So, ScienceOnline 11 sparked a small revolution. I first noticed a small rumbling: celebration that over 50% of the participants were women. Then the rumbling turned into an eruption, as women and allied men started going “Well, then, why are the women so invisible WTF?!” For a selection of links on that topic, see here.
This has forced me to examine my own history of misogyny.
“But Dana,” you say, “your profile pic is a woman!”
Look, just because I’m female doesn’t mean I can’t have a rather dim view of my own sex. And I believe I know where it came from: I hate being female. I’m pretty sure it has to do with the plumbing. I’m one of those lucky gals whose time of the month feels like – well, I don’t quite know how to describe it. Put it this way: when I had my first kidney stone, the doc told me the women who’d been through labor and stones said stones were worse. I figured childbirth must be a cakewalk, then, because the kidney stone wasn’t half as bad as the cramps I dealt with every month. Three days of crippling misery. I won’t go into details. Suffice it to say, it was enough to make anyone loathe being female. It’s gotten better with age, thankfully, but it’s still an ordeal.
That could be part of what turned me off to the feminine mystique. Then there was my upbringing. We had a grand total of three or four girls in my neighborhood. One of my earliest memories ever is standing at the end of our driveway, holding the handlebar of my trike, watching a solid wall of boys zip by, and wondering where are the girls?! Then I hopped aboard and joined the melee. From the age of three on, I spent about 2% of my time playing dress-up with the one worthwhile chick in my neighborhood, and the remaining 98% climbing trees, skinning knees, getting muddy, and playing war games with the guys. Ever since, the vast majority of my closest friends have had dangly bits. The guys get me. We share most of the same interests (excepting sports and dating women). The girl friends I had were usually tomboys like me, or if they weren’t, they had minds sharp as Toledo steel under the makeup.
So, due in part to the kids I ran with and the evil nature of my lady parts, I tended to neglect the wonders of womankind. And I ended up rather blinded to the fact that there were, in fact, quite a few women out there kicking arse and taking names. I’ve got billions of examples of that. But we’ll start with where I first realized I’d been seriously losing out by neglecting my own gender: science fiction and fantasy. I had this semi-conscious bias toward male writers for the longest time. I suppose I was afraid that if I picked up a book written by a chick, it would bore me to death.
Here’s why I should’ve known better: Meredith Ann Pierce. I picked up Birth of the Firebringer at a bookfair when I was a wee little lass. To this day, I consider it one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read. Her unicorns weren’t fluffy, sweet creatures with rainbows shining out of their asses. They were hardcore, utterly realistic, and not soft at all. And she put them through some serious shit. If you want to read something mythological yet harrowing, this is one of the first books you should pick up. I give a lot of lip service to Tolkien, because he was the one who made me get serious about worldbuilding, and Jordan, because he was the one who reignited my love for fantasy when I’d totally lost it. But Meredith Ann Pierce is responsible for the fact that some of my main characters are also kick-ass unicorns (I shall not lie), and as I write, she’s usually lurking there at the back of my mind somewhere, reminding me to make the fantastic real. That passage in the wyvern’s cavern? I can still feel it, smell it, hear it, see it, even taste it – it was probably the first thing I ever read that engaged all of my senses.
And why I never knew it was a trilogy I’ll never know. I’ve just bought the other two books. This is turning out to be an expensive post…
Right. So, when I hit puberty, I entered a bit of a desert – most of the authors I remember reading were guys. Hardy Boys, y’know. Okay, some Nancy Drew, too, and of course Agatha Christie. But most of my great loves were men. Then I got back into fantasy, and eventually started discovering that women could write some remarkable stuff.
People may scoff at role-playing novels, but damn it, Elaine Cunningham writes some awesome fantasy. I first got introduced to her via Elfshadow. Silly-ass name for a book, you might think, and bound to be fluffy, but if you think so, you haven’t read Elaine and you haven’t met Arilyn Moonblade. Talk about a strong female character. Ye gods. She showed me that being female and skinny did not mean automatic wimp. Not by half. I still adore those books. I will always adore those books. Even the fluffy bits have a nice, sharp edge.
(Yes, I know – there’s nothing wrong with fluffy and feminine. But that’s just not how I roll, m’kay?)
I came across Melanie Rawn in the time-honored manner of poor bookstore employees everywhere – I took home a stripped copy of her first Exiles book. One word: intense. It’s been many years since I read it, but I still remember being fascinated by the harshness of it. And the politics are certainly what one might term cut-throat. Not a gentle read. And I like that. I don’t like authors to go easy on their characters or their readers.
I came across Octavia E. Butler because Orson Scott Card couldn’t stop singing her praises in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and since I wanted to write SF, I figured I’d best pick up a copy of Wild Seed. I did. And he’s write – few people handle exposition as masterfully as Octavia. Few authors leave you haunted for so long. My greatest writing regret to this day is that I didn’t get into Clarion the year she was teaching.
I’ll be honest on this next one: I haven’t got much use for C.J. Cherryh. I’ve tried to read The Dreaming Tree twice, and only finished it the second time out of sheer stubborn determination. Not my cup of tea, although I can’t quite pinpoint why. So when a friend lent me The Paladin, I almost didn’t read it. But then I did. And I include it here not just because it’s a good book, but because it has one of my favorite paragraphs of all time: A man got older. A man got wary of caring for things too deeply. A man got wiser and ended up on a damn mountain. A man could die alone up here. And yes, a female writer could write a male POV. Who knew, right? And maybe someday I’ll get over The Dreaming Tree and find out C.J. Cherryh wrote other things I like.
And now, we get to the women who have, more than any others, created worlds that swept me right away.
Connie Willis was another one of those stripped-book discoveries. I took home Fire Watch. I didn’t like science fiction much until hers. I didn’t think women wrote kick-ass science fiction until her. And how I hated time travel stories until I read hers. She has, by turns, put me through more laughter, tears, and paradigm-shifting experiences than probably any other author, Neil Gaiman included, sad to say. She makes me think harder than very nearly any other author I’ve read. Just don’t ask her to write about Women’s Issues. You’ll quite possibly regret it.
Speaking of stripped books, that’s how I stumbled upon Patricia A. McKillip. The Book of Atrix Wolfe was just this slim thing that looked mildly interesting, so I dragged it home. When I’d finished, I felt as though my soul had just been put through an industrial blender. I believe I hyperventilated a bit. My darlings, that ending made me lose my breath in shock. Not a bad shock, mind you. One of those mind-blowing, life-affirming, my-gods-the-world’s-a-harsh-barstard-but-so-damned-amazing shocks. I’d never read another writer who could be so implacable and yet so lyrical. She’s one of the most beautiful writers I’ve ever read. Her words – well, they’re beyond my paltry skill to describe. They make me think of honey and pearls and all sorts of precious jewels, even while she’s putting her characters through utter hell. There are few writers in this world with the chops of Patricia A. McKillip.
As for The Book of Atrix Wolfe, the ending still knocks me breathless every time. Even though I know what’s coming. That’s the mark of a truly outstanding book, that.
(Note to authors who hate people getting their books for free: it should become clear at this point that giving away a book or two is a good idea. Just ask my shelves full of Connie Willis and Patricia McKillip and Melanie Rawn, among many others, many of whom probably wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t been hooked risk-free first.)
C.S. Friedman, people. I don’t remember how I came across her. I read the Cold Fire trilogy, and I will tell you something: no one I’ve read before or since has ever managed to so perfectly pull off an anti-hero. Ever. And then, as if it wasn’t enough for her to kick arse at writing fantasy with a little science fiction flavor, I read In Conquest Born and discovered she’s one of the best science fiction authors out there. I felt bruised and battered and bloodied after the spaceship chase scene. She’s one of the few people I’ve read who can pull off space flight and make it feel utterly authentic. And she pulls not one single damned punch. You won’t catch her giving her characters an easy time of it. She’s cruel. I like that in a writer.
Dos mas, and then this unexpectedly long post shall come to an end.
I came across Susanna Clarke by way of Neil Gaiman. She wrote a short story for the Sandman Book of Dreams called “Stopp’t Clock Yard.” Neil wrote little introductions for each story. For this one, he said she writes like an angel, and that this was the only chance he’s ever had to actually read a Sandman story. He was incorrect in one particular: angels only wish they could write like Susanna Clarke. It was the only story in that book that read like a real and true Sandman story. I read it every New Year. And for years, all I had was that and a handful of other short stories, with only the glimmer of a novel on the horizon, and I suffered. Oh, how I suffered. No one else writes like Susanna Clarke. Then she came out with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which for a time caused this atheist to experience heaven – until I finished the book. Now I’m suffering again as I wait for the next one.
And, finally, we round out my incomplete pantheon of favorite female SF writers with Lynn Flewelling. I picked up Luck in the Shadows on a whim, figuring I had nothing to lose. Besides, I’d read the first paragraph, which meant I’d read the second, and by then putting the book down had become as impossible as splitting an atom by taking a dull knife to it. I’ve loved a lot of characters in my life, but rarely so much as I’ve loved Alec and Seregil. And there is no one yet who’s topped her brothel scene. So for two books, we had rip-roaring action, sheer fantasy fun with some of the greatest characters evah, and for her third book she brings us – politics? WTF? Only she’d somehow managed to make politics fascinating. Not to mention, the introduction to that book still elicits a belly-laugh from everyone I subject to it. She’s one of those writers who could produce a novelization of the phone book that would be thought-provoking and hilarious.
Before these women, I’d considered writing under initials and hiding the fact I was female. After them, I decided fuck the initials, and fuck hiding my gender. Women SF authors kick arse, too, damn it! And I shall be proud to be one of them. And all of the silly concerns I had about not being taken seriously because I’m a woman have melted right away. A bunch of these women rank among the most highly-respected and award-winning authors in the genre. Being a woman is no problem. The real requirement is to be a great author, no matter whether your naughty bits dangle or not. And identifying as a female author doesn’t mean I have to restrict myself to female characters (several of the above have happily written from the POV of male characters as well as female, without apologies or explanations). It doesn’t mean I have to obsess over hair, clothes and boys. I can be the author I want to be, without apology or explanation, without hiding behind gender-neutral names and ambiguous bios.
And because of these women, I became less of a misogynist. Despite my evil uterus. So, if you’re looking to expand your horizons and make your bookshelves groan a bit more, you could do worse than starting with them. While you’re at it, expand my horizons and mention your favorites in comments.