The Truth About Women and Science Fiction

Tuesday , 16, May 2017 16 Comments

Over at Tor.com, Judith Tarr weighs in on a well trod discussion point:

Every year or two, someone writes another article about a genre that women have just now entered, which used to be the province of male writers. Usually it’s some form of science fiction. Lately it’s been fantasy, especially epic fantasy (which strikes me with fierce irony, because I remember when fantasy was pink and squishy and comfy and for girls). And in keeping with this week’s theme, space opera gets its regular turn in the barrel.

Women have always written space opera.

Ever heard of Leigh Brackett? C.L. Moore? Andre Norton, surely?

So why doesn’t everyone remember them?

You know, I’m really glad she asked.

There are several things playing into this, of course. Take your pick:

All of these things are very real factors. But none of them are the kicker.

No, the real culprit when it comes to keeping these women out of the conversation is the great divorce that occurred midway through the last century. When fantasy and science fiction had their big break up and “hard science fiction was born”, pretty well everything from before 1940 would have been poo-pooed by the people that were initiating a “year zero” type event.

Before then, guys like John Carter, Northwest Smith, and Eric John Stark would have been synonymous with science fiction. Future fixtures of science fiction like Jack Williamson would pattern their earliest works after A. Merritt aka “The Lord of Fantasy”. Works by A. Merritt, Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft would include science fiction elements and be published in science fiction magazines.

After about 1940 or so, all of this would be arbitrarily redefined as “not science fiction” in an act of aggressive literary gerrymandering. Anyone using the phrase “the Golden Age of Science Fiction” in reference to John W. Campbell and his “Big Three” lineup of Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke tacitly endorses this sort of thing. And it is absolutely wrongheaded.

Yes, the women of space opera really were written out of the science fiction and fantasy narrative. In the final analysis, it’s clear that they were merely collateral damage. The type of works they produced have been delegitimized wholesale, derided as trashy “kid’s stuff.” The reality is that they wrote profoundly influential works that are part of a tradition that stretches all the way back to Homer. That tradition is what the intellectuals of the Modern and Post-Modern eras objected to and what they intended to subvert and replace. The sex of the people that created some of the very best space opera ever written was beside the point.

Yes, the “Hard SF” revolution did turn the field into something of a boy’s club. The critical frame that emerged from it has unfairly excluded the work of a great many top tier creators that happened to be female. And much as it pains me to admit it, feminist critics do have a point when they complained about women being arbitrarily excluded.

However… when they treat the Campbellian Revolution as the de facto dawn of science fiction, they are perpetuating and reinforcing the real problem. If you want creators like Leigh Brackett and C. L. Moore to get the sort of attention they deserve, you have to recover not only the true history of fantasy and science fiction. You have to revive and defend the sort of classical virtues that are the root cause of why they have been snubbed in the first place.

16 Comments
  • deuce says:

    I love how Tarr takes it as a given that a large part of any military operation SHOULD consist of women. Yeah, that’s a winning strategy. Put the key to the continuance of your culture/species out in harm’s way as a matter of routine. What could go wrong?

    Good point, Jeffro, regarding how the Campbellian/Buds of “Hard” SF paradigm generally works to exclude women. Women writers aren’t particularly drawn to “Hard”/Plain Grey SF any more than female students are irresistibly drawn to STEM classes.

    I’ll take Brackett or Moore over Asimov or Blish anyday.

    • Alex says:

      “It doesn’t stop. When I was watching Rogue One, sure enough. Female protagonist, yay! But…where are the rest of the women? The crew of merry men are all, well, men. A couple of female pilots sneak in under the radar, but if they’re representative of the proportion of women to men in the Star Wars universe, there’s definitely a problem with the continuation of the species.”

      There’s not a problem with the continuation of the species BECAUSE the rebel women aren’t all getting shot down by TIE Fighters, blasted by stormtroopers, or sliced up by dark jedi.

      • Alex says:

        Also, most of the women who showed up in Rogue One didn’t go into the last big fight with all the men because they were faction leaders/representatives in the Rebel Council while the men who went to the planet did so because they knew their lives didn’t mean anything, they were expendable, and they wanted to make a different if they were going to die. The women were important enough that they couldn’t just up and grab a gun and die in a firefight on a beachhead.

        • Sam says:

          But that’s the biological truth. Societies send their young men to war precisely because they are expendable, in moderate numbers, whereas there is or has been no threshold of acceptable losses of young women.

  • To me, the “Hard SF” label has always been confusing. Did Heinlein write Hard SF? To me, his stories have always seemed more whimsical.

    Another question that comes to mind: weren’t there women who wrote Hard SF or Golden Age SF? (Wouldn’t, say, Tiptree count?) If not, why not?

  • john silence says:

    It is Miss Tarr’s side that was ignorant of them and is just discovering them, and that will last until they actually attempt to read them en masse. Because Moore’s and Brackett’s fiction will prove to be every bit as distasteful to them as that of their male counterparts.

  • Herb says:

    In fairness to Miss Tarr she does address the divorce in a brief aside:

    “Lately it’s been fantasy, especially epic fantasy (which strikes me with fierce irony, because I remember when fantasy was pink and squishy and comfy and for girls).”

    But doesn’t make the connection between arbitrary year zeros and forgotten women.

    The really odd thing about that is a read a lot of Norton’s “pink and comfy for girls” fantasy (books like Octogon Magic) after discovering Witch World than I did her space opera. I only discovered her space opera relatively late.

    • Jon Mollison says:

      “Lately it’s been fantasy, especially epic fantasy (which strikes me with fierce irony, because I remember when fantasy was pink and squishy and comfy and for girls).”

      When was that? When Glen Cook was writing Black Company novels? When Elric was angstily gutting every close friend of his? When Tolkein was knocking his POV character out so that he could avoid writing explicit fantasy WWI battles?

      There’s a whole big world of fiction out there, and these people are peeping through a keyhole screaming about the narrow slice that represents their entire view.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    “You have to revive and defend the sort of classical virtues that are the root cause of why they have been snubbed in the first place.”

    And there is the problem. Those classical virtues are either characteristics of a Patriarchical (shiver) society and therefore intrinsically evil, or they’re just not relevant to today’s womyn and their needs.

    Revive and defend courage, honor, duty, loyalty, sacrifice and patriotism? Nah.

    Today’s Feminists do not even know what those words MEAN.

  • Andy says:

    There’s no win state for movements like this, only The Eternal Struggle. The effect is that in order to pretend that progress is still to be made, past accomplishments and pioneers have to be dismissed.

    • deuce says:

      The eternal battlecry of the commissars has always been:

      “WE STILL HAVE A LONNNGGG WAY TO GO!!!”

      We have always been at war with Oceania.

  • Jill says:

    Very true, great article. I just wonder what will happen when the virtue signalling type of reader actually delves more deeply into the works of these forgotten women authors… Actually, I think the article author already demonstrates the kind of reaction you’ll get. Doesn’t she disparage the silenced women writing silenced female characters?

  • vince says:

    Anne McCaffrey(rip)is still widely read and and if the Pern novels ever make it to the screen watch out Star Wars.Its ashame however that C.J.Cherryh has fallen out of favour and Marion Z.Bradley being exposed as a paedophile devalues one of the greatest fantasy novels of all time “Mists of Avalon”

  • […] — but presenting a false narrative that women are somehow oppressed and erased in the genre (rebutted by the Hugo-nominated Castalia House who’s been active talking about the great women …, a post about ponies in space,a post about the “underrated importance of ordinary, everyday […]

  • […] — but presenting a false narrative that women are somehow oppressed and erased in the genre (rebutted by the Hugo-nominated Castalia House who’s been active talking about the great women of s…, a post about ponies in space,a post about the “underrated importance of ordinary, everyday […]

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