Yesterday I posted some links to articles that I found interesting to read, or I thought other people would enjoy. This included a link to an article about the 100 must read sci-fi novels, and how the author, Lutgendorff, thought the list was filled with sexist and offensive books. Simon gave an interesting comment and I started to write my thoughts on the matter. After 300 words or so I thought it would be best if I wrote another blog post.
About half way through the article Lutgendorff brings up a version of the Bechdel test and states that almost all of the books failed. Her standard is a little stricter then the original (at least two women, one in a lead roll, with jobs other then traditionally female roles) but I don’t think many of the books listed would have passed the original test either (has at least two women who talk to each other about something other then men.)
I also agree with her that from today’s view point a lot of the books on this list could be shockingly offensive, especially if you are looking for those offensive things. There are books with rape, incest, and mandatory orgies. (Game of thrones is on this list people! It’s incredibly offensive.)
Before we go on lets just remember that this list was nominated by 5,000 fans and voted on by 60,000. The editors did toss out some of the nominations (because they were young adult, horror, didn’t fit criteria, etc) but otherwise it was all fan made. 60,000 people said this was the top 100 books in SF, not a small group of hetero white men.
Most hardcore science fiction fans will talk about the science in a world, world building, government, technology, and maybe at the bottom of the list will be a discussion about gender and gender politics (unless you’re talking to a trekky as that was very visible in Star Trek). And when we (I say we because I am a HUGE! science fiction nerd) tell you which novels are the best in our genre we are going to point to a lot of classics that shaped the world, changed thinking, or shaped the genre as a whole. This will include novels that might be offensive by today’s standards. In fact sometimes a book that is offensive will shape the world MORE than a book that is completely inoffensive.
Also, keep in mind that many of the books on the list were written before 1970, before female liberation and equality movements. And some of the books she described as offensive were MEANT to be offensive. Take Thomas Covenant who rapes a girl in the first book of that series. It is meant to be jarring and offensive because he is an anti-hero. In later books even he hates himself for what he did and he doesn’t get why people don’t just kill him and be done with it.
And as for her issue with “there are no women in some of these stories”… Okay, she’s right. There aren’t. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good books. If the only offense of the book is that there aren’t female characters in the book, or there are very minor female characters that don’t really contribute to plot, then I don’t find that offensive at all. I’ve read a lot of women’s chick lit that doesn’t have any male characters, or uses men as window dressing for a woman’s fantasies.
I love what one person pointed out in a thread on G+… That the romance genre is guilty of most of the offenses she lists in her. Novels written by women, for women, and filled with all the sexist stuff toward women that Lutgendorff is complaining about. I’ve read books where the main female interest was raped then falls in love with her rapist after being forced to marry him. And it was a very popular book in the romance category.
Going down the list of the 100 top Sci-fi I found myself saying “yes, that’s an awesome book,” and “oh, I can see why that one is on the list.” Time and again they were some of my favorite books growing up, and even now into my adulthood. Books about technological advances, alien creatures, censorship, exploration, and discovery. Amazing books that shaped me into a creative, and curious person who still loves finding out about new things.
Could science fiction use new books that are more female friendly, or directly speak to gender issues? Yes, of course it can. But that doesn’t mean the list of books here is offensive, it just means we have an opportunity to do more.
Science fiction is about exploring the world, the universe, and ultimately ourselves. Exploring gender roles is a wonderful way of doing that, both traditional and more unusual roles, expanding out idea of what is and can be as science fiction has always been known to do.
So yes, I disagree with Ms. Lutgendorff. I don’t find them completely offensive, even if there may have been parts of the books that were offensive when seen through the eyes of 2015. I find the books to be a fair, and wonderful interpretation of the best books in the science fiction genre. And I think we have room for even better books as time continues.