The Tiptree Award for this year has just been announced, together with its honour list. On seeing my pal Karen Miller's books up there, I immediately dashed an email off to her, which completely bowled her over because she'd had no idea that her books were being considered.
The award is for "any work of science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender."
After reading the rather diverse list of works honoured, I began to wonder just how hard it must be to produce nowadays a work of sff which does in fact "expand or explore" in any real sense "our understanding of gender", at least when thinking in terms of traditional "either-you-are-hetero-male-or-female" notions of gender.
Back in the 1960s it would have been a cinch.
Back in the 1960s, I was teaching in a highschool in Western Australia, and earning considerably less than my male colleagues who had precisely the same academic qualifications and experience as me. That's right - same job, less pay. And that was considered perfectly acceptable because - as one of my male colleagues explained with pompous righteousness -"You don't have the responsibilities that we (males) have - we have to support our families." He genuinely couldn't see anything wrong with that statement.
I pointed out to him that I was 100% supporting my brother-in-law at the time. Paying for his accommodation, daily allowance and university fees, but I doubt I budged the man's thinking one iota.
Anyone writing a book or short story that contained a simple bit of role reversal might have expanded that man's horizons. Ursula le Guin's brilliant "Left Hand of Darkness" could blast a mindset like his to smithereens, if he was at all prepared to give it some thought.
All the obvious problems of hetero gender inequality and prejudices have been written about endlessly. Strong, competent women leaders and sensitive heroes are everywhere. Idiocies with respect to gender roles have been uncovered and dissected and ridiculed. We can still write about them, of course, but whether we add anything new is debatable.
There's loads of inequality and prejudice remaining in the real here-and-now world, of course. Here in W.A. today we have recently had the consecration of a female bishop. Alas, a mob of old-fashioned bigots who have the audacity to call themselves religious leaders are refusing to recognise her new status on the grounds of her gender. I know people who won't buy a fantasy book written by a woman, on grounds of gender. Examples are endless. Malaysia is a goldmine in this respect too.
But these issues are largely piecemeal ones to do with our modern world, and are less easily explored in a sff novel set in a fantasy world or a futuristic earth, than they could be in a mainstream novel because they are so piecemeal, rather than so all-encompassing as they were back in 1965. In the 1960s it would have been so easy. Now, it's more complex, less obvious, more subtle. It's a little thing here, a little thing there - and it's all mixed up with ideas of political correctness and being nice about religious sensibilities and human rights.
Can we lambast religious gender perceptions? - after all, we might upset community X! Should we criticise such-and-such a set of cultural gender mores? - we will offend community Y! Write about those things set in a land called Amarantha, and you lose the subtleties of today's gender minefield.
I think I'm blathering. I need to think about this some more.
Anyway, congrats to you Karen. I loved being the first to tell you.