The Grand (Dirty) Old Men of Science Fiction

From PZ Myers, I found this painfully accurate review of Piers Anthony’s Spell for Chameleon. The author of the review, Jason Heller, is in the same position I was in a few years back: rereading some of the fiction he remembers fondly from his youth … and wondering just how much crack he had to be smoking to make this pile of misogyny seem appealing.

The examples of Bink’s misogyny are so numerous and so innocuously presented throughout Spell, it’s hard not to conflate them with Anthony’s own views. Patronizing potshots at women is what passes for wisdom in the book, as delivered through Anthony’s mouthpiece Bink. And every major character in the book, women included, reinforces it.

The namesake of the book, a woman named Chameleon, shifts continually between two poles: smart-but-ugly and pretty-but-dumb (and easy.) I just can’t imagine how that could be seen as misogynistic.

Heller goes on to talk about some of the unjustified pedophilic overtones of Antony’s other works. Honestly, this is small potatoes. Anthony’s works frequently feature rape, S&M, bizarre fetishes, bad science and bad psychology. Off the top of my head:

  • His first book, Cthon, the main character commits rape and there is a race of alien women who are all extreme masochists.
  • In Race Against Time, the protagonists discover that most of the human race has been mixed together, and that they are the last representatives of the distinct races. In the end they decide to abandon their other-ethnicity crushes and re-establish the races of their forefathers.
  • In the Tarot series, one of the main characters is a gay Satanist. Yeah. That lasts until he has to have sex with a woman during a Black Mass and realizes he likes it. Anthony makes it clear in the text that homosexuality is a psychological condition. Oh, yes, and there’s more rape from the protagonist.
  • And don’t get me started on his short stories. Somewhere out there is a psychology student writing an entire thesis on the Freudian implications of “In The Barn” (women-as-cattle) or “The Bridge” (sex with an 8 inch woman).

It’s hard to capture the light, matter-of-fact tone with which Anthony drops most of these. It makes everything go right over the head of the 14 year old reader, but it’s extra squicky for the adult.

Some years back I tried rereading all the classic science fiction that I raided from my mother’s collection when I was in high school. So much of it was misogynistic. Heinlein? Remember Number of the Beast, with a main female character who had breasts with more personality than she had. Asimov? He wrote the book on being a dirty old man. Literally.

There has to be classic science fiction that is better than this, but I can’t remember any. Does anybody remember any of the classic stuff that would pass the Bechdel test?

Onward Chitin Soldier
Awkward Moments Children’s Bible
So Long, And Thanks For All The Memories (From Dan)
Romance at Mars Hill
  • Intelligent Donkey

    I loved Piers Anthony when I was younger. Admittedly there was plenty of stuff that didn’t appeal to me, but the stories were well written. I read the books to be entertained, not to be educated.

    Today, I read quite a lot of online fanfiction, mostly Harry Potter. I don’t read stories that are badly written, no matter how nice the plot may be. But I read plenty of well-written stories with weird plots or politically incorrect content or plots. And the Potterverse is rife with all kinds of bigotry and discrimination. Some stories try to address the bad stuff, others just gloss over it, others again even justify it. But as long as the stories are well-written, I read them all.

    I’m not trying to defend Piers Anthony, but if I only read books and stories that wholly agreed with my own personal views and preferences, there wouldn’t be much literature for me to choose from. And speaking of 14 year old readers, I’m just happy that the little gremlins read at all in a society where literacy has gone out of style.

    • Highlander

      I too enjoyed Anthony as a teenager, I went back in my 30s to reread some of the stuff again and found it wasn’t quite as good as I remembered it. The storylines were childish and predictable, and this wasn’t just stuff I had read as a teenager and was remembering, but some newer stuff that I hadn’t read before. It just goes to show you how much growing you still have to do even in your 20s and 30s.

  • Ross Thompson

    I recently read a bunch of HP Lovecraft and H. Beam Piper, and found then so shot through with naked racism that I almost didn’t notice the misogyny.

    I still like Asimov, though. The sexism in his work seems like a product of his era, rather than a personal failing. But maybe that’s just my nostalgia; I think it’s been a while since I actually read more than a couple of short stories.

  • Chuck Farley

    Is it bad that thoroughly enjoyed Piers Anthony as youth and young adult? I remember both short stories you mentioned and enjoyed them as well. Maybe I was able to ignore the problems because the stories just seemed uninhibited in comparison to other things I had read, and that appealed to my testosterone soaked brain at the time.

    Also, does that mean it’s a bad idea to read Ender’s Game before seeing the movie? I’ve never read it.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      Borrow it from a library, so none of your money goes to OSC.

    • Yoav

      Since movie adaptations tend to suck I would suggest you borrow the book from the library like GubbaBumpkin suggested and just skip the movie.

  • Eli

    I would hope Anne McCaffrey’s books pass the Bechdel test, but I honestly don’t remember. I know people have said her portrayal of gay men was problematic, and it certainly was inaccurate, but given much of what she wrote was in the the 70s and 80s, I’m not sure what to make of that complaint. I certainly thought it was as least attempting to be a positive portrayal, but then, I read her books back in high school, so again, I may just not remember or have caught everything.

    • Mogg

      Consent in any form of sexual relationship is a problem inherent to how the human-dragon relationship in the Pern series is depicted, too, although that topic is addressed somewhat in one of the later books. Interestingly, I seem to recall reading somewhere that McCaffrey was attempting to bring gay characters into a more positive light – possibly in a foreword to Get Off The Unicorn, which had at least one story with a gay character which was not a Pern/dragon story, and was not at all flattering to the gay character. Looking back on some of her writing and some of the attitudes expressed by some of her characters in the Pern books towards the riders who were gay (blue and green dragons being lesser in status, flightier, more sex and emotion-driven, and they and their riders not able to be leaders or even seen as particularly reliable, one of her characters being referred to as a bronze rider and “fully male,” etc), I really, really don’t want to know what a negative picture would have been in her mind, even if she did start writing in the 60′s. Depicting people being scandalised at the thought of a woman rather than a gay man riding a green fighting dragon was an interesting twist, though.

      Some of her books do pass the Bechdel test, which is more than I can say for a lot of the classic Sci Fi I used to read, and she also had female characters who were more focussed on some form of career or calling than on looking after their men and raising lots of babies on far-off planets, which Heinlein had a distressing tendency to have even the strongest of female characters desire above all things. I do have a bit of a soft spot for McCaffrey, as sci-fi with some quite alternative relationships which I read from about the age of 10 and which somehow slipped under the radar of my very Christian mother.

  • dmantis

    I had read and enjoyed Anthony when I was younger as well. I also reread it as I got older and was somewhat shocked by how bad it was.

    Extremely dismissive of the female characters was just the tip of the iceburg. I can’t remember which book I reread, but I remember thinking “Xanth is a teenage boy’s wet dream”. Boys would plant their own field of plants that would grow naked nature nymphs thus explaining the saying “sowing your wild oats.”

    As far as good young adult sci-fi, I always enjoyed the wheel of time series by Robert Jordan. Typical theme of a messiah-like character reborn to save the world, but plenty of femal characters who would pass the test. Unfortunately, later in the series, a few of them do fall in love and then act hopelessly naive from that point on. There are a few that stay strong though.

    The problem is that you have to confine yourself to a monastary to finish the series at this point. There are something like 13 books each with 700+ pages.

  • DesertLady48

    I still like the first books of the Xanth series; but after the 6th one, he spends too much time on sex and teenagers. And if you want far out, the Bio of a Space Tyrant and last books of the Incarnations of Immortality spend way too much time on the sex lives of the characters.

  • tyler

    i remember plenty of these old books. asimov i was always a fan of, and i dabbled in c.s. lewis’ science fiction, and for some reason i dropped mccaffrey’s books after the science fiction twist happened because i guess i wanted fantasy not super soft fantasy sci fi (i did the same with the sword of truth series, though also because that one just became so so difficult to take seriously as the author just started going on tract after tract). dune, too. i wonder how that one would hold up for me today–i don’t recall any memorable female characters, but i don’t necessarily recall them being weak. the concept of the kwisatz haderach is a bit problematic though.

    these days i stick to the extreme hard edge of sci fi. alistair reynolds is an excellent author with some good books, although the revelation space trilogy gets a little… weird in the last book. he seems to be good about his female characters, too, on the good and not so good side.

  • Rich Wilson

    My grandparents were friends with the Heinleins when they all lived in Colorado Springs. When I was about four or five, we took a trip to California and dropped in to visit them in their new home. I had no idea who he was, and vaguely remember the house being very round. I used to have a photo of me, my 17(?) year old aunt, and Robert. My aunt and I are both smiling at the camera. Heinlein was leering at my aunt.

  • mikespeir

    I just tried again to read some Ben Bova (Kinsman), after having sworn I’d never pick up another book by him. I couldn’t do it. Not only is he a poor writer, but I just couldn’t get past the preoccupation of his protagonist with bedding every pretty woman that came into view.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    I recently read Alien Debt by F.M. Busby (C 1984) and was a bit surprised to find some feminist themes. Strong female characters. A male character attempts sexual assault and gets his *** handed to him. Etc.

  • Voidhawk

    Reading a lot of old books usually makes me wince at the sexism or racism. A notable case is The Time Machine by H.G.Wells where the narrator laments that trying to explain the machine to the Eloi would be as futile as ‘trying to explain a steam engine to a negro’

  • BruceMcF

    Ursula Le Guin? There’s a number of authors I read voraciously in my younger days like Zelazny where any distinctiveness in the plots and characters have long since passed out of my memory. But Bio of a Space Tyrant does stand out as “Become Ruler of the Solar System! And Bed All The Womens!”.

    • basenjibrian

      The Left Hand of Darkness remains one of my favorite science fiction novels of all time. The wintry world, the culture, the musings of the protagonist. All in a fascinating biology in which gender is fluid…and the impact of this fluidity on culture and society and relationships. A neat book.
      I need to buy another copy-my paperback version is long gone!