The Aeronaut’s Windlass (Book 1 of the Cinder Spires)
The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Book 1)
The Just City
Remember when the standard ‘alternative’ fictional heroine (alternative, that is, to the standard spouse-seeking Stepford model) was the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG)? The term was coined by critic Nathan Rabin back in 2007. He soon had second thoughts. He had intended it as a description of ersatz quirkiness in a female character (pink hair, say, or a fondness for reading crystals) manufactured only to awaken some male loser; a comment on unimaginative, sexist scripting. It was rapidly co-opted to misogynist, normative purpose to diss any offbeat female protagonist. Katharine Hepburn as an MPDG? I think not.
Sadly, despite Rabin’s clarification and retraction, the MPDG script trope refuses to die. But ersatz alternative now comes in many more flavours. In fantasy, thanks to Arya Stark and Katniss Everdeen, the new alternative is the KFC: the kickass, feisty child-woman. She may be a princess sneaking out to the guard compound to learn martial arts, an urban rebel sewer-rat or a peasant nifty with bow and arrow, but she’s always young enough to look cool in fighting leathers, and she never subverts patriarchal fantasy stereotypes by any other tactic than adopting them.
But ‘feisty’ is not a term of praise for a woman. At best, it is patronizing and discriminatory (it is not applied to men); at worst, its Middle English origins allude to a lap-dog that can produce nothing more threatening than a fart, so you’re essentially labelling Katniss a smelly little bitch.
Popular fantasist Jim Butcher’s latest book, The Aeronaut’s Windlass, reeks of feistiness and several other varieties of cliché, from a rebellious aristocratic daughter to a Thieves Guild; from a disgraced but secretly virtuous captain to a coldly sinister female mage; not to mention those steam-punky aeronauts and their battles – a little bit CS Forrester, rather more Naomi Novik. It’s a competently crafted but over-familiar world, and if you refer to the fantasy cliché list at http://www2.silverblade.net/cliches/ you’ll find a great many boxes to check. There are even talking cats. Seriously Butcher, your books already sell millions. You don’t need to do this.
But the problem isn’t Butcher’s alone. The conventions of heroic fantasy demand remarkable individuals. Writers sometimes sketch societies and worlds thinly, in familiar, reader-pleasing tropes, deliberately to foreground character and action.
It’s often unsatisfying stuff. The most enthralling genre writing gives those individuals strong new worlds to inhabit. In those settings, gender stereotypes are challenged not only by how women behave, but how men do too.
The worlds of NK Jemisin and Jo Walton’s most recent books could not be more different from one another. The Fifth Season explores how a world, Stillness, copes with regular near-extinction from the volcanic convulsions of earth and tides. Orogenes (“roggas”) can provoke or moderate these convulsions. (As a writer of colour, Jemisin created that near-homophone for another, uglier term of difference very deliberately and it disturbs no less.) The Just City imagines a world where the goddess Athena plucks individuals out of their time and sets them down on pre-eruption Thera, as part of an experiment to see how Plato’s imagined republic would work out in practice.
Both books deal – to gripping and challenging effect – with difference and power.
In Jemisin’s world rigid, detailed laws control social survival through the near-extinction events. The assimilated orogenes of the Fulcrum – the state-run order of earth-shifters– police their own, and ruthlessly crush any behaviours that could discredit them. Families and communities police the ‘wild orogenes’, often by lynching them. We experience this through the lives of three generations of women. The child Damaya is a rogga. Rejected by her family, she is taken for the Fulcrum. Syenite is an ambitious young Fulcrum officer climbing the ranks. Essun is an older villager, keeping her orogenic talents and those of her children hidden.
Jemisin’s Stillness is a wholly unfamiliar place. Physical appearance, brain functioning (there really are six senses), physics and cosmology are alien (and the science is pretty cool too). It is an extraordinary creation and Jemisin’s formidable craft as a wordsmith is what makes it and its characters convince. As her narrative shifts between first, second and third-person voices, we live the world from the inside, and as an observer. From both perspectives its injustices hurt.
Jo Walton’s first-person, multiple viewpoint narrative introduces us to Maia from Victorian England and Simmea from ancient Coptic Egypt, and to Athena’s brother Apollo, whom the goddess has invited along for the ride, and who has shed his divinity for the chance. Apollo is bewildered that the nymph Daphne preferred turning into a tree to being raped by him: he needs to learn about free will and equality.
The Just City is a beautiful place: constructed to classical and Renaissance standards; and populated by elite individuals (the Guardians) from many eras who have prayed to Athena to make it real, plus liberated slave children who can rise to elite status if the Guardians judge them fit. Many of the elite are women, attracted by Plato’s noble generalities about gender equality. Athena imports robots from the far future to handle the hard labour, while committees plan regulations, censorship, dress and more, conforming as closely as they consider practical to the minutiae of the book. New Socratic dialogues and echoes of old ones happen, as the characters argue their views, but Walton the writer ensures the protagonists are rounded, attractive characters, not ciphers representing positions.
In both societies, planned breeding is a major oppression. Roggas are bred to one another to intensify talent. The Just City follows Plato’s blueprint for state-run mating programmes to ‘improve the stock’ on the model of animal husbandry. In both places, the power of others over whom and how to love deforms relationships.
It’s visceral when Jemisin makes us share Damaya’s pain as her hand is broken by her mentor, to illustrate the dangers of a rogga wanting free will. It’s equally visceral when Maia is raped by another attractive Guardian, who is all the while explaining why she ‘really’ wants it. It is no less searing when master rogga Alabaster, prized as a breeder for his exceptional talent, discovers the fate of his children, or when Kebes, one of the Just City’s former slave children, suffers the consistent, ‘kindly’ erasure and negation of his former identity. It is genuinely joyful when Syanite discovers the freedom to control her own powers and loves, or Simmea the freedom to read, argue and paint.
The women in these books are strong, and they certainly kick ass. In the Just City Simmea regularly wrestles Apollo to the ground; other women excel in debate or art. On Stillness, wrathful female orogenes can hurl cliffs around. Strength comes from many sources: talents, physical power, intelligence – and the ability to handle difference in myth-ridden societies, deeply fearful of innovation. Plato’s ostensibly rational Just City proves itself every bit as myth-ridden as the rural backwoods of Stillness when Sokrates arrives, asking dangerous questions such as what Plato knew about parenting or whether robots enjoy their work.
Maia, Simmea, Syanite and the others are far more real and attractive than any solipsistic, one-dimensional KFC. Their impact as characters comes from writing that sets them in richly imagined worlds and societies. Wherever there is power, whether in history or on another planet, there will be abuses of that power and resistance to it; people who compromise for the sake of relative privilege, and rebels who risk everything to say no. Those are the tales that compel and the heroes – of whatever or no gender –we want to read about.
Photo credits: Main photograph is by author.