Sexism in Science Fiction

Strange Horizons published an interesting study a couple of months ago that looked at the breakdown of science fiction reviews by gender. What this study found was that 60-80% of the science fiction book reviews were of books written by male authors. My first inclination might be to take the benefit of the doubt — maybe there are proportionally several more male authors in the field. But this isn’t the case. Locus US reported that only 50.7% of the books they received were by men. That’s only half, folks. While some publications are more balanced than others (Cascadia Subduction Zone, Locus, and had the most balanced amount of reviews by gender), SF publications largely favored male authors.

An increased focus has developed over the last couple of months on this issue. I’ve read several blog posts and articles written about notable women in genre fiction and topics supporting better balance in the field. Then recently, there have been some unfortunate stories that have deterred from what many folks are trying to promote. There were misogynist comments publicly stated by comic artist, Tony Harris; a derogatory rant by Hugh Howey ; and most recently, controversies surrounding SFWA’s bulletins, including a bikini-clad Red Sonja on the cover of its 200th issue and a series of dialogs from Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg that objectified women in the field.

We all say comments we regret, but sometimes our offensive remarks are born out of deep-seeded bigotry. I’m not saying it’s the case for the aforementioned people — I don’t know any of them personally and if anything, Hugh Howey has a more positive approach for his female characters than he does for his male characters. It was rather unfortunate that his pseudo mea culpa amounted to deleting his original post with a few apologetic remarks.

John Scalzi’s response to the SFWA controversies are much more proactive (he has been very vocal in promoting diversity in SF). First he took responsibility for the remarks. Secondly, he created a task force to look into the bulletin content to determine how to proceed to make its contents valuable to its members.

All of these activities have led me to look introspectively at my own viewpoints and book selection. In the past, I have found myself more inclined to read male authors. I don’t know if it is out of sexism. I thought that I preferred them because it was easier to connect with them. I fear this may be a faulty assumption. I adore the works of many female authors (Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, to name a few) and have not read their works just because they are good female authors. I read them because they are damn good authors. Period.

By sheer coincidence, four out of five of my short fiction reviews were written by women (something I have recently started doing on this blog). Novels tell a much bleaker story. Thirteen out of fourteen of the novel reviews I’ve written this year were by men. That’s 93%. And right now I’m reading The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham, NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, and have A Canticle for Lieblowitz by Walter M. Miller on hold from the library. If I review each of these, that will be sixteen out of seventeen authors who are male. An abysmal 94% devoted to male authors!

In an effort to catch up with several of the classics, I think it is quite natural to have a skewed distribution, but certainly not to the level that I show so far this year. Science fiction is a genre about ideas — a way to deal with culture and society in a less obtrusive manner than straight-up non-fiction does. To only read fiction from one demographic, namely (mostly white) males, is to have an obtuse viewpoint. An unacceptable viewpoint.

So to the few people who have meandered through my blog, I am making a commitment to do a much better job of reading novels by women. Novels by people from different countries. Novels by people from different ethnicities. Stories are created by experiences and it makes little sense to read only the stories by white suburbanites who grew up with a life of privileges.

Sexism doesn’t occur just from the comments we make. Sometimes it comes from the comments we fail to make. And I intend on doing a better job in the future.

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