|Name: NAOMI FOYLE
Author of: SEOUL SURVIVORS (2013)
On the web: naomifoyle.com
On Twitter: @naomifoyle
To celebrate the recent publication of her second novel, Astra, we are very pleased to welcome Naomi Foyle to Reader Dad.
Fathers & the Mothership: Astra and the Evolution of Masculinity
Reader Dad – cool theme, I hope it’s okay if I piggyback . . . I’d like to explore how I approached the themes of masculinity and fatherhood in Astra, a novel which attempts to revision the nuclear family in the aftermath of a global environmental catastrophe.
Ever since I was a child I have questioned gender stereotypes, as I expect readers of this blog do regularly too. But at the same time I cannot deny that gender expectations affect most, if not all people to some degree. By ‘masculinity’, then, I mean a set of traits traditionally associated with men, whether or not individual men identify with any or all of their sometimes conflicting demands. Men, at least in Western culture, are supposed to be competitive and dominant, but also to build successful hierarchies; rational and systematic but also risk-taking; athletic and yet never in need of the doctor; protective of one’s mate but also virile to the point of promiscuity; a stable financial provider and an independent adventurer, not to mention tall, a guitar-playing genius, and funny . . . even though all this is supposed to ensure male dominance, it actually sounds pretty stressful – especially if one is culturally forbidden to express grief, fear, self-doubt, regret, apology, anxiety, non-sexual affection or empathy for others. I have my own struggles with gender roles, but as someone of the female sex at least if I’m upset I’m allowed to have a good cry and seek support. Fortunately for everyone, it seems that gradually men are redefining masculinity to include the full range of human experience. Out on the street there’s a veritable epidemic of men pushing prams; at work my young male students express vulnerability in their writing; my own male friends support and respect me, and confide in each other; and with The Bridge we even got a warm, emotional male detective on TV. Meanwhile, science increasingly demonstrates that masculinity is as much a cultural construct as a biological condition, and therefore subject to historical change . This is all fertile ground for the feminist SF writer.
But let’s not get too cosy. Quite apart from the effects on our psyches, traditional Western gender roles are a recipe for global disaster: while profit-seeking alpha males drive war and environmental plunder, women’s shopping addictions fuel our exploitative, throwaway consumerist society. This literally can’t go on, and in writing Astra I wanted to imagine a radical alternative. Astra, then, is a young girl growing up in a futuristic world where rising sea levels have redrawn the continents, and floods, drought, disease and war have drastically depopulated the globe. But while some wealthy elites survived the worst of the Great Collapse in bunkers, they emerged to discover that many ordinary people had not succumbed to violent panic, but survived by sharing knowledge and resources. The meek have not exactly inherited the earth, but nevertheless, a new, if fragile, ethos of mutual aid has taken root in the world. Models of leadership have changed, and while powerful men (and women) still jockey for status, their agendas are now kept in check by the Council of New Continents (CONC), an elected body including religious leaders, politicians, community leaders and Internet gurus charged with re-establishing international law and infrastructures, and resettling the huge numbers of refugees. This is no utopia, but it seems as though humanity has learned some lessons from its reckless pursuit of economic progress at all costs.
In this ravaged new world, no-one believes themselves more advanced than Astra’s society, the Gaians. Co-habiting in nudist vegan communities in which all human work, sexuality and love are held to be forms of Earth-worship, Gaians were once persecuted for their unconventional lifestyles. Now, however, they are being rewarded for their many advances in bioengineering and sustainable technology. Considering genetic modification a form of ‘conscious evolution’, Gaians have pioneered extensive health and safety testing procedures for GMO, and in exchange for the donation of a valuable type of these seeds, CONC has established a country, Is-Land, for them to live in. Here, safe behind their Boundary, the Gaians have begun to select desirable human traits, strengthening their children against the perils of radioactivity, cancer and extreme temperatures. Conception, then, occurs increasingly in laboratories, while children are brought up in extended, often mixed-race families by a combination of Code (genetic) parents, Birth (womb-providing), and Shelter (care-giving) parents: unique arrangements of mothers and/or fathers, straight and/or LGBT, who may or may not be sexual partners, all sharing the nurturing, protective, educational, and disciplinarian aspects of parenthood.
For despite their personification of the planet as a female deity, Gaians reject essentialist views of gender. Gaia Herself is perceived as embodying not only the feminine qualities of beauty and nurturing, but also the masculine traits of destructive ferocity and unquestionable authority. This conceptual flexibility enables the society to draw on all its members’ collective skills. Boys, girls and trans* children are taught how statistically significant gender differences might affect them, but all are given equal intellectual and athletic opportunities, and all must do National Service to defend the Boundary. The country’s political structures ensure that men, women and transgender people communicate as equals, while the group nudity, far from encouraging male dominance, both normalises the naked body and demands a high degree of sexual self-mastery – pubescent boys, for example, learn to take pride in their ability to control their erections. The Gaians are far from austere, however. In Is-Land sexuality is celebrated and respected as a healthy, powerful elemental force, felt in varying degrees by everyone. I can’t say, of course, what gender differences would remain in such a culture, but as a novelist I assumed that rather than a ‘unisex’ world we would see a range of individuals –from gentle to hot-tempered, social to solitary, emotionally sensitive to robust, thoughtful to heedless – so that is what I tried to portray. Neither did I think such a frank approach to sex would cure all social ills. While medical advances have largely eliminated STIs and unwanted pregnancies, sexual jealousy and inappropriate relationships still cause conflict, to which the Gaians find their own solutions.
Sexuality of course is only one aspect of life. Gaians value work and family just as much as erotic pleasure. But while most children have a variety of Code, Birth and Shelter parents, Astra’s own family story – as is usual in heroic quest narratives – is atypical. She has never known her Code father or Birth-Code mother, and is brought up by three Shelter parents, Hokma, a lone genius, and Nimma and Klor, an older couple who have lost their only Code child in violent circumstances. Here you are entitled to object that this is hardly a radical set-up: in a sense Astra is like an orphan being brought up by grandparents and an aunt. And while there are gay parents and an intersex child in her community, I agree that her own family is pretty close to a conventional arrangement. Partly this is because I unconsciously began writing from a place near to my own personal experience, but as I developed the characters I was also aware of a conscious desire to depict a heterosexual man as a nurturing parent. This was not because I believe all children need a straight dad. Love is love, whoever gives it, and anyone worried about ‘male redundancy’ should support the entry of more men into primary school teaching, where kids could benefit from a diversity of role models. But equally, one of the major tragedies of the model of masculinity I cited earlier is the way the pressure to perform in the workplace, and prohibition on emotional communication, have precluded loving relationships with a man’s own children. Astra is, of course, as much about the present as the future, and because so many people I know suffer from a lack of closeness to our fathers, by writing Klor as a kind and patient man (based in part on ‘Shelter parents’ of my own), I was trying to say that this absence is not inevitable. As a recent UK study demonstrated, men of all cultures can heal, and are healing, that collective wound, a process the authors predict will continue down the generations.
There is still a gap, however, in Astra’s emotional world. Other kids around her have sets of bonded parents, and she also hankers for approval from Hokma’s partner Ahn. Ahn, though, for complex reasons, rebuffs her interest, and Astra’s keen resentment toward him feeds into the novel’s building conflict. She also begins to ask questions about her identity – and about the nature of Is-Land – that only her Code father can answer. For just as family tensions have not disappeared in this experimental Eden, neither have political conflicts. As readers of the novel already know, for all its ideals, Gaianism is also a cruel philosophy, and Astra will need a full gamut of strengths – whether masculine, feminine or just plain human – to discover who she is and one day use that knowledge to confront her society’s flaws.
 My views on gender reflect those of biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling and her commitment to Developmental Systems Theory (DST), in which gender is conceived as a continuum, and nature and nurture are held to profoundly influence each other. Fausto-Sterling does not deny that biological differences can be associated with observable differences in behaviour, and that some may indeed be innate. But she points out first that gender differences are relative, not absolute (individuals vary greatly), and second, that our bodies themselves are shaped by life experience and cultural expectations. This is most obvious in the case of intersex children, routinely assigned a male or female identity at birth through genital surgery, but the influence of culture on biology is also more subtle and pervasive, affecting neurological and hormonal processes in everyone. A recent study, for example, discovered higher than average testosterone levels in both male and female trial lawyers, a result which the authors associated with the ‘energy, dominance, persistence, combativeness, and focused attention’ required to perform this particular job. But while high-testosterone individuals may be naturally attracted to the profession, equally, the challenges of the job itself may increase production of the hormone: in another recent study, football fans were shown to produce significantly more or less testosterone depending on whether their team won or lost – mental events, these researchers concluded, can affect our material being. Thus, as Fausto-Sterling argues, boys and girls may develop differently in part because from a very early age they are attempting to obey the overwhelming cultural mandate to ‘support the team’ and conform to gender stereotypes. Studies do show that, as a group, boys make an early move from dolls to trucks, and cognitively speaking it is also true that men have a statistical tendency to systematise and women to empathise; DST, however, asks us to carefully study the emergence of these preferences and skills in the context of the gender expectations of specific families, schools and cultures. Only such a methodology, based on the increasingly accepted premise that the brain is not ‘hard-wired’ but ‘plastic’, will enable us to draw any sound conclusions about innate gender differences and their evolution.
Like every child in Is-Land, all Astra Ordott wants is to have her Security Shot, do her National Service and defend her Gaian homeland from Non-Lander ‘infiltrators’. But when one of her Shelter mothers, the formidable Dr Hokma Blesser, tells her the shot will limit her chances of becoming a scientist and offers her an alternative, Astra agrees to her plan.
When the orphaned Lil arrives to share Astra’s home, Astra is torn between jealousy and fascination. Lil’s father taught her some alarming ideas about Is-Land and the world, but when she pushes Astra too far, the heartache that results goes far beyond the loss of a friend.
If she is to survive, Astra must learn to deal with devastating truths about Is-Land, Non-Land and the secret web of adult relationships that surrounds her.
Astra is now available.