As the pandemic rages around the world, many have turned to a common place of refuge: the world of fiction. However, many classic novels in two extremely popular genres, science fiction and fantasy, reflect prejudices which are very much grounded in the exclusionary notions of the writers. It is with this in mind that Jim Shanahan ’21 put forward their project, a two-part critical and creative I.S. which sought to diagnose the sheer degree to which classics like Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and J.R.R Tolkien’s “Lord of The Rings” echo the many patriarchal and cisnormative notions of both their authors and society at large.
In particular, Shanahan points to the books’ adherence to a binary view of gender, with an example being gender-based systems of magic, as well as the deficit of female representation. Books like “The Lord of The Rings,” despite having a relatively large main cast of adventurers, still relegate women to the sidelines. Then, having diagnosed the problem, Shanahan practices what he preaches, having written a draft of a fiction novel which not only stars a nonbinary main character, but one which is heavily focused on identity and the struggle of finding oneself. This new work is dedicated to specifically challenging common gender assumptions, as well as genre tropes.
One interesting point is that unlike many novels in these genres, Shanahan’s book takes place in a single town, and rather than being a grand journey to some far off land, is instead a focus on the internal battles many face while trapped in both their bodies and their small home towns. Shanahan cites as inspiration their own struggle with identity, as well as his noticing of the sheer dominance of many of these exclusionary tropes.
Many issues in the genre are especially concerning to them, especially the worrying portrayals of women and tailoring towards the male gaze, both of which are very much artifacts of an even more misogynistic time period than the modern era. One thing Shanahan made very clear when interviewed is that they “didn’t mean to be inspiring” and that their intention was to essentially add to what will hopefully be a growing canon of more inclusive media. In their mind, the work serves as a way for those struggling with identity to reflect off of and potentially see themselves in.
In the process of creating this new work, Shanahan found some parts more enjoyable than others. One major thing they emphasized is the sheer sense of achievement and perspective that writing a book brings, that a seemingly insurmountable challenge can actually be completed. As Shanahan discovered, the challenge of writing a book was in finding the right stylistic choices, a point which they experienced in trying to find the right perspective to use, finding pros and cons in using both first and third person narration.
Shanahan argues that we are in a time when people are increasingly questioning their own identities and preconceptions, and that to read his project is to both understand why the previous mainstream is harmful and to see what an inclusive work can look like.