Starship Ladies: Thoughts on speculative fiction, ladies, and a new series

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Fantasy and science-fiction belong to the boys, or so they tell us.

At least, it belongs to the boys if ignoring the work of authors like Anne McCaffrey, or Madeleine L’Engle, or Richelle Mead, or Malinda Lo, or J.K. Rowling, or Stephenie Meyer, or Sherri Smith, or Leigh Bardugo, or Tamora Pierce, or Ursula K. LeGuin, or Alice Norton – better known as Andre Norton, for whom the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Andre Norton Award for best young adult book is named for.

Fantasy and science-fiction belong to the boys, so long as we ignore history.

In 2012, when NPR let readers vote for their top 100 YA books of all time, over half the list included women – though the list mixed genres, featuring both realistic fiction and speculative fiction, and included several books that are not YA novels, like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saga. In comparison, the list for top 100 adult sci-fi and fantasy books of all time featured substantially less, with the first woman on the list appearing at #20: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein and considered by many to be the founder of modern sci-fi as we know it.

Fast forward three years to April 2015. Sarah Hughes of The Guardian celebrated that women writers were “storming the male citadels of sci-fi,” though her article featured mostly fantasy authors, and only scratched the surface on the shift stemming from teen readers of YA reaching adulthood.

But while women writing speculative fiction has become commercially successful – take Suzanne Collins’ success with The Hunger Games, both the books and their film adaptations; or Victoria Aveyard, whose Red Queen series has been dominating the New York Times bestsellers list – women writing both YA and speculative fiction gives them both the opportunity to be more viably successful while dealing with sexism on both sides of the spectrum.

Fantasy and science-fiction belong to the boys, so long as we ignore bestsellers.

The young adult community favors the stories of boys over girls when it comes to awards and sales. Take the Locus Award nominee list for best young adult novel, whose original nomination list featured many YA novels written by women, finished with a list of books that were all written by men – and of those five titles, three were adult titles, two written by the same author.

The women authors of the young adult fiction community are sneered at – for writing books for kids, for being less than worthy of writing for adults, for being simpler, darker, lighter, fluffier, boring, basic, everything and nothing all at once.

The women authors of the adult speculative fiction community – for using a pseudonym, for not using a pseudonym, for writing books about women and social issues, for not understanding how to properly play with tropes, for playing with tropes, for doing everything and nothing all at once.

The women of speculative fiction, across the board, are vilified for existing and daring to write.

The women of speculative fiction, across the board, are beloved by their readers for existing and daring to write.

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At last year’s Hugo Awards, which honors the best science fiction and fantasy works as nominated and voted on by supporting or attending members of the World Science Fiction Convention, two groups worked to put their own slate of authors on the nominees list: Sad Puppies, run by Brad R. Torgensen and Larry Correia; and the Rapid Puppies, run by Vox Day. Both groups – rife with sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia – pushed their own agenda onto the awards, legally manipulating the system by which the titles are nominated until their picks made the list. Essentially, they organized a group to stuff the ballot box.

“A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds,” wrote Torgensen on a blog post entitled “SAD PUPPIES 3: The unraveling of an unreliable field.” “If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. … [Now, you see] a planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women. Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.”

The Mary Sue recapped the entire escapade on their site, but the Hugo Awards essentially split into two groups: the Puppies slates, and those who refused to be involved in their nonsense. Many nominated creators refused the nomination, not wanting to be associated with the slates, and multiple categories resulted with no award being nominated.

What the Hugo Awards scenario – which currently lacks a best YA or best children’s category, forcing any potential works to be nominated alongside their adult counterparts – represents an underlying problem in the speculative fiction community. It’s the same underlying problem that creeps up and rears its ugly head in YA: sexism.

But how sexism acts in both communities varies radically, and while the culture in adult speculative fiction is shifting slowly towards a more equal playing ground, the history of the young adult community and its prevalent focus on their teenage girl audience and their stories about girls – even if those stories aren’t ultimately rewarded – is something worth discussing.

“Women have been part of science fiction and fantasy all along, and that we’re even still having this conversation speaks to the way that women’s work is constantly marginalized,” said Steel author Carrie Vaughn in an interview about women writing urban fantasy with Fantasy Magazine. “It’s so ironic that you’ll hear people talk in one breath about how women are better at writing fantasy and men are better at science fiction, and in the next breath talk about how of course men write better epic fantasy, and women really only write that ‘girly’ fantasy. There are some folks who’d squeeze us out entirely if they could. As I said, we’ve been doing it all, all along, and it’s annoying that we have to keep pointing that out.”

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Adult speculative fiction features a slew of amazing women authors, many who also write young adult speculative fiction. Catherynne Valente’s Deathless is arguably one of the most beautiful stories ever written; her young adult Fairyland series features one of the coolest portal fantasies that shelves currently offer. Victoria Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic has its place on my favorites shelf, and more swag in my room than I dare to count; her upcoming YA novel This Savage Song, just one of the many YA novels Schwab has written, is a fantastic story that focuses on the line between human and monster.

“As YA is ‘for children,’ and specifically ‘for girls,’ it’s created a kind of safe-haven where debut female authors can receive the sort of advances, marketing budget, and attention that they could only dream of in epic fantasy — but it’s also created the misconception that women should therefore only write YA, and the prevalence and popularity of female authors and female readers has devalued anything in the genre in many readers’ eyes,” wrote Rhiannon Thomas in “Supporting Female Authors in Epic Fantasy and YA” on Feminist Fiction.

This week, we’re going to celebrate the women of speculative YA fiction. We’ll talk about their experiences, their communities, what they write, why they write it. They themselves will tell you about their experiences writing and what they think about – whether it’s worldbuilding, giving their heroine anxiety, or why they love writing speculative fiction.

At the end of the week, we’ll post a huge recommendation post for you on women authors of YA speculative fictoin to try.

Welcome to Starship Ladies.

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About Author

Nicole Brinkley

Nicole is the editor of YA Interrobang. She has short hair and loves dragons. The rest changes without notice. Follow her on Twitter at @nebrinkley or Tumblr at nebrinkley. Like her work? Leave her a tip.