If you are reading this literary column, it can be said with some certainty that you love to travel (mostly on the wings of words, of course). We love a good world made of good words: Middle Earth, Westeros, Hogwarts are probably too good to be true, but … a galaxy far, far away, that sounds almost plausible.
Dear reader, Good stories fulfill the need for escapes, and probably no genre comes as close to fulfilling this very difficult demand as Sci-Fi, or science fiction. As an average Worldbuilding enjoyer, I have often battled with the question of origins of these worlds. Surely these worlds must be inspired by the one we inhabit, right? Let’s face it, even as we talk about ‘multiple realities’, most of us are only privy to our immediate and singular reality. So new worlds must take flight from these experiences with just subtle changes and sly addendums making all the difference.
Image Credits: The New Yorker
Indeed, the issue is not a matter of life imitates art or otherwise, but this: no matter how fictional the worlds of most sci-fi classics get, they are at least very ‘sincere’ in their depiction of women – they simply do not exist. Or well, they do, but only as the most helpless, distressed, objectified stereotypes of their gender. There is some strange misogyny at play in sci-fi, and since most consumers of the genre are men, perhaps that is what has held the genre strongly over these many years: ominously, it gives these men a sense of power over women in a speculative future. Even in the most futuristic settings, a regressive fate awaits the women. Men who write Sci-Fi seem to be straddling a time continuum: they conjure a hypermodern 2150 with the traditional promise of 1750.
In other words, no matter how superbly imaginative the topography of a fictional world is, from Isaac Asimov’s cult classic Foundation series to Frank Herbert’s Dune series, men and their institutions of imperialistic power maintain their supremacy. One begins to wonder if the genre has always had these tendencies. The difficult answer lies in a complex matrix of literary and economic consumption behaviours. Space travel, Sci-Fi, high fantasy; all these avenues have been reserved for the privileged and ‘intellectual’ (*scoffs*) mass culture of men. In 1818, Mary Shelley published a book which is acclaimed as the first Science Fiction ever written: Frankenstein. Readers of the book will instantly remember its complex themes and takeaways. My Shelley professor at Hindu College, Dr. Suroopa Mukherjee used to tell us: “The monster can be right beside you, and you won’t know them.” Spoiler alert if you have not yet read the book, (though honestly, what are you waiting for?) but there’s hardly any doubt that the monster in the book is actually not the unnatural cadaver brought to life, but Dr. Frankenstein, the creator of this monster. Shelley’s message is loud and clear on the threats and vagaries of ambition, and the banalities of the evil called Creation. On the legend of Frankenstein’s monster, however, popular culture informs us otherwise.
Image Credits: The Washington Post
Post-1980s adaptations have managed to humanise the monster and bridge the legacy of Shelley, if only almost 1.5 centuries later, but through most of history, the monster was a figure of horror, a body of abomination, and a product of formidably unnatural disruption in the natural order of life. Before I read the book myself, I had the misconception that the monster is really the antagonist. But Dr. Suroopa Mukherjee changed it with her insistent reminders of the pervasiveness of monsters: “the monster is right beside you.” Seemingly, Shelley implicated an entire structure of toxic ambition, and cast this perversity as the antagonist in her incredibly powerful work of foresight. And yet so much of Sci-Fi that followed is driven by an ambition of similar ilks. The philosophical potency of the Monster has been dragged through the muds of freakish cinematic entertainment, and through the two hundred years since the inception of Sci-Fi, the genre has seemingly been treated similarly. It is not too strange that a genre in all manners created by a woman has over time become male-dominated; Sci-Fi is now touted as a genre created by men for men. Look at this horrid poll, for instance. Naturally, its popularity has been fostered by its pandering to an incredibly gender-skewed readership. No wonder then, that a lot of cult Sci-Fi books propagate not only the stereotypes of a (white) man but also endorse his virile white masculinity as the ultimate power in the fight against evil. A white savior male comes in and saves the world, sometimes entire galaxies, single-handedly. Women are persistently either invisibilized, or they are merely present in their phenomenal absence.
Take the example of Herbert’s Dune (1965). In the book, the Bene Gesserit is a powerful sisterhood, the existence of which is often cited as one of the most progressive feminist stances of the author. A Reddit thread is dedicated to a flabbergasted group of users actually discussing why the Feminist movement has not employed the Bene Gesserit as icons. This inconsequential thread doesn’t even come close to an answer, but if you want to know how the conception of this exoticised and mostly powerless-despite-having-incredible-power group is sexist and fetishist, check this out. Meanwhile, here’s my answer: the ‘sisterhood’ is actually composed of catty witch-women who are always praying against each other – whenever they can spare time from praying for the success of the men they work for. The protagonist Paul’s mother Jessica, introduced as a powerful character, is reduced to a mere shadow, bitter and paranoid, by the end. She is at first a concubine not worthy of a marriage (however, this is explained away by a political reason), and then a failed mother constantly chastised by a white messiah of a son (this is not explained in any way). The white saviorism and toxic masculinity of Dune has actually been written about a lot in recent times, and one hopes that these criticisms might cause for the upcoming Sci-Fi writers and readers what more than 100 years of Feminism couldn’t: an uncomfortable awakening.
Image Credits: Pinterest
The malcontent of sci-fi, seemingly, is a generic tendency to uphold the status quo. Frankenstein, the first book of the genre, however, was a seething cautionary tale against such a culture. Did the legacy of Frankenstein fail in the hands of a male readership? Frank Herbert had supported a “rugged individualism” all his life, Mary Shelley exposed the abject horror of such individualism.The genre presents interesting sociological features of literature: Is there really a feminine and masculine difference in writing? In a more gender-neutral setting, would the legacy of Shelley have been realized better? Admittedly, it is somewhat uncertain to locate the anti-growth of Sci-Fi in the tight binary of 1818 and 1965. No doubt there have been some inspiring works in between, but the scope of this limited column is to simply look at how even as a superhuman-spiritual race of survivalist humans reaches a new planet, it is still too difficult to shirk the very earthly fetishes of autocratic socio-political systems of power. In Herbert’s writings alone, there are explicit evidences of imperialism, brutal colonialism, genocide, race wars/eugenics, toxic masculinity, homophobia, cultural appropriation, and even Islamophobia (even as it derives a lot of its lore from the religion). Some recent critics have suggested – rather scathingly – that even in their dated narratives, books like Dune and Foundation have actually informed the readers/writers how NOT to do sci-fi. The pronouncements still await fruition.
By Kartik Chauhan
A recent English (virtual) graduate of Hindu College (virtual), Kartik is a strong proponent of multiplicities: within and without. Interested in poststructuralisms and postmodernisms, he finds a slippery respite in words – his own and those he reads. Alternatively, he is also very suspicious of ‘isms’. Adding everyday to an ocean-like to-be-read pile of books, he is content with all things literary. Occasionally, he goes out, only to return home with more books. For his book reviews and poetry, you can find him on Instagram @karkritiques. The column, while being about books, poetics and authors, will possibly contradict itself, taking after language, which is significantly more eccentric than any writer/the columnist. More often than not, it would just be a young gusher of good books. It remains to be.