Women in SF

I cover a range of books from the shiny new, through to classics and more neglected works of SF. Really, it’s just a reflection of the kind of thing that I’ve been reading. Granted, I don’t cover everything that I’m reading and there are some things that I don’t attempt. In some cases this is simply because I think that there’s sufficient available online and I won’t necessarily be adding anything particularly significant to what is available to people. In other cases I have to confess that I’m fearful that my contribution would just be lame (not sure, for example, that I’d be happy with my contribution to the material available on Moby Dick).

You may recall (indeed, the work continues) a number of posts on Torque Control regarding the lack of women nominated for the Clarke Award and the general dearth of high-profile female authors in SF. This stemmed from an interview given by the excellent Tricia Sullivan (a previous winner herself) on the subject. This series of posts led me and, I’m glad to say, a number of other bloggers to look carefully at their own reading habits. This was after some introspection led me, and them, to realise that there was a bit of a gap in my genre reading.

As it happened, I’d intended to start reading a number of neglected SF works anyway. This further pushed me towards looking into neglected SF written by women. Now, I was embarrassed when I realised how few books, as a proportion of my genre reading, were written by women. This is why I decided to address the problem. Some of these I have covered on this blog and I will continue to do so (this started out as a pre-amble to a review of Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After). I also support the idea behind Ian Sales’ SF Mistressworks blog and hope that others will continue to support it sufficiently to see it continue and build a good range of reviews of unfairly ignored by women.

I don’t consider myself sexist. This is why I was embarrassed when I realised how little SF by women I had actually read, despite Ursula Le Guin and James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) being amongst my favourite genre writers. I realised, though, that the correct reaction wouldn’t be to get upset or defensive about this. The correct reaction is to think more carefully about what I read, and try and change things a little.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to know exactly what all SF readers think, just due to the fact that not all comment. This makes it difficult to be scientific about it, but I think it would be difficult to deny that there is a genuine problem. However, I have started to notice some trends in the kind of negative reactions to the idea that people should consider reading a little more SF by women.

There are plenty of places to go to find comments on this subject, but I’m not going to pick on anyone in particular. A good place to look is (brace yourself) the recent Guardian piece and the following thread. A common one is that ‘gender of the author doesn’t matter to me when choosing what to read’. Well, that’s nice, isn’t it? Or ‘I just read what seems interesting to me’. This may very well be true. But if you find yourself saying this then consider the impact of privilege on the SF field. The problem is that in SF, white, heterosexual men are the privileged group. The effect of this is that if you don’t take the time to think about the gender of the author, then you will – however unconsciously – be supporting the status quo.

A recent SF Signal Mind Meld covered this well. Unfortunately, the comments were instructive and not in a good way. That said, some good points were there to be had. The main one is related to privilege and the default position of a given context. In other words, and I like this one: ‘There are no sexist decisions to be made.  Only anti-sexist decisions.’ This quote is attributed to the author Samuel R. Delany, though the commenter cannot track down the essay at present. Regardless of who said it, the idea holds true. The only way to get SF written by women a higher profile is to read more of it and talk about it more.

The other idea (which crops up early in that Guardian thread) is that, beyond a few notables, there simply isn’t that much quality SF written by women. Well, as long as the, quite frankly execrable, Foundation series continues to bother any lists of the best SF ever written, you’ll forgive me if I don’t trust the hivemind of SF fans on their ability to judge what constitutes quality literature. Clearly nobody is really in a position to read every piece of SF ever written and make a judgement then on what is the best, but it is possible to try something a little different for yourself. The point is that this stuff is not talked about. I’m not in favour of pushing the mediocre or downright bad. This is about giving a higher profile to things that deserve it.

Try something different. You never know, you may just have some fun.

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2 Responses to Women in SF

  1. Nice post, be nice to see a suggested reading list – I like to be guided by the reading tastes of others with whom I agree!
    I always like the Anne McAffrey book The Ship Who Sang, that’s the ultimate in female and sf combo!

    • Richard says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Sarah.

      Sorry – this originally started life as a pre-amble to a review I was supposed to be writing… 🙂

      Unfortunately, I’m not up on Anne McAffrey, so I’m not sure how these will fit in!

      For starters, you can’t ignore Ursula Le Guin. The Dispossessed is an excellent study of Anarchy and if you like your SF sociological and ecological, things then The Left Hand of Darkness and The Word For World is Forest (which is also a riff on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Ditto James Tiptree Jr. See if you can track down an anthology (Tachyon have one out).

      Beyond that – and apologies, not all these are in print, though they are mostly cheap to buy 2nd hand – I’d say that my favourite recent ‘discovery’ is Leigh Kennedy’s The Journal of Nicholas The American. I reviewed that, so you can see more about that!

      For a good post-apocalyptic novel, The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy is worth your time (that will get reviewed here; I was supposed to be doing that when I wrote this).

      Digging Lisa Goldstein at the moment – and she has a new novel out at the moment. I reviewed The Dream Years in March, so you can read a bit more about that too.

      More recent stuff. Definitely Tricia Sullivan. Lightborn is her most recent novel. It is superb. I’ve been quite digging Justina Robson’s stuff too. Actually… I posted in December about my top ten of post-2000 female SF which you can have a look at. Some is, admittedly, more fantastical than SF (the Nnedi Okorafor and Helen Oyeyemi for starters). But there’s a good start in there, I think!

      Finally, I took part in the ‘SF Mistressworks meme’ which has mutated into a blog, curated by Ian Sales.


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