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A Universe of One’s Own

Artwork by Judith Clute
Judith Clute
Artwork by Judith Clute for the 1985 edition of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. It is on view in the exhibition ‘As If: Alternative Histories from Then to Now,’ at The Drawing Center, New York City, through July 28, 2019.

“Write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man.” This was the challenge the influential science-fiction editor John Campbell famously issued his authors in the 1940s. It was aimed at producing aliens as fully formed as the interstellar human travelers who encounter them. Isaac Asimov thought the best example was a creature named Tweel from Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey,” a story from 1934 that preceded the dictum. But the instruction also has the feel of a riddle, and neither Campbell nor Asimov considered its most obvious answer: a woman.

Three years before Weinbaum’s Martian adventure, Leslie F. Stone published “The Conquest of Gola” in the April 1931 issue of the science-fiction pulp magazine Wonder Stories. This was not Stone’s first published story, but it became her best known. Gola is a planet ruled by a gentle civilization of telepathic nonhumanoid females with movable eyes and sensory functions available on all parts of their round, golden-fur-covered bodies. The males of the planet are docile pleasure-consorts. Into this edenic world plunges a cadre of Earth men who desire “exploration and exploitation.” The queen rejects their plea for trade and tourism. She isn’t just dismissive of what she feels are the Earthlings’ barbarian mentality and low-grade intelligence; she simply can’t be bothered to take them seriously. “To think of mere man-things daring to attempt to force themselves upon us,” she says. “What is the universe coming to?” Rebuffed, the Earth men launch a full invasion; the Golans (who narrate the tale) obliterate them. End of story. A case study in thinking better than men but not like men.

“The Conquest of Gola” is one of the twenty-five SF tales written by women that are collected in the enjoyable new anthology The Future Is Female, edited by Lisa Yaszek, a professor of science fiction at Georgia Tech. It encompasses the genre’s pulp years (1926–1940) and the so-called Golden Age (approximately 1940–1960), and ends just before the emergence of feminist SF in the 1970s. The anthology dispels the commonly held belief that women didn’t participate much in science fiction before the Seventies and argues that a category of fiction often thought to be socially retrograde, technologically fetishistic, and poorly written is in fact rich in style and humanity. Not every story in the anthology serves this argument—Katherine MacLean’s colonization tale “Contagion” (1950) is about as socially daring as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Leigh Brackett’s well-meaning “All the Colors of the Rainbow” (1957), set in the Jim Crow South, simply exchanges dark-skinned humans for green-skinned aliens, only with a slightly better outcome. But many offer potent reminders that, as N.K. Jemisin put it in her incendiary Hugo Award acceptance speech last year, “Science fiction and fantasy are microcosms of the wider world, in no way rarefied from the world’s pettiness or prejudice.”

In “Created He Them” (1955), Alice Eleanor Jones imagines a dystopia in which economic depression and the low birth rate of “normal” babies conspire to keep women subjugated to men and the government. In “Another Rib” (1963), John Jay Wells (the pseudonym of Juanita Coulson) and Marion Zimmer Bradley cleverly engage with homosexuality, gender reassignment, and reproduction among the all-male vestige of the human race. In Kate Wilhelm’s deeply disturbing “Baby, You Were Great” (1967), a woman is subjected to continual psychological torment as fodder for a reality show that synthetically stimulates her emotions in its viewers.

The prolific C.L. Moore created both the swashbuckling male spaceship pilot Northwest Smith, an inspiration for the character of Star Wars’ Han Solo, and the female knight-ruler Jirel of Joiry, who made her debut in Weird Tales in 1934 alongside Robert E. Howard’s first Conan novella. Jirel is represented in this anthology by the uncanny tale “The Black God’s Kiss.” When the kingdom of Joiry falls to the lusty conqueror Guillaume, the warrior Jirel, “tall as most men, and as savage as the wildest of them,” seeks out a weapon to destroy him. She ventures into an underground world inhabited by frightening creatures and the statue of a god who, through a kiss—“warm-blooded woman with image of nameless stone”—affords Jirel a way to overcome Guillaume. Moore’s Lovecraftian anti-romance makes Jirel a complex hero as cunning, brave, and foolish as her male fictional contemporaries. She is like a man but, significantly, not one.

The Future Is Female cuts off somewhat arbitrarily in 1969, with stories by Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr. (the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon), and Ursula Le Guin—all writers who came into their full powers in the 1970s and whose careers had decidedly different trajectories than those of their predecessors. Theirs are perhaps the only names that non-devotees of SF might recognize (hence Le Guin’s solo billing in the anthology’s subtitle). And yet in the roughly forty-year span represented by the anthology, Yaszek tells us, women constituted 15 percent of all contributors to the main science fiction magazines, including editors, critics, poets, and science journalists, to say nothing of fans and readers. In her understandable eagerness to reintroduce these writers, Yaszek doesn’t explain how the narrative of SF has neglected so significant a population.

The earliest story in the volume is Clare Winger Harris’s “The Miracle of the Lily” (1928), in which humans and insects fight for dominion of the Earth, with humans winning the battle but losing the war, dooming themselves to a planet eradicated of vegetation and to a monotonous life of maximum efficiency in which all material, including the dead, is reduced to the atomic level and reconfigured into food. Harris’s first published story, “A Runaway World,” came out in 1926, only three months after Hugo Gernsback launched the first SF-specific magazine, Amazing Stories. Her early forays make her a pioneer regardless of gender, though she was perhaps not the first woman in SF. That honor may go to Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who published “The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar” in Argosy in 1904. Or it may go to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose 1818 novel, Frankenstein, is widely cited as the prototype for SF. But if we recognize Frankenstein, why not also The Blazing World, Margaret Cavendish’s proto-SF utopian novel, written in 1666?

In New Maps of Hell (1960), the sometime SF writer Kingsley Amis traces the genre’s ancestry back to the Greeks, through Chaucer’s “Squire’s Tale” and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and forward to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, whom he calls the cocreators of modern SF, all the way to Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick. Amis dispenses with Frankenstein in a few sentences as an example of “bad early-modern science fiction,” and fails to mention Shelley or any other female writer by name, save the “excellent woman writer” Katherine MacLean (and C.L. Moore, whose gender he doesn’t designate; perhaps he did not know she was a woman). He estimates that the author of an SF story is a “she” “once in about fifty times” and so has written women out of the history almost entirely.

But for many, including Yaszek, the genre’s provenance lies in the creation of SF-specialist magazines in the 1920s, and women were there from the start. If we follow her lead, science fiction is closing in on one hundred years of life. Roughly halfway through that span, in 1973, Joanna Russ wrote about women in the genre:

The title I chose for this essay was “The Image of Women in Science Fiction.” I hesitated between that and “Women in Science Fiction” but if I had chosen the latter, there would have been very little to say. There are plenty of images of women in science fiction. There are hardly any women.

Russ disapproved of much of the SF writing by women she did identify, including space opera, tales of domestic suburbia, and, famously, Le Guin’s use of male-gendered pronouns in her groundbreaking novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Russ had no patience for a genre predicated on the notion of speculative technologies but unable to imagine social institutions and women’s roles in them as freely. She would surely have objected to some of the stories in The Future Is Female. Nevertheless, nearly three hundred women writers were published in the pages of Galaxy, Astounding Science Fiction, New Worlds, Startling Stories, and other magazines in the decades before her essay. How did history lose track of so many of them?

In her introduction to The Future Is Female, Yaszek argues not only that there were lots of women writing SF before the feminist movement, but also that most of those women had a great time doing it. She cites the positive experiences of Leslie F. Stone, C.L. Moore, Zenna Henderson, and Leigh Brackett, the “Queen of the Space Opera” who also worked on the screenplays for The Big Sleep and The Empire Strikes Back (and who was apparently so busy in Hollywood that she asked Bradbury to finish her 1946 novella, Lorelei of the Red Mist). “I have never been discriminated against because of my sex, that I know of,” Brackett said in a 1974 interview. “Editors aren’t buying sex, they’re buying stories.”

But the truth is rather more complicated, as Brackett herself attested in the same interview:

I used to get letters in the letter columns of the old mags when I first began, saying that a woman couldn’t write Science Fiction, and I thought it was just about as sensible as saying that a one-legged man is incapable of playing the violin.

How many women were dissuaded from participating in science fiction by such criticisms? “When I came into the field,” Marion Zimmer Bradley recalled in 1988, “nobody spoke of prejudice existing against women, except that it was expected that women would have to be about twice as good as men…. Most of us reveled in the thought that we’d made it against terrific odds, and took it as proof that we were at least twice as good as the men.” Yaszek tells us that Judith Merril’s story in the anthology, “That Only a Mother” (1948), came into being when she won a bet with John Campbell, then the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, who didn’t think women capable of writing SF that would meet his standards. But in the anthology, Yaszek doesn’t mention that Campbell rejected Merril’s next story. She did discuss it in a recent episode of Wired’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, in which she paraphrased his refusal: “There are no mothers in it. I don’t really want this from you. You should be writing more about mothers.”

Yaszek’s perfunctory treatment of women’s complicated reception in what the editor and writer Lester del Rey called the “intensely male-oriented” magazines extends to misconceptions surrounding pseudonyms. Most women published under their own names, but those who did use pseudonyms, Yaszek explains, did so for reasons unrelated to perceived gender intolerance. To keep her banking job separate from her writing, for instance, Catherine Lucille Moore used her initials, C.L. But other instances did involve some form of sexism. Juanita Coulson adopted the pseudonym John Jay Wells for “Another Rib” because, as she recalls, the story “had a vaguely sexual theme, and the editor was a little nervous…he thought that [it] needed masculine names on it.” In 1969 Playboy requested to publish “Nine Lives” under the name “U.K. Le Guin” because “many of our readers are frightened by stories by women authors.”

It is disingenuous to ignore the subtleties of sexism and patriarchal tradition, particularly in a genre perceived to be a man’s world even into the 1960s. In their epistolary friendship, Tiptree and Russ frankly discussed matters of sexuality, gender, and power. “Growing up in the 1950s was growing up in disguise,” Russ wrote. “I remember it as a period in which all sorts of strange and arbitrary standards were forced upon me. In order to remain alive I had to disguise myself even from myself… it ends up being not an act but a schizoid split in your very soul.” The feeling of having to write as someone else while writing as yourself was a refrain in her communications with Tiptree: “To learn to write at all, I had to begin by thinking of myself as a sort of fake man, something that ended only with feminism.”

Tiptree (aka Alice Sheldon) had considerable experience with shifting identities. Yaszek attributes her adoption of a pseudonym to her desire “to protect her identity as a former CIA agent and budding experimental psychologist.” This explanation is troublingly superficial, as it elides the underlying reasons for Sheldon’s decision and the significant effect it had on her writing and reception. Julie Phillips reports in her excellent 2006 biography James Tiptree, Jr. that Tiptree’s “male name and manly voice made [Sheldon’s] ideas seem a bit less subversive—maybe even to [Sheldon] herself.”

Her first published story as Tiptree, included in the anthology, was “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” (1969). It is a slow-burning, morally ambiguous murder mystery with a psychologically devastating conclusion. The reader knows from the start that something is afoot with the elusive biologist Dr. Ain, who spends most of the story on a series of airplane flights from the American Midwest to Moscow to attend a scientific conference. Ain comes into view as his trip unfolds: vaguely noticed at the start, then drawing suspicion from a fellow traveler for his flu-like symptoms during an apparent outbreak, and then recognized on the last leg by a colleague who is surprised when Ain inquires about his “sentiments” toward his own work. Equally mysterious is the ill woman with whom Ain is thought to be traveling; no one else sees her, but in Kevlavik, she appears to him, and he recalls the first time he saw her, in the woods, “the day his life began.” Tiptree writes the story as a kind of humanistic procedural, doling out bits of information and lacing them with insight. The story’s moral is ecological and, without giving too much away, the reader, as an inhabitant of Earth, is implicated in its outcome. The tale’s revelations come less as a shock (though they are shocking) than as an overwhelming grief, for the reader and for Ain—both of whom are at once perpetrator and victim.

As Raccoona Sheldon, one of her other pseudonyms, Tiptree wrote to a female publisher, “There is a faint feeling that a roaring adventure story by a woman isn’t quite as, well, interesting as if it was by a man.” That “faint feeling” wasn’t just her imagination. In a short introduction to Tiptree’s first collection, 10,000 Light Years from Home (1973), the writer Harry Harrison declared, “Here was a story by a professional, a man who knew how to interest me, entertain me, and tell me something about the world and mankind’s affairs all at the same time.” He added: “There is a temptation in an introduction of this kind to be very biographical and spend a good deal of time on the author’s lovely dark hair or firm waistline despite his advancing years.” Harrison was convinced that Tiptree was a man, and so his choice bits of “biography” transmute into virile rhetorical flourish:

I shall resist this because the fiction, the stories before you, are what really counts. The fact that their author enjoys observing bears in the wilds of Canada or skindiving deep in Mexico is not really relevant. Nor is the information that he spent a good part of World War II in a Pentagon subbasement. These facts may clue you to the obviosity that James Tiptree, Jr. is well-traveled and well-experienced in the facts, both sordid and otherwise, of our world. But internal evidence in the stories informs us of that just as easily.

Sheldon didn’t reveal her identity until 1976, inadvertently outed by her mother’s obituary in the newspaper. Despite her initial enthusiasm for unmasking herself and a host of encouraging letters from her friends in SF, Sheldon felt the loss of her alter ego profoundly. The freedom of imagination and the authority she felt when writing as Tiptree dissolved. In her journal, she wrote, “Tiptree’s ‘death’ has made me face…my self-hate as a woman. And my view of the world as structured by raw power…. I want power, I want to be listened to…. And I’ll never have it.”

Even recognition and reputation couldn’t ensure equal respect for women. In his 1971 introduction to Anne McCaffrey’s Hugo Award–winning story “Weyr Search,” Isaac Asimov enumerates not her literary talents but her physical ones. “Not only am I a ‘Women’s Lib’ from long before there was one,” he writes patronizingly, “but I have the most disarming way of goggling at Junoesque measurements which convinces any woman possessing them that I have good taste.”

Yaszek seems to want to let the science-fiction community off the hook for not recognizing more women writers, arguing that “the problem was not the reception of women in SF per se, but patterns of sexual discrimination across American culture.” The publication history of SF, however, is very much a history of discrimination and an illuminating case study of how women writers get lost in plain sight.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, science fiction existed primarily in the pulps. These magazines peaked in the 1950s, when, as Eric Leif Davin reports in his exhaustive 2005 study, Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926–1965, there were sixty-one different SF magazines. Books began to rival magazines in the Sixties with the rise of paperbacks. Davin points out that “few of the many female writers who had appeared in the magazines made the transition to the new medium of novels.” The journalist Sarah Weinman observed a similar trend in crime fiction:

When pulp paperback original publishing came along…a curious thing happened: the old pattern from pulp magazines re-established itself. Male authors went to the paperbacks, the quick advance, and the gigantic print runs, which were marketed to a predominantly male audience who viewed the books as disposable. With rare exceptions, female authors kept to the hardcovers, their books geared to libraries and book-of-the-month clubs with smaller print runs. The narrowed print runs and general lack of availability to a mass audience may account for the greater focus paid to the male writers over women writers as much as does the mystique of the pulps.

Pamela Sargent, who published five “Women of Wonder” collections of female-written science fiction between 1975 and 1995, including a volume devoted to the same “classic years” as The Future Is Female, observed that “unless a science fiction writer publishes a large number of novels, she is likely to remain relatively unknown, whatever her accomplishments in the shorter form.”

Anthologies have long been important in SF publishing, both for preserving stories and for presenting new short-form work. The patterns of gender disparity are found here too. Among the earliest is The Best of Science Fiction (1946), which included forty stories written between 1844 and 1945. Leslie F. Stone is its only solo female contributor, with a second, C.L. Moore, appearing under the pen name Lewis Padgett, which she used when collaborating with her husband, Henry Kuttner. In the next decade, the most prominent anthology was Star Science Fiction, whose six volumes feature a grand total of seven stories by six women, two of whom co-wrote their contributions with men. Damon Knight’s Orbit was the most successful anthology series in the Sixties. The five volumes published between 1966 and 1969 included forty-nine stories and “novelettes,” of which eighteen are by twelve different women, a significant increase over previous decades (though that’s a low hurdle to clear). In 1967 Harlan Ellison published his influential anthology of original work, Dangerous Visions. Of its thirty-three entries, three were by women; the sequel he published five years later included only seven women among forty-six contributions.

What of women editors? Between 1956 and 1968, when Judith Merril edited a dozen volumes of SF: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy, the gender divide among her selections was comparable, if not slightly worse than the examples mentioned above. These figures conjure a passage from Russ’s brilliant and scathing book How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983) that, like this essay, resorts to bean counting anthology entries to make a point:

Novelist Samuel Delany has argued that outside of specifically social situations (like cocktail parties), Americans are trained to “see” a group in which men predominate to the extent of 65 percent to 75 percent as half male and half female. In business and on the street, groups in which women actually number 50 percent tend to be seen as being more than 50 percent female. It is not impossible that some similar, unconscious mechanism controls the number of female writers which looks “proper” or “enough” to anthologists and editors. (I am reminded of the folk wisdom of female academics, one of whom whispered to me before a meeting at which we were the only women present, “Don’t sit next to me or they’ll say we’re taking over.”)

In Partners in Wonder, Davin has compiled an impressive amount of data, dismissing anecdotal notions about the era with facts, but he sometimes misses the forest for the trees. He is harsh on second-wave feminists who, he says, created the myth of a sexist patriarchy in science fiction. “They were not able to see back, beyond the early-Sixties contraction, to that female past,” he writes, “because their mythology said it had never existed.” But how readily available were copies of SF magazines from the Forties and Fifties to women in the Seventies? (Damon Knight observed that “once a magazine goes off sale, it’s gone.”) In looking back, feminists would not have glimpsed a bulb that had dimmed over time, but merely a pinprick of light.

The history of literature is a history of publication—who gets published, in what form, by whom, and when, a host of factors that conspire to determine whether an author gains renown or disappears from the literary landscape. If we examine the history of literary achievement (a critical mass of awards, magazine profiles, reviews, inclusion in anthologies and course offerings), it is largely white, male, and middle class—a homogeneity enabled by a similar constituency in the editorial departments of periodicals and books. In Silences, her groundbreaking 1978 survey of the American publishing industry, Tillie Olsen found one female writer of achievement for every twelve male writers. The gender and racial makeup of publishing in all its forms is beginning a slow shift (with quite a long way to go), and with it has come a wealth of rediscovered voices, many of them female, and in a variety of genres.

But it isn’t enough to recall these “lost” writers; it is equally important to understand how history overtook them in the first place, a reconsideration of what we thought we knew—a form of time travel in which the present transforms the past. “When the memory of one’s predecessors is buried,” Russ writes in How to Suppress Women’s Writing:

the assumption persists that there were none and each generation of women believes itself to be faced with the burden of doing everything for the first time. And if no one ever did it before, if no woman was ever that socially sacred creature, “a great writer,” why do we think we can succeed now?

Writers of color know this well. “Every single freaking thing I read was about a white dude doing white-dude things,” Jemisin told Vulture last year. “For the longest time, I would not write women. I would not write black women. I didn’t know how.”