Diversity in Science Fiction--the lastest failure, and scattered thoughts on feminism in children's fantasy

There was a bit of a stink recently when it was revealed that a new anthology, The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF, edited by Mike Ashley, had in it not a single story by a woman or a person of color--here's the table of contents, and some interesting reading in the comments. I found at Feminist SF-The Blog this quote from Ashley, explaining that this "...probably has something to do with my concept of “mind-blowing”. Women are every bit as capable of writing mindblowing sf as men are, but with women the stories concentrate far more on people, life, society and not the hard-scientific concepts I was looking for."

As a counter to this, Feminist SF is soliciting suggestions of mindblowing SF by women here, and The Angry Black Woman is doing the same for People of Color here. The lists to date can be seen here at the Tor blog.

Thinking about feminist SF lead me to muse about feminist fantasy for children and young people. This is hard for me, because I find it difficult to read children's fantasy books critically, in part perhaps because I am weak-mindedly trying to recapture my naive childhood reading self.

I'm also working my way here toward defining feminism with regard to children's and YA fantasy. I think that in general it's a lot easier to point out books that aren't feminist, than to find those that clearly are. Many fantasies with strong female characters exist, but I'm not sure I'd call them all "feminist," exactly. If an important female character knows how to use a sword, or uses her wits to extricate self and others from a few situations, is that enough to make a book feminist? No. (I'm thinking David Eddings' Belgariad here, for instance).

I think there has to be some meaningful defiance of the social, economic, and political ramifications of patriarchy, or, by presenting the heroine as a denizen of a land without patriarchy, some degree of less direct subversion of the normative male-dominated culture so ubiquitous in fantasy. The examples from my own childhood reading that stand out here are Dragonsong* and Dragonsinger, the story of how Menolly defies the gender stereotypes of her culture to win a place for herself at the Harper Hall (and boy do I hate Masterharper of Pern for totally obviating the whole point of Menolly's story).

Now I am trying to decide if I think Graceling is feminist or not...

And I am also wondering if in fact I really want l to try to catch my fiction reading self up to my critical academic anthropologist/archaeologist self...and risk loosing my innocent pleasure in a good story. Which in turn leads me to thinking about Ursula Le Guin's short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." A story, incidentally, that blew my mind.

*this is the cover that was on my copy of Dragonsong, and all the other covers are not as nice.

Edited to add: here is a post from Sarah Rees Brennon's blog that is both relevant and amusing.


  1. I think sometimes when you look too hard at a book, be it YA or adult or children's you do start to lose the innocence of the story. So really you have to ask yourself why you are reading said book.

    If it's to review that's fine, if your just reading it to escape maybe looking so in depth at a book might take away from it.

    Feminism has so many different meanings and ways to take it. Is a woman feminist because she can defend herself yet at the same time is guy crazy and NEEDS a man? Some might say yes some might say no because she needs a man to stand on her own.

    It's a tough area to center on a single idea or frame of mind, which is why there are so many college courses and debates on the subject :)

  2. I'm starting to notice a lot of feminist ideology in YA fantasy books, whether the entire books themselves are considered
    "feminists fantasy" or not. It's more prevalent than when I was a teen.

    Personally, I like stories which have strong female characters but don't hammer the feminist message too bluntly. Sometimes I feel like the author's views about feminism become more important than what's going on with the characters, and then I get annoyed. :) In my own YA fantasy, I've tried to create a female character who speaks for herself, but I pretty much kept silent on musings concerning the patriarchy.

    Rachel Heston Davis

  3. SHAME on you Mike Ashley. How can you say such ridiculous things?

    He must see sci-fi as some big boys' club.

    In my opinion Graceling is definitely feminist. Katsa actively stands up for women's rights, such when she comments that it's daft that women not be taught how to defend themselves. The scene with the serving girl in the tavern is particularly telling, and later she sees that the men who were harrassing her get their just desserts. I go into a bit in my review: http://rhiannon-hart.blogspot.com/2009/08/review-graceling-by-kristen-cashore.html

    I can't abide misogyny or sexism in books and often remark in my reviews if I think a heroine is a bad role model--such as when they put up with an abusive relationship or an overbearing boyfriend without actually doing something about it in the end. Bianca from Stargazer/Evernight is a prime example: Lucas is bad news, but we all know it's going to be happy ever after in the end.

    I'm all riled up now!

  4. In my opinion that there is the ONLY cover of Dragonsong that has ever truly existed (it's also the one on my shelf!). I LOVED those two books, and will always be kind of sad the third Harper Hall book had to focus on Piemur. Bah!

    The Alanna and Protector of the Small books by Tamora Pierce feature female characters going against gender expectations.

    But personally, I am not sure I would say we really need more books featuring that kind of situation (woman fighting the male-dominated system to get what she deserves). What I would like to see are more books with cool, strong, smart, independent female characters (and male characters) doing cool and interesting and important things. To use Tamora Pierce as an example, I am really loving the more recent Beka Cooper books for that reason. It's from a time in the history of the same world when it wasn't unusual to have lady knights and the main character is training to be a cop (or the local equivalent) and while Beka does have to struggle and fight, she's not struggling and fighting just to be taken seriously. She's fighting for justice, and to define herself as a complete person.

  5. "in part perhaps because I am weak-mindedly trying to recapture my naive childhood reading self."

    Um, weak-mindedly? Then let me not ever be strong-minded. Sometimes a book, to misquote Freud, is just a book. It's for that recreation, that unraveling of the adult self, and the plunge back into the secret depths of childhood.

    Definitely I agree with your point that a feminist narrative in YA fantasy would have to be either defined by the character existing outside of a male-defined cultural landscape, or in defiance of said, and to that end, I'm thinking that Graceling isn't particularly feminist (mainly because to me the pitfall is that she eventually defines herself by the man in her life, but that's just one way of looking at it, I guess), but Book of a Thousand Days might kind of be. Definitely some Tammy Pierce books, as she has deliberately sought to explore that topic... hm. Must think more about that.

    When I can turn off the academic-speak portion of my mind is when I can enjoy reading for my continuing childhood. I'm not doing critical analysis of fiction I read for fun, except if it's so good I want to nail down the WHY coherently and tell others. Otherwise, I treat it like a good cookie - bite down, moan quietly, and blot up the crumbs with a fingertip and enjoy the heck out of it. And then offer the plate 'round to someone else, with not a lot of explanation, just a "try this, yum!"

  6. P.S. - thanks for the reminder of that LeGuin story. I read that ages ago. I think I should just have a permanent LeGuin library instead of checking them out -- there's just so much goodness there...

  7. To pick up on the "why are you reading" question that Cindy and Tanita raised--if I were just reading for fun, it would be good cookies to be enjoyed vs cookies without chocolate or ginger, but in part I was thinking of Shannon Hale's recent post on book evaluation vs self evaluation (http://oinks.squeetus.com/2009/08/how-to-be-a-reader-book-evaluation-vs-selfevaluation.html). If I am reading a book with an eye to reviewing it here, I feel I have some responsibility to think critically about the book in a larger social context, much as that is Not why I like to read fiction...

    Mostly I don't bother, which is why I feel vaugely weak-minded.

    I totally agree with you, Rachel, that one doesn't want the author's message to overshadow the story. I think a strong female character, in her actions and thoughts as such, can result in a book I'd call "feminist." Which ties in with what Deva says.

    Rhiannon, I am so with you about Bianca. I'm still on the fence though about Graceling--I might have to go back and read it critically...

  8. Hi Charlotte,

    Doret from the Happy Nappy Bookseller sent me here. Maude, I'm so glad she did.

    Love your thoughts here. Have you been by Color Online because I'd love to have you weigh in on discussions with us.

    Linking you and dropping an email soon.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  9. Weak-minded, bah. I think there's a part of all of us that is trying to recapture the amazement and innocence of our youth.

    Interesting thoughts and comments on feminism and people of color in SF/Fantasy.... I don't have anything to add, but I was interested in reading through everything.

    BTW, TOTALLY with you on the Harper Hall trilogy. I refuse to own the last one.

  10. Wow - great post, matched by terrific comments. Nothing to add - except to mention Sheri Tepper as a kick-ass SF feminist writer.

  11. I don't think it is enough to have women and people of color writing SciFi, the characters need to be diversified as well. So much Science Fiction uses women or PoC as either archaic stereotypes or they wash the characters backgrounds out making them more... cookie-cutter. A lot of the SciFi I have read fails to consider diverse histories, languages, and cultures, not to mention gender and sexuality.
    I am young, only 22, but when I write I try to be very inclusive and diverse. Considering that roughly 3 billion of the planet's population is Asian alone, and that there are a number of other ethnicities to consider, I think SciFi that fails to have diversity is a failure to the imagination.
    If you want to read some of my stuff, I have a blog with 2 sample chapters posted and more info on the world I created. I am not published but... someday.


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