Today’s guest is Ian Sales, who runs the wonderful site SF Mistressworks! This site is a great resource for learning more about science fiction books written by women so I asked Ian if he’d be willing to tell us about the site and why he started it.
SF Mistressworks contains reviews of science fiction books written by women anytime before the end of the twentieth century. Here’s the basic premise from the site’s FAQ page:
This blog aims to be a resource providing reviews of science fiction books by women writers. It will demonstrate that:
a) women have been writing science fiction since the genre’s beginnings,
b) many of their books should qualify as classics, and
c) many of their books are, in fact, better than “classics” by their male counterparts, and have at least aged better.
You can submit reviews of books that fit the site’s criteria, and that same page will give you more information if interested in doing so. I highly recommend checking it out if you haven’t been there before!
Back in October 2010, there was a discussion on Torque Control, the blog of the editors of Vector (the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association), on the lack of women writers who had won or been shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. It was triggered by a question posed to Tricia Sullivan in an interview at Geek Syndicate. Niall Harrison then asked for people to email him “top ten sf novels by women from the last ten years (2001–2010)”. That inspired me to choose women sf writers for my 2011 reading challenge – each month I’d read a qualifying book and then blog about it. I’ve been doing these “reading challenges” for several years, and choose a new theme each time.
Sometime during March 2011, the imbalance of genders in Gollancz’s SF Masterworks became topic among a group of us on Twitter. I decided to blog about this, and received so many responses I turned the list into a “meme” of ninety-one titles. This proved extremely popular.
In early June 2011, a poll on the Guardian newspaper’s website for “people’s favourite science fiction novels” resulted in a list of over 500 titles overwhelmingly by male writers. Nicola Griffith and Cheryl Morgan both commented on this. The Guardian followed up their comments with an article, “The incredible shrinking presence of women sf writers”. This prompted Nicola to come up with the Russ Pledge: “to make a considerable and consistent effort to mention women’s work which, consciously or unconsciously, has been suppressed”.
I was already doing my women sf writers reading challenge, and I’d generated the SF Mistressworks meme list, but I felt there was still more which could be done. I had partly selfish motives: my favourite science fiction writer is Gwyneth Jones; and there are a number of fairly obscure women sf writers whose works I like and admire and wanted to tell people about – Sydney J Van Scyoc, Shariann Lewitt, Jay D Blakeney, Susan R Matthews… And it seemed to me the best way to do this was to put together a review blog.
I put out a call for reviews – I didn’t mind if the reviews had appeared elsewhere, nor if I had multiple reviews of a single title. Lots of people responded. In the first month – June 2011 – I posted thirty-eight reviews by various people. By 6 April 2012, SF Mistressworks has posted ninety-one reviews of eighty-three books by sixty women sf writers, provided by twenty-three reviewers. The site now posts two reviews a week, and I hope to maintain that schedule until, well, untill we run out of books to review.
SF Mistressworks was shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction, which was fantastic. It lost to the SF Encyclopedia. However, that same weekend – during Olympus 2012, the annual UK Eastercon – two volunteers stepped forward and set up sister sites. Michaela Staton is now running Daughters of Prometheus, which reviews twenty-first century science fiction by women writers; and Amanda Rutter is responsible for Fantasy Mistressworks, which reviews fantasy by women writers published before 2000.
I’d like to say my cunning plan is finally coming together but I can’t really take responsibility for any of this. Ultimately it lies with the women who write science fiction – and have been writing it since 1818! That their contribution to the genre should be ignored is criminal; that it continues to be ignored is far far worse. When I set up SF Mistressworks one of my objectives was to show how easy it is redress the balance – in your own reading, in the conversation about science fiction in which you partake. A number of people have answered the call – either changing their reading habits to include more women writers, or writing about sf books by women writers.
It’s not been plain sailing all the way, however. A number of men have vocally resisted the Russ Pledge. A Mind Meld on it, posted on SF Signal shortly after I set up SF Mistressworks, generated a number of heated comments. Even now, lists of “classic” or “best” science fiction continue to appear with very few women writers on them. Back in 2011, Strange Horizons posted statistics of reviewed books by men and women by various genre magazines in 2010. The results were not encouraging. Recently, they posted the results for 2011, and they are marginally better. But there is still much to be done.
At the aforementioned Eastercon, I hunted through the dealers’ room for sf novels by women writers, ones I could review for SF Mistressworks or Daughters of Prometheus, and they were harder to find than I had expected. The situation in US publishing, past and present, is better than it is in the UK, but it is still bad. It is my hope that by bringing the women writers men don’t see out into the light we can make science fiction a better genre and so affect what is currently being discussed and reviewed and published.
Ian Sales reads, writes and reviews science fiction. He’s had short stories published in several magazines and small press anthologies, and recently edited Rocket Science for Mutation Press. He also runs Whippleshield Books, which published his novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains. He is represented by the John Jarrold Literary Agency, reviews books for Interzone, reviews DVDs for The Zone SF, and curates the SF Mistressworks website.