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Friday, April 18, 2008

The things you don't see until someone points it out.

Just saw an interesting post on The Feminist SF Blog that draws attention to one of those little cultural blind spots that are really useful in worldbuilding. You know, the kind of thing everyone takes for granted, so when they read about another culture (real or fictional) that does it differently they're all like "whoa."

In this particular case, it starts off by noting that female reproductive parts et al. tend to be named after male doctors, scientists and so on. It got me thinking less about the patriarchy of it all (since, one presumes, as gender becomes more equitably represented in the sciences, the number of female eponyms will likewise increase) but about the narcissism of it all. The fact that science is rife with terms originating with individual people seems an interesting quirk, and it would imply something very "other" about a society that doesn't do so.


Rob said...

Interesting, especially in the concept of world building.

What do you think the biggest mistakes writers make in world building? Follow that up with, what do you think the biggest mistakes writers make in feminist world building?

S Andrew Swann said...

Well, the biggest mistake I see is authors failing to follow through on their premises. A good example of the problem is most media SF. Take Star Trek for instance, the concept of a transporter has vast implications (just ask Larry Niven) that are rarely touched on except when the writers need a plot device. Just think for a few moments and you can come up with dozens of military applications-- and considering how militarized the Federation is, it’s kind of surprising no one ever made a surprise attack by teleporting a photon torpedo onto the enemy’s bridge. Or, if you can’t teleport through someone’s “shields,” teleport a chunk of significant mass directly in front of a fast-moving vessel and let kinetic energy do the rest.

As far as “feminist world-building” goes, I think the biggest problem from a feminist perspective would be blindly copying default cultural assumptions into situations where they don’t apply, applying human gender roles to egg-laying aliens for instance. This can happen even with authors that are trying to be more “feminist” when a writer (male or female) tries to write a matriarchy and does a simple role reversal without considering why a patriarchy looks like it does. Example, in a patriarchy, the line of male descent is important because that is how most inheritance runs for both titles and property, so most customs relating to sex and marriage evolved to reduce the inherent ambiguity in a child’s paternity. The fact that a child’s maternity is never ambiguous means the rules of sex and marriage in a matriarchal society will not mirror the patriarchy, the concerns are different.