By ones and twos

As more and more men in the SFF community have been exposed as abusive harassers over the past few days, I have been thinking again about “The Women Men Don’t See.” This 1973 science fiction story, written by James Tiptree Jr., is about unseeing and reseeing, about the unsettling nature of assumptions, and the way an entire world and community can exist out of the sight of the privileged. It reads uncomfortably to me in its treatment of race. It feels outdated and also stunningly relevant. 

The story opens with the narrator, Don Fenton, unseeing two women. He walks by them, “registering nothing. Zero. I never would have looked at them or thought of them again.” They offer him nothing and therefore essentially are nothing. 

The two women, Ruth and Althea Parsons, go on to unsettle Fenton’s understanding of the world. He consistently thinks of them in terms of their attractiveness to him, going so far as to imagine sexually assaulting Ruth once he actually begins to notice her. But there are hints of something else going on. Something he cannot understand except by recasting it into terms he knows. But he is wrong. He still does not understand.

In the climactic moment of the story, Ruth says to Fenton, “What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.” He cannot understand this point of view either. He tries to vaguely say something about women’s lib and increased freedom. But he doesn’t mean it; he doesn’t see. Ruth rejects the platitudes as well. 


What does it mean for people to go unseen? It means a lost world of creative talent which is suppressed, which is pushed out, which is devalued. It means a lost world of criticism, which looks at works with a different understanding. It means that no matter how many times people stake a claim to a genre, or a community, or a way of being, men don’t see it. They don’t want to see it. 

The act of unseeing means that people share times they were deeply hurt, or times when they weren’t deeply hurt because the awful thing that happened to them was so banal: the small expected thing that still accumulates into pain. The fact that it is expected. The fact that it is considered the price of admittance, but only for some people. The fact that certain men consider it their right and are allowed to go on as if nothing happened. 

The compulsion to unsee means this act of painful self-revelation is dismissed. Or the men involved reuse an apology they wrote the last time they had to talk about this. And yet they are praised for how sensitive they are and how willing to grow and learn. Their fans harass the people who speak out. Sometimes they keep their book deals and their agents and nothing touches them because they do not have to see. 

Perhaps we don’t live by ones and twos any longer. Perhaps we live by threes and fours. It is still not enough. Backchannels and whisper networks are not enough. We should not need them. There is an amazing world out there of beautiful, sarcastic, funny, angry, messed-up people that lives on in small and unseen spaces. And it is still not enough. Sometimes I think it’s like a galaxy, little clusters of stars connected by an imagined bond, separated by space. We live by ones and twos because that is the space allowed, because the world-machine disconnects and isolates, keeps us from each other, hurls us into space. 

I would like to be hopeful. I would like to live in Le Guin’s night country, “where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is.” But I keep going back to Ruth Parsons, who in the end leaves. Who says, of the system she observes, “It’ll never change unless you change the whole world.”

I am not content with the world-machine, neither do I want to live in it. I want the other world. I want new ways of being and new ways of imagining.

It’s time. Learn how to see or step aside. Change the whole world and start again. 



Le Guin, Ursula K. “A Left-handed Commencement Address.” May 1983.

Tiptree Jr., James. “The Women Men Don’t See.” December 1973.

Thanks to Jenny, Anna K., and Claire for their feedback on this piece!


Solving the genre wars with Jenny

Recently there’s been a lot of discussion online about litfic, fanfic, and SFF. My friend Jenny from Reading the End and I ended up writing up a conversation about the discussion and what we think it hits and misses. Do check it out! As Jenny says, the title is a joke; we didn’t actually solve anything. But hopefully you think it’s  a valuable contribution nonetheless.


Finding new people, finding my value

I have some thoughts about community and finding people, which were sparked by last week’s anniversary post and some of the comments on it. I mentioned this on Twitter, and wanted to make sure I came back and actually talked a bit more about them.

So, I have a number of close friends from the blogging/online world who I’ve known for a long time now. Most–if not all?–of them came via the Sounis Livejournal community, so we’re all Megan Whalen Turner fans and we’ve hung out in the same small corner of the internet for a long time.

I love this, and them, so much.

At the same time, in the last maybe two years, I’ve started to actually take myself seriously. This is definitely a process and a journey rather than a done deal. But what I’ve noticed is that when I started to learn to take the work I produce here (and elsewhere) seriously, I started to find new people. People who in several cases had been there all along.

(How I managed to Live On the Internet, loving the same things, knowing the same people for this long without already meeting them, I don’t entirely know.)

Maybe it’s simply learning how to look outward rather than inward, maybe it’s learning how to have confidence that reaching out won’t be rebuffed. Whatever it is, I’ve found recently that although my long-term friendships are as important to me as they ever were, I’m also hopeful about the future. I feel almost as if there’s a never-ending well of new people to meet and share excitements and criticisms with.

Whatever it is, it seems like it’s taken some sort of internal shift which isn’t and perhaps never will be complete. Which is the sort of thing that would really annoy me if someone said it to me. If you’re struggling with community, it’s not your fault. And yet at the same time, it’s true. I’m always surprised and grateful that anyone’s interested in my words, but these days I’m also more sure of the value in them. (The surprise comes when others recognize it too.)

So, I suppose what I want to say is thank you. And also, I hope we all keep looking for new people to connect with; I hope you keep finding the friends that enrich your lives.


On women’s writing

This post is a bit different from what I normally write here, but I’ve been turning it over for awhile. I’ve been interested for some time now in the idea of women’s tradition, in many different areas. Teaching each other handicrafts, for instance, passing on knowledge gained from other women. Traditions of art, of thinking, of writing.

And this is where my thoughts have circled back to this blog. I’ve realized recently–most specifically after publishing my review of Uprooted–that I’m not doing a great job of tracing these traditions, the lineages and influences of writers on each other. In talking about Uprooted, I emphasized the fact that to me it felt both like a classic coming-of-age story, and fresh and original. This is true, but by rights I should have talked about the fact that the classic coming-of-age story I was referring to is rooted in the tradition of fairy tale retellings written by women. I should have talked about Robin McKinley and Patricia McKillip as part of the tradition that Novik is very clearly in conversation with.

Because, to speak bluntly and perhaps forcefully, our society tries so hard to convince us that women’s words & women’s stories don’t matter; that we exist in isolation, without history or tradition. The history of women writers–especially in certain genres–is so often ignored or erased. To me, the idea of a lineage of woman writers pushes back against that by tracing the history and evolution of stories, themes, ways of thinking.

So, I’m going to try to do a better job of showing when and where different works are in conversation with each other. This isn’t to say that all books by women operate in this way, or that they are all in agreement. And I don’t want to pretend that works copy each other; I’m don’t want to reduce a writer’s real originality in any way. But I do want to think about ways in which works touch each other, either in recognition or opposition. Because the fact is, I don’t believe that we are alone; I don’t believe that we have no history. And I want to learn to better reflect that.