August 2008

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

All Things Being Equal

Some years ago, back in the mid-'80s, I went to a British Fantasy Convention in, I seem to remember, Birmingham. There was, at one point, a rather good panel discussion on the role of women in fantasy featuring some of the most eminent women authors in the country. When it came to questions from the audience, a friend of mine stood up and asked, simply, "If everything is so equal, how come this is the only item on the entire convention programme that has any women on the panel?"

I was reminded of that incident when Gresham College staged a one-day symposium on science fiction. I was unable to attend because of work, but I was looking forward to dinner that evening with several friends who had been there. And the first thing any of them said about the event was: there were no women on the panel.

Now it was a distinguished panel, including Neal Stephenson, John Clute, Patrick Parrinder and Andy Sawyer; and it was certainly not the fault of the panellists that no women were involved. Even so, I know or know of quite a few women academics working in the field, a number of critics, and a heck of a lot of authors, including some (Gwyneth Jones, Justina Robson) who have done significant criticism. Twenty-odd years after that Fantasy Convention, it seems ludicrous that the same issues keep cropping up.

(In fairness, I should add that of those who complained about the lack of female representation on the panel, not one also mentioned that the panel was all white. But I can think of no prominent science fiction author, critic or academic in the UK who is not white, so I guess that particular battle still has a way to go.)

At around the same time (and not, I suspect, entirely coincidentally) a discussion started up on the internet discussion group, FemSF, about whether women mainly read books by female authors. (Surprisingly, there seem to be some people who only ever read books by women, for political not aesthetic reasons. I have as much difficulty dealing with this notion as I do with men who never read women writers. In fact more so: for political reasons they would have missed out on the work of James Tiptree Jr., Idris Seabright, Murray Constantine, at least until after they had been outed as women.) This is a variation on a debate I’ve seen several times before, and which will never have a real resolution: do men only read books by men, do boys only read books by boys?

In the latter case, I’d guess, there’s a suspicion that books associated with the opposite sex (and when you’re that age it’s easy to confuse books for girls and books by girls) are soppy. But that didn’t stop me, and a fair number of my fellows, consuming humongous quantities of Enid Blyton, Richmal Compton and E. Nesbit while finding the ‘manly’ Captain W.E. Johns unutterably boring. By the time I reached adolescence the only author whose output I read in its entirety (an enterprise that became more exhausting than exhilarating) was Agatha Christie.

In this I make no great claims about myself as an equal-opportunity reader. I was, at that age, simply voracious. I read just about anything I could get my hands on, and only paid attention to the author after I’d finished the book if it was particularly good and I wanted to find more, or particularly bad and I wanted to avoid them in future. I imagine that would still be my reading practice if I hadn’t got suckered into reviewing, which means that the vast majority of my reading is now subject to the demands of others (and much of the rest comes under that nebulous but equally demanding rubric: research).

True, when I am reading largely for myself there are a number of women writers I tend not to touch. For various reasons I’m no great fan of Tanith Lee or C.J. Cherryh, for example, but there are an awful lot of male writers I tend to avoid also. And it’s just as true that there’s a number of women writers (Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link) that I’ll turn to in preference to many a male author. We all have likes and prejudices when it comes to what we read (let’s face it, life’s too short to read everything anyway so we need some sort of gut reason for picking up one book and not picking up another), but surely it does not, it cannot, extend to an entire sex?

Except, it seems that it does. Behind all of these ongoing variations on an eternal debate is some deep-seated notion that there is a fundamental difference between what the sexes read or write or both. Even recently I’ve seen it argued at The Atlantic (and thanks to Maureen for the link) that, essentially, sf is a masculine endeavour and that girls have to be taught to like or appreciate it. In other words, science fiction is for boys (try telling that to Ursula K. Le Guin or Pat Cadigan) and fantasy is for girls (try telling that to J.R.R. Tolkien or China Miéville).

We’re in deep waters here. I really don’t want to get into the underlying social issues this reflects: that girls don’t do science (or at least, often aren’t encouraged to pursue it at school) and that boys don’t do touchy-feely. But if society operates by cliché in its social structures, it is just as clichéd in its perceptions of literature. And there is one great ugly howling cliché behind this whole sexist assumption: that science fiction is nothing but big brash mechanical toys for the boys and fantasy is nothing but relationships with added elves.

Yes, of course, if you look for it you’ll find genre works that conform precisely to those stereotypes, but it’s not the whole story and never has been. If sf was only toys for the boys, what on earth was C.L. Moore doing? Or Katherine Maclean? Or Sonya Dow, Katherine Burdekin, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler? And who was reading them? Not just a few atypical women who had gone through the extensive training course for reading sf, that’s for sure. And if fantasy is only for girls, what on earth were William Morris and E.R. Eddison and C.S. Lewis and Neil Gaiman doing? And who was reading them?

Science fiction is as much for and by women as it is for and by men. But we tell lies about it. Every time we make sweeping generalisations about the genre (like the sweeping generalisations I’ve made all the way through this column) we are reducing it to a set of characteristics that aren’t even common to the whole genre. And the characteristics we pick out tend to make it seem like sf is about nothing but gadgets (spaceships and robots and amazing machines), whereas these are devices that the genre might use, but it is very rarely about them. Just as the characteristics of fantasy may include the use of fairies or unicorns but is generally not actually about these things.

So we very carefully define the genre in terms of a carefully selected and wildly inaccurate set of stereotypical characteristics that just happen to match the stereotypical social assumptions about what one sex or the other is supposed to like. And then we wonder that despite a stellar cast of top notch women writers, sf is somehow seen as just for men. And then we let those unquestioned assumptions guide who we think to invite on panel debates, and what sorts of books we recommend to people. And the whole grim machine just keeps rolling on.