At Play on the Planet of Men

“His mother had often said, when you choose an action, you choose the consequences of that action. She had emphasized the corollary of this axiom even more vehemently: when you desired a consequence you had damned well better take the action that would create it.” — Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory

There is an age-old fallacy that science fiction is for boys, by boys. Despite an abundance of evidence that this is just flat-out wrong, many publishers of books and games, and makers of movies, cling to it with dogged tenacity. Lois McMaster Bujold entered into this fray in the 1980s, when the debate about women and minorities in science fiction was not nearly as fiery as it is these days — but that’s because there wasn’t really any debate taking place at all. When she decided to become a science fiction and fantasy writer, she took the most direct route: she wrote a novel. When she was unable to find a publisher, she wrote another and sent it out as well. And then another while she was waiting to hear anything about the first two.

Eventually her second novel, The Warriors Apprentice, caught the eye of Jim Baen and Baen publishing. He agreed to publish all three books (the other two being Shards of Honor and Ethan of Athos). And so was launched The Vorkosigan Saga and the career of the one of the most beloved and decorated modern science fiction authors (five Hugos, three Nebulas, and three Locus awards — don’t even get me started on the number of nominations) in a very (arguably entirely) male-dominated industry. Bujold is not quiet about being a woman in science fiction, and certainly not unaware of her position, but she’s prone to simply letting her career speak for itself and — my words, not hers — serve as a model and an inspiration.

Lois McMaster Bujold. Photo by Carol Collins

I came to her in the most scientific of manners: by grabbing books at random off a shelf based entirely on their covers. The book that caught my eye was Ethan of Athos, the cover of which looked like a throwback to old pulp art without trying to look like a throwback to old pulp art. Also, there was a guy on it I could swear just wandered onto the cover from a Six Million Dollar Man novelization. I scooped it up and started reading. Much of the book was familiar: a faraway planet with futuristic technology, a space station, a tough wisecracking mercenary woman. Safe science fiction territory, right? Except for one small tweak: the main character, a scientist named Ethan Urquhart, was from a planet populated entirely by homosexual men (save for the small population that has taken a vow of celibacy).

Although Ethan of Athos was one of the first three novels Bujold wrote, it is only tangentially related to the overall series that became The Vorkosigan Saga. The books run the gamut of styles, from sweeping space opera and military scifi to mysteries, political thrillers, comedies, and romance and focus on Miles Vorkosigan, his military father, and his liberal scientist mother. Poisoned while he was still in the womb, Miles is physically frail and underdeveloped in a society that prizes military acumen and physical fitness. Through determination, intelligence, and cleverness (to say nothing of luck), Miles carves a life for himself in this hostile environment. Oh, and on the side he accidentally bluffs his way into becoming one of the most legendary space pirates in the galaxy.

The Vorkosigan family does not appear at all in Ethan of Athos. A supporting character, Commander Elli Quinn of Miles’ Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, from The Warrior’s Apprentice becomes a major character in this story, but the book is otherwise self-contained. It is a slim novel, considered by many to be a light-hearted lark when measured against the greater portion of Bujold’s writing. It is a throwback to the classic scifi pulps of the Golden Age, as well as a subversion of that same age in how it politely forces questions about gender, sexual preference, sexism, and religion. At the same time, the book deals with these elements in a way that is, if not quite breezy, certainly not heavy-handed or preachy.


It is a reflection of the way Bujold handles her own career. Her goal is to write a ripping good space adventure, not a manifesto. The themes of the book emerge organically from the plot. In a perhaps partially coincidental reflection of science fiction fandom, Athos is a planet colonized by a religious sect that figured women were the cause of too much sass in the world, and so everything would be cool if the guys all got together and started their own planet. Some generations later, women have taken on an almost mythical, boogeyman role. This is a problem when their genetic banks are corrupted. Ethan has to leave Athos and seek out a new source they can use to grow their children. This brings him into contact with a host of ramshackle citizens of the galaxy — including these dreaded “women.”

Ensconced as we are now in a necessary but unnecessarily ugly debate on female, minority, and LGBT creators and fans in science fiction, fantasy, comics, and gaming, it’s hard not to see Athos through the prism of men’s rights advocates and juvenile “no girls in the clubhouse” fandom. Bujold attacks the issue, but she does not condemn the person. Ethan is a good guy but is someone who has been raised to think a certain way. He freaks out when his assumptions are challenged. Thrown into a partnership with a take-no-crap woman when, a couple days before he didn’t even know what a woman looked like, Ethan is a more sympathetic and thus hopeful portrayal of male bias than some moustache-twirling villain (the book has its fair share of those, too). The debate that emerges from his gradual evolution is more effective for being polite and reasonable.

Ethan himself is helped along the road to not hating or fearing women by discovering that he himself is subject to ridicule and prejudice. On Athos, homosexuality is simply the way of the world. No one gives it a thought. Off Athos, Ethan quickly discovers homosexuality is not as common or accepted as he assumed (actually, it never even occurred to him he would need to assume that). Suddenly a victim of sneered jokes and aggressive prejudice, it makes his eventual partial — Bujold is not unrealistic about the amount one person can change overnight — revelation about women more convincing.

That is a lot of heavy business, ain’t it? Well, it’s delivered amid a boiling cauldron full of space station intrigue, industrial espionage, laser shoot-outs, wisecracking, and all around adventure. The best way to subvert a genre is to be a great example of that genre, and Ethan of Athos is fantastic scifi pulp. This is no case of wrapping a bitter pill in a tasty piece of cheese. For Bujold, there is no reason a science fiction novel that deals with gender and sexual preference needs to taste bitter at all. She sets her stance in the battle for acceptance of women in science fiction in the most effective way I can think of: by being one of the best goddamn science fiction authors in the galaxy.


Please welcome our new Science Fiction / Fantasy Editor, Keith Allison. Keith guest starred on The Gutter last February with, “The Monster in Me.”  You can see more of Keith’s writing at his cult culture website Teleport City.

8 replies »

  1. “one of the best goddamn science fiction authors in the galaxy”…

    Hear, hear! Bujold is wonderful! One of the best character writers in the business (with, possibly, cumulatively the worst cover art).


  2. I’m not a huge science fiction fan and I’ll accept correction if I’m up the wrong creek here….but when I was a little sproglet, there was always a lot of talk about feminist and lesbian-seperatist-utopian science fiction (and yes, ‘lesbian-seperatist-utopian science fiction’ is a genre, in the same way that ‘post-apocalyptic rollerskating movie’ is a genre.) I think that ‘Canopus in Argus’ or ‘The Marriages Between Zones 3, 4 and 5’ might even have been my introduction to politicised LGBT discourse.

    So maybe someone can tell me what changed: how did science fiction change from the promise of being a radical discourse on gender politics (and I remember some very serious scholarship crossing backwards and forwards between feminist philosophy and science fiction; Susan Griffin on contraception, reproductive technology and parthenogenesis stands out most; and Marge Piercy on sex robots….FOR GIRLS!) and into what you called “no girls in the clubhouse” fandom.


  3. Welcome Aboard, Keith, a real nice article to start off with, too. I wish that the overall Science Fiction genre had more respect for the social sciences, but it seems like I see an awful lot of (male) fans take a somewhat dismissive view of the writers who explore social-concepts as opposed to technological.


  4. ProfK — First of all, good to see you over here! Second, and to address your question, I think feminist science fiction has always been a niche or a movement, and when measured against the greater universe of the mainstream, it is tiny and largely ignored. Back when I was in college, I took a class on feminist science fiction, and I think such academic settings comprise the bulk of where such stories get read. With the very rare exception — Handmaid’s Tale, basically — they never escape into a more public sort of consciousness.

    This is mostly, I think, because of bias against women int he field and the types of stories they might chose to tell, but it also probably has something to do with the type of writing. Being a fan of 70s scifi as I am, I have no problem with stories that hammer home their point, but I also recognize that can turn some people off. I think what Bujold does is great because her point is so woven into the fabric of great space opera that it takes root in a much easier, perhaps more subversive fashion.

    I think that sort of attitude — going out and doing it — is what will really win the day. Since we are in this period of really intense debate among fans about gender and race, it may seem worse than it’s ever been, but to me that means it is better than its ever been, because now the issue is front and center. And progress is being made, at least in literature. Regardless of any opinion of the merits of the work, the biggest successes in recent years — Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter (funny to think of HP as almost an elder statesman at this point) — were all written by women.


  5. NefariousDro — I think you are probably right regarding dismissing social/emotional content over technological/action oriented. And One could delve pretty deeply into the psychology behind that. I’m not up to that task, but I do think Bujold does it right by writing stories that contain both, and where one doe snot overpower the other or seem out of place. One of the novels in the series, Cetaganda, is very much a romance, dealing with Miles Vorkosigan as he leaves puberty and really gets his first adult “crush.” It’s a wonderful story, and the tendency of male readers to traditionally be “put off” by romance is negated by the fact that the book is also full of space travel, political intrigue, and adventure — which is actually not at all uncommon in many romance novels.

    I bet this has a lot to do with Bujold having grown up on the scifi novels of the 60s and 70s. We still had plenty of rock ’em sock ’em back then, but it was also a time when authors were not afraid to wear emotion and social belief on their sleeve with absolute earnestness.


  6. Nefarious: Not to make a manifesto statement or anything, but aren’t we ready for the idea that much like “The Personal is Political”, then “The Technological is the Social”. That’s what I took away from Gibson, and what led me backwards down the path through modernism and Dada and German Expressionism, and led me in a big loop through the idea that science fiction is a great medium for expressing and discussing actual philosophical ideas.

    Yes, some of the early works are terribly tubthumpy, but then I listen to Crass and Minor Threat, so I’m not exactly in a position to complain about that. What Keith said about Bujold really got me excited, as in, the idea that someone can communicate social and sexual ideas and not neglect the fistfights and ray guns and the detailed descriptions of how warp drives actually work.

    I guess, what I love about the idea of feminist / feminised science fiction is the fact that, at long last, it seems to be a movement that can do both of those things, and in daring ways. Moving beyond “Cosmetic Surgery is a weapon of the patriachy! Grrr!!” to “Why not imagine a universe of cybernetics, body modification and repoductive technology as a means of transcending deterministic teleology”. Not just “Look! My evil space empire is a metaphor for European Colonialism. Do You Get it?? Do you???” to “what if there was a way for the empire to be benign and not exploitative. But still have lots of court intrigues, assassinations and space battles”.

    Look, I’m not nearly a good enough writer to pull off anything like that, but I think that someone is, and the movement we’re discussing seems like the best place it’s coming from right now.


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