How Lisa Yaszek and Georgia Tech Are Promoting Women and PoC in Science Fiction

Lisa Yaszek of Georgia Tech’s Sci Fi @ Tech program talks diversity in Science Fiction and what it was like being on James Cameron’s Sci Fi documentary show

Lisa Yaszek of Sci Fi @ Tech

When I saw the AMC docu-series James Cameron’s Story of Sci Fi earlier this Summer I was really impressed with the overall quality. Sure, there were big names like Spielberg, Lucas and Christopher Nolan, but they also featured input from genre experts that represented different aspects and viewpoints. Included in that group was Lisa Yaszek, from Georgia Tech’s Sci Fi @ Tech program. She appeared in every episode and I eagerly reached out to see if she would speak with me in depth. She was kind enough to do so, and just like on the show, she was full of great stories, wonderful insights and fascinating expertise. I know you’re going to enjoy this Q&A…

The Adjacent Possible: First, tell me about the Sci Fi @ Tech program, and the ‘steamfunk’ film the department is producing?

Lisa Yaszek:Sci Fi@Tech” is the name we use to organize and promote our speculative fiction initiatives at Georgia Tech. Our institute has a longstanding commitment to the serious study of science fiction across media; my predecessor, Prof. Irving “Bud” Foote, taught one of the first college-accredited science fiction classes at Tech in the early 1970s. Today, my unit, the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, has three faculty members whose primary research areas are in science fiction (with expertise in literature, film and television, and Afrofuturism across media), and we have at least a dozen other colleagues in our school and across campus who engage speculative fiction in their teaching or research. We’re also thrilled to have award-winning science fiction author Kathleen Ann Goonan — a former Professor of the Practice in our School — as a member of our School’s new advisory board.

In addition to connecting faculty who are interested in science fiction studies, Sci Fi@Tech offers students a variety of ways to learn more about speculative writing and art. Students can take courses in the Schools of Literature, Media, and Communication and Modern Languages for either general humanities credit or for credit toward our minor in science fiction studies; and they can pursue independent science fiction research, creation, and production as members of the Sci Fi Lab Podcast, which is dedicated to “the best in everything science fiction,” with an emphasis on expert interviews and original dramatic presentations.

Finally, Sci Fi@Tech seeks to connect Georgia Tech with the greater science fiction community through events including author readings, film screenings, and fan conventions. One of our oldest, most productive, and most fun partnerships has been with the State of Black Science Fiction (SoBSF), a locally-based collective of black science fiction authors. To date, we’ve produced an author roundtable, a film festival, and, most recently, we hosted the SoBSF convention, BlacktastiCon!, here at Tech.

The steamfunk film that you mention above is yet another project that we’ve been working on with members of the collective. Miton Davis and Balogun Ojetade are the brains behind that film, and we’ve provided support for it at Georgia Tech in the form of student interns and actors, classes on black science fiction that are open to both students and members of the film crew and shooting locations. I’ve never been involved in an independent film production before, and I have to say I have a whole new respect for people who do this regularly. It takes both creativity and nerves of steel!

The AP: I went to UC Riverside, home of the world famous Eaton Collection, and I understand Georgia Tech has an impressive collection of science fiction literature as well. What sort of engagement is there between Sci Fi @ Tech and current or aspiring Science Fiction authors? Or, how else does the program connect with people or organizations outside of academia?

LY: The Eaton Collection at Riverside is truly one of the great marvels of the science fiction universe — I have fond memories of doing research there for several books. And yes, I’m pleased to say that we do have a rather nice science fiction collection at Georgia Tech as well — according to Science Fiction Studies, it’s one of the top 20 collections of its kind in the world. My predecessor, Bud Foote, inaugurated the collection when he donated his personal science fiction holdings to the Georgia Tech Archives. Today, we have over 12,000 science fiction-related items, including substantial or complete runs of most major science fiction magazines; more than 150 science fiction film and television series; and, in honor of Georgia Tech and Atlanta’s commitment to science fiction fandom, a growing collection of fanzines and convention-related items. We’re also in the process of acquiring our first two sets of author papers and look forward to sharing details about that soon!

While the science fiction collection at Tech is a wonderful way for people to learn more about their favorite authors — or maybe even to discover new ones! — we most often connect the Georgia Tech community with the greater science fiction community through author readings and media events. Bud Foote brought Fred Pohl, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kim Stanley Robinson to Tech in the 1980s and 90s; since his retirement we’ve continued that tradition by hosting events with major authors including Robinson, Paul Di Filippo, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Minister Faust.

One of my goals when I took over science fiction event planning at Georgia Tech was to take advantage of all the amazing science fiction creation that happens in and around Atlanta! That’s been our main focus in the past decade. As I noted above, one of our longest-running collaborations has been with the State of Black Science Fiction collective. We’ve also worked closely with the Atlanta Science Fiction Society, a fan group that holds annual book drives for our collection at Tech and whose members have been regular guests on the Sci Fi Lab. More recently we’ve been working with the Multicultural Sci Fi Organization (MCSFO). In that capacity, we provide students with the opportunity to help produce the MCSFO’s podcast and special events. For the past two years, Georgia Tech has served as a sponsor and site host for the MCSFO’s Sci Fi Film Festival as well. That has been a particularly exciting opportunity for members of the Georgia Tech community to interact with independent filmmakers from around the globe, and we look forward to doing it again this September.

We’ll continue our talk with Lisa in just a minute, but first a request: If you like this piece and are interested in the convergence of science fiction, technology, science, and innovation, please consider subscribing to the Adjacent Possible newsletter. Every other week you’ll get a concentrated dose of fascinating stories and news articles to spark your imagination.

The AP: You were featured in the AMC program, James Cameron’s Story of Sci Fi. Tell me about your involvement in that project, and talk to me about your feelings on the current state of science fiction literature and cinema (and TV).

LY: Serving as an expert for James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction [Ed. Note — I highly recommend this show] was an absolutely fascinating experience! I was originally contacted by one of the producers at Left/Right Productions, who asked if I had a few minutes to chat with him and some colleagues about a science fiction show they were putting together. That short chat turned into a two-hour conversation that truly ranged across time and space! I later learned it was an impromptu screen test, of sorts — the producers were looking for science fiction experts to lend their voice to this new miniseries on science fiction, but they wanted to make sure that their experts could think on their feet — and tell amusing anecdotes in short, snappy sentences. Apparently I passed, because at the end of our conversation they asked if I could fly out to Los Angeles to shoot commentary for four of their six episodes. Later, I went to New York to shoot footage for the two other episodes, and I’m pleased to say that I do indeed appear in every episode of the mini-series! I’m glad it worked out, because prepping for those two shoots was the hardest thing I’ve done since I took my comprehensive PhD exams. In fact, I think those were easier — there, I only had to know the top 300 works of literature from the American 20th century. For the Cameron show, I had to be ready to talk about 200 years of science fiction across media and from across the globe at the drop of a hat — and I had to end each point with a really punchy insight. All of that while a crew of people silently whirled colored lights around…. I have a whole new respect for actors after that experience.

I’m glad it worked out, because prepping for those two shoots was the hardest thing I’ve done since I took my comprehensive PhD exams. In fact, I think those were easier.

One of the most common questions that people ask is, which famous people did you get to meet during the shoot? The sad truth is: not a single one. The production crew flew out to where ever the famous people were to shoot them. The rest of us got flown to wherever the production crew was at any given time. On the positive side, I got to experience what it was like to be a famous person! When you go in to shoot footage for a show like this, you’re the star for the day. Everyone is there to make sure you’re happily fed and watered, groomed to within an inch of your life, and generally primed to be as brilliant as possible. It was uncomfortable for the first five minutes, then really great. Now I need someone to follow me around and fix my lipstick all day long. <grin>

I think we’re in truly interesting times in regards to science fiction. Print science fiction is particularly exciting as we begin to realize the truly global scope of our chosen genre — social media and digital tools really do make it easier for artists from all walks of life and all parts of the world to share their work with others. I’ve been fascinated by the explosion of short science fiction film from across the globe as well — one of my favorite things to do with students is to have everyone bring in a film to share with the class — there are so many great ones out there! I’m also interested in companies such as Amazon and Netflix that are picking up works of serious literary science fiction and promising to make them into mini-series. I’ll be curious to see what works and what doesn’t, but either way, it’s refreshing to see visual science fiction produced outside Hollywood and the major television networks. And even Hollywood has been experimenting with more “smart” science fiction films, as they call adaptations of literary works such as Arrival, Annihilation, and even A Wrinkle in Time. All of these movies refuse the Hollywood tendency to tell stories where humans shoot the aliens first and ask questions later — and even better, they take audiences on a fantastic journey that allows them to see their own world with new eyes, just as science fiction is supposed to do.

The AP: Sci Fi fans will be familiar with names like Le Guin, Butler and Atwood. You’ve done extensive work looking at female authors in the genre. Who are some past female authors whose work you’d like to see be ‘discovered’ by a new generation, and what is your take on the popularity, critical recognition, and awareness around current female authors like Nnedi Orakafor, NK Jemison, Anne Leckie and Nalo Hopkinson?

LY: I’d love to see people rediscover the women who helped invent science fiction! Some readers might be aware of C.L. Moore and all the marvelous strong women she introduced to genre fiction, including Jirel of Joiry (the first sword-and-sorcery shero, introduced in the 1934 story “Black God’s Kiss”) and Dierdre, (the cyborg artist from 1944’s “No Woman Born”). If not, they should read those stories — as well as Moore’s breakout tale, “Shambleau,” which is a truly marvelous exploration of sexuality and desire on the galactic frontier. But of course, Moore wasn’t alone — many women accomplished science fiction firsts in this period: Clare Winger Harris was the first woman to publish in an SF magazine (under her own, decidedly feminine name) and the first author of any sex to offer a taxonomy of science fiction story types. Leslie F. Stone published stories featuring the first female and first black heroes — indeed, her story, “The Human Pets of Mars,” inspired Isaac Asimov to try his hand at science fiction!

Finally, I’d like more people to discover the life and work of Edith Eyde, an amateur science fiction poet of the 1940s who wrote under the pen name “Tigrina” and who used her chosen genre to celebrate outsider women with strong passions for one another.

Finally, I’d like more people to discover the life and work of Edith Eyde, an amateur science fiction poet of the 1940s who wrote under the pen name “Tigrina” and who used her chosen genre to celebrate outsider women with strong passions for one another; later, she would go on to use the writing and production techniques she learned in science fiction fandom to create the first lesbian magazine in the U.S. and to help found LGBTQ journalism. It’s a fascinating story that demonstrates the power of science fiction to make space for alternate — even alien — voices and practices and to inspire real change in the present to make better futures for all.

Three-time Hugo Winner NK Jemisin

All of the women I mention above were celebrated for their science fictional and other literary accomplishments during their lifetimes, but many were lost to literary history until digital tools made it easier to access various science fiction archives. I’m thrilled we are living in a moment when we get to rediscover that history. I’m also thrilled we are living in another moment where women are celebrated for their contributions to science fiction — perhaps even for their own “firsts”! After all, Hopkinson initially blew critics away with her innovative ability to “hack” the language of science fiction with Caribbean language and mythology; Okorafor did something similar with Nigerian culture and science; Jemisin is the first African American to win a Hugo for best novel (and, I’d point out, the first author of any sex or color to win three Hugos for best novel in a row); Leckie’s Ancillary Justice — which really makes readers see the fluid and indeterminate nature of gender from fresh perspectives — was the first science fiction book to win a Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Award.

What’s interesting to me is where other parts of history are and are not repeating themselves. Women who wrote science fiction for the pulp magazines of the 1920s and early 30s were a significant minority and generally accepted by editors and fans, but by the end of the 1930s science fiction — like the rest of the United States — did experience its own kind of feminist backlash, as a new generation of young, male editors loudly declared that women couldn’t write science fiction and then strategically kept them out of the first generation of science fiction anthologies. We’ve seen a similar backlash in the modern genre community, especially in the form of Gamergate and the Hugo Award scandals. In both cases, a generation of disaffected, mostly white, and mostly male artists have complained that women who mix genres and who bring issues of social justice to gaming and science fiction ruin the fun of their chosen forms for everyone. This is just so completely wrong: the literary experiments of women writers including Hopkinson, Okorafor, Leckie, and Jemisin are EXACTLY in line with the aesthetic and political experiments that editors encouraged in the early science fiction community! As such, they are not ruining the genre, but using its full potential. Fortunately, these men do not have quite the editorial reach of their predecessors, and if anything, the results of the last few Hugo and Nebula awards demonstrates that the majority of the science fiction community does indeed want to celebrate — and hopefully preserve for posterity! — the accomplishments of what Pamela Sargent has rightfully called our “women of wonder.”

[Ed. Note — Tor has a fascinating series called Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers which provides further details on the rich and troubled history of women in the genre.]

The AP: Do you feel there is a connection between women in STEM and more women writing science fiction? I think of the technical backgrounds of people like Asimov and Heinlein, and then my previous Q&A with Dr. Rebecca Wilbanks on synthetic biology and I wonder if we will see a ‘new wave’ of hard sci fi from female authors. Maybe that already exists and I’m just not aware of it yet. What do you think?

LY: The question of the connection between women in STEM and women in science fiction is something that Kathleen Ann Goonan took up in her conclusion to my edited anthology, Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction. According to her research, the numbers of women in both fields map to each other very closely over time: from the beginning of the twentieth century until the revival of feminism in the 1960s and 70s, women accounted for about 15% of both all scientists and all science fiction artists in the U.S. Today, women account for about 30% of all scientists and science fiction authors.

I’m sure some of these women will bring technoscientific expertise to bear on their science fiction, just as they have done in the past — in fact, we already see that with writers such post-cyberpunk author Madeline Ashby, who has worked for Intel and various communication and design firms, and Annalee Newitz, a technology journalist and editor whose familiarity with the impact of technology on culture clearly informs her debut novel Autonomous. Outside the U.S., I’m very interested in the work of Acan Innocent Immaculate, a young Ugandan woman pursuing a degree in medicine and surgery who brings her knowledge of the human body to bear on her fiction. All three of these authors are exciting new or relatively new voices, and I certainly hope they mark the beginning of a new wave in women’s science fiction storytelling!

A big thanks to Lisa for her time. Please take a look at her Amazon author page and don’t forget to follow The Adjacent Possible to stay up to date for more Q&As and essays. Please also consider signing up for The Adjacent Possible email newsletter.