NO PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?: MASCULINITY IN SCIENCE FICTION

This is a self-translation of my part of the article originally in Catalan which I have just published with Miquel Codony on the website El Biblionauta. I have not translated Miquel’s section but comment on it at the end of my own text.

I have been working on gender and science fiction for a long time from a feminist point of view and I need, therefore, to constantly reflect on the place of women authors and on the representation of female characters in this field. In 2008 I published an introductory piece on this subject, “Mujeres y ciencia ficción”, which was followed by a more formal article in 2010, with a very similar title, “Mujeres en la literatura de ciencia ficción: entre la escritura y el feminismo”. I have recently written the article originally in Catalan “The ethical impact of robotics and digital technologies: Carme Torras, from The Vestigial Heart to Enxarxats” –for the monographic issue of the Catalan Review on current Catalan SF, which I currently co-edit with Víctor Martínez-Gil and should be published in 2022– and in this article I make the first academic reflection on the place of women in this genre and in this language. According to my own figures, the Catalan female authors of SF are around 20-25% of the total and, thus, you can speak without a doubt about women’s Catalan SF.

The problem is that when thinking about women and femininity, we tend to lose sight of how men treat masculinity and whether there have been recent changes. I’ve been doing Masculinity Studies for a couple of decades now, but I didn’t understand a very important question until I wrote in 2016 an article about Black Man (2007), a remarkable novel by British author Richard K. Morgan, known for the trilogy about Takeshi Kovacs (Altered Carbon 2002, Broken Angels 2003, Woken Furies 2005). I complained in this article that Morgan allows his monstrous hero, Carl Marsalis, to make a deep and totally pertinent reflection on the patriarchal evil that power-hungry men do, but he does not let this man seek justice for all, only allowing him to take revenge at a personal level. The author told me in an interview that all his heroes are great individualists, but when one of the peer reviewers of my article (published in Science Fiction Studies) asked me why it was not possible to imagine Marsalis as the leader of a social change beyond what Morgan claimed, I finally realized that this is the main question: while women often feel attracted to science fiction because it imagines a better future for us, which we might call post-feminist, men do not have a vision for the future about masculinity nor plans to change it, which is why they are trapped in the individualist vision Morgan expresses even when they have a clear anti-patriarchal stance. Most women, I would add, are striving to achieve the utopia promised by feminism, but men do not have a utopian horizon that motivates them to improve for the future as men. There are simply no plans.

Traditional Golden Age science fiction fulfilled part of this function, full as it was of scientific heroes and space explorers who inspired many young readers personally and professionally. I think, however, that since the 1950s there are already signs that something was breaking in the field of masculinity, perhaps related to the massive trauma of World War II, a conflict which transformed many ordinary good men into murderers but forced them to keep silent about how they felt (the Vietnam War ended this enforced silence). This had already happened in World War I but the scale of WWII was bigger and included, let’s not forget, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the most unpleasant male characters I have ever come across is neurosurgeon and World War III (yes, III) refugee Dr. Martine in Bernard Wolfe’s novel Limbo (1952, available in the SF Masterworks collection). I haven’t checked my hypothesis in depth but my impression is that the portrait of male characters in SF has never recovered the positive tone of the technophilic science fiction from the Golden Age, and never will.

One might think that this issue is closely related to the emergence of second-wave feminism in the mid-1960s and the revolution that texts such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) meant from the 1970s onward in the treatment of gender. I think, however, that the war waged by the female authors has never consisted of attacking the representation of masculinity in their works (well, some have done that) but mostly of improving the view of femininity in the SF by men. And I think this is a war that has been won. I still find sexism and misogyny in some of the 21st century SF novels written by men, with presentations of female characters that refer to their body and sexuality above all else, but in general professional, efficient, strong women abound in all these imaginary futures. David Weber, the American author of military SF, has a long series of fourteen novels (begun in 1992) about Officer Honor Harrington, a woman who climbs up the ranks of the Space Fleet to the highest level. It could be said that women like Harrington are essentially male characters with a woman’s body, but what matters here is that both Weber and many other male authors are perfectly capable of writing SF about female characters admired by men and women. On the contrary, that men write SF about admirable men no longer happens, or seldom.

Richard Morgan told me that his heroes are dangerous men I wouldn’t want to have coffee with, and since that conversation I run the ‘coffee test’ whenever I read a SF novel starring a man –would I want to meet him for coffee? I would certainly like to meet Miles Vorkosigan, protagonist of the very long saga published since 1986 by Lois McMaster Bujold; Fassin Taak, hero of Iain M. Banks’s The Algebraist (2008); and Fitz Wahram, the main male character of 2312 (2012), a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. The rest of them don’t interest me that much, or disturb me, or scare me… Without going so far, these are in many cases men with serious deficiencies when it comes to socializing, almost always clumsy in relations with women, and with a not very seductive profile. Some still play heroic roles, such as Pandora’s Star’s Wilson Kime (2004) by Peter Hamilton, or Jim Holden from James S. A. Corey’s series Expanse (2011-), but not many more; and I should certainly mention the serious shortcomings of these and other male characters. Holden, for instance, congratulates himself on his honourability in a scene from Leviathan Wakes (2011) in which he celebrates not having abused sexually a woman under his command who is too drunk to give her consent. Ramez Naan’s Nexus (2012) begins with a distasteful scene in which the protagonist Kaden Lane, presented as an engineering genius, practically rapes the woman he is having sex with. I’m frankly surprised at how many male protagonists are not people I would like to meet and the question is whether this is a shared impression (it is for many GoodReads readers). Where, in short, are the great male characters of 21st century SF, the men of the future?

In fact, I would say that the authors are using SF not to imagine a positive and admirable future for masculinity but to deal with the insecurities and fears of today’s men. For example, in Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter (2016), physicist and engineer Jason Dessen has a very bad time trying to return to the universe where he is a good father and husband when he is impersonated by another man. In Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), the protagonist —who also goes by the name Charles Yu— is stalled in a temporary loop he cannot leave unless he finds his father, lost in another temporary loop. In Spin (2005), Robert Charles Wilson’s beautiful novel, melancholic Tyler Dupree can’t get the woman he loves (and who loves him) because he doesn’t know how to make her see that nothing really separates them. In Peter Watts’ Blindsight (2006), Siri Keeton loses half his brain to prevent deep epilepsy and the result is a man who understands the patterns of human behaviour but feels no empathy at all. I could go on… Perhaps the worst thing is that when authors try to write an attractive hero in the old style, with self-confidence and even personal beauty, this either sounds false or results in totally unbearable types, such as the repellent Darrow in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising (2014). And if you liked Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) I am sorry to say that in Ready Player Two (2020) the rather nice hero Wade Watts becomes a dangerous, selfish man that totally outdoes Elon Musk with his supposedly benevolent plans for world domination.

Since here I am talking about science fiction originally in English because this is the territory which I know better I invited my Biblionauta colleague Miquel Codony to give his view of Catalan SF for the article, which then became a joint effort. Miquel found in Michelíada (2015) by Antoni Munné-Jordà (a clever retelling of the Homeric Illiad) and in the space opera Adzum i els monoculars (2020) by Sergi G. Oset, a satirical vein opposing heroic hypermasculinization. He also found humour, in this case at the expense of the anti-hero trapped by apocalyptic catastrophe, in Marc Pastor’s L’any de la plaga (2010). Miquel also mentions “a sophistication of the emotional scenarios” usually allowed to male characters in alternate history within Catalan SF, highlighting Els ambaixadors (2014) by Albert Villaró and Jo soc aquell que va matar Franco (2018) by Joan-Lluís Lluís. His conclusion is that the representation of the male characters by male authors in Catalan SF is now “being filled with nuances and variations that respond to a transformation —without direction, perhaps, chaotic and insufficient— of the meaning of one’s own perception of masculinity in our society”. I find this extremely perceptive and helpful.

My questions might not be the relevant questions –indeed, I asked myself as I wrote why SF male authors should be made responsible for regenerating masculinity, since nobody else seems to be interested (except women!). I’ll finish by citing Raewyn Connell’s classic Masculinities (2005). “In the first moment of Men’s Liberation,” by which she means the 1970s and 1980s, “activists could believe themselves borne forward on a tidal wave of historical change. The wave broke, and no means of further progress was left on the beach”. What follows is quite harsh: “We now speak of a ‘men’s movement’ partly from politeness, and partly because certain activities have the form of a social movement. But taking a cool look around the political scenery of the industrial capitalist world, we must conclude that the project of transforming masculinity has almost no political weight at all –no leverage on public policy, no organizational resources, no popular base and no presence in mass culture (except as a footnote to feminism in a critique of the excesses of masculinity therapy)” (241). No wonder, then, that not even the SF written by men can imagine a bright future for a renewed masculinity, finally free from patriarchy.

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