Star Trek tie-in novels have a gender problem.
Decade by decade, series by series, there has been a steady decline in the number of women writing Trek tie-ins. The percentage has dropped from a remarkable 60% in the 1980s to just 12% in the 2010s.
As the television series advances — and the Discovery writers room has the highest percentage of women of any Trek series1 — the tie-in novels are going backwards.
I started to see it in 2018. I was following the events of Star Trek Las Vegas via Twitter, as one does when one lives in Australia, and noted with dismay that the two panels about tie-in novels featured all-male line-ups.
I was surprised, because gender parity on panels at SF cons has been part of mainstream discussion since at least 2012, and because, in my mind, Star Trek tie-ins were full of women. I remarked on it at the time, but figured that corporate cons are probably less engaged with such issues. It had to be an oversight, because I grew up reading Trek novels, and the field was full of women.
But then I started looking at the current releases and wondering if that was still true. Because, as far as I could see, the only women writing Star Trek tie-ins were Una McCormack and Kirsten Beyer — and Beyer seemed to be stepping away from novels to concentrate on television writing.
Was it just my imagination? It’s true that only one out of the then-three announced Discovery novels had a female author, but that was, I thought, a very small drop in a larger pond.
Finally, in July and August of this year, I decided to stop wondering and look at the actual numbers. I printed out a list of all Star Trek novels (and novelisations) published from 1970 to the releases announced for 2020, and I created some spreadsheets.2
You can see my spreadsheets here, but to summarise:
Since 1970, Simon & Schuster has published or announced 658 Star Trek novels. Of those, 425 (65%) were written by men; 193 (29%) were by women; 39 (6%) were by male-female collaboration teams; and 1 (0.15%, rounded down to zero in this count) author used their initials and defied all attempts at Googling.
29% female is not an amazing number, but it’s roughly what I expected, for reasons which I will get into below.
But I also noticed something very strange — and worrying: a steady decline as time went on.
It became apparent in the ’00s, so I initially used 2005 as an arbitrary cut-off point. But then I went back and split the line up by decade. (The infographics below still use the ’05/’06 cutoff.)
And no. It wasn’t just my imagination. With a tiny handful of exceptions, women are being excluded from Star Trek tie-in fiction.
A brief history of Star Trek tie-in novels
Star Trek books first began to appear in the late ’60s, in the form of novella-length adaptations of episodes.
The first original Trek novel was Mission to Horatius, a young adult work by Mack Reynolds published in 1968. It was reprinted in 1999, but is no longer available except on the secondhand market.
Bantam held the licence for Star Trek fiction from 1970 to 1981, publishing thirteen novels. The line was edited by Frederik Pohl, and featured recognisable names like Joe Haldeman and David “The Trouble With Tribbles” Gerrold.
Women in this era made up about 29% of the authors:3 Kathleen Sky, author of fantasy and SF novels and short fiction, and collaborators Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath, whose backgrounds were in fanzines and fan fiction.
Simon & Schuster published Gene Roddenberry’s novelisation of The Motion Picture in 1979, and in 1981, they took over the licence for original Trek fiction. The last Bantam novel was published in April; the first S&S novel in June. Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS, has held the licence for Star Trek fiction since.
Simon & Schuster’s first original Trek novel was The Entropy Effect by Vonda N. McIntyre, one of the grand dames of SF in general and Star Trek fiction in particular. Having grown up a TNG fan, I was only vaguely aware of her work, but her recent death made me realise how important she was to the genre, and to fandom. She gave Hikaru Sulu and Nyota Uhura their given names — that’s the impact she had on Star Trek.
The early eighties were a good time for Trek novels — and a good time for women. Marshak and Culbreath jumped over to S&S, and were joined by people like Diane Duane, Melinda Snodgrass, Barbara Hambly and more.
A brief history of my history with Star Trek tie-ins
I became a Trekkie a few months before my tenth birthday. I can’t remember exactly when I began to read tie-in novels, except that they were my gateway to the adult SF part of the bookstore and library. I mostly skipped the YA shelves, which were much smaller than they are now, and mostly devoid of science fiction.
I got Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsdawn and Diane Diane’s Dark Mirror in the same Christmas stocking when I was twelve, along with the pilot episode of Voyager on VHS. Before that, I read Peter David’s Imzadi the way other girls read Flowers in the Attic — at least until my parents realised how explicit it was, and told me to dispose of it.4
A few years later, the internet came along, and I discovered fan fiction.
I didn’t quite abandon professional tie-ins that same day, but fic filled a need that tie-ins were missing. No, not sex, and not just shipping, although discovering the Janeway/Chakotay Index did change my life. Fic was simply emotionally satisfying in a way that tie-ins weren’t, and its authors were free to make dramatic and permanent changes to characters in a way you simply cannot with a licensed property.5
So I moved on from tie-ins, and after Voyager ended, I moved on from Star Trek fandom. Ten years is a long time for a monomania, even with a break for a seaQuest DSV obsession when I was thirteen. (It was a dolphin thing, shut up.)
The fandoms that followed either didn’t have tie-ins, or I just didn’t feel the need to spend much time on them. Barring a handful of Doctor Who novels6 reading tie-ins just wasn’t part of my fandom activity anymore.
In 2016, I did a full rewatch of all the Star Treks — I even made it to the end of DS9 for the first time — in preparation for Discovery. And something unexpected happened: I felt like a Trekkie again!
And I found myself in the mood to read some tie-in fiction.
This turned out to be a mistake.
The tie-in line had been moving towards interlinked narratives and original series before I wandered away from Star Trek, but this trend only intensified while I was away. The books were almost impenetrable.
I read a handful of Kirsten Beyer’s Voyager reboot novels, which were enjoyable and mostly well-written, despite some very odd choices like the Starfleet admiralty forbidding Janeway from intimacy with Chakotay because … they’re not married? I still don’t understand, but okay.
But what I really wanted was some delicious TNG goodness, so I went back to the beginning of the rebooted line with Michael Jan Friedman’s Death in Winter.
It was … very bad.
I ran straight back to Archive of Our Own, and didn’t look at another tie-in novel until the Discovery line came along. “At last,” I thought, “these will be separate from the tangle of novel ‘canon’, I can start here. Hey, is it just me, or are women not getting to write these?”
I set out this long, self-indulgent history because I want to make it clear that I’m a fan, I have a long history with Star Trek novels, and I make this post because I want them to be better.
Digging into the numbers
But first, a quick word about intersectionality!
This project has been extremely binary in its approach: I divided authors into men, women, and collaborations across gender.
I recognise this excludes any non-binary authors, but I didn’t have the capacity to do extensive digging. If you are aware of a non-binary, genderqueer or otherwise not-male-or-female author of Star Trek novels, please let me know, and I’ll try to update the stats.
Additionally, in doing this work, I have only looked at gender, to the exclusion of race, sexuality, disability and nationality. If I had to guess, I would assume that most Trek authors have been white, straight and American, with maybe a slightly higher proportion of disabled people than the general population. But that is entirely a guess.
Star Trek: The Original Series novels
Would you be surprised to learn that TOS novels come closer to gender parity than any other section of the franchise? Of the 188 novels published between 1970 and 2020, 78 were by women. That’s 41%.
Let’s break it down by decade:
- Male authors: 8 (62%)
- Female authors: 5 (38%)
- Male authors: 24 (36%)
- Female authors: 38 (59%)
- Collaborations between men and women: 2 (4%)
- Male authors: 23 (47%)
- Female authors: 21 (43%)
- Collaborations between men and women: 5 (10%)
Look at that sweet, sweet near-parity, guys!
Then brace yourself, because it’s not gonna happen again.
- Male authors: 23 (50%)
- Female authors: 15 (39%)
- Collaborations between men and women: 4 (11%)
- Male authors: 30 (94%)
- Female authors: 2 (6%)
I am genuinely shocked by the stats for this last decade. That is appalling. And there’s no sign of improvement — two TOS novels have been announced for 2020, and both are by men.
In fact, Simon & Schuster has not published a TOS novel by a woman since 2010.
Why did women dominate in the early decades? That’s an interesting question, and I suspect the answer is fan fiction — women were the primary producers of fanzines and fan fiction back in the day, so there was already a pool of authors who were experienced in writing in this universe. Simon & Schuster had an open submissions policy for a big chunk of this period.
In an era when publishing fan fiction involved either submitting to a fanzine and going through an editorial process, or publishing your own fanzine, it’s just as easy to submit a proposal for your fic to S&S as to write it. Especially if your idea is for an episode-like SF adventure, and didn’t involve The Premise.
I was 1,500 words into this piece when I discovered that someone else did the same research in 2016. (Here’s a link to a discussion on Tumblr; if you scroll through the notes, you’ll see a contribution by Peter Morwood, husband and collaborator of Diane “queen of Trek tie-ins” Duane.) I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to see that three years have passed, and nothing has changed. In fact, as you go through each section of the franchise, you’ll see it gets steadily worse.
Star Trek: The Next Generation novels
Overall — from 1987 to 2020 — just 21% of TNG novels were written by women. That’s 29 out of 135. (Another 8 were written by collaborations between men and women.)
- Male authors: 7 (70%)
- Female authors: 3 (30%)
Yeah, that’s just ten books. I didn’t even need a calculator to do the maths.
- Male authors: 43 (61%)
- Female authors: 20 (28%)
- Collaborations between men and women: 7 (10%)
- Author gender unknown: 1 (1%)
- Male authors: 33 (83%)
- Female authors: 6 (15%)
- Collaborations between men and women: 1 (2%)
- Male authors: 14 (100%)
- Female authors: 0 (0%)
Yup. Not a single woman, alone or as a collaborator, has written a TNG novel in this decade. Simon & Schuster has not published a TNG novel by a woman since 2008.
Star Trek: Deep Space 9 novels
Here’s an interesting quirk: next to TOS, DS9 comes closest to gender parity with an overall 37% of novels written by women.
And by decade? Well.
- Male authors: 20 (54%)
- Female authors: 14 (38%)
- Collaborations between men and women: 3 (8%)
- Male authors: 11 (46%)
- Female authors: 10 (42%)
- Collaborations between men and women: 3 (12%)
My God, it’s full of near-equality!
- Male authors: 5 (50%)
- Female authors: 2 (20%)
- Collaborations between men and women: 3 (30%)
If you had told me at the beginning of this project that I would be delighted to see female authors get as high as 20% in the ’10s, I’d have … well. Probably wept.
Of course, S&S has not published a DS9 novel at all since 2017, and as far as I know, there are no current plans to publish more.
Star Trek: Voyager novels
Voyager‘s an outlier. The total number of Voyager novels by women is 34 out of 51 — that’s a whopping 67%. And between 2005 and 2020, it goes up to 100%. That’s ten books, one by Heather Jarman, and nine by Kirsten Beyer. (I’m not even doing the decade-by-decade maths on this.)
Part of me is like, “Oh, that’s really cool!” Because I like Beyer’s work, and she seems to be into some of the tropes and relationship types I love.
But even with these ridiculously unequal numbers, women still represent only 18% of tie-in writers. Beyer is a drop in a bucket. And if it wasn’t for her, where would we be?
Oh — and Beyer is busy. She’s been writing for Star Trek: Discovery, and now Star Trek: Picard, plus co-writing the Disco tie-in comics and dealing with continuity between Discovery and the novels. Her upcoming Voyager novel, To Lose the Earth, was originally announced for 2019, but has been pushed back to 2020.
Only nineteen Enterprise novels have been published. The novelisation of the premiere was by former tie-in regular Diane Carey, and authors of the early novels included JM Dillard — a pseudonym for Jeanne Kalogridis, who publishes historical romance under her real name — and collaborations between Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
But ENT was still airing when the last tie-in by a woman was published. Only three of the nineteen novels were by women (16%) — and we also have the Smith-Rusch collaboration, representing 6% of the total.
I understand that there was some sort of issue around licensing for the Kelvinverse novels. Two were announced for 2020, but they were commissioned and written years ago, only to languish in the literary equivalent of development hell.
Both were authored by men. As were all the Kelvinverse novels. That line is 100% male.
As time and the franchise move on, the tie-ins are getting worse at gender parity.
Star Trek: Discovery novels
When I first noticed this problem, there were three Disco novels announced. One was by Una McCormack, so we had 33% female authors. Not great, but about what I expected. I had a whinge on social media, but I wasn’t outraged.
Now we’re up to six novels published or announced … and still just one is by a woman. We’re down to 17%.
By contrast, 33% are by men named David.
I’m still not outraged.
I’m just tired.
Star Trek: Picard
One novel has been announced for this upcoming spin-off — and it’s by Una McCormack. So that’s 100% female representation for ST:JLP — for now. McCormack can’t write the whole line, and nor should she be expected to.
But it’s not as if there’s an established pool of experienced female Trek novelists ready to join her.
Starting in the mid-’90s, and revving up in the first decade of the new century, Simon & Schuster started releasing Trek novels which didn’t fit so neatly into categories. These included original crews, like the Starfleet Corps of Engineers line, or, as time went on, ships crewed by characters from multiple series.
This isn’t the sort of tie-in I enjoy, so I’ve never paid much attention to these books. (See also: my utter indifference to “book canon”.) But here are the stats:
From 1995 to 2017, 179 “other” novels were published, and no new ones have been announced. Overall, 7 were by collaborations between men and women (4%); 21 were by women alone (12%) and a whopping 151 (84%) were by men.
There have been only minimal changes over the decades. In the last fifteen years, women jumped from 11% to 13%, but men held steady at 84% — the increase in women came from the decrease in collaborations.
I didn’t break this section up by subseries, but it’s worth noting that “other” books include a couple of William Shatner vanity projects, and Peter David’s Gary Stu New Frontier line. So single-author series are well-represented, and curiously enough, those single authors tend to be men. Whereas I noticed, as I entered data, that the Starfleet Corps of Engineers line was adding more female authors as it went along.
Star Trek tie-in novels in total
As I discussed above, 658 Star Trek novels have been published or announced since 1970. The total breakdown looks like this:
- Male authors: 425 (65%)
- Female authors: 193 (29%)
- Collaborations between men and women: 39 (6%)
- Author gender unknown: 1 (0.15%, excluded from total)
So. Let’s take it decade by decade.
- Male authors: 8 (62%)
- Female authors: 5 (38%)
- Male authors: 23 (37%)
- Female authors: 37 (60%)
- Collaborations between men and women: 2 (3%)
- Male authors: 111 (56%)
- Female authors: 69 (35%)
- Collaborations between men and women: 18 (9%)
- Author gender unknown: 1 (0.5, excluded from total%)
- Male authors: 176 (68%)
- Female authors: 66 (26%)
- Collaborations between men and women: 16 (6%)
- Male authors: 102 (86%)
- Female authors: 14 (12%)
- Collaborations between men and women: 3 (2%)
Look at this last decade. Female representation has dropped to a mere 12% — and that’s with 100% of the Voyager novels written by women.
Let’s have that nice graph again:
Fewer and fewer women are writing Star Trek novels.
Well. Let me rephrase: fewer and fewer women are writing official Star Trek tie-in fiction.
The Star Trek universe remains active on Archive of Our Own. I ran a very quick search for completed fics of 50,000 words or more7 and found 1,8958 across the franchise.9 And in every single series, from TOS to DSC, the newest fic was posted in August 2019, the month I searched.
Fan fiction and tie-in fiction are not, to my mind, interchangeable — setting aside issues of quality and editorial gatekeeping, I believe they serve similar and often overlapping, but ultimately different needs. This is one of the reasons Death in Winter didn’t work for me.
Not every fan writer is capable of writing tie-in fiction, or would want to. I just mention the AO3 numbers to highlight the fact that women are still actively engaged in creating Star Trek-based stories — they’re just not getting the opportunity to do so professionally.
But fan fiction isn’t the only point of comparison. A few years ago, blogger and podcaster Jarrah Hodge ran the numbers on the various Star Trek television series:
In TOS, only 22.5% of episodes credit at least one woman writer. That crept up to 30.5% during TNG, but back down to a dismal 17% in Deep Space Nine (Season 7 of Deep Space Nine credits zero women writers). 25% of Voyager episodes and 22% of Enterprise episodes credit at least one woman writer.
Congratulations, Simon & Schuster! Your current numbers are worse than the 1960s!
Did I expect these numbers?
I assumed that, once I did the maths, the percentage would shake out at roughly 70% men, 30% women. And I was all set to complain about that.
What’s so magical about 30%? It’s widely perceived as the point where things start to feel equal — if not female dominated.
Consider this study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media:
“A total of 5,799 speaking or named characters were evaluated, with 30.9% female and 69.1% male. This calculates into a gender ratio of 2.24 males to every one female. This finding is somewhat surprising, given that females represent 49.6% of the population worldwide.”
Then there’s the popularisation of Dale Spender’s research into gendered communication, which has achieved memetic form:
“When Spencer asked students to evaluate their perception of who talked more in a given discussion, women were pretty accurate; but men perceived the discussion as being “equal” when women talked only 15% of the time, and the discussion as being dominated by women if they talked only 30% of the time.”
This is a pretty flawed statistic from a dated study, as is further discussed in my source for that quote. But it goes around the internet because it has — God forgive me for saying this — a ring of truthiness.
Consider the 30% Club, which is aiming for 30% female representation on corporate boards. Why not 50? That might be too much!10
I’m not immune to this thinking. I was deeply uncomfortable to realise that women dominated Voyager and early TOS tie-ins. Were we taking up too much space? (Answer: no.) And when I took a look at the stats for Star Wars novels — more on that later — I marvelled at the number of female names I was seeing. All 29% of them.
Star Trek brands itself as a progressive franchise, but even here, on-screen representation tends to max out at one-third. Voyager, the Star Trek spin-off with the most female characters? They make up 30% of the cast. Discovery is the second female-led spin-off, but women make up … only 30% of the regular cast.
TNG started out strong, with 37.5% women in the regular cast — but this was deemed too much, and it dropped back to, oh, 28.5% when Tasha was killed.11 (Remember, if Denise Crosby didn’t choose to leave, they were going to fire Marina Sirtis.)
(Note that, by Jarrah’s numbers, the Trek series with the highest percentage of female writers was TNG, at … 30.5%!)
Then there’s Enterprise, where, as Trip actually says in “Oasis”, “Nearly a third of the crew is female.” Yikes.
And the tie-in novels aren’t even meeting this extremely low bar.
On the other hand, I’m not terribly shocked that the actual numbers shake out at 16-18%. Another study by the Geena Davis Institute found that women made up only 17% of crowd scenes in family media. And, well:
DAVIS: We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.
Is this gender imbalance normal for tie-in fiction?
Sadly, it seems to be. I haven’t made an extensive study of the field, but I took a look at Star Wars novels, then Doctor Who and its recent spin-offs.
With Doctor Who, I confined myself to the New Series Adventures launched in 2005. And the results were depressing: 84% male authors; 16% female. In fact, the list looked an awful lot like Star Trek fiction: a bunch of dudes, and Una McCormack. (Joined here by Jenny Colgan, sometimes published as JT Colgan.)
It might be improving — two-thirds of the Thirteenth Doctor novels are by women, which seems reasonable since she’s the first female Doctor. But it’s too soon to say.12
Torchwood was worse than Doctor Who, which … well, I mean, have you watched it? 79% men, 10.5% women, 10.5% male-female collaborations.
Then there’s the short-lived spin-off Class, which is … 30% women! Well done, Class, I’d watch you, but you were written by Patrick Ness and I couldn’t even finish one of his novels.
But Star Wars, though…
Disney-Lucasfilm ditched the long-standing Extended Universe canon in 2014, which gave me a nice starting point for my list. Ain’t nobody got time for the EU, am I right?13
Now, I was just going off the Wikipedia list, so my methodology wasn’t quite the same as for Star Trek. With Trek, I excluded junior novelisations and the so-called “young adult” novels of the ’90s, but here, the works for younger readers were included with all the rest, including a handful of actual YA novels. So we can’t quite compare these numbers.
Nevertheless. From 2014 to 2019, Del Rey and Disney Lucasfilm have published 86 Star Wars novels. (Del Rey does the adult line, Disney Lucasfilm the children’s and YA lines.)
71% are by men. 29% by women.
But something interesting has happened along the way. From 2017 onwards, the percentage of women writing Star Wars novels jumps to 41% — and if I removed the picture books and choose-your-own-adventure stories and confined the list to novels, it would be even higher.
And, at the same time, the list of authors becomes more diverse. We have people like Ken Liu, Justina Ireland, Rebecca Roanhorse, writing for the franchise.
Star Wars has been doing some interesting things for a while, now. Claudia Gray was already a successful YA novelist when she wrote Bloodlines; she was soon joined by fellow YA novelist EK Johnston. Star Wars has deliberately targeted the female teenage demographic — and it seems to be working. Kids on Tumblr get excited about Star Wars novels — and that doesn’t seem to be happening for Trek.
So now Disney-Lucasfilm are branching out, actively seeking diverse writers — many of whom have YA backgrounds and existing fan bases — and the result is really interesting, enjoyable fiction. I read Star Wars novels, and I’m only barely more than a casual fan.
The Ursula K Le Guin of Star Trek tie-ins, or, a note about Una McCormack
The women of the Australian feminist SFF podcast Galactic Suburbia regularly complain about lists of “the best science fiction” where the only woman mentioned is Ursula K. Le Guin. (Sometimes, if the list-maker wants to tick two boxes, it’s Octavia Butler.) Not because Le Guin is not brilliant — she is — but because she was and is just one of many brilliant women writing SF.
That’s how I felt as I compiled my lists and kept seeing Una McCormack alone among a sea of male authors.
I want to make it clear that my complaint that she’s the only woman regularly writing Trek novels is not intended to invalidate or downplay her contributions. I love her work, even when she’s writing for sections of the franchise (DS9) that aren’t my favourite.
(In fact, as I researched this essay, I discovered that McCormack was invited to pitch to Simon & Schuster on the strength of her DS9 fan fiction. I didn’t even know that happened in real life! We stan a queen, you guys.)
But McCormack is an anomaly.
As I outlined this essay, I turned to my trusty copy of How To Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, first published in 1983 and regrettably still relevant today.
In it, she lists the various ways women’s writing is suppressed, dismissed, deemed invalid — the most famous version of the cover lists them all briefly.
One argument is, “She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly…” — covering those times where a woman’s literary contribution is dismissed because she’s the only one writing in that field. (Rarely the actual case, but, you know…)
I don’t want to do that here. That McCormack is anomalous doesn’t make her contributions any less valuable or enjoyable, and I’m not singling her out with any malicious or even critical intent. I just wish we had more writers like her.
(Also — I do not in the least blame the male authors. Very few authors are in a position to turn down work! They are not responsible for this situation.)
How to suppress women’s tie-in writing: considering the whys, wherefores and whatnots
I’m sorry, I have to quote Russ again. She was a Trekkie, and wrote Kirk/Spock fic for zines, she’d understand.
“Conscious, conspiratorial guilt? Hardly. Privileged groups, like everyone else, want to think well of themselves and to believe that they are acting generously and justly. …Genuine ignorance? Certainly that is sometimes the case. But talk about sexism or racism must distinguish between the sins of commission of the real, active misogynist or bigot and the vague, half-conscious sins of omission of the decent, ordinary, even good-hearted people, which sins the context of institutionalised sexism and racism makes all too easy.”14
I don’t think there’s a nefarious plot to exclude women from writing Star Trek tie-in fiction. It seems like an unintended consequence of several things:
- There have been changes in editors over the years
- The number of Star Trek novels published has dropped
- The pool of active authors has shrunk — people have left and not been replaced
- Trek novels — and maybe tie-ins generally — have adopted stronger gatekeeping practices, which makes it harder for new people to come in.
That last factor is a guess, but this TrekBBS thread provides some evidence — there used to be guidelines for the general public to submit proposals; now it’s a more or less closed shop. And certainly you see the same names cropping up across franchises.
I’ve been told that former editor John Ordover was particularly opposed to fan writers going pro. These days, only authors with agents and publishing experience — especially when it comes to meeting deadlines and behaving like a professional — are considered.
I don’t really have a problem with this. There’s a lot more to publishing than writing a book and choosing your outfit for the book launch, and the timeline for tie-ins appears to be hugely compressed — you don’t want to gamble a slot on a novice who may or may not be able to do the job. Una McCormacks are rare.
But gatekeepers need to see who they’re unintentionally excluding, and take proactive steps to compensate. That’s clearly not happening here.
What changed? aka Who’s flying this starship?
The gender imbalance has grown steadily, but slowly, and I doubt it was obvious at first. There was a lot of turnover in editors in the ’00s, as John Ordover left and his replacements were laid off (Marco Palmieri, who until recently worked for Tor and Tor.com, where he edited some highly acclaimed novels and short stories), or laid off but then rehired as a freelancer (Margaret Clark, still involved with the Trek novels).
Clark was laid off, then rehired, in 2009, the same year Simon & Schuster formed its new imprint, Gallery Books, which ultimately subsumed Pocket Books, the original home of Star Trek fiction.
The first Star Trek novel published by Gallery Books was released in 2010. And while the number of female authors was already dropping, it becomes particularly stark: 124 novels have been published/announced from 2010 to 2020:
- By men: 106 (85.5%)
- By women: 15 (12%)
- By collaborations between men and women: 3 (2.5%)
I think the person in charge of the Star Trek line right now is Ed Schlesinger, senior editor at Gallery Books. But I’m not holding him personally responsible either. This is not a problem we can lay at an individual’s door.
This, to me, is a systemic problem.
Does it matter that women aren’t writing Star Trek novels?
Not just because this is a professional field from which women are being — unintentionally, I assume — excluded, but because voices have been lost, and that affects the content of the work.
Take, for example, the first three Discovery novels.
David Mack’s Desperate Hours was the first. It wasn’t bad, but it was full of a very strange subtext, men resenting women for receiving professional respect or opportunities to which they felt entitled. It was there with Saru and Michael; it was there again with Pike and Georgiou.
I can’t fault Mack for not capturing the vibe between Saru, Michael and Georgiou; I have the impression the novel was written at a very early point in Discovery‘s development. But this recurring subtext was strange and off-putting. It threw me right out, and around the halfway mark I stopped reading and started skimming.
As for Dayton Ward’s Drastic Measures, it fridged Lorca’s girlfriend without giving her so much as a line of dialogue — or much of a personality beyond “manic pixie dream civilian” who is “in a word, beautiful”. That’s it. She’s barely a character; she’s barely even an idea of a character. Again: I skimmed.
And that would have been it for Disco tie-ins, but The Way to the Stars came out. I love Tilly, and I knew McCormack was highly rated, sooooooo…
And it was good! I inhaled it over the course of a two-hour plane flight, and relished every side character and worldbuilding detail. I didn’t even mind that it was full of internal inconsistencies and errors which should have been caught by an editor.
None of this is to criticise the writers. I’ve read and listened to a lot of their interviews and blog posts over the last few months, and they all seem like decent people doing their best. Sexist ideas and tropes are like mould — they get everywhere. Women only have partial immunity. (I have a whole rant in me about Jeri Taylor’s Mosaic and the sexist nonsense she imposed on Janeway in that novel.)
It’s just the consistency that wears me down. The Way to the Stars felt real: Tilly’s world was full of women and girls, all with different motivations and priorities and needs. And there were men, too, and they were also well-written and layered, but that’s … normal.
Whereas finding three-dimensional female characters in a Star Trek novel? You can’t take that for granted anymore.
Where to from here?
While the television side of the franchise ramps up, it’s business as usual for Simon & Schuster. Same old, same old.
S&S is owned by CBS, so I wonder if there’s not an element of complacency at a corporate level — they’d have to really stuff up to lose the licence. (And it’s incredibly on brand for Trek‘s success to be undermined by corporate ignorance or apathy.)
According to the panel at STLV this year, they’re looking into a YA line to accompany the animated Nickelodeon spin-off aimed at younger audiences. I am … curious to see how this will go down, because if there’s one audience that won’t accept the current status quo, it’s teens.
A lot of my friends write YA. One of my favourite things about attending their book launches — aside from seeing them, and sharing their success15 — is lurking in queues, shamelessly eavesdropping on teen readers. Contrary to stereotypes about Twilight fangirls, teens right now are thoughtful and insightful critics, and utterly merciless to books and authors that don’t meet their standards. Which, by the way, are high — some of the most interesting and commercially successful SF novels of the last few years have been written for young adults.
As for middle grade readers — they’re even worse. If they don’t enjoy a book, they just won’t talk about it. Ever.
A lot of Star Trek is being made for television right now. But the tie-in novels are diminishing. Fewer releases. A smaller pool of authors. And — I haven’t forgotten why I’m here — very few women.
How do we fix this problem?
Why are you asking me? I’m not a publisher, or a marketer, or an editor. All I have to offer are overflowing bookshelves, eight-tenths of a middle grade SF manuscript on my hard drive and a blog.
Okay, but yes, I can see possibilities.
One is to take Star Trek: Picard as the cue to begin winding back the current tie-in canon and prepare to launch something new.
(Frankly I think this should have been done back when the series was first announced in 2018, but apparently time travel doesn’t exist yet, or something. But it’s also possible that this has already been quietly decided — the blurb for Collateral Damage, which will be released just a few days after this post goes up, implies that things are coming full circle, chickens are coming home to roost, etc.)
Set a date for the end of the current tie-in canon. Announce it. Give the people who love it time to adjust to the idea (and throw tantrums on Reddit).
Don’t even consider taking the books out of print; that’s just silly. A lot of people love them, and they still have an important place in the Trek universe.
I propose winding back book canon, not just because it’s impenetrable to new readers, but it makes it difficult to attract new authors. “Come write Star Trek novels, you need to be familiar with many hundreds of hours of television and movies, and also these novels”? No.
Start lining up new authors. Where do you find established novelists who might be interested in doing a Star Trek novel or two (or three, or more?) Um, have you looked at the Hugo shortlists lately?
Picture a TNG novel by Ann Leckie, or a DS9 novel by Arkady Martine. N. K. Jemisin co-wrote a Mass Effect: Andromeda tie-in; would she be interested in writing about Michael Burnham? How about Seanan McGuire? Mary Robinette Kowal? Becky Chambers? Rebecca Roanhorse, Aliette de Bodard? Zen Cho, Martha Wells? (Okay, Cho hasn’t written any SF that I’m aware of, but I love her, okay?)
Or what about getting some of that hardcore YA energy in the mix? Here’s Amie Kaufman, Beth Revis and Claudia Gray, and they’re just the first three letters of the alphabet! (Okay, but also consider: E. K. Johnston, Marie Lu, Meagan Spooner16, I CAN COME UP WITH MORE.) Are they keen? No idea! Call their agents.17
At the same time, prepare to widen the pool of regular tie-in writers with a good, old-fashioned short story competition. The Strange New Worlds anthologies of the early ’00s brought us Heather Jarman and Dayton Ward; who will be unearthed this time?
UK audio drama studio Big Finish has also been criticised for a lack of women behind the scenes, particularly in its tie-in lines, but they’re slowly correcting that, and it’s partially thanks to their use of open-entry competitions giving voice to newcomers.
More women. More gender diverse people. More people of colour. The Star Trek tie-ins should reflect the diversity of the Trekkie community, and don’t try and tell me there aren’t people out there, ready to do the work.
Okay … and how do we fix this problem if we’re not suddenly put in charge of the Star Trek fiction line?
If I knew how to effect change in a complicated, ugly world, do you think I’d be sitting here worrying about Star Trek novels?
In fact, almost a month ago, as I began drafting this piece, I emailed senior editor Ed Schlesinger at Gallery Books to ask if they had already noticed the problem and were taking steps to address it. I was rather hoping the answer would be yes, so I could just quietly shelve all this.
Unfortunately, I got no reply at all. (I don’t blame Ed — would you respond to a random off the internet emailing you about gender parity in the books you edit? I tried to avoid phrasing it like a gotcha question, but I wouldn’t be shocked if that’s how it came off.)
The first step is to have this conversation. Amongst ourselves, on social media and at cons. Bring it up in Q&As at panels. Use the #treklit hashtag. Recommend novelists you’d love to see writing Trek novels.
It’s also worth tagging the publisher and imprint: @simonschuster and @GalleryBooks. Be polite — there’s no point ruining a social media manager’s day over this. (I know I don’t need to tell you that, but I feel better knowing it’s been said.)
Don’t tag the authors. This is not their fault, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to call out their publisher.
Tag Schlesinger? Maybe. My personal feeling is that a face to face conversation at a con, even something as impersonal as a Q&A, is more likely to be productive. Online, I think it’s best to start the conversation among ourselves, and let him choose whether or not to be part of it.
Publishing moves slowly. This is not a situation that can be changed overnight, but we have to start somewhere.
This has been a mammoth effort, and I didn’t do it alone. My thanks go to:
- @nonelvispub for offering to create graphics, and then doing so — they are all lovely and also (speaking as a person whose eyes usually glaze over when they come across numbers) extremely valuable
- Lauredhel pointed me to Dale Spender and AlexSeanchai gave me some links which pointed to the Geena Davis Institute
- The team in the Galactic Suburbia Slack were all incredibly patient as I muttered about numbers and tie-ins in channels where it was not strictly on-topic
- The team in the Admiral’s Legion Discord were also incredibly patient as I shouted about numbers and tie-ins to the point where a new #novels channel had to be created
- NotJaneBond, Nenya_Kanadka and Aristofranes read a pre-beta version of this post and reassured me that it mostly made sense (and then made me trim some of my Geena Davis quotes, for which I think we can all be grateful)
- Aristofranes also suggested the title
- Finally, Tansy Rayner Roberts did a full beta, offering many useful suggestions and generally being magnificent
One final note
I don’t usually shill my Ko-Fi, but not only did this post involve a lot of work, but I had to pay for new hosting just to install a plugin for footnotes. So if you want to throw a few bucks my way, I’d be very grateful.
(I’d like to say the money will go back into my savings, but I think we all know I’m gonna blow it on books.)
- At least, it did in previous seasons. I’m not sure what it looks like for season 3.
- Yes, that’s very nerdy, but we’re here to talk about Star Trek fiction, so stop judging. Data entry is very soothing, okay?
- That is, taking the entire Bantam line, which ran from 1970 to early 1981.
- I secretly passed it along to my best friend, where it was required reading at sleepovers, and felt deeply oppressed by my unreasonable parents. Looking back, well, I was only eleven. Anyway, I sure do hope my parents don’t read my blog/the footnotes.
- Ironically, I’ve realised that this is something I actively dislike in tie-in fiction.
- the ones with Romana, if you were wondering
- I chose 50,000 as my minimum thanks to NaNo, and also this quote from David Mack: “My shortest Star Trek novel was Wildfire, at 52,000 words; my longest so far has been Vanguard: Reap the Whirlwind, which clocked in at roughly 125,000. Most of my novels range in length from 80k-95k words.”
- Disclaimer: some of those words are mine. I wrote over 100,000 words of Discovery fic in 2018, and my only regret is that it took time away from the original middle grade novel I’m working on.
- Given the nature of AO3’s tagging system, we can safely assume that there were duplicates, and also fics incorrectly marked “complete”. Just because it won a Hugo Award doesn’t mean it’s perfect.
- Before you call me out, no, I’m not a fan of corporatised, capitalist feminism. But it’s such a good example of the argument I’m making!
- The proportion improved when Wil Wheaton left, but I’ve already done so much maths, guys. This is meant to be fun!
- Of interest is Big Finish, publisher of tie-in audio drama and short story anthologies. They’ve been called out for a while for their lack of female writers and directors — and the result is that they are, slowly, improving. The system works! Not that I ran the numbers, because they’re not strictly doing tie-in novels. But it’s worth mentioning.
- Pretend I’m making a really witty and insightful Brexit joke in this footnote.
- Joanna Russ, How To Suppress Women’s Writing (1983) The Women’s Press, p18.
- Sometimes there is also cake.
- Technically Spooner and Kaufman should be listed together, since they’re frequent collaborators, but I was very attached to my alphabetisation.
- I note, in passing, that just yesterday it was announced that Akiva Goldsman, producer of Star Treks: Discovery and Picard, is also producing a TV adaptation of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Aurora Rising trilogy. Synergy, guys!
2 thoughts on “Infinite Dudes in Infinite Combinations: A very long post about Star Trek novels”
I wish I still had my Star Trek mags from the ’90s, because I remember a little thing from… Michael Jan Friedman (I THINK?) about how to get your Very Own Star Trek novel published, and it seemed to be more or less “pitch it, no porn, no killing anyone off.” Teen me started writing one immediately.
I linked this before, but behold the hilarity of S&S editorial standards in 2002: https://muccamukk.dreamwidth.org/265065.html
This was when I realised the whole thing was going down hill.
Hey, did you do stats by year as well? Is there a really clear tipping point?
I’m pretty sure I read the same article, or similar — I definitely have an adolescent attempt at a tie-in novel in my past. (Big dreams for a kid who took years to work up to finishing a fic of more than 1,000 words!)
No, but I should. For the last couple of decades, at least.
…dammit, more stats!