– title of a story by Kate Wilhelm
Everyone who meets me inevitably finds out that science fiction and fantasy (SF/F) occupy a large portion of my head and heart: I write it, read it, review it and would like to see it discard the largely self-imposed blinkers that impoverish it. For a while, Strange Horizons (SH) magazine thrilled and captivated me. So it’s doubly hearbreaking for me to see it regressing into “normality” and losing sight of what made it stand out in the first place.
My relationship with SH has long been ambivalent. I was happy it was a major SF/F venue brought to vibrant life by female founders: Mary Anne Mohanraj and Susan Marie Groppi after her. I was pleased it published many works by women and Others and contained significant numbers of women in its masthead (as editors, not gofers or dishwashers). I was glad it showcased non-famous writers from the get-go and cast its net wide. My second major SF article appeared there when I was relatively unknown in the domain.
However, there were some worms in the tasty apple. One was that SH seemed to have adopted a stance of “science hurts our brains” – perhaps to distinguish itself from the scienciness of Analog and Asimov’s. This was true not only (increasingly) for its stories but also for the non-fiction articles which steered determinedly clear of science, concentrating instead on literary and social criticism. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, especially when SF/F is still struggling for legitimacy as literature. But other speculative magazines – Lightspeed, for one – manage to include interesting science articles without shedding cooties on their fiction.
So I read SH fiction less and less but continued to browse its columns and reviews. Then in the last few years I noticed those shifting – gradually but steadily. They were increasingly by and about Anglosaxon white men and showed the tunnel vision this context denotes and promotes. The coalescent core reviewers were young-ish British men (with token “exotics”) convinced of their righteous enlightenment and “edginess” along the lines of “We discovered/invented X.”
I caught a whiff of the embedded assumptions that surface when these self-proclaimed progressives relax, safe from prying eyes. One of them recently reviewed a story on his site and characterized its protagonist by the term “cunt”. He used the word repeatedly, as a synonym for “empathy-lacking sociopath”. Having accidentally read the entry, I remarked that, feminism bona fides aside, the term doesn’t ring friendly to female ears and even the canon definition of the term (“extremely unpleasant person, object or experience”) is not equivalent to psychopath. Perhaps not so incidentally, I was the only woman on the discussion thread.
The reviewer’s first response was that only Amurrican barbarians “misunderstand” the term. I replied (in part) that I’m not American, and presumably he wishes to be read by people beyond Britain and its ex-colonies. At that point he essentially told me to fuck off. His friends, several of them SH reviewers or editors, fell all over themselves to show they aren’t PC killjoys. They informed me that US cultural hegemony is finally over (if only), that “cunt” is often used as an endearment (in which case his review was a paean?) and that women themselves have reclaimed the term (that makes it copacetic then!).
So this is the core group that has been writing the majority of reviews at SH for the last few years and is now firmly ensconced not only in SH but also across British SF/F venues. This may explain the abysmal gender percentages of the latter, which haven’t really budged even after the discussions around the not-so Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF or the handwringings over the Gollancz aptly named Masterwork Series. The recent epic fantasy debate showcased the prevailing attitudes by discussing exclusively works of (repeat after me) white Anglosaxon men. Not surprisingly, the editor of SH just revealed that roughly two-thirds of recent SH reviews were by male reviewers and two-thirds discussed works of male authors, adhering to the in/famous “one-third rule” that applies to groups helmed by men.
People will argue that SH still has “a preponderance” of women in its masthead and pages. That’s mostly true — for now. However, it is significant that the percentages of works by women in SH consistently reflect the ratios and clout of women within each of its departments. Too, it’s human nature to flood the decks with one’s friends when someone takes over a ship. The problem is that, given the makeup of the current editor’s inner circle, an echo chamber is all but assured. To give one example, a new SH column does blurbs of online discussions relevant to SF/F. Although the editor in charge of it asked for input and admitted he got an avalanche of responses, its entries so far have come almost exclusively from members of the in-group.
So SH is inching towards a coterie of white Anglosaxon men as arbiters of value, a configuration Virginia Woolf would have found depressingly familiar. People are fond of repeating that publication ratios reflect the fact that women submit less than men. What I increasingly see at SH are stances that need not be in-your-face hostile to exert a chilling effect. If someone smirks at you constantly, the passive-aggressive condescension will eventually stop you from going to his parties as effectively as if he had explicitly barred you entry (check out The Valve to observe this dynamic at work).
It grieves me to see SH slowly but inexorably become literally a neo-Victorian club. It grieves me that one of the few SF/F venues once genuinely receptive to women’s work is resorting to smug lip-service. Perhaps the magazine is a victim of its success: once women had nurtured it to prominence, men could take over and reap the benefits – a standard practice.
I see developing patterns early, so much so that I often joke I should be called Cassandra, not Athena. Yet this once, for the sake of the genre and the women who painstakingly watered the now-vigorous SH tree, I fervently hope I’m proved wrong. Otherwise, given the attention span of the Internet, a handful of us will wistfully recall (to hoots of incredulous derision, no doubt) that once there was a verdant oasis in SF/F that women created, shaped and inhabited.
Remedios Varo, Nacer de Nuevo (To Be Reborn)
Note to readers: I am aware this will lead to polarizing and polarized views. I will not engage in lengthy back-and-forths, although I made an exception for the expected (and predictable) response by Abigail Nussbaum. People are welcome to hold forth at whatever length and pitch they like elsewhere.