STAR REALMS: ROLE REVERSAL RUN
IMPORTANT: I spoil the book under discussion here. Also, I bear absolutely no ill will towards Jon del Arroz at all and fully respect him as an author and a fellow human being.
From the moment I saw the cover of Jon del Arroz’s novel Star Realms: Rescue Run, I knew that it would hew closely to the Action Girl Mandate, which even my work adheres to. When I started reading, I was proven right immediately when I was introduced to the military-trained smuggler Joan Shengtu, who was no slouch in physical combat and covert action. I read on, enjoying the story — after all, Action Girls didn’t automatically make a story bad. Each scrape, each near-miss, and each bit of drama held my attention as I read this space opera that didn’t let up.
But then two-thirds of the way through the book, it hit me. This book had completely reversed the roles of male and female in the traditional heroic story.
This wasn’t merely a case of male/female interchangeability like is normally seen in modern fiction, where the only true sexual differences are “male is attracted to female” and vice versa, like opposite poles of a magnet. No, Joan Shengtu was literally written like a male hero, and corporate bigwig Dario Anazao was literally written like a space princess — I’d go so far as to say Relena Peacecraft in drag! (Seriously. Dejah Thoris has more testosterone than Dario.) In light of this, I had predicted that Commodore Zhang would be more like a hardened prisoner of war than a traditional damsel, and lo and behold, I was proved right, and my role reversal theory was confirmed.
Consider Joan Shengtu’s background: raised in rough-and-tumble poverty, former combat soldier, uncomfortable with womanly things, and skilled at both violence and espionage. Her companion Yui Amitosa and the captured Commodore Zhang — both female as well — have similar military skills. She is given a mission that would expose her to significant danger and require quite a bit of fighting. These are personakity traits traditionally associated with male heroes.
Now consider Dario Anazao: sheltered by high social status, very diplomatic, very unskilled at fighting, and concerned for the underlevelers because Daddy is being so mean to them, the poor things. He acts as the “heart” of the Regency Biotech corporation, trying to blunt their harsh edge and convince them to act with more care and compassion. These are personality traits traditionally associated with female love interests, especially those with harsh fathers. Since Dario is highly placed among the Trade Federation’s ruling class, this means that he was written like a space princess.
It goes further. While Joan dismissed the possibility of romance with Dario at first, Dario pined after her at all times. Dario often uses his conversation skills and social station to help the female hero. When Joan’s group and Dario are trying to escape the Megahauler with Commodore Zhang, Dario tries to fight but is reprimanded by the military women in a way you would expect fighting men to quiet down a defiant girl. Occasionally, Dario is referred to in feminine terms like “angel” and “pretty.” Del Arroz makes it very clear that Joan wears the pants in their relationship, and that Dario is the helpmeet.
What makes this characterization unusual is not the role reversal itself — such things have become common in popular culture — but the political background of the author. You see, Jon del Arroz isn’t some social justice progressive, but a right-wing Christian Trump voter. While most conservative authors feature tough-as-nails women who could handle themselves in a fight, they almost never do outright role reversals like Rescue Run does. Such an unusual creative choice suggests that the vogue for Action Girls is rooted in more than feminist ideology, since someone with zero ideological overlap with them wrote a work such as this.
While this work was entertaining, it showed me how deeply unnatural eschewing the traditional roles feels. Treating male and female like mere opposite poles of a magnet, or as interchangeable, generic “persons,” cuts the heart out of a work since maleness and femaleness are rooted in our very DNA, not social construction as the feminists allege. Wiping out such an essential part of human identity makes us human-shaped blobs with holes in our hearts, little better than the Lly’bra. Such a universe is truly a dystopia, far scarier than anything Lovecraft or H. R. Giger could think up.
For a work that features a more traditional male/female relationship, buy Sword & Flower.