Saturday Morning Sci-Fi!

I was going to post a bunch of book reviews I’d saved throughout the week, but then I realized that they were all just this week’s posts from Steampunk Scholar and you could just go to his blog and follow them yourself. (Which you should consider, as they’re always quite insightful.)

But instead, I submit for your consideration: The Invisibility of Women in Science Fiction, an article by Alisa Krasnostein at Hoyden About Town. Her premise for the article is as follows:

“We still see low representations of women in science fiction magazines and anthologies, many awards shortlists, and in criticism of the genre. One of the issues that has become apparent is that those who commentate and review the genre wield much power in directing what works get read and recognised. To me, this seems like a significant wall that needs to be broken down in the quest to see women equally respected and represented in this genre.”

The whole thing is definitely worth a read, especially because I think it could be argued that science fiction’s “woman problem” extends into steampunk. I don’t have it on me right now, but I seem to recall that the first steampunk anthology I ever read included but a single woman, and the past year of book reviews by Steampunk Scholar includes, if my count is correct, one book written by a woman and one co-authored by one.

Do you think steampunk women writers have as difficult a time as other sci-fi women seem to?

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25 Responses to “Saturday Morning Sci-Fi!”

  1. I’ve been chewing this over for the last couple of hours, trying to work out what I think about it. Probably, we’re going to get a lot of people saying “Well women just don’t write as much within steampunk as men do” or that women “Don’t take their writing as seriously” generally.

    That’s nonsense.

    We get a lot of fiction submissions for SPM. A LOT. I’m not going to say that what we get is a 50/50 split between men and women, because it isn’t, but I’d say that women probably make up at least a third of the short story submissions and that the quality of them is on a par with–if not often much better than–what we get from male writers.

    And yet… How many steampunk novels can I think of that were written by women? Well, there’s C.M. Priest’s ‘Boneshaker’, and the self-published ‘Chandra and the Airship Brofman’ by Emilie Bush, but other than that? I’m seriously racking my brains.

    To be honest, I believe that there aren’t fewer women writers, they just have a harder time getting their work published. It’s something I’ve been aware of for a while, but not really done any kind of looking into. I’ll keep prodding around to see what I can turn up, but after a cursory look I found this article: http://www.guernicamag.com/features/1528/seven_remarkable_women_claire/ which, while I disagree with a couple of the points that it makes, does have some interesting facts in there too.

    From looking at that, it’s evident that male writers have an easier time winning respect than female ones, and thus are easier to market and sell. Of course this means that male writers (especially those who write about male characters) are going to find it easier to get published and get paid more, because they’re going to make more money for the companies they write for.

    Science fiction is pretty much the worst of the worst in that respect, and because steampunk is so closely-related to science fiction, it’s entirely possible that the problem has lapped over.

    I wonder whether an anthology of women’s steampunk should be in order to try and tip the scales…

  2. im just gonna go ahead and argue the other side.
    if you look at the history of sci-fi, it’s obvious that their main audience has been male. sci-fi only got big because of all the nerds that liked it, and, especially at the time, nerd girls were realllllyyy rare (for other sexist reasons of course), and still are to some extent. in general, people have a better time reading/watching/writing characters they can relate to (there are, of course, countless exceptions, but in general this is the trend). this sort of made sci-fi a mens only club for a very long time (im still not sure my mom has seen star wars), and it has been only recently that there have been a significant increase of the women in sci-fi.

    on the other side, i believe that steampunk is wonderfully progressive in this area. i may be unable to cite any percentage increase of successful women writers in steampunk as opposed to the rest of sci-fi, but when i look around at whom i know interested in steampunk, i see alot more girls then when i see who’s interested in, i dunno, star trek. and i think this really does get into steampunk books, shows, and movies. strong female characters, even leads are very common in steampunk stories. and im not gonna cite anything for that either, cause you guys know that for sure.

  3. @devils advocate

    Although you throw in some interesting ideas here, I can’t agree with a lot of what you’ve said. To begin with, the gender disparity amongst sci-fi fans appears to have been more than a little overstated. According to a 2001 survey by the National Science Foundation (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind02/c7/c7s5.htm) nearly an equal percentage of men (31%) and women (28%) stated that they read science fiction. Some of this can be explained by the fact that women tend to read more than men in the first place, but not all.

    Women have been becoming more involved in science fiction since the sixties (before which, only about 10% of spec-fic writers were women) but there is still a massive gap between the number of women readers in the genre, and the number of women writers. And it isn’t just that people can only relate to characters written by members of their own gender. I have read plenty of books written by men which contained characters I related to, thank you very much. Unfortunately, people in general (both men and women) feel as though they shouldn’t (or can’t) engage with characters or stories that are written by women. Probably because we’re told from a very young age (as the article I referenced in my first comment says) that women writers should be taken less seriously.

    And you can believe that steampunk is progressive as much as you like, but that doesn’t change the fact that the more we look at it, the more we see the same trend playing itself out through steampunk literature. Despite the fact that there is most likely a comparable numbers of men and women actually involved in steampunk itself (and this is a GOOD THING), the majority of steampunk literature is still written by men. Equally, the presence of ‘strong female characters’ (although I dislike this term immensely, and if you want to find out why then you should take a look at this article: http://www.overthinkingit.com/2008/08/18/why-strong-female-characters-are-bad-for-women/), while also VERY GOOD THING, doesn’t do much to change the fact that if you’re a woman writing steampunk, you’re less likely to get published than your male counterpart.

    What we’re discussing here is the fact that women writers seem to have one hell of a problem getting professionally published within the genre, not how progressive or not the steampunk community is otherwise. The fact that there are good female characters being written by (predominantly) men, and there are a lot of women involved in steampunk scene in the first place does not make it any better.

  4. Excellent idea. Especially now. These are unsettled and unsettling times. All kinds of good things can be seen and voices heard when everything comes loose.

    The wind puts everyone on edge. Seeing and hearing is a little sharper when people think the sky is about to fall. Step up. Few others will.

    Ours is the back wash days of the now discredited “expert”. Most folks are so dependent they are waiting to be shown the way. Show them.

  5. The sad thing is that you younguns don’t remember (and I only barely remember) that things were very different in the ’70s–there were LOADS of women sf writers and sf fans, and only a few men seemed to have a problem with that. Things have got much, much worse for women in a lot of ways in the past 30 years.

  6. You know what else is weird? The two biggest recent sellers in publishing in general, let alone in sf/f, have been female (JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, if I need to remind anyone). A cultural meme that pushes people away from something that benefits their pocketbook has to be pretty strong.

  7. @Carolyn

    The interesting thing one of the articles that I’ve been reading pointed out is that, while the Harry Potter series is very popular, a lot of it hinges on the connection that the reader feels to the main character, who is male. The article suggested that the series may not have been so popular if Harry had been Harriet. Of course, we can never know that one for sure, but that does ring true to me.

    The same article had a quick look at the fact that, from a very young age, young girls will read books where boys are the main protagonists, but boys won’t read books about girls. And that trend continues all the way through into adulthood.

  8. @”nearly an equal percentage of men (31%) and women (28%) stated that they read science fiction.”
    ehhh, key word there is “read,” and yea, you brought it up, but if you wanted to get good demographics on the interest in sci-fi, i would check to see if the channel previously known as “sci-fi” has their demographics up. for me, reading sci-fi was just an after-effect of watching it. id be willing to bet it isn’t that much different, but it probably does show a wider gap, and i think it would be more accurate, as there is no real gender gap in T.V. watchers that i have ever heard of.

    @”Equally, the presence of ’strong female characters’ (although I dislike this term immensely, and if you want to find out why then you should take a look at this article: http://www.overthinkingit.com/2008/08/18/why-strong-female-characters-are-bad-for-women/)”
    ok, i read that, and i see the point, but im pretty sure theres a huge difference between hollywood characters and novel/book characters. mainstream hollywood is too preoccupied with sex and the appearance of the posters/commercials they have to make to set make their females actually dynamic, interesting characters. it easier to just make them static, sexy characters and have people look at their boobs instead of their flaws. when i said that i specifically had in mind Briar Wilkes, from boneshaker, and yea, just like every dynamic/lead character in a good novel she is flawed, yes, they mention she is attractive for her age, but she’s got loads of stuff from her past haunting her, an awfully disconnected relationship with her son, and i miserable most of the time. but she’s still really, really strong, and takes control of the situation as pretty well. and ends up saving and being saved by the “hero” of the story. i find that this is not uncommon in the steampunk stories i have read. i can think of three or four other similar stories off the top of my head from some of the anthologies i have read.

    @”And it isn’t just that people can only relate to characters written by members of their own gender.”
    i am entirely aware of this of course, i freaking loved all of the animorphs books, (oh, and i am a guy, in case you didn’t already assume that), and harry potter, and boneshaker,(the sequel of which i am looking forward to, swakhammers daughter FTW) in fact, now that i think about it, the only male authors i really follow are/were Stephen King and Douglas Adams. But i am speaking in very general terms here, people definitely show a trend to like books written by people whom better understand their own interests and ideals, and gender has an influence on these.

    @”not how progressive or not the steampunk community is otherwise. The fact that there are good female characters being written by (predominantly) men, and there are a lot of women involved in steampunk scene in the first place does not make it any better.”
    maybe not directly, but if there are proportionally more women interested in steampunk, proportionally more women will become writers about it, and proportionally more women will show that general trend to their works, giving them better renown(is that the right word?).
    tl;dr the demographics of the audience have a clear impact on the demographics of the writers.

  9. Oh, definitely (you should read Joanna Russ’s essay on slash if you haven’t yet)–but my point here was that we’re postulating (and probably with justification) that female sf authors have a harder time being published because they’re less likely to be profitable, and we can pretty much blow that out of the water. I remember reading something a while back by a woman who worked in Hollywood, who said the ‘common wisdom’ was that movies starring or about women never made money. And every time one did, the ‘common wisdom’ people would say ‘well that was a fluke–but the FACT IS, movies starring or about women never make any money…’ Since in our culture everyone wants to make money, a meme that gets you to ignore something that will make you money must be even stronger than the moneymaking desire.

  10. I’m going to throw another idea out here as well which I’m sure people better read than I can dispute!

    I think a strong issue in publishing (and in fact media) in general is that while women are prepared to read stories with a male lead character (how can we avoid it?!), men are less likely to read stories with a female lead character.

    As a rule I think it’s fair to say that male writers are more likely to write male-lead stories rather than female-lead.

    If a broader spectrum of people will read something it’s more likely to be taken up and published because it will make the publisher more money. Therefore male writers writing male-lead stories are more prevalent.

    *But* this still leaves female writers who, in my experience, are equally likely to write male or female lead stories less often finding their works published.

    I would add Naomi Novik to the list of female writers. While her Temeraire series could be seen as fantasy they are also a historical alternative universe (Napoleonic Wars and dragons for those who’ve not read them).

  11. Weird paradox, isn’t it? Women write stories with both male and female main characters, and are STILL said to be less saleable. I haven’t actually read Naomi Novik yet, but I noticed she won a Hugo (had a look at the list this morning, to see the representation of female authors), and I think she’s on my list (though I think it’s a children’s book? I was going to look for).

    This isn’t a direct response, but I’ve always been suspicious of male authors using female narrators–women are so exposed to male narratives that it’s no surprise women can adopt them, but the opposite situation isn’t equivalent–men will typically write ‘men with tits’ (e.g. Friday) or women with weirdly exaggerated stereotypically ‘feminine’ traits (can’t think of an immediate example). But recently I’ve run across books by male writers who have, to me, quite authentic-sounding women in them; I’m reading one right now–Glass Books of the Dream Eaters (750 pages of utter trash–I’m embarrassed to say I’m having a hard time putting it down–but certainly one of the good things about it it that Celeste Temple is not only to my ears an authentic character, but also an authentic narrator–I was surprised to find this book was written by a man).

  12. @Carolyn

    Of course I was smiling to myself when I mentioned Naomi Novik because while it’s true she’s female and a good author and all that, her books are about the Napoleonic Wars, battles and espionage etc. (With, in the three I’ve read, a male lead) And therefore are quite ‘male’ books!

    JKR and Stephanie Meyer – are children’s authors. I think this makes a difference. After all, women are allowed to tell stories to children! (Sorry, that’s an awful abridgment of a larger idea but I’m not sure I’m coherent enough right now to articulate it better) The children’s and teen market is a goldmine.

    Going off sci-fi for a moment, one of my favourite crime authors is Reginald Hill who writes very good female characters. Surprisingly good ones. But he is the only male author who I can think of who does. And really there’s only one book in which he prioritises the women, though overall his female characters are good, even when less dominant in the story than his male characters.

    Friday? (sorry, reference I’m not aware of)

  13. Friday:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friday_(novel)

    Which Reginald Hill book should I read?

  14. May I recommend Andre Norton, Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey or Lois McMaster Bujold?

  15. @ Carolyn

    Arms and the Women is his most female orientated book. It’s not necessarily his best book and I’m not sure it’ll make sense without having read at least one previous book but it is the one written largely from a female POV.

    @ Robert

    Of those I’ve read Anne McCaffrey only and I’m afraid … they aren’t terribly good, both from a literature perspective or from a female perspective.

  16. With respect to the Harry Potter series, J K Rowling wasn’t that original in the premise (ability arguements to one side, now, please!) in that magical boarding school based storieds have been around before. The best known parallel in UK literature, however, is The Worst Witch series. A drawn out process has given us 7 books since 1974, a (low budget) movie and two attempts at tv series, one of which was pretty long running as kid’s tv goes. Both were shown on CITV in their time.

    How come Mildred Hubble never got as famous as Harry Potter, is something that will be argued about (in and out of court) for some time. Part of it, though, will be based on the overall packaging. Rowling had an overall arc planned out with one ultimate bad guy that took place over a finite period – a mimic of a more adult set-up. Murphy did the more classic children’s fiction reset with each book so that, while the past has happened, previous installments rarely alluded to and have little direct affect on the current text.

    For the record, I find Mildred Hubble a much more fun character than Harry Potter.

  17. I only read about half the first Harry Potter book and got bored–I still don’t understand their appeal (though I will tell you a story about that–I was arguing with one of my motorcycling colleagues about the merits of Rowling vs Pullman, he substantially on the former and I on the latter, when he looked down his very British nose at me and said ‘well really Carolyn, you just don’t understand–I went to a school exactly like that one!’). But–SHE MADE HER PUBLISHER A LOT OF MONEY. That’s what matters to publishers.

    Oh and Cal, do give LeGuin a chance–I think I’ve converted Allegra–she’s one of the most important American writers (I might be willing to argue THE most important).

    I tried to read a Bujold novel a while back–I was assured by many people that I’d love it–but gave it away after ploughing through maybe 50 pages of family ties and court etiquette–if I can’t care enough to remember all that in real life, why should I care about a fictional version? And the author uses her main character’s name as an adjective–granted I and my writing partner do it all the time to each other (‘that’s so Neddylike!’)–but in published work? That’s a nono.

  18. @ Carolyn

    Oh I plan to give Le Guin a chance, trust me, it’s just the four shelves of unread books I have pending before I allow myself to acquire anything new!

    @ Jo

    The Mildred Hubble books did not do as well as JKR for many reasons. One of which I suspect was because *they’re all about girls*! Thus getting back to the original issue!

  19. @ Cal

    Agreed, but the thing is, it would be hard to say _how much_ of it is due to the gender of the main character , which is what I meant to say but obviously didn’t really mention.

    But, I also think that the boarding school stories had been out of fashion with respect to boy main characters / fiction for boys for a while, too, whereas it never really went away for girls. So JK managed to seem a little fresher that way, too.

  20. Handy reference guide JB just found:

    174.143.173.68/PTblackandwhite.pdf

  21. Just as a note, I really enjoyed reading the Worst Witch stories when I was a boy growing up. Didn’t fuss me at all about the characters being female.

    Potter, on the other hand… I read the first five and got so sick of someone who couldn’t write relationships trying to write relationships in a world where there were far more interesting things to write about. Seriously, after Azkaban JKR needed to shut up and listen to her editor. Those books should have been at least a third of the size. I was a good few years older by then, of course.

    To be honest, neither as a boy nor an adult have I had a problem relating to female characters. I am special in some way? Do we have any evidence to back up this idea that men have a hard time relating to female characters, or is this just another easy lie the industry wants us to believe so it doesn’t have to change what it’s doing?

  22. I agree on the JKR opinion, as you know my view is that her worldbuilding is good and her characterisation is one dimensional.

    I think you are special (and not in a ‘special bus’ way!). Aside from anything else you read *a lot* and you’re an author as well, a fairly analytical one, so I’m not surprised that you read and enjoyed The Worst Witch and will be quite able to enjoy female character orientated stories, but I would be surprised if the same was true of many men.

  23. It’s unfortunate that many men do have a problem relating to female characters since some of the best books I’ve read have female leads (See “Dragon Riders of Pern” and for those Japanese fans “Cardcaptor Sakura”). I think part of the problem here is not necessarily the female stereotype, but the male one. Men are expected to be Macho-tool-wielding-mechanical-testosterone-poisoned *Grunt*. And therefore the idea that a man can relate to a character that is much softer (even a “nerd”, “geek” or other less “bad” male) or less likely to hit first and ask questions later.

    Especially in the US, where society does not accept “difference” for all that we try to say we are a melting pot, men are expected to act in a certain way; walk a certain path; and understand what “being a man” is all about. Hell, we have a “Man Code.”

    It’s all a load of trash; unfortunately society dictates how we are raised and leads many of us to try and fit in. Not that Steampunks really care about that but…that’s my opinion on the matter. It’s not women that are the issue here; it’s us.

  24. I’ve been thinking about women in sci-fi and female characters when I was an adolescent. In my early teens, I read a whole shed-load of Point Horror books, the protagonists of which were almost always upper-middle class American girls. Never any problems, and even a couple of books I still think about (Teacher’s Pet, The Train and The Perfume, if you’re interested for some reason).

    I had a problem with women in films when there were only there to serve some pointless romantic sub-plot because, lets be honest, who actually likes the kissy bits? Marian from Raiders of the Lost Arc and Willie from Temple of Doom I was fine with. Marian was as much a part of the adventure as Indy and Willie was a snipe at all those pointless, whiny women I hated in my films so much. But they’re not the main characters.

    I came up with three from my childhood/adolescence: Princess Leia, Sarah Connor (from Terminator 2 in my case) and Ellen Ripley (from Aliens). You could argue that they are all very masculinised women and yeah, they are. But I don’t think they’re male characters with tits. I think if Ripley is a man with tits then it renders the entire Newt plot and final fight with the alien queen pointless and if Sarah Connor is then it makes her whole crusade to save her son and her relationship with the T-800 little more than an excuse for bigger and badder guns.

    I never had any problem relating to any of them as characters. They weren’t ‘women’. They were just characters. I mean, I never even thought of Leia as a sex object until I discovered the Internet and even now the idea is still kind of weird.

    Maybe I am the exception, but I don’t think that ‘men can’t relate to female characters’ is the problem here. I think the problem is that men are told that they shouldn’t relate to female characters. The media around us bombards us with negative female stereotypes and men are told that if you relate to a female character, you’re a un-masculine pussy who fulfils one of those stereotypes. Men are told that relating to female characters means you can relate to periods and eating chocolate cake while bitching about men. The closest we’re allowed to come to female characters is Rom Coms (which we watch to keep the misses happy) or the kind of crap you get on things like Dollhouse. And they aren’t really female characters.

    I read a lot of short SF/F short fiction, and there are some very good female authors out there. Their stories are just as thoughtful, insightful and provocative as the male authors’. In Interzone, the short fic magazine I regularly read, they normally have five stories per issue and at least one of them is by a woman. I mean, that’s not a great ratio but it’s far from women being invisible. But somehow, that visibility doesn’t translate to the mainstream.

    My opinion is that the models of publication and promotion of creative works (books, movies etc) were set up in a male-dominated era were people didn’t expect women to be visible. The people in charge of the industries have a vested interest in keeping things like that because then they won’t have to change their business models. So, they keep women as invisible as possible and sell us this idea that it’s what we want.

    So anyway, that’s my male-privalaged, probably unenlightened view. I’ve just seen a few people say ‘men have a hard time relating to female characters’ and, as a man, that’s not my experience…

  25. two female- authored steam punk series with strong female protagonists:

    Parasol Protectorate (Gail Carriger; 3 books out, 4th coming out late June)

    Gaslight Chronicles (Cindy Spencer Pape: 1 book and 1 novella)

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