The use of bad fiction

January 05, 2004


More on gender roles and fiction, inspired in part by Steven King and the literary authors and in part by watching ROTK.

Historians love second-rate novels - they tend to be more closely tied to the world of the author, they tend to struggle with the social problems of that world, and so they give us a superior insight into one time and place while first-rate novels show us the timeless human condition. Second-rate novels also tend to struggle with genres and conventions, and in that struggle they show us the society. First rate novels, by definition, create new conventions.


I read a lot of light science fiction. Much of this fiction is formulaic, and since my mind looks for patterns I tend to find the formulas eventually. Science fiction and fantasy, being set elsewhere, traditionally contain a mix of "if this goes on ..." and "this is how it should be." The classic example was the tobacco warning in 1950s and 1960s science fiction; the characters all smoke, and the narrator always reminds the reader that smoking is dangerous unless you magically fix the tobacco. Some of these norms are driven by the authors, others by the publisher, and others by the marketplace. Publisher-driven norms often take the form of a formula.

Sometimes formulas collide, and when they do so they give a great look at the author's society. David Drake has made a good career for himself with a formula - he takes historical military campaigns and rewrites them in a science-fiction context. It works, it sells books, and it captures the pulp glory that was popular press from the late nineteenth century.

Science fiction written over the last ten years or so has followed another formula - the future is largely gender blind. Books have an equal number of male and female characters, few jobs are restricted by plumbing, and same-sex sexuality is considered about as important as handedness - you have to keep it in mind, but it has no normative value. In contrast, consider Heinlein's Starship Troopers where the ground-pounders were all male and the space navy officers were all female - gendered division of labor was built into his future society even as he went out of his way to get women into combat.

One of Drake's current projects is a rewriting of Napoleonic sea battles in a science fiction context. He has space ships that rig spars and sails outside their hull, these sails capture cosmic radiation as the ship travels through hyperspace, and the overall feel of his society is built on that of late Georgian England complete with lower class sailors climbing the rigging. In many ways it is Master and Commander with blast pistols and space torpedoes. They are good fun reads, especially the first one in that universe.

But, they are also jarring because Drake is forced to bring two norms together and make them fit. Napoleonic narratives are all male; the women stay ashore or, occasionally, travel as passengers. The crew works in monastic splendor, then once they land they run about spending their back pay on ale and whores. Modern science fiction is half female, and his ships crew fits that norm. Indeed, his loyal bosun is a woman. So, the brawny hornfisted son of the working classes becomes a brawny, horn-fisted daughter of the working classes - and when the ship makes landfall she too goes out into the dives to get drunk and pick up sweet young things. It does not scan to my mind, rooted in the late twentieth century; it is clear that Drake is struggling to resolve to formulas, and in his struggle we see another view of one of the fault lines and recurring concerns of our own culture.

We see a similar struggle with gender roles in Jackson's version of Tolkein. When Arwen and Glorfindel are merged as characters, it not only simplifies the story it also gives the woman a chance to be heroic. Tolkein's Eowyn was compelling because she was an emotionally damaged woman, unwilling to take her prescribed role, unwilling to stay at home while all she loved died, and thus riding in disguise as Dernhelm, with a look of fey grimness as one who did not expect to return from battle. Jackson's Eowyn is not trapped the same way - our modern post-feminist audience would not understand that she was trapped, and would sympathize with her rather than with her father once she was trapped. Rather than showing that she was a damaged woman, she would have shown she was a real woman.

So, Jackson had to revise Eowyn's role. In the process he shifted her relationship with Aragorn, and that in turn required him to change Aragorn's relationship with Arwen. And, the new Arwen makes no narrative sense, adds nothing to the plot, and distracts and detracts the viewer. But, it makes space for the revised Eowyn role. Alas, the revised Eowyn is not quite as wonderful as the literary Eowyn.

Jackson's movie is flawed because he is wrestling with translating cultures, and the world imagined by an Edwardian man who immersed himself in old Norse culture is, literally, unimaginable to most people in the twenty-first century. As he adapted his narrative, he weakened it - and as viewers we are drawn to the broken narrative and try to figure out what went wrong.

Jackson's trilogy are good fun movies, but they are second-rate art.

And this is why historians LOVE bad novels.

Posted by Red Ted at January 5, 2004 01:17 AM | TrackBack