Today marks the last day of the Women in SF&F guest posts, and I can’t think of a better way to end it than with this post by Catherine Asaro about science fiction as an inspiration for young girls!
Primary Inversion by Catherine Asaro is THE book that really got me interested in reading more science fiction. Although I read science fiction on occasion and enjoyed it, I’d never read a science fiction book that drew me in quite the way that Primary Inversion did with its mix of hard science, adventure, and focus on character relationships. I couldn’t put it down and finished it in only two days, which is something I rarely manage to do these days. After that, I went on a science fiction reading binge for a while and read everything from classics like Dune and Childhood’s End to newer SF like Cordelia’s Honor and Grimspace. Since I’ve discovered so many science fiction books I enjoyed because I read Primary Inversion (including more books in the Saga of the Skolian Empire series), I’m very excited to introduce Catherine Asaro!
Science Fiction for Our Daughters
My first published story was a novelette called “Dance in Blue.” It originally came out in a hardcover anthology of science fiction stories titled Christmas Forever and edited by David Hartwell at Tor. So one evening many years ago, I was playing with my then three year-old daughter. My husband came in with the mail, including a package the size of the proverbial breadbox. Well, okay, not really a breadbox; I don’t actually know what a breadbox looks like and it is probably bigger than this package. What my husband handed me was about the size of a large book.
Intrigued, wondering who had sent me this mystery mail, I opened it up. Inside was a lovely edition of Christmas Forever, my author’s copy. I was astounded. In fact, I was so amazed that at first I couldn’t react. My story in print! It took several moments for me to absorb the incredible event. Finally it sunk in to my brain. With great dignity, as befitting the occasion, I ran around the apartment in my nightgown waving the book and crying, “Look, look, my story! I can’t believe it!”
My daughter watched this exhibition with some bemusement and asked to see the cause of the excitement. I dropped next to her on the floor, amid a sea of Legos and stuffed animals, and handed her the book, enthusing about what it meant. She sat there cross-legged, yellow curls falling into her angel’s face as she peered at this esteemed tome, studying the cover, which was a tasteful drawing of a Christmas wreath with science fictional ornaments. Then she carefully opened up the book and leafed through stories. I pointed out the page where mine started, and she studied that as well, her gaze intent. Finally she looked up at me with sympathy in her big, beautiful blue eyes. She spoke with the infinite kindness that a three year-old can muster when faced with the suffering of those she loves.
“It’s okay, Mommy,” she said. “Someday you’ll get to be in a book with pictures.”
That beautiful, sweet-natured girl grew up into a beautiful, sweet-natured, and formidably brilliant young woman who danced with a professional ballet company as a teen and is now finishing her undergraduate/master’s degrees in maths at Cambridge University in England. She still enjoys books with pictures in them, though now the pictures are of abstract mathematical constructs that even her theoretical physicist of a mother struggles to understand. She read science fiction and fantasy all through her youth, a pursuit her father and I encouraged, not only because her oddball mother wrote within those genres, but also because they are genres of ideas, imagination, creativity, works that encourage readers to imagine a universe beyond the mundane. To dream.
For most of its history, until only recent years, science fiction was considered a male genre. And yet many of us girls enjoyed the stories. I found SF almost as soon as I started reading, stories about cats and their humans going into space, visiting the Moon, Mars, or anywhere else our imagination could take them. I loved the way those tales let me into universes beyond my ordinary life. It is an important part of why I became a scientist, earning a B.S. in (physical) chemistry from UCLA and both a masters in physics and a Ph.D. in chemical physics from Harvard. Such books—both the SF and fantasy—helped engender my love of science. Although in the “real” world we separate SF and fantasy into many diverse subgenres, they all include the key element I sought as a child, that inspiration to imagine universes beyond what now exists.
Scholars have said, “The golden age of science fiction is twelve” because that is the age when many readers discover the genre. Traditionally, such readers were boys who dreamed of space and adventures, perhaps becoming the captain of a ship that explored the unknown or discovering exciting new ideas. That idea of such a golden age is still true today, but the young adult (YA) market has expanded, reaching a huge audience of young women. Such readers were always there, but for many decades we were ignored or passed over in SF and fantasy. That has all changed. From urban fantasy with kick-butt heroines to romantic paranormals to dystopian sagas such as The Hunger Games, the YA genres of speculative literature have brought in strong female characters and storylines that appeal to a much wider audience, not only both young women and men, but adults as well.
With science fiction in the more classic sense, however, we’ve haven’t made as many gains. By classic, I mean SF with an emphasis on science and the extrapolation of its ideas into adventure fiction. The seeds of a love of science, technology, or math can grow from those stories. Reaching out to today’s YA audience with yesterday’s tropes won’t work; modern youth are a sophisticated audience, and such readers often don’t relate to the subtexts, prose styles, or stereotypes implicit in classic science fiction.
I stopped reading SF when I was twelve. I hit puberty and become acutely aware that boys were far more interesting than I had appreciated in my “Ooh, aren’t they gross” innocence. Before then, I had always made up my own subplots for the books I was reading, extra storylines that involved female characters having adventures in the universe created by the writer. However, along with my brilliant new insight about boys came the realization that the books I was devouring were targeted at them—not me. What few female characters I found were marginalized in the plot, turned out to be villains, or else got knocked off in some dramatic, heart-rending fashion that left the stalwart hero grieving. It’s true a romantic streak has always run through SF, but the female characters in those roles were often one-dimensional, their presence only peripheral to the plot. Window dressing for the hero. Such stories went like this: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy saves universe, boy gets girl back. I wanted to read girl meets boy, girl saves universe, and girl and boy and their friends have dramatic, daring exploits.
Photo from Science-fact on Facebook
I made up such stories as a child, with girls going into space with their cats to have adventures. When I hit puberty, the cats were replaced by handsome fellows who helped the heroine save the universe, or at least the local cat planet. When I became an author, those were the type of stories I wrote (well okay, my characters haven’t saved any cat worlds yet). For me, both the female and male characters were important, and my audience is about half female and half male. Although my books are considered adult, I have a substantial YA following, and many of those readers are young women. The “common knowledge” nowadays is that girls read books and boys play computer/video games. I don’t know how true that is; in my experience, common knowledge is often born from what marketers expect and so create through their expectation. However, this much seems obvious and likely to continue: more girls are reading within the genres of science fiction and fantasy than ever before.
I started reading SF again in graduate school, and I found the field much more diverse than I remembered. Among the many authors whose works brought me back were Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, Joan D. Vinge, Lois McMaster Bujold, Robert Silverberg, and Ursula K. LeGuin. I would love to see more science-based SF written for today’s YA market, with a twenty-first century sensibility, works that might inspire more young women to consider careers in science, math, or engineering. It is what I enjoy writing. Despite the awards I’ve won and the lists I’ve placed on, however, I must admit that I have yet to achieve the pinnacle of having one of my stories appear in a picture book. But I haven’t given up hope yet!
About Catherine Asaro:
Catherine Asaro’s stories blend hard science fiction, romance, and exciting space adventure. A two-time winner of the Nebula Award from SFWA, she has also earned recognition from the romance community as a finalist in the RITA contest and three-time winner of the Romantic Times Book Club Award. She has published over twenty novels, many of which belong to her acclaimed saga of the Skolian Empire. Her Lost Continent fantasy series helped launch Harlequin imprint Luna Books. In 2009, her career entered a new phase when she added a musical soundtrack to her book Diamond Star. When not writing, recording or touring, the Harvard-trained physicist teaches university level math and physics courses.