Vector, Blind Submissions, and Gender Balance

A slew of commentary, mostly thought-provoking, has come out of Paul Cornell’s declaration yesterday that he would, as a panelist at a convention, actively work towards achieving gender parity on panels he’s on, even if it required taking himself off of the panel. It’s a lovely gesture, but there are all sorts of complications in the details of implementing it and what it requires of women participating in genre.

One of these complications is that, on average, women are less likely to volunteer to be put on panels in the first place.

I can’t speak to panel volunteers, but I can speak to those who volunteer for Vector.  The majority of articles which appear in Vector are commissioned. That means that I ask for them, or, more specifically, talk people into writing them.

A minority of the articles are blind submissions, already-written articles which are sent to Vector on the chance that it’s a suitable home for them. It often is. Vector isn’t that high profile, so it doesn’t receive all that many blind submissions – perhaps eight or so last year.

Every last blind submission I have received – and even, in addition to those, all the articles proposed, unwritten, without prior contact – were all sent or proposed by men.

This was my first year editing the magazine, so I can’t say if this is a necessarily a longer-term trend. I can say that this is consistent with what’s been reported by larger convention organizers, that men are more likely to put themselves forward, rather than waiting for an invitation.

Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate the blind submissions just as much as I appreciate all the people, regardless of gender, who have been willing to write for Vector by request. They all go into making the magazine’s features what they are. And some particular men may be in need of active recruitment, just as some particular women readily volunteer.

Part of the challenge of those working to improve the gender balance of participants, regardless of medium, can be in needing to be more pro-active in recruiting women, and the limited evidence of the blind submissions I’ve received is consistent with that tendency.

Maul – product placement

… she kept shooting, taking out pyramids and columns of fragrance and colour. Estée Lauder, Nina Ricci, Lancôme, Gucci, Calving Klein, Clinique, Chanel, Ralph Lauren … a crystalline gazz of the highest order for Suk Hee. (Maul, 2003 Orbit edition, p. 34.)

Many commentators, most recently Sebastian Faulks, have noted the manner in which Ian Fleming validated James Bond as a character through the brands he used.  It was important to Fleming to know, and to let the reader know, what cigarettes Bond smoked, what vodka he drank, what golf balls he used.

Something similar is going on in Maul.  The bloody gunfight that precipitates much of the action in the maul occurs not just in an upmarket clothes boutique, but in Lord & Taylor.   Sun and Alex have sex in the stockroom not just of an electrical goods store, but of Sharper Image.  Other shops are mentioned – Godiva, Toys-R-Us, etc.  Sun’s existence seems defined by the brands she uses – she doesn’t wear perfume, she wears CK1.  When she finds a packet of cigarettes what registers is Benson & Hedges.  The only significant thing that is not referred to by its brand, interestingly, is Sun’s gun.

Sullivan does this for authenticity.  This may not be a mall in our world, but it is a mall in something that is a close enough approximation of our world to be recognisable.  Americans, and most Brits (certainly anyone who’d ever seen The Blues Brothers or Dawn of the Dead) would have an idea of a mall in which trading names are prominent.  Sullivan herself, who grew up in New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s, no doubt spent some time herself in such places (though hopefully she never ran into a running gun battle). So Sullivan’s maul needs to have same quality of commercial branding – anonymous stores or invented ones just won’t cut it.

Something similar is going on in the future strand.  Of course, there the  brands are made up, but commercial interests clearly still loom large in this world.  The Mall  game Meniscus is a product of NoSystems.  Madeleine Baldino works for Highbridge.  Some of the names, however, are not invented.  Dunkin’ Donuts is still going, as is Play-Doh.  Clearly, Meniscus’ world is not that far into the future.

I’ve talked in the previous post about how Maul is a novel about violence and gender roles.  But the use of brand names suggests to me that it is also a novel about commercialism, and the way that can wreck lives.  It is not just about the fetishisation of violence, but its commodification.  It truly is an SF novel for the way we live now.

You can find my first post on Maul here, and my second here.

Maul – “the new face of Feminist SF”

For so states Cheryl Morgan.

It feels smooth and heavy and warm when I stroke it because I’ve been sleeping with it between my legs. I like to inhale its grey infinite smell for a while before I pass my lips down its length, courting it with the tip of my tongue, until my mouth has come to the wider part near the tip. This I suck, and blow gently into the hole. It becomes wet in my mouth but doesn’t soften. It remains achingly solid and I put it between my legs. Its tip snuggles around my clit. On the day I bought it, I had to test out several models before I found one that fitted, and Suk Hee’s gangster cousin Woo kept trying to look around the side of the van to see what I was doing. Woo was afraid someone would come and he’d get caught with the van and everything. I came. It was the only way to be sure I had the right one.

And so begins Maul.  The passage, I think, deliberately sets out to shock.  It becomes more shocking still when, after our narrator Sun Katz has achieved orgasm (in what, by the way, is one of the best come scenes I’ve read in literature), it turns out that she is describing not a penis, as one might have thought at first, or a dildo, as one might conclude by the end of the paragraph.  No.

Even a hypothetical boyfriend wouldn’t understand.
How I feel.
About my gun.

Yes, that’s right. It’s a gun.  Guns are very important to Sun and her Korean girl gang pals.  (Another point to note in passing is how understated Maul is about Sun’s ethnic identity.  It’s there, but Sullivan feels no need to have Sun explicitly state at the beginning “Oh, by the way, I’m Korean.”)  Sun wears her gun strapped under her skirt, not coincidentally close to her genitalia.  The link between femininity and weaponry is underlined by the UK cover, as noted by Martin Lewis; a lipstick in a bullet cartridge.

If written by a man, this could be seen as misogynist claptrap, or at the very least wet-dream wish-fulfilment.  But Sullivan’s point is that women can be as interested as men in the fetishization of guns and violence – they just have to be given a chance.

This is emphasized even more in the future Meniscus strand.  There, the Y-plagues have eliminated  most males.  The few that remain fertile are locked away in “castellations”.  The majority of the population are women, and they are running the planet.  Does this mean that there is a feminist Utopia?  No.  In Sullivan’s vision, women have moved into the niches vacated by men, to the point of some becoming burly butch truckers.

Most women have children through cloning.  But the sperm of the men in the castellations, the “pigs”, is there for those who can afford it.  And what are the qualities that are valued in those men?  Not sensitivity, but athletic ability, fighting prowess, heroism, the same old macho bullshit.  As prominent pig Arnie Henshaw says, “Nowadays, no matter how skinny, a really good hacker is worth ten guys who can impale a mammoth with a spear, but you chicks would rather have a hacker with muscles, wouldn’t you?”  The main female protagonist of this strand, Madeleine Baldino, knows this, and hates herself, and Henshaw, for it.

Some women in this world think that the exploitation of men is wrong.  Their underground terrorist activities drive the plot.  In a neat reversion of the feminist slogan “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”, their movement is called Bicyclefish.

But there is a cost, and that cost is the validation of the actions of a man like Snake Carrera, a violent and arguably psychopathic male who carries out Henshaw’s stunts for him, and who ends up in Meniscus’ cell as part of a plot to murder him.  He is, also, the most imposing male character in the book, far more so than any man in the Maul strand, where males are either authority figures like policemen or security guards, or feeble and less than they appear on the surface, such as Sun’s lust object Alex, who takes her virginity but soon proves to be not the person she needs or wants. The interesting characters in that strand, Sun, her friend Suk Hee, her antagonists 10Esha and KrayZglu, are all women.

Maul rightly made the 2003 Tiptree Award Short List, though it didn’t win. It certainly explores gender and feminism in a way that challenges long-held certainties on all sides. Indeed, I feel it explores the relationship between men and violence, and the attraction of both to women, in a similar, but I felt more successful, manner to the 2002 Tiptree winner, M. John Harrison’s Light.

The message, in the end, is that violence is not endemic to men – it’s endemic to humanity.

You can find my first post on Maul here.

Lists and Conversations

As promised, a round-up of follow-ups to and spin-offs from the discussion of women and sf. First, a few people have posted either their working or final top tens for the poll, which may give the rest of you some ideas. Jo Walton’s is up at Tor.com:

Explorer, CJ Cherryh
In the Company of Others, Julie Czerneda
Wild Life, Molly Gloss
Midnight Robber, Nalo Hopkinson
The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein
Warchild, Karin Lowachee
Spin State, Chris Moriarty
The Speed of Dark, Elizabeth Moon
Shelter, Susan Palwick
Blackout, Connie Willis

(Someone will no doubt correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the only one of those with a British edition is the Speed of Dark — with Blackout coming next year, as mentioned in the original thread. Also, unfortunately, Midnight Robber and Wild Life both seem to be 2000 books, so outside the ten-year period for this poll.)

Liviu Suciu posted his list at Fantasy Book Critic:

Spirit, Gwyneth Jones
The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston
The Etched City, KJ Bishop
Chaos Space, Marianne de Pierres
The Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia
Principles of Angels Jaine Fenn
Darkland, Liz Williams
Daughters of the North/The Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall
Spin State, Chris Moriarty
Banner of Souls, Liz Williams

(In contrast to Jo’s list, I think only two on this list don’t have UK editions — Sedia and Moriarty.)

Cheryl Morgan has posted her draft list:

Light Music, In War Times – Kathleen Ann Goonan
Silver Screen, Mappa Mundi, Natural History, Living Next Door to the God of Love, The Quantum Gravity series – Justina Robson
The Archangel Protocol series – Lyda Morehouse
Ghost Sister, Empire of Bones, Poison Master, Banner of Souls – Liz Williams
Solitaire – Kelley Eskridge
The Speed of Dark – Elizabeth Moon
Memory – Linda Nagata
The Etched City – K.J. Bishop
Mindworlds – Phyllis Gotlieb
Maul – Tricia Sullivan
Spin State, Spin Control – Chris Moriarty
Not Before Sundown – Johanna Sinisalo
The Year of Our War – Steph Swainston
The Wess’har Wars series – Karen Travis
Dreamhunter, Dreamquake – Elizabeth Knox
The Burning Girl – Holly Phillips
Hav – Jan Morris
Spirit – Gwyneth Jones
Boneshaker – Cherie Priest
FEED – Seanan McGuire
The Hunger Games series – Suzanne Collins
Who Fears Death – Nnedi Okorafor
Carnival – Elizabeth Bear
The Green Glass Sea, White Sands, Red Menace – Ellen Klages
Warchild, Karin Lowachee
Moxyland, Lauren Beukes

And Tansy Rayner Roberts has done the same:

Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones
The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
Farthing, Jo Walton
Nylon Angel, Marianne de Pierres
Passage, Connie Willis
Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin
Less Than Human, Maxine McArthur
Fallen Gods, Kate Orman (and Jonathan Blum, but I still want to count it)
The Empress of Mars, Kage Baker
Carnival, Elizabeth Bear
Spirit, Gwyneth Jones
New Amsterdam, Elizabeth Bear
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis
Lifelode, Jo Walton

(Spirit does seem to have a clearer lead among Gwyneth Jones’ books than I’d anticipated — I expected to see Bold as Love and Life getting multiple nominations, as well. On the other hand, Elizabeth Bear is suffering from a bit of a split-the-vote problem: nearly everyone who’s nominated so far has nominated an Elizabeth Bear novel, but they’ve nearly all nominated different Elizabeth Bear novels…)

Tansy also discusses the discussion with Alisa Krasnostein in this week’s Galactic Suburbia podcast.

Meanwhile! Martin Wisse has posted the complete list of sf novels by women from the period that he’s read and, dismayed by its shortness, asked for suggestions. (Many of the books above.) David Hebblethwaite has picked up the conversation about women and horror from earlier this year, and posted about women and Black Static. Paul Kincaid lists six women sf writers and asks why they haven’t shaped the contemporary field as much as their male counterparts. Martin Lewis has an excellent summary of his thoughts from the discussion here. And Karen Burnham has posted on the spin-off point of the line between fantasy and sf.

Thanks also to all those who have promoted the poll. And keep your nominations coming!

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