Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Women SF authors

A lot of the best science fiction and fantasy authors are women. Here's a list of a few that I particularly like:

  • Ursula LeGuin
  • C.J. Cherryh
  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Connie Willis
  • Nancy Kress
  • Zenna Henderson
  • Susanna Clarke
  • Juliet Marillier

Women have an even larger presence in SF written for children and young adults. For example:

  • Robin McKinley
  • Suzanne Collins
  • Madeline L'Engle
  • Diana Wynne Jones
  • Susan Cooper
  • E. Nesbit
  • Jill Patton Walsh
  • Mary Stewart
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Anne McCaffrey

There are a few things that women generally don't seem interested in doing in science fiction. None of those authors is someone I would have picked out as having imagined a compelling future technology-- not like Stephenson, Gibson, or early Heinlein. (OK, I'll give you Cyteen and Beggars in Spain.) However, they do a lot of things better than almost all of the men writing SF.
The male protagonists of Cherryh's Foreigner series or Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series often find themselves in action situations: firefights, power struggles, kidnappings, and so forth. But they aren't action heroes-- they aren't physically strong. This makes for more interesting and believable situations, because they have to think their way out instead of simply overpowering the opposition. These men consider what other people are feeling. In so many books, the main character never explicitly thinks about what his allies and antagonists' motivations are or what their facial expressions are revealing.
Another difference is how siblings are treated. It is rare to find books by men where a character has two or more siblings and likes them, instead of having a rivalry with them. In Marillier's Daughter of the Forest or Cooper's The Dark is Rising or anything by E. Nesbit, you have large families of siblings that all get along and cooperate with each other. In general these authors are better at understanding the importance and character of communities.
Another thing that all of these authors do is have a variety of women characters. There are women who happen to be mothers and grandmothers, women who are scientists, young girls, bodyguards, women who are not primarily concerned with being rescued by men.  Strong Female Characters-- attractive young women dressed in black who tend to be good at martial arts and ranged weapons, who use their confidence to make the men around them (because everyone else in the book is likely a man) look foolish-- are not what I am talking about. I am talking about books with characters who are people that happen to be women. There are a exceptions-- Teri Murray in The Sky So Big and Black is a good example of a man writing a young woman well. But contrast this with The Wheel of Time, a series with dozens of female characters and a world where women should be in power, and yet almost none of them rise above the level of trope or caricature. Men writing SF could make an effort to include some of this in their own writing. Trying to understand possible languages, cultures, and ways of living is more difficult than extrapolating hardware and engineering. Occasionally mentioning what people are wearing doesn't come naturally to most male authors, and it takes more skill to describe this kind of world, but moving in that direction would improve the genre overall.

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