I wrote a comment on Ed Rybicki’s blog, which is still awaiting moderation. I’m not going to repeat what I said there, but I realized I had more to say than what I’d already written. Specifically, I have much more to say about a comment he wrote on this article:
PS: “why publish something that you don’t believe in is another story” – no, it’s just that science fiction allows one to explore EVERYTHING, including what you don’t believe in.”
Ed makes a great point – Science fiction is exactly the right vehicle for exploring things that you don’t believe in. Indeed, it’s been used exactly that way since the genre was invented. You could say that Guliver’s Travels was a fantastic use of early science fiction, exploring a universe that mocked all sorts of contemporary idiocy that the author (Swift) disagreed with.
So, yes, I see Ed’s point – and he has a good one. However, I’m going to have to disagree with Ed on the broader picture. Science Fiction is perfect for exploring issues that you don’t believe in precisely because you can apply them to similar or parallel situations where they demonstrate their flaws.
For instance, if you want to write about how terrible apartheid is, you don’t set a science fiction novel in South Africa in the 1990’s, you set it up in on another planet where two civilizations clash – and you can explore the themes away from the flashpoint issues that are rife in the real world conflict. (Orson Scott Card explores a lot of issues of this type in his novels.)
The issue with Ed’s article – and there are plenty of them to chose from – is that he chose to engage with the lowest form of science fiction: Inclusion of some “vaguely science-like device” that casts no great insight into anything. Science fiction, as a vehicle, is all about where you take it.
The premise would be equally offensive if he had picked: a race (“Filipino’s only get by because they have access to another dimension to compensate for their height”), a religion (“Christians use another dimension to hide from criticism leveled at their holy book”), or an age (“Anyone who can hold a job after the age of 65 is clearly doing so because they’re able to access another dimension”).
Ed could have made much better use of the vehicle he chose to drive. He could have invented an alien species in which only one gender has access to a dimension, he could have used the alternate dimension to enable women to do things men can’t (and no, I don’t buy that men can’t shop efficiently) or he could have used his device to pick apart injustices that women face in competing with men.
Instead of using his idea to explore the societal consequences of the pllot device, he uses it to reinforce a stereotype.
That, to me, is not a good use of science fiction. And the blame doesn’t just go to the author – it goes to the editors. As a long time reader of science fiction, I can tell when a story doesn’t work and when it fails to achieve it’s desired effect. This story neither worked, nor causes anyone to question their own values. (It does, however make me wonder about the editor’s judgment in choosing to print it, as well as the author’s judgment in allowing it to be printed in a high profile forum.)
So, let me be clear – I despise the use of the sterotypes about women that Ed chose to explore. That he believes exploring gender issues this way is any less sensitive than race, religion or age would be is ridiculous – and shows a measure of bad judgement.
Having come up with a great tool (alternate dimensions) for making a comment on society (women and men aren’t treated equally), he completely missed the opportunity to use the venue (science fiction) to set the story in a world where he could have explored the issue and shown us something new. In essence, he threw away a golden opportunity to cause his audience to ask deep questions and take another look at the issue from a fresh perspective – exactly what science fiction is all about.
Ed’s not a villian – but he’s not a great science fiction writer either.