From Six Shooter, by Jeanne Gomoll, Linda Pickersgill and Pam Wells. Reprinted by permission of the author.


This essay should definitely not be read as any kind of review of Burning Chrome. The single paragraph that I quote here was taken out of context (though probably not out of meaning) and should be viewed as one of those breaking-the-camel's-back life experiences--not as a sample of the content of the book or even of the essay from which it is excerpted.


It was raining steadily one morning, and so I left my bike locked up in the basement, grabbed a book to read, and took a bus to work. The book was Burning Chrome, an anthology of stories written or co-written by Bill Gibson; Bruce Sterling wrote its preface. I started with that.

It's only a fifteen-minute bus trip to my office but I should have had the time to at least finish Sterling's short introduction and maybe even to start one of Gibson's stories. But I got sidetracked.

In fact, I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. I may have to give up trying to finish reading that introductory essay because I keep running painfully against a few sentences on the very first page that send my mind whirling and my anger growing until I have to slam the book shut with a muttered curse--just like I did that rainy morning on the bus. I won't be able to get on with actually reading the book and Gibson's short stories (which I expect to enjoy), until I've told someone about that sentence and my reaction to it.

So I'm going to tell you about it, Ms. Russ, because I think I've just discovered another strategy to suppress women's writing. You wrote the book, How to Suppress Women's Writing, describing in gory detail all the different ways that have been used to disallow, prevent, discourage, disbelieve, discredit, devalue, ignore, categorize, debase, forget, ridicule, malign, redefine, re-evaluate, and otherwise suppress women's writing. I'm sure that you meant to warn us with your book--to warn us that the suppressive strategies are still around, armed and dangerous--and that it's important for women to recognize them and to work against them. But still, I remember (or perhaps I imagined) an up-beat ending to your book and I'm surprised that there really is no happy ending. That the business is still going on today.

You observed some of the strategies that suppress women's writing: "She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it," or "She wrote it, but she had help," or "She wrote it, but she's an anomaly." Well, the late 1970s and early 1980s spawned many women SF writers who wrote quite a bit of highly praised fiction. The old strategies don't quite work. Here's the new one: "They wrote it, but they were a fad."

It was not one or two or a mere scattering of women, after all, who participated in women's renaissance in science fiction. It was a great BUNCH of women: too many to discourage or ignore individually, too good to pretend to be flukes. In fact, their work was so pervasive, so obvious, so influential, and they won so many of the major awards, that their work demands to be considered centrally as one looks back on the late '70s and early '80s. They broadened the scope of Sf exploration from mere technology to include personal and social themes as well. Their work and their (our) concerns are of central importance to any remembered history or critique. Ah ha, I thought, how could they suppress THAT?!

This is how:

In the preface to Burning Chrome, Bruce Sterling rhapsodizes about the quality and promise of the new wave of SF writers, the so-called "cyberpunks" of the late 1980s, and then compares their work to that of the preceding decade:

"The sad truth of the matter is that SF has not been much fun of late. All forms of pop culture go through the doldrums: they catch cold when society sneezes. If SF in the late Seventies was confused, self-involved, and stale, it was scarcely a cause for wonder."

With a touch of the keys on his word processor, Sterling dumps a decade of SF writing out of cultural memory: the whole decade was boring, symptomatic of a sick culture, not worth writing about. Now, at last, he says, we're on to the right stuff again.

All the people who were made nervous or bored or threatened by the explosion of women's writing and issues now find it safe to come out and speak out loud of their dissatisfaction. Of course, it's safer to criticize generally ("It was a self-involved, me-decade,' and nothing worthwhile was created") than to say specifically what they mean. (The women writers of the 70s bored me because I didn't care about their ideas; I felt left out. "They wrote it but it was a boring fad.")

This new strategy not only attempts to detract from the critical assessment of SF writing by women, and to belittle the accomplishments of women in fandom (which I'll write about later in this letter), but it has also been turned against the women's movement as a whole. For the last couple of years I've begun to suspect that the phrase, "the me-decade" is really a euphemistic attack upon the changes made by the women's movement. The phrase is both inappropriate and misleading.

The changes brought about by the women's movement were, of course, rooted in egotistical changes made by individual women. In fact, huge numbers of us rejected the traditional role of anonymous, self-sacrificing helpmate that has so long trapped women in unhappy marriages and unrewarding jobs. We stopped caring for ourselves less than we cared for others. But the ironic judgment of the men who found themselves cared for less well than their fathers had been, is that women who are not self less must be selfish. The phrase, "the me-decade," with its pejorative tone, rejects all of the positive, vitalizing effects brought about by the healthier, stronger, more capable women flourishing among us, and for that reason alone, it is an inappropriate label. But like all the other neat, decade-naming labels, it is crucially inaccurate as well, because artificial boundaries of dates that end in zeros can no more properly encompass all the names, events and ideas of a movement than can a catchy phrase. Both abridgements (the decade-lumping and the catch-phrase) are, however, part of a very effective strategy of suppression. "They wrote it but they were part of the me-decade'."

A growing number of people don't remember that SF in the 70s heralded the grand entrance of many new women writers. As time goes on, the two statements, first, that SF was boring or faddish in the 70s, and second, that women's writing and issues were boring, appear to be mutually exclusive and new readers are lulled into ignorance. Not everyone, of course, shares Sterling's opinion of 1970s science fiction. For instance, many people remembered that it was a shame that James Tiptree, Jr. had turned out to be a pseudonym for female SF writer Alice Sheldon. "He" was, they said, one of the very few exceptions to the general rule that seemed to preclude all but women as important new SF writers in the '70s, at least it seemed that way at the time. From 1953 through 1967 there had not been one single woman to win a Hugo award for fiction. Between 1968 and 1984 there were eleven, and the increase of popular Sf writers who were women was an exciting event of the 1970s. Anthologies of SF by women were published not only for the novelty of their authorship, but for the significantly different way that women were writing SF. Their emphasis on character development and human interaction completely changed our expectations of the genre.

Have you ever attended one of those fannish retrospective panels at science fiction conventions? You know--those are the panels held in some remote program room where a few well known fans from the period ("fandom of the '40s," "fandom of the '50s," etc.) reminisce about the time, about what fandom was like, about who the BNFs (Big Name Fans) were, and about what feuds were going on? No?

Well, I've attended a few panels spotlighting the period when I first got involved in fandom (the mid-'70s), and I'm always amazed at how unrepresentative the memories of the panelists seem when I compare them to my own recollections of the time. I used to put the phenomenon down to the same mysterious "Babel Gas" that confuses convention attendees and causes them all to recall totally different conventions. Maybe that's it, I thought: now that the era is passed, we all recall totally different decades. That's a very fannish theory, but it's not convincing. I don't think it's too egotistical of me to expect some overlap.

Fandom is supposedly cemented together by tradition and memories held in trust and passed down to future fannish generations by word of mouth and fanzine. It seems that a whole big chunk of memories has gotten entirely misplaced. For instance, here is a list of some of my memories of the '70s. None of these events has ever been mentioned at any of the retrospective fandom-of-the-'70s panels that I've attended.

* In 1976, Big Mac's programming included the first women and science fiction panel. We have Susan Wood to thank because she fought for it against vociferous convention committee opposition. We listened in the standing-room-only audience in spite of the heckling by men who thought the whole thing was a bore. (Some of them still think it is a bore, apparently, although their heckling technique has evolved since then.) We kept talking after the panel had ended in a packed, standing-room-only lounge for several hours afterward. It was an exhilarating, exciting, unbelievable gathering of people, overjoyed to have found one another. None of us used the word "boring" to describe the experience.

* That gathering eventually led to the founding of A Women's Apa, which became one of the most popular apas around for several years. When we kicked men out of AWA, the controversy spilled out of the apa into fanzines, letters, and gossip in general fandom. Eventually, too, British women started their own women-only Women's Periodical, which generated similar controversy in Britain.

* Janus, the fanzine I worked on in the '70s (and later became Aurora), was one of the most well-known zines of the time, and only the second feminist SF zine ever to be published. (The first was Amanda Bankier's short-lived The Witch and the Chameleon.) Janus earned three Hugo nominations and raised a hue and cry for suspected, vile, "block voting." People--it was alleged--were voting based on their interests and politics, and if Janus hadn't been feminist-oriented, it wouldn't have been nominated for a Hugo. Of course, we didn't agree; there was no conspiracy. But no matter what the reasons were for Janus's Hugo nominations, these slurs and accusations only pointed out the importance of the women's movement in fandom, even in the opinions of its detractors.

* At Suncon--the Miami worldcon in 1977--fans organized against the just-legislated Dade County anti-gay laws with buttons ("Happy Gays Are Here Again"), parties, and an hysterically funny, satirical masquerade entry, "Slaveboys of Gor."

* When Phoenix won the worldcon bid for 1978, the site turned out to be a problem in that, subsequently, N.O.W. organized a boycott of all non-ERA-ratifying states, which included Arizona. Guest of Honor Harlan Ellison spearheaded a campaign to raise fannish awareness of the situation and wrote a passionate letter which was published in and commented upon in dozens of fanzines, including Janus.

* Women and SF panels started to appear at conventions all over, though strong opposition was mounted by concoms and fans who complained bitterly that feminism just wasn't fannish. Wiscon 1 was nicknamed "Pervertcon" by some of those fans who were upset by Wiscon's encouragement of feminist, lesbian, and homosexual programming. Feminist panels have now become so uncontroversial at cons that jokes are made about the so-called generic "Women and SF Panel"--though the real things seldom feel generic to the participants. On the contrary, they have encouraged diverse and energetic discussions wherever scheduled. Wiscon, the Madison SF convention, regularly organizes a dozen or so programs related to women's issues. Usually these panels amount to at least a quarter of Wiscon's heavily programmed schedule, and they range from "Feminism 101" all the way to academic, fannish and speculative program items.

* The late '70s was the time when "rooms of our own" were opened at many conventions to give women space to gather and talk alone together without hecklers. The first such room was organized at Westercon in Vancouver in 1978, again by Susan Wood. The fact that fewer such exclusive spaces are planned now, and the fact that there are fewer people heckling feminist discussion, illuminates the changes in the atmosphere and the generally raised consciousness of fans and society in general.

* Things have changed a lot in SF fandom. In a few years the percentage of women has increased so dramatically that women don't seem to be an endangered species at cons or in fanzines any more. Science fiction has changed so dramatically that I get fewer confused reactions when I use the phrase "feminist science fiction," whereas in the past people thought the term must be an oxymoron. The changes didn't take place in dark closets. In fact, we still hear men who weren't even members of A Women's Apa complaining about the women-only rule (invoked at least ten years ago!). But judging from the fuzzy memories of some fans today, you'd almost think these changes must have been made secretly, behind locked doors and with muffled whispers...

Just as women's frequent presence in professional Hugo nominations during the 1970s-'80s now seems in the process of being camouflaged with expressions of boredom with the period as a whole, it may be that fannish history is being whisked under the rug as so many dustballs. I was interviewed by a woman from the Women's Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin recently, and was a little surprised by how few names of female SF writers were familiar to her. Are we, perhaps, working hard to preserve the art of "lost" women writers--digging through dusty archives to read, collect, and advertise our forgotten ancestors' work--only to lose track of the work done by women just a decade before us? Let's try to keep a truer perspective of our history, so future women don't have to dig up and publish a special "Unheralded Women of SF" issue of Aurora to spotlight it.

I sit in the audience at all-male "fandom of the '70s" panels (and so far, that's the only way the panels I've witnessed have been filled, by men only) and don't hear anything of the politics, the changes, the roles that women played in that decade, except sometimes a little chortling aside about how it is easier now to get a date with a female fan... The prevailing picture of the decade that these panels paint is of an over-serious, rather boring, too academic, lifeless period between better times, between remarkable fannish eras that (unlike the '70s) had good, reprintable fan writers.

I don't think there's a conscious conspiracy to cover up the work of women. Many of the guys up on those panels are friends of mine, and they'll be horrified to hear me even suggest they were involved in any kind of even vaguely sexist activities. For the most part, these friends supported us, shared our excitement and seemed to admire the work of the new women writers. These men wrote to Janus, attended feminist panels, and were involved in the discussions about sexism and politics. Sometimes they even lectured us about not being feminist enough, about not being assertive enough, about not taking enough responsibility for ourselves.

Was this involvement of fleeting importance for some of these men? Is it just a coincidence that I hear male commentators in the media referring to feminism as a fad that has now passed? Maybe it's not so much wish fulfillment working here as guilty self-criticism? Some of them have found more exciting interests (cyberpunk writing, for instance), and may have honestly begun to forget their earlier interest in feminism. Unfortunately, a lot of women seem to be catching this mood and agreeing with such frequently heard statements as: "Fannish writing was (academic/boring/too sercon) in the '70s. Today's fannish, humorous/anecdotal writing is so much better."

The fact is that there is a measure of truth to the observation that the writing done by fans in the late 70s was more academic than the quantitatively more personal/humorous early 80s writing. Unfortunately, that tends to make people assume that the qualitative judgment which accompanies this observation has equal validity. But it just doesn't follow that the different, lighter, less SF-oriented writing of the early 80s is intrinsically better than the sort of writing that was done in the late 70s. Different times encourage different sorts of writing.

Well, there's an obvious solution to this problem I have, isn't there? I should stand up at those retrospective panels (maybe even try to get included on them) and join in with other women in the audience and add a few of my own recollections to those of the panelists. And we should all keep up critical pressure for balanced retrospectives, anthologies and reprints (fannish and professional). If we ourselves forget, why should we expect new generations of readers and fans to dig up the truth about what really happened?

Next | Contents | Home