The English paper The Guardian has a columnist who covers science fiction and fantasy. It’s good, I guess, to get that kind of attention from a major newspaper. But the columnist, Damien Walter, has a limited knowledge of the field. Recently, he did a column with a headline that said, “2014: The Year that Science Fiction Woke Up to Diversity.” The column goes on to argue that last year was when SF finally discovered women and people of color (PoC) and produced books about gender issues.
My response was fury. My personal knowledge of SF goes back to the 1950s. Even then, there were women in the field: Leigh Bracket, C. L. Moore, Shirley Jackson, Judith Merrill, Zenna Henderson, Katherine MacLean. That’s off the top of my head. There were more. But yes, the field then was largely male and entirely—as far as I know—white. The fiction, like the community, was mostly male, white, and straight. There was a famous Theodore Sturgeon story, “The World Well Lost” (1953), about gay love, both human and alien, but it was a very rare exception.
SF started changing in the 1960s. (Actually, the field has always been changing in one way or another. That is the nature of things in this world. ) Samuel R. Delany began to publish early in the decade. At first he was close to a lone figure dealing with race and gender issues. But he was a powerful figure, influential for many, including me. At the end of the ’60s, Star Trek brought a flood of women into SF fandom. At the same time, the Second Wave of Feminism crashed over America. The result was a large number of new women SF writers concerned about women’s issues: Ursula LeGuin, Joanna Russ, Suzy McKee Charnas, Pamela Sargent, Vonda McIntyre, Joan Vinge, Elizabeth Lynn, Marta Randall, Octavia Butler, James Tiptree Jr. There is a famous quote from Theodore Sturgeon: “All the good new writers are women, except for James Tiptree Jr,” who turned out to be a woman.
I suppose I belong to this generation technically, since I began to publish in the early 1970s. But my first novel came out at the end of the ’70s, and I probably belong to the generation of the 1980s, which includes women such as Pat Cadigan, Lois McMaster Bujold, Melissa Scott, Joan Slonczewski, Judith Moffitt, Maureen McHugh, Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy . . .
My sense is, there was a pushback against feminist SF in the 1980s, which may have been part of the Reagan counter-revolution. Cyberpunk was almost entirely male, except for Pat Cadigan, though Melissa Scott published a fine cyberpunk novel.
Although cyberpunk dominated the field in the 1980s with its noir darkness and zippy action, there were a number of large, slow, eco-feminist novels by Ursula K. LeGuin, Judith Moffett, and Joan Slonczewski.
The dominant SF of the 1990s was (I tend to thnk) the New Space Opera. Though we need to remember that SF is a big enough field there’s a lot of different writing going on in each decade. Labeling a decade as the era of New Space Opera merely tells us what is new and glittery. Again, this is a genre that I see as largely male. But a large number of women were publishing all kinds of SF in this period. Some of them—such as C. J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold—were using space opera to treat issues of gender and, in Bujold’s case, reproduction. Bujold is the only SF writer I can think of who combines space-age military daring-do with an artificial uterus. Reproduction always matters.
Generalizations about SF may not be especially useful. I decided I wanted more detail, so I looked up Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and James Tiptree Jr. Award finalists since the 1970s. I only looked at novels, which excludes writers such as Kij Johnson and Ted Chiang. It also excludes most of my award nominations, which were mostly for short fiction.
It’s generally conceded that the awards (except the Tiptree) underrepresent women writers. Knowing this, here is my list. I may have missed some people. I began to get writer’s cramp writing down all the women.
Women award nominees in the 1970s: C. J. Cherryh, Patricia McKillip, Joan Vinge, Anne McCaffrey, Vonda McIntyre, Kate Wilhelm, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula K. LeGuin, Joanna Russ, Tanith Lee, Katherine MacLean, Marta Randell. This is a strong group, but given the flood of women writers in the 1970s, it is not a true representation. The awards were slow in catching on to the new women writers.
Women award nominees in the 1980s: Patricia McKillip, Joan Vinge, C. J. Cherryh, Julian May, R. A. MacAvoy, Lois McMaster Bujold, Suzy McKee Charnas, Margaret Atwood, Pat Murphy, Lois McMaster Bujold, Zoe Fairbairns, Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Cadigan, Rebecca Ore, Susan Schwartz. Again, a strong group, but not large enough. The awards are still not paying enough attention to women.
This began to change in the 1990s, due in good part to the establishment of the Tiptree Award. But the other awards were finally paying more attention to women.
Women award nominees in the 1990s: Sherri Tepper, Lois McMaster Bujold, Emma Bull, Anne McCaffrey, Joan Vinge, Maureen McHugh, Nancy Kress, Connie Willis, Elizabeth Moon, Jane Yolen, Ursula K. LeGuin, Valerie Martin, Pat Cadigan, Karen Joy Fowler, Nicola Griffith, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Patricia McKillip, Vonda McIntyre, Kate Elliott, Martha Wells, Octavia Butler, Pat Murphy, Elizabeth Hand, Kathe Koja, Elisabeth Vonarburg, Wilhelmina Baird, Lisa Mason, Amy Thomson, Sarah Zettel, Susan R. Matthews, Catherine Wells, Nalo Hopkinson, Toni Anzetta, Eleanor Arnason, Gwyneth Jones, Mary Gentle, Greer Ilene Gilman, Marge Piercy, Carol Emshwiller, Judith Moffett, Sue Thomas, Lisa Tuttle, Nicola Griffith, Margaret Atwood, Sybil Claiborne, L. Timmel Duchamp, Laurie Marks, Alice Nunn, Nancy Springer, Suzy McKee Charnas, Ellen Frye, Rachel Pollack, Melissa Scott, Delia Sherman, Elizabeth Hand, Kelly Eskridge, Kit Reed, Mary Doria Russell, Tess Williams, Sue Woolfe, Candas Jane Dorsey, Kelly Link, Storm Constantine, Emma Donoghue, Molly Gloss, Shani Mootoo, Stella Duffy, Maggie Gee, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Phyllis Gotleib, Nalo Hopkinson, Elizabeth A. Lynn, Rebecca Ore, Sara Paretsky, Severna Park, Mary Rosenblum, Joan Slonczewski, Martha Soukup, Sarah Zettel, Sally Caves, Yumiko Kurahashi, Penelope Lively, Camille Henrandez-Ramdwar.
Again, it’s another strong group and getting larger. I’m going to stop with the 1990s. It gets too hard to type and spellcheck all the names.
A number of these women identified as members of the LGBT community and described that community in their writing. Melissa Scott’s Trouble and her Friends has lesbian main characters, and her Shadow Man is a fabulous study of gender. Both won the Lambda Award.
It wasn’t only the lesbian writers who wrote about gender and sexual orientation. A lot of the women writers, straight or gay, challenged traditional ideas of male and female. They wrote about sexual orientation, social stereotypes, gender identity, what a society would be like with no genders or five genders . . .
There were fewer gay male SF writers, at least that’s my impression, though Samuel R. Delany and David Gerrold have both been writing and publishing since the 1960s. Gerrold’s most famous ’60s “publication” was the much-loved “Trouble with Tribbles” episode in the original Star Trek TV series. He went on to publish novels in the 1970s and since then.
At the start of the twenty-first century, SF finally began to see a significant number of writers of color: Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Andrea Hairston, Nnedi Okorafor, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Vandana Singh, Karen Lord, Hiromi Goto, Larissa Lai. . . . BuzzFeed recently published a list of SF women writers of color you have to read. It’s not complete, but it’s a start.
Most of the writers of color I have noticed are women, though Steven Barnes, Charles Sanders, and Ted Chiang have been writing and publishing for decades now. Lawrence Yep has published fiction since the 1980s, mostly for children. Some of it is fantasy based on Chinese folklore. Minister Faust, a Kenyan-Canadian author, began publishing novels in the early 2000s. His first two novels were both finalists for the P. K. Dick Award, and his second novel won the Carl Brandon Society’s Kindred Award. Ken Liu also began publishing early in this century. A Hugo Award–winning short story writer, he just published his first novel. His translation of The Three Body Problem by Chinese SF novelist Liu Cixin Liu was a finalist for the Nebula Award in 2014.
The Carl Brandon Society dates from 1999. Named after a fictional fan of color, its mission is to “increase racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and the audience for speculative fiction.” The society has established two awards: the Parallax Award for speculative fiction by a self-identified person of color and the Kindred Award for speculative fiction about race and ethnicity by a person of any ethnic background.
Yes, there has been an expansion of writers of color in the field, which is all to the good. But if we see this as a sudden explosion, then we are ignoring the writers who did work in the past and whose work may be ignored now, because it doesn’t fit the narrative of “SF was all male and white until yesterday.” Nalo Hopkinson published her first novel 17 years ago, at the end of the previous century. This is not yesterday. Since that first novel, she has published a number of impressive works. She is a strong, strong writer.
Sheree R. Thomas edited Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) and a sequel anthology, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (2004). As the title of the first book says, these are collections of fiction by writers of African descent. Both won the World Fantasy Award. Nalo Hopkinson has edited two fiction anthologies—Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction (2000) and Majo: Conjure Stories (2003)—which feature writers of color, and she co-edited So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Visions of the Future (2004), an anthology of speculative fiction by writers of color from around the world. These are important collections, done by important editors. They should not be forgotten.
I was at a Wiscon party years back, talking to a group of African American writers. I said, “Where have all the African American fans and writers been?” Someone patted me gently on the hand and said, “We have always been here, Eleanor. You just didn’t notice us.”
PoC are finally becoming noticed as fans and writers, which is great. But don’t forget the people who started all this and don’t think SF became suddenly diverse in 2014. There’s been a long slog and a lot of work. In case you don’t know the meaning of my title, according to Wikipedia, “the Jewish English expression ‘What am I, chopped liver?’ signifies frustration or anger at being ignored on a social level,” and—I add—at a political and historical level. The past matters. The people who have been writing and editing and agitating for decades matter.
Finally, here is a list by K. Tempest Bradford of mindblowing SF by women and people of color, which was posted at Tor.com. It’s from 2009, which means it isn’t current. But there’s a lot of it, and none of it dates from 2014.