On my iPod: Science Fiction Podcasty Goodness

The Coode Street podcast invite on special guest Ursula Le Guin to discuss the good, the bad and the “oh no she didn’t” contained within the pages of Margaret Atwood’s recent collection of essays about science fiction In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011). It’s especially interesting because Le Guin not only considers herself a friend of Atwood, but is often a subject in the essays themselves – but she pulls no punches when it comes to casting a critical eye over the book – and, with equal sharpness, the fans who have contributed to Atwood’s often misguided image of what SF readers are like. If there was a literary canon of SF-themed podcasts, this one would have to be pretty high on the list.

I also very much enjoyed the latest, 12th episode of The Outer Alliance podcast – these have been going from strength to strength with some wonderful interviews (and I’m not just saying that because they namecheck Galactic Suburbia!) and the latest one has host Julia Rios discussing all manner of gleeful and squeeful things with Lynne M Thomas – Hugo-award winning co-editor of Chicks Dig Time Lords, co-editor also of Whedonistas and the upcoming Chicks Dig Comics, incoming editor of Apex Magazine, podcaster of the SF Squeecast, archivist extraordinaire, etc. Oh yes, and she’s my fellow Tiptree juror this year too! Getting a chance to eavesdrop on the conversation between these two bouncy, enthusiastic and smart women was a great pleasure today, and they cover all kinds of issues, from behind the scenes podcasting gossip to third wave feminism, and how talking about shoes can be a subversive act.

I checked on a new discovery, the Anomaly podcast this week, with mixed results. I had been linked to their special two part Women of Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Fandom episode, and found that inspiring and illuminating in some places, and deeply irritating in others. I liked that it was a group of women discussing their interests in SF, fandom, etc. and tackling questions like who writes strong female authors best, and whether ‘slave Leia’ costumes are problematic or empowering.

I was put off initially by the opening to the podcast – why is a podcast with all female hosts and a focus on female issues introduced by male voices? And I also bristled about the definition of Anomaly, and the over-emphasis on just how weird it is that girls like geeky things (in my world, this isn’t a weird thing!). However, I was won over by the earnestness of the presenters, and the quite emotional revelations of how they came to fandom, and some of the sexism or gender assumptions they have had to overcome to embrace their geekitude, which made me a lot more sympathetic to their feeling like being geek women is, you know, unusual.

As with all podcasts, the most interesting parts were the conversations where it was obvious that they were only speaking for themselves and their personal opinions – and it screeched to a halt (as far as this listener was concerned) where I disagreed madly with them. The issue that repeatedly had me gnashing my teeth was the lack of mention of female writers – the very long discussion about who writes great female characters in SF and fantasy came back again and again to Joss Whedon, Robert Jordan, and other male writers, but only touched briefly on women (mentions of Jane Espenson and Suzanne Collins) – and then one of them made the appalling statement that she sort of thought women tended not to write strong female characters. For the most part this was met with agreement, and while she admitted maybe that meant she wasn’t reading the right female authors, none of them could think of many examples to counter her claim.

So the statement stood there, sucking up all the oxygen in the room.

Because, sorry, that really does mean you are reading the wrong stuff! Later on the same statement was brought up by someone else as JUSTIFICATION for the fact that women in the TV and film industry were more vulnerable to being elbowed out, in the troubled economy. As in, since women don’t write great female characters… well she didn’t actually say that maybe it was better then that they got fired first so the menz could get on with writing great roles for women, but it was implied. Ouch. I know none of us are perfect feminists, but that bit did rather produce some steam from my ears.

So… I’m not sure about this one. I liked so much of the mega double episode, as an introduction to this group of female hosts, but was saddened to see so little positive discussion of female authors – it made me want to send them a book list! Except for the fact that my whole life is basically a book list arguing against that particular point. The analysis of women’s position in fan culture, though, and the media focus, was of great interest to me and I absolutely think it produced more good than harm. Though – gnash gnash. Not sure I can recommend it.

On a far, far more positive note, I started listening to the interviews that the Anomaly women had posted as part of their celebration of Women in Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Fandom, and I can recommend this one without hesitation: Sue interviews Carrie, the mother of “Katie the Star Wars girl,” whose story went viral last year after Katie was bullied at school for having a Star Wars drink bottle (Star Wars is for boys, apparently) and her mother wrote a heartfelt blog post about it. Being the mother of a proud Grade 1 geek girl myself, I found myself tearing up as Carrie talked about the internet response to her request to hear from women who love Star Wars, so Katie would know it was nothing to be ashamed of. I do love me a story about the internet doing good – and this particular pile-on was spectacular!

Carrie has written a book about bullying, and has done a huge amount of interview-based research for her work, looking particularly at how to teach very young children to deal with and respond to bullying in the most constructive possible way, and how to head it off as early as possible (also about how to empathise with, and communicate with children who bully others). I found her thoughts on the issue absolutely fascinating, as well as her discussion on raising geek children generally, and other things to do with the way society is intent on gender policing our children.

The advice on how to explain the difference between tattling & necessary reporting/telling was very cool, and something I will draw upon in the future, I suspect. So after my disappointment in the group podcast, I was glad to have my hopes for Anomaly pay off so well – I guess that means I have to give some more of their episodes a go now!

14 replies on “On my iPod: Science Fiction Podcasty Goodness”

  1. Alisa says:

    OMG i HATED that Anomaly podcast. I could not make it through the whole of the first part. What i found beyond irritating was their lack of interrogation of many of their statements. the world is not black and white and nobody gets it right all the time. That doesn’t make them bad, or not trying, but you can’t just gloss over where they trip up and say they get it right every time just because you like Firefly. Which is to say, I’m not sure that Joss Whedon *did* get it right in Dollhouse. And also there were many strong awesome writers who also contributed to Buffy and “got it right” – Joss Whedon didn’t write every episode.

    And also, I loved Battlestar Galactica and I loved many of the female characters but again I don’t think they “got it right all the time” and not not with every character, or even with like Starbuck, who was awesome but also had problematic aspects.

    Personally, I find the grey more interesting to dissect and this show lacked very little of that kind of discussion.

    And i was so irritated by their discussion – also the bit where it’s only men who write strong female characters and women writers don’t, was such an uninformed broad statement. Oh and the lack of interrogation on Game of Thrones and the first episode that I’ve heard described as almost porn. Ugh. I gave up.

  2. Alisa says:

    Oops should add “many strong female writers like Marti Noxon and Jane Espenson who contributed to Buffy”.

  3. tansyrr says:

    I agree that it was lacking in nuance – have been trying not to be too judgy because a) I think their hearts were in the right place and b) we know from our own experiences that you can end up losing track of what you’re saying in podcasts, because it’s basically a conversation – and even more so with a five way conversation.

    Also I assume none of them had watched Dollhouse, and can’t blame them for not including something they haven’t watched – though I haven’t watched it either and have read enough discussion about it that I agree, it should be acknowledged that he’s no longer held up as the pinnacle of male feminist writing.

    And yes, I found it very upsetting that the blanket statement of ‘women don’t write strong characters’ was not only said, but repeated. But Robert Jordan and George RR Martin got mentioned multiple times. Because, really?

  4. Alisa says:

    That’s fair. And deconstructing your own thoughts, reactions and assumptions as they were constructed in a culture that is biased is hard and constantly iterative.

  5. Jen says:

    Hi, I’m Jen. I am a co-host of the Anomaly Podcast. I received a very late google alert for this blog post and swung by to check it out. First, I want to thank you for writing about us. Whether you agree or disagree, we are glad you felt that our show was worthy of your time.

    At first I hesitated to respond to this post. I believed that you would think I was defensive or a showboater. But some of your comments and your follower’s comments stung. Alot. Yikes. I decided I had to respond, if for no other reason than to clarify to those who may read this later.

    I will start with a better introduction than what I gave on the episode in question. I glossed over that a bit. I’m sorry if there was any confusion about the nature of our podcast as a whole. Our show is about five years old. Angela (my co-host) and I started out just chatting about our favorite sci-fi television and film, once a month. Anomaly is generally light-hearted geek girl show and we have a lot of fun when we record. There is often much laughter. This is our hobby and a creative outlet. The minute it becomes a job, we have vowed to quit. 🙂 As a rule we never take ourselves too seriously. We aren’t the type to remember all the actors’ names or the episode titles of every TNG episode. As far as geeks go, we fail in that department that’s one of the reasons we call ourselves “Anomalies”. I’ll explain our definition of Anomaly at the end of the post.

    My co-host and I are new moms. A couple of years ago we were having trouble being consistent with our episodes, so we invited four of our most active and articulate listeners to join our staff. Kasey, Sarah, Sue and Anne are not only the hosts our micro cast, “Anomaly Supplemental”, but three of the four also write for our blog.

    Recently Anomaly switched hosting companies and I archived over fifty of our past episodes at anomalypodcast.com. I knew there would be people discovering our show for the first time and I wanted to start fresh with something more impactful than whether or not we like ET or Measure of a Man. I also knew this “Women of Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Fandom” roundtable series would be controversial, but I had no idea that the word “hate” (in all caps) or “deeply irritating” would be used to describe the episode, or that women would be the ones saying it. We’ve actually had mostly positive feedback from both women and men and your post was surprising. But whether you liked what we had to say or not, we do appreciate you talking about. It was our goal to open a dialog. That said, I wish you would have sent us feedback so we could talk about it on the show. We love hearing from our listeners and their opinions help us improve what we do. A book list would be awesome and we would love to share it on the show. 🙂

    Not all of us are avid readers. My co-host and are are not, as Angela admitted in the episode, but we are trying. A few years ago I “graduated” from Star Trek and Star Wars novels and started reading hardcore fantasy. Robert Jordan’s “The Wheel of Time” series was my second venture into the genre and I really enjoyed it. That’s why I mentioned him so often in the discussion. I mentioned George R.R. Martin because Song of Ice and Fire was fresh on my mind as well. I finished “Game of Thrones” and was left with a bad taste in my mouth. I liked his writing, but was not happy with the way most of the women were treated. It left me feeling torn. I wanted to find out what happened to the characters, but I couldn’t deal with all the violence towards women. I think I said the same for Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth”. Call me a wimp. Call me a prude, I just can’t stand so many rape scenes. I’m sensitive to them.

    Jordan and Tolkien are the best fantasy authors that I know at the moment. If you listened to my Mur Lafferty interview, she offered other suggestions after I mentioned that I needed to expand my list of authors. But all that aside, in the roundtable, I explained why I liked Jordan. I said that I could identify with all his female characters and that I have friends who are much like several of them. What I wasn’t able to finish saying was that they had me laughing out loud at times and I feared for them at other times. I felt for those characters. I related to them. To me that’s good writing. If you don’t care about a character, if they don’t move you, what do they matter?

    In the end, our conclusion was that it doesn’t matter if the author is male or female; skilled writers create solid, believable female characters.

    I admit, don’t know many of the female writers in Hollywood. Looking back, I do wish I had done more homework before hand, but my co-host and I have always been organic in discussions. We try to use a scratch pad to jot down thoughts, but we sometimes get so wrapped up in our chats and we forget to look at the notes. At times the points we meant to make are lost or interrupted. That did come into play during the Women of Sci-Fi and Fantasy roundtable. I’m glad you mentioned that.

    As far as “Dollhouse” is concerned, there were many shows we did not mention in addition to that one. A few of our listeners wrote in to ask why we didn’t mention their favorites. We talked about “Firefly” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and didn’t want to keep listing all Joss work. I haven’t seen Dollhouse and I don’t typically talk about what I don’t know very well. I do know that the ladies on the staff have seen “Dollhouse”, but it was one of those details that was lost in conversation.

    We are all Joss Whedon fans, so of course we do have a tendency to go on about him, but the main reason we mentioned him so much is because the speech that we included from Equality Now, at the end of our show. It inspired the conversation.

    I’m glad you enjoyed portions of our episode and I’m sorry other parts irritated you. That wasn’t our intent. We have purposely avoided politics on our show in the past to avoid this sort of reaction. But we all have our opinions, I personally did not agree with all points made by our staff. Regarding Sue’s statement about some female authors, she was referring to the female authors that she had read. Many of them weren’t that great in her opinion. I think she should be able to say that she disliked the female authors she’s read. I don’t think she believes that all women authors are sub par.

    Skype was dropping us left and right, so if someone of us failed to counter a controversial statement it’s possible it was because we were temporarily off the call. But it’s always when the episode is over that I think of something I could have added or said as a counterpoint. My life off the mic is like that too. 🙂 Again, none of us believe that male authors are better than female authors. Angela’s question about female authors in Hollywood was really meant to stir the pot, she does that a lot. Sue shot it down saying she was speaking about authors in literature specifically. And as I said, I’m pretty sure she was referring to those women she had read.

    We shared the various opinions of other women (and some men), via our survey and interviews with web celebrities, regarding the points made on our roundtable. They all had interesting things to say about the topics we discussed and we all agreed that more could be done to expand the role of women in science fiction and fantasy beyond the “smart chick in a tight outfit with a big weapon” scenarios we’re use to. That was the point of the episode—to start a dialog regarding how women are treated. And I think it’s working.

    To close, the man reading the definition of “Anomaly” is my co-host’s husband and a close friend of mine. He recorded the definition, which is now inserted at the start of all our episodes, during our very first recording. I asked him to do that. He read that opening statement for us and he did it well. We obviously like him and we like his voice, but aside from that we wanted someone other than ourselves to introduce us. We also like the quality of Simon’s voice, he reads for Anomaly Supplemental. Five years ago, we weren’t exactly sure what Anomaly was or what it was about. We’re still evolving. But, our definition isn’t about how weird female geeks are. It specifically says we are a “rarity”. I added that to the definition. It says we’re special. We like being different. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s also a popular Treknobabble term…we liked that too. I’m sorry if you thought we were a feminist geek podcast. We’re just a geek show, hosted by women. And the “Women of Sci-fi/fantasy and Fandom” series was the first time we had shared our thoughts on how women are treated in the genre. Those thoughts may have come across a little muddled due to the large group we had on Skype, but I think we communicated our point which was mainly that we wanted more diverse female characters in science fiction and fantasy. No more one dimensional damsels in distress or ridiculously hot women in boobillicious attire. Give us interesting, 3-dimensional female characters. That’s all we’re asking. 🙂

    I hope you haven’t given up on us. Thank you again for writing about the episode. I am sorry if we rubbed you the wrong way in this installment. It’s okay to disagree with us and it’s good to be an anomaly. There’s more about our thoughts on “anomalies” on our “about” page at anomalypodcast.com

  6. Angela says:

    Hey there. Angela here too. As you can see we are very passionate about what we do. We are just doing it for fun and frankly I am excited to have our first haters. 🙂

    You are so entitled to your opinion and we welcome it. Just remember when you are throwing around words like HATE…seriously ladies, we are not some anonymous robots of the internet, we are real people, real women and frankly criticism sucks. Maybe we are not for everyone, that’s cool. But hey, thanks for listening and good luck to you in your future endeavors.

  7. tansyrr says:

    Hi Jen and Angela

    I’m sorry that the criticisms of your podcast hurt your feelings – I did think very carefully about how to articulate my concerns, and I wouldn’t have put the post up at all if I hadn’t had lots to rave about along with my ranting. I wanted to discuss the highs and lows of that particular podcast because I felt many of my regular readers (and listeners) might enjoy it, but I also wasn’t willing to give a blanket recommendation without warning them of the bits I felt were potentially headdesky.

    We have our own all-female science fiction podcast, Galactic Suburbia, and are well aware how easy it is to say something without thinking through the implications, and we get our fair share of feedback telling us when we get things wrong. It’s certainly not fair to criticise what’s said conversationally in a podcast (especially in such a huge gathering over Skype, yikes!) with the same level of scrutiny you might use on a formal essay or blog post. (where a statement like “I don’t think women write female characters as well as men do” could set the internet on fire) But we also believe we have responsibility to own what we say, admit when we said something inappropriate, and learn from our mistakes. We do a lot of that.

    It really upset me that a themed discussion about women and female characters in SF/Fantasy should be so dismissive of female creators, and authors. I hope that, if you tackle a subject like this again, you keep that in mind.

    I considered sending in feedback with some suggested reading of fantastic female fantasy authors, but I hesitated to do so because I didn’t want to come off as patronising, and I hadn’t yet listened to rest of your Women in SF/Fantasy interviews. I have listened to Mur’s interview since reading this post and it did, I have to say, make me feel a lot better about the whole thing because of her effusive discussion of so much wonderful female-authored fantasy.

    I hope that you follow up on some of her recommendations, because there are so many amazing books out there, and so many different and exciting portrayals of women in SF/Fantasy books. I love that you were demanding that creators do a better job of writing and creating interesting, different female characters in SF/Fantasy – this is something I do a lot and whatever you say it is TOTALLY a feminist act – but it’s also important to know that a lot of the stuff you are craving is already out there. You just have to find it.

  8. Blah! says:

    Frankly, I have never read this blog, and just saw a link posted on my Facebook wall. Unlike you dear blogger, I know how to get to the point, so here it is. I listen to anomaly every now and then, and do not consider myself an obsessed fan. That being said, while you “hate” Anomaly that’s about as far as I got trying to read your blog without skimming, and had to pop an extra ridalyn just to force myself to read through the rest of your rant. Could you have just said, “this podcast sucked!” instead of pretending to cratique in a nonjudgemental way then back peddal and try to suck ass just incase you stepped on someone’s toes. You are either single and never had a date, or your a bitter lesbian. If not, oopsy sorry that is just my opinion. maybe I need to read a few more blogs before I pass judgement. Oh wait! No I’d rather not.

  9. tansyrr says:

    Wow. Just, wow. Obviously never reading this blog included not reading the post you have commented to.

  10. Blah! says:

    While I’ve never “commented to” anything I did comment On your blog post, not your crappy apology

  11. Angela says:

    I am honestly sorry for that. I posted a link to this blog to our podcast group page. Some of our fans are protective, but I didn’t expect this at all. In all seriousness, I do not condone the mean remarks or any mean remarks. That is not how we roll. As you see, Jen and I both posted as ourselves in the interest of full disclosure. I for one understand how this actually hurts our credibility instead of helping it. Not cool, not cool. I am really sorry. And shocked to be sure. Feel free to delete those posts if you can. I am embarrassed.

  12. tansyrr says:

    Thanks, Angela. I appreciate your comment very much. I haven’t decided yet about deletion. But I don’t blame you guys at all.

  13. Sue says:

    Hello, this is Sue. As the original comment on the podcast was mine, I feel that I should add a bit to this discussion to clarify my statement on the podcast. It was never my intention to make the blanket statement that “women don’t write women as well as men.” Please know that I don’t believe that whatsoever. I don’t choose the book I read based on the sex of the author. My point was that among the genre fiction I have read, I find that the stronger female characters – the ones that I identify with – tend to be written by men. I thought that was something interesting to bring up, and it was certainly not intended as a condemnation of women authors as a whole. Perhaps I could have worded it differently to make it more clear. The qualifier that “maybe I’m not reading the right female authors” is completely genuine. Maybe it says something about me that I can’t find those authors, or maybe it says something about the industry of genre fiction that the good ones aren’t easily found – I’m not sure.

    At any rate, I’m sorry for the controversy that has been started over an observation that I made regarding my own reading habits. Please know that it was not my intention to cause controversy. Each of us can only really speak from our own personal experience, and my general experience to date with female genre authors has not been a good one. I desperately want for that to change. All of that said, I am currently reading “Playing for Keeps” by Mur Lafferty, and adoring it, and have an enormously long reading list which includes many books by woman authors that I’ve only learned of in the past few months. And I would absolutely love some more recommendations. 🙂

    As individuals who release creative works on the internet, we all know that people will make their own opinions about it. Like Jen, I thank you for talking about Anomaly. This project (the roundtable and interviews) was sort-of a different thing for us, and it was a lot of work. So, we all feel very proud of it and a little protective, as you can imagine. In all honestly, I felt that your original post was trying to give us/me the benefit of the doubt, and generally a good recommendation. And thank you for your kind words about the interviews you’ve heard so far – I know that I personally took a lot of those conversations. And I’m truly sorry for any backlash (I don’t know who “Blah!” is, but I do not support those comments.) I do hope that you’ll continue to listen. 🙂

  14. tansyrr says:

    Hi Sue

    I’m genuinely sorry to hear that your experience with female genre authors hasn’t been great – part of the reason I reacted so badly is because you rarely hear people make those kinds of sweeping statements about men based on a narrow experience – but a few bad experiences with work by women are seen to represent the whole gender!

    (also I come from Australia where the majority of our bestselling SF/Fantasy authors are female, and so we have a different view of gender in the industry).

    The important thing is to keep reading.

    Recent series I can heartily recommend (which I think fans of Robert Jordan etc. would enjoy) are Watergivers (#1 The Last Stormlord) by Glenda Larke, and King Rolen’s Kin (#1 The King’s Bastard) by Rowena Cory Daniells. Both are otherworld fantasy with great characterisation of men and women, and pretty much equal focus on both.

    If those books don’t completely turn around your ideas about the kind of fantasy women can write, then I suggest trying some Robin McKinley, and Tamora Pierce – even when she was writing a violet-eyed, red-haired heroine, she was busting open the old stereotypes about women in fantasy. Her Protector of the Small series, about a girl openly trying to become a knight alongside a class of boys, is my absolute favourite.

    Some of the best and most interesting SF/Fantasy characters can be found in books intended for a YA market and for those who liked the Hunger Games (or Buffy!) I can recommend trying Holly Black, Sarah Rees Brennan or Diana Peterfreund.

    And that’s off the top of my head. Good luck with your reading list, I hope you find some new favourites!

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