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Today’s guest is steampunk, fantasy, and horror author Dru Pagliassotti! She is the author of Clockwork Heart, the first book in a steampunk trilogy. The second book, Clockwork Lies: Iron Wind, was released last month. I’m happy she’s here today, and she’s talking about her experience with writing her first female protagonist in this series after growing up reading fantasy stories about boys.

Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti Clockwork Lies: Iron Wind by Dru Pagliassotti

Yes, I’m a woman who writes fantasy stories and novels. But to be absolutely honest, I don’t think I’m very good at being a woman.

When I was a girl, I wanted to be a boy. All the heroes in the fantasy novels I read were boys, and I wanted to be like them. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings? Anyone who did anything interesting was a boy. Okay, Éowyn got one good line, but that was one line in a 481,103-word trilogy. The heroes in the Chronicles of Narnia were mostly boys. Of the notable girls, Lucy became a healer — why not a warrior? — and Aslan exiled Susan when she started caring about boys and fashion, which was quite the thought-provoking lesson for a little girl to absorb. Earthsea Trilogy? Ged; boy. Riddlemaster of Hed? Prince Morgon; boy. The Chronicles of Prydain? Taran; boy. Harper Hall Trilogy? Menolly starred in the first two books, but she was a musician. Where were the girls with swords? Chronicles of Amber? Corwin; boy. All those Eternal Champions? Boys. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant? Thomas; boy … who rapes the girl who heals him! That was another eye-opening lesson for me. (In hindsight, I was way too young to have been reading that series….)

At any rate, the message was clear: I’d been cheated at birth. But I did what I could. I shunned dresses, jewelry, cosmetics, and romance — Aslan wasn’t going to kick me out of the promised land. I learned archery and martial arts and wanted a pocket knife; nobody was going to rape this girl.

And whenever I wrote stories, I wrote them about boys.

Gradually, as the years passed, I absorbed enough feminist theory to feel uncomfortable about feeling uncomfortable about being a woman. Yet while feminism suggested that I could be any kind of woman I wanted to be, the kind of woman I should want to be apparently embraced her inner femininity, loved her body, advocated for women and women’s issues, patronized women-owned businesses, bought women-made products, ran her own business, raised her own family, did her own housework, and still looked beautiful and self-confident every morning while she was doing it. And of course, if she were a writer, she would write thoughtful, gender-sensitive, Bechdel-test-passing, stereotype-shattering, woman-empowering fiction.


Writing a series with a female protagonist — Taya — broke new ground for me. And while I wrote, I was uneasily aware of all the ways my character and my novel failed to meet those impossible feminist standards I had imagined and internalized. “I’m writing a romance — isn’t romantic love just a myth glamorizing cultural institutions developed to assert men’s ownership over women’s reproductive freedom? Plus, it’s a heterosexual romance — am I complicitly perpetuating patriarchy and heterosexism? And Taya doesn’t like violence — have I slipped into Victorian “women’s sphere” moral fiction? And sometimes she talks about men with her female friends — Bechdel-test red alert!”

And that was just the feminist critique running through my head. I won’t even tell you about the multicultural and postcolonial critiques whispering in the background while I wrote.

Still, I did my best to create the kind of female protagonist I would have liked to have read about when I was a girl. To be sure, Taya’s not the heroine I would have written about as a girl. For one thing, she doesn’t carry a sword. But today, as an adult, I understand that the hero’s sword (or magic) was simply a symbol of his autonomy — it was the means by which he overcame barriers and protected himself and his loved ones. In the Clockwork Heart trilogy, I gave Taya a set of metal wings, instead. Her flight and her lively interest in other people guarantee her autonomy — they are the means by which she overcomes barriers and protects herself and her loved ones. Taya isn’t afraid of violence, but for her, violence is a failure of communication — it’s a last choice instead of a first.

Is that too girly? Is it a reflection of my privileged postindustrial viewpoint?

If I simply dismiss all these concerns and tell the story I want to tell, will I be silently consenting to my own oppression and the oppression of other women in this field and all others?

I don’t know. I understand more about stereotypes and institutionalized sexism now than I did as a girl, and the times — and the fantasy novels — have changed for the better. No, they’re not perfect, but they’re better. And yet … here I am, the grown-up version of the girl who wanted to be a boy. Womanhood is still not the identity that springs first, or even third, to my mind when I’m asked to describe myself. So I’m pretty sure I’m still bad at being a woman. Maybe it’s just too late for me to learn any better.

But it’s not too late for the little girls who are reading fantasy today. I hope that in some small way, Taya — and the heroines of all the books that have been discussed here this month — will help those girls figure out that there are lots of ways to be a woman.

And they’re all good.

— Dru Pagliassotti

Dru Pagliassotti is the author of the Clockwork Heart trilogy, Clockwork Heart, Clockwork Lies: Iron Wind, and the upcoming Clockwork Secrets: Heavy Fire (EDGE). She’s also written the horror novel An Agreement with Hell (Apex Publications) and various short stories. She’s a professor of communication at California Lutheran University and can be found online at DruPagliassotti.Com and on Facebook and GoodReads.

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Today’s guest is fantasy author Katherine Addison! Her recently-released novel The Goblin Emperor has been receiving rave reviews, and she is also Sarah Monette, the author of Mélusine and its sequels, The Bone Key, A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men (with Elizabeth Bear), and numerous short stories. I have read all the books by Sarah Monette just mentioned and enjoyed them all, but I am particularly fond of her Mélusine books, which are especially notable for the characterization and the voices of the main protagonists. In fact, they are quite easily in my five favorite speculative fiction series of all time, and my favorite book in that series (The Virtu) is one of my five favorite SFF books of all time. I am delighted to have the author of some of my favorite books here today to discuss the women in Tolkien’s books and default-male thinking in fantasy!

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

If you look at the various blog posts, essays, and articles I’ve left scattered across the internet, you’ll see that I pick on Tolkien a lot. You might think this is because I loathe him, but the exact opposite is true. I love Tolkien. I love his stories. I passionately admire his writing. I imitate his world-building to the best of my ability.

And I’m not actually picking on Tolkien qua Tolkien. I’m picking on the consequences of Tolkien, because Tolkien is one of the most admired, copied, and influential Anglophone fantasists of the twentieth century. At this point, I think that even fantasy writers who hate Tolkien, even fantasy writers who have never read Tolkien, are still in conversation with Tolkien and the way that his story and his world-building became the gold standard of the genre.

There are lots of aspects to this: Tolkien’s fiercely anti-technology pastoral nostalgia, his ingrained racism, his equally ingrained adherence to a utopian version of the class structure of pre-World War I England. But I want to talk about his women, and the models they do (or don’t) provide for girls and women who want to imagine their own place in fantasy.

There are no women in The Hobbit. Full stop. But The Lord of the Rings has arguably the bare minimum necessary to acknowledge that women do exist and are not, like the Ent-wives, an absence at the heart of the men’s tragedy. Each of these women represents one of the archetypal niches in which women can be installed in patriarchal fiction.

Lobelia Sackville-Baggins (who–give credit where credit is due–is an intensely memorable, believable, and ultimately even empathizable character) is the Shrew, the comic horror, both monstrous and trivial, from whom men hide. Arwen Evenstar is the Beloved, barely visible and so idealized that (unlike Lobelia) she has no character at all. Even in the Appendices, she merely paces out the measures of a Petrarchan courtship, and her great contribution to the war against Sauron is to make Aragorn a deeply meaningful flag.

Galadriel is magnificent, but she’s also so far above the plane of our viewpoint characters, so idealized, that the only reaction they can have to her is worship. If Arwen is Petrarch’s Laura, Galadriel is Dante’s Beatrice. She is the beloved in the courtly love tradition. Her knights may wear her favor (the clasps of their cloaks, the strand of her hair that Gimli begs), but that’s as close as they’re ever going to come. Where Lobelia is the Shrew and Arwen is the Beloved, Galadriel is the Goddess.

That leaves us with Eowyn, who is the Honorary Boy. She cross-dresses as Dernhelm to follow Theoden to war and she slays the Witch-King of Angmar via a very Macbethian loophole:

“Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me.”
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman.”

And then she gets shunted aside again, stuck in the Houses of Healing while the forces of darkness are defeated, turned from a shieldmaiden into a healer and married off to Faramir who here, as in so many other places, is serving as Aragorn Lite. Honorary Boydom revoked with a vengeance.

There are different ways to read the swift and formal courtship of Eowyn and Faramir, depending on how you take Eowyn’s conversion:

Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.
“I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun,” she said; “and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.” And again she looked at Faramir. “No longer do I desire to be a queen,” she said.

This can be read as a genuine moment on the Road to Damascus, where the scales fall from her eyes and she realizes that she has been lying to herself. Or it can be a recognition–and a relief–that she can never be the best, never be a queen, and therefore she should take the happiness that is offered to her. Or, if you think that the Eowyn we have seen in The Two Towers and The Return of the King is a hawk who can be caged but not tamed, this moment is Tolkien tidying Eowyn and her discontent and her ambition and her fury right the hell out of the story. (I never read Eowyn as being in love with Aragorn; I read her as hungry for the power and recognition that Aragorn represents to her.) It’s literature; you can choose the interpretation you want. I’ll just observe that it’s awfully convenient for Tolkien that Eowyn decides to take what Faramir is offering.

Eowyn is more, though, than an Honorary Boy, because she also offers a critique of her own world that is just as trenchant for epic fantasy today as it was when Tolkien wrote it.

“Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?”
“A time may come soon,” said he, “when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.”
And she answered: “All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.”

Aragorn doesn’t have an answer for her, either, and for all that I’m suspicious that her marriage to Faramir–as with so many marriages at the end of Anglophone novels–happens because Tolkien doesn’t know what to do with her, I respect him for understanding her well enough to let her speak, for acknowledging that she has a subject position and that it’s a lousy place to be standing.

So what do you do, if you’re a woman and you love epic fantasy? If you’re not a Shrew and not a Goddess and you want to be more than just the Girl Back Home, but you don’t want to have to dress up as a boy to do it? If you agree with Eowyn that you’re tired of being good and dutiful and left behind? How do you make a place for yourself in a world to which women are largely incidental?

Well, for one thing, you reject the world-view that can dismiss half the human race as “incidental.” It’s never been true, just as it’s never been true that people of non-white skin colors are animals or that people of lower economic classes are fit only for brute labor or that non-heterosexual people are evil. Real history is far far more complicated than even the most elaborately built fantasy world; there’s plenty of room. And the brilliant thing about fantasy is that you don’t have to cleave closely to historical accuracy–Tolkien certainly didn’t.

The other thing you can do is to try to get away from default-male thinking. This is hard to do, and I say that as someone who fails more often than she succeeds. But it isn’t true that men can do cool things and women can’t. It isn’t true that men are interesting protagonists and women aren’t. It isn’t true that stories about men are better than stories about women. Eowyn’s only way out is to be the Honorary Boy, but that’s because she’s trapped in the world that Tolkien built, which she quite accurately describes as a cage. Imitating Tolkien isn’t the same as repeating Tolkien. We aren’t trapped in that world, and we don’t have to build worlds that are cages.

Katherine AddisonKatherine Addison is the pseudonym of Sarah Monette. She grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the three secret cities of the Manhattan Project, and now lives in a 108-year-old house in the Upper Midwest with a great many books, two cats, one grand piano, and one husband. Her Ph.D. diploma (English Literature, 2004) hangs in the kitchen. She has published more than fifty short stories, two novels (A Companion to Wolves, Tor Books, 2007, The Tempering of Men, Tor Books, 2011) and four short stories with Elizabeth Bear, and hopes to write more. Her first four novels make up the Mélusine fantasy quartet, published by Ace. Her latest novel, The Goblin Emperor, published under the pen name Katherine Addison, came out from Tor in April 2014. Visit her online at www.sarahmonette.com or www.katherineaddison.com

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It was another fantastic week, thanks to all of this week’s guests! The last guest posts begin on Sunday (and extend a little into May) so this week’s post is a little early, but before the schedule, a few reminders about the ongoing list of favorite books by women and giveaways.

Giveaways and The Giant List of SFF Books by Women

Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter Thief's Magic by Trudi Canavan

Today is the last day to enter to win one of five advance copies of Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter (US giveway).

A new giveaway just began for a copy of Trudi Canavan’s soon-to-be released fantasy book, Thief’s Magic (US/UK/Canada/Australia giveaway).

Last year, Renay from Lady Business gathered some submissions of favorite books by women, resulting in a list of over 800 science fiction and fantasy books by women! Once again, you can add your favorites this year, which will eventually be merged with the 2013 list.

Week in Review

Here are the posts from last week in case you missed any of them:

  • Paula S. Jordan shared her inspirations and influences in developing aliens in science fiction—both the planetary environments and the effect first contact has on the individual characters.
  • Keri from Feminist Fantasy talked about why she started a site for feminist-friendly fantasy recommendations and recommends some of her own favorites.
  • Romie Stott discussed the feminine science, biology, and how that impacts its use in science fiction.
  • Barbara Friend Ish reflected on the feeling that she is doing feminism wrong as a writer and discussed wanting to see female characters in a variety of roles in stories.
  • Trudi Canavan shared charts showing that approximately 2/3 of fantasy books in Australia are written by women, theorized on why this is the case, and provided a list of several female fantasy authors from Australia.

Upcoming Guests: Final Days

I’m very excited about the final guests, though I’m a little sad to see the month come to an end! The final schedule is:


April 27: Katherine Addison (The Goblin Emperor, Melusine as Sarah Monette)
April 28: Dru Pagliassotti (Clockwork Heart, Clockwork Lies: Iron Wind)
April 29: Chachic from Chachic’s Book Nook
April 30: C.S. Friedman (The Coldfire Trilogy, Dreamwalker, The Magister Trilogy)
May 1: Karen Healey (When We Wake, While We Run, The Shattering)

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Today’s guest is bestselling fantasy author and Aurealis Award winner Trudi Canavan! Her books include The Black Magician Trilogy, Age of the Five Trilogy, The Traitor Spy trilogy, and her upcoming novel Thief’s Magic, to be released in May (which I’m really interested in reading after taking a look at the beginning of it!). I’m thrilled she is here today to discuss Australian women writing fantasy—and to have one copy of Thief’s Magic to give away!

Thief's Magic by Trudi Canavan The Magician's Guild by Trudi Canavan The Ambassador's Mission by Trudi Canavan

Doing What Comes Naturally: Aussie Women Writers of Fantasy

A few years ago, thanks to Twitter, I heard a strange thing. People were noting that the ‘most anticipated books’ lists for the next year were dominated by books by male writers. ‘How can this be?’ I asked myself. ‘Most fantasy is written by women.’

So I went in search of ‘Most Anticipated’ and ‘Best Of’ lists, examined Amazon, Goodreads and Wikipedia, and was utterly flabbergasted to find long lists of books written mostly by men, and of those written by women a huge proportion was urban fantasy.

Though my belief that most fantasy is written by women was wrong, the impression these lists gave was also far out of kilter with the true proportion of books written by women. When I expressed my dismay on Twitter, the responses were well-meaning but disappointing. They ran along the lines of:

“But women don’t write/read fantasy.”

“Why don’t you read urban fantasy instead?”

“This is how it naturally is.”

Well, the first response was so clearly wrong, since I both write and read fantasy, that I ignored it. The second I bristled at. I like alternate world fantasy – fantasy set somewhere other than our world. (Some call it epic, some call it quest. I find ‘alternate world’ includes both as well as books that don’t quite qualify as either but are clearly fantasy.) Sure, I’ve read and enjoyed urban fantasy, but it’s not what rocks my boat. Telling me to read urban fantasy is akin to telling me to read crime, or romance, or contemporary fiction – it’s telling me that I shouldn’t read what I like, and it’s not far from telling me I shouldn’t be writing it, just ‘cause of my gender. The third response amused me greatly. I’m sure the tweeter couldn’t possibly know they were suggesting we Australians are unnatural freaks.

You see, roughly two thirds of Australian alternate world fantasy written for adults and published by middle to large publishers is by women.

At the time I didn’t know the ratio, though I knew it was nothing like the 10% or less I was seeing on those lists. I worked it out later after doing a pile of research, online and off, and feeding the information I’d gathered into a big spread sheet. And then worked out how to make charts.

Australian Fantasy Books by Gender

(click graph to enlarge)

I suspect if I included small press and self-published writers, the ratio of women would be higher, but the next book had the bigger claim on my time. I also wanted to take into account the influence of publishers on the gender balance. When it came to young adult books, I only included the few authors whose books had clearly made a big mark in the adult market and/or had been nominated for adult fantasy categories of awards. I also expanded the selection to include New Zealand writers, because it made it easier than trying to decide the nationality of authors who had emigrated. Since I’ve created the spread sheet more new writers have been published, or I’ve been alerted to names I’d missed. It hasn’t changed the ratio.

So are we Aussies unnatural freaks, or is everyone else? Why do us gals Down Under have it so good? I have a theory. It has two sides:

First, there are cultural attitudes. When I was a teenager girls read fantasy and boys read science fiction. Boys wouldn’t be seen dead reading ‘stuff about unicorns and fairies’. This was in the 80s. (Yes, I’m old.) I’ve asked friends around Australia if this was their experience, too, and many agree. It’s also interesting to note that not all overseas books make it into the Australian bookshops – only the most successful fantasy reaches us – and I remember reading plenty of female authors along with the male.

Second, there’s the youthfulness of our local market. A quick history follows: Prior to 1990 there were no big fantasy imprints in Australia. Pan Macmillan took a stab at it by publishing Martin Middleton. His first book sold out in weeks, so they knew they were onto something. This got the attention of other publishers, and a few started imprints in the mid-90s, the most active being HarperCollins Voyager, which launched with the very successful Sara Douglass. The growth in the industry peaked in the early 00s, levelled out in the mid 00s and started to grow again in the 10s.

Australia Fantasy Books by Number

(click graph to enlarge)

I’ve noticed, when watching and reading interviews with other fantasy authors, that they are nearly always influenced by their predecessors. Readers, too, crave more of what they’ve already enjoyed, seeking writers similar to those whose works they already like. Publishers take note of this, and try to cater to that demand along with providing something new.

Sure, Australians read and love writers like Tolkien, Moorcock and Feist, too, but they had less influence on us as actual people because they were far away. Could it be that not having a lot of famous men as our SFF predecessors meant we didn’t get the impression that everything they are amounts to the best and only formula for success?

Perhaps this meant we were free to do what came naturally, and which brought about an explosion of talented writers taking fantasy in new and exciting directions – two thirds of them women. Women who, along with the men, produced fantasy that is immensely varied, from whimsical to bloodthirsty, lyrical to fast-paced, political, dynastic, swashbuckling, laced with magic, confronting realism or delightful escapism.

Anybody complaining that fantasy is just the same old thing repeated over and over ought to try some Australian fantasy.

Because, naturally, when you broaden your horizons when it comes to writers, whether from Down Under or not, you broaden your horizons when it comes to the stories you read, too.

For those who might want to sample some Australian and New Zealand fantasy during Women in SF & F Month, here’s a list of authors you could try. The full list including the guys is on my website.

Jo Anderton
K J Bishop
Isobelle Carmody
Rowena Cory Daniells
Alison Croggon
Louise Cusack
Cecilia Dart-Thornton
Sara Douglass
Grace Dugan
Kim Falconer
Jennifer Fallon
Kate Forsyth
Pamela Freeman
Alison Goodman
Traci Harding
Julie Haydon
Lian Hearn
Kate Jacoby
Shannah Jay
Deborah Kalin
Sylvia Kelso
Margo Lanagan
Glenda Larke
Helen Lowe
Beverley MacDonald
Fiona McIntosh
Juliet Marillier
Karen Miller/ K E Mills
Josephine Pennicott
Tansy Rayner Roberts
Jane Routley/Rebecca Locksley
Jo Spurrier
K J Taylor
Mary Victoria

Trudi Canavan

Trudi Canavan lives in Melbourne, Australia. She has been making up stories about people and places that don’t exist for as long as she can remember. While working as a freelance illustrator and designer she wrote the bestselling Black Magician Trilogy, which was published in 2001-3 and was named an ‘Evergreen’ by The Bookseller in 2010. The Magician’s Apprentice, a prequel to the trilogy, won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel in 2009 and the final of the sequel trilogy, The Traitor Queen, reached #1 on the UK Times Hardback bestseller list in 2011. For more info, visit www.trudicanavan.com.

Thief’s Magic Giveaway

Courtesy of Orbit, I have a copy of Thief’s Magic to give away! This giveaway is open to those with a mailing address in the US, UK, Canada, or Australia.

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 “Thief’s Magic Giveaway.” One entry per person and one winner will be randomly selected. Those from the the US, UK, Canada, or Australia are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Friday, May 2. The 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!

Update: Now that the giveaway is over, the form has been removed.

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Today’s guest is fantasy author and speculative fiction editor Barbara Friend Ish! The first book in her series The Way of the Gods, The Shadow of the Sun, is out now, and the second volume is scheduled for release next year. Last year, she wrote a guest post here titled “I Still Believe in Small Press” after making the difficult decision to focus on her own writing instead of the work she was doing as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Mercury Retrograde Press—and I’m thrilled she is back today, this time talking about conceptions of feminism in science fiction and fantasy characters!

The Shadow of the Sun by Barbara Friend Ish

Women in SFF: the Next Wave

Lately I have been haunted by the feeling that I am doing feminism wrong.

I’m writing a fantasy series. In the early books, there is only one female point-of-view character out of four—and she’s a weak person. Weak, not because she’s female—though I am uncomfortably aware of how much in opposition to the current standard for female characters she is—but for reasons that serve the story. A gender minority, because of thoughts on gender roles I hope the text will convey. She’s not a weak character, I hope; I am doing my utmost to give her robust life. But she’s definitely a person who doesn’t measure up to the current feminist ideal. And as I write her, alone in my study, I am uncomfortably aware of the judgment that will be leveled against me for this creation. It has led me, after much self-examination, to become aware of the limitations the current generation of women writers impose upon ourselves.

Literature, even SF and fantasy, reflects the society that produces it. The roles and characters of women in our literature are and ever have been mirrors of our roles and society; the ubiquity of men as central to fictional stories reflects the central role of men in society’s story. There’s a reason why we call our species “mankind”: our language and syntax carry our culture’s assumptions and priorities as thoroughly as do our stories.

Once upon a time—historians date this period to sometime around the middle of last week—men were men, and women were plot devices. Women served two basic story functions: as obstacles/antagonists and as love interests/story goals. The former function was fulfilled by bitches, harpies, and whores; the latter by good women—largely chaste, but always true to their men; supportive, devoid of needs or agendas that did not serve the male protagonist’s development.

More recently, particularly during the previous century, new options became available to women, and accordingly to female characters. They were allowed to have interests of their own, indeed careers, as long as those things didn’t interfere with their fulfilling their functions as designated by society and literature. A woman could be almost anything she wanted to be—and then go home and handle the cooking, the cleaning, and the sexual needs of her mate. As ever, the consequences for violating these rules were severe: shaming, shunning, loss of acknowledgment of a woman’s feminine status.

Literature, as is its wont, reflected society. Notable examples in SFF lit come from Heinlein, whose novels are populated by manly men and brainy women who could solve a Very Complex Equation or pilot a spaceship and then, most important of all, demonstrate their liberated status by being sexually available to everyone. These were some overachieving women; this was the face of so-called liberation. Women were not only able but required to do it all.

When feminism really got going, a new party line developed: women didn’t actually need men, except to fulfill their needs for love and womanly validation. In SFF, we had a sudden explosion of kickass heroines, usually with tattoos prominently featured on covers to show they were edgy but still fully sexualized for any available male gaze. There was a whole new breed of expectations of women now: they were to be strong, independent, as tough as any man.

At each stage of the development of expectations imposed on women, those expectations have been prisons for the women who must live them. Always we internalize the oppressive stories and not only impose them on ourselves but on our peers and daughters. Indeed we have tended to be the enforcers of society’s myths regarding gender, frequently far harsher regulators than men: shaming women who claim sexual pleasure for themselves as sluts; decrying women who voice their own needs as bitches, harpies, destructive forces in their men’s lives. We are the first to look for some clue to how a woman who is subject to violence may have brought it on herself.

Today we live in a new, scarcely visible prison of societal expectations, and it too is reflected in our literature. The categories for women are still “compliant with societal norms for women” and “unacceptable”. Women are still harsh enforcers. It’s just that the standards to which we hold one another look different now.

We must be feminists. We must do it right, whatever that means. That’s another reflection of the limitations we place on ourselves and internalize: now we judge ourselves and one another for not being feminist enough. We have created a new ideal and are once again constrained by it. This is not freedom or authenticity, either. As writers we must only write female characters who uphold feminist ideals. Our female characters must be kickass. Weak female characters are anti-feminist, and we write them at our professional peril. Reading and enjoying them exposes us to mockery.

I think it’s time to take a good look at the limitations we’re putting on ourselves as readers and writers. I suggest that female characters, like male characters, should come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of kickassery. If a male character is weak, no one decries that character as an insult to men everywhere. Instead we examine his role in the story and what it might mean. Male characters are allowed to be real.

I think it’s time we accorded female characters the same courtesy. I think it is our job as feminists of every gender not to place and attempt to enforce yet another set of unachievable standards on all women, but to recognize that some are kickass, and some are heroic in other ways, and some are just not heroic at all. And that they can fulfill all the roles in the story that we can imagine for them, and their presence in those roles can teach us about being human, rather than simply about how we are supposed to be as women.

To be painfully clear: I love kickass female characters. I acquire them as an editor; I read them as a reader; I write them as a writer. But not all of the worthwhile female characters uphold the standards we as a society impose on women. It is the job of writers not to produce moral tales that demonstrate correct behavior, but to hold up a mirror to humanity and help us understand what being human means. It is the job of readers, inasmuch as they have a job, to decide for themselves what those creations mean; what it means to be human.

Female characters need to be allowed to join that quest. They need to be themselves in all their myriad flavors, and to be accepted on their own terms in the way we do male characters. I propose an adjunct to the famous Bechdel test, which we can use to discover whether we are faithfully portraying female characters in SFF. I think it’s pretty simple:

If the female character in question were a man, would you consider that character’s actions a stain upon the identity of men?

I suggest that if the answer to that question is “no”, and yet you consider the female character’s behavior an insult to women, then you have just bumped up against an area in which society’s programming regarding women has infiltrated your brain. What you do with this awareness is entirely up to you.

Barbara Friend IshBarbara Friend Ish is the author of the Compton Crook Award Finalist novel The Shadow of the Sun and the 2015 novel The Heart of Darkness. She moonlights as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief for Mercury Retrograde Press. Books edited by Barbara have been covered by Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Locus Magazine, and electronic and print outlets worldwide. Her cats run her life.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is speculative fiction writer, poetry editor, and filmmaker Romie Stott! She has been poetry co-editor at Strange Horizons, one of this year’s Hugo Award finalists for Best Semiprozine, for over a year, and she also contributes to Arc, a publication from the creators of New Scientist dedicated to speculative futures. Her story “Three Young Men” appears in the recently-released anthology of Biblical horror stories (that may have one of the more memorable titles I’ve seen in awhile) King David and the Spiders from Mars. I’m happy she’s here today to discuss biology as a feminine science and how that impacts its use in science fiction!

King David and the Spiders from Mars

The Feminine Science

In middle school, or maybe even earlier, I picked up the understanding that Science Fiction is for boys and Fantasy is for girls. I don’t know whether this is something someone told me, or whether I inferred it from what I was reading: YA fantasy like Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series, which starred a female knight/sorceress/headstrong romantic, and SF like Heinlein, where men are bold, dispassionate explorers and women are soft blankets. Which left me in a bind because I have never had any desire to travel to the past, even a past with magic. Or a present with magic. I like science. I like what it’s done for women’s survival rates. I find it excruciating when someone treats me as though I have feminine intuition.

There were other related things I came to accept, like Math is masculine and Reading is feminine. Not “for boys” and “for girls” — I liked both, and had teachers and friends and classmates of both genders — but masculine and feminine in a semiotic or synaesthetic way, as though the English language is secretly still French underneath. Classical music is feminine. Physics is masculine. Visual art is masculine. Biology is feminine. Chemistry is bisexual and the disreputable stepchild of Physics. (Chemistry was always my favorite.) In all cases, the masculine subjects were indefinably superior, indefinably prestigious, and widely accepted as more difficult.

Science fiction, speaking broadly, has a love for shiny surfaces. (Or these days, gritty pitted surfaces.) Of the poetry submissions I receive at Strange Horizons, where I am co-editor, looking at only those poems I would classify as science fiction and not fantasy, ballpark 90% of them are about astrophysics. 9% are about mechanical technology — robots, spaceflight, internet. 1% are chemistry or number theory.

Bio is not so much in there. I am not sure science fiction people think of it as one of the hard sciences, possibly because it is entangled with medicine, which is not science as much as it is a combination of technology and religion. Yet science fiction people are comfortable writing about technology, and about religion. And cell biology, for instance, should be unaffected by this, but only mitochondria are considered SF-worthy. Bio is squishy. Human bodies are not otherworldly.

It took me a good 10 years past high school to shake off the notion that learning about biology was in some sense “slumming.” This was about the same time I realized that memorizing things comes not from repetition but from linking information to a structure built of other information — that it was a creative act instead of a stockpiling. Until that point, I’d fallen into the google fallacy, a trap of thinking I didn’t need to know things; I just needed to know how to find things. Which is partly accurate, but you have to know enough to know that the thing exists to be found, and you have to be able to describe it well enough to retrieve the data, as anyone knows who has played the game “I can’t think of the word, but it’s kind of like beautiful but not really? It maybe starts with an r, or maybe a g?”

This fallacy underlies a lot of geek culture. The subjects I internalized as feminine were the ones that required a lot of memorization. They seemed dogged and rote, something nose to the ground, as homebody as putting up preserves. The masculine subjects were instead about derivation, a kind of leaping into the air, with the elitism that comes from seeing the world clearly and perfectly because you are brilliant. A genius doesn’t need to remember; a genius can deduce the world from a grain of sand. The problem, alas, with a merit system built exclusively on making the correct inferences instead of the careful work of building up information is that it looks very much like aristocracy, like something you are instead of something you learn.

Coincidentally, that “something you are” tends to reflect light, make expansive gestures, and have no breasts. But overemphasizing the “grain of sand” model of genius has downsides even if you’re not concerned about social justice. When it comes to futurism, the process of inference absent memorization is often misleading. If all you have to go on is what’s in front of you, you have no idea whether the thing you’re seeing is normal; you could base your whole model on a fluke. At its extreme, you could watch someone win the lottery and conclude that she’ll win the lottery tomorrow as well. On the other extreme, you could miss the fact that someone’s slowly starving by assuming he just skipped lunch this one time.

One of my short stories, “The Wishing Hour,” includes a pregnant protagonist, and when it was published I realized that if I told someone it was an SF pregnancy story they’d probably surmise it involved alien invasion/possession/parasitism, because this is a dominant SF trope. I like that trope; I am a huge fan of Alien, for instance. However, something I have noticed when talking to my male friends is, to put it gently, they don’t seem to think of this trope as containing any irony. They really think it has to feel weird and alien and unnatural to be pregnant. (One would hope they are all therefore extraordinarily pro-choice, but as Prometheus would suggest, not necessarily.)

On the one hand, yes, there is a foreign body which has set up residence in a uterus. On the other hand, pregnancy is definitively not alien, by virtue of the fact that it is producing humans. It is also, not incidentally, something half of the human race can do with our bodies. It’s not something we always do with our bodies, and it’s not something all of us do with our bodies, but enough of us do that pregnancy is automatically not alien or supernatural or weird. Although non-pregnancy is now undeniably the base state of most women in the industrialized world, for much of history (prior to modern birth control) when average family size was much larger, many more women spent much more of their time pregnant. In this context, it’s hard to think of the unpregnant body as more de facto authentic.

By the same token, although some women have complicated feelings about menstruating, it’s probably not central to most of our identities. However we might individually feel about it, we recognize it’s a bodily process, like breathing or digesting. But it shows up as a plot point in speculative fiction much more often than digesting does, or peeing, or sweating, usually as a sign that something is horrifying or magical.

There are not a similar number of stories about how erections are alien parasites which use chemical signals to take over your brain, suck the blood out of other parts of your body to feed themselves, and make part of you swell up to a totally wrong size that is horrifying. John Varley did write a penis-as-alien-parasite story, and it is excellent. Tiptree did some work in this area although as far as I know not specifically penis-focused, but these stories are understood by readers to be symbolic, and to portray men in not the best light. Whereas alien pregnancy stories are just telling it like it is. (Probably not coincidentally, Varley and Tiptree were also much more comfortable with sex and sexuality than most SF authors working during the 1970s and early 80s, as pointed out in this entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.)

This is not a scientist’s way to look at a body, which is what I ask for from science fiction. And it’s othering to do this to women’s physical realities while not similarly exploiting uniquely male physical realities. SF in general tends to have a revulsion for the body, a sense that our bodies are something we want to overcome — that we want to be immortal, free of sexual desire, able to make children outside our bodies, able to stretch beyond our senses, able to forego food and breathing. We want to be superhuman or posthuman. The body is a limit; bodily feelings are base drags on pure intellect.

This is not an invalid point of view, and when I say that a physical state is “natural” that doesn’t mean I think it’s better. There’s a lot to be said in favor of transcending the physical self. But it’s important to continue to examine the ideas we’re repeating and advancing, and in this case to look at the ways it can reinforce the misogyny that continues to be endemic to some of our professional organizations, like the cultural narrative that women are deformed men.

Biology, as they say, is not destiny. But it is a science. One that’s a lot more hackable than physics. Not to mention really, really weird. Much moreso than black holes.

Romie Stott is poetry co-editor of Strange Horizons. She recently won Intel and Arc Magazine’s Tomorrow Project with a short story called “A Robot Walks Into a Bar,” and was a top 10 finalist in American Zoetrope’s 2012 screenplay competition. As a narrative filmmaker, she has shown work at the Dallas Museum of Art, the National Gallery (London), and the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston), and as part of Jonathan Lethem’s Promiscuous Materials project. Her portfolio is online at romiesays.tumblr.com.