We’re so pleased to welcome William Galaini, author of Trampling in the Land of Woe, to The Novel Approach today. William joins us to chat gender roles in Sci-Fi, and I hope you enjoy.
I remember coming home after classes and racing to the TV to nosh on Fruit by the Foot and watch Star Trek: The Next Generation. One afternoon when I was thirteen, I plunked myself down for this post-school ritual and was confronted with an episode called “The Outcast” about an androgynous species. As the show progressed, Riker engaged in a relationship with Soren, a member of this species, who discovers her female identity.
This was mind-blowing for someone my age. The episode has since been considered one of the best of Next Gen’s run, and to this day, its tragic conclusion resonates with me. Riker was a dog with the ladies; yet in that episode, he fell for an alien that lacked feminine attire or physique. He even threw himself at the mercy of her people’s court, claiming he had led her astray and was solely to blame for her transgressions of gender. The final speech delivered by Soren became the chief argument I continue to use against bigotry.
Beyond making me a diehard Riker fan, that episode is also responsible for my belief that science fiction is the genre best suited to deliver this gender-positive message. Here’s why:
Distributing a controversial idea such as multi-gender equality is a difficult thing to do. A writer like myself can devise a scenario where societal taboos are arbitrarily enforced, and through that proxy, fiction authors can explore character desires and motivations on all sides of the conflict. We can do this without triggering most bigotry-fueled alarms.
Look at the case described above: an adolescent boy sat down expecting mere entertainment and got a dose of reality that changed his perception forever. Given my father was largely homophobic at the time, it might have been difficult for me to access materials that tackled the gender struggles faced by millions of people. Through shows like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, I came to think critically about the issues surrounding me.
You may ask why this responsibility should settle on the subgenre of science fiction, specifically. Why not fantasy? you may wonder. As a genre, science fiction tends to focus on macro-level scenarios either social or physiological in nature. Sure, science fiction sometimes directs these what-ifs toward only a few characters, but far more often, the focus is on entire world-changing stimuli. Such thought experiments can be marvelous proxies for reading audiences to question the nature of gender, gender roles, and the more arbitrary connections between gender and sex. When a reader encounters gender bending or gender dismissal in a thriller, for example, he or she might be put off because it feels “too close” to the world in which the reader personally resides. But a futuristic setting is the perfect marriage of emotional distance (This isn’t my world) and plausibility (I can see humanity functioning like this).
That plausibility is the key. Fantasy works need not impose an expectation of plausibility onto the reader, whereas science fiction must have its basis in plausibility. This is why Star Wars is actually a fantasy work: the Force has zero plausibility within the real world, and when George Lucas TRIED to make the Force plausible (midichlorians), the audience’s rebellion was really a reaction to this genre shift. Simply put, gender exploration in science fiction is more productive than asking the same sorts of questions in fantasy because science fiction has the added benefit of being anchored in plausibility. That plausibility could lead to readers being more likely to apply these differing gender possibilities within their own lives from what they feel to be a safe distance.
Just think of how interesting it would be as a reader of science fiction to come across eight genders in the space of a single novel. What fascinating conflicts and social allegories could be produced! Perhaps there would be human empires so vast that they not only experience genetic drift between their frontiers, but a type of gender drift as well. Or maybe one would find a gender that can only be expressed in cyber-space, or one that flourishes in zero gravity but is stifled planet-side? Advances in genetic engineering could trigger biological variations leading the way to entirely new and previously unthought-of gender categories.
And the best hypothetical of all is this: how would the heteronormative “core” of humanity interact with these genders?
To be fair, several authors have already probed these waters. Joe Haldeman did so with his marvelous novel The Forever War back in the mid-70s, and Charles Stross set the bar for this type of thinking with his 2006 Glasshouse. But we need more. When I crack open a book that takes place in alternate worlds or distant galaxies, I want to encounter characters and settings that are unrestrained by the cozy gender lanes outlined by traditional heteronormative expectations.
The Patron Saints of Hell: Book One
As World War I rages on Earth, Hephaestion, lauded general and soul mate of Alexander the Great—and now a citizen of Purgatory—embarks on the darkest, most challenging journey of his existence: descending into The Pit of Hell to rescue his king.
Chased by Hellbeasts, hunted by Jesuits, and aided by unexpected allies, Hephaestion tests the boundaries of loyalty, dedication, and even death as he faces the greatest demon of all: himself.
A blend of steampunk and Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, Trampling in the Land of Woe drives through the cobble-stoned streets of New Dis, soars above The Pit in airships, and then stumbles down into the terror-ridden rings themselves.
Steam-powered trains, zeppelins, and ornithopters zoom by in a mash-up of literary proportions, all to answer one question: What will one man do to understand the meaning of love and truth?
About the Author
William Galaini grew up in Pennsylvania and Florida. His mother gave him an early love of reading, especially when it came to the great classics of science fiction. He is also a history buff and fascinated by mythology and folklore. His various vocational pursuits include being a singer in a professional high school choir, manager of the call center at a luxury resort, U.S. Army medic, prison guard, and middle school English teacher. As such, he is perfectly suited to breech a solid metal door, humanely restrain the enemy within, and politely correct their grammar all while humming Handel’s Messiah and drinking a lovely cuppa tea.
He currently hangs his hat, rucksack, and tweed smoking jacket in Northern Virginia.