Women Hard Science Fiction Writers

Mary Somerville
Mary Somerville (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The row about the lack of women hard science fiction writers has blown up yet again, with at least one female author saying that a publisher has told her they would not publish a hard science fiction novel by a woman. No other reason. It didn’t matter how good her book was, it was the fact that she was a woman that would get it automatically turned down.

How can that be, when the first hard science fiction novel was by a woman? Yes, I’m talking about Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published in 1818. This novel was based on the then recent experiments demonstrating galvanism – or showing how to make a dead frog’s leg twitch by the application of some electricity.

[It is also interesting that about this time there were women making strides in mathematics. Everyone knows about Ada Lovelace, Bryon’s daughter who helped Charles Babbage with his work on computers. Less well known is her tutor, Mary Somerville. In her day she was so famous for her endeavours that she was invited to the coronations of both King George IV and Queen Victoria. I was therefore pleased to hear that Somerville College, Oxford University, has acquired a portrait of Ada Lovelace, when she was a child, to hang beside that of Mary Somerville in their extensive college library.]

Don’t get me wrong. There are women around today who are hard science fiction authors, but they are very far and few between. Depending on what your definition of hard science fiction entails, authors like C. J. Cherryh, Lois Bujold and James Tiptree (yes she was a woman) come to mind. But what worries me is that it seems to me women hard science fiction writers seem to be mainly of an older generation or passed on. There is of course Madeleine Ashby, Chris Moriaty and um…

So why are hard science fiction publishers seemingly shunning women more these days than in the past? And this is despite the efforts of people like Ian Sales to promote women science fiction writers more.

Well, you have to ask the publishers. All I’m going to say is that they are missing a crucial viewpoint of society, which means that hard science fiction will be biased towards the male interests.

But women have been here before in several different walks of life. In the case of women’s colleges at Oxford University… if I remember correctly, the five women’s colleges were consistently getting well above average results, so much so that the men’s colleges had to admit women in order to get back up the results’ league tables.

Realistically speaking, the fewer women that are published in hard science fiction, the better they have to be. Why do I think history will repeat itself, but this time in hard science fiction?

19 thoughts on “Women Hard Science Fiction Writers

  1. I think this is a case of the publishers not understanding the market (again). Most readers – especially genre readers – do not care whether their authors are male or female. What do they think, that the sci fi in the book would give way to soppy romance? With a devilishly handsome and rich male lead (who is probably also a vampire) seducing the young girl while lecturing her about quantum mechanics and string theory?


    I’d still be a fan of Alastair Reynolds if he was Alice Reynolds though I doubt he would have a gender change operation to test the theory 🙂

  2. I totally agree with you that the sci fi books should be published on grounds of merit alone. What concerns me is that by cutting off access to good hard sci fi books solely because they are written by women is depriving the market of some good publications. The public, as well as women hard SF authors, are losing out.

    1. Sadly, the market does it all the time to books and writers in all genres regardless of gender because they think something is not marketable. JK Rowling was told that her book was a few decades too late for the children’s book market. Sometimes they get it spectacularly wrong.

      1. Tell me about it… and it’s not just books. I submitted a short story to a competition, but it didn’t get into the next round. Because of other mayhem in going on in my life at that time, I thought I’d never make it as a science fiction writer and it was enough to make me want to give up on the art. Some while later, in one of those fits of idiocy I’m prone to when I’m having a ‘tidy up’, I sent it out somewhere else and it was immediately accepted. What is more it had very good reviews across the board. I’ll be forever grateful to the editor concerned. But it shows you that even competition judges can get it wrong.
        By the way, JK Rowling was born within five miles from here… good on her for sticking it out despite the awful comments she was getting.

  3. From what I see of the SF books published of late real SF has been replaced with doom and gloom social ‘science’.

    Maybe I am looking back to the times I started reading SF (late 40s, early 50s) when it was outward looking and progressive, not the navel gazing that appears to predominate todays offerings. Because of this you are in a minority of a minority of writers and I dont see any way out of it at the moment unless fashions change and people start looking outward again.

    The only glint of hope I can see is that real SF is still being produced by Britisk SF writers following in the footsteps of Clark et al.

  4. Hello 25tech and welcome to my blog.

    Certainly the zeitgeist for SF seems to be the doom and gloom you cite, except of course if you look at the comic strips of Superman et al, and those small band of British SF writers trying to be more positive about up and coming science.

    My guess for what it is worth, is that part of the problem lies in it being cheaper to make doom and gloom SF films and TV shows, compared with the more uplifting themes. This enthusiasm leeches into the printed market, through mechanisms like writers wanting to have film rights bought from them and the buzz such films course in the audiences.

    I think another problem is the misconception that we have explored all that science can give us. Us scientists and engineers know otherwise! There are vast heaps of science yet to be explored, though the publishing industry don’t seem to admit this is the case. This problem is compounded by the difficulty of explaining this tech, because let’s face it, the science fiction writers of the golden era have explored most, if not all, of the easier to explain tech. This is in part due to lack of general education in science and tech… the standard of maths education alone has fallen since the 1970s to my knowledge. So we have a bit of chicken and egg situation here… any ideas how to breal such a vicious circle?

    1. Rosie, thank you for the welcome.

      Your last paragraph holds the answer which so few people see. I remember your comments on a couple of threads at SFFWorld and you got the same treatment that I get when I try and say anything on the technical/engineering side – most of the commentators there don’t want to know (there I am ivanj).

      Before I went into semi retirement I was involved in creating courses for one of the engineering companies I acted as a consultant for. These courses were designed to try and combat the lack of knowledge of maths and, in this case, general science new employees were showing – and this was after HR had sorted the good from the indifferent to bad.

      The only way to break the downward spiral is to go back to the standard of education we had in the 50s and early 60s which means scrapping what is there now and starting again with training teachers to teach children to think and question what they are taught. I won’t get started on that otherwise I’ll finish up copying the book I’m writing.

      1. I am horrified that you had to create courses to bring people up to the capability they needed in science and maths, but I suspect you are far from the only one doing this. 😦

        The 40s and 50s science fiction is (in general) not only entertaining, but educational, though less people are reading it today because it has become dated in tone / writing style as well as some science ideas. I really do think there is a lack in market choice for what I call educational science fiction.

        The chances that a government anywhere will change the way they teach is remote. There is an old saying in England about science and tech students – those that can do, those that can’t teach. It means the quality of teachers (not all I hasten to add) is below that of those in industry and other areas. Not sure what can be done about this.

  5. I wonder to what extent the various anti-science movements, and the fact that they are promoted by the press and never challenged, is influencing the calamity fiction? You have a climate denial machine, anti-evolutionists, anti vaccine movement, alt med groups all saying the same thing: scientists are malevolent, self-interested profiteers determined to repress The Truth, I think today is the first time since Darwin published On the Origin of Species that science has come under such tremendous attack from all sides with persistent mudslinging and popular media aiding the assault.

    Could this be anything to do with it do you think?

    1. In many cases the scientists are their own worst enemies. We have the AGW climate machine going all out crying doom, we are all doomed if we don’t retreat to the dark ages (btw, there is no climate denial machine that I have been able to find, gust some engineers, scientists and concerned people trying to get at the truth).

      We also have academia slanting everything in the direction of getting grants for research the results of which very seldom see the light of day, not a good way to publicize science. Also don’t forget a lot of the soft science is included when people talk about scientists.

      1. Yes, science compared with its recent past, is being lambasted by various sections of the community. Reasons are several and various.

        One of the problems with publicising advances in science is the intellectual property rights issue i.e. keeping inventions under wraps until they are legally protected, after which progress is slow because only one person is allowed to make progress on it to develop it further to get it to market. Again not sure what the answer is to this one…

        What is we divide up science fiction sub-genres in a different way? Say into:
        1) comic strip adventures (or similar);
        2) educational science;
        3) social consequences of science development.

        What percentage of newly published stories would fall into the last two categories? Very little I suspect.

      2. No climate denial machine you say? I’d suggest you look harder for the political groups such as Heartland Institute that are funded almost entirely by Exxon-Mobil. I know this is off topic, but I suggest you start here.

    2. What is we divide up science fiction sub-genres in a different way? Say into:
      1) comic strip adventures (or similar);
      2) educational science;
      3) social consequences of science development.

      That’s a good way to divide but I might take issue with group 2. Would Alastair Reynolds or Peter F. Hamilton consider themselves educators? Perhaps they do and I do find their work educational, I’m just not sure whether they do or not.

      1. No matter which way you divide things, it’ll never be perfect. There’ll always be cross-overs and exceptions.

        I ummed and hahed about educational science because some of it is explaining what is, and some includes new inventions or ideas that have to be explained.

        Certainly Alastair’s Revelation Space series falls into the latter, which is why IMHO it was so popular.

        So how about a classification like this as an alternative?

        1) comic strip adventures (or similar);
        2) new invention description and uses;
        3) current science explanations (in a simplified fantastical setting to bring out the point(s)));
        4) social consequences of science development.

      2. That sounds like a good idea. I imagine though that some people will lump 2,3 and 4 under “social (or soft) science fiction”. You’ll never be able to please everyone!

  6. Rosie, I don’t think you could be as horrified as I was when I got the commission to produce the courses. I had seen that standards were slipping but when I found that a majority of the job applicants couldn’t do simple equation manipulation – how do you work out stress in materials without being able to do that – I saw how low the standard of education had fallen.

    I like your definition of educational SF, the only problem is that most authors shun this and go for the soft science. I often wonder if this is because they do not have a background in science and/or engineering or the fashion in writing has changed from possible science with an idea of advancement to doom and gloom based on environmental breakdown.

    The other problem I can foresee with educational SF, it will have long words in it which will put off most teenagers / young adults reading it. Yes, we need it to encourage the take up of science and engineering but we also need an improvement in educational standards to enable people to read it and understand what they are reading. How we get the latter I don’t know and I have a degree in engineering and one in science as well as teaching qualifications.

    1. Ouch! That bad. Yuck!

      Every complicated idea can be explained in words of one syllable, if you allow enough words to complete the description… believe me. So long words are not needed, and indeed as you say, not wanted.

      There are various reasons why authors go for soft science, but I suspect the main reason is that it involves a lot characterisation, something which is selling well at the moment. Which of course means educational SF will have less chance of getting published… sigh…

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