Childish Joy

These past few weeks, I’ve accidentally rediscovered one of the joys of my childhood. I had honestly thought it lost.

Here’s what happened:

Like everyone else who cares about and/or works in science fiction, I have watched the culture wars develop inside the field. I’ll leave it to people like Eric Flint to fight the good fight against the bigotry and hatred that’s lurking in some of the postings. Much as those things anger me, I find my time is better spent at my job(s)—writing, editing, teaching, and blogging.

But, one myth that keeps reappearing on all sides of the cultural wars in the sf debate really got to me. (I don’t say both sides because there are so many sides.) Hundreds of posts kept repeating the myth that no women wrote science fiction, that the sf field is actively hostile to women, and that women have to disguise their identities to have success.

Let’s ignore the fact that a lot of women edit (and have edited) science fiction for decades. Or the fact that most of the bestsellers in the field are predominantly women (Cherryh, Bujold, Moon, not to mention almost every single urban fantasy bestseller [with a few male exceptions]).

And let’s acknowledge that the sexism, boorish behavior, and just plain discrimination that exist in the real world also exist in the science fiction field.

I know those arguments. But as a multiple award-winning bestselling woman who has worked inside the field since she was 25, I also know that I wasn’t alone. That female editors bought my work, and my fellow nominees on awards-ballots were often other women, and that my co-guest-of-honors at major sf conventions in the 1990s were women as well.

So, last year, when I went to show those folks who were claiming that women didn’t have a presence in science fiction that they didn’t know the history of the field, I was shocked at what I found. The award-winning, award-nominated stories by women? Mostly out of print, if they were ever reprinted at all. The listing about women in the sf field on Wikipedia? Only listed a handful (five, maybe?) of women who wrote anything before the year 2000. And on, and on, and on.

The information about women in the field had gotten lost, repeatedly lost. I just read a discussion of the great old Mars books, and while people recommended Burroughs and Bradbury, no one mentioned Leigh Brackett. No one thinks of recommending some of the best stories because they’re becoming harder and harder to find.

So I sat down with Toni Weisskopf of Baen (a woman who came into the field at the same time I did), and we discussed this, and came up with a book that will reprint some of the great sf stories by women. Toni gave me 90,000 words and asked for a 10,000 word introduction to the volume, which will come out next year.

Off the top of my head, I can fill 90,000 words with great fiction. But I decided to reread—and read—stories that I haven’t thought of for a long time, to see if they hold up. I’m not going to put something in the volume just because “everyone” agrees the story is a classic. I want the story to be something a young sf fan or an old-time sf fan can pick up and fall in love with the genre all over again.

I’m bouncing around in my reading. I have some strong opinions about the stories published from 1980 onward, so I’m saving those for last. Right now, I’m actually focusing on writers I’ve never heard of before (like Rosel George Brown, up for Best New Writer in 1958) and writers whose most important work predates the start of the Hugo awards in 1953.

Last week, I binged—and I mean binged—on Leigh Brackett. Unlike some of the other authors I’ve been reading, Leigh Brackett’s work makes me want to move from story to story without clearing my palate. I have always liked the movies she received screenplay credit on (including The Empire Strikes Back) and I’ve read a few of her stories along the way, but my, oh, my, I haven’t read as many as I thought.

I fell in love—that twelve-year-old geeky girl kind of love—the kind that makes me believe anything is possible and makes me ask why can’t I spend the rest of my life in a hammock, traveling to space. Leigh Brackett, early Anne McCaffrey, Joan Vinge’s first short story, a little C.L. Moore, have all rekindled my sense of wonder.

Honestly, I thought I outgrew it. I haven’t enjoyed reading this much in years. I’d been filling my space opera and heroic science fiction jones mostly through movies and television. I’ve been posting about my reading on the women in science fiction website and on my own website, and somewhere, in one of the comments (or maybe it was a private letter), someone mentioned how bad all this early stuff is, just like that crappy Star Trek and even more crappy Star Wars stuff. Y’know, the things that ruined science fiction.

I don’t expect everyone who goes to these sites or, indeed, everyone who reads my work to know everything about me. But really, sometimes people should think before their fingers hit the keyboard. Because that person, whoever he/she/it was, clearly did not know that I wrote Star Trek and Star Wars tie-in novels, not for the money (which was nice) but because I’m such a crazy fan girl that I was honored to be asked to play in those universes.

I remember going to the library (at the university where my father taught) as a thirteen-year-old newly minted Star Trek fan, and asking what I could read that was like Trek. The librarian looked at me like I had farted loudly and directed me to some shelves in the deepest, darkest back corner of the stacks, where I found a few books about scientists who had terrible love lives and oh, yeah, invented time travel or something. Not the sensawunder I had been looking for.

So I gave up on reading science fiction novels and continued to watch my beloved Trek. I read the short story collections faithfully, from the best-ofs to Universe and Orbit, and found much to love there. I was also genre-challenged, so I had no idea that a few authors I was already reading were sf. I read everything Andre Norton wrote, and a lot of Burroughs and the marvelous Ray Bradbury. I got lost in those adventures over and over again.

Somewhere along the way, though, I found that the stuff “everyone” said was good science fiction or even good space opera didn’t have that sense of wonder, that awe-inspiring I-never-want-to-leave-this-place feeling that the best out-of-this-world fiction can provide.

I did read good stories since I’ve grown up. I’ve read some wonderful science fiction. I’ve read some great stories that gave me a hint of that feeling.

But that sheer unadulterated joy of reading? That unbelievable horror that something so terrifying can exist in the universe and maybe, just maybe, we can survive it? I don’t think I’ve had entire evenings of that, entire weeks of that, in years and years and years. Maybe not since I was a teenager.

Oh, I’m enjoying this project. I expected to make a difference in the knowledge base for others out there. I’ll be editing a series of books in the next year or two, reprinting the award-winners in the field from the dawn of the awards forward, as well as other volumes of classic sf and mystery stories.

But this is the first, and this one is making a difference for me as well. I’ve realized that I haven’t entirely changed from that shy little girl who leaned up against the blond wood of that librarian’s desk. I still prefer the sensawonder stories over everything else.

Time to go back and reread old favorites. Or find new old favorites. Join me on this summer of (re)discovery. I guarantee you’ll have fun. And I hope it will be as much fun as I’m having.

Because I’m having a blast.

If you want to find out more about this project or if you have some suggestions about it, please to go the website that I started, http://www.womeninsciencefiction.com/

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2 thoughts on “Childish Joy

  1. James Spears

    I am currently 64, and became a science fiction reader when I was 9. For years and years I read and loved stories by Andre Norton, and I still revisit them and I am still enchanted and entertained by them. I also have 5 sisters, and every one of them has been more successful in their lives than Me. Why shouldn’t there be successful women writers?
    For some reason I fail to see how gender has any relationship to quality, interesting ideas, and entertainment.
    I read and love science fiction because it is basically positive in nature. The stories explore ideas of challenge and change that we might not be able to survive.
    The stories also involve ideas of growth and the capacity we have to rise above ethnic, religious, cultural, and gender biases.
    I am looking forward to reading some Leigh Brackett stories now that you have mentioned them.
    Maybe all stories should merely have initials instead of first names so that readers can learn to read for the ideas and the ability, and techniques, in story telling, rather than a “gender” bias.
    Thanks for the column, James D.

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