Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is Genevieve Cogman! Her debut novel, The Invisible Library, was released by Tor UK earlier this year. I read it because I loved the premise—the main protagonist, Irene, travels to alternate worlds as a spy recovering books for the Library, which exists outside of time and space—and I also ended up loving the book as a whole. It’s a lot of fun to read; in fact, it’s my favorite book I’ve read in 2015 so far!

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

In retrospect, I was not a very perceptive child. Or teenager.

When I was starting in on fantasy and science fiction – which, to date it, would be in the late seventies and early eighties – I went through the usual range of stuff, from the good (Tolkien, Hambly, etc) to the exotic (Moorcock) to the, shall we say, very much a product of its time. (The entire EE Doc Smith: all the way through the Skylark of Space, Lensman, and Family d’Alembert series.) I was a very hungry caterpillar very voracious reader, and shovelled down everything I could get my hands on.

I’m not sure why I failed to notice a lack of female characters, or their frequent relegation to stand-around-and-wring-hands-and-get-rescued. When I read Tolkien, I imagined myself as Gandalf just as much as Eowyn. When I read Michael Moorcock, I imagined myself as a companion of Elric and sort of ignored Zarozinia. But I never really thought of him in a romantic way. He was the Doomed Albino Prince with the Black Sword. I was like Moonglum, his true companion. Only better and cooler.

(As I said, I managed some truly huge failures in perception.)

When I read Barbara Hambly’s The Time of the Dark, I noticed a comment in a review about it: that it was a little unusual (though not unwelcome) that the female protagonist took up the sword and the male protagonist took up wizardry. And I thought, hm, you know, that’s true, I have been reading more novels where the men do the swordplay and the women (if they do anything) provide some sort of magical support.

And then I mostly forgot about it. Except to wish, now and again, that there were more women who got as much of a share of the limelight as Gil-Shalos did in the Darwath books.

It took me a while to actually start reading books analytically. Is there a better term for this? When you read a book and start thinking about it as a work which could have been different, rather than a glorious piece of art which is simply experienced and does not actually require conscious thought from the reader. Where you simply dive in and come out the other side after a happy “swim” in that author’s universe. For a long time I didn’t think. I simply noted that “character X has done something stupid” or “character Y has behaved in a specific manner”, rather than wondering “what if character X had done something else”, or “why should character Y be behaving in such-and-such a manner”?

Why, in so many futuristic worlds, did the women stay at home to mind the house while the men went out there with the rayguns? Especially if genetic engineering and super-science meant that men could be given ideal physiques and sleep-taught all sorts of skills? Why weren’t there any female space cadets? (Yes, I read and at the time loved the Heinlein, but I was beginning to think, “Where are all the women training to join the Space Patrol?”) Why was it always Seaton and Duquesne and Crane who had the amazing brains and starkly incomprehensible computers and velocities, while their wives designed clothing and kept house and got kidnapped?

Why did there have to be actual separate anthologies of short stories about sorceresses and swordswomen? And if the answer to that was “because they weren’t being published otherwise”, then why weren’t they being published otherwise? Come to think of it, why did so many of my fantasy books have the women in chainmail bikinis?

Why was the default pronoun in so many of my roleplaying game sourcebooks “he”?

What is the difference between James T Kirk and a green-skinned Orion space babe, when it came to responsibility for their actions, personal agency, and being a cool hero or a wanton irresponsible girl? (I always preferred Spock, anyhow.) Discuss.

Where were all the female characters who were as cool, as intelligent, as cunning, as strong, as elegant, as charming, as prone to make mistakes, as able to recover from them, as capable of sacrificing themselves to save the day, and as able to have character development… as the men? The heroines – and the villainesses too, the ones who weren’t vamps or crones? The scientists? The spymasters? The tycoons of business? The long-lost family members? “Luke, I am your mother…” Why were there so many teams where the main characteristic of the single female team member was that she was female?

Things do change, and they are still changing. But my complaint remains the same. I want to read (and to write) female characters who are as crafty as Locke Lamora, as wise as Gandalf, as self-sacrificing as Sam and Frodo, as doomed as Turin Turambar, as prone to casual romance and not being blamed for it as James T Kirk, as capable of being angsty and obsessed by justice and the past as Batman… in short, everything that male characters can have. I want them to have Spock’s degree of history, emotional conflict, and character development, Doctor Who’s ability to fast-talk and his hatred of cruelty, and the Winter Soldier’s tragic past history. And I want them to be able to stay at home and do the cooking and patchwork, too. And I’d like all that for men as well.

I am still a very hungry caterpillar.

All I want (all, she says) is for the female characters to be as fully human as the male characters.

We’re all working on it.

Genevieve Cogman is a freelance author, who has written for several role-playing game companies. Her work includes GURPS Vorkosigan and contributions to the In Nomine role-playing game line for Steve Jackson Games, contributions to Exalted 2nd Edition and other contributions to the Exalted and Orpheus lines for White Wolf Publishing, Hearts, Swords and Flowers: The Art of Shoujo for Magnum Opus, and contributions to the Dresden Files RPG for Evil Hat Productions. She currently works for the NHS in England as a clinical classifications specialist.

She has had three books of her series about the multidimensional Library accepted by Tor Books, and the first book The Invisible Library is now available. Her novels are represented by Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency.