My story The Mouths came out in Lightspeed Magazine today, which has caused me to reflect on my own relationship with Science Fiction and gender.
Buy the issue here in paperback:
Lightspeed Magazine, June 2014 (Women Destroy Science Fiction special issue) (Volume 49)
Or here for Kindle:
Lightspeed Magazine, June 2014: Women Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue
The beginnings of my history with Science Fiction are somewhat murky, I think because this came at a time in my life when I was such a voracious reader that it’s hard to pinpoint the chronology. I have stronger memories of reading some of my favorite fantasies for the first time—The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down,–because they made a huge impression on me when I was still quite young. I carried both of these around elementary school for years and read and reread them. It’s not that I didn’t read other books, but to me, nothing else really measured up.
At some point as a teenager I began to read Science Fiction. I may have started with Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, books which I enjoyed, but didn’t feel the need to obsessively reread. I read classic sci fi, enough that I don’t even recall all the titles and authors now, as some of them seemed to blend together. I know these included A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., and Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. My memories of these books are pretty old now, but I do recall at some point getting burned out, particularly by Heinlein, because I got tired of the overwhelming maleness of it all. I’d read stories by male authors with male protagonists for most of my life—that wasn’t the issue. But something in certain classic sci fi seemed not just to ignore women, but to actively belittle them and reduce them to caricature. This isn’t something I plan to try to quantify by going back and looking for specific examples. I’m sure this has been done. It’s just a gut feeling I had, and once I noticed it, the reading wasn’t much fun anymore.
[Edited to add: I did want to provide a link to a blog post about Heinlein and sexism that conveys some of what I recall feeling, since my own memory is too vague for specifics: Is Heinlein’s Writing Sexist by Jonathan Korman]
Sometime after high school, I decided there had to be more to Science Fiction than what I had read. I sought out more Science Fiction by women, and discovered the work of writers including Octavia Butler and Sherri Tepper. I started to love Science Fiction again. Since then, I’ve enjoyed science fiction by a multitude of authors of both genders. It’s a wonderful art form, a literature of ideas, of the new and strange, a way to make us examine ourselves in ways we may not have ever considered.
I never thought I would write it. I’m a musician and the only science I took beyond high school was “Earthquakes and Volcanoes—”a dummed-down geology for performing arts majors. I love science and grew up watching the original Cosmos. But I don’t have the background to understand the details, and this means I can’t write them convincingly.
Except maybe something anthropological, and very short—lean on the details. After all, I may not know much hard science, but I can spin weird ideas with the best of them. For me as a writer, the beauty of speculative fiction is being able to examine ourselves by pitting us against the Other—something non-human, whether a dryad, merman, or alien. I didn’t set out to write Science Fiction when I wrote The Mouths. I just had a what-if and went with it. I envisioned the strange creatures who consumed but never did anything, and worked out a framework in which to present them. I do recall brainstorming this story at TNEO (The Never-ending Odyssey, an annual workshop for Odyssey grads) way back in 2008 and getting some good inspiration to actually sit down and write it.
I’ve read it aloud at a bookstore reading and at least one convention, and have come to the conclusion that I’d usually rather read something funny. When you read something very short and very weird, it’s difficult to gauge the audience’s reaction. Do the confused looks mean they didn’t get it? Didn’t like it? Or are they just processing the weirdness?
I’m not doing much non-academic writing these days as being a doctoral student in music is consuming much of my energy, but I did promise myself I would continue to submit. Since The Mouths is really the only thing I’ve written that qualifies as Science Fiction, I submitted it to the Lightspeed special issue just to feel like I had something out on the market. I didn’t expect to get an acceptance, not just because I knew it would be competitive, but because I am honestly not sure sometimes what to make of the story myself. It’s short. It’s weird. Is it any good? I suppose the moral of that story is to let an editor decide, and then see what the readers think. I can’t even begin to quantify how thrilled I am to be included in the table of contents with some of the “big guns” in Science Fiction. I got my contributor’s copy today and look forward to some reading time in the weeks ahead.