Future Alternative Past: Let’s Talk About Fat Positivity in Sci-Fi

Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can also look through the archives of the column.

Genre Heft: the real and the ideal

I’ve just returned from NINC — that’s Novelists, Inc. — a professional conference attended mainly by writers of romance and mysteries. Among the many differences between this crowd and my usual cohort was an absence of what is often referred to as "the fannish physique." In other, blunter words, obesity. At this event, weighing 280 pounds and straining the capacity of my O cups, I was a definite outlier.

Which goaded me into speculating about how the literary dimensions of SFFH reflects its physical oomph. The answer: That’s changing. For the better.

My first encounter with sfnal fatphobia came when I read Dune as a child: Baron Harkonnen, the book’s bad guy, is mountainously fat. Stereotypes of the obese depict us at one of two temperamental extremes: unrelentingly jolly or unrelievedly evil. Harkonnen’s the latter, but at the precocious age of thirteen what really struck me was how badass his anti-grav wheelchair must be in action. I wasn’t even a little "chunky" at that point, but wow was I jealous of him zooming around and zipping up over people's heads and popping in and out of palatial spaceships. Only later did I realize my hatred for him was actually supposed to be blended with disgust and pity. Not envy.

Pity is evoked much more successfully in James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” which I previously discussed back in January. Perhaps because the author’s also going for empathy? Or perhaps because the heroine’s obesity is caused by a malfunctioning pituitary gland and thus in no possible way her fault.

Yet, with a wealth of futuristic medical technology at their disposal, why should anyone be overweight? The protagonist of Tanith Lee’s novel The Silver Metal Lover is tricked into fatness by her insecure mother, but loses her excess flesh with the support of an adoring robot. It’s all done with chemicals.

Horror novel Thinner’s body consciousness is of course horrific. Published as by Richard Bachman right before Stephen King admitted that this was a pseudonym of his, it’s deeply problematic in its depiction of curse-wielding so-called "gypsies." They cause the book's obese lawyer to shed pounds speedily, involuntarily, bringing him to death’s threshold.

The comic Bitch Planet’s Penny Rolle is probably the best example of fat-positivity in recent SFFH. It’s an ironic feminist take on exploitive "women behind bars" stories; the "Bitch Planet" of the series' title is the nickname of a dystopian dumping ground for "noncompliant" women. Rolle’s body is by definition noncompliant because it defies standard beauty standards. Which suits her, and me, just fine.

In another instance of a nicely-adjusted attitude toward body image, the narrator of "Venus Rising" by Carol Emshwiller (collected in Report to the Men’s Club speaks of young women maturing in terms of them “coming into” their fat.

In my own SFFH I do my best to represent non-stereotypical obese characters. The narrator of "Maggies," published in Sheree Renée Thomas’s second Dark Matter anthology, crushes out on a genetically engineered underwater terraformer whose extra-thick layer of fat insulates her from an alien planet’s cold seas. In "Otherwise," published in the YA anthology Brave New Love, 220-pound lesbian teenager Lo knows she’s lovable and loved. As are we all.

Couple of upcoming cons

Though Chessiecon resembles traditional SFFH conventions, it has only existed three years. It’s put on by the Thanksgiving Science Fiction Society as a sort of living memorial to a deceased local fan hight Jaelle of Armida. TSFS’s primary goal is promoting women writers; eleven of their twelve Guests of Honor have been women, so they’re backing that idea up with action. Chessiecon’s Turkey Award is given in recognition of awesomely bad writing á la Bulwer-Lytton; the implied irreverence colors the rest of the con’s programming as well.

This November’s World Fantasy Convention emerges from a pair of controversies: one focused on its HP Lovecraft-shaped World Fantasy award busts, the other on racist panel proposals of the past. Also it has survived the death of its founder, David Hartwell. Smaller than the similarly named Worldcon with which it’s sometimes confused, World Fantasy’s attendance tops out around 1000 smart, funny, incredibly interesting people — but there’s still time to sign up to be one.

Recent books recently read

An Excess Male (Harper Collins) is Taiwanese-born author Maggie Shen King’s debut novel. Expanding an idea originally published as a short story in Asimov’s SF Magazine, King fast forwards us to the lopsided genderscape of a future China shaped by the government’s infamous “one-child” policy. Her clearsighted, even-toned writing acquaints us pleasurably with plausible, engagingly flawed characters: Wei-guo, a 40+ bachelor finally in possession of the dowry necessary to purchase the position of third husband in an established marriage; that marriage’s wife, May-ling, hopelessly infatuated with her gay first husband Hann; Hann himself, balancing love for his child with desire for members of his discreetly naughty badminton team; and Hann’s brother and May-ling’s second husband Xiong-xin, whose autism is even more illicit than Hann’s homosexuality. Fearlessly piercing stereotypes in her assessment of what truly makes a family, King also seems to hew effortlessly close to cultural values, making the stresses and rhythms of her characters’ interactions feel authentically unfamiliar to this US-raised reader.

Not so with Elizabeth Bear’s latest novel in her entrancing Eternal Sky series, The Stone in the Skull (Tor). Though set in Asianesque fantasy lands, plot arc and scene beat and sentence all connect easily with a Westerner’s literary expectations. Those aren’t necessarily dependent on having read the three earlier Eternal Sky books, either. I found very little overlap between the old series and the one this new book begins in terms of characters: a slave-poetess here, an immortal automaton there, an aging veiled assassin everywhere. And the Lotus Kingdoms whereThe Stone in the Skull’s dynastic disputes occur lies at the edge of the previous trilogy’s map. There’s a secret message sent to one ruler, a disaster engulfing another…but summarizing its action conveys very little of this book’s undeniable attraction. That attraction is much plainer in Bear’s starkly vivid descriptions; her spare yet luscious language; and the stubbornly endearing people inhabiting her enthralling imaginary world.

A veteran SF author who’s also an engineer working in U.S. intelligence, Philip K. Dick Award-winner David Walton draws on his dayjob expertise in The Genius Plague (Pyr). Fungal sentience originating in the Amazon threatens the integrity of the intelligence community by influencing its members’ thoughts and desires. It cures the Alzheimer’s afflicting the protagonist’s father and rouses support for ecologically sound candidates and practices. But it’s also behind some rather nasty massacres and assassinations. Codebreaking and computer servers stand between the National Security Agency and this sporulating mind’s crop dusters and smoothie stands. It’s unclear by the novel’s end if humanity’s defenses will prevail. Or even whether they should. Perhaps we’ll know that after reading a sequel or two.