The World SF Blog

Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Monday Original Content: (Global) Women in SF Round Table

I am delighted to introduce this week’s original feature, a round table on women in SF, from a global perspective, with some of our favourite authors. Without further ado:

(Global) Women in Science Fiction Round Table

With: Aliette de Bodard (France), Joyce Chng (Singapore), Csilla Kleinheincz (Hungary), Kate Elliott (US), Karen Lord (Barbados), Ekaterina Sedia (Russia/US)

Kate: It’s difficult for me to articulate all the strands of thought interweaving in my head when I think about this. I’m going to throw this out just as a kind of fragmented opener that barely touches on the core issues and is mostly definitional, for which I apologize.

One place I could start is with Joyce’s mention in her excellent rant on the World SF blog of the very term “World SF.” I’m glad the World SF blog exists; I think it needs to exist. At the same time, “world sf” becomes a bit like the current use of the word “ethnic” in American English: it denotes a particular thing that has to be marked because it isn’t the thing that doesn’t have to be marked. Just as we have an entire discussion about “women writers” instead of “writers.” World SF still exists outside the default, and can be ignored or included depending on the needs of the discussion, because the discussion is indeed still US/UK-centric and, of course, Anglophone-centric (which I admit is great for me, being a native English speaker).

It would be easy to criticize sff as a genre form of cultural imperialism, but I don’t think the global world culture is so easy to categorize these days. Not that the reach of advertising dollars and multinational companies don’t skew the larger global cultural picture, because they do, but we have only to look at the global music scene to see how musical styles from one place can both reach out and be woven into music from another place. Sometimes this is appropriative, but more often it reflects (I think) the normal human tendency to gather and weave.Caribbean-American writer Tobias Buckell just posted a fabulous account of AnimeKon, held in Barbados (Karen can speak to this as she was there). To me one of the salient points I take away from his post is that sff, anime, manga, and film has become/is becoming a shared global cultural mix. To my mind, the way it will remain vibrant and urgent and alive is insofar as it is embraced, changed, mashed up, and transfigured by that global reach.

Karen: I’m glad Kate mentioned AnimeKon. While we were there, I asked Tobias things like ‘how does the gender balance here compare to other cons you’ve been to’, ‘are there more males than females buying your books’, and so on. I’ve heard that Dragon Con has a similar good mix of gender and age, but other cons can be very age- and gender-specific. To me it isn’t unusual to see all kinds of people enjoying all kinds of SF/F, and daring to create it too!

I think that some genre boundaries become self-fulfilling prophecies. It might be a consequence of the kind of marketing mentality that says to the reader ‘If you liked Author X, you will love Author Y!’ It may make for easy marketing, but it trains readers to be unadventurous, and then pushes new authors to fit into established moulds if they hope to sell – or even get published, for that matter. Potential new readers are being passed over because a lot of genre publishing rarely takes risks. You have to look to small presses, literary presses for that.

I realise I haven’t really addressed the questions, but that’s because they’re not so much loaded as … not entirely relevant to my experience? Yes, the conversation has been UK/US-centric thus far. Does that mean that gender in SF/F is more of an issue in those countries? Or that too few have sufficient knowledge of literary traditions in other countries to broaden the discussion? Science fiction more appealing to men? Not according to me, nor to my female friends. Have I written science fiction? I have, but it hasn’t been published yet (though the manuscript did win an award). It didn’t feel different, or special. Was it supposed to? I have a major in physics and a minor in astronomy. Does that exempt me? Someone did tell me once, years ago, that physics isn’t a girl’s subject. I think I laughed in his face.

Csilla: What struck me most in Joyce’s rant was the bitter truth of world SF being exotic curiosity. As Kate had mentioned, the discussion about women writers and even any discussion about SFF is heavily US/UK-centric, making it seem more important, which is a misconception fed by the fact that even though English language serves as an intermediary when it comes to SFF, only 3% of all books published in the US is a work in translation (I don’t know the percentage for SFF but my guess is it’s even more dismal). There are wonderful gems of SFF literature all over the world, by women and men alike, and the English-speaking world, the great common marketplace of the SF doesn’t even know of, and by lacking an edition in English, other countries remain also ignorant of these (with a few exceptions of course). Take “Vita Nostra” by Maryna and Sergey Dyachenko (Ukraine), or the WonderTimes tetralogy by Etelka Görgey (Hungary) (http://sfmag.hu/2011/01/11/etelka-gorgey-wondertimes-religion-family-saga-and-science-fiction-in-four-volumes/): they will only be recognized globally if they get translated to English. That is a task a non-English speaking writer has to bend to – on the other hand, being present in English also opens a lot of doors (doors that are by default open to native speakers).

World SF is a colourful and invisible mass, with only limited permeability. English is the language that should serve as an intermediary yet it shouldn’t only be the responsibility of the writers themselves to translate and promote their work. The view the world gets about world SF is distorted: the ones who master English or are able to get a good translator get published (if they are lucky) while others remain mostly unknown. World SF is an iceberg with only the tip visible and it would do well to raise awareness of it for SFF would only benefit from the cultural cross-pollination. Non-English speaking writers get plenty of influence from translated US/UK works. This should be a two-way channel.

I am not saying of course that everything that gets published in other countries is brilliant. It isn’t. World SF has the same percentage of crap as US/UK SF. Hungarian science fiction, for example, is mostly stuck in time and is definitely dominated by men – to tie the conversation back to the original women writers discussion. This is partly due to the fact that there was a long hiatus in the publication of science fiction, and even before that, the translated works were mostly Golden Age works, with only a handful of women writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Andre Norton. Neuromancer came in only in 1992, and Hungarian writers were slow to follow. The retro character of Hungarian science fiction is also a direct result of publishing and awarding mediocre works that are ignorant of the themes and changes in global science fiction. Although there are Hungarian science fiction writers who read and write modern works, we never had a New Wave movement, and only have isolated attempts at quality. As there are only a few Hungarian female role models in SF, women are discouraged and leave the genre, which only enforces the artificially upheld notion that science fiction is only for men. Even awareness that this is a problem is lacking.

After SF Signal’s Mind Meld Gábor Takács, editor of the Hungarian magazine SFmag made the statistics based on the majority of Hungarian science fiction short stories in 2010 to see how many women were published (19%) and how many stories feature a female protagonist (7%). (http://sfmag.hu/2011/06/17/zsoldos-dijra-jelolt-novellak-ertekelese-statisztika-es-osszegzes/) Our only science fiction award, the Péter Zsoldos Award has a 14 years old history, yet there has not been a single woman winner either in the novel or the short story category (in spite of the jury having strong chairwomen). Many of the women who write SFF in Hungary are not even published and have to turn to POD or self-publishing, and not because of the lack of talent. Before being recognized as part of world SF they need to be recognized in their own country, hardships that those who have the privilege of being men or US citizens or native speakers are not aware of.

Writers all over the world would benefit from being judged on a global scale. World SF needs the raised awareness as much as women writers do — and needs a lot more publishers who raise that three percent.

Aliette: this is raising a lot of points, and, like Kate, I’m not quite sure how to tackle them in an orderly fashion. While the world is a more complex place than it was during the Cold War, I don’t think we’re quite past the cultural imperialism of the US–or, at any rate, that science fiction hasn’t quite got over it. As far as the genre is concerned, English is the language, and Western Anglophone the reference (not the case, for instance, with mysteries, which can get translated more easily, though there are still a lot of problems). SF in particular has very strong US roots and US sensibilities: in France, we had a period of our SF aping the Golden Age (we got over it, but it was painful while it lasted). I’m not saying it’s deliberate imperialism, just the sort of unconscious bleed-out from a dominant culture, coupled with the tendency not to question its “superiority”.

Reading Joyce’s article, the one other thing that I wanted to comment on was the use of “minorities”. I think a clear difference needs to be made between minorities in the US (who might have a hard time getting heard because of the White-dominated publishing industry), and non-US, non-Western folks (who, not being part of the dominant culture and the dominant country, have an even harder time). I don’t think the distinction is clear enough right now, and it leads to people lumping everything together and claiming that the debate is inclusive because US POC are having their say (which is an important thing, but again not the whole of the scene). What I saw of Racefail, for instance, was heavily focused on US sensibilities and US perception of racism. Again, I’m pretty sure other corners of the web had other discussions, but the dominant voice was that of US people.

The fact that the discussion is centred on SF is… I’m not quite sure how to articulate it. I appreciate the Russ Pledge, I really do; but it does leave a slight impression that SF is the important genre, and that fantasy doesn’t even bear mentioning. Of course, it’s always the case when you start putting genre boundaries; but there’s something about this that bothers me. You could argue that we’re making the Russ Pledge because fantasy doesn’t need it; but I’m not even entirely sure that this is the case. All major fantasy bestsellers are written by men, and there are known biases in that genre as well. I’m not quite sure what to think. Still, I guess we have to start somewhere in order to tackle inequalities.

Hum. I realise I haven’t tackled a lot of the questions either… Have I written science fiction? A little–it didn’t feel like me to be appealing more to men than to women, though science fiction written by women does tend to appeal more to me than that written by men. I’m not entirely sure why; probably personal taste. Tales entirely focused on science at the detriment of everything else tend to leave me cold, but that’s because I’m a scientist myself, and science in novels, even if really well done, reminds me too much of work (but my husband, a physicist by trade, is equally bored by that kind of tale, so it’s probably not a gender thing).

I’m curious. Do you think that what women write (and read) tends to have a slightly different sensibility than what men write? (I’m not saying it’s a rule, just a trend) Not sure how to articulate it, but even my husband, who is very open-minded and progressive, reads way more men than women; while I read both equally.

Kate: Karen, what were Toby’s observations about gender and age balance at AnimeKon?

I should note that I agree with Aliette about cultural imperialism. I was trying to say I think it is no longer only cultural imperialism that gives sff/anime/etc its global reach. The degree to which these subjects and forms show up cross culturally speak to a more universal form, if you will, of how they connect with certain readers and viewers as we move further into the 21st century. (And, off topic, I agree completely about Racefail. It was a hugely important and valuable discussion, but it was deeply US-centric and at times unaware that it was so.)

I learned more about Hungarian sf (and the difficulties faced by women writing in the genre there) from reading what Csilla just wrote than anything I had ever known before, which to me is symptomatic of how fenced-in the Anglophone US/UK market can be and how difficult it is to get non-English works translated into English, much less sell them to consumers. For example, I was introduced to Argentine writer Angelica Gorodischer through Small Beer Press’s 2003 edition of Kalpa Imperial, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, yet when I check Amazon.com, I don’t see any English editions of her many other works.

Regarding the history of sf, I’d be curious to hear from Ekaterina, because it seems to me that Russian and Eastern European sf writers were deeply influential in the evolution of the field, not to mention that the word “robot” comes from a Czech writer.

This discussion brings me to think of the resorts that dot the world, where Westerners can travel to “exotic” destinations while remaining in the comfort of familiar surroundings whose decor varies in pleasing but not too demanding ways. The obstacles facing world sf writers are really profound, and for women, I think, doubly so.

I have more to say (or at least questions to ask) about Lavie’s question about the greater discussion focusing on science fiction and leaving aside fantasy and urban fantasy/paranormal, especially as it affects the visibility of women who may be writing not in English in those genres which often do not get the same level of respect sf does. But I’m thrashing around trying to make sense of my chaotic thoughts.  And that’s leaving aside Aliette’s question about reading and writing sensibilities! My time zone is headed for bed; I’ll return in the morning.

Csilla: Thank you, Aliette, your thoughts on cultural imperialism. It reminded me that there was a time when the Western dominance in SF was a relative thing. Ekaterina could tell more about the Soviet fantastika that defined the SF literature of the whole socialist block in Europe and Asia. We grew up reading People Like Gods by Sergey Snegov, Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, The Cyberiad and Eden by Stanislaw Lem, books that had defined our perception of science fiction as much as Ursula K. Le Guin or Asimov. With the borders opening it seems to me that we have traded this diversity and co-existence of cultures for the previously banned works of Western science fiction, unconsciously giving in to the notion that Western SF is somehow superior.

Now that I think back, the Soviet SF books I read were mostly written by men with only a few women writers. I am sure the contribution of women in the Soviet fantastika must have been greater than the handful of stories I encountered, but Ekaterina surely knows more about it. Just like Kate I am also curious how fantastika has changed during the past years.

Joyce: Okay, jumping in right here as I manage to get some time on the computer to do non-work stuff. What Aliette has asked is very pertinent: I believe that what women write (and read) tends to have a (slightly) different sensibility than what men write. Then again, I would expand on the question. What are women expected to write? If we are expected to write romance, then that is just stereotyping. If we write science fiction, are we expected to write ‘soft’ science fiction?

I think as women SFF writers, we are expected to conform to a certain stereotype. What happens to women who write hard science fiction?

Joyce: I feel that – as what I have ranted – is that the discussion is still very US/UK-centric. It is fine that the POC and minorities are speaking out in – say – the States, but that is still very US-centric/dominated. I also feel that women from places like Southeast Asia might not have the same experiences/common ground to talk about and we end up grappling and confused. There is a lot of intersectionality – what are Southeast Asian women (with different experiences/backgrounds) going to say? What are Southeast Asian women supposed to say? Likewise, when it comes to SFF, what we experience might be similar but vastly different as well. Often as such, we end up trying to conform to foreign-sounding standards and end up feeling confused.

I grew up watching Star Trek and many other American SFF shows. At the same time, I watched wu xia series (Jin Yong, anyone?) and listened to Chinese legends. So in a way, I am straddling in between two worlds. I was not American (because I am not), but I grappled with issues of identity and self-perception. The educational system in Singapore was based on the Anglo-Saxon system, thanks to British colonialism. I think and speak in English… and struggle with my Mandarin Chinese. I speak Cantonese than Hokkien, my mother tongue, simply because my mother was brought up Cantonese by her mother.

How am I going to approach SFF with this skein of experiences?

Wolf At The Door was written as a challenge to norms (that Southeast Asian urban fantasy is just as interesting and perhaps more diverse than the US/UK ones). I write urban fantasy, yes… but I am also interested in ‘soft’ science fiction. Many of my SFF stories deal with future worlds colonized by Terrans. These Terrans often deal with their own identities beside coping with new flora and fauna. Are their languages going to change or are they going to remain the same? Will they change their traditions or integrate new experiences into them to form cultural hybrids? I explore such issues in my SFF stories. I do believe science fiction is changing. Note: I hasten to add that science fiction will only change, when people are willing to change and incorporate new ideas/ideologies/beliefs. Science fiction is no longer an old boys’ institution.

I hope to see more Southeast Asian women writing SFF. I believe there are many (I am one of the editors of a new anthology – “Hybrid”!) and I do see women writing. I also hope to see more non-US/UK women writing SFF. I am heartened from what I see in the roundtable discussion! Perhaps the iron gates will open… in the future.

Karen: ‘Soft’ sci-fi – that’s like what Ray Bradbury wrote, right? Let’s assume, purely for the sake of argument, that women are inclined (nature or culture?) to write and to enjoy a certain type of fiction. Is there a hint of judgement attached, that the male-dominated subgenres are, if not more lucrative, more prestigious? More likely to be ‘true’ sci-fi? I have a vague impression, completely unsupported, that more women write speculative fiction that crosses from genre into literary (there’s another arbitrary boundary with value judgements attached). Do male writers who produce soft, near-literary sci-fi find themselves overlooked when it comes to awards and mentions from genre reviewers?

I think that the problem isn’t whether women write or read different things. It’s the imposition of boundaries and the assigning of value that’s the problem – whether that boundary is genre vs literary, world sf vs Western, or women writers vs men. As a reader, I don’t want to miss out because the next great SF/F writer happens to be the ‘wrong gender’ and has been discouraged from writing what they’re best at writing.

Kate, I just checked in with Tobias to make sure I’m not misquoting him in public! He says that he found the AnimeKon gender balance and age distribution to be much closer to Comic Con than WorldCon (with Comic Con having the better age and gender mix), and in fact the female attendance at AnimeKon was even better than Comic Con. He also reminded me that the gender balance extended to the organisers (one male, two female), something which we both agree must make a difference.

Kate: Karen, absolutely on organization. I’m chuffed by these observations about the balance and distribution at AnimeKon. Also, I’m watching you write in real time as I’m writing this. Kind of cool. Now I have to go walk the dog, though.

Kate: Without wanting to take anything away from the genuine problems women writers of science fiction have in, say, the UK, where it is clear they are deeply underrepresented compared to how many are and could be writing sf, I think you’re all identifying a potentially bigger point.

By focusing on sf are we privileging it as a more “serious” or “prestigious” form of writing? Are urban fantasy and paranormal looked down on because of their subject matter and approach–their sensibility, as Aliette says? Are there more non US/UK women writing urban fantasy? Are these women being ignored both because of the issues relating to English translation and because of the status of urban fantasy itself?  Would a man writing sf be more likely to be picked up for translation than a woman writing urban fantasy or paranormal, because sf is taken as a more “serious” and therefore more “important” genre? Is there a “sensibility” in female written uf or fantasy or sf that is seen as less serious and important, so therefore can be derided or dismissed?

I’m not one to agree with essentialist views of gender. There may be essential differences between male and female, but to my way of thinking our cultural blankets obscure what those might be. However, I do think that just because of culture and societal conditioning and expectations that many women may well write with a view or focus whose sensibility may differ in some ways from that of men. At the same time as women’s “concerns” are often dismissed as trivial or unimportant, the way we as women view and examine the world is often dismissed as “the wrong way” or not “the right way” and thus women fall afoul of being judged as not worthy of a greater readership. This can influence how women writers are read, and how they are reviewed, and whether they’re published at all or can get past the gatekeepers.

Some months ago in an online venue, I read the comments section of an article whose subject I don’t recall except that it was about fantasy or sf. But in the comments several well known male fantasy writers said the most demeaning and insulting things about urban fantasy and paranormal; it was so sexist it shocked me, not that it should have, but it did anyway. They were younger men (i.e. younger than I am); I really thought they would have known better or been beyond that, but they weren’t. It made me sad. I suppose it’s possible to argue that if urban fantasy/paranormal sells well, then publishers will be more likely to take on translations, as they do with mysteries, yet I do wonder even with mysteries if anyone has done a statistical study of the male/female breakdown of how many non-English-language mysteries have been translated into English. As Aliette points out, does the greater representation of women in fantasy (as compared to sf) mean equal representation in all aspects, such as promotion and bestseller lists? In epic fantasy I would say emphatically no; in urban fantasy I would say yes–within the English language market. Yet I still don’t think that makes it easier for the non-English writer to move into the English language market, especially not for women.

Kate: A brief comment which I won’t make again. It is so hard to step outside my US-centricity, even when I try to be conscious of it. So thanks for putting up with it here.

Karen: Kate, I should have stopped to read your comment before editing mine. That’s exactly what I’m getting at, the question of respect, and also inclusion. Why dismiss urban fantasy, or YA? Or why move the goalposts of definition to conveniently exclude from your genre a writer who might be outside the usual demographic of the genre’s writers and readers? Why should authors need to ‘neuter’ their names in order to appeal to male readers? For some reason, I’m thinking about the crime genre. Men happily read female crime writers, don’t they? Are the expectations different?

And 100% agreement with the need for more translated works, especially home-grown literature as opposed to imitations of golden age SF/F.

(By the way, I’m trying to be as ‘global’ as I can in my comments, but I’m an anglophone from a former British colony and can only do so much!)

Aliette: I was mentioning it earlier, but crime also feels fairly global, at least in France. I don’t have the data by genre, but I have read crime novels from a lot more sources than US/UK (Sweden, South Africa, China…) ; whereas most non-French SF and fantasy is translated from English. And yes, a lot of the big names in crime are female; it doesn’t seem to be the case in SF, at least in Anglophone countries.

On the question of inclusion: I agree with Karen and Kate that it’s a very problematic one, especially since the boundary between SF/fantasy/horror is so fluid–you can basically define it as it suits you. And, while the Russ pledge in urban fantasy would have no interest (except for men!), I think a modified version of it would have merits, ie not draw attention to the women writing it, but to the quality of what is being written. UF is very easily dismissed in the debate, and it’s making me quite ill at ease. In “male” terms, one possible analogue of UF would be military SF–which is overwhelmingly written by men–but I don’t see it being military SF being dismissed quite as fast as UF.

I’m not conversant enough with the French SF/F scene to tell whether there is misogyny at work. Certainly our biggest selling SF writer, Pierre Bordage, is a man; and one of the only French SF/F writers to be translated into English is Pierre Pevel. But on the other hand, you have people like Jeanne A-Debats, whose short stories and novels swept up all the major awards in France; or Charlotte Bousquet, who won the Prix Imaginales this year. I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem that matters are that bad here (but again, there might well be invisible factors at work that I don’t see). France, from my (somewhat biased and limited) point of view, has more of a literary sensitivity, and I think the French are not quite as fast to pigeonhole novels into one slot or another: the various genres and subgenres of SF/F do exist here, but you get books which cheerfully ignore all labels and go on to win awards and sell a reasonable amount of copies (though by Anglophone standards, “reasonable” would be pitifully low). Similarly, our two biggest sellers at the moment, at least according to Amazon, are George R R Martin and Robin Hobb (both translations, I know, but at least we have gender parity…)

I do wonder about those rare SF/F books being translated into English–aren’t nearly all of those written by men (not to mention bestsellers in their home countries)? I can think of Pierre Pével, Sergei Lukyanenko, Dmitry Glukhovsky, etc., but I have to admit I can’t put my finger on a single woman in the lot…(also doing my best, but remember I’m seeing the French SF scene through a tiny little pinpoint of living in the country and reading some of the books. I haven’t actually hung out with that many authors and got “the inside picture”, so to speak)

Ekaterina: I’m sorry to disappoint, but since I am living in the US now (and for the past twenty years) I’m not as current on Russian SF as I should be. However, there are certainly a few prominent women writers — for example, Dina Rubina who is not strictly SF, but certainly uses enough fantastic elements to be considered at least speculative. Then there are wonderful Maria Galina and Maria Chepurina, Mariam Petrosyan,  and Yulia Zonis. And of course female writers are translated in even smaller numbers than male ones, although Petrosyan’s DOM V KOTOROM… is probably one of the best three books I read in years, just remarkable.

I feel like anything I’ll say I’ll be repeating myself, because basically I feel like I’ve been banging my head against the wall with this topic — the one-way street of SF, where English-language works get translated all over the world, while the reverse is not true. While we can talk about English being an equalizer language (as Csilla mentioned), it also works as an effective tool of exclusion: it is so dominant that the expectation is for the rest of the world to speak English, not to try and understand them. And even foreign writers who DO write in English are by no means on the level playing field with the native speakers: there is a pressure to write in one milieu, there’s a tendency of editors to assume that every non-standard usage is a mistake, there are not-so-subtle hints that maybe one didn’t write one’s books, etc etc.

Joyce’s post certainly brought up a ton of issues, and it is difficult to sort through all of them at once. One thing is true: it seems that the mainstream tolerates only one level of otherness (as in deviation from white male default) at a time. You can be a woman or a POC or a non-Anglophone, but if you’re more than one of those categories, frames of reference become increasingly divergent from the conditioned default (because let’s face it, with the penetration Hollywood and Western media have all over the world, pretty much everyone is exposed to and is expected to relate to a white American dude as a hero. Once you start introducing separators — race, gender, nationality — you lose chunks of audience. Sure, some people find different perspective interesting and refreshing, but many more find them alienating and difficult, especially when they are reading “for pleasure” (another weird phrase, because why the hell else would you read?) Really, the advantage of being a cultural dominant is that you don’t have to know how to relate to anyone else, and I have no answer as to how that can be changed. The irony is that as some of the US-based SF is becoming more internally diverse, it seems more closed off to the outside influences. If that makes any sense.

Joyce: Just to comment on the urban fantasy=female authors – the bookstores here in Singapore stock up on many US titles. Does this show that Singaporean readers are still fixated on US or indeed UK titles (and authors). There is one Singaporean author SM de Silva (female) who self-published her urban fantasy novel Blood on The Moon – but even then the reception of home-grown UF authors is not there. Many readers are still reading US and UK titles (okay, I hope I don’t sound as if I am whining…)

Then again, I have an impression even within the SFF world, paranormal romance is received with disdain or at least with a curl of the lips (that signify disgust/dislike?). I wonder why though. Is it because it’s been overdone or that paranormal romance (italics for emphasis) equates women’s writing?

Writing is writing. I hate it when people put filters, fences, iron gates and other types of separators to make themselves special or different.

Aliette: I know UF used not to sell at all in France; and it’s only in recent years that we’ve started having huge hits (our big editor Bradgelonne started a “Milady” imprint, and I understand it’s been selling like crazy, even more than epic fantasy). In many ways, it does feel (again), like the one-way street: the US are the trendsetter, and everyone else is following in their wake with a slight delay–but there is no import of, say, French or Chinese or Singaporean trends back into the Western Anglophone world (like Ekaterina, I’ve been banging my head against the wall at this state of things for a while).

Coming back to what Ekaterina is saying about US SF: I have also noticed this phenomenon of US SF becoming more diverse, but closing itself to external influences. I wonder how much of that is a feeling of “having paid their dues to diversity”, so to speak? There’s both the notion of each step from the norm being more and more costly, as Ekaterina said (US POC are already “different” enough for many people); and the equation of US minorities with their countries of origins. I suspect that the general perception is that SF is more diverse because minorities are finally having their say (and this is a good thing, don’t mistake me), and that people equate this with the notion that everyone in the world is having their say (which I don’t think is the case, even though there have been efforts with imprints like Haikasoru, and activism from Cheryl Morgan, Jeff Vandermeer, …).

In fact, thinking of Haikasoru, it occurs to me that quite possibly the only subgenre where this isn’t a one-way street is SF published in mangas. Not quite sure why that is, or why it’s limited to this particular medium?

Joyce: Oh yes, I agree with the feeling of “having paid their dues to diversity”. Have that masterlist with token POC/minority characters and they feel like they are good allies with a pass to get away from POC censure. Then again, what is a good ‘ally’? Cluebat: Everyone in the world is still not saying their say.Then again, why should US/UK take the lead?

Csilla: It seems to me that we are trying to tackle in one go problems that are interrelated yet cause serious headache even separately. The situation of women writers in general, the borders world SF has to tear down, the underappreciation of urban fantasy: they could be all traced back to the existence of a privileged class and privileged traits. It’s difficult for me to find an approach that could give an answer to all the questions above, so I will try to focus instead on fantasy as the conversation turned that way, although Aliette and Kate pretty much covered the main points.

What you said made me think about non-Western fantasy and science fiction, speculative fiction so different from what we used to label SF that even the writers and readers don’t realize it’s SF. This strangeness may come from the stylistic approaches of the mainstream, the themes and sometimes merely from the fact that these works reflect very strongly the angst and mentality of a certain nation. All non-Western countries have these books, but we are so used to being told what SF is and what SF should be that anything that doesn’t follow the US/UK trends automatically falls into the mash category of the mainstream (and I am not talking about magic realism, nor those who study literature, just the general idea of SF that lives in the heads of an average reader). Now that I think about it, it’s exactly these works that could contribute the most to the dynamism and diversity of global SF (as “world SF” is used to define non-US/UK SF I have the need of a more universal term, is there one…?) and perhaps bend a little the boundary of what is SF.The problem is, just like Ekaterina said, that the more the fiction deviates from the default, some of the audience is lost. Strangeness is a spice that is tolerated but people like to enjoy it with moderation.And this is the drawback of English language serving as a mediator. While being published in English is clearly the most effective way for a non US/UK writer to make her work available to readers all over the world, English language publishing is not a non-profit organization. The preferences of the editors and publishers shape the genre, and they go for what they know will be selling, because it’s familiar or at least not too strange to be a turn-off, just strange enough to get favorable reception. And why would readers pick up a foreign novel if most of the review sites don’t even mention it and are all about Western publications?World SF writers may try other venues if the big publishers turn them down, and they do, but they need compensation for the lack of privilege or else it won’t be a big surprise that in a race where some people run free and some in sacks, those with tied feet  will always falter behind the privileged.I hope this makes sense. As I have never lived in the US/UK I don’t have a firm understanding of its SF industry so my guess at what publishers or readers like or not like is just a speculation.

Joyce: Yes, you made sense, Csilla. People are still in sacks and those with tied feet are still faltering. That’s my main beef/worry/concern when it comes to Western publications. Diversity is one thing. But actually walking the talk is another.

Csilla: Aliette, I have seen that France has a wonderful and rich comic culture – here in Hungary when French SF comes up it’s the BDs that are mentioned, Metabarons, Enki Bilal’s and Jean-Claude Gal’s works etc. Perhaps they could serve as the foot French writers could plant in the door to keep it from closing?

Aliette: (just a tangent on BDs) Csilla, I think it’s been tried before. A couple of French BDs were translated for the US market, and they didn’t work so well.  More than anything, it highlighted the differences in conception between a French BD and a US comic: a French BD is a series of long episodes that are usually published a year or so apart, the individual episodes being quite thicker than a comic (usually 50 A4 pages, sometimes more). They can be standalone episodes, but also part of an ongoing series: Universal War One, for instance, one of my fave time travel SF series, is a complete story in six volumes. Comics are usually released issue by issue (sometimes day by day for the online strips); and I know there have been some problems with that when Marvel tried to publish translated BDs: there was backlash, centred on the fact that the individual episodes weren’t complete, and that people would have to wait a long time for the sequel. I think that, because the individual episodes were far longer than a single comic issue, readers expected them to be complete stories in and of themselves.

There are also very different expectations on storyline, and even on art, which I don’t think help the BDs reach into the US. But if there’s a way to export them elsewhere, I’d be all for it. BDs are a treasured part of my childhood, and they shaped me way more than golden age SF/F.

Csilla: Aliette, thank you for your answer. It’s interesting as it also highlights the difference in mentality and expectations; other Europeans usually have no problem reading BDs.

Karen: Csilla said something I found really striking: ‘speculative fiction so different from what we used to label SF that even the writers and readers don’t realize it’s SF’. The boundaries of SF are drawn differently for different cultures, or simply don’t exist. Redemption in Indigo is speculative fiction, but most of the Caribbean readers I’ve talked to don’t encounter it as fantasy. Our literature has a long tradition of incorporating supernatural elements, and for some readers ‘fantasy genre’=elves & orcs.And here’s my favourite bit from Csilla, bolded:

This strangeness may come from the stylistic approaches of the mainstream, the themes and sometimes merely from the fact that these works reflect very strongly the angst and mentality of a certain nation.

Now, as a reader, I want that. I want to read a book or short story so evocative of another time or place that I am positively inspired to go to the library or the Internet and research the non-fiction sources of the tale. I want stories that test me so much with their difference that I need to read more authors of that country, to get into the habit of listening to their particular idiom.The irony is that traditional UK/US SF/F has so much created its own idiom that it does not realise the extent to which it has become opaque to the mainstream reader. The tropes and homages are all known to the insider, but to the outsider they add another layer of difference and difficulty. And yet much of ‘global’ SF, with its lack of adherence to the UK/US rules, could end up being more accessible to the mainstream reader, especially those who are allergic to Tolkien and technology. It probably just has to be marketed right.

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20 Comments

  1. Talking about cultural hegemony in instances where stories are influenced by non-Anglo traditions (mythological, narrative and cultural), it stands to reason that many (though not necessarily all) translated works will follow a different rhythm of storytelling, having been written with different tropes, different styles of storytelling and different cultural references in mind. This is an awesome thing, but in instances where only a handful of such works from any given country/language/region are translated, some readers, even if they’re sick to death of US/UK tropes, conventions and stock narratives, might still fall into the trap of assuming that a story which deviates from those ‘norms’ in ways they don’t expect must, by definition, be badly written or oddly structured, when in fact the only barrier is that they’re viewing it in isolation from other, similarly authored stories. Then you get a sort of narrative exoticism effect, where the actual style of a story contributes to its otherness – and if readers don’t have easy access to other stories written by authors from a similar background, then they can only contextualise what they’ve read in relation to the dominant, Anglo traditions.

    By way of example: when I first discovered anime as a teenager, the storytelling style – though something I really enjoyed – was strange to me, and I could only interpret what I saw through the lens of Western narrative traditions. Being young, I attributed any dissonance with my established norms to a convention of the form – ‘anime’s just like that’ – rather than identifying it as a cultural difference: that the character types, story tropes, references and cultural touchstones in play were simply different to what I was used to. Now, with my greater knowledge of anime tropes and Japanese culture and mythology, the things which used to baffle me make perfect sense, but that’s largely because anime is readily accessible: I’ve been able to watch enough that I can identify patterns in the narrative. Rather than judging in accordance with Western norms, I can now appreciate the ways in which a show like Bamboo Blade (for instance) takes established anime tropes and playfully subverts them, whereas once upon a time, I’d have had no basis for comparison.

    It’s like the American obsession with remaking Australian and UK TV shows and movies, even though we all speak the same language: they’re worried about the cultural, narrative resonance not being 100% familiar to a new audience. So rather than show the original and let people build up an appreciation of non-US humour and nuance, instead they train the audience to look at the whole world’s output as being at its very best when expressed through the lens of monoculture. Sigh.

    Comment by fozmeadows | July 11, 2011

  2. French or other European comics have an extra problem than translating fiction, I think.

    Translating adds additional costs, but they are also very expensive – European pricing?

    50 pages doesn’t look very good as a deal when you can get 130 pages of American for $10 or as extra competition – 200 black and white Japanese pages for the same price.

    And as has been pointed out, 1 a year is really slow, when in the UK (and hence Australia) 2000 AD comes out with something more than half that every week, or in Australia the Phantom is in newsagents every fortnight.

    Buying, say, one volume of Storm would cost perhaps $50 to get here. Whereas I could get Absolute Planetary for $35.

    Comment by Blue Tyson | July 11, 2011

  3. It feels very weird to see UK SF being lumped in with US SF, as to me they’re like chalk and cheese.

    Comment by BuffySquirrel | July 11, 2011

  4. @BuffySquirrel – As weird as seeing Hungarian, Singaporean, French and Russian SF lumped together as World SF?

    Comment by fozmeadows | July 11, 2011

  5. Blue Tyson, I think it’s really a mentality difference between Europe and US/Australia: you do get more pages in a comic (or a manga) than in a BD, but that’s because those pages are black-and-white or badly colorised, whereas a BD is–I hesitate to say the word “work of art”, but the art clearly has more weight in the equation. When I buy a BD, I buy for the style and the plot (and BDs can be very handsome), and I don’t think in terms of “how much do reading material do I get for my money”. To me, it’s a very Anglo-Saxon attitude (again, my perception, might be wrong here). I think of comics (and mangas, but especially comics), by and large, as bad quality art and especially bad quality colouring, and I will pay to get a BD with full colour and handsome art, even if it means less “plot”.

    Comment by Aliette de Bodard | July 11, 2011

  6. [...] result is here: (Global) Women in Science Fiction Round Table. I think it’s a very important addition to the discussion about women writers in SF, not only [...]

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  8. No, some people buy art books, so it is valid.

    But you could get Boris Vallejo or something for less than those prices too if just art-interested. Or Heavy Metal (full of Europeans), etc.

    However, this depends – are most European artists better than John Cassaday and Laura Martin? No, most of them aren’t anywhere near as good.

    American processes have changed and artwork definitely takes longer now it would seem.

    Better than manga though? Sure. Those are deliberately done cheaply and quickly with teams or whatever. Sort of the software development thing, you can have cheap, fast, good, pick two. :)

    Pricing still part of it though – e.g. buy ebook at $6.00 but $15.00 or $20.00 is a ripoff.

    And if you are going to take a world viewpoint, comics that are several times more expensive than in America or Japan are then utterly out of reach of people in countries with lower incomes.

    Comment by Blue Tyson | July 12, 2011

    • > are most European artists better than John Cassaday and Laura Martin
      I don’t really like either Cassady or Martin (and sorry, but not Vallejo either), so probably am not the best person to ask. I much prefer French artists. Again, I suspect it’s a cultural thing. A lot of comic art to me (even the modern one) feels overly cinematic and dramatic, and sometimes awkward compared to that of BD. It’s just not the norm of nice for me. And an awful lot of comics are US-centred and superhero-centred, which makes them hard to relate to for me. It’s really a very different sensibility.

      But yes, I do agree that the price puts them out of range of countries with lower incomes. However, I was mostly discussing translation of BD to the US, where lower income shouldn’t be an issue.
      (I buy a BD maybe once or twice a year? We then put them with the rest of BDs and regularly reread them. They’re definitely not like books or comic books in that respect)

      Comment by Aliette de Bodard | July 12, 2011

  9. [...] Women in SF Roundtable with with Aliette de Bodard (France), me, Csilla Kleinheincz (Hungary), Kate Elliott (US), Karen Lord (Barbados), Ekaterina Sedia (Russia/US). [...]

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  12. Excellent discussion. Thanks to Csilla, Joyce and Karen for bringing up the language aspects of world sf. Anglophone monolingualism definitely plays as role. That was an excellent point also re: editors and non-standard dialects. I think of myself as a world sf reader because I read Canadian, New Zealand, etc. publications as well as items in translation. German is my second language and I was hoping that getting an e-reader would make getting sf/f in German easier: that has not been the case. Finally, I think urban fantasy has anappeal for me as a world literature reader because ir has a sensibility similar to magical realism.

    Comment by amy west | July 15, 2011

  13. There were a couple of world sf panels at Readercon (in Massachusetts, USA) this past weekend, mostly due to Geff Ryman’s interests. But more significantly, a number of world sf authors were mentioned in the Year in Short Fiction panel — Gardner Dozois sang the praises of Lavie Tidhar, Hannu Rajiemi, Ken Liu, and Yoon Hu Lee, for example. And they weren’t marked or called out specifically as world sf authors: they were identified by the panelists as good authors/authors of good stories. Is this a good thing? (When I prompted the panel with a question specifically about world sf stories, they added Vandana Singh and Australian authors Karen Morin, Angela Slatter, and Sean McMullen to the previously mentioned.)

    Comment by Amy West | July 19, 2011

    • Amy: I’m not sure, because it hides the problem that a lot of those authors are living in the US/UK (Yoon Ha Lee, Ken Liu, Hannu Rajaniemi), and have margically fewer problems in getting published/heard. Part of the intent of World SF is to showcase the variety of SF produced by people living outside the Western Anglophone world. I’m not saying we shouldn’t showcase US/UK minorities (I’m all for more diversity in my fiction, and I’m a big Yoon Ha Lee fan), but I think World SF encompasses more than that.
      Of course, it’s always very hard to draw a line as to who is World SF and who isn’t, and people’s mileage will vary…

      Comment by Aliette de Bodard | July 19, 2011

  14. [...] is also a follow-up roundtable discussion of international women in SF at the World SF blog with women writers from Barbados, France, Hungary, Russia, Singapore and the [...]

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  15. [...] Monday Original Content: (Global) Women in SF Round Table « The World SF Blog be easy to criticize sff as a genre form of cultural imperialism, but I don’t think the global world culture is so easy to categorize these days. Not that the reach of advertising dollars and multinational companies don’t skew the larger global cultural picture, because they do, but we have only to look at the global music scene to see how musical styles from one place can both reach out and be woven into music from another place. Sometimes this is appropriative, but more often it reflects (I think) the normal human tendency to gather and weave.Caribbean-American writer Tobias Buckell just posted a fabulous account of AnimeKon, held in Barbados (Karen can speak to this as she was there). To me one of the salient points I take away from his post is that sff, anime, manga, and film has become/is becoming a shared global cultural mix. To my mind, the way it will remain vibrant and urgent and alive is insofar as it is embraced, changed, mashed up, and transfigured by that global reach. (tags: sf/f gender racefail09 colonialism race translation usa france hungary ussr russia) [...]

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  16. Immer die neuesten und besten Bücher im Überblick…

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