Over at tor.com Liz Bourke wrote a piece which sent me more or less around the bend. (More or less because, well, there are those who say I haven’t actually seen the bend in decades.) So I just felt I had to respond. Before I could do a graf by graf (that’s paragraph, editor speak) analysis of the piece, they shut down comment. ‘Cause, well, Tom Kratman among others peed in their sacred potted palms.
Navies clash in the vast depths of space. Intrigue and politics and empire-building — both bureaucratic and territorial — span lightyears, planets, and decades. Explosions, assassination, war, revolution: some of my very favourite fictional things. I really like a good military space opera.
Military SF is, fundamentally, a politically conservative genre. In the original sense of politically conservative, at least: that is, interested in tradition and the preservation of existing institutions. The wild-eyed revolutionary firebrand and the generally stable — even, one might say, socially rigid — institution of the military tend to get along about as well as a house on fire, with a lot of heat and noise and property damage. Which is fine: there’s nothing wrong with conservatism in its place, and the clash-of-armies novel — past, present, or future — is one place where you’re guaranteed to find it. That conservatism is most glaring, though, in my opinion, when it comes to the position of female characters and non-“western” cultures. 
“Nothing wrong with conservatism in it’s place.” Which when said that way generally means “any place but being espoused in the publishing industry, my hearing or in public.”
Then we have the next line: “That conservatism is most glaring, though, in my opinion, when it comes to the position of female characters and non-“western” cultures.” Um, lady, I hate to tell you this, but most space opera, indeed most SF is written by American or at least “Western” authors for — gasp — Western audiences. Like people everywhere else on Earth, we tend to like to read about people who are at least a little like us. See the characters need to be at least a little familiar so that we can suspend disbelief on the rest of it — otherwise the whole thing simply collapses.
 For non-“western” cultures… You name me some military space operas where the protagonist is not recognisable as culturally American-descended or, in a minority of cases, British, and I will revise my opinion, okay?
“What?” you say. “But surely the most famous military science fiction series of our time is about a woman? And what about Kris Longknife?”
Um, not to dis David Weber, whose work I happen to love, but I think you might be overstating the case a bit. David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers novels are arguably still the most famous, and John Ringo’s Posleen Wars are nipping right at Weber’s heels.
True! And I am overjoyed that this is the case. But just because we have women in prominent positions doesn’t mean that there are no problems in the field with the position of women — and of non-culturally “western” characters. To take the latter first: Tommy Lien, in Mike Shepherd’s Kris Longknife books, is a nice enough guy, but a caricature of Irish Chineseness. People in David Weber’s Honorverse have a variety of skin tones, but a much more limited variety of backgrounds. David Drake’s With the Lightnings and sequels are clearly, if not explicitly, based on Republican Rome, and the civilised folks/barbarians division inherent in your average set of Roman assumptions doesn’t leave much room for cultural diversity. I could continue the list, but I don’t think I have to: you get the idea.
 I know, that’s not a real word. I think the English language will forgive me.
But let’s return to the case of the ladies. Whatever else we may say, we’ve at least moved on from the 1970s military SF of Jerry Pournelle and David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers, where the only role for a woman was in the rear echelons as support staff, or an unrecognised irregular.
Or have we?
You obviously haven’t read Hammer’s Slammers in a while, because Marguerite starts out as an irregular and eventually becomes a communications officer on Danny Pritchard’s tank in “Hangman.” She eventually marries him.
Space operatic military SF is different. By which I mean space navies. Whatever Weber’s flaws, his female characters are not single heroines operating in a void, but competent equals to the men around them. Elizabeth Moon’s space opera includes well-rounded military and civilian women. Walter Jon William’s Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy had some of the most interesting characters, male or female, I’ve seen in space opera in a very long time, and Scott Westerfeld’s decision to write Young Adult fiction exclusively is a great loss for the field, as The Risen Empire aptly demonstrates.
 Though one may be tempted to say something about Honor’s near-celibate status for many books (don’t make me count them), and how femaleness is seen as less female when it’s non-sexual — but I’m not a gender studies geek, and besides. I’m not sure I’d believe me.
Then why bring it up?
But elsewhere, it often seems that a girl must still be One Of The Boys to be taken seriously.
~snip~ Um, yes, in a male-dominated field a “girl” is going to have to be One Of The Boys to be taken seriously. Human nature being what it is, that’s unlikely to change. And if you think it’s bad in Western Culture, try it in, say, an Islamic one where it will get you stoned to death or worse.
~continues~ In Shepherd’s Longknife books, for example, Kris Longknife is portrayed as tougher than a marine, though able to move with ease in high society. I’m not sure whether the handful of Halo tie-ins I’ve read are representative, but this is also true for them. In Drake’s With the Lightnings and sequels, the main female character, Adele Mundy, while not exactly one of the boys, is not what you would call emotionally well-rounded, either. (In the interests of fairness, it must be said that neither is her co-star, Daniel Leary.) Maybe we can put this down to the fact that military SF doesn’t always have a lot of scope for — or interest in — showing life outside the military, and in the present day the ability to be one of the boys is necessarily a military virtue. Fond as I am of space opera, I find this a doubtful argument — but it might be an argument worth having.
So much for the major space navy players. What about military science fiction with a ground combat element? Here the names that come immediately to mind are John Ringo and Tom Kratman, both of whom I find strongly problematic — Kratman, outright unsettling, by virtue of how very much, from where I stand, his books live in Opposite World, and Ringo because I will never again be able to disentangle his SF from that Boy’s Own Adventure of his which I read by accident, immortalised on the internet (it’s actually “Internet” by the way, proper name, you know.) by Oh John Ringo No. Their female characters tend to suffer unpleasant fates, or to be relegated to backwaters of the narrative, and the old canard of “no women in the special infantry” is once again in play. Am I being a little unfair? Perhaps. But I see in their work much of the influence of Pournelle, and — to borrow a phrase from a certain fictional curmudgeonly old woman — I can’t be having with that kind of thing at my time of life. I should also, probably, mention Michael Z. Williamson under this heading — though while I find his politics as problematic, his treatment of female characters is less clearly marginalising.
And here we get to what in the editorial business we call the “nugget graf” of the piece. She dislikes Kratman and Ringo and to a lesser extent Williamson because their politcs disagree with hers. I will agree with her I find Kratman unsettling as well. Of course the Colonel goes out of his way to be unsettling. He’s trying to get his readers to question basic assumptions. I suspect the fact that everything he writes is logically supported tends to make her uncomfortable as well. Liberals tend to get that way around Kratman. Moreover, Ringo is completely unapologetic about his ideals and beliefs, as is Kratman. This tends to scare liberals who believe we should all be apologizing constantly to avoid offending anyone — except, of course, Christians and conservatives.
Then again, on the other hand, we have John Scalzi, against whom I can levy no such complaint. Scalzi, unlike Ringo, Kratman, or Williamson, doesn’t have a military background of his own. Yet I find his future military more convincingly science-fictional than those of the aforementioned authors. Why is that? Is it that I find it strange that writers can imagine alien cultures and strange new weapons, but appear unable to see gender in other than the ways they’re most accustomed to?
Of course, Scalzi is a socialist, and as she pointed out, has no military background and so can posit anything he likes without regard to reality. Of course so could Ringo, Williamson and Kratman, who, like most really good SF writers, tend to put as much reality in their books as possible. This way the parts where we have to suspend disbelief are easier to swallow. This is known as “good writing.” (Editor’s note: I haven’t read Scalzi, but people whose opinion I respect tell me he’s pretty good. I have meant to pick up “Old Man’s War” for a while now as the premise looks interesting. As I state in the other Editor’s note below, I’m not knocking Scalzi, but rather Liz Bourke.)
When talking about women in science fiction, it’s probably best to avoid making inflammatory statements. (You mean like you did through the entire piece?) I’m afraid I’ve not managed that. (First thing you got right all day.) To make up for it, I’m not going to draw any sweeping conclusions. (That’s all you’ve been doing.) Instead, I have a question or three for you. Is popular military SF more conservative in terms of gender and race than the rest of the genre? If it is, what factors make it that way?
And if it’s not, what have I been missing?
What’s really amusing about this piece is when Kratman decided to defend himself and point out some of the fallacies in the way women are depicted in SF and, indeed, discuss the real issues around full integration of the services — he was eventually banned and then the moderator “Irene” decided to close comments on the page. Rather cowardly IMO and certainly damaging to the brand.
Ya’ll feel free to comment here as much as you like. We don’t shut down comment and we only remove spam and comments which cross the line.
(Editor’s note: Kratman rightly pointed out to me over at Baen’s bar that he thinks Scalzi is pretty good and works well around what he doesn’t know, and also that he didn’t go there to defend himself so much as to “attack some silly notions.” Which he did rather well. The above opinions are of course, mine alone. I also would like to point out, I’m not knocking Scalzi, per se, but the silly twit who wrote the piece’s preconceptions.)