This is the ten-minute talk I gave last week at the international conference of the Science Fiction Research Association, of which I spoke in my last post. Since we had been given such a short time, I used no secondary sources and focused directly on the two novels I discuss. I was a bit nervous that the paper would seem too informal but nobody complained. So, here it is, with a warning about spoilers.
The exploration of gender in science fiction mostly focuses on women and the LGTBI collective, overlooking heterosexual masculinity, even though most authors have that identity. I consider here what men’s recent science fiction says about this type of masculinity from a critical position informed by Masculinities Studies, though I’ll leave my theoretical framework aside because of time constraints. My focus are two novels set in the present: The Humans (of 2013) by English author Matthew Haig, and Dark Matter (of 2016) by American novelist Blake Crouch. Haig’s novel is a satire and Crouch’s a thriller but, despite their differences, both address a key issue for contemporary masculinity, namely, how to successfully combine the demands of an ambitious career with a pro-feminist family life.
These novels could be Gothic horror about the wife and teen son who gradually realize their husband and father is a stranger. Yet, both are first person narrations that use science fiction (in a light vein) to portray a male individual who needs to understand how men function in the contemporary world. In Haig’s novel, a nameless alien learns to be a caring human man by rejecting the behaviour of the uncaring workaholic it replaces. The family man in Crouch’s novel must defend his well-balanced masculinity from the assault by another uncaring workaholic, his own doppelgänger. Alien and family man have little in common but the authors’ message is similar. Both use science fiction to endorse a positive masculine model, focused on caring for women and children. Neither author explains, though, why a happy family life should involve sacrificing personal careers. In each case, the birth of a son transforms the lives of at least one parent into a less publicly rewarding existence. Arguably, both novels resist above all the impact of parenting on personal life.
In each novel, there is a talented woman who has chosen motherhood over her career but the situation of the husband, both gifted scientists, is different. In The Humans top Cambridge mathematician Andrew Martin is a selfish career man, and a disappointing husband and father, who cheats on his wife Isobel and lacks any empathy for his literally suicidal teen son Gulliver. In Dark Matter, Chicago physicist Jason Dessen is a happy family man, in love with his wife Daniela and in syntony with their son Charlie, unconcerned by having ditched his promising career. Each from their angle, Haig and Crouch are very critical of the workaholic career model that makes family life dysfunctional (or impossible) and that relegates women to a supporting role. In The Humans, workaholic Martin is killed when the alien narrator snatches his body. In Dark Matter Jason2, the doppelgänger, is dispatched for stealing Jason’s family life. In his gentle satire, Haig hints that an alien could be a better English family man than a human male, whereas Crouch has his happy American family man kill in a vicious way the workaholic he might have been.
Neither Haig nor Crouch, however, imagine their scientific male geniuses, for this is what Martin and Dessen are, combining their professions with a rich family life. For both, the arrival of a child at an early stage in their careers is a major crisis which forces them and their partners to make crucial choices. Andrew’s wife Isobel abandons her career as a historian to be a mother and to support her husband’s career, later taking up teaching. The unexpected pregnancy of Jason’s girlfriend Daniela makes them abandon their dream careers –hers as an artist, his in quantum physics–to become teachers, too. When each novel begins, the two couples are in their early forties and have been in their relationships for long: 20 years in Andrew and Isobel’s case, 15 in Jason and Daniela’s case. The novels narrate, then, a sort of mid-life crisis.
To give some more detail, Haig’s novel narrates the efforts of a Vonnadorian sent to Earth to stop Professor Martin from announcing his resolution of the Riemann Hypothesis, as this would fast-forward human progress in ways the aliens mistrust. Martin’s identity is wiped out and his body occupied by the nameless alien, who cannot easily adapt to his new life. The professor’s new oddball behaviour is, of course, attributed to a breakdown caused by overworking. On its side, the body-snatcher resists its orders to kill all who might know of Martin’s mathematical breakthrough. The alien refuses to kill Isobel and Gulliver, though he does murder the rival to whom a boastful Martin communicates his discovery. Taking a look at the many certificates of distinction in this man’s office, the alien feels “thankful to come from a place where personal success was meaningless” (89).
As the alien starts valuing Isobel and Gulliver, it discovers that Martin was totally focused on his career, that his wife was unhappy but unable to divorce him, and that Gulliver cannot cope with being the son of a genius. Enjoying the pleasures of caring for the boy and of being cared for by Isobel (since in its genderless home planet, family and love do not exist), the alien decided to become fully human. The attack of a second murderous alien, however, forces the alien to disclose its real identity. Gulliver takes the revelation well, even with relief. As the alien writes, there was no sentimental scene but the boy “seemed to accept me as an extraterrestrial life form far more easily than he had accepted me as a father” (264). Isobel, though, is shattered by the loss of her new happy family life. After this episode, Haig sends the alien abroad, still posing as Martin. But, being comedy, The Humans ends happily. When Gulliver invites his fake Dad back home, claiming that Isobel misses their life, the alien asks whether she misses the original or the alien Martin. “You,” Gulliver replies. “You’re the one who looked after us” (289). No more is needed.
In Dark Matter, Jason2 comes from the universe where Jason rejected fatherhood, and Daniela aborted. He built there the box that gives access to the multiverse. Successful but lonely, Jason2 starts seeking the life that Jason and Daniela enjoy with Charlie. As Jason comments, “If I represent the pinnacle of family success for all the Jason Dessens, Jason2 represents the professional and creative apex. We’re opposite poles of the same man, and I suppose it isn’t a coincidence that Jason2 sought out my life from the infinite possibilities available” (265). Jason2 kidnaps Jason and, wrongly assuming he will be thrilled to take his place as a single career man, swaps lives with him. In fact, Jason is shattered and only uses the box to get back home and terminate his usurper. Daniela and Charlie take Jason’s eventual revelation that they have been living (for a month) with Jason2 just with mild puzzlement. Yet, despite the reassurances of wife and son that Jason2 was not better than him, a certain doubt lingers. Since Jason’s family never really distrusts this other man (Daniela is, in fact, thrilled with their renewed passion), it appears that Jason is replaceable. Jason is robbed of his life but Jason2 is, on the whole, a good enough replacement, as if Jason’s roles as husband and father were just performances and not an expression of a deeply-felt identity.
To sum up, Haig and Crouch use science fiction to reject the workaholic male genius who refuses to be a good family man. Martin is flippantly replaced by an alien who is better at performing human masculinity than he ever was. As for Jason, by killing Jason2 he eliminates his workaholic self and regains his lost happy family life. Crouch, though, cannot wholly erase the impression that this man is replaceable because he can never prove that Jason is unique. Ultimately, whether a man is selfish or caring, his choices may make him vulnerable. In Haig’s and Crouch’s novels, the ‘other being’ embodies the choices not taken and men’s struggle to combine professional ambition and rewarding family life. It is, therefore, important to highlight science fiction’s contribution to the discussion of these male anxieties. I hope you agree!
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