SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.
Today, we continue our ongoing new series of posts “SFF in Conversation” with the first of a two-part June feature. We are delighted to have a round table of essays from the contributors to the SFF anthology The Other Half of the Sky. In the anthology, editor Athena Andreadis set out to offer readers heroes who happen to be women, doing whatever they would do in universes where they’re fully human: starship captains, planet rulers, explorers, scientists, artists, engineers, craftspeople, pirates, rogues…
And in this two-part round table, we’ve invited the contributors to talk about women in SFF.
For part 2, we hear from another five authors in the anthology: Ken Liu, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Kelly Jennings, Cat Rambo and Jack McDevitt.
The Shape of Thought
by Ken Liu
The premise of an anthology of space opera featuring women protagonists begs the question of how and if their stories would be different from space opera featuring men as protagonists. A common trope of space opera is exploration, and that was where I decided to focus my story.
During the Age of Discovery on this planet, first contact between European explorers and native populations was often seen in gendered terms. For example, much has been written on the European practice of envisioning and speaking of non-European nature as a feminine, virginal, fecund landscape, passively or seductively inviting European colonial penetration so that masculine order in the form of maps, charts, names, and settlements may be imposed over it (never mind if the natives already had maps (they did) and names (ditto), and perhaps patriarchal traditions of their own). See, e.g., Daniel W. Clayton, _Islands of Truth: The Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island_, UBC Press (2000), 46. Scenes of first contact are sometimes literally enacted as scenes of seduction, with European explorers trying to “court” the “irrational, impulsive, fickle, feminine” Native Americans with pretty things (bracelets, shiny metals, beads) that (in their minds) might fascinate a girl. See Jonathan Raban, _Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings_, Vintage Books (2000), 80 (recounting Puget’s encounter with the Native Americans in the sound that would bear his name).
Now that most of the planet’s cultures have been Westernized to various degrees, we seem stuck in this tendency to view everything through a binary lens that is mapped to two genders. We want to draw borders, to show differences, to divide and conquer and classify in ways that seem distinctly to echo the supposedly “masculine” sense of order that European exploration valorized. The relationship between the West and the rest of the world is still often spoken of in the language of gendered conflict. Discourse imbued with the metaphor of gender is replicated at every level of power imbalance across the globe. Even the very opposition to this kind of thinking often reinforces the binary categories, and I was afraid that a story written in resistance to this convention featuring a woman as the hero would only reenact the dichotomy.
My story, “The Shape of Thought,” turned into an exploration of our tendency to fall into such binary models of the world. The Kalathani are not a gendered species; their language, culture, and thought process are all premised upon a world in which everything shades into everything else with no clear binary divisions. That they’re altered by and also alter the human explorers is perhaps inevitable, but whether this first contact story is one about hope or despair is up to the reader.
Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won a Nebula, a Hugo, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the Sturgeon, the Locus, and the World Fantasy Awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.
Making the Future Unbounded
by Alex Dally MacFarlane
One of my biggest frustrations with science fiction is that it’s a genre that should be unbounded. We’re imagining the future! It could be anything – yet so often it’s a super-limited 21st Century West with some new gadgets. Gender roles go so often unquestioned. (Why are people in high-tech far-futures still giving birth? Why are there only two recognised genders? Why are bodies so static? Why why why-)
I want thoughts about gender to underpin all science fiction. Stories don’t need to be About Gender Stuff, but if they contain humans, they contain gender: the author needs to have thought about it. (If they contain aliens, why are the aliens bi-gendered? Explain it to me like I’m 5, because I do not understand why so many aliens – especially of the non-panspermia type – are exactly like simplistic ideas of human gender. Protip: humans are not bi-gendered.)
All of this was in my mind when Athena invited me to write a science fiction story with a woman protagonist unconstrained by current gender roles. What an invitation! I had a woman – and her world – already in mind; this spurred me on. The world: people called the Tuvicen living on another world in the far-future, dealing with the encroachments of other people onto their land. The woman: Mar-teri, newly in charge of a group, facing the question of how to ensure her group’s safety. Who else? The woman she leads with, the women who are her friends, a new friend, people who oppose her decisions. One woman is transgendered, several people are not binary gendered. The Tuvicen are low-tech by choice, using only the tech they consider vital – which includes the medical capacity to supply hormones and surgery to transgendered members of the group. The Tuvicen do give birth, but their medical equipment and knowledge ensures a very high survival rate for parent and child(ren). People of all genders are respected, are given every option in life, are considered fully human. It is not a story about gender, but it contains people: it contains gender.
It feels strange to write about this as if it is worthy of note, not typical, but it is still exceptional. (Do not mention The Left Hand of Darkness and expect me to be impressed that a book published almost two decades before my birth is still The Gender Book. Especially as it’s hugely flawed.) We still need anthologies like The Other Half of the Sky to shift the focus away from cis men. We still need to talk about this, over and over, until the day that women, transgendered people, non-binary people, people of all genders, are all welcomed into every future. I will settle for nothing less.
Alex Dally MacFarlane
Alex Dally MacFarlane lives in London, where she is pursuing a MA in Ancient History. When not researching ancient cities and warrior women, she writes stories, found in Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer and The Mammoth Book of Steampunk. A handbound limited edition of her story “Two Coins” was published by Papaveria Press. She is the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters (Prime Books).
“Unwritten in Green”, another story of the Tuvicen people, can be read in Futuredaze: An Anthology of YA Science Fiction, edited Hannah Strom-Martin and Erin Underwood. Two poems about Falna and Tadi, “Sung Around Alsar-Scented Fires” and “Tadi”, appear in Stone Telling and Strange Horizons respectively.
by Kelly Jennings
As much as I love space opera (and I do love space opera), the writers I like best – Eleanor Arnason, Le Guin, Russ, Cherryh, Octavia Butler – tend to have a bit of an anthropologist-on-Mars bent to them. Science fiction that locks humanity in the heteronormative nuclear family, with Mom at home and Dad out earning the bacon, cute kids marching off to school while the space opera explodes around them – well, that has always seemed an enormous waste of imagination. So when Athena Andreadis asked if I’d be interested in writing a space opera for her upcoming anthology, with a woman as its main character, untroubled by guilt over having a life of her own – hah. Yes. I was interested.
I wrote Velocity Wrachant, my mordant ship’s captain, knowing I wanted three things: she should be smart, tough, and not interested in pair-bonding.
You’ll notice I don’t say not interested in sex. In my experience, fictional women have often been written as only interested in finding someone to marry; and seldom interested in sex. (The rare woman who is an exception – Medea, Dorothea Brooke – is a monster or a freak.) That’s a dull story, frankly. (You’ll say Austen did wonders with it; I’ll answer she used it as a McGuffin. And that’s a topic for a different day.)
So I created Velocity, with her dodgy situation (her ship in debt, in a tricky place in the galaxy), with her dodgy crew (they’re runaway contract labor, which isn’t what it sounds like – it’s more like forced labor). What I wanted, besides the chance to write space opera, was to explore the anthropological implications of the characters I had built, along with the universe I had put them in.
You’ll notice in the story that Velocity and her crew have an open relationship. She’s the Captain, yet they speak to her (mostly) as equals. Moreover, Velocity likes this. She’s not interested in being given shows of respect (which is not at all the same as being given actual respect.) All this reliance on ritual to maintain authority, what is it but a symptom of a bankrupt system?
Which brings us to sex. Or love. Sex & love.
Velocity, Tai, and Rida have a relationship. It’s not just that of fellow members of a ship’s crew, though it is that too. But partly I wrote “Velocity’s Ghost” out of my interest in exploring other sorts of relationships than the pair bond, including the sort Velocity, Tai, and Rida have, two men and a woman loyal to one another; having sex if they want to, and only then; and not for the purposes of procreation, but only because they enjoy the act.
What do we call this relationship? Well, why call it anything? More reliance on ritual, I suspect. In the future, won’t we all be free?
I’m only half joking. All science fiction, obviously, is really writing about our own time. This story is no different.
Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings currently lives in northwest Arkansas, where she is a member and co-founder of the Boston Mountain Writers Group. She has published fiction with Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, and The Future Fire, among others. Her first novel, Broken Slate, was released in 2011 by Crossed Genres Press. For more about her and her work, see her website at http://delagar.blogspot.com/.
Refurbishing Old Forms
by Cat Rambo
Recently — or perhaps not so recently — much has been made of women writing science fiction. Often it’s coupled with a complaint about how “PC” behavior stifles creativity or how leftist (which has become synonymous with “liberal” for some) writing “has no new ideas.”
In my experience though, as a reader in the genre for the past four decades or so, the opposite is true. I find much more interesting stuff in those who are willing to question the status quo, rather than simply write fiction using the same old stories, but this time with lasers! or infinity drives! or the singularity! or whatever. As Patty Jansen put it recently in her blog post, “There are girl cooties on my spaceship — on women writing hard SF,” “There are many younger readers out there who do not want their SF with a sauce of sexist golden age nostalgia.”
For some of us that’s a component of the sweet hope manifesting in some stories of the future. We have to think that some of the bad, pernicious things, some of the things that keep us from realizing our full potential as a species, will be eroded or defeated, perhaps through forces like education and social reform, perhaps through some more fantastic mechanism.
One reason that sauce keeps getting served up is lazy thinking on the part of writers. It’s hard to think outside ourselves, to create protagonists that aren’t simply mirrors of those selves but of larger possibilities. To be capable of creating meaningful/possible alternatives to what exists now — which is a part of the role of a writer — we have to be capable of being the Other, at least enough to use senses not our own, to see with new/fresh eyes or hear things in a register we’ve never even sensed before.
We need to do more than think outside the box — we need to think outside our own skins. Books like The Other Half of the Sky are crucial to this effort, taking an SF standard and showing that it doesn’t need to take the same old forms, that space captains don’t need to be steely-eyed white heterosexual males of a certain age, and that they may even be more interesting when they’re not.
Cat Rambo lives, writes, and reads a lot in the Pacific Northwest, beside the shores of eagle-haunted Lake Sammammish. Her second solo collection, Near + Far, appeared in 2012 from Hydra House Books. Her 100+ published short stories have appeared such places as Asimov’s, Weird Tales, and Clarkesworld, as well as numerous anthologies. She is the former editor of Fantasy Magazine, makes a mean Welsh rarebit, and usually has pink hair. In answer to the usual question, it is her real name. Find links to more of her fiction at www.kittywumpus.net.
by Jack McDevitt
The first recurring female character I can recall is Dale Arden, from the old Flash Gordon serials. Flash made the decisions, and whenever disaster threatened, Dale fainted. The women I’ve known over a lifetime have not been like that. When blood showed up, I was more likely to get dizzy than they were.
As for making decisions, I spent ten years conducting leadership seminars for the Customs Service. Leadership requires, among other things, good judgment and an ability to communicate.
We frequently used role playing scenarios which challenged those qualities. For example, we’d put five people into a virtual aircraft, fly it to a Nevada desert, and crash it. The objective of the five managers was to survive. What did they know? There’s a town fifty miles south of them. The temperature will be rising to 118 degrees. Do we stay with the plane? Or try to walk? If we walk, do we start now? Or wait until sunset?
Make a wrong call, and people die.
There were other scenarios. Sometimes the group was composed of Customs agents, sometimes of inspectors, sometimes of import specialists. We never saw a substantive difference in the success or failure of any of those types of groups. Agents lived and died at about the same rates as their colleagues. The only pattern that ever appeared was gender-related. Sometimes we had all-male groups, sometimes all-female, most often, of course, they were mixed.
We got a surprise. The female groups consistently came through alive. But if you’re thinking the male groups usually died, you’d be wrong. They did okay. It was the mixed groups that rarely survived. Inevitably, their communication broke down and flawed decisions resulted.
Our first reaction was the uneasy suspicion that we were demonstrating what people had been saying for ages: that women are intrinsically smarter than men. But if that were the case, why did we lose the mixed groups so often?
The conclusion that eventually showed up was that women communicate better. Their particular strength seemed to be that they possess more of an inclination to listen. They took more time to arrive at decisions, and everybody got to speak. The males tended to rush things. And, once they’d begun to move toward a conclusion, they seldom heard anything that changed their minds.
When women were present, the males became even more inclined to make a decision and move on. To take more chances. Become more aggressive. And the women? They had to work harder to be heard, but they were usually ready to go along with whatever the guys decided. So they all trooped out into a very hot sun, and seemed to forget that Nevada is part of the United States.
In “Cathedral,” Laura faces a wrenching decision. She understands what needs to be done, and I suspect she knew what she’d hear if she consulted either Matt or the operations people on the ground. Had she been part of one of those mixed groups debating the right course, I doubt she’d have left it to the guys.
Jack McDevitt has been a naval officer, an English teacher, a customs officer, a taxi driver, and a management trainer for the US Customs Service.
His first novel, The Hercules Text, was one of the celebrated Ace Specials series. It won the Philip K. Dick Special Award. McDevitt has produced seventeen additional novels since then, ten of which have qualified for the final Nebula ballot. Seeker won the award in 2007. In 2004, Omega received the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best SF novel.
His most recent books are Firebird and Echo, both from Ace, and Going Interstellar, a Baen anthology on which he served as co-editor. The Cassandra Project, a collaboration with Mike Resnick, came out in November 2012. McDevitt claims it reveals the truth behind the Watergate break-in.
His other interests include chess, classical history, the sciences, and baseball.
He is married to the former Maureen McAdams, and resides in Brunswick, Georgia, where, assisted by the requisite German Shepherd and four cats, he keeps a weather eye on hurricanes.
You can read part 1 of the round table with Athena Andreadis (editor), Melissa Scott, Alexander Jablokov, Sue Lange & Vandana Singh HERE.
Linda WJune 6, 2013 at 8:06 am
Oh my word!!! Excellent post. I laughed at this: “Flash made the decisions, and whenever disaster threatened, Dale fainted. The women I’ve known over a lifetime have not been like that” because for so long, this has been the case for women in SF. Ken makes an excellent point: much has been written on the European practice of envisioning and speaking of non-European nature as a feminine, virginal, fecund landscape, passively or seductively inviting European colonial penetration so that masculine order in the form of maps, charts, names, and settlements may be imposed over it.” Cat, Kelly, and Alex also made great contributions. Thanks for this series!
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