The invisible women

Last week, The Conversation published an essay titled “Science fiction’s women problem“, by Bronwyn Lovell. It examines women’s past and present place in SF, and looks at issues such as bias against female writers in both publishing and reviewing, and movements like the Sad and Rabid Puppies.

It’s one of those frustrating reads because Liz went in wanting to agree with everything it said, and wound up picking it all apart. Three over-long Facebook comments later, Liz remembered we have a blog.

Let’s go through it in detail.

Since 1953, the Hugo Awards have been one of science fiction’s most prestigious honours – past winners include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clark and Ursula Le Guin. The 2016 results were recently announced, and women and diversity were the clear winners.

It’s a funny thing about Ursula Le Guin: she has become the name people reach for whenever they need a token female SF writer. And here’s a legit quote to prove it:

Recognition is still accorded to women writers in terms of tokenism; in science fiction, only one female writer, Ursula Le Guin, has achieved widespread respect. Through no fault of her own, Le Guin’s prominence works against other female science fiction writers. Nancy K. Miller offers a general comment that explains why this particular situation is so: it “is, after all, the Author anthologised and institutionalised who by his (canonical) presence excludes the less-known works of women and minority writers and who by his authority justifies the exclusion”. Le Guin’s science fiction, which has won designation as “literature”, positions her as the Author who keeps less-known women science fiction writers in their generic place. This tokenism is contrary to Le Guin’s generosity to her fellow writers — and all too effective.

Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, Marleen S. Barr [no relation]

The tokenisation of Le Guin is so pervasive that it was even used as a joke on The Toast. Which is what made it jump out at me here, when Lovell could have named one of the many, many other women who have won Hugo Awards. Indeed, even excluding her win for Paladin of Souls, a fantasy novel, Lois McMaster Bujold has won the Hugo for Best Novel once more than Le Guin.

(For the record, the first woman to win a Hugo for Best Novel was Marion Zimmer Bradley, but this article is concerned with SF rather than fantasy, and in any case, we’re all still struggling with Bradley’s legacy after the recent revelation that she engaged in child sexual abuse.)

It’s also a case of the Smurfette Principle in action, where you have a bunch of male characters … and one girl.

I also find it interesting that Lovell chooses Le Guin as an example when, for example, Ann Leckie won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2014, Connie Willis in 2011 — both for novels that were SF rather than fantasy.

However, if you saw the list of titles in contention for the awards, you’d have noticed some oddities, such as Chuck Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion and My Little Pony’s The Cutie Map.

And if you looked beyond just the titles on the shortlist, you’d have seen that some of the nominations were actually toxic — like “Safe Space as Rape Room” — actually, no, you don’t even have to go past the title for that one. Tingle and MLP are eccentric choices — Tingle more than MLP, let’s face it — but not exactly shameful.

That’s because the awards – nominated and voted on by science fiction writers and readers – have been targeted by two major voting blocs: the Sad Puppies, who started their campaign in 2013, and the Rabid Puppies, who appeared the year after and have been growing stronger ever since.

The Sad Puppies wanted more traditional, mainstream popular science fiction on the ballot. The more extreme Rabid Puppies, who have ties with the Gamergate movement, were about creating chaos. So their bloc included ridiculous-sounding works: both to mock the awards and stack the ballot to prevent more diverse books being nominated.

I strongly question the idea that the Sads wanted “traditional” or “mainstream” works to be shortlisted. There’s been a lot written — mostly in the comments over at File770 — about the false nostalgia behind their narrative, and the fact that, more than anything else, they wanted their works and their friends’ works to be shortlisted.

In any case, it’s easy to overstate the influence of the Sad Puppies — in 2015, they were largely overridden by the Rabids, and this year? They didn’t even offer up a slate, but a list of recommended works, like decent, good-faith participants.

Likewise, while the Rabids did their thing again in 2016, it was a half-hearted sort of effort, and only partially successful. The only ballot they successfully wiped out was Best Related Work — which is fitting, since the whole Puppy movement was originally inspired by a little book called Chicks Dig Time Lords winning Best Related Work in its year. Consensus around the blogosphere is that a lot of Rabid Puppies were distracted by the real life version of their campaign — the US election.


Both groups’ gripe is with contemporary trends in science fiction toward more literary works with progressive themes. Vox Day, leader of the Rabid Puppies, complains that“publishers have been trying to pass off romance in space and left-wing diversity lectures as science fiction”. Last year’s leader of the Sad Puppies, Brad R. Torgersen, likewise complains about “soft science majors (lit and humanities degrees) using SF/F as a tool to critically examine and vivisect 21st century Western society”. The Hugos, he says, are being used as an “affirmative action award”.

A significant number of those “soft science majors” writing “left-wing diversity lectures” are, of course, women. Female authors have dominated science fiction awards of late.

Statistics aren’t my thing, but I’m pretty certain that if we run the numbers, that “female domination of science fiction awards of late” will tally out at roughly 30%.

This year, women (and people of colour) did very well at the awards. Ironically, the Puppies’ activities have now galvanised more progressive members of the World Science Fiction Society to use their voting rights. The best novel was The Fifth Season, a tale of a planet experiencing apocalyptic climate change, written by NK Jemisin – a black, female writer. Best novella was Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. The best short story, Cat Pictures Please, was written by Naomi Kritzer and both best editor gongs went to women.

And Hao Jingfang took Best Novelette, but who’s counting?

(The exclusion of Hao, whose name is not obviously female, does suggest limited research, which I’ll come back to.)

[Steph notes: 景芳 is CLEARLY a lady name if you’re Chinese.]

[Liz: *hangs head in monolingual shame*]

But let’s not get complacent; women have taken Hugos in similar numbers in the past. That’s why the Puppy movement began, remember? Can’t have a backlash without something to … backlash against.

(“Backlash” would be an amazing name for a supervillain, someone get on that.)

But the ongoing saga of the Puppies and their attempts to derail the Hugos exemplifies broader conflicts within the realm of science fiction – an enormously popular, lucrative and controversial genre that has major issues with women.

I’m really not sure where one gets the idea that SF is “enormously popular, lucrative and controversial”. For a small number of people, sure. For a given value of lucrative, certainly. But compare the sporadic mainstream media coverage of the Hugos and their controversies with the two weeks of solid commentary on Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. The Brisbane Writers Festival!

A male dominated genre

In recent years, the bestselling female-authored Divergent and Hunger Games series have been made into multi-million dollar movie adaptations. But women’s contribution to science fiction has historically gone unnoticed – as a look at any compilation list of the “best” science fiction books will attest.

Lovell here deliberately overlooks the feature that separates Divergent and The Hunger Games from your average SF novel — they were written for the YA market at a time when that, and big-budget adaptations of its most successful novels, was exploding.

Now, I think some of the most interesting fantasy and SF writing of the last decade was aimed at young readers, and I’ve long deplored the way the (adult) SFF community and its awards tends to overlook young adult fiction — unless, of course, an author who started out writing for adults turns to the younger market. Works for young readers, and their place in the SFF community in general and the Hugos in particular, have been debated since JK Rowling won Best Novel for an obscure little book called Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I strongly feel that the adult SFF community needs to embrace young adult and middle grade fiction, its authors, and its readers.

However, because these markets are excluded from mainstream SFF culture, I think it’s rather dishonest to cite Divergent and The Hunger Games here. Lovell might have done better to cite Ann Leckie, who hasn’t enjoyed a multi-million dollar movie adaptation (but aside from Andy Weir, how many male authors of SF novels for adults have had movie adaptations lately?) but she did win a Hugo for Best novel, got shortlisted for two more, and while her name isn’t plastered over any busses, she’s mainstream enough that I’ve found the Imperial Radch books in quite average book store chains.

A key phrase in that last quote: “women’s contribution to science fiction has historically gone unnoticed”.

Lovell goes on to point to a variety of “best of” lists which feature either very few women or none at all. This is a frustrating ongoing issue, which has been addressed by a lot of bloggers and commentators. But Lovell goes on to unnotice women’s contributions herself:

Seventy five per cent of science fiction writers are men. Consequently, there are not a great number of realistic or relatable female characters. No wonder fewer female than male readers have traditionally found it a rewarding genre.

I would like a source for that 75% statistic, and then I want to know how it was derived. Are we looking only at full-length novels published by the Big Four? Or does it take into account smaller presses and short(er) fiction, magazines and self-published works?

I would also take issue with the idea that there’s a dearth of good female characters in the genre, and the whole idea that women find it unrewarding. (How do you even quantify that?)

Indeed feminist science fiction writer and critic Joanna Russ has famously stated that there are “no real women” in science fiction, only images of them, since so many women characters are based purely on male fantasy.

Joanna Russ has a lot to say that’s still relevant today, but I’m not convinced this statement is one I’d apply to contemporary SF.

Lovell makes a logical extension from female characters as male fantasy figures to female characters as victims of sexual violence, and the historical and current issues around real life harassment in the community. Then she links to one of Jim C Hines’ posts on the subject, because it’s not as if women have written about this.

(No criticism of Hines, he’s a lovely guy and I agree with him on a lot, but I automatically side-eye anyone who amplifies his voice in a conversation on feminism and sexual harassment.)

Lovell goes on to discuss hard versus soft SF, and the perception that hard SF is both more masculine, and also objectively better:

Hard science fiction tends to be a boys’ club, while soft science fiction can be seen as more accommodating to female writers. There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.

In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction. As Damien Walters has observed, women’s writing is “dismissed as fantasy, while the fantasies of men are granted some higher status as science fiction”.

Again, I agree with her here. But this is another instance of inadequate research — in the ’90s, Bujold was defending her SF against accusations of “softness” because her hard science background was in biology rather than spaceships, and as far back as the ’60s and ’70s, Anne McCaffrey got extremely shirty about being regarded as an author of fantasy instead of science fiction — her dragons were the result of genetic modification on a lost colony planet.

This hierarchy of “hardness” in science fiction, as well as being a dubious way of judging merit, puts women at a distinct disadvantage, because there’s a serious shortage of women working in science. Only 28% of the world’s scientific researchers are women.

If women aren’t encouraged to pursue careers in scientific fields, it’s unlikely they’re going to have the confidence to write in a genre that uses science as a launch pad for fiction.

AND YET, many women are writing science fiction, even without professional or educational backgrounds in science. Once again, while I agree with Lovell’s overall thesis, I feel like her argument is erasing the women who have already been here. I think she’s buying into the line that hard SF is better, and therefore women should be writing it.

(And, once again, she gives far too much credence to the Puppies.)

We move onto the history of the genre, and the backlash against Frankenstein when its anonymous author was revealed to be a young woman. (The same thing happened to Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights, because people are legit terrible.) And that leads us to the use of male pseudonyms in SF. Enter James Tiptree Jr.

Not only did she enjoy more success as a male writer, she was also in a better position to advocate for female writers. She even found that her female pseudonym Raccoona Sheldon was more likely to be included in anthologies if her submission was accompanied by a letter of recommendation from Tiptree.

Unfortunately, once it was revealed that Tiptree was, as she so sadly described herself, “nothing but an old lady from Virginia”, she lost much of the authority and respect she had previously enjoyed in the male-dominated science fiction community.

So here’s a complicated tangle of Things That Bug Me:

Lovell discusses Tiptree, and links to a review of Letters to Tiptree, published by the Australian small press Twelfth Planet Press, a business whose very existence and critical success should be evidence of a change within the SF community, and therefore relevant to Lovell’s essay.

But she makes no mention of Twelfth Planet Press or Letters to Tiptree — while giving a great deal of attention, even direct quotes, to the various Puppies. Who were created in response to the presence of feminism in the Best Related Work category of the Hugos, and who, in 2016, managed to flood that ballot, leading to the exclusion of not only Letters to Tiptree, but also Edward James’s biography of Lois McMaster Bujold, and several other works by or about women.

In short, the Puppies were born to keep women’s opinions out of the Hugo Awards. This year they succeeded, and Lovell, presented with an opportunity to rectify that, chose instead to give them oxygen. I don’t think this was out of intentional malice, but is a result of the inadequacy and shallowness of her research.

Both the Puppies groups stand against affirmative action as a way of redressing the imbalance between the sexes in science fiction. However, there are many reasons why affirmative action by publishers and reviewers is needed in a genre suffering from entrenched sexism.

The latest SF Count – the speculative fiction community’s own mini version of the VIDA count of women in literary arts – was announced in May this year. The SF Count tracks the gender and race balance of both books reviewed and their reviewers.

No argument here … except…

The story told by these figures changes significantly when you consider only the five publications that are purely science fiction focusedAnalog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction, New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation: the international review of science fiction and Science Fiction Studies. Of these, the average percentage of reviews of books by women is 22%, meaning more than three in four books reviewed in science fiction publications are written by men.

Okay, but choosing to exclude publications which focus on fantasy and science fiction is going to give you a false result. Lovell has here fallen into the trap of devaluing fantasy, to the point where her own argument is compromised, because who can trust her statistics?

And weren’t we just talking about the trap of dismissing women’s writing as fantasy?

(For a much better discussion of the 2016 SF Count, see Galactic Suburbia’s 11 May episode.)

And yes, reviewers can cry the impossibility of reviewing what isn’t published, just as publishers can claim the impossibility of publishing more women’s writing when it isn’t submitted, and judging panels can lament the impossibility of considering more women’s books for awards when so few are entered.

But it would be far better for the science fiction industry to recognise it has an ethical responsibility to work to correct the imbalance it has perpetuated for far too long, and get started.

Sure. This is another conversation the community has been having for a while, and will no doubt continue to have into the future.

But, you know, ignoring the works that already exist is also a problem, and Lovell is perpetuating it. For example:

We need women to be able to participate fully and equally in science fiction’s conversations about humanity’s future – to shape how women are portrayed in those visions, to consider the roles women might play in those futures, and to imagine what a truly evolved and advanced society might look like for women.

It sure is a shame that no women have done that before and aren’t doing it now! OH WAIT.

Somewhere, Lovell took a wrong turn from “why don’t we have gender parity in SF publishing?” into “where are the women?” And the answer, as always, is, the women are right here, where we’ve always been. That some spectators treat us as invisible is not, in fact, our fault.

Further Reading:

Judith Tarr, Where Have All The Women Gone? 

“How come women don’t write science fiction/fantasy/insert subgenre-not-romance here? Or why haven’t they written it since, like, well, last week when I read one by a lady and I thought it was pretty good and I think, did it win an award or something? But there aren’t any others and I don’t get it.” Sometimes with bonus, “Do I have to write it myself?”

I used to say I had a superpower. In person, online, you name it. I’m invisible. A very famous publisher once said, “She might as well write in invisible ink for all the notice she gets.”

Tansy Rayner Roberts, Fantasy, Female Writers & The Politics of Influence

FANTASY COOTIES! But Tansy’s discussion of the way genre’s institutional memory discards and forgets the female writers of the past also applies to SF.

Tansy Rayner Roberts (again), SF Women of the 20th Century

And here she highlights some of the “forgotten” women of the genre.

11 thoughts on “The invisible women

  1. I am so glad you did this! That article is well-meaning, I think, but infuriating. Minor correction: the Geek Feminism wiki is wrong. Sword of Aldones was nominated for the 1963 Hugo, but the winner was Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I don’t think Bradley ever won a Hugo.

    1. There must be an equivalent to the “if you criticise someone’s grammar, you will make an error yourself” rule with regard to criticising other people’s research!

  2. Adrian Billiau

    This is a brilliant outline of all the things that bugged me about the article that I was not well informed enough to explain.

    Something that I would like to bring up is that the definitions she used of hard and soft science fiction don’t match the generally accepted usage. She has linked them to hard and soft sciences instead of to the scientific accuracy of the setting. This is particularly interesting because it subverts her own argument. Many of the previous Hugo Award winning authors work and write in the soft sciences. Isaac Asimov was a biologist and that comes through in some of his works. His robots books are works of maths and pure logic, but his most famous, Foundation, is all about sociology. You don’t get much softer science then sociology. Most of Robert Heinlein’s famous works are also about sociology (Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, Have Space Suit, Will Travel) and Frank Herbert was always talking about biology; through forced evolution, through social pressures, through gene engineering.

    And a book recommendation, because it’s practically an automatic reaction at this point. “Code of Conduct” by Kristine Smith. First of a series of 4 books about a woman working in communications for the military who refuses to be part of a smuggling ring and driven out of her job because of it. Throw in some contact with a properly alien culture, some massively illegal biological research and a discussion of what happens when digital copying and editing becomes so good that only things written on physical paper can be trusted.

    1. That’s a very good point! I missed it because I was thinking about Bujold having to defend her biology background in the face of critics harping on about her handwaved FTL travel.

      And thank you for the rec! TO THE LIBRARY!

      1. merriank

        The Jani Kilian books by Kristine Smith are now re-released as ebooks. I read them back in the day as paperbacks and have gladly updated with ebooks. They’re books where the body is where the battles are fought

  3. Pingback: Links Roundup 09/23/16 — Pretty Terrible

  4. Statistics aren’t my thing, but I’m pretty certain that if we run the numbers, that “female domination of science fiction awards of late” will tally out at roughly 30%.

    Just a minor nitpick:
    That’s almost true for the Hugo awards — 41% of the Hugo (written) fiction awards in the last ten years went to women — but for the Nebulas it’s actually 80%.

  5. mirlacca

    Lovell relies on Miller to assert that because Le Guin is famous, other women not only are not famous but cannot BE famous. Yet that reasoning does not, somehow, apply to men, even though Miller uses male pronouns ““it is, after all, the Author anthologised and institutionalised who by his (canonical) presence excludes the less-known works of women and minority writers and who by his authority justifies the exclusion”. Of course, no one has ever anthologized Bradbury, or Heinlein, or Asimov, or Clarke, which is why so many less well-known men are not excluded by their presence and authority.

    For some reason, a Bradbury short story takes up about 6,000 words of an anthology, while a Le Guin short story takes up about 80,000 words. That’s one damn powerful short story.

    The argument is bullshit. Compare anthologies edited by men and anthologies edited by women, and let’s take a look at THOSE statistics. Look at who’s making the choices, and let’s stop saying that it’s Le Guin’s fault that the editors are using tokenism to justify their sexism.

      1. mirlacca

        It has nothing to do with Le Guin; it has to do with the fact that the argument Miller makes is invalid. Again, I would like to see a comparison (by year) of the number of anthologies edited by men, and by women, and how many women show up in each, respectively. I think the results will show that until fairly recently, it comes down to pervasive sexism of the editors involved.

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