SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.
Today, we continue our ongoing new series of posts “SFF in Conversation” with the first of a two-part June feature. We are delighted to have a round table of essays from the contributors to the SFF anthology The Other Half of the Sky. In the anthology, editor Athena Andreadis set out to offer readers heroes who happen to be women, doing whatever they would do in universes where they’re fully human: starship captains, planet rulers, explorers, scientists, artists, engineers, craftspeople, pirates, rogues…
And in this two-part round table, we’ve invited the contributors to talk about women in SFF.
On this first day, we hear from the first five authors in the anthology: Athena Andreadis (editor), Melissa Scott, Alexander Jablokov, Sue Lange & Vandana Singh.
The Other Half of the Sky
by Athena Andreadis
Science fiction wishes to be considered the genre of imaginative extrapolation. So it has come to pass that SF writers have conjured all kinds of planetary systems, ecologies, lifeforms and societies; FTL, stable wormholes, time travel, teleporters, ansibles; clones, uploading, downloading, genetic tinkering, nanotechnology; virtual reality, remote sensing, telepathy, telekinesis, precognition.
Yet the same universe-spanning visionaries seem to have difficulty envisioning women as full humans – that is, not defined by their helpmate/mother role but as rounded people fully engaged in their vocations and wider network of relationships and, furthermore, people who can be heroes, not merely heroines. Linked to this is an equally odd inability to envision societies and kinship systems that aren’t based on pyramidal dominance, alpha males and the equation of capable women – especially older, non-nubile ones – with evil. This blinkering is exacerbated by two persistent, interlinked tendencies in SF.
One is what I call neoteny: the focus on finding-one’s-self stories, linked to the Campbel/lite quest that makes much of SF fit only for the emotionally immature and genre-locked of all ages. The other is the parochialism imposed by the monoculture dominance of the US mindset (and its UK satellite), which ever since the eighties has been regressing to “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” politics. Too, there’s still a widespread dogma in the publishing/reviewing industry that women can’t write space opera (or “mind-altering” SF, for that matter), forcing those who do to hide behind fig leaves of initials or “ambiguous” pseudonyms.
I decided to address these issues by doing some conjuring of my own: I’d produce a collection in which women stand as protagonists, rangers and agents of destiny in unimagined universes that treat them as fully human – and at the same time, maybe strike a blow for SF as quality literature in its own right. I asked the writers for mythic space opera for adults, with unapologetic women heroes: for swashbuckling and derring-do, but implicitly also for unusual configurations, complex interactions, awareness of limits and consequences, exploration mindsets different from conquest; and for layering, nuancing, language that’s not the workshop-101 hackery that passes as writing in much of SF.
I got what I asked for in a veritable flood. I got women doing all kinds of vital work including mind-altering science, embedded in fascinating kinship webs, exploring originally conceived worlds that also carry echoes from non-Anglo myths and histories, expanding the definition of heroism. These stories prove abundantly that when people are asked to write as full adults for other full adults, they will do so with zest and flair. They also demonstrate that sensawunda and vivid prose are not mutually exclusive.
The Book Smugglers founders generously invited the contributors to The Other Half of the Sky to speak about the universes they created in the larger context of the ongoing discussion of gender in genre. I wish we didn’t have to still have such discussions. Even so, the need that spurred this collection let me wander in worlds I found absorbing. Perhaps you will, too.
Athena Andreadis was born in Hellás and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She’s an avid reader in four languages across genres and the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek. She conceived of and edited the feminist space opera anthology The Other Half of the Sky, published in April 2013 by Candlemark and Gleam. She also writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics and cherishes all the time she gets to spend with her partner, Peter Cassidy. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.
Women and Space Opera, or Why I Really Loved Writing for This Anthology
by Melissa Scott
The thing that excited me most about being asked to participate in The Other Half of the Sky was that it was quite explicitly an anthology of space opera, and space opera with women as protagonists. I discovered SF through space opera, eleven years old and assigned to be a library monitor after I broke my arm in junior high gym class. One of the librarians, recognizing a geek child when he saw one, suggested Heinlein or perhaps “that Andre Norton guy” and I devoured everything the school library had by both of them. The Heinlein juveniles and Norton’s much larger YA corpus became my subconscious touchstones for SF: does this take me to a new world, show me grand adventures and characters worthy of them?
As I got older, of course, I developed other standards, but space opera remained a favorite part of the genre, not least because of its willingness to attempt the grand scale. At the same time, though, it was hard not to notice the absence of interesting women at the center of these stories. There was (and is) quite a lot of YA science fiction that centers on adolescent girls, but far less with adult women as protagonists. It was as if girls were interesting until the point at which they became women, and then they were shunted to the side, becoming sidekicks, girlfriends, sometimes, regrettably, trophies or proof that the male protagonist(s) were safely heterosexual. If you were looking for lesbian characters, as I was, they usually appeared as antagonists, or as secondary characters whose mere existence demonstrated that the story’s world was a gritty and dangerous place.
As a result, I ended up writing the books that I wanted to read, and most of my SF features women, and usually lesbians, as protagonists — adult women with careers and complicated lives, people who at least thought they knew who they were, not young people finding their way into an identity. And, unsurprisingly, this was what readers and reviewers focused on: it’s the thing that is most different about my work. The fact that there were women at the center of the story sometimes overshadowed the other sfnal elements, including my deep and abiding love of space opera.
And that is what made this invitation so intriguing. I was being asked to do two things I dearly love, and, even more exciting, I was not going to be the only person in the collection who was doing both things. I could, for once, focus on the story and not have to worry about justifying my choice of protagonists, or worry that I would be one too many [fill-in-the-blank] story to fit, and that was liberating. I think this let me take “Finders” in some new directions, to concentrate more fully on the specific characters and their situation, and it’s been a delightful journey. It’s sad that this remains an unusual opportunity, but I hope that we’ll garner enough of an audience to justify more.
Melissa Scott is from Little Rock, Arkansas, and studied history at Harvard College and Brandeis University, where she earned her PhD in the Comparative History program with a dissertation titled “Victory of the Ancients: Tactics, Technology, and the Use of Classical Precedent.” She is the author of more than twenty science fiction and fantasy novels, most with queer themes and characters, and has won Lambda Literary Awards for Trouble and Her Friends, Shadow Man, and Point of Dreams, the last written with her late partner, Lisa A. Barnett. She has also won a Spectrum Award for Shadow Man and again in 2010 for the short story “The Rocky Side of the Sky” (Periphery, Lethe Press) as well as the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her most recent novel, Lost Things, written with Jo Graham, is now available from Crossroad Press. She can be found on LiveJournal at mescott.livejournal.com.
Leaning In to Adventure
by Alexander Jablokov
Typical space opera activities such as smashing a den of space pirates, exploring a distant star system, and fighting off an invading alien horde have a few things in common: they are fun to read about, they are all solid parts of our genre…and they are all, in a sense, jobs. They involve training, skill, labor, teamwork, and the need to show solid results. Space opera employment does tend to lack a few things characteristic of most jobs, including meetings, performance reviews, going-away lunches at the The Cheesecake Factory, and vast periods of boredom. That’s why we prefer these jobs to the ones we actually have.
The experience of serving in these positions could easily appear in standard form on resumes: “Led team of five that destroyed the headquarters asteroid of the alien Gropf. This involved matching trajectories, seismically detecting fractures in the chondrites of the asteroid, and decoying the vicious mandibles guarding the hatch with the drug extract produced near the dramatic conclusion of Volume 2.” Although, truth be told, most of the recruiting for these positions happens in dive bars or orbital prisons, so you also need to work on your networking.
Ah, networking, the bane of every new job seeker’s existence. Most affiliative decisions happen well below conscious level. People like to hire and work with people they are familiar and comfortable with. If you feel unfamiliar and people are uncomfortable with you, you don’t get the interview. Sometimes that’s conscious. Often, though, the person making the decision doesn’t even know he’s made a decision at all. It’s just the way things are.
So it takes someone to explicitly question “the way things are”, and show how things can be different. That’s why this anthology is so ground-breaking, and so essential. It is an employment agency for underemployed worldsavers, fighters, technicians, leaders, and explorers who happen to be women. It doesn’t ask them to change who they are. It only asks if they can do the work. Then it lets them get to it.
Of course, once they get placed and get to work, things get really interesting. What goals have been ignored? Which problems seemed insoluble, or, more importantly, not worth trying to solve? Which inane situations were allowed to continue without challenge?
My own story in the anthology, “Bad Day on Boscobel” is explicitly about work, and about how work intersects with daily life, family, social relations, and politics. It’s also about how different women make different choices about those intersections. But it wasn’t until I started thinking about the true achievements of the anthology as a whole that I realized why I had made that choice. The whole thing has been a deeper exploration than I had anticipated.
Let’s get to work.
Alexander Jablokov (pronounced ‘Ya-‘) is the author of Brain Thief, which will be out in paperback this October. Previous books are Carve The Sky (Morrow/Avonova, 1991), A Deeper Sea (Morrow/Avonova, 1992), Nimbus (Morrow, 1993), River of Dust (Avon, 1996), Deepdrive (Avon Eos, 1998). His stories have appeared in the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Twenty-Eighth Year’s Best Science Fiction (ed. Gardner Dozois); and in Asimov’s, Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Aboriginal SF. The Breath of Suspension, a collection of his short fiction, was published by Arkham House in 1994 and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife, Mary, his son, Simon, and his daughter, Faith.
Put the Dame in the Game
by Sue Lange
When considering anthologies such as The Other Half of the Sky you wonder, do we really need female space heroes? Are such entities even plausible?
To the latter I answer “yes.” Female heroes in fiction are very plausible. Much more so than our culture will lead us to believe. It’s an insidious belief system, our culture. We don’t even know we hold it. It colors our judgment and allows us to promote truths that have no basis in reality. Even if you’re sure you’re enlightened and know the way the world is put together your gut still thinks wrongly.
For instance: Zero Dark Thirty. Didn’t you wonder about this movie? I did. Somewhere around the middle I wondered if the main character was an experiment in artistic license. I knew very little about Osama bin Laden’s capture, so I figured the movie makers used some of the actual events and fabricated the rest, putting a feminine spin on it just for yuks. That is somewhat true, but the story is based mostly in fact. There’s some question as to whether the use of waterboarding actually produced good information, but for the most part, yes, it was a woman, or rather a bunch of women (There’s a new movie out called “Manhunt” which centers on these women called “The Sisterhood.”) who did the bulk of the research. In the movie, “Maya” had to fight a number of formidable opponents (her bosses at the CIA) to push her agenda. Her superiors finally, reluctantly got behind her until she finally got her man. The capture of the century, folks.
The point of all this is, I almost always write female protagonists. And I put them in non-traditional roles, and yet I have this cultural bias. I find it hard to learn that women are doing things that I haven’t seen them doing on the screen. I don’t ever find Hollywood characters believable and yet I still look at the world through Hollywood’s lens. My very reason for using female protagonists is that the world is filled with women in non-traditional roles who never get any spin. And yet here it is: a character straight out of one of my own novels and what do I do but question the veracity of her gender.
So yes, we need to make an effort and create main characters that are uncomfortably female. It hurts, I know, but we have to do it. If science fiction wants to be taken seriously, it has to take reality seriously. The dame’s in the game in the real world, why not in fantasy as well?
Sue Lange’s novel, Tritcheon Hash, was rereleased as an ebook in 2011 and was included in Kirkus’ Best of list for that year. Her novella, We, Robots, was included in io9’s “Thirteen Books that will change the way you look at robots.” Her short stories have been published in such venues as Nature (Futures) and Apex Digest of Science Fiction and Horror. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her Singularity Watch blog is updated irregularly and can be found at http://www.suelange.wordpress.com. She lives in Pennsylvania with her SO, a dog, four sinks, and a bidet.
Sailing Toward “Sailing the Antarsa”
by Vandana Singh
Years ago, when I first began to write science fiction, I found myself pondering the question: does the urge to explore new frontiers inevitably end up in the conquering and exploitation of other beings, other societies? Although I was born in a free India, my family and society have been deeply affected by 200 years of British colonialism. Yet history hints at other possibilities, although the encounters that stand out are the asymmetric ones. This asymmetry is of course a characteristic of other relationships as well: between male and female, between nations and races, and between humanity and other beings.
As an exercise in decolonizing my mind, I imagined a society that was egalitarian with respect to gender and sexual orientation, and where fluidity and a certain organic adaptability were encouraged with respect to social behavior and the relationship between human and non-human. Yet its motto was: “Have high tech, live low tech.” I imagined a non-capitalistic society where social bonding and a realistic, respectful relationship with non-humans were an integral feature – perhaps under such circumstances it would be possible to develop technology in answer to real needs, but without that technology becoming a drug?
I was raised in India, where Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all assume that non-humans have souls; yet the old, Nature-centric belief systems are under constant assault. The result is an eco-sociological disaster, barely acknowledged by the increasingly affluent formerly middle classes. Our current gender wars around the globe, symptoms of a patriarchal system that differs by flavor around the world but is otherwise quite pervasive – point to an analogous situation. Consider a small example: women scientists in a male-dominated field often must prove themselves by acting twice as aggressive as men, so they will be taken seriously. Patriarchy consumes us all, men and women, by forcing us to suppress our full humanity; but the toll on women is particularly severe. I wanted to imagine a woman, an explorer, who was fully human: emotional, analytical, brave, terrified, loving, and unapologetically all of the above.
While thinking about alternative societies and possibilities, it occurred to me to invent an alternative physics as well. I’d been musing on propulsion systems for spacecraft and what fun it would be if you could sail through space literally as though it was an ocean. From there it was a relatively small step to the notion of an invisible ocean, composed of a kind of dark radiation, to which all matter but ‘altmatter’ was transparent. The invention of these ideas was a source of great delight to this former particle physicist.
Of course a story is not born, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, solely from idea. For me, a character has to walk into my head and make her presence felt. My vague notions and random imaginings crystallized the day that Mayha spoke to me. I saw her in her spaceship, looking back at the world she was leaving behind, poised at the edge of the known, at the edge of possibility.
When we are immersed in a certain dominant paradigm, even the imagination is under siege: it is near-impossible to posit alternatives that seem believable. So it is with gratitude that I acknowledge my daughter’s help as sounding board, and in making ‘Antarsa’ real, both in name and as story. And just as much, my gratitude to my extraordinary editor for immediately getting what I was trying to do, and helping me make the story what it was meant to be within the constraints of my skill and imagination.
Vandana Singh was born and raised in India and currently lives near Boston, where she teaches physics at a state university. Her short stories have been published in numerous venues, such as Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and various anthologies including Clockwork Phoenix and Other Worlds Than These. She is a winner of the Carl Brandon Parallax award (for Distances, a novella published by Aqueduct Press) and many of her stories have been reprinted in Year’s Best anthologies. Some of her work is collected in The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories (Zubaan Books, New Delhi). For more about her, please see her website at http://users.rcn.com/singhvan.
Go HERE to read part two of this round table with authors Ken Liu, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Kelly Jennings, Cat Rambo and Jack McDevitt.