Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

Patty Jansen on Hard SF

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

I missed Patty Jansen’s post when it came out at the start of May, but finally discovered it today, and recommend it if you’re interested in a thoughtful look at hard science fiction. The post is called “There are girl cooties on my space ship — on women writing hard SF.”

I’m not a fan of the term “girl cooties” because, going by my personal experience, it vastly over-simplifies a complex dynamic in the hard SF genre. That said, Patty had a good reason for using it. Her post starts with a description of her encounter with an editor who admitted he was reluctant to consider a hard SF novel written by a woman: “I hate to say that, but yeah, that is a problem”

(My own hard SF novels were sold at or before the turn of the century — a different age.)

But beyond this experience, Patty has a lot more thoughts on the subgenre, including the very thing I’ve gotten so agitated about lately:

Books are about people and the perception that hard SF is only about tech and not about character is rubbish.


There is also blunt discussion on the gender ratio of hard SF readers, which leads to this:

A book that doesn’t sell fails to reach the right audience, never mind the gender. How about we stop trying to push books to the same old, same old group who supposedly don’t read women, and try to engage a general audience? In other words, pull the space ship that is hard SF into the garage and give it an overhaul. Get rid of the retro shit. There is certainly none in any of my books.

I strongly believe that if you want to sell a broader range of hard SF you need to step outside the current narrow audience with the narrow marketing messages.

This is an interesting point to me because, you know, marketing. The idea, in part, is that most hard SF books have “gendered” covers that say “this is for dudes.” So take a look at my books — the covers are there on the left; scroll down to see them all. With the exception of The Red: First Light I don’t think they’re aimed at a particular gender — and of course they don’t exactly sell in great quantity either.

So now I’ve got something else to cogitate on. There will be more to come on the subject of hard SF, but in the meantime, do go read Patty’s post.

More On Hard SF From Ronald Zajac

Monday, June 10th, 2013

Vast by Linda NagataSeveral days ago I posted on the tired old meme that hard SF is “emotionless” writing. Since then I’ve seen this meme repeated two or three times by other writers, which is both hugely discouraging and infuriating. I strongly encourage you to go read a post by Ronald Zajac called “Can we rethink this whole “hard vs. soft” business?” Ronald’s post looks at the issue from a more historical perspective:

Clearly, if we rewrite our definitions of the genre in a way that lets readers appreciate Lem and LeGuin, Clarke and Delany, together, for their different qualities, we will be doing all of SF a favour. At the same time, perhaps, we’ll be eliminating gender divides that have no place in a forward-thinking genre.

Ronald’s post led me to a twitter debate late last night with @AthenaHelivoy, as we have different perceptions of the problems in and around so-called “hard SF.” My final conclusion to this debate is very simple: whether we like the term or not, the concept of “hard SF” exists as a marketing category, and when sweeping statements are made condemning the subgenre as “emotionless,” those statements hurt me and many other writers who are not remotely guilty of the charge. So I object, and will continue to object.

I suspect I’ll be writing more on this subject soon…

What’s in a Name?

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

I wrote the original version of the following post last winter and then decided not to publish it because, frankly, I don’t like to deal with questions surrounding the issue of women writing science fiction. Then, a couple months ago, a sudden, viral, Internet conversation started on this subject. A lot of writers in the hard science fiction field have since commented. So, emulating the group, I guess I’ll add my experiences to the conversation before the subject dies away entirely. This is an updated version of last winter’s post, describing the trajectory of my career as a woman writing hard science fiction in the nineties and early 2000s.

I haven’t done a lot of interviews in my career, but the question I least like to answer goes something like this: Do you feel it’s hurt your career being a woman writing hard science fiction?

I’m sure I get this deer-in-the-headlights expression before breaking eye contact and muttering something self-contradictory. Because really, how does one answer a question like that?

To say, “Yes, I think it has hurt my career” sounds like whining and finger pointing without any evidence to back it up, and risks offending the men who are the core readers of the genre.

To say, “No, I’m sure that’s not it” would be untruthful and would imply that my books didn’t sell because they were bad. My hard SF books may not be for everyone, but I don’t believe they’re bad.

So in my own mind I mostly ignored the question. Some writers succeed, others don’t. That’s just the way it is.

But of course the only true answer is that I can’t know. I can’t go back and change my name to Greg or David or Alastair and re-publish the books and see how things go.

But oh my how I wish I could.

Here’s the thing:

I had a lot of good breaks. (I had a lot of really bad breaks too, but we won’t go there.) I had cover quotes and great support from Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, and David Brin. I had some really great reviews. For the early books, I had great covers. I won awards. My books were offered by the Science Fiction Book Club. Some were on the Locus Recommended list. I had fantastic support from people like Charles N. Brown. Wil McCarthy was my good buddy.

Men in the hard SF field were friendly and open to my work, to the point I can say that I never met a hard SF writer who was not supportive of me, a woman, writing what I wrote. Other women will claim a different experience. I only give you mine.

And outside the pro circle? I would guess that 80+ percent of the fan mail I’ve ever received has been from men. More men read hard SF than women, so I guess it’s only natural.

What I’m trying to say is that in my personal, face-to-face (or nearly so) experiences, it didn’t feel like being a woman was any sort of disadvantage. If anything, it made me a bit more unique and interesting.

But then comes the dissonance.

“The dissonance” is my personal term for the difference between what other writers and some avid fans will say about my work (really nice things) and the value the market (and agents, publishers, and editors) have placed on my work. It’s a pretty extreme difference.

Despite all the advantages listed above, my books never sold in numbers anywhere close to what could support a writing career, and the Bantam books went out of print with impressive speed. Honestly, there didn’t seem to be much point to it all. I mean, the Nanotech Succession books together, all four volumes, brought in a total of $27,500 in advance money. I recall The Bohr Maker brought in a couple tiny royalty checks thereafter, in the hundred dollar range, and that was it. The other three books never earned out.

Meanwhile, if my memory serves me, Locus was reporting eye-popping advances for, well, other newish hard SF writers who were not me.

So why was I doing this writing thing again? Why was I knocking myself out to create another book that just a few people would read? As much as I appreciated the fans that I had, there was a mortgage to be paid!

So around 2000 I packed my metaphorical bags and moved out of the writing world—this despite that one of my best books, Memory, was still pending from Tor. I already knew it was doomed and I was right. Four years after publication it had sold only a bit more than 10,000 copies.

Did I crash and burn because I was a woman? Or was it just bad luck, a failure of nerve, giving up too soon, not appearing in enough venues, living on a remote island isolated from the writing community? Who knows? Not me.

Now I’ve gotten back into the writing game. Since November, I’ve republished all the SF novels as ebooks. They’re selling slowly. I check sales figures often, so it’s easy for me to tell when a fan from the old days discovers the books, because they’ll buy one each of the Nanotech Succession, and sometimes all six novels in a single shot. (And may I say, thank you! I want you to know how truly gratifying and encouraging that is.)

That said, seven months after they came out as ebooks, my novels are not selling anywhere near the scale enjoyed by other, well, you know, male writers whose backlist is similarly priced. To be fair, I’ve been out of the field for a long time, and these other writers haven’t. So there are no hard conclusions to be found here. The one fact I do have is the knowledge that now, in 2011, women writing original hard science fiction are choosing to use gender-obscuring pen names.

Anyone reading this blog isn’t going to care if my name is Linda or Larry. But the question remains: Does Linda or Larry matter out there in the scary real world where buyers peruse long lines of titles at Amazon, and employ an unknowable process of elimination to narrow down their selections?

I have no way to know.

But if I had it to do over again, then yes, I would change my name.