Surprises

For years, I’ve heard the younger generation of female sf writers complain that women are underrepresented in the sf field. Mostly, I’ve ignored those complaints because I found them astonishingly ignorant. Some of the most decorated sf writers of the past twenty years are women—Connie Willis, Nancy Kress, Lois McMaster Bujold, and yes, me. In fact, if I start listing the women who successfully publish in the sf genre, I’d use all of my allotted words for this column.

Some of the women who’ve complained about female underrepresentation are also women who said that my editing stint at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction did not count as important to the women in the field—even though I was the first (and so far only) female editor of that magazine—because I didn’t publish enough women. These same women often discount the other female editors in the field as well as not sufficiently supportive to other women or women’s issues. Apparently, there’s a quota that I (and the other female editors) were never told, and we didn’t hit them.

These comments—and several others—are why I always dismissed these complaints or argued with the complainants when they dared say stuff like this to me in public. I’m not polite about it; I find this attitude extremely insulting to the women who’ve made great strides in this field in the last 40 years.

So, imagine my surprise last month when I learned that this attitude has a tiny basis in fact. Not because women are being discriminated against in sf—we aren’t, not any more (haven’t been for more than fifty years)—but because of some changes in publishing in the last thirty years.

Until the early 1990s, science fiction book publishers published what I’ll call overview volumes, things like the annual Hugo Awards books edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. In addition, there were compilation volumes—anthologies that would look at the best of this or the most recent of that. 

As publishing changed, and anthologies became an anathema to most big publishers, these volumes disappeared. Specialty presses brought out a few volumes, but they had an agenda. They weren’t mass market paperbacks like so many of the overview volumes I read when I came into the field.

As I mentioned in my last column, I was looking for overview volumes of sf so that I could teach my sf class this fall. And I had no trouble finding books with the golden age of sf represented. But I couldn’t find anything that represented the vibrant sf scene that has existed since the mid-1980s. Stories I remember vividly, stories that won Hugos, stories that influenced other stories, aren’t collected at all.

Instead, a group of insular editors picked stories that were “literary” to represent the sf field, and usually, it was the same stories from the 1990s and early 2000s, stories that made little or no impact when they were published.

I’d complain that those stories were almost all by men—and they were—but that’s not the point. The point is that the great stories of the period, by men and by women, by whites and by people of color, stories that fandom and casual sf readers alike loved, have disappeared from the collective memory.

Stories by Mike Resnick as well as Connie Willis. Stories by Joe Haldeman and Nancy Kress. Butler, unless you find her short story collection—published by a mainstream publishing house, not an sf one.

As I compiled my list, I had the students read overview volumes from the distant past, and individual short stories by writers from 1990 and beyond. I let the students figure out how they wanted to purchase these stories—either in a collection or an anthology or (in the case of some stories) in standalone e-book. But most of these writers aren’t like Pat Murphy, who (fortunately) has put her classic Rachel in Love up for sale as a stand-alone e-book, or Mike Resnick who works hard at keeping his award-winners in print.

Most of these stories are vanishing in the mists of time.

So newcomers to the field, people who are told they should read what’s come before, see the same five stories representing the last twenty-five years, stories that had almost no impact on the field. These newcomers then take that information, those five stories, and place the wrong interpretation on the data.

These young sf writers believe that women don’t publish sf, that there are no cultures in sf except American or Northern European cultures, that sf is stuck in some homogenized 1950s past, when all of that is wrong.

I went on Facebook and asked folks to help me find volumes that would show how diverse sf was, and people who responded told me to get the Le Guin Norton anthology of sf—which came out 21 years ago, and is now out of print. That, most of them said, was the last great volume of representative sf.

I was getting upset when the Facebook commentary started, but I got angry when one of the book editors whose company published several of the recent overview volumes said that he and another book editor—who shall remain nameless—would get on this right away. These two had published several of the overview volumes with the deficiencies. They didn’t even see a problem until it became a Facebook discussion. They were the exact wrong people to solve the problem. I doubt they will anyway; by the end of the discussion, it looked like they were all talk and no action.

I have already started plans with another editor to rectify this situation. We’re going to do several overview volumes to cure this horrible misperception of the sf field. Sadly, our work can’t start for another year or two due to our commitments. But we’re going to do this.

And if someone else puts out a volume or two in the meantime —someone other than the two clueless wonders who suddenly got an idea of what they should have been doing all along—then that’s great. Because the more of these books the better.

I’m still shocked that nearly three decades of classic science fiction has disappeared from the public consciousness. But with some dedication and a bit of hard work, we’ll bring those wonderful stories back.

I promise.

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