Women Sci-Fi Writers Are Reaching New Heights, In Spite Of Prejudice

Nnedi Okorafor and Naomi Novik just won Nebula Awards, one giant leap for womankind.
Priscilla Frank

Earlier this week, a rousing headline shot at warp-speed across browsers and Twitter feeds: Women Swept The 2015 Nebula Awards, taking home the prestigious science-fiction and fantasy prizes in the categories of Novel, Novella, Novelette, Short Story and Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy work.

The news might’ve come as a surprise to -- or, at least, to the chagrin of -- a boisterous group of science fiction writers and fans who’ve taken up the cause of restoring the genre to its tenants of yore: lighthearted adventure that’s sleek, zippy, fun, and -- oh yeah -- comprised of shelves’ worth of white male writers.

The ostensible platform of the Sad and Rabid Puppies, whose name is meant to mock heartfelt liberalism, is meant to support action stories sans political or moral message. And the cost? Last year, they rigged the voting for a similarly lauded set of prizes, the Hugo Awards, favoring white male writers and effectively quelling women and authors of color. Unlike the Nebulas -- which are voted on by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, an organization comprised not just of writers but editors and publishers -- the Hugos are controlled by readers, so the Puppies were able to leave their mark.

They didn’t succeed entirely. The categories they stocked with their own nominees received “No Award” due to voters rejecting their white male nominees. But for writers whose books were unfairly overlooked, the damage was done.

This year, the conversation howls on, especially in light of the woman-centered Nebula slate. Nnedi Okorafor, who won for her novella Binti, an interstellar story about a girl who leaves her people to attend the prestigious Oomza University, worlds away from her home, says she’s thankful that issues of prejudice in the industry are being discussed.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Okorafor said, “Honestly, I love hearing people arguing out in the open, not hidden away in their own echo chambers. That's what I want to see more of: Dialogue.”

“The issues swirling around the Hugos are merely manifestations of the growing pains this country is experiencing as a whole. Growing pains are painful, awkward, annoying, sometimes destructive in order to create.”

- -Nnedi Okorafor, author of "Binti"

“The issues swirling around the Hugos are merely manifestations of the growing pains this country is experiencing as a whole," she added. "Growing pains are painful, awkward, annoying, sometimes destructive in order to create. What I hope will be the outcome of the Hugos is an airing out, an addressing, a debate, and a moving forward.”

Naomi Novik, who took home the 2016 Nebula for her novel Uprooted, a fantasy book about a girl whose taken from her beloved community by a seemingly harmless dragon, feels differently. For her, the Sad Puppies’ rhetoric has been damaging, manipulative and unreflective of true fandom.

“I am glad to trumpet my disdain for this loudly,” Novik told HuffPost. “What I very much hope will come out of this year’s Hugo Awards is that the rules will be changed. [The Puppies] need to just go away.”

Both women agree that prejudiced lines of thinking have been historically damaging to women and writers of color working in the genre, who have both been recognized in their time, but largely forgotten by history. Kate Wilhelm’s suspenseful speculative fiction has won multiple Nebulas and a Hugo; Vonda N. McIntyre, whose longstanding attachment to the “Star Trek” franchise rocketed her to acclaim, won both awards as well. Yet neither is discussed alongside Orson Scott Card or William Gibson.

“You constantly see articles about, ‘Women are suddenly in sci-fi and fantasy!’ and we’re like, we’ve been here all along,” Novik said. “It’s an insidious kind of prejudice. It’s not an immediate sort of thing. Increasingly we don’t see a lot of overt prejudice, Puppies notwithstanding. It’s an unconscious thing where you’re listing, say, the 10 greatest science fiction writers, of all time, and somehow you don’t end up with women on this list. These things get reproduced, regurgitated.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, who won her first Nebula Award in 1970, expressed her concern for her own legacy in an interview with HuffPost last year. “It’s just my general worry, about all women writers, including myself,” she said. “We go along happily in our lifetime, and then, poof! All of a sudden we have to be dug out by feminists 50 years later.”

If women writers are underrepresented in science-fiction and fantasy, the protagonists they write are, too, making it difficult for young women readers and readers of color to find themselves in the books they read. Okorafor, for example, said she didn’t even read much science fiction until she discovered Octavia Butler in 2000.

“I found most science fiction I came across to be inaccessible and way too white and male in way where it was clear other types of people didn't exist, or when they did, it was only in relation to the white male main character's narrative,” Okorafor said.

Novik did grow up reading sci-fi centered on both men’s and women’s stories, but often found herself disappointed by the proliferation of the idea that women protagonists must follow a certain masculine template for success. She cites Lara Croft as a heroine she finds, well, heroic -- her Indiana Jones-like savvy and strength is inspiring -- but she hopes that other narratives, perhaps more feminine narratives, can be given attention, too.

“I wanted a heroine who was willing to risk her life, not for revenge, not to gain power or even necessarily to tear someone down, but in order to protect her community. Revenge is a very cold, sad motive.”

- -Naomi Novik, author of "Uprooted"

“There’s a kind of distance forced on me by the fact that she’s so sexualized, and her heroism is a kind of masculine heroism,” Novik said. “There’ve been a lot of characters like that; I’m super happy with those characters. I want Lara Croft, I want Wonder Woman, I want Honor Harrington. I’ve written these kinds of characters. Women who are succeeding on male terms in a male-dominated environment -- I think that is heroic. At the same time, I can’t help but feel like that’s not the only model of heroism there should be."

Novik saw Uprooted as an opportunity to offer an alternate narrative, one that was less involved with violent, vengeful heroism. In her book, protagonist Agnieszka prides herself in her heritage, and in belonging to a quiet, idyllic village that she finds worth preserving. Unlike Luke Skywalker, Batman, or, more recently, “Star Wars” star Rey, she’s not fighting to avenge a lost family or hometown; instead, her journey is fueled by broader ideals.

“I feel like Batman has become the only story that’s getting told, in a way. Everybody’s got to lose somebody they love to be motivated and to fight and risk himself or herself. That’s clearly not true,” Novik said. “I wanted a heroine who was willing to risk her life, not for revenge, not to gain power or even necessarily to tear someone down, but in order to protect her community. Revenge is a very cold, sad motive.”

Aside from their political or artistic reasons for championing representation in the science fiction and fantasy worlds, both Novik and Okorafor said they value diversity for more selfish reasons: it makes for more realistic storytelling, and as readers, that’s what they value most.

“I really want to be taken out of my own experience,” Novik said. “That’s a huge part of the excitement of speculative fiction. When you multiply the voices in our community, and the kinds of stories told in our community, you get more of that, and you get better, more novel universes.”

Okorafor echoed, “I love, love, love stories and in order to enjoy a story, I have to believe the story, no matter what it is about. If the story is about our world or reflecting our world, well, our world is diverse.”

If magical, immersive science fiction and fantasy requires a bedrock of plausibility to be believed and enjoyed by readers, it also must go a step further, imagining future or alternate realities both bleak and aspirational. These stories can serve as cautionary tales, as seen in the still-explosive sub-genre of dystopian fiction, or as worlds to work towards, worlds that improve upon the problems extant in our own, whether technological or social.

“Science fiction is speculative, it imagines, and very often it creates,” Okorafor said. “Consider our tech. Ideas for much of it germinated first in science fiction stories. Consider what it means to have science fiction that speculates about a diversity of people, traditions, cultures, societies, etc. The stories will be richer, as will be the ideas. Everyone benefits.”

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Priscilla Frank

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