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Today’s guest is science fiction author Stephanie Saulter! The first book in her ®Evolution series, Gemsigns, was released in the UK last year and will be available in the US next month. Binary, the second book in the series, was published in the UK earlier this month. I am happy she is here today to discuss use of gender in Gemsigns and rewriting narratives—and if her article makes you want to read Gemsigns as much as it did me, be sure to check out the giveaway at the end since I am also giving away 5 advance copies of the upcoming US edition!

Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter Binary by Stephanie Saulter

Gender Is Part of a Narrative. Rewrite the Narrative.

Many thanks to Fantasy Café for inviting me to contribute to 2014’s Women in SF & F month. This annual showcase of women authors is one of those events that I simultaneously think is really great, and wholeheartedly wish wasn’t necessary. I’d prefer a world in which the notion of such a thing would be so strange we’d hear about it and go, ‘A what-month? Why? What for?

We don’t live in such a world. Yet. Which is why I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the use of gender in Gemsigns.

There is no use of gender in Gemsigns.

Not, in any event, in the way you might imagine. One of the conjunctions noted by readers and reviewers of the novel is the number and prominence, and absolute equality in power and status, of the female characters – despite there being no overtly feminist agenda on display. Well, precisely. Feminist agendas only make sense in the context of masculine dominance; they are called into being by the presence of a patriarchal system against which one needs to push back. By not calling attention to the gender of characters, by not having that ever be an issue, I wanted to subtly make the point that even in the world of the ®Evolution – a world riven with baseless prejudices and unfair value judgements – some prejudices, some value judgements, have simply ceased to exist. They are part of a history that some characters within the story may not even be aware of. We know otherwise; and readers can, I hope, make the leap to realising that if a society can purge itself of some kinds of bigoted nonsense, it ought to be able to do so with others.

As I’ve said many times before, Gemsigns was in essence me writing a book I wanted to read, but could never locate on the shelf. So it’s not surprising that all of the tropes I find irritating or tiresome were roundly ignored, or subverted. And one of the things I have a real problem with is the recurrence, again and again, of sexist inferences and implicit gender power imbalances in stories set in the future. Especially the very far future. It’s as though we have internalised the notion that this is a natural and permanent state; that there is some kind of universal law, eternal as the cosmos, which states it shall be ever thus.

Hmm. Whose narrative is that, do you think?

It’s certainly not mine. If you’re reading this there’s a good chance it’s not yours either – at least not the narrative you want to have. I think it can only be because it’s so fundamental to the world we inhabit that it is so often replicated in the worlds we invent. But the power of invention is precisely that: the ability to change the narrative. And especially in the invented realities of speculative fiction, why perpetuate the notion that gender must always and inevitably matter?

So I don’t do it; and I have good reasons to avoid flagging up the fact that I don’t do it. I’ll call attention to it in an article such as this one, but I won’t within the story. It’s evident that the female characters are female, just as it’s evident that the male characters are male – however the narrative attaches no inherent significance to the fact. Because every time you do flag it up, attach flashing red lights and a banner that says LOOK AT ME TREATING WOMEN AS EQUALS, every time you make it overt: you are effectively restating the narrative you want to erase. You are reminding readers of the obverse – the idea of women not being equal.

I hate that phrase ‘strong female character.’ I don’t care that these days it’s often a statement of approval; I hate it. I hate the unthinking, endless insertion of the qualifier – as though it were the default state of female characters to be weak.

Again I’ll ask – whose narrative is that?

What presumptions are being perpetuated, every time we use that language? Who do those presumptions suit?

I’m as tired of defaults in literature as I am of inequities in life. I am sick to death of the dominant narrative, in which human beings are presumptively male, strong, white, and straight; and every other kind of human is measured and understood by their variance from this supposed norm. We know that’s not the truth of who we are. We know that it is biologically, psychologically, culturally and statistically a falsehood. So why do we keep repeating that falsehood? Why do we cling to gendered representations of strength and weakness? Why do we keep telling that story?

This is important. Stories are how we understand the world. Stories are also how we create the world.

So if I have any advice for fellow storytellers concerned about real-world issues of justice and fairness and equality, it’s this: consider what narratives you do, or do not, wish to perpetuate. If the person who needs to be rescued is always female; if the best friend who dies tragically is always gay; if every politician is corrupt and every institution is shambolic; if every family is dysfunctional and every lover is a traitor; if every character of colour is a sidekick, or magical, or dispensable; if the evil henchman always speaks with a foreign accent; if the hero is always a he – you are not only perpetuating those stereotypes within your fiction. You’re keeping them alive out here.

You do not need to do that. You have the power to not do that.

Write the world as you want it to be, as you expect it to be, as it should be. Write it into existence.

Stephanie Saulter

Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. Born in Jamaica, she studied at MIT and spent fifteen years in the United States before moving to the United Kingdom in 2003. She is the author of the ®Evolution trilogy; her first novel, Gemsigns, was published in the UK & Commonwealth last year and will be released in the US next month. Its sequel, Binary, has just been published in the UK. Stephanie blogs unpredictably at stephaniesaulter.com and tweets only slightly more reliably as @scriptopus. She lives in London.

Gemsigns Giveaway

I have 5 advance copies of Gemsigns to give away! This giveaway is open to those with a mailing address in the US.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Gemsigns Giveaway.” One entry per person and five winners will be randomly selected. Those from the US are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Saturday, April 26. Each winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Good luck!

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Today’s guest is science fiction/fantasy author Storm Constantine! She is the author of more than 30 books and a great number of short stories (including two stories in Para Kindred, a newly released collection of Wraeththu short stories she edited with Wendy Darling), and she is also the Managing Director and Commissioning Editor of Immanion Press. Her Wraeththu books are some of my favorite books of all time for their beautiful writing, vivid characters, and compelling ideas about a future with a new race of hermaphroditic people. I was thrilled when she these accepted my invitation to participate in this month’s series, and she’s here today talking about the craft of writing.

Wraeththu by Storm Constantine Calenture by Storm Constantine Sea Dragon Heir by Storm Constantine

I’m passionate about writing and care about the fate of new writers. In a recent blog of my own, I wrote about the standard of writing I’m coming across nowadays, in terms of grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation – essentially the tools of the trade. This generally refers to books I find self-published as E-books. But after reading a couple of recent printed short story anthologies, I’m driven to say that the poor standard of writing also extends to the actual story-telling.

The fault lies partly in the depth – or lack – of editing. There are still some remarkably good editors out there – Newcon Press’s Ian Whates being one of them, as many of his contributors will attest – but it seems to me some editors appear to see their job when compiling an anthology as simply checking the spelling and worst of the grammatical woes, (and maybe only with Word’s built in grammar and spelling checkers), but who don’t offer comment on how a story might be strengthened or refined.  Many new writers begin their careers by contributing short pieces to magazines and anthologies, which now also extends hugely into e-publishing. And some of those new writers, while showing obvious promise and talent, need guidance to help hone their craft. I can remember working early in my career with editors like David Garnett, Ellen Datlow and David Pringle, (to name but a few who spring to mind – there were many), who would make great suggestions for how a story might be improved. Sometimes their advice might sting, but it was always pertinent. Perhaps nowadays, in this age of entitlement, writers are less open to such invasive editing, even if they need it, so editors will therefore be less inclined to offer comment for fear of it being badly received or rejected. I myself have had authors withdraw work from Immanion Press because they weren’t willing to make constructive changes. Strangely enough, the writers who are most open to positive criticism are generally the most talented. It’s as if they’re hungry for ways to improve their work. Writers of poorer quality are usually the ones to have a tantrum if you offer any form of criticism. There are exceptions, of course, and some weaker writers crave learning, while some excellent writers are strict about not having a word of a piece changed. I’m just speaking generally.

What I fear most about the advent of e-publishing, and the fact that a lot more people have an avenue to get their stories into virtual print, is that they don’t have the benefit of the apprenticeship that writers of the past enjoyed. Companies – and in some cases I refuse to call them publishers – don’t appear to care about nurturing a writer and helping them evolve. I don’t blame the writers who I see publishing flawed work – they simply have a gut-deep desire to write. The contract between writer and editor was always the hand of discipline, how to refine your work, tighten and improve it. I don’t believe that some of the E-books I see nowadays have had any of that applied to them. In one case, I saw an allegedly historical novel so full of wince-making  anachronisms, it was almost unreadable. Even watching period TV shows would have given the author a basic idea of what was and was not feasible in the time they chose to write about. No research, no awareness of the era in which the story was set. And the publisher just accepted this manuscript and published it. That is no favour to the author. I wanted to read that book because the idea for it was great – a really good ghost story – but the ineptitude of the writing, and the lack of research, lost me about a third of the way through and I had to stop reading it. The ghosts were the most credible thing about it.

In the past editors were shepherds, who guided the writers in their care to greater accomplishment. Nowadays, most new writers only have friends and family, or perhaps other fledgling writers, to rely upon for feedback and criticism. And in many cases they lack the guidance concerning the very basics of their craft – the words they use to conjure images in the minds of their readers. I was not taught full English Grammar at school, because by that time the powers that be had shaved it from the curriculum. All we learned was the basics. When I began to write seriously, armed with ideas that editors liked, which secured me the initial contracts, I had to teach myself the intricacies of my craft, and this required personal effort as well as taking heed of more experienced editors.

With all this in mind, here are points I offer to new writers I work with, and which I also drummed into my students when I taught creative writing. They are what I learned, and in some cases, when I did learn them, it was like a light being turned on:

1. Learn the tools of your trade. Educate yourself concerning grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation. There are many books out there to teach you. Once you know the rules, you have the authority to break them. And once you are proficient with your tools, a new world opens to you. You’ll have far more control over your writing, and how to guide your readers through what you write, so they’ll read every word as you intend for them to be read. Be clear. Be concise. Use your tools.

Grammar is the power. It sharpens prose and guides a reader to the meaning of your words. If your grammar is sloppy, your reader might need to re-read sentences to get the meaning, and in those moments, you’ve lost them. They’re no longer immersed in the story, they’re struggling for meaning. Verb forms are part of grammar, and the more active a verb the more exciting it is to your reader. Develop an ear for grammar. For instance, which sentence sounds more powerful to you? ‘She is lying at my feet and is bleeding’ or ‘She lies at my feet and bleeds’? The more active form of the verb – the latter – is inevitably stronger. Put strength into your writing by using more active verbs. Avoid passive verbs as shown in the first example. Verbs are just a component of grammar; there is much more to it, of course. But it is fascinating to learn and once you see the results you’ll be glad you learned it.

Syntax. This is the right words in the right order. Simple example: what’s better? ‘The black cat crept between the shadows’ or ‘between the shadows the black cat crept’? Both say the same thing but which is sharper, more meaningful? Syntax also involves seeing yourself as a camera, focusing in. What do people notice first? It’s dark, it’s cold, there are beetles beneath your feet. Mention the beetles first, then mention the cold and the dark, and your reader might have thought of any temperature and time of day when reading about the beetles. Focus. Use a film-maker’s art. That is syntax.

Another part of syntax is the music of your prose. It’s not only poetry that’s poetic. Words and sentences have rhythms, even in the sparest style of writing, and the best writers sing to you with their words. Having an ear for this subtle rhythm helps bring out the song.

Spelling. This part is simple. Just spell the words correctly and people can understand your writing better.

Punctuation. This is an art in itself. The different punctuation marks denote pauses, and you use these to guide the speed with which your readers read your prose. The longest pause is the full stop or period. A comma is a much shorter pause. Colons and semi-colons are in between. Dashes and brackets (parentheses) are also used to control the reader’s eye, so that the sentences are read as if you were reading them aloud. They help you place inflection. There are rules about clauses, which need the embrace of commas, or the sharp report of a colon or semi-colon, that are more to do with grammar, but be aware you can put inflections on your words merely with deft punctuation.

2. Write about what you know, because this again gives you a voice of authority and makes your work credible. If you want to write about what you don’t know – research. Meticulously. Give your work authenticity so that your reader is never jerked involuntarily out of the story by inaccuracy or something not credible. If you’re writing about fantasy worlds, invest them with a level of detail and history so that readers feel they are stepping into a world that has existed for thousands of years. You don’t have to slap this on with a trowel, but just subtle details here and there, and lore of the past. As an example, recently I wrote a supernatural story about certain aspects of the Catholic Church set in the 1950s. I found myself researching details every few paragraphs and changing the story because of anachronisms. These were just tiny details, such as who would have had a phone in those days (few), would a blue collar working man have eaten lunch in a pub (no), would a poor working-class family have had a fridge (again, no). Things we take for granted in our modern world can’t be included in a historical, or often not even in a fantasy story, depending on the kind of world you’re creating.

3. Read, read, read. Analyse the books you like and figure out what works for you with them. Apply these rules to your own work. Also figure out what disappoints you, or what you don’t like, and avoid that in your own writing.

4. Write from the heart. If you love what you are writing, the chances are greater that others will love it too. If it’s your first novel, write the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never found. But be aware you have to abide by points 1, 2 and 3.

These four points merely skim the surface of learning the writer’s craft. There is an old quote that the pen is mightier than the sword. But to me it’s also true that the pen can be a sword. Words are indeed powerful and learning their deep and complex magic is not only beneficial to your craft but an intriguing journey, a quest.

Of the many women writers I love to read, here are a few recommendations. I list these authors because to me their style of writing is like sinking into a scented bath; they are experts with prose. I won’t list individual books because there are so many; I recommend dipping into any of them. Gaie Sebold’s work I discovered only recently, but the two stories I’ve read so far have been brilliant.  So, my list: Susan Hill, Alice Hoffman, Tanith Lee, Gaie Sebold and Diane Setterfield. Those really are only a few of my favourites, and I’m open to recommendations also.

Storm Constantine

After seventeen years of being professionally published, Storm decided that the only way for her books to stay in print for any length of time was to publish her back catalogue herself. With Immanion Press, she intends to rectify the typical fate of books, which is to have the “shelf life of a magazine”.

Storm underwent a cursory art college education, but found it too restricting creatively. After a series of mundane jobs, she began writing seriously, and her first book, “The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit” was published in 1987 by Macdonald Futura. Storm has written approximately 1.5 books a year ever since!

In the 80s and 90s, she frittered away some time managing bands, and caught the publishing bug from producing fan club magazines. After giving up the musical distraction, Storm embarked on the fiction project, “Visionary Tongue”, which was a regular magazine of dark fantasy/fantasy/sf stories. She enlisted the help of several writer friends to act as editors, so that up-and-coming writers would have the chance to work with a professional, and pick up tips about their craft and the industry.

Immanion Press is undoubtedly an extension of what Storm began with Visionary Tongue. As well as her own work, and the back catalogue of friends and writers she admires, Storm is keen to promote new talent.

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Today’s guest is Rinn from the (largely) science fiction and fantasy book blog Rinn Reads! In November of 2013, she organized Sci-Fi Month, a month-long event celebrating all things science fiction—movies, television shows, games, and, of course, books. It was a resounding success with more than fifty bloggers and twenty-five authors participating, and it was a lot of fun. It also inspired me to read some science fiction books I’d been meaning to read for awhile, leading to my discovery of a new favorite book (Warchild by Karin Lowachee). She is here today discussing the portrayal of women in science fiction and fantasy!

Rinn Reads

There has always been much debate about the role of women in fantasy and science fiction – it can certainly be a sore topic for some.

It drives me crazy when women are portrayed only as meek, fragile little things. That may have been how we have been seen for a long time throughout history, but there are really plenty of women who aren’t – in both fiction and real life.

Personally, I like the portrayal of women in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, but I know the views on this are mixed. Although the culture is based on medieval society, and women within their society are slightly below men on the social scale, none of the ladies of Westeros let that get in their way. I love how Brienne is a female knight and gets admitted into Renly’s Kingsguard. Many of the minor characters are disrespectful towards her because of her choice and appearance but she has the respect of a King (and many other major characters of the series), and she proves herself a thousand times over. I love how Tywin tells Cersei that he’s not treating her a certain way because she is female, but because of the choices she has made. The women of Westeros are products of their country – it’s tough, so they are too. All these women going from powerless to powerful, using what they have and making their own ways in the world.

I think that to portray women in fantasy and science fiction accurately, the author needs a range of women. Weak and fragile, headstrong and brave. Shy and scared, courageous and proud. Not everyone could face down a dragon. And not not everyone feels the need to burst into tears at any moment. And development – character development is SO IMPORTANT. For example, I loved how Vin in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire went from being a timid little mouse to a confident young woman, because she actually got to explore life and her own potential. At the beginning of the book she was a very difficult character to connect with or even understand; she was just as withdrawn from the reader as she was from the fictional characters around her. And to go back to Westeros again – think of Sansa Stark. When we first meet her in A Game of Thrones, she is a young girl, dreaming of a life filled with balls, pretty dresses and honeycake. The treatment of her, and her family, at the hands of the Lannisters changes her. She learns how to manipulate the system, when to appear meek and when to defy authority. And do I even really need to explain why Arya is amazing??

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling also shows a diverse selection of female characters, and all during an important phase of life – the teenage years. The books are so influential, particularly Hermione’s character. She is smart and not afraid to show it, a bit of a know-it-all – and adored worldwide. She has inspired many young women today, shown them that’s it’s good to be smart, you don’t need to hide your brains and be ashamed of being intelligent. Don’t be scared to put your hand up in class. Ron even admits that him and Harry wouldn’t have gotten far without her. She is the glue that keeps the trio together. On the other hand, Lavender Brown is the squealing girly girl, and Luna Lovegood the quirky girl who is constantly away with the fairies (or perhaps the Nargles, in her case). There are so many other female characters in the series that I can’t really go into depth here, but none of them feel like ‘cookie cutter’ characters who mean nothing.

And then we move onto video games like Mass Effect, where actually, gender doesn’t really matter. Whether you’re male or female, it’s your choices that matter and the consequences do not differ depending on your gender. If you’re a female Commander Shepard, it’s your name that has meaning, not what’s between your legs. If you want to be commanding and authoritative, you get the same amount of respect regardless of sex. In fact, the only thing that changes depending on gender are some of your romance options!

However, there are some stories that confuse me, for example Red Sonja. On one hand I think she’s a cool character – a female warrior, tough, brave (and with flaming red hair!); but on the other hand she doesn’t exactly… wear much, so she feels like a piece of eye candy. If you do an image search for women in fantasy you get a lot of scantily-clad ladies who apparently are tough-as-nails warriors. I don’t doubt their skill, but is that clothing really sensible? Can’t we have more female warriors like Brienne from A Song of Ice and Fire, or Aveline from Dragon Age II, who are amazing and skilled, but also wear armour that actually protects them?

In conclusion, I think that the vast majority of fantasy and science fiction portrays female characters in an accurate way. As human beings, with a wide variety of personalities, opinions, appearances, sexualities, interests etc. I could think of so many more examples to share, but I don’t think I have the time or space! I’d love to hear your suggestions. Don’t let anyone tell you that fantasy and science fiction are ‘male dominated’ genres.

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Today’s guest is fantasy and science fiction author Ginn Hale!  I’ve read and loved her (as of now) standalone novel Wicked Gentlemen as well as both volumes of Lord of the White Hell, published by Blind Eye Books (a publisher dedicated to SFF about gay and lesbian protagonists). In particular, Lord of the White Hell was one of my favorite books in 2010 because of its wonderful characters and the strikingly different cultures it portrayed. Inspired by fan comments that she “writes like a man,” she’s here today to talk about what that might mean and to what degree gender plays a role in how an author’s work is received.

Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale Lord of the White Hell by Ginn Hale The Shattered Gates by Ginn Hale

Write Like a Human

Over the years I’ve received a number of fan letters that, while well-intentioned and very kind, always give me pause—especially when they exclaim something along the lines of “you write like a man.”

Obviously, the comments are intended as compliments and I take them as such. (I’d be the last to complain about a reader taking the time to contact me. It’s always flattering and inspiring.)

But those comments did get me wondering—is writing itself really gendered? Or is it that certain subject matter seems more male or female? For that matter, does awareness of an author’s gender affect a publisher or reader’s perception of the book’s authenticity? And why—despite the vast number of top-selling and award-winning female authors in the world—should “writing like a man” be considered commendable? If it is, then by extension does that mean that authors who “write like women” have somehow failed…even if they are women?

May Fowles, in a 2011 article for the National Post aptly titled “Write Like a Man: the Unspoken Rule of Avoiding a Pink Cover”, notes that the reception of a book regardless of theme often seems to depend upon the author’s sex:

“Men actually write ‘women’s books’ all the time, but they’re certainly never labeled as such. When male writers write about relationships, family and the domestic sphere, fiction or non, they’re considered groundbreaking and often celebrated for it.”

So the bias seems to have far less to do with the subject or genre of a book than the gender of the author.

A common criticism raised against women writers, regardless of genre or theme, is that a female author cannot write a convincing male character. To a much lesser degree the reverse has been argued, as well. But since Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover are all considered classics I don’t think the criticism is taken too seriously.  As May Fowles pointed out, men are often applauded for writing about women.

Female authors on the other hand must often contend with a very skewed version of the write what you know adage. Apparently a woman may be able to convincingly write characters of wildly diverse backgrounds, beliefs, ethnicities, ages, educations, and physical abilities—she may people entire worlds–but she can’t possibly characterize another human being with genitalia that differs from her own.

Of course such an assertion doesn’t make any more sense than claiming that mystery authors must be criminals to really write a good mystery. (Thieves might pass muster for some less discerning critics but the truly discriminating will demand a murderer!)

Though some women have been male authors–in name at least. Many a female author has received recognition and praise—not to mention much better pay for her work—when it was attributed to a male pseudonym. Enough of us have written as men that by now you’d think the point would have been proven.

But more often than not, when the truth is revealed, critics make a point of declaring that this singular female author “writes like a man” as if she were some astonishing prodigy who defies the limits of her sex. To quote critic John Clute, speaking of Alice Bradley Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.) “she wrote like a man, and a meteor, a flash in the pan, a mayfly angel.” By the end of the summation the author has not only transformed from a woman to man but she’s become a bizarre ‘flash in the pan’ hybrid of insect and angel.

So clearly the gender of an author plays a huge role in how writing may be perceived.

But is the text really all that different?  Considering all the genres and styles of writing that exist in the world, is the real division just as simple as male and female? I personally don’t think so but how about we test the theory out?

The following are short excerpts of writing, taken more or less at random from several authors. Read them over and if you’re inclined go ahead and “sex” them. (There is an answer key at the end.) But it might also be worth taking a few moments while reading to consider whether it would matter to you if any particular author turned out to be male or female. Does it in anyway alter your conception of the prose? And if so, why?

1 Strange spices scented the chilly autumn wind, and he could hear faint cries drifting over the wall from the streets beyond.

2 Neglect could kill a building brick by brick. It was, to his mind, more insidious than hurricane or earthquake as it murdered slowly, quietly, not in rage or passion, but with contempt.

3 A hand appeared from the dust and wrapped about her upper arm, firmly but not hard, and guided her into the maelstrom.

4 Clara Reece screamed, cried, shouted, hit her brother with all her strength, kicked furniture and walls, but none of it served to ward off the horrible realization that a stranger was coming to take possession of half of her ranch.

5 They were a strange lot. They knew about old things no one used or needed anymore, and they built things with their hands.

6 Maybe what’s been carved away, the empty space that’s left, is like silence. The dark shadow that defines the pale form.

7 Electrodes, attached to long wires and wrapped in saltwater sponges to further conduct current, would be fitted to the ankles and head.

8 It was reassuring just to look at him, riding slowly forward into the sunlight on the black Irish stallion.

Certainly some authors do seem better than others at capturing a diversity of authentic voices, be they male, female, young, old or any other shading of individuality. Such authors often transform mere print into living characters that readers can recognize, sympathize with, love or hate. They are outstanding writers.  (I’m often gripped with awe and envy while reading such books.)

But these authors are not confined to one gender any more than they are confined to one ethnicity, nationality or age. What they all do have in common is their grasp of humanity and of course human language. In short, the single trait that they all could be said to share is that they are human beings.

Now, until we see the rise of the machines, when perhaps a horde of plot-bots will crank out digital novellas featuring unfulfilled toasters and the ovens they both hate and admire, I don’t think most critics or readers are likely to start informing authors that they were moved by how very human their writing is. Writes just like a real human is unlikely to be splashed across covers any time soon. We tend to take an author’s humanity for granted. But in doing so, we can often fall back on identifiers that are largely superficial when deciding who can be a great author.

But if we accepted that anyone could produce a powerful work, then maybe we’d all discover new caches of wonderful books that we would otherwise have devalued, ignored, or felt couldn’t speak to our own particular niche simply because of the author’s sex.

The answer key.

1 George R.R. Martin—male
2 J.D. Robb—female (Nora Roberts)
3 M.L. Buchman— male
4 Leigh Greenwood—male (One of a number of men now making in-roads into the romance market.)
5 Rebecca Rowe—female
6 David Esterly—male
7 Deborah Blum—female
8 Michael Shaara—male

Ginn Hale

Ginn Hale resides in the Pacific Northwest with her wife and two cats. Her novel Wicked Gentlemen garnered her recognition as a Lambda Literary Award finalist and Spectrum Award winner. Her publications include the Lord of the White Hell books, the Rifter trilogy: The Shattered Gates, The Holy Road, His Sacred Bones, as well as the novellas “Feral Machines” (Tangle), “Touching Sparks” (Hell Cop) and “Things Unseen and Deadly”, which appears in the shared world anthology Irregulars.

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Today’s guest is Heather from the excellent blog The Galaxy Express! Her site is a fantastic place to visit for all things related to science fiction romance—book news,  discussions, guest posts, interviews with authors, and more. She’s very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the genre, and I’m thrilled she’s here today to discuss why she loves science fiction romance and share a variety of recommendations in this genre!

The Galaxy Express

Sci-Fi Romance: Introducing A New Kind Of Hero

Since my early teens, I’ve been on the alert for female science fiction heroines who would provide me with an alternative to the default White Male Hero. What can I say? I’m a woman and I need representin’.

I enjoy genre stories with lone heroes of either gender, but I’m a much bigger fan of stories where it takes two or more characters to overcome a threat, solve the mystery, etc. Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars, and Attack the Block are among my top favorite films because of their emphasis on a community-based alliance.

Even more, I crave science fiction stories wherein the heroine saves the day in conjunction with a partner, one with whom she’s on equal footing (because, you know, obvious creative choice to make). And preferably one with whom she falls in love. Science may build the world, but love makes it go ’round.

My interest in couple-as-joint-heroes predates to the 1974 Japanese anime show Space Battleship Yamato. It was my earliest exposure to not only science fiction, but also romantic SF.

The main couple, Susumu Kodai and Mori Yuki, is my favorite of all time. While Kodai is ostensibly the hero of the show, Yuki’s courageous act in the final episode of the original series cemented for me the idea that love and romance in a science fiction story can have mind-blowing power.

Years would pass before I was able to find books that delivered what Space Battleship Yamato had only hinted at, namely, a sharp focus on the intersection of romance and technology. Starting in the mid-80s, science fiction romance built on the foundation of romantic SF—most notably by introducing SF-romance blends with upbeat endings—and has been evolving steadily ever since.

In far too many SF stories for my taste, female characters are relegated to the love interest and/or have a serious lack of agency. Remove such characters and the story still stands. It’s been dismaying to witness how easily a female character, of any race or sexual orientation, can be marginalized in a narrative.

Sci-fi romance stories—and the scores of women who write them—address that imbalance by delivering a much-needed alternative to the White Male Hero default. These books usually feature a heroine and hero joining forces to not only fall in love, but to also overcome an external threat. This genre has rewritten the hero narrative in order to give female characters leading roles as well as explore love and sex in a science fictional setting. The heroines possess equal agency, equal personality, and equal stage time.

In light of what sci-fi romance has accomplished, I’d like to showcase a few books I’ve enjoyed. My goal is to also demonstrate the sheer variety available in this genre even in the case of a small sampling. While diverse in nature, the stories share the core concept of the interface of science/technology and romance.

Alpha by Catherine Asaro The Outback Stars by Sandra McDonald A Gift for Boggle by PJ Schnyder

Alpha by Catherine Asaro  

At its heart, Alpha is an android romance. What makes it so entertaining and refreshing for me is that the heroine is the android. She’s a perfect mix of strong and vulnerable. Strong because she’s an android with extraordinary abilities, and vulnerable because she’s evolving into a sentient being as the story unfolds. Not only that, but she falls in love with the military admiral she’s supposed to kill on behalf of a ruthless cyber terrorist. Just—wow!

Other tags: near-future setting, hard SF elements, A.I., military, action-adventure

The Outback Stars – Sandra McDonald

The Outback Stars begins as a science fiction mystery, but ends as a science fiction romance. The heroine is an officer low on the military totem pole, but she refuses to let that stop her from taking charge when she discovers evidence of a smuggling ring. Her investigation leads to more trouble and danger, particularly in the form of the hero, a sergeant who’s been accused of rape, but never charged.

Other tags: military politics, complex plot, forbidden love, romantic SF, Aboriginal mythology, alien artifacts, beta hero

A Gift For Boggle – P.J. Schnyder

Boggle, the hero, began as a secondary character in the author’s book Hunting Kat. I immediately became enamored of this tech wizard, one made all the more compelling by the fact that he’s a character with a disability. He’s also extremely nerdy and overweight. But his personality was so interesting that I felt he deserved a sci-fi romance of his own.

To my delight, P.J. Schnyder delivered exactly that with A Gift For Boggle. It’s short and sweet (and free on the author’s site!), but delivers a fun, sexy story with one of sci-fi romance’s most envelope-pushing heroes.

Europa Europa by K.S. Augustin Rulebreaker by Cathy Pegau On Wings, Rising by Ann Somerville

Refugees on Urloon by Melisse Aires and Europa Europa by K.S. Augustin

Melisse Aires writes “hearth and home” sci-fi romance, which offers readers an alternative from kick butt action heroines and heroes. K.S. Augustin writes cerebral stories with hard SF elements and political undertones. What I particularly enjoyed about both books was the way they combine alien ocean settings and genetic engineering elements. More, please!

Rulebreaker by Cathy Pegau and “The Effluent Engine” N.K. Jemisin (The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, Sean Wallace, Editor)

These two stories offer a rare bird in genre fiction: the lesbian sci-fi romance. They’re notable for being among some of the earliest stories of this type. Rulebreaker takes place in a futuristic setting, while “The Effluent Engine” is steampunk. Both stories feature intelligent heroines, all of whom are involved in either business or science ventures.

Apart from the entertainment value found in these tales, they include two elements that sci-fi romance needs more of: diversity and multiculturalism.

On Wings, Rising – Ann Somerville

On Wings, Rising takes place on a far-away world during a time when humanity lacks much of the advanced technology it once had. An m/m sci-fi romance, it features a cross-cultural romance and a truly alien humanoid hero, along with a few gender-bending elements. This is a go-to sci-fi romance for readers who enjoy stories on the intellectual side, as well as thoughtful (but not preachy) social commentary.

Metal Reign by Nathalie Gray Moonsteed by Manda Benson Body Electric by Susan Squires

Metal Reign – Nathalie Gray

Metal Reign is an alien invasion SFR and it includes all the elements Nathalie Gray has a reputation for delivering: high-octane action, a kick-butt heroine, military space opera setting, and cool sci-fi details. Most of her stories have an erotic heat level, but if you prefer your sci-fi romance on the “sweet” heat level side, Metal Reign should not be missed.

Other tags: friends to lovers, alien invasion, starship captain heroine, cook hero

Moonsteed – Manda Benson

I enjoy sci-fi romance that’s a bit on the Weird SF side, and if you have similar tastes then Manda Benson’s Moonsteed is one to consider. It features a so-called “unlikeable” heroine, a pudgy Beta hero, erotic elements of the o_O variety, and general quirkiness. There are also genetically engineered horses and a Callisto setting. Not one’s typical mix for a sci-fi romance, but it’s a fun example of the unusual places the books in this genre can go while still emphasizing the hero-heroine partnership.

Body Electric – Susan Squires

Spike Jonze’s HER may be a current critics’ darling, but long before Scarlett Johansson’s sultry voice brought an A.I. to life, Susan Squires explored a similar premise—and much more—in her 1992 book Body Electric. The difference is that Body Electric approaches the concept of a human-A.I. romance from the heroine’s point-of-view and uses a distinctly female gaze.

Part thriller, part cyberpunk, part near-future Pygmalion, Body Electric provides social commentary on what it means to be human as well as the challenges and ethics of falling in love with a sentient A.I. of one’s own creation.

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There’s plenty more where those titles came from!

The SFR online community offers a variety of resource sites for readers and authors to gather, including Spacefreighters Lounge, Smart Girls Love SciFi & Paranormal Romance, SFR Brigade, Alien Romances, Backward Momentum, CONTACT – Infinite Futures, Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly (of which I’m a founding member), and my own blog, The Galaxy Express.

For an extensive list of authors who write sci-fi romance (most of them women), check out my SFR Authors page.

Happy reading!

About the Blogger

Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is fantasy and science fiction author and poet Jaime Lee Moyer! She has written short stories appearing in a variety of publications, including Lone Star Stories and Daily Science Fiction. In addition to writing poetry, she is the editor of the 2010 Rhysling Anthology, a collection of science fiction, fantasy, and horror poetry that the Science Fiction Poetry Association selected as the best of 2009. Her first novel, Delia’s Shadow, won the 2009 Columbus Literary Award and was published last year. Two sequels are forthcoming and the second book in the series, A Barricade in Hell, will be released in June 2014. I’m happy she’s here today to discuss the subject of women writing science fiction and fantasy!

Delia's Shadow by Jaime Lee Moyer A Barricade in Hell by Jaime Lee Moyer

Women Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy

The library was my best friend when I was a little girl. I was the oldest of four kids, my parents had very little money, and no matter how many books I read I always wanted more. So once a week during the school year, twice a week in summer, my mother walked all four of us kids to the library. My mom let me check out as many books as I wanted, the only rule being that I had to be able to carry them all home.

Libraries in L.A. were well funded in those days, and I was able to read through entire series of books. The branch near my home had them all, new books that had just come out and books published years before I was born. I made short work of Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, Trixie Belden, and all the Little House books.

The very best part was that these were books starring girls! Girls who did things, went places, girls who saved the day with quick thinking or action. I wanted to be just like them when I got older. These young women weren’t just the girlfriend, the little sister, or the tagalong best friend who watched from the sidelines. They were at the center of the story.

I was nine or ten when I discovered the shelves of science fiction and fantasy books. Stories about space ships, strange creatures and colonies on distant planets were better than anything I’d ever imagined. And I fell in love with fantasy from the very first.

I think I read Mary Norton’s The Borrowers series a dozen times or more. Here was another girl, Arrietty, as the main character and having the most thrilling adventures. The fantasy element of a race of tiny people living alongside humans enchanted me. I was an inner city kid who knew nothing about folklore or mythology. Just the idea that there could be a family of Borrowers living in my house, or my grandmother’s house, was the coolest thing ever.

The not so subtle subtext in all the Borrowers books—and all the other series involving plucky young heroines—was that girls who don’t follow the rules, and didn’t obey their parents, always got into big trouble. But that entire thinly disguised “message” flew right over my head. When you’re ten years old and starving for books about someone , anyone, who looks like you, subtext is invisible. I kept looking, and in the process read through whole sections of the library.

My flirtation with the Danny Dunn series was brief and unsatisfying. I leapt right from boy scientist books into Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Heinlein lost me pretty early on, but I memorized the three laws of robotics, imagined living in caves of steel, or in Tarzan’s jungle, and devoured Bradbury. I was mesmerized by Mars and golden-eyed Martians, Bradbury’s poetic language and mental images that stayed with me long after I’d finished reading.

As an adult, I learned that I wasn’t the only young girl reading science fiction and fantasy. Far from it. Countless girls were into comics, space travel, robotics, and dreaming of other planets, magic and wizards, and the unexplained. The persistent myth that women and girls don’t read SF& F is just that—a myth.

Still, I was very quiet about my love of genre. Being a bookish, shy girl is hard enough in most schools. Being a bookish, shy girl reading what your age mates think of as boy books?  Most of the time I felt like a freak. While my female friends were reading books about girls and their horses, I was reading Dandelion Wine or The Martian Chronicles.

A huge part of the problem was that the books I was reading were, in fact, boy books.  They were written by men and the main characters were men. Female characters, if the book had any at all, were thin on the ground. I started to think that someone had made a rule that space ships could only have one female crewmember. This lone woman, marooned on a strange planet with a ship full of men, could never be the leader of the expedition or the science officer.  She did, however, get to serve the men meals, or look terrified when the situation merited terror.

The roles women were allowed to play in genre books were limited at best: worried mother who stayed in the background, tag-a-long sisters who got in the way, girlfriend/sidekick/important scientist’s tomboy daughter who always needed to be rescued. These women were window dressing, characters without any self-determination, or agency, or any real reason to exist—aside from giving the male hero someone to save. Even as a kid I understood that was wrong.

By the age of twelve I was already convinced I was meant to be a writer, and that part of my mission in life was to write the kinds of books I couldn’t find. Stories and ideas I had aplenty. What I lacked were role models.

Sometime in my twenties I found the first of those role models. Stuck in a revolving paperback rack in a different library, in another part of California, was a worn copy of Women of Wonder, an anthology edited by Pamela Sargent.  Here—finally—was an entire collection of stories written by women, about women characters. Here in a cheap paperback was what I’d been searching for.

This was only the first Women of Wonder anthology that Sargent edited, and I managed to find them all. The stories she included opened a whole new world, and introduced me to the work of Le Guin, McIntyre, Russ, Butler and Tiptree. Women had been writing science fiction and fantasy all along. I just hadn’t known where to find them or who to look for.

Women’s books were out there, but they weren’t on the new fiction displays in the library, and they weren’t on the featured book tables or stack outs in bookstores. These authors rarely, if ever, got reviewed in the book section of the L.A. Times or the San Francisco Chronicle, never mind the local papers.

This was pre-social media. You had to know what books and women authors to look for in order to stand a chance of finding them. Sometimes you got lucky and stumbled over something like Women of Wonder—most of the time you didn’t. You read the science fiction and fantasy books that filled the shelves, and the default on those was almost always male.

Fast forward to now, years later.

Year to year, women publish an almost equal number of science fiction and fantasy novels as men. And year to year, women’s books still get reviewed less, women authors are written about and interviewed less, and women’s novels are denied space in featured bookstore displays. Women consistently write novels full of groundbreaking concepts and incredible worldbuilding, and just as consistently their books are left off award ballots and year’s best lists.

Women still work twice as hard for half the notice. One has to wonder why.

This is not to say that progress hasn’t been made. Women readers and writers network via the internet, book bloggers and columnists highlight women’s books that might otherwise be ignored, and social media of all kinds help in discovering new writers. Things are slowly, and with continued pressure from women in the field, getting better. I even count it as a measure of progress that women are now being accused of destroying science fiction. That means we’re having an impact.

I worry less these days about young girls and young women finding role models in the books they read. The world is a different place than when I was twelve or twenty, full of books with people who look like me, or like you, or like you over there.

This is a good thing, a small battle won. Even so, the first book I bought in 2014 was How To Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ.

Jaime Lee Moyer lives in Texas, land of cowboys, cactus, and rhinestones. She writes novels about murder and betrayal, friendship, magic and kissing. Her cats like to help.