Sir Arthur’s Fantasy Women #WomenInGenre

So the Clarke Award jury this year managed to return a short list of six books by men, despite four of the five judges being women. I think it is a pretty safe bet that if the Hugo Best novel short list had been men-only we’d have seen an outcry from UK fandom saying that this proves the Hugos are “broken”, and that Americans are appalling people whom we should all despise. What we are seeing with the Clarke is much sad tutting over the state of UK publishing, and the occasional comment about how British awards reward quality, rather than being influenced by “political correctness”.

Let me say right at the start that anyone who says that these six books were chosen because they were the six best books in the field is talking utter bollocks. I know how juries work. I’ve been on some. What these six books represent is what this year’s jury felt were the six best books in the field. Another jury might have made a very different selection. Given what I’ve read, and what other well-read people have said, I think there’s a reasonable chance that, with a different jury, Empty Space, The Fractal Prince, Jack Glass, Railsea and The Method might all have been selected. As it happens, I know a couple of the jury quite well (I publish one of them) and I’m confident that they will have done an honest job within the confines of the award rules as they understood them, and given the selection of books available to them.

However, reading Liz Williams’ defense of the short list in The Guardian leads me to wonder a bit about the situation that they found themselves in. Firstly Liz makes a very valid point about the state of publishing in the UK. The lack of opportunities for women SF authors here has been lamentable over the past few years. If people like Justina Robson, Gwyneth Jones and Tricia Sullivan can’t get novel contracts, something is badly wrong. I’d add Pat Cadigan to that list, but hopefully her recent Hugo nomination will cause publishers to sit up and take notice. I’m delighted to see Jo Fletcher Books doing their bit to redress the balance, but I note that they are publishing new people; the established names still can’t get a book out. Before you blame the publishers, however, check out what Malinda Lo had to say recently about the pressures that they are under, particularly from big book chains.

Liz also talks about the sort of books that the jury received. She mentions, “a return to both the ‘sensawunda’ and to the critical thought that so many complain is lacking from contemporary SF” and of some of the submissions being “technically fantasy”. This worries me a bit. I shall attempt to explain why.

My first thought is that an award founded by Sir Arthur has every right to focus on science fiction. If you were going to pick one SF author who actually did what people outside of the field think all SF authors try to do, i.e. predict the future, he’d probably be first on your list. Sir Arthur not only understood technology, he got his predictions right a lot more often than anyone else (by which I mean that his score was non-zero).

Also, as Farah Mendlesohn has noted on Twitter, the Clarke jury does get sent a lot of books that are obviously fantasy. She mentioned getting Terry Pratchett novels when she was a judge, and I see that Paul Cornell’s London Falling was submitted this year. With a record number of books submitted (a testament to the effectiveness of Tom Hunter’s PR machine, which makes publishers want to be selected for the Clarke) I can see that juries want to avoid having to plough through books that should not have been given to them in the first place. Farah has set herself the task of reading all of the submissions by women to find out how many of them had no chance at all, and that’s an interesting project, but it probably doesn’t tell the whole story.

The word that worries me most is “technically”, because it makes it sound like books were being rejected on a technicality. I suspect that Liz probably didn’t mean that, but it is how it came over to me. It reminds me of all those silly debates we get into in fandom where people try to define what is and isn’t “really” science fiction, and it makes me happy that the Hugos don’t try to make a distinction. I can see that if I had been allowed to submit Archangel Protocol then it could have been accused of being “technically fantasy” despite the strong cyberpunk content, because it also contains angels. There are clear and obvious cases, but there’s also a very big grey area that we need to be careful about.

The Clarke has a recent history of rewarding books that some people dismiss as “really fantasy”. Perdido Street Station won the British Fantasy Award as well as the Clarke. The City & The City won the World Fantasy Award, the Hugo and the Clarke despite many people saying it wasn’t genre at all. And Zoo City is only “not urban fantasy” in the same way that 1984 is “not science fiction”. I very much hope that there hasn’t been some sort of policy retreat from doing this sort of thing, because I think it would affect women disproportionately.

You see, it isn’t just a question of publishers not buying SF by women. I’m pretty sure that often when they do buy it they do so only if they think the book can also be marketed as fantasy. They, and the bookstores, are still wedded to the idea that SF is for boys and (non-grimdark) fantasy is for girls, so if they find a really good SF book by a woman they’ll want to be able to present it to the marketing department, the bookstore buyers and the public as fantasy.

Plus, of course, you have the added problem of the difficulty that women have getting jobs in science and technology, so the number of women qualified to write seriously hard SF is probably a lot less than the number of men. (I was trying yesterday to think of women SF writers who are actually physicists. Catherine Asaro and Vandana Singh came immediately to mind. Tricia Sullivan is doing an OU degree. Who else?)

So I think there’s a real danger that the Clarke, in focusing tightly on science fiction, will inevitably be something of a cockforest. Obviously we hope that publishers will step up to the plate and allow women writers to get their SF novels to market, but they are commercial operations and are, to a certain extent, at the mercy of public taste.

One of the things that awards are good for is leading public taste. Juried awards in particular can encourage the public to read books that they might not otherwise have tried. One of the best ways to get the Great British Public reading SF by women is to have it nominated for the Clarke. So while I understand why the Clarke needs to stick to its science fiction only remit, I’d like to be sure that it isn’t doing anything that might make it even harder than it already is for women to get short-listed.

Hmm, what’s that I hear? “Hideously diverse Britain!” “Political correctness gone mad!” *sigh*

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18 Responses to Sir Arthur’s Fantasy Women #WomenInGenre

  1. Sean Wallace says:

    Ekaterina Sedia.

  2. Funny, but serious post, Cheryl.

    The lack of women writers on the consideration list is the even more telling sign than the long list. If women can’t get book contracts to write SF in Britain, that’s the game there, isn’t it? Mystery of the “Sausage filled” Clarke’s list solved.

    Unfortunately, that means the problem is *harder* to solve than it being a jury issue.

  3. >>Plus, of course, you have the added problem of the difficulty that women have getting jobs in science and technology, so the number of women qualified to write seriously hard SF is probably a lot less than the number of men.

    Interesting bit: by that rubric, Greg Egan isn’t qualified to write seriously hard sf. He just has a BS in Comp Sci, and worked in medical applications for a few years. Nothing that would lead you to think that he’d be a hard-core mathematical physicist writing a trilogy based on Riemannian geometry.

    Lots of authors write science fiction without being scientists, and thank goodness!

    • Cheryl says:

      Of course they do, but they have to work hard at it, which I’m sure Greg has done. If you already have educational qualifications and a day job then there’s less research to do.

      Now if you want to say that lots of great science fiction doesn’t actually involve much science, I’m with you all the way, but I suspect a lot of people might contest that one.

  4. Rosie says:

    I have made my comments about one of the nominated A C Clarke books on my blog… basically as an engineer with two masters degrees in maths (and another masters in creative writing) I have to treat it as fantasy. Why? Because even allowing for the scope of technical development and allowing for all the work that can be done to make it so (and believe me I give a lot leeway in both respects), it just ain’t right.
    Bottom line is I feel a lot of the men’s ‘so called’ science fiction is being focussed more towards fantasy than it used to be.
    Implications are numerous and various… but it’s a contributory factor to the lack of women (real) science fiction writers.

    • Decades ago Phil Foglio did a “What’s New” comic about the difference between fantasy roleplaying games and science fiction roleplaying games. In the end, the only difference he could come up with was in science fiction roleplaying games all the magic is electric.

      • Rosie says:

        Hello Andrew, I understand exactly where you are coming from. What we do now with computers and TV will seem like magic to people who lived 100 hundred years pre World War 1.

        But even then H G Wells was predicting the kinds of warfare that were to come shortly (incidentally – he came up with an invention for transporting goods to the frontline trenches that saved hundreds of lives – you could say that he some ways he was the Arthur C Clarks of his day). He and others like him weren’t that far off the mark. So you have to ask yourself how do they do it?

        And if you’re asking that question, then there must be some way of predicting future tech reasonably reliably. And if that’s the case, then some of the fantasy-biased science fiction novels will be ‘wrong’ on the tech side to those that can see the future trends. This is exactly where I’m coming from.

  5. Of course, the first thing I misread in your essay was “technically fantasy” as “technical fantasy.” There’s a lot of “science fiction” that, craft-wise, is indistinguishable with fantasy in a futuristic setting.

    And I still have to say Mieville is the most serious “science fiction” I’ve ever read. Mieville sets up stories and worlds where science is the key, it’s just social science.

  6. Simon Petrie says:

    If you’re looking to compile a list of ‘women who write hard SF’, I’d suggest Sarah Frost and Patty Jansen as names to watch for. (And Thoraiya Dyer, though it’s less of a focus in her work.)

  7. Liz Williams says:

    I’ve made this clarification over on Tor’s thread: There was some outstanding fantasy on the subs list, and I hope some of it shows up on fantasy award lists throughout 2013. We felt that much of it was too traditional in fantasy terms to qualify (e.g. vampire romances). On the long list (from which the shortlist comes), some of the more fantasy-based novels did appear, but we didn’t feel that they were strong enough contenders for reasons other than their genre content: I probably should have clarified this in the article, as it seems to be causing confusion. Bear in mind that we’re looking at a lot of different elements when evaluating these books.

    • Cheryl says:

      Thanks Liz. As I said, I didn’t think you folks would have done that, but sometimes the words get away from you. And, of course, it allowed me to move into the whole area of women being encouraged to make their SF more fantasy-like, or being marketed as if they have done.

  8. >I was trying yesterday to think of women SF writers who are actually physicists. >Catherine Asaro and Vandana Singh came immediately to mind. Tricia Sullivan is >doing an OU degree. Who else?
    Not sure you specifically need physics for hard SF? (I mean, strictly speaking you’d also need biology, maths, electrical engineering etc.). Athena Andreadis is a biologist; Catherine Asaro has a physics degree (multiple ones, more accurately). I have a degree in Applied Maths and Computer Science. Hard pressed to think of more, but I’m pretty sure they are out there…

  9. Maura McHugh says:

    I’m pretty sure Linda Nagata has a science degree of some kind, as I believe she was a programmer at one point.

    Jaine Fenn studied Linguistics and Astronomy at College.

    As has been my experience, lots of people anecdotally think there aren’t many women in a certain field until you begin to count them up, and you suddenly discover there are loads of them.

    • >As has been my experience, lots of people anecdotally think there aren’t many >women in a certain field until you begin to count them up, and you suddenly >discover there are loads of them.
      Yes. Invisible women all over again 🙁

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  12. Liz Williams says:

    I’d add that I have a masters in artificial intelligence.

    Commentary on the Clarkes so far seems to contain, as one of the other judges has said, a standard complaint for 2013 – ‘where are all the women – like Roberts and Harrison?’ In doing a quick bit of Googling for this thread, I came up with a Guardian article that talked about women in hard F, including M John Harrison (“OK,” it said, “He’s not a woman but….”). I’m going to ask Mike if there’s something he wants to tell us….

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