While cleaning my study yesterday (yeae me for cleaning, finally!), I noticed that I own quite a few fantasy and science fiction books which ask questions about gender relations. Some of those I've written about before, but the topic is of endless interest to me. (Probably not to you, but I suffer from blogging fatigue, so this is what you are getting today.)
The tricks a writer can use to discuss gender in the without-initial-rules world of alternative reality are not that many. A book could discuss gender the way it is perceived by our current societies, or it could side-step that by having gender be something different altogether (either nonexistent, temporary or officially accepted as multitudinous). This side-stepping was most famously done by Ursula le Guin in the Left Hand of Darkness, but many other applications of that principle apply.
Another way to address the topic is by reversals or by assigning the traditional female roles to men and vice versa. Melanie Rawns tried that in her trilogy Exiles (which still lacks the third book), but I found the reversal unconvincing, perhaps, because the society otherwise looked too much like something from our own history books (with the exception of the magic, naturally). I kept asking how it was that women had so successfully turned men into househusbands in that world.
Sheri S. Tepper's Six Moon Dance is a more believable attempt at a reversal, because Tepper lets us learn, as the book advances, why and how the power balance of gender changed on her imaginary planet, and also because the resulting balance still favors men in many, if not most things. To give you a flavor of the book, here is the opening:
"It's all right," Mouche's mother said. "Next time we'll have a girl."
Mouche knew of this because his father told him. "She said it was all right. She said next time..."
But there had been no next time. Why the inscrutable Hagions decided such things was unknown. Some persons profited in life, producing daughter after daughter; some lost in life, producing son after son; some hung in the balance as Eline and Darhos did, having one son at the Temple, and then a daughter born dead at the Temple, and then no other child.
The reason daughters are so valuable for farmers like Mouche's parents is that there are fewer women than men on this agricultural low-technology planet. Brides cost a lot of money to acquire but are necessary for the continuation of the family line. Farmers who have daughters get lots of money for them, money, which can be invested in the farm and which can be used to buy brides for the family's sons. Thus, daughters equal wealth in this society, even though the family line is centered on the sons.
Poor Mouche. His family has no daughters, the farm is going under, and he is a pretty boy. His parents need money. What to do? They are going to sell him to a Hunk School.
You will have to read the book to find out what a Hunk School might be. Then you will also learn why married men wear face veils on that planet and in what sense the arrangement benefits or does not benefit women or men. It's all quite interesting, providing weird distorted echoes of our society and perhaps letting us see the latter with greater clarity.
A third way of examining the power balance between the sexes might be the one which Barbara Hambly used in her Sisters of the Raven and its sequel Circle of the Moon. The gender rules in her book are initially fairly easy to recognize as what one might call the traditional Mediterranean ones, with covered women and strong male dominance in the public sphere, though she also adds borrowings from other cultures into the mix.
These rules are not changed in the book. What does change is one of the sources for the male power: magic. In the past, Hambly tells us, magic was a purely male ability. Not all men had it, but no women did. It was the men with magic who called in the annual rains, the rains on which the survival of the desert society depicted in the books depended. Then, suddenly, male magic dies and the whole society faces possible death.
At the same time, a few women here and there realize that they now have magical skills. These skills don't appear to obey the old rules, however, and they come into existence at the same time as the death of men's magic.
This setting looks to me like an interesting opening for studying gender power relations, even if it unfortunately sets that power up as a zero-sum game. Hambly doesn't really take that topic very far, perhaps, because she is more interested in the other topics of the books. But I'm hoping that she one day writes a third book on that imaginary society and tells us how it all went.
Here is my last cleaning thought on this topic: I think the best way to discuss gender in speculative fiction would be to take the existing sexual power relationships and their justifications and to apply that whole network to two groups of creatures which are clearly not men and women but still somehow linked in the sense of mutual survival. Doing that could throw some real light on the questions.