Please do not read this comment if you want to read the book.
This was my problem: Rien is a woman who prefers women. We're told she's slept with men in the past, but she finds women more physically (and seemingly emotionally) more attractive.
1) She falls in love with Perceval (with no reflection at all on the blood relationship between them...even though Rien is briefly squicked out by another incestuous relationship in the book), but of course Perceval is unattainable, being asexual. Perceval tells Rien they can have a platonic marriage where Rien takes a lover. So even in a society where marriage between two women is possible, God forbid they have sex inside it.
2) Rien has sex with Mallory, who doesn't seem to have a gender or sex since the book does not refer to Mallory as he or she. However, biologically Mallory is female above the waist and male below it. When Rien says she prefers sex with women, Mallory uses nanotechnology to grow a set of female genitalia- but doesn't get rid of the male one, which seems like it would be equally possible. Because God forbid women sleep with women.
3) Towards the end of the book, Rien is attracted to a woman named Jordan. But what she concentrates on are the wings and the fur and the other things that make Jordan "exotic" for her. Because God forbid that Rien be attracted to someone who looks like a human woman.
4) Rien dies to save Perceval. Of course she does.
In general, I don't trust the way Bear writes lesbians. Witness the lesbian woman falling in love with the straight woman who has to be ordered to sleep with her in Blood and Iron, and the very sketchy lesbian relationship in Carnival, while the gay male relationships and the straight ones are complex and rich. This time, it infuriated me that something as simple as sex between two women is put off, deferred, or has the male interjected in such a way.
I'm very very glad to see I wasn't the only one bothered by Dust's handling of sexuality, when every other reviewer I've seen seemed to enjoy it. I keep going back to Bear's books because the worldbuilding is so awesome and full of potential, and then I bounce off the characterization and remember why I had a problem with her writing in the first place.
And I am so sick of how I can't think of a single sff novel with a lesbian character, no matter how minor, in which said character doesn't die tragically. Gay men might get to survive after sufficient angst and
I haven't actually seen many reviews that comment on the sexuality aspect of Dust, though one referred to "lesbian chic." I have seen several that felt the characters were distant and unreal, however.
But yes, very very bothered. In Blood and Iron, I was bothered by other aspects of the plot as well, and in Carnival it could almost be excused because the lesbian couple were such background characters. Dust, though, shows a trend I really dislike and am wary of.
I keep going back to Bear's books because the worldbuilding is so awesome and full of potential, and then I bounce off the characterization and remember why I had a problem with her writing in the first place.
I think this may be my problem, too, and I'll just have to accept it. The only one of her novels I liked unreservedly was New Amsterdam. With all the others, there's always a wall that keeps me from enjoyment. Normally not quite as severe a one as it was with Dust.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ has lesbian characters who don't die. But yeah, outside feminist science fiction the number is very small.
SFF titles with lesbians who live: Nicola Griffith's Ammonite and Slow River and Kelley Eskridge's Solitaire. Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends. Um, it's been a while, but I think that James Tiptree, Jr.'s Up the Walls of the World sort of qualifies, for very SFnal values of "living". These are the ones I can think of off the top of my head, but there are others, I'm sure, even if I can't think of specific examples or don't know them. (Tanya Huff, Laurie J. Marks are likely authors.)
Alsy, try the FSF Wiki; this page, for instance, though it doesn't specify whether they live:
I've only read Carnival, which had similar --and other -- problems for me (...for a novel set on a frikkin' martriarchal world, it is depressingly full of Fail when it comes to the Dykes to Watch Out For test, and don't get me started on the boy genius).
I don't know if you go for Doylist explanations, but I gather that Bear has issues with her lesbian mothers which may affect her writing of lesbian characters.
Carnival was one of those novels whose enjoyment for me was considerably lessened in retrospect. At first I had problems with how much of the plot seemed left to hang in mid-air; then I started thinking about the premise of the universe and realized I didn't believe in it; and then I realized how much the characters seemed focused on "the goodness of the male," rather than on how the society might be genuinely different with women in control and offer something to women that male-dominated societies didn't. (Many of the women seemed relatively unhappy, because- of course- they wanted relationships with males that the society disapproved of).
Huh. I didn't know that. I generally try to stay away from biographical explanations unless the author freely admits it (like Steven Brust admitting the divorce his character goes through is reflective of his own divorce). What disappointed me about this was that Bear does seem to make a conscious effort to deal with issues of race, sexuality, etc., and so I'm very surprised this blind spot exists.
The problems with Carnival started fast for me, and the ecological world-building which could have been interesting rather made the political world-building worse.
This LJ entry may be TMI for you (I skimmed it), since it's a big, autobiographical confession of personal trauma, but it refers to the source of some of those issues:
Salient quote, referring to the woman with whom she & her bio mother lived: "She was also a really nasty-ass lesbian separatist, but I try not to hold people's crazy politics against them. And besides, I got a book out of it." (Although Bear doesn't specify which book, & I don't want to wade through too many of her personal entries to look for more information.) She makes references to being raised by lesbian separatists elsewhere, in discussions of feminism and so forth, which are less loaded.
With the ecology part, I was left wondering uneasily how much of the attitudes involved were a target for satire, and how much Bear really meant (does she think all environmentalists are that extreme?)
*skims post* Yeah, I can see now where the issues might come from. Although it's notable that Carnival is not really lesbian separatist, I do have to wonder how many of the issues with lesbian separatism translated into the depiction of a society where many of the women seem desperately unhappy and even afraid of ruling over men.
This made me wonder why Carnival didn't bother me *more* - I think I read the argument as "socially constructed roles based on genetic features suck," not "patriarchy sucks." Thus, it didn't bother me that women were unhappy in a society with strict gender roles - even if theirs happened to be powerful (and any group could be justifiably worried about the ethics and sustainability of oppressing half the population - I didn't read "afraid of ruling over men" as a negative, Pretoria's situation in particular seemed like "I would like to support them, but don't really know how, from my privileged position, to do that" - maybe that's because condemning feminist guys in the real world as "afraid of ruling over women" really, really disturbs me). Vincent and Michelangelo are operating outside of their strict roles, so they come off as more free/better in the window of the novel - but viewing sexual orientation as an innate trait, their socially constructed role based on that is outcast, which didn't work either.
And the very-not-human alien species does have social roles based on genetics, which works for them, precisely because they aren't human.
Incidentally, somewhere in her blog, she mentions that Carol and Autumn (lesbian couple from Whiskey and Water) have the most healthy relationship she's ever written. Wish I had a citation, but I stumbled on that a long time ago.
Sorry for the length of this, I've been on a Bear kick lately, and the thread was fun to think about.
Damn. I never noticed that. It's such a surprising blind spot, as well, considering her very positive attitude in general to sexuality and gender.
It took me a while to notice, too, and I honestly thought it might be coincidence until we got Dust with its woman-preferring main character.
And I would agree that she has a very positive attitude in general to sexuality and gender...which makes me think that this is the result of a personal issue rather than a general distrust or dislike of female sexuality. In general I've come to think Bear's novels are a little too focused on celebrating the male, but I like most of her female characters.
Whereas, I loved the scene between Rien + Mallory (who I remember as being more integratedly hermaphroditic)because of Rien's internal comment that the boy-bits weren't a problem, since Mallory smelled female. This resonated very well with my personal experience of how gendered attraction works, and it was really cool to have that reflected, rather than the usual OMG penis! (or vagina) reaction, which tends to leave me scratching my head a little.
I think that perspective is fine, and if Rien at some point had found a woman who could return her love or whom she could make love to, I wouldn't have had a problem with it. But taken together with the other problems in Rien's portrayal, it seemed to me that the idea that Mallory must retain a penis was solely so that Rien would not be making love to someone with female genitalia alone.
I thought Mallory (keep wanting to write Mal, then my brain jumps to Firefly, then my brain explodes a little) retained a penis because Mal's a hermaphrodite, and "I don't love you . . . you shouldn't change yourself for me" ? Unless you mean constructing the character Mallory as a hermaphrodite in the first place - huh. I thought it was just appropriately "not what it seems/contains everything," like his hold.