Get Bent – A Modest Proposal

I started this collection of stories after reading a particularly awful one last month. It wasn’t that the writing was Bulwer-Futton bad; it was actually fairly good. And it wasn’t that the characters were cardboard cutouts; instead, each one had a distinct personality so that you could tell from the words alone who was speaking and acting at any given time. No, it was because the author and the characters he wrote were completely bound by a rigid set of sex-specific roles that were more than anachronistic; they were the Platonic ideal of mid-20th Century America’s view of gender roles. But we know that even in that era [1], those roles weren’t just changing; they were effectively non-existent and given little more than lip-service. And that got me to thinking about how art is supposed to reflect life and wondering if stories like that would still stack up after a little gender bending.

It also got me thinking about Pleasantville. In this 1998 film, a pair of modern teens were sucked into a 1950s black and white sitcom, the eponymous Pleasantville. In the sitcom, everyone is pretty much the same and nothing really bad ever happens – but nothing really good ever happens, either. As the two teens make their way through the monotone world of Pleasantville, they start making changes that cause people to break out in color. And they discover that while color brings with it the possibility of horrible things happening (riots and rapes), it also brings the opportunity for amazing things as well (falling in love and finding your passion). Naturally, the film immediately flopped. That is a shame because the idea behind Pleasantville is very similar to the idea behind the parodies that make up Get Bent: life is more interesting in color.

Right now, most of science fiction is set in Pleasantville, whether the authors realize it or not. They are setting their stories in universes where everyone is the same and has the same background and expectations and morality; they are working in black and white. Even those that include sprawling societies with different languages rarely include anything more than the barest of rainbow-washing with a rare female or non-Caucasian. What they are missing is that the world isn’t black and white; it isn’t even shades of grey. The world is a fabulous technicolor panopticon of weird and wonderful people and the best stories reflect that.

How weird is the world? Let me tell you by describing six different groups that actually exist in our world right now. None of these examples are made up; all of them consider the way that they live to be normal and the rules that they live by to be universal and moral. Any of them could be used as a setting for a story that would be more realistic than most in print today:

The Ghans are a patriarchal polygynous society that is the last lingering vestige of a once-broad trading empire. Many of the morals and habits of the Ghans are traceable to the earlier empire. Family units typically consist of one adult Ghan male and two to three adult females plus their children. When the adult male Ghan is “on the caravan trail”, he is allowed to take a “caravan wife” who is typically an adolescent Ghan male and serves in the same capacity as a regular wife would at home; once the Ghan returns from his travels, the caravan wife is usually abandoned and given a token payment. Women have very limited rights in Ghan society and are considered secondary citizens in almost every way. However, when a family lacks a male heir, the eldest daughter can be legally declared a male and act exactly as a typical male would, including being able to marry and to control “his” female relatives.

The Nams are a group of people who practice serial monogamy and oligarchy. Sexually, about 90% of the Nams are heterosexual, cis-gendered, but they do recognize the rights of homosexual cis-gendered people; transgendered people are still a subclass. Though extramarital sex is common, especially among the various underclasses, the most typical bond is a temporary marriage lasting between one and five years. After the temporary marriage is over, the two members will often seek a new marriage partner from among their social cohort. The Nams are a stew-pot society in which different ethnicities mix but rarely meld. Marriage between the different ethnic groups is legal but tacitly discouraged. The Nams are nominally a meritocracy but effectively an oligarchy as those from the lower social classes typically lack the resources to accrue the merit needed to advance.

The Hass are a patriarchal matrilineal society that is bound by religious doctrine and not by geographical borders; a Hass is a Hass, no matter where he lives. The Hass have distinctive dress and dietary habits that make them easily recognizable; they also have strong restrictions on where they can live and work. In part, those restrictions are self-imposed, to meet the needs of their religion, and in part they are imposed by society. The women of the Hass control matters touching on marriage and the home (e.g., only women are allowed to cook) but have no other power in the society; the men handle the money (women are forbidden to touch it) and the work. If a male Hass offends the women, they can refuse to provide him with a wife or provide shelter to his wife so that he is left without food. Homosexuality and transgender identity are considered to be mortal sins and those practicing them are cast out of the society without any resources which to the Hass is the equivalent of a death sentence.

The Toro live in a dense rainforest where they practice coercive homosexuality [2]. Toro women are kept in a village separate from the men and are visited over the course of a month once a year. Any male who visits the women’s village out of season is subject to strong penalties ranging from flogging to dismemberment; any female who consorts with a male out of season is killed without consideration. During the rest of the year the men engage in what we would describe as ritual child abuse. Male children are taken from the women’s village at the age of three and taught the ways of the rain forest. As part of their training, they are required to absorb vitality from the men and the adolescent males by the obvious route. Toro are fierce warriors and frequently raid nearby villages for plunder and women to add to their tribe. Any defeated men are slaughtered without mercy; any Toro male that dies in battle and the bravest enemies are cooked and eaten by the tribe in order to increase the tribe’s vitality.

The Betts are native to a high sierra desert. There are at least three castes in the Betts: farmers, scholars, and priests. The castes trade resources via a complicated system of obligations. Due to the scarcity of arable land, the Betts practice patriarchal polyandry; the eldest son in a family will find a woman of appropriate caste and he and his brothers will all marry her; she is given control over the family household in return for being confined to the area for the rest of her life. This creates just one set of heirs per generation, allowing the land and other resources to be retained in the family group instead of being split into ever-decreasing plots. A similar rationale is used to maintain the number of priests. “Excess” women who fail to attract husbands are turned into nuns or worked in the fields as neuters. There is considerable extramarital infidelity, especially between the younger brothers (who may not be allowed frequent conjugal visits) and the women who fail to find a husband despite rather drastic penalties against any children born of such a union. Younger sons were also sometimes adopted into families lacking male heirs.

The Nesians practice ritual exogamy and polyandry. They live in isolated groups with multiple husbands and wives; marriage is sometimes mutually exclusive but open marriages are far more common. Children are considered common property of the group. Though the child knows who his birth mother is, any and all females are accorded equal rights with respect to raising the child. The women control the property of the group and reach decisions in a process of gerontocracy-driven consensus. Men have fewer responsibilities and rights than women and are most commonly employed in hunting and gathering foods. When a male child reaches maturity (usually at twelve to fifteen years), he is sent to join another group as a new “husband”. Females typically stay in the group of their birth but may be exchanged in rare circumstances. [3]

So that is my proposal. Instead of living in Pleasantville, where everyone is a cis-gendered heterosexual Caucasian male (with the occasional cis-gendered heterosexual Caucasian female or cis-gendered heterosexual non-Caucasian male for “diversity”), why not move to a place with color and true diversity. Instead of writing aliens who are simply people like us in green paint, why not write about the true aliens among us? Why not get really and truly bent?

[1] Remember that the same era that gave us the tradition-driven fantasy of I Dream of Genie also gave us the Stonewall Riots and The Feminine Mystique.

[2] I really, really wish that I were making this group up or exaggerating their habits. Sadly, I am not. They are somewhat famous in anthropological circles for their unusual habits.

[3] The ethnological study of this society became a number one bestseller


Get Bent – The Moral Of The Story

Well, that’s the end of the gender-bending stories. I could keep going for months, but I hope that the point (whatever it is) has been made. But what was the point of this exercise? That old stories are sometimes not quite the classics that we remember? Not quite.

When you tell a story, be you Aesop  or John Norman, what you are doing is commenting on your society. You may be saying “Hey, this is bad; I wish it would stop” or “Gosh, this is good; we should have more of it”, but you are saying something whether you know it or not. And that is good. We need more people exploring how we can make this universe a better place to live.

What isn’t so good is that all of the societies that get explored are more or less the same: Caucasian cis-gendered heterosexual men in the lead, Caucasian cis-gendered heterosexual women and children two steps behind, and the occasional token character who doesn’t fit that mold tossed in as a bone to the remaining 2/3 of the world. Even worse, much of the fiction takes the mores of today, puts a new ribbon on them, and calls them the “wild new mores of tomorrow”; the entire Universe is seen as a rerun of Ozzie and Harriett with the characters in Halloween costumes

Consider Stranger In A Strange Land (SIASL) by Robert Heinlein, widely regarded as one of the most daring science fiction novels of its time and called “a completely free-wheeling look at contemporary human culture” by its author. So what was so “free-wheeling” about the novel? In it, Heinlein suggested that men and women like to have sex but we lie about it. Admittedly, given that Lady Chatterly’s Lover  had been banned in the USA until just three years before SIASL’s publication, talking in public about sex, much less admitting that it was fun, was still somewhat disreputable. Nevertheless, that one point was the basis for a 400 page novel with a cast of sixteen main characters, of which just two (both male) are non-Caucasian and none are anything but cis-gendered heterosexuals. Despite that handicap, the novel does pass the Bechdel test, but just barely; in the entire, sprawling novel, there are two places where female characters actually talk to each other without mentioning the main character.  Other than that, the novel is an exact duplicate of the sexism and “women should be seen but not heard” mores of 1950s middle America, right down to arguments over who should cook dinner [1].

But SIASL was published in 1962. Surely stories today aren’t as limited in their scope? Sadly, they are. Don’t believe me? Here’s an easy way to prove me wrong (call it the John test): Go to any bookstore today and pull down a book at random. Count the number of pages you have to go to read about a male, then count the number of pages before you encounter a female. If you read about a woman before you read about a man, then the book passes the John test [2]. At my last trip to the bookstore, after checking twenty books at random, two passed the test.

Of course, that doesn’t even cover the way that women are described in fiction (or real life). As at least two of the stories showed, terms that we think of as being perfectly acceptable for use with a full-grown woman are more than slightly disgusting when applied to a man – even when the gendered equivalent (e.g., “boy” for “girl”) is used. And the reason that the description and how the characters are treated matters is because those things tell us about the society itself. If it is OK for your characters to call women “girl” but men must be called “sir”, then you are really saying that in that society it is OK for women to be treated as pets or children instead of as people. If it isn’t OK to demand a man go hide when things get dangerous, then why should it be OK to demand that a woman do so? Why can’t a woman come running to the rescue? Why shouldn’t a woman be in charge of a major project? Who is to say that a woman wouldn’t make a perfectly good bank robber?

As real life will cheerfully point out, the answer to those questions is that there is no reason that women cannot be just as good and just as bad as men and often in exactly the same way. But until our stories catch up with real life, we’ll be stuck telling people that the entire universe is exactly like the Ozzie and Harriett show. I don’t know about you, but, amusing as Ricky Nelson was, I want something a little more realistic. I want world where people are allowed to act like people even if they happen to be female. Is that too much to ask?

[1] To be fair, Heinlein is noted as a satirist (though this is often missed by those who read his works). It is entirely possible that he kept the essentials of 1950s middle America in the novel in order to point out how tediously banal they are.

[2] If women are equally represented in fiction, then about half the time you should encounter a woman before you encounter a man.


Get Bent – The Depths of Passion

For this one, I swapped the genders of the mad scientist and the damsel in distress and removed the genders of the butler and the protagonist. So how do you read this? As a slightly twisted love story or as something from a Twilight Zone episode?

(Based on From the Ocean’s Depths and Into the Ocean’s Depths by Sewell Peaslee Wright)

The Depths of Passion

From somewhere out on the black, heaving Atlantic, the rapid, muffled popping of a speedboat’s exhaust drifted clearly through the night.

I dropped my book and stretched, leaning back more comfortably in my chair. There was real romance and adventure! Rum-runners, seeking out their hidden port with their cargo of contraband from Cuba. Heading fearlessly through the darkness, fighting the high seas, still running after the storm of a day or so before, daring a thousand dangers for the sake of the straw-packed bottles they carried. Sea-bronzed men, with hard, flat muscles and fearless eyes; ready guns slapping their thighs as they –

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Get Bent – The Planet With No Name

This was a rather tricky exercise; I got rid of gender entirely for this one. And though that made writing it a bit difficult, the story remains.

What’s worse than being forbidden? Being the Forgotten Planet!

(Based on The Forgotten Planet by Sewell Peaslee Wright)

The Planet With No Name

I have been asked to record, plainly and without prejudice, a brief history of the Forgotten Planet.

That this record, when completed, will be sealed in the archives of the Interplanetary Alliance and remain there, a secret and rather dreadful bit of history, is no concern of mine. I am old, well past the century mark, and what disposal is made of my work is of little importance to me. I grow weary of life and living, which is good. The fear of death was lost when our scientists showed us how to live until we grew weary of life. But I am digressing – an elder’s failing.

The Forgotten Planet was not always so named. The name that it once bore had been, as every child knows, stricken from the records, actual and mental, of the Universe. It is well that evil should not be remembered. But in order that this history may be clear in the centuries to come, my record should go back to beginnings.

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Get Bent – The Meteor Boy

 The narrator kept his gender but the protagonist and main McGuffin had theirs swapped.And yet, the dynamics didn’t really change.

Even Einstein knew better to try explaining love.

(Based on The Meteor Girl by Jack Williamson)

The Meteor Boy

“What’s the good in Einstein, anyhow?”

I shot the question at lean young Charlene King. In a moment he looked up at me; I thought there was pain in the back of her clear brown eyes. Lips closed in a thin white line across her wind-tanned face; nervously she tapped her fingers on the metal cowling of the Golden Gull’s cockpit.

“I know that space is curved, that there is really no space or time, but only space-time, that electricity and gravitation and magnetism are all the same. But how is that going to pay my grocery bill – or yours?”

“That’s what Virgil wants to know.”

“Virgil Randall!” I was astonished. “Why, I thought – ”

“I know. We’ve been engaged a year. But he’s called it off.”

Charlene looked into my eyes for a long minute, her lips still compressed. We were leaning on the freshly painted, streamline fuselage of the Golden Gull, as neat a little amphibian monoplane as ever made three hundred miles an hour. The plane stood on the glistening white sand of our private landing field on the eastern Florida coast. Below us the green Atlantic was running in white foam on the rocks.

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Get Bent – Laughter of the Stars

For this one, I removed the gender of the two main characters (the third never had gender to begin with). When you read it, do you see them as male or female?

Man is fond of saying that he is the pinnacle of evolution. But is that the best way to measure our importance?

(Based on The Jovian Jest by Lilith Lorraine)

Laughter Of The Stars

Consternation reigned in Elsnore village when the Nameless Thing was discovered in Farmer Burns’ corn-patch. When the rumor began to gain credence that it was some sort of meteor from inter-stellar space, reporters, scientists and college professors flocked to the scene, desirous of prying off particles for analysis. But they soon discovered that the Thing was no ordinary meteor, for it glowed at night with a peculiar luminescence. They also observed that it was practically weightless, since it had embedded itself in the soft sand scarcely more than a few inches.

By the time the first group of newspapermen and scientists had reached the farm, another phenomenon was plainly observable. The Thing was growing!

Farmer Burns, with an eye to profit, had already built a picket fence around the starry visitor and was charging admission. Burns also flatly refused to permit the chipping off of specimens or even the touching of the object. Such an anti-social attitude was severely criticized, but Burns stubbornly clung to the theory that possession is nine points in law.

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Get Bent – Progress Satisfactory

Here’s another nearly-complete gender swap. The senator ended up sharing some attributes with another politician who is in the news right now. Who knew that art would imitate life so well?

How can we progress when we stand in our own way?

(Based on Progress Report by Mark Clifton and Alex Apostolides)

Progress Satisfactory

It seemed to Colonel Jennings that the air conditioning unit merely washed the hot air around her without lowering the temperature from that outside. She knew it was partly psychosomatic, compounded of the view of the silvery spire of the test ship through the heatwaves of the Nevada landscape and the knowledge that this was the day, the hour, and the minutes.

The final test was at hand. The instrument ship was to be sent out into space, controlled from this sunken concrete bunker, to find out if a human’s flimsy body could endure there.

Jennings visualized other bunkers scattered through the area, observation posts, and farther away the field headquarters with open telephone lines to the Pentagon, and beyond that a world waiting for news of the test – and not everyone wishing it well.

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Get Bent – The Root Of The Problem

For this one I swapped the gender of everyone but the robot. But robots don’t have gender, do they?

Robots will be our servants. But how can they serve us when we don’t know what we want?

(Based on Weak on Square Roots by Russell Burton)

Root of the Problem

As her coach sped through dusk-darkened Jersey meadows, Rona Lovegear, fourteen years with Allied Electronix, embraced her burden with both arms, silently cursing the engineer who was deliberately rocking the train. In her breast she nursed the conviction that someday there would be an intelligent robot at the throttle of the 5:10 to Philadelphia.

She carefully moved one hand and took a notebook from her pocket. That would be a good thing to mention at the office next Monday.

Again she congratulated herself for having induced her superiors to let her take home the company’s most highly developed mechanism to date. She had already forgiven herself for the little white lie that morning.

“Pascal,” she had told them, “is a little weak on square roots.” That had done it!

Old Hardwick would never permit an Allied computer to hit the market that was not the absolute master of square roots. If Lovegear wanted to work on Pascal on her own time it was fine with the boss.

Rona Lovegear consulted her watch. She wondered if her husband would be on time. She had told Conway twice over the phone to bring the station wagon to meet her. But he had been so forgetful lately. It was probably the new house; six rooms to keep up without a maid was quite a chore. Her pale eyes blinked. She had a few ideas along that line too. She smiled and gave the crate a gentle pat.

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Get Bent – The Time Thief

Here the protagonist and main characters all had their genders swapped. And again it doesn’t change the story one bit.

Time steals away. But who steals time?

(Based on The Thief of Time By Captain S. P. Meek)

The Time Thief

Harriett Winston, paying teller of the First National Bank of Chicago, stripped the band from a bundle of twenty dollar bills, counted out seventeen of them and added them to the pile on the counter before her.

“Twelve hundred and thirty-one tens,” she read from the payroll change slip before her. The paymaster of the Cramer Packing Company nodded an assent and Winston turned to the stacked bills in her rear currency rack. She picked up a handful of bundles and turned back to the grill. Her gaze swept the counter where, a moment before, she had stacked the twenties, and her jaw dropped.

“You got those twenties, Ms. Trier?” she asked.

“Got them? Of course not, how could I?” replied the paymaster. “There they are….”

Her voice trailed off into nothingness as she looked at the empty counter.

“I must have dropped them,” said Winston as she turned. She glanced back at the rear rack where her main stock of currency was piled. She stood paralyzed for a moment and then reached under the counter and pushed a button.

The bank resounded instantly to the clangor of gongs and huge steel grills shot into place with a clang, sealing all doors and preventing anyone from entering or leaving the bank. The guards sprang to their stations with drawn weapons and from the inner offices the bank officials came swarming out. The cashier, followed by two women, hurried to the paying teller’s cage.

“What is it, Ms. Winston?” she cried.

“I’ve been robbed!” gasped the teller.

“Who by? How?” demanded the cashier.

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Get Bent – Altered At Midnight

This was another complete gender swap and the story works just as well as it ever did. So why was the protagonist originally written as a male?

The true cost of spaceflight is always paid in lives. But sometimes, the ones who go aren’t the ones who pay the most!

(Based on The Altar at Midnight By C. M. Kornbluth)

Altered at Midnight

She had quite a rum-blossom on her for a kid, I thought at first. But when she moved closer to the light by the cash register to ask the bartender for a match or something, I saw it wasn’t that. Not just the nose. Broken veins on her cheeks, too, and the funny eyes. She must have seen me look, because she slid back away from the light.

The bartender shook my bottle of ale in front of me like a Swiss bell-ringer so it foamed inside the green glass.

“You ready for another, lady?” she asked.

I shook my head. Down the bar, she tried it on the kid – she was drinking scotch and water or something like that – and found out she could push her around. She sold her three scotch and waters in ten minutes.

When she tried for number four, the kid had her courage up and said, “I’ll tell you when I’m ready for another, Jack.” But there wasn’t any trouble.

It was almost nine and the place began to fill up. The manager, a real hood type, stationed himself by the door to screen out the high-school kids and give the big hello to conventioneers. The boys came hurrying in, too, with their little makeup cases and their fancy hair styled just so and their frozen faces with the perfect mouths. One of them stopped to say something to the manager, some excuse about something, and she said: “That’s aw ri’; get inna dressing room.”

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