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Military Command in Women's Science Fiction:
C.J. Cherryh's Signy Mallory
by Camille Bacon-Smith

In an interview[1] for this article, award winning science fiction writer C.J. Cherryh discussed the creation of her character Signy Mallory, commander of the jump-carrier[2] Norway, a soldier who worked her way up through the ranks not only to a position as captain of her own ship, but also to third in command of the remaining Earth Fleet. Feminist analysis of science fiction has generally ignored the characters of women soldiers, but Mallory is one of a growing number of women characters in science fiction who take violent action as required within military hierarchies. Cherryh stands at the forefront of that small number of women writers who have gained the respect both of their peers and their audience in an area of the genre more resistant to female encroachment than almost any other.

Traditionally, when we think of violent women in science fiction and fantasy, a few narrowly defined stereotypes come to mind. There is the madwoman in the attic, or in the case of Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, in the mental hospital, whose destructive impulse, arising out of a need to defend a nonviolent utopian future, may also be seen as lashing back at the patriarchal power that has systematically dehumanized her.[3] It is important to note here, however, that the madwoman motif is not widely adopted in science fiction. Although Piercy's often-analyzed novel[4] reflects some of the tropes of science fiction, particularly the alternate or future utopia, the current term "slipstream," for mainstream fiction writers borrowing from the science fiction genre, seems most appropriate.

The solitary warrior, characterized by Jirel of Joiry, C.L. Moore's woman warrior and caretaker of the people in her sword and sorcery realm, has been more common in the community of science fiction which includes the creation of fantasy literature.[5] Moore wrote in the 1930s, one of very few women writing centrally to the genre at that time, and the kind of woman warrior-caretaker she created continues to represent an important force in women's fantasy. C.J. Cherryh herself has written the female warrior in books such as her Morgaine series. Cherryh discussed the distinction she makes between the warrior and the soldier in our interview:

   The warrior is on his own. He's much less organized, much less [answerable to a] hierarchical society. And the wandering mercenary of middle Europe was one [of that] kind of character. The social dynamics that drive them are different and the goals for which they fight are different. The warrior may fight for gold or for an immediate gain, or for something to take home for the winter to feed the family. The soldier is part of a more complex society. He's fighting for a group ethic of some sort. A warrior is free to be a hero and pull off daring do and the soldier is irresponsible if he does it.   

Here we see the basic tension that Cherryh's concept of soldier sets up for military characters. As a historian, Cherryh uses the pronoun "he." She works within the understanding that the model for the warrior or the soldier in science fiction arises out of a role open only to men in our culture, past and present. The soldier's role is itself circumscribed: a warrior is free to set standards of behavior, while a soldier must follow the demands of a group ethic. A warrior may be a hero, but a leader of soldiers must consider the lives that will be lost in a heroic gesture. To present a responsible officer as a hero, therefore, the author must forego the simpler pyrotechnics of individual action for the more subtle manipulation of loyalties and honor that move not the individual but whole forces to heroic action.

Contemporary women who write inside science fiction increasingly are taking up the challenge to envision the woman combat soldier. Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon, herself once a soldier,[6] offer in their Sassinak books the story of a young woman's rise through the military academy to high rank in the spacefaring military of her Heinleinesque culture. Sassinak leads her ships against pirates, avenges the deaths of her family, and takes on roles of growing rank and responsibility through the series of adventures focused on her character.[7] Two-time Hugo award winner Lois McMaster Bujold offers us Cordelia Naismith, captain of an exploration vessel commissioned into the military, and a number of women in the various military and mercenary forces that engage in a variety of armed conflicts over the history of her extended Vorkorsigan series.[8] S.N. Lewitt, in her military science fiction, includes women who fight alongside men as a matter of course, neither the focus of the novels nor their spear carriers, but integral members of the teams who fly the high-tech batwings, stealth craft designed to fight inside or outside of an atmosphere.[9] Unlike earlier writers who may have dressed up male characters in female bodies, these women write characters who are distinctly female, with female lives, including sexuality.[10]

Men, too, have written women as soldiers, often with less success from a female reader's point of view. Joe Haldeman's multi-award winning The Forever War,[11] however, provides a complex and honest description of changing attitudes about women in warfare. Women at the start of The Forever War must serve both as fighters and as sexual partners for the males in their company. Midway through the war, time dilation and population pressures at home have produced a new sexual norm--homosexuality. Men and Women fight as equals, and the surviving heterosexual soldiers are considered untrustworthy as officers. Two of those "aberrant" heterosexual officers pairbond for life. Haldeman wrote the woman officer, named Marygay, as a tribute to Gay Haldeman, his longtime wife and equal business partner. While the portrait Haldeman paints of women soldiers often disturbs the reader, it still resonates with a kind of uncomfortable reality drawn from Haldeman's own observations of attitudes about women who served in non-combat military positions during the Viet Nam war.[12]

In many ways, the very existence of Signy Mallory seems contradictory. Unlike Moon or Haldeman, C.J. Cherryh has not been a soldier. But in our discussion, she explained how she came to understand the military: "I grew up right next to an army town. I understand the army very well. I've lived with army people, I know the mindset."[13] Cherryh, like many writers of serious hard science fiction,[14] strives to extrapolate from the present rather than create utopias based on a disjunctive leap in cultural reality. In discussion about Signy Mallory's command style, Cherryh specifically conflates the real-world struggle of women to hold power in a male dominated society and the constraints on her character as they are extrapolated from the origins of the character's situation in our own culture:

   I don't care that it has been a male dominated world. The world is as it is, and if you are going to take real world power, you have to...pick them up exactly where you find them, with all their faults and everything about them. You work with the real situation in the real world. You have ideals, you nudge the situation toward those ideals.[15]   

Cherryh's female heroes, then, work within constraints not of their making. They wage their struggles both in battle and in the war room as they strive to influence those with whom they are in allegiance or in hierarchical relation.

Paradoxically, in "Goodbye Star Wars, Hello, Alley-Oop," an essay on the possibility of interstellar warfare on the scale of her station universe, Cherryh shows that such warfare is close to impossible:

   Inhabited worlds cannot survive and ships at large cannot, on the average, be caught. Only the spacefarers might stand a chance. Sensible people may take to space and stay there, as remote from the area of conflict as possible, independent of all ties and, one would hope, learning something of wisdom about stones and glass houses.[16]   

If, as Cherryh herself professes, the war that Mallory fights is not practical (and, in fact, the conclusion of war against Pell arises out of just such a temporary withdrawal of the spacefaring merchanters), why did she create a situation she believes is unlikely or impractical? The answer, of course, lies in the real meaning of science fiction, not to predict a concrete future, but to experiment with the present using a set of established distancing metaphors, in this case, space. We have a clue to Signy Mallory above, when Cherryh talks about growing up near an army town. The clue becomes more overt when Cherryh relates more of her background to her writing process:

   Bacon-Smith:   When you were envisioning this female soldier, did you have any women soldiers around that you used as a model?

   Cherryh:   Not particularly. I nearly joined the airforce myself once upon a time, until I found out they wouldn't let me fly, because I was female. I'm not a good candidate to fly a jet plane because of my vision, but that wasn't half as insulting as just because I was female they weren't going to give me a chance to fly. I have full sympathy for the women pilots right now who are attempting to get qualified for combat. There is nothing political about this except that I do believe, personally, that there are righteous wars. There are times when nothing else will serve when you are up against somebody who you've tried every single thing to deal with and they are still going to go out there and gun down puppy dogs and kids in the street. At this point, as far as I'm concerned, this is the point where you declare a moral war. And if they gave me a gun I'd go out personally.

Here we see very clearly the relationship between the fictional universe and lived experience of the author. Cherryh grew up near an army town and wanted to be a fighter pilot. She believes that some wars are just and, while resentful that the airforce would not let women fly combat, she would still fight if called upon in such a moral war. As a science fiction writer, then, she is able both to create a universe in which women can serve in the highest ranks of combat, as women in the airforce today struggle to do, and then explore the meaning of the term "moral war."

Although Cherryh protests that her position is not a political one, her fascination with the interaction of culture and morality does in fact arise out of the political interests that, again, make up her background:

   I took Latin in high school, I decided that I wanted to major in it in college. I followed it up with Greek. I learned French and won the Woodrow Wilson fellowship to continue study on the graduate level. So I went up to Johns Hopkins and got my masters in a year. My specialties were Bronze age mythologies and Roman law in the transition from republic to empire.
   If I had to characterize myself as anything, I'd say [my writing is] anthropological. I've also been exceedingly interested in trade patterns, economics, and in looking at the social and political mechanisms of the ancient world compared to the modern world. Where have we learned, or where are we doing things not as smart as they did. As such, I've done a universe that has a lot of those elements in them.

That universe, of course, is the station universe in which Signy Mallory plays a part, a universe to which C.J. Cherryh brings a sophisticated centrist political feminism.

Some Background on the Station Universe:

In the parlance of the science fiction community, a "universe" is a common setting in which a number of shorter works make up the parts. In some cases, the universe may be shared by a number of writers, and the larger story they create may be tenuous. Many universes, including C.J. Cherryh's Station Universe, exclude other writers, and a larger story develops across all the works. In Enterprising Women,[17] I used the term Macrotext to define the extended storyline developed over a series of televisual texts, and the term fits equally well as a description of the complex written science fiction universe.

In the station universe spelled out in great detail in Downbelow Station, Cherryh draws an intricate picture of the three sided conflict that has, in a sense, already been lost when the book opens: "They lost the war not in the Beyond, but in the senate chambers and the boardrooms on Earth and Sol Station..."[18] The three sides of the doomed conflict include the planet-based Union that has grown to rely on technology of reproduction, breeding clones, called Azi, as soldiers; the degenerating Earth Company whose Fleet, bereft of support from home, impresses women as well as men into the service until the Fleet itself devolves into piracy; and the newly forming Alliance of Merchant ships and the stations they ply in trade.

From the outside the macrotext may seem to be a concatenation of coincidences but, in fact, Cherryh works from a master plan: I have a book about a couple inches thick, which is a timeline down about two thousand years, five thousand years, in which I have everything written down that has yet happened. I've actually worked it out, and I know when Gehenna was founded, and that it was part of a dirty tricks campaign conducted after the war.[19] And I know how long major characters live and what happens to them.

These events link up in the books, as Cherryh indicates: "It's like a tapestry. You can appreciate any single area of it like a framed painting. But the threads do connect into other places. Have you run across Heavy Time?[20] You notice the serial number on the ship? ECS5. That's Norway. (featured in Downbelow Station.) The name of the Lieutenant who picked them (the new recruits) up? It's Graff. Mallory isn't on stage yet, but she will be. Mallory is busy being shipwrecked elsewhere. (Not written). And, when you want to know who some of the ridership pilots are for Norway...(the same recruits, who later go through training in the book Hellburner.) So it's all interconnected. But you can read it, it's like dropping into history, you can drop in on any single book and read in any order.

For a writer exploring women's roles in society, the vast tapestry of a fictional universe predicated upon diverging space exploration cultures provides three "logical" circumstances that might lead to the equal valuing of women:

1.  Ecology:  In a culture with unlimited space, population dispersal dictates that every person would be necessary to perform the functions of survival, regardless of their child-bearing status. In Cherryh's Merchanter's Luck,[21] the matrilineal merchanters include pregnant women, mothers, and children whose rise through the ranks are determined by seniority, age, rather than gender. In Downbelow Station,, it is the pregnant Elene Quen who unites the Merchanters in the Alliance that, with Signy Mallory's aid, ultimately calls a halt to the Company Wars.

2.  Technology of reproduction:   If the culture so chooses, technology might eliminate the necessity of childbearing altogether. Genetic and reproductive science relieves Union women of the burden of childbearing if they so wish, while solving the problem of low population density with human production, rather than reproduction, in the form of the clones and tape-trained azi. Human production, however, leads to new ethical dilemmas. Cyteen[22] explores issues of re/production and economic power from the point of view of the producer. Downbelow Station examines the issue from the outside: the captive azi Josh Talley, a human manufactured and trained by Union solely for his role in the war, represents both guilt and danger to Signy Mallory and Pell Station. Signy Mallory, from a society which ostensibly values human life, must compete in a war against a society that produces soldiers factory-style. Both Mallory and Damon Konstantin, head of Pell's legal office, must reconcile a society that says it values human life with its victimization of a factory-produced prisoner of war.

3.  Technology of warfare:  The value of the soldier would shift from prowess through physical strength to prowess through intelligence and quick reflexes. Again, population dispersal requires that a warring culture make use of all potential soldiers within reach, not just those selected for obsolete physical traits like strong biceps which, given the constraints of spaceflight, would be difficult to maintain anyway. Women as soldiers appear as secondary characters in Hellburner,[23] and Signy Mallory as a soldier in command appears in Merchanter's Luck and Downbelow Station.[24]

It is, of course, important to keep in mind here that we are talking about population dispersal, not a reduced population. Cherryh's spacefarers are not in danger of dying out, a situation that leads to the oppression of women in the cause of reproduction in many feminist dystopias. Rather, the spaces encountered by the new cultures of exploration make certain assumptions about populations obsolete. Given this mind-experiment context, Cherryh can use the character of Signy Mallory, and the universe in which she exists, to test a number of critical questions about power and morality and war as they might relate both to men and to women in the re-constructed reality of our own culture.

Signy Mallory

Many fans of the station universe find in the complex character of Signy Mallory a powerful image. Songs have been written about her, including the Mercedes Lackey/Leslie Fish "Signy Mallory," which sums up the contradictory nature of the character:

   They say she doesn't think about the lives that she has lost.
They say when Norway goes to fight she doesn't count the cost.
That once she's planned a course she doesn't reckon wrong or right.
So why does she stare sleeplessly into the dark all night?[25]

Signy Mallory is capable of violence at a command remove, as when she orders her crew to tear away from dock at Pell Station: "No undock, rip her loose"....Pell was in chaos, a whole dock breached...troopers who had been on the dock, dead and drifting, sucked out when an access two meters by two was ripped from its moorings without warning."[26]

Equally, when required she can kill with her own hand, as when she explains to Conrad Mazian, commander of the fleet, the death of another ship's officer during a raid against fleet black marketeers who were torturing civilians: "Myself: Mr. Goforth, you're under arrest...Lt. Goforth: Bloody bitch. Bloody bastard bitch. Name your share. At this point I ceased argument with Lt. Goforth and shot him in the belly."[27]

For Signy Mallory, as for Sassinak and Cordelia Naismith, violence is neither chaos nor instinct, those fearful states of femaleness that have marked the literature of earlier centuries, and of some men today. Rather, violence occurs in the performance of duty, alongside men, and for the same motives that have fueled "just wars" in the past--the protection of the weak. In the mind-puzzles of women's military science fiction, however, weakness as a category is based on a situational lack of agency--skill and weapons--not on sex or gender. Strength is a matter of will and intelligence, which women like Signy Mallory possess in abundance, applied to technology.

The remainder of this article will explore the character of Signy Mallory as a leader of soldiers in a war no one understands anymore, and as a woman of conflicting impulses trying to find a clear path through the tangle of political expediency and treachery around her. But Mallory is herself morally ambiguous--in studying her actions, we see a woman with both a moral high ground and a darker side that specifically feminist-identified science fiction has often rejected.

Copyright © 2002 Camille Bacon-Smith. All rights reserved