicon seemed to be either spectacular wonderwomen, bitches, or unimportant, but I was willing to forgive that for the amazing insight into men.

Note that I'm speaking of insight into men as they are, warts and all, men who seem to have trouble thinking of women as full human beings and are still obsessed with them as "other." I don't think men have to be like that -- I know many men who are not. But thinking about it makes me remember a long-ago conversation with a man who also studied martial arts. He wondered why women would spend so much time on martial arts. And when my friend Sue and I told him it was for the same reasons that he did, he still didn't understand. He couldn't wrap his head around the idea that women might be just as interested as he was in the warriorship philosophy that underlies martial arts. In his mind, women are so different from men that their motivations for study, career, love -- any path in life -- must be very different.

I would like to believe a man like Stephenson who can write so honestly about modern men might have enough insight about people in general to write about women as complete human beings. I'm sorry to hear it's not true, at least in Anathem.

Kristin said...

The really sad thing is that there were some really strong women characters in Anathem that, if fully fleshed out, might have filled in some of the hole.

Eleanor said...

I loved Snow Crash, but haven't been able to read his later books. A lot of SF written by men just doesn't interest me. It's not really about people or science, it's about large pieces of equipment or puzzles and games or violence. Doom and more Doom, with none of the charm of Mario Cart. I put Stephenson in that category.

Eleanor said...
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