That’s Right, the Women Are Smarter (2022)

Who Rules Science Fiction?

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Trying to decide who rules science fiction?

That’s fundamentally the wrong way to look at it.

At heart, science fiction is about alternative visions and alternative voices. Its job is to blow open the gates and add some wonder to your day. Any attempt to form a corpus and rule over it acts against precisely what makes the genre widely loved.

Still, in the sorry case of the Sad Puppy, sf’s core definition became a fight with the Hugos (sf’s Oscars) as the marker for success.

To understand what happened (and just because it’s fun), we should start with a brief history.

First, despite attempts to portray sf as the purview of white men, it’s been a big tent to me as long as I’ve been reading. C L Moore’s Red Sonya was cleaving skulls and taking lovers along with Conan and Bran Mak Morn in the pulps I found in my Dad’s drugstore paperback rack when I was 11.

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Even in the heyday of boys with toys science fiction Andre Norton held her own fully gendered. She was perhaps stigmatized as a writer for young adults but, frankly, so was the entire genre. Certainly, sf was not a feminist utopia (though it has portrayed some), and it wasn’t until the late 70s that some prominent women authors emerged from behind male or gender-ambiguous pen names, for example, James Tiptree, Jr (Alice Sheldon) and C J Cherryh (Carolyn Janice Cherry).

One of the genre’s best-known authors, Ursula Le Guin, began with male heroes due to concern that her audience wouldn’t be able to relate to female protagonists. She then disassembled gender in a series of groundbreaking novels in the late 60s as the genre slowly broke wide open. Women authors such as Johanna Russ and Le Guin were joined by writers queer (e.g., Samuel Delaney, Jr) and writers simply odd (e.g., R A Lafferty). Heinlein was still there, but so were Johanna Russ and Octavia Butler.

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Another important force in sf was its permeability. There were remarkably few barriers between fans and authors. A legacy of fan fiction, mimeographed newsletters, and celebratory Cons with panels and both celebrity and fan Guests of Honor meant that you could typically interact directly with a favorite author if you put your mind to it. Regardless of your gender and orientation, you might even choose to remix their work and characters in scenarios ranging from space opera to porn and publish it in zines and later websites.

Yet the issue of who ruled was recently raised in pretty much those terms in a rearguard action by a group calling themselves the Sad Puppies.

In highly compressed form, this all began when author Larry Correia decided that his type of fiction was not getting awards because the World Science Fiction Society was under the sway of snowflakey social justice warriors and kept giving awards to the wrong sort of writing. He was selling lots of books but not winning.

It’s hard to improve on Wikipedia’s summary of the movement:

Sad Puppies was an unsuccessful right-wing anti-diversity voting campaign intended to influence the outcome of the annual Hugo Awards, the longest-running prize (since 1953) for science fiction or fantasy works. It was initiated in 2013 by author Larry Correia by means of a voting bloc to get his own novel nominated, and then through suggested slates in subsequent years (led by Correia in 2014, and then Brad R. Torgersen in 2015).

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(The World Science Fiction Society is a membership organization. You pay your dues a bit in advance, and you can vote in a variety of categories with awards given at the yearly World Science Fiction Convention. The 77th WorldCon was in Dublin; the 80th will be in Chicago. There’s also an open nominating process that boils each category down to a final 5 candidates.)

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The Puppies had little impact when it was simply authors lobbying supporters to nominate their novels. In 2013 Correia mounted a(failed) campaign to get his novel to be one of the nominees. By 2015 this had become a campaign that created Sad Puppy slates and organized supporters to join the WSFS and to vote for the Sad Puppy slate as a block.

That was successful. Sad Puppy nominees dominated some categories, with all finalists being from their slate!

And the shit hit the fan. Outraged, the ‘everybody else’ contingent containing, btw, plenty of white guys, got the word out. Folks joined so they could vote to counteract the Puppies block. Connie Willis, scheduled to be the awards presenter, canceled. Unaffiliated nominees that had been added to the Sad Puppy slate to give it legitimacy withdrew their work.

When the dust settled, members voted No Award in five categories dominated by the Puppies. A few folks that would have won anyway, e.g., Neil Gaiman, got awards. George RR Martin, one leader of the counter-force, held an alternatives awards banquet and gave awards to the folks that had withdrawn their nominations to help draw attention to their work.

Chock one up for the snowflakes.

More importantly, all the bruhaha's net result seems to have been cementing an awareness that the wide variety of off-center and alternative visions are sf’s deepest contribution to the culture. Further, the role of the Hugos should be to draw attention to significant and often challenging work.

Equally significant, I think this has acted as a signal to women writers to stay the course. As a result, women have moved forward in their chosen careers with critical and commercial success.

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Looking at recent Hugo awards lists, women essentially own it and own it with some very interesting points of comparison to past writers.

As always there are exceptions, but women have long had a niche in fantasy, in tales of vampires and other monsters, and (Le Guin’s legacy) in sf based on the ‘soft sciences’ of anthropology and sociology.

The recent winners are decidedly not that.

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The equivalent to the Oscar’s big picture favorites — galaxy spanning space opera — has seen Hugo wins by Ann Leckie and Arkady Martine. Even military sf — not my favorite though I’ll admit to a few journeys with the Black Company — has seen Linda Nagata kicking ass and taking names.

Emblematic of the current state of sf is N.K. Jemisin. While keeping her day job as a career counselor for at-risk youth in New York, she completed a very solid trilogy of mythic fantasy novels. From there, her work established her in the tradition of folks like Johanna Russ, Samuel Delaney Jr, RA Lafferty, and Octavia Butler as a sui generis author in the sf genre. Her absolutely unique Fifth Season trilogy, with its elements of deadly prejudice, slavery, and world-destroying disaster, won the Hugo an unprecedented three years running in 2016, 2017, and 2018. She has gone from mounting a Patreon campaign to allow her to write full time to winning a MacArthur Grant in 2020.

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Commenting on Nirvana, Greil Marcus observed that’s there’s nothing like seeing the misfits and outsiders move into the center. This has been a bit like that.

From my perspective of 50+ years of reading sf, I’d like to add an observation. This is the type of generalizing that is in danger of collapsing into tremendous nonsense, but I’ll risk it. It seems to me that women have had little trouble (outside audience prejudice) in working with the hard sciences. (I mean, c’mon, these are people that have chosen to write sf!) But it looks to me like they have recently integrated elements of romance and character relationships into their work, making much more satisfying literature. I’m not sure the male hard science types have as easy a time working with the new full pallet and so are at a competitive disadvantage.

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Certainly, there are lots of exceptions to this generalization with goofy science, wooden characters, and flat-out bad writing getting published regardless of the author’s gender, but there you have it.

Okay, now for some recommendations:

Recent Hugo winners you should read in addition to Jemisin:
Ann Leckie — Ancillary Justice
Arkady Martine — A Memory Called Empire
Martha Wells —All Systems Red (Murderbot! Along with Becky Chamber’s work, probably my favorite from the last 5 years)
Linda Nagata — The Red trilogy (actually only a Hugo nominee but won a Locus)
Becky Chambers —The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Chambers might also be another sui generis author but in the lowest key possible way.)

Favorite authors of mine that deserve much more attention:

RA McAvoy — anything
Patricia McKillip — anything
Kage Baker — start with Sky Coyote

Favorite books by some of the older set mentioned above:

Andre Norton — Catseye
Samuel Delaney, Jr — Don’t go directly to Dahlgren! Take ‘em in order or at least begin with Babel 17.
RA Lafferty — except for Okla Hannaii, Lafferty’s work is basically one long shaggy dog story. Pick anything.
Johanna Russ — The Adventures of Alyx
C J Cherryh — Downbelow Station

Thanks for reading.

My mailing list and various projects can be found at altabor.org.

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