Sometimes, the way people write about women really makes me squirm. SF anthologies c. 1959.

27 05 2010

About once a week, I walk or bike down to Gerry’s Books in Steveston Village, to poke around in their surprisingly large science fiction section. It’s my favourite part of the week: 10k of exercise, amazing wildlife along the dike (turtles, ducks, sandpipers, herons, blackbirds, bald eagles…), beautiful views, and a treat at the end. Treasures reveal themselves to me as I discover new authors; the books were always there, I just didn’t know that I wanted them. And the skinny paperbacks – the ones that can be really difficult to find in more mainstream (or less perched-on-the-edge-of-the-city) places – are usually around $2.99; less than the library fines I would probably end up with if I borrowed the books from the public library.

The selection is wide enough, and the prices low enough, that I pick up books by authors I’ve never heard of because I like the blurb, because they’re women writing in a certain period, and sometimes, because of interesting, quirky little paratextual things or their relevance to the history of women in SF in general. It was there that I found Tiptree’s Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and Russ’s Souls as a double volume. And an anthology with a story published under the name “Raccoona Sheldon.” I often flip through older anthologies, looking for short stories and novellas by women authors that interest me.

Last week, I picked up Star Science Fiction 5: Nine Top Original Stories Never Before Published Anywhere, edited by Frederik Pohl and published in 1959 because it had a story by Katherine MacLean, whose work predates much of what I’ve been reading. It also had a story by Rosel George Brown. Both are introduced by wonderful blurbs, which fit in nicely with the story of women in SF that Helen Merrick traces in her “Resistance is Useless? The Sex/Woman/Feminist ‘Invasion'” in her The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms, which is a chapter all about women gettin’ all up in ur sf, participating as full, intellectual, interesting and interested members of society in their own right (how dare they!).

This is a gem. Brace yourself:

Katherine MacLean is a young lady of charm and talent — not the only one such among science-fiction writers, but nearly the only one who turns her back on the feminine-writing hallmarks (love–the family–children) in order to compete with the hairiest-chested males on their own territory. How well she succeeds, this story (her first in collaboration with Tom Condit) amply demonstrates.

The language there is just brilliant. “Young lady,” “charm,”; she’s one of the few playing with the grown-up toys, but don’t worry; she’s not a threat. She may be “compet[ing] with the hairiest-chested males on their own territory” (ed: wtf?) but this story was written in collaboration with a man, so it’s okay; if she wins, she had help*. The blurb is a wholesale dental extraction; in this story, at least, Katherine MacLean will not bite.

By 1959, Katherine MacLean was 34 years old and had published several well-received short stories and novellas. She had done post-graduate studies, and worked in fields beyond the traditionally feminine ones. Her works had been in print for ten years. In 1959, she was nominated for a Hugo. To call her a “young lady of charm and talent,” at this point in her career, emphasising her age and personal graces rather than her work, diminishes her as a skilled writer.

I do like that he said that she has “talent,” because it does contradict some of the contemporary blah blah out there about how girls can’t be brilliant (like boys) (in math and science), but achieve what they do through hard work and determination alone. However, in this collection, the only authors who are described as having talent are the two women who bookend the collection — both of whom achieved considerable success — and a young male first-time writer, whose work is also described in infantilised terms.

The male writers ” burst like a bright exhalation,” are “bright young star in STAR’s firmament,” are “are lighter, brighter,” and “beam with pride.” They are “incomparable,” they have “mastered,” they tackle “complicated” things. They have “versatility,” and reach “flavorful peaks.” They do not need “talent,” because they are Great. And they are never described in terms of “grace,” and “charm,” which are pleasant, but ultimately superficial qualities which have very little to do with their work.

Here is what Pohl had to say about Rosel George Brown:

A young Louisiana housewife sat down to a typewriter one day last year to find the answer to a question: Was there anything hard about writing science-fiction stories? The answer, it turns out, is “no” — provided you have the wit, the talent, and the grace of Mrs. Brown. Because of the idiosyncrasies of publishing schedules, this may not be the first of her stories to see print, but it’s the first she sold– and STAR is proud to present it to the world.

While in 1959, many women were ‘housewives,’ and it would be foolish to argue that the work that women who stay at home do is not very important work, this is a term that marginalizes women and excludes them from public and intellectual life. If you consider the fact that Brown is identified in this way together with Pohl’s dismissal of the so-called “feminine-writing hallmarks (love–the family–children)” earlier on in the book, Pohl’s use of language definitely pushes Brown to the margins of the book. In 1959, she was 33 years old, and held an M.A. from the University of Minnesota. She may have been a housewife, but she was no child, and no intellectual lightweight.

In 1959, she was also nominated for a Hugo.

One can see how the ways in which editors have written about men and women’s work have differed in the past. Given these examples, it’s really not surprising that this made for a field somewhat hostile to anyone who was not a cisgendered, heterosexual man.

(This post was intended to lead into a discussion of some works that have handled the “feminine-writing hallmarks (love–the family–children) in sophisticated ways, and have demonstrated how these topics, like all aspects of human life, do deserve to be present in the worlds of SF. But the language was just so –ugh!– distracting, and this post has got rather long, and that will have to wait.)

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The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, and where does our food come from?

17 05 2010

Last night I stayed up until 3, long past my usual bedtime, reading. The book was Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, which had come with raves from all around. A quick read, I was told, and I’m looking for quick reads because I intend to tackle C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen this month, and that thing’s a brick. A phone book. Somewhat intimidating.

The Hunger Games is set in a future North America organized into twelve districts, each responsible for the production of one type of resource required by the all-powerful Capitol. Each year, to remind the districts of its might, the Capitol requires a tribute from each district: one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, who will participate in the Hunger Games, a battle to the death televised across the nation. Participants are selected by lottery, and both participation and viewing are mandatory. To all but one of the 24 tributes selected, the Hunger Games are a death sentence.

The story follows Katniss Everdeen, the tribute from District 12, the poorest district in Panem, from decision to volunteer to participate in the games in the place of her 12-year-old sister Prim, to the end of the games. She’s resilient, creative, and independent, and her adventures are a thrill to watch. Collins also subverts the typical YA romantic structure in delightful ways, and that’s a structure that, especially after Twilight, could do with some subversion.
Reading the book, I felt a little like I’d gone out to what I thought was a gourmet restaurant, only to be served family-oriented franchise fare. You know, the food isn’t bad, but it is disappointing? I’ll definitely look for the rest of the trilogy, but I won’t rave about it the way I rave about, say, Parable of the Sower. Am expecting too much of a YA novel?

The story follows the logic of a reality TV show and, while the action is intense, it provides as little explanation of the background of the world as a reality TV show does. Temptation Island is a place where people go to test the strength of their relationship for the entertainment of the audience back home. It doesn’t have a history, and we don’t expect it to have one. Every aspect of a potential future North America, on the other hand, should be shaped by its history and unfortunately, Collins doesn’t connect these threads very well. While there are brief explanations of how the Hunger Games came to be, Collins doesn’t really explore how contemporary North American society might devolve into such brutality.

An aspect of The Hunger Games which fascinated me was Katniss’s skills at hunting and foraging. These are skills that she learned both from her father, and from necessity; she lives in a district in which almost everyone is hungry, and had she not learned to hunt and forage, her family would not have survived.
The question of how to feed ourselves in a version of North America without factory farms, without grocery stores, has come up in several stories that I have read recently.

In Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olmina, worried about the brutal society in which she lives, teaches herself how to hunt, and how to prepare nutritious food from native plants and animals. The gates of the community in which she grows up, weak protection against the desperate hoardes outside, isolate them, and leave them vulnerable to siege.

While the adults cling desperately to memories of a society in which good food was easily available, Lauren is much more pragmatic. She knows that the gates will not protect her forever, and that her food sources cannot be merely man-made and controlled. Nature will be her saviour. Her philosophy of Change does not allow dependence on the illusion of stability provided by the food industry, whereas adaptability, and knowledge of ever-changing nature will allow her and her community to survive.

In Nalo Hopkison’s Brown Girl in the Ring, where rich folk have moved to the suburbs and don’t venture into anarchic inner-city Toronto (and those who remain can’t venture out, nor depend upon imports), there are wonderful community vegetable gardens which provide sustenance to Ti-Jeanne and her family. And in “A Habit of Waste,” the older gentleman lives on what he can hunt and gather within the city – edible plants which are treated as ornamental by those who get their food from shops – instead of the mediocre nutrition the foodbank provides him with (I’m having trouble digging up this reference as I’ve passed Skin Folk on to a friend, but I didn’t want to leave this story out). He forages within the urban environment.

In these stories, the characters do not rely on the food industry, because they cannot. While it feeds those of us who are in a position of privilege, it clearly (and yes, this is true in real life), does not look after those of us who are not.

In these stories, we’re not dealing with some misguided, romantic notion that the food of the past, when processed food was not readily available, was inherently better than what we’re eating now. This is a trap that is easy to fall into, as we mourn the loss of family farms, and look at the deplorable, inhumane conditions in factory farms and slaughter-houses, consider how exotic foods are trucked across vast distances to fill our bellies, worry about GMOs, hormones, and pesticides, listeriosis outbreaks, E. Coli, the earlier onset of puberty in female children, and all that sinister science lurking in our food supply. These are legitimate things to worry about; it’s scary, thinking about what we’re putting into our bodies.

But many of us need not look further than our own family histories, in which starvation was a frequent cause of death, to realize that the way we eat now, for all its flaws, is better than the way we ate then. No, in these stories, what Butler and Hopkinson, and even Collins are considering, is how we will survive if all of these structures that we have built for ourselves, to feed ourselves, which are imperfect and fragile, collapse. And the answer for most of us is probably not at all.
I haven’t figured out where I stand on this issue quite yet, what action to take, but I’m happy to keep exploring it.

Currently Reading: Memoirs of a Spacewoman, by Naomi Mitchison