This is a transcription of Nancy Kress' guest of honour speech held at ConFuse 93. The transcription is based on Kress' written manuscript. Some changes have been made, primarily to the parts not in the manuscript, to make the text more readable. The transcription was made by Tommy Persson.
I have to start by saying that I had half of carafe of wine at dinner so I am not exactly sure how this is going to go but I have been told that Ian McDonald last year had a lot more than that. He was still able to deliver a splendid speech so I feel that I have a good model ahead of me. I was also told that since everybody else here had more than half a carafe of wine there will be a certain tolerance.
My topic tonight is ''Women in American Science Fiction'' and after having been here at your splendid convention for two days, it seems to me that this is an especially appropriate topic, because as I was just discussing with a small but ardent group standing out in the rain I've really been surprised how few women science fiction fans have shown up for this convention. And I am told that you do not have a single female science fiction writer in Sweden so I would like to talk about women in American science fiction.
I have been reading science fiction and fantasy for nearly thirty years, ever since I discovered Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End at the age of fourteen. And the discovery happened this way. When I was fourteen I had my first serious boyfriend. He was studying to be a concert pianist and every day after school, after gymnasium, he would practise for several hours on the piano. And since I was an adoring teenage girl in the 1960s my role was to hang over the piano and look at him admiringly while he practiced. Unfortunately, I am tone deaf so I could look admiringly over the top of the piano at him for maybe ten minutes. That was my top limit. But in his family's music room there was a bookshelf and after I had done my ten minutes of staring adoringly, I kind of edged away from the piano and towards the books. His father had read science fiction and collected them there and I pulled one off the shelf at random, never having seen any science fiction before, and it was Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. I read two pages and I was in love. This was what I was looking for. I didn't even know that this was what I was looking for until I started reading it. Here was a literature that was large enough. Here was a literature that let me have the whole galaxy in order to tell the story. And that love lasted a lot longer than the love for the guy who played the piano.
I have been writing science fiction for fifteen years. As both reader and writer I have encountered a lot of theories about what science fiction is really about. Is it about the workings of science? Is it about our own society seen in deliberately distorted ways through the lenses of other societies? Is it about our sub-conscious fear of change? Is it about the power of gadgets? The power of wonder? The power of marketing categories as disgruntles writers, who aren't earning the big bucks, sometimes complain? You could probably make out a case for any or all of these things. My own conclusion after reading thousands of both good and not so good science fiction stories is that science fiction and fantasy are about power. The power of science. The power of magic. The power of an idea or a technology. The power of the individual, the power of the group or often, very often, the power of power.
So where do women fit into this definition? Women are often defined as a powerless group, at least relative to men. There are some statistics to bear this out. Even now, in America women earn on the average 64 cent to every dollar that men earn. This is up two cents from five years ago when they earned 62 cents for every dollar, comparing full time women in the work force to full time men in the work force. A California study showed that after divorce the real income of men rose on an average of 41%; that of ex-wives with custody of children fell 73%. Women in management freqently hit the so-called ''glass ceiling'' -- rising in equal numbers with men through the ranks of middle management but then finding it increasingly difficult to break through into top managerial positions.
On the other hand, a third of both American law and American engineering graduate classes are now female -- something unheard of when I began reading science fiction thirty years ago. The position of women in the larger society has changed and is changing. Power is coming to American women -- at least some power, to some women, although I don't think anybody would argue that we have as yet a state of complete equality.
Given this diversity of situations, it's probably not surprising that women science fiction writers themselves don't agree on how women fit into science fiction's central theme of power. Listen to two prominent female writers with opposing views on the political implications of writing female characters in their science fiction. First is Pat Murphy, Nebula Award winner for her novel The Falling Woman and also for her short story ''Rachel in Love'':
One of the things I find difficult, when I find myself close to a political agenda, is to write a weak woman character. But I have to, and that's one reason I stay away from a political agenda in my writing -- it would force me into creating only good gay characters, only strong women characters. Though politically I can see it, literarily it's a problem.It's not a problem, however, for Connie Willis, winner of five Nebulas and three Hugo Awards, who vehemently disagrees with Pat Murphy. Willis says:
I am sometimes in serious trouble with the feminists because I do not always write stories that they consider to be really feminist stories. Whatever that is. As near as I can tell, they mean stories in which their viewpoint is espoused. This is ridiculous. Writers aren't mouthpieces for special interest groups -- or for any groups.
In between these two poles, you find women sf writers who believe in what Murphy calls ''a political agenda'' for women characters sometimes, under some circumstances, for some reasons. Probably as many reasons as there are female science fiction and fantasy writers writing female science fiction and fantasy. Which brings us to another question: What exactly is female science fiction/fantasy? Is a story female sf if it's merely written by a woman? Is it female sf if it has a female protagonist, no matter who wrote it? Or, to be female sf, does it have to take a feminist position on a specifically gender-related issue such as childbirth, the position of women in society, or the differences between men and women? These are three very different definitions of ''female science fiction.'' Finally, does it matter? Are there any differences between male and female writers great enough to justify even talking about the issue in the first place?
Again, science fiction is fragmented on these questions, just as it is on the ones we raised previously. So before I address any of these issues directly, I'd like to back up a little bit and talk about that fragmentation itself. It comes out of the history of science fiction itself, in which women as both authors and characters have played different roles at different times.
The first modern science fiction writer was a woman, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose book Frankenstein was published in 1818. Mary Shelley was a self-defined feminist. After her, however, science fiction was for a long time almost an exclusively male preserve. The great Victorian science fiction writers, H. G. Wells and Jules Verne and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, were men. So were nearly all of their significant characters. In fact, one of Verne's biographers wrote approvingly that Verne ''never sullied his pages by descending to scenes of lust.'' There were a few women among these nineteenth-century writers, such as the American Charlotte Perkin Gilman, who wrote Herland. Herland is a pleasant Utopia populated exclusively by women and dominated by the ideal of Motherhood. There were also a few female characters, usually in fantasy, that have entered the literary consciousness, most notably Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But, in general, nineteenth-century science fiction was written about, by, and for men.
Twentieth-century American science fiction has a definite starting point: April, 1926. It might seem odd to be able to pinpoint the date so accurately, but there's a definite reason for the precision. Modern American science fiction began with Hugo Gernsback, who wasn't even a writer but a publisher. And from 1926 on, the history of American science fiction becomes not just fragmented but layered.
The best analogy for this is geological. I hope you aren't all turned off of analogies by all the carpentry and dance and music analogies we had in an earlier panel because here I am going to use another one. In the American West, maybe even in Sweden as well, you can drive through places where the ground has risen directly up and you can see the various geological layers of stone. You can see the different periods of stone all exposed. And they are all still there. But they are also clearly differentiated by the kinds of fossil and the kinds of soil and the things that happened. And science fiction is like that. It exists in six layers but all the layers are still with us, just as when you drive through the West you can see them all still there even though they where laid down successively. And the same thing is true of science fiction.
The first layer starts April 1926 when Hugo Gernsback founded the first
science fiction magazine Amazing. He was interested in a certain kind
of fiction. He was interested in pulp fiction -- in action adventure
pulp fiction. This was the era of the pulps. There were the love pulps,
there were the aviation pulps, there were the western pulps, there were the
military pulps. And Gernsback looked around and said ''but why don't we
add the science fiction pulps to this as well'' which he did. The fiction
Gernsback published in his new magazine could not be described as subtle.
It was essentially transplanted Westerns, with the good guys fighting the
bad guys across galaxies instead of mesas. Nor could the prose be described
as polished. It was full of crude action, 1920s slang, cliches, characters
with all the thickness of wallpaper, and dozens of exclamation points. In
fact, if these writers' typewriters had broken their exclamation keys, it's
hard to see how they could have written at all. This is a typical passage,
taken form E. E. Smith's Gray Lensman:
I don't really think that the Nobel committee in Stockholm had anything to consider when they looked at prose like this. The women in these pulp action-adventure stories, when women were present at all, were prizes to be rescued or treasures to win. In fact, the archetypical cover of the period showed a woman, usually a blonde, dressed in a metal bra being carried off by a three or six or eight armed bug eyed monster, usually abbreviated as BEM. And even if you read the story you never would find out what it was he was going to do with her when he finally got her.
And then the doors and windows crashed in, admitting those whom no other bifurcate race had ever faced willingly in hand-to-hand combat -- full-armed Valerians, swinging their space axes!
The gangsters broke, then, and fled in panic disorder; but escape from Narcotics' fine-meshed net was impossible. They were cut down to a man.
''QX, Kinnison?'' came two hard sharp thoughts. The Lensman did not see the Tellurian, but Lieutenant Peter Van Buskirk did. That is, he saw him, but he didn't look at him.
''Hi, Kim, you little Tellurian wart!'' That worthy's thought was a yell. ''Ain't we got fun?''
''QX, fellows, thanks... Clear ether, I've got to do a flit!''
''Where?'' all three wanted to ask, but they didn't -- the Gray Lensman was gone.
The American critic Leslie Fiedler has pointed out that such a scene has a long pedigree, an that ''The Menaced Woman'' is a staple male fantasy, evoking at the same time male protectiveness, sexual titillation, and racism. He says that
This primordial vision continues to hunt pulp fiction. ... as the generations go by, the color of her violators has changed, though that of the violated woman has remained the same. [She is always white; the menacers have gone] from the Red of the Indians with whom it all began to the Yellow of such malign Chinese as Dr. Fu Manchu, to the Black of those Africans who stalk so ludicrously through the pages of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books, to the Purple and Green Martians who represent the crudest fantasy level of science fiction.
But if the women in these stories existed as sex objects to be rescued, they never ever existed as sexual beings. Science fiction at this point had no real sex, ever, not even when it would seem completely inescapable. For example, Thuvia, in Burroughs' Maid of Mars, is described as fifteen years old, a ''plaything and a slave'' of the evil Martians, who runs around naked. Yet she is a virgin, as all good female characters of that era were.
The whole pulp-action stratum of science fiction, plots and characters and prose, was summed up by Brian Aldiss' wickedly funny remark that these were worlds where ''all women and no clauses were subordinate.''
But if the pulps were so crude and even silly, what was their appeal? Why did they hook so many people so fast and sell so many copies in their time. I think it's because of the same appeal that I felt when I picked up Childhood's End thirty years ago. It may have been silly, the pulps I am speaking of, not Arthur Clarke, it may have been crude, it may have treated women ridiculously, the prose may have been impossible but it was large enough. It was a canvas large enough to satisfy the kind of yearnings that wanted more than this world, more than this place, more than this time.
And especially since American ''serious'' fiction at this point was becoming increasingly preoccupied with the individual. Somebody said earlier today that the serious bourgeois novel had focused on the psychology of the individual and I think that's probably exactly true. And pulp science fiction was doing something different. It was going beyond the individual to look at the whole planet, the whole solar system, the whole galaxy. And that was immensely appealing even if it was also at the same time silly and crude and badly written. This was the same thing I fell in love with at age fourteen when I picked up the Clarke book. And that is still the appeal of action adventure science fiction.
An important point to make here comes from the geology analogy I started with. Just as you can still see the oldest rock stratum heaved and folded out in the west you can still find badly written, crudely plotted, exciting science fiction in the pulp tradition on the stands today. I am not going to name any names but it's there.
It's also important to note that what I'm describing here is the path taken by American science fiction. In Europe the situation was different. Science fiction was never considered a separate publishing category, and it never flourished in pulp magazines. Thus, from the beginning, European science fiction was considered just as legitimate as ''mainstream,'' or just as much of an interest to an audience not confined to adolescent males, and just as subject to being judged by literary standards. As a result Karel Capek could publish R.U.R. the first play that introduced the idea of robots in 1921, Franz Kafka could publish The Trial and The Castle and these were not received as any separate publishing category of fantasy but as legitimate works of art, Aldous Huxley could publish Brave New World in 1932 and it wasn't segregated into any particular publishing category, C. S. Lewis could publish Out of the Silent Planet and its sequels starting in 1938 and it was treated with respect by the British press and George Orwell could publish 1984 in 1948 and it was considered a mainstream literary event in Britain.
And this tradition continues in England. Angela Carter, Anthony Burgess, Doris Lessing all cross-over from the mainstream to write science fiction without any diminution of their reputation or without necessarily being labelled only science fiction writers.
But even though the American pulp tradition of science fiction was not particularly hospitable to women as characters, authors, or readers, there were a few exceptions. Chief among them was C. L. Moore, who often wrote in collaboration with her husband, Henry Kuttner. Note the initials, C. L. Moore. She didn't want to use her full name because it could be identified ''Catherine'' as female. We will return to this question of initials a little later. Also publishing at the same time was Zenna Henderson, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Andre Norton. Again note Andre Norton chose to use a male name with which to present her fiction. We will return to this too.
So that is the first stratum in science fiction, the first exposed rock layer. Action adventure pulp fiction. The second stratum in science fiction began to form at another definitely pinpointable date: spring of 1938. Science fiction began to change. And it did so as the result of the efforts of a single man: John W. Campbell.
In 1938 Campbell took over the editorship of one of the pulps, Astounding Science Fiction, from F. Orlin Tremaline. Campbell was himself a scientist, and it was the ''science'' part of science fiction that he thought most important. In a typical ''Campbell story'' what happened was that the hero, and it was almost always a hero, got into some kind of situation where he was in danger, where there was a puzzle to be solved, a difficulty, a conflict and due to his knowledge of science he was able to solve it and to get out of that situation. Even when science wasn't the direct cause of him getting out of it, science was at the heart of the story. And this changed entirely what had been a crude western into something far different, something with a respect for science. And coming up to serve Campbell to write this new kind of science fiction was a whole generation of then very young writers and he nurtured them all, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Sturgeon ... There wasn't a single important writer of that generation except Ray Bradbury who didn't write for John W. Campbell at some point.
Sometimes the science was so accurate in a Campbell story that when a story called ''Deadline'' by Cleve Cartmill was published in 1944 it aroused attention neither author nor the editor intended. Military intelligence called on Cleve Cartmill in Manhattan and they wanted to know how come if he was a science fiction writer he know so much about the atom bomb that he was able to describe exactly what was going on at Oak Ridge in Los Alamos in what he purportely called a science fiction story. Since Cleve Cartmill was not connected with the Manhattan Project and was completely ignorant that it was actually going on, he was as surprised as the military intelligence people that they would descend on him and demand this. He had worked it out from his knowledge of science and from what John W. Campbell wanted in a story. Not from any inside information. Military intelligence, however, was slow to believe this.
Where did women figure in Campbellian science fiction? Well as authors they were pretty scarce. I went through a recent anthology called The Golden Years of Science Fiction which covered 1941 to 1942, the heart of Campbell's reign, and it was edited by Isaac Asimov. I went through every single entry in there and there was only one half of one story by a woman. It was by C. L. Moore and co-written by her husband Henry Kuttner. As authors women didn't really cut it with Campbell. He rejected in fact most of Ursula Le Guin's early stories. Later she would write ''I never did sync with John W. Campbell'' in a certain amount of wonder.
Women as characters didn't fare much better with Campbell. They were largely absent except for the continuing role, very important, of the scientist's beautiful daughter. This became such a cliché that decades later even Robert Heinlein parodied it opening one of his stories by having a woman dancing with a man and he says to her ''Who are you?'' and she says ''I am the scientist's beautiful daughter.''
When Campbellian science fiction did have a central female character, such as Isaac Asimov's robot specialist Dr. Susan Calvin, the female character often was less a statement of equality than an unconvincing failure of imagination. Susan Calvin is, essentially, a man with breasts. There is nothing in her behavior, priorities, life situation, thoughts, dialogue, or white lab coat to differentiate her from a man. If she had been called Dr. Samuel Calvin, nothing in the story would need to be changed except the pronouns. It can be argued that this represents a kind of equality. But the truth is that the portrait of her is so limited -- she has so few dimensions, being essentially just a walking intellect -- that she isn't convincing enough as a fully human character to represent female equality. We never see her interacting with friends, family, lovers, societal conventions, anything but scientific problems. And although it's nice to know that Asimov even then considered women to be the intellectual equals of men, true equality requires parity in other human dimensions as well. This the Campbellian authors never did.
Campbellian science fiction is still being written today. It has added women as both authors and characters -- we'll discuss that in greater detail a little later -- but its essential focus is still on science. Examples are Gregory Benford's wonderful novel Timescape, Greg Bear's novel The Forge of God; David Brin, Robert L. Forward, Hal Clement, John Stith -- what do you notice about this list?
There are very few women who write hard science fiction of the kind that John Campbell made popular but it is still there. Like the first stratum pushed out from the earth of action adventure pulp, science fiction where science is the main protagonist is also still with us.
The third stratum of science fiction arose after World War II, as a direct result of the atom bomb. This science fiction was often negative, cautious, and fearful -- cautionary tales about technology -- and it was tied in with another fear phenomenon of the 1950s: fear of UFOs -- fear of the alien military conquerer who is going to sweep down in any moment to take us all over. Some of the novels of a prominent nature were On the Beach by Neville Shute which was made into a movie, 1984, Childhood's End and A Canticle for Leibowitz. All of them were dominated either by holocaust, nuclear holocaust, the fear of nuclear holocaust, alien conquering, the fear of alien conquering or in the case of 1984 the fear of technology itself becoming big brother, watching you everywhere you go. This was the age of fear for science fiction, the age of the cautionary tale.
At the movies the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers represented the kind of approach that the movies were taking to science fiction and it too was full of fear and caution and warning.
In this post-World War II American science fiction, women as authors were still very rare. An important reviewer of the period was Damon Knight, whose reviews from 1952 -- 1954 have been collected in a book called In Search of Wonder. I recently went through this book. It reviews over 100 novels, of which only two were authored by women: one by Judith Merrill and one by Leigh Brackett. Within the anthologies reviewed were only a handful of short stories written by women. When such stories did exist, however, they were often an interesting combination of the fearful cautionary tale of the period combined with a very feminine sensibility. A good example is Judith Merrill's famous story That Only a Mother which is written from the viewpoint of a woman who has given birth to a radiation-damaged baby and she is waiting for her husband to come home from high-level military mission. He has never seen the baby and she writes him letters over and over again about how the beautiful the baby, how wonderful and complete the baby is. And when he comes home he discovers that the baby has no arms and no legs and she never even mentions this because she doesn't see it. Something that only a mother could overlook. But it is a very fearful story, fearful of radiation, fearful of technology, the fear that is spawned by the bomb. It is also a very moving and poignant story.
As characters, women in 1950s science fiction were still seen mostly in relation to men. Typical is Jean Gregson in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End who has given birth to the two children who become the first stages in the evolution of men. Her two children are the first that will take humanity into its next stage. The Earth is dominated by the overlords, aliens who have come in and conquered it and imposed their own rule, although it is a peaceful and benevolent rule, on the whole Earth. Halfway through the book some human beings after fifty years of this rule fear that human initiative is being lost, human culture is being lost, human desire to do things their own way is being lost. So they move to an island, an artistic enclave, in which they can carry forward human culture free from the alien overlords. Jean Gregson and her husband go along with their two children. The husband is a theater set designer. As soon as they get there, he runs down to the theater to take a look at the material that he will have to work with and the set he will have to work with and the technology he will have to work with. Jean Gregson on the other hand stays home to try to figure out how the oven works. At fourteen I didn't notice this. When I re-read the novel at forty, I noticed it.
The fourth stratum of science fiction began in the 1960s. The general cultural upheaval of the 60s brought a stylistic revolution to American and English science fiction called ''New Wave.'' Science fiction writing began finally to break out of its linear story telling, straightforward prose style, and general tone of romantic realism. Authors experimented with the surreal, the symbolic, the off-beat, the drug-induced, and with such mainstream literary techniques as stream-of-consciousness writing. None of this was new -- it was only new to science fiction which up until now had prided itself on the straight forward story straightforwardly told. Think William Burroughs at this time, not Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Not everybody liked the New Wave. Isaac Asimov, for instance, wrote:
I hope that when the New Wave has departed its froth and receded, the vast and solid shore of science fiction will appear once more.
A host of new authors either appeared or became prominent at this time: Samuel Delany, author of the experimental novel Dahlgren; Roger Zelazney, Thomas Disch, Michael Moorcock. Among the new authors were a number of strong women writers, including Kate Wilhelm, Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Carol Emshwiller, and Pamela Zoline. Most of these female writers wouldn't attain their full prominence until the 1970s, but their initial voices were beginning to be heard in the 60s. And the foremost anthologist of the 60s was Judith Merrill, who along with Michael Moorcock in England and Damon Knight in the United States made New Wave authors a solid force in science fiction by uniting their stories in showcase anthologies.
There was still some resistance to the idea of women as writers in what had been traditionally masculine fields. A famous story about this concerns Ursula Le Guin's short story ''Nine Live'' which appeared in Playboy in 1969. If you haven't read ''Nine Live'', I think it is one of the finest cloning stories written, it is really a moving and well done story. When Playboy bought it they approach Ursula Le Guin and in her words asked very gently if she would mind if the story was published under U. K. Le Guin, not Ursula K. Le Guin. And the reason they said to her, very gently, is that female authors made the male readers of playboy nervous. What sounds even more remarkable to us now is that Ursula agreed. She wrote much later ''At the time in 1969 it did not seem important.'' Later on it would of course seem very important.
New-Wave-like science fiction and fantasy is still around. Interzone, in particular, the premier British SF magazine, prints some experimental stories. And most science fiction novels, even those with traditional mimetic story-telling, owe a debt to New Wave's 1960 emphasis on style and characterization (which we have been fighting about all weekend), elements that had been somewhat lacking in science fiction up until that time. Anybody who doesn't agree with me I could meet you in the parking lot later.
It wasn't until the 1970s that women first became a significant presence in American science fiction. In fact, the explosion of talented women authors was one of the two significant ways that science fiction changed in its fifth stratum during the 1970s. In 1970, for the first time, a woman won the Hugo award for Best Novel of the Year: Ursula K. Le Guin, for The Left Hand of Darkness. This book itself says a lot about the new kinds of issues that science fiction was examining. In its creation of characters that were both male and female, Ursula was trying to look at the central question of when you remove gender, what is left? What is important about being human that transcends our gender identity? That is not something science fiction had ever looked at in exactly that way until the 1970s, late 60s or early 70s, when suddenly it became important because of the influx of women into the field.
There's an important point to be observed here about the timing of women in science fiction. Science fiction frequently is pointed to as a ''predictive literature.'' We talked earlier about Cleve Cartmill's ''predictions'' of the bomb, that made military intelligence so nervous. In addition, Arthur C. Clarke as most of you already know, published an article on satellite communication far in advance of the actual technology. And there are other cases where science fiction has been predictive. Before the actual phenomena comes along it has been described in science fiction. Waldos were even named for the Robert Heinlein story of the same name in which Waldo invents something where you can insert your hands into gloves and as you move those, motions are duplicated in miniature at the micro level in order to carry on micro surgery. When they were invented they were called waldos. So science fiction does have some predictive function but we have missed so many important things. We missed for instance the entire computer revolution. You look at Childhood's End, that book that turned me on so much, there is not a computer in it. He missed entirely the effect that that would have on the evolving technology and the way the world is run. And in the same way science fiction writers who were looking at the future in the 50s and 60s missed the impact of the women's movement. That is why you still have Jean Gregson going home to find out how the oven worked while her husband went off to his regular career, supposedly fifty years in the future. And the point I want to make here is that although science fiction has a reputation for being a predictive literature in fact it usually lags behind what the larger society is doing. It wasn't until computers were in the larger society that they became an ubiquitous feature of the future in science fiction. And it wasn't until the women's movement got restarted in the late 60s, early 70s, that suddenly the position of women as characters began to change in science fiction. We were not in the vanguard of this one, guys. We were behind, trailing behind the social movement itself.
The new crop of acclaimed female writers included Suzy McKee Charnas, C. J. Cherryh, Joan Vinge, Elizabeth Lynn, Vonda McIntyre, and Lisa Tuttle, among others. In addition, women who had been writing science fiction in the 1960s, like Kate Wilhelm and -- especially -- Joanna Russ, came into their own in the 1970s.
These women were writing all three kinds of ''female science fiction'' that we identified at the start of this talk. Some works were traditional science fiction with traditional male protagonists, unusual only in that the author was a woman such as Le Guin's superb novel of politics and anarchy, The Dispossessed. Some featured strong female characters in roles not traditionally taken by women, but portrayed casually and without any particular fuss over gender. One such example is Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake, in which the central role of a traveling healer is held by a woman, with nobody thinking it unusual that a woman is a doctor, that she travels into dangerous regions, or that the man she loves pursues his own more prosaic occupation of shepherd while waiting for her to return home. Unlike Dr. Susan Calvin, the protagonist of Dreamsnake is very much female, but she's female in a world where that presents fewer barriers than the American 1970s when the book was written.
Some female science fiction of the period did concentrate specifically on those barriers, even though the setting of the story might be centuries in the future and light-years from Earth. Science fiction has always done this, of course -- created fictional societies in order to spotlight some aspect of our own. The process is akin to what happens in medical research: one specific part of the body is taped off, put under strong light, and sliced into in order to investigate how it works. In the 1970s feminist authors were investigating how gender roles worked in our society, and a number of them were pretty angry at what they found. These writers include Joanna Russ whose brilliant short story ''When it Changed'' won the 1972 Nebula for best short story of the year. ''When it Changed'' takes place on a planet while away in which several generations before the story start all the men have been killed by a plague. The women reproduce by parthenogenesis and by a cloning process. And they mate, all relationships are of necessity lesbian. They have a stable and successful society. Then, generations later, a spaceship lands which contains mostly men. And immediately there is misunderstanding on both side. The men view themselves as saviours of this particular abandoned castaway group of women and the women have no idea what they are talking about. This story made a lot of people very mad.
Other women writers focusing on feminist issues included Suzy McKee Charnas
and Suzette Hadden Elgin. And then there's the case of James Tiptree, Jr.
James Tiptree, Jr. started publishing very strong and wonderful stories
some of which I know you have read: ''The Screwfly Solution'',
''The Women Men Don't See'', ''Houston, Houston, Do you Read?''
Story after wonderful story would come out with this name James
Tiptree, Jr. and people would say ''Who is he?''. Award after award would
be announced as having been won by James Tiptree, Jr. and everyone would
hold their breath at the Nebulas or the Hugos to see who marched up to
collect it, but it was always the editor or the publisher. A couple of
people began to make it their life business to find out who James
Tiptree, Jr. was. And while they were sleuthing around doing this,
fanzines were erupting into activity. There were tremendous articles,
tremendously energetic articles written saying that James Tiptree, Jr.
really was a women, had to be a women because there were so many feminist
themes in the writing. Other fanzine articles erupted with equal energy
saying, no, James Tiptree, Jr. had to be a man because the writing was so
masculine and sharp edged and hard. Eventually James Tiptree, Jr. was
unmasked by an extremely persistent and inventive fan and was found out to
be a woman, Alice Sheldon, who had adopted this identity because she worked
for the CIA and found that it was good business not to be writing science
fiction too openly
Male writers, too, were affected by the female impact on science fiction in the 1970s. Writers as diverse as John Varley, Bruce McAllister, and Stephen King wrote works with strong female characters. Varley and McAllister wrote short stories specifically examining the position women with children held in society as a whole. And King's megahit Carrie has as its protagonist a girl who, although she might start out as a typical female victim ostracized because she is poor, plain, and powerless, certainly becomes more than a victim. Nobody could say Carrie ended up powerless. Dead, yes -- but not powerless.
Even male writers like Ira Levin examined the position of women in his controversial novel The Stepford Wives. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it is a female viewpoint novel in which a woman becomes increasingly aware that this suburban town she has moved to has a large number of wives who are beautiful, slow moving, and sort of dim. She and her friend begin investigating this phenomenon. It is a high tech town and a lot of the men work in micro computers, a lot of them work in robotics, a lot of them work in synthetic skin coverings and eventually they put it together that nearly every wife in town has been replaced by a robot. They put this together just before they themselves are replaced by robots. To me, this book is an indictment of a male mind set about how women should act, and look, and be. But a lot of feminists didn't see it this way. They were outraged.
The second important development in the field in the 1970s was the explosion of fantasy. In 1965, Ballantine published an American edition of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings-trilogy. This became immensely popular on college campuses. I was at school at this time at university and I don't think I ever walked into a single dorm room in any university where I didn't see the poster of Middle Earth, the same poster would extend the whole length of the wall and it had a bunch of little round hobbit houses at one end and the waterfall at the other end in Mordor. Do you remember this poster any of you, and the dwindling path that went between them. Every single college dorm room in America somewhere had this poster in the 1960s. Fantasy absolutely exploded on the field in the 70s. There was a little bit of time lag.
As part of this intense interest in fantasy, some women writers started writing female Amazon figures, warriors or wizards or assassins. This trend started with Joanna Russ' stories about Alyx, an independent woman in a patriarchal pre-industrial society who breaks free of its constraints. Russ' imitators, however, turned out characters who were less like Alyx than like female versions of Robert E. Howard's Conan. These books can be seen as expressions of the female desire for the same power as men, but I have severe misgivings about them, not only as literature but also as feminist models. These Amazon figures are portrayed as living in various pseudo-familiar societies like our own pre-industrial past: the Middle Ages, or cities like those in The Arabian Nights, or a culture vaguely based on ancient Rome. These Amazon figures fight like men, live like men, have casual sex like men, slay and conquer like male barbarians. Like Dr. Susan Calvin, they seem like men with breasts, nothing more. My problem with this is twofold.
First, such Amazons seem incongruous with the cultures they live in, in which women had no access to birth control or military training, and did have the disadvantage of less muscular development than the men they fight on such equal physical terms. Often the ''fantasy element,'' either of magic or some alteration in the society, is supposed to ''explain'' this, but I seldom find the whole set-up very convincing.
Second, and more important, is the question: is the creation of female barbarian warriors really reflective of equality? Is this what equality really consists of: adopting the crudest of adolescent male power fantasies? Can't we do better by way of creating believable heroines in equal societies than imitation of male models that never reflected much reality for men either?
Behind these questions lies the assumption that science fiction is more than just wish fulfillment -- that as a genre it has the ability to reach what Virginia Woolfe called ''integrity'' -- a genuine authenticity for both men and women. Woolfe's explanation of ''integrity'' has a peculiarly science fictional ring to it, even though she was not writing about SF. She said:
What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction he gives one that this is the truth. Yes, one feels, I could never have thought that this could be so; I have never known people behaving like that. But you have convinced me that so it is, so it happens.
The Left Hand of Darkness has that integrity. So does Russ' The Female Man, one of the angriest of the feminist SF novels. So does ''Houston, Houston, Do You Read?'', and Dreamsnake, and Bruce McAllister's story ''When The Fathers Go'' and a host of other science fiction and fantasy stories with strong female protagonists. Next to them, the female Amazons not only lack integrity, they often look very silly.
The two important science fiction developments of the 70s -- an influx of women writers and the growth of fantasy -- are still going on. Fantasy novels turn up regularly on the New York Times Book Review best-seller list, and important new female writers continued to emerge throughout the 1980s: Octavia Butler, Connie Willis, Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Lisa Goldstein, Mary Gentle, Kristine Kathryn Rush, Lois McMaster Bujold, Pat Cadigan, Elizabeth Hand. Some of these new and old writers -- most notably, Karen Joy Fowler, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Suzette Hadden Elgin -- are continuing to write stories that cast a pitiless spotlight on the position of women in the contemporary social universe. Suzette Hadden Elgin, for instance, used her background as a linguist in her novel Native Tongue, which concerns the creation of a ''women's language'' to express the different structure and priorities women give the social universe.
Also -- significantly -- there are more female ''cross-over'' writers from mainstream -- women who usually write more traditional literature but who have dipped into science fiction for a book or series of books. These include Margaret Atwood with The Handmaid's Tale, Fay Weldon with The Cloning of Joanna May, and Doris Lessing's series of ''space fictions.''
This brings us to the present. How do women fare as science fiction writers today? Are they treated the same as men? First some statistics. In preparing this talk, I went through the Science Fiction Writers of America's directory, name by name by name. And I kept track of how many were male, how many were female and how many were other. Presumably the other know who they are but I didn't know who they are. Either they were using initials or they have a name like Terry or Pat that could belong to either gender and I don't happen to know which one they are or they have a name in another language, a foreign first name that I wasn't familiar with what gender it usually belongs to. What I ended up with are that 65% of the members of SFWA are male, 30% are female and 5% are other.
Then I went through all the Hugo and Nebula awards for the last twenty years
and I found out that female winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards are
between 30 and 35 percent
In terms of men writing about women, the news is almost wholly positive. Female characters in male-authored books have moved away from being defined by their relationship to male characters and into the same diversity of roles women occupy in real life. Bruce Sterling's novel Islands In the Net has as its protagonist Laura Webster, who not only works for a future corporation in a well-realized future world, but also has an infant. Laura and her husband are shown changing diapers, wrangling over whose turn it is to get up with the baby in the early morning, lugging portacribs and snugglies and all the other myriad equipment a baby requires along their fact-finding trip for the corporation. When terrorism turns the trip dangerous and somebody needs to take the baby back home to Texas while the other continues, Sterling establishes logical reasons why Laura goes on and her husband takes the baby home. Similarly, strong female characters are handled both naturally and realistically in recent work by Bruce McAllister, James Patrick Kelly, John Varley, and James Morrow, to name just a few.
Another interesting related development is male science fiction writers writing specifically about the restrictions of the male gender role, as it has been traditionally defined. This is only fair. Women have complained about their traditional role for twenty years. It is only fair that guys get to complain about the limitations of their traditional roles. Lucius Shepard, to take one example, has written that his much-acclaimed short story about a future Central American war, ''Salvador'', is about -- his own words -- ''the organized pretense of being a man.''
However -- this is not to say that old stereotypes of women aren't still
with us. One of the most blatant is Robert Heinlein's 1982 novel
Friday, which is about a female global courier who is a clone. It's true
that she's the central character, and in a non-traditional role, but
Heinlein hasn't quite gotten it right. In the opening scene Friday is
jumped by three couriers, male couriers, from a rival corporation and raped.
Heinlein actually writes the line ''since she couldn't struggle against it
she decided she should lie back and enjoy it.'' Some of us never finished
With us still, too, is the persistent coupling of the idea that any woman who is doing something dangerous and physical is automatically sexually available. This idea was furthered by the string of cyberpunk writers of the 1980s, like William Gibson's Molly in Neuromancer. There was a whole bunch of them in cyberpunk. They were dangerous, they were hip, they were scary, they were armed, they were sexually available. Some of us women started getting together and calling them ''floozies with Uzi's.''
So -- where does that leave us now? An important question I'm often asked is, ''Are you, as a woman writer, discriminated against in science fiction?''
The immediate answer is ''no.'' I'm not aware of ever having been paid less for more work, or promoted less, or treated differently by editors because I'm a woman. And in connection with that, it should probably be noted that in science fiction, at least half of the influential American editors are themselves female. Women are the fiction editors for Omni, for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and for Playboy. In books, there are female senior editors at Ace, Bantam, and Tor, among others. Perhaps this makes a difference. Or perhaps a field that can make room for the ''otherness'' of three-headed green aliens has less trouble making room for women than mainstream does.
There's a more subtle question here, though, about the way the genders are perceived by readers. If more men read male authors and more women prefer to read female authors, is that gender discrimination? If the Science Fiction Writers of America consists of one-third female writers, rather than one half, are the societal forces that produce that discrepancy a kind of discrimination? If male power fantasies sell in greater numbers than any other kind of science fiction, and they do, is that marketplace discrimination? If teenage girls are willing to read Frederik Pohl but teenage boys are unwilling to read Ursula Le Guin, is that too a kind of marketplace discrimination?
There are no easy answers to this kind of question. If true equality presume that all, or most, readers will respond to a work of fiction solely on the basis of its quality, no matter what gender wrote it or what gender are the main characters, then no, we don't have equality within science fiction. And we never will, because people don't read only for literary quality. They read to see themselves in books, people they can identify with. And for that to happen, many people need to see someone of the same gender as they are in the central role in order for the identification to fully happen.
One way to approach the question of gender difference is to ask: do men and women write science fiction differently? I'd like to give my opinion on this, but it doesn't represent any sort of consensus among female science fiction writers. I have female friends who will disagree violently with what I'm going to say now. In the words of writer Lewis Shiner, ''I don't think I have a handle on the truth. All i have is a collection of increasingly eccentric opinions.'' Here are my eccentric opinions.
We've already discussed the case of James Tiptree, Jr., whom many said couldn't possibly be a woman -- although she was -- because her prose was too masculine. I think those people were looking in the wrong place. It's not style that differentiates feminine writers from masculine ones: it's content. And -- a crucial point -- not all feminine writers are female. Not all masculine writers are male.
Consider science fiction writing as a dichotomy. On one end put ''feminine
stories.'' I'm going to define those as stories reflecting those traits that
are traditionally labelled ''female'' on such personality tests as the MMPI
which is an important personality test used in America. Such stories have as
their central subject the relationships humans have with each other. Let me
just digress a moment here and justify that statement. There is a
psychologist at Harvard named Carol Gilligan who has done some work in the
way that female children and male children perceive moral questions. She
has found out that children as young as eight or nine think differently
about moral issues. One isn't right and one isn't wrong. They just think
differently. She asked a group of children the following question:
supposing a man's wife is dying and the only way he can save her is to break
into a drug store and steal the medicine that she needs, is it wrong for him
to do that. The little boys inevitable answered: ''No it is not wrong because
a human life is more important then stealing.'' They didn't use those words
but that was essentially what they came up with. They were working on a
hierarchy of values in which one value was more important then another. That
was not what the little girls answered at all. The little girls said things
like: ''Well could he borrow the money? Could he talk it over with the
druggist? Would the druggist give him the drugs when he knew the situation?
Could he maybe pay it back a little bit at the time?'' They were trying to
see the problem not in terms of a hierarchy of values but as a web of human
relationships and they were trying to work it out in terms of human
relationships rather in terms of what we consider traditional moral
judgements. And this held true across all the age groups that Carol
Gilligan did her work on in Harvard.
So let's label as ''feminine'' those stories primarily concerned about relationships. Other traits that make a story traditionally ''feminine'' are a low concern with technology, a tendency to focus on the powerless and the disenfranchised, and a concern with such traditionally female activities as childbirth, the care of children, lesbianism, domestic activities.
Now, at the other end of the scale, consider as ''masculine'' those stories more concerned with physical action than with the ambiguities of relationships. Stories which focus on characters who may start out powerless but grow into political and economic power, like Gully Foyle in Alfred Bester's classic novel The Stars My Destination. Stories highly involved with technology or ''hard'' science. Stories in which home, hearth, and children play a secondary role, if they're present at all.
Now plot where all the science fiction writers you know fall on that scale. I think what you'd end up with is two overlapping bell-shaped curves. Some of the female writes would be at the far end of the female side. But some of them like Louis McMaster Bujold and Pat Cadigan would be sloping towards what we call masculine science fiction. Most of the male writers might end up on the masculine end, Gregory Benford and David Brin perhaps but you would also find James Patrick Kelly and John Varley with a lot of their work sloping towards the female side. You wouldn't end up with a dichotomy. You would end up with two overlapping bell-shaped curves.
Having said that, I'd like to describe two recent science fiction stories that attracted a lot of attention, ''For I Have Touched the Sky'' and Falling Free. ''For I Have Touched The Sky'' is a sensitive relationship-based story about an African child, a girl, who wants very much to transcend the limits that her society places on women and tries to learn to use a computer. She is blocked in this by all of the efforts of the various tribal members and eventually, out of despair, she commits suicide. ''Falling Free'' on the other hand has a male central character who is an engineer and who saves a group of doomed people on a hollowed out asteroid by making the whole thing into a starship, using science, and moving it far beyond the reaches of the enemy. For those of you that don't already know this, and you probably already do all of you, the first story, the one with sensitive relationships about the little girl was written by a male, Mike Resnick, ''For I Have Touched the Sky''. The one about engineering and science and the character who triumphs in the end through science and technology was written by a female, Louis McMaster Bujold's Nebula award winning novel Falling Free.
So I bring this up just to point out that there are absolutely no hard and fast conclusions you can make. There are no complete absolutes in the field of science fiction. And I think that what we have to consider when we look at female science fiction and we ask the question ''does it have equal status with male science fiction?'' that the answer itself is going to be as complex as some of the individual examples.
I think it is true for our first two classes of ''female science fiction'' -- that merely written by women, and that written by either sex in which women are strong protagonists in non-traditional roles. As far as I can tell, such fiction is bought, sold, and regarded with the same interest and respect as that written by or centered on male characters.
The third class of ''female science fiction,'' however, is not quite the same. You'll remember that the third class is stories centered specifically on feminist issues related to the position of women in our society. I'd like to read you a quote from a popular history of science fiction written by a respected editor in the field, in fact he was my editor, a man who's been involved in science fiction in myriad capacities for over thirty years. He says:
It matters little that most of the women writing science fiction command popularity with only a minority of the total science fiction community. The source of the power of these new women writers in the field at present is that within their own core audience of (for the most part) adolescent and young women, they are transcendently heroic.I don't know who this editor thinks it ''matters little'' to if women science fiction writers have only a minority readership, but I can assure you that it doesn't matter only little to me. It matters a lot to me whether I have a minority readership or a large readership. It matters a lot to me, to my royalty checks, to my reputation. How many people are interested in reading me and how many people are not interesting in reading me not because they think I am a lousy writer which is their choice but simply because they have decided that they don't want to read female science fiction. I think this editor has completely missed the boat and what is depressing is that if I told you he was, he is one of the most respected and actually one of the most competent editors in the field.
This editor, I'd like to point out, is not threatened by, or frightened of, overtly feminist science fiction. He's just dismissive. It's just meant for a ''minority'' of readers, not for most people -- just for those other female readers who happen to find it ''transcendent.''
But why should fiction that tells stories about the gender-specific problems of 51% of the population -- their unique situations, trials, anger -- be less interesting to the ''majority'' of readers than stories about the oppression and anger of, say, scaly-skinned aliens living on a planet orbiting a distant star? If the story is well and compellingly told, it should gain -- not lose -- power by being relevant to the power distribution in the here and now. Such stories should be of no less inherent interest to male readers than that of any other group whose history and biology differ from their own.
Power, we started out by saying, can mean many different things. Sometimes it means the power to just stop dismissing and look.
In summary, then, the position of women in American science fiction can't be summarized in a sentence or two. It's as complex, ambiguous, hopeful, dismissed, and evolving as is women's position in the larger American society. And that's a good thing, since fiction -- including science fiction -- reflects reality back at us. That's its function. The reality may be deliberately distorted, heightened, or ''magicked,'' but in ways that tell us more about ourselves than we might otherwise know. As such, science fiction has a definite role to play in the ongoing women's movement -- and I think that it is fulfilling that role.
Publik Nancy Kress: In some ways I feel a little guilty inflicting such an angry speech on people who have been so nice to me but I am, after all, discussing what seems to me the truth of American science fiction. Does anyone have a question or a comment?
Publik Jan Wallenius: In ugric languages there is no gender so it is possible to write a full story without never mentioning what gender the main character is.
Publik Nancy Kress: In which languages?
Publik Jan Wallenius: Finnish and ugric languages.
Publik Nancy Kress: What a lovely idea.
Publik Jan Wallenius: This has actually been made in some science fiction novels.
Publik Nancy Kress: I wish we had that advantage. Le Guin has said that when she had written The Left Hand of Darkness, she wished she had not used the male pronoun, he, for all the characters because it didn't give the kind of complexity of her hermaphrodites that she was hoping for. But she said to use she would have made them also specific, in fact even more specific, and that wouldn't have served either. And she doesn't like pronouns like ''hish'' which are kind of made up because she finds them dreary. But I think hish might have been the best possible choice so that we would have known that we were looking at something stranger than it seemed when all we had was the masculine pronouns.
Publik Anders Holmström: You commented on Friday by Heinlein and this ''I couldn't do anything so I laid back and enjoyed it.'' I think that his heroes usually have this very strong happy sense of gallows humour.
Publik Michael Petersén: ... awful, disgusting, it stinks of male chauvinism. It is a rather good book in other points but that scene stinks.
Publik Anders Holmström: I am not trying to defend the scene as such, he went over the limit there.
Publik Nancy Kress: There are situations in which gallows humour is inappropriate. Friday is not a black comedy. There are books like Catch 22 that are written in an entirely black comedy mode all the way through. All of the humour is gallows humour and therefore you take it in that context. That is not true in Friday and therefore that stands out in a truly offensive way.
Publik Anders Holmström: ... tried to find why he could have done such a thing.
Publik Nancy Kress: He could have done such a thing because Heinlein was never raped. Somebody back there.
Publik Carina Björklind: In Swedish ''human'' is ''she.'' If you talk about humans it is she.
Publik Nancy Kress: Really. Mary, we got the wrong language.
Publik Carina Björklind: A translator might very easily populate a book with only men because the writer writes ''man'' and means human race but in Swedish it becomes ''he'' all the way. That is a very strange effect sometimes.
Publik Nancy Kress: My point about populating books only with men. There are books where this is certainly appropriate because they are historical. If you are writing a book about a platoon in World War II, moving across the European country on a dangerous mission and the platoon is made up entirely of males then this is appropriate. Those platoons were made up entirely of males. When you put that in a future that is supposedly growing directly out of our future, a near future, and you don't explain what happened to the women who are moving into the military, then it is not appropriate. If you want to put it in a very far future and give us another male dominated society, that can be appropriate too if it is set up in such a way that we see it is a male dominated society. But if it is just assumed that of course if there is anything exciting going on men are doing it, without an explanation or a context, then you are going to raise questions that are fair to ask in the same way you can raise questions about some of the 1950s science fiction that supposedly shows a future in which women are figuring out how the stove works and nothing else.
Publik Cecilia Henningsson: What I find irritating is when male adults are taken as a norm. Every person who doesn't have to be something else then a male adult for the sake of the plot is a male adult. And I think that applies to children as well.
Publik Nancy Kress: Anybody else? Comments?
Publik Peter Nordgren: One thing. You mentioned Laura Webster in Islands In the Net. One thing about Laura Webster is how unsympathetic that character is.
Publik Nancy Kress: Really. I have had people tell me that of both genders and I didn't find her that way.
Publik Peter Nordgren: She is an arrogant chauvinistic asshole.
Publik Michael Petersén: I liked her. She was rather nice.
Publik Nancy Kress: If she acted exactly the same way but it were a man would you find it arrogant or would you find it just James Bond strong?
Publik Peter Nordgren: That man would be just another chauvinist bastard with a passion for preaching political correctness.
Publik Nancy Kress: Okay. I liked her myself. What I found interesting too is that in the end of that book, she loses in the same way that a male would lose in a similar situation. In other words, a man who has gone off to, say, war for four years comes back and finds out that his children don't know him and that he has missed a valuable period of their life. Laura comes back after three years on her terrorist mission and finds out that her daughter doesn't know her and that she has missed a valuable period of her life that cannot ever be recaptured. And I think that Bruce was very fair in painting the fact that the losses on either side are going to be great for the traditional male role, no matter who is acting it out and I think he did a good job on that. It is also significant that Bruce's fiction before Islands In the Net is very different. It doesn't have children in it, it doesn't show this kind of sensitivity to human relationships. It's much more traditional science fiction. Then Bruce and his wife had a baby and it made a big different in the way he looked at things.
Publik Peter Nordgren: Don't get me wrong. I love Laura Webster as a character but if I met her I would probably absolutely hate her.
Publik Nancy Kress: Isn't that probably true of a lot of science fiction characters?
Publik Britt-Louise Viklund: We have a panel tomorrow called ''sexual preferences'' which will discuss something of the same questions about gender influences on the readers and writers. This discussion will probably go on tomorrow and we are very late in the program.
Publik Nancy Kress: And all of you people who have been sitting there steaming because you so violently disagree with me can take all night to group your thoughts and we will go head to head again tomorrow. Thank you.