Women of Speculative Fiction: Hermione Granger

This one’s pretty obvious, right? Almost to the point that I’m not sure what new things I could have to say. But since we’re reading the series to our kids, she’s been on my mind rather frequently lately. The truth is, with the Harry Potter series being so insanely well-known, Hermione’s place as an iconic female in fantasy has been hotly debated from just about every angle. If she’s so talented and smart, why isn’t she the main character? Why must her story take a back seat to yet another male protagonist? And why must she be someone’s love interest? And why is she frequently portrayed as shrill and emotional; or, conversely, too perfect, without any relatable flaws? And so on and so on.

I feel rather bad for poor Hermione – she wasn’t invented to be THE iconic female figure of children’s literature or fantasy. That’s an awful lot to put on a single girl’s shoulders. As I’ve already explored, there are a wide variety of female characters in speculative fiction, all with varying strengths and weaknesses and specific personality quirks – and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Whatever other complaint I could offer about the portrayal of girls and women in fantasy and sci-fi, my first and continual complaint is that there should be more of them – as many as there are boys and men. The more we have, the less we feel that any one female needs to single-handedly represent all that is good or bad about females in the entirety of speculative literature.

So. All that I’m going to explore in this particular post is what personally appeals to me about Hermione Granger. And it will encompass both strengths and weaknesses, which are necessary to any well-developed character.

First off, she’s tremendously intelligent, hard-working and pretty much constantly reading. Highly relatable to any book nerd. With those traits, however, comes an off-putting tendency to be a know-it-all and to alienate potential friends. This, too, is highly relatable. I have unwittingly intimidated people simply because of the way I use multi-syllabic words when I talk. Whoops. My heart really sinks for Hermione every time I re-read the first book and she overhears Ron’s scathing remark about how it’s no wonder she doesn’t have any friends.

Can’t you just imagine Hermione’s life before she learned about the wizarding world? Always knowing there was something weird about her, but unable to explain it…struggling to make friends, figuring it was because of her different-ness….and then her elation upon getting her Hogwarts letter, thinking that it all made sense at last, that she would finally be among people like her…and then she’s friendless all over again, because magic or not, she’s still weird and different. And how wonderful that she is finally able to break through and form a real, lasting friendship with Ron and Harry.

She has certain stubborn traits that are both exasperating and endearing. She’s so determined to take ALL THE CLASSES in her third year that she actually uses time travel just to accommodate her schedule – and quite reasonably, by the end of the year she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She’s bitten off more than she can chew, and she can’t even confide in anyone how exhausted or desperate she is because she’s sworn to secrecy about the Time-Turner. I have to say that one of the things I thoroughly loathed about the movie adaptation was removing any sort of indicator of the strain Hermione was under. She has everything perfectly control from beginning to end. When she punches Malfoy in the face we’re expected to cheer. But in the book, lashing out at Malfoy is just one more sign that she’s completely losing it. They also cut her conflicts with Harry and Ron – worrying that Harry’s mysterious Firebolt Christmas present is cursed; refusing to admit that her cat might have eaten Ron’s rat – and we don’t get to witness how devastated she is without the support of their friendship. I don’t want to see a steely, perpetually-in-control Hermione; she doesn’t seem human. I want to see her struggle and have real human reactions when the stress gets too much for her.

And in the fourth book, Hermione starts on a house-elf rights crusade that’s simultaneously admirable and ridiculous. It’s a pretty potent metaphor for impassioned but slightly misguided social justice warriors. She’s well-meaning, and her outrage against house-elf abuse is probably warranted, but telling oppressed peoples they should grow a backbone and rise up against their masters is, well, not the best way to go about it. Presumably by the time she’s an adult, she’s learned more compassionate and practical means to seek justice and fight oppression. But it’s quite realistic to see her struggle to find the proper methods for her enacting her ideals – and it makes an awfully nice moment for her first kiss with Ron when he shows, quite independent of any desire to impress her, that he’s developed a similar concern for the welfare of non-privileged people like house-elves.

Not that Hermione’s story ever revolves completely around romance, but the romance sub-plot is pretty entertaining. For all her intelligence and pragmatism, she’s just about as hopeless as any other callow teenager when it comes to crushes and such. The way she and Ron dance around each other for years is both charmingly familiar and teeth-grittingly infuriating. You get to see it from Harry’s perspective, which makes it all the more fun, since he can see pretty clearly what neither of them will acknowledge. And the dynamics of their trio also offer a nice little subversion of “the hero, the hero’s buddy and the hero’s love interest” trope – Hermione is not, nor ever was, Harry’s love interest. Their relationship is more like brother-sister, which he must patiently explain to every character who assumes otherwise (perhaps standing as surrogates for the readers who have also assumed otherwise). Shippers may argue, of course, over whether Hermione is really better suited for one boy or another, but according to official canon, it was never Harry. (And if I weren’t focusing on female characters right now, I could give you a whole earful about how much I love Ron and the role he plays in their trio and how the movies did a deep, deep disservice by reducing him to buffoonish comic relief…but anyway.)

So what are we to make of Hermione in the end? J.K. Rowling says she always had a boy in mind for the hero of her tale. Analyzing the notion of some alternate universe with the Henrietta Potter series would have to be the topic of an entirely different post. What we have is a story with a male protagonist whose female friend is satisfyingly complex and memorable, and far more than somebody’s girlfriend. And maybe, just maybe, that means that young readers will come to appreciate and seek out more stories with female characters like Hermione. Hooray!

Women of Speculative Fiction: Connie Willis

If you’d told me it was a woman who had won more major writing awards than anyone else, I would’ve had trouble believing you. Not, of course, because I have any doubts about the ability of women to be extraordinary writers, but because there are still alarming levels of subconscious bias that have people lending more weight to the work of male writers, particularly in the field of speculative fiction. Thankfully, that hasn’t kept Connie Willis from earning a mountain of Hugo and Nebula awards – eleven Hugos and seven Nebulas, to be precise.

Yet I’d never heard of her until recently, when my sister recommended one of her works for our family’s book club. My confusion only grew when I wandered the sci-fi shelves of our local used book store and saw nothing by Willis, only to finally try the non-genre fiction section, where I immediately found a copy of The Doomsday Book. But it’s about time travel! Why would it be shelved anywhere other than with its fellow science fiction novels? Time paradoxes, theories of relativity and the space-time continuum – it’s about as genre as you can get.

But Willis’s time travel novels – there are many, and they all occur within the same universe, so to speak – take a different direction. Paradoxes aren’t possible. Literally. If there’s even the slightest possibility of changing the past, the mechanism shuts down and no time travel occurs. The space-time continuum protects itself. So what would be the point of traveling? It’s useless for both villains looking to rewrite history in their own image, as well as well-meaning sorts who want to fix perceived problems in the past. Who could possibly be interested in this largely-observational version of time travel?

Historians, of course. In fact, the whole time travel program is run by a group of historians at Oxford. I’m guessing this is why I found The Doomsday Book among the shelves where you might also find historical fiction. Because once the book establishes the premise of a near-future world with time-traveling historians, much of it reads like a straight-forward story set in medieval times. With, of course, the twist that the story includes a history student from the future. As such, the book showcases Willis’s research of the Middle Ages (not all entirely accurate, but that almost helps to prove the point that no historical research can compare to actually being there) just as much as the imaginative world-building of science fiction. Kivrin is a stubborn, determined heroine who ignores the fact that a young unmarried woman was one of the most vulnerable types of people in medieval times….and once she arrives in the past she realizes that, in fact, she’s probably in over her head. No danger of her drastically changing history, but she could very well die and never return home. Her portrayal strikes a pretty good balance between being flawed yet sympathetic.

The book also contains a parallel story of what’s happening at Oxford while Kirvin’s support staff are waiting for her return. And even though it tells the grim tale of an epidemic taking over campus, it contains some humorous moments indicating the sheer absurdity of human nature, such as the visiting bell choir that is determined to keep practicing for their performance, undaunted by the quarantine shutting everything down. This sort of entertaining character study is probably another feature that has made Willis’s writing garner so many awards. The Doomsday Book had quite the high death toll (and that’s not a major spoiler; you can pretty much assume as much knowing it’s a book about pandemics and plagues) and yet I also found it to be a surprisingly fun read at times. Meanwhile, the more serious message that came across by the end – that every gesture of compassion, no matter how small or how apparently futile, is worthwhile – was quite moving.

I haven’t yet read anything else by Willis, but I’m planning on To Say Nothing of the Dog next (also stacked in the non-genre shelves of our used bookstore), which apparently veers much more into madcap comedy. It’s always impressive when a writer can successfully shift between such disparate tones as humor and tragedy, whether within the same book or across novels. I look forward to seeing what else she can do.