Is Ann Leckie the Next Big Thing in Science Fiction?

Categories: Longform

Like many literary genres, science fiction is facing a rolling identity crisis concerning how it treats the growing number of women in its ranks. On one hand, the genre was arguably created by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1818. However, the golden age of science fiction is considered the 1940s and '50s, when Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein — who was the first recipient of SFWA's "Grand Master" title, author of Stranger in a Strange Land and a native Missourian — wrote of indomitable heroes fighting galactic conflicts. The canonized, celebrated authors of this era were decidedly white and male.

The first Nebula was given to Frank Herbert's Dune in 1966. Over the next thirteen years, only two awards for Best Novel went to a woman — both to Ursula K. Le Guin. That trend began to change in the late 1980s as more and more women began publishing. Since 2000 the gender split for Nebula winners, which is also awarded for novellas and short stories, has been about 50-50. But that hardly means we've arrived at a post-sexism literary world.

"There were a lot of male writers out there who were really excellent feminists in 1975. But it's not 1975 anymore," says Scalzi, a Hugo Award winner and former president of the SFWA. "So what happens is, people had a tendency to believe that once something happens then it's settled, and we can all move forward. But nothing is ever settled."

Jennifer Silverberg
The rising number of women and minority writers is forcing science fiction to challenge itself, says Nora Jemisin, a finalist for the Nebula and Hugo awards many times over. By way of her blog and convention appearances, Jemisin frequency calls on writers and fans to confront the genre's inequality toward women and minorities.

"Science fiction and fantasy, like most geek fields, have for decades shielded themselves from discussions of bigotry by saying, 'Hey, we're the ones who got beat up in high school, we're the excluded ones,'" she says. "That was a blatant lie."

Geek camaraderie may have also created a culture that is uncritical of itself, says author Steven Gould, who's approaching his second year as president of SFWA.

"We have a long history of trying to be very accepting, and by accepting I mean tolerant of each other," Gould says. "But sometimes that meant we were tolerant of behaviors that we probably should not have been."

The results have been ugly. A handful of recent, well-publicized reports of men groping or stalking women at conventions — like Readercon and WisCon, the feminist science-fiction convention — mobilized many organizations, including SFWA, to institute their own anti-harassment policies. But the problem persists. Leckie herself was alarmed to see a "serial harasser" who'd been previously banned from other conventions for his behavior freely wandering the floor at this year's WisCon.

"Today's discussions feel like replays, like we're going over the same ground over and over again," she says. "I would love to be able to say that the all-women slate of Nebula winners for fiction was some sign of dawn of equality and utopia for everyone to come. Certainly, it's a hopeful sign."

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There is a huge amount of not-nice history associated with the idea "woman in a bikini", and that is getting to be noticed. It's not just something in Science Fiction. The same issues are exploding through the businesses of computer games and comic books. I don't get as worked up over language as some — I am not a woman and benefit from the defaults — but I am wondering how your headline is going to seem in another five years.  Somebody is flashing "A St. Louis Mom Is New Queen of Sci-Fi" at us, while the proper headline is "Is Ann Leckie the Next Big Thing in Science Fiction?" It all goes with the same story, the same person, but they present different images, both of the Story-Subject and the news media that presents them.

Writing headlines is a skill, and a distinct one from writing books. It has to catch the eye of a wide audience. They are different versions of the same story, neither of them wrong or complete. But what will they look like when a future researcher finds them in an archive? It's not as though it's a bikini-shot.

Though, looking at one or two other pictures of Ann Leckie, out on the web, and discounting the picture of Kameron Hurley which Google misidentifies, it's not the best of angles your picture editor chose.

We all have to try to do better.

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