Birds, Dinosaurs, and the Secret Life of Labels

Well, another month has passed, and here is another post from me that contains more questions than answers. This post is particularly question-ridden because it arises from a very recent experience that I’m still digesting. I went to Readercon last weekend, where I spoke on several panels about gender in science fiction. Most of those panels turned into discussions not of gender in the abstract, but of women in science fiction. And specifically of the problem of there not being enough of them.

This twist was hardly surprising given the controversial discussions of the underrepresentation of women in SF — particularly Hard SF — that have been unfolding at SFsignal and elsewhere in the online SF community. However, it did bring into clearer focus something that has surprised me over the last few months: the gusto with which people have been flinging around labels. Feminist SF. Women’s SF. SF by Minorities. White Male SF. People have been deploying these phrases as if they were listing elements in the periodic table. As if they thought that they had some objective lock on the difference between the writings of men and women, or of people with differing skin colors. As if they thought that the author photo on the back cover was the single relevant datapoint for determining which genre a book belongs to and who can reasonably be expected to read it … you know, for fun, and because it’s good science fiction, instead of just to fulfill their annual guilt-expiating requirement for reading books by people who don’t look like them.

After a while it starts to feel like listening to someone pontificate about why the dinosaurs went extinct while sitting in a room full of parakeets. Yes, of course, we can all agree that a bird is not a dinosaur. But is that the only way to talk about birds and dinosaurs? And is it even remotely the most useful or interesting way? And does it really do justice to either birds or dinosaurs in all their complexity?

I keep thinking of Octavia Butler as I’m writing this, because she was a brilliant, multifaceted and widely influential writer who I see as particularly ill-served by this way of talking about science fiction. Are race and gender both central elements in her work? Of course. Was her work deeply important in expanding the diversity and inclusiveness of our genre? You bet. Does that somehow magically erase the fact that she worked across the full spectrum of science fiction from hard SF to fantasy, and that she profoundly influenced almost every science fiction writer of my generation that you have ever heard of? I don’t think so. And I came of age as an SF fan in the decades when you couldn’t walk into a bookstore without seeing a foot-long row of her books in the science fiction section. Yet when I hear people talk about her today, I sometimes feel that there is a secret life of labels in which her widespread influence on the genre as a whole is being increasingly minimized and forgotten.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not making some kind of Kumbaya statement that we’ve reached a post-race, post-gender nirvana in which perfect equality has been achieved and labels no longer matter. I’ve made my living writing hard SF for over a decade. And I am a woman. Which is another way of saying that I’ve seen things that would set any reasonable person’s hair on fire. I’ve also talked to enough women of color in the genre to know that I have it relatively easy compared to them. And more recently, I’ve watched two eminently reasonable colleagues set off full-blown internet firestorms simply by making relatively mild comments about the need to try to address the gender imbalance in science fiction.

Niccola Griffith suggested a “Russ Pledge” (in honor of Joanna Russ) in which people would make a mental note to try to recommend SF by women alongside SF by men — or if they can’t think of “equally good” books by women to honestly admit it, and discuss whether there’s anything the SF community can do to encourage women to participate in certain genres. And Charlie Stross simply stated that it embarrasses him when his stories appear in anthologies with few or no women writers, and that in the future he would prefer not to contribute to them. Do those two statements sound more or less reasonable to you? I mean, is there a problem with Niccola suggesting that people try to talk about SF by women more often? Or with Charlie making a personal choice about which anthologies he chooses to spend his time writing for? Yep, it all seems pretty reasonable to me too. But the reaction in the blogosphere was, to say the least, intense.

So clearly we still have a very long way to go before we reach a world where labels are irrelevant.

Still, I keep coming back to my basic discomfort with the readiness of people to define and label books in ways that have more to do with the name on the cover — or at least so it sometimes seems — than with the words inside. I don’t think my writing is that simple. I don’t think any good writing is that simple. In the end, I don’t think people are that simple.

That is, I fully admit, a gut reaction. And following one’s gut is notoriously dangerous when it comes to this sort of complicated and divisive issue. But even when I dig below the gut reaction, there is another layer of discomfort with the current terms of the debate. And it comes down to this:

I love science fiction. I believe in science fiction. I’ve been reading and writing science fiction for almost as long as I can remember. Writers like Isaac Asimov and Ursula K. LeGuin, C. J. Cherryh and Vernor Vinge, Bruce Sterling and Octavia Butler shaped my vision of what it means to be an intelligent life form in the universe. This is their genre: the genre that reaches out beyond the farthest stars, into the deep mysteries of the universe. The genre that lets us imagine who we might be and how we might see the world if we weren’t even human.

So how can we be stuck, after all this time and all those brilliant flights of imagination, in a stupid fight about whether the genre is even broad enough to include women?

And, more to the point, how do we get out of it?

How do we get back to questioning hidebound traditions, knocking down threadbare assumptions, picking apart stale stereotypes … you know, the stuff science fiction is supposed to be about? How do we move the discussion beyond divisive slugfests about quotas, and toward something a little more in keeping with the science fictional ideal of confronting difficult concepts with creativity and originality? How do we move away from labels and pigeonholes and try to grapple with life in all its glorious diversity … including the awe-inspiring complexity of our own nature as (usually) intelligent diploid organisms who participate in the genetic lottery of evolution by means of sexual reproduction.

Those are my questions. I’d love to hear your answers, however and whenever they come to you. And if you want to follow the evolution of my own thoughts about our genre’s unhealthy addiction to labels? Well … I’m currently working on a guest post for Night Bazaar about Dystopian SF, which seems to be turning into an account of the importance to me as a Hard SF writer of two books that are much more commonly discussed as feminist SF and whose legacy in SF as a whole I feel is often overlooked: Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen.

Filed under Diversity, For Novelists, Hard SF, otherness, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, women in SF. You can also use this URL to trackback.

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  1. 1. Tansy Rayner Roberts

    Wonderful post! The sad thing is we have some answers about how to begin dealing with this situation and making the conversation more constructive – as you mentioned, Nicola Griffith and Charles Stross both came up with a couple of great ones.

    It bugs me so much that such positivity & sensibleness has been met by dramah and the plashing of foreheads. Really? Is it that unreasonable to be asked to talk more about the female authors you like, or for successful male authors to check that books they have been invited to are not adding to the problem?

    It feels as if the conversation is making progress, and that’s an awesome thing. Back, backlash, and let us just get on with it!

  2. 2. sean williams

    Wonderful post, Chris.

  3. 3. tricia sullivan

    Making lots of sense to me :-)

    ‘How do we get back to questioning hidebound traditions, knocking down threadbare assumptions, picking apart stale stereotypes … you know, the stuff science fiction is supposed to be about?’

    This is the thing that kills me. Ah, the irony!

  4. 4. Ryan Viergutz

    Well, in my case, I try to keep an eye out for more female writers. Especially when I find things like The Drowning City, which was a bloody good book.

  5. 5. Ian Sales

    There’s also SF Mistressworks.

  6. 6. Chris Moriarty

    Thanks, people…

    Ryan: I haven’t read Amanda Downum yet, as most of my reading time these days is sucked up by review books and I mostly review SF, not fantasy. But I’ve heard very good things about Downum, and she’s definitely on my personal TBR pile.

    Ian: Big thanks for pointing people toward Mistressworks — and for taking on that project in the first place. It’s really turning into something special. I was especially pleased to see Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman reviewed there recently. I stumbled on it years ago in a used bookstore, and it’s always amazed me it isn’t talked about more than it is.

  7. 7. ithiliana

    I’m 55. I’m a queer woman. I’ve been reading sff since I was about five, starting with “Space Cat Goes to Mars” and “The Mushroom PLanet” series. My father was a geologist and I read all his magazines, and books.

    And I am not sure where this Other Golden Age of which you speak occurred–since at the time the only labels used were science fiction and to a lesser degree fantasy, and the people writing it were mostly white, and overwhelmingly male, and didn’t want to hear any bullshit about women.

    And I was reading Octavia Butler’s novels when they first came out in mass market paperbacks and thinking wow this is totally different because her work was.

    The labels may be uncomfortable at this point, but I see them as reflecting a decades long pushback against the actual SF Golden AGe of no girls required (although we’ll let some publish under male names, or initials, or with their husbands under a pseudonym) that started in the late 1960s.

    When the labels weren’t used, there was no pushback.

    How do we get back to questioning hidebound traditions, knocking down threadbare assumptions, picking apart stale stereotypes … you know, the stuff science fiction is supposed to be about?

    Get back to? A hellufva lot of sf of the 20s-30s-40s-50s was hidebound and stereotyped and popular as hell.

    How do we move away from labels and pigeonholes and try to grapple with life in all its glorious diversity …

    Get back to?????????? As if the attempts to push back against attempts to keep sf pure and white and male didn’t try to bring more diversity into the labels and pigeonholes?

    As if a whole lot of men and women who have grown up in the decades since it started changing aren’t incredibly ignorant about all the history of women and gender and race in sff (if you all haven’t read Merrick and Larbalestier, I’ll wait for you to catch up).

    Butler and Delany are wonderful.

    But if they are the ONLY two sf authors of color a white person can name, then that shows the ongoing problem.

    I’ve seen incredible changes for the good in sff in the fifty ears I’ve been reading, and that continues today, and the imbroglios around gender and race–well, shit, nobody ever changed oppressive systems by being nice and police.

    And “labels” can be rallying points, and coalition work can take place.

    I’d like a few citations about this wonderful golden age of the past which you seem to think we all shared.

  8. 8. Elias McClellan

    @ Chris Moriarty, this is an excellent topic!

    I’m late to this game in variety of ways but I must weigh-in. As a limitted reader of SF/F, I’m often stymied by the lack of diversity I find in contemporary books.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming superior, (or even par) enlightenment. I would love to declare original gender/ethnic awareness and respect, but I was born and raised in Texas, (hardly a cenosure of grace and understanding) and I’m about as white (Irish Catholic) male as you can get.

    It was only when I moved out in the larger world, made friends that didn’t look like me, and fell in love with an African American woman that I started to look at the books I loved a little closer. That’s why I find this topic is so important.

    My wife has tried to share my love of SF/F and only my beloved “Dune” had any point of reference for her. Not only for the ethnic others richly wrought but because of the strong female characterizations, especially in the later books.

    I began reading Delany, Butler and Due so I could share the genre with my godchildren. And I continued to read these authors because they’re great.

    Personal experience is one answer, I think, to your questions. As we enter relationships from all corners, as our families become more diversified, and if we care, our writing will reflect equally change or wither.

    Bordom is another. I’m bored to tears by monochromatic characterizations with florishes of fetish and stereotype. We fight this battle weekly in my writer’s group.

    Again, thank you for an excellent topic.

  9. 9. Chris Moriarty

    Hi Ithiliana,

    Thank you for your comment, which I really appreciate, and which asks a lot of the hard questions that make this issue such a thorny one. I have to admit, however, that I’ve found it extremely difficult to respond to without seeming like I’m arguing with you — and why would on earth would want to I do that when I completely agree with you on every substantive point you mention?

    After reading your response — and then rereading my original post several times — I suspect that the real problem is that I was not clear enough in the original post about what I think the problem here is. The problem in my view is absolutely not focusing attention on work by women in order to solve the problem of their ongoing underrepresentation in the genre. I have been a vocal supporter of this approach elsewhere, and I strongly support the solutions that Griffith and Stross are now proposing.

    What worries me is my sense that there’s a Joanna Russ moment happening here: a sea change in the tone of the discussion where books by women are increasingly being talked about in ways that come uncomfortably close to implying that they’re only relevant to women, or that once we’ve talked about them as “books by women” we’ve said all there is to say about them. And as a woman SF writer who considers herself a literary daughter of James Tiptree, Jr … well, this disturbs me.

    I certainly don’t believe in some mythic Kumbaya Golden Age, and I’m well aware of the huge and beneficial increase in diversity in our genre since the 1960s. But on the other hand, I see this issue from the inside, both as a writer and as an SF reviewer. And when I hear people talk about how far we’ve come since the bad old days of the 1960s … well, I’m not so optimistic about how things would look if we actually ran the numbers. Those women writing under pen names and initials in the Golden Age? They had a pretty impressive share of the commercial SF market. I’m not sure women today have any bigger market share when you look at advances and readership as opposed to just counting titles. And though it would be nice to be able to say that pen names have gone the way of drive-in movie theaters … eh, not so much.

    Just as an example, let’s look at the Philip K. Dick Awards, the only major award exclusively for science fiction (as opposed to fantasy). Five women have won the award since 2000, but three of those women use gender neutral pen names. Those three women are all younger women writing commercial hard SF or space opera. They two women who don’t use pen names are both well-known literary SF writers who established their careers in the first wave of 1970s feminist SF. So … were the 1970s a watershed moment that changed the rules of the game forever? Or were they a high water mark that we’re still struggling to get back to? Or did they change the rules for some women but not for other women? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. But lately I don’t get a good feeling about it.

    As you point out, Helen Merrick describes these problems quite cogently in the The Secret Feminist Cabal. And, as Helen points out, the problem is particularly acute the closer one gets to the hard SF end of the genre spectrum.

    So that’s all I’m saying. That recent debates about these issues — and the level of acrimony in some quarters — should be a headsup that we haven’t come as far as people like to think. And that I’m worried that the same labels that once helped increase diversity in the genre are now starting to be used in ways that marginalize and diminish women’s writing. I’m not prescribing some one-size-fits-all solution or suggesting that if we just stop using “labels” everything will be fine. I’m really just trying to move the ongoing discussion away from name-calling — of which there’s been an awful lot lately — and toward constructive solutions to the problem of the continuing and severe underrepresentation of women and minorities in our genre.

    I hope that helps some. And I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear enough in the original post.

  10. 10. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Moriarty, I must apologize. Just checked (feeble of memory) and I made a gender assumption in our previous exchange that embarrasses the stuffing out of me. Especially considering the topic as well as my stellar misinterpretation there of. Thank you for your insight (and patience).

  11. 11. Chris Moriarty

    Hi Elias! Not to worry! And sorry for not answering your earlier post sooner!

    Honestly, I’ve been writing under a pen name for so long that I don’t even notice. And my work has a lot of military SF aspects as well (partly because I’m an army brat with numerous relatives in active service who’s comfortable writing realistic soldiers). So that also tends to mess with gender expectations.

    More generally, I think it’s important to note that the publishing industry has *created* those gender-related expectations in readers’ minds. So at this point — regardless of why or how we got here — when you pick up a hard SF novel in the bookstore and assume it’s by a man? That’s not sexism, it’s an accurate assessment of what’s actually on bookstore shelves these days.

    That’s part of why I thought Nicola Griffith’s Russ Pledge was so well-thought-out. She’s not asking us to just blindly insist that “women can so write SF” and act as if people who point out the scarcity of hard SF by women are sexist. She’s saying that we should talk about women’s books alongside men’s books. And if there are genres where women seem to underrepresented, then we should talk about why.

    This makes good sense to me. And your comments make good sense too. Personal experience and personal relationships really *are* the core of how to achieve real diversity.

    I was really interested by Linda Nagata’s recent post about wondering if she should have used a gender neutral pen name for her hard SF. One of the things that most struck me was her comment that the majority of her fan mail comes from men. This is true for me. It”s true for other female hard SF writers I’ve talked to. And the overwhelming sentiment coming from those real world male readers is: “Great! Finally I found a hard SF book by a woman! Where do I find more of them?”

    So my belief, based on my experience, is that real world readers are more adventurous (or maybe just more bored) than people in publishers and booksellers give them credit for being. And if you put the books in front of them and make that personal connection, the rest will follow.

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Chris Moriarty

Chris Moriarty has been making a living writing science fiction and fantasy for over a decade. Chris's books include SPIN STATE, SPIN CONTROL (winner of the 2007 Philip K. Dick Award), and THE INQUISITOR'S APPRENTICE. Chris also has a regular review column with the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Visit site.

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