Chicks with Guns
Forgive me, for I have sinned.
Just when I thought I’d been cured of my shameful addictions, I dropped off of the lit wagon and into the cheesy paperback gutter. It is my old dragon to chase, one that rears its ugly head every couple of years when the weight of what I should read crushes my enjoyment of reading at all. It is then that I can hear the call of the Sirens, of women warriors who will always be bound between soft-covers.
My recent experience – with Elizabeth Bear’s Hammered and Elizabeth Moon’s Trading in Danger -- has been barely worth the psychic shame it inflicted. Now, it takes so much more to give me the same thrill. Once upon a time, the mere promise of a strong female lead would make me fall on the book like a cat on a ball of tin foil. The quality of the writing has always been fairly low on my list of requirements. If the cover of an Ace double or Del Rey special had part of a female body and a weapon, I devoured it. These were the perfect antidotes to more scholarly pursuits. My addiction peaked during a college semester when I had to read both The Canterbury Tales and Derrida. On a good day, I could plow through ten pages of Middle English and a saucy tale of a strong, space-faring wench with a gun.
Sadly, I left that all behind once I hit the working world. I spent my days jockeying words around, both my own and those of other writers. My hands were continually full of prose great and crappy. My head was too full of other work to ever get lost in the escapist tales of my past. Leisure reading, since it was limited by the number of hours I had free, became more about spending that time on the really good stuff. While these were enriching years, something was missing. I wanted to get lost in a ripping good gynocentric space opera-y butt-kicking world again, where men were mere men, but the women were gods. These are my heroin.
I can hear the feminists shrieking. I understand your pain. I know how damagingly retro most of these stories are. These are the women that men want to see – Amazons with lusty sex drives and mind-bending strength and smarts who ride their men like show ponies. This sub-genre used to be mostly a boys’ stomping ground and the (largely) male writers had free rein to craft the women they couldn’t find in generic issue porn.
Times changed, as they always do. More women – like C.J. Cherryh and Anne McCaffrey – entered the discussion with characters that who were both roundly complex and mentally fierce. Men started to add subtlety to their warrior women as well. Steve Perry’s Matadora is the product of the mid-‘80s, when the lessons of the women’s movement had started to trickle into the culture. Joe Haldeman’s Forever War exploded the archetype and unsettled the reader who loved the woman warrior for what she was.
Something has changed. Modern books that cover the same ground (more or less) lack the flair that defined their predecessors. As much as I wanted to love my recent descent into my old habits, I couldn’t find the same sweet, sweet surrender as I once did. Some of the fault is mine, granted. Anything that you fondly remember from childhood somehow feels hollow when you return to it as an adult. Ice creams never taste as rich, nor does love or paperback sci-fi. I know too much, now, to ever truly get lost in this sort of fantasy.
But the books have changed, too. Something feels slightly off in both Hammered and Trading, like the writers are gingerly stepping around land mines that only they can see. Also missing is the humor that characterized, if nothing else, the tone around these women of the past. Now we have earnest tales that seem to be holding their subconscious tongues, lest the wrong word get them kicked out of the club. Unlike Perry’s Matadora Zuri or Cherryh’s Chanur and the women of her tribe, Bear’s Jenny Casey and Moon’s Ky Vatta aren’t the sort who would be much fun to hang around with, simply because they take their respective baggage so very, very seriously. Gone is the sense of fun, which is what drew me to these books in the first place.
Which isn’t to say that both Hammered and Trading aren’t perfectly functional novels. Hammered moves along quite nicely as it tells the story of a 50-year-old former special forces operative who is now forced to live with her life choices and finds herself pulled back in to the fight. Bear’s prose is transparent, for the most part. There are no syntactical pyrotechnics here but her words also never ring off key.
The same can be said of Moon. Her Ky Vatta is a woman just starting out in life after being booted from a military academy. Vatta is young and uncertain of where she will fit into her family’s business, as well as the universe. On a routine voyage of a freight spacer about to be junked, events ensue and Vatta learns about the world. Moon has some interesting points to make about how young girls and older men interact, as well as crisp, action-filled passages.
Despite their general competence, I don’t feel the slightest bit compelled to pick up the next books in the series, despite my shameful addiction to the sub-genre from which they have sprung. My former closet sin has become too safe in the intervening years, like the post-Guiliani Times Square. In a way, I can appreciate the care with which these writers approach their characterization of the woman warrior. Still, I just wish they could let their own words fly with the same abandon as their characters’ fists.