Word of the Worlds April 2017

The Women Writers of Science Fiction

The 2017 Hugo Awards finalists were just announced earlier this month. The nominees are up for one of scifi’s more prestigious awards, despite an unfortunate taint in recent years by misogynists and bigots seeking to manipulate the ballots. This year at least, the changes to the nomination procedure have had a dampening effect on those efforts. I’m not going to get into the (supposed) reasoning behind those group's misguided attempts, or how and why everything they stand for is wrong. Instead, I will point out the recurrence of one of the great trends that drives them crazy: the increasing recognition of women scifi/fantasy authors. This year, four of the six Hugo finalists for Best Novel are women: Charlie Jane Anders, Becky Chambers, N.K. Jemisin, and Ada Palmer. You’ll see the same kind of representation as you move down the ballots: four of six for Best Novella, five of six for Best Novelette. And the same thing is happening over in the Nebula Awards, whose finalists were announced in late February.     

It’s not just nominations either--women are winning the awards. Last year, N.K. Jemisin and Naomi Novik won Best Novel at the Hugo Awards and Nebula Awards respectively. Nnedi Okorafor took home Best Novella at both. And the Hugo for Best Short Story went to Naomi Kritzer while Alyssa Wong took the Nebula.

These victories are wonderful steps forward for women authors in the fields of scifi and fantasy. Last year, The Huffington Post claimed women were reaching new heights, and in 2015, The Guardian wrote that women writers were storming the citadels of male scifi, with waves of new authors raised on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.

Crucially though, both of the above-linked articles raised a separate but important point: it’s a historical misperception to think women writers are only now being acknowledged. Scifi and fantasy continue to be perceived as bastions of maleness, but they are citadels that have actually been under attack by writers who are not straight, white, science-minded men since the very beginning. After all, Mary Shelley’ Frankenstein (1818) is frequently considered a starting point for scifi as we know it, and even before that there were feminist utopia works like Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) and Sarah Scott’s A Description of Millenium Hall (1762). It does, however, have to be admitted that between 1818 and about the 1960s, men absolutely dominated the genres, and it wasn’t uncommon for women who were writing to use male pseudonyms like Andrew North, or at least gender-neutral names, like C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett.

Then came the Golden Age of feminist scifi. During the 1970s, when Second Wave Feminism swept the country, women started winning and being nominated for many awards in scifi and fantasy: writers like Joanna Russ, Anne McCaffrey, Kate Wilhelm, and Joan D. Vinge. In this decade, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr. (the pseudonym of Alice Bradley Sheldon), and Vonda McIntyre each won both a Nebula and a Hugo. And Pamela Sargent published her groundbreaking anthology series Women of Wonder.

But after any golden age are always dark years and these dark years lasted for the next three decades, as once again men largely dominated the lists. So it may come as a surprise that even during this time, women writers were being recognized within the field. Connie Willis, called “the Meryl Streep of science fiction” by WIRED Magazine for the sheer number of awards she has garnered, earned the bulk of them during the 80s and 90s. In 1984, after a lifetime of work, Andre Norton was named the first female Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (she was Andrew North). And Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale, which is once again much in the limelight, was nominated for a Nebula in 1986.

So why does it seem like few people seem to remember these achievements? In NPR's Top 100 Scifi & Fantasy Books as voted on by the public, the first book on the list by a woman (Shelley's Frankenstein) comes in at number twenty, and there are only thirteen on the whole list.      

As Naomi Novik pointed out in the Huffington Post article above, it’s a particularly insidious type of prejudice that simply forgets about others, one that is rooted in unconscious biases. Society has long seen geek culture as predominantly male, and recent mainstream acceptance has led to reactionary, ugly urges to police that culture and judge the authenticity of others’ fandom. Much of this comes from deep-seated microaggressions that perpetually posit women as outsiders, and microaggressions by their nature are notoriously difficult to combat. But they can be, and one way is to realize that talented women in scifi are not new and strange things. Here I think is what lies at the heart of this sense of “discovery” of talented women writers. Suddenly publishers are discovering not that these writers exist, but that they sell. And that's actually important. Having them continue to sell, having them continue to be published and win awards, and ultimately, having a growing base of women and men who want to read stories that aren’t focused on one kind of individual, that’s going to make all the difference. 

So are women writers on the road to parity? I’m optimistic. But I’ll politely clear my throat whenever someone marvels at these women writers coming out of nowhere, and kindly point to our list of women in scifi, fantasy, and speculative fiction across the decades. By no means comprehensive, this is a brief survey of writers who should not be forgotten. After all, they’ve always been there, launching stones at the citadel.

A Partial Survey of Women in SciFi/Fantasy

A brief note: Nearly every author here has way too many books and/or stories to list, and many of them are still actively writing. Mostly, I’ve tried to select seminal or, in some cases, early works to achieve a balanced distribution across the decades. Some of these works are tragically no longer in print. I’ve linked to what we can still obtain for you, but I highly recommend using a favorite, local, second-hand bookshop to find others. Particularly during the 1950s and earlier, stories were more common than novels; in some cases I've linked to anthologies that I know to have collected at least one of their works. These anthologies are an excellent way to find the works of many of these writers gathered in one convenient place. I particularly recommend:

Women of Futures Past - Edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Sisters of Tomorrow - Edited by Lisa Yaszek & Patrick Sharp
Sisters of the Revolution - Edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer

The Big Book of Science Fiction - Edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer
Caitlin Kiernan - Agents of Dreamland (2017)

Naomi Novik - Uprooted (2015)

Nnedi Okurafor - Binti (2015)

Ann Leckie - Ancillary Justice (2013)

Marie Brennan - A Natural History of Dragons (2013)


Lauren Beukes - Moxyland (2008)

Kelly Link - Pretty Monsters (2008)

Leena Krohn - Datura (2001, English translation in 2013)

Nalo Hopkinson - Midnight Robber (2000)


Elizabeth Hand - Waking the Moon (1994)

Octavia Butler - Parable of the Sower (1993)

Connie Willis - Doomsday Book (1993)

Nancy Kress - Beggars in Spain (1991)

Pat Cadigan - Synners (1991)


Lois McMaster Bujold - Shards of Honor (1986)

Margaret Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

Angela Carter - Nights at the Circus (1984)

Angelica Gorodischer - Kalpa Imperial (1983)

C.J. Cherryh - Downbelow Station (1981)


Doris Lessing - Shikasta (1979)

Eleanor Arnason - Swordsmith (1978)

James Tiptree Jr. - Up the Walls of the World (1978)

Marge Piercy - Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)

Joanna Russ - The Female Man (1975)


Ursula K. Le Guin - The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

Anne McCaffrey - Dragonflight (1968)

Andre Norton - Witch World (1963)

Kate Wilhelm - The Mile-Long Spaceship (1963)

Madeliene L'Engle - A Wrinkle in Time (1962)

1950s and Earlier

Carol Emshwiller - Pelt (1958)

Leigh Brackett - The Long Tomorrow (1955)

C.L. Moore - Shambleua (1933)

Leslie F. Stone - The Conquest of Gola (1931)

Clare Winger Harris - The Fate of the Poseidonia (1927)


Book Reviews

The Stars Are Legion
Kameron Hurley
The dedication page of Kameron Hurley's The Stars are Legion says simply: For All The Brutal Women. I've never read a more exciting dedication, and, as it turns out, one that so succinctly describes the novel. The Legion is a place of brutality where factions fight for dominance of the outer rim of an artificial sun, dreaming of total power and the divine blessings of the War God.

The alternating plot lines, the re-imagining of what the Hero's Journey can be, and the mystery at the heart of the story are wonderful nuggets, but the real power of The Stars are Legion come from Hurley's world building. The Legion is a solar system populated entirely by women, women who are so intimately linked to their worlds they birth what their planet needs, whether that is a humanoid being or gears for the deep machinery powering the core. Make no mistake, this is space-opera at it's finest, but unbound by tradition and wholly original in its audaciousness. Especially recommended for fans Ancillary Justice who don't mind (a lot of) gore. -- David C.

Winged Histories
Sofia Samatar
With Winged Histories, now in paperback, Sofia Samatar returns to her fantasy colonial empire in this companion to 2015's A Stranger in Olondria. But never fear if you didn't read Stranger. Winged Histories is where I actually recommend you start. This is an utterly gorgeous epic fantasy, one that subverts typical fantasy tropes. Yes, there's an aristocratic girl who runs away to become a swordmaiden. Yes, there's a nomadic desert people who prefer an oral tradition to written history. There's a socialite who wanted only for things to stay the same, and a legendary monster that suddenly proves to be very real. But somehow, it all feels fresh and exciting, in part because of how talented a writer Samatar is, weaving back and forth between present and past in the space of paragraphs, even sentences. What might be pure fantasy instead becomes a deft exploration, through the voices of four women, of marginalized vs. center, invisible histories, and the pressures of social convention not simply on day to day life but on how one's existence is even remembered. Complex, beautiful, and nuanced, Olondria is a place to sweep you away. -- Chris P.


Brian Catling
Erstwhile is Brian Catling's second installment of the Vorrh trilogy. Catling continues to develop a world that revolves around  a massive, self conscious forest in the middle of Africa that has proven itself capable of expelling colonialist and awaking prophets that help defend its boundaries. As rumors of another world war spread, strange creatures are appearing throughout Germany and London.  Mistaken for shell shocked soldiers or the mentally ill, they wind up in institutions where a few have recognized their unnatural behavior. They are the Erstwhile, the angles that failed to protect the Tree of Knowledge and abandoned by God.
Brain Catling fuses traditional mythology, historical locations, people and events, with his own created world to develop a style that lands some where between fantasy and speculative fiction. There are intricacies to Catling's story telling that are hard to discuss without giving to much of the fun away.  I can say that Catling has produced the most creative and engrossing trilogy that I've read in a long while. -- Terry S.