A talk about the depictions of warfare in SFF books written by women in the 21st century.
Presenter: Marina Berlin
I actually went to this after misreading the blurb and thinking it was about women’s accounts of war from inside the conflict – my bad. But Berlin has some really interesting points to make about the way women depict war, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with all of her conclusions. She did make the important disclaimer that everything which follows is only applicable to Western story traditions. Doing some research into how it compares to non-Western traditions would be a fascinating project.
Tropes of Writing War
There are some common themes to what happens to people fighting in a war, in stories:
|Form close bonds of brotherhood through shared experiences||Typically lone warriors – they’re usually depicted as being unusual/unique, locked out of the standard military unit, which isolates them|
|Boys become men by facing up to responsibilities||Secondary roles – they aren’t the heroes so minimal character growth|
|Men become broken – loss of innocence, and an inability to function properly in society post-war||Victims of violence – loss of innocence through violation, not observed trauma|
These are all the tropes we expect because it’s how the classics portray them – classics primarily written by men. War is often depicted as being primarily a story about men, with women as peripheral characters to the manly violence going on.
War as a Female Opportunity
Berlin used two primary texts to illustrate her argument: Temeraire by Naomi Novik (which I’ve read) and God’s War by Kameron Hurley (which I haven’t).
In Temeraire, the British Aerial Corps fighting in the Napoleonic War has a lot of female officers because the largest and most important dragons flatly refuse to be commanded by men. Women are therefore drafted, and operating in company amongst a military unit. Not only is the war not being used to lock them out, it’s the reason women are being given equal responsibility as a result of it. The war creates a story of equality.
In God’s War, a young man emigrates from one side of a conflict to the other as a refugee. He moves into a strongly matriarchal society which expects all men aged 16-45 to be serving on the front line whilst the women run the country. The hero therefore finds himself marginalized and vulnerable – something made particularly clear in a scene when he’s sitting in a train carriage on his own and the two female train guards start aggressively flirting with him. When his female travelling companion returns, the guards immediately apologize to her for unwittingly trespassing on her turf. She doesn’t think twice about it – he is badly shaken. Sounds familiar, huh? Hurley uses war as an excuse to explore everyday effects of a gender-led society, but with the power dynamics flipped.
War is essentially a story about a society in extremis. Berlin argued that female writers choose different aspects of that social conflict to explore than the traditional male-focused stories. I felt Berlin was over-generalising here, actually. Novik and Hurley present really interesting social dynamics, no question, but there’s plenty of female writers that don’t take the road less travelled and plenty of male writers that do. The important point is that you can tell stories about war that focus on any kind of narrative and any kind of character – don’t pick the lazy option.
Female Fighters in Real Life
Historically, there’s been a tendency across most cultures to repress the reports – and sometimes even the existence – of female units in war. The first instinct for any society has been to try and restore ‘normality’, as defined by its pre-war state, which means pushing women back into their previous roles. Women then have to deal with PTSD alone, whilst having it minimized or ignored, whilst trying to reintegrate into a society that doesn’t recognise how they have changed.
This has led to a seriously inaccurate belief in the historical role of women in war. There’s a fantastic essay by Kameron Hurley called We Have Always Fought, which looks at the role of women in stories vs what actually happened. It’s a fascinating essay, as well as being very engagingly written (and contains llamas) – I can’t recommend it highly enough. Go, read it now. I’ll wait.
Done? See how important it is to really look? The power of stories over reality is immense and we as writers – like Spiderman – have a responsibility. And, as Hurley says, someone has to move first. It’s started to come up in multiple media recently. There’s been a flurry of interest around things like the Russian Night Witches (who are all of the awesome), and that’s fantastic. But it needs to keep going until it becomes the norm in our stories. Don’t be lazy. The llamas will thank you.
Next week: building realistic characters