Gravity's Rainbow

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I finished reading Cryptonomicon a few weeks ago. I really love Neal Stephenson, and I stayed up late far too many nights reading Cryptonomicon.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I was again disappointed by Stephenson’s female characters. The comments here do a good job of laying out some of the issues. My biggest problems are that none of the women get to be characters in their own right and that our impressions of them are always filtered through the male characters. Stephenson wrote terrifically sexist male characters (some are assholes, some are just men that lived pre-second wave), and it’s done in a way that makes his characters’ unfortunate view of women (I thought) glaringly obvious. At first, I thought he did it to show how awful/silly/useless sexism is. But while a scene that showed what one of the male leads thinks of his intended disgusted me, a male (engineering) acquaintance of mine found it hilarious – if the character was real, I’m pretty sure they would have high-fived. So maybe I’m giving Stephenson too much credit.

I twisted myself into knots trying to make Cryptonomicon feminist, but ultimately I think Alyssa is right when she says that in the novel “women are amusing, mysterious, trivial but enchanting creatures. There’s something almost Victorian about it, and it’s annoyingly reductionist.”

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  1. I love me some Stephenson, but, yeah, Cryptonomicon is a sausage party. What else of his have you read, and does it do any better? Off the top of my head: The Baroque Trilogy has one major female character and a bunch of supporting ones of the sort traditionally called “strong,” but the overwhelming majority of the main players are male. Maybe he does best in The Diamond Age, with a female protagonist? Except she’s still making her way in a world created and manipulated by male characters …

    • I love The Diamond Age, but I read it almost 10 years ago. Based on what I remember, I’d probably be disappointed if I reread it. The only other fiction of Stephenson’s that I’ve read is Zodiac. I remember being annoyed at a few points in the book, but reading the entire novel in one afternoon didn’t leave me with enough memory of the novel for a feminist reading.

      I get annoyed and angry and frustrated with the lack of female characters or how badly they’re written when they are included or why it’s ok for so many of his heroes to be sexist assholes. “It’s the character’s point of view, not the author’s!” [See 10:44pm] is a shit excuse, especially for scifi and fantasy. Why do so many authors create a fantasy world with patriarchy as the background, an underlying philosophy? Unless the novel is about showing how stupid it is or kicking it in the face, I think it’s because the authors are failing at feminism. I can kind of understand the 1940s men in Cryptonomicon – their sexism does make them more realistic. But when it’s not offset by some realistic/important lady characters, it makes you wonder if there really is much of a difference between the author and the character.

      From this, you might think I hate Stephenson, but I really, really enjoy his novels. The writing is often beautiful, like

      The gorge is alive with butterflies burning with colors of radioactive purity, and down closer to the rustling water are damselflies, mostly black with aqua bodies that flash in the sun their wings revealing glimpses of salmon and coral red on the underside as they orbit around each other. But mostly the air is filled with this continual slow progress of things that didn’t survive, making their way down through the column of air and into the water, which flushes them away: dead leaves and the exoskeletons of insects, sucked dry and eviscerated in some silent combat hundreds of feet above their heads.

      or very funny, like

      Chester nods all the way through this, but does not rudely interrupt Randy as a younger nerd would. Your younger nerd takes offense quickly when someone near him begins to utter declarative sentences, because he reads into it an assertion that he, the nerd, does not already know the information being imparted. But your older nerd has more self confidence, and besides, understands that frequently people need to think out loud. And highly advanced nerds will furthermore understand that uttering declarative sentences whose contents are already known to all present is part of the social process of making conversation and therefore should not be construed as aggression under any circumstances.

      I just wish Stephenson could write better women. The story might be great, but I’d rather not get slapped with misogyny every few chapters.

      • I’ve just read Diamond Age and it’s no better. Women have no intellectual powers of their own, but must be imbued with them by the influential men in their lives, as is the case with Nell, the female protagonist. All the other female characters are rather shallow, if not just outright caricatures. A few caricatures of either gender wouldn’t bother me, but all the female characters in Diamond Age are so dependent on the strong, brilliant, subtle, and thinking male characters that I can’t forgive Stephenson’s blatant sexism or lazy writing, whichever it is.

  2. Some good woman-centered sf I’ve found is Alanya to Alanya, by L. Timmel Duchamp. I’ve only read the first in the series, but it was really good.

  3. Yeah… I’m not done with it yet, and the down-on-women-ness in the 2nd half of the novel is so trying for me that I don’t know if I will. Especially that scene where Randy basically says that women can’t focus, and in so many words says, you generally aren’t brilliant in any particular area and you won’t have a great career, but it’s because you’re, uh, healthier.

    Awesome. That isn’t so depressing and reductionist that it makes me want to slit my wrists or anything.

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