SF Women of the 20th Century: Introduction

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Regardless of when you think science fiction started, and how far back you want to trace its origins (cough, Mary Shelley, cough, Verne and Wells, cough, Margaret Cavendish, cough, Lucian), the 20th century was undoubtedly a time of great development for science fiction as a recognisable genre. SF was in the pulp magazine, in the cinemas, on our radios and televisions, in novels and comics and artwork and fanzines and jewellery and action figures and glam rock.

And while 20th century science fiction is so often framed as a masculine genre, as a sexist genre, as a boys club, and as a hub of male geekery, male childhood, male second childhood and a world peopled by old white men, it was always a place where women existed, and worked, and played, and created wonderful things.

The history of women’s participation in science fiction is often troubling and problematic and difficult to talk about, and enraging, and inspiring, and so many other things. But most often, the history of women in science fiction is forgotten. (Too often, it ends up being a conversation about ‘where are the women in science fiction’ which is pretty insulting to those who were standing there in front of you all along, as Judith Tarr describes in her recent essay Where Have All The Women Gone?)

History is a living, dynamic thing, and we shape it as people when we decide what is important and what is not.

I think that the women who helped to shape science fiction over the 20th century are pretty damned important, so I’m going to blog about some of them over thea next few months. Actually, my plan is to blog about a lot of them, because it’s amazing how many women get dropped out of the conversation after a single female name has been acknowledged. It also means I won’t feel as much pressure to write massive, sprawling essays about the Important Women – I’d rather write a wide variety of shorter pieces which can include the fun, silly and downright interesting corners of science fiction where women have been involved along with the award-winning fiction and critical contributions and so on.

Blog posts are pretty terrible ways to convey an entire person’s life story or science fictional significance (I thought about writing a post about James Tiptree Jr and my head exploded, because that’s a book worth of information and Julie Phillips already wrote it), so I’m going to focus on a single piece of work, event or contribution.

If you have any suggestions of recommendations of particular women for me to talk about, I’d welcome the feedback, though I promise nothing. I’d particularly appreciate suggestions of women of colour, women from non-English speaking countries, for the sake of as much variety as possible.

Come back tomorrow to find out who I’ll be talking about first! (or, you know, guess in the comments)

1. Raccoona Sheldon & “The Screwfly Solution”

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19 replies on “SF Women of the 20th Century: Introduction”

  1. Charlotte says:

    oooh, looking forward to this!

  2. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) says:

    My guess is you are going to hold off on Tiptree…and so I am going to go with…Leigh Brackett!

  3. Margaret St Clair, who btw is still alive.

  4. Or Andre Norton. Someone should do an extended series of reviews of her books…

  5. David Grigg says:

    Great plan. Looking forward to it.

  6. Sidsel says:

    I’m really looking footwear to reading this series

  7. Katrina (@KatydidNL) says:

    This sounds great! I’d love to see you write about Barbara Hambly, who wrote a lot of great fantasy in the 80s/90s and has since moved to mysteries, primarily.

  8. psukeyhackr says:

    Lois Bujold who blows away Andre Norton. LOL

    Look at

  9. psukeyhackr says:

    Lois Bujold who blows away Andre Norton. LOL

    Look at how she handles the wormhole “physics” in Komarr. It ain’t just about great characters.

  10. James Davis Nicoll says:

    Bujold, as good as she is, can’t have the same historical significance as Norton, because Norton got started a half century before Bujold.

  11. Andrew Barton (MadLogician) says:

    Some women of colour writing SF that I’ve read recently:

    NK Jemisin
    Aliette de Bodard
    Sofia Samatar
    Karen Lord

  12. tansyrr says:

    Let’s not launch some kind of Norton-Bujold smackdown! Apart from the fact that it might cause the heat death of the universe if you throw that much futuristic tech into a fight, we don’t have to choose. WE CAN HAVE BOTH.

  13. […] Rayner Roberts introduced a new series on SF Women of the 20th Century, which I’m super excited to […]

  14. […] Tansy Rayner Roberts stellt in einer neuen Reihe in ihrem Blog Sci-Fi-Autorinnen des 20. Jahrhunderts […]

  15. Ju says:

    I’m so excited about this series!! I will have to think on any suggestions but think it likely that others will cover people I think of.

  16. ERose says:

    I would disagree that the entire problem is simply ignoring all the women, but I do agree that there are a lot of excellent female SF writers who get ignored.

    I also notice that a lot of excellent female-authored SF gets marketed differently, especially if the author also writes any kind of fantasy. Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series is arguably SF, but gets shelved fantasy because a) she’s a woman and b) she also writes a clear fantasy series. Same with her work as Mira Grant. Rachel Caine’s Revivalist trilogy is arguably SF, but gets shelved fantasy because she also writes about vampires.
    For the 20th Century, Emma Bull’s Bone Dance arguably applies, as do Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books. Worth considering.

    To your actual question (sorry for the tangent) definitely Octavia Butler and Joan Vinge for the 20th century.

  17. tansyrr says:

    I think it’s very true that women who write both SF and fantasy are often shoved out of the narrative about SF – that’s been going all the way back to McCaffrey and Zimmer Bradley. Which is why it’s fascinating now to see the history of fantasy also excluding women, or treating them as a minority in the field (outside Australia, anyway).

  18. ERose says:

    It’s also interesting to note the shift from treating female work as “fantasy” to labeling it as “paranormal romance.” Even if romance isn’t really the point at all.
    Or you get female-authored fantasy marketed as “young adult fantasy” quite a lot even if there’s nothing about it that is really aimed at teen readers.
    In a sense, these kinds of labeling maneuvers erase female authors from the narrative about the “real” genre *while they’re still working.*

    It’s basically genre gerrymandering.

    Where they can’t achieve that, there is kind of a conspiracy of “just don’t talk about her.” In fantasy, Patricia McKillip and “The Riddle-Master of Hed” comes to mind. I suggested Joan Vinge earlier because she really seems like a huge example of that to me. Lois McMaster Bujold gets mentioned more often, but her SF work is nowhere near so widely available at bookstores as her fantasy work, which is really unusual for a series that is still active and frequently award-winning or nominated.

  19. tansyrr says:

    Yes, I agree – some of this is done out of good intentions, because there are certain genres that simply sell better, especially with female names, but the effect is always frustrating when a book is mislabelled (and therefore dismissed from the main narrative).

    I love Patricia McKillip! I normally loathe books where the beauty of the prose is the most important feature but her words are JUST SO PRETTY I used to admire them greatly.

    The lack of distribution of both Bujold and Connie Willis in Australia has long been a frustration to me, considering they are two of the best known US SF writers who are also women. At least with Bujold the books have been readily accessible from very early on (I caught up on her work via mobipocket back in the day) but it’s frustrating not to be able to get your hands on the paper books when that’s what you want.

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