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Marissa Lingen

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The Nebula Awards Showcase 2011, edited by Kevin J. Anderson [May. 24th, 2011|09:52 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Review copy provided by Tor.

I received this book--a collection of last year's Nebula Award winners in short form and many nominees--on the same weekend as this year's Nebula Awards were announced. It looks to me very much as though the Nebulas were a different slate last year, with none or only one of the fiction awards given on what looked to me like a "lifetime achievement" basis.

Unfortunately, what the winners in fiction had in common was something I brought up as problematic when I read Paolo Bacigalupi's winner in the Best Novel category: sexual violence. I wish I could say I was surprised that this was the common thread among award-winners in our field, but I'm not. It has gotten--as I said in the entry linked above--wearing and wearying to me.

I was trying to form hypotheses about why we would have so many sexually violent stories in the field lately. Hypothesis A was that it is a very emotional topic for a lot of people and thus makes for powerful stories. Kij Johnson's "Spar" in the Nebula Awards Showcase is pretty strong evidence against Hypothesis A, however, as I found it to be one of the weakest short stories I've read in years. (I expect this not to bother Kij a bit if she comes upon this entry--Nebula Awards make awfully good consolation against lone readers finding a story not to their taste.) Hypothesis B, that this is all a coincidence, is rather hard to cling to in the face of such consistent evidence. Hypothesis C, that readers or at least awards voters feel that stories with this element are daring and new, would be rather a slur upon the readers' intelligence at this point; Hypothesis D, that readers find them titillating, is even worse. I'm at a loss. What's going on here? Why so much rape, assault, and generally problematic consent now in particular?

And as I said in September: it's not that no story with sexual violence can be good or powerful. It's just that I am so very tired of them, and also that sexual violence does not make a story good and powerful. There were good things to be said of the stories that bothered me in this way. Kage Baker's "The Women of Nell Gwynne's," for example, has Baker's usual engaging voice. Unfortunately, this voice was used to tell a Happy Hooker story: we are assured more than once that while some people would be bothered by prostitution, Our Heroines are cheerful and fulfilled and not the least bit affected by it--nor are they apparently bothered by the fact that they are the fairly ignorant tools of a group of powerful men who direct the use of their skills to the said powerful men's ends, bribing the women in fairly explicit infantile fashion with shiny steampunk baubles. No, really. No, really. There was a scene where one of the grateful whores called her technological benefactor Father Christmas in a flirty way. That is how explicitly infantilized these women were. The plot was about a short story's worth. I was greatly disappointed. The story notes--by someone close to Kage, since she died before the collection was compiled--talked about how a bordello is a classic place to mock people in power, but the mockery was fairly confined to, "Hey, some rich people are decadent and/or pathetic!" and did not examine the power dynamics in the interesting relationships in the story in the slightest.

I felt that Eugie Foster's "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" had the most engaging use of its premise, of all the winners, and the least problematic use. I got a little caught up in the logistics of mask use, but the story made me think in more than one direction, none of which were "aaaaaagh make it stop," and was much more in line with what I want of a story marked as interesting/honored.

As for the other nominees and honored stories, I'm sad to say that the ones I liked best were the ones I'd read before. I'm glad Tor put this volume out and glad that they sent me a copy--it's extremely useful to have this kind of snapshot of the field and the awards selections within it. But it also reinforced my sense that my taste and the taste of the SFWA membership at large is not very congruent.

[User Picture]From: dhole
2011-05-25 05:54 am (UTC)
I've been thinking about this for a while, and there are a couple of things that struck me as possible. One is that sexual assault is a way to hurt a character without killing them or sending them to a hospital. It establishes damage, without the loss of hit points.

The other one is sort of related. Having a sexual assault in a story means that it's a serious story. I think there's a certain pressure to do this in fantasy and science fiction, because the premises are often silly; I am not sure how many rapes it takes to make people not laugh at future where power production is based on springs, but I think that might partially explain the rapeyness.

As far as the hooker thing goes, though, I really dunno. I guess it's a thing--that there are people who think something along the lines of "well, this sex is pretty good, but you know what would make it great? If I had to pay for it." In which case, you can't really make sense of it; it's like trying to unravel the mystery of why people like stuffed cabbage.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-05-25 11:07 am (UTC)
I want to be clear that when I say I find either of those two theories monumentally offensive if true, it's not that I'm offended at you for proposing them, it's that I'm offended at people who use them that way. I have watched the fallout for people I love for years and in some cases decades from assaults of this type, and to have that reduced to, "Well, it's not like it breaks her leg," or, "What can I do to make people think I am a Vry Srs Rthr?" makes my blood boil.

I like stuffed cabbage, and I still can't explain the Happy Hooker trope to you. Only good stuffed cabbage, though. It can easily become vile.
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[User Picture]From: dhole
2011-05-25 02:53 pm (UTC)
Well, I suppose that I'll take comfort in the fact that if they were less plausible, they'd be less offensive.

I should probably note that I don't think that these are intentional patterns; I think that for most writers, this sort of thing takes place on a subconscious level, and that it tends to echo the story shapes in which they're immersed.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-05-25 03:39 pm (UTC)
I agree with you that if these are the case, they're almost certainly subconscious. Still, that pattern needs interrupting, in my opinion.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2011-05-25 02:49 pm (UTC)
You mean "without killing her or sending her to the hospital." Authors could just as easily beat the women up, the way they do the men, but instead we get sexualized violence with all its real-world "you're not really a person" vibes.

I hope I don't sound like I'm angry at you.
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[User Picture]From: dhole
2011-05-27 03:46 pm (UTC)
Sorry for not responding sooner; things have been a little busy.

You're right that it's mainly female characters who get raped. If the reasons I gave were the whole of the logic, you'd expect to see it happening to characters regardless of gender, so I am, if not proven wrong, proven incomplete.

I think, though I haven't done any actual tallying, that women get the sort of beatings without consequences that men get, at least in the section of the genre where women are filling the role of people who run around and do things. However, I think that those beatings, both for men and women, lack weight; given that getting hit on the head a lot doesn't seem to affect noir detectives as a rule, a beating of that sort doesn't upset readers very much. Rape, on the other hand, is upsetting, even if the story doesn't show us much in the way of long-term damage.

This would be equally true if it was a male detective getting raped. Perhaps there's another thing going on here. Specifically, the cultural assumption that women get raped. So, when you have a female protagonist, that's something that's in the default story-space, in a way that it isn't with a male protagonist.

I realize that I'm coming close to pontificating about something in which I lack expertise, so I think I'll leave it at that.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-05-27 05:49 pm (UTC)
Your point about beatings is making me think about this further, Alter, and one of the things I've noticed is that we in the speculative genres tend to treat violent beatings as emotionally neutral or nearly so. We treat them as though they are the same thing as sparring in a well-managed martial arts class where you know you can quit at any time and the other person is not hitting and kicking at you out of personal animosity or desire to do you lasting damage--and yet I have heard from some friends who study martial arts that even that carefully delineated experience can cause emotional reactions they have to learn to overcome. I think it doesn't upset readers in part because writers are not showing it as upsetting. Writers want to be able to have action scenes that are action scenes, not emotional trauma scenes. And...I totally get why (swashbuckling! derring-do!), but I'm not sure I want things to go on in this vein without some more counterexamples coming up in the genre, the sooner the better.
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