Setting low bars

There’s SF in blogtopia’s air lately, it seems. Whee! says my internal geek-meter.

PZ Myers of Pharyngula has put up a list he found via tikistitch of the “Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years” . The most recent book on the list is the first Harry Potter novel, and quite a few of the oldest were published before 1957, so this list has probably been knocking around for a while. Some of the selections are quirky, to mine and other’s eyes, to say the least, even allowing for fine distinctions between “most significant” and “best”.

There are many avenues available to the critic of this particular selection. The discussion on Pharyngula has gone down regular nerdgeek channels, and a discussion of SF over at IBTP (beginning with Twisty’s claim that Robert Heinlein was “a fucking sexist knob”) has gone down regular radfem channels, so let’s just have a look at a rather more basic feminist test of these books, a test that I mentioned earlier this week.

The Bechdel-Wallace test/rule (originally applied to films – the rule’s origins are noted here), asks does the book have:

  1. At least two female characters, who
  2. talk to each other, about
  3. something besides a man?

If the book/film passes the BW test, it has at least a glimmering of women as fully realised characters beyond being mere love interests competing for male attention. It may not have much more than that, but at least it has that much.

The BW test means that a book doesn’t get a pass for having a single strong, fascinating, female character who is an exceptionalist token, displaying her considerable strengths only in discussions with men (e.g. Eowen from LOTR or Trillian from HHGTTG). It should be easy for SF&F generally to hurdle this low bar, as there’s important quests/missions and esoterica regarding magic/technology for people to talk about with each other in a natural fashion. But how well does the listed SF&F actually do?

The idea is to mark the books you’ve read in bold, which I’ll do. I’ll also note how they score on the BWT (from memory, so please correct me if I’ve forgotten a crucial conversation that would allow the book to hurdle the bar).

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien Yes No No
The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov Yes No No
Dune, Frank Herbert Yes Yes Yes
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein Yes, Yes, No
A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin Yes Yes Yes
Neuromancer, William Gibson (it’s on my mustgetaroundto list, alright?)
Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke Yes, No, No
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick Yes, No, No
The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley Yes, Yes, Yes
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury Yes, Yes, Yes
The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe Yes, No, No
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. No No No
The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov Yes No No
Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
Cities in Flight, James Blish Yes, ?, ? (guessing no)
The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett Yes, Yes, Yes
Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison Yes, Yes, No
Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester Yes, Yes, No
Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey Yes, Yes, Yes
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card Yes, No, No
The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson Yes, Yes?, Yes?
The Forever War, Joe Haldeman Yes, ?, ?
Gateway, Frederik Pohl
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling Yes, Yes, Yes
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams No, No, No
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin Yes, Yes, Yes
Little, Big, John Crowley
Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick Yes, ?, ?
Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon Can’t remember
The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
On the Beach, Nevil Shute Yes, Yes, ?
Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke Yes, No, No
Ringworld, Larry Niven Yes, No, No
Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien Yes, No, No
Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson Yes, Yes, Yes
Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner Can’t remember
The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein Yes, ?, No
Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks Gah! but Yes, Yes, Yes
Timescape, Gregory Benford Yes, ?, ?
To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer Yes, ?, ?

The BWT compliance of SF&F published in the last 10 years is better, methinks. Feel free to snark about all the books that should be on the list instead, but play along and give them a BWT rating, please?

Categories: Culture, gender & feminism

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5 replies

  1. I think Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage (yes, yes, yes) should be included, and can’t for the death of me understand why someone would include The Silmarillion and The Sword of Shannara.

  2. I like Alexei Panshin’s stuff a lot. He had an engaging humour (e.g. The Thurb Revolution) which was more whimsical than some of the big American “funny” SF names of the same period.

  3. That list seems pretty old to my mind, despite the cyberpunk additions. No Sherri S Tepper. No Peter F Hamilton. But those are more personal preferences, I guess.
    Personally, I find a couple of alternate books by listed authors far more compelling:
    Speaker for the Dead, rather than Ender’s Game
    Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand, rather than Dhalgren.
    Both of those probably do better on BWT compliance, too 🙂

  4. I’m particularly amazed that Margaret Attwood isn’t on it for A Handmaid’s Tale. Talk about significant.

  5. More than Human was yes, yes, yes. Sturgeon did female characters pretty well.
    Actually, for an unreconstructed engineer, Neville Shute was pretty good at writing about women too – I just can’t remember any conversations between women in On the Beach specifically – maybe the squatter’s daughter had a chat to her Mum at some point.
    It is a really low bar but there’d be a pretty high failure rate.

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