Recently, I've been having a lot of internal debates with myself about what it means to be a fan of science fiction. Maybe, my brain says, you don't know enough to really claim the banner of science fiction fan! Hello, Impostor Syndrome, my old friend. You really will strike anywhere! Inevitably, if I listen to this voice, I come to a terrible chasm of doubt: what I do know isn't deep enough, the stories I've put into my brain aren't enough to be considered well-read, and I most certainly don't know the rich, complicated history of the canon and fandom.
Being in a fandom can be complicated. Belonging and the feelings associated with that state are definitely complicated. See: every debate about fake geek girls and what makes someone a "real fan" since, probably, the dawn of time. The only simple thing is being a fan. It's easy to love things.
In 2015 I decided to go back and read older science fiction in order to deepen my knowledge of the genre. I wanted to have information to contextualize the conversations around science fiction as a tradition. I also wanted to better understand the canon that those stories created. I was optimistic about the project when I first started because I figured, interspersed between the new books coming out and my comic reading, I would get an interesting picture of the field.
Instead, by focusing on older work, what I've rediscovered is the subtle pressure to read books by men that I keep having to crawl out from under. It's ruined my excitement for the entire process. Fair or not, it's also colored my experience of new material that I want to read (especially by women), because I feel guilty not reading new books by men that are coming out to acclaim and predictions of brilliance and game-changing ideas before they even hit shelves. Then I feel guilty for feeling guilty? It's such a strange set of emotions. I'm not really sure how to verbalize it, which means for the last three months I've been puzzling over how I engage with books rather than reading books, which is dire.
There's a weird cultural pressure to read stories by men and about men—see any reading challenge that deliberately asks you to forgo men's stories for a little while. People get really invested in the fact that you might spend six months, or worse, a whole year, not able to enjoy stories by men, and that reaction is common enough now that I'm sure I'm not imagining things. In that vein, I wondered to a friend if I was just inventing this feeling myself due to my own internal guilt over being so late to the genre that I might never feel confident due to how much canon I was lacking. When I shared this weird, crawling feeling that my continued lack of experience with both classic and more modern SF by men caused me, its source unidentifiable but always at the back of my mind when reaching for books not by men, she responded with sympathy. "I actually said to people 'please get me classic SF for my birthday, y'all know what I like,'" she told me. "Got nothing but dudes."
That clarified the issue for me, because so many of the classic lists I started out with to guide myself are filled with men and the occasional women (I have since vastly improved my lists using personal recs and SF Mistressworks). It's hard to really feel dedicated to a communal storytelling space when the history of it is so steeped in one perspective that people outside the genre only see what floats to the top—those classics by men that everyone knows and that a quick google will help you find. And so that very limited vision is regurgitated over and over, pressing at you, reminding you there's a history you don't know and that not knowing it might be considered a failing. And so, when my friend, a woman with very clear interest in stories by and about women in SF, requests classic SF recommendations, what she gets is a bevy of male writers. Because people outside the genre don't know any better because it's these books that SF fandoms before now beat their drums over, honored, awarded, and remembered. These are our touchstones, but wow, can they be heavy with expectations.
In SF, this pressure feels doubled because it feels like there's a push to value stories by and about men more but also a keen pressure to be educated in the genre, the genre lines, and the fandom's history itself. You don't just need to read Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke, Niven, Herbert, Card—I could go on for a while, but let's not get carried away—but you need to be able to contextualize them, too, if you want to have critical chops or be taken seriously.
This feeling is omnipresent, but its source hard to single out. Being involved in the Hugos is part of it for me, because those can be pretty dude heavy. Being a book blogger who is often aggressively marketed to by anyone who finds my blog's address is another, because I see more press for men, even though my blog's title is Lady Business, which should be a fairly large, gendered hint. But it's often more than that, a weirdly unfriendly framing of books by men as important while women's books can be read some other time, because, hey, the men are speaking now, and everyone should listen because what this man is writing is culturally relevant and challenging and busy Defining Genre while other groups are just following in their footsteps, as if there aren't other paths available. I don't mean to cast the generalization net too wide, because obviously we're seeing a sea change in the voices we're hearing recently, which is superb. But for me this pressure persists. There's still nothing to point to specifically. The best I've got are best of lists, recommendation lists, and award lists composed mostly of men; how hard women have to fight for publicity; how I can see a publisher launch a three week campaign for a book for a man but a much smaller, shorter one for a woman, and she's doing even more heavy lifting. It's just a strange, inexplicable feeling that something's not quite right.
I thought going back and reading some older science fiction would help me out a little, give me the tools to see tropes and patterns and the language to still take part in discussions, if not as a participant, then at least as a lurker, when the inevitable comparisons between the new work and the old work started. I assumed I would understand more, and feel left out less. I thought I might, at the least, be able to follow other people's conversations and learn from them. I wanted to be wrong a little less. I wanted to get fewer "X isn't like Y at all, what are talking about?" comments from men when I compared stories I loved with similar premises I hadn't yet read but that sounded good. I wanted to get fewer "You haven't read Heinlein but you love Scalzi? Wow, you need to catch up." comments from men when I talked about one of my favorite authors. I wanted to get less knowing chuckles—like I was a cute curiosity—when I admitted I hadn't yet read certain books by certain well-known SF writers from the ’90s and early ’00s. So I made a list of classic SF to start with first and I dived in.
But when it comes to classic SF by men, it's going terribly.
It's making me pretty grumpy, actually, six months into the project. The most notable titles I've started, classics of the genre by masters writing it ("Determined by who?" is a question I keep asking myself, and the answer largely comes back to "Male gatekeepers, I guess?") have rung so hollow. They sound so much like a manual of operation rather than a story that I've tossed more aside than I've finished. People love these books, but I'm having a hard time finding anything of value in them at all beyond cool ideas. The writing feels like a disappointed grandpa lecture, the sexual politics are deplorable, and I'm hardly ever having fun which is wild because on the surface these books sounded fun. No book is for every single person, sure, but surely I shouldn't be failing out of everything. It's frustrating and demoralizing. These classics aren't my classics, and I'm not sure what that means for me as a science fiction fan. Because I'm sure my classics would be found immediately wanting, or written off as not proper science fiction.
In my first article for Strange Horizons, I asked for the gates to be opened, and on one hand, I guess they have been in some ways. I've continued to discover work by women and collect recommendations for the days when I no longer live under certain financial and availability restrictions. There are huge amounts of books coming out by women writers. But I also, via this pressure, feel pretty divorced from the community, too. Belonging is a complicated thing, and when you don't have the history and have to rely on the present and your point of entry, it gets even harder because the history can be such an integral part of the experience.
And then I wonder … maybe it's because I've experienced more "You haven't read WHAT?" judgmental reactions instead of "Congratulations, you're one of the lucky 10,000!" reactions that I'm often feeling this pressure. How you're introduced to something matters a lot, and if your introduction is a list of decades’ worth of writing and history that you're subtly shamed for not knowing, that's going to leave a mark.
The correct answer to "What makes a science fiction fan a science fiction fan?" is "Loving science fiction," which is, of course, obvious. I haven't read or watched a lot, and maybe I'll always feel behind or left out. I've thought about these issues a lot with no resolution and don't really have one to offer now, either; I'm only musing on why I feel this way, and why the feeling is so persistent, and why it makes me feel so isolated and alone. Maybe I'll figure it out eventually. Being in a fandom, after all, can be complicated.
But I've been a fan for over 20 years. That part, the part where I get to love cool science fiction, is thankfully still easy.