About ten years ago, I was at the local Barnes and Noble, browsing the science fiction and fantasy aisle for a good book (or two or three). I was back in Texas, on break from college where I was studying English, and looking forward to diving into a book that was far from my assigned reading at UNC. Even if I didn’t end up buying anything (rare), simply being there next to all those books that promised so many terrific adventures felt like home.
Usually I browsed alone, sometimes camping out on the floor to read the first few pages of a likely candidate. This time, there was a man browsing the same aisle. He was about my age. He had brown hair and a beard. He made eye contact with me and I saw a surprised, but pleased, look overtake his face. I regretted making the eye contact (the absolute worst for a shy person) and wanted to just ignore him, but he must have felt the need for some sort of comment, because he told me he was surprised to see me browsing that aisle.
I was confused by the comment. We didn’t know each other. This was the aisle I always browsed when I shopped for books. I didn’t make any reply, just smiled thinly and continued shopping. I thought about telling him that I was looking for fantasy novels, which may have cleared up his confusion, but opted to just stay silent.
This is a small moment, but it’s one that’s stuck with me (and I have a notoriously sieve-like memory). I don’t remember when I first learned that science fiction was a boys’ arena, but it was something I had internalized from an early age, reinforced by small incidents like the one with the man at the bookstore who was surprised to see me shopping for SF.
This moment, and so many others, is why Alexandra Duncan’s guest post resonated so strongly for me, and it’s why I wanted to write my own piece for our About the Girls series this year.
We all know that representation matters for readers. In my experience, this is especially true for teenagers. When I was a teen, I craved seeing myself in the books I read. I wanted to see girls on the covers, and I wanted them to be the focus. I wanted to put myself in their shoes and imagine that I was saving worlds, falling in love, and finding my power. I wanted to pilot a space ship and meet aliens. I wanted to get away from a life I often hated and pretend I could do incredible things. Furthermore, as someone who dreamed of being a writer when I grew up, I wanted to see books written by women. I wanted to know that there were other women out there writing the kind of stuff that I wanted to write.
With a few exceptions (Anne McCaffrey, basically), I didn’t find books like this in science fiction.
That’s not to say they weren’t there, as Maureen accurately points out. As an adult, this is easy for me to recognize. But the existence of women in SF – both as creators and as subjects – doesn’t necessarily make these books accessible, especially to teens who have limited resources to do research on their own. When I was a teenager, I found my books by browsing my library’s shelves and my bookstore’s shelves (usually a Barnes and Noble or a Half Price Books). I’ve always been interested in stories that are out of this world, that are heavy on the fantastic and the impossible. In both my library and the bookstores, these kinds of stories were found in the combined Science Fiction and Fantasy section. The science fiction authors I found there were overwhelmingly male: Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Piers Anthony, Ben Bova, Frank Herbert. Their covers and their stories featured men and the synopses on the back had little relevance to my life. When women were on the covers, they were often not wearing much or kneeling at the foot of a man or dead. I found the women in the fantasy novels: Juliet Marillier, J. V. Jones, Anne Bishop, Elizabeth Haydon, Sara Douglass. I began to recognize a science fiction novel by its cover, which usually had a black background and blocky lettering. Those I would quickly bypass in search of something more likely to include someone like myself.
Getting past the easy reach is, well, not easy. For most people, myself included at that age, it’s not even something that would cross their minds. What is on the shelf is what exists. If it’s not there? It functionally does not exist for the reader looking for it. Thus I came to believe that science fiction was not for me. Science fiction was for boys, and they knew it, too. Of course, books by and about men are also for women, and I read a lot of them, but when I realized over and over again that I would never see myself in these books, that the girls and women who were in these books were always portrayed via the male gaze, I mostly gave up on them. I would tell people I preferred fantasy over science fiction. It became my primary love and the genre in which almost all of my own fictional scribblings at this time belonged.
What I came to realize much later is that I preferred fantasy to the science fiction I could find, not necessarily the science fiction that existed. While I don’t absolutely love The Hunger Games, I am so glad for its stratospheric popularity, for much the same reason Duncan mentions. It, and its legions of dystopian and post-apocalyptic readalikes, made science fiction by and about women much more visible to people like teen me, who only saw what the booksellers and the librarians chose to buy. YA science fiction helped bring me to the genre I had always wanted to love, if only it would love me back.
Since reading The Hunger Games, I’ve become much more cognizant of what SF is actually out there, how certain books are marketed, and the inherent biases in people’s reading choices. That’s due to my professional life as a librarian, which has led to an effort on my part to get beyond the easy reach – for the benefit of myself as well as my patrons. It’s easier for me to find both hard and soft SF about girls when I want it because I have the tools to do so. But if my professional life hadn’t given me those tools? It would be a lot harder. I wouldn’t have known that so many great books even existed.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had as a teen with a black girl around my age who was volunteering at the library alongside me. We were talking books and reading and I mentioned that I loved historical fiction. She told me she didn’t really care for it, and I was so surprised. I loved historical fiction so much I just figured its appeal was universal. I told my mom later on that my friend said she didn’t like historical fiction, and my mom’s reply was that it might be due to the fact that there’s not much historical fiction about black girls. I was dumbstruck, having never thought about that before. I have no idea if this is the real reason she didn’t care for it. I’ve since learned that quite a lot of people don’t like historical fiction simply because they think it’s boring (sacrilege!). But I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.
Visibility matters. You can talk about books by women writers and writers of color and LGBTQ writers until you’re blue in the face, but if none of their books make it to library or bookstore shelves, most people – especially teens – aren’t going to read them. The mega success of books like The Hunger Games, their ubiquity, tells girls they belong in science fiction – reading it, writing it, imagining it.
So let’s continue to remind people that women have always been a part of science fiction – all kinds of it. But let’s also remember how privileged it is to know this history and be aware of these books when they’re not on endcaps at bookstores. And let’s continue to work to fix that.