WINTERS -- Karen Joy Fowler recently served on the jury for the 1996 Tiptree Award which is going to a first-time novelist, Mary Doria Russell, for "The Sparrow."
Fowler, a science fiction writer, described several science fiction novels she read before she and other judges chose the winner.
They included some novels published by mainstream publishing houses - indeed, "The Sparrow" is published by Random House. Fowler says lots of mainstream publishers try desperately to distance themselves from science fiction, but the genre borders are becoming increasingly blurred.
"And once you put an alien in a book it's hard to pretend it's not science fiction," said Fowler.
She encourages women who might have been put off earlier to try reading science fiction today.
"So many women don't think they like science fiction and don't read it. This is a perfectly understandable reaction ... to literature that started in the 1940s when the first science fiction magazines published stories encouraging young boys to build space ships and rescue beautiful Earth women," she said. Outside the United States the genre has had a prouder tradition including a role in political criticism couched in science fiction.
Women came to their own in the 1970s when they took over the field.
"Some said science fiction no longer existed, that women destroyed it," said Fowler. The suggestion was made that women wrote only about politics and gender and the exciting scientific extrapolations that were made in earlier science fiction weren't any longer to be found.
"But I think a hard-headed look will find that the scientific extrapolations people think were there had never been there," she said.
"Now in the 1980s and 1990s the whole issue is delightfully ambiguous. No one has a clue about what science fiction is, who writes it and who reads it."
The Tiptree Award is given annually to the science fiction or fantasy writer who deals most effectively with an exploration or expansion of gender roles.
As a Tiptree juror, here are some of the books she liked:
The adjective Fowler used most often to describe these books was "funny" as in amusing and clever, not weird.
Fowler gave this talk about women in science fiction at a little rundown library in this agricultural town of 5,000. The roof has been leaking throughout this wet, rainy winter but fortunately it was dry the evening Fowler spoke to a small but enthusiastic audience.
The Friends of the Winters library organized the speaker series, running every Tuesday night this month, and invited Fowler the first week and three other local writers in subsequent weeks (historian Joann Larkey, food writer Georgeanne Brennan and mystery/thriller writer John Lescroart). The idea is to bring people to the library so people can see how shabby it really is. Then, the even bigger idea, is to raise $1 million for a new library.
Winters is a charming little town on the banks of Putah Creek, surrounded by gentle hills and almond orchards. Many of its residents work at the nearby University of California, Davis, and others commute to jobs in Sacramento and San Francisco. It's a gem of a town and it deserves a good library.
Anyone reading this column must also believe in libraries. So if you feel inclined to make a contribution, send it to: Friends of the Winters Public Library Building Fund, 210 First St., Winters CA 95694.
Generations of future science fiction readers and writers will thank you.