Perceptions of Sub-Genre

I’ve been seeing a few comments lately about how books by women don’t get seen as belonging to certain sub-genres even though they appear to fit the criteria. N.K. Jemisin was asking yesterday why her latest series is not seen as Grimdark, given the amount of slaughter that goes on. And here Vandana Singh (who teaches theoretical physics) talks about her relationship with Hard SF.

Obviously that’s her personal take on the issue, and I pretty much agree with all of it, but I’d like to add a couple of my personal observations.

Firstly I suspect that many people have come to identify Hard SF with the “written with wooden dialog, cardboard characters, stereotypes of gender, race and sexuality, and ‘as you know, Bob’ infodumps” stereotype that Vandana mentions. Women tend not to write stories like that. They are far too interested in people. And consequently, when they do write Hard SF, it doesn’t get recognized as such because it doesn’t conform to the stereotype, even though the science itself might be brilliant.

In addition I suspect that women writers of Hard SF are held to a much higher standard than male writers in the same sub-genre. Let me explain by means of a personal anecdote. Before I transitioned, if I came across a programming problem I could not solve I was quite happy using support services, online forums and so on. After transition I quickly realized that using such things was a waste of time, because nothing I said would be believed or taken seriously. That wasn’t because I had suddenly become a bad programmer, it was because I now had a female name. As a result of that, my ability to do technology would always be called into question by most males that I encountered.

I suspect that the same is true of women trying to write Hard SF. Historically, boys have been brought up to believe that they are much better at science and technology than girls, and that’s an easy story to maintain if you segregate them in all-boy schools. (Don’t try to pretend to me that this doesn’t happen. I was raised a boy, remember?) If someone brought up in that environment encounters a woman who is good at science or tech, he’ll feel that his masculinity is threatened if he can’t somehow prove her wrong. And that means questioning the “hardness” of SF by women.

By the way, this can work the other way around to some extent. I spent a lot of time studying fashion as a kid because I knew I was missing out on girlhood and wanted to plug the gap. These days I occasionally meet women who seem threatened by the possibility that I might do femme better than them. Or at least regard me as some sort of performing animal that can do things that should not come naturally to it. Gender expectations are a total pain.

2 thoughts on “Perceptions of Sub-Genre

  1. I think I might be rather cheeky in putting this comment here… but… um… isn’t what you’re saying that the perspective of Hard SF be seen as being “rather wooden” be due to the fact most Hard SF writers are men?
    And worse, could this woodiness be due to men having the childish wish to playing cowboys and indians (not that there’s anything wrong with enjoying being childish now and then)?

    1. There are plenty of male writers perfectly capable of doing good science and good fiction (Hannu Rajaniemi springs immediately to mind). Unfortunately some of the early practitioners of Hard SF were not very good writers, and possibly didn’t think that they needed to be.

      Mark W. Tiedemann has an amusing anecdote in the latest Borderlands Books newsletter, about a proto-Dudebro from 1984 who was holding forth on the inability of women to write SF, blissfully unaware that C.J. Cherryh was female.

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