Feminist sf, alterity and representation

I am on a top 100 Gender Studies blogs list, inexplicably. And rather excitingly, although I was slightly sad that the geek aspect didn’t seem to be relevant to the maker of the list. Then again, at least she didn’t think it was a tech blog. But if that doesn’t drive me to update, I don’t know what could.

Handily, I even have something to update about. There is currently a fierce debate afoot in the feminist science fiction blogosphere about cultural appropriation, colonialism and the representation of people of color in science fiction. It began with some rather boring complaints from white male writers about how all those nasty politically correct people are taking away their goshdarned right to say whatever they please about anyone without worrying about race or gender (I gather; there is a more nuanced reading of that, I’m sure, but I confess I didn’t read them in much detail, preferring the rest of the posts linked here).

Then Elizabeth Bear* made a post giving tips on how to write the “Other”; “Other” defined as a person very different from oneself, and the summation being to remember that people are people even when there experiences are different. Several people pointed out in comments that there is more at stake than innocent difference when it comes to othered narratives; Deepa D. wrote a stunning, moving response, I Didn’t Dream of Dragons, which talks about (among other things including capitalism, taverns and Enid Blyton) how the ‘treat everyone like people’ argument is flawed when full, novelistic personhood has already been predefined in colonizing terms. She Who Has Hope has also posted some eloquent responses.

Avalon’s Willow wrote an open letter discussing the racial tropes Bear used in her novel Blood and Iron and how they made it impossible for her to read the book. Bear wrote a very gracious response, as did Sarah Monette; Monette’s post provoked a great deal of discussion about the legitimate way to read a text, and whether discarding it for the painful issues it touched upon is a ‘valid’ reading. Those were some moments when I felt a little embarrassed to be a literary scholar, especially because I think my reading of the novel in question would probably have leant heavily toward the critique of imperialism the author discusses as her intention rather than the reproduction of stereotypes Willow found in it.

Critique and reproduction often sit uncomfortably close; I can think of several episodes of Doctor Who that offer similar, probably less complex, examples. I’ve often been driven to question my own comfortable critical interpretations that privilege clever commentary over unpleasant imagery by reading antiracist fan discussions of how popular culture and sf texts reproduce racist tropes and stereotypes while claiming to challenge or critique them, and I’m grateful for the education. I’ve also often been driven to question my uncomfortable emotional and political interpretations that privilege unpleasant imagery over critical commentary by reading critical texts and having intellectual discussions in both academia and fandom; sometimes I’m grateful for that education, and sometimes I’m (to put it politely) not. It will be interesting to see which interpretation I pick up when I get around to obtaining a copy of Bear’s book

I am currently writing my PhD field exams, so I am going to cut short these ruminations and play World of Warcraft for the restorative hour or so I have been engaging in during this process, before I go to bed early in order to get up at the sparrow’s fart and write. (I am not a WoW geek by any stretch of the imagination. I like to be low level, not get involved, kill things and look at the pretty graphics. I find it very relaxing, mainly because there is very little chance of my ever studying it.)

Just one word of warning: All of the above-linked posts are thoughtful, well written, and expressed with grace and clarity even when they are filled with anger. The comments are not so (well, some commenters are all of these things, but many are not). Be prepared for foolishness, and don’t go reading them all unless you enjoy car crashes. However, many of the impassioned posts are responses primarily to the comments, so you probably do want to read enough to get a fair impression. Also, there are lots more posts linked from these and others I haven’t yet seen myself; lots of people are weighing in.

(This post contains many of the mutant parentheses I excise from the essays I am writing for exams. Sorry about that. I am sure my committee will thank you for taking some of the convolution off their hands.)

*I have read one book by Elizabeth Bear, Carnival. I thought it was a well-written, nicely queer and engaging update on feminist science fiction concerns, and much appreciated the nod to Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett’s under-read opus. Which I was privileged enough to read an original edition of at the British Library this summer; I thought of its degraded cheap paper as I cited it in my field exam essay on early twentieth century utopianisms.

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