Women in Sci-Fi. The debate.

Seoul Survivors by Naomi Foyle

If you’re an SF fan, you would have had to be living with your head in the sand to miss this debate. It’s such a big one, I feel like it needs caps, or possibly a scrolly, fading-into-the-distance introduction akin to something you’d find in Star Wars. It is: WOMEN IN SF. Or, more specifically, why the heck aren’t there more recognised women writers in the SF field?

Let’s start with one issue: the stigma surrounding SF. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s in SPACE, there are SPACESHIPS and warp speed and aliens with green blood who fight us puny humans and somehow we prevail! This is not helped by the SF films that tend to hit the big time, just look at what you’ve got coming out this summer: After Earth, Pacific Rim, World War Z. Now, I’m not saying these films are bad, and I’m certainly not saying that I don’t like them (I recently saw the new Star Trek: Into Darkness, and god did I want MORE), but what I am saying is that all of these films perpetuate the myth outlined above: SF is space opera. Alongside this you have the audience these films are targeting: men. Clearly, demonstrably, men. I’ve not seen many SF films specifically targeted at women, have you? I mean, you’ve got The Hunger Games, which is SF, but that’s for kids/teenagers/adult-kids, whatever. It follows then, that SF is seen as a male-dominated field.

But does that translate into book sales? I’m not sure. It has already been demonstrated that far more women read books than men, so, logically, this would suggest that more women read science-fiction. Except it’s not a perfect balance, is it? You can’t spread all the genders out over all the genres and assign each one slices of the pie. It comes down to personal taste: in my opinion, that’s unquantifiable. And in any case, why should the gender of the audience matter? I read books by both men and women, I see a book, I want that book based on the cover/the synopsis/the plot/a recommendation; I will buy that book regardless of the gender of the author writing it. So, am I unusual in this? I’d like to know (comments below please!). No matter how hard I try, I just can’t believe that male SF readers would genuinely be turned off by the horrifying sight of a woman’s name on the cover of an SF book.

I think, what we really need to know first is: how many female authors are writing in the SF field compared to male authors? This seems like a logical place to start, to me. If SF has always previously been seen as the realm of men, then it might follow that more men are interested in writing it, which would address some of the balance (bear with me). Of course, gender barriers are more broken down now than they ever were in say, the 1800s, but what I am thinking is that, if in the past it was less acceptable for women to write Science Fiction, then perhaps less women did? HOWEVER, I do not believe this would fully address the odd balance that prevails at the moment simply because of the numbers: SF writers would have to be almost 100% male to tip the balance in the way it currently stands. This, I think you’ll agree, is not true.

We do need more recognition of female writers in Science Fiction, but I also think we are in the process of addressing this. You’ve got Karen Lord, Stephanie Saulter & Naomi Foyle from us this year. And I, for one, have read Janet Edwards from Harper Voyager and Jaine Fenn from Gollancz. And – shock horror – neither of them have been asked to take male names. And this is just a very small sample. You’ve also got the issue that SF just doesn’t sell as well as other genres – whether that be Fantasy or otherwise – so you might expect recognition of the authors writing SF to be confined to just a very small percentage of them. And let’s admit it, the way it stands at the moment, the biggest SF authors are men; whether this was because, at the time, there were less women writing SF, or because male SF readers really do only read male SF writers, or because us evil publishers don’t publish female SF writers, or because these are just the best SF books and it just so happens that they’re written by men, I don’t know.

One thing I do know, however, is that you’re about to see far more female SF writers coming from all of the publishers, and hopefully, this will reflect in both next year’s awards system and sales numbers alike. Until then, keep reading, keep exploring and if you’re after a good rescource for finding female genre authors, you could check out worldswithoutend.com, who have a huge database, and whom JFB will be linking up with soon. If you’ve got any more recommendations, I’d love to seethem below. And I’d love to hear your comments, too, so feel free!


  1. I’m a huge science fiction fan, and always have been. My favourite writers include people like Lois McMaster Bujold and Octavia Butler. I do tend towards books written by female writers, but have got to say, I find that cover for Seoul Survivors a bit offputting. Who is it supposed to attract? 

    • Every cover we do is an experiment at the moment, especially given the young age that Jo Fletcher Books is currently at. Prior to our imprint, the Quercus art department had never worked on genre books. That said, we did feel that this cover could be improved upon, and have come up with a new image for the PB. Watch this space, and hopefully you’ll like it a bit more!

  2. Two classics that immediately come to mind are Leigh Brackett, whose novel THE LONG TOMORROW is a personal favorite and whose work on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK helped elevate that film above its Star Wars peers, and Ursula K. LeGuin (noteworthy for THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and TALES OF EARTHSEA, among so many others).  
    And two of my favorite young adults authors are also female SF writers – Madeleine L’Engle and her classic A WRINKLE IN TIME and Lois Lowry, who’s book THE GIVER was a phenomenal book that led me to read more from her acclaimed body of work.  

  3. Some of my favorite authors are women writers of SF — Connie Willis’ time-travelling historians don’t have anything to do with space, but it’s spectacular science fiction nonetheless. And Mary Doria Russell’s ‘Jesuits in spaaaace!’ (sorry: Muppets flashback) series THE SPARROW and CHIDREN OF GOD are both brilliant and heartbreakingly beautiful. CJ Cherryh is one of many who chose at the beginning of her career  to use initials to keep her gender ambiguous (at, if I remember correctly, the request of her publisher — and I have friends who have published in the last few years who have gotten the same request, and it always makes me a little sad); Cherryh’s background is engineering, linguistics, and anthro, and they are all gloriously evident in her books. Madeline L’Engle and Ursula LeGuin were among my first SF books, when I was just learning that that section of my tiny town library was where the best stuff could be found. So for me the genre has always had a strong female presence. 

  4. If you haven’t read Eleanor Arnason, you should find her work now.  One of the best writers in SF. Maybe start with Women of the Iron People, although her short stories are amazing. (My personal favorite: “The Knapsack Poems.”)
    Also, Candlemark & Gleam just released The Other Half of the Sky, a book of short stories which contain heroes or main characters who “happen to be women,” and most of the authors are women writing in the SF field.  (Full disclosure: I’m one of them. Others include Melissa Scott, Nisi Shawl, Joan Sloncewski, and Aliette de Bodard.) So that’s a place to start.

  5. Andrew G. Gibson

    I of course agree with Ursula K. Le Guin (I love the early Hainish books most of all…call me weird), but would add in a few others. Sheri S. Tepper for ‘Beauty’ and ‘Grass’, Mary Doria Russell for ‘The Sparrow’ and ‘Children of God’, Pat Cadigan for ‘Synners’. Jo Walton got a lot of attention for ‘Amongst Others’ which I would think of as a speculative fiction memoir of sorts.
    Most people know these names, but some others which get far too little attention are Tatyana Tolstaya (‘The Slynx’), Tananarive Due, Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin. Doing some scribbling about this lately, when I set myself the project of reading female or queer SF writers for a few months. I found interesting the effect it has had on my reading of reading of mainline SF after that (http://wetwiring.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/writing-about-women-in-sf-le-guin-finkbeiner-bechdel/). 

  6. I’ve got so many new books to read now thanks to everyone here!

  7. How did I forget Ursula K LeGuin? Also, what about Sheri S Tepper? One of my all time favourite writers, and I think some of her stuff ought to be shelved under SF. 
    Looking forward to seeing the new cover. I know that cover art is really difficult to get right. 

  8. You might also be interested in the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge that Worlds Without Ends is hosting. Great resource for finding women sf authors. https://www.worldswithoutend.com/authors_women.asp

  9. Stephanie Saulter

    The perception that science-fiction-is-space-opera is not only inextricably tangled with (and contributory to) real and perceived gender imbalances; it’s fundamentally incorrect, and something I find myself having to tackle with people far more than merely having to convince them that being a woman and writing SF are not mutually exclusive. A lot of people – a LOT, and as many men as women in my experience – have it as an article of faith that anything labelled science fiction will not only be set in space (an immediate turn-off for many), but will also be pulpy, full of obscure and difficult scientific references, populated by wooden characters spouting laughable dialogue, full of testosterone-fuelled violence, and generally be of questionable literary merit. It does not feel to them as though they can be ‘good’ books. I even had this discussion with someone who came to my own book launch. And because it’s presumed that women are less likely to write tech-heavy, wham! bam! dogfights-in-space stories, the further presumption follows that if they are writing science fiction then that’s what they must be trying to do – and not doing well.
    I find myself constantly trotting out Margaret Atwood, Mary Shelley, Audrey Niffenegger, Ian McDonald,  Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, Ursula le Guin, China Mieville, Frank Herbert, and Iain Banks as proof that SF does not always have to be set in or about space; that it can be extremely well done when it is; and that once you take the small mental step of disaggregating the term ‘science fiction’ from the tired trope of aliens and ray guns and lantern-jawed heroes pursuing a colonisation mythos, it ceases to be either a boys’ club or gimmick-ridden escapist fantasy. This is, I think, why Atwood prefers to be labelled a writer of speculative fiction: the term is far less loaded, much better balanced in terms of gender, and is acknowledged to have a great deal to say about the human condition. We are to some extent victims of our own terminology.

  10. Two words… Robin Hobb! The scenes that feature Nighteyes (especially in Fools Errand) had me literally sobbing. Such an emotive fantasy writer.I never look at books in terms of gender, my bookshelves are very well balanced all genres. I love the cover to Seoul Survivors

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  12. Athena Andreadis

    I wrote a whole series of articles on this and adjacent issues.  Two representative ones that enlarge on Stephanie Saulter’s important points:
    To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club
    The Persistent Neoteny of SF

  13. James A. Coffeen

    Sf as a field of writing got its start with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories.  There were Wells and Verne and a few others before that, but they were accepted as fiction, not a category to themselves.
    Gernsback’s magazines and imitators were supported primarily by pimply-faced boys. From that start, people tended to think of sf as male.  People also thought of it as corny, and corny suited that clientele just fine. But I’m glad to say that now it isn’t either just male or corny.
    Before I deny my own feelings, though, I’d better say that those early magazines were rife with imagined science, the element that makes a story sf. They were, and are, pleasing to me, as I don’t really care about the emotion in a story as much as the science ideas.

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