Books

Lost in the gender translation

Gwen Ansell

Pirate, merc and telepath – all female, but some less convincingly so than others, writes Gwen Ansell.

Female protagonists are on the rise in sci-fi and fantasy novels.

THE COPPER PROMISE by Jen Williams (Headline)

UNWRAPPED SKY by Rjurik Davidson (Tor)

THE FOREVER WATCH by David Ramirez (Hodder & Stoughton)

It’s nearly 20 years since cartoonist Alison Bechdel came up with her eponymous test. Originally applied to movies, the test specifies that to demonstrate real gender parity a film must feature at least two, preferably named, female characters who talk to each other about something other than men.

The test has been much maligned and misunderstood. It doesn’t ordain that all movies must meet that standard – though it might enhance quality if they did. Rather, it suggests that presenting an isolated female, even as the “star”, does not justify grandiloquent claims about a film’s gender inclusiveness.

These days Bechdel can be extended to other creative genres – such as science fiction – and to other areas of inclusivity such as race and sexuality. But suggestions that worlds other than those dominated by straight white males could exist has provoked a furious backlash from the fans and writers of Boys’ Own-style science fiction and fantasy, most recently in racist and sexist rants from members of the Science Fiction Writers of America, alleging a “liberal takeover” (if only!) of the Hugo Awards.

From more thoughtful – or marketing-savvy – authors, it has also seen a rise in the number of science fiction and fantasy writers foregrounding female protagonists, or writing in a first-person female voice.

That may or may not work: the female scientists and politicians in Greg Egan’s Orthogonal trilogy, despite their alien form, are engaging women with recognisable gender and human concerns, whereas Walter Jon Williams’s game designer Dagmar Shaw veers uneasily between several kinds of stereotype.

These three debut novels – two fantasy, one science fiction – all have female protagonists, and Ramirez’s also speaks in a female voice. In The Copper Promise, Jennifer Williams was aiming to write what she describes as “old school pulp fantasy, but with modern sensibilities”, and pulls it off admirably.

Her main protagonist, Wydrin Threefellows, is a con artist and sword for hire. Her mother and brother are pirates, so she is really following the family trade. The adventure is, in the old-school heroic fantasy sense, rollicking: sword-fights, monsters, treasure and magic, and while the world-building is not particularly complex, what lifts the tale is the characterisation.

All three of her leads – Wydrin, her disgraced ex-soldier working partner, and an embittered deposed prince – are believable, complex people. Wydrin has doubts, bruises and desires; she talks to female fellow chancers and to a mysterious old glass-maker woman, and usually about the quest in hand. It’s another plot device, the god in disguise, that lets this book down; his nature is far too obvious, far too early.

Australian Rjurik Davidson has created in Unwrapped Sky the closest headspace in a decade to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, although there are echoes of Joseph Conrad too.

This New Weird novel also has three main protagonists: bureaucrat Boris, revolutionary Maximilian, and female mercenary Kata. Again, the characterisation is beautifully done: in this book the world, an imperial city-state, is also superbly built.

All Davidson’s characters face dilemmas and do bad things: Boris betrays his working-class roots to rise, and rapes a slave woman he desires; Maximilian struggles with the disciplines of making revolution; Kata kills. And in the community of revolutionaries she infiltrates, Kata also debates with the many other women fighting for change.

The nature of freedom and free choice illuminate the heart of this book, but the politics emerge from gorgeously baroque scenes, complex characters and tense action.

David Ramirez’s debut novel is a hard science-fiction thriller. In a city-sized spaceship en route from the devastated Earth to a new home, horrific, Ripper-style murders begin to occur. A policeman notices that these incidents are being covered up. His friend and later lover, Hana Dempsey, is the narrator; she is genetically modified to navigate the ship’s telepathic internet and has the skills to put the evidence together.

The plot is fascinating in its intricacy, and there are several twists in the tale as allies become enemies and power shifts; on that level, The Forever Watch is a gripping read.

Hana, however, does not entirely convince. She has girlfriends, but they are so flimsily drawn as to be almost transparent. Her growing desire for the craggy cop is Mills and Boone Modern Romance standard. And her motivation, it turns out, is neither justice nor anti-authoritarian cussedness, but frustrated maternal instinct.

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