Friday, June 21, 2013

Why Fantasy Armies Can and Should Include Women

A few weeks ago, the always on the ball Stefan Raets linked to an article in Amazing Stories magazine called Girl, You're In The Army Now, written by Felicity Savage. The general gist of the post is that while the author firmly believes in a woman's right to serve in the armed forces in the real world, she finds the idea women serving in fantasy armies stretches her disbelief to the breaking point because 1) it's a medical fact that the average man is stronger with a higher lung capacity than the average woman, and 2) (which she lists as her primary complaint) the economic reality of a pre-industrial economy just couldn't handle losing both genders. Won't someone think of the wheat?! *PEARL CLUTCHING*

I'm paraphrasing of course, but you get the idea. You might also have picked up on the subtle vibe that I do not agree. Well, you guessed right! I don't agree. I, in fact, call BS on the whole idea for a cornucopia of reasons that I have provided in list form below for your convenience.

1. Men are stronger than women! It's SCIENCE! You can't argue with SCIENCE!

Well, actually, most of science seems to be arguing from what I can tell, but for most part I accept this as true. The average man is indeed be capable of greater physical strength and stamina than the average woman. But here's the thing about averages like this, they're only correct an average amount of the time, and they do not reflect mitigating factors like outliers or training. Take me, for example

I've always been a strong woman. I don't mean that in the mental fortitude way, I mean I can lift heavy shit. I'm not a she-hulk or anything, but I've always been noticeably stronger than the people around me. Other than the occasional moving day, though, I never thought much of it. And then, about six months ago, I decided to give weight lifting a try.

Turns out I've been drastically underestimating my body all these years. My very first attempt at a deadlift, I maxed 250 pounds. I'm now up to a 275 deadlift, 260 squat, and 155 bench, and that's only going to the gym two or three times a week. For those of you not into weightlifting, that's a LOT of weight for a woman, and this isn't even my ceiling.

Now, please don't think I'm telling you this to be all "here's one exception, therefore your average is bupkiss!" The reason I bring up my own maxes (besides getting to brag about them on the internet, BOOYAH!) is to point out that numbers for what an "average" person can do mean almost nothing in the real world, because almost no individual you meet will be precisely on that average. Some will be weaker, some will be stronger, and this applies to both men and women. Could I lift more if I was a man? Absolutely. But that doesn't change the truth that I can lift the average man or woman and toss them across the room as I am right now, and I'm not even in army training.

"But, Rachel," you might say. "We're not talking about individual freaks of nature like yourself. We're talking about an army of thousands. Surely strength averages matter on that scale!"

And I'd have to say you're right, but the REAL faulty part of this argument isn't the numbers, it's the assumption that the most important aspect of a successful soldier is physical strength.

Any physically fit human being, male or female, who under goes the proper training can swing a sword hard enough to kill another human being. Any solider who can make it through whatever boot camp style training program an army has in place can probably handle the physical requirements of combat. That's kind of the whole point of having a boot camp: to prepare and train soldiers for the reality of army life. Therefore, it follows that anyone who makes it through, male or female or whatever, should be able to march, fight, and die just as well as any other solider in the ranks. But here's the real kicker, once you've reached this base level of physical aptitude, the importance of physical strength in a solider is overshadowed by other soldierly qualities like cleverness, the ability to keep a cool head in dangerous situations, and willingness to follow orders, and these are things women can do (or mess up) in equal measure to men.

War is not a weight lifting competition. You don't win a battle because your soldiers can swing the hardest. You win because your generals are clever, your troops are brave and disciplined, and sometimes because of the individual heroics of that one ambitious lieutenant who didn't follow orders and ended up saving the day.

Sure men may have a greater capacity for the physical aspects of combat, but capacity does not equal follow through. The average woman with drive and training will beat the average man without any day of the week, and I do not believe it is at all unrealistic to depict this in a fantasy novel. Hell, I see this all the time from the ROTC ladies who complement my deadlift. If I took those women, put them in chain mail, and gave them swords, I could defend a pass against the orcish hordes for, like, EVER.

If you want an absolutely fabulous fantasy novel about a woman soldier going through a very realistic experience as a female recruit in a fantasy army, I highly (HIGHLY) recommend Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion. I grew up reading this book, and Paks is one of my favorite fantasy heroines of all time, but what really impressed me were the incredibly interesting details of what life in a mercenary company in a pre-industrial fantasy world would be like. Moon herself was a US Marine, and you can see her experience all through the book. It's not always pretty for Paks, but army life isn't known for its softness or ease.

Over all, an incredibly awesome and realistic military fantasy about what it would actually be like to be a woman soldier in a mercenary platoon that sacks cities and hires wizards and takes on dark magic. Can not praise it enough!

So that's why I think the whole "men make better soldiers than women because they're physically stronger" argument is a load of bull. But what about Ms. Savage's (who has an amazing name, by the way. Felicity Savage, that's a UF heroine name if I ever heard one!) main point? To quote: "The real reason I don’t buy women soldiers in fantasy is the economics."

Well, let's see.

2) Mixed gender fantasy armies are unrealistic because someone has to bring in the harvest

I'll let Ms. Savage explain this one herself:
"Fantasy worlds do not tend to have washing machines, combine harvesters, supermarkets, or refrigerators. Keeping people fed and clothed under pre-industrial conditions is labor-intensive. Our own not-so-distant history suggests it requires the labor of all the women and most of the men, except for a tiny elite of both sexes, all the time. And then there’s the little matter of the next generation. In a society without modern medicine, the birth rate needs to be sky-high just to keep the population steady. It’s hard to imagine how any significant number of women could be spared from these vital tasks, except for ideological reasons in a society that is violently breaking itself to remake itself, such as Maoist China (pre-industrial in the remoter regions then)."
Now, she has a decent point. It does take a LOT of manual labor to support a pre-industrial farm based  economy and a lot of babies to make up for a high infant mortality rate, but I think she's confusing a full draft military force and a standing army. Because they're not the same thing.

Draft armies are for times of extreme peril. You know, "The orcs are coming! Every able bodied man is required to take arms and fight for his kingdom!" that sort of thing. This sort of "oh shit oh shit scramble everything we've got!" military is an emergency measure, a reaction to enormous threat. It's not the sort of thing you do all day every day for years. And let me tell you, when the orcs are massing at the pass, no one's thinking about the harvest or the economy or future birth rates. They're thinking about not letting their lands be scorched and pillaged by orcs.

In the real world, these sort of panicked draft armies actually featured a lot more woman than you'd normally find in a fighting force because of the whole "desperate times, desperate measures" thing. Scotland, for instance, had several famous female warriors and leaders who joined the battle because they were there, they were needed, and they rose to the occasion to fight for their homeland.

The point I'm trying to make here is that full kingdom draft armies are a frantic, scrambled sort of thing that goes on for a few years at most. The idea of sustaining such a system for longer is, indeed, outside the stretch of disbelief, but not because of women. It's just impossible to maintain that sort of "all in" military force and keep your country ticking over no matter how capable the people left back home are.

Standing armies are another animal entirely. Generally speaking, these are the armies we're really thinking about when we think "fantasy military" - well trained, well supplied, professional soldiers led by career generals. Unlike a draft army, this sort of force is designed to be sustainable, supported by taxes, and employing a portion of the nation's working force who joins voluntarily... and for that reason there's no cause at all not to have women join as well other than blatant sexism.

This sort of army is a career choice. Being a solider is a job, and if you are qualified to do that job, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to take it regardless of sex. Now, it's perfectly reasonable that a woman joining the army might encounter more hardships than a male solider because of sexism, perceived weakness, etc., but that's the sort of beautiful conflict stories are made of! A bad author can make anything unbelievable of course, but there's no reason the situation itself has to stretch the bounds of disbelief.

A professional army is just that, a professional, sustainable entity. The rest of the country keeps ticking on perfectly fine outside it (having babies, growing wheat, etc.) whether women are allowed in or not. Therefore, this argument that women can't be a part of a pre-industrial fighting force because all the babies would dry up is absurd and incorrect, and if you use it as an excuse to exclude women from your fantasy army, I will laugh at you right before I close your book, because that shit is REALLY unbelievable.

So those are her two main arguments and why I think they're both wrong. I think my reply may actually be longer than the original article now, but before I finish up, I'd like to address what I consider the most problematic sentence in this entire post.

3) "Ideology has no place in fiction."

I am in the business of finding words, and yet I have a hard time expressing just how much this sentence insults me as an author. But before I go into why, let me allow Ms. Savage to explain her thinking in context:
"Ideology, I conclude, is what drives authors to retrofit equal opportunities into their fantasy worlds. They’re welding their own ideas about how things ought to be onto otherwise well-thought out worlds. And that’s a damn shame.
"Ideology has no place in fiction. The created world is its own thing: it must make organic sense, obeying the laws of narrative plausibility, just as a house must conform to the laws of stress and strain or else fall down."
Once again, I believe Ms. Savage has confused two different concepts. What she is talking about here is moralizing, the sort of Saturday morning kid's show message mongering that we didn't even buy as kids. You know, when they stick a kid in a wheelchair into the cast just to get diversity points while never actually presenting a real, rounded handicapped character because, hey, that would take WORK. Ugh.

And if that's what we're talking about, I agree. Stapling a moral message into your novel for no other reason than because you think it should be there is a damn shame, not to mention bad writing. Having an ideology in your fiction, however, is the heart and soul of story telling.

If authors had no ideology, if we simply parroted the racist, sexist status quo of our modern lives without examination or comment, then what is the point of fiction? A good tale well told is a wonderful thing, but a good tale well told that makes you think, that makes you look at something in a new way, that asks uncomfortable questions, these are the novels that matter. And the sneaky ways we authors slip these ideologies into what you thought was just a fun bit of escapism reading about dragons or spaceships is where the art of this whole process comes in.

Fantasy and science fiction books in particular present an enormous playground for this sort of thing. I can literally create an entire universe replete with dozens of brand new civilizations all for the purpose of asking "what happens when there is no gender?" or "what is the real cost of being racially intolerant?" Now, of course I don't ask these questions directly, that would be the most way to tell a story ever. Instead, I weave these questions into the fabric of the world itself, and as my characters encounter them, they (and by extension, the reader) are forced to think about these things in a new environment that separates them from their real world prejudices, allowing them to encounter old ideas with an open mind, maybe for the first time in their lives.

When I read the aforementioned Deed of Paksenarrion as a twelve year old girl, I loved it because it was a fun story about an awesome and brave and surprisingly gentle female warrior who never gave up no matter what. But what I took from that story was a love and appreciation for brave, strong women who stand up for what is right that has stuck with me all my life. Elizabeth Moon didn't sit me down and beat this into me, she didn't staple it on to her world because "I must teach young women to be feminists!" She told me a story, and like all good story tellers, she hid a message in there for me to discover on my own.

If Elizabeth Moon had removed her ideology from her novel, if she'd kicked her women out of her army, it would have been a much, much sorrier tale. But she didn't, and I am a different person for it. I am a better person because of the science fiction and fantasy books I have read, because of the women I have read, the heroines and the villainesses whose creators, male and female, held strong to their ideologies. An absolutely enormous percentage of my moral code comes from books, good ones and bad ones, authors I agreed with and authors I don't. But if these people left their ideologies out, if they removed the moral core of their fiction, then all we'd have left are empty, hollow, meaningless stories that change nothing.

Like any part of a novel, ideology can be handled badly. This is just bad writing, and it happens. In the hands of a capable artist, however, ideology in fiction is what gives us the stories that change our lives. It is the lyrical expression of the things that truly matter, the things that are too big or too painful or too tangled to handle in the real world. But in stories, in books, we can change the world to be however we want, and that is a power that should never be dismissed.

Ideology has every place in fiction. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.

And with that, I'm off to plan a realistic fantasy war novel featuring an all female mercenary force. Peace out, internet!

- Rachel