SFFPortal has a nice review of Sword & Sorceress XXV by Scooter Carlyle, in which, you might recall, I have a story.
In “Ghost Puppet” by Jonathan Moeller, Caina, one of the Emperor’s Ghosts, must protect the spoiled Lucan, son of the Lord Governor. Disguised as a man, she must divine the both the reason for the price on Lucan’s head, and who’s paying it.
I found the main characters very likeable. This was also one of the few stories that didn’t have the disconnect between women’s gender roles and the setting. There was a nice twist with the necklace, and the protagonists have some cool tools. I did find the bad guys a little cheesy, but not too bad, and I liked the resolution.
But a disconnect between gender roles and the setting? What does that mean?
Let’s let Ms. Carlyle herself explain:
I would like to offer one comment on the anthology as a whole that is not a criticism, just something to think on. Sword and Sorceress features sword and sorcery stories with strong female protagonists. Many of these women have some pretty mad skills, and a large number of them are mercenaries. We love to read about chicks that kick metaphorical and literal butt.
There’s only one problem with that, sociologically speaking. The idea that, “Women can do anything men can do, and do it with style,” is a very recent ideology that’s actually derived from technological advancements. Traditional feminine gender roles are largely due to the biological necessity of needing to keep women home with babies, since, for thousands of years, breastmilk was the only source of nutrition for infants.
As a result, one did not historically see female sword fighters or warriors. There were a few exceptions, like the female berdaches in the Native American tribes of the plains, but they rejected femininity altogether and became male. Women as a whole were not able to embrace traditionally male roles until birth control, baby formula, and daycare were all invented, and then only after they became socially acceptable.
Please realize that I’m not claiming that Sword and Sorceress stories should all have contained women in traditional roles. What I am saying is that throwing a chick a sword in a medieval-style setting and having everyone else think it’s normal makes no sense, sociologically speaking. Something needs to be present in the way in which the people, elves, dwarves, etc., live their lives that would make female warriors and mages being seen as normal make sense.
Actually, I have given this topic a lot of thought, so bear with me as I wax loquacious here for a moment.
See, the bald fact is that women have biological liabilities that men do not – menstruation, pregnancy, childbearing, lower muscle mass, lower skeletal density, and a greater need for iron. Yes, there are exceptions – undoubtedly this post will generate at least one angry commentator who will point out some WNBA athlete or another who, if she chose, could crush her enemies’ skulls like overripe grapes. But the WNBA is the exception. An average man will almost always be stronger than an average woman of the same age. (And even among the outliers, it is an exceedingly rare woman who can match the raw muscle power of, say, an NFL linebacker, or even a man accustomed to rigorous physical labor.)
The strength differential was especially important in preindustrial societies, when wars were not fought with guns, missiles, bombs, and motorized vehicles, but with muscle power, whether human or animal. A man could swing a melee weapon harder, draw a heavier bow, wear heavier armor, carry a heavier shield, and carry more gear. For that matter, women in preindustrial societies generally had more children and spent more time pregnant, since disease would carry off many of the children, and children were one’s security in old age (assuming one lived that long, of course). Not until the later 20th century, when wars became far more technologically dependent, were women in the military less of an outlier and more of a societal norm. Muscle power is irrelevant when flipping switches, after all, and a strong arm loses to a strong bomb every single time. (And in roles that do require muscle power, like front-line combat, there’s a strong resistance to putting women there.)
So in practical terms, to get effective military service from women, you need 1.) technology to compensate for the strength differential, 2.) technology to compensate for the problems of pregnancy, and 3.) tacit male acceptance of women taking up the roles of men.
And one of my pet peeves is fantasy fiction that ignores that. Shared-world fiction like the Forgotten Realms or World of Warcraft is particularly bad at this, with slender 110 pound elven women regularly overpowering muscle-bound orcs with their dazzling swordplay. Granted, I understand this is because of game dynamics; Hasbro and Blizzard want as many female customers as possible (and horny male customers who want to play as female Blood Elves), but it still rings artificial. But you also see this at play in works of fantasy that aren’t part of a shared game world. I’m not going to single any one book out, since I don’t want to start any flame wars with anyone, but the “implausibly skilled and socially accepted female fighter in a preindustrial society” trope turns up quite a bit, especially with no explanation for why the female fighter has implausible skills and equally implausible social acceptance.
Anyway, this is all what I had in mind when I wrote Caina for the “Sword & Sorceress” series. Here’s how it played out.
Caina is a spy and an occasional assassin, not a soldier. This means she will frequently disguise herself, whether as a commoner or a highborn noblewoman, and often disguises herself as a man for greater freedom of movement – a woman, whether rich or poor, would stand out in a dockside tavern, but not a grubby mercenary in ill-kept armor. She is in very good physical condition, and skilled at unarmed combat and with knives, but she’s aware of her limitations as a fighter. She avoids straight fights whenever possible – she regards “fighting fairly” as suicidal folly. When she does fight, she prefers to take her opponents unaware, and win the fight as quickly as possible. I’m not an expert on martial arts by any means, but I based Caina’s fighting style around Krav Maga, the Israeli system that emphasizes disabling or killing one’s opponent as quickly as possible.
She also has one dark advantage – her inhibitions against violence are long gone. Most people have to work themselves up to violence, and most people, even most trained soldiers, would have a hard time simply walking up to someone and stabbing them without any warning. Not Caina. This troubles her a great deal – but that doesn’t stop her very often, though.
So I’ve given this topic a great deal of thought (as you’ve seen if you’ve read this far!), and I’m pleased the reviewer picked up on that.
PS – As an aside, I don’t think this is a problem in science fiction. A female protagonist like Ripley in the “Alien” movies is plausible because the alien xenomorphs have vastly more physical strength than any human, male or female, and the only way humans can fight them is through technology. And cunning, in Ripley’s case.
Granted, “plausible” is not a word often applied to James Cameron’s movies, but still.