Planning and Polling

Right then. We have talked about women writers and science fiction in Britain (and talked, and talked: I’m pretty sure it’s now the longest comment thread we’ve ever had here). The conversation isn’t over – although extensive, it was a pretty small group of people involved, after all; and let’s be honest, it’s been a more man-heavy group than is ideal. But the situation is pretty clear. Opportunities for women writing science fiction novels in this country are limited, and have become more limited over the course of the last decade; and it seems likely this has to do with an increasingly restricted, male-oriented definition of what is publishable as science fiction. Many of the causes are undoubtedly systemic, but it behooves us to resist them so far as is possible.

This must be – already is, for many – an ongoing project, but it will necessarily be composed of individual actions. My individual action is that I’m going to go and read some of the books on that list of 2010 UK releases by women that we put together, and post reviews here in the first week of December – that is, Monday 6th to Friday 10th. Perhaps it’ll give you some things to put on your holiday wishlist, or some ideas for presents for others.

Here’s the first audience participation bit: I invite you all to join me. This shouldn’t be a hardship: the danger in talking about how little science fiction by women is published in the UK is that we forget how good some of it is. But the more people join in, the more books get talked about, and the clearer their importance to the field becomes. We’ve been talking about science fiction published in the UK, so that’s where I’d like to focus; but I’ll link to any reviews of sf by women posted during that week, if you tell me about them.

The second audience participation bit is this. Several times during last week’s discussion, issues of canon formation and the field’s memory came up, and how these work against women writers: the Gollancz all-male “Future Classics” promotion was mentioned as both symptom and cause of the current situation in the UK. So I think we should put together a corrective, an additional list of Future Classics by women.

I therefore invite you all to email me your top ten sf novels by women from the last ten years (2001–2010), before 23.59 on Sunday 5 December. Again, science fiction, although I leave it up to your conscience to decide which, if any, books that excludes. And for this, I think, the books can have been published anywhere. I’ll collate all the votes, and announce an overall top ten in the same week as I post my reviews (and highlight which books haven’t been published in the UK). To get you started, here are the decade’s nominees for the Clarke, BSFA, Hugo, Nebula, and Tiptree awards; Locus Online also has a directory of published books going back to 2002. And hey, if over the next few weeks you want to blog about your favourites – or send me a paragraph to post here – don’t let me stop you.

I have a few other ideas, but they’re half-formed — I’d like to see what additional data can be gathered, for instance. In the meantime, feel free to add your suggestions, and please spread the word. There’s a lot we can’t fix, but we can at least show that the books that are published are welcomed, and appreciated!

59 thoughts on “Planning and Polling

  1. No, the top ten is for everywhere — but I’ll be interested to see which British books make it, of course. And if enough people respond, maybe I’ll be able to do a separate British top ten.

  2. Since I made it for myself anyway I thought I would share my list of the books by women from the Clarke, BSFA, Hugo, and Nebula pages Niall linked. The Tiptree’s generally longer shortlists defeated me but there’s plenty more there as well. I’m not personally very invested in drawing lines between SF and fantasy so I didn’t attempt to filter. And I apologize in advance for accidents like missing someone, including a man, etc.

    They are in chronological order per award starting in 2001, but some may not be eligible (for example I’m pretty sure A Secret History was 2000 but it was shortlisted in 2001) per Niall’s criteria.

    Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents
    Mary Gentle, Ash: A Secret History
    Gwyneth Jones, Bold as Love
    Elizabeth Moon, Speed of Dark
    Gwyneth Jones, Midnight Lamp
    Tricia Sullivan, Maul
    Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife
    Liz Williams, Banner of Souls
    Lydia Millet, On Pure and Radiant Heart
    The Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall
    Sheri S Tepper, The Margarets
    Gwynneth Jones, Spirit

    Gwyneth Jones, Castles Made of Sand
    Gwyneth Jones, Midnight Lamp
    Tricia Sullivan, Maul
    Justina Robson, Natural History
    Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
    Justina Robson, Living Next Door to the God of Love
    Liz Williams, Darkland
    Ursula K Le Guin, Lavinia

    JK Rowling, Goblet of Fire
    Lois McMaster Bujold, Curse of Chalion
    Connie Willis, Passage
    Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
    Naomi Novik, His Majesty’s Dragon
    Cherie Priest, Boneshaker
    Catherynne M Valente, Palimpsest

    Catherine Asaro, The Quantum Rose
    Patricia McKillip, The Tower at Stony Wood
    Connie Willis, Passage
    Kelley Eskridge, Solitaire
    Elizabeth Moon, Speed of Dark
    Lois McMaster Bujold, Diplomatic Immunity
    Carol Emshwiller, The Mount
    Kathleen Ann Goonan, Light Music
    Nalo Hopkinson, The Salt Roads
    Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls
    Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
    Ellen Kushner, The Privilege of the Sword
    Jo Walton, Farthing
    Nalo Hopkinson, The New Moon’s Arms
    Ursula K Le Guin, Powers
    Laura Anne Gilman, Flesh and Fire
    Cherie Priest, Boneshaker

  3. Naturally as soon as I post I spot an error. As far as I know no one named The Carhullan Army, female or otherwise, has published a novel called Sarah Hall, but the opposite is true.

  4. Add Hav by Jan Morris to the ACCA list (next to the Lydia Millet, chronologically).
    — Mark

  5. A great topic, sorry I missed the first discussion. And timely as I’ve been writing about this topic on my own blog and doing reviews of SF books written by women. As a woman who writes SF it’s a subject that occupies my thoughts quite a bit and I applaud this effort no end.

    I add Ninni Holmqvist – The Unit (I’ll be posting a review of this on Beyond Fiction soon actually)

  6. Niall – I’m still reeling from this received wisdom that Perdido Street Station is SF – apparently I was the last to know.

    Could we at least try to set some parameters for what, in this case, we consider SF to be. Because it seems to me it speaks directly to the issue.

  7. I think that by now we all get that you really, really don’t understand why Perdido Street Station won the 2001 Arthur C Clarke Award. However, whilst the reasoning behind this clearly causes you anguish it will have to remain a mystery since the judges of the award do not publicly comment on their decisions. It also appears to be of zero relevance to this post.

  8. Richard: well, my selection of awards should give you some clues as to my view; I did not, after all, link to the World Fantasy Award shortlist. But I’m not going to exclude anyone’s nominations because they don’t meet my definition. I’m pulling a Damon Knight: the ten best science fiction novels of the last decade written by women will be whatever the respondents to the poll collectively point to. I’ll be interested to see what picture is painted, too.

  9. Looking at those lists of women nominees for most of the major SF Awards over the past decade several things strike me.
    Most glaring is that despite 4 of her past 6 UK books being shortlisted for either the ACCA or BSFA Award or both, Gollancz kept finding excuses not to promote Gwyneth Jones in their various campaigns. Excuses that continually reinforced the male domination of their promotions. I should also point out that her best novel of the period, Life, hasn’t had a UK edition at all.
    And that leads to the other aspect I spotted. Of the 17 women shortlisted for the Nebula just 5 received a UK publication as far as I can see, which means that many widely discussed novels were never eligible for the ACCA and BSFA Awards. No Bear, Valente, Walton, Sedia, Monette, Priest, Asaro, Hopkinson, Emshwiller, Gilman, Eskridge, etc.
    At Newcon this weekend I had a conversation about women writing what might loosely be termed ‘traditional’ SF, novels at least partially in the Classic mould. We talked about Space Opera in particular, and it was noted that at least two of the most successful authors in that area, both commercially and as award recipients, through the 80s, 90s and the current decade were women. Neither Lois McMaster Bujold nor CJ Cherryh are names that leap to mind first though when Space Opera is mentioned. Why is this? Why is it that when SF by women is published it fails to get noticed to the same extent? Why do we forget about it when we did notice it?
    I do think that a large part of the issue is down to the marketing people, that campaigns that ignore women authors (such as the Future Classics line) reinforce the lingering prejudices of the past about women not writing SF, men not reading women authors etc. But perhaps we as critics, reviewers, bloggers, commentators, conversationalists etc. can do our part in highlighting the women authors a little more ourselves, by being aware of the imbalance on the shelves and seeking out and shouting about our favourites. Maybe all that excitement I saw about a new Culture novel from Iain M Banks might be echoed in a buzz about a new Promethean novel by Elizabeth Bear or a new Inspector Chen book by Liz Williams or whoever? If the publishers misguidedly think there isn’t a market for SF by women let’s prove them wrong.

  10. Bit harsh, Martin – I rate PSS very highly indeed. But if it is indeed SF then so is practically every piece of speculative fiction ever written. Thus my concern. My embryonic list is already leaning heavily towards what could easily be dismissed by purists as “not SF”

    Niall – fair enough. I’m fascinated to see how this shakes down too.

  11. Niall: I’ve just written a piece for linking to this and linking to your other thread and posting my top 10 suggestions. I don’t know when it will go up, probably tomorrow I should think.

  12. I’m going to throw a spanner in the works and give you a list of five from the years 2001-2005. Books from 2006- are just too young to be considered for classic-status. They need to haunt not just not the mind but the genre.

  13. Great idea – I have 5-8 already off the bat but want to study some more before I make my final decisions. Oh, by the way – Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents would be ineligible as well as it was published in the US in 1998 in the states.

  14. Neither Lois McMaster Bujold nor CJ Cherryh are names that leap to mind first though when Space Opera is mentioned. Why is this? Why is it that when SF by women is published it fails to get noticed to the same extent? Why do we forget about it when we did notice it?

    These are two of my favorite authors so they always leap to my mind when these discussions come up. I don’t see them mentioned much, perhaps because discussions in these parts are tilted towards British SF. I am still floored by the assertion in the previous thread that Bujold is not in print in the UK.

    That said, although it pains me to admits it, as much fun as the Miles books are, they are a lot less “literary” than the work of Banks, Reynolds, MacLeod, and other New Space Opera types, and those guys have probably defined space opera for a lot of British fans. Particularly the earlier books in the Miles series. I know people have been saying women don’t get respect as artists so I feel bad saying it, but that’s why I put literary in scare quotes. Personally I vastly prefer the Miles books to the Reynolds and MacLeod books I have read and all but the best of Banks’ work.

    Cherryh is sort of similar…most of her Alliance/Union work is basically old fashioned space opera, not New Space Opera, and again is not really “literary”. I haven’t read most of the Foreigner books but my perception is they are more sociological SF in the Le Guin tradition than space opera. The caveat here is Cyteen which feels very different and is IMO very literary in its aspirations, but it’s one of my absolute favorite novels so I’m not very objective about it. However based on how Cherryh’s publisher felt about the Cyteen sequel I think it’s safe to say her other work sells better.

  15. Why do we forget about it when we did notice it?

    I discounted this statement initially (“Maybe YOU forget about them”) but actually I’m coming around to it. Between 1980 and 2000 a woman won the Hugo Award for best novel 8 times. Or rather, 4 women won it 8 times: Joan D Vinge (1), Cherryh (2), Bujold (3), and Connie Willis (2). All for novels that were unambiguously science fiction, if it matters (it wasn’t until 2001 that another woman’s obscure fantasy novel kicked down the doors for fantasy at the Hugo).

    My hazy feeling is if I ranked the 21 winners (Willis shared the award with Vernor Vinge one year) by the amount I see them discussed today, the ones by female writers would be near the bottom of the list except possibly the two Willis novels. The only book by a male writer of comparable obscurity is Forever Peace, which in my opinion was the weakest winner from that period by far. If you ranked them by sales my wild guess is it’d be the same except with Bujold instead of Willis as the exception. But quality-wise I feel like Snow Queen, Cyteen, etc. are extremely competitive with most of the other winners.

    I don’t know if this is significant or not (or if I’m imagining all this).

  16. Simon: Well, fair enough, I guess, but then why not just pick ten books from the first five years?

    Bob: Cheers, I am checking all publication dates when people send their lists.


    I am still floored by the assertion in the previous thread that Bujold is not in print in the UK.

    If it helps, Cherryh isn’t in print over here either…

  17. I’ve now read 4 Reynolds novels and I’m really not sure about the label ‘literary’ being applied to him. I see him very much as being a writer in the same vein as Asher and Hamilton but… you know… actually readable and not a Tory.

    I certainly wouldn’t categorise Pushing Ice as being in any way literary. It’s a BDO story and as such is very much mainstream core genre.

  18. Great idea, Niall – I shall work on a list for 2000-2010 – also print off the 2010 list and try and read some before December. Might also be interesting to see what’s available locally in bookshops and report back on that. Maybe, Waterstones always stock same stuff – but i think there is some variation and there are independent bookshops around. I’m interested to see how many books from that 2010 list can be actually found on the shelf. And, in general, in terms of women writers and so-called ‘boom’ what actually gets stocked in sf sections. In some ways, I feel I know already – but that is usually a good sign that one should actually go and look properly.

  19. Niall, I want to blog this but I’m not sure on the deadline for the lists? Is it first week of December, or sooner than that?

  20. Niall: Actually I am probably just be guilty of grouping writers based on hearsay rather than firsthand familiarity. I’ve read almost every SF novel by Cherryh, Bujold, and Iain M Banks but my exposure to Reynolds and MacLeod is limited to two books each and almost a decade ago. And in fact it’s probably been that long since I read Downbelow Station. So I’m happy to stand corrected.

    As for Cherryh not being in print in the UK either, well, I’m a little less shocked by it since I feel like Cherryh peaked in recognition a little earlier than Bujold did. I look forward to when the publishing world modernizes to the point that authors are in print in English and that’s that (I think there’s a publisher already buying worldwide English rights or not at all, and in some scenarios publishers themselves are on the way out anyway).

  21. Wow – it has taken me days to read through all the related posts here.

    Niall, your idea is fabulous. I think we should shout it from the rooftops.

    I’ve been thinking about how this relates to the BSFA Award too. Certainly, from the POV of taking in nominations for the BSFA Awards last year, it was clear that there was no lack of women writing sf, and being read.

    That said, I think it can be said that more members put thought into their lists – obviously so.

    Many women got nominated in the Best Novel category, particularly on long lists of nominations, but most people nominated between 1 and 5 books, and only a few sent very long lists: so there were lots of fine books by women with sometimes perhaps just 1 nomination.

    As the administrator, I would not want to be undermining the impartiality of the awards – it’s an award for fans to decide the outcome of and fandom at least seems to be discussing this – well, we are here. However, as I’ve been getting to grips with running the award, I do want to be listening to people and work out how we can get people to read more, debate more… and just be excited by all the quality writing being produced at the moment… but I don’t want to be prescriptive. This is something we do for pleasure, after all.

    But this is great… a project that will get more people thinking about what makes enduring sf. I don’t think people do tend to pick their favourites lightly, but how many of us don’t realise our internal censors, biases and prejudices when we put our stamp on a choice to say ‘this is good’? And as it doesn’t really touch on this year’s awards – well, hardly – I’m happy to write about this elsewhere too.

  22. That said, I think it can be said that more members put thought into their lists – obviously so.

    What’s not obvious is what I meant here… some think about this more than others! Tired brain.

  23. I haven’t been much involved–I don’t have much to say except that I really appreciate what Niall’s doing here.

    I just wanted to drop a note to say that I posted a little essay about how Perdido Street Station can be read as sf, and a particular rule of thumb I use for sf vs. fantasy debates, over at my blog:

    I thought that Richard Morgan and Martin might be interested.

  24. As a long-time (and now long-suffering, as she seems to write the same book over and over) Cherryh fan, I think that what differentiates Cherryh’s, let’s call it “space adventure fiction,” from Reynolds’s/MacLeod’s/Banks’s space adventure fiction isn’t literariness per se, it’s that it takes place on a known map, metaphorically speaking.

    There’s never a moment in a C.J. Cherryh space adventure novel where you and the characters find out something you didn’t know about the laws of physics, or the deep history of the universe, or what have you (which you’ll almost always find in Reynolds); or even one where (as is more Banks’s line) your assumptions about the institutions and political players in the story-world are turned upside down. (MacLeod I think does a bit of both.) The development of the story is almost all on the level of character, and a little on the level of politics — cf. Walter Jon Williams’ Praxis trilogy.

    I haven’t read much Bujold but my impression of the handful of Miles books and stories I have read is similar, and I think this is what divides “new” and “old” space opera for me.

    (Though having recently plowed through some Doc Smith, I should admit that it’s basically nothing *but* previously undiscovered “laws of physics” and complete reorientations of the political/institutional landscape, if constant repurposing of humanity’s last enemy as an ally against the next counts as reorientation of the landscape.)

    I should have a name for this, but it’s 6:15 a.m. here and I can’t come up with one.

  25. Since my name has come up in the discussion … I must add that I moved to Western Canada in 1995, and after the option on my fourth novel was not picked up, did not submit the 2 SF novels I subsequently wrote to any UK publishers. NOT because of any ill-feeling, but because the communications, distribution and customs hassles of my first 2 years taught me more than I needed to know about the challenges of being published on one side of the ocean while living on another. But I had a moment of illumination when I visited Bakka books in Toronto in 2007 and found several recent books by women writers I’d read in the 80s and 90s, whom I didn’t know were still publishing because they were publishing with small presses – I wasn’t alone.

    But still, two years of grad school epidemiology doesn’t let me take for granted it’s gender that is the determinant, rather than some other factor or factors that’s correlated with gender. Being full time versus being part time, for instance. Frequency of publication? Age of first publication? Date of first publication? Aside from the academic interest, there may be modifiable factors in there. I’m sure there’s already a lot of literature – I turned up one paper purely by chance, on “Age and individual differences in artistic productivity” in a sample of British novelists (Crozier, WR. Creativity Research Journal 1999; 12(3): 197-204). Has anyone already looked at the SF field? I have an idea as to how I’d design a study to look at career determinants after first publication, and the programming of a multivariate analysis is fairly straightforward, but the thought of the data-wrangling involved daunts me.

  26. Thanks for the comment, Alison. I can’t think of anyone who’s looked at the sf field with that degree of rigour — doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done, of course, and I’d certainly like to see it done. I wonder whether there are any organisations that could fund such a study…

  27. Just to throw a spanner into the works, I did a quick run down of the hugo and nebula shortlists over this period.
    Short Fic
    Hugo 8 women out of 50
    Nebula 35/70
    Hugo 15/55
    Nebula 16/52
    Hugo 8/52
    Nebula 18/58

  28. Connie Willis has only been shortlisted twice for the Nebula in the last decade.

    From a quick glance, it looks like the novel ballots have had more conventional SF titles over the last decade, while the short fiction ballots have had more unconventional stuff, often by women writers. This could indicate that women have a better chance in the low-prestige, low-paying fields of short fiction than in the big leagues of novels. (And whether this applies to U.S. publishing as a whole, or just SFWA’s voting patterns, is another question.)

  29. David: as Ted says, only two were Connie Willis but in balance to that several were Karen Joy Fowler and Kij Johnson, and there was a heavy weighting towards a man called Stross on the male side.

  30. Before I start finally turning my mind to this question – would L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan cycle count as one very long book in 5 parts, or 5 separate novels (they do work as stand-alones rather than continuing episodes that you have to have read the predecessors to follow)?

  31. I’m counting them as stand-alones at the moment, although I’m willing to be convinced that I’m wrong. There are a only a couple of cases (Black Out/All Clear being the most notable) where I’m allowing multiple volumes as one novel, basically when there’s a clear statement from the author saying “this work is a single novel”.

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