Space Opera – It’s not just for white men anymore (and never was in the first place)

Tor.com is currently hosting a space opera week in conjunction with the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog. This is a good thing, particularly for those like me who love space opera. And coincidentally, the Tor.com intro post links to the same Wired article by Charlie Jane Anders I used as a jumping off point for my own post about the current space opera boom last month.

However, Tor.com’s space opera week was not off to a good start, because literally the first post in the week-long event is this list of ten classic space opera universes by Alan Brown. If you’ll click over to the list, you’ll immediately notice one glaring issue with it, namely that it’s very white and very male. Brown’s list contains a meagre half woman (since Sharon Lee is one half of a husband/wife writing team) and not a single writer of colour. Coincidentally, the majority of the white dude authors listed also tend towards the right of the political spectrum.

Now the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of that list might at least partly be blamed on the fact that it’s intended to be a list of classic space opera, i.e. space opera dating from a time where SF was a lot more white and male than today. Besides, Alan Brown normally reviews vintage science fiction (and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) for Tor.com, so his specialty are older works. But even if you only confine the list to works that are older than twenty years, there are plenty of women you could include and even a handful of writers of colour. So even the remit of classic space opera is no excuse for an all-white and almost all male list.

However, if you actually look at the list, it does not solely include include Golden Age writers like Heinlein and Poul Anderson and works from the 1970s/80s/90s like Babylon 5, the Liaden Universe series, the Niven/Pournelle collaborations or the David Brin, Gregory Benford and Vernor Vinge books. The first book in Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series came out in 2006, i.e. firmly in the 21st century. And the first book in Michael Flynn’s space opera series came out in 2012*. So if 21st century works are eligible, then there really is no excuse for such a skewed list.

Of course, this list is merely one person’s opinion, Alan Brown. And of course, such lists are by definition personal favourites. And if Alan Brown’s personal favourites are overwhelmingly white and male, then that’s the way it is (and looking at the classic SF novels he reviewed for Tor.com, there is a strong male and white bias there, too). However, when compiling a list of “N books about X/in subgenre Y” for broader public consumption (i.e. not posted on a personal blog, where anything goes), it’s always worth asking yourself, “Does this list skew towards a particular demographic (often straight white men, but not always**)? And is there anything I can do to make it more inclusive?”

For example, whenever I compile Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month or the weekly link round-up for the Speculative Fiction Showcase or the weekly link round-up at the new Indie Crime Scene (well, there only is one so far), I always check whether it skews in a certain direction, i.e. do I have mainly science fiction and hardly any fantasy or vice versa, do I have mainly women or men, is there anything not white and western included at all? And if the answer is, yes, the round-up skews in one direction, I take steps to remedy that. That is, if I have mainly space opera, I actively look for some fantasy to include. If I have mainly books by men, I actively look for books by women, or vice versa. If everything is white and western, I actively look for books or authors that aren’t. I also usually try to include at least one LGBT book in every Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month round-up. And after doing this for a while, it turns out that the round-ups are becoming naturally more diverse. Coincidentally, I also find that I get more diverse submissions both to the Speculative Fiction Showcase and to the Indie Crime Scene, which I suspect is at least partly because the link round-ups and new release round-ups indicate that we’re open to diverse voices. So in short, making your lists of “N book about X/in subgenre Y” more diverse can absolutely be done.

Now Alan Brown explicitly states that his list of classic space opera universes is by no means complete and that he could have included dozens more. And to be fair, he also says in the comments that he would have included Lois McMaster Bujold, but found her work amply discussed at Tor.com already, so he decided to focus on lesser discussed works. Still, were there no works by women among those dozens? No works by writers of colour? And even if he didn’t want to kick anything of his list of ten favourites, could he maybe have expanded the list to twelve or fifteen and included more women and writers of colour?

Now recommendation lists and “best of” lists that are almost entirely white and male are sadly nothing new in the genre. Meanwhile, lists that do the opposite, such as Lady Business‘ list of sixty essential SFF reads, that consists entirely of women and writers of colour with a single token white man included (John Scalzi), or James Davis Nicoll’s “Twenty core books in subgenre X that every SFF fan should have on their shelves” lists, which are comprised mainly of women and writers of colour with maybe a token white male or two included, do attract their share of controversy along the lines of “But I don’t know/haven’t read those books. Am I not a real fan?” and “Well, I have never heard of those authors and anyway, those are not the books that ‘real fans’ (TM) of subgenre X like.”

So let’s look at some of the other posts in Tor.com and Barnes & Noble‘s space opera week and see if they do better than Alan Brown’s unfotunate attempt. At the Barnes & Noble SFF blog, the aptly named Sam Reader compiles a list of six comedic space operas that includes two women (Becky Chambers and Lois McMaster Bujold), one international writer (Hannu Rajaniemi) and at least one LGBT writer (Becky Chambers), so that one does a lot better. The books are also pretty good, though to be fair, Alan Brown’s list includes a couple of pretty good works as well.

Meanwhile, whoever is in charge of Tor.com (Irene Gallo, as far as I know) realised the problems with Alan Brown’s heavily male skewing list, because on the very same day, Tor.com also published this post by Judith Tarr (who definitely belongs on any “great space operas by women writers” list) entitled “Yes, women have always written space opera” (Damn right, they have), which aims to set the record straight.

It’s a great post – much better than Alan Brown’s. The problem, Judith Tarr, diagnoses is not that women haven’t written science fiction in general and space opera in particular, cause they have been writing it all the time, but that women writers tend to be forgotten by subsequent generations, are reprinted far less frequently and rarely show up on “best of” lists (Alan Brown’s list of classic space opera is but one example). Judith Tarr writes:

That’s what happens with women writers. In each generation, one is chosen to be named on all the lists and cited by all the Serious People. Once she’s selected, the Serious People dust off their hands and say, “There. We have a female. That’s sorted.” And go right back to focusing on male writers and ignoring the rest of the females.

As a result, there are a handful of female SF writers, one per generation, who are the token women on otherwise all-male lists. Judith Tarr names Ursula K. Le Guin, Lois McMaster Bujold and Ann Leckie as the token women of their respective generations, while everybody else is erased or forgotten. Coincidentally, the mechanism is very similar for writers of colour. There is one token SFF writer of colour per generation (Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler, N.K. Jemisin); the rest are forgotten.

Judith Tarr even manages to link the erasure of women (and writers of colour) back to space opera by comparing the forgotten women of SFF to the mri, a race of matrilineal alien warriors, from C.J. Cherryh’s The Faded Sun trilogy, whose fate it is to be betrayed by their former masters and nigh exterminated again and again. It’s certainly a poignant analogy.

The comments are also well worth checking out (except for a few examples of classic mansplaining), because they are chock full of recommendations for space operas written by women. And of you want even more, Sandstone has started a massive Twitter thread recommending space opera by women.

At the Castalia House blog, Jeffro Johnson responds to Judith Tarr’s post and agrees that yes, C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett and Andre Norton are not as well remembered as they should be, before he launches into his hobby horse how Campbellian science fiction suppressed pre-1940 pulp SF. Whatever one thinks of his thesis, it doesn’t apply to Leigh Brackett and Andre Norton, because Brackett only started publishing in 1940 and Andre Norton’s SFF output dates mainly from the 1950 and 1960s and beyond.

The rest of B&N and Tor.com‘s space opera week posts to date are also much better than Alan Brown’s unfortunate inaugural post. Renay Williams offers an introduction to John Scalzi’s works at Tor.com, while T.W. O’Brien discusses the theme of immortality and longevity in space opera at Barnes & Noble. The authors O’Brien discusses are all white and male (Frank Herbert, Joe Haldeman, Alastair Reynolds and Iain Banks respectively), though he does mention Ann Leckie and Liu Cixin in passing.

Tor.com also ran two complementary posts on the quieter domestic and quotidien side of space opera. Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer discusses the underrated importance of ordinary, everyday life in many space operas, while Liz Bourke talks about space opera and the politics of domesticity. Both posts are very good and point at the many small details of (human) life that are often lost among the grand space battles and clashing fleets of space opera. Coincidentally, both posts also discuss solely female authors. Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer focusses on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series with a cursory mention of Anne McCaffrey, while Liz Bourke praises the domestic and intimate space opera of Becky Chambers, Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya Universe stories and C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series. And of course, you promptly get someone (male, going by the handle) declaring in the comments that those books are not space opera, because they are too introspective and don’t have enough action, which is an example of spectacularly missing the point of that whole post.

My own attempts at space opera, the Shattered Empire series and the In Love and War series, also focus on quieter and more intimate moments to the point that I sometimes have to remind myself to add some action. Seedlings is about gardening, History Lesson is basically two people talking at night about the history of the universe they live in, Conspirators features people talking about politics in a succession of restaurants, interrupted by the occasional fire fight. Meanwhile, in Dreaming of the Stars we encounter Anjali and Mikhail as teenagers and see what made them become the people they are. Courting Trouble follows them going grocery shopping and finding trouble along the way. And while Graveyard Shift is a story about a massive disaster in space, it also has plenty of scenes of people going shopping, working the dull nightshift on the bridge of a battlecruiser and handing out death sentences over tea and pastries. My space operas focus on characters and their relationships. They’re full of romance, of friendship, of family (it’s probably telling that both Ethan from Shattered Empire and Mikhail from In Love and War are mourning the loss of their homeworlds and their families), of food. This is also why my books tend to get lost among the deluge of books about manly space marines doing manly things in space that has taken over the space opera category (and pretty much all science fiction categories) at Amazon. However, I can only write my own stories, the stories I want to tell and not the stories “the market” supposedly wants.

Meanwhile over in puppyland, some of SF’s least favourite dogs are not at all happy that Tor.con is having a space opera week and didn’t invite them to the party (Gee, I wonder why that might be). It all began when Jon del Arroz, an author who has recently attached himself to the puppies, posted several comments at Tor.com, offering to write a guest post for their space opera week event and declaring that unlike those evil SJWs at Tor.com, the puppies over at the Castalia House blog have not forgotten pulp era women writers like C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett and Andre Norton, but are actually discussing them (which is correct, at least as far as Brackett and Moore are concerned). Next, he started a fight on Twitter with Paul Weimer (whom he ironically was trying to get to review his upcoming novel – hint, if you want someone to review your book, insulting them is not really helpful) and Bridget McKinney of SF Bluestocking (chronicled by Mike Glyer at File 770). And when both of them refused to acknowledge not just the greatness of Jon Del Arroz, but also had to gall to call Anne McCaffrey’s works outdated, he retreated to his blog to rant about how those nasty SJWs are busily trying to erase Anne McCaffrey, because they want to erase the history of the genre altogether. Someone at the Superversive SF blog (ETA: according to File 770, it’s J. Jagi Lamplighter) also picks up the thread and bemoans Anne McCaffrey’s impending erasure at the hands of those evil SJWs.

Now complaining that SJWs are attempting to erase the genre’s past and are somehow suppressing those pulp era and golden age authors most of us read as teenagers is a thing in the “Pulp Revolution” corner of puppyland. They’re usually wrong, of course, but talking about books they enjoy is a lot more productive than messing with the Hugos, so more power to them. As for Anne McCaffrey, not only is she not in any real danger of erasure, unlike some of her female contemporaries, she also is and will remain an important figure in the history of science fiction. She was the first woman to win a Hugo Award and her work left its mark on a generation of readers.

However, Anne McCaffrey’s work was very much of its time (the 1960s and 1970s) and hasn’t aged well. Some of the problems – consent issues in the Pern series, the ableism in The Ship Who Sang, forced sterilization in Pegasus in Flight, the borderline squicky age differences and adult men falling in love with teenagers in Damia and Pegasus in Flight and again, Pern, the pervasive classism in Pern and Crystal Singer and well, everywhere – were already apparent by the time I discovered her work in the late 1980s and have only become more notable since then.

While I was working on my MA thesis, I came across Anne McCaffrey’s essay in Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow: A Discursive Symposium, edited by Reginald Bretnor and reviewed by James Davis Nicoll here. In that essay, Anne McCaffrey recounted how difficult it was to sneak a sex scene past John W. Campbell in her story “A Womanly Talent” back in 1969 and how revolutionary and feminist that story was at the time. And I was stunned, because while I read “A Womanly Talent” as part of the To Ride Pegasus fix-up/collection, I didn’t remember any sex scene in it at all. Coincidentally, “A Womanly Talent” was the only story in To Ride Pegasus I disliked, because while all the men got to do cool stuff with their psi-powers like push spaceships through space, Ruth got the power to manipulate genes and used it to make a blonde and blue-eyed baby. Screw that shit, my teenaged self thought. I wanted to push spaceships through space, not make blonde and blue-eyed babies. If Ruth had at least done something useful like eliminate a heriditary disease instead.

I read To Ride Pegasus sometime around 1989/1990, i.e. about twenty years after “A Womanly Talent” first appeared in Analog. And in those twenty years, that story has gone from daringly feminist and subversive to pretty outdated. Come to think of it, the final story in To Ride Pegasus, “A Bridle for Pegasus” about an emotion-manipulating singer inciting riots would probably be hugely problematic these days as well, though I recall liking it a whole lot at the time. Coincidentally, there is a great discussion about Anne McCaffrey and her work going on in the comments at File 770, where plenty of people also weigh in on how her books were both revolutionary and feminist for their time and yet problematic.

Besides, as Kurt Busiek, Robin A. Reid and other commenters point out in that File 770 discussion, many of the problems in Anne McCaffrey’s work of the 1960s and 1970s can also be found in other works of the period, including other genres. Consent issues and outright “raped into love” scenes were endemic during the bodice ripper era in the romance genre in the 1970s and 1980s, for while US society was slowly beginning to accept that women actually do enjoy sex, women freely consenting to sex was still considered “too shocking” for the mainstream, where being ravished/raped by the hot pirate was not. Romance novels of the bodice ripper era as well as the earlier gothic romances also frequently featured heroines barely out of their teens and big age differences. Coincidentally, romances of the bodice ripper era are as dated, if not worse so, than Anne McCaffrey’s works. Because those books were of their time and time has moved on.

Jon del Arroz also takes issue with Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer’s post linked above and complains that Tor.com has only hired writers who hate space opera for their space opera week. Of course, neither Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer nor Liz Bourke nor Judith Tarr hate space opera, they merely have different tastes than del Arroz. And since Tor.com did not respond to del Arroz’s offer to write a guest post for them, he instead decided to post his list of five definitive space operas at the Superversive SF blog. It’s not even a bad list (okay, so I can’t stand Hyperion and Lensman was horribly dated even back when I first read them more than twenty years ago) and del Arroz manages to include more women than Alan Brown.

Del Arroz also shows up again at the Castalia House blog, once again bemoaning that the publishing establishment in general and Tor in particular hate space opera and that they are killing the genre via insisting on realism. Because “real fans” (TM) want exploding spaceships in space and manly space marines doing manly things in space. Well, if that’s what you like, Amazon has you covered, if subgenre bestseller lists full of thinly veiled variations of the same story told over and over again are any indication. However, not all of us are interested in manly space marines and heroic but disgraced fleet captains doing manly and heroic things in space, at least not in umpteen different variations.

The great thing about space opera is that it is such a broad canvas. It can be manly space marines doing manly things in space and heroic but disgraced fleet captains who are the only ones who can save humanity from the insectoid or reptilian aliens, but it can also be so much more. It can be the new British space opera pioneered by Iain Banks and continued by the likes of Alastair Reynolds and on occasion Charles Stross. It can be the political parable and the everything and the kitchen sink, too, approach of Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker series. It can be the gender-blind and tea-loving universe of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radsch series. It can be the family saga meets space opera meets half a dozen other genres of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. It can be the mental chess games and heretical calendrical rot of Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit. It can be the focus on culture and family of Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya stories. It can be the slyly subversive female protagonists of Rachel Bach’s Paradox trilogy, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series and Sara Creasy Scarabaeus duology. It can be the cheerful anarchy and the found families of Guardians of the Galaxy. And it can be the cozy space opera universes of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit.

Space opera is big enough for all of us, so let’s keep it that way.

Comments are off. Puppies, whine elsewhere.

*Coincidentally, I only associate Flynn with that post-apocalyptic novelette the Sad Puppies gamed onto the Hugo shortlist three years ago, which made no real sense, because it was only one installment in a serial and one that did not stand very well alone. I wasn’t even aware that Flynn wrote space opera as well.

**When I compile such a list based purely on favourites, it’s just as likely to consist overwhelmingly of women, so I often have to explicitly remind myself to include men.

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