Pushing back against the historical narrative

I was going through the Fangirl Happy Hour archives on Sunday when I came across a post Renay wrote in 2015 about the weight of history in the SFF fandom. In it, she talks about her experiences with a project to read “classic” science-fiction novels in order to ground herself in the history of the genre. What she found, however, was the stories that were supposedly foundational–“Determined by who?” is a question I keep asking myself, and the answer largely comes back to “Male gatekeepers, I guess?”–rang hollow to her. In her attempt to connect with the history of the fandom, she found its weight to be suffocating.

I didn’t realize when I re-read this column last night that it would be strangely relevant to the simmering rage I felt all day on Monday centered on the kick-off to Tor.com and the Barnes & Noble SFF Blog’s “Space Opera Week”.

In their post introducing the week’s theme, Tor.com included a link to the post promising a primer on different space operas. A primer which, unfortunately, contains no authors of color and only one woman (who happens to be a co-author). Honestly, my first warning sign that it was going to be a trash fire of a rec list was that the author was a man whose name I didn’t recognize.

My anger probably would have simmered down into annoyance for the rest of the day had it not been for two things Tor.com did next. The first, which really threw gas on my growing frustration, was the second post in the series by author Judith Tarr on how women have always been involved in writing space operas. The second was changing the title of the post (although not the URL and not the title from links posted earlier in the day) from “Explore the Cosmos in 10 Space Opera Universes” to “Explore the Cosmos in 10 Classic Space Opera Universes”.

I don’t know how the folks at Tor.com planned out this series, and and if that included knowing what order posts would be published ahead of time. I don’t know if there was someone in charge who saw the rec list by buddy and realized, “oh hey, there’s only one female creator here, we should find a way to balance that out”. I don’t know who decided to change the name of the rec list or what prompted them to do so. I only know that everything combined to completely underscore the point Tarr made about women being erased from the space opera canon. It wasn’t bad enough that this was supposed to be a primer in different space opera universes for those trying to get into the sub-genre, but now it said that the “classics” are a white boy’s only club with one token girl (whose book, by the way, is described as appealing to those who want romance). Good optics, those are not.

In addition to that, by having a “women’s post”, Tor.com continues to marginalize women authors. It’s similar to confining all the women/POC panelists to a “Women in SFF” or a “Diversity in SFF” panel. In posts discussing the problems with diversity panels, Justina IrelandMichi Trota, and Kate Elliott all pointed out by confining diverse viewpoints to one single panel, it isolates them and limits the panelists voices while only paying lip service to diversity.  By including them in panels like, “Worldbuilding 101” or “In Celebration of Space Operas” or any number of general panels, it allows them to add their voices to the larger conversation and expose attendees who may have skipped the “diversity” panel to unique experiences and viewpoints they might otherwise miss. Including them in the wider conversations about SFF enriches the discussion through encouraging people to think outside the norms of the genre, but by also giving people who may not feel welcome in the community people or pieces of media they might identify with.

There was an opportunity here for Tor.com to highlight diverse viewpoints in a space opera primer to kick off the week. There was a chance to put out a list of space opera works that included works by women and POC which might not be well known to the general public. But by denying them space, either relegating them to separate lists or not mentioning them at all, by erasing them from the classics, Tor.com only continues a long-standing problem in SFF fandom. Instead of providing space for these works, Tor.com gave all the air to white, male authors and suffocates attempts to grow the canon.

In the column I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Renay wrote, “It’s hard to really feel dedicated to a communal storytelling space when the history of it is so steeped in one perspective […].” History is constantly being examined and rewritten, with new perspectives being added and new voices challenging narratives that marginalize or erase them. Unfortunately, Tor.com does nothing to challenge our assumptions of the history of space operas and reexamine its history. This was a missed opportunity, and it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth over this whole space opera week.

P.S. Sandstone on Twitter is posting a list of space operas written or co-written by women, one for every like they get on this tweet. It’s a great list so far, and I’m definitely adding books to my tbr.


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