I come from a strange time and place. Most science fiction people are “strange” in that most people who read science fiction in the US are considered a little strange. At least I’m reminded of this every time I go out in public, and mingle with normal every day people. If they discuss books at all, it’s the latest bestseller. In a gathering of women, you might get some love for romance. But our stuff? That’s coo-eee, out there and “why would you want to read that.
That’s fine. I don’t expect science fiction and fantasy will ever be more than a bleep in the total number of book sales. We’re natures little oddkins. It’s enough for a writer to make a living, though, particularly in indie.
And yeah, it’s weird to be a woman who writes this stuff. Not within the field so much. We’ve been in the field from the beginning, we’ve shaped it from the beginning, and frankly geek-boys love any woman crazy enough to like the stuff they do. The little girls (even those who are technically male) who try to pretend otherwise are sad, silly little things trying to make themselves seem brave and important.
But there are or were fewer women in the field, at least if the field is science fiction (fantasy is different and with urban fantasy, paranormal romance and urban fantasy, we’ve come a long way from that time my Mother in Law thought I had invented the writing of fantasy for adults (no, really. She wanted to know why any adult would read my Shakespearean series, and enjoined me — for the thousandth time — to “write for children, because they’re the only ones with a mind as open as yours.” (snort, giggle gasp.)
Look, it’s baked in the cake outside geek culture, okay. Nine times out of ten when it slips out I write, in meeting a perfect stranger, I get asked “romance?” and when I had little kids trailing along “Children’s books?” Or even — my favorite — “Do you draw the pictures yourself?” I’ll be honest, I think the last one is the result of “lady, you have an accent. There ain’t no way you can write in English for grown ups.” (The twin to this is “what language do you write in” and if my kids and husband aren’t around — it embarrasses them mortally — I answer with “Mandarin Chinese, but then I have to pay a translator, because I don’t speak it or understand it.” I’ll note in all the times I’ve given this answer, the person just nods. No one has gone “Uh?” Sigh.)
But I think most women who write get the “romance of children’s books” particularly if they’re married and/or totting kids around. It’s not exactly that people are heinous in assuming this, either. Kris Rusch says stereotypes exist because they so often fit reality, and this is definitely one of those. Most women who write write romance (look up and down a bookshelf someday. And many women start writing because they want to tell stories to their kids. (Me, I find writing for children incredibly challenging, probably because my own children were… well… odd.)
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. It’s just betting the odds when meeting a stranger. If it’s a woman writer, you assume romance, if it’s a man writer you assume thriller. Most of the time, you’ll be right. Sure, if he’s particularly cerebral-looking, you might assume science fiction, but look, there are so few of us over all, that we’re… well, not a good bet. And women — even though we outnumber men in the field now — haven’t fallen into public consciousness as “science fiction” yet. (Which is why the general public buys that there is ‘orrible discrimination against us.
But I come from a weird time and place. That I read and wrote at all (I don’t mean being able to, but enjoying it) was very, very weird. It will surprise no one that grew up in a Latin culture or is close to one, that I could be studying for finals, and/or doing translation work, and mom would feel free to interrupt me at random, for any reason or none at all, but if I were embroidering or doing crochet — something I did very rarely because I didn’t have time, and which was a hobby (still is) — she’d tiptoe around me, turn on lights if it was getting dark, and refer to it as my “work.”
And don’t go judging her particularly harshly either. She made her living designing and making clothing. In her lived experience being able to sew a neat stitch or figure out the drape of a fabric made much more money than being able to recite ancient history. (She made more money than dad until she retired because of one too many tight deadlines, and heart attacks.) Also, there might have been some idea that being able to do hand-work was feminine and attractive. At least I can’t figure out why my classmates (my friends were odd, okay) were working on their trousseau from age six. I’m not good at reading undercurrents if they don’t fit in my view of the world.
Anyway, reading and writing were frivolous useless things. And reading science fiction was despised by all my teachers from elementary school on.
My elementary school teacher gave me Alice in Wonderland and collected fairy tales, I suspect to keep me off the silly stuff. Other teachers, from middle school on, were more blunt. “Why do you read that trash?” they’d ask, behaving exactly as if I were romances, with pictures of fainting ladies.
More than once, I shocked teachers by doing “free work” on Ray Bradbury, and once made my Techniques of Literature teacher revise her whole opinion of the genre by translating short stories.
But the point there is that I knew how to play them, and I knew what it took to make them respect sf/f: relevance. The writing had to have some relevance for our current age, meaning it had to be a “critique” of some social aspect or other.
Granted, that has been a strain in the field since the field existed (I wonder how much of it was to justify spending time dreaming about other worlds.) But there were others. The “what if” strain can be a warning or a critique, sure. BUT it can also be “wouldn’t it be neat.” And particularly in fantasy, it’s often the joy of discovering a new world.
Discovering new worlds is why I read science fiction and fantasy. Oh sure, some psychologist, given this information would mutter about an overly restrictive environment, and escapism. Sure. But what he’d miss was that EVERYWHERE is too restrictive, and the escapism is the joy of running free beyond the limits of this all to solid flesh, the limits of the place and time we happened to be born into.
An interesting thing — under the “this might be useful” — is that years ago, my husband found himself as part of a working team that performed miracles. They were handed the projects other people had utterly fallen down on. And they pulled it off, time after time. And one day they found out they all read — preferentially — science fiction and fantasy. Perhaps it is a matter of flexible minds, and flexible minds like to flex.
What I know, though, is that both in reading and writing, I’m well beyond the “this must be relevant so people will respect me.”
As social critique, science fiction and fantasy sucks. All the disasters we predicted — and no, not because we predicted them — from overpopulation to the machines taking over, are not only unlikely, but in some cases impossible. All the things we tried push — even the best of us — like the United Nations, have proven stupid schemes that only people who create worlds in their minds, and think people would act rationally all over the world, could believe.
In general had our schemes been adopted, we’d do more harm than good.
But as worlds to dream on, even the stuff we know is impossible, now, we’re champion, and we change peoples minds into more flexible ones, better able to cope with fast technological change or different perspectives.
So there is more merit, sure, in all this playing in worlds that never existed. But, let’s not fool ourselves, ladies, gentlemen, dragons and sentient mice, mostly we do it because it’s fun, because we enjoy running free through a panoply of endless possibilities.
And honestly? That’s all the justification we need.
Sure, if mom read my books (she doesn’t read English) she’d probably think this wasn’t real work. Sure, she’d still turn the light on for me, when it’s late at night and I’m exhausted and just doing crochet to unwind. But you know? At a little past the half century, I don’t need mom to approve of my occupation. Or my professors. Or anyone, really.
When I want to send a message, I write one of these posts, or an article for PJMedia.
When I want to dream and share my vivid dream with other lost souls who like exploring unlikely and impossible worlds, walking down streets that never existed, and tasting flavors not of this earth?
Then I write fiction.