Fantasy author Mary Robinette Kowal has been running an informal experiment over the course of her travels. Whenever she stops by an airport bookstore, she counts the books in the science fiction and fantasy sections. A year ago, she tallied up her informal survey: around 18% of the books featured in these sections were written by women.
Science fiction and fantasy literature have been long dominated by male writers. Most of the genre’s classic-era authors, such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, are male. Out of the 33 authors named Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, only six are women. Books are often framed as by men and for men. Look at any old pulp magazine or paperback cover, and you’ll frequently see scantily-clad women in perilous situations, waiting to be saved.
But women have been key to the genre since before it had a name. Try to imagine science fiction without Frankenstein. Authored by Mary Shelley at age 18, Frankenstein is the terrifying story of a man constructed from the parts of the dead. While there’s endless debate about where science fiction came from, Shelley’s novel is a largely agreed-upon starting point, an ur-text that continues to provide inspiration for an entire literary canon. Even more remarkable: Frankenstein was first published in 1818, when the literary world and the growing scientific community were almost exclusively controlled by men.
After Shelley, male authors laid claim to science fiction, with H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Allan Poe writing their own landmark stories that steered the direction of the genre. Hugo Gernsback, the publisher of Amazing Stories, was openly shocked to see women writing “scientification” in 1927, when Clare Winger Harris took third place in one of the magazine’s writing contests. But women never stopped producing imaginative fiction, even when their male contemporaries made little room at the table for them.
For example, take Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969. A stunning work of fiction, it examines the function of gender in society, and is considered one of the first published works of feminist science fiction. Hannah Bowman, an agent at the Liza Dawson Agency (who represents authors Kameron Hurley and Pierce Brown, as well as myself) noted that she read Le Guin’s The Dispossessed for the first time recently. “I do think — especially as I immerse myself more and more in more explicitly feminist science fiction — that there are particular perspectives women writers bring that men don’t,” said Bowman.
She described The Dispossessed, along with Joan Slonczewski’s 1986 book A Door Into the Ocean, as examples of these types of bold feminist science-fiction stories. These books, she said, reinforced her belief that “women’s voices are essential to the genre, just like men’s voices, and what we would lose without female authors is all of those great books.”
“There are a lot of tremendously talented, nuanced male writers out there,” The Cold Between author Elizabeth Bonesteel told The Verge in an e-mail. “So I’m not going to suggest that I’d never see marvelous and fully-realized non-male characters [if women weren’t writing speculative fiction]. But I think one might look at history books as an example of what you might see dominate the genre: the emphasis would be on the lives of men, and when women were discussed, the parameters would be, in most cases, fixed and somewhat limited, and not reflective of the real lives of most women.”
The genre simply wouldn’t be what it is today without the voices of women who pushed back against its pervasive male culture. Le Guin, Doris Lessing, C.L. Moore, Zenna Henderson, Madeleine L’Engle, C.J. Cherryh, Connie Willis, Joan D. Vinge, Andre Norton, and many others expanded the genre’s scope and its method for examining the future.
But a resistance to female science-fiction and fantasy authors remains. “As a publicist, I’m constantly trying to counter this bias when pitching books by female authors,” explained Ellen Wright, an Orbit publicist who repped Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy and James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series. “I think there’s a bias, likely unconscious for most people, that books by men are more serious or more scientific than books by women. I’ve heard from many frustrated authors whose books are included on lists of ‘soft science fiction’ or ‘science-fiction romance’ purely because these authors are female. There’s no substantive difference between their books and books by men that are considered ‘harder.’”
This skepticism of female writer goes against striking evidence to the contrary. Authors such as Suzanne Collins, Stephenie Meyer, and J.K. Rowling have made particularly strong inroads into fantasy publishing, writing books that have dominated bestseller lists and inspired countless imitators. Authors such as Madeline Ashby or Linda Nagata have written fantastic novels that are among the best the genre has to offer. And Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler directly address the future’s changing political and social climate in an incomparable fashion.
Wright says there’s an uphill battle for female authors entering the field now, given how men dominate internet lists of classic science fiction and top books in the genre. “That being said,” she noted, “this is definitely changing. There are a lot of reviewers (and readers) actively seeking out books by female authors and other underrepresented voices.”
The state of science fiction and fantasy publishing has improved since the days when Hugo Gernsback was surprised by female authors writing him stories. Small progress has been made since Robinette’s informal survey of airport bookstores yielded sobering statistics: women like Charlie Jane Anders and N.K. Jemisin have earned the genre’s top awards and made it onto the nation’s bestseller lists.
But it’s just a start. Genre historians and academics often point to the notion that science fiction is a literary movement that is constantly in conversation with itself. For the genre to thrive, it will need a variety of voices.