Charles Stross Talks to io9 About Sex, Prison, and PoliticsS

Yesterday we talked to Jim Munroe about one of the most political science fiction novels written in the last century, and today we've cornered science fiction author Charles Stross into talking about the future of a more socio-political issue: sex. Stross is the author most recently of Halting State, a near-future MMO crime thriller, as well as gender-bending prison experiment novel Glasshouse, extropian revolutionary war novel Singularity Sky, and many others. His novels are often political in the "rulers fighting" sense as well as in the personal sense — his characters are at odds with themselves, trying to figure things out like love and sexual identity while also shooting big guns and playing with nanotech. So here's what Stross talks about when he talks about sex (and politics).

When is science fiction a form of political intervention?

That's a tough one!

Looking at fiction in the broader sense, it's fairly clear that it can have political repercussions; Orwell's work (from "Animal Farm" and "1984" to the less-well-remembered journalistic indictment, "The Road to
Wigan Pier") was unequivocally political, and in "1984" he certainly worked with tools from the box labeled "science fiction". But it's relatively rare for politics to be the main purpose of a work of fiction, and even rarer for a work of avowedly political fiction to be any good.

Fiction, confabulation, story-telling — is, when you get down to it, usually used as an entertainment medium, and also as a mechanism for showing us about other ways of thinking, and if you try to preach a
political message you usually end up with something that's not very entertaining (if not outright annoying to a lot of your readers).

I suspect political fiction is at its best precisely when it doesn't preach, but restricts itself to showing the reader a different way of life or thought, and merely makes it clear that this is an end-point or outcome for some kind of political creed. Leave the readers to either enjoy it as a work of fiction, or to join up the dots and apprehend the shape of the monster lurking in the background: but don't beat them over the head with it.

In Glasshouse, you could have gone the obvious route in exploring the horror of twentieth-century gender roles by saying merely "Yuck women's roles really sucked." But instead it seemed to me that for your characters the most horrifying gender experiences were those of men (particularly Sam) dealing with masculinity. What made you go this direction? Was your point that all gender roles are crappy unless they can be chosen?

That's a part of it, but only a part ...

... Because the set-up in the Glasshouse isn't simply about gender; it's about how social systems of oppression emerge and become self-sustaining and self-reinforcing once you create a privileged group who benefit from enforcement the roles. It could equally well have been about skin color, or religion, or left- versus right- handedness, but physical sex is a convenient hook to hang it on because it's intimately familiar, and we've got a roughly 50/50 randomized allocation to begin with. And then you get the social construction of gender roles layered on top of the actual physical bits'n'pieces, which adds a layer of indirection to it all.

I was in part writing a tribute novel to John Varley, and in part tipping my hat at Paul Linebarger, who wrote wonderful science fiction as Cordwainer Smith but who in real life was also known as the father of psychological warfare: and I'd been reading up on Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo's work on obedience to authority and emergent behaviour in unpleasant artificial societies — Zimbardo was the brain behind the Stanford Prison Study — so there you have the bundle of influences that shaped Glasshouse.

The key conceit in the novel was the application of the Stanford Prison Study protocol to gender roles, in a posthuman society where actual physical morphology — and therefore sexual identity — is normally under voluntary control. That's where the gender dysphoria and alarm and unhappiness comes from: it's an explicit metaphor for imprisonment. (As for what the Glasshouse is for — within the text — that's something else: Robin/Reeve is a notoriously unreliable narrator, and while he/she thinks his side won the war, and the Glasshouse is a prison environment for reprocessing war criminals from the other side, how do we really know that he/she is right? After all, he/she has lost most of his/her memories, and he/she is in there ...!)

But to get back to your question: many men do have trouble with their assigned gender and its associated behaviour. And yes, any gender role has the potential to be a stifling caul unless it's voluntarily adopted. Many of us, I think, are a little bit dysfunctional, and kick against the traces of what's expected of us from time to time — but what must it be like to live in a culture where that is discouraged to the point where you can be killed for it? And what, in contrast, might it be like to live in a culture where the thing is entirely voluntary? I thought that was worth asking.

Putting your futurist goggles on for a second, how do you imagine that humans will eventually escape from gender roles? Will we need nanotech to make sex changes a breeze? Will we need fortieth wave feminism?

(I wish.)

Wearing my futurist hat, I'd have to say that sex changes are likely to stay difficult, and controversial, for quite a while to come. There's a lot of physiological differences, going all the way down to the cellular level.

On the other hand, there's a lot of scope for improvements in how we relate to one another. Looking back just 100 years, we've made some remarkable progress in terms of equality and freedom of expression for people who don't fit the stereotypical gender roles of their contemporary society. Go back to, say, 1858, and the legal rights and social role of women in British society wasn't that different from Iran today. (In fact, contemporary Iran is probably doing better in some areas.) Segregating people from birth and channeling their life opportunities on the basis of their physical sex seems to me to be every bit as unjustifiable as doing so on the basis of their skin colour. And I'd like to live to see the day when it's as unacceptable to engage in gender stereotyping as it is to engage in racial stereotyping.

(But I'm afraid I'm not holding my breath.)

Kathleen Ann Goonan says she tries to write her SF as if gender doesn't matter. Do you think that's possible?

I'm not sure. The business of fiction is the study of the human condition, and gender is something that many humans are obsessed with, thus making it rather difficult to ignore when studying the human condition! On the other hand, you don't need to take received notions of gender as solid proven facts, especially in science fiction, where it's always fun to turn constants into variables and start twiddling the knobs to see where things go. Good luck to her for trying, anyway!

Image by Mark Fredrickson from the cover of Stross' novel The Atrocity Archives.