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!
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.