A short disclaimer.*
I’m writing this because, yesterday, one of my idols passed away. I don’t really have many – I’m not a big celeb person. But, when I was young, my favourite show by quite a long margin was that classic BBC SF with its iconic special effects (for all the wrong reasons) Blake’s Seven. And yesterday, Jacqueline Pearce, who played Servalan in the show, passed away.
She was an icon for me. She was a female in SF who was able to be female and still win. She didn’t need to be butch, she didn’t need men to give her power (although was happy to use them to do so), she was unashamedly a women, who held power, and who did so using everything she had in her arsenal. Intelligence, charm, shifting morals and, yes, her sex appeal.
Lots of people, over the years, have picked up on some of my influences in Abendau. They mention Star Wars, and I don’t deny it, because my love for dashing space pilots comes from that, and Ealyn and the Roamers definitely have the vibe of that. Or Dune, and I don’t deny that, either. The chosen one’s journey is central. And there’s a desert. But there’s so many deserts in sf that’s hardly new.
What fewer people have picked up on was Blake’s Seven. And yet, it was my first love in SF and my blueprint for what makes a great space opera. I still watch it from time to time now. (Anna Grant might go on later – Servalan was great in that episode, as was Avon.) My main character’s name was an Easter Egg to (Kerr) Avon. My Empress bore a passing physical resemblance to Servalan (cropped hair and big eyes) but little in her nature. Yes, she held power, but not as Servalan did, with some degree of charm. As it’s put in the books, comparing my Empress to the desert lizards was unfair to the lizards…..
For me, actually, where Servalan had the most impact was in the character of Sonly le Payne. She’s not universally liked – but I love Sonly. She is a woman operating as a woman, not a man. She is a wife, a daughter, a mother, a sister, and a friend, as well as a politician, rebel leader and president. She is, like Servalan, someone who has power not by being a pseudo-male but by being Sonly. Who happens to be a woman.
Jacqueline Pearce’s role as Servalan was one of the great roles in SF. She oozed the character. She made her come to life – and she made evil work with shades of grey. In seeing such a great female character in the genre I loved, amongst the many, many, many more male characters I read and watched when I was younger (and, yes, it is possible that I read all the wrong stuff and missed out on too many women greats – I’ve made up for it since), made her an idol to me.
There have been other female characters I’ve loved since: Leia Organo and Ripley stand out. But Servalan, for me, was the first – and my prototype, like a little duckling sf writer.
Jacqueline Pearce made me believe the genre was open to me as much as anyone else. She made me believe that it was possible to be successful in sf without being a bloke. But, mostly, she came into a kid’s imagination and informed thee world they created, making it richer and better for having watched how she was portrayed.
I hope that’s some kind of legacy.
*Last time I got talking about this sort of thing, all sorts of rubbish was taken from the post, including that I didn’t think women wrote SF. That’s not the case. I read loads of SF by women, and there is loads of it out there. What I said then, about 2 years ago, and stand by now, is that the bestsellers list have a disportionate number of male to female writers, given that 50% of sf readers are women. Make of that what you will.
So, that little aside over (I feel better for getting that off my chest, actually), I wanted to talk, very briefly, about the need for idols in what we read and write, and how they inspire us.