Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Nina Munteanu Discusses SF and Women with the Globe and Mail

Deirdre Kelly, reporter for the Globe and Mail interviewed Nina Munteanu and two other SF authors (Marie Bilodeau and Madeline Ashby) in an article entitled “Authors push science beyond the lab into fiction and fantasy” (Feb 25, 2013).

The article provided a well-rounded perspective on storytelling from the minds of three women science fiction and fantasy writers in Canada.

Here’s an excerpt:

Writing about women’s issues at the same time as exploring the new, and often speculative, frontiers of science is what distinguishes Ms. Ashby and [Nina Munteanu and Marie Bilodeau] from their male counterparts.
“Female writers seem to use characters or social concepts as the foundation to their stories and then build worlds around them, whereas male writers tend to create worlds and technologies first,” says full-time author and professional storyteller Marie Bilodeau, the Ottawa-based author of the Destiny series of space fantasy novels, among other works, including science fiction. “Hard science fiction explores scientific concepts and is most often written by males while soft science-fiction, or science-fiction with a strong social focus, is written more by females.”
These are risky divisions implying, perhaps, that one approach is better than another.
It is why Nina Munteanu, a practicing scientist with degrees in freshwater science and aquatic biology who is the author of The Splintered Universe Trilogy, among other futurist [and hard science fiction] books [like Darwin’s Paradox], wants to believe that gender differences in science fiction ought to be irrelevant.
“In terms of what good science fiction does – examining humanity and our journey in life through our relationship with the unknown – I see little difference between gender representations,” explains the former Simon Fraser university instructor and [Douglas College] lab [instructor] who today resides in Toronto.
“Science fiction is the literature of consequence exploring large issues faced by humankind.”
Yet in all her books, among them the recently released [fantasy] The Last Summoner, Ms. Munteanu, born in Granby, Que., … puts women front and centre as a way of telling stories of relevance to women.
“Speaking for myself, and for the other women I know who read science fiction, the need is for good stories featuring intelligent women who are directed in some way to make a difference in the world,” says Ms. Munteanu, who describes science fiction as a literature of allegory and metaphor. “Their heroism may manifest itself through co-operation and leadership in community, which is different from their die-hard male counterparts who want to tackle the world on their own. Science fiction provides a new paradigm for heroism and a new definition of hero as it balances technology and science with human issues and needs.”
Post Script:

With all due respect to Marie, master storyteller and good friend, I disagree with her prognosis of hard and soft science fiction as related to male and female writers—and readers. It’s not that simple (and she may not have meant it that way and might have elaborated if given room, which there wasn’t—if that’s the case, I apologize to Marie, but I’m commenting on what’s written in the article only). If we were to entertain the stereotype, then, yes, that would be the case: men write idea-driven stories and women write character-driven stories. But when it comes to science fiction, and SF authors, this is far too simple and a dangerous assumption—as most stereotypes are.

If you visit the online Globe & Mail article, you’ll find several rather unsavory (even childish) comments, challenging some of the simplified ideas suggested in this article. The truth of the matter is that we belong to a continuum, in fact in all matters, including gender and certainly gender-related thought. Science fiction, by virtue of its exploration of “the Large or Unknown” must evolve naturally from idea/premise to character; not the other way around.

If I were to look at my own work as an example, I have written romantic SF (Collision with Paradise, The Cypol), which certainly fits the stereotype. But even these stories would not be the stories they are if I hadn’t first created and explored the premise and dilemma related to idea. I conducted scientific research into AI, robotics, habitable worlds, jungle ecosystems, and Atlantean mythos, etc.) in order to fully explore the premise. My characters evolved from this process; not the other way around. So, Genevieve’s character—her yearnings, faults, weaknesses and victories—realized themselves organically through the story promise based on larger global issues and ideas.

The same can be said for the young vivacious baroness Viviann of my fantasy The Last Summoner and hard-boiled space cop Rhea Hawke in my science fiction space thriller The Splintered Universe Trilogy or data handler Julie Crane in my hard science fiction duology Darwin’s Paradox and Angel of Chaos.

Characters always play a role in realizing the larger issues of theme. In science fiction, these are almost always related to the impact of and our relationship with science and technology. That is why I call Collision and Cypol romantic science fiction, not SF romance. The difference is that the SF part isn’t just thrown in as exotic setting (like in so many romances); it is an integral part of the story theme. This is why good SF must spring from idea and premise, not character (unless character and premise are the same thing—wink).

So, in Darwin’s Paradox, which explores humanity’s relationship and co-evolution with technology and Nature, the theme of our tenuous co-evolution with Nature and technology is realized through the premise of an intelligent virus melding with a community of machine intelligence. Story is achieved through the main character who is largely marginalized (an introverted veemeld who can speak to machines in her head) who wishes she was “normal” but distrusts her community. She romanticizes but feels uncomfortable with Nature.

Where do women SF writers differ from men SF writers? Really? I think it lies mostly in how we portray our characters, particularly our women protagonists. That is where readers will see the most difference. And where we, as writers, have the opportunity to build a new paradigm for heroism.

So, in Darwin’s Paradox Julie, who is a loner, must learn to trust and rely on her community of machines, other people and even the virus to overcome negative forces. Even the negative forces, overseen by a female, by the way, are not so much vanquished and destroyed as educated and influenced to change. This is the purview of the woman. To teach. To guide. To nurture. To show compassion and forgiveness. To yield, even.  

When I sign Darwin’s Paradox for readers, my tagline is usually evolution through cooperation, in honor of my personal hero, microbiologist Lynn Margulis. Margulis endured over twenty years of censure from aggressive male scientists for her incredible theory of cooperation between a parasite and host (endosymbiosis), which created the prokaryotic cell. I think it’s high time that heroism—like Darwin’s Theory—be redefined. It’s up to us, through story.

“Science fiction is traditionally a more male-oriented genre,” says Marie in the Globe & Mail article. “It’s both harder to find acceptance as a woman writer and also more freeing because there are so few of us around. It’s still pioneering territory with a lot of space for women’s voices and visions to grow and be heard.”
“The best part about writing science fiction,” Marie adds, “is showing different ways of being without having your characters struggle to gain rights. Invented worlds can host a social landscape where debated rights in this world—such as gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia—are just a fact of life.”

I couldn’t agree with you more, Marie. Let the stories begin…

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Vanessa Rottner said...

Dear Nina,
Thank you for your enlightening article. In particular I liked how you have drawn the subject matter of SF and women, we need to keep sharing that 'voice'. Certainly need strong and supportive female characters, for reflects the vibrant women of today. I enjoyed Outer Diverse immensely "Rhea Hawke" is my heroine. I can't wait to delve into the second of the trilogy "Inner Diverse". Vanessa

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks, Vanessa

I'm so glad you enjoyed Rhea Hawke in Book 1 of The Splintered Universe Trilogy. She gets into a lot more trouble in Book 2. LOL! Have fun with it!

All the best,