Apr 30, 2013
On Space Opera: Why so many brothels in space?
Recently I read Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey, which bills itself as a good old-fashioned space opera. I picked it up after a recommendation from Laini Taylor on Twitter; she described it as combining elements of mystery and horror as well as sci-fi, and that combination sounded irresistible to me. Seriously — I went out to the library and picked it up before lunch that day.
It’s a big book, and I was sucked in from page one. It absolutely is mystery + horror with a space opera feel, and I definitely recommend it. I realized, though, that I don’t read space opera very often these days.
When I was a teen, one of my favorite series ever was the Robotech novelizations by Jack McKinney. (If you follow me on Twitter I’m pretty sure you’ve heard me squeal about these before.) Now that was some space opera — talk about melodrama! Also: giant fighting robots and creepy invading aliens! So fun. (At least, when I was a teen. I haven’t read them since then but I continue to remember them fondly with a nice yellowed filter of nostalgia.)
But while I don’t read much space opera these days, I do watch it as often as I can — I love it on TV and in the movies. I am still sad that Battlestar Galactica (the rebooted version) is over, and I’m still searching for an adequate follow-up. I can’t wait to see all those giant popcorn sci-fi movies coming out this summer, too. Who knows, I might even watch Pacific Rim in 3D just to see the giant robots attacking the giant aliens.
Reading Leviathan Wakes, though, also reminded me why I don’t read that much space opera. It’s not that I haven’t tried — it’s that so much space opera is written from a distinctly male perspective that can be off-putting to me. The main characters are men; they talk about women as if women can’t hear them; and what few female characters there are typically exist as sexual objects for the main male characters.
Let me be clear: Leviathan Wakes wasn’t bad in this arena; I’ve read plenty worse. But I did find it amusing that there were so many brothels in the solar system of Leviathan Wakes. As brothel after brothel was casually mentioned, I started to wonder: Why the hell are there so many brothels in the future world of Leviathan Wakes? Really, why?
Is it because space is the final “frontier” and the “frontier” is a mythical place full of men exploring, which means that prostitutes follow them there for business reasons? This might make sense if the future has few women in it, but Leviathan Wakes seemed to try pretty hard to put women in plenty of roles. They weren’t the main characters (those were two men), but hey — women do exist in the future of Leviathan Wakes.
So what’s with all the brothels? Because whenever I think of brothels, I think of one question: Who are the women working there? There was no indication in Leviathan Wakes that there were male prostitutes, even though one of the (male) main characters worked as a cop and seemed to have a lot (a lot!) of contact on the job with prostitutes. I’m gonna guess that sure, there might be male prostitutes, but the majority are probably female.
So who are these prostitutes? What kind of a future world is it that permits so much prostitution? Are the prostitutes regulated? Do they have health insurance? Are they part of worker-owned collectives so they don’t have to deal with pimps?
Seriously, all these questions popped into my mind, because it seemed pretty clear to me that if there are so many brothels in space, there has to be an entire social and economic structure to support them. In most of human history, that structure was deeply entwined with sexism. I’d love to believe that all the prostitutes in space are there because they love their jobs and they chose to do them, but … honestly I’m not convinced.
And yet, you know what? I really enjoyed Leviathan Wakes, even with its massive number of brothels. I’ve already requested the sequel from my library, and I’m intrigued to see what happens next.
But it did make me think that I’d like to read some space opera in which either there aren’t so many brothels in space, or the existence of them is explained. I’d also like female main characters leading the action. I’d like them to have friends who are also female. I’d like men to not use the word “whore” to denigrate women.
In light of this desire, I went googling. I found a couple of columns by Liz Bourke over at Tor.com that address many of my demands. Check out her recommendations in “Sleeps With Monsters: Lesbian SFF Romance” for lesbian-focused sci-fi (some of it space operatic) and the discussion in “Admirals and Amazons: Women in Military Science Fiction.” I’m looking forward to looking into some of these books.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue fantasizing about my own space opera in my head, starring a lady who doesn’t frequent brothels (nothing against them, but this lady wouldn’t need them), knows how to fly ships and how to survive an alien invasion, and has lots of lady friends (of all kinds).
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