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!

Short Story Club: “Miguel and the Viatura”

I can’t see any coverage for this week’s story in either the print Locus or the online one, so it’s left to the SSC stalwarts to kick things off. Matt Hilliard:

My reaction to the story is similar to how I felt about “A Serpent in the Gears”. That story was steampunk and this one is cyberpunk (or post-cyberpunk, or whatever it’s called this week) but both stories spend almost their entire length on introductions. We are introduced to the titular Miguel and his brother, but, like “Serpent”, the emphasis is on introducing the world. Also like “Serpent”, this story assembles a set of tropes common to its subgenre almost as if it is ticking off boxes: poverty-stricken non-first world setting, telepresence, nanites, environmental problems, evil corporations, and a technofetishist cult, just to name some of the big ones. Like “Serpent” it does a good job with these things, and is in fact tied together with what I thought was somewhat stronger writing, but alas it has a final similarity with “Serpent” in that I found the plot to be incomplete and unsatisfying.

Pam Philips:

Maybe I missed some clues or unstated assumptions, but it’s not entirely clear to me why Joaõ asks Miguel to help him find their father. Joaõ is so vague about the situation that he manages to hurt Miguel deeply without even touching him. Miguel is almost entirely on the receiving end of the action, but the powers that be leap to the conclusion that he is to blame. Mostly things happen to Miguel, and all he can do is protest. Sure he’s a kid, and he grows up a little, but I was left with no idea what he was going to do in the end. There’s also a “torture is pointless and cruel” scene that goes on way too long, but I suppose it wouldn’t be torture if it stopped when you got tired of it.

As for the technology, this comes off as one of those nano-can-do-anything stories. I was also jarred by the term “nanite”, which I mostly associate with Star Trek. Finally, what we see of nanotech seems to be confined to making people into monsters. What’s the point? These people sure as hell don’t need technology to act monstrously.

Chad Orzel:

I don’t recognize the author’s name, but this story is very much in the same vein as the stuff I’ve read by Paolo Bacigalupi and others. I’m not sure if there’s really a formal literary movement in this, a la “cyberpunk” or the “New Weird,” but it’s tempting to think of this sort of story in those terms, as a part of the Recent Unpleasantness. Because, really, that’s the defining trait of these stories: every aspect of the thing, from the setting to the characters to the actions that drive the plot, is chosen to make the result as unpleasant as possible.

Is there more to it? The floor is open.

No Boom Today?

I’m breaking this topic out from yesterday’s thread because it’s something of a tangent. Paul Kincaid said:

I have a distinct if unquantifiable sense that sf in Britain has become more male-oriented over the last few years (since, if you like, the end of the so-called British renaissance). I have no idea why this should be.

I asked whether he’d be willing to put a date on that ending. Martin Lewis suggested:

2000? Publication of Look To Windward in which Banks symbolically loops back to Consider Phlebas. Also publication of Revelation Space which marks the rise of Alastair Reynolds and the new generation of British male space opera writers.

To which I have just replied:

Not sure about that. Andrew Butler’s article on the boom [pdf] wasn’t published until 2003, and refers to it as contemporaneous: “It is asserted that there is currently a boom within British science fiction — by editors, by critics, by authors, by readers, in the pages of Science Fiction Studies and in the publicity for some events at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London in May 2003. Let us assume that this is not a mass delusion, and there is indeed a boom.” He also includes Reynolds in his census of boomers, which I think is right; to me it feels as though the period, say, 98-03 is when the boom really got traction. I might even pick Interaction as its peak moment, with that all-Brit shortlist for the Best Novel Hugo. I suppose you could say that’s also when it ended, but to be honest, until Paul’s comment I thought of it as a continuing phenomenon.

Your thoughts? It now occurs to me that Paul may have simply meant to suggest that the shift he detected in itself could be taken as a marker of the end of the boom/renaissance, although I’m not sure that holds up. Surely the central marker of a boom has to be the visibility and success of the thing that is booming, and I don’t think there’s been a change for British sf on either front — or if there has, it’s been upwards, given the recent Hugo successes of messrs Gaiman, Stross and Mieville. And Doctor Who.

Women and the Clarke

There’s an interview with Tricia Sullivan at Geek Syndicate that’s worth a look; it covers her new novel, Lightborn, but one of Sullivan’s longest answers comes in response to a question about the Arthur C Clarke Award:

8. I’ve just checked on the winners of the last ten years’ Clarke Awards and I must admit to being shocked. Nine male winners, one female winner. Something about this quota strikes me as wrong. I’ve double checked and female authors have been shortlisted, which is nice, yet no one else has won. I find this peculiar. Where do you stand on this perceived “unequality”?

I went and looked it up and here’s what I found: gender parity in the judges has been spotty over time, but in recent years there’s generally pretty good ratio of women:men on the juries. One would think this would mean more women on the shortlist and winning awards. Not so.

For the first ten years from the award’s inception in 1987 until 1996, the genders were balanced, five female winners and five male. Between 1997-2006 there were three female winners out of ten (Mary Doria Russell, Gwyneth Jones, and me) and between 2006-2010 there have been no female winners. The shortlist since 2000 has included Gwyneth Jones a whole bunch of times, Sheri Tepper, Sarah Hall, Lydia Millet, Jan Morris, Liz Williams, Audry Niffeneger, me, Elizabeth Moon, Connie Willis, Justina Robson twice, Octavia Butler, Mary Gentle, and Kathleen Ann Goonan. Yet, since 2003 there has been only one year with more than one female author on the ballot. What are the odds of a woman being chosen when the judges’s shortlist is 80% male or more?

I do not know why this is the case, but I wonder whether, with science fiction declining greatly in the US, there may not be enough women playing the SF game right now. Only the most successful writers can survive in this climate, and that probably means women are being forced out at a higher rate than men. Without much input from women in North America or Australia, the burden may be falling on UK SF writers.

I think this diagnosis is broadly accurate. Certainly we can say that the number of books by women being submitted for the award is pretty low. For the last award, 20% of submissions were by women; for the 2009 award it was 13%; and for the 2008 award, 13%. Before that the submissions weren’t published, but as a judge I can tell you that the submissions for the 2007 award were in the same ball park. My perception is that the first half of the decade was slightly better, although I don’t really know. Over the whole decade, however, 13 of 60 nominations, or 22%, have gone to women, which seems to be proportional.

That said, at that sort of rate you’d also expect to have had two women win over the decade, and there’s only been one, Gwyneth Jones in 2002. As Sullivan notes, I don’t think this can be attributed to an imbalance in judges, although there is room for improvement there; 34% of 50 judges over the period have been women. Women have made up the majority of the panel (i.e. 3 of 5 judges) twice in the last ten years, for the 2008 and 2009 awards; for the 2002 award, 2 of 5 judges were women.

Another way of looking at whether there are “enough women playing the SF game right now” is to consider how the boundaries are drawn, as Sullivan goes on to do:

We have a strong crop of men in writing SF in the UK now, and of course we have Karen Traviss and Jaine Fenn doing very well with commercial SF. But on the more literary side, only Gwyneth Jones has had recent recognition with many nominations and a win–and she’s achieved this despite the fact that she divides her energy with her alter ego, Ann Halam. Liz Williams’ work tends to be regarded as fantasy despite its cool SF elements; same with Stephanie Swainston. Sadly, Pat Cadigan hasn’t published an SF novel in nearly ten years. Justina and I have been dealing with pregnancies and babies and toddlers–I can’t speak for her, but for myself: been wrecked, for years. Brain and body and time, seriously drained. In this country we have women like Claire Weaver and Heather Bradshaw and I’m sure there are many others publishing short fiction, and abroad Aliette de Bodard looks like she’s going to be a major force. Still, in SF there aren’t enough women to fill in the gaps when one steps back for whatever reason.

And of course, since 2001 China Mieville has won three times. That does skew things toward the boys. But he has won with two fantasies and what is purported to be a crime novel, so that rather stretches the idea of what a science fiction prize is all about. I’m not sure why Stephanie Swainston’s work or Cathryn M. Valente’s Palimpset isn’t received as SF on the same basis as China’s, for example–or is it? I don’t know.

I’m guessing that literary novels employing SF ideas are more likely to be recognized than urban fantasy–which has loads of female authors–because science fiction ideas have wormed their way into the mainstream and now seep into literary fiction. The problem then becomes, where do the new ideas come from?

If we ask how many British women are publishing original adult science fiction with a major genre publisher in Britain, the answer is pretty bleak: with neither Liz Williams nor Gwyneth Jones having contracts at the moment, I think the answer may be just one writer, Jaine Fenn. [Edit: As of next year, thanks to a change in publisher, Sophia McDougall will meet these criteria; there is also the mysterious RJ Frith.] This is from one point of view a fairly restrictive way of drawing the boundaries, since if you drop out any one of those criteria you can easily think of more women, but in another sense it’s not strict at all, because it’s easy to identify a substantial cohort of male writers that fit the equivalent question: Neal Asher, Iain Banks, Stephen Baxter, Eric Brown, Ken MacLeod, Paul McAuley, Ian McDonald, Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts, Charles Stross, etc etc.

Of course, the Clarke doesn’t care about the nationality of the writer, or about who a writer’s publisher is. (Indeed, although the numbers involved are fairly small, I find it striking that “non-genre” books account for 1 in 3 Clarke Award nominations for women [4 of 13, or 31%] compared to 1 in 8 for men [6 of 47, or 13%].) It also already has a fairly flexible definition of sf, although not so flexible as to admit pure urban fantasy; but Liz Williams’ books have (I think) always been submitted, and shortlisted several times; Justina Robson’s recent fantasy/sf hybrids have also been submitted, although not shortlisted; and I’m guessing Gollancz will submit Sarah Pinborough’s near future supernatural horror A Matter of Blood this year. (Steph Swainston does not seem to be submitted, although I think Sullivan is right that she could be — some books more than others; The Modern World is her most sfnal, for me, this year’s Above the Snowline probably her least.) These factors account for most of the other submitted books by women. The Award could probably give broader consideration to YA fiction than it currently does; Gemma Malley’s books don’t seem to be have submitted, for instance, or Malorie Blackman’s. And there are, as Sullivan notes, some writers whose tie-in fiction who may be worth considering, such as Karen Traviss — her original fiction has still not been published in the UK. But I don’t think this would raise the submission statistics to parity, or anything like it, and it does not address the apparent imbalance in UK genre publishing.

The Clarke Award has not produced an all-male shortlist since its second year, but unless something changes, I imagine we’ll see another quite soon. To be positive, however, I don’t think it will be this year; here’s a list of all the books by women that I can think of that are eligible for this year’s award.

Candor, Pam Bachorz
Zoo City, Lauren Beukes
Servant of the Underworld, Aliette de Bodard
Alice in Time, Penelope Bush
Transformation Space, Marianne de Pierres
Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins
Guardians of Paradise, Jaine Fenn
[The Nemesis List, RJ Frith?]
Feed, Mira Grant
The Carbon Diaries 2017, Saci Lloyd
The Birth of Love, Joanna Kavenna
The Returners, Gemma Malley
The Legacy, Gemma Malley
[The Folding Knife, KJ Parker?]
A Matter of Blood, Sarah Pinborough
The Dead-Tossed Waves, Carrie Ryan
Birdbrain, Johanna Sinisalo
2017, Olga Slavnikova
Lightborn, Tricia Sullivan
Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas
Walking the Tree, Kaaron Warren

Who have I missed?

Short Story Club: “The Red Bride”

The story is here. Rich Horton liked this one; from the September Locus:

Finally, at Strange Horizons in July I particularly liked “The Red Bride” by Samantha Henderson. It’s a simple story, slyly told, set on an alien planet (apparently, though the feel is deliberately fantastical) as the long-enslaved local race finally revolts, behind the title character. That’s the penumbra to the story, but the heart is in one servant, telling a human girl what’s going on, and hinting at her possibly merciful (or not!) fate.

The story also gets a positive mention (but no more than a mention) from Gardner Dozois.

Lois Tilton says:

The metafictional aspects of this tale, the issues of translation, raise it above the usual versions. I often wonder about the dissemination of story ideas, when suddenly a number of authors seem to be working with the same ideas. Another story of a slave language and slave revolution appeared only a month ago in another zine; I greatly prefer this one.

And Patrick Hudson comments:

The implied setting, sketched in with great economy and effect, reminded me a little of Gwyneth Jones’s Spirit. The Var in this story made me think of the strange creatures of Sigurt’s world, where Bibi is kidnapped and imprisoned: they seem to have a similar violent streak and there’s also the contested question of common human/alien origins.

The Var, however, have clearly been enslaved by the humans, and this is the story of a slave race revolting. It’s an apocalypse, in fact, scorching the Earth clean to allow fresh growth. The Red Bride is a kind of avenger, coming out in her race’s time of need to help them.

The story is also, and most importantly in regards to SF, a description of an alien race, with an alien culture and life cycle. Henderson infuses the servant’s narration and the uprising of the slaves with details of the way these creatures live – she’s dramatising her novum. Yes, it’s a dark tale, but without that darkness, there would be no drama here.

And, as last week, I’m scheduling this post before my holiday, so you’ll have to add your comments in the comments. (I should be nearly home at the point this goes live, though.)