By Andrew Warrick

At C2E2 on Saturday afternoon, J.S. Dewes (The Last Watch) and Sue Burke (Immunity Index) convened for a panel to discuss women in science fiction. 

“I am used to thinking of myself as just a writer,” Burke began. “I’m 66 years old, I started writing in the 1970s when it was not so common. And at the time, I could have used my initials instead of my name. And there’s some advantage to that, but I wanted people to know that there was a woman writer, so I’m Sue. It’s a girl’s name and get over it… that kind of ‘fuck you’ attitude has gotten me through a lot of things.” Burke recalled a WisCon convention panel about women taking over science fiction, saying the given advice was to “write the best book you can.” She noted that, through the decades, the science fiction landscape has improved “a lot” for women, and female sci-fi writers are not as uncommon as they used to be. 

(L to R) J.S. Dewes, Sue Burke, and the panel’s moderator

Dewes chose to use initials in her pen name partly because “I received feedback that… people are still sexist and they will not read your book just because you are a woman, and that scared me… I don’t regret it necessarily. I think it’s fine but I also am trying to take on that confidence of like, ‘screw you I’m a woman’… Part of that is trying to be really active on social media and… put myself out there more in that regard.”

Both authors recalled loving science fiction from a young age. They also use scientific concepts as inspiration. Burke gave gravity as an example, saying “there’s inherent conflict in that…  to manage a story.” While scientific facts inspire Burke, she also said writers can “deliberately break them and see then what would happen… our universe is redshifted. What if it was blueshifted? Then what would happen? That would be such a cool universe.” She reads widely, across genres, saying “I try to know as much as I can, going into the story. You never know enough.” Ironically, she was writing a heavily-researched story on a coronavirus pandemic in 2020, which she calls happier than the real life pandemic. 

Dewes looks at science and turns it on its head. For her debut, The Last Watch, “the initial concept was, what if there was an edge to the universe? What does that mean? What happens? What’s behind it, if anything, and then… what if it starts collapsing? What does that mean?”

Burke sticks to literature for inspiration, while Dewes pulls from TV, movies, music and video games, as well as books.

Speaking on her writing process, Dewes said, “Sometimes I will get into a flow for weeks where it’s the only thing I want to do all the time, and it’s perfect and I churn out 5000 words a day,” but there are dry periods- “I haven’t written for the last month, for example. So it just kind of depends.” She adds world-building (something she and Burke discussed on another panel yesterday) through revision, focusing on character in primary drafts. Burke does not write a word without an outline, and forces herself to write a “Zero Draft” all the way through, without any kind of editing or self-critique. 

Asked about inspiration, Burke has “never forgotten… Joanna Russ. She wrote in the 1970s and particularly from a feminist stance, which was where I was in the 1970s, because it was really bad to be a woman… there were so many things you were legally not entitled to do. Her work was very angry, but was very experimental. And was very important at the time.” Burke remembered thinking “maybe I could do something that good.”

Dewes listed Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke as “one of my biggest inspirations for The Last Watch… I love it so much. You know, it has problems like a lot of fiction in that era does but if we ignore that, it’s good. I just love the big ideas, but the sort of small-scale personal approach to it.” Dewes wants to “take those ideas that a lot of people love from classic science fiction and… modernize it for… more inclusive mindsets.”

Burke added that, in classic sci-fi, on top of “problems in the way they treat women… there’s problems in the way they treat men,” saying “Basically, the only emotions they had was anger and occasionally stabbing each other.”  

Approaching a female character, Dewes does not “treat her differently because of her gender” and avoids tropes “of any kind.” 

Asked about how science fiction can engage with the Climate Crisis in an optimistic, instead of a dystopian, way (as is the norm), Burke replied “The answer is solarpunk. This is a writing movement that came out of Brazil. And it looks to me, there’s going to be some problems, but what are different ways to get over that? What’s it going to be like when it’s done? How can we handle it better as we’re going through ecological crises… looking at that with solutions.” Burke believes solarpunk will “spread around the world because science fiction is world literature.” 

Dewes said to write what one is most passionate about, because “that is far more important than trying to write to a market that could be wildly different in a year or five years or 10 years or whatever.” Burke argued differently, saying “the market never changes. The market wants one thing and that is excellence… Write the very best book you can, write the boldest book that you can… what is most personal to you, what moves you the most, and the market will be there for that.”

Ending the panel, the writers told the crowd they were in C2E2’s Artist’s Alley for book signing or additional questions.

Miss any of our previous C2E2 ’21 coverage? Find it all here!