Friday, September 04, 2015

Teaching Utopian / Dystopian Lit

Right now in my Popular Lit: Utopian / Dystopian Lit class, I have the class considering a trio of texts.

We are just finishing up reading Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, while at the same time we are watching John Carpenter's Escape From New York.  Then, after Labor Day, we will read Joanna Russ's The Female Man.

Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966)

If you are not familiar with Heinlein's classic SF work, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a Utopian novel set in a prison colony.  (There's a McGuffin plot about a Revolution, which is almost incidental.) Heinlein posits that if we transport a heap of prisoners, many of them political, but some of them actually criminal, to a prison world from which they have no escape, and dump them with no laws and no social controls except those they make themselves, what will evolve will be an anarchist Utopia.

I'm interested in this particular as a feminist for what Heinlein says about the women in this Utopian world -- he argues that, because in any prison colony, men will outnumber women by about ten to one, women are a scarce commodity (and yes, that is the language Heinlein uses for them throughout: women are a good, like air, and water).

Because women are a scarce commodity in this ultimate free market, women get to set the rules for how they are sold.

Apparently this disconnect did not at all bother Heinlein. (Does air get to set the rules for how it is sold?  Does grain? Why would any form of property get to set the rules?)

In his Utopia, he claims, women are all powerful. Oddly, we don't actually see women being powerful -- well, except that they get to have a lot of sex, with whatever man (or lots of men) they want to.  This is Heinlein's vision of empowered women.  Free to have plenty of sex with plenty of men.

Not that I am anti-sex, mind you.  But that is the only sort of power women are allowed, in Heinlein's Utopia. Where are the women who want to be engineers, or welders, or cooks, or university professors, or doctors, or surgeons, or philosophers, or Lesbians? Or not have sex at all, with anyone?

We do see at least one woman who is running a small business: she runs a beauty shop.  So that's possible. But she's also married to six men, and has eight children.

All of Heinlein's women always have eight or nine or fifteen kids. Heinlein seems incapable of understanding that women might not want to have more than one or two kids.

In any case!  In this prison colony, women are perfectly protected!  There's no rape! Even little girls are perfectly safe!

Well, except for the child prostitutes. Heinlein has his main character, Mannie, discuss this rationally.  No such thing as statutory rape, he explains.  Just 12 or 13 year old girls who can be "slot-machine" prostitutes if they want to, which is their free choice.  All women get to make their own choices once they're "husband-high," which is once they're old enough to bleed, apparently.

And -- at that point -- all the men on Luna start pressuring these 12 and 13 year old children for sex.  But that's not statutory rape.  That's the free will choice of these children, who are old enough to make their own choices.  Says Heinlein.  In his description of Utopia.

And if they were decent girls, they'd choose to get married, as his main character's youngest wife, Ludmilla does -- 14 years old, she married into their line family, where the oldest husbands are, apparently, at least 70, maybe older.

Other than the squick about women, Heinlein's Utopian world is relatively orderly.  People have jobs; the corridors are well-kept; children are everywhere and (apparently) protected.  How is order kept when there are no laws?

Well, the social contract.  And if you don't keep the social contract, people will pitch you out the nearest airlock.

Yes, it's the death penalty in this Utopia for any sort of rudeness or misbehavior.  Heinlein's old An Armed Society is a Polite Society maxim again. The check on it he posits is that the other part of the social contract is that people expect you to pay the debts of the man you toss out the airlock, and support his kids, if any.

In his Utopia, this works.


I mean, why would someone who didn't want to support those orphans just light out for Hong Kong Luna?  Or why wouldn't a bunch of men gang up and take over a big piece of the warrens, and start tossing people they didn't like out of the airlocks, and say, New rules. All your women are our women, and all of you now owe us 50% of what you can grow, and if you don't like it, we're throwing you out the airlock?

Heinlein doesn't explain that.  He has an aside where he claims that one "gang boss" was too stupid to survive on Luna.  That's as far as he goes.  Obviously, he wants us to believe, Social Darwinism will lead to the good guys surviving.

Yeah.  Because that's what we see whenever we don't have a government or laws.  The Good Guys always win out.

Escape From New York (1981)

Those of you who know this movie can see the parallels.

This is a dystopian movie, made in 1981, back when everyone was convinced the crime rate was skyrocketing and everyone was convinced it would continue to skyrocket (remember Super-Predators?). In the mythos of the movie, New York has been sealed off, and turned into a prison colony.  No laws, no guards, inside the walls. (Apparently food is dumped inside once a month.)

Here, we see a more realistic view of what might happen in a prison without any social controls whatsoever, especially one where there are very few women. Gangs control various areas of the city. There is some attempt at farming, art, and small business; but the chaos of being surrounded by (real, not utopian) anarchy keeps anyone from progressing very far.  You are too busy fighting off rival gangs, in other words, to get very much real work done.

And yes, women are property -- actual property.  We see very few of them, because, like the food, women are fought over and consumed.  That's what would happen, no matter what Heinlein wants to claim.

Carpenter shows this visually early one when he has one woman literally consumed by the zombie characters. We see another woman in the process of being gang-raped. (Those who watch this movie only once may miss this.  A major flaw of the movie is how dark it is.  Often it's hard to actually see what is happening on the screen.)

No laws or customs prevail. Heinlein's Mannie makes the claim that in an anarchy people would have to keep their word, because who would do business with you if they couldn't trust you to do what you said?  But here we see what happens in an actual anarchy: people break their word and their faith easily and without a second thought, taking what seems like the best deal at the time, and stabbing one another in the back (often literally) as necessary.

If you have enough power, or something to sell, you survive, for a time, in this dark world. As soon as you don't, you don't.

Joanna Russ, The Female Man (1970/1975)

Full disclosure. This is one of my favorite books, and a major influence on my life and my writing.

Joanna Russ wrote it in 1970, at the height of the feminist movement, equidistant between the publication of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and the release of Escape From New York.  How much the Heinlein novel influenced her, I can't say; obviously, the rampant sexism of (male) science fiction of the time was a heavy influence.

Well, the rampant sexism of the world in general.

Here, on Russ's Whileaway, we see her Utopia. (We'll see a dystopia, too, in Jael's world, but I've always found that section of the book less interesting.)

Whileway is a world where the all the men died in a plague, 800 years previously.  The women have evolved a society in which women form pair bonds (usually), raising children, which they create through the merging of ova, in group families, to the age of five.

At five, children are sent off to school. At twelve, all children become semi-autonomous, and begin to travel the world, seeking out work and life experience.  At seventeen, they are granted near-adulthood status, and given jobs -- not real jobs, but the grunt-work every society needs done. At twenty-two, they are adults, and may marry and start their life's work.

The main picture Russ gives us of Whileaway, though, is of a world without sexual predators.  No one on Whileaway hunts women for sex.  No one on Whileaway worries about being raped, or murdered because some man decided she was his property,

No one on Whileaway has to spend large amounts of energy soothing a man's ego or worrying about whether she is speaking in just the right tone to keep a man happy or is she performing her sexuality in exactly the right way -- not too slutty?  Not too butch?

Women on Whileaway, Russ says, have awfully big asses.

I remember the shock I read that sentence with at fifteen. No. I kept reading the sentence, trying to believe Russ meant something else by it.  How could she give these women, who were supposed to be so wonderful, big asses?

I mean, that's the worst thing you can say about a woman.  (Well, nearly. I mean you can also say she's ugly, or a slut. But still.)

It took me so long to see that was her point.  On Whileaway, women don't exist for the male gaze.

Holy hell, what a difference that makes.  It's almost...utopian.

1 comment:

D Shannon said...

"Heinlein posits that if we transport a heap of prisoners, many of them political, but some of them actually criminal, to a prison world from which they have no escape, and dump them with no laws and no social controls except those they make themselves, what will evolve will be an anarchist Utopia."

Something just like that has already happened.

It's called Pitcairn Island.

True, the mutineers transported themselves there, but they were headed for prison if they attempted to return to any place under British control. The island was uninhabited, and it became a prison when they set fire to their ship. They turned the women they took to the island into slaves, and most of the men there were killed by other mutineers. It was the total opposite of a utopia.

I'm wondering how Heinlein could have been unaware of that historical example.