In her latest novel Leeds science fiction author Justina Robson creates a world where tech is so advanced it might as well be magic – and females rule.
Females dominate the social hierarchy in your book. Why did you decide to explore this concept and how did it evolve?
I’d been wondering how it was that patriarchy evolved as the universal human social ordering system. I know that exceptions have been reported but some doubt was lately cast on those studies. At the same time there was a perceived pushback going on against women in my writing genres and a lot of work being done trying to redress the balance in terms of women being represented fairly at all levels there: within awards nominations, on judging committees, as convention speakers, as the writers of book reviews and in numbers of books reviewed. This was all circulating at once and brought to mind many of the books of the 1970s feminist writers I read when I was a student – Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ. I was toying with ideas of how human history could have been different – what would have to be changed for things to go in another direction – but the particular nature of our circumstances was too complex a system to just mess about like that; it was clearly not just being a mammal with prolonged infant care issues or anything like that which could be made to take the blame, as it were. So after a while I decided my real interest wasn’t in figuring out the how of our situation but in trying to invent something a bit different, especially at the point where I feel femininity and female things are most put down by our own social world.
Was it a challenge to write or was it an exploration of your own ideas regarding female representation?
Both. It’s a personal curiosity rather than a political statement. There are factors in the SF elements of it which mean it can’t stand as some kind of alternative: there are people in it who are telepaths, there is very heavy skewing of abilities so that everyone can’t do everything; they’re mentally less adaptable. That arose from the worldbuilding. It’s a story about a very different human situation altogether, one in which the people don’t know their own history and are trying to discover why they don’t have any records or memories of the historical past, among other things. They do find out and it’s a shock to them.
“I wrote it for teenage me, because all I got was a Mills and Boon I got in a free giveaway and the avalanche of misogynist crap that was my then boyfriend’s porn.”
How did you come up with the world in The Glorious Angels?
The world here arose because I wanted a scenario in which the technology was so advanced and its development so long in the past that it was perceived and used like magic. The people think they are magically capable, but the reader can guess that this isn’t the case; it’s not a magical world, it’s a world of fantastic technology, but the characters don’t have a concept of it being manufactured any more. That’s the feeling I have now about computers and the internet, the way we use it and who is making it. In the story the people develop their technology through retroengineering archaeological finds, as if from an elder civilisation. That’s a reflection of the way we try to reinvent ourselves all the time but are stuck with our biological (ancient) model…well, it is now I think about it, though I didn’t at the time.
You have included graphic sexual scenes in this and non-consensual sex in previous work. What are your reasons for including them?
Sex is a big part of most human lives, therefore it’s in stories. Not writing about it seems ludicrous in the present age which is afloat in various efforts to “deal with” our sexual and erotic lives now that we are no longer as repressed in the expression about these as we were in prior times. And not writing about it in a book whose themes are gender and power… is ridiculous. I come from a background where repression has done enormous harm to people in prior generations and it’s my hope that the openness with which these things can be discussed will lead to a calming of the waters as the terrific shames that can be experienced are defused. Repression is not a great plan. Self/other acceptance and social responsibility/accountability seem better.
The violation scene you refer to is in Living Next Door To The God of Love. Oddly nobody mentions the murder taking place at the same time. I included that particular scene because it is something that the central character undergoes in which he is apparently rid of all choices but still manages to choose not to be a victim whilst one of the other victims whom he is apparently abusing also absolves him of that role – that’s what I intended it to show: a massive piece of moral redefinition and engineering at a deeply personal level. I don’t think I could have done that another way with the same impact, because reporting it or showing it as a series of “results” allows the reader to escape the emotional hooks and rationalise everything instead. I didn’t want to put them at safe distance. For which, apologies to those who were upset. It does run the risk that people will misinterpret the scene from my intended meaning into their own, of course, and this has happened so I think I could have written it better, but I did the best I could at the time. I did wonder if I should include it, as it is appalling in several respects, but then I thought I am equally appalled at least once a week by things reported on the daily news so leaving it out seemed like a failure to address an unsavoury aspect of humanity which could do with more addressing, with the goal of helping people to “process” (please forgive the term) the alarm and horror of these things and to show that even for those involved life can go on and become worthwhile again.
On one hand sci-fi and erotica seem like strange bedfellows but on the other they are both essentially fantasy – how intrinsically linked are they?
They’re both fantasy in the same way that tigers and ragdolls are both cats. Sci-fi is a mode that can address any subject at all; you decide to write about it in a way that explores it with a scientific eye to the whys and wherefores. SF can address anything, it wants to think about things in a particular way. Erotica can be set anywhere with any characters – imagination is the only limit – but its aim is to arouse and excite, to give pleasure. I have read books where both sensibilities are in operation, though they’re rare – Spending by Mary Gordon – comes to mind and it doesn’t write the sex as erotica – it only partakes of that attitude. It is neither an SF nor an erotica book incidentally, but it is very good. So there’s no intrinsic link at all but also no reason not to link them.
As I was writing I was conscious that in part I was taking a big coloured pen and scrawling over the experience I had at 16 when I read Slave Girl of Gor by Jon Norman, which resonated oddly and weirdly with reading Fifty Shades of Grey as I was in prep for writing this book. They’re both about sex and gender and co-dependently weird relationships between men and women extending into BDSM elements. The former one has more explicit sexism and is more forthright about its views on gender roles (women can only be happy as surrendered wives: see pretty much every social role ever allotted to us) while the latter makes a difficult point about humans and their sexual reactions to one another – give two people enough mutually pressable hot buttons and even someone as awful (sorry, I mean tormented and sad, aww poor thing… no I don’t) as Christian Grey can score. So I thought I’d have an Empress that dominates everyone else’s choices and make her a teenage girl. Just so at least this time she gets to be a central character without a victim moment whose character features (be they archetypal or not) are not flaws but advantages. I wrote it for teenage me, because all I got for examples was DH Lawrence (bowels.. ugh much?), Gor, the odd bit of Bond (don’t even), a Mills and Boon I got in a free giveaway and the avalanche of misogynist crap that was my then boyfriend’s porn. Add in the Aids panics of the 1980s and uncomfortable family histories on the subject and it was a lot of victimhood to be getting on with and not much light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not saying I wrote this for teenagers though. It’s my memory processed times n to the x so it’s very much an older adult’s book.