“On sniping, women, and SF” by Brenda Cooper

4 Mar

There’s a lot of sniping going on across genders in our field.  Vitriolic sniping.  Shame on us.

Yes, science fiction is largely male dominated.  So are a lot of fields.  I know.  My day job is in technology, where I’m a c-level exec. It wasn’t necessarily easy to get here even though I live in the liberal bubble of the West Coast where it’s easier than it is in a lot of places.  I’ve been living this conversation my whole life across multiple fields of endeavor.  Yes, it sucks.  Yes, it needs to stop. But sniping isn’t the answer.  Mind you, I’d be fine with sniping if it worked.  It’s kind of fun.  But as far as I can tell, it’s not effective.

Yes, there are truly evil men out there in the midst of the current social fights, like whoever issued the death threats to women writing about feminism in the game world.  This is not an article about how to deal with them.  Jail time would be a great start.

As far as I can tell, most of the men who are part of the problem in written science fiction simply don’t know it.  They don’t mean women writers harm, they aren’t meeting in back rooms plotting against us, and they aren’t dreaming about misogynistic ways to express themselves.  So when someone twitter-slams them over a clueless phrase, they’re either embarrassed, or more likely, defensive.  When they’re defensive, they bite.  I do too.

We don’t want them to bite.  We want them to change.

I have a personal story here, which doesn’t involve being male (I’m not), but it does involve being white and privileged (I am white and upper-working-middle-class). After I got out of college and spent a few years working in tech, I had enough extra income to buy season tickets to the ballet in Los Angeles.  This was sometime in the early nineties.  I loved the ballet – the dancing, the music, the grace. I invited a friend of mine, who is a black male.  He looked at me like I was crazy, and he said something like “Black people don’t go to the ballet.”

“You don’t like ballet?”

“I probably like ballet.  How would I know?  But I bet there aren’t any other black people there.”

I actually didn’t know how to answer him.  I had never noticed.  Not once.

The end of the story is he went with me, and at least on the night that we went, he was the only black man in the audience.  Which I would never have known if he wasn’t with me.  People who had always been nice to me before weren’t.  They weren’t overtly mean.  They just weren’t nice.  I felt awkward.

This was a great lesson for me in my own prejudices (why had I never even noticed the ballet was almost exclusively a white and Asian audience? Why had I never cared?)

I no longer remember which ballet company I had tickets to, although performances were at the Ahmanson.  The Los Angeles Ballet didn’t exist in the nineties.  But today, part of LAB’s mission is “To captivate Los Angeles’ large and diverse audience who will become devoted, supportive patrons.”

As science fiction writers, this is what we need to do.  Captivate a large and diverse audience. One of the very best comments I ever heard from a fan came during one of the mass signings at World Fantasy.  A woman walked up to me and said, “Thank you for your work.  It’s helped me love reading science fiction again.  I’m so glad there are more women writing now, and that the characters are so much easier to care about.”

That’s what I’m writing for.  That short interaction made my whole year.

If my signing lines or fan mail are any indication, more men read my work than women.  But I want to appeal to everyone.  I want to tell a story that’s accessible and interesting, and I want to tell it to women as well as to men.  Science fiction is the literature of the future, and it’s terribly important that people other than white men read it and talk about it.

As women authors, it’s critical to write well (and we do).  Another thing we can do is encourage each other.  Talk about and read the work of other women in the field.  Buying women’s work in SF is a vote for women writers.  Reviewing women’s work in SF is a vote for women writers.  Talking about women’s work in SF is a vote for women writers.  We can do all of these things.

I don’t even mean read exclusively women. I mean read widely. Include men and women and translated authors and anysexual authors.  Read everyone, and say good things about all of the work that we like.

Many of our female editors are helping.  Kathryn Cramer invited a number of women authors into the Hieroglyph anthology.  Sheila Williams publishes women regularly in Asimov’s Science Fiction.  Christie Yant guest-edited Women Destroy Science Fiction for Lightspeed, Cat Rambo guest-edited Women Destroy Fantasy for Fantasy Magazine, and Ellen Datlow guest-edited Women Destroy Horror for Nightmare magazine.

Men help, too. Neil Clarke works hard to include women and writers from other countries in Clarkesworld. Almost all of the magazines and anthologies that Sean Wallace has anything at all to do with represent women writers very well in the tables of contents.  I was working beside Kim Stanley Robinson at an event in Arizona for a few days last year, and I found him to be a phenomenal supporter of women in science fiction.  Science fiction artist John Picacio advocates for women in the field regularly.

I would need more than two hands to name anywhere near all of the men who have helped me on my way as a writer.  And another two for the women.

I don’t, in fact, know of any men who have done my writing career personal harm.  Not one.  Even so, I’m sure I’d sell more work if I added an “n” and published as “Brendan Cooper” instead of “Brenda Cooper.”

The men who aren’t helpful, who don’t buy or read my work or the work of other women authors, who assume we can’t write good science fiction, those men remind me of myself at the ballet all those years ago.  Yes, they’re clueless.  No, they don’t mean to be.

Don’t mistake me.  I’m not – ever – suggesting that women shut up and take it.  Just that we talk out loud without sniping. The men reading this shouldn’t snipe either.  I hope they go home, look around at their shelves, and see if they are as bare of books written by women as that ballet audience was of black people.  For many of them, they won’t be.  The others know where to find my books.  Or Nancy Kress’s award-nominated novella (or any of her other work). Or Aliette de Bodard’s brilliant short SF stories.  Or Connie Willis’s alternate histories.  Or Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice that swept the awards last year.  Or….


Brenda Cooper is the author of The Creative Fire and The Diamond Deep, Books One and Two of Ruby’s Song, and The Silver Ship series. Though not intended as a Young Adult novel, book 1, The Silver Ship and the Sea, was selected by Library Journal as one of the year’s 100 Best Books for YA and by Booklist as one of the top-ten 2007 adult books for youth to read. The other books in the series are Reading the Wind and Wings of Creation. Cooper is also the author of Mayan December and has collaborated with Larry Niven (Building Harlequin’s Moon). She is a working futurist and a technology professional with a passionate interest in the environment.

Her latest novel is Edge of Dark from Pyr Books.

Edge of Dark by Brenda Cooper


4 Responses to ““On sniping, women, and SF” by Brenda Cooper”

  1. Cat Rambo March 4, 2015 at 3:52 pm #

    Terrific piece, Brenda. Thank you.

  2. cristinajuradomarcos March 4, 2015 at 11:54 pm #

    Great post!
    I also want to inform you about a recent anthology of SF short stories by women in Spanish that I edited last year: “Alucinadas” https://lektu.com/l/palabaristas/alucinadas/1081
    We got 10 female authors plus the wonderful Angélica Gorodischer (the Argentinian writer who´s work Ursula K. Le Guin translated into English) and got the foreword by Ann VanderMeer.
    This is the first time an anthology of SF by women as ever being published in Spanish with original stories (only Gorodischer´s is a reprint). There are almost no women writing SF in Spain, and very few in Latin America, and most write fantasy because almost nobody is interested in female authors´ taken on SF. Things are starting to change a bit and more women are included in SF anthologies, do reviews in Spanish, work as editors and publishers, etc.
    We all should read more of everything: start getting out of our zone of confort and try authors from other cultures, etc.

  3. Mark W. Tiedemann March 5, 2015 at 9:25 am #

    Excellent piece. I’m running a science fiction reading group where I work, Left Bank Books in St. Louis, and your new novel is on our list for this coming year. I’m looking forward to it.

    I confess that all this noise recently left me a bit nonplussed. I suppose I’d been living in a bubble where SF is concerned and didn’t realize some of these problems still existed and in fact have seemed to gain new life in the last several years. I’m offended by fans and colleagues who act like charter members of the He Man Woman Haters Club, but I agree, sniping and flaming accomplish nothing except redirecting the main issue into something else. I’ve written a couple of things about it and if I may I like to post the links for you.



    Thank you

    Mark Tiedemann


  1. Women in Science Fiction, an Interview, and Intro Chapters - Brenda Cooper at Brenda Cooper - March 4, 2015

    […] the day – women in science fiction.  My thoughts are now posted over at their site – please do drop by and read.  If you want to include this as part of the meta-coversation, please post this on social media […]

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