Even Greater Mistakes review: Short sci-fi stories without the sexism
Even Greater Mistakes
A rare original take on uploaded consciousness. What if some people’s stored digital consciousness were lent out by libraries for various reasons? Like to solve a murder!
A science fiction/thriller set around a strange immersive theatre that may be something more, straight out of the Black Mirror playbook.
MANY years ago, after a physics class that introduced me to the idea of Dyson spheres and ringworlds, I plodded through the snowy streets to pick up a copy of Larry Niven’s sci-fi classic, Ringworld. I barely made it halfway through the book before the brutally sexist portrayal of the only female character, a pneumatic bimbo named Teela, killed my enthusiasm. The book went in the bin.
On reflection, the most offensive thing about Ringworld wasn’t the sexism, but the sea of unexamined assumptions sloshing around behind his characterisations.
Charlie Jane Anders didn’t care for Niven’s boob-fest either and now, 50 years later, she gets to unravel these assumptions from her spot at the pinnacle of a very changed sci-fi scene. With Even Greater Mistakes, she precisely unpicks what is behind the choices writers make available to their characters.
Anders has a heck of a pedigree. In the 2000s, she founded Gawker’s sci-fi/science aspect, io9, and has since written several books and piles of short stories. This collection is a sampler of some of her favourites.
In Love Might Be Too Strong a Word, which can be read as a direct riposte to Niven, she shows us the mechanisms by which the biology of being female can be semiotically synonymous with a loss of power.
A generation starship is crewed by six different non-human species, whose bodies are wildly different from our own apart from in one detail: the reproductive biology of, well, giving and taking. The words man and woman are in the aliens’ language, but instead of nouns, they are verbs that link the mechanics of sex to the roles that the individuals play on board. Who will “man” and who will “woman” is strictly regulated by the presence of an “innie” or “outie”. “Pilots always man,” a higher caste suitor explains to his would-be mate. “Dailys always woman. That’s just how it is.” And so biology becomes a de facto caste system.
In The Time Travel Club, the process by which we pick ourselves up after life has been devastated by our own choices is unspooled in a beautiful, haunting little tale. Coming to terms with consequences is depicted as a literal form of time travel: you must project yourself into a future to see if you still have one.
“Anders excels at revealing how hidden mechanisms shape our lives and at showing us their artifice”
Introductory vignettes that accompany each story describe the key that unlocked the tale for Anders. For example, in the preamble to the time travel story, she describes consulting a physicist to learn the trigonometric equations needed to figure out how the rotation of Earth, its path around the sun, the galactic rotation and the expansion of the universe would each affect time travel into various points in the future. She does her homework, she doesn’t just make this stuff up.
Anders excels at revealing how various hidden mechanisms shape our lives and at showing us their artifice. The gender architecture in Love Might Be Too Strong a Word isn’t set by natural evolution: these creatures were genetically designed to live on the generation ship and to take its cargo to the next planet. The biological encoding of gender was a Trojan horse for a caste system.
But as Anders shows us, we have choices in how to deal with these rigged systems. We can always throw the whole lot in the bin.
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