Saturday, August 30, 2008


mr. delagar and I have been listening to Lois McMaster Bujold's "Winterfair Gifts" while we ride around Pork Smith, and I love Bujold, I do.  She and Connie Willis are among my two favorite SF writers.  I totally love what she did with the character of Miles and later with his brother Mark, how she turns the usual SF notion of "genetic" Darwinism on its head (though I do wish she would quit having Miles insist that his deformities aren't genetic).  This is in such nice contrast to earlier science fiction, such as Mack Reynolds Lagrange Five, and Time Enough for Love, and literally dozens of other books in my youth (I can't name them, but I imbibed the thesis like scripture) which took as their theme that the human race had "stopped evolving" when we began "protecting our weak," such as our diabetics, and our cripples, and our children born broken or with Down's Syndrome.  A wise race, claimed these books, would drown such "monsters" at birth.

(Heinlein uses that exact word in Moon is a Harsh Mistress: not a baby, but a monster, which, being born broken, must be destroyed-- and I, at eleven, reading the book for the first time, swallowed that judgment whole, and believed it for the next twenty-seven or eight years, until I met Miles Vorsigan, and also Zelda, who smacked me up across the side of the head one day in class, figuratively, when I said something stupid one day.  Thanks, Zelda!)

The problem with the "drown the monsters" approach, besides how it's evil, since they are babies and not monsters, is that it's wrong.  Not just morally wrong, though that too, but factually wrong. True, when we were living on the Veldt, or in bad situations, there came times when we could not care for marginal members of society.  Those were not usually the damaged, though: I mean, sometimes, yes, no doubt.  But usually it was the old, or the newborn.  Mama can't feed another baby (I'm talking a healthy baby, not a broken one) so she takes it into trees. Or we're trekking to the new waterhole and you break your leg and we can't transport you, so we leave you behind -- not because you're genetically inferior, but just because we can't carry you.  (I suppose some manic darwinist could make the case that you're genetically inferior for slipping and breaking your leg...)

But on the whole, humanity survived because we find ways to take care of one another: to carry you along to the next waterhole, even after you break your leg, because you know what?  You're the only woman we have who know how to make spearheads, and if we lose you we're fucked. And we need to raise up the the little kid with the funny looking back because he turns out to be really good at weaving or working metal or figuring out how to negotiate with those bad fellas one valley over, and damn, isn't it lucky we didn't put him out for the wolves?

We don't only need tall, lean, smug guys who can write computer programs and solve quadratic equations -- in fact, you know, that's a fairly limited skill set -- and if we select for that skill set, we'll be in bad shape, is what I am saying.

Which saying, I like Bujold for what she has said on that point.

But: But: But:

On the feminist question?  She is starting to give me a rash.

Also, you know, okay, the whole feudal estate thing, I get it turns her on.  Whatever.  Me, I want a socialist paradise.  I get we're both living in a fantasy.  I'd love to see one or two annoyed members of the underclass on hers, that's all.  She tells us she has lord who don't act right -- well, where are the working class from those estates, and why aren't they pissed?  Everyone's jolly to be oppressed out there on Barrayar?

Anyway, not my point.  "Winterfair Gifts."

Sgt Taura coms to Miles' Wedding.  

Of course, as with all women in this sort of story, although she is clever in every other aspect of her life, she is too stupid to dress herself.  (Sgt Taura is a furry, half-cat, half human, and bioengineered to be fierce and fast. She's about nine feet tall, with giant fangs, golden fur, and big claws.  Every fella's dream, and all she wants is to be pretty.  She dresses in hot pink with lots of bows, as the book opens.)
Miles has to teach her how to be a real girl (yes! Just like in Pygmalion!).  He sends her to his aunt's dressmaker to whom Taura says, "I've never been to a wedding.  I wasn't sure what it was -- whether I should bring dresses or weapons."*

Aunt Vorpatril replies, "Dear, in the right hands dresses are weapons."

This was my first cough up a hairball moment.  "The fuck?" I said.  "What the fuck did she just say?"

"Hush," said mr. delagar.

The scene goes on.  They sweep Taura into the back, they bring out her hideous stupid clothing and give it to the fella who is obvious going to be her love interest (big dolt from the provinces, very strapping and handsome and brave, loves his Lord with all his loyal heart, took down an evil drug-addled terrorist with his bare hands one winter night, let's give him a round of applause, will we?) to take off and "burn" somewhere.

Later, this fella comes back.  Office Roic, his name is.  (Rock, get it?)

Taura is brought out, dressed in a lovely green whatever, there's a complete description, but frankly who cares, the important bit is how it affects Roic, of course, whose jaw drops.  She's stunning!  She's transformed!  She's -- a Real Girl Now!

Taura frets.  "I'm a bodyguard by trade," she points out to Aunt Vorpatril.  "How will I kick someone in the head in this dress?"

"Dear," Aunt Vorpatril says, "anyone wearing that will have volunteers to do the kicking for her.  Right, Roic?"

Roic closes his jaw and makes gulping noises.

"What?" I said.  "WHAT?"

"Can we just listen?" mr. delagar demands.

"But--" I say.  "But did you HEAR that?  Stand back and look pretty and the big strong men will do it for you?  Did --"

"All right with the feminist critique, I want to hear the book, okay?"

"Fucking crap!" I fume.

"Patriarchy!" yells the kid from the backseat.

"Can you two hush!" demands mr. delagar and turns the volume up.

Nor is this the first time, I might add: here's a fine critique of Civil Campaign, which I found via Feminist SF.

*These are not exact quotations, as I am listening to the text and not reading it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

...human race had "stopped evolving"...
A very quaint viewpoint. It leaves out our most important product of evolution - our brains and society. The path of human evolution (if we can keep from destroying ourselves and the planet) is most likely a transformation by our own efforts into a new creature with immense powers. Almost a decade ago researcher Hans Moravec wrote the book "Robot, Mere Machines to Transcendent Mind" and three years ago Ray Kurzweil wrote "The Singularity is Near". Both may be "over the edge", but it does make one think - what if?