If I’m honest if I don’t feel entirely comfortable with contributing to the women in science fiction debate that’s been filling the blogs and tweets of people whose opinion I like and respect (links below). It’s not that I don’t support equal opportunities for modern women writers (or even just women in general) or that I’m against promoting the neglected works of women writers of the past – on the contrary I fully support both the principles and the practice of what people are trying to do.
My concerns stem from an awareness of the fact that I’m probably not the best person to comment. For a start I’m, you know, a man and therefore this is not an area where I have experience of the pressures and the discrimination facing women writers trying to break through in the sf genre. I know how bloody hard it is as a white man trying to sell stories so I’m sympathetic to those with the same ambition who face higher hurdles but I can’t claim to know what that’s like. But the second, and more salient, point is that I’m a bit of an offender in the whole “ignoring-women-in-sf” thing.
If someone asked me to list my top ten favourite science fiction novels, I don’t think that a woman writer would make it into my list. If you look at my bookshelves then you will find an overwhelming majority of male writers. The same is true in music and films. If you asked me to name my favourite ten albums I don’t think there would be a female performer on that list either nor would there be a woman director in my list of top 10 films.
Is that a sign that I’m an unreconstructed sexist? Possibly, but I hope not. It’s certainly something I feel somewhat guilty about. I don’t believe it is because I set out to deliberately belittle or ignore the work of women artists. It is possible that my attitudes are shaped by my position in what I am certain is a fundamentally patriarchal society and by biases I’m not aware of – this is not just plausible but likely – so I’m not about to argue that my personal preferences represent any kind of assessment of what is objectively “good” or “best”. By the same token, however, there’s no point lying and pretending that I’m somehow “without sin” or speaking from some kind of moral high ground in this debate.
There are female writers whose work I feel that I should like or that are highly praised but which I just can’t get along with, but I don’t believe my attitude to their writing has anything to do with their gender – I could fill a fairly large book with rants about highly regarded male authors whose popularity leaves me bewildered.
However, in the spirit of supporting the Russ Pledge, I’m not going to talk any further about works I don’t like. Instead, and in no particular order (other than the how they pop into my head as I type) I want to talk about some of the women writers whose work I enjoy.
Karen Traviss doesn’t write literature – in fact she writes books I shouldn’t like – military sf that’s often set in spin-off worlds from film and video games. No other writer could persuade me to read that mix. But, unlike many mil-sf writers she doesn’t get bogged down in technical details – she’s good at plot but she’s also excellent at making her characters (and especially her soldiers) feel like real people and their relationships feel like real relationships. She writes like a journalist, has a viewpoint somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan and doesn’t have much time either for UK fandom or literary pretensions – and yet I think she deserves to be taken seriously as a writer. I’d like to see her do more of her own original fiction but, again, I’ll buy more or less anything she puts her name to.
Has broken through with a superb debut novel (Moxyland) and a very good (but not as good?) follow-up (the Clarke-winning Zoo City) and is currently riding a wave of critical acclaim that she deserves and which deserves to translate into big sales for her future work. Beukes is an excellent writer with and interesting voice who benefits from bringing a rarely-seen (in Europe and US) South African slant to her work. I will be buying her future novels.
For me she’s simply the most interesting emerging sf/fantasy writer in the UK today. She writes beautifully. She has a wonderfully sideways imagination. Her work is smart and challenging and unusual and I can’t wait to read her novel Stardust coming from PS Publishing next year. Her first collection of short stories (The Thread of Truth) published by Eibonvale Press is very good but she’s grown perceptibly as a writer even since that came out in 2007.
Aliette de Bodard
Aliette writes sharp, well-defined characters and places them in exotic, precisely realised environments. I’ve enjoyed the first two Obsidian & Blood books and think that she’s only going to improve as a writer. She won this year’s BSFA Short Story Award and racked up a number of award nominations this year, so I’m hardly alone in spotting a developing talent here.
I’m a very late-comer to the Ursula LeGuin appreciation society. The first book I read by her was Lavinia (2009) – which I found astonishing and revelatory. I’ve since gone back and started to work my way through her back catalogue. I confess to starting with the obvious choices The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, The Left Hand of Darkness. There’s an extraordinary energy and passion in these books, she is a tremendous writer. Sadly, though, I don’t think even she is good enough to encourage me to buy a series of books with wizards in them. Some prejudices aren’t so easily overcome.
I am going to call her a sf author and I don’t care what she or anyone else says – is that an example of male oppression? Pfft! I know Atwood has had her disagreements with fandom and I know some people have felt hurt by some of the things she’s said, but the books speak for themselves, or at least they should.
Although her latest novel (Lightborn) rather washed over me the author of Dreaming in Smoke, Double Vision and Maul has done more than enough to warrant a place here. Another author who I’ll buy every new book she produces.
Since it was cyberpunk that dragged me back into sf after my teenage years away, I could hardly leave out Pat Cadigan. Mindplayers, Fools, Synners, Tea From An Empty Cup, Dervish is Digital – I’ve really enjoyed every novel she’s written. I only wish she was more prolific.
I was recently sent The Hammer to review. I thought it was an excellent book – very smartly written and well researched and cleverly constructed. On the surface it is a fantasy novel, but without magic or dragons or hero-quests or elves, it’s fantasy that this sf nerd thoroughly enjoyed. The blurb says the author is a woman, the internet scuttle says she’s a pseudonym for a male writer. In the context of this debate I’m not sure this disqualifies a recommendation for her book here (if a book sold as being written by a female author sells lots of copies then the publishers have less defence for not promoting more books by other – genuinely – female authors) although it would, of course, be preferable if s/he were female. I’ve since gone back and bought The Folding Knife and The Company and will be reading them soon.
So that’s my contribution. I don’t claim anything for my recommendations other than that they’re writers that I like.
Does any of this do any good? I have no idea, only a degree of hope. I certainly don’t think that sympathetic men taking the time to write about and read more work by female sf authors is going to be enough to overcome deeply entrenched social prejudices and institutional bias. But at the same time I can’t see how it does any harm either. In many ways this isn’t my battle to fight – I’ll assist, cheerlead and support enthusiastically – but the real struggle will inevitably fall to those women who wish to write science fiction and have their work taken seriously. Dismissing the issue or claiming that it is all some sort of “political correctness gone mad” only ignores the basic duty of civility we owe every person we interact with and the basic right of each person to freedom of expression – which is not just the right to free speech but the right to strive to reach their fullest potentials without unnecessary hindrance.
If nothing else the ongoing debate about women in sf has encouraged me to broaden my horizons and discover new works that have brought me pleasure. There are now books by Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jnr, Bharati Mukherjee and Jainne Fenn on my to-be-read-pile along with all those male authors and I intend to ensure that there are more to follow. Perhaps, in some small way, I can encourage you to think about stretching your buying and reading habits beyond your usual tastes and trying something new. Perhaps, together, if we make even a small change in our buying patterns and if we talk about the issue loudly enough, publishers will notice and consider putting more weight behind female sf authors.
As I’ve said, I’ve a little experience of how hard it can be to get published without any obvious disadvantages (apart from my writing), so I have sympathy for anyone struggling down that path with extra burdens placed upon them. Obstacles created by outdated attitudes to gender, race, sexual orientation or creed can be removed if we work hard at it. Ignorance can’t be an excuse for not caring – which means that those who aren’t willing (even in some small way) to be part of the solution are content to be part of the problem. And that, surely, is not acceptable.
Late last year the BSFA’s Torque Control blog shone some light on good modern books by women and sparked some debate. There are links to that discussion here: http://vectoreditors.wordpress.com/sf-by-women-2001-2010/
Niall Harrison (@niallharrison) did some work on the reviewing of works by women on the Strange Horizon’s site: http://www.strangehorizons.com/blog/2011/03/the_sf_count.shtml
Ian Sales (@Ian_Sales) launched the admirable SF Mistressworks meme: http://iansales.com/2011/03/17/the-sf-mistressworks-meme/
Damien G Walter (@damiengwalter) at The Guardian followed up a piece on science fiction in its Saturday Review section by asking readers to recommend their favourite sf works. The lack of female representation on the list prompted this online article on The Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/may/31/women-science-fiction-writers?intcmp=239
That process prompted a host of responses – amongst the most influential were Nicola Griffiths (@nicolaz):
And Cheryl Morgan (@CherylMorgan ):
Cheryl Morgan followed this all up with an excellent post at the SFWA website, which prompted some depressingly unreconstructed comments elsewhere that I can’t be bothered to link to:
There’s some interesting contributions in the SF Signal: Mind Meld on the Russ Pledge but the comments may suck the very life from your soul: