Where No Woman Has Gone Before (Except They Totally Have): Ann Leckie & Rachel Bach On Gender & The Science Fiction Community

With plenty of recent discussion about diversity in SFF, we were thrilled to see two female authors, Ann Leckie and Rachel Bach, with science fiction titles out this fall. Not only that, but they're both space operas featuring heroines who put it all on the line. We invited both authors to discuss with us what they think of the overhwelmingly male genre, and how they've come to make a place for themselves and other women in the science fiction community.


Rachel Bach: It's not exactly going out on a limb to say that science fiction is a genre that's perceived as overwhelmingly male, both in terms creators and fans (to which I ask, have you seen the Firefly community? Or the Dr. Who fanatics? That's a lot of lady SF fans. How come they don't count?). But it's true that the people who make science fiction stories, especially writers, are, for the most part, men. So, as a lady with an SF novel (and a pretty classic Space-Marine-let's-shoot-some-stuff action story at that), the very first question anyone asks me is, "What's it like to be a girl writing science fiction?"

It's a fair question. The world of SF can definitely feel overly masculine, but that doesn't mean we're boldly going where no woman has gone before. The history of science fiction is absolutely full of women. It can be argued it was even invented by a woman, since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is often cited as the first science fiction novel. My own introduction to SF reading were the genre powerhouses of Ursula LeGuin, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Ann McCaffrey. I'd actually say that the most pernicious aspect of sexism in science fiction isn't that there aren't enough of us, but how often the women who are here and have made huge contributions to the genre get ignored and passed over in favor of their male contemporaries. This vacuum of recognition isn't just unfair and dumb (Seriously, why would you want to ignore Ursula LeGuin? That's like ignoring cake.), it leaves every new generation of women writers feeling like lonely pioneers, when we're really just the latest additions to a long, wondrous and tragically undervalued cannon of female authored science fiction.

So when people ask me if I feel like the only woman in a boy's club, my answer is that, while I do feel a bit underrepresented at times, I'm definitely not alone. Speaking of which, Ann Leckie! You're a woman writing some very cool, forward thinking science fiction. Do you feel alone in the void of (science fiction writer) space?

Ann Leckie: In fact, I don't! You make a really good point, about the way that SF is often framed as a boy's game, when women have been involved all along. (I think we might be legally required to hat-tip Joanna Russ's "How to Suppress Women's Writing" here.) I don't remember the authors of the books I first ordered out of the Scholastic flier when I was in second grade, but I do remember finding my first Andre Norton, and then reading everything the library had by her. To this day, my foundational, Platonic ideal of space opera is her The Zero Stone. From there it was a short hop to everyone you name, Rachel, and add C.J. Cherryh. I didn't know at the time that science fiction was supposed to be for boys. And I went to an all girls high school, so of course I spent those years surrounded by other women who read science fiction, but really not a lot of guys.

So I was pretty surprised when I was first introduced to the idea that girls didn't like science fiction. And more than a little confused. But I figured that must be because I mostly read space opera, and that was where the science fictional women hung out. Of course, often enough these days I hear that space opera is quintessentially manly. I don't know, I guess I don't read the right sort. And I'm with you, Rachel — sometimes, when I read about the history of the field, it seems like every couple of decades someone says "Wow, look at all these women who are reading and writing science fiction! Things are really changing." And then a few years later, "Wow, look at all these women! It was all guys before ... " And a couple more decades go by, "Wow, look at all these women, what's up with that?"

The effect of such a frequently repeated narrative is to make it seem like this year's women authors are exceptions — even when everybody speaking knows, if they'd go back and look at the library shelves, that actually there are tons of women writing SF. And fandom wouldn't be the same without women — not just Firefly and Dr. Who, but Star Trek! Forty-some-odd years ago! This is not a new thing.

Rachel Bach: Oh yes, can’t forget about Star Trek! I grew up watching Star Trek and Babylon 5 with my parents, and it never occurred to me this was something I wasn’t supposed to like (and for the record, I think my mom was a bigger fan than my dad). Just another example of how much gender stereotypes are applied rather than naturally occurring, and how short our collective memory can be.

So, clearly, the conventional wisdom — that science fiction is for dudes — is completely rot. I think the most important thing publishing can do to break that stereotype and help science fiction flourish again is to get a diverse, quality selection of stories out there from as many different voices and views as possible. The more variety we provide, the broader our horizon becomes, and the more likely we are to catch the eye of someone who never bothered with SF because they thought it wasn’t for them. Because at its heart, science fiction is about the future, and the future is for everyone.

Ann Leckie: The future is for everyone. And I agree, targeting one type of SF reader and ignoring those who don’t fit that common image, well, that won’t be good for science fiction’s future. The good thing is, many of those "other" readers are already here, and always have been. It just might take some looking to see them, to be able to find those different voices. 

You can pick up Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, available now, and Fortune's Pawn by Rachel Bach, available November 5.