Today sees the release of Cautions, Dreams, and Curiosities, another anthology from the Tomorrow Project at Intel Labs. I was asked to write a story pertaining to the White House Grand Challenges, and I focused on food security. I watched a lot of TED talks (Netflix helpfully organizes the subject headings, and there have been a lot on the subject of farming, food security, food science, genetic modification, and so on) and a lot of documentaries like Food, Inc. and others that the organic/green/foodie community has been familiar with for a while, now. This was all months before I decided to go mostly vegetarian for health reasons, but the knowledge sure helped reinforce that decision. (I’ve since become one of those annoying people who tries not to eat meat that doesn’t come from a butcher I know by name. My butcher’s name is George. He sells us meat from, among other places, Beretta Family Farms. I no longer eat chicken unless it’s given to me, but I highly recommend their beef.)
With that said, the story turned out to be mostly about the future of imprisonment. That’s not a Grand Challenge, but it should be. The United States has mostly privatized the problem of how to spend the wealth of humanity generated by zero-tolerance laws and the War on Drugs, and the solution seems mostly to save it somewhere where it can never be seen or touched. To bury the talent. I wanted to write a story about people using their talents and achieving things. I was raised with the Catholic social teaching that values the dignity of work, and although I haven’t attended Mass in years and have no intention of doing so again, I still think that giving people jobs also gives them agency and purpose in life, and that alienating people from their labour also alienates them from that sense of purpose and meaning. The same goes for protagonists: compelling protagonists take control of their circumstances in order to achieve results, even when those circumstances are limited and opportunities for action are few. So in this story, prisoners prototype new ways of farming that lead to both personal and agricultural redemption. It’s the healing of the land as the healing of the self.
At least, that’s the theme I had in mind at the time. I’m not sure if I executed it clearly enough. That’s not really for me to decide. I can promise that it also includes tower farms, the future of Detroit, wild boars, spider bots, sparkly prison makeup, and a guy who gets sent to jail for open-sourcing GMO seeds. If that sounds like your kind of thing, you might enjoy it. I hope that you’ll read it, and that if you read it, you’ll like it.
So, this happened. I went to the Kingston WritersFest, where I was on a panel with Margaret Atwood and Corey Redekop. It was a really fun panel, but I felt kind of embarrassed about how I fumbled through my reading. Also, I didn’t sell very many books. Given that my publisher helped send me there, I feel like I didn’t bear out their investment. On the other hand, I was there to represent a series of novels, one of which has a brown guy on the cover, and at Atwood’s request I read a section of the book that details blowjob technique.
Actually, she asked about “the part with the little girls.” Which I realise sounds even worse.
Recently, Kameron Hurley shared this piece by E.M. Kokie on the seeming dearth of language available to workaday prose writers to describe what arousal feels like in a cis female body. Said Kokie:
When I found myself stuck and looking for the words, I started pulling books off my bookshelves and scanning for the romantic scenes I remembered from prior readings (much like when I was an adolescent reader). I was shocked to find a complete lack of language for the female anatomy in all but one of the books I checked, and none at all during an intimate scene. Despite effective and appropriately done intimate scenes, none of these books actually used specific words to refer to the female anatomy below the waist. Almost none of them refer to the obvious reactions these female characters would be having to the scene, and none while the character was actually in the moment. Not one mention of words like slick and wet. No mentions of scent or taste.
Over the last few days, Twitter has been all, well, a-twitter about diversity in science fiction. Most of that has to do with this piece in The Guardian, which begins thusly:
Science fiction loves a good paradox. Here’s one for you: how can a genre that dreams up alien cultures and mythic races in such minute detail seemingly ignore the ethnic, religious, gender and sexual diversity right here on the home planet, here in the real world?
In other words, for a school of writing that swims so deeply in the unconventional, why is science fiction and fantasy so darned conventional?
Those are all good questions, and they reflect frustrations I’ve felt myself. The piece also quotes Cheryl Morgan, a class-act lady who I was lucky enough to have lunch with this summer. She was really nice about how I basically hacked up a hairball in front of her when I choked on my naengmyeon, effectively re-enacting the moment in The Ring when Naomi Watts chokes on electrode. Because no lunch with a well-respected editor and blogger is complete without total mortification. After lunch, she casually informed me that, without having read it, she was already impressed with iD for one reason: it had a non-white man on a genre cover sold in England.
“I don’t think you know what a big deal that is,” she said.
This year at Ad Astra, I did a panel on Fake Geek Girls. Or rather, their mythical quality. (For future reference, there are about as many Fake Geek Girls in existence in 2013 as there were witches in Salem, MA in 1693.) During the question period, a teenaged girl at the back of the room asked what was to be done about all this, about the guys who would seemingly never accept her in their space (which was never their space to start with). I told her two things.
Plenty of things are being done. It is not your responsibility to do all of them. Your responsibility is to show up, even when those guys don’t take you seriously, because your showing up unnerves them more than those dreadfully subtle Cialis commercials. The medium is the message. You are the message.
Seriously, why aren’t you watching Top of the Lake right now? It’s written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee and it has Elizabeth Moss and Holly Hunter and Faramir and that guy who plays the really pretty beast from the CW version of Beauty and the Beast, on in this he has a bunch of tattoos and a real script.
Top of the Lake is a Sundance Channel production, and it’s available in Canada via the Sony PlayStation Network, and probably some other outlets I don’t know about. I heard about it online and we gave it a shot, and were both instantly mesmerized. The story is about Robin Griffin a Sydney detective on leave to care for her mother back home, who has cancer. Doing so means returning to the small town where she grew up, and to the lake where her father drowned. While there, Robin finds out that a 12-year-old girl named Tui Mitcham is pregnant. Tui’s father Matt is the backbone of the town’s economy: he makes all the meth, does all the killing, and collects all the rent. He’s like the Al Swearengen of Laketop, but instead of a saloon he owns a beautiful spread of land aptly named Paradise that he defends just as viciously as his many dogs defend his A-frame home. But then Paradise, like his daughter, is lost to him — a group of women chopper in some shipping containers, and a cult leader named GJ takes over. All of these parties converge at Laketop, where the secrets run as deep and cold as the water that gives the place its name.
Campion shoots each episode like a Western, taking advantage of the jaw-dropping New Zealand landscape to tell a story about how humanity can never be as beautiful as the environment it inhabits. In lesser hands, this story of a woman returning to her childhood home to settle scores and reclaim her identity while solving a child rape case would be the stuff of James Patterson, or Mary Higgins Clark. But Campion and Lee don’t write easy characters, or easy scenarios. Each one is as rough and hard and brutal as the bushland they come from. Robin, the heroine, is complicated and real. Tui, the victim, never treats herself like one. Even the story’s villains remain remarkably human and vulnerable, just as frail emotionally as they are morally.
It’s powerful stuff. If you miss Twin Peaks but wish it made more sense, or you wished The Killing left you more satisfied, this is the title for you.
No, not the punctuation mark. Yes, the other thing.
Periods tend not to show up in fiction, probably for the same reasons that urine and shit don’t show up in fiction. They’re quotidian elements that don’t really add anything to narrative unless they’re indicating sickness or a dramatic turn — pregnancy, miscarriage, sudden reproductive potential, and so on. But the fact is that unless your novel or short story takes place in a span of less than 28 days, your female characters of reproductive age are going to experience them. You could brush over this, but it’s a missed opportunity to actually explore some things with character, setting, and worldbuilding. For example, in Charlie Stross’ Glasshouse, one of the protagonists swaps sexes for an anthropology experiment in historical modelling, and she has a rude awakening upon realizing how exactly periods work. I loved this because it reminded me of a moment I had in adolescence. I was at theatre camp (yes, theatre camp) and I’d made friends with all the older kids (or they’d sort of adopted me, I guess, speaking of anthropology experiments) and one girl, Dallas, told us all about the horrified reaction her boyfriend had when he realized how periods worked.
“He was like, Don’t you just get up and take care of it? And I was like, Well, yeah, but it’s an ongoing process. And he’s like What do you mean, ongoing process? What, it like, lasts a long time or something? And I was all, Uh, yeah, it lasts like five days, and he was totally terrified.”
Then she showed us this really sweet letter he’d written in her yearbook with silver pen. So. Here are some things you should know, if you have to depict somebody having their period.
Having loaded up on hand sanitizer and dusting powder, I am relatively ready for LoneStarCon. If you’d like to come say hello, here is where I will be:
Thursday, 13:00-14:00, Autographing. (Or as I call it, “Kicking back and and testing the open container regulations while searching for open wi-fi, because I doubt anybody will want me to sign books.”)
Friday, 10:00-11:00, US Animation Influenced by Japanese Animation. (In which we talk about Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I rant about that goddamn lion-tortoise one more time, because the lion-tortoise was fucking bullshit.)
Friday, 14:00-15:00, The Future of the Border. (In which I moderate a panel, and watch the audience for racist assholes. Given the pro-eugenics assholes at ChiCon, my concern is justified. A warning: I moderate panels like Marion Ravenwood runs her bar. I would rather watch it burn than let the Nazis have it. I intend to preface the panel with instructions to any and all audience members who may be there to air their racist bullshit that they need to get the fuck out right then and there. If you don’t listen, and clutter up my discussion period with your crap, I will take your picture, post it to Twitter, and tell everyone at the con to avoid you. You know. Pretty basic.)
Friday, 18:00-19:00, Gender in Anime and Manga. (In which we talk about Utena, Ouran, and so on.)
Saturday, 13:00-14:00, Can Machines Be Conscious? (In which I talk about this article, among other things, with people who have more degrees than I do.)
Saturday, 17:00-18:00, Miyazaki panel. (In which I say that Princess Mononoke is obviously the best.)
Sunday, 11:00-12:00, Real Politics and How Fiction Writers Get it Wrong. (In which I try not to stare at Dave, who is moderating, and think about how handsome he is while I’m supposed to be working.)
Sunday, 15:00-16:00, Literary Beer with Ellen Datlow. (In which I cannot drink beer, but ask for Redbreast or Woodford Reserve or Jameson.)
Sunday, 16:00-17:00, Philosophy and Science Fiction. (In which I talk about going to Jesuit school, and how my therapist is a Buddhist, and I’m a recovering Catholic, and very confused.)
You can see that when it comes to science fiction only 22% of the submissions we received were from female writers. That’s a relatively small number when you look at how many women are writing in the other areas, especially YA. I’ve often wondered if there are fewer women writing in areas such as science fiction because they have turned their attentions to other sub-genres but even still, the number of men submitting to us in total outweighs the women by more than 2:1.
You should go read the whole post if you haven’t already, because there’s a nifty table and everything. There’s also quite a spirited discussion in the comments.
Weirdly, my own comment never made it in. Back when the post was new, I stayed up late writing and re-writing it, so I checked back a couple of times to see whether it was still in moderation or not. Eventually I forgot about it, but I remembered to check again when Walters linked to it. Nope. Still not there. So I thought I’d share it here, because I re-wrote it so many times that I actually had drafts of the fucking thing that I’d emailed to myself. Without further ado:
I’d also like to add the wonderful Sandra Kasturi of ChiZine Publications to the list of female editors who rock.
However, just because you’re not sexist doesn’t mean that other editors aren’t. And just because an editor is a woman doesn’t mean that she’s incapable of gender bias. Internalized misogyny is a real thing, and it has a real impact on behaviour. That includes the assumption that a female writer of SF will sell fewer titles than a male writer in the same genre, and is therefore less deserving of investment.
It’s good to shed light on these statistics, but as you point out, the question is more complicated than just submission and acquisition. Why is the number of women submitting SF manuscripts so low? My guess is that the answer to that question is similar to the answer to why the number of women in STEM fields is low: there’s a culture in place to discourage them from trying. From the “Fake Geek Girl” phenomenon to the need for meaningful anti-harassment policies at conventions, it’s no wonder that joining the ranks of successful YA and UF writers in a female-dominated niche looks more attractive to a larger number of women. How many grand visions of the future have we lost because a new writer shook her head in disgust and decided to try a proven market that appeared more welcoming, instead?
I don’t think anybody’s asking editors to read women’s writing with more forgiving eyes. At least, I’ve never heard that complaint. What I do hear complaints of is treatment of women that makes them feel unwelcome — and yes, that includes the way some editors treat women (Jim Frenkel, for example). So, you happen to be doing your personal best. That’s great! But don’t blame women for staying out of what is statistically a field that’s unkind to them. They’re just playing the same odds that some editors are.
I say this as a science fiction writer who just released her second novel last week. I’m a working SF writer who also produces foresight scenarios for Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, and SciFutures. I love my jobs and the people I work with, including my editors at Angry Robot. They’re great guys who have always made me feel welcome. But just because I had the time, energy, and support to wade through the bullshit doesn’t mean I didn’t smell it on my way in. And I sure as hell don’t fault my fellow women for going a different way to avoid it.
Was that last bit a tad self-aggrandizing? Yeah. Maybe that was why it never went through. Oops. Sorry. I was still on the high of releasing my second book. Mea culpa. But I think my larger point still stands: this is a community issue, not just a publishing issue, but that doesn’t mean publishing has no role to play.
Maybe publishing is so worried about the end of its business model that it can’t figure out how to increase and diversify its talent pool. But in so doing, it’s also missing out on an opportunity increase and diversify its customer segments. Different writers mean a different audience, and in the end it’s all about the audience. Are those other companies really more creative than the patrons of creativity? Christ, I hope not. This is the imagination business. We’re supposed to be pushing the limits of the possible, here. If publishers want to do more about the dearth of female voices in their talent pool — do something more than simultaneously wash and wring their hands, that is — then what’s needed isn’t just analysis, but innovation.
...is a science fiction writer, strategic foresight consultant, anime fan, and immigrant. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and IAM Sports & Entertainment. She has been a guest on TVO's The Agenda multiple times. Her novels are published by Angry Robot Books. Her fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and Tor.com.