“I Remember When SF Was All About Straight Men Doing Stuff.”

At least, that’s my paraphrase of this essay from “The Spearhead”


Have you read that?  No?  Go back and check it out.  Take a walk or go sparring to work out your righteous fury, then come back to read.

Done?  Ok.

The essay in question is both 1) infuriating and 2) about genre fiction and society.  Which makes it a great topic for a blog post!  The essay is one of the writings from The Spearhead, a group blog designed to focus on men’s issues and men’s voices (as response to a perceived ‘cultural gap’ that has ignored men’s voices).  While I agree that part of the ‘let’s all be equal’ agenda must include an analysis of how cultural forces shape men’s perception of the world and define masculinity in a way that is exploitative of men and teaches exploitation of women — I don’t think the Spearhead writers and I agree on the nature of the problem with men’s status in society or how to address it.

The essay starts out with a bang:

“Science fiction is a very male form of fiction.  Considerably more men than women are interested in reading and watching science fiction.  This is no surprise.  Science fiction traditionally is about men doing things, inventing new technologies, exploring new worlds, making new scientific discoveries, terraforming planets, etc.  Many men working in the fields of science, engineering, and technology have cited science fiction (such as the original Star Trek) for inspiring them when they were boys to establish careers in these fields.”

This particular essay focuses on a limited definition of what ‘science fiction’ means, in a Golden Age Asimov kind of fashion, where characters were as flat as the paper they were printed on, little more than mouthpieces for expositing and resolving scientific issues.  Now don’t get me wrong — there’s some great idea work in Golden Age SF — it’s that era that helped develop SF as the Literature of Ideas.  But the genre has developed since then, it has become larger and (to me, more relevant and sophisticated.  We’ve gotten Alfred Bester and Thomas Disch, Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney and Connie Willis.

To begin with, the essay relies upon versions of masculinity that are unsurprisingly as old and outmoded as the SF they rely on.  For “Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech” — masculinity, like SF is about “men doing things, inventing new technologies, exploring new worlds, making new scientific discoveries, terraforming planets, etc.” The author references scientists who speak about being inspired by SF to move into their disciplines.  Of course I agree that  science fiction is instrumental in inspiring and encouraging scientific development.

On the other hand, it’s as if there have never been any female engineers or scientists who have never been inspired by science fiction.  And in other news, all men smoke cigars and drink scotch at work with expertly coiffed hair while wearing fedoras and the only power women have is influencing men through their sexuality while working as secretaries.  No wait, that’s Mad Men.

The author talks about the name change of SciFi as part of a feminizing trend, following the 1998 changeover when Bonnie Hammer assumed control of the channel and began courting female readers.   The 2000s era Battlestar Galactica is positioned as one of the culprits of a feminizing Sci-Fi channel, since the character of Starbuck was changed into a woman.  Strangely, it’s Starbuck the woman who is also Starbuck the cigar-smoking, hard drinking, sleeps with anything that moves.   That part is not mentioned in the essay — instead the author points to an essay by original Starbuck Dirk Benedict, bemoaning the “un-imagining” of Battlestar Galactica.

Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech also talks about the shift in programming towards fantasy and away from science fiction, because “women are more interested in the supernatural and the paranormal than men are.”  Is this supposed to be a biological pre-disposition?  The author then complains about the increasing presence of gay characters on the channel (as a death knell post-name change) — and how that means that it well be less about men doing things.  Does the set of ‘men’ exclude homosexual men in this case?

The author then cites Marvin Minsky, an AI researcher at MIT.  Minsky gives his distinction between general fiction and science fiction as such: “General fiction is pretty much about ways that people get into problems and screw their lives up. Science fiction is about everything else.”  This is a notably reductive definition to be sure, specious at best.  Where does 1984 fit in there?  Winston Smith ‘gets into problems and screws his life up,’ among many others. This depiction of science fiction as the only fiction with ‘real importance’ is an insular isolationist stance that fails to acknowledge that powerful, historically-relevant literature can occur without spaceships or advanced physics.  I like my SF and think it’s had important effects, but it’s not the only game in town, for sure.

“The War on Science Fiction and Marvin Minsky” is representative of the perspective of someone within the world of SF fandom, a part that exists and continues to proceed despite the fact that the mainstream has moved away from them.  Analog Science Fiction and Fact is often noted as the home of this mode of SF, and the magazine continues as it has for decades, admirable for its continuity.  I think we need the scientifically rigorous aspect of speculative fiction, the part that refuses to use handwavium to solve its problems just to get to the point and instead interrogates the ways that the possible could become reality.  Hard SF may not be for me, but it’s an important part of the genre.

A lack of hard science doesn’t automatically make a science fiction story into melodrama.  And I certainly don’t think that either scientific rigor or the science fiction genre is or should be part-and-parcel with outdated gender norms, homophobia and misogyny.

13 thoughts on ““I Remember When SF Was All About Straight Men Doing Stuff.”

  1. Pretty good essay until you just had to tie in two of your favorite boogeymen -homophobia, misogyny- at the end.

    I think the original essay is on target as to how “science fiction” is moving through popular culture esp the broadcast media, while your essay is more of an overview of the total genre. One final thing: While the blog post you quoted is rather sloppy at times in how it makes its points and is certainly far from a rigourous argument. For instance he notes that women are more interested in the supernatural and paranormal than men are and this could have easily been backed up with a hundred statistic showing sex ratios at certain movies, who the vast majority of those who go to mediums is, and etc. He didn’t back up what he was saying, but what he was saying is true, irregardless of whether it’s biological or cultural in nature. Most men don’t go for horoscopes, and if my experience is any guide most women do.

    • I hit the boogeymen because I see those sentiments as a part of the essay — complaints about how the mere presence of gay characters detracts from “men doing things”. Add to that the assumption that only men contribute to science, and that we are robbing ourselves of a scientific future by not telling only/more science fiction stories that feature certain kinds of men and promulgate certain types of gender norms.

      It’s annoying exactly because the author has some points I agree with buried under other issues. I think that it is notable that as the genre has changed, the relationship between science fiction and scientific development has changed, and I think Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech might agree with me that maintaining a tradition of forward-thinking science fiction that is grounded in supportable scientific speculation is a worthwhile thing. I also think it is notable to talk about the shift in the popularity of different parts of speculative fiction. Right now, we have a run of science fiction shows on television — Smallville, Chuck, Fringe, Lost, Flashforward, but also some that would fit into some definitions of fantasy — Vampire Diaries, Pushing Daisies, Supernatural.

      To focus on broadcast materials, we’ve seen shows like Battlestar Galactica, LOST and Fringe that succeed critically and popularly for combining the scientific speculation (ranging from not at all plausible to the plausible but hard-to-test-for like alternate universes) and interpersonal drama. Battlestar navigates interpersonal drama (often between men who would satisfy a traditional view of masculinity) as well as discussing the implications of synthetic life nearly indistinguishable from homo sapiens. I personally appreciate having some relationship dynamics in my fiction — even though I’m male — a point never acknowledged in the essay. I also happen to enjoy fantastic literature/media with ghosts and vampires and magic, etc.

      Even if statistics indicate that on average more women than men believe in various supernatural elements, I’d counter by stating that the variance between different individuals within the set of men and within the set of women are very likely to be far greater than the average difference between men and women.

      Statistically, we can say that men on average are taller than women. But there are certainly some women who are taller than many men, and some men that are shorter than many women. Reducing the demographic of ‘men’ and ‘women’ to mono-cultures where everyone likes the same things (or in this case, the same kind of fiction) is highly reductive and glosses over the differences between individuals.

      The fact that this blog positions itself as taking a stand for a particular worldview means (to me) that it is actively arguing for that worldview. Much of my response is that it argues poorly, and in arguing, it opens itself up for rebuttal, an invitation which I have taken (in my own blog space).

  2. Bravo!

    Stumbled across this on FB, and felt all the righteous fury you to which you alluded upon reading the cited post. You begin to untangle the many issues that Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech just lumps together – y’know, the old dichotomies: man = scientist, technology, active while woman = doe-eyed romance writer, relationships, passive. The sloppiness seems to be 1) assumptions of essentialism (since women statistically have shown to be interested in relationships, that, is by default, what all women like and what women will create) and 2) the use of “women” and “homosexual” as these broad categories that lump together a series of trends that to me seem quite different. There’s a HUGE difference between creating female characters like Starbuck that are similar to Golden Age scifi heroes in their agency and perspectives on humans relationships…and creating relationship-oriented story lines that downplay science content. Two opposite trends, really, one trying to change scifi to fit feminist critiques of male-oriented cultural production and another trying to fit women into a traditionally male world and thus open up the number of roles available to women – 3rd wave and 2nd wave feminism, one could say. But naturally, since it involves women and feminism…and since it’s changing, excuse me, ruining sci-fi, it’s part and parcel of this whole problem of “not heteronormative men.”

    As someone female who was trained as a scientist and now works on both literary theory and science history, I shake my head at the assumption that past trends in gender interests can be read as characteristic traits – as facts – as causal. Just because ‘statistically’ men are more interested in scifi and women are more interested in other genres doesn’t mean that EVERY man and EVERY woman fit in such categories, nor does it mean that putting women into scifi has to, by default, CAUSE a proliferation of relationship-oriented storylines. Changes in gender target don’t have to be equivalent to a decrease in science content. While I’m no sci-fi pro, I’m sure it’s possible that the very lack of believable, active female characters in what you’re calling Golden Age sci-fi could have contributed, along with other cultural portrayals of the correct relationship between women and science, to the very lack of women in fields such as engineering and research science. Culture tells us that girls are not supposed to be science geeks. Strong female characters – or homosexual male characters – with an interest in scientific content might be able to change that, according to the logic offered. But I forget…including women…including anyone other than a “typical” heterosexual man is not on the agenda here, because to be “pro-feminist” is apparently the same as being “anti-man.”

    PS – Miss having these conversations in person. It’s been forever since we were in touch. Hope Indiana is treating you well.

  3. Melissa! Long time no talk. Thanks for taking the time to come by and respond. Indiana is doing fine for now, but I’m exploring options that might take me on to bigger and better things. I hope Oregon and UO are doing right by you in life.

    For actual responses: I despise seeing arguments like this mostly for the way that they take historical trends as eternal biological/sociological fact. Early Golden Age SF was written mostly by men mostly for men (based on a certain definition of what it means to be a man) — it’s not hard to then see that many other people would be alienated by that material. And when trends become entrenched, you have institutionalized gender biases which then have to be un-trained and counter-represented — hence 2nd wave lesbian feminist utopias where men are reviled with as little sensitivity to individual difference as women were depicted as unintelligent and bereft of agency in golden age sf. Neither literary tradition is helpful to us now if the agenda is to create a forward-thinking society with scientific rigor and gender equality/plurality. We cannot look back on those materials (be it the literature or the television of the time) and selectively ignore them. They are all part of the tapestry that is the history of science fiction. Star Trek is a part of history just as the old Superman serials with Lois Lane, professional damsel in distress, as is the Lost in Space tv show or either Battlestar Galactica.

    Condemning an entire genre for failing to live up to contemporary ideologies or for failing to stick to historical ones — both of these approaches over-look the usefulness of narrative genres as an ongoing conversation that reflects a society’s perception of scientific possibility (or a view of a slice of history when talking about Westerns, the supernatural when talking about fantasy, etc.)

  4. Anti-feminists like this guy crack me up. Mainly because they don’t seem to realize how misanderous they are being at the same time. Way to paint yourself into a socially-acceptable-behavior corner there, guy.

    My reaction to his assertion that classic sci-fi drew men into the sciences and had nothing to do with women at all will take the form of a quote from a 1968 episode of Doctor Who:

    Soldier : “What’s a girl like you doing in a job like this?”

    Anne Travers : “Well, when I was a little girl I thought I’d like to be a scientist, so I became a scientist.”

  5. I made the mistake of reading the Dirk Benedict essay. (Or most of it, anyway. When I hit the “men hand out cigars, women hand out babies” line, I quit.)

    The line that summed it all up for me was when he referred to the change to a female Starbuck as “Frak! Gonads gone!” Because you know, women don’t have gonads. Aside from being a cheap shot at his knowledge of biology, I really do think that encapsulates his entire view of sex and gender: any attempt to “deprive” men of their gonads (which are, of course, their power and agency and awesomeness) or “give” such a thing to women is Against Nature and should be decried as such.

    Whatever. I won’t even get into the implications of “The Spearhead” as a name . . . .

    • I think someone should open up a gay club and call it The Spearhead (this presumes there isn’t already one out there). Then, invite the staff of the blog and watch.

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  7. A fantastic response to a ridiculous article. I can’t imagine how they thought this does the “cause of manhood” any favors.

    I love space opera andoft sf and I can’t imagine what it would be le if some of my favourite female authors never published their work.

    And the implication that women like fantasy more than men. Classic.

  8. To comment on the nature of television as a feminine mode of transmitting content.

    Most television audiences are female and have been since the invention of the television set and proliferation of the the technology into the domestic sphere post World War 2. This was at a time when most women did not work outside the home. Television has also been widely viewed as a family medium for the same reason that content is transmitted inside the home. Science fiction appreciation happens quite frequently from parent teaching child how to appreciate the genre. Genre has traditionally been used to push social agendas, hiding real issues in with unreal contexts.

    Men who watch television are a commodity that shows don’t like to loose. Males 18-49 are quite frequently the single target demographic on television precisely because they are so elusive. This is why the notion of television alienating men because characters are getting more complex baffles me. Perhaps The Spearhead might reconsider men in America rather than maintain their stagnant view of a glorified male of the 1940s. Men do not always want to see explosions, and women do not always have an aversion to them. We are living in a time when the most public social issue of our time is gay marriage and redefining gender roles or removing them all together.

    On the changes in SyFy… Television executives are usually hired because the people at the network think that said new person can do a better job than the last. Television is also, primarily, an advertising medium, since its inception, and has been a product or commodity just as much as an art form. Given the state of Science Fiction and Fantasy in the United States and its broadening appeal, perhaps the real gripe is that what once was an ostracized genre and subculture in America is now opening itself up and the old boys club is crumbling. It is not the feminizing of the genre, but change at all that would disrupt the status among the science fiction community from within the community.

    In general… Science fiction is geeky. Geeks historically, and up until recently, were made fun of and forced into insulated communities for survival. They were also primarily men. Now that science fiction is less geeky and more glamorous the community has not had to learn how to change. Change has come. Comic-con gets over 100,000 attendants every year.

    The people at The Spearhead should remember that television is still a business, and follows the free market. Until there is a large enough crowd of men in the audience, spending their dollars on television, who hate the thought of round characters, gender equality, more complex story lines, and changing with the times, then this change is here to stay. Genre frames real issues in unreal settings, and perhaps rather than be upset about the real issues being showcased in the settings as being un-Science Fiction, the complaint should be about real issues needing to be addressed through the genre because nothing is being done about the social injustices in real life. The genre is merely doing its job.

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