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More Than Warriors: Thoughts on Fantasy and Gender

‘”Populating a world with men, with male heroes, male people, and their ‘women cattle and slaves’ is a political act. You are making a conscious choice to erase half the world.

As storytellers, there are more interesting choices we can make.” – Kameron Hurley

“But history should not be a straightjacket!  ‘Historical accuracy’ should never be used as a cudgel to bash down ideas — to blithely declare something ‘unrealistic’ is insulting to the variety of the historical human experience.” – Django Wexler

I’ve been following a discussion for the past several days about women as warriors (and, more broadly, as active characters) in fantasy fiction. This discussion has a much longer history than that, but I think that Kameron Hurley’s essay, linked to above, re-energized the conversation and provided a lot for me to think about as a reader and fiction writer. I also read Django Wexler’s long post (also linked above) about the conditions that could or could not produce a class of female warriors. Taken together, they are a powerful argument for broadening the options for a level of agency of female characters in fantastic literature, particularly of the “fantasy” subset.

These discussions are directly relevant to me as a reader and as a writer. I am always on the lookout for fiction that contains what Hurley describes in her piece:

“[T]he moment we re-imagine the world as a buzzing hive of individuals with a variety of genders and complicated sexes and unique, passionate narratives that have yet to be told – it makes them harder to ignore. They are no longer, ‘women and cattle and slaves’ but active players in their own stories.”

This is not an argument for “strong women” or some upending of human nature; it is a call to cut through preconceptions and imagine life with more richness and variety.  Pale reproductions only serve to diminish our range of vision; relying on history as precedent, rather than as sounding board, only limits what we present, limits our very notions of reality.

This need for re-imagining is always on my mind when I write.  I want to imagine past history, to find possibilities and twists that could have been, still might be, may never be. There are so many moments in history where an event could have ended differently, where a decision or action might have altered the potential stories we can tell about the past. Fiction is a conceptual space where we can explore those differences, elaborate them, and wonder what else could have happened, or still might happen.

What makes Hurley’s piece so inspiring, for me, is that it’s not just about women, it is about everyone. It is about how often we miss the mark — in fiction, in real life — when we think about what is possible, about what can or cannot change. If humans have proven one thing, it is that they are remarkably good at doing whatever they want, regardless of resources, physical circumstances, or social constraints. History is full of “exceptions,” bursting with the breadth of lived experience. It is also full of contingent moments, of pivotal instances where the outcome was uncertain, where an invention or battle or debate could have gone one of several ways. The lesson of history that we should bring to fiction, fantastic or “realistic,” is that what happened was neither inevitable nor prescribed, and thus there is so much more to learn from it than what those outcomes were.

History should not be confused with what is possible. History is not just the story of the past, but the story of making sense of the past. Inevitably, any story or understanding creates a framework that limits what we see in the past. Hurley, for example, talks about how her preconception of women’s roles as soldiers was upended and changed by a teacher pointing out how many more “exceptions” there were of instances of women fighting in wars. That demolishing of assumptions is precisely what history should do for us, surprising us with new revelations as we rework the narratives.

That reworking is something that we can do in fiction. When I wrote the story “The Scorn of the Peregrinator” last year I wanted to write something in the vein of secondary-world fantasy from a different perspective. I created a small society that had very pointedly tried to get away from the authority of kingship that so often pervades fantasy.  They have tried to create a life for themselves in very inhospitable territory, and have partly succeeded, due in part to a system of magically-bound reciprocity with the “natural” world. And yet, they still have to deal with that larger monarchical system they tried to leave behind and that still tries to demand concessions from them. Right now I am working on a novel that started as a novella for the Clarion West Write-a-Thon last year entitled “No Fealty But to the Sun and Sky” that is about how this community tries to sever their ties to this monarchy by sending a small group of their folk to tell the monarchy to basically sod off.

To do that I need to constantly play with ideas about what is possible in political and cultural behavior. The roles of men and women in the society (which has no name for itself; they are just “the people” and their home is “the hamlet”) are more varied than in other groups because of the way in which they make their livelihood (a combination of hunting & gathering and the production of specialized plants) and because they intentionally strive to create a society where individuals have a relatively high level of autonomy. It has its problems and its inequalities (some of which have only emerged as I write), but it struck me after reading Hurley’s essay that I was trying to create one of those buzzing hives explicitly, to try to explore what that sort of life might be like and how that life would have to deal with other ways of life that found that level of autonomy impractical or unbearable.

Whether it will work or not I can’t say, but making the attempt is illuminating.

4 Comments on More Than Warriors: Thoughts on Fantasy and Gender

  1. Splicer // May 30, 2013 at 7:49 pm //

    My opinion on this matter is that any author can write any damned thing they want to write whether any other person is offended by it or not. I also reject the idea that “male gaze” (whatever that is) matters or should matter. I write from my point of view simply because I feel like it. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. Simple.

  2. I love those quotes, since they they themselves attach ignorance and a lack of morality onto half the world in its millions by default. Gee, I wonder who this mysterious enemy could be. Maybe a basilisk. Damn basilisks.

  3. Paul Connelly // May 30, 2013 at 11:59 pm //

    “Realism” in fantasy is selective at best (an oxymoron at worst) and says more about the author’s conception of what is possible and/or worthy of notice than it does about anything else. Some authors give the impression that they’re writing historical novels with a fantasy element, and history adds an aura of respectability. But just as war is a continuation of politics by other means, history is a continuation of war by other means. And war, which plays such a large role in so many works of fantasy, is an absurd horror movie of simultaneous thuggery, heroism, conniving, self-sacrifice, stupidity and criminality for the speculative benefit of a few at the expense of vast multitudes. Writing about war and warriors and ignoring this absurdity is what gives you a sameness of false realism, while crazed works like Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, and the Malazan Book of the Fallen are probably much truer to the reality.

  4. TrishEM // May 31, 2013 at 2:31 am //

    I just followed the link to The Scorn of the Peregrinator and really enjoyed it; I’ll look forward to that book!

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