SFF in Conversation

SFF in Conversation: Rachel Bach on Upsetting the Default

SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.

We continue our ongoing new series of posts “SFF in Conversation” with a guest post from Rachel Bach, author of military SciFi Fortune’s Pawn and of the Eli Monpress series under the name Rachel Aaron.

Fortune's Pawn Rachel Aaron

Please give it up for Rachel, everyone!


Upsetting the Default

Good little author that I am, I have been dutifully scurrying all over the internet doing promo for my upcoming Science Fiction novel, Fortune’s Pawn. One of these was a joint interview for Romantic Times magazine with fellow SF author Ann Leckie. As expected from an interview with two female authors in the traditionally male dominated world of Science Fiction, the conversation centered primarily on sexism and gender in the genre, which is most definitely an area that merits exploration. One question in particular, however, really caught my attention:

“Would [your novel] have been the same story if the protagonist had been a man?”

I’d actually thought about this issue before, but seeing it laid out like that kind of blew my mind. Not because it’s a bad question–it’s actually a very good question, more on that in a moment–but because the fact that this question exists to be asked in the first place was a perfect storm of all my problems with gender in SF. Like a small crack that opens into a miles deep underground cavern, there were depths here that I couldn’t begin to explore in a short interview I was already sharing with another author, but I couldn’t just let it slide, either. So, since The Book Smugglers were kind enough to let me join their conversation on SFF, I thought I’d take the opportunity to give this expedition the attention it deserves.

Since I mentioned already that this was a very good question, I’d like to start by actually answering it. Would my novel be different if my main character was a him instead of a her? Well, yes. Book-breakingly so, actually. My main character, Devi Morris, is a veteran powered armored mercenary who is extremely good at what she does. As you might expect given that background, she’s cocky, aggressive, and ambitious; a career soldier with a serious ego, major trust issues, and all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop…and if she’d been a dude, I would have hated him.

The very qualities that make Devi Devi–her pride, her pigheaded refusal to back down even when outnumbered, her fierce aggression–would be macho to the point of absurdity in a male character. A guy at the top of the food chain beating his chest at the world is just obnoxious, but the same behavior from a girl who has clawed her way up the ladder on nothing but grit, talent, and ambition is brave and admirable and a little dangerous.

It’s that danger that makes Devi, for me at least, ultimately interesting. Our society does not handle female aggression and independence well. Behavior that’s expected from leading men–cocksure arrogance, grinning in the face of death, all that action hero stuff–is alarming and notable when it comes a woman, even if she’s doing exactly the same dangerous, violent job as the man. Women aren’t supposed to get angry except in “Mama Bear” style defense. We’re supposed to be modest and play down our accomplishments. We’re not supposed to take visceral joy in physical combat, and a large part of Devi’s charisma as a character is how she does all of these things and makes no apologies about it.

If Devi were a man, this would be nothing special. It might even be annoyingly over-the-top. But as a woman clawing her way out from under all that social baggage, this sort of display of raw power and aggressive ambition is a powerful act of rebellion and bravery, especially since I also make her deal with all the problems that inevitably follow such reckless, status-quo-bucking behavior.

Given my long answer, this is clearly an excellent question, so why am I hung up on it? What’s the big deal? Well, to get to that, we have to ask why the question of “would your book be different if your protagonist was a male?” was raised at all.

To even begin unpacking this, we first need to talk about the unspoken assumption that having a female main character in a Science Fiction novel is so notable, so completely outside the norm, that we can’t help wondering how the story would have been turned out if the protagonist had been the “industry default,” ie, male. Now, I’m sure this wasn’t what the author of the question had in mind when she wrote it, but consider: if I were a male author writing a male character, would anyone think to ask me the gender reversed version of this question? Would this topic even come up?

As an author and a fan, Science Fiction is hands down the most relentless male centered genre I’ve ever been a part of, both in terms of the names on the books and the characters in them. Now, this in itself isn’t inherently bad. Men are obviously perfectly capable authors, and there are tons of wonderful, well written, thought provoking stories told through men’s eyes. The problem comes in when this surfeit of male characters in SF leads to people into thinking that men are the only viable protagonists. Male (usually straight and generally white) characters are so unrelentingly ubiquitous, they have become SF’s default, to the point where the decision to have any other type of protagonist is seen as a daring authorial choice to be questioned. Again, no one ever asks, “why did you make your main character a man?” It’s just assumed, the natural state of things, even when the author in question is herself a woman.

This assumption that male is the default bugs me to no end both as a woman and an author, because when one type of protagonist is seen as “normal,” even implicitly, everything different becomes abnormal by comparison. Suddenly, my book–which is chock full of spaceships and aliens and badasses having mortal combat in sleek suits of powered armor for End of the Universe stakes–isn’t Science Fiction, it’s Women’s Science Fiction. It’s Other, something “real” Science Fiction fans can feel free to ignore as a niche market, especially since my female main character also manages to fit in a meaningful romance–with emotions and consequences and everything–thus adding “hella girl cooties” (technical term) to the narrative.

This is actually what frustrates me the most. If there’s one thing I can predict Fortune’s Pawn will be criticized for, it’s going to be for adhering too strongly to traditional Science Fiction tropes. Just as my Legend of Eli Monpress series (written as Rachel Aaron) was a loving sendback to the rollicking fun early 90s Fantasy epics I grew up with, my Devi books are an attempt to recapture the exhilaration and wonder I felt when I first watched Aliens, or tore through my parents’ wall of Anne McCaffrey, David Brin, and Marion Zimmer Bradley paperbacks. Fortune’s Pawn is about as close to a Science Fiction love letter as you can get without being a flat out parody, and yet my book is constantly addressed as an outsider work. Not because it’s actually outside any definition of Science Fiction anyone can reasonably defend, but because I am a woman, and I wrote a protagonist who was like me.

Now, I’m sure some will say I’m making a mountain out of a molehill here. After all, Fortune’s Pawn is being put out by a major publisher across the US and UK, hardly the position of the oppressed. But when you see your gender and the gender of your main character brought up in every single interview and review of your work, it’s hard not to feel that “female Science Fiction author” is a bit like “piano playing elephant”; notable for its novelty, but no one is expected to actually care about the music. And that bothers me a lot, both because I put a ton of work and thought into that music, and because being a woman in SF isn’t a novelty.

Any serious look at the genre reveals that there are tons of women and minorities all across the Science Fiction spectrum–authors, actors, creators, and fans of all stripes–and the only reason the actual contents of the genre don’t reflect this diverse fanbase is because these non-white, non-male voices have been systematically ignored for years because they’re not that accepted default we just talked about. So, to those who might claim that I’m overreacting (yeesh, women can bitch about anything! Amirite, guys?), I would reply, no. I am reacting, which isn’t the same thing at all. Reacting is what responsible, thinking people do when they notice something is amiss, and there is nothing more horrifically amiss than seeing these outdated, archaic, exclusionary, downright backwards modes of thought being applied to a genre that is founded on looking forward.

That said, I have no doubt that given enough time, attention, and strong, diverse characters, Science Fiction can right its faulty trajectory, because this genre’s most enduring facet isn’t its starships or aliens, but its humanism. There is no body of fiction more doggedly committed to the belief that we are more than just a bunch of sweaty apes trapped on a rock at the unfashionable end of the galaxy, and the type of people who are drawn to these kind of stories are exactly the sort who can change their thinking. Because that’s all the male default is–expectation, lazy thinking, the surrender of common sense to old prejudices–and if there’s one thing SF excels at, it’s challenging the old and unexamined.

There’s already been more talk about this topic in recent times than I’ve ever seen before, and while some have balked (because people always balk at change), the community pushback against that sort of knee-jerk, exclusionary behavior has been overwhelming and highly encouraging. Old methods of thinking are already collapsing under the tide of the new before our eyes, and it’s only a matter of time before the stupid concept that Science Fiction, a genre that revels in turning old ideas on their heads, needs a default gender will go the way of miniskirts for Star Trek ensigns.

Who knows? Maybe someday soon, female SF authors will be asked more questions about their actual plots and characters and less about their gender. It’s kind of sad that that feels like such a distant, starry-eyed hope right now, but then, hope for the future is what Science Fiction is all about.


Rachel Bach is the author of Fortune’s Pawn, a fast paced, romantic adventure starring Devi Morris, a powered armor mercenary who signs on with the galaxy’s most trouble-prone space freighter in an attempt to jumpstart her career. But while Devi expected the firefights and aliens, this ship holds secrets she never could have imagined, and the greatest danger for this ship guard might just be the very people she was hired to protect.

Fortune’s Pawn comes out November 5 and is the first in the Paradox Trilogy from Orbit Books. Other books by Rachel include The Legend of Eli Monpress fantasy series under the name Rachel Aaron.

You Might Also Like


  • Paul Weimer
    November 5, 2013 at 10:01 am

    Maybe someday soon, female SF authors will be asked more questions about their actual plots and characters and less about their gender.

    And may female epic fantasy authors get recognized, too, while we are at it…

  • hapax
    November 5, 2013 at 11:41 am

    This is a fantabulous essay, and I have nothing to add but that I am sending links to everybody I know.

    Oh, and that I am now excited to read a book that I was previously lukewarm about, based only on the blurb. (And finding out that Rachel Bach is also Rachel Aaron (squee!) doesn’t hurt)

  • Bookgazing
    November 6, 2013 at 3:16 am

    This was great 🙂

  • Nick Green
    May 16, 2014 at 10:14 am

    There is an issue here that bothers me. It’s a feminist issue, too. Is the only way to write a ‘strong’ female character just to give them a bunch of macho characteristics like being able to kick ass and wreak violence and so on? And isn’t that just another way of saying, ‘male is strong and assertive, female is weak and submissive’? A lot of female heroes seem to be just thinly-disguised men, only their excesses are okay and ‘new’ because they’re women.
    What I want to see are more female characters who are strong without resorting to the tired old masculine weapons of violence and power. To have someone hold up the traditionally ‘feminine’ qualities as powerful heroic tools. Which isn’t to say that ‘women should stick to being women’ – rather, I’m saying that women should be allowed to be their own kind of heroes, not forced into the male stereotypes.

  • Literary Linking 31/01/15 | The Prattle of Hastings
    January 31, 2015 at 6:05 am

    […] on The Book Smugglers Rachel Bach (also known as Rachel Aaron, whom I mentioned earlier this week) discusses gender in science fiction. I’m actually reading Fortune’s Pawn right now, so this was a particularly interesting […]

  • When the sex of your characters makes you novel book-breakingly different | S. K. Dunstall
    May 30, 2015 at 8:08 pm

    […] Would [your novel] have been the same story if the protagonist had been a man? The Book Smugglers, ‘Rachel Bach on Upsetting the Default‘ […]

Leave a Reply