Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Short Stories, Speculative Fiction and Women's Rights

Some weeks past (July 29th) to be exact, SFP over on Pages Turned referenced an award-winning short story, What I Didn't See, written by Karen Joy Fowler. It had won a Nebula Award in 2003 (given out by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, hereinafter known as SFWA) and SFP was curious as to why a short story having to do with a hunting expedition in Africa in search of gorillas could qualify for a science fiction award. The story makes absolutely no reference to anything that might be called science fiction by any common definition of that genre. (Note: Members of SFWA have established the rules and vote for recipients of the Nebula; registered participants of the Worldcon vote on who deserves the Hugo awards.) In the comments, I made a suggestion that the rationale might have been that SFWA considers speculative fiction to be an eligible form of science fiction on the basis that speculative fiction captures certain realities of political and social structures by allowing them to be viewed through an unconventional lens. Science fiction isn't just about rockets and planetary investigations ; the genre uses a variety of devices to question human behavior by spotlighting and questioning our assumptions of what it means to be human.

Fortunately, a rather more perspicacious commenter noted that the correct reference point for creating a context around Fowler's story was James Tiptree, Jr.'s novelette, The Women Men Don't See. Tiptree's story has to do with a man wrestling with the challenge of a woman exercising choice in consciously rejecting his concept of woman and her place in the world, while Fowler's story (in my opinion) has to do with recognizing biological imperatives buried deep within and the impact of those imperatives on behavior and social structures. Thirty years after Tiptree's commentary on the inequity of power between men and women, Fowler joins the long conversation with her story, indirectly pointing out a cause for the imbalance as well as various other social structures where the imbalance has replicated itself (such as slavery). Taken together, the two stories do not paint a happy picture, but one accurately reflective of the turbulence in gender roles over the past thirty-five years.

SFWA, by my observation, is pretty much your average advocacy group. They are protective of their members' interests insofar as they can see them, but they are imperfect. For example, see this and Cory Doctorow's subsequent reaction (which includes the response from current SFWA president, Michael Capobianco, as well as sensible and occasionally confused feedback from the peanut gallery. Read the comments.). But in this instance, awarding Fowler a Nebula clearly indicates that the writers themselves understood the nature of her achievement.

They're both good stories. Go read them. Personally, I preferred Fowler's but I'm open to hearing the views of others.