Home > musing > I felt warm and relaxed

I felt warm and relaxed

March 25, 2015

When I was a kid, being the child of nerd atheists, I spent more time watching Star Trek, Animal House, and Monty Python than in church.

Scratch that, I spent no time at all in church, and quite a bit of time at sci-fi conventions, where my father was a sci-fi book dealer. In fact it was a yearly ritual to carry a bunch of boxes of books to the car to tote them to Boskone, where we’d have a table in the big book room.

Sometimes I’d be in charge of selling, at least once I was old enough to make change. When I wasn’t on duty I’d wander around the room and wish I had enough money to buy sparkly purple crystals from weird women wearing scarves.

Sometimes I’d even read the books, out of boredom. They weren’t my thing, and I didn’t know why back then, but now I think I do.

Most of the time, the set-up seemed along these lines: some extremely macho guy, misunderstood and brilliant, gets into some kind of jam and uses his brilliant mind to find his way out of it. On the way he meets stupid men and even stupider – but gorgeous – women, who trick and finagle him, distracting him from his high-minded goals. Every now and then he’d get back at the women by fucking them. And yes, I’m thinking about Heinlein here, which my dad absolutely worships. Probably Larry Niven isn’t quite as bad.

In other words, it was mostly an adolescent male fantasy, with a side order of scientifically flavored situational crisis. Too much getting laid and proving yourself to other men, too little science. Waaay too little science.

Fast forward about 30 years, and I’m married to a man who reads sci-fi for fun (don’t tell him I said this, he denies being a fan). But progress has been made, because he can laugh at the ridiculous posturing.

About 10 years ago, in fact, he laughed out loud at a particularly ridiculous line from Heinlein’s “Puppet Masters.” I will show it to you so you can appreciate how much this explains to me about my childhood:

I felt warm and relaxed, as if I had just killed a man or had a woman.

I mean, for fuck’s sake. Oh, and if you want more context, please go ahead and read this excerpt, which taken as a whole is even worse than I remember. Oh, and here’s the cover:

Robert A Heinlein_The Puppet Masters_GALAXY_Don Sibley

Also, here’s another thing that I now (finally!) understand. Namely, when a boy reads this stuff, he actually might identify with it. I know this because my husband admitted this to me, and although I was momentarily stunned, it makes sense when you think about it.

Whereas, when I read it, I naturally concluded that it wasn’t about me at all, that it was in fact alien to me. If I wanted to force myself into that universe, where the women were so vile and dumb, then I’d have to decide between:

  1. not admitting I’m female, or
  2. admitting it, but trying to prove that, unlike those bimbos who couldn’t even fix a broken warp drive, I would be different. I’d have deep thoughts too, just like men.

Either of these attitudes, both of which I tried on at different times, were and are fucked up. I shouldn’t be surprised then that sci-fi never held sustained interest for me.

Anyway, it’s all good, because in our house nowadays, when we want to be funny, one of us mentions that they feel “warm and relaxed,” and then the other says, “holy crap, did you just kill a man??”

Categories: musing
  1. March 25, 2015 at 8:01 am

    Is this more of an issue in sci-fi than other fiction genres? I recall the same structural features appearing in a lot of fantasy and historical fiction.

    If you haven’t read them, I suggest the books by Iain M Banks. In my experience, he was nearly unknown in the US, but really fun books. His female protagonists seemed strong (though gender is a very flexible thing in his universe). For my money, don’t confuse IMB with Iain Banks, though I expect you’d get a kick out of the Wasp Factory.

    FWIW, when my wife and I want to be silly, we have a couple phrases in Dutch we say. IMHO, it is the silliest sounding language we’ve yet had the good fortune to experience extensively. No offence meant to your husband, of course.

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  2. March 25, 2015 at 8:09 am

    Well, ok but… it was Heinlein!
    I mean, while he was a good writer for some things his stance on anything having to do with gender or society are just slightly better than Gorean.

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  3. March 25, 2015 at 8:59 am

    Yes, this is not a description of science fiction I recognize. Last year all the Nebula awards were won by women, very few of whom write “an adolescent male fantasy.” http://www.sfwa.org/2014/05/2013-nebula-awards-winners/

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  4. John Smith
    March 25, 2015 at 10:14 am

    Heinlein is something of an outlier — he was pretty much the only “serious” science fiction author of his era who was so ridiculously sexist (there was plenty of pulp that was just as bad, but I wouldn’t put it in the “serious” category). If you read Asimov, Clark, or Bradbury (all highly regarded contemporaries of Heinlein) you find very little of this.

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    • Alison M.
      March 25, 2015 at 6:01 pm

      I like Asimov’s fiction, but he’s something of a mixed bag on sexism. His earliest works have a lack of women, most of the stuff he wrote in the 50’s and 60’s was progressive for the time with occasional grating notes of sexism, but then sometime around 1980 he started writing stuff with sex/romance, and his female characters became more male fantasy-ish.

      I’d recommend his Susan Calvin stories about a brilliant female roboticist.

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      • John Smith
        March 26, 2015 at 2:46 am

        Yeah, I almost put an asterix on Asimov, but in any comparison with Heinlein he comes out looking pretty damn good. In addition to the Susan Calvin Robot stories, the second foundation book “Foundation and Emprie” which won the Hugo in 1952 had a strong female character in Bayta Darell.

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        • Alison M.
          March 26, 2015 at 4:30 pm

          I’ve only read /Stranger in a Strange Land/, but if all of Heinlein is that bad with gender I agree.

          I also like Bayta, and also her granddaughter Arkady Darrell in the subsequent book /Second Foundation/, although I’m not thrilled about the way that later plot developments retroactively take away her agency.

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  5. Matilde Marcolli
    March 25, 2015 at 10:40 am

    Heinlein is a very significant example of a certain specific type of fascist leaning post-war american sci-fi, no wonder… I was totally hooked up on sci-fi as a teenager, reading Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, and I admit I still very much enjoy both reading and writing science fiction now. I am intentionally picking examples of writers I enjoyed, who were by no means feminist (in fact, probably Lem’s ideas a about gender weren’t any better than Heinlein’s) but who could write stories with lots of interesting and deep ideas about science and philosophy (as in the case of some of Lem’s major novels), had nothing to do with pulpy fight-and-fuck adventure stories, and often contained deep insights about society and about the community of scientists (as in the case of the Strugatsky brothers).

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    • March 25, 2015 at 10:45 am

      I trust your advice more than my dad’s, that’s for sure.

      On Wed, Mar 25, 2015 at 10:40 AM, mathbabe wrote:

      >

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    • sglover
      March 26, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      Is there a Lem story you can recommend? Other than “Solaris”, I mean.

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      • manners
        March 26, 2015 at 9:59 pm

        “His Master’s Voice” and “Memoirs found in a Bathtub” are two that I liked.

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        • ScentOfViolets
          March 28, 2015 at 9:49 am

          “His Master’s Voice” is a, er, masterpiece. But I’ve found that people find Kandel’s translation of “The Cyberiad” more entertaining. Plus, it’s got pictures!

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  6. Christina Sormani
    March 25, 2015 at 11:29 am

    Luckily my father introduced me to Arthur C. Clarke first. So I fell in love with Science Fiction before I ever picked up a Heinlein book.

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  7. carlosscheidegger
    March 25, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Niven was *worse*, I promise you 😦

    I know you’re going to get lots of scifi recos from dudes here, so I’m sorry that I can’t help myself either. But maybe give Kim Stanley Robinson a try? My wife and I loved the Red Mars trilogy and all characters, male and female. And, really, Red Mars is mostly a political story with space elevators. When you’re done with that, 2312 is just full-on good scifi and weird, weird sex. It’s fantastic.

    (Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is also really great and just won the Hugo and Nebula)

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    • sglover
      March 26, 2015 at 4:11 pm

      I think that KSR actually breaks out of the sci-fi ghetto and into the “Great Literature” ranks with the Mars trilogy. Fantastic stuff there about the natural world, the social world, and character, personality.

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  8. dotkaye
    March 25, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    Pursuant to Josh’s mention of the Nebulas last year, I can highly recommend the Ann Leckie books, Ancillary Justice and on. The default pronoun is ‘she’.

    I read a lot of SF as a teenager, but never identified with Heinlein luckily.

    There is currently a lot of politics going on in SF-land, featuring right-wing thugs and admirers of Heinlein and worse (what Teresa in the link below calls ‘the self-valorizing sociopath contingent’), versus the majority who prefer science and humanity.
    CF http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/016177.html#016177

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  9. Ed Seedhouse
    March 25, 2015 at 11:20 pm

    I can recommend Heinlein’s so-called “Juveniles” as (mostly) a refreshing change from this, presumably because he was writing for a market where sex wasn’t to be mentioned. “Have Space Suit Will Travel”, and “Citizen of the Galaxy” actually have strong female characters. Also “The Star Beast”. I think the so called “Juveniles” are generally far better than his so-called “adult” novels anyway.

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    • ScentOfViolets
      March 26, 2015 at 7:41 pm

      He was also on a very short leash, editorially speaking.

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      • Ed Seedhouse
        March 27, 2015 at 1:19 pm

        Yes, I agree he was on a short leash. I think that improved his output greatly, though.

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        • ScentOfViolets
          March 28, 2015 at 9:51 am

          Someone once described Heinlein as a Southern man who didn’t know he was Southern. I think it shows.

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  10. sglover
    March 26, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    There’s one good line I remember from Heinlein, in a book that’s pretty forgettable otherwise. At least, I can’t remember the name. The main character makes his living writing pulp stories or advice columns or something like that. In the beginning of the thing, as the character’s introducing himself, he says something like, “I may be a hack, it’s not art, but it regularly exposes me to the most beautiful prose in the English language: ‘Pay to the order of….'”

    Actually, if I remember right the guy **had** to make ends meet, because if you didn’t cover your bills the space station of lunar colony or whatever would cut off your air supply. Typical Heinlein.

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  11. ScentOfViolets
    March 26, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    ‘I felt warm and relaxed’. Heh. Sounds like Heinlein’s man just wet the bed.

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  12. tomL.
    March 26, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    There is great pleasure to be had in first reading Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” and then watching the savage dismembering of the book that is the movie “Starship Troopers”. I feel warm and relaxed just thinking about it.

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    • March 26, 2015 at 7:58 pm

      I remember liking the movie. Although I luckily saw it on opening night in a big New York City theater where lots of people added lines.

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  13. J.
    March 26, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    Here’s some SF you should read: James Tiptree, Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t See.” http://web.archive.org/web/20070210183355/www.scifi.com/scifiction/classics/classics_archive/tiptree2/tiptree21.html

    That’s written under a pen name, by the way. The author was a very interesting person. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers.

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  14. Auros
    March 28, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    Also, any author who ever won a Tiptree Award or a Spectrum Award (or honestly, even was nominated for them) is probably worth a look.

    http://tiptree.org/
    http://www.spectrumawards.org/

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