science fiction & fantasy

The Submissions Men Don't See

Lots of screaming in the SF/F genre lately about "data" suggesting far more women are being published in genre magazines than men. The problem with that analysis, though, was it only looked at a small group of magazines. Add in all the other professional SF magazines out there and the numbers change, making the controversy choke on a big mouthful of nothing pie.

Don't believe me? Check out this excellent examination of gender submission and publication statistics in the SF/F short fiction field, which Susan E. Connolly published in Clarkesworld in 2014. Her examination spanned multiple articles and is incredibly detailed with a strong data set. Her conclusion? "Authors who are women are less well represented in terms of submissions and publications than authors who are men." 

However, there was an interesting item to come out of the recent controversy. In an interview with Neil Clarke about Clarkesworld's submissions, Jon Del Arroz quoted the editor as saying "men were also slightly more likely to submit multiple stories per month." After talking with Neil about the magazine's overall submission and publication track record, Jon added:

"What I take from this, despite his not analyzing the breakdown of why stories fail through submissions by gender, is that men are more prone to submit stories which don’t fit with Clarkesworld’s style of science fiction, and submit them anyway just hoping they make it in a crap shoot."

There's truth for the SF/F genre: Men are indeed much more likely to take a "crap shoot" attitude toward submissions than women, with male writers being far much more likely than women to not read submission guidelines and to submit inappropriate stories which don't fit what a magazine publishes.

One reason I reacted so strongly to Jon's words is they match what I saw when I edited storySouth. Men would spray submissions at my magazine as if marking their territory, assuming their brilliance would overcome not reading our magazine or following our guidelines. Yes, a few female authors also did this, but the numbers were really skewed toward men.

While I haven't edited storySouth in many years, it appears this trend is still going strong. For example, a professional genre magazine whose editor I know revealed their September submission stats for this essay. The stats provided didn't include author names or any submission information aside from demographics and if the editor felt the submission was appropriate/inappropriate for their magazine and/or didn't follow guidelines.

So far this month this magazine has received 182 submissions, with 54 of them being by female authors (matching the analysis linked above which said far more men submit genre stories than women). Of these 182 submissions, the editor felt that 11 were totally inappropriate. Of those 11 submissions, ten came from men and only one from a woman.

By inappropriate submissions, the editor is very specific and means a story which by no stretch of the imagination would fit with what they publish, meaning the author didn't read their magazine or their guidelines. Some of these submissions also didn't follow standard manuscript format, although the editor said their magazine is generous on SMF and they only get irritated when authors deviate massively from it.

This editor also added that those 182 submission included five male authors who submitted a total of 11 stories. Only one woman submitted more than a single submission in the same time frame.

Again, this matches what I saw years ago with storySouth. And while stats about this are difficult to find, editors I've spoken to over the years have told me a similar pattern exists in many publications, even outside the SF/F genre.

When I consider why this happens, I keep coming back to the famous story "The Women Men Don't See" by James Tiptree, Jr., where the male narrator can't see women as real people and so misses the truth of what's going on around him. As Triptree said of her story, its message is the "total misunderstanding of women's motivations by narrator, who relates everything to self."

In the case of why male authors are far more likely to not read a magazine or their guidelines before submitting, and are more likely to submit multiple stories in a short time frame, I think it ties in with them not seeing the motivations of others and believing all that matters is what they want. 

But if you're submitting your stories to an editor, what you want isn't what lands the acceptance. It's what the editor wants. Otherwise, an author is merely wasting everyone's time.

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz is SF punk for a new generation

Autonomous.jpg

Ever since the publication of William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, which helped jumpstart the cyberpunk subgenre, there's been a tendency to "punk" each new exciting science fiction trend or book. Biopunk, steampunk, nanopunk, bugpunk — the punk designation is as much tied in with the attitudes represented by these subgenres as it does with the stories' subject matter and new takes on traditional SF themes.

One of the best debut novels I've read this year is Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. The story, which focuses on a future in which biotech and artificial intelligence and corporate control of patents rule all our lives, is begging for a SF punk label. There are more exciting ideas and possibilities in Newitz's novel than in an entire year's worth of works released by more traditional SF publishers. The story is also fast paced with interesting characters ranging from the traditionally human to AIs enslaved in war-fighting bodies.

William Gibson called the novel "genuinely and thrillingly new," which is extremely accurate. The world created in Autonomous is so interesting and unique that I could see this novel inspiring a new subgenre. Maybe AI-punk, or a reworking of what biopunk is currently about. Either way, Autonomous is an excellent new science fiction novel which fans of the genre's "literature of ideas" will love and will be on my short lists for next year's award nominations. Check it out.

 

Measuring the slow Hugo Award death of the rabid puppies

Congrats to this year's Hugo Award winners. Plenty of great works won Hugos at the 75th Worldcon in Helsinki, including a Best Novel for The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin. This means the first two novels in Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy have won the Hugo Award. I'm really looking forward to reading the final book in the trilogy, The Stone Sky, which comes out in a few days. The Broken Earth trilogy is now one of the most acclaimed and honored series in SF/F history, so if you haven't read the novels do so.

It was also exciting to note the crossover between this year's Hugo and Nebula Awards, with the novella "Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire and the short story "Seasons of Glass and Iron" by Amal El-Mohtar winning both awards.

One of the most interesting aspects of this year's Hugos was to see how the new voting rules revealed the overall weakness of the rabid puppies slate. Under this year's Hugo rules, designed to reduce the impact of bloc and slate voting, people were able to nominate up to 5 works or people in each category. However, the top 6 works or people in each category become finalists, ensuring slate voting can't stuff all slots on the final Hugo ballot.

In addition, nomination votes were tallied by both the total number of nominations received and by points, with a single point assigned to each individual voter’s nomination ballot. That means if you nominated works in all 5 slots within a category, each of those nominations would receive 1/5 of a point. If you nominated only a single work in a category, that nomination would receive a full point.

Because of these new rules Vox Day, who organizes the pup slate each year, urged his followers to only make a single nomination in most categories, ensuring their slate would receive the maximum number of points. While this strategy placed a single one of their slate in many of the categories, it also revealed exactly how small their movement is.

For example, in the nomination tally released last week by Worldcon (PDF download), eventual Best Novel winner The Obelisk Gate received 480 ballots with a final points tally of 295.97 (out of 2078 total ballots cast for 652 nominees). Most nominees on the nomination tally received similar ballot to point spreads, indicating the people nominating those works were also nominating 2 or 3 or more works in each category. Since their points were spread across multiple works in each category, the points for most nominees were far less than the number of ballots those nominees received.

Not so with the pup slate. For example, in the Best Novelette category the pups' joke nomination "Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By the T-Rex” received 77 ballots and 76.50 final points, meaning almost every person who nominated that "story" didn't nominate anything else in that category. 

In the Best Short Story category, "An Unimaginable Light" by John C. Wright received 87 ballots and 87 final points out of 1275 ballots cast, suggesting no one outside of the pup slate nominated his story. In the Best Editor (Long Form) category, Vox Day received 83 ballots with 83 final points out of 752 total ballots cast. As with Wright, this suggests no one outside of VD's slate nominated him.

These numbers back up previous estimates of the weakness of the rabid puppies and give more evidence that at most 80 to 90 Hugo voters support Vox Day's ballot stuffing. These are extremely small numbers compared to the more than 2,000 people who cast nominating ballots this year, or the 3,319 people who voted during the final Hugo ballot.

The reason the rabid puppies were able to cause so much trouble with the Hugo Awards in recent years is because the awards were easily gamed by a small group of slate voters. Only cultural constraints within fandom prevented this from happening previous to the rabid puppies.

The results of this year's Hugo voting shows that making an award resistant to slate voting is a must in today's genre.

Perhaps the Dragon Awards, a new SF/F award now being ravaged by slate voting from the pups, will learn from the Hugo experience. Or perhaps not.

Laura Miller, or what happens when a literary critic loathes genre fiction but knows that's where the best stories are?

Maybe this kicking cartoon by Tom Gauld sums up what is going on here? Check out more of  Tom's cartoons on his website  (and buy his books).

Maybe this kicking cartoon by Tom Gauld sums up what is going on here? Check out more of Tom's cartoons on his website (and buy his books).

So Laura Miller, co-founder of Salon.com and one of the most famous literary critics of our day, jumped back into the genre pool with the essay "Dark Futures: What happens when literary novelists experiment with science fiction."

To summarize, in the essay Miller tracks all the "literary" authors who are now writing science fiction. According to Miller these authors are writing SF because it's so hard to write contemporary fiction with the world constantly changing. So why not write SF instead? She then name checks the authors doing so, including Emily St. John Mandel and her best-selling novel Station Eleven, which Miller notes the author doesn't even consider SF.

Why that author's disavowal? Oh, because as Miller says "Science fiction writers and readers have long resented incursions like these into their territory, especially when they come, as such novels often do, with a disavowal of the genre itself."

In case you can't tell, Miller's words are an irritating excuse for an essay, with the irritation building like a flea circus loose under a wool sweater until the reader breaks out in a never-ending rash. Only then does Miller close with a grasp at profundity by saying "What’s surprising is not that literary novelists are increasingly taking up science fiction’s tools, but that more of them didn’t try it sooner."

So. Much. Fail. In. One. Essay. And before you believe I'm biased because I'm one of those lowly SF authors who need step aside for my literary betters, check out the reaction of other authors to Miller's words:

Part of the problem with the essay, beyond Miller's actual condescending words, is that she overlooks the ability of SF authors to write at the level of the authors she's praising. She grudgingly gives William Gibson and Karen Joy Fowler minor props but ignores the stylistic and literary ability of SF masters like Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, N. K. Jemisin, Connie Willis and so many others.

For what it's worth, Miller has long had a love-hate relationship with genre fiction. As detailed in Miller's book The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, she loved C.S. Lewis's stories as a child, desiring “to be carried away by something greater than ourselves — a love affair, a group, a movement, a nation, a faith. Or even a book.” But Miller fell out of love with Narnia later in life when she realized the book's Christian "legends and ideals."

I suspect this attitude carries over for Miller into all things genre. She loves the scope and vision of genre works but can't get past the imaginary blinders which to her separate genre works from what she might call "serious writings." You can see this attitude in how she describes the SF community, where she says lovers of science fiction are "both aggrieved at being marginalized and really invested in being marginalized. So they don’t really want to be accepted. They want to be angry and self-righteous about not being accepted."

As SF author Jess Hyslop said in an online discussion with me, part of the problem with this essay and overall discussions of this topic is in the use of the term "literary," as in literary fiction, literary novelist, literary writing, and so on. As Jess wrote, "Wish we could all stop using 'literary' as a (non?)genre descriptor, & instead understand it as an adjective that can apply to any genre." So true. Perhaps a better term is "contemporary fiction" or "mainstream fiction." Such phrasing would then allow anyone to apply the term literary to any writings which reach deep into the human experience and psyche.

Look, the science fiction genre and other genres such as romance, fantasy, horror, and comics are incredibly open. All are welcome to read and write within these genres. But don't come into these genres, take the best parts of what we write, then disavow the genre and everyone in it.

If you do that, all you're showcasing is your own literary ignorance.

Five trends in the science fiction genre

Science fiction fans are always looking for the next big thing. For new stories with worlds and universes we never knew existed. For cutting edge ideas and places and characters unlike anything we’ve seen or read or contemplated.

Perhaps the oldest science fiction game is to try and predict trends in the genre. To see where humanity’s science fiction dreams might take us next.

One SF trend I’ve noticed lately is the survival of print books, which have increased sales in the United State for each of the last three years. Despite all the doomsday predictions of e-books quickly supplanting print books, that hasn’t turned out to be the case.

Even in a digital world people love their print books. That’s SF trend #1.

Despite print books doing so well, the sales of science fiction books continue to lag behind fantasy titles. I don’t see this changing anytime soon. The fantasy literary genre continues to be more open to new readers than science fiction, where many novels are so narrowly focused toward genre insiders that it’s difficult for them to attract new readers who aren’t already familiar with science fiction tropes and jargon.

An exception to this is the science fiction subgenre of space opera. The popularity of this subgenre is partly due to the success of the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises — which serve as gateways to written space operas for the general public — and partly because space operas are such exciting SF stories. As a result, more SF authors than ever seem to be writing space operas. Among the new and exciting space operas I've read this year are The Collapsing Empire by Hugo Award winner John Scalzi and The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley. In addition, The Genesis Fleet: Vanguard, a new Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell, was just released, with many more space operas due for the rest of the year.

So SF trend #2: Space opera remains hot.

That’s not to say readers won’t respond positively to other types of science fiction. I loved Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel Borne and couldn’t put it down. While VanderMeer is usually known for his New Weird fantasy stories, such as with his bestselling Southern Reach series, with Borne he reaches into science fiction. The novel delivers a weirdly futuristic wasteland filled with discarded scientific experiments and a scavenger who nurtures one of these experiments while facing off with a skyscraper-tall flying bear named Mord.

Yes, the novel features a giant flying bear. And believe me, the bear works.

Despite the flying bear, I’m still calling Borne science fiction. The novel reads as if Jeff VanderMeer has created something totally new in the science fiction universe. Call it New Weird SF. As a bonus, Borne is likely to appeal to many readers who otherwise might never consider reading a science fiction novel.

SF trend #3: Write something totally different and unique and people will read it even if they generally avoid science fiction.

Of course, we can’t discuss trends in science fiction without talking about TV and films, especially since most of the world devours visual SF at much higher rates than written SF.

One TV series to definitely watch is The Expanse, which is now the best science fiction series around. The series follows the conflicts and intrigue between three factions in a future colonized Solar System: A United Nations government centered on Earth, an independent Mars federation, and the impoverished belters living on asteroids who are abused by the other two powers.

The Expanse is frequently called “Game of Thrones in space,” a description which does a disservice to the SF show. Yes, The Expanse shares the same deep love of the genre as Game of Thrones, which isn’t surprising considering that the authors of the original Expanse book series — Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, writing under the pseudonym James S. A. Core — are as fully immersed in the tropes and power of the SF genre as George R. R. Martin is with fantasy.

But while The Expanse features clashes among the elite and powerful just like Game of Thrones, most of the story is told through the eyes of ordinary people who suffer and survive as the powerful fight and scheme. That’s where the power of The Expanse lays — with the series’ characters.

SF trend #4: If people love your science fiction characters, they’ll love your science fiction story.

On the film side of science fiction, Hollywood continues its trend of reimagining old film series, such as with the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the new Ridley Scott film Alien: Covenant (which I prefer to call Alien: Ridley Scott Apologizes for Making Prometheus).

But one SF film which captured attention earlier this year for the wrong reasons is Ghost in the Shell, with Scarlett Johansson as the iconic character Major Motoko Kusanagi. Except the character is only called The Major in the film, a possible attempt by the studio to sugarcoat that a white American actress was selected to play the role.

Before the release of the 2017 film I saw the original 1995 Ghost in the Shell anime during a limited run in theaters. The theater was packed was anime lovers, many of whom, like myself, had seen the anime many times but never on a large screen.

The good news is the 1995 version of Ghost in the Shell is still a great film and must be seen anyone who loves either anime or SF. Sadly, the audience was also forced to sit through multiple trailers and insider looks at the upcoming live action film. Based on the trailers it appeared Hollywood ripped off all the best scenes from the original anime and threw in a ton of angst and interpersonal drama while dumping the original film’s deep philosophy.

The special features ended with an exclusive interview with Kazunori Itō, director of the original 1995 anime. Itō said how pleased he was that a big Hollywood director had recreated his Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson in it. I’m not sure he really meant that. And the audience around me definitely wasn’t impressed with the upcoming film because people laughed at and booed the trailers.

So no surprise from me when the 2017 film bombed.

Which bring me to SF trend #5: Even big Hollywood studios must be careful before messing with classic science fiction stories because genre fans have little tolerance for those who desecrate our SF dreams.

That's one trend which will likely never change.