Coode Street, Campbell & Gender

In the latest Coode Street Podcast Jonathan and Gary ruminate on the nominees for this year’s John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and the consistent lack of female writers in that list over the years.

Part of this, I suspect, is that the Campbell jury sees so little change. As you’ll see from the award’s website, it is pretty much the same group of people ever year. If you change the jury every few years then inevitably there will be a few years in which results don’t go the way people might like, but equally if you hardly ever change them then there’s a danger that the jury will become set in its ways and reward the same type of books over and over again. That, in the current environment, means books by old, white men.

However, Gary touched on something interesting during the podcast when he mentioned that books by women tend to be less scientifically rigorous. Jonathan, quite rightly, chastised him for assuming that the award was for “hard SF”, and pointed out that many male SF writers are equally lacking in rigour. But they never quite got to the end of that line of reasoning.

How we classify books as “science fiction” or “fantasy” does change down the years. Back in the early days of Worldcon all sorts of things that nowadays we see as fantasy would have been called SF. That’s why fantasy has always been assumed to be part of the Hugos. The rise of fantasy as a marketing phenomenon has changed all that. It affects men too. One of the abiding mysteries of SF marketing is why Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun appears in the Fantasy Masterworks series, when it is so clearly set in a far future and the series is based around a real astronomical phenomenon. But these days classification issues appear to affect women disproportionately.

I’m firmly convinced that one of the reasons we see fewer women science fiction writers these days is because if a man writes an SF book that contains some fantastical elements it still tends to be seen as SF, but if a woman does the same it gets categorized as fantasy. I would argue, for example, that Debris by Jo Anderton would be seen as SF had it been written by a man. There is a good chance that The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells would too. I’m sure that some people argue that Kameron Hurley’s books are “really” fantasy. Or there’s Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fear’s Death, which is very clearly set in the future yet won the World Fantasy Award.

I find it hard to solely blame publishers for this. After all, they have to sell books, and if bookstores won’t stock SF by women, or readers won’t buy it in sufficient numbers, they need to react. Currently they are doing so quite successfully by slapping a YA label on SF by women. It’s all a game of smoke and mirrors.

However, when it comes to an award like the Campbell that requires a jury to make a decision as to whether a book is science fiction or not, then such issues come to the forefront. In the case of the Campbell I suspect this might be a question that the jury should talk about.

23 thoughts on “Coode Street, Campbell & Gender

  1. I’m sure that some people argue that Kameron Hurley’s books are “really” fantasy

    Paul Witcover on Infidel in Locus last November: “In my review of God’s War, I wrote that it was as yet unclear whether the series would prove to be science fiction — as it is billed — or instead fantasy masquerading as science fiction. After reading Infidel, I can only conclude that it’s the latter. Which is fine, although it’s a bit disappointing.”

      1. Also, Farah’s post: “If I was to choose a genre for this book it wouldn’t be sf. As far as I can tell it’s sword and sorcery far future fantasy.”

        (I’m sympathetic to the extent that GW is clearly in dialogue with fantasy traditions as well as sf traditions; what I really object to is reducing it to being ‘really’ one or the other.)

        1. But, but… It’s The A Team in space! (with bugs & feminism)

          I really need to write a review, don’t I?

          1. I’m sure that some people argue that Kameron Hurley’s books are “really” fantasy.

            Well, there is a passing mention of a moon whose orbit around the planet is longer than the planet’s year. Since this would obviously place the Moon outside the planet’s Hill radius, this is a subtle message from the author that it’s fantasy, just as all the wacky moments in Larry Niven’s Known Space (Mercury being tide-locked into a 1:1 resonance, humans not coming from Earth, Jinx’s implausible rigid rock, FTL and so on) indicates Known Space is some manner of fantasy as well.

  2. I’m a little boggled by the implication that an award named after John W. Campbell should be for “scientifically rigorous” SF. Would that be the scientifically rigorous John W. Campbell who was bowled over by Dianetics, or perhaps the scientifically rigorous John W. Campbell who was an enthusiast for a perpetual-motion machine? Campbell was indisputably a great SF editor, but I wonder if his outbreaks of credulous foolishness weren’t as much a part of his greatness as his ability to use a slide rule.

    As for the larger point, it often seems that most of the talk we hear about “rigorousness” in SF has little to do with scientific and mathematical plausibility, and much more to do with the ability to ventriloquize a certain allegedly toughminded attitude. Thus a highly enjoyable space-opera confection like THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE gets called “hard” SF while dozens of SF novels by women containing actual scientific and engineering speculation based on current knowledge–but lacking in scenes of men talking tough about military necessity or libertarianism–get defined as “soft.” One begins to suspect that the discourse of “rigor” isn’t about what people claim it’s about.

    On a slightly different issue, I agree that it’s weird that the Book of the New Sun is in the Masterworks of Fantasy series. But give the Campbell Award credit on this point — THE CITADEL OF THE AUTARCH won in 1984.

    1. Podcasts are dangerous like that. It is easy to open your mouth without fully thinking through what you are going to say. But Jonathan immediately spotted the flaw and got the discussion back on track.

      As to your comments about “rigor”, YES!

    2. I’m a little boggled by the implication that an award named after John W. Campbell should be for “scientifically rigorous” SF.

      In the early days of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, it seemed to be given to the work which JWC was least likely to have acquired.

      The John W. Campbell Memorial Award also has a history of interesting decisions, like the year a Robert Silverberg novel came in second to “we don’t think any book from this year is worthy of the award so we’re giving it to an old Wilson Tucker novel we like.”

      1. Or indeed the year they decided that “No Award” was preferable to Beggars in Spain or Moving Mars (not to mention Virtual Light and Green Mars, which were on the Hugo ballot that year.

  3. I don’t know how to do tables here. The original is at F/T is the fraction of the roster of nominees who are women. See if you can spot the subtle change that happens when one judge leaves and another replaces them:

    Year F/T Notes
    2012: .18
    2011: .15
    2010: .17
    2009: 0.0 Paul Di Filippo & Sheila Finch replace Paul A. Carter
    2008: .29 Paul Kincaid replaces Farah Mendlesohn
    2007: .25
    2006: .08
    2005: .25
    2004: .40
    2003: .20

    1. BTW, I am mildly astounded that the F/T ratio improved when Di Filippo, the guy who once compared the idea of including women in an athology to the idea of including lettuce in a ream of writing paper, joined the jury. I attribute this to two factors: One, Sheila Finch joined at the same time and Two, to make the number of women nominated lower they’d have had to nominate a negative number of women. Sticking at none would have been doable, though.

      In their defense, we’re dealing with a jury whose personal golden ages were for the most part not, as mine was, sensibly located in the 1970s (specifically 1975) during a great wave of splendid new female SF authors, but well before when female SF writers were considerably rarer – although not unknown – than they were in the one true golden age of the mid-1970s:

      James E. Gunn, born 1923 (Golden Age 1937)
      Sheila Finch, born 1935 (Golden Age 1949)
      Elizabeth Anne Hull, PhD, born 1937 (Golden Age 1951)
      Gregory Benford, born 1941 (Golden Age 1955)
      Thomas Alan Shippey, born 1943 (Golden Age 1957)
      Pamela Sargent, born 1948 (Golden Age 1962)
      Paul Kincaid, born 1952 (Golden Age 1966)
      Paul Di Filippo, born 1954 (Golden Age 1969)
      Christopher McKitterick, born 1967 (Golden Age 1981)

      My thesis is undermined by the fact Sargent was *part* of the great wave of splendid new female authors in the one true golden age but maybe if I bury that fact down here nobody will notice.

      I’m quite curious what the first Campbell jury looked like, age-wise.

      1. James, you seem obsessed with the age of the Campbell Jury, though I don’t think you analyse the ages of any other sf juries. For the record, when I was on the Tiptree jury the chair of judges was Karen Joy Fowler, who is the same age as me. Are you suggesting that our joint antiquity might in some way pervert or diminish the award that year?

        As for my ‘Golden Age’, whatever that means, it appears to be 6 years before I actually discovered science fiction and nearly a decade before I got seriously engaged with the genre. So what influence is it meant to have? And if you think my tastes and judgements are in some way tied to that ‘Golden Age’, then you simply have not been reading my reviews.

        In fact, books by women constituted less than 20% of those submitted for this year’s Campbell Award (and make up more than 20% of the shortlist, both by former winners of the Campbell Award). Our discussions regularly came back to the question of where were the women. But you cannot shortlist books that don’t come in.

        1. But you cannot shortlist books that don’t come in.

          That would appear to be contradicted by Chris’s post below.

          1. From my experience on the Clarkes, I’d say that roughly 25% of the books we call in actually turn up.

            Big publishers tend to respond quickly and well, but the smaller the publisher the less likely they are to respond. It can be a real battle to get in significant books just because they have come out from a small press.

  4. I appreciate this discussion of the Campbell Award. Just wanted to point out that the jury only partly determines which works we see; our pool comes largely from nominations by the publishers themselves, though we usually add a few books to that reading list each year. You can read about the selection process in the second section on this page:

    And you hit the nail on the head about how often we end up discussing, “Is this SF?” From my perspective, the genre has spread beyond its prior confines a lot lately since so much mainstream fiction has adopted the SFnal mode, and since our understanding of science and advances in technology enable authors to really run with Clarke’s Third Law.


    1. Much sympathy on the publisher issue. It is hard to keep track of everything that gets published. On the other hand, relying on submissions means that the publishers are having a strong say in who wins. I’m glad to see that the jury is given the right to call in other books. (The Clarke does the same, I believe.)

      One of the issues you may have is that, if the award gets a reputation for rewarding the same sort of book each year, then publishers will only send you that type of book. The jury needs to watch for that.

    2. If books like Robopocalypse are indeed among the best you see, is there even a point to the Campbells?

      1. James, I take it you’re not a fan of Robopocalypse *g*

        One could ask if there’s even a point to science fiction if [insert book here] sees publication, but following that path only leads to madness.

        1. I’m willing to be convinced: what about Robopocalypse makes it award-fodder?

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