Women in Science Fiction

My name is K. Ceres Wright and I’m a science fiction (SF) writer. I had the pleasure to attend Seton Hill University with Venessa Guinta, and she has asked me to write a blog post on women in SF, which I gratefully agreed to do. Although there are many women SF writers, I will focus on five in this post: Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, and C.J. Cherryh.

Octavia Butler

Ms. Butler was inspired to write SF after viewing a particularly bad movie called “Devil Girl From Mars.” She figured she could write something better than that, and promptly set about doing it. She was 12 at the time. And since then, she has won nine writing awards, one in 1995 for the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the “Genius Grant.”

One of the best known African American SF writers, Ms. Butler cited the women’s movement as having a profound effect on her writing. One of her teachers, Joanna Russ, encouraged women SF writers to stop writing under their initials, male pseudonyms, or androgynous names. Ms. Butler said that women breaking into SF without pretending they were someone else was a new idea.

Ms. Butler’s works include the novels, Wild Seed, Parable of the Sower, and Kindred, as well as a collection of short fiction and essays, Bloodchild and Other Stories. Her work explored the concepts of race, power struggles, gender, religion, and social class.

When asked why she wrote SF, Ms. Butler said, “Because there are no closed doors, no walls. I mean the only rule is, if you use science, you should use it accurately. You can look at, examine, play with, anything. Absolutely anything.”

Sadly, Ms. Butler passed away in 2006. She was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010.

Ursula LeGuin

Ms. LeGuin, like Ms. Butler, began writing SF at an early age. She submitted her first short story at the age of 11 to Astounding Science Fiction. It was rejected. However, she has since written a number of both SF and fantasy books, including The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, and The Lathe of Heaven. Her novels often feature people of color, which she notes as reflecting the non-White majority of human beings. Among Ms. LeGuin’s varied influences are J. R. R. Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, and the Tao Te Ching.

Her book, The Lathe of Heaven, has been twice adapted for film. When asked why the story developed a loyal following, LeGuin said, “It’s kind of like old fairy tales, where somebody is trying to do good and is always defeated by reality, because trying to do good just isn’t enough. You’ve also got to be realistic… Poor Haber in the book is a do-gooder who’s self-defeated. He isn’t defeated by anybody evil. He’s not evil. He means well all the way through the book, but he’s doing it wrong. And I think people are intrigued by that.”

Ms. LeGuin was not an early success. Having raised three children, she often wrote at night. It would be 10 years before she would sell any short stories or novels. She noted that editors often said, “You write very well, but you don’t know what you’re writing about.” Unperturbed, she would continue submitting stories. As a result, she has received numerous writing awards, including several Locus, Nebula, and Hugo wins. In 2000, the Library of Congress made LeGuin a Living Legend in the Writers and Artists category.

Lois McMaster Bujold

Like Ms. LeGuin, Ms. Bujold writes both SF and fantasy and has received numerous awards. Her novella, The Mountains of Mourning, and novel, Paladin of Souls, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. She had an early interest in SF, which she attributes to her father, an engineer who edited the Nondestructive Testing Handbook.

On her writing process, Ms. Bujold admits that it developed over time. When her children were young, she wrote during small blocks of time at the library in longhand, then would return home to type up her notes. Her system evolved as her children grew and she had larger blocks of time to write. Ms. Bujold would outline the first draft, but has since abandoned the tactic. She now works straight from scene outlines, which she transcribes onto the computer. She notes that with so much structural work completed, she does not have much revising to do.

When asked if she had any secrets to pass onto aspiring writers, she said, “There are no real secrets. It’s the same advice you get all the time. You learn to write by writing. So sit down and write, finish things. That’s how it’s done. Writing is the least regulated profession in the world. They’re not going to stop you. A good blog advice column is by Patricia C. Wrede. She does writing posts twice a week, short and very practical.” (http://pcwrede.com/blog/)

In 2011, Ms. Bujold was given the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award for Imaginative Fiction, known as the Skylark, which recognizes someone for lifetime contributions to science fiction.

Connie Willis

Ms. Willis is a giant in the field of SF, with her works having garnered 11 Hugo, 7 Nebula, and 4 Locus awards, among others. Several of her books have dealt with time travel, with recurring characters from a future University of Oxford visiting various periods in history (Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog). Her most recent book, Blackout/All Clear (a two-volume work) concerns World War II.

A history buff and meticulous researcher, Ms. Willis admits she is a slow writer, which she partially attributes to the sheer volume of research she conducts. She divides her research time into three categories: General, specific, and “something that will illuminate your book.”

For Blackout/All Clear, Ms. Willis came across a story of a British ambassador and his wife who visited Washington, DC, in hopes of gaining funding for the war. An American had asked the ambassador’s wife, “How is civilian morale in London these days?” To which the wife haughtily replied, “There are no civilians in London these days.” Ms. Willis used this concept as the driving force for her book.

Ms. Willis’ books deal with the impact of technology, coming to terms with grief and loss, gender roles, and human psychology. She was inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Science Fiction Writers of America named her its 28th SFWA Grand Master in 2011.

C.J. Cherryh

When asked why she wrote SF, Ms. Cherryh replied, “As a child, I liked adventures, exploration, ‘what-ifs,’ and fairy tales. I liked sea stories and memorized all the parts of a clipper ship before I was eight. And this was in landlocked Oklahoma. Before I was nine, I wanted to see mountains taller than the Wichitas and I wanted to see an ocean. I wanted to see a narwhal. I wanted to ride camels and explore the desert. I halfway believed in lost worlds.”

When she finally became an SF writer, Ms. Carolyn Janice Cherry was encouraged to use her initials as her pen name by her first editor, and to add an extra “h” at the end to keep it from sounding like a romance author. Despite these restraints, Ms. Cherryh has published more than 60 books, some of which have received Hugo and Locus awards.
A student of Greek classics and teacher of Latin and Ancient Greek, Ms. Cherryh has incorporated her love of linguistics, history, archaeology, and psychology into her books. When writing her various universes, she addresses issues such as environment, diet, knowledge sharing, and death rituals in order to fully inform her alien worlds.
Says Ms. Cherryh, “Historians world build. You have to take information from the past and put it together in a way that makes sense. And if you’re a good historian, you try to keep yourself out of it as much as possible and not try to make “back then” an analog for “right now,” because that’s how you end up slanting history. … When I work, I borrow a little from this, a little from that, but I try to make them legitimately connected.”

In 2001, Ms. Cherryh had an asteroid named after her and in 2005, received the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Each of these women came from different backgrounds and disciplines, but each is an accomplished writer in the field of SF. I believe this fact reflects the diversity that SF celebrates, whether it be plot, style, or subgenre. And it is diversity that allows SF to incorporate technological and societal changes and craft stories that just may change the future.