Ari, the Danteshu Pope (ariseishirou) wrote,
Ari, the Danteshu Pope
ariseishirou

Long-winded ramble about dated social mores and science fiction

So I finally got around to watching the Ender's Game film. No, this is not the rant you think it will be based on the subject.



...I thought it was good! An honourable adaptation than managed to capture the thrill and surprise of the original, with some neat graphics and good/justified - for once - use of copious amounts of CGI. (They play "virtual" war simulations.) I liked the book when I read it as a teenager, and really, who wouldn't? The ultimate power fantasy that is Ender - to be an outcast and have the respect of everyone around you, to be the best fighter in physical combat and strategy, to commit genocide and not really be morally culpable for it and restore an entire race as their saviour - is something that just about any teenager would love. (It should be said that I also read the unrevised edition, so I got the original story, not the "updated for Card's increasingly fanatical moral politics" edition.)

Speaking of which, having liked the book, said politics are the only reason I didn't go see it in the theatre in the first place. No, it has nothing to do with not being able to support the "art" of many if one the artists believes something I disagree with, it has to do with the fact that Card uses the money he was earning from it directly to fund bigoted organizations like NOM. I "support" Card's work as a writer in that I acknowledge the artistic and intellectual achievement that is the Ender's Game, but I'm not going to effectively donate money to immoral cause. I highly recommend you check it out from the library, though! Or buy it used. Or read a friend's copy.

What I was the most curious about, though, was how they were going to deal with the random 70s style misogyny in the book, where there are few women in Battle School because, quite literally, evolution made them too dumb. Sure, back in the 70s boys still outperformed girls slightly in IQ tests and academic achievement, feminists argued that this was the result of socialization, and the more forward-thinking sci-fi authors of the 70s (like GRRM) used this as a stepping stone to create more enlightened futures that will ring truer today where IQs are roughly equal (some of the latest in fact showing girls with a very slight edge, though whether that's statistically significant is debatable). I could fully imagine more boys being in Battle School if it was simply the case that more boys signed up and that more boys aspired to join and more boys trained for it - war is perhaps the most masculinized profession of all - but this wasn't the claim made in the book. In the book, with humanity facing a dire threat, the best and brightest join Battle School, and they are overwhelmingly male. That just wouldn't ring true in today's world where girls score equally well on intelligence tests and are overrepresented in higher education. At all. Let alone in some distant future, where presumably based on the trends we see now it would be even more equal.

The handles this dilemma gracefully, and does what I would have done - ignores it. Rewrites it without actually changing any of the lines. About half the cadets you see in Battle School are female, even if the gender distribution of the named characters must by necessity remain the same. Petra has a throwaway line about being the "only girl in Salamander" somewhat proudly, but Ender's much more diverse Dragons beat Salamander to pulp, so it seems more reflective of the macho dingbat who leads Salamander's attitudes than any objective statements about female inferiority. It leaves everything else the book says about gender out entirely. Between that and the number of female cadets in the background, it erases this aspect of the story. Updates it for modern reality.

I'm not the first person to say it, I know, but nothing dates supposedly "futuristic" sci-fi like displaying mores hopelessly rooted in the author's times. (This happens in fantasy as well, where characters display modern mores in the distant past, but unlike sci-fi authors many fantasy authors are well aware of the anachronism and are doing it quite intentionally. If you've got magic and zombies and dragons, you can have forward-thinking views in medieval-equivalent times, they assert. Fair enough!) The first time I ran across this was when my seventh grade teach gave me The Day Of The Triffids as an elementary school graduation present. Up until then I'd only read classic sci-fi by relatively forward-thinking authors for their time (like Asimov and LeGuin) so I wondered if the author had just lost his mind or been jilted by a girlfriend or what when his Everywoman By Proxy asserts that all "real" women love babies and hate work and are just thrilled at the notion of sharing their husbands with another woman, unlike those "movie stars", and the shrill feminist harpy at the college is proven wrong in her assertions that they should be more than baby-havers. I spoke to my teacher about it, and got an eye-opening lesson into what the world was like before the Second Wave. I encountered much, much more of this as I delved further into classic sci-fi - my brother got Stranger In A Strange Land as his present and I was to learn that women weren't the only whipping boys of the past imagined to remain so for all time - up to and including Ender's Game itself. By then, I was prepared. It was the 90s, and (what I sincerely hope to have been) the last throes of Nature Uber Alles/Fuck Blacks and Bitches/The Bell Curve were dying an ignoble death. When I read that most bitches were too stupid for Awesome School I was pretty nonplussed.

It's still jarring, though. Particularly when it makes no sense whatsoever. Perhaps, you could argue, that in the Triffids the Everywoman of the 50s does love babies and hate jobs (though that she'd be delighted to have a second wife is pretty debatable). That work is speculative, not overtly futuristic. But in something like Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow, where the two named female characters in the past act like 50s stereotypes of women, while the male characters are richly nuanced and distinct, it's truly head-scratching. Supposedly the world's technology has reverted to that of the 19th century, so of course nobody's going to be all that enlightened, right? True, but her female characters don't act like women of some distant post-apocalyptic future or women from the 19th century. They act like (stereotypical, one dimensional) women from the 1950s. Which is impossible based on the world she's created. What's even more perplexing is that the book itself says profound things about human curiosity and intellect, yet she - a female author of science fiction in the 1950s no less! - presumes women to have neither. (Given her later work, I have to presume she was just pandering to her male audience here, because she does write curious and intelligent women elsewhere.)

Of course it's possible to do the opposite and assume that trends will continue well into the future that don't. I've joked a few times with friends about sci-fi authors who thought that the Sexual Revolution would last forever and that by the 2000s had their characters having sex no differently than they would a handshake. (And perhaps that would have happened, if not for AIDS, and drug-resistant STDs - not something the authors could have foreseen.) Or maybe it will happen eventually, they've just got the precise dates wrong.

I suppose that makes far-future sci-fi more believable than near-future sci-fi, because we can always pretend that society has reverted back to some earlier stage, but it rarely actually reads this way; the Dune series doesn't read so much "here is this civilization's strange and different views on gender politics", it reads "here are Frank Herbert's dated views on gender politics". The only lesson to be found here, I think, is to either a) make your sci-fi society as open and forward-thinking as possible, because there will doubtless come a time when it will be seen as hopelessly backwards, otherwise, or b) make society something utterly new and alien to us. I realize that that's a lot of work when you're furiously wanking about starships, but it'll be worth it, trust me. I never even bothered to finish Day of The Triffids.

(Of course, fantasy authors are even worse about b) in some ways, but that's another rant for another time.)
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