forgotten people

There’s been a lot of talk recently about representation of minority groups in SF. I don’t really want to go into this debate. I think what counts most is a good story, and I also think that we should all be willing to broaden our horizons. That said, I don’t think that those vocal minorities are the only ones that get bypassed. There is a very large group of people who rarely get ANY representation in SF, as characters: those over 50, especially women.

Yesterday I conducted a preliminary survey on Twitter to ask who knew of a SFF novel where the character is female and over 50. I don’t mean those novels, of which there are a few, where an older female recounts what happened to her in her youth. I mean a novel where an older woman (or man for that matter) is the main character, doesn’t get wonderful treatment so she/he becomes younger. I mean a novel where the character is on the wrong side of middle age and coping with creaky joints and reading glasses, while being challenged with whatever the plot happens to be.

Please let me know if you know of such novels in the replies. I’ll update the list as I go. Please mention specific titles.

I am also looking for older main characters that are in fact ‘old’ in the novel. Immortality or having been extensively rejuvenated doesn’t count. I want characters who are getting closer to an inevitable death, and cope with whatever physical and mental conditions your world throws at them in that stage of life. I want characters who cannot ignore age, and don’t have a cure for it.

Paladin of souls – Lois McMaster Bujold
A Remnant Population – Elizabeth Moon
Green Mars and Blue Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
Singularity Sky – Charles Stross
Tehanu – Ursula LeGuin
Hyperion – Dan Simmons
Hammered – Elizabeth Bear

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29 comments on “forgotten people

  1. Julian May’s Pliocene/Intervention books cover regeneration technology being brought to Earth by aliens and the split between those who use it and those who don’t, among other things. Espers with major power (Intervention has esper dynasties as a linchpin) frequently chose to age.

  2. When I saw the tweet about this topic, I immediately thought of the Robinson Mars novels, but since you already have those…I will mention these, and try to think of some more and comment again later if I come up with them. But for now:

    Dan Simmons: Hyperion/ Fall of Hyperion–I don’t remember if her age was specified, but I have the impression that the character Meina Gladstone, bad-ass prime minister of the Hegemony, was an older woman. I don’t think she was described as coping with “creaky joints” and so on, but she is a major power in that story and makes a stunning decision that changes everything for her universe.

    Frank Herbert: Dune (several novels): By the third book, Jessica Atreides is an older woman and someone very much in command of her situation. On the more villainous side, there is Gaius Helen Mohiam, who is very powerful though not a very sympathetic character. The fifth and sixth books are populated heavily by major female characters, many of whom are older but not diminished in the slightest by age or notions of gender.

    Neal Stephenson: The Diamond Age–I don’t recall the character’s name, but the head mistress of the Neo-Victorian school that the protagonist attends, is both quite elderly and quite formidable intellectually. She was also a skateboarder in her youth.

    • I think there are plenty of novels where older women are supporting characters, but I’m looking for those where the older female character is the lead, the answer to the question: whose story is it?

  3. Right, I see your point. With the ones I suggested, I would say that in the case of Hyperion, the story (or at least the framing story of it) belongs to Gladstone and she is the most important character as far as changing everyone’s lives. In the case of the others, I would say that the last two Dune books and the Stephenson book belong to women characters, but the MAIN ones whom the stories are about are, in fact, younger women. I’ll keep thinking about it.

  4. Oh there’s a secret to reading Singularity Sky… once you start to get confused, you skip forward to read Telegram from the Dead, and then you can go back and read it from start to end again. Bizarre… huh?

    • Just the fact that this communist-ridiculing is SO BLOODY OLD HAT! I couldn’t stand it. Man, this is the 21st century. The USSR fell in 1989. Friggin get on with it.

  5. There are many. Off the top of my head: The immortal women from Mary Sperling on, in Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children, Time Enough for Love, To Sail Beyond the Sunset. Lesser but critical characters in other Heinlein, e.g., in the matriarchy in Citizen of the Galaxy. Many major characters in Catherine Asaro’s Skolian novels. Many characters in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series. Several women (one in particular) in Brenda Cooper & Larry Niven’s Building Harlequin’s Moon. Miss Page in Wilmar Shiras’s Children of the Atom. The various Mothers Superior in the Dune novels. Several characters in Zenna Henderson’s The People stories. (Probably) Clarrissa MacDougal in Doc Smith’s Children of the Lens. Susan Calvin in the later Asimov robot stories. Valentine Wiggin in the later Ender books. Various in Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain series. Various in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, including the title character. On tv, Delenn on Babylon 5 and Sarah Jane Smith in The Sarah Jane Chronicles.

    For your specific restriction of *protagonist*, of the above — Honor Harrington, Delenn, Sarah Jane Smith, Susan Calvin, about half of the Skolian books, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Jessica of Dune.

    • I don’t mean books which have older important support characters. I’d like novels that are ABOUT an older character, not about their children or grandchildren or pupils. I’d like to know titles of novels about Yoda, not about Luke. I’d like those characters to be hampered with the restrictions of old age, not immortal or rejuvenated, or if they’re technologically rejuvenated, their rejuvenation must be about to come to an end. I want novels about characters almost at the end of their lives. Those are the ones I’d like to see listed.

  6. Some of the sf I listed qualifies. But in thinking about your revised request, I realize that there is very little sf about *anyone*, woman or man, human or alien, “almost at the end of their lives.”

    Or, for that matter, substantively infirm.

    • This is just my point. People above 50 have lives, are healthy, heck, even have love lives. They may have health issues, but they have life experience. They have to relinquish certain responsibilities to the younger generation. Yet there is very little SFF that runs with an older character as lead. Yet, I believe that older characters do not have to be infirm or sidelined, and there are a lot of opportunities here for a main character totally different from what we usually see.

      • I’ve got a novel I’m dying to write, dying to find the right … coherent mythos and subplots for… whose main character is just that (male, but definitely at the “end” of his life; in a couple of interesting ways, I hope).

        *weep* want. write. =/ need. brain.

      • An older male character would be different also. I started off reading Scalzi’s ‘Old Man’s War’ being excited about that aspect: like – here is a writer who’s going to do something different, but nah, then he had to go and give them new rejuvenated bodies. I was really looking forward to seeing these oldies fight in a different, genteel-but-vicious way (probably non-physical). At that moment the book went from OMG OMG I’m enjoying this to ‘OK’.

  7. Of course, in the case of futuristic SF 50 is the new 30… so you would see vibrant 50 year olds… it’s the 100 year olds that are starting to slow down and take life easy.

  8. The main character of “Tehanu” the fourth book of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series, is Tenar. She’s no longer young, but is hale and hearty, and still running a farm.

    Tenar’s also a major character in an even later Earthsea book, “The Other Wind”, but she shares that role with several others.

  9. Patty, you make such a GREAT point. Every time I put fingers to keyboard to suggest a book, I’d realise it fitted into the Luke-not-Yoda model. Or the protagonist was saved from deteriorating rejuv during the climax or denouement of the book. And I gave up.

    Given that women represent 51% of the population; and we live, on average, longer than men (sorry dudes, it’s not a judgement, it’s just a fact), one wonders why the 50+ woman leading character is – statistically speaking – so under-represented.

    Could it be (ssh, walls have ears…) that either readers or publishers or both THINK that the stories of youngsters-finding-themselves are more inherently interesting? Of course youth in discovery is a great opportunity for good story. But what about all those midlife crises out there waiting to be told?

    Baby boomers are a significant blip in the population; and as more and more enter the “retirement years”, looking for books to read, you would think there’d be a definite gap in the marketplace.

    Right. Enough wittering. I’m off to plan out that novel, since there clearly aren’t enough of them. Who’s with me?

    • I started thinking about this, because I’ve got an idea for an SF romance with a 58yo female character. I want to show that older women have lives just as fulfilling and intense as younger women, but that when they do things like fall in love, it will often have greater consequences, because they are in more powerful positions, and so are the men they choose as partners.

      I think there are so few books about older people because we don’t like to hear about getting old. I’m thinking that I could write a novel that ends very happily in a mellow kind of way. I want to show that older people can have their lives ruined and can find love just as well as younger ones.

  10. Looking at the examples I brought of older women, the authors are mostly women over 50. (Big surprise.)

    I wonder if we look at all our older writers, we’ll see older protagonists. And if we look across long careers, like Jack Williamson’s or Fred Pohl’s, do the leads get older as the authors do? Or are the protagonists surrogates for the younger person they wish they still were?

    For answers I could believe in, I’d also want to know what the age breakdown of sf readers is. (I assume our average reader isn’t aging a year per year the way that Locus subscribers do.)

  11. Elizabeth Bear: Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired. The main character is a 50 year old woman. She’s got some implants or a fake arm or something (it’s been a while since I read these), but that’s because of injuries she received as a pilot.

    There’s also another main character in the books, who I think is about the same age. So that would be two older women in one series.

    And they share the same guy! EBear does good things…

  12. How much rejuvenation are we protagonists not allowed to have to qualify?

    New valves, bionic ears, corneas, hip, knee replacements, pacemakers, stents are all aready keeping us alive and younger than our chronological years. Many of these objects are being put into people in their 50s and 60s.

    My point that your Main Character will still need to be a bit of a superwoman (genetically that will have to be) to last without any medical intervention.

    • I can easily imagine positions where physical prowess is less important than political power, or the power of persuasion, money or ideology. I like the character to be as-is, with clunky add-ons like artificial limbs or bionic ears, but essentially old, not old-and-given-a-shiny-new-body. Sure, we can sort-of fix bad hearing and the worst of creaky joints, but the essence of being and feeling old, we haven’t even come close to fixing.

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