The Feminism of Old Man’s War

LiveJournaler Mosca has nice things to say about Old Man’s War, and also makes an argument for it being a feminist novel:

This is one of the few military SF novels I’ve read that has women in it — not just love interests or characters established as female, but women who act like women. It doesn’t feel like Scalzi is trying for politically correct inclusiveness, because the women are too numerous and too diverse for that. There’s also a major gay character, and he’s treated with the same multidimensionality. But it’s a feminist novel in a broader and more lit-crit sense, in the ways that Russ and Le Guin call for.

I have friends with a deeper knowledge of Russ’ and LeGuin’s positions than I do, who could vet this argument better than I could, though I don’t see anything wrong about it in a general sense. I will say that Mosca is correct that I didn’t go out of my way to be politically correct or inclusive. There was never a point in the writing of OMW where I said “hey, I need to put some women in there.” They were always in there, because why wouldn’t they be. Other than that I just tried to write all the characters as something more than cardboard.

One other comment is that I think the most interesting character in the whole Old Man’s universe (for me, anyway) is Jane Sagan. I think of all the characters, she has the most complete character arc; you see a lot of that arc in The Ghost Brigades and it’s coming to be a major part of The Last Colony as well. I don’t think any of this qualifies me for a Tiptree Award, mind you. I’m just glad she’s been such an interesting person to write about.

24 Comments on “The Feminism of Old Man’s War”

  1. I think the most interesting character in the whole Old Man’s universe (for me, anyway) is Jane Sagan. I think of all the characters, she has the most complete character arc…

    You can put me down for one of these. She’s arguably not a primary character in OMW or TGB, but she does represent important pivot points in both. She also stands out as one of the more interesting people in your little universe, and not just due to the unusual circumstances surrounding her *birth* and existence.

  2. Wow, I’m surprised but pleased that you found my post. (I was going to drop you an e-mail about it, but I got shy.) Thanks for the link! I’m flattered that you thought my points were intelligent, too. I agree that Old Man’s War isn’t ever going to win you a Tiptree, although in some ways I feel like it’s the kind of thing that should. Jesse, Jane, etc. are people who are, among other things, female, rather than characters who exist solely to play a female role. OMW doesn’t try to convey some simplistic politicized message of empowerment or equality; it just gives us a bunch of women who act like women. At this point, culturally, I think that’s a lot more meaningful than another damn novel that makes a loud point of having a female protagonist.

  3. If a spaceship is blown up somewhere in the movie, you can forget about Lifetime. They make the L to get us away from stuff like that.

  4. Apparently the bio-engineered women are just as strong and fast as the men in OMW. This seems to be accepted by everyone to the point where no one even mentions it, it’s implied. I wold think that it would have quite a few psychological effects.
    Not on Special Forces soldiers, since they wouldn’t know any other way, but on the other “normal” charac4ters.

  5. Not to be being critical or anything, but I think it’s ok to imagine outside the bounds of the way things are. What I mean is that if a writer sees in his head chararcters who are female and equally strong to men without other differences that seems to me like he is picturing a future, you know? I can appreciate folks who give us a vision of what they can see for a future that may one day be.

    Thank you,

  6. They were always in there, because why wouldn’t they be.

    By making that assumption you step out of the traditional “male chauvinist pig” territory. I don’t know if it is enough to get you into feminist territory. Perhaps somewhere in between?

  7. Star Chores: Don’t let that deal go down

    “Hey, what’s that?” John nodded to an apparent clandestine transaction happening by the side of an abandoned building. “Not, sure,” Greyhawk answered, “but it looks like something we should investigate.” They pulled their bikes over to th…

  8. “I don’t think any of this qualifies me for a Tiptree Award, mind you.”

    Unless, of course, my theory is correct, and “John Scalzi” is in fact an elderly woman, 100+ cats, and some deft Photoshop work.

  9. I thought it was an up to date book, OMW. Part of my generation of more balanced political thinking I think, so I think it probably came natural to John Scalzi because of that.
    I only had some confusion with having the men and women mixed so closely together in the barracks. It seemed to clash a little with the original horny episode in the recruit ship. Probably couldn’t be a feminist or even a socialist book because it doesn’t go into total depth about that though as their should be some differences but probably more minor with super-bodies.

  10. “By making that assumption you step out of the traditional “male chauvinist pig” territory. I don’t know if it is enough to get you into feminist territory. Perhaps somewhere in between?”

    I think if he can do that, it means he’s transcended patriarchalism AND feminism.

  11. I have to agree that the matter of fact treatment of the genders in OMW speaks to a possible future where the Battle of the Sexes has been relegated to the past. This is a good thing, as hypersensitivity to gender issues (i.e., political correctness ad naseum) limits our ability to have open discourse and truly appreciate individuals.

    Also, I found Jane fascinating, particular the dichotomy of her pragmatic special forces existence and her mystical connection to her progenitor.

  12. By making that assumption you step out of the traditional “male chauvinist pig” territory.

    Which puts him, or anyone else doing so firmly in feminist territory. Feminism is, after all, nothing more (or less) than “the radical notion that women are human beings.”

  13. I suspect that feminism might require a wee bit more than simply acknowledging that women are human beings but I’m hardly qualified to speak on that matter.

    I am qualified to speak on the actual conversation we’ve been having and I’ll simply note that if this was being done ‘in person’ I would have a very difficult time resisting all the double entendres hanging around.

  14. Heinlein in all of his books had female protagonists, granted, they weren’t always the central character, but they were characters that were more than significant, they were necessary.

    All of the Wing Commanders (blah blah blah about the external universe, and having outsiders write books within that universe) have female protagonists. Sparks is one of the most important characters in “Fleet Action”

    Miles Vorkosigan’s second in command was a woman (though I read that in middle school and I forget the name of the series) and she was the actually military tactical mind, while Miles was the strategic one.

    In Enders game, two of enders chief commanders, and at least one of his “final” contact commanders were/was female.

    In everything every written by. . . I keep forgetting the authors name. “Johnny Mnemonic” “Mona Lisa Overdrive” and “Neuromancer”, he has a MAJOR female character, actually, while the main character is male, it’s a female who watches his back,and cares for him, even in “skinners flat” he has that same sort of formula.

    In “WarBirds” by R.M.M. Mulloch (one of my favorite stand alone sci-fi books) The only “new ace” worthy of note for “Die Sturmschwalbe’s” note is a woman, and two of the aces he fought with during the war were female(of course they were dead, he had to focus on the “new ace”)

    Sci-Fi is JAM Flogging PACKED! with people who understand the role of women in a world that is controled by technology, and the fundamental equalizing forces that come with technology in the battlefield, in the office, and in the lab.

    I totaly miss any insite in the premise of the praise.

  15. Heinlein in all of his books had female protagonists, granted, they weren’t always the central character, but they were characters that were more than significant, they were necessary.

    I’ve got to admit, I was pretty done with Heinlein after Time Enough for Love, but it was enough to prove to me that Heinlein’s “female” characters may be necessary to the plot, but they sure as hell weren’t people.

  16. Wickedpinto, I think you’re missing the point.

    There’s a lot to love about Heinlein, but Heinlein’s female characters, after the point at which his editors stopped editing out the sex, have an amazing degree of sameness which, after a while, does wear on many readers–as Joseph Major says in Heinlein’s Children, “Myrtle the Fertile Turtle, always happiest with a baby inside and a man on top.”

    R. M. Meluch and Lois Bujold (author of the Miles Vorkosigan books) are both women, making it somewhat less startling that they don’t view women as a separate species.

    Female characters whose role is to care for the male lead are, ahem, not new. (It’s quite possible I’m being unfair to William Gibson, since I’ve never been able to get into his stories, but, hey, at least I remember his name.:))

    The point being made was not that John Scalzi is the first sf writer to have major, strong, female characters, but rather the (both more limited and more subtle) point that it’s one of the few military sf novels that has women that feel to the reader like real women, and who are not there to “balance” the story, but simply because the writer took it for granted that they’d be there. It’s quite true that there are good female characters all through sf, and going right back to the early years of the genre, but far too many of them are there either to fill a particular role, or to “balance” the story, i.e., the writer clearly thought about and realized the story “needed women.”

    Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades don’t read that way.

  17. rachel and lis you are both right.

    Heinlein was seemingly so obsessed with sexual equality, that he would enter into the same template several times, though I would say that Stranger, Starship and Moon is a harsh mistress all had very real and very definable female characters. In fact, in moon, it was almost as though the old pervert was trying to reconcile all of the things he felt about women, into seperacte characters, rather than trying to make an emalgum out of Lazarus’ mom (which is just plane disturbing) However, all of the inequality in the various worlds that robert created/worked in it was a world that was fundamentaly egalitarian with men and women, and he seemed to be working out his own gigs with women. (same can be said, with less intelligence, or intelligibility in jordan’s books, but thats fantasy, not sci-fi)

    You are right about meluch and bujold, thats where I screwed up the last line. I meant to delete my last line in the previoius, and just leave it floating while I tried to remember what the hell I was gonna say. I knew when I re-read it that those two were women.

    As for Gibson, Gibson tends to make men pussies. Excessive specialists who can’t breath without someone else telling him to (another common thing in the Shadowrun books, by all the authors, since Shadowrun was a child of the gibson dystopics) so women are actually kinda dominant (as they are in Heinleins “moon is a harsh mistress,” though they are more catalytic than productive, the professor genius, and the “computer” specialist are the major characters, but all the good idea’s come from whatsername :)
    Also, in heinleins Starship, women were just as equal as in OMW, the BIG thing I see in OMW’s depiction of jane, and the females he fought with is that OMW created a re-definition of self. I sort of avatar for our own personal opinions, projected through the rebirthing process. No man, having gone through the change, could feel negatively about any woman having gone through the change, because the foundation of the book (EFFING BRILLIANT by the way, 1/enders game is how I see it, tool John, Flogging Brilliant) is that these are broken people fighting only for their next breath, and the hope of the breath that follows that, so the transition is one of clear rebirth, and a fresh start, since they all restart in the same place, there is no reason to think that one gender or another is less competant (am I effing up anything about the story with that? I don’t think so, I think everyone is expecting an SST or Ender kinda thing, sides, it’s a tool, not the story) Sides, you overlooked the Wing Commanders, and Enders Game (though the follow on’s were more than a little patronizing to women, the whole “Children of the Mind” gig was just plane offensive on so many ways, but Enders was clear, and equal)

    could I make this anymore convoluted?

  18. Might I also suggest David Weber’s Honor Harrington books, which are, I believe, the best selling military fiction books out there at the moment. Though Lois McMaster Bujold’s would be, were there any justice in the universe (sorry, John). Protagonist is female, leader of the space nation is female, females just all over the place. There is an entire patriarchial society, but it’s generally pointed out that Things Are Not Done That Way anymore.

  19. Gibson tends to make men pussies.

    Damn it, I just got this irony detecter calibrated!

    John’s writing about a future, after all. If you can assume that people’s consciousness can be transfered into new, bioengineered bodies, and that we can grow superhumans, why assume that everyone is still obsessed with the Mars/Venus thing? (And not in the sense of space exploration, either.)

  20. Mythago, . . . . What?

    Clarkes “hamnmer of the gods” is the closest thing I can associate with your inocmplete statement.

    As the boss said, “they were equal cuz they were there” is actually the BEST demonstration of humanity that one could express.

    John isn’t a feminist, he’s just a writer who addresses the natural equality that MUST exist. THAT is johns feminism in OMW, even though it isn’t feminism, it is TRUE equality, without anyone being dominant, but rather about how, given equal force, (which women lack in life) we are all equal.

    Truth is that jane’s SOURCE was a good little housewife. Until she died. does that mean that the story is less egalitarian?

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