Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Choose Your Own Adventure.

On a cold Monday night in November in a pub in Camden I stood up in a room full of people and read out a rape fantasy:-

Reaching her, he knotted his hands in front of her shift and the fabric like a veil. She could not move. For an instant, he stared at her, at her high, perfect breasts and her short slip, with grim triumph in his eyes, as though he had exposed some foul plot. Then he gripped her shoulder with his left hand and tore away her slip with his right, forcing her down to the sand as he uncovered her.

How she wanted to resist, but her limbs would not move; she was helpless with anguish. A moment later, he dropped the burden of his weight on her chest, and her loins were stabbed with a wild, white fire that broke her silence, made her scream. But even as she cried out she knew that it was too late for her. Something that her people thought of as a gift had been torn from her.

So what possessed me to do it? How come nobody complained let alone punched me? Well, it was because I was at a London Skeptics in the Pub event and the guest speaker Liz Lutgendorff was presenting "You are what you read? Thinking critically about sci-fi and fantasy novels". She was here to present the case that sexism and misogyny is prevalent throughout the sci-fi and, even more so, fantasy novel genre and I think it's fair to say she made a bloody good job of it.

She'd decided to use a bit of audience participation and had handed round excerpts illustrating her point to the assembled attendees. We'd been instructed not to open them until we were called and she also explained that one example was particularly nasty and should carry a trigger warning. Those of you who know me probably won't be at all surprised to find out that that was, indeed, the one I'd been assigned.

It comes from the 1977 book Lord Foul's Bane. Written by Stephen R.Donaldson as part of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series. It's like Wagner's Ring Cycle in book form and features giants, griffins, subterranean 'cavewights', semi-corporeal 'demondims', and, as you've read above, a highly dubious grasp of what's an acceptable method of initiating sex.

Although I got to read out the worst line from one of the worst books it was hardly atypical. I'll give you more examples later but first some back story. Liz, as a fan of fantasy and sci-fi literature, had, a few years back, set herself a quest to read the one hundred greatest ever books in the genre as ranked by the US's National Public Radio's readers.

Sexist gaming scandals and online rape threats were in the ascendancy at the time and, reading these books, it occurred to Liz that, possibly, some of the disgusting behaviour and boorish attitudes being exhibited had been learned by people growing up with their heads in books where women are routinely referred to as bitches, whores, or sluts and mainly exist to have their breasts assessed, get raped, be killed, or, the unholy trinity, all three.

The more she worked her way through these books the more she noticed the same patterns repeating themselves - and not just that of terrible writing. In Terry Brook's Sword of Shannara (also written in 1977) no living female character appears until about three quarters of the way through. Shirl (for it is she) initially rescues one of the heroes but then for what's left of the rest of the epic (in size at least) book she simply hangs off his arm and follows his instructions accepting him as a master.

It wasn't just the seventies. Brandon Sanderson's a big deal right now. 2006's Final Empire is set in a medieval dystopian future in a world with the predictably daft name of Scadrial. It's a place where ash permanently rains from the sky and normal people have no rights yet nobles have superpowers. Because of their superiority they're entitled to "bed" any woman they wish. They just have "to kill her when she's done" to prevent half-breeds.

Anne McCaffrey is a rare example of a female writer working in this genre. Unfortunately the women in her 1968 Dragonflight fare no better than those imagined by her male counterparts. The lead male and female characters hate each other but the dragons they ride around on (fighting a space blight that's threatening to wipe out the planet, obvs) love each other and because the dragon's minds and their minds get intermingled in some ludicrous plot device they end up together. She's not really into the idea so he rapes her and then after that she accepts him as a 'gentle bedmate'. He's the hero remember. Not the baddie.

That's just four examples but there were plenty more and it was a fun, if slightly macabre, and enlightening hour we spent going through them. I wasn't ever a reader of this fantasy stuff (preferring the horror of Stephen King and James Herbert) when I was a teenager and I'm not going to start now. The hilarious artwork and poor prose is off-putting enough but I was hitherto unaware that these books were so horrid.

Liz cited exceptions. Carl Sagan's 1985 Contact about technologically advanced, extra terrestrial life forms. 2013's The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker tells the story of two displaced magical creatures meeting by chance in 19c New York City. Just last year Silvia Moreno-Garcia's debut novel is about a Mexican woman who uses the music of Spanish indie band Duncan Dhu to help her cast spells. I'm quite tempted to read all three of these. They're well received, well reviewed books and nobody gets raped in them.

Of course nobody's saying you can't write about sexism, misogyny, and rape but should it really be written about so often, with so little regard to the consequences, and portrayed as some kind of heroic act? Clearly it shouldn't and, leaving aside the continued appeal of Brandon Sanderson, it's abating. though not quickly enough. What would speed things up is if people stopped reading this rot and chose their own adventures.

For that to happen we'll need people like Liz Lutgendorff to continue to shine a light and for events like London Skeptics in the Pub to give her the platform to do so. Another informative and interesting evening and one I'm glad I spent in the pub instead of reading any more of Lord Foul's Bane.

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