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April, 2009 : Feature:

Signals 19

Last month, we talked money.

This month, let's talk attitude.

There's a lot of fear in the country right now. Much of it makes sense. The future is uncertain. But some of the fear comes from the careless hyperbole of our news media. For example, on the night that I write this column (in late February), Brian Williams, the anchor of the NBC Nightly News, called the current economic crisis "the worst ever."

Now I'm not sure if he skipped a phrase from the TelePrompTer—"the worst ever in our lifetimes" or "the worst ever in the past twenty years"—but whatever he meant, what he said is completely incorrect.

There have been a lot of "economic downturns" in American history. Until regulations were put into place during the New Deal of the 1930s, Americans lived on a continual boom-and-bust cycle.

The busts were catastrophic: bank closures—not dozens as we've been experiencing—but in the thousands. Entire fortunes disappearing overnight, currency becoming worthless, property losing all of its value.

Such things happened regularly. In the 19th century, the decade to own the title of the Great Depression was the 1870s. And let's not even discuss what happened economically to the American South as a result of losing the Civil War.

The problem with our media's coverage of this current crisis is not just caused by the occasional mistaken phrase. Part of the problem is a lack of education among journalists. If some day trader tells them it's the worst crisis ever, the modern journalist doesn't know how to check that fact (and, with the 24-hour news cycle, might not have time to do so).

The other part of the problem is that many of the people covering this crisis are under forty. Most of them don't remember the recession of the early 1980s, let alone the horrible economic conditions of the early 1970s. For a lot of the journalists and talking heads, this is the worst crisis ever.

Ooops. Missing a phrase there. The worst crisis ever in their lifetime.

It colors how they report the news. The way they report the news colors how we react to it.

This applies not just to the major news media covering the current economic crisis, but the science fiction news media covering our genre. Recently, I participated in one of John DeNardo's Mind Meld columns for the SF Site because he posed the perennial question about whether SF discriminates against women, although he tried to pose the question in a new way for a new century by asking if gender bias played a role in SF.

My first reaction to the question was a heavy sigh. I wrote a long piece about the ways that gender bias no longer exists in SF. Then I read what everyone else wrote.

I learned a few things. First, the question came about because a couple of editors had produced anthologies in the same year with few or no female names on the table of contents. One of the editors defended himself on the site, by stating he had invited women into his anthology, but the women either missed the deadline or bowed out at the last minute, forcing him to go to writers of his acquaintance who worked quickly and weren't already invited into the anthology. As a result, he produced the accidental womanless TOC.

Every editor has similar problems. The all-fantastic issue with no well-known fantasy writers (how I suffered through that for one issue of F&SF), the science fiction anthology with only slipstream stories (no one ended up writing a hardcore SF story) and so on. Such things happen.

But a group of people got upset about the lack of gender equality in these anthologies and wrote letters of complaint. And the editors responded, first with apologies and then with making certain that their future anthologies had a more diverse tables of contents.

What amazed me was that the same group of people believed this to be evidence of gender bias in SF publishing. And as I poured through the names of the complainants on the site and on linked blogs, I realized that all of these people were much younger than I am.

These young writers stand on a platform built by the writers who came before them. That platform states that gender bias is a bad thing. And so these writers complained, were heard, and got an explanation and an apology, because the editors involved shared the belief that gender bias is a bad thing. The editors were embarrassed and promised never to do such a thing again.

But what the writers don't seem to realize is what the real gender discrimination fight was like. I have an inkling, because I'm part of a crossover generation. I came in after the battles were won, but not every person was comfortable with the victory. I got a lot of hate mail that first month I edited The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction because I was the first woman to take the job.

I wasn't surprised by the vitriol of the letters. I'd encountered these attitudes about women from the moment I entered the workforce. I lost opportunity after opportunity because I was female. For example, I was one of the kids in my high school whose name was placed into consideration to be a Senate page in Washington, D.C., but the senator who was hiring the pages asked that I be removed because I was a girl. He wanted only male pages because females were "too much trouble."

That was 1977. I could have made a stink about the whole thing and actually received sympathetic press coverage. Had it been 1957, the press would have thought I was ridiculous for wanting a man's job.

The pioneering women in SF went through a great deal, some of it overt and some of it subtle. No one has written the definitive history of this part of the genre and someone should. Most of the pioneering women—C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and others—are gone now. But the next generation, the women who pushed the door open just a bit wider—women like Ursula K. Le Guin and Kate Wilhelm—are still with us, with great stories to tell. Someone just needs to interview them or ask them to write essays about their experiences.

We are all influenced by the times we are born in. Our reactions to everything from gender bias to economic crisis comes from the events of our lives. I remember the economic downturns of the 1970s. I remember thinking in 1982 as I graduated from college that I would never be able to buy a house because I wouldn't be able to afford a mortgage with an 18% interest rate.

I think it's great that it's illegal for men to grope women on the job. I can't tell you how many times I got hugged or pinched on the butt or accidentally brushed across the breast. And I never suffered at work the way other women I know did. Or experienced the biases they would have to put up with.

But there's no way I can impart this information to that group of complaining women writers today without sounding like some cranky old fart. Just like I can't say that this economic crisis isn't the worst one I've lived through without defending that statement with statistics and charts.

It's difficult to convey the things you've lived through. And even if you do manage to convey some of it, you miss the emotional context.

For many people around the world, times are suddenly and inexplicably hard. They weren't prepared for this downturn. Many people didn't even realize it could happen because it hadn't happened in their lifetimes.

Nor do a lot of folks in the United States understand that they're standing on a platform built for them by earlier generations. In the Great Depression, there was no such thing as unemployment insurance. Or federally insured bank deposits. If you lost your job, you could live on your savings—if you had any. Otherwise, you literally had no money at all and no hope of any until you got a new job. And if your bank went under, your money went with it.

We all stand on platforms. Some of them are the places we start from. Those of us born fifty years ago stand on different platforms than our children do. Our grandchildren will stand on yet other platforms, higher and firmer ones, we hope.

It's science fiction's job to try to understand these platforms and see what they're building toward. But you can't do that job unless you understand the platforms of the past.

History teaches us the most about ourselves and our futures. With an understanding of what came before, we can't predict everything, but we can predict some things.

For example, I know that the arguments about gender bias in SF will eventually disappear. They're fewer and farther between now than they were when I came into the field, but they're not finished yet. (Although I think they should be. There are other things to argue about.)

Just like I know that this economic downturn will never be as bad as the crisis of 1931-33, the worst of the Great Depression, because of the safeguards put into place by the folks who lived through that time. We may be living through the worst economic disaster of the past seventy years. But other folks lived through tougher times.

Including science fiction writers. Think how many SF writers started their careers in the 1930s. Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, just to name a few. Others sustained existing careers through this period. In his autobiography, Wonder's Child, Jack Williamson actually records how much writing income he earned for each year of the 1930s.

Jack's income in those days, sporadic as it was, was pretty high. For example, he out-earned my grandfather, who had a great job working for the postal service. And Jack continued to earn this money year in and year out, even as the country sank deeper and deeper into economic darkness.

I hear a lot of gloom and doom from science fiction writers right now. Some of it is accurate: times are tough. But I go back to my history. If science fiction writers managed to start and sustain careers in the 1930s, then SF writers can do the same now.

The keys to our present lie in our past. The clues to our future lie there as well. We can't always predict what will happen, but we can learn the patterns of history.

Once we know those, then we can be calm in the face of any crisis.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn't being glib when he said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. He was being accurate. Attitude is, perhaps, the most important survival tool we have.

We will get through this downturn. Science fiction will survive. Books will survive. And these tough times will become stories to tell our grandchildren—of both genders.

Copyright © 2009, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. All Rights Reserved.

About Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a Hugo award-winning writer who was, once upon a time, a Hugo award-winning editor. She has published fiction in almost every genre under a variety of names. Her most recent science fiction novel is Diving into the Wreck which Pyr
published in November. Her novella, "Recovering Apollo 8," won last year's Asimov's Readers Choice Award and was nominated for a Hugo. The novella has just been reprinted in Russian. For more information, go to her website at


Apr 3, 00:35 by IROSF
Comment below!
Apr 3, 13:55 by Suzette Haden Elgin
"The pioneering women in SF went through a great deal, some of it overt and some of it subtle. No one has written the definitive history of this part of the genre and someone should."

For this, I'd like to recommend the two-volume work -- Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy -- edited by Robin Anne Reid, just out from Greenwood Press. It does a spectacularly good job of writing that history.
Apr 3, 14:36 by Vin Miskell
Thanks for reminding us all how important context and a historical perspective are to our understanding.

Your article also reminded me of Michael Shermer's comment (in WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS) about how Columbus's "theory that he was in Asia" influenced all his observations--and those of his crew. All sorts of "Asian" plants were "discovered" in the New World as confirmation of his theory.

Naturally, those with limited experience cannot help but be "shocked and awed" by sudden and drastic changes. And so, they resort to hyperbole.

BTW, I finished reading DUPLICATE EFFORT last week. Thanks for continuing such a fascinating world. Do you have another Retrieval Artist novel in the works (or at least in mind)?

Vincent Miskell

Apr 3, 17:48 by Philip Kaldon
Good lord, someone was worried about female Senate pages in 1977? My high school Class of '76 was the first one that allowed women to apply to the service academies -- and my high school had women going on to West Point and the Coast Guard Academy. Good enough for the military but not good enough for the Senate? As much as things have changed, I have to keep reminding myself that we are always the products of the times we've grown up in -- and that we don't always see the biases around us.

Thanks for an excellent reality check article.

Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon
Apr 3, 18:20 by Athena Andreadis
Setting aside the opinions of the younger generation, whose members lack the necessary perspective, those of the earlier generation seem to also think that there still is a gender imbalance in SF, though less in fantasy. Specifically, Ursula Le Guin came to this conclusion (and related others, regarding how "whitebread" SF/F still is) in The Wave in the Mind.

Why do you think your opinion differs from hers? Is this a bit of "I walked to school barefoot, you should count your blessings"? There is no question, of course, that things have improved. But have they improved to the point where we should rest on our laurels?

Athena Andreadis
To Seek Out New Life
Starship Reckless
Apr 4, 19:46 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Great news. I hadn't heard of the Reid book. I'll pick it up.
Apr 4, 19:51 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Vin, yes, another RA book is in mind. I'm doing a series of novellas right now to prepare for it. The first was in Analog in Jan/Feb, I'll be posting on my website when the next novel happens. Dunno any dates yet.

Thanks for the comments, Philip. Much appreciated.

Athena, I read the LeGuin, which came out a number of years ago now. I see no discrimination against women in sf/f any more. None.

In the world, in the U.S. in particular, there is still a great deal of discrimination against women. Check out what happened to Hillary in the campaign or yesterday's bro-ha-ha over Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni. The sexist press expected some kind of cat fight between two marvelous, professional women. Huh?

So yes, in the world it's still there. But sf/f? No. And I think as the younger generations get older and are in charge, things'll change even more. It's not a reflex for anyone under 30 to think in discriminatory gender ways. imho.

Kris, who can't seem to spell this morning.
Apr 5, 04:59 by Athena Andreadis
Le Guin also counted the proportion of women that received prestigious literary awards across genres, from Nobels to Hugos. I believe these ratios haven't changed much.

I agree with you about Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Women are still far from achieving parity, if power and allocation of resources are calculated. Also, there was a significant backlash in the US during the eighties and nineties. However, the discrimination in the US pales in front of countries that have sharia law.

Starship Reckless
Apr 6, 03:08 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Ursula completely ignores the romance genre, written mostly by women for women. It's the largest of all publishing genres. Her statistics only take into account awards. So? I count readers/writers/publishing professionals.

Women dominate publishing. We write the most books. Women dominate the editing positions. Women have an equal number of publishing positions to men. Women read most of the books published.

These statistics have existed for years. In fact, Romance Writers of America publishes an update of all of them each and every year on its website, and they're only one organization to do so.

It truly irritates me that women who cry discrimination in sf ignore the bulk of women's publishing--romance and women's fiction. While it is true that fewer women write pure genre sf, more sf is being written by women every day. Check out romance writer Linnea Sinclair, for just one example.

And yes, discrimination against women in the rest of the world is damn terrifying. Since I am a woman, I'm happy to be an American woman living in the 21st century. Things are pretty darn good for us, considering what's happening in other parts of the world.
Apr 6, 14:46 by Janice Dawley
Kristine: First, the question came about because a couple of editors had produced anthologies in the same year with few or no female names on the table of contents. One of the editors defended himself on the site, by stating he had invited women into his anthology, but the women either missed the deadline or bowed out at the last minute, forcing him to go to writers of his acquaintance who worked quickly and weren't already invited into the anthology. As a result, he produced the accidental womanless TOC.

So, the editor in question solicited material from some women authors that he didn't personally know, and when their submissions didn't come through, he fell back on his personal connections to get the project done. The question that immediately occurs to me is, "Why were all his personal connections men?" That may sound like a very prying question, but when an editor's social milieu so clearly affects who gets published in an anthology, it seems like a fair one.

Things have certainly changed since the 1970s, but just because the really obvious sexism isn't happening (except for, oh, a breast grab here and there from a prominent man in the field at a major awards ceremony) doesn't mean it is no longer a factor. It's even possible that older people have *their* perspective skewed by their earlier experiences of blatant discrimination; maybe they can't see the finer gradations and details as well as younger people who haven't gone through that trauma. (Just a hypothetical; I don't really believe age has that much to do with it.)

It truly irritates me that women who cry discrimination in sf ignore the bulk of women's publishing--romance and women's fiction.

But what if you like SF and not romance? This is like saying, "Can't get your apple? Well, here's an orange! Now shut up about apples!"
Apr 6, 16:28 by Blue Tyson
Janice, a very simple answer. The majority of short story writers are male. Those are the only connections that matter, in that case. Not who runs the shop across the road.

In the case of science fiction, it is 'large majority of'.
Apr 6, 17:16 by Athena Andreadis
It truly irritates me that women who cry discrimination in sf ignore the bulk of women's publishing--romance and women's fiction.


like you, I wish that many issues (debates on abortion, on evolution, on whether women are fully human) would get settled so that we could move on to more interesting and creative matters.

The trouble with gender is that the goalposts keep moving. Whenever women scale one barrier, they find themselves in front of another moat. The current darling of "futurists" (with several sf writers/prophet wannabees prominently among them) is that evolutionary biology "proves" that it's natural for women to be dominated, even to postulation of - I kid you not - rape genes. This permeates transhumanism and its fiction sibling, cyberpunk, and has concrete repercussions in society at large, let alone publishing.

Along the lines of Janice's response, I must point out that saying that women dominate the romance genre is like saying that women dominate kindergarten teaching. Numbers don't matter if they're not associated with power or prestige -- after all, peasants always vastly outnumbered their overlords.

I'm aware that you write in several genres, including romance. There is nothing that should make romance inherently less valuable and valued than any other form of literature. But it is devalued, as is everything done predominantly by and for women (a sad fact across cultures: each defines women's roles quite differently, but whatever is defined as "feminine" is devalued by both genders; I can give you a plethora of examples). Also, countless studies have demonstrated the stubborn persistence of unconscious bias -- two examples are the sudden surge of women brass players in orchestras after they instituted the custom of auditioning behind a screen, or a similar surge of women students in Ivy League colleges after they instituted blind admissions.

All this may make me sound humorless, angry, dated -- in short, unhip. Yet I see this drama unfolding daily in the domains I frequent, from science to forums of ostensibly progressive organizations. I also see how rigid stances shortchange both genders, and how such issues divide people who would otherwise be natural allies and even friends, as in this forum. And it seems to me that speculative literature is still too whitebread and bizarrely conservative, when by definition it should break new ground.

So I don't wish to irritate you or devalue your experience or expertise. But we're not there yet, not by a long shot, and we cannot afford to forget.
Apr 6, 19:57 by Janice Dawley
Blue Tyson: Janice, a very simple answer. The majority of short story writers are male. Those are the only connections that matter, in that case.

How could it be that simple? Are you really trying to say that people's friends are determined simply by population percentages and not by things they have in common, referrals, etc? That the editor in question didn't have a single female short story writer that he could call on in a pinch because there simply aren't enough women in the field for him to know any?
Apr 17, 17:55 by margo jane
Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy -- edited by Robin Anne Reid,

is just out and costs 200 $?

Who is going to read it, I wonder?
Jun 14, 08:09 by
That is really nice to hear about that

Ezcorts service
Jan 17, 09:17 by
I enjoyed the article-and incidentally, also enjoyed Space Magic, which I reviewed for The Fix a couple of years ago.

There's certainly a lot here about uses of the future, and the pitfalls that go into extrapolation (though I have to admit there's a case to be made for the glass-half-full side of that discussion, which I wish was made more often).

Incidentally, as to the predictions you make, I definitely see the economic collapse scenarios making a comeback, much like we saw in so much of '80s cyberpunk. I think the fragmentation theme's been around quite a bit already-but it might derive an extra dimension not from the "Net Generation," but the "iGeneration" as it's called in this piece in H+ Magazine.

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