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Delicious Disorientation

Science Fiction and Fantasy novels and stories aren’t for everybody. This isn’t a radical statement, I’m sure, but its significance or whole meaning is often obscured behind a fair amount of sneering and looking down one’s nose at the genre(s). If somebody comes to me and wants to read ‘good’ science fiction, I want to refer them to either William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Frank Herbert’s Dune (after stressing to them that there really isn’t much point to reading past the first one). The thing is, though, I don’t always do that. I ask them some questions, first, usually revolving around their inherent purpose in delving into scifi. “How complex do you want the story to be?” I’ll ask, or, “How good are you at figuring out exposition via context clues rather than text dumps?”

If I get blinks and stares to these questions, or guarded statements like ‘I don’t like crazy science stuff’ or ‘I don’t want to read something I need a degree to understand’, I back off from recommending my true favorites. I give them something pallatable and easy, like Russel’s The Sparrow or Childhood’s End by Clarke. This is not to say that these aren’t fine books (they are quite wonderful, each of them), but they aren’t the kind of sci-fi that really blows my mind. They aren’t the kind of thing that, once I start reading it, I can’t stop. They don’t suck me in.  Neuromancer does, every time I read it. The very first line sets me going: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Gibson, in the first twenty pages of his novel, drowns you in the dismal streets and seedy bars of Chiba City as you watch Case stay one step ahead of Wage’s joeboys while strung out on drugs. The detail of the place is immersive, wonderful, powerful.  You do not, however, know exactly what’s going on. This isn’t your world, and Gibson isn’t holding your hand as you dive into it. You’re running behind Case, glancing at the scenery as you try to keep up. Gradually, though, you build a vocabulary. At some point, when somebody says ‘the Sprawl’, you know what they mean. When Case ‘punches the Hosaka’, you feel the ridges of the buttons under your fingers. You’re part of the world now. You know its rules, its conventions, its dark alleys. You’re as much a resident as Case is, perhaps more. That is, as much as anything else, the reason I read sci-fi and fantasy.

This, though, isn’t for everyone. When I was in grad school, I can’t tell you the number of times somebody gave me a distasteful look when I said I read and wrote scifi. It was as though I had belched at a volume that would rattle fillings and refused to apologize. I had a professor in a writing workshop who forbade the submission of works of science fiction or fantasy and, when I would bring up scifi novels in the course of class discussion, she would literally sneer at me and then pretend I hadn’t spoken. I kept bringing them up anyway, though, when discussion permitted. She gave me a B+ for the course (which is horrendously low in grad school, FYI).

Once, in another class and as part of our homework, we had to bring in a chapter of a novel we loved and distribute it to the class. I brought in the first chapter of Neuromancer.  When we came back the next class to discuss it, three or four people hadn’t read it and, therefore, didn’t contribute to the discussion. Their reasoning? “I don’t read scifi” or “I didn’t get it” or “It was boring.” As though the plodding, overwrought prose of their favorite litfic novelist was a blast for me. As though reading the first chapter of The Great Gatsby for the millionth time was somehow enlightening to me. As though the latest Jodi Picoult speaks to me because, you know, she writes mainstream fiction and, obviously, I should love it because that’s what books are. I was pissed at those individuals. It was a slap in my face, because there is no way one can read Neuromancer and say it’s poorly written. It isn’t – it’s brilliant.

The reason it doesn’t speak to those people, though, is that it asks the reader to do something other books don’t. It asks your forebearance. It commands you to be disoriented for the first ten or fifteen pages as you get your bearings. “This is an alien world,” it says, “so bear with it while you settle in.” That settling-in process is one of the things I love about the genre I call ‘home’. It can be done poorly, yes, but when it’s done well, there’s nothing quite like it. I mean, I admire Steinbeck and Hemingway as much as the next guy, and I’ll give my grudging appreciation to Toni Morrison and Jose Saramago (actually, no – I can’t stand his style. It’s like needles in my eyes), but they don’t take me anywhere new. I don’t get to hear the helium-giggle of Lonny Zone’s whores in the Chastubo while Ratz slides my Kirin across the bar with his Russian military surplus prosthetic arm. All I get is another scene from plain old planet Earth with plain old people doing the same plain old thing. Well done? Sure. Magical? Rarely.

Give me the Bene Gesserit administering the gom jabbar. Throw me into a book with a glossary twenty pages long. Don’t tell me another sad tale about some guy learning to find his way in a tough modern world. Give me Case, punching his Hosaka while coming down hard off a Beta high and watching his slick Chinese slow-virus get ever closer to the gleaming security ice of the Villa Straylight.

Punching Doesn’t Make You ‘Strong’

Somewhere in the past, while action movie and scifi and fantasy writers were trying to figure out how to attract female fans without having to insert emotion into their work, some guy came up with the Kick-Ass Girl trope. I guess perhaps we could say it started with Eowyn from Return of the King, but I’m not sure that’s accurate – Eowyn was strong not because she kicked ass, but because she was brave, and that’s a different thing. I think, instead, it started with Molly from Gibson’s Neuromancer (though perhaps I ought to have started with various comic book heroines, but whatever).

Molly is a kick-ass mercenary who murders bad guys and looks really hot while doing it. Her whole thing is a kind of mixture of sex and violence, and she inspires a whole legion of female characters who work off the same idea. The idea is this, as represented by what I imagine to be a brainstorming session between a writer and a producer/agent/other writer:

Person 1: We need a woman in this adventure story, but let’s make it a strong woman.

Person 2: What makes a strong woman?

Person 1: Well, she needs to be able to hold her own with the guys.

Person 2: What, so she, like, knows kung fu?

Person 1: Hmmm…yeah, let’s go with that. Super strength and kung fu. Yeah – that’s hot.

From this model we basically get not only Molly, but also Lara Croft, Wonder Woman, Xena: Warrior Princess, Summer Glau in both Firefly *and* Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, and the list goes on and on and on and on…

First of all, I should note that there is nothing wrong with a woman being able to physically dominate in a fight. The thing I find troublesome about it is the fact that many, if not most or all, of the writers for these stories are basically using the character’s capacity for physical violence as a stand-in for their actual status as a strong, independent, equal person in the story. The thing is, though, that being able to beat up thugs doesn’t make someone into a strong person. This isn’t and never has been true, either for men or women. It’s smoke-and-mirrors, a disguise for lazy characterization.

This trope is, of course, understandable given that, for much of literature (and particularly the genres of adventure, action, fantasy, and scifi), women were the exact opposite of that – weak, unable to physically compete, and used as window dressing as often as not. It’s a kind of pendulum swing that was inevitable – now, if you want a strong woman, she has to kick ass.

I watched the series pilot of Prime Suspect last night, starring Maria Bello as a female homicide detective in NYC. Watching her play the role (and play it wonderfully), I started thinking about what a real strong person is. It isn’t somebody who goes to the gym or has super powers or can beat up people twice his or her size – it’s about courage. It’s about doing what’s right and standing up for yourself and others. It’s about being intelligent enough to find ways to solve problems, wise enough to know how to do it, and brave enough to follow through. Maria Bello’s character is exactly that – she perserveres against enormous pressure, she controls herself, she doesn’t flinch. At the end, she gets her ass kicked by a giant thug of a man, but it doesn’t matter – we don’t think less of her for it. You know why? Punching him into submission didn’t make her a strong person. That isn’t what strength is about.

For me, the strongest woman I know in real life is my mother. There is nobody on this Earth that messes with her family and gets away with it, and it isn’t because she’s going to punch your lights out. It’s because she’s something most of us aren’t – committed to doing what’s right, no matter how scary. I could tell you stories about the brave things my mother has done, but let’s leave it at this: My brother died slowly and horribly of a disease worse than any I can think of. It took it fifteen years or so to kill him, all the while robbing little pieces of himself – his sight, his ability to walk, his ability to chew, his ability to talk, etc.. He wound up living the last eight years of his life or so in a pediatric nursing home, since he needed constant care. It was an hour’s drive away, and my mother visited almost every day. This, though, isn’t why I call her courageous.

This nursing home was the last stop for a crew of children who could best be described as abandoned by society. Their families couldn’t handle seeing them the way they were – all with permanent neurological or physical damage to the point where they would never recover, never walk out of there, never get better. It had all the atmosphere of a soul-killing purgatoy, where drab gray hospital walls echoed with the sounds of automatic feeding machines and gutteral moans. My mother marched in there every day to see her little boy, but she didn’t do just that. She looked out for every kid on that floor. She brought them christmas presents when nobody else did. She made sure they were comfortable. She made sure the nurses hadn’t left them with the same movie on loop for hours and hours on end. She made damned sure they got their baths and that their linens were clean and that they were remembered. The staff tried passively ignoring her at first, but they soon learned what the wrath of my mother could be like – guilt trips and blunt assessments of their worth as human beings that came blistering out her mouth at such a temperature that their hair curled. She slapped the place into shape. She spent more of her own money helping those kids than anybody had before or since. She didn’t have to do this.

She did it because it needed to be done, and you know what? She never once threw a punch.