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One of the Guys

I’m reading my second Lois Mcmaster Bujold book, both late entries in the “Vorkosigan saga,” which I take to be a series of stories about the rise and rise of Miles Vorkosigan, born to the ruling family of an interstellar empire but tainted by physical defects in a culture that places a heavy stigma on genetic flaws. (Vorkosigan isn’t genetically flawed; he was poisoned in his mother’s womb. But the Vor citizenry don’t always make the distinction.) It’s not bad. Not rush-out-and-buy-the-series great, but perfectly decent space opera. Space opera mixed with police procedural, in the books I happened to pick up.

While I rarely pay much attention to such things, the thought popped unbidden into my head: “Hey, I’m enjoying a female sci fi author.” Doesn’t that sound horribly sexist? It does to me, because my natural state of mind is to presume everyone is not only equal but identical until proven otherwise. I would expect to enjoy male and female authors equally well. But I don’t—not in the realm of science fiction, anyway. History, puzzles, and humor, among other subjects, are a different matter.

The field isn’t exactly devoid of worthies; I admire LeGuin and Butler and a few other female scifi writers a great deal. But respecting their technique isn’t the same as enjoying their stories, which—again sounding sexist—gravitate toward inner, social and emotional conflicts like coming to terms with a child lost to eugenic regulation, rather than external, active conflicts like preventing a war between rival planets by smuggling an incriminating datacube to their governments. Nothing inherently wrong with either type of story, just a preference for the latter.

In addition to excellent female scifi writers who aren’t to my taste, there’s the bad writers. Anne McCaffrey comes to mind as one of the most famous, whose novels read like someone trying too hard to imitate the boys in the boys-club atmosphere of sci fi, mixed with some unsubtle Mary-Sue scenarios. And there’s plenty of lesser known female hacks. There’s plenty of lesser known bad male sci fi writers, too. Lots and lots and lots. Lesser known, perhaps, because there’s too many for any one to stand out.

So maybe the gender divide I experience has nothing to do with gender itself, nor with some dubious equation of talent and gender, or of interests and gender, but simply demographics. Because men dominate the sci fi genre so heavily, female writers, good and bad, stand out more. And because there’s so few, very few indeed rise to the tiny fraction of a percent of either gender that I consider worth reading.

I hope that’s the explanation. Because the other two explanations aren’t very palatable. I don’t think I’m prejudiced, because, as I say, the surprising thing is that I don’t like more female scifi writers—but it’s so hard to feel any certainty about one’s own prejudices. And I don’t want to think that men and women are so different when it comes to writing ripping good tales, or that men and women are so different when it comes to reading them. Otherwise, pointing to the singular example of Bujold sounds a little too much like the bigot’s rationalization “Some of my best friends are…”

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