So my stint as a judge for the James Tiptree Jr Memorial Award is now at an end. We have our winners and our Honour List, and a very pleasing result it is too.
I have been involved with all sorts of awards over the years, and this was certainly the strangest experience. What follows, I must emphasise, is my purely personal response to being a Tiptree judge. I suspect other members of the jury might have a very different reaction.
Part of the strangeness stems from the very specific remit of the Tiptree Award: ‘for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.’ You note that the word ‘best’ does not appear, nor is there any explanation for what is meant by ‘expand’, ‘explore’ or ‘gender’. This imprecision suits me. During the eleven years I chaired the Clarke Award for the best science fiction novel of the year I had to set out for each new jury that the award did not define the terms ‘best’, ‘science fiction’ or ‘novel’, it was entirely down to the jury to determine what they understood by those terms. In that light, the terms of reference for the Clarke Award were different every year, and I suspect that the remit of the Tiptree is different every year. At various times during the year we spent on the jury we each spelled out what it was we were looking for in a potential Tiptree winner; all of us had different criteria. Any work that emerges from that process ends up having to tick an awful lot of different boxes for each of the different judges, which may explain why the award has a track record for picking idiosyncratic but highly rated winners. It may also explain why it is far more likely to pick joint winners than any other award I know (as we did this year).
But it is strange also in the structure of the award process. The Clarke Award, whose structure seems to be pretty much the norm where juried awards are concerned, would choose a shortlist first then, at a later date, pick the winner from among those shortlisted titles. This means that many of the arguments – is this science fiction? is it a novel? – can be dealt with at the shortlist stage, and the final selection of the winner then comes down to the single (though inevitably contentious) issue of deciding which is best from among a limited group. The Tiptree, for reasons I’ve never quite fathomed though I suspect it is historical, reverses this process: the winner is chosen first, only then is a short list selected. (In recent years the Tiptree shortlist has been renamed the Honour List to avoid confusion.) This means that every submitted work is in play right up to the moment that the winner emerges; it also means that every argument is in play right up until the end. This was an invigorating process, since it kept us all open to new stuff; yet it was also frustrating because the same arguments did develop several times.
But the perennial problem I had was with the word ‘gender’. Let me explain something about the Tiptree process: the jurors can suggest works for consideration, publishers can submit books, but most of the recommendations come through the Tiptree website. It didn’t take long to realise that each of these processes produced a different take on ‘gender’, not all of which I was comfortable with. This led to two different reactions: the positive reaction was that I found myself rethinking the philosophical underpinning of the award all the way through the judging process; the negative reaction was that I kept encountering works that felt wrong within the context of the award.
This may have been circumstantial: at one point I commented on the fact that none of the works we were seeing was by a male author. I suspect this was chance; certainly a number of male authors have won the award in the past, and in the end one male author did appear on the Honour List. But for a time there I did feel uncomfortable that an award for gender seemed to have uncovered no relevant work by men.
The ongoing process of rethinking gender and how the novels and stories we were looking at could be said to ‘expand or explore’ our understanding of it, brought me up against a surprising number of issues. For one, the Tiptree Award has always been associated with Wiscon, a feminist convention, so should the award have a feminist perspective? That would be one way of looking at it, though in the end I felt that would be to narrow the focus. Wide and complex as feminist issues are, gender can be wider and more complex still. Certainly I think in the end all the stories we chose to honour could be said to be feminist, but it couldn’t be the whole story. One of the most persistent but least satisfying tropes I saw in the work we received was a fairly simplistic representation of feminism, straightforward sexual role reversal. But to my mind most of these did nothing more to ‘expand or explore’ the issues than Charlotte Perkins Gilman had done almost 100 years ago in Herland. This isn’t a blanket ban on the trope: one of our winners, Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga, used exactly that device, but did so in a way that was both more inventive and more questioning in its use of the idea. I did come to realise, however, that simply fictionalising a feminist notion is not the same as expanding and exploring our understanding of gender.
There were also several works that dealt, more or less overtly, with sex, a couple, in their prurient concentration on the mechanics of sex, bordering on pornography. Still others simply featured a gay or lesbian relationship in the foreground. Some of these were interesting, some were dreadfully dull, some were well written, others much less so, yet I couldn’t help feeling that a decade into the 21st century this alone could not be enough to count as exploring or expanding our understanding of gender. Again, this was not a blanket ban: a couple of works that made the Honour List featured polyamorous relationships, but this wasn’t all they were about. So I came to believe that exploring gender couldn’t just be about sexuality in the same way that it couldn’t just be about role reversal.
I started, therefore, looking for works in which some fresh perspective on gender was woven into the social, political and culture structure of the world of the novel. This, as you might imagine, is less common, but when I found it, as I did in several of the works that came our way, it was much more satisfying. In our two winners, for example, Ooku looks like a fairly conventional role reversal tale (though exoticised by being set in the Japan of the Tokugawa Shogunate), but uses this to explore the way sexualized behaviour is determined not by gender but by power and, especially, powerlessness. The other joint winner, Cloud and Ashes by Greer Gilman, is also exoticised in its setting and language (both cognate with the British north country on the eve of the Renaissance), and also uses gender to explore power issues, in this case access to domestic authority and scientific knowledge. I came away from both works with a more nuanced understanding of gender, and nuance is always difficult to find.