Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Nonfiction

Women Remember: A Roundtable Interview

In the ten years that I’ve been actively participating in the science fiction community, I’ve seen the field change. A great deal of that change can be attributed to social media providing a voice for people who otherwise went ignored. The awards ballots are showing greater percentages of women and larger ethnic diversity. At the same time, there are places where it feels like the field had taken a step back from the work I remembered reading as a teenager. It feels very much like a case of “the more things change . . . ”

So, I decided to ask some women who had been there. Please welcome Ursula K. Le Guin, Pat Cadigan, Ellen Datlow, and Nancy Kress.

How do you think science fiction has changed, either as a genre or as a culture, from when you started in the field?

Ursula K. Le Guin: How has SF changed . . . Socially? Well, for women, it’s not quite as much like riding “Furthur” with Kesey’s Merry band as it used to be. I guess we caused some real destruction to the male notion that SF, like a good deal else, was theirs, all theirs, and only theirs. But I wonder if that notion is in fact destructible. It keeps popping up again, twice as large as life.

Pat Cadigan: Migod, yes. Decades after the advent of U.K. Le Guin, we saw the debut of N.K. Jemisin, the N being Nora. There’s a photo on the Internet of a white-haired woman holding a protest sign; the sign says, “I cannot believe I still have to protest this shit.” Amen, sister.

Ursula: This makes it sound as if I crept into SF under my initials only. Not so. I was Ursula K. from the get-go. The “debut of U.K. Le Guin” was a one-time appearance, for a specific reason. Virginia Kidd submitted my story “Nine Lives” to Playboy using my initials only and they accepted it. When Virginia gleefully told them U.K. was not Ulysses Karl, they didn’t back out, but they asked if they could keep the U.K., because their male readers were alarmed by female writers. The explanation was so touching, and the money was so good, that we magnanimously consented.

Pat: I write fantasy and horror as well as SF, but when I write SF, I go to enormous effort to make it hard SF. It’s difficult because I’m not a scientist, but I can learn enough on my own to make things plausible. Male SF writers who are scientists have referred to me as a hard SF writer. It took me decades longer to reach that point than it did male SF writers who also aren’t scientists (are you still following this sentence?). I think it’s because everyone assumes that men who write hard SF must have more science education than females. And yet I know of at least one female SF writer who happens to be a theoretical physicist. How long will it take people to guess her name?

As someone with a gender-ambiguous byline, I have had moments of amusement, disgust, and disbelief. In fact, Kim Newman (male) and I were discussing this a few weeks ago at a convention in Oslo. (I’ve also talked about this with Kim Stanley Robinson (also male), who told me when he was starting out that his publisher expressed some concern that people would mistakenly think actress Kim Stanley had remarried and was reinventing herself.)

Kim Newman pointed out that he had not deliberately taken on gender ambiguity, that his name was his name. My name is also my name, but I could have written as Patricia Cadigan. I chose Pat Cadigan not to be gender-ambiguous, but because I liked the way it sounded when spoken aloud. In my opinion, it scans better. I didn’t go out of my way to hide the fact that I’m a woman. My first books even included a photo. But apparently a lot of readers don’t look at author photos because a number of readers thought I was a guy. Another female author told me that she loaned Synners to a male friend. When he found out I was a woman, he opined I was someone “without an ounce of femininity.” Obviously this says more about him; more troubling to me is that this happened barely twenty years ago.

And yet. My son is twenty-eight; he and his friends have a far more inclusive cultural perspective.

Ellen Datlow: I entered the field officially in 1979 when I started working as Associate Fiction Editor at OMNI Magazine. Because I’ve mostly worked with short fiction, I’m more aware of the world of the short story than the novel. So that’s mostly what I’m referring to below.

The field back then, while dominated by men, always had fabulous female writers working in it. By the late ’80s we were seeing many more women on award ballots— particularly in the short form. For a period of time Nancy Kress, Connie Willis, Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Pat Cadigan, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Ursula K. Le Guin, Martha Soukup, and others seemed to dominate the Nebula ballot in the short form.

Some of those writers still produce great short stories, but most of them moved on to novel writing, and only occasionally still have time to write short stories. Because this seems the natural progression of our field, short story editors are always looking for new blood.

I’m not going to name check all the wonderful female writers who emerged since the ’90s—there are plenty, but it seems to me that in the past five to ten years, there has been a continuous injection of new blood into the field by writers such as Priya Sharma, Genevieve Valentine, E. Lily Yu, Veronica Schanoes, and many others.

What I see is that some of the best writers mix up their story production—moving with ease from science fiction to fantasy and horror and back again. This provides them with many more outlets for their work and recognition in more than one field—always a plus.

Nancy Kress: Since I started writing SF, the field has changed in at least three significant ways. My first story appeared in 1976, a time of great feminist ferment in—and beyond—science fiction. In the few years preceding my debut story, Joanna Russ had published “When It Changed” (1972), Alice Sheldon “The Women Men Don’t See” (1973), and Suzy McKee Charnas Walk to the End of the World (1974), among scores of other works reimagining the relations of men and women. I was swept into the field among a great tide of female writers following these pioneers. When I started writing SF, the vast majority of SF still featured male protagonists. That is no longer true, and now SF is more likely to feature women in power positions as a given, rather than centering on the struggle to arrive there.

Second, in the 1970s, science fiction still outsold most fantasy, still won most awards, still garnered the most attention. Today, as I write this, nearly every work of fiction on the Nebula ballot is fantasy, not science fiction. The best-selling series, such as George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, are fantasy.

Pat: That’s right. In fact, I when I started reading genre, the field was far less stratified than it is now. Judith Merrill’s Best SF of the Year anthologies included hard SF, light-hearted fantasy, and weird pieces by John Cheever, Tuli Kupferberg, and Bernard Malamud (“The Jewbird”). The Merrill anthologies were a brilliant showcase of all kinds of stories with a fantastic element. I wish the electronic rights issues were more easily settled so that they could come back as ebooks. If I were teaching a literature course or a writing workshop, I would make them required reading.

While I understand the divisions in genre—if I’m in the mood for elves, it’s nice to know I don’t have to spend hours sifting through rocket ships and serial killers—I often wish we were less concerned with what’s SF and what’s fantasy. But that’s just me.

Ellen: Yes to all the above by Nancy. Fantasy has come to dominate the market. Perhaps it’s true that, as we’ve come to live more in a science fictional world of computers, nano technology, ebooks, space exploration, etc., it’s more difficult to excite readers the way science fiction used to—because it all seems so . . . normal.

Nancy: And then there’s the third thing—Young Adult novels were once mostly read by teenagers. They mostly had no sex, little violence, and happy endings. Today, YA is one of the strongest sub-genres in the field, and series such as Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent are read by adults and are turned into big-budget movies. Except that their protagonists are teens, the novels share the traits of adult fiction.

Pat: If you ever want to see writers treated like rock stars, go to an American Library Association convention and watch for a YA genre writer to show up. The librarians don’t scream and faint, but it’s a near thing. I saw the reception for Robert Cormier, author of The Chocolate War. I don’t think anyone threw underwear at him, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Anyone who gets young people reading is golden.

Personally, I think that adults have been reading YA fiction all along. I know I have. I have happily re-read old favourites from my own youth and then gone on to check out new people. Judy Blume was one of the writers who pioneered true-life issues for teens in her books, like having sex and parents getting divorced.

I also derive a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that the richest woman in the UK is a YA genre writer—J.K. Rowling.

Ellen: The young adult market did not exist when I was a kid. There were books for kids and books for adults. I could hardly wait to move out of the kids’ book section of the library into the adult section.

As Nancy says, young adult fiction can and does do everything adult SF and fantasy does except with younger protagonists.

Pat: I went to my first convention in 1975. I made my first professional sale in 1979. Things in this field have changed a lot.

For one thing, there are a hell of a lot more women. For another, the field isn’t quite as unrelentingly white as it used to be—we have more People of Colour. Granted, non-white fans and writers are still very much a minority, but they are no longer a rarity.

However, the one thing I heard most after the last Worldcon—San Antonio, 2013, for the record—were complaints that the Worldcon was full of “old people.” This was apparently based on the number of mobility scooters in evidence. There was a lot of talk about how the Worldcon attendees were predominantly old people—ergo, it wasn’t attracting young people/new readers. All the hip, vital, young people went to DragonCon or the San Diego Comic Con.

Bitch, please.

I’m running into this kind of ageism more and more and I don’t like it. People in general are living longer and they’re healthier for longer. All new readers are not necessarily teenagers. The golden age of science fiction isn’t twelve.

I think it’s deceptive anyway. I saw a lot of people under forty in San Antonio, and plenty under thirty as well. They were in evidence, but as most of them didn’t use mobility scooters, it wasn’t as easy to count them.

But I was also gratified to see a number of disabled Worldcon attendees. There’s more concern for accessibility than there used to be. And there is more awareness of other issues as well. We don’t always get it right but we’re doing better than we used to.

I suppose the biggest change has been ebooks. I welcome them with open arms—er, e-reader software on my iPad, anyway, and not just because SF Gateway brought back my backlist! Tons of formerly hard-to-find SF and fantasy is coming back to entertain and amaze new readers. My old favourites are back, along with a lot of books I’ve wanted to read but never got a chance to. And I love the fact that I can now take three hundred books on an airplane in my carry-on luggage without violating the weight restrictions.

Ellen: More diversity is indeed in evidence. Not enough yet, but getting there. Embracing multiple voices in any art is crucial to the vitality of that art. Which also leads to Pat’s remarks about ageism. Writing is not a competition between the young and the old.

Ursula: Then let us speak of how we have changed as a genre. Long ago, my children, in the days of my youth, our tribe was small and poor, skulking in exile on the margins of the rich kingdom of Literaturia. When we attempted to approach, we were driven back with execrations and the throwing of fecal matter by the armed Critics with their battle cry of “Genre! Kill!” We found, however, that many readers so loved us that they came into exile to join us, calling their settlement Fandom, and even in Literaturia, many secretly welcomed us to their hearts and homes. Over the years, we have grown in numbers and strength, and there is much intercourse of various kinds, and exchange of mental goods. Nowadays, blue-blooded Literaturians, believing they understand our simple customs, often imitate them, badly. Some of our tribe have become somewhat respectable in the streets of Literaturia, and pass, at times, almost unscathed among the Critics. The heights of the cities, however, and the great prizes to be found there, are still closed to us. I urge you to continue on the way of your tribal Elders, my children: Ignore execrations, seduce Critics, infiltrate curricula, and keep on truckin’.

Ellen: Yes, yes, yes. The walls have become more permeable between our genre and the “literary” genre in the past thirty years and I hope this is an ongoing development. There are failures of course. I’ve watched writers of excellent literary fiction fail horribly at writing sf/f. And I’ve seen anger aimed at those writers by us (myself included) for poaching on our territory. Because of ongoing negative experiences with mainstream critics, our community has become more than a little defensive and possibly too insular.

I think it would be useful for us to be more generous than those who dismiss our work and embrace the best examples of sf/f published outside our walls.

Pat: I think most of the time, the—animosity is not really the word I want but it will have to do at the moment—the animosity aimed at mainstream writers who write genre is not really territoriality. It’s not “How dare you come into our clubhouse!” It’s usually because they’ve reinvented the wheel and think they’re being innovative and original. And a lot of mainstream critics start swooning about how innovative and original they are, praising ideas that they have previously sneered at in genre books. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, for example—I’m not going to trash it, it was a fine book. It was even nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. When it was made it into A Major Motion Picture, critics talked about not wanting to reveal the Big Secret. But every genre reader had probably already guessed. It was a variation on a premise that Robert Silverberg accomplished decades earlier in 5,000 words.

Most writers would agree that if you want to write mysteries, you’ve got to read mysteries; if you want to write westerns, you’ve got to read westerns; if you want to write romances, you’ve got to read romances. But for some reason, the you’ve-got-to-read-it rule often seems to go out the window—or out the airlock—for science fiction. I’d hate to think this is because some people feel once they’ve seen Alien or Star Wars, they’re good to go.

The other problem with genre published outside our walls is often the writers and/or publishers don’t want it included in the genre. I was a judge for the Clarke Award the year The Road by Cormac McCarthy was published. The publisher refused to submit the book to the judges—they didn’t want the genre taint. They did not want it considered for a science fiction award because it wasn’t science fiction, they said. And how many times have we read that this or that book or movie or TV series isn’t science fiction because “it’s about something that could really happen”?

And sometimes, it’s just the critics or the publishers who feel that way—the writers themselves are more open. Kazuo Ishiguro came to the Clarke Award event the year he was nominated, even though he had no idea whether he was going to win or not. I was in a group of people talking to him and he actually asked how we felt about an “outsider” showing up. We all told him we were really glad he was there, that his book was wonderful, and wished him good luck. He didn’t win, but I guess he had a good time. When the British Library put on the big science fiction exhibition a few years ago, he showed up for that, too. He came to the inaugural evening and I saw him running from one exhibit to the next with his son. He told me he was thrilled, he loved seeing so many wonderful things: Some he was familiar with, some he’d only heard about, and some that were completely new to him. This was the event where Margaret Atwood, formerly a genre denier herself despite having won the first Arthur C. Clarke Award ever, delivered a short speech via videotape about how wonderful the field is.

Ellen is right—we’ve got to be friendlier. Every time mainstream writers publish genre books, we should dispatch teams of fun commandos to welcome them into the fold and charm their socks off.

In the very early days of my career, before I even really had a career, I used to entertain serious fantasies of migrating from genre to Literaturia, a la Richard McKenna. Then I discovered that I didn’t want to write the holy scripture of Literaturia, I wanted to write genre.

And then I noticed something: While Literaturia is universally revered as producing the finest works of art, people look to popular culture—i.e., genre—for answers to most of their ethical and moral questions. Everything they ever needed to know, they have learned in kindergarten . . . and then from Star Trek. It was not Literaturia that spearheaded the change from screaming ingénue needing rescue by a brave, handsome male; it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yes, the Twi-hards came with sparkly immortal vampires and pale young women wanting to be killed, but Buffy’s Scooby gang laughed at them.

It was actually Robert Bloch who told me the Secret of Life—or at least the Secret of My Life—one night at a Florida literary conference in 1980. He said, “Very few people can tell you who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1976. But ask who won the Hugo Award for Best Novel that same year and thousands of people will shout, ‘Joe Haldeman, The Forever War!’”

In Literaturia, they give each other awards and then forget. They get their names in the paper and then forget. Our books are handed down from one generation to the next, from one enthusiast to another. We don’t forget as easily.

Mary: What this conversation makes me aware of is that while it might seem that the same battles are being fought over and over, each victory shapes the field. My generation of writers entered with the expectation of being treated as equals in science fiction and fantasy, because that is the precedent that women had fought for. When we discover that it is still not the case, being told that it’s better than it used to be isn’t quite enough.

We write science fiction and imagine the future we want to live in. We want that future now.

Seeing how the field has changed gives me perspective on the future that I’m living in and, hopefully, will help women writing today continue to destroy science fiction for subsequent generations of writers.

• • •

Pat Cadigan

Pat CadiganPat Cadigan is a multi-award-winning author of science fiction. Her first collection, Patterns, was honoured with the Locus Award in 1990, and she has won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1992 and 1995 for her novels Synners and Fools. Her novelette, “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi,” won the Hugo in 2013.

Ellen Datlow

Ellen DatlowEllen Datlow has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for almost thirty years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and has edited more than fifty anthologies, including the horror half of the long-running The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. She currently acquires short stories for Tor.com, and is the editor for Nightmare’s Women Destroy Horror! special issue (due out October 2014).

Nancy Kress

Nancy KressNancy Kress’s fiction has won four Nebulas (for “Out of All Them Bright Stars,” “Beggars in Spain,” “The Flowers of Aulit Prison,” and “Fountain of Age”), two Hugos (for “Beggars in Spain” and “The Erdmann Nexus”), a Sturgeon (for “The Flowers of Aulit Prison”), and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for Probability Space). Her work has been translated into Swedish, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish, Croatian, Lithuanian, Romanian, Japanese, and Russian, and Klingon, none of which she can read. She also teaches regularly at summer conferences and has written three book about writing.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin, Ursula K. (Photo by Eileen Gunn)Ursula K. Le Guin has published twenty-one novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation, and has received many honors and awards including the Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, and PEN-Malamud. Her most recent publications are Finding My Elegy (New and Selected Poems, 1960-2010) and The Unreal and the Real (Selected Short Stories), 2012.

Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal-photo by Rod Searcy

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of The Glamourist Histories series of fantasy novels and the a three time Hugo Award winner. Her short fiction appears in Clarkesworld, Tor.com, and Asimov’s. Mary, a professional puppeteer, lives in Chicago. Visit her online at maryrobinettekowal.com.