Women Rise in Sci Fi (Again)

This year’s major science-fiction awards had strong female representation, but don’t call it a feminist victory for the genre just yet.

In February of this year, Ann Leckie’s book Ancillary Justice won a Golden Tentacle Award from The Kitschies—an award that celebrates “the year's most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic.” Leckie was elated. The Kitschie trophy is a hand-sewn stuffed tentacle of sorts, and it sits proudly on Leckie’s mantle. “I was like, ‘Oh that’s really wonderful, how could anything be more validating,’” she says. “I love my golden stuff tentacle with the sparkly pom poms.”

Then the rest of the awards rolled in. First there was the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Then the Nebula Award. Then the Arthur C. Clarke. Scattered amongst them is a BSFA Award and a Locus Award. It was hard for Leckie to believe. “It was kind of like hallucinating,” she says. “It’s still kind of like hallucinating. I’m sitting here on my couch and I can turn my head and see them on the mantle and it’s really hard to see that they’re there.”

It appears as though women in science fiction are having a moment, and perhaps even more. This year, women were nominated for, and won, close to half of the major science-fiction awards out there. And much of that work touched upon gender in some way. In Ancillary Justice, the main character is a space ship (this sounds strange, but it’s worth reading the book to see what I mean) and the genders of the characters are continuously ambiguous. LIGHTSPEED magazine Kickstarted a series called “Women Destroy Science Fiction” that showcases work entirely written and edited by women. It asked for $5,000 and got $53,136 in return.

But to say that all of this represents progress for women in the traditionally male-dominated world of sci-fi oversimplifies the history of the genre a bit.

As with anything else, women have long been working alongside men to create fiction that covers on science, the future, technology and more. Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein is often cited as one of the first classics of the sci-fi genre, and even before that Margaret Cavendish wrote The Blazing World—a satirical utopian vision—in 1666. “We’ve been doing this for ever,” says writer Kameron Hurley. This idea, that women have always been beside men everywhere from the battlefield to the writers’ room, is one that Hurley thinks about a lot. This year, her essay “‘We Have Always Fought': Challenging the 'Women, Cattle and Slaves' Narrative” on the long history of female fighters and why history writes them out of the picture, won a Hugo Award for Best Related Work. (She also won another Hugo this year for Best Fan Writer.)

Like the fighters she wrote about, Hurley says that female science-fiction writers are often forgotten. “It’s always Asimov and Heinlein,” she says. “You don’t hear about Russ or LeGuin. And there are very particular ways that people talk about it. One of those is by saying ‘well she did it, but it wasn’t really science fiction,’ or ‘her husband has a big impact.’”

Today, both Hurley and Leckie say that female voices in science fiction are far louder than they used to be, largely thanks to blogs and social media. Now, when men wonder aloud (as they often do on their blogs) where all the women in science fiction are, those women can take to the comment section and point out that they’ve been there all along. They can use Twitter and Facebook not just to promote their work, but to connect with one an other. “We mirror a lot of what the overall culture is doing now,” Hurley says, “which is saying that we have always been here you’re just not listening. And we’re able to do that now because there are more channels. There’s incredible profusion of all of these other avenues for us to get our voices out there, and to collaborate right. To say okay let’s go flood that comment system, and have dialogue around that.”

Ann Leckie (MissionPhoto.org)

Leckie agrees, saying that there is a community of women writers who have been bolstered by their ability to find and support one another. “The Internet really lets people connect that wouldn’t have in the past, and lets conversations happen and connections happen. That’s really something that happens, I’m not sure it’s a club with membership cards but I think there’s some kind of community.”

But both Leckie and Hurley express a combination of optimism and cynicism when it comes to whether or not women in the science fiction world are actually making progress, and how quickly. Leckie points out that this isn’t the first time women have been in the spotlight for writing award winning science fiction. “Sometimes I feel very optimistic about it, I say look at this, there are more women getting awards,” she says. “And then I look back and the ‘70s. The ‘70s was a decade that was crammed with prominent women science fiction writers, and a lot of women made their debut in that decade or really came to prominence.”

This was the time of Ursula K. Le Guin and Vonda McIntyre, who both won joint Nebulas and Hugos. Anne McCaffrey, Kate Wilhelm, Joan Vinge, and Marion Zimmer Bradley were all nominated for Hugo Awards that decade. In 1973, the Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote under the pen name James Tiptree, Jr. wrote the famous, feminist short story called “The Women Men Don’t See.” Joanna Russ’s feminist science fiction book The Female Man was published in 1975 and nominated that year for a Nebula.

Then, Leckie says, the ‘80s and ‘90s happened. The rate of women nominated and winning awards dipped down again. And today, once again, society has this idea that women who write science fiction are a strange and interesting breed. In other words, today the community is having the same conversation it had in the ‘70s about women writing science fiction.

And the challenges to being a female writer today are, while not entirely the same, quite similar to those of the earlier female writers. The Hugo Awards, for example, are decided by a vote—those who are members of the World Science Fiction Society decide on who is nominated and who, ultimately, takes home the prize. Which means that winning involves some amount of self-promotion—something women are discouraged from doing far more than men. Hurley points to the different reactions people have to Seanan McGuire (who sometimes writes under the pseudonym Mira Grant) and John Scalzi as one example. Both have been on the Hugo ballots regularly for the past 10 years. Both self promote on social media, reminding readers that if they liked their books or stories, they could vote for them. But McGuire gets flack for her promotion, while Scalzi does not.

Whether or not science fiction is going to repeat its own history, ducking back into the male-dominated years, remains to be seen. But Leckie and Hurley are generally, if cautiously, optimistic. “When I won I felt it was more of a win for the community,” says Hurley. “I think the community certainly had things to say and they were saying them by voting for me.” And Hurley also points out that winning isn’t everything. “It came with this sense of Peter Parker: With great power comes great responsibility. You realize wow people are listening to me, so I better be really clear about using my powers for good.”