It’s 2013. This type of conversation shouldn’t still be necessary.

5 05 2013

My friend and ASIM colleague Patty Jansen has a recent post on her blog about attitudes towards women writing hard SF. It’s well worth reading, but it shouldn’t be. This should have stopped being an issue 40 years ago, or more.

What is ‘this’?

In a nutshell, it’s the argument that women can’t write hard SF. Or they can write it, but they shouldn’t. Or they should, but they shouldn’t expect it to sell, because no-one will read it. Patty’s take on the matter, as a hard SF writer who happens to be a woman, is that the aforementioned argument is thoroughly outmoded, and just plain wrong. And yet, outdated viewpoint or not, it’s still out there, as Patty’s post makes plain. (And I should make plain, here, that I’m commenting more on the generalities of the interface between women and hard SF than on the particulars of Patty’s case. Patty’s perfectly capable of fighting her own battles, and of stating her case.)

I suppose the goalposts have shifted slightly over the past decades. A couple of generations ago the argument would have been that women couldn’t write SF full stop–an argument pretty much invalidated by Ursula Le Guin, by C. L. Moore before her, and by a plethora of other female SF writers before or since. There is, now, much more acceptance of female authorship (and readership) of SF than was the case decades ago. But it’s true that the particular bastion of hard SF has remained a predominantly male preserve, in the public’s perception at least.

It’s weird, quite frankly, that this should be so.

I don’t know a large number of women writers of hard SF (and by ‘hard SF’ I mean SF that pays fairly careful attention to scientific plausibility, including, where appropriate, both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences), but I do know they’re out there, and in my opinion they bring something fresh to the mix. Plus, if we’re in an era when most biology students are female, most chemistry students are female, it’s no longer unusual to find women studying mathematics or physics or engineering … surely, surely, we should by now have stopped baulking at a female presence in hard SF.

I was going to rattle off a list of female hard SF writers of my acquaintance but, as noted above, I don’t know many. Which is a pretty woeful state of affairs, and one I’m keen to shift. (I think the only books on my shelves that would count as hard SF by female writers–other than Patty’s own YA novella, The Far Horizon–would be Virtual Girl by Amy Thomson, and Uncharted Territory by Connie Willis. Oh, and Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s duology, The Wave and the Flame and Reign of Fire.) So, taking a leaf out of  Tsana Dolichva’s book (if that’s not, in the circumstances, a singularly misleading metaphor), I’m setting myself a Reading Challenge.

My particular challenge to myself is to find, and read, and review, five hard SF novels by five different female writers, before year’s end. I suspect I should start out with something by Catherine Asaro, whom I somehow had never heard of (or at least had never connected with hard SF) until about a month ago … but I’d welcome pointers towards books by other writers who meet the criteria (ideally either hard SF novels, or short story collections in which a good majority of the stories are hard SF). So feel free to name-drop in the comments. I’m especially interested in novels published in the last few years. And while scientific plausibility is important to me in this regard, so is strength of characterisation, elegance of plot, and poignancy of tale.

(Note, though, that it is only hard SF that I’m looking for. I count Ursula Le Guin and Lois McMaster Bujold among my top few favourite SF authors, but they’re not really writers of hard SF, for the most part.)

I won’t necessarily stop at five. I was, initially, going to make it ten, but I’m wary of the ability of time pressures to creep up and ambush me, so five seems like a safer bet, for now.

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10 responses

5 05 2013
pattyjansen

Thanks, Simon.

It does depend on how you define hard SF. I usually also find that the rule as to what is hard SF gets applied more stringently to women’s SF.

I think the later Miles books by Bujold are pretty darn hard. Also a lot of C.J. Cherryh’s books are on the hard side of space opera. Also Linda Nagata (for a new and hybrid writer like myself). Also try When We Have Wings by Claire Corbett, who went to great lengths to investigate what physiological changes people would need to *really* be able to fly. As a bonus, Claire is Australian.

As for my own work, my ISF-Allion world fiction is hard SF, notably His Name In Lights and Charlotte’s Army, which are novellas and Shifting Reality, which is a novel.

5 05 2013
simonpetrie

Patty, you’re probably right that more stringency is applied to hard SF by women. This, I think, is part of the overall problem. I imagine it’ll rectify itself over time, but it’s like a slow process.

Thanks for the recs. I don’t generally think of the Miles Vorkosigan books as hard SF because they sit so comfortably within the frame of space opera–and I’m not seeing that as a negative in any way, they’re massively enjoyable and I’m in awe of Bujold’s ability as a storyteller. I’ll certainly check out the Claire Corbett novel, and I’ll see how I go with the others. (And thanks for categorising your own stuff, of course!)

5 05 2013
pattyjansen

Often, the science in hard SF sits in the background and isn’t so obvious. I think space opera and hard SF are a continuum anyway.

5 05 2013
simonpetrie

Oh, definitely a continuum, and different people will put the same story at different points along that continuum. It’s probably difficult to pick the background science in my story ‘Downdraft’, for example, but it’s a direct extrapolation of a hard SF idea (atmospheric structure and resulting biology of a carbon-dominated planet), just not overtly explained as such within the story. (I’m happy enough to read infodumps, for the most part, but I prefer not to write them–I get enough of that in my day job. And I was somewhat intrigued by the idea of writing a hard SF story that might look a bit like a fantasy, by virtue of the stuff I didn’t explain.)

5 05 2013
Thoraiya

Heh, I haven’t started on your book yet, Patty, but I’m keen.

Whack-a-Mole, off the top of my head, in addition to “When We Have Wings” by Claire Corbett, “Cyteen” by Cherryh and “Raising the Stones” by Sheri S Tepper, I can NOT rave enough about the ridiculous awesomeness of “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress or “Wild Seed” by Octavia Butler.

Trust me. I’m a scientist!

(Not a climate scientist)

( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiYZxOlCN10&ob=av3e hahaha )

5 05 2013
simonpetrie

Thanks, Thoraiya! I’ll add those to the list for possible selection. I think I’ve read a Nancy Kress story or two somewhere along the line, but I can’t remember where.

And thanks for the youtube link–that’s probably the best science-based rap I’ve seen (which means it’s better than ‘Rotate Your Owl’,

, the only other science-based rap I’ve seen …)

5 05 2013
Thoraiya

Heh, almost got the Owl song stuck in my head…luckily, a few rewatches of “I’m a Climate Scientist” drove it out for good 😉

Just checked my bookshelf, and “off the top of my head” turns out to be not good enough…it’s not “Wild Seed” which is Octavia Butler’s most science fictional novel, but “Dawn,” the first in the Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood trilogy.

7 05 2013
helenstubbs

Great post Simon and commenters. Glad Thoraiya mentioned Tepper. “The Companions” and “The Margarets” by Tepper are worth a read, they delve so beautifully into the future. They feel like hard SF to me, though more eerily beautiful than Egan or Banks’s futures and alternate realities. Do they break the rules of science? Maybe bend them a little. But I think they have that quality that feels like hard SF, they are out there in spacey, slightly beyond science, in the future.

Good reading. Let us know what you recommend.

25 06 2013
The XX Hard SF project begins | Simon Petrie

[…] I received some books in the mail yesterday, which I’d ordered a few weeks previously.  These, below, are the first four books in what I’m going to term the XX Hard SF book-review challenge* I’ve set myself: namely, to review at least five hard SF books by different female authors, before the year’s end. (If you’re curious as to the origins of the challenge, here’s how it started.) […]

3 03 2014
Book Review: ‘Cyteen’, by C J Cherryh | Simon Petrie

[…] of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here. If you’d like to […]

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