Perhaps it is the position of science fiction on the periphery of mainstream fiction that makes it so open to borrowing from elsewhere, from physics and fairy tales, from philosophy, folklore and myth. And perhaps it is the position of women on the periphery of mainstream (patriarchal) culture that makes SF so suitable a genre for them to work in.
~ Sarah Lefanu, In The Chinks Of The World Machine, 1988, p.99
Do we still need to talk about women in SFF? If JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer are amongst the bestsellers world-wide, and Lauren Beukes is the new poster child of genre for the literary establishment (as Gibson and Miéville were in previous generations) can we really argue that women’s SFF is neglected? Haven’t all the arguments been hashed and rehashed in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and again in the ’00s? (There’s a clue there.)
It’s 2013, we claim SFF has grown up long ago, yet this year a male author belittled women writers on his publisher’s blog; two other male authors joked about how certain women authors looked in swimwear on an industry forum; the proportion of women SF authors published in the UK is very small and no women were shortlisted for either the British Science Fiction Association Award or the Arthur C Clarke Award for Best SF Novel published in the UK. So, do we still need to talk about women in SFF? Looks like we do.
There’s another factor, one more directly related to the intent of this column. The number of women reviewed by various prominent journals and magazines is disproportionately low compared to men reviewed. I’m not qualified to discuss why this is the case. It’s not for me to cast blame. Whether it’s deliberate or unconscious sexism, cultural backgrounds reinforcing the status quo, or whatever does matter but my concern is what can we do about it?
Well one answer ought to be obvious, review more women, create more discussion around their works and raise the profiles of individuals and of women in SFF generally. Which leads us to From The Attic which aims to look at some of the many excellent novels and short stories by women throughout SFF in all its forms and, by shedding light in the dark corners of the attic where women have been hidden away, to combat a few misconceptions?
There are several overpowering myths about women in SFF, the oldest being that women don’t really write SF. Joanna Russ wrote scathingly about these myths in How To Suppress Women’s Writing and has almost come to represent one of her own examples. She’s rightly acclaimed for her feminist SF but it is as though she was an anomaly as from the same era Vonda McIntyre, for instance, is rarely mentioned.
As Sarah Lefanu asserts, SFF seems well suited to women authors, and indeed many have been instrumental in most of the genre’s movements, subgenres and trends, usually without due credit. Mary Shelley is often cited as a pioneer of the genre, but closer to our time, and to SFF as we know it, what about Josephine Saxton, Kit Reed and Kate Wilhelm in the New Wave(s)? Amidst all the talk of Gibson and Sterling in the 80s Samuel Delany vociferously asserted that cyberpunk had no father but lots of mothers, and listed Joanna Russ and Connie Willis amongst them. The New Weird based around China Miéville got a lot of attention a few years back, but precursors such as Mary Gentle, Storm Constantine and Gill Alderman were ignored. Certain blog sites do shared re-reads of epic fantasy series by Steven Erickson but nobody does the same for Kate Elliott.
Again, I don’t propose to look at why this is, take it as given that women writing SF have been taken less seriously than men in some quarters. Now that projects like SF Gateway here, and some other specialist presses elsewhere are making long out of print works available again digitally or in collector’s editions we can change this perception. Think about it, if women are rarely reviewed they are likely to sell less so become harder for us readers to find by chance. I don’t expect you to like all the books I hope to write about here, my tastes can be eclectic and obscure at times, but at the very least you will know they exist. Reading or not reading somebody like Rosel George Brown then becomes an informed choice for you rather than her neglect being an imposed default. I do think you will love some of our choices here though.
There is another myth I’d like to address now though. That men don’t usually read women authors, or don’t like women protagonists. Well I certainly do, Ian Sales clearly does, and many other male contributors on the SF Mistressworks site (and others such as Strange Horizons) do. So whilst there is an irony in male reviewers discussing issues around female authors I hope that we serve a purpose in breaking this mould at least.
That said, this ought not to be one more boys’ club. I am aware that many female critics, authors and fans have been shouting loudly about this for years. (Those debates in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ’00s I mentioned.) We would be delighted to welcome contributions, comments, suggestions, constructive disagreements, anything from anyone to keep the subjects alive and growing.
One more thing about SFF in the 21st century is that it is, and arguably always was, a global phenomenon. Just as we need to keep talking about women in SFF, so too we need to keep talking about LGBT and other Queer writers and characters, about people of colour in SFF, and about non-Anglo, European and colonial settings. From The Attic is only one venue for this, and hopefully not a voice in the wilderness.
Finally, a note about From The Attic’s plans. Although this is the SF Gateway site and hence part of Gollancz we haven’t been asked to restrict ourselves to just their stable of authors, nor to blindly praise them. We want this to be a positive step, part of broader conversations, but to be honest and objective too. We have ideas, obviously our personal favourites, but that in itself can be problematic if we don’t step outside our own experience. So, let’s keep talking about women in SF. It’ll be good for us all.