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When Women Had Tales

(by way of being my contribution--in a roundabout fashion and from the other side of the gender divide--to Women's History Month)

You'll hear the claim, still, once every couple of years or so. There'll follow, swiftly and loudly, the counter-claims, the anger, the righteous indignation, the vitriol and all the bitterness that goes with a notion that should, long ago, have died a death, yet still somehow ekes out a haphazard existence, a shadowy, mean-spirited, unwarranted little half-life. You will, I don't doubt, have heard the claim, at one time or another, in one form or another.

What is the claim?

That women don't write science fiction. Or can't write science fiction. Or don't, or won't, or can't, write good science fiction. Which, on any level, is a ludicrous claim: it's bullshit, it's batshit, it's any variety of merde that takes your fancy. And yet, it persists. Why?

I have to say, I do not know. I come from a discipline in science--chemistry--in which, though the lecturers and researchers are still, in the majority, male, the students are as often as not (and sometimes more often) female,* a situation which I would say also pertained thirty years ago when I was myself a student. So the idea that women aren't generally interested in science is plainly a nonsense, and I'm pretty sure that this can be extended to SF as well. Women participate in SF, perhaps differently to men, but unarguably they engage with the themes, with the tropes, with the genre; and they do this at every level, and in a wide variety of ways and styles. Anyone who wants to argue otherwise should be prepared to be pelted by the collected works of Ursula K Le Guin,** or bludgeoned by a Lois McMaster Bujold 'Miles Vorkosigan' omnibus, or assaulted full-force with the novels of [insert other favourite female SF author's name here]. Women write SF. Women write damned good SF. (And if there are some female SF writers whose work, while obviously of high quality, for some reason doesn't really work for me, what of it? The same applies to male authors also. I've never felt inclined to pick up a Joanna Russ book, I maybe never will, but Le Guin and Bujold, to name just two, are very definitely among my favourite SF writers, alongside the likes of Banks and Egan.)

Ah, says the claim, mutating in order to survive in a changing environment. Yes, conceded. Women write some science fiction. But it's all 'soft science' SF, isn't it? It's all just the social sciences, not 'proper' science, isn't it? Tell me, the claim says, emboldening as it decides it's reached a patch of firmer ground, tell me the name of one single female hard SF writer ...

Which, I have to say, is changing the rules partway through the game, and among all manner of other inappropriate baggage carries with it the suggestion that hard SF is the only 'true', the only 'pure' form of SF. (This, to my mind, is tantamount to saying that the abacus is the only real computer, and that everything's gone downhill since the invention of the slide rule. Don't get me wrong: I like hard SF, and I'm somewhat strict about what I consider to fall inside, and outside, the broader category of science fiction. To my mind, SF needs to pay some attention to the principles of science, to (at least some of) the facts of science, and to the scientific method, and I have no truck with the incorporation of magic, or something that feels like magic, in science fiction. (Don't Cross The Streams, People!) But biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, are every bit as valid a starting point for SF as are physics and astronomy, and anyone who says otherwise is an eedjit.)

You can't, can you? Name a single female hard SF author. I knew it!

Well now. It's probably still true that, for whatever reason, women tend to be under-represented in hard SF authorship, but I reckon things are changing. There's a story in the latest issue of ASIM, issue 53 (which itself is edited by female hard SF writer Patty Jansen), called 'Flyby', by Clare M Clerkin-Russell. It's very possibly my favourite story of the entire issue (though there are other stories it'd need to armwrestle into submission to cement that position), it's classic space-based SF, and it's so diamond-hard you can lean in and smell the telemetry. It's not the only piece of space-based SF in the issue, and I'm sure Patty would vehemently repudiate the notion that the author's gender came into consideration in the story's selection, but it singlehandedly gives the lie to the idea that women can't, or won't, write hard SF. And looking ahead just a few weeks, to the next ASIM issue, issue 54 (of which I can speak with some authority, being as I am the editor of such tome), the two pieces of serious space-based hard SF in the issue are 'On Carbon Wings', by Sarah Frost, and 'The Iron Lighthouse', by a woman who goes under the moniker CAL. I found these stories in ASIM's slush, I selected them ignorant of the authors' identities, they happened to be the two very best serious space-based SF stories I could find in several months of searching for material for the issue. They are each in their own way archetypal sense-of-wonder SF stories of captivating and mesmerising scope, and they suggest that, if there is still any kind of problem here, in the authorship of hard SF, that problem is nonetheless quietly, patiently sorting itself out. (There are other names I could drop, as well, but that starts to seem gratuitous or tokenistic. I'm not seeking here to catalogue female hard SF writers, though I reckon someone ought to be doing that somewhere, and maybe someone already is ...)

If I'm trying to come out of this with any kind of message, then I guess it's this:

Science Fiction. Written for humans, by humans. The chromosomal details really aren't important, and should not get weaponised. There's no one community that owns SF. What matters, in the end, is the story.


*  Which is not to pretend balance, or equity, has yet been attained, but there is at least hope of progress.
**  I'll see your Stranger In A Strange Land, and I'll raise you one The Left Hand Of Darkness ...


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 22nd, 2012 05:13 am (UTC)
Haha, thanks, Simon.

About Claire, I got her story in slush as first reader. I read a page, then I emailed Lucy: I want this. I had no idea who the writer was, let alone the writer's gender. The story oozes knowledge on the subject of astronomical imaging. I asked Claire, and she said she used to work for a company that made the components of these systems.
Mar. 24th, 2012 12:22 am (UTC)
I'm a sucker for stories that manage to match SF with verisimilitude, and Clare's story did that exceptionally well. I hope we see more of her stuff.
Mar. 22nd, 2012 05:53 am (UTC)
Hear, hear!
Mar. 24th, 2012 12:40 am (UTC)
Thanks, Marie!

Are there any signs of life in 'Semaphore'? It'd be good to see it back on the scene, assuming RealLife(TM) doesn't present too many obstacles ...
Apr. 8th, 2012 09:51 pm (UTC)

Alas, Semaphore is pretty much done for. My publishing course this year is keeping me super-busy, and while I do still have free time ... well, I pretty much gave up writing, and drawing, to work on Semaphore, and I don't want to do that again. I do intend to get back into indie/small press publishing at some point, but I'll need to organise it properly so it doesn't suck away all my spare time like Semaphore tended to do.
Apr. 8th, 2012 10:38 pm (UTC)
I am sorry to hear that, because Semaphore was a very classy act. But I fully understand the need to have some writing time.

And best of luck with the publishing course!
Mar. 22nd, 2012 07:07 am (UTC)
Are you right
Yes, you are. Who cares who wrote it?
Mar. 24th, 2012 12:36 am (UTC)
Re: Are you right
Well, the writer cares, obviously. And the readers probably care. Identity's important. But demographics shouldn't be a factor.
Mar. 22nd, 2012 09:06 am (UTC)
If more people understood this at a deep level, then the women's movement would become redundant. I would like that very much.
Mar. 24th, 2012 12:24 am (UTC)
As a human, I'd like that too. As a writer, I suspect I'd feel disgruntled at the lack of things to write about in a Utopian society ...
Mar. 24th, 2012 12:52 am (UTC)
You will find other stories! (or it won't happen during our lifetimes - but I prefer "You will find other stories.")
Mar. 22nd, 2012 10:36 am (UTC)
Lighthouse, did you say? Lighthouse?

*remembers conversation from last week*
Action Man: Did you buy another book?
Me: It's my last one. My last book for this year.
Action Man: *hysterical laughter*

ASIM 54, you say?


Mar. 24th, 2012 12:28 am (UTC)
ASIM. Proudly conflicting our readers' bookshelving resolutions since 2002 ...

And, yes, I believe I did say 'Lighthouse'.

Technically, of course, it's a magazine, not a book, so you've left yourself some wiggle room there.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )