Thoughts on female protagonists in YA fantasy

The other day, may daughter finally bought an ereader. It’s a bit sad that my kids wanted to read “real” books long after I’d gone digital, but the physical size of a particular book that she wanted to read on public transport finally won her over.

Anyway, having read said book, I was sitting with her in the Berkelouw second hand book cafe on the bridge thingie in Westfield Hornsby today (if you know this place, it’s very nice), and we were talking about books. The book in question was a sequel, and she said about it: but it’s about a different main character who is a relative of the character in book 1, because at the end of book 1, that character gets married.

And I thought: that just about says it all. When a girl gets married, her story is finished and no longer worth telling.

Which fantasy do you know where female protagonists get married early in the series, and continue to play an important role in the story? So much of this fantasy, especially in YA, is driven by the romance, and once this is resolved, there doesn’t seem to be a story left to tell. Or the author doesn’t think it’s worth telling. Skipping to another character for the next book is very common.

Often these are female authors,many of whom would be married and would be mothers. Do they think that mothers of small children lead such sheltered lives that nothing can happen to them (that doesn’t involve the children, but impacts on the entire family?) Married women and mothers are pretty invisible in real life. They’re pretty invisible in speculative fiction.

Thoughts on female protagonists in YA fantasy was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants


Once again about sexism in Science Fiction

It’s been a while since I wrote this post where I encountered blatant sexism, and today, Sean (@Seandblognaut) alerted me on Twitter about the existence of this post from inside the publishing world.

Written by Tor UK editor Julie Crisp, it is exactly the sort of stuff I wanted to hear from the industry. To take a few excerpts:

In the last few years I have seen numerous articles deploring the lack of female SFF writers, in science fiction in particular. And usually, the blame always comes back to the publisher’s doorstep. Every time I’ve seen one of these articles I get a little hot under the collar because, guess what? I work in publishing. I work in genre. And here’s the kicker – I’m a woman. Yes, a female editor commissioning and actively looking for good genre – male AND female.


The sad fact is, we can’t publish what we’re not submitted.

She goes on to quote that only 22% of science fiction submissions they receive are from women. This has been my (admittedly very limited) experience in the ASIM slush as well: that there is a distinct disparity in the submissions.

That said, the incident was inexcusable, no matter how much I was supposed to have “prompted” it. The proper reply that should have been given to my question was what Julie wrote. End of story. Thanks, Julie, for writing it.

Do I believe that pockets of blatant sexism exist in publishing? Hell, yes.

Do I believe that the majority of the publishing industry is at least attempting to be even-handed? Yes, I do. But that will not stop me speaking out when I encounter sexism as blatant as I encountered.

In any case, while I’m angry on behalf of women in general, it’s no skin off my personal nose. I am enjoying my self-publishing journey more and more every day, and getting more rewarded for it every day, too. Ticonderoga Publications is working on edits for my novel. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, the cliché goes, and I’ll survive well without a deal from a “big six” publisher.

There are girl cooties on my space ship–on women writing hard SF

reentryAnyone who knows me even passingly will know that I dislike pulling gender into a discussion at the first available opportunity. I don’t “do” gender-related panels, and I don’t favour pushing women’s work for the sake that it’s done by women. We have a number of really awesome female science fiction writers. My most favourite-ever writer, C.J. Cherryh, is a woman, and so is Lois McMaster Bujold, another one of my favourites. Kim Stanley Robinson, another one of my favourite writers, is a man, and so is Stephen Baxter. I like their subject matter and that’s why I like those writers. This is how I tick.

I also get weary of people blaming their lack of success too easily on external factors. Having success is a matter of luck and talent–but mostly luck, and persistence–before being a function of anything else. I believe that quietly chipping away and engaging with the community is more valuable than agitating out loud, because I don’t believe there is anything to be gained by being accusatory to people you should try to engage in discussion instead.

In short, I really dislike playing the gender card, but when someone chucks a whole packet of cards in my face, it becomes harder to ignore.

OK, something happened and I’ll be really brief about it. The discussion went like this:

Me: I heard you are interested in hard SF
Publisher: yeah, we are, but… *looks uneasy*
Me: … if it’s written by a woman?
Publisher: yeah, I hate to say that, but yeah, that is a problem

This is paraphrased to the best of my memory.

I’ve thought for a few days what I want to do with this. As is common with me and things like this, anger tends to be slow to build, but after a few days I’m still angry and I’m getting more angry. I mean-what fucking rot. Where is the data to back this up? OK, maybe the publisher had some bad runs with women SF writers, but if a male SF writer has a bad run, it’s tough luck, and if a woman does the same, it’s because she’s a woman?

Understand that I didn’t send anything to this publisher, so there was no particular manuscript involved. I was fishing for potential places to send some work, notably Shifting Reality which is hard SF with character. The publisher stated a work must not be self-published, and I’m fine with that. I’m working on a next book anyway. We weren’t talking about any book in detail and I had not even mentioned any potential projects other than that they were hard SF.

This is what infuriated me. Even before I get to talking about the story and the concept, I’m dismissed out of hand because I’m a woman. Can someone tell me how many sales to Analog a woman needs to be considered “good enough” for writing hard SF? I have two. Do I qualify? Bullshit.

Of course, it was a daft thing for him to say. He should have said something like “Sure, submit it, and we’ll take it from there” or “hard SF is a tough sell now, but send it anyway”, that is, if he was truly interested in hard SF.

As I said above, I’m of the “quietly doing”, and not “yelling” type, so let’s see what constructive thoughts we can take away from this.

First of all, I’m not going to say who it was, because I think it’s counterproductive. There have been some calls for names, so that people can boycott this publisher. Please, don’t. There is no point. If you *really* want to know, it’s an ill-kept secret, and a bit of reading of recent posts and some google-fu will no doubt give you a good idea. It’s not about who, because this attitude is endemic in publishers.

Ironically, I’ve found that although it’s much-mocked by people, Analog is extremely accepting of all writers. The Analog people (writers, editors and readers) are very supportive of each other. I believe that what gets published in Analog is a fairly close reflection of percentages men vs women they see in the slush. Analog’s brand of hard SF will appeal to more men than women. I’m fine with that.

It is a reality of the market that hard SF as currently marketed is geared towards men. That said, I know a number of women, including myself, who are much more interested in a book with a dark-blue-hued cover with a planet on it than a pink-hued cover and a long-haired girl and some guy. Elizabeth Moon writes books with dark blue covers with space ships on them. Women as well as men read this stuff.

Why would any publisher automatically dismiss the women readers and market only at men? Apparently, men don’t read female authors. I’m a bit doubtful about this statement, especially in the population from my age down, who are quickly overtaking the market. In my experience, men don’t read much full stop, or at least on average not as much as women. Apparently 75% of readers are women, and let’s say for the sake of the argument that out of the 25% of male readers half don’t read women. Are these people justifying discrimination based on 12.5% of readers? Really? Of course hard SF appeals disproportionately to men, but still, let’s deconstruct this a bit further, because how does hard SF get marketed?

A strong segment of hard SF is still stuck in the Golden Age sentiments. As far as I’ve been able to wade through the sexist and racist attitudes of “Golden Age” science fiction, a lot of it is hard SF as much as Star Wars is hard SF (in other words: it’s not hard SF). This kind of fiction appeals to an ever-diminishing audience, yet the industry clings to it.

The vast majority of younger readers, male and female, does not accept the sexist attitudes anymore, whether in the editorial team or in the book. Hard SF is much more than space-based SF, but I cannot see the need for even space-based SF to be marketed in such a retro way. There are many younger readers out there who do not want their SF with sauce of sexist golden age nostalgia.

There is no need to *call* a book hard SF, even if it is. Most books can fit into multiple subgenres. Hard SF and space opera bleed into each other anyway. Books are about people and the perception that hard SF is only about tech and not about character is rubbish.

A book that doesn’t sell fails to reach the right audience, never mind the gender. How about we stop trying to push books to the same old, same old group who supposedly don’t read women, and try to engage a general audience? In other words, pull the space ship that is hard SF into the garage and give it an overhaul. Get rid of the retro shit. There is certainly none in any of my books.

I strongly believe that if you want to sell a broader range of hard SF you need to step outside the current narrow audience with the narrow marketing messages.

These are things I would like:

– If you have any hard sales data on hard SF by men vs women, I’m all ears. I’m not talking about anecdotal stuff, but hard sales.
– Hard SF is not “boys playing with space ships” and need not be marketed that way
– I am open to discussion by anyone
– I had never thought that this was a good reason for me to feel good about having self-published. Hey, the book is making ME money

Instead of pointing fingers and crying, “sexist”, I want to write damn good fiction and prove people like the above publisher wrong. Meanwhile, if you read hard SF, I love you. None of all the people I know fall into that will-read-men-only category, so I have no idea where these people are. Meanwhile, I think I’ll go and re-read book 14 of the Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh. Yes, a woman.

Patty writes hard Science Fiction, space opera and fantasy. Her latest book is Trader’s Honour, in the space opera series The Return of the Aghyrians. If you’d like to be kept up-to-date with new releases, remember to sign up for Patty’s new release newsletter.

Women in Science and Science Fiction

Some observations:

Hard Science Fiction is one of the types of fiction I enjoy. A lot of hard SF writers are scientists. They may not be trained in the same discipline as they write in, but they are familiar with the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on in science. It seems working in science is conducive to writing successful hard science fiction. None of these writers are women.

I remember, many years ago when doing my PhD at Sydney Uni, sitting in the tea room with one of the university lecturers. He was describing to me, how over the years he’d had a fair number of female students, but that at the time of speaking, none of these female student were still working in science.

Yesterday, I went to my daughter’s school for parent-teacher interviews. I saw an Economics teacher (social sciences), a Maths teacher and a Physics teacher. One of these teachers was male. It wasn’t the maths teacher. It wasn’t the physics teacher either. My other daughter studies physiotherapy. Most of her teachers are female.

So it isn’t that women don’t like or don’t study hard sciences. The problem is that for one reason or another, they don’t follow through with it, and, not having the career in science might make them feel uncertain about writing hard SF.

I have many questions: why do many women give up working in science? Why do so few of them write hard SF?

I’d like thoughts from readers. Did you study hard sciences and never pursued a career in science? Or did you give up? Why? What are your thoughts about women in science?

this is not the 1950’s

I guess ‘most people’ will know that. One thing that disturbs me a bit is the frequency with which I come across 1950’s style fiction in workshops or the slush.

Yes, I totally get that you may have adored the SF greats. I am in no way suggesting that those writers weren’t great in their time, and some perhaps even now. However, a lot of that fiction has aged badly. I don’t mean technology. OK, we now have the net and computers, but sometimes it’s fun to read about a society at the time when a computer with the capacity of my geriatric laptop took up an entire room. This is part of the setting, and can be used successfully in new fiction.

I don’t mean 1950-style plots, those reminiscent of the great SF works. I love SF and space opera and while there is nothing edgy about the subgenre, it’s a lot of fun and still sells.

I mean the treatment of certain people in fiction, OK, ‘minorities’ and I’m especially talking about women.

The 1950’s style fiction will probably have women. It may even have women as major characters, but the way those characters are treated is patronising, or alternately, they exist solely to make a point. The woman is either a bitch or an object of sexual fancy, and viewed as a woman, not as a character or a person. The woman will be pretty and young. The woman will be a secretary in an office (if you’ve read my fiction, you’ll know that my secretaries are almost exclusively male). The woman won’t be a mother. If the woman is married, she will exist solely to serve dinner. The men will be protective and often kind.

The ultimate feeling I have about 1950’s style fiction is that the woman is a prop and a shallow character, a token, part of the scenery.

That’s why I will reject those stories which smack of 1950’s style fiction.

I am the last person to call myself a feminist. When I think of a one-word tag to identify myself, I think ‘writer’, ‘science nerd’ or ‘parent’. ‘Woman’ is a tag that comes very low on that list.

So, by all means, write golden-age-inspired SF, but treat all your characters like real people.

damned if you do, and damned if you don’t

There’s been a fair amount of kerfuffle recently about the representation of certain groups in Science Fiction, both as authors and characters. Granted, it feels like Science Fiction is one of the last remaining bastions of traditional white males.

I think part of the male/female problem is the very nature of Science Fiction, and the boundaries of definition of the genre. When reading SF anthologies or magazines, invariably the stories written by women represent ‘softer’, more sociological aspects of culture. Technology doesn’t seem to draw interest from many women, and there aren’t many of us writing anything near what could be termed ‘hard Science Fiction’. A lot of SF written by women slants off into fantasy, and one could argue, by some definitions of the genre, whether it is Science Fiction at all. For myself as writer, I can see a practical solution to the under-representation problem. I am a woman. I write hard Science Fiction.

A similar debate is raging over race/culture representation in SF. Alastair Reynolds says it eloquently here.

For me, as writer, this brings a different set of feelings. Yes, I’m a woman, and I also happen to be white. Not much I can do about that. I write about characters from different races, but often those races are made-up. I feel uncomfortable about writing characters from different existing cultures. I feel I’m intruding upon their turf. I feel like I have no authority to write about them, because they’re not my culture, and using the culture in a story may be construed as ‘patronising white person’. I just don’t want to go there. So I write about existing Earth cultures only in future worlds.

Race is not the issue, I think. I don’t spend a lot of time describing my characters, and don’t really care what colour they are on the outside. I leave that for readers to fill in. Culture, though, is on the inside, and I can only truly represent cultures that are my own, either real or made-up.

All of which means that my present-day characters are usually white.