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.