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Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Other Half of the Sky

I made three appearances in this year’s Readercon: I gave a talk about transhumanism, I was part of a panel that discussed time travel and — last but very decidedly not least — we officially unveiled the SF anthology I am editing. We now have a publisher, as enthusiastic about the project as we are: Candlemark and Gleam, headed by Kate Sullivan. Kay Holt of Crossed Genres, my co-editor in this venture, put together a neat flyer for which she did artwork that reminds me of black-figure Attic vases.

The anthology will bear the title The Other Half of the Sky. Here’s what I said in my outline:

“Women may hold up more than half the sky on earth, but it has been different in heaven: Science fiction still is very much a preserve of male protagonists, mostly performing by-the-numbers quests.

The Other Half of the Sky offers readers heroes who happen to be women, doing whatever they would do in universes where they’re fully human: Starship captains, planet rulers, explorers, scientists, artists, engineers, craftspeople, pirates, rogues…

As one of the women in Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” says: “We sing a lot. Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs, love songs – everything.” Everything.

The panel flowed like a sea swell. Four of the authors invited to participate in the anthology (Sue Lange, Ken Liu, Vandana Singh and Joan Slonczewski) discussed it along with Kay and me. Alex Jablokov, another of the invited authors, was also there to lend moral support. We discussed why we embarked on the venture, why we think it covers less-trodden ground and how each author conceived their story within the framework I constructed.

Each participant brought up unique and interesting items pertinent to the larger concerns of the anthology. Among them: interactions with aliens that play out differently from the standard “colonize/annihilate” mode; the reciprocal influence of language and perceptions; the fact that you can have space opera with “regular” people as protagonists, rather than Chosen Ones; the complex requirements for space travel and their intersection with our needs on this planet.

The audience was eager to know when the anthology will appear (spring 2013, barring unexpected obstacles) and asked if we plan a series! So we seem to have struck a chord — maybe even a new melody on the old instrument. I want to thank everyone who helped create this intricate tapestry of a discussion.

Image: art for the anthology flyer for Readercon by Kay Holt.

31 Responses to “The Other Half of the Sky”

  1. Selidor says:

    Looking forward to seeing this – and the title is excellent. What length of stories are you anticipating including? Any poetry?

  2. Athena says:

    Yes, just about everyone thought the title conveyed the gist of the collection very economically. I stipulated 10,000 words maximum, because I wanted the authors to have room to develop their worlds and characters. Poetry was not explicitly excluded — if someone sends me a saga in blank verse I will take it in stride! However, I suspect the submissions will all be prose.

  3. Christopher Phoenix says:

    It’s very exciting that your SF anthology is coming out next year!! I like the title, too. : ) A lot of SF- especially the early stuff- portrayed women as either receptionists or love interests who hardly ever get on board a spacecraft. It gets very old, especially for modern audiences who are used to seeing female astronauts in real life (Valentina Tereshkova, Sally Ride, or Mae Jemison, anyone?). The clunky writing and leaden characters tend to turn me away those older books as well.

  4. Athena says:

    I’m as excited as you are, Christopher! And, of course, I couldn’t agree with you more about how women were portrayed in SF (and, in some cases, still are).

  5. Caliban says:

    I, too, am looking forward to it.

  6. Athena says:

    It has been a learning experience, and we’re still on the uphill portion of the journey. But I’m increasingly hopeful that we will see this book and that we’ll like what we see.

  7. Adam says:

    Sounds like a very welcome counter-balance to y-chromosome heavy SF. The distinctive take on life and events that women have is something I miss in my usual reading habits. Thus my excitement every time Ursula LeGuin puts out a new novel, for example. Will definitely be looking forward to this. Hopefully I will then have a bunch of new authors that I *must* read.

  8. Athena says:

    Judging from the stories that have come so far, I think you won’t be disappointed!

  9. Barkeron says:

    Color me interested.

    Btw, could we have a transcript of the transcientologist talk?

  10. Athena says:

    The Readercon people said they’d put them on YouTube but they haven’t shown up yet. I’ll put up a note if/when they do.

  11. As a Classics grad and a SF fan, I frequently visit your blog and find it very informative and well-written. Hello and congratulations on your anthology!

    However, there is one thing which I’ve always wanted to discuss with you when reading your post on female characters in fiction, so I figured this is as good a time as any: why is gender of the character, and of the writer, considered to be so very important? I could ask the same question about race: why should it matter that the characters are black or white? I know the argument saying that fiction ‘promotes’ some desirable or objectionable views – but I don’t think this is the role of fiction, which should be, in the first place, well-written and good to read. I could say that as I female reader I do not have problem with male protagonists or weak female characters (well, it happens that I have – but only in most extreme cases), but I don’t identify myself as a female reader. I’m just a reader, and my favourite writers are just writers. What’s wrong with it?

  12. Athena says:

    Thank you for the good wishes, although the anthology is still in the future! Regarding your question: I cannot tell your particular context, which always informs such views. However, I’ve answered it from several angles in this blog, which you must have read given your first sentence. Quality versus message is a false dilemma; if you cannot see why, and why representation matters (and contributes to the quality of fiction independently of “agendas”), I suggest you think it through.

  13. Caliban says:

    GTA, I value science fiction for the same reason I value science: they both invite me to ask questions. In science fiction, that question is often: could the world be different from how it is? And that in turn invites me to examine in detail how the world is, or is perceived to be. One way science fiction does that is to challenge or invert unspoken assumptions.

    So paying attention to gender and assumptions about gender is not only desirable in science fiction, it is almost a duty for someone to address. Not everyone has to address it, and if it not an interest of yours, that’s okay. But it’s very much in the realm of SF for Athena and others to pay close attention.

    I hope that helps to answer your question.

  14. Dylan Fox says:

    Just wanted to say that I’m really looking forwards to the antho. My only worry is what you’re going to call the sequel. I mean, ‘The Other *Other* Half of the Sky’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it!

  15. Athena says:

    Calvin, I would extend your point beyond speculative literature: stories are an important way of interpreting the world and our place in it. A non-stop diet of “default” protagonists acting within prescribed norms does little to expand understanding — especially unquestioned assumptions about the status quo.

    Dylan, me too! We’ll worry about the title of the sequel if this one is successful enough to warrant reprises.

  16. Dylan Fox says:

    Just to throw in my two cents about the need to pay attention to the backgrounds of writers and protagonists, everyone has a story to tell. Every race, gender, sexuality, whatever. SF literature, as well as literature full stop, has been dominated by white, male, straight, anglo-centric writers and protagonists so long we need to consciously clear a space for other people to tell their stories. More than just providing new fodder for readers, it’s about letting other writers tell the stories they want to tell.

    Of course, Other people telling their own stories allows them to define themselves, and that’s hugely important, too. We shouldn’t ever be satisfied with the definitions we force other people into.

    Oh, and as for ‘well-written’… it’s always worth asking who defines ‘well-written’, and why. There’s no universal, empirical baseline. So, as ever, the question then is, ‘cui bono?’

  17. [...] Athena Andreadis on The Other Half of the Sky. [...]

  18. Barkeron says:

    I reckon you’re mighty busy, but what do you say to these allegations?

    http://io9.com/5928661/?comment=51271304

  19. Athena says:

    I put up a brief response at io9 — neither the hype nor the troll deserve more than that. My articles about stem cells and generalizations from rodent models to human diseases speak for themselves.

  20. Barkeron says:

    I already suspected this guy of being a Religious Right shill trying to spin recent findings in order to discredit embryonic stem cells, but this pretty much confirms it, thanks.

  21. Athena says:

    Anyone who insists that adult stem cells are all we need is almost certainly a Religious Right shill. Also, his response to my comment is the equivalent of someone pissing themselves in public and proudly pointing at the stain.

  22. Athena, Caliban – I wholeheartedly agree with you that SF is also about exploring possibilities and that there are many interesting possibilities in the realm of sex and gender relations (which is why I think “Left Hand of Darkness” is a great book). If we see gender (or race) as one of many possible (and optional) literary subjects, I’m all for good SF about them.

    Dylan: as far as the meaning of ‘well-written’ is concerned, I think we all know this is a difficult matter, but also that there is some visible quality which distinguishes good books from bad ones. But if it comes to power relations in fiction, I don’t see why they should override all the other subjects and factors. I do not think stories told by white, male, straight, anglo-centric writers must be essentially different from those told by, say, black lesbians living in China (if there are any). The majority of books I’ve read is not about power relations but about something else.

    (I hope you do not think I’m trolling… I know these subjects have been discussed many times, but after reading a couple of Athena’s posts, I’ve decided to ask the question here.)

  23. Athena says:

    I don’t think that anyone who responded to your comment argued that “X should override all other subjects and factors”. On the other hand, if you are suggesting that a literary work is automatically inferior if it explores/challenges social/political norms (which include gender, race, etc), we have to disagree decisively.

    Relationships among humans (and between humans and animals/nature) are inextricably about power and how to use it, a fact reflected in fiction. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is about power. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is about power. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is about how two people attempt to make power irrelevant — and fail, succumbing to the status quo. Colette’s La Vagabonde and the canon “adultery triad” (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Fontane’s Effi Briest) are about power. So is the Mabinogion, the Táin Bo, the Iliad. I could go on indefinitely.

    Books written by “default” writers (comfortably-off straight white Anglo men who have either not traveled outside their own country/culture or have done so briefly as tourists or conquerors) are often awash in unquestioned assumptions for a simple reason: they don’t need to ask questions, the world is made for their pleasure and profit.

    I can enjoy such writing, up to a point, until the blind spots start poking at my eyes (and mind). I’ve spent most of my life reading such books; the canon in mainstream and genre consists primarily of them. I’d like to read books that have different starting parameters and premises. The Left Hand of Darkness was one of them, though Le Guin herself admitted that she pulled her punches (her essay about this is in The Language of the Night collection, if I remember correctly). I could name many others that are also superlative pieces of literary art, and have done so in my various blog entries.

  24. Caliban says:

    GTA, you may not be trolling, but I’m afraid you are engaging in “straw man” argumentation. You are the only one who brought up power relations, and no one claimed they should override all other subjects and factors. (If you are, out of the blue, referring to some entirely different post by Athena, you should probably provide better context.)

    I for one wouldn’t claim that stories told by black lesbians in China must be different from white, male, etc, but actually it sounds fascinating and I’d pay good money for an anthology of such stories! Again, let me state: I read SF (and actually a lot of non-SF, both fiction and non-fiction, coming out of China, India, Africa, etc.) because I like seeing stories of lives different from mine, because I like my assumptions being challenged. And while there is certainly no absolute, essentialist “must” involved, the odds are pretty good that, comparing a black lesbian in China with a straight white American male, the former will have had significantly different life experiences from mine. And that makes it interesting and valuable to me.

    Now, GTA, you don’t have to feel the same. And that’s okay. I’m not going to force you or even try to convince you to buy that anthology of stories by black lesbians in China.

    But I sure want to!

  25. Caliban: I mentioned power relations, as I thought it is just another name for the subject in question. I think that Athena’s answer suggests that she also uses the term in this way – so I don’t think I’m attacking a straw man. And, I’d also be curious about a possible black Chinese lesbians anthology, though I do not think life experiences are crucial in writing fiction: no less important is what we read and what we believe in, which does not depend on race or sexual orientation. (So I guess that such an anthology would be interesting mainly because the authors, living in a different culture, would use techniques from Chinese fiction, which is very different from European or American lit.)

    Athena: I am certainly not saying that fiction which explores social norms is inferior. It can be very good or very bad, depending on the author’s skills. I am only saying that it is only one of many possible subjects, so we cannot reprove SF writers for writing about straight white men, just as we cannot reprove Jane Austen for not writing about Cartesian philosophy (or say that her fiction would certainly be better if she at least mentioned Descartes). I realize that “Pride and Prejudice” is also about power, but still I’d say it is, in the first place, about pride and prejudice. If it comes to Iliad, the Muse herself says that the main subject of her song will be anger – and in fact, Iliad is so wonderful also because it is about so many things at once: anger, friendship, love, hate, family bonds, homesickness, just as “The Tain”, and “Mabinogion”, and “Beowulf”.

  26. Caliban says:

    GTA,

    Your argument is still full of straw:

    1. It’s still a straw man argument because no one, not even Athena post facto, said power relations should “override all the other subjects and factors.” And even in responding to your statement (and post facto “gotchas” do not justify a straw man argument), Athena did not say that power relations should override, only that they are one among many.

    2. You don’t think life experiences are crucial to writing fiction? Really? Perhaps you are using “crucial” in a different way from how I am. I think here it means “heavily influences.” You don’t think Jane Austen’s life experiences were crucial to what she wrote about? All those novels about unmarried young women in rural England–her life experiences were not crucial to that? Certainly my own life experiences have been crucial to what I write about and how I write. And most writers would agree.

    Of course life experiences are not the *only* influence on writing fiction. But no one claimed they were.

    3. What we believe in does influence what and how we write, but that in turn depends on life experiences. And, well you may not believe this, but our life experiences do depend–not solely, not exclusively–a lot upon our race and our sexual orientation, at least because of prejudice and assumptions by the dominant culture. The more privilege we have, the less obvious this is, the easier it is to pretend it’s not true.

    To state that the stories by black Chinese lesbians would be different “mainly” in technique is absurd. A black Chinese lesbian would have enormously different life experiences from a Han Chinese man, or a black lesbian in the U.S., or a straight white man in the U.S. (or a straight white man in China), and would likely (but not totally 100% deteministically) write about different topics. I read stories by Chinese authors, by Indian authors, by African authors, not because of different technique, but precisely because they have different life experiences and bring those different life experiences to the page. I would agree that race and sexual orientation are by far not the *only* determinative factors in what and how one writes; no one here claims that. But to deny they have a major effect on how many people write–that’s blindness.

    To head off another straw man argument–I am *not* saying that it is impossible or even wrong for a straight white American male to write on the same topic as a black Chinese lesbian, or even to write about the experiences of black lesbians in China. I have read and enjoyed books by straight white men about their experiences in China, novels by white women about the lives of Africans. I do claim, however, that they are less likely (not impossible) to make such a choice, or to do the research to carry it off successfully.

    4. No one said you can’t write about subjects other than power–another straw man. No one is reproving SF authors for writing about straight white men–yet another straw man. One can reprove SF authors for writing primarily about straight white men (but that’s a totally different argument). One can certainly say, “I’m bored with SF primarily about straight white men, I want something different.”

    Let me summarize: No one, least of all Athena, is claiming that all fiction, or even all SF, ought to be like her projected anthology. She wants to add to SF, not take away from it. I think her anthology sounds fascinating and I look forward to it. If you are not personally interested in her anthology, fine. No problem. You don’t have to read it!

  27. Athena says:

    Calvin made all the points I would have — and since I, like him, detect continued use of straw arguments, I propose we don’t go further in this introductory-level exchange. It’s like “debating” the heliocentric theory. I would add this to Calvin’s response: the default mindset influences all writing (hell, all living) to such an extent that we no longer register that it’s actually parochial unless we make a conscious effort. It’s all-pervasive, like the air we breathe. So everything else is called “a special case” even when we are dealing with half or more of humanity. “Other” stories are integral to the larger whole.

  28. I agree with Athena that it will be better to stop the discussion at this.

    Caliban (or anyone else who would be interested): if you feel like continuing discussion (which I would do with pleasure), I propose that we do it by e-mail, so that I do not litter Athena’s blog with the subject any longer: gunpowder.green.tea.addict@gmail.com is my address.

    Athena: if I have not stated it strongly enough before, let me do it now: I would love to read your anthology, and, if it will be possible to purchase it from Poland for an affordable prize, I will do it certainly. Good luck on it!

  29. Athena says:

    I hope the anthology is affordable for everyone — we plan to bring it out in both print and e-book versions; e-books are almost ridiculously cheap.

  30. Asakiyume says:

    I just saw Aliette’s post saying you had taken her story–yay! (I recall her name was on the list of invited authors; I’m glad it worked out!)

    I love this: interactions with aliens that play out differently from the standard “colonize/annihilate” mode; the reciprocal influence of language and perceptions; the fact that you can have space opera with “regular” people as protagonists, rather than Chosen Ones; the complex requirements for space travel and their intersection with our needs on this planet. —and just know this will be an interesting anthology.

  31. Athena says:

    I’m obviously far from objective, but the submissions are original, thought-provoking and unusually well-written. One of my goals was to show that sensawunda and craft are not mutually exclusive, even in “middlebrow” genre stories.