Personal Essay: "Reading the Library Alphabetically" by Liz Argall
When we set out to destroy science fiction with this Kickstarter, we didn't want it to be your ordinary, run-of-the-mill campaign. We wanted it to be full of smashing, crashing women's voices, telling what it really means to be a woman reading and writing science fiction. One of the ways we hope to do that is by sharing a series of personal essays by women about their experiences as a woman in science fiction. Today's essay is by Liz Argall.
"Reading the Library Alphabetically"
It started when I read the library alphabetically...
No, it started with SUPERMAN III and Richard Pryor’s dream of what computers could be.
It started with DOCTOR WHO: Tom Baker the twinkle eyed uncle with jelly babies; Peter Davidson the mean older brother; Sylvester McCoy, the whimsical daydreamer who cared too much. Sylvester McCoy, my doctor. Ace, my companion, who was nobody's victim, wore a bomber jacket with voluminous pockets and made her own explosives.
It started in school when I watched STAR TREK and RED DWARF so I could keep up and have something in common with the nerd girls (and even a few nerd boys) that I still love to this day.
But no, I didn’t think of those shows as Science Fiction, not then. Not my Science Fiction with capital letters, the fiction that set me on a path and shaped me as the writer I would become. That came from reading the library alphabetically.
Reading the library alphabetically was a solitary pursuit, huddled away in the stacks on a mildewed couch with mice scuttling in my peripheral vision. It was a private thing, and a lonely thing. I read introductions to anthologies that gave me windows into far away America, where people spoke with confidence about trends and best of’s. They spoke with authority about battles in nomenclature that I only knew about as they argued to redefine the terms. The world those editors wrote about seemed almost as alien and impossible as Mars.
Asimov gave me a love of Mars. I read a lot of Asimov’s robot series, way up there in the A’s. He was so different to STAR TREK, D&D, TMNT, DOCTOR WHO and cyberpunk. I loved his academic rigor. I loved his introductions where he spent so much time explaining how our understanding of the planets had changed since he wrote the story. I loved his robots. I loved their yearning, the way they stretched the limits of their programming or fell into traps, but always strove. Sincere, good hearted striving and failing isn't something we see a lot of in non-“literary” fiction, but the robots were magnificent in their failures, often profound failures. The beauty and the tragedy of these characters created human shaped entities in fiction I could relate to. Perhaps it says something that my comfort reading included Virginia Woolf, Jack London, Oscar Wilde and short stories by Steinbeck.
And it may sound strange, given critiques he has received, but Asimov gave me my first memories of an adult female character I liked and admired! A strong woman who wasn't sexualized (at least to my twelve year-old eyes—I have not re-read), who seemed whole and complete and complicated. Susan Calvin, who was interested in her own story, achieving what she thought was important, was wonderfully competent and was in a position of power and authority. I loved that she didn't play nice and she was successful and that was a breath of fresh air. She wasn’t pretty and I especially liked that. People have told me how nastily Asimov wrote Susan Calvin, but I think every time I came across a “negative” description of her I must have rejoiced. You can be older and not-pretty and have people think about your body in negative ways and be angry and capable and in authority and that is marvelous. How often do we get active female characters like that?
Working my way through Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke (RAMA REVEALED, I didn’t find RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA for years), and many anthologies, it slowly dawned on me. I'd always known I wanted to be a writer, from the age of seven I'd known, but it crept up on me that I wanted to write Science Fiction. It terrified me. Even whispering the word in the depths of my own mind felt close to impossible. Gendered marketing and schoolyard politics had made it clear I was not welcome and trying to grapple with the vastness of the cosmos can be terrifying for any soul or gender. As my reading continued I learned the acronyms SF, SFF and the politics of the phrase “Speculative Fiction” over “Science Fiction.” (After serious thought I decided I would join team speculate.) “I want to write SF”: I could whisper that in the quiet of my mind and not always slide off the edges.
I remember standing in the library thinking about being a girl trying to write science fiction. (I wonder how different life would have been if Butler or Russ had graced our library shelves.) Thinking about being a girl trying to prove myself to a series of blank-faced male American faces (with maybe a few from the UK) made me feel very small. My dry bookish world of science fiction seemed so different to the brightly colored fandom of my friends and I had been taught to be somewhat snobbish about pop culture—even as I smeared my nose against the glass looking in.
I remember standing in the middle library, suddenly caught short by a thought, tears well in my eyes. Would I be forever lonely? Trying to break into boys club after boys club? I'd already learned that becoming good at handball just meant the boys stopped playing if I came near.
Then, working my way through the library, I got to Le Guin. I had loved A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA--LOVED it--but it never occurred to me that she would write beyond fantasy. Her science fiction blew my mind; her essays inspired me and gave me dreams to chase.
Part of me felt jealous. I wanted to be the first female Science Fiction Author (I’m sure I had read science fiction by women before that, but had categorized it differently, not hard enough, not marketed as such—the way dystopian futures written by women are still erased as kidsy or other ghettoizing notions that render women invisible in our field). A bigger part of me was relieved. Le Guin showed me that female writers could make it in the world. Just as AUREALIS magazine appeared in my life and gave me stories in my geography and culture, stories where America wasn’t always the center and the homes were more like my home.
For me, Le Guin had broken the path and written science fiction that resonated on so many levels. Her ansible, her exploration of space travel and diverse culture—one of her stories even made me feel angry and that radicalized my reading in a wonderful way.
Later I would properly tackle my own internalized misogyny, but for the time being me and Ursula Le Guin were the only female science fiction writers and we were going to change the world.
Mary Shelley look at us now!
Liz Argall has been destroying science fiction in places like APEX MAGAZINE, STRANGE HORIZONS, DAILY SCIENCE FICTION, ANYWHERE BUT EARTH, and THIS IS HOW YOU DIE: STORIES OF THE INSCRUTABLE, INFALLIBLE, INESCAPABLE MACHINE OF DEATH. She creates the webcomic THINGS WITHOUT ARMS AND WITHOUT LEGS and writes love songs to inanimate objects. She generally doesn’t put her SFWA membership on her bio, she never mentioned her Australian Society of Authors membership back in the day and once you start mentioning memberships and workshops (like Clarion or Launch Pad) the bio can get terribly long! SFWA membership just seemed relevant for this particular essay. Her previous incarnations include circus manager, refuge worker, artists’ model, research officer for the Order of Australia Awards, and extensive work in the not-for-profit sector. Her roller derby name is Betsy Nails. She has a website http://lizargall.com.