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.
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.