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.
Below is Athena Andreadis’ post. You can read Aliette de Bodard’s HERE.
“Wilhelm is the woman to beat but Tiptree is the man.” – Harlan Ellison, in the introduction of Again, Dangerous Visions.
In 2012, I invited submissions for a science fiction anthology, The Other Half of the Sky. My guidelines could be encapsulated in one sentence: I asked for stories with women heroes in universes that treated them as fully human. That deceptively simple condition gave rise to a number of other attributes in the anthology’s stories. One of these stories was Aliette de Bodard’s “The Waiting Stars”, the winner of this year’s Nebula award for best novelette, a symphonic poem of loyalty, loss and healing – and, with its starship Minds, uploading, biological tinkering and rival galactic empires, an unabashed space opera. In other words: in most its aspects, “The Waiting Stars” (and most stories in the anthology) is classic SF.
Those born in the age of the Internet tend to have short memories, but the Internet itself will keep tabs until we run out of energy sources and the servers go dark. And yet in this day and age, when factoids can be checked at the touch of a trackpad, people still avow that women don’t write SF.
When reminded that women have garnered nearly 40% of the Nebula awards even with a start delay of two decades, some resort to the “arguments” thoroughly debunked by Joanna Russ: women preferentially write fantasy; women write specific kinds of SF (implication: “soft” stuff – making the genre purity standards more exclusionary than those in science); women write more “intimate” works (the sprawling space opera universes of such authors as Cherryh and Friedman notwithstanding); women submit and persist less; and of course the quintessential dodge: the “best work” should win independent of all contexts.
If we take the last argument at face value, that’s exactly what just happened. All the 2014 Nebula fiction winners (novel, novella, novelette, short story, André Norton award) were women: Ann Leckie, Vylar Kaftan, Aliette de Bodard, Rachel Swirsky, Nalo Hopkinson. Furthermore, the main characters of these winning works (and of many nominees) were not the standard Anglostraightmale heroes, and the stories unfolded in worlds that were not space versions of fifties US suburbia.
In the wake of this unprecedented coalescence, it is well to remember something that’s often conveniently forgotten: the SF of the late seventies and early eighties was also dominated by women, who did much to shatter the tin and cardboard mo(u)lds of the Leaden Era. Russ, Le Guin, McIntyre, Piercy, to name just a few. It was the time of Pamela Sargent’s indelible Women of Wonder series. It was also the time of “the man to beat”: James Tiptree Jr., whose writing was pronounced “ineluctably masculine” – until it was revealed that James Tiptree was in fact Alice Sheldon, at which point her hitherto-deemed-peerless fiction got shoved into the “feminist” ghetto.
It is also well to remember something else: after that incandescent blossoming, many tried to erase history by opining that “If SF in the late Seventies was confused, self-involved, and stale, it was scarcely a cause for wonder.” (Bruce Sterling, introduction to Burning Chrome). Almost fifty years after women proved that their SF works satisfied all requirements (by the blind test of Tiptree, let alone the scads of awards), we still have arguments about whether women authors write “mindblowing” SF and whether SF women/non-default heroes are relevant or interesting – or whether the influx of work by Others decreases the quality or universality of the genre.
As a person bridging languages and cultures, a research scientist, an unapologetic feminist and a lover of books across genres, I’m delighted that this year’s Nebula awards showed that quality does not depend on specifics of chromosomes, hormones or genitals. But in the midst of the happiness brought by the recognition, I wonder: how many times do we still have to prove that women and other non-defaults can do X as well as those traditionally deemed able and worthy? This is not just an issue in SF. It’s the leitmotif running through the struggles of Maria Mitchell, Mary Anning, Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, the Mercury 13, Nichelle Nichols – again, a small sample from a list that could extend to the moon of forerunners who struggled and achieved as much as we have.
And who should never be forgotten.
Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She spent her adult life doing basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She has also given many invited talks (that included NASA venues) on the biological and cultural issues of space/planetary exploration. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. She conceived of and edited the widely acclaimed feminist space opera anthology The Other Half of the Sky (2013, Candlemark and Gleam). Her work can be found in Scientific American, Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.
Paul WeimerMay 29, 2014 at 7:50 am
The criticism I saw from some quarters, as discredited as those quarters are, is that in the effort to celebrate the diversity of the nominees this year, the quality of the work in question wasn’t discussed.
I think its bollocks, myself. But its noteworthy that this celebration has drawn such a negative reaction. It’s a tell, as it were.
Athena AndreadisMay 29, 2014 at 1:44 pm
Well, Paul, the Nebula is quality-based not popularity-based like the Hugo. It’s an award from fellow professionals. Also, “diversity” is hardly the term to use for half of humanity (and more than half in terms of ethnicity etc).