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Is Ann Leckie the Next Big Thing in Science Fiction?

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The cover that sparked a war over sexism in the sci-fi writer community.

In January 2013 the members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America found (what for some) was an unpleasant surprise in their mailboxes: the 200th issue of the organization's flagship publication, The Bulletin. It wasn't so much the magazine itself that was disturbing as what was on the cover: an illustration of a female warrior in a chain-mail bikini. She's posed straddling the corpse of a freshly slain snow giant, wearing a vaguely sexual expression. It looks like the cover of a 1960s fantasy novel.

"When I got that issue I wondered if I had gone back in time," wrote fantasy and horror author Silvia Moreno-Garcia in a blog post responding to the cover. "For an official magazine of a professional writers association, couldn't we get, I dunno, something a bit more modern? More here and now? Less babes and chain mail?"

Ultimately, however, the content of the issue raised far more hackles than its cover. In their long-running joint column, Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick — who both began their lauded careers as science-fiction writers and editors in the late 1960s — waxed nostalgic about the great "lady editors" they had known in decades past. At one point, Malzberg brought up an editor named Beatrice Mahaffey.

"She was competent, unpretentious, and beauty pageant gorgeous," he wrote. Resnick followed a few paragraphs later, concluding, "Anyone who's seen photos of Bea from the 1950s knows she was a knockout as a young woman."

"Which has what to do with her editing, Resnick?" tweeted one female SFWA member in response. "WHAT YEAR IS THIS?! Seriously, this SFWA Bulletin has me all backwards."

That feeling only intensified with the following issue, which included a baffling column praising Barbie as a lasting role model for girls: "Barbie got her college degree, but she never acted as if it was something owed to her, or that Ken ever tried to deny her. She has always been a role model for young girls...because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should."

The situation reached a head with the cataclysmic May 2013 issue of The Bulletin, which contained an indignant non-pology from Malzberg and Resnick, calling the negative response to their column censorship and their critics "liberal fascists." Resnick: "All we did was appear in a magazine with a warrior woman on the cover, and mention that a woman who edited a science fiction magazine 65 years ago was beautiful."

The reaction was swift and wrathful. Fantasy writer, editor and active SFWA member E. Catherine Tobler resigned from the organization, explaining her actions in a blog post titled, "Dear SFWA."

"There was never a call for suppression. There was a call for respect," she fumed. "There arose the notion that women are people too; that, in a piece focusing on editors, one might speak of editing ability, of anthologies and magazines assembled, and not how one looked in a bathing suit. Surely such content didn't belong in a piece about editors? Were these such radical thoughts?"

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Annaliese Moyer
Former SFWA vice president and Hugo Award winner Mary Robinette Kowal.

Former SFWA vice president and Hugo Award winner Mary Robinette Kowal wrote of the two columnists, "They have no power over women's roles in SF, not the way things used to be. But they do have the power to make an organization that I love look unwelcoming. They have the power to make people feel shut out."

In response to the outcry, then-SFWA president Scalzi announced a task force to examine how The Bulletin could be a more "valuable and useful part of the SFWA member experience." Then, The Bulletin's female editor, Jean Rabe, resigned (she declined to comment for this article). Scalzi announced the publication would be put on a six-month hiatus. Resnick and Malzberg were canned.

At the time of the fallout, Leckie was the official SFWA secretary, though her position granted her no editorial control of the magazine. She declined to comment directly on the turmoil (as did Scalzi). But it's clear she has some opinions on the matter.

"There is obviously a group that feels it's totally professional for the outward-facing magazine of the organization to contain a chat of how great it is that lady editors look hot in bikinis," she says carefully. "And then there's a number of writers who don't feel that's even remotely professional or appropriate."

Other women in the community aren't as restrained about the debacle.

"I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel any time soon. At this point I think we're about to go into the worst of it," says Nora Jemisin. "If I may be melodramatic, all this anger and discussion reflects a struggle for the soul of the organization, which is in turn reflective of a greater struggle for the soul of the genre."

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3 comments
WolfBaginski
WolfBaginski

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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