Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My two cents on Women and SF

As you might guess from the silence here, I've been a busy little bee these last weeks, working on The Labyrinth of Flame.  But a few things have been stacking up on the mental radar that I wanted to mention:

1) Last week I participated in an SF Signal Mind Meld discussion on "What are the most overdone/useful/damaging tropes and stereotypes in SF/F?"  Don't go read it for my answer, but for everyone else's: many of my fellow authors had excellent, insightful takes on the subject.  


2) If you're involved in the world of online SF/F fandom, doubtless you've heard about the recent brouhaha sparked off by sexist remarks in a column in the SFWA bulletin.  (If you're not aware, Jim Hines has an extensive list of links to posts discussing the issue.)  I haven't said much on this because I feel many other people have already said what I might want to say in far more articulate and eloquent style.  (See Mary Robinette Kowal and Kameron Hurley's posts, for example.)  But one article I read particularly affected me: Ann Aguirre speaking out about the horrible treatment she's received as a female SF author at SF/F cons.

I read Ann's post and just boggled.  I have been working as an engineer in the male-dominated space industry for fifteen years now and NEVER ONCE been treated with scorn or dismissal - so what the hell is wrong with SF?  I've seen people say, "Oh, the guys who dismiss female authors are just old.  Also, they're geeks; they've got no social skills to start with, you can't expect them to act professionally."  I'm sorry, but that is no excuse.  Aerospace is chock full of Old White Guy (tm) engineers and scientists who were raised in the 50s and have all the social skills of Dr. Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory...and yet they manage to behave in a professional manner at conferences and company functions.  If I can go to a day job meeting in which I am the lone woman in a sea of fifty men twenty years my elder, and still have my contributions respected, valued, and acted upon, then why is SF - supposedly the literature of imagination and intelligence - such a toxic environment?  

I don't know.  All I can say is that hearing tales like Ann's deeply upsets me, on behalf of Ann and every other female SF author who's been made to feel unwelcome and unwanted.  (I should note here that my own convention experiences have been uniformly good to date, as have all my interactions with male authors and fans.  But I write fantasy, not SF, and haven't attended very many cons - only WorldCon, World Fantasy, and my local convention MileHiCon.)  

In my more vindictive moments, it makes me want to write a hard SF novel...just so if some panelist at a con tries to dismiss me because of my gender, I can be all, "Hey, buddy, I went to Caltech at age 16.  I studied under some of the top scientists in the world, graduated the youngest in my class (male or female!), and since then I've sent projects to other planets and created algorithms to do things in remote sensing nobody even thought were possible - so don't even think about telling me I can't write science."  But that would be foolish, even counterproductive.  SF isn't about credentials, it's about imagination.  Look at C.J. Cherryh's novel Cyteen, which remains the best treatment of the ramifications of human cloning that I've ever read, despite Cherryh being neither a molecular biologist nor a geneticist (so far as I am aware!).  The real issue here is that authors of fiction should be judged on their books alone, not their gender or race or their perceived expertise.

I have no answers, no magic wand that can bring change.  So instead, I fall back on my old standby: I try to talk loud and often about my favorite SF books by women, especially when people ask for recommendations.  The more visibility women have in the field, and the more readers get a chance to discover their books, the more likely it is that change will come (or so I hope).  Discussions like the ongoing one over the SFWA bulletin also help - because problems can't be solved without the community acknowledging they exist.  





      

8 comments:

  1. So, I don't have much to add, but I thought I'd just you know that I read it, liked it, and hope for change.

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    1. Thanks - always lovely to know your voice has been heard!

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  2. >>In my more vindictive moments, it makes me want to write a hard SF novel...just so if some panelist at a con tries to dismiss me because of my gender, I can be all, "Hey, buddy, I went to Caltech at age 16. I studied under some of the top scientists in the world, graduated the youngest in my class (male or female!), and since then I've sent projects to other planets and created algorithms to do things in remote sensing nobody even thought were possible - so don't even think about telling me I can't write science." >>

    I would love to see that. But I would love more a world where that didn't have to happen.

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    1. Yeah. And I doubt anyone'll see SF rather than fantasy from me any time soon. I feel like my entire day job is SF already - when I come home, I want to stretch my mind in other ways. (Still love to read SF though. Just prefer to write fantasy.) Plus, I have other job-related reasons to steer clear of writing hard SF in particular. (Nobody worries whether your magic system violates a non-disclosure agreement.)

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  3. I have to say I got a kick out of the fact that you've got such impressive science credentials and you write fantasy. Much like the way I have none at all and write sci-fi. ;)

    I agree that one of the things that baffles me most about all this is that it's in the SCIENCE FICTION world, you know, where we imagine the possibilities, not stubbornly refuse to budge from the last century. So odd.

    I too have had no negative experiences as a woman in the field, but I tend to be pretty oblivious to stuff like that. If someone's been dismissing me, I clearly wasn't cooperating.

    I did have a fantastic experience on a panel about Science in Science Fiction with some pretty impressive OWG panelists, including Ben Bova. The moderator, Eric Choi was fantastic about keeping the conversation balanced between the boys/girls experienced/newbies hard/soft sci-fi, etc. So I honestly think this is the last gasp struggle to hang on to antiquated ways that are dying out as they should.

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    1. On what we write: people talk a lot about the old saw of "write what you know," but personally I think there's a whole new level of excitement in exploring something outside our daily experience (whatever that may be!). And it's funny, before I started writing, I never really considered fantasy and SF as separate: to me, it was all one big genre ("speculative fiction," I suppose!), and I enjoyed reading all the various corners of it. I've been really surprised to find there are people who read SF but not fantasy, and vice versa.

      And yes, I remember being shocked as a newbie author when I heard story after story of how female-authored novels of SF and non-urban fantasy are given smaller advances, less review coverage, and less publicity. I mean, aren't the arts supposed to be progressive? After chewing the question over for quite a while, I suspect the regressive nature of the industry may have to do with the subjectivity of quality. If I as a female engineer write an algorithm that both performs better against the requirements and costs the customer less than another algorithm developed by a male counterpart, it's pretty freaking hard for male engineers to argue that my work is somehow lesser. Sadly, this is not so with writing. Even if a woman outsells a man, the man can say, "Oh, her book wasn't *really* science fiction, it had romance cooties"...or whatever other excuse. So change comes harder and takes longer. I'm delighted to hear you had such a great experience on your Science in SF panel! Definitely a sign of hope for the future.

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  4. I read about that and was completely dumbfounded. But I guess it's better to be dumbfounded than found dumb.

    Such chauvinistic writers probably think sci-fi is the one thing they can still do better than women, and are stubbornly holding out in that belief. When in fact they're simply showing how they're much more expert at making asses of themselves.

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    1. Yeah, thank goodness there are many, many non-bigoted men in SFF to help balance the unpleasant ones out. Ann mentioned David Brin as a positive example in her post; I was on a panel with Brin at World Fantasy, and likewise found him to be very gracious and welcoming to me as a newbie author. Extra wonderful to see, because I'd been such a big fan of his ever since reading Startide Rising as a young girl.

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