What I mean by that is that the characters were all created and viewed and acted through a modern day lens. They were not creatures of their time and environment but rather creations designed to satisfy modern sensibilities.
Steven Erikson’s female characters, for example. Each and every main character is a deadly killing machine, tough and unsentimental…basically a guy with tits. Frankly the topic of women warriors in a low-tech environment is a ball of yarn in and of itself but the fact that they exist in his novels isn’t to explore what the effects of mixed-gender military units in a ‘basically medieval fantasy’ world. They’re there because the author seems to be product of PC academia where women being the physical equal of men is an article of faith. If the women acted like women, it wouldn’t jar so much. If the women were occasionally shown to be different in some or any way from the male characters, it wouldn’t jar so much. But this fantasy series, like so many others, are there to refute traditional gender roles without actually exploring them. It’s a cheap ‘check box’ mentality and its one reason I don’t consider Erikson/Lundin to be a good writer.
But the Malazan books are basically comic books, not fantasy. Or they’re 2nd edition D&D where the characters can take dozens or hundreds of sword blows without effect. Ian Esslemont is playing in the same world, though I think he’s better at storytelling and character development. What dinged me wasn’t so much his female characters (some of whom managed to be more that ‘men with tits’), but his battle scenes. One in particular felt more like a WWII firefight, with arrows in place of bullets. The tactics and strategy of the campaign owed more to Omar Bradley or Montgomery than Homer or Alexander or Ceasar. The battle felt modern and it was written to evoke the feeling of being in combat but the feeling of being in modern combat, not medieval combat.
Stephen’s Carter’s alternate-history, fantasy, historical…I don’t what you want to call it. Basically it assumes that Lincoln survived the assassination attempt and gets put on trial for the Constitutional violations that he did, in fact, do in order to save the Union. This is revisionist speculative fantasy in its basic concept, what makes it worse is his protagonist: a 21 black woman, a college graduate who is anointed to help defend Lincoln in his impeachment trial. Like Esslemont, Carter isn’t a bad writer like Erickson but he’s engaging the same revisionist wish fulfillment. Now, there were female and black college graduates, Mary Jane Patterson earned a B.A. degree in 1863 but they were about as common as women who can graduate from Ranger training using male physical standards. They exist, they’re as rare as drawing a royal flush in high stakes poker.
Carter and Erickson want all the benefits of modern race and gender relations without any of the hard work and history that went into it. I get it, they want fantasy as escapism, they want to create a better past than the messy and un-PC world that really existed. And as escapism, I don’t judge it. Let folks read what they want to read.
But it jars me and, I suspect, anyone with more than a little knowledge of history. The weight of it, the sheer number of books where they have ‘fantasy easy mode’, where there’s birth control and no racism or sexism or traditional gender roles or even much ‘true’ religion has the effect of layering fiction on top of fiction. That the world we have today existed in the past, or even better than the world we have today. Then it stops being escapism but becomes part of the narrative of how ‘right thinking people’ have always thought. It’s an attempt to re-write history. And that means building a world based on lies.
Maybe I’m going too far, I’ve been accused of taking things too seriously by friends, family and people on the street. But I do take fiction seriously. Because these are the stories we tell about how things were, how they should be and how we’d like them to be. That’s the role of fantasy and science fiction to me. So when you have people with black skin or green skin rubbing elbows without any attempt to show how people reject and fear that which is different from them, it cheapens the characters, it cheapens the world. It becomes less ‘real’. When you have women warriors fighting alongside men, wearing the same armor, bearing the same loads without conflict and without drama, it cheapens the real women warriors who fought way uphill for just the chance to succeed or fail in that most masculine of worlds. When you have someone who is both a woman AND a minority come into a world where none existed and they’re welcomed with open arms…well, you’re just writing a Mary Sue character and you might as well give her silver hair and golden eyes and magical powers.
There’s a cost to all things. Nothing is easy. Show things how they were. Show the struggle, the drama of your characters and then we’ll weep with their failures and cheer their successes. Easy, revisionist writing doesn’t do anyone any favors.