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The Women Men Don’t See?!?

Following on from the discussion about the disappearing role of women in British sf here (which has spawned this further discussion here), I want to consider a few American names as well.

Kit Reed has been quietly writing first-rate genre-bending work for more than half a century, yet every new novel or collection seems like a brand-new discovery, because she has never received the critical recognition her work so richly deserves.

Lisa Goldstein wrote, in Tourists, one of the finest Borgesian fantasies I can recall. During the 90s her intricate works became weaker because they were never large enough to contain all she was trying to do, but they were never less than glorious. She has not published a book under her own name this century (though there is a suggestion that an ebook is due to appear).

Maureen McHugh’s first novel, China Mountain Zhang, was one of the most spectacular debuts of the early 90s. She hasn’t produced a novel under her own name in a decade.

Vonda McIntyre produced a whole string of award-winning stories and novels throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, and has been silent since 1997.

Pat Murphy wrote one of my favourite works of sf, The City, Not Long After, along with all sorts of other great stuff. As one of the moving forces behind the Tiptree Award she is phenomenally important in science fiction, but other than one children’s novel she has published nothing in nearly a decade.

Karen Joy Fowler, co-founder with Pat Murphy of the Tiptree Award, wrote Sarah Canary, which should be enough to guarantee her immortality in any half-way rational world. She continues to write award-winning short stories that challenge the very nature of science fiction, but apart from that first novel (and elements in her third) all of her novels have been mainstream.

The male writers who are the contemporaries of these women (and many, many more) are the forces who dictate the terms of contemporary science fiction. The six writers I’ve named should be up there with them. In terms of the quality and ambition of their work, these six writers are at least the equal of any of their contemporaries, and better than many of them. The genre we read today should be sculpted on the model set by Fowler and Goldstein, McHugh, McIntyre, Murphy and Reed. So why isn’t it?

12 thoughts on “The Women Men Don’t See?!?

  1. Lisa Goldstein […] has not published a book under her own name this century

    She has; her novel The Alchemist’s Door was published in 2002.

  2. Sarah Canary is indeed a great novel, but I remained convinced that it is not SF.

    Great to see you highlight Kit Reed, but I’d add that part of her lack of recognition has partly been that her earlier novels at least are relatively weak compared to her short fiction. This century though she has published at least 4 very interesting SF novels.

    1. I’d argue very strongly that it is sf, but it challenges the genre in the same way that so many of her recent short fictions do. It is still a great novel, though.

      And yes, I think Reed has got better, but so have many of her male contemporaries who have received immeasureably more critical attention.

      1. I’d be curious to hear more about Sarah Canary (which I haven’t read). If you two gentlemen have time, can you explain why categorizing it as SF is contentious? Thanks, A

        1. Adam, in the first place from what I’ve read by you I suspect you would be bowled over by Sarah Canary, so do try it.

          It is set between Washington Territory and California during the 1880s. It starts when a strange woman wanders into the camp of a group of Chinese labourers. She doesn’t speak, it is possible (probable) that she cannot speak. She acquires the name Sarah Canary, but as with everything else that is a characteristic put onto her by others rather than something that comes from her. She is a sort of tabula rasa who, accompanied by one of the Chinese workers, wanders among various disadvantaged or disregarded groups: the Chinese, the mad, women. She becomes, in some way that nobody understands, the focus and repository of their hopes and beliefs. We do not know what Sarah Canary is, we only see her as she is imagined by these various groups.

          Then, at the end, there is a stunning transformation. Sarah Canary becomes … what? An alien? An angel? A butterfly? An embodiment of all the hopes and dreams she has absorbed along the way? We do not know, and we argue about it still.

          Whether you read the novel as science fiction, as fantasy, as mainstream with metaphysical overtones, or what all depends on how you define your terms, and how you interpret that ending.

          Personally I have always defined science fiction in the broadest possible terms, I think it is an infinitely expandable category. And I admit I have no idea how to interpret the ending of Sarah Canary, but I think a science fictional interpretation is perfectly valid. (I think all the other interpretations are perfectly valid also.)

      2. My sense is, if you can’t get better with everything you write, what’s the point?
        Next story collection: What Wolves Know, from PS Publishing March, ’11

        and in case you missed them, “Special,” (winter ’08-9)
        and “The Chaise,” (spring ’10) in The Kenyon Review.

        so, hey thanks, and excelsior

  3. Hi Paul,

    I’m very flattered to be named in your article and to be in such terrific company, but I really must object to your comment that I’ve been silent since 1997.

    I’ll spare you and your readers the details of why I haven’t published a *novel* since 1997, but I have published a number of short stories, including “Little Faces,” which was nominated for the Nebula. (If one has to lose a Nebula, one can hardly complain about losing it to Peter S. Beagle.) It was invisible to the Hugo voters, but, then, I’ve been invisible to the Hugo voters for a long time.

    The science journal NATURE has also published several stories of mine (as a former genetics graduate student who as a research scientist made a very good sf writer, I have to admit I think it’s very cool to have a story in Nature — as does my across the street neighbor, who’s a biochemist).

    The Nature “Futures” stories can be found on line, along with a significant portion of my backlist, at Book View Cafe:


    I’m not gone, I’m not silent, I’m working on a novel.



    1. Vonda, I’m delighted you are working on a novel, and I really look forward to seeing it. But that is important; love it or hate it (and I happen to hate it) you are invisible in contemporary science fiction without a novel. Even with a novel, you can be invisible if it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. And my point is that too many women writers who should have been among those setting the agenda of current science fiction are all but invisible.

  4. Hi Paul,

    I certainly hear you about that. I’m kind of used to being invisible. (But I do quibble with the term “silent.”)

    The invisibility I currently am most annoyed about is that of the Nobel Literature judges toward Ursula K. Le Guin.

    Another October, another Nobel Laureate who isn’t UKL.



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