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Who is Science Fiction’s Most Sexist Writer?

April 27, 2009

You know the cliches, SciFi is a boys game or a men’s club. It’s full of books that have bosomy babes heaving on the covers while being menaced by tentacled monsters. While the cliches aren’t all that true and women have made a lot of progress in SF, the question is still worth asking.

For the purpose of this exercise we’ll limit our focus to Science Fiction writers that people have actually heard of. This can safely rule out some random book written by Neil Promough in 1965 about Amazons from Mars taking over America while under the influence of mescaline. We’ll also rule out reverse sexism, or sexism by women against men, cause let’s face that would be a little too easy, Joanna Russ or Sherri S. Tepper, anyone?

Non-fiction essays and real life behavior don’t qualify, which leaves Harlan Ellison out. TV Scifi depictions don’t count either, which leaves Gene Roddenberry out, and the constant depictions of female crew members on the original Star Trek as unreliable, unstable and likely to waltz off with any superbeing, e.g. Khan or Apollo, whom they meet up with. We’ll also leave out fantasy, because between Gor and the amazing BDSM adventures of half the leading fantasy series, including the Wheel of Time series.

So who will it be? There’s Robert A. Heinlein. Sure he would throw in supposedly competent female characters, only to condescendingly dispose of them. Take a look at Methuselah’s Children. Mary, the character who kicks off the story, initially seems bold, reliable and competent… only to give in to her fear of aging and dying, and merges herself into an alien consciousness. The other major female character is a young woman who constantly whines about her child, and is repeatedly berated, rejected and threatened by Lazarus.

That sort of thing wasn’t unusual for Heinlein either. Friday marries her rapist and lives happily ever after. In Heinlein novels that was a common enough goal for women who got to be competent and professional enough to catch the leading man’s eye, before reverting to type. By the time Heinlein was in his New Age phase, women were around mainly as playthings, see Stranger in a Strange Land, there to give some witty banter, before stripping down and hanging around the premises.

But Heinlein is too obvious. So let’s try a less obvious writer, Philip K. Dick. Yes PKD isn’t the first and most logical name that springs to mind, but maybe it should be. Read enough Dick and you notice that his idea of women seemed to be a lot like Dave Sim’s. You can’t even begin to count the amount of abusive soul devouring women who show up in his novels, see Ubik. Sure Dick was probably channeling his many ex-wives.

And then there’s PKD’s prize gem, “The Pre-Persons” in which a loving father tries to protect his son from his ruthless devouring wife, in a society where trucks drive around looking for kids to kill, who can’t do quadratic equations, which happen to be the test of personhood. It’s a not very subtle commentary on abortion, but it’s also one of the ultimate depictions of the PK Dick woman, the ruthless monster who devours men’s souls. Or Dick’s anyway.

Still the prize may well go to C.J. Cherryh. Yes I know she’s a woman, which gives her the perfect cover. If the whole Cloud Riders series wasn’t bad enough, there’s Tripoint. Yes Tripoint.

Tripoint is a masterpiece of its sort. You could read the many reviews of it without actually learning what it’s about. It’s the story of Thomas, a boy being raised on a trading vessel by his mother Marie, whom he resents. And with good reason, since C.J Cherryh draws her as the most obnoxious character imaginable.

Marie is also a rape victim, having conceived Thomas after being raped by another ship’s crewmember. But don’t worry though, you’re not supposed to feel sympathy for Marie. You’re supposed to hate her. And C.J. Cherryh even finds a way to blame her for being raped. See Marie agreed to go off with that crewmember into a private space to lose her virginity. Then she changes her mind and protests and cries rape. After a stalemate, the crewmember, and Thomas’ father, decides since he’s being accused of rape, he might as well rape her for real. The narrative in Tripoint treats Marie as being at fault throughout the encounter and treats his behavior as mostly justified.

While Marie plots revenge against him, Thomas runs off and joins his father’s ship, and decides to leave his mother and be with the guy who raped her. Marie is left unable to do anything about it, despite having bankrupted her trading clan to get this far.

Happy ending right? If a man had written Tripoint, he’d have been lynched right next to James P. Hogan. Since C. J. Cherryh is a woman, she seems to get a pass for creating a novel in which the rape victim is the villain, in which her rape was justified and in which the child of the rape goes off to be with his rapist father because he can’t stand his mother.

And that’s why C.J. Cherryh wins the award. Congratulations. We’ll reconvene next year for Science Fiction’s Drunkest, Drunkenest? Writer.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Scott McFarland permalink
    January 16, 2012 2:50 pm

    I’m enjoying a read through of Dick’s books but yeah the sexism is a problem. Again and again when the female characters are introduced it’s through a male character looking them over and deciding his opinion of her physical characteristics.

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