Women and science fiction

As long as I can remember, I've had books to read. Usually they'd be books my grandma had picked up on sale or at the used book shop, but I'd read just about anything I could get my hands on. This is how I discovered science fiction.

In fifth grade, I was at a new school. I didn't know anybody, and I've always had a spot of trouble making new friends, so I got books from the school library. I'd just gotten through the Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels, so I went to the next book by Ursula LeGuin on the shelf. It was The Left Hand of Darkness. Why that was in an elementary school library eludes me, but I read it then. I can say that I didn't get it when I was ten, but when I read it again at 25, it was clearer. LHoD examines a world where the people are agendered, but go into "kemmer" and develop secondary sexual characteristics for having sex. It isn't fixed which characteristics any person develops each time. The story explores an earth-human's interactions with the people of Gethen and their decision to join the ekumen, a league of worlds. It contains the remarkable line "the King is pregnant."

Aged ten, already ahead of my peers in science and math, and decidedly stubborn, it didn't mean too much. I didn't think much about it again until after I'd graduated from college. I'd picked it up, remembering that I'd liked it and the other books by her I'd read, and added it to the stack of books waiting to be read. Then I read it again. And it was groundbreaking. At the time it was written, the suggestion that there were no strict psychological differences between the sexes was a radical statement. Eliminating rigid gender roles -- including that of pregnancy -- was beyond radical.

In 1969 when it was originally published, no woman had won the Nebula for best novel. In 1968, a woman won best novella (Anne McCaffrey) and best short story (Kate Wilhelm), but Ursula LeGuin won best novel for 1969. Men continued to dominate, winning 8/10 in the 1970s and 7/10 in the 1980s, until the 1990s, when men and women each won 5 awards. This decade so far, winners have alternated between men and women. The winners for 2006 haven't yet been announced. (Nebulas are awarded by vote of members of the Science Fiction Writers Association.) Are there more female SF writers now? Or are they just more visible?

But it's so often the same women winning Nebulas or Hugos. Ursula LeGuin. C.J. Cherryh. Connie Willis. Anne McCaffrey. Lois McMaster Bujold. James Tiptree Jr. True, you often see the same men popping up year after year: David Brin, Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Kim Stanley Robinson. Is there an amount of favoritism? Certainly, because it's voted on by SF writers. All awards have that problem.

I took a peek at my bookshelf the other day. I have more books by CJ Cherryh than will fit onto one shelf, and it's still not her entire bibliography. I have every book Bujold has written. I have a lot of LeGuin. The only male author who has near the representation on my shelf is Terry Pratchett. I look at my husband's shelf, and (buried behind his action figures) are a lot of books by male authors: David Brin, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Card. He's got all the Neil Gaiman.

There is a trope that female readers prefer stories with good characterization, good plot, and good relationships, while male readers like a lot of sex and explosions and fancy sciency gadgets. I reject the notion of any inherent differences between male and female readers as to what their preferences are, but I can't resist exploring it.

Science fiction has long been "a man's world." As noted above, the majority of award-winning authors were male until recently, and male perspective characters are still predominant, even in books written by women. Take, for example, Bujold's Vorkosigan series. The main character, Miles Vorkosigan, is a man, as are a lot of leads: his father Aral, his cousin Ivan, his cousin Gregor, Gregor's security guy Simon. There are female leads, as well, and they're strong women: his mother Cordelia, her security woman Drou, the Koudelka clan (Drou's girls), Elli Quinn, who captains his mercenary fleet while he's home. But everything we see is from Miles' perspective. Or CJ Cherryh's Foreigner sequence (now up to 9 books). The main human is a man, and he has a male and female bodyguard (the latter of whom becomes his lover, naturally). The stories are told from Bren's perspective.

Conventional wisdom holds that people don't want to read stories about people who aren't like them. The main consumers of science fiction have traditionally been white males, so publishers go with books about white guys. Women are voracious consumers of science fiction now, and in participatory events (read: cons, fanzines, fanfiction), women participate with great enthusiasm. But it's still majority white, at least in the places I've been.

In stories written by female authors, you often have a focus on the characters, their development, and the plot, though some are marketed more to an action-oriented audience. Even then, you can follow character growth as the plot progresses and things blow up. Male authors, in my experience, focus on moving the story forward, in some cases to the detriment of character. It could be a function of good author vs bad, but I've found fewer bad female authors than male. This could be related to numbers, or to the idea that women have to be twice as good as the average man in order to be considered equal. (Or that women who have the spinal fortitude to break into science fiction are just damn good writers.)

Then there's the difference between "hard" and "soft" SF, and fantasy (which has a lot of female writers, and more non-traditional characters), which I won't get into here.

Part of the appeal of speculative fiction, which includes both science fiction and fantasy, is the ability to speculate. SF answers the question "what if?" Many of my favorite writers skip right past "what if women were equal to men?" and use that as a base assumption. On CJ Cherryh's starships, women do everything men do, even if the POV character is a man. LeGuin credits the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s with helping her "learn to write as a woman, without putting men at the center of the story."

Subversive literature, indeed.

Comments

I hope...

this is coherent. I've never written on something so specialized for a broad audience, and I wrote it at work.

Great review C. Diane

You are a natural. Have you ever read anything by Robert Jordan? His Wheel of Time Series is along the line of Lord of the Rings, but in each society, the women are dominant. My favorite society are the Aiel.

No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.

Progressive Discussions

I haven't read it.

I've heard some mixed reviews from friends, especially on the latest books where, 500 pages later, you're no further in the plot.

Feminist critique of Tolkien's writing is interesting, and I'm not sure which side I stand on. (Drat, the other one I wanted to link to is offline now because it was printed in a book. Oh well. here are some scholarly texts.)

CD, I've read every one of them x 4

I disagree about the last one (book 11 in a series of 12 that started to be only 3). It answered many, many questions. I look forward to the final book in 2009.

No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.

Progressive Discussions

I'd guess...

that having a terminal illness would motivate a person to finish the stories right quick.

A friend of mine picked up a new one a couple years ago, read it, and was v. disappointed. I have no idea which number it was, though.

Sorry for the delay

I forgot to change the date when I front-paged it. :)

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.



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WoW

And what a great start. I love science fiction, though I confess up front, I'm not familiar with very many women writers. I'll look forward to following your links.

My very, very favorite writer is James Morrow and my favorite book of his is Towing Jehovah.

I've never heard of him.

The story sounds interesting, though.

A story with a similar theme is Mike Carey's Lucifer, which is a spinoff of a volume of Sandman wherein Lucifer gets tired of ruling Hell and quits. It's 10 or 11 graphic novels, and, like all Gaimanverse stories, includes a wide variety of myths from the world.

One of my friends got me hooked on Bujold, and to this day I haven't forgiven him. I really want to reread them, but I have books on my shelf I've never read. It's taking extreme willpower not to pick one up.

Would you recommend Lucifer for someone who

doesn't typically read science fiction? It sounds really interesting for some reason. I love mythology and have quite a collection of books.

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.



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Vote Democratic, the ass you save may be your own.

Maybe?

If you want to look at it, a comic shop or a well-stocked bookstore may have it. There's blood and some guts; I don't know how you feel about that sort of thing. I don't know if I'd call it SF as such (no space ships, that sort of thing).

Sandman, though, is probably a good place to start, and has a lot more mythology (and some guts and sex.) The main character, of sorts, is Morpheus, King of Dreams. The thing I hate about comic books is that they get different artists all the time, and there's one artist on Sandman that I can't stand. Thankfully he's not the main artist.

You might like Gaiman's prose. American Gods is about "what if immigrants bring their gods with them?" You get gods from Astarte to Osiris to Odin and some native gods. I felt like I needed a compendium to get through it.

Gaiman sounds interesting

I'm not a huge comic book fan, but willing to try just about any type of book/genre at least once.

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.



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Vote Democratic, the ass you save may be your own.

I love this piece

This is one of my favorite parts.

In stories written by female authors, you often have a focus on the characters, their development, and the plot, though some are marketed more to an action-oriented audience. Even then, you can follow character growth as the plot progresses and things blow up.

I read a lot as a kid and still do. I love to be lost in a fictive dream. I even enjoy the disappointment when I've finished reading something that really has me caught up in the lives of the characters. It's that disappointment that has me out looking for the next book that can reel me in. I absolutely enjoy reading fiction written by women more than that written by men. I'm pretty sure it's the extent of the character development that pulls me into a story.



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Vote Democratic, the ass you save may be your own.

Character development and blowing things up

I've been thinking about creating a new genre that would form the basis of the ultimate date movie, romantic comedy combined with action thriller. Titles would include "When Dirty Harry Met Sally", "Scarface in Seattle" and, "You've Got Male". My nom-de-plume will be "Nora Epinephron"

Now you have to write them

I can think of one comedy/action film that had both of us entertained and that was the Ahhhnold and Jamie Lee Curtis spy movie.

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.



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Vote Democratic, the ass you save may be your own.

I like this idea too......

Part of the appeal of speculative fiction, which includes both science fiction and fantasy, is the ability to speculate. SF answers the question "what if?" Many of my favorite writers skip right past "what if women were equal to men?" and use that as a base assumption.

Pardon the pun....but...

Novel approach. :)

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.



***************************
Vote Democratic, the ass you save may be your own.

This is wonderful!!

I have to send this to my son -- a science fiction fan himself ... I think ... if Red Planet and Necromancer and books like that are science fiction. They look like it. Hope he has time to read today.

Books were a huge part of my girlhood. I was never a terribly social creature. I can't ever remember not reading. But I think you are so right about wanting to read about characters with whom we identify strongly. I liked science fiction but mostly the softer fantasy genre. I got in trouble a lot, reading illegally past bedtime. :) No doubt I'm not the only one.

My true love of reading started after my Grandmother died and my father brought from his old home a big box full of his boyhood books. They were a gift. (If anyone knows where I can get a copy of "Last Cruise of the Panther" I'd love to find it.) Then somehow I got my hands on a copy of The Hobbit. That was a loooong sleepless week. Many more followed.

"They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum Then they charged the people a dollar 'n a half just to see 'em. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

My boy responded

to me in an email so I'm just going to post it here. I feel pretty stupid though ... I called Red Mars, Red Planet and much WORSE called Neuromancer, Necromancer. sheesh. I guess its settled. I'm still not cool and I still have a problem with putting my foot in my mouth in public. ;)

Hey Mom,

I liked it. Somewhere along the line, though, my short one-paragraph response turned into an essay (probably because I'm supposed to be writing a different essay right now). If you want to post this, go ahead, though uh, I don't blame you if you don't.

Also, I think the books you're talking about are Red Mars and Neuromancer.

Most of the authors I read are male - the only book written by a woman on my very small bookshelf here at school is "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell", and that's fantasy, not sci-fi, with a 'guy-saves-wife' plot (to greatly oversimplify it). The ones by Kim Stanley Robinson, China Mieville, and Neil Gaiman, though, all have strong female characters doing what men do.

Mieville especially gets his kicks from consciously avoiding fantasy/sci-fi cliches in his writing - the protagonists in his three most popular books are black, female, and gay, respectively, and offhand I can't think of any "typical" law-abiding white males in them who aren't villains or don't get killed. It's subversive for subversive's sake, and luckily he's good enough to do all that and still keep it readable, though often he has more of a focus on the 'cool stuff' than the characters.

Robinson has women participating fully in Martian politics: attempting power plays while raising their kids in feminist enclaves, heading up revolutionary movements, acting as ambassadors to Earth, overseeing and managing the creation of a constitution, etc. By the end of the trilogy, most of the significant male characters have died from age or war. Some parts of sci-fi don't seem to suffer for lack of female writers, and those are usually the books about the humans rather than about their technology.

That was a lot of words and I'm not sure I really had a point to them, but I wonder if there aren't as many female sci-fi authors because not as many women grew up reading it. It's almost always been targeted at guys and written by guys. In some cases, guys have helped bring feminism to sci-fi, though I think LeGuin was definitely one of the first to do it. In other cases they started out well enough, only to have their female characters fall into the rut of being constantly kidnapped and having mental breakdowns and other predictable crap like that (see Orson Scott Card).

G.....

Most days its a blessing to have children much smarter than I, though it makes dicussions and negotiations a little more difficult. :)

Now, I'm off to go watch my daughter play soccer. She's awesome. And I'm not at all prejudiced. NO way. The grrl rocks.

"They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum Then they charged the people a dollar 'n a half just to see 'em. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

That's two awesome kids for you m'dear

Katie's new at soccer this year and they had their first soccer club meeting today. She had a blast. I think she enjoys playing to learn better than playing to win since she has a huge skill deficit. It's great that soccer can be as much fun for the unskilled as it is for the really great players.

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.



***************************
Vote Democratic, the ass you save may be your own.

I agree, pretty much

Since the idea that SF is marketed to guys is why there are more guys in the field is one of my theses (buried in there.) And SF-minded girls/women don't want to read about the wishy-washy, jello-spined, utterly helpless damsel in distress common in SF (I've not read KSR or Mieville, so I can't comment to that) even as a secondary character. We want women who kick ass and take names, or at least have backbone. I preferred Eowyn to Arwen any day of the week (though for serious awesome women in Tolkien, you've got to go into the Silmarillion.)

So when LeGuin and the other formidable female writers came on scene, and more male authors wrote less frail women, more girls got interested in reading it, then writing it.

I think my essay suffers from me trying to keep it from becoming a full-length thesis, so I couldn't go into as much detail as I'd have liked. That, and I was writing at work, so I kept being distracted. I had something else I wanted to say, but I've forgotten. I need more sleep.

Moving Mars -- Feminist Lead Character

I have been a sci-fi reader forever. I prefer hard sci-fi and do not read fantasy. A great sci-fi book with a strong woman lead character is "Moving mars" by Greg Bear. Also a great political novel. I highly recommend it.

Thanks for the recommendation

My 13-yr-old likes sci-fi/fantasy, but some titles aren't appropriate for her age. Is this one?

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.



***************************
Vote Democratic, the ass you save may be your own.

Depends. If I remember

Depends. If I remember correctly, there is some sex in the first third of the book. Plus, its hard sci-fi, not at all fantasy. Some complex science and political themes. Some 13 year olds would enjoy it, but I suspect most wouldn't.

Well, in that case...

have at it! They go to 2 pages now, and I'm going back through my other journal and cross-posting. You have to join up to make comments (annoying? I'm undecided.)

Mostly they're me telling people whether I liked a book and what it was about.