There is a book series I adore1The Man of War series by H. Paul Honsinger.. But I’m trying to determine if it is problematic.
Said series is about the captain and crew of a ship in a human space navy. Military sci-fi, very brass tacks, very much the kind of thing I enjoy reading.
As far as I can recall, the entire first book (which I have just finished re-reading) features one female human character who is not dead. I don’t think she says a word.
The setting reason for this is not that women are bad at being in navies (the setting actually places them as being better than their male counterparts more often than not) but that the aliens they are fighting unleashed a lethal virus (the gynophage) on humanity which exclusively targeted women. The survivors have all been pulled back from the front lines and dangerous duties because the human race needs to have future generations more than it needs those people serving in the front lines.
It’s something that’s been gnawing at me while I read the first book again. There are various reasons someone might want to write that kind of book without female characters: sexism, being unable to write women effectively, etc…
I did look into it a bit, and found this written by the author in response to someone asking about cosplaying as a woman in the setting:
“The role of women isn’t anything special or unexpected, except that they are still in short supply and are too precious to send to war. I would think that any kind of dress that looked “futuristic” would be fine. Relations to men would be a bit different than before the gynophage–scarcity conveys power, such that the woman would have more leverage in the relationship. If the man doesn’t like what she’s doing, there are men lined up around the block to whom she can turn. The M/F ratio on the Core Worlds is now closer to 1/2 than the usual 1/1.08 or so.
There are planets that the gynophage didn’t reach, and they have more normal gender distributions and things there are pretty much unchanged, except again for not being in the Navy. There would also, though, be pressure on those women to have large families or to have babies that are put up for adoption on other planets to help restore the population. A Spacer (“soldier” is a term that we use to refer to Army enlisted personnel–in my universe, the Navy men are Spacers and the troops carried through space are Marines, so no soldiers) would meet a woman on leave at a bar, church, store . . . any of the places where servicemen meet women today. Prostitution still exists, and is still illegal. Gender relations have, quite honestly, not been much of an emphasis in my thinking because they haven’t come up in the writing yet. I hope this helps–there really isn’t a lot to tell you because I haven’t written about it to any meaningful degree.”H. Paul Honsinger
Bottom line… I’m not sure. Do I still enjoy the books? Yes. Am I concerned by the lack of equal roles for women within the book even if they are presented as being present within the setting? Yes.
The feedback from comments on Facebook has rather confirmed that there are, indeed, better devices to use and better ways to present women. I find it interesting that there isn’t anyone talking about it in reviews.
In a video the author posted answering reader questions2Said questions clearly illustrating that other readers are having similar thoughts and questions to me., the author stated that the gynophage served the following purposes:
- It establishes the Krag (the bad guys) as being willing to commit genocide and as having done it, which allows the establishment of them as a serious threat that must be dealt with and underpins the fact that humanity is losing.
- It is a story device to allow him to write all-male stories as he wanted to be able to write good stories within his ability as a new author rather than having to understand or put himself in the place of female characters.
- He didn’t want to portray female characters badly so decided to leave them out entirely.
- He also says he feels more confident about writing female characters now and that future works are more likely to include them.
Is it bad writing? Yes. It is better than writing female characters badly? Maybe. I may well be looking to see these promised female characters in future books.
Originally posted on Facebook, new content added