One of the best parts of being a speculative fiction writer is the ability to envision a healthier human society. Of course, we often use our power of imagination to create zombie dragon apocalyptic war zones because it makes for exciting reading. Even when we write seemingly utopian worlds in which all citizens are created equal (or are at least content with their stations in life), the façade is a thin crust that cracks under pressure to reveal a far from idyllic reality. But whether our characters fight aliens, monsters, or each other, many speculative novels still base their worlds on the patriarchal norms of our own, whether by design for easy-bake dystopian novels or by sheer habit.
That doesn’t mean we are beholden to basing our zombie dragon apocalyptic war zone novels in patriarchal worlds. Such creatures probably don’t care which biological sex is “in charge” on the planets they invade. That’s why I encourage writers who build new or far-distant future worlds to break from the inherently familiar by designing them in a true egalitarian or matriarchal manner. This past year, the “A World Without Sex” series has sought to challenge writers to rethink the basis of their worldbuilding so they can write beyond the patriarchal influences we’ve all been weaned on.
“A World Without Sex” tackled the male-preferenced habit by first considering the many ways sexual reproduction—and all the human trappings that go along with it—has affected the human social order. I examined the historical and modern sexual context of everything from fashion, sports, aging, politics, war and conflict, advertising and commercialism, faith, personal relationships, arts and entertainment, careers and the workplace, and social and personal identity. I then progressed into the “thought experiment” side of the series and imagined how each of those aspects might develop if stripped of the specter of sexual reproduction and sexuality.
For the most part, I concluded that removing sex from our world would equalize many streams of human interaction and nullify much of the harm caused by the masculine need to exert sexual-based control. No surprises there, right? It wouldn’t solve all our societal ills, but gendered divisions and inequity in areas that dictate societal control, such as government, employment, and religion (and hopefully, even binary-gendered divisioning itself) would all but disappear.
I also hoped to show that characteristics of non-patriarchal worlds would also be evident in how characters dress, the jobs they hold, recreational pursuits, how goods are designed, and even how characters identify themselves and others. In other words, creating fictional worlds that are believably matriarchal or egalitarian require more effort than simply placing women at the head of governments or armies, though that is a good start. It also means considering if your potion-brewing witches creeping around basements are only your older women-identifying characters. It means deciding in what color of formal gown to dress your First Gentleman of the United Planets (FGOTUP?) for his wife’s inauguration.
Since starting this series, the symptoms of global patriarchy continue unabated. The United States Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) struggled for equal compensation to the men’s team. The Jeffrey Epstein scandal blew up in a big and ultimately fatal way, denying Epstein’s victims true justice. An increasing number of American states have instituted severe abortion restrictions, which basically nullify Roe v. Wade and weaken women’s rights. And while two countries—Austria and Taiwan—legalized same-sex unions or marriage in 2019, marriage equality still lags worldwide.
I bring up these issues not because I want to discourage speculative writers or motivate them with anger, though frustration and disgust with the state of things can be effective writing inspiration. Rather, I wish them to consider how each real-world setback to equality might play out in a world free of toxic masculinity and cis-het male dominance, and then incorporate those aspects into their world-building if they are visible, or even invisibly influential, in their stories. I challenge them to tackle the issues not with a “what could be worse” mindset but “what could be different,” and then sprinkle some invading zombie dragons into the mix.
I’d like to thank everyone for indulging me this past year in what has been at turns maddening (the research into the sexism inherent in nearly everything) and cathartic (the imagining of equality and compassionate consideration for identities of all types). I could probably go into greater depth and breadth with this concept, but I’ve only ever felt capable of laying a general foundation for greater conversations. I hope you’ve found the series instructive, thought-provoking, or at the very least, entertaining.
Join me next month when I start a new series for The S Word that focuses on the expression of speculative fiction across all art forms.