The Cliffs of Insanity: Science Fiction and Women

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Michael Whelan's iconic cover of All the Weyrs of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
Michael Whelan’s iconic cover of All the Weyrs of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

It turns out, the climb up the cliffs of insanity was a bit too steep even for me last week, but I’m back.

And a busy couple of weeks it was, given I spotted a new widget that makes fun of DC Comics propensity for shooting itself in the foot, became immersed reading a controversy about science fiction and women that started when an article in a respected publication started rating female editors by looks, and finally, relaxed by reading a tribute book to the Dragonlady herself, Anne McCaffrey.

Read more about DC’s PR goofs at The Outhouse.

First, my favorite new site: Has DC Comics Done Something Stupid Today.

Today, the widget reads, “It has been 1 Day since DC Comics did something stupid.” The site pokes fun of what seems to be a continual stream of head-scratching decisions from the company. The latest one referred to in the current widget was a decision to push the price drop for digital titles back eight weeks instead of four weeks.  That means books priced from $2.99 to $3.99 in print will stay that price digitally twice as long as when DC originally went same-day digital almost two years ago.

I’m not sure I’d characterize the decision as stupid. It could be it will bring a nice infusion of money to DC coffers. But it seems to have happened under the radar and might just frustrate digital readers who expected to only be a month behind in their reading.

I’d have picked the current controversy surrounding the remarks of Paul Jenkins and J.H. Williams about difficulties dealing with DC editorial, including books so changed editorially (after requested edits were made by the writers) that the writers wanted their names off the book. Williams is, of course, the artistic genius behind the gorgeous Batwoman comic and he’s as irreplaceable as it gets for artists. He was frustrated at the decisions made regarding the upcoming villains of the month event, where villains are taking over the hero’s title. Jenkins, however, was more brutal, calling editorial interference “bullying” in an interview at Bleeding Cool.

But I remain amused that the widget above shows DC’s records of days between “something stupid” as only seven.

And speaking of something stupid….

Lessa of Pern Is About To Send Ramoth After You 

The Science Fiction community went through one of those internet kerfuffles over the last couple of weeks which coincided with a similar controversy surrounding Science Fiction Romance as a genre. Both sound like, deep down, people being a bit threatened at changes women might bring to a supposedly traditional male genre and also seems remarkably similar to the “fake geek girl” controversy in comic circles where women, many of them cosplayers, are somehow thought to be less geeky by virtue of their gender and because they express their geekdom in spending hours sewing costumes instead of, hmm…, memorizing all the people who’ve used Thor’s hammer. (And by hammer, I mean, mjolnir, not, you know, hammer. ::nudge, nudge, wink, wink:::)

Science fiction writer Ann Aguirre talked about the treatment she’s received as a female SF writer over the years. It hasn’t been universally bad but it’s been bad enough that she felt the need to speak up and be heard.

Her post was prompted by remarks made in the Science Fiction writers of America Bulletin. In her own words:

I found a dialogue that seemed more focused on how these “lady editors” and “lady writers” looked in bathing suits, and that they were “beauty pageant beautiful” or a “knock out.” I am certain no condescension was intended with the use of “lady,” but as the dialogues went on, I felt the word carried a certain tone–perhaps that was a fiction of my own making. As I listened to these two men talk about lady editors and writers they had known, I grew uneasy. Something wasn’t right.

I posted excerpts of the dialogue to my friends on Twitter.

You have to scroll down a bit at this link to get excerpts of the original dialogues of the SFWA bulletin. Those dialogues contain a nice swipe at the romance genre, too, which tends to be used as some sort of equivalence to “well, men are objectified in romance novels, so it’s totally okay to objectify women.”

Except while men are lust objects in romance novels (or else there would be no romance), the overriding theme of a romance novel is for a woman to find a male partner who accepts all of who she is and is willing to work with her as a partner. The romance hero isn’t a price for being successful at something, it’s a natural consequence of getting one’s act together.

Which brings me to this fun column by Stuart Sharp at the Story Hub about Science Fiction Romance. (Did I mention it seems to be a banner week for putting one’s foot in one’s mouth?) He was doing okay pointing out that SF Romance is more centered on the romance and has a different angle than traditional science fiction until he really put his foot in his mouth by generalizing that SFR authors don’t know their SF and certainly “don’t understand that ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ reference in Chapter Three.”

At this point, I wanted to unleash the panelist from the Science Fiction panel at the Romantic Times Readers’ Convention that I attended and smack him over the head with my C.L. Moore references. But that would be falling into the trap of having to justify my geek cred and I shouldn’t have to prove I know my science fiction simply because I mixed in romance with my SF. Besides which, each new generation takes the old tropes and gives them a new twist, which was a point that John Scalzi made at the same panel.

Scalzi addressed the first controversy of the SFWA Bulletin himself, taking responsibility as President of the SFWA and making an actual apology, not a “I’m sorry if people were offended apology,” of the type Sharp offered on his subject in a later post.

To Mr. Sharp: I wish you were as worried about the quality of all SF as much as you seem to be worried about the quality of SFR. Because, Sturgeon’s Law and all that, I’m sure some SFR is horrible and so is a great deal of SF. But so are your generalizations. Heather Massey had a longer, eloquent defense of SFR at the Galaxy Express.

Now I Just Need a Glass of Benden Wine

One of the writers Aguirre mentioned as being open and welcoming to her in the SF community was David Brin, and he happens to have the first essay in Dragonwriter: A Tribute to Anne McCaffrey and Pern, due to be published in August. After reading all the internet back and forth on SF and female writers, this book was a balm to the soul.

McCaffrey was one of the first writers I consciously idolized. Picture a time not only with no internet but with no bookstores like Barnes & Noble. If you were lucky at this time (the mid-1970s), you lived near a great independent bookstore or a well-stocked library. Neither was in supply in rural New England. I bought of my science fiction through the old science fiction book club. Why did I join? FIVE FREE BOOKS.

For my first shipment, I ended up with an Asimov mystery (I still have it), two books I don’t remember, the first five books of The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny, which I enjoyed immensely, and the three-in-one set of The Dragonriders of Pern by McCaffrey.

It’s this volume that has orange dye stains on the pages from when I used to sit in my bean bag chair in my room with a can of Mountain Dew, the Cheetos, and my favorite books. I read about Pern so many times, the spine of the book fell apart. McCaffrey was one of the first authors I came to view as a role model. I’m sure if I ever met her, I’d have fallen down in worship, even if I managed to stay outwardly composed. Some authors, especially ones who affect us at a formative age, just get to us.

How great it was to read these essays and find McCaffrey could be as lovely a person as she was a writer. Besides Brin, there are essays by Lois McMaster Bujold, Mercedes Lackey, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Whelan, Janis Ian, and many others, especially some from fans. My favorite anecdote is from Lee & Miler’s essay about a problem with having to type up name tags at the last minute for BaltiCon in 1978:

There was, on discovery of this lapse, a rather…energetic discussion in Ops (a fannish word for operations office) regarding how the name tags were to be made ready in time to open the registration table at four. The discussion was so energetic, in fact, that no one noticed that the Guest of Honor had entered the room and had heard the whole kerfuffle. 

“I can,” she said, using all the lung power of a trained singer, “type, you know.” 

There was a period of silence while people caught their breaths, and waited for their ears to stop ringing. Then came a gentle objection from the con chair: Surely, they couldn’t ask their Guest of Honor to do gofer work. 

“I’m bored,” was Anne’s answer. “Give me something to do.”

I like to think her answer for the controversies this week might have been something like: I can write, you know.

dragon writer


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4 thoughts on “The Cliffs of Insanity: Science Fiction and Women

  1. I remember the SF Bookclub. It got me hooked on Piers Anthony and Anne McCaffrey. I also remember stepping into the Waldenbooks at the mall (15 minutes away, which seems SO FAR). It was a magical place filled with excitement (even better if you could convince your parents to buy you a book). I also remember trying to hide the covers of fantasy books, which inevitably had a half-naked woman on the cover. Fortunately, my parents never cared about what I was reading. These are the same parents that bought me comic books at the Shop-n-Bag in the morning before school. My mom never understood my love of reading (dad was a history buff), but I was never discouraged from my weirdness, at least, or told D&D was the devil’s work.

  2. My mother too thought I was a bit over the top but she always encouraged my reading and writing, be it fantasy novels, comics or Isaac Asimov.

    And Robert Silverberg! I was introduced to him via the SF Book Club. And I got to know Connie Willis, S.P. Somtow and many others through my monthly issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine.

  3. Anne McCaffrey’s writing was often the closest I came to reading romance and enjoying.

    I think Sharp’s biggest problem is overgeneralizing, something I’ve sadly seen in the smartest people I know. He doesn’t list how many of these books he’s read, how closely he’s read them, what details they have wrong (Aliens look like attractive humans? OMG I’ve NEVER EVER seen this in “pure” male-authored Sci-Fi, how terrible!) except for the literary reference–and let’s face it, Sci-Fi fans LOVE to argue the details, no matter who wrote them!

    1. I agree Sharp’s biggest problem was generalizing. I could generalize and say SF never has the emotional intensity of romances and is just generally cold and unfeeling. I’m sure some SF is like that. But certainly not close to *all* of it. I also suspect those writing SF Romance know far more about SF than those writing SF know about the romance genre.

      I never read romance until about ten years ago, when I first starting writing fiction and started with a bantering couple fighting crime, a little bit Lois Lane, a little bit Batman. It was fun. And then someone called it romance and I was appalled! 🙂 But I followed the recommendations of some friends and starting picking up romance.

      Jennifer Crusie. Linnea Sinclair and J. D. Robb’s In Death series (Robb is Nora Roberts alter ego) remain favorites and much of Bujold’s work has strong romances, very much in the way McCaffrey’s does. For more recommendations, see Scalzi’s own post about attending the Romantic Times book convention and watch romance writers in the comments enthusiastically recommend various books to romance newbies. 🙂

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