NOVELS HAVE always reflected the world in which their authors lived, either literally as with works of mainstream fiction or metaphorically as with works of fantasy. So when the feminist movement began to make itself felt in the late '60s, fantasy was not exempt from its influences. Although there are exceptions, fantasy like most other forms of "vigorous" fiction had been the preserve of male writers (Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien were its big three, after all) almost since its beginnings, and many women writers of the genre reverted, as did their sisters in science fiction, to writing about male viewpoint characters who were the vigorous protagonists of their adventures, hiding their own identity behind deliberately ambiguous names, like Leigh Brackett, or with initials, like C.L. Moore. Yet by the late '70s the situation had so reversed itself that, in the view of both sexes, 8 out of 10 of the top new fantasy novels were written by women.
Out in the culture at large, feminists were challenging society's image of women's roles, and the novels their sister fantasists wrote were often sharply drawn metaphors for that struggle. Many of these books (such as Tanith Lee's The Birthgrave, Phyllis Ann Karr's Thorn and Frostflower, and Joanna Russ' Alyx) featured vigorous heroines, often a warrior or a sorceress, who acted out all the aggressive action usually ascribed to the male protagonist of such works. This trend reached its zenith in 1980 when the World Fantasy Award was given to the controversial and brazenly titled anthology Amazons!.
But even as the first generation of feminist fantasists were accepting the accolades and awards of their peers and public, an almost unnoticed and unheralded schism was occurring among their ranks: Just as it had in the outside world, post-feminism was raising its head on the horizon.
THE FIRST GENERATION of feminists who wrote fantasy, like the other women of their time, had to wage an unremitting daily struggle, against both active opposition and the inertia of entrenched cultural traditions, to gain even the minimum necessary to place women on an equal social and economic footing with men, and the books they wrote reflected it. Their works were characterized by rebellion against the traditional subordinate roles assigned to women and by the assumption of male roles and attitudes; by the rejection of all the gentler and more compassionate emotions which had long been associated with the female sex but often used as a weak spot against them by their male opponents (until the typical '70s feminist fantasy heroine had become a swaggering macho bitch, out Conaning Conan); by a universal portrayal of men as selfish, manipulative brutes (apparently the heirs to some kind of sex specific Original Sin); by the constant necessity to justify the heroine's actions to a disapproving society; and by portraying as squalid, demeaning and meaningless the lives of those women who chose not to, or could not, rebel against the roles of wife, mother, nurturer. This movement attained some kind of apotheosis with Joanna Russ' The Female Man, a utopian work that suggested the only way women could really be free was through the extermination of the entire male sex.
The current cause c,elebre among feminists is the apparent generation gap between those who waged the war for women's rights, and their younger sisters and daughters who inherited a world where much that their predecessors fought against seems no more than a curious historical footnote. In no other literary genre is this schism more distinct than in fantasy. The heroines of post- feminist fantasies see no need to rebel against society, because their societies (like that of their authors) all practice sexual egalitarianism to one degree or another (instead their conflicts seem to come, as do most people's, from within themselves). Like the Victorian feminists who considered their sex the one civilizing influence on the world, these characters celebrate the gentler emotions long cultivated by women (though reserving themselves the right to be strong and aggressive when the situation calls for it), cultivating these emotions as a better way of approaching life than the cold, destructive reactions generally associated with the masculine way of life. Instead of condemning women who chose nurturing roles, these books seem to celebrate them as a matter of personal choice and something precious which puts women more in touch with the direct pulsation of life than men can ever be. The authors seem to see the world as being divided into those who are and those who do, with equal numbers of men and women falling into each category. In many of these works the author's reveal a profound skepticism of the more extreme ideas and tendencies in traditional feminist thought.
There are also certain fantasies by women authors that appear to be post-feminist because they seem to treat male and female characters the same, but in fact these books merely represent one of the extremes of feminist ideology. On closer examination these books reveal themselves not to be post-feminist but merely asexual; the characters are not just equal, they are all the same (certainly there are feminists who sincerely believe that there should be absolutely no discernible differences in the behavior of men and women, however boring or biologically unlikely that sounds). The literary problem is that it is difficult to tell whether this effect is the result of personal inclination, consciou artifice or plain bad writing (there have always been male writers whose men and women characters were indistinguishable, not from sexual liberalism, but because they couldn't characterize any better).
All of the fantasy novels being published by women today seem to fall consciously into one of these categories. And it is very difficult to read them without seeing them as evidence of a subculture that is profoundly split. Ironically, it may be possible that, as these books often, if unconsciously, suggest, the only hope of reconciliation lies in the adoption of many of the traditional cooperative feminine values the feminists have been rejecting and in the rejection of many of the divisive masculine values they have been embracing.
OUR FIRST ENTRY in the feminist camp is Jo Clayton's Changer's Moon (DAW, $3.50), the concluding volume of the Duel of Sorcery trilogy. Clayton is the author of a number of strongly felt and richly characterized works of fantasy, and this present book is no exception. What Clayton has in mind seems no less than an ambitious retelling of the legend of Persephone. Once again we have a fecund, life-nurturing goddess (fast becoming a staple of feminist fantasy, however anthropologically one-sided such a portrayal might be) struggling with a sterile, death-worshipping male power for the fate of a world. This time they choose as their pawn (with the power to determine the outcome of the contest), Serroi, a young orphan with the ability to communicate telepathically with animals. The first half of her life is to be spent under the tutelage of Ser Noris, the black magician who opposes the Goddess, where Serroi is forced to use her psychic gifts in acts of cruelty and futile destruction; the second half is to be spent under the tutelage of the Goddess, where Serroi learns that the same gifts Ser Noris has trained her to use for destruction can also be sed for healing. Underlying all this is the classic conflict between patriarchal and matriarchal values as perceived by most 20th-century feminists.
Our second feminist entry is Judith Tarr's The Golden Horn (Bluejay, $14.95), the middle book in The Hound and the Falcon trilogy. In it, Althea, a warrior and shapechanger, is involved in the fall of Constantinople. Throughout the course of the book, Althea encounters resistance, ridicule and persecution for her flagrant rejection of conventional 13th-century female roles, and only she, who has assumed an aggressive persona, survives the slaughter which follows Constantinople's downfall. The characters who choose more traditional roles uniformly come to terrible ends.
In the post-feminist camp we have R.A. MacAvoy, John W. Campbell Award winning author of Tea with the Black Dragon and Damiano's Lute. This time out MacAvoy- turns her hand to lighter work with The Book of Kells (Bantam, $3.50), the rollicking tale of an acerbic '80s feminist and her sometime paramour, a sensitive, more than slightly neurotic artist, who in time-honored tradition are suddenly cast back into 10th- century Ireland, where they find themselves in a situation with parallels to the conflict raging there today. In the course of their adventures, which are as often romantic as they are perilous, MacAvoy uses her heroine's flaws, hypocrisies and reverse sexism to satirize the more extreme aspects of feminist ideology, while demonstrating the short- comings of masculinist ideology by showing, not how the system oppresses some poor helpless female (if women could really be oppressed as easily as some feminist writers would have us believe, we'd be every bit as helpless and ineffectual as our worst critics say we are), but by showing through the travails of the heroine's lover, how patriarchal values oppress and torment males, as well as females, who don't fit into their stereotype. A few years ago such a book would have been attacked by feminist ideologues as treasonous, heretical and counter-revolutionary; now they are merely shrugged off as one more sign that the times, they are a-changing.
Another post-feminist entry is Meredith Ann Pierce's A Gathering of Gargoyles (Tor, $2.95), the middle volume of the Darkangel trilogy. Pierce's work follows the adventures of Ariel, a young slave girl who runs away to save a friend from the clutches of a vampire.
Ariel isn't a warrior, and though she can, if pressed, do a fair job of defending herself, she relies mainly on her wits and her penchant for making friends in strange places to carry her through times of difficulty. The women Pierce writes about here are more nearly kin to the heroines of medieval balladry (who outfox, rather than outfight the minions of evil) than to the brawling barbariennes of most feminist fantasy.
When the heroine is finally betrayed into the vampire's clutches, she falls in love with him and frees him from his condition by magically exchanging hearts. If the happenings of fantasy are at some level metaphoric for occurrences in the real world, then perhaps Pierce is extending the notion that men too are victims of reality and that salvation for both men and women lies in reconciliation with each other.
Phyllis Ann Karr's Wildraith's Last Battle (Berkley, $2.95) is one of those books which might appear feminist at first glance, but which I would really classify as just plain asexual. Karr's previous outing in fantasy, The Frostflower Saga (a wonderfully rich and seriously intended tale of women discovering themselves amid the violence and persecution of a patriarchal society) is justifiably regarded by genre and mainstream readers as a minor feminist classic. Wildraith's Last Battle, like MacAvoy's book, is a change of pace to pure entertainment, and while enjoyable, is a disappointment from an author noted for more substantial works. Confusingly plotted, without an identifiable or likeable central character, it tells the story of a repellent widow and a boring god who, for the silliest reasons, are fated to have it out with each other at the end. What marks this work as asexual, as opposed to feminist, is that there are no marked differences between male and female of any kind; both sexes are portrayed as being, almost without exception, equally vile and murderous, and both go around throughout the story slaughtering the innocent and helpless, especially children, at the first opportunity. Perhaps what Karr is trying to tell us is that once women have surrendered the fiction that they are morally superior to men, and freed themselves from the passivity it engendered, the whole human race turns out to be as cruel and worthless and animalistic as many feminist's stereotyped image of males.
Schisms such as that in modern feminist fantasy often reveal that the members are asking the wrong question. The question may not be whether women should have the right to be as aggressive and contentious as males, but whether many of the male characteristics which women are beginning to emulate are desireable behavior in anyone.
Is it possible that we may have been wrong and that rather than being passive or submissive, many of the virtues long associated with female behavior may have been, as Gandhi's example suggests, the strength and wisdom of those wise enough to set an example of non-aggression in a violent and aggressive world?