*takes a deep breath*
Okay. So. Yesterday I read a guest post on a popular book site (that I usually really, really love, to be clear). It talks about the Genesis of Science Fiction. The writer is drawing parallels between Biblical/ancient texts and the origins of science fiction. I thought there were some interesting ideas, but the further I read the more uneasy I grew. I scrolled back through the post once, twice, three times to make sure. 10+ creators are mentioned (and probably double that many works). Only one creator was a woman.
I guessed this was an oversight, so I left a comment saying I liked the writing style and that the post contained some compelling ideas, but trotting out Mary Shelley as your lone lady author is old hat in SFF. It’s the last resort when you know you need to mention someone who’s not a white dude, but you haven’t picked up anything from this century. I’m not saying that’s the case with this author, but it’s a frequent issue in SFF fandom, so my back was already up.
I offered up the idea that a reference made to Game of Thrones could’ve been replaced with another best-selling, award-winning epic fantasy by writers like NK Jemisin or Kate Elliott. I specifically pointed towards GoT as something that could’ve been swapped out because it was a reference that didn’t clearly tie into the Genesis theme. Look, I'm on record saying I'm not the biggest fan of GoT (mostly for 'SJW reasons' *eyerolls forever*), but that's not the point. People are allowed to read what they want to read. In this case, I was pointing out it would be a simple matter to diversify this piece by swapping GoT for another work.
Think about The Game of Thrones -- when and where is it set? Does it matter? Doesn’t it have a timeless quality? George R. R. Martin’s success is based on universal themes that could be prehistory of a post-history apocalypse. Aren’t most epic fantasies set in a rich potentiality of prehistory?
There’s quite a bit to unpack from that quote, which I’m not going to do here, but I think you can see what I meant when I said basically any well-written epic fantasy could’ve been used as an example in place of the world’s most-hyped white dude epic fantasy. GRRM doesn’t need any more press. A Song of Ice & Fire is selling pretty well. He’s fine with us talking about other authors’ works. I promise. (For the record, I have a lot of respect for GRRM and the work he's done for the SFF community, including diverse fans and creators.)
I wasn’t trying to go for any big lesson or trying to chastise the writer of this post. I just wanted to point out what I assumed was an oversight (this site’s actually got a diversity pledge and is quite good about gender/racial/etc. representation most of the time), so he’d hopefully do a quick check before posting next time.
This morning he replied to my comment.
Kay, I’m afraid I only get to read a handful of new science fiction books each year, so my pool of stories to reference is small. It just happened the three that fit my thesis were by guys.
No. Look, this is never going to be an acceptable answer to me. It just happened to fit is how the publishing industry stays straight, white, and male.
But I would like you know I’ve been reading science fiction by women for over fifty years.
Uh, congratulations? I’d hope so. Anyone who’s read science fiction for fifty years and managed to miss Octavia Butler, Marie Liu, Ursula K Le Guin, Kate Elliott, Nisi Shawl, Andre Norton, Pat Cadigan, NK Jemisin, Jo Walton, Malinda Lo, James Tiptree Jr (my beloved Alice Sheldon), Tananarive Due, Joanna Russ, Amal El-Mohtar, Charlie Jane Anders, Connie Willis, SL Huang, Cat Valente, Martha Wells, Nancy Kress, Mary Robinette Kowal, Andrea Hairston, Madeleine L’Engle, Kameron Hurley, Mira Grant, Ann Leckie, Sofia Samatar, Emily St. John Mandel, Karen Joy Fowler, Nalo Hopkinson, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Gwyneth Jones, Eugie Foster, Nnedi Okorafor, Lois McMaster Bujold, Emma Bull, Vonda McIntyre, and Tanith Lee is someone I pity, because that’s a lot of awesomeness to miss out on.
That’s not any sort of representative list, btw, just names I could roll off the top of my head without digging into my GR because I ain’t got time for that. Hell, I don’t have time for this blog post, but I’m pissed and I won’t be productive till I write this down.
In fact, the only science fiction novels I’ve read from 2016 have all been by women (All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, And Again by Jessica Chiarella, and now I’m reading Too Like the Lightning by Ada Nelson. Sadly, they didn’t fit either. However, Nelson’s brilliant new book is all about philosophy, and like Ann Leckie’s Ancillary, novels fascinatingly explores gender issues. I’ll be writing about Nelson’s book in the future because I’m sure her book will inspire many essay topics. I love philosophical science fiction.
I’m not passing out cookies for men who read books by women. Like, yes. Good. You should. The ‘didn’t fit’ excuse is just that. An excuse. If everything you’ve read this year was by a woman, you could’ve tossed in a reference to one. You chose not to.
I’m afraid I never read fantasy, but if you know of fantasy novels that use plot parallels from The Bible or other ancient texts, please note them here to support my theory. I believe SF/F stories have existed since we started telling stories. I’m sure we all read books, from all genres, that have such parallels from pre-history. However, I don’t like to reference books I haven’t read or studied, but I’m always glad to hear about books that would also make good, or better examples.
Guess what? It’s not my job to educate you. (Although if you want a fantasy novel with a plot paralleling an ancient text, I’d be happy to point you in the direction of Le Guin’s Lavinia. It's about the life of a princess of Laurentum, a minor character from Virgil's Aeneid. Since you're super into classics that seems your speed, and if you've been reading SF for fifty years you've probably heard of my girl Ursula. Oh, also, this book won a Locus Award, which seems like the kind of thing you'd notice.) You say you never read fantasy and so you don’t want to reference books you haven’t read or studied. Okay, sure. I get that. Then why mention Game of Thrones? If you haven’t read it, you could’ve easily gone with a reference to an epic fantasy that wasn’t written by a white dude.
Defensive responses to well-intended comments about a lack of diversity? Par for the course, but this also felt familiar. I did a few minutes of digging and realized why this writer's name sounded familiar. He’d written for a very popular SF blog about staying on the cutting edge of science fiction. No women made the cut in cutting edge science fiction.
That particular post made the social media rounds and got some attention for its lack of diversity. Dozens of commenters wrote insightful, interesting responses and got the same defensive comments about how works by women weren’t relevant to what he was writing about or that he could only reference works he’d read and could remember (and those works apparently were all by men).
My frustration with excuses, with ‘I don’t remember’ and ‘it didn’t fit’ and requests for recommendations comes from a place of profound exhaustion. I am so damned tired of beating my head against the wall of men who blithely ignore that leaving women out means leaving out half of the population. Even if I do the work for you, the chances of any appreciable change is so negligible as to be nil. There's a wealth of great resources for people actually interested in diversifying their SF reading. The crew over at ladybusiness have been nominated for a Hugo this year for their amazing, feminist contributions to the SFF community. (They even put together a greatest hits post for folks finding the blog after the nomination!) The fine ladies of my perpetual fave podcast, Galactic Suburbs, have years of recommendations to enjoy. The Women in Science Fiction blog is another great resource. Here, I’ll even point you to a specific post, this one by publisher Toni Weisskopf.
The fact is that there has never been a movement, sub-genre, trend, or topic in SFF without women. If that escapes you, or you willfully ignore that fact, or you choose to pretend that works by women (and other marginalized people, like everyone who’s not a straight white dude, so basically the people you can't remember) you have read just ‘didn’t fit’ with whatever specific point you’ve decided to make today, then all the helpful hints in the world aren’t going to help you.
I know I'm not going to change your mind. Even if I could, it’s not my job to educate you. I’ve got bigger and more interesting challenges to look forward to.