Invisible Audiences? Invisible to Whom?

One of the discoveries I made while doing research for my PhD thesis, which ultimately became The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, was that women had always read and written science fiction. I found letters to science fiction magazines from women as early as the late 1920s, a short story contest winner in 1927.1 This was contrary to so many people’s views that there were no women engaged with science fiction until the 1950s. (Though some said not till the 1960s.) There were also a few women who attended science fiction conventions from the very beginning.

As I read through fanzines and science fiction magazines from the 1920s onwards, I found many article dismissing these women, which is largely what Battle of the Sexes is about:

The letters were from bored housewives with nothing else to do, the stories by women were crap and only published cause it was like a dog walking on its hind legs, and the women at conventions were only there because their boyfriend/husband dragged them along. And look how few in numbers! See? There are no women in science fiction!2

What those arguments have always failed to recognise is that the majority of readers/viewers of anything are not active in their engagement with a genre/show. Vastly more people were reading science fiction magazines than ever wrote a letter to the editor of an sf magazine or fanzine or went to a con. There are always huge numbers of people who are avid readers/viewers who are never counted by the people who are active in their engagement so those active fans start to assume that they are the centre of their genre and no one else exists.

Throughout my time as a doctoral student (which was pre-internet) I would meet people I never would have pegged as science fiction fans, who upon hearing of my research would start reminiscing about the sf magazines they read as a kid, of the Heinlein/Le Guin/McCaffrey books they adored, and their love affair with Star Trek/Doctor Who/Blake’s Seven. Most of these people had never heard of fandom, had no idea there were conventions etc. They just loved science fiction on their lonesome. I met others who had heard of it but there was no way they would have attended a con because back then it was all white boys and they knew they wouldn’t fit in.

Science fiction cons have been white and male for most of their existence. I remember the first con I went to more than a decade ago. I was terrified. It was mostly male. And, yes, I was sexually harassed. (A very common experience for women at cons.) But I also met many wonderful people who have remained friends to this day and before too long I discovered WisCon, the feminist convention, which was a much more hospitable place for me.3

There has long been speculation about why there are so few non-white fans of the genre. I have always been convinced, based on my research, that it’s hard to know how big that readership is. If as a woman in the 1990s I felt uncomfortable walking into a convention that was about 30% female how much more uncomfortable would someone not white feeling walking into a space that was 99% white?

Over at Deadbrowalking: the People of Color Deathwatch there’s a wild unicorn check in where people of colour who read/watch genre and love it are putting up their hands. So far there have been more than 900 comments. And many of the people talk about their parents’ love of science fiction and their grandparents too. Those 900 plus declarations are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more fans out there who don’t own computers, or if they do, have no idea that Deadbrowalking exists.

As I read through the pages and pages of comments over there I couldn’t help thinking about all the “Science Fiction is Dying” panels at cons I’ve seen over the years. I’ve always been bewildered by that claim and the prevalence of those panels. But it wasn’t until I read all the wild unicorn comments that I realised what those panels are really about. They’re talking about their brand of science fiction: the stuff that began in the late 1920s and and has been largely white, male, and all too frequently misogynist and racist. They’re not talking about the other streams that were growing up in Japan and China and Europe and, yes, the USA and elsewhere. They’re not talking about feminist science fiction or manga or anime or YA. None of that counts to them.

They’re saying that the white, male-dominated science fiction of boys with their hard science toys is dying.

And, you know what? I won’t weep if they’re right.

  1. Which is essentially when USian science fiction began. []
  2. Not an actual quote. Just my paraphrase. []
  3. Though I know of a few cases of women being harassed there too. []


  1. Tim on #

    But… women don’t have a Y chromosome! Didn’t you get the memo that says that only people with Y chromosomes are able to understand the complexities of science-fiction?! It’s very cute that you, as a woman, are trying to think all on your own…

  2. veejane on #

    1. Absolutely.

    2. Yay, you used whom!

  3. Patrick on #


  4. Justine on #

    Veejane: 2. Only because I was mocking the pompous science fiction boys.

  5. Bill on #

    You and Scott argued this point eloquently at ConFusion last year (with Peter Halasz in the Darth Vader role), and I was convinced then, too.

    I’ve always preferred stories where girls/women embraced their power: give me Buffy or give me death!

  6. Rachel on #

    Those letters were fascinating! Thank you!

  7. Shveta on #

    This is an excellent post, Justine. Thank you.

    And you might be interested to know about a community on LiveJournal called Fen of Color United (foc_u), which had a “Shatter the Silence” day yesterday about just this problem. I’ll e-mail you my post on it later, because it was partially inspired by your “Hurtful Words” post. 🙂

  8. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Well, the death of “hard science toys” SF might be sad — there is room for all flavors, and one of my mother in law’s favorite things to do is read SF where she’s got to have a physics textbook in her other hand.

    But as I’ve never been to a con, white-male-dominated or otherwise, I can imagine that the “this is the only REAL SF” drumbeat can grow quite annoying.

  9. rockinlibrarian on #

    I read something recently in which somebody defined “science fiction” in the very narrow terms of the “white, male-dominated science fiction of boys with their hard science toys” as you described it, and that annoyed me too. Isn’t science fiction just supposed to mean “fiction that takes science fact and asks ‘what if?’ about it”? And shouldn’t a genre that is all about speculation speculate as broadly as possible? Where no (white geeky) man has gone before perhaps?

  10. Morva Shepley on #

    I can’t believe anime doesn’t count as SF to some people. Anime is, as far as I can tell, where the imagination is these days. Of course, YA has always been a good for sheer imagination.

    Thanks for the link to Deadbrowalking. I’m sort of looking for authors who write SF&F in English but from various backgrounds. Strangely, although I would expect heaps, given the energy from manga and anime, the popularity of horror (among other things) in Singapore, and the sheer number of writers in India, they are not obvious on the bookshelves of the shops near me.

    It’s interesting that you mention the presence of women in SF years ago. There seems to be a pattern in 20thC history of older women being more assertive than those of the mid-century, with younger women becoming more pro-active towards the end.


  11. Julia Bonser on #

    I wasn’t reading Science Fiction in the 20’s but I started reading it in the mid 50’s and I seem to remember women writers from then. The one that stands out in my mind is Zenna Henderson. I don’t think Evelyn Sibley Lampman was considered a Science Fiction author as she wrote children’s book but I remember one that involved time travel. She was a regional author of the Pacific Northwest but I believe “The Shy Stegosaurus of Cripple Creek” was nationally known. So I think I started reading SF & F about age 11. I wasn’t picky I read everything in the school library and the community library and wanted more. At age 68 I am still a fan. I was lucky that my first con was Wiscon most of the others seem boring after attending so many years.

    My old foggy hat is that to me books are the real SF & F and movies and TV are an add on. It was quite a surprise to me when I learned that my children and their friends mainly went to cons for film and parties. We could go to the same con ostensibly and yet we experienced very different cons.

    Your thesis/book sounds fascinating.

  12. Justine on #

    Shveta: I saw that post of yours. Most excellent. I’ve been so heartened by the wild unicorn roll call and the many excellent posts that have been written in the wake of Avalon’s Willow’s initial critique of E. Bear. It’s wonderful.

    Diana: That’s what’s so absurd about their moaning about the death of science fiction. Much of the white boy hard sf is still in print and still being published. And even if it stops being a viable commercial genre, which is what they’re really worried about, there are so many different ways to make work available these days. No genre ever has to die anymore.

  13. Sarah Rees Brennan on #

    I find this post to be made of a hundred per cent concentrated awesome: that is all.

  14. Hokuto on #

    I generally only go to two cons a year (one SF/fantasy, one anime), and this year at the SF one, there was a panel called, “Is Female Readership Killing Science Fiction?” (or something similar, I don’t recall the exact title).

    The first thing the panellists said was “No,” and we spent the rest of the panel discussing publishing, libraries, and education. Great panel.

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