Read Diversely SFF in Conversation

SFF in Conversation: Aliette de Bodard on “Women Who Became Invisible: In the Wake of This Year’s Nebula Awards”

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 “SFF in Conversation” with two guest posts. Following Aliette de Bodard’s recent Nebula Award for the novelette “The Waiting Stars,” her contribution to the anthology The Other Half of the Sky, we invited the author as well as editor Athena Andreadis over to talk about women, Science Fiction and memory.

Aliette de Bodard The Other Half of the Sky

Below is Aliette de Bodard’s post. You can read Athena Andreadis’ HERE.


As part of our evening series watching, the husband and I have discovered Äkta människor (Real Humans), a Swedish production set in a world where humanoid robots are commonplace. In the midst of a powerful ensemble cast, I was struck by the figure of the mother, Inger Engman, a hard-working lawyer in an average Swedish family. I wasn’t quite sure why she left such a strong impression on me, until I realised: she’s no accessory. She very clearly has a role of her own and her own preoccupations.

Here is a woman who isn’t background noise, a reward for the hero, a dead mother or girlfriend, an overbearing harpy, a misguided rebel in need of rescue. She doesn’t get raped or beaten up or fridged, or the myriad clichéd fates for women present in Hollywood movies. Here is a woman who has a healthy (if sometimes rocky) relationship with her husband and with her three children, one that feels real. She doesn’t require saving or killing to motivate the hero. She’s good at her job; compassionate and strong. And, most of all, she never vanishes. She never takes a back seat while men sort out the problems for her; never becomes kidnapped, and never fades into a featureless prize handed to the hero. To the end, she remains the moral core of the story, fighting for what she has and what she believes in.

In real life, women all too often vanish. We can’t all be Inger Engman. We become mothers and struggle to conciliate family and writing; family and careers. We have aged or sick relatives to take care of; difficulties with publishers or poor sales. Even when we do get published, we get fewer buzz, fewer reviews, fewer awards; fewer sales; and of course fewer chances of selling another book to a publisher. We get harassed at conventions; drop out of genre because of misogyny or ageism or other forms of discrimination; we get laughed at for inaccurate science in our books (never mind that we have PhDs in physics or mathematics).

We are prevented from writing by our partners, gently or less gently–sometimes outright forbidding, other times simply because we make their needs come ahead of ours, because we have been taught to be selfless and kind. We bite our tongues when we are insulted or snubbed, because we have been taught to be polite and make no waves. We do not push for more recognition, because we have been taught this would be too forward, positively unladylike. Our books, like us, vanish out of the history of the genre; our innovations are ignored or lessened, or attributed to male authors. Our characters are harder to relate to; our male protagonists curiously effeminate; our plots imbued with too many girl-cooties and too much touchy-feely stuff.

Of course, you’ll say, none of this is specific to women: men become fathers too; they struggle to balance their private lives and their careers; struggle with poor sales. But those things happen disproportionately to women. Slowly but irretrievably, we fade out of view. Sometimes we bounce back, and are lucky enough to find enough of a career for us to rebuild. Sometimes we bounce back, and find our books increasingly marginalised, with little press and few reviews. Sometimes we disappear altogether, become faded names on bookshelves and awards lists; a part of history seldom invoked or remembered.

It’s not all grim, of course. Things have changed in the past decade: they have improved, and are continuing to improve. As a woman author, a new mother (and a woman in STEM), I am all too aware of this. I have been very lucky, and I am thankful to everyone who has supported me this far. It has been an honour to see my fiction recognised in such a strong fashion; and to see the increasing diversity in genre. I wish I could say we have arrived; but the truth is, we still have some way to go.

As proof of this, here is a list of women who vanished from genre, for a short or longer while, and for a variety of reasons. Some are still writing today; others are not. But they all deserve to be read. Go find their stuff; and talk up a storm.

Gill Alderman. Gertrude Barrows Bennett. Joanne Bertin. Pat Cadigan. Sonia Dorman. Theresa Edgerton. Carol Emshwiller. Anne Gay. Patricia Geary. Mary Gentle. Sheila Gilluly. Leigh Kennedy. Jenny Jones. Katherine Kurtz. Karin Lowachee. Elizabeth Lynn. Laurie J Marks. Julian May. Judith Moffett. Pat Murphy. C. L. Moore. Marta Randall. Melanie Rawn. Mary Doria Russell. Justina Robson. Michaela Roessner. Josephine Saxton. Ekaterina Sedia. Alison Sinclair. Margaret St Clair. Tricia Sullivan. Paula Volsky. Elizabeth Wiley. Kate Wilhem. Helen Wright. Mickey Zucker Reichert.

[Disclaimer: I’m not familiar with all the names on the list, and I could be wrong about the “vanishing” of some of the names. I would be quite happy to take corrections; and further suggestions about women who have dropped out of sight of genre fans.]

[And many many thanks to everyone who helped build this list on twitter, as well as to Kev McVeigh, Tade Thompson and N.E. White for reading this on a tight deadline).]


Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction: her stories have appeared in Interzone, Clarkesworld Magazine and the Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her Aztec noir series is published by Angry Robot, and her novella On a Red Station, Drifting, out from Immersion Press, is a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Visit for more information.


  • Paul Weimer
    May 29, 2014 at 7:47 am

    I’ve fondly read a number of these women–might have even suggested one or more of them to you in conversation with Kate Elliott. And their silent pens make me sad.

  • Cat
    May 29, 2014 at 11:03 am

    I’d like to put in a word for Doris Egan. I really enjoyed her Ivory books and also City of Diamond (which she wrote under a different name.) She’s apparently a screenwriter now but I would love to see more books from her.

  • hapax
    May 29, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    @Cat — omigosh, the first thing I thought upon reading that list was, “I miss Doris Egan” !

  • hapax
    May 29, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    Also, isn’t Kit Reed mostly writing suspense as Kit Craig now?

  • Judith Moffett
    May 29, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    Your post was forwarded to me by a friend, and I read it with great interest. While I’ve only partially vanished from SF, and while I’ve been writing and publishing in other fields right along, it’s certainly true that my SF career pretty much died after my third novel, Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream, came out. That novel was a NY Times Notable Book for 1992 and a finalist for the Tiptree, but my editor at St. Martin’s didn’t believe in it; he told me so. Later he had at least a partial change of heart, admitting he now felt the book had “deserved not to be published cynically.” But it had been, it didn’t do well, and I couldn’t sell the next one. Phut.

    However, I’ve been publishing the occasional novella and novelette right along ever since, three of those derived from the said Vol. III; see my Wiki entry for a list. I did eventually self-publish that despised and oft-rejected next novel, The Bird Shaman, the third volume of a trilogy of which TimeStream turned out to be Vol. II. And just this year my story “Space Ballet” appeared on, and my long-ago Nebula- and Hugo- nominated novella “Tiny Tango” came out as a Kindle ebook. I won’t clutter this post up with links, but provide the info to support my claim that I haven’t vanished altogether.

    But neither have I thrived. How much that’s due to my being a woman I couldn’t tell you. To me it seems mostly due to the fact that my writing is very literary and “intellectual” (for lack of a better word) for the genre, is character-driven to a fault, and features no computers or AIs or hardware of any kind. But maybe that’s at least partly saying the same thing?

    I hope some of the other people on your list respond; I’d love to know why they think they’ve dropped below the radar.

  • Kari Sperring
    May 29, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    Rosemary Edgehill/Eluki Bes Shahar; Keren Gilfoyle; Claudia J Edwards; Patricia Geary; Louise Lawrence; R A MacAvoy; Barbara Hambly, Kara Dalkey, Pamela Dean, Ann Lawrence…
    There are too many. We don’t talk about Kate Wilhelm enough any more, or Margaret St Clair, or Jo Clayton, or Janet Morris. Critical histories praise the innovations of Moorcock and Mieville and forget Mary Gentle, who is the link between them (and a fine, fine, writer). They chart the rise of historicist fantasy and omit Kurtz or relegate her to a footnote. And always, always, the ways to suppress women’s writing are front and centre. It depresses me unutterably, reading fine books by women and wondering how long they will be remembered or praised. Many of the women writers I read and loved in the 80s — many of whom were high-profile at the time — have been dropped by mainstream publishers, and are no longer writing, or self-publishing, their books seen by a far smaller audience than they deserve. And the ‘official’ version of that decade is all about the Big Men — Kay, Brin, Gibson, Sterling, Swanwick. The success and popularity of Tarr and Hambly and MacAvoy and May is ignored.
    We are taught silence and obedience from birth, almost; we are taught to play nice, to defer, to be good. We hesitate to self-promote — and are reprimanded for failing to sell ourselves. Or we decide we will speak up — and are dismissed as pushy, noisy, annoying.
    It breaks my heart to read that list of names. I used to know some of the writers you mention personally. Wonderful, talented women. They are still there. But they are denied their place in our histories and memories by a culture that is toxic to women. Doubly so to female writers of colour, like M Lucie Chin, whose work I loved.

  • Rebecca S
    May 29, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    I also add Heather Gladney to the list; she wrote Teot’s War and Bloodstorm (which ended on a cliffhanger aaagh), two sword-and-sorceryesque novels I love. I’ve met her a few times, but didn’t know how to ask what happened to the writing.

  • kev mcveigh
    May 29, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    Great to hear from Judith Moffett here. She really is one of the most remarkable authors around. I listed her amongst my 7 novels that should be available in the UK here
    I’m glad to hear subsequently that SF Gateway will be publishing her in ebooks soon. I highly recommend them.
    I was thrilled to see a new, quite different novella from her on in February too. Check out ‘Space Ballet’ online.

  • Valentin D. Ivanov
    May 30, 2014 at 1:43 am

    I would like to single out from this list Mary Doria Russell.
    Too bad she has given up writing, this is a big loss to the genre. I read the The Sparrow shortly after it came out, it was an amazing first contact novel. I don’t want to give away spoilers, just think Contact, except it is written much better.

  • Allan Lloyd
    May 30, 2014 at 4:25 am

    Your list of women who have dropped out of genre, for whatever reason, is very depressing. There are some excellent writers on the list who should be encouraged back. I can’t believe that Justina Robson and Tricia Sullivan are no longer writing.

    However, I don’t think that Kate Wilhelm belongs on the list. She has merely changed genres and is now very active in the mystery/crime field. It is a shame that she stopped writing much sf, as she was one of the best in her prime.


  • Ian Sales
    May 30, 2014 at 4:37 am

    While many of the authors Aliette lists have indeed stopped writing (if Barrows Bennett were still alive, she’d be 130 this year), some of them are still active – albeit not at the “book-a-year” pace insisted upon by present-day commercial genre publishers. Justina Robson has a new novel out next year. Laurie J Marks is working on the fourth book of her fantasy quartet – the previous three volumes are available from Small Beer Press. Mary Gentle’s last novel was published in 2012 and is still available. Carol Emshwiller has a short story collection coming out late this year. These are among the best writers science fiction and fantasy have to offer – as are the others mentioned in Aliette’s article and the comments above – and we should buy their books and discuss them as much as we possibly can. They will only be forgotten if we let it happen.

  • Michaela Roessner
    May 30, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    This is an important, touching article and I’m flattered to be mentioned, but I’ve hardly vanished. I’m currently working on a novel (actually 3, but only one is under contract at the moment), and I’ve had a fair amount of short fiction published just the last few years. Yes, there have been times I could have been better supported by the professional side of the field, but not to an extent worse than any number of my male writer friends. And most of what would be my writing time these days is taken up by my teaching *in* the field, specifically the *F&SF* online writing classes at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and the *Genre Fiction* concentration at Western State Colorado University’s low residency MFA in Creative Writing Program. So I guess although I might be considered to have a lower profile these days (until I get the @#$#@!! novels finished), I’ve hardly vanished. If anything I’m embedded in the field even more, with quite a few of my students (both female and male) beginning to be published.:-)

  • Marta Randall
    May 30, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    Here I am, not dead yet. True, I haven’t had a book published since forever, mostly because the novel I have finished is not part of a trilogy, and as such, apparently, is unsaleable. And my last novel was, in Judith Moffett’s words, “published cynically.” I interpret this to mean that the publisher threw a cover on it, tossed it out the door, and turned its collective back. This kind of treatment doesn’t encourage one to keep writing.

    However, I have written and published a handful of short stories in the past few years, and am quite proud of them. I have also been teaching in the field for quite a while, which I enjoy.

    But yes, there are far too many women’s voices either gone silent or faded to a whisper.

  • Hestia
    May 31, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Mary Doria Russel wrote two science fiction novels (that had much crossover appeal) and then switched to more literary/historical writing. From what I’ve read, it wasn’t because she didn’t have success in science fiction, she just wanted to write other kinds of things.

  • Alison Sinclair
    June 5, 2014 at 7:23 am

    Not vanished, maybe faded a little, for various and complex reasons that had nothing to do with my sex. Losing both the editor who had championed me and her replacement. Being caught up in publishing mergers for both my US and UK publishers. Not having an agent at the time to advise me. Living through the decline of the midlist. Moving countries for career reasons, and having eighteen months without distribution in the country I’d moved to. Moving countries for career reasons, and losing my professional networks and visibility (largely pre-Internet); having to start again. Investing a significant amount of time in a joint project I eventually walked away from. Writing being a second career, running alongside a demanding involvement in research, medicine and research again, so that all the time I could spend on it went into writing, and very little into self-promotion and self-marketing. Having a relatively small output and that in novels.

    How much sex interacted in causal terms with those factors, I don’t know. I certainly felt that there were occasions when it did, and that day in 2007 when I visited Bakka in Toronto and saw all the names of other writers I hadn’t realized were still writing – some of them names on your list – I realized I was not alone. The epidemiological study on the question of whether sex/gender (even at the very beginning we’ve got challenges in definition) is an independent predictor of career success (however defined) would be fascinating. And a huge amount of work just defining the variables to go into it.

    Thank you for making the list, and including me on it. My silence is only relative. I’ve just published my fourth SF novel, this time with a Canadian small press (Breakpoint:Nereis) and have a fifth one coming out next year.

    PS If anyone hasn’t read Tillie Olsen’s Silences, please do so.

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