Helen Merrick is an SF reader, critic and fan. By day she teaches Internet Studies at Curtin University in Western Australia and writes a bit about SF, feminism, fandom, online communities and sustainability. Her publications include the edited collection Women of Other Worlds, and numerous articles in books such as On Joanna RUss, and The Routledge companion to SF. Her book the Secret Feminist Cabal was shortlisted for the Hugo, won the William Atheling, and was on the honours list for the James Tiptree Jr Award. She has just finished a co-authored book on feminist theorist Donna Haraway called Beyond the Cyborg (forthcoming from Columbia UP) that manages to include a fair bit of SF and Ursula Le Guin, which makes her very happy.
Your examination of the role of feminism in science fiction fandom, in The Secret Feminist Cabal, was on the Honor List for the Tiptree Award in 2010 – congratulations! What was it like to be recognised in this way?
I was totally blown away! It was the icing on the cake in terms of how the book was received by the SF/F community, which I totally did not expect, given it was an academic book. I seem to recall I found out about it on twitter, as I hadn’t even seen the honours list. It was all the more rewarding as the Tiptree award mostly honours fiction, and only a handful of non-fiction works have been recognised by the judges. It was also, of course, a lovely feeling as so much of the book is indebted to, and documents, the communities and histories that surround the Tiptree award, its motherboard, and the feminist sf fandom that helped support its foundation. I even ‘stole’ the title off the Tiptree award motherboard (they did give me permission)!
Some of your research interests lie, broadly, in how feminism interacts with science fiction and vice versa. Do you see the two converging or diverging at the moment, and why?
Both, actually. I think we are seeing some really important conversations happening around feminism, gender, sexuality and race within the community in the last few years. And while there are certainly times when it feels like we are still fighting the same old battles Joanna Russ, Vonda McIntyre and others were waging back in the 70s, I think there is an improvement in terms of the kind of audience that are listening, and changing their views. What really encourages me is the impact of a younger generation of awesome feminist authors, editors and readers on this dialogue: like the Galactic Suburbia team (yourself, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Alisa Krasnostein), Alisa’s Twelve Planet series, and others such as Brit Mandelo (Tor) and Julia Rios (Outer Alliance), and authors such as Cat Valente, NK Jemisin and Karen Lord. This is not to overlook the work of others like TImmi Duchamp at Aqueduct Press, the Wiscon group, the Tiptree award and other feminist initiatives in the field that have kept these conversations on the board. On the other hand, I do wonder, along with Gwyneth Jones, about how well contemporary feminism/s are being expressed in the SF/F fiction itself, and whether we are too ready to welcome kick-ass female heroines as an easy sign of success? Not that I don’t enjoy reading books with kick-ass heroines, but I worry about what it means if this becomes a mainstreamed, diluted sign of what feminism in genre is about. But then again, we have had recent works as diverse as Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, and Kim Westwood’s The Courier’s New Bicycle which all do brave, confronting work with gender, sex and sexuality which are anything but comfortable!
You’ve been involved in helping to edit and re-write some of the gender-related entries of the SF Encyclopedia, now (moving) completely online. What importance do you attach to this sort of resource?
I’m so glad you asked me about this! The SFE3 is — and will be — an amazing resource. I felt it was an incredible honour to be asked, and I was really chuffed when Peter Nicholls brought me on board in order to work on entries related to feminism and gender. I remember back when I was first working on my PhD thesis, Nicholl’s first edition of the Encyclopedia was a very important source for me. Even though it was very much of its time, there were long lists of female authors of SF that provided an important starting point for much of my research. The SFE3 is a herculean task of bring the second edition up to date, which has involved an absolutely enormous amount of work behind the scenes by the editorial team of Nicholls, John Clute, Dave Langford and Graham Sleight. So far I’ve edited the entries on feminism, and women writers of sf; I’m working on a new entry on gender, and also will be editing the older entry on women as subjects of sf.
What works by Australians have you been loving recently?
So Many! I’ve been following along the Australian Women Writers Challenge which I think is a great initiative, and has helped me keep track of the aussies I’ve been reading. Books I have loved recently: Rayner Robert’s Creature Court trilogy, all of the 12 Planet collections, Glenda Larke’s Stormlord trilogy, Lara Morgan’s Rosie Black Chronicles, and Kim Westwood’sCourier’s New Bicycle. I’ve also enjoyed Carole Wilkinson’s Dragonkeeper (which is from a few years ago, but I just read it when she came out for the writer’s festival – lovely children’s fantasy), Kate Gordon’s Thyla, Rebecca Lim’s Mercy series (paranormal YA), Joanne Anderton’s Debris and I have Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts waiting on my to-be-read shelf.
It’s two years since the WorldCon was held in Australia. How do you think the speculative fiction scene in Australia has changed since then?
Aussiecon 4 was such a buzz, and a great chance to showcase Australian talent — in some ways it feels like the energy has just carried on. We seem to be seeing more and more quality Aussie spec fic being published all the time; certainly the Aussie awards lists of the last couple of years have been absolutely packed with fantastic work. And I can’t help but notice how well Aussie women are doing in the field – especially in fantasy and YA. It’s also worth noting the enormous growth of home-grown podcasts in the spec-fic scene, which certainly seem to help keep up the Australian profile in the international scene: Galactic Suburbia, Coode St, Writer and the Critic, Bad Film Diaries – the list goes on. I think its very encouraging that off the back of Aussiecon there appear to be all sorts of avenues and channels that have opened up in terms of conversations and connections with the international scene. We may be small, but we get noticed