June 5th, 2013
Every Wednesday, I try and showcase a female writer who is special to me for one reason or another, in an attempt to focus more attention on female sf and fantasy writers. I will limit this to writers I’ve actually read multiple books of, if only to have an excuse to link to old reviews on my booklog. This time, let’s talk about Leigh Brackett.
So I was looking through my archives to see what I’ve written about Leigh Brackett before, and I saw that each time I mentioned her I noticed that you may know her from her work writing for The Empire Strike Back. Well, can’t break tradition which is why I mentioned this again. It’s fitting that one of the best pulp science fiction authors would end up writing for the movie series whose inspiration was the sort of adventure sf Brackett wrote. Furthermore, Brackett had been an accomplished screenwriter for almost as long as she had been a science fiction writer, working on movies like The Big Sleep (1945), Rio Bravo (1959) and The Long Goodbye (1973). It’s also why her productivity as an sf writer dropped dramatically after the mid-fifties; there was better money in movies and television.
When she was writing science fiction, Leigh Brackett specialised in writing planetary romances, swashbuckling tales of derring do set on alien planets. In her case this usually Mars or Venus, back when it was still possible to think the other planets in the Solar System could be slightly different versions of Earth. Her Mars has the canals and dying civilisation, while Venus is a jungle planet full of primitive, massive reptiles. Nevertheless her worlds are not carbon copies of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Hers are much more alive, not just stage sets for transplanted western or jungle adventures: her Martians have agency.
What I like about the best of her writing is how well she can portray a mood in her stories with only a few well chosen words. In the sort of short pulp sf story she specialised there was little room for much characterisation or mood setting, so she always had to be economical, which she did very well. Her craft is also visible in her husband, Edmond Hamilton’s work. Hamilton was a true pulp dinosaur, but after he got married to Brackett in 1946, his work took a leap forward in quality…
The Secret of Sinharat:
Science fantasy is that subgenre of science fiction that has all the trappings of science fiction, –aliens, other planets, blasters and aircars — but which actually read a lot like sword and sorcery in disguise, with strapping barbarian heroes fighting degenerate warlocks using superscience of an earlier age that they barely understand. It’s very romantic, not very plausible or much concerned with realistic science. Science fiction in that grand pulp tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And like Burroughs had his John Carter, Brackett has Eric John Stark, the outlaw with a twenty year Moonprison sentence on his head, raised by a strange non-human tribe on Mercury, (in)famous on three planets as a barbarian and renegade, but also as a man with his own code of honour.
People of the Talisman:
Science fantasy often tends towards the purple and melodramatic, but Brackett’s tone of voice here is cynical and knowing, the story told in short, clear sentences with more than a hint of hardboiled sensibility. Stark is a tarnished hero in the mold of Raymond Chandler’s worldweary detectives; you can see Humphrey Bogart playing him. Brackett describes the Mars she has invented in the same way, with a few well chosen images sketched with a minimum of words.
The Sword of Rhiannon:
What sets The Sword of Rhiannon a touch above other pulp adventure stories is both Brackett’s writing and that elegiac sense of loss that comes across through it. At the end of the story Carse returns to the Mars of his own day, leaving a still living world for one that is slowly dying. He may have saved Mars from the tyranny of the Dhuvians, but its ultimate fate is still fixed…
The Halfling and Other Stories:
It doesn’t help that the first two stories are basically the same. In both there’s the hardbitten protagonist falling for a mysterious beautiful alien girl who he knows is trouble yet can’t help himself but get involved with, who then turns out to be evil. Worse, in both stories this girl is shown to be representative of her race, their evil part of their biology. It’s a bit …uncomfortable… shall we say, but unfortunately these sort of assumptions are build into the kind of planetary romances Leigh Brackett wrote.
Categories: Feminism, science fiction
June 4th, 2013
Kameron Hurley is not amused by the ongoing sexism problems in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America or the idea that criticism of this is censorship:
So. I get it. The world used to agree with you. You used to be able to say things like, “I really like those lady writers in this industry, especially in swimsuits!” and your fellow writers, editors, agents, and other assorted colleagues would all wink and grin and agree with you, and Asimov would go around pinching women’s asses, and it was so cool!
The problems arose with the SFWA’s quarterly magazine, in the regular column written by Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick. E. Catherine Tobler has a good summing up in her open lettre to the SFWA:
It began with issue #200 of the Bulletin—all right, #199 if we want to get technical. It began with the Resnick and Malzberg Dialogues, a long-time feature of the publication. It began when two men sat down to have a dialogue about editors and writers of the female gender.
I found a dialogue that seemed more focused on how these “lady editors” and “lady writers” looked in bathing suits, and that they were “beauty pageant beautiful” or a “knock out.” I am certain no condescension was intended with the use of “lady,” but as the dialogues went on, I felt the word carried a certain tone—perhaps that was a fiction of my own making. As I listened to these two men talk about lady editors and writers they had known, I grew uneasy. Something wasn’t right.
The editorial staff (headed by a woman) vowed to improve, to seek more membership input. Issue #201 was little better—it included an article, written by another man, that told women to emulate Barbie, to “maintain our quiet dignity as a woman should.”
Issue #202 brought with it a “rebuttal” from Malzberg and Resnick, in which they used the words “censorship,” and “suppression,” and “ban.” In which they said those who complained about their article were anonymous to them, that the SFWA forum had become “the arena for difference.” Was it members who objected to “apparent sexism,” or was it a larger, darker, more hostile and threatening thing that wanted to suppress their dialogues?
In all the complaints that were voiced, there was never a call for censorship. There was never a call for suppression. There was a call for respect.
As the controversy grew, the SFWA has announced a task force to look at these problems:
In response to this and previous feedback from members about recent issues of the Bulletin, I have authorized the formation of a task force to look at the Bulletin and to determine how the publication needs to proceed from this point in order to be a valuable and useful part of the SFWA member experience.
Furthermore, the SFWA’s outgoing president, John Scalzi (of this parish) has unreservedly apologised for these problems in an open lettre to the membership:
That begins with recognizing the problem. And here is the problem: SFWA, through the last few issues of the Bulletin, has offended many of our own members.
As president of the organization, I apologize to those members.
If you want to read more, much more about all this Jim Hines has a link roundup. For those curious about the article that kicked all this off, Radish Reviews has excerpts and scans of it (scroll down).
Categories: Feminism, geekdom, science fiction
May 29th, 2013
Every Wednesday, I try and showcase a female writer who is special to me for one reason or another, in an attempt to focus more attention on female sf and fantasy writers. I will limit this to writers I’ve actually read multiple books of, if only to have an excuse to link to old reviews on my booklog. To kickstart the series, what better author to start with than Joanna Russ?
Joanna Russ after all was the first prominent feminist science fiction writer, the first to explicitely examine gender relations in her fiction and keep it up as a main theme in many of her stories. In the process she also took aim at some of science fiction’s founding myths. For example, in We Who Are About to… , where she took the old concept of a crashed space ship on an unexplored planet and the brave survivors attempting to restart civilisation there and let her heroine steadfastly refuse to take part in it.
At the same time Russ was also active in reclaiming some of the lost history of women writers, most famously in her 1983 book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, which looked at how female authors had been written out of literary history:
“She didn’t write it. But if it’s clear she did the deed… She wrote it, bit she shouldn’t have. (It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist.) She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!) She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. (“Jane Eyre. Poor dear. That’s all she ever…”) She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. (It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book. It’s sci fi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning. Branwell Brontë. Her own “masculine side”.) Sje wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard’s help…) She wrote it BUT…”
Unfortunately Russ herself suffered from some of the same neglect. Most of her science fiction work was written at the start of her career, in the late sixties and seventies. Various chronic health problems kept her from writing more and many of her books fell out of print. She kept up her non-fiction writing for longer, but the science fiction field is terrible at keeping abreast with what’s happening elsewhere. Nevertheless for those who do come across her, for those who find feminism important, she was and is an important writer, somebody widely taught in university classes on feminism and science fiction.
Of her works I’ve so far read three: Picnic on Paradise, The Female Man and We Who Are About to… . Of these three, the first is an enjoyable adventure story with an interesting heroine, the second is a stone cold classic and the last is an impressively bitter polemic.
Picnic on Paradise:
Picnic on Paradise is an old fashioned adventure sf story, with a plot a Keith Laumer or a Lloyd Biggle could’ve used, but with a far greater focus on the group dynamics between Alyx and her fellow refugees. Which makes this somewhat more interesting then if it had only focused on external conflicts. Each of the characters feels real, is recognisable without being stereotyped, which makes the interplay between them interesting.
the Female Man:
The Female Man is a tough book, but not a hard book to read. Joanna Russ is a brilliant writer and everything in here sparkles; at times you can only sit there open mouthed with awe. It’s a tough book because of the raw anger Russ has put in it.
We Who Are About to…
We Who Are About To… is arguably Joanna Russ’ most famous and controversial novel after The Female Man. That novel became famous because of its outspoken feminism, still rare in science fiction at the time; if we’re honest, still somewhat rare today. We Who Are About To… comitted a greater sin however, by attacking the optimistic, can do attitude of classic science fiction, the belief that any adversity can be overcome by man’s unique fighting spirit. It’s not just that the protagonist doesn’t win in the end; even Asimov the arch-optimist had written “Founding Father” ten years earlier, a story in which four astronauts fight but fail to terraform a planet before it kills them. No, the real problem is that she rejects the choice out of hand and choses not to fight, not even to try.
Categories: Feminism, science fiction
May 22nd, 2013
Kari Sperring is fed up with the lack of attention to women writers in science fiction and fantasy and is doing something about it:
So, yesterday I decided to indulge in another round of that intermittent habit, poking the internet with a stick, but starting a hashtag — #womentoread — over on Twitter. I asked people to recommend sff by women. The response was astonishing: I’d hoped that some of my friends would pick it up, but… One of the very first to do so was Seanan Mcguire (Thank you, Seanan!) and it just took off.
But why now, exactly. I’ve done something like this before (last year with the fantasy by women thing). That’s part of it. I am an activist to my bones: it’s coded into me to try and do something when I see an injustice. And I know far too many really great women writers who are underrated, under-reviewed, under-recognised. I see male writers praised for doing things in books which women did before them, which women are doing as well as them — but the women are ignored and sidelined.
You can share the idea. You can write a review of a book by a woman. You can blog about a woman writer you admire. You can post a list of links to the websites of women writers you love. It doesn’t have to be ep;ic fantasy or even sff. It can be any genre. And then, please, go to twitter and tweet that link with the #womentoread hashtag. If you’re not on twitter, post the link here in the comments and I will tweet it for you.
Nina Allen took this idea and prepared a list of 101 women writers to read, which is a good start to look for new writers to try, as is James Nicoll’s list. This is not the first time of course that the lack of visibility of women in sf&f has come up; two years ago Nicola Griffith started the Russ pledge in a similar attempt to get more discussion of women sf&f writers going. Some people, like me, took her up on it but of course such grassroots attemps take time to perculate upwards. A new initiative like #womentoread may help get some more momentum behind the continuing struggle to get more attention to women.
What I want to do with this is not to set up my own list of women writers, but rather do some posts highlighting some of my favourite writers, perhaps on a weekly basis; I’m thinking Women Writers Wednesday. I’ve been trying to read more female writers in the past couple of years, but a bit more systemic attention won’t do any harm.
Categories: fantasy, Feminism, science fiction
May 3rd, 2013
Science fiction writer Patty Jansen ran into a spot of sexism the other day when she tried to sell a hard sf novel to an unnamed publisher, only to be told that women writers don’t sell. She blogged about and something about she introduced it struck me as wrong:
I also get weary of people blaming their lack of success too easily on external factors. Having success is a matter of luck and talent–but mostly luck, and persistence–before being a function of anything else. I believe that quietly chipping away and engaging with the community is more valuable than agitating out loud, because I don’t believe there is anything to be gained by being accusatory to people you should try to engage in discussion instead.
In short, I really dislike playing the gender card, but when someone chucks a whole packet of cards in my face, it becomes harder to ignore.
It’s annoying that she felt the need to distance herself from those other women who use sexism as an excuse for their own failings. It shouldn’t be necessary and it comes across as if sexism is only real now it happened to her. You hope now that she has had this experience, Jansen will be a bit more charitable when hearing other women’s experiences.
Categories: Feminism, science fiction
March 17th, 2013
Over at Lady Business, they’ve looked at the coverage of female writers on science fiction and fantasy blogs:
Project thesis: when looking at a sample of bloggers reviewing SF/F, a majority of men will skew toward reviewing more men. A majority of women will skew toward a more equal gender parity, or the opposite in which they review a majority of women. There will be a handful of outliers.
Which meant it was time to check my own reviewing, to see whether or not I’m an outlier or not. A few years ago I re-examined my reading habits, coming to the conclusion I read too few female writers, then set out to correct this. However, though I strive to review each book I read, the reality is that I largely don’t succeed in doing so. Last year I read 91 books, but reviewed only forty.
Luckily I keep track of which books I review each year, so it was easy to do the math. I reviewed forty books, of which twentyfour were written by men, sixteen by women, for a very clean division of sixty to forty percent male vs female writers reviewed. That’s better than how the average male reviewer is doing in the Lady Business study (74 to 25 %), worse than the average female reviewer (42 to 58, slightly more skewed towards female writers) and still not gender balanced.
The numbers are somewhat skewed by my Pratchett rereading project, which accounts for eight of those twentyfour, or a third of my male writers. Without those, the ratio switches to sixteen male to sixteen women, or a perfect fifty/fifty split. All done by accident though.
Categories: books and books review, Feminism, posts interesting only to me