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Admirals and Amazons: Women in Military Science Fiction

Navies clash in the vast depths of space. Intrigue and politics and empire-building — both bureaucratic and territorial — span lightyears, planets, and decades. Explosions, assassination, war, revolution: some of my very favourite fictional things. I really like a good military space opera.

Military SF is, fundamentally, a politically conservative genre. In the original sense of politically conservative, at least: that is, interested in tradition and the preservation of existing institutions. The wild-eyed revolutionary firebrand and the generally stable — even, one might say, socially rigid — institution of the military tend to get along about as well as a house on fire, with a lot of heat and noise and property damage. Which is fine: there’s nothing wrong with conservatism in its place, and the clash-of-armies novel — past, present, or future — is one place where you’re guaranteed to find it. That conservatism is most glaring, though, in my opinion, when it comes to the position of female characters and non-“western” cultures. [1]

[1] For non-“western” cultures… You name me some military space operas where the protagonist is not recognisable as culturally American-descended or, in a minority of cases, British, and I will revise my opinion, okay?

“What?” you say. “But surely the most famous military science fiction series of our time is about a woman? And what about Kris Longknife?”

True! And I am overjoyed that this is the case. But just because we have women in prominent positions doesn’t mean that there are no problems in the field with the position of women — and of non-culturally “western” characters. To take the latter first: Tommy Lien, in Mike Shepherd’s Kris Longknife books, is a nice enough guy, but a caricature of Irish Chineseness.[2] People in David Weber’s Honorverse have a variety of skin tones, but a much more limited variety of backgrounds. David Drake’s With the Lightnings and sequels are clearly, if not explicitly, based on Republican Rome, and the civilised folks/barbarians division inherent in your average set of Roman assumptions doesn’t leave much room for cultural diversity. I could continue the list, but I don’t think I have to: you get the idea.

[2] I know, that’s not a real word. I think the English language will forgive me.

But let’s return to the case of the ladies. Whatever else we may say, we’ve at least moved on from the 1970s  military SF of Jerry Pournelle and David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers, where the only role for a woman was in the rear echelons as support staff, or an unrecognised irregular.

Or have we?

Space operatic military SF is different. By which I mean space navies. Whatever Weber’s flaws, his female characters are not single heroines operating in a void, but competent equals to the men around them.[3] Elizabeth Moon’s space opera includes well-rounded military and civilian women. Walter Jon William’s Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy had some of the most interesting characters, male or female, I’ve seen in space opera in a very long time, and Scott Westerfeld’s decision to write Young Adult fiction exclusively is a great loss for the field, as The Risen Empire aptly demonstrates.

[3] Though one may be tempted to say something about Honor’s near-celibate status for many books (don’t make me count them), and how femaleness is seen as less female when it’s non-sexual — but I’m not a gender studies geek, and besides. I’m not sure I’d believe me.

But elsewhere, it often seems that a girl must still be One Of The Boys to be taken seriously. In Shepherd’s Longknife books, for example, Kris Longknife is portrayed as tougher than a marine, though able to move with ease in high society. I’m not sure whether the handful of Halo tie-ins I’ve read are representative, but this is also true for them. In Drake’s With the Lightnings and sequels, the main female character, Adele Mundy, while not exactly one of the boys, is not what you would call emotionally well-rounded, either. (In the interests of fairness, it must be said that neither is her co-star, Daniel Leary.) Maybe we can put this down to the fact that military SF doesn’t always have a lot of scope for — or interest in — showing life outside the military, and in the present day the ability to be one of the boys is necessarily a military virtue. Fond as I am of space opera, I find this a doubtful argument — but it might be an argument worth having.

So much for the major space navy players. What about military science fiction with a ground combat element? Here the names that come immediately to mind are John Ringo and Tom Kratman, both of whom I find strongly problematic — Kratman, outright unsettling, by virtue of how very much, from where I stand, his books live in Opposite World, and Ringo because I will never again be able to disentangle his SF from that Boy’s Own Adventure of his which I read by accident, immortalised on the internet by Oh John Ringo No.  Their female characters tend to suffer unpleasant fates, or to be relegated to backwaters of the narrative, and the old canard of “no women in the special infantry” is once again in play. Am I being a little unfair? Perhaps. But I see in their work much of the influence of Pournelle, and — to borrow a phrase from a certain fictional curmudgeonly old woman — I can’t be having with that kind of thing at my time of life. I should also, probably, mention Michael Z. Williamson under this heading — though while I find his politics as problematic, his treatment of female characters is less clearly marginalising.

Then again, on the other hand, we have John Scalzi, against whom I can levy no such complaint. Scalzi, unlike Ringo, Kratman, or Williamson, doesn’t have a military background of his own. Yet I find his future military more convincingly science-fictional than those of the aforementioned authors. Why is that? Is it that I find it strange that writers can imagine alien cultures and strange new weapons, but appear unable to see gender in other than the ways they’re most accustomed to?

When talking about women in science fiction, it’s probably best to avoid making inflammatory statements. I’m afraid I’ve not managed that. To make up for it, I’m not going to draw any sweeping conclusions. Instead, I have a question or three for you. Is popular military SF more conservative in terms of gender and race than the rest of the genre? If it is, what factors make it that way?

And if it’s not, what have I been missing?

Liz Bourke is reading for a PhD in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. A longtime SFF fan, she spends her spare time among far too many books.


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