Dispatches From The Sci-Fi Gender Wars

11th Feb 2014

After the Arthur C Clarke Award was criticised last year for the woeful lack of women on this shortlist they've tried to clean up their act in 2014. But have they really managed to improve things and why do we even care about these awards? Cheryl Morgan investigates...

Last year there was a huge row when the short list for science fiction’s prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award was all-male. This year, in an attempt to forestall criticism, the Clarke issued the list of submitted works by women early.

There were 34 of them, and this prompted some celebration. There were 82 entries last year, of which only 16 were by women, so it looked like things were improving. Now we have the full list, and the picture is not so rosy.

There are 121 entries in all. So, the proportion by women has gone up from 20% to 28%, which is good, but nowhere near the 40% level you might have assumed from the Award’s clever PR.

There are some really good books by women on the list, and some hope is provided by the British Science Fiction Association Awards.

As Abbie reported, their short list for novels has two women out of five, and the four-work list for short fiction is all-female. Does this mean that women are finally cracking the “boys’ club” façade of science fiction?

Well maybe. Awards are fickle things, dependent heavily on the mix of eligible work, and on the make-up of the jury if there is one (the Clarke has a jury, the BSFAs are voted on by members of the Association). Also headline figures can mask a lot of variation.

Writer Rosie Oliver has produced this useful chart that breaks down submissions by major publishers to the Clarke by gender. Some clearly have a better gender balance than others.

In any field traditionally dominated by one particular cultural group, the arrival of people from another culture will be seen as an invasion, even if their numbers are quite smallA standout is Jo Fletcher Books with an admirably diverse catalogue. They have published books by two Caribbean women (Karen Lord and Stephanie Saulter), one by an Icelandic man (Snorri Kristjansson) and a trilogy by an Indian man (Amish Tripathi). Their 2014 list includes a book by a trans woman (Rachel Pollack).

You also need to look at what women writers have to do to get success. The two novels by women on the BSFA list are God’s War by Kameron Hurley and Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

Hurley has spoken publicly about how she played up the military aspects of her book, and played down the themes of matriarchy and lesbianism, in order to appeal more to the male readership.

The cover of Leckie’s book also plays up the space opera theme, and plays down the ideas about gender that have earned the book so much praise.

Yet another barometer of sentiment in the community can be found in so-called “pimpage wars”. In fan-voted awards such as the BSFAs and Hugos, your chances of success are dependent to some extent on whether people have heard of your books.

It has become traditional, at the start of awards season, for writers to post lists of their eligible work on social media. Some people have decried this as distasteful, with the implication that those who make such posts are somehow cheating.

But it has not escaped notice that those who protest against “pimpage” are mainly straight cis able-bodied white men, while those trying to get heard are often not in that group.

In any field traditionally dominated by one particular cultural group, the arrival of people from another culture will be seen as an invasion, even if their numbers are quite small. This can quickly lead to an angry backlash.

A recent example can be found in reactions to this column by Alex Dally MacFarlane on the popular website, which calls for science fiction to challenge the idea of the gender binary.

From some of the reaction you would think she had called for the end of civilization. Comment moderators had to be unusually busy dealing with vitriolic attacks on the column (one commenter allegedly described trans people as “mentally ill”). If you want to see what the backlash looks like, Jim Hines has helpfully dissected it for you.

Gender wars, then, are still very much in full swing in science fiction. Feminism hasn’t conquered the world yet, despite centuries of patriarchal rule. It seems naïve to expect it to conquer science fiction after only a few decades of trying. But there are genuine rays of hope.

One is the burgeoning Afrofuturism movement, through which writers of colour of all genders are achieving prominence. Another is the Women Destroy Science Fiction Kickstarter campaign being run by Lightspeed magazine, which Abbie reported on. The campaign is open for donations until Friday 14th February.

The huge success of that campaign is clear proof that lots of people do want to read science fiction by women. The question now is whether publishers and bookstores will recognize that and react accordingly, or whether they will continue to assume that SF is a boys-only market.