July 20th 2011
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.
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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