Researching The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction

(Talk given to the Friends of the University of Sydney Library on 19 August 2002)

I’m here to talk about the genesis of my new book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. The book literally would not exist without Rare Books’s Science Fiction collection. And neither would the book I’m currently working on. In fact, neither would my career. Or at least my career would certainly have gone along a very different path.

The science fiction collection is built around Ronald Graham’s 1978 bequest of his extraordinary sf collection. He was an obsessive spending a vast deal of his fortune attempting to acquire every copy of every sf magazine or book ever printed. He came pretty close. Knowing that his family had zero interest in sf he bequeathed his collection to Rare Books. The existence of that collection is why I’ve been working on early sf for the last ten years. It’s a science fiction scholar’s dream. It’s all down there: the fiction; the criticism; the discussions; both amateur and professional. Reading through the pages of magazines and fanzines in the early days of sf I saw the sf community emerging.

I was first shown around Rare Books in, I think, 1991. I was in the final year of my honours degree and I had been toying with the idea of doing my Ph.D. thesis on fantasy or science fiction. What my Ph.D. was going to be about occupied my mind a lot as I procrastinated about writing the essays that would get me the marks that would allow me to actually do said Ph.D. Depending on the time of day or what I had just read my thesis was going to be about the reception of Elvis Presley amongst indigenous communities in Australia; the short stories of Isak Dinesen or Angela Carter or Tanith Lee or Kate Chopin or maybe Flannery O’Conner; or possibly on the use of nightmares in horror films.

Somehow, I really can’t remember how this happened, who it was that told me the collection existed, or who to see about it, but I went and saw Pauline Dickinson (the creator and then manager of the collection). I must have been really incoherent describing why I wanted to look at the collection because somehow she assumed that I wanted to look at the fanzine collection. I had no idea what a fanzine was. For those of you who don’t know a fanzine is an amateur magazines produced by science fiction fans which covered many topics, sometimes even science fiction.

Pauline pulled various fanzines out, talking about the Futurians and the Moonrakers, as though I should know who they were, mentioning names like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (at least I’d heard of them) as well as lots of many names that were completely new to me. She mentioned something called a staple war and other other puzzling things.

Pauline than showed me the science fiction magazines. I had only the vaguest notions about the history of science fiction. For me it was a genre made up of books. I had no idea that short story magazines had been crucial to its development. I had no idea that until the paperback boom of the 1950s, short story magazines had been crucial to almost all genres of writing, particularly in the USA. Here was Pauline, holding up the very first issue of the very first English-language science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories dated April 1926. I was, well, amazed. I knew then and there that my thesis was going to be about science fiction, and was going to be shaped by that collection.

1n 1992 as soon as I enrolled, I went to work. I was absolutely thrilled to discover that it was deemed more practical to give me a desk down in the collection, than for me to sit in the reading room filling in request forms for particular volumes. The majority of the collection is not catalogued, making it pretty difficult to specify what volume I wanted.

So there I was alone in a huge room with no windows, full of row after row of the various special collections–Victorian triples; a complete run of Playboy magazine, rare eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific texts; detective fiction; and then right at the end the many, many shelves of the science fiction collection: books and magazines and fanzines and my little desk and chair. I felt like a child let loose in a lolly shop.

At first I had no system because beyond the general area of science fiction I had no idea what my thesis was going to be about. I read through early issues of Amazing and fanzines from the 1930s because they were what I had seen first. Then I read issues of magazines with titles like Planet Stories, Weird Tales and Thrilling Wonder Stories because they had the best covers.

I realised fairly quickly that I was far more fascinated by the letters and editorials than I was by the stories. Many of which are pretty unreadable by contemporary standards. The letters by contrast were often lively and engaging. They range from short letters which merely rate the stories, to discussions of scientific problems in the stories, to debates about the state of science fiction and the world, or perhaps just the state of the particular magazine. This letter from a 1947 Astounding Science Fiction is a good example:

The whole magazine is really something that science fiction can be proud of, something that you can show to the scoffers and say, "Since when is science-fiction tripe!" The recent atom-bomb stories are wonderful, frightening things, really not "astounding" at all, since they very likely could happen in another war….

BUT, Brass Tacks is the worst letter column published. It’s too short and doesn’t have half enough editorial comment on individual letters. Either you leave out Brass Tacks entirely, or you publish three or four long, highly technical letters from people who write in and dispute the accuracy of the meteorology, astronomical mathematics, electronics, or gunnery trajectory computation of the articles. Not always, of course, but more and more Brass Tacks is inclining towards the old Science Discussions. There’s nothing wrong with Science Discussions but it gives fans like me, who are majoring in history and English literature, a rather futile, behind-the-times feeling, as if our humble opinion is not wanted, aside from maybe a card rating the stories.

Reading the letters becomes addictive because there were often sequels. A controversial letter in one month would be followed up by many replies in later issues. Or sometimes a seemingly innocuous letter would set the letter writers off. Certain names would turn up over and over again. I found myself beginning to skip letters from some writers because they annoyed me (I know bad historian, bad) and impatiently looking for the letters of other regulars (known in the fan community as letterhacks).

It all began in Amazing Stories. The first science fiction magazine, with the first editorials and letter columns. This is where science fiction fandom was born. Those letterhacks started to write letters directly to one another. Easy to do as their full address was printed in the magazine. From writing each other letters they went on to forming clubs and printing fanzines and by 1936 putting on the first science fiction conventions.

Reading through the early issues of Amazing I saw the first appearance, in the editorials and the letters, of the notion that science fiction is not like other popular genres, that it is a literature of ideas. A literature about science, technology, progress. A literature that is good for you rather than being merely escapist.

Gernsback frequently points to the magazine’s educational mission declaring in the first issue that his magazine is not "the love story" or "the sex-appeal type of magazine [or] the adventure type”. The emphasis was strongly on the ‘science’ in science fiction: "[W]e live in an entirely new world. Two hundred years ago, stories of this kind were not possible.” Gernsback writes:

Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are also always instructive. They supply knowledge that we might not otherwise obtain—and they supply it in a very palatable form. For the best of these modern writers of scientifiction have the knack of imparting knowledge, and even inspiration, without once making us aware that we are being taught (First editorial, April 1926: 3).

Gernsback particularly loved to publish letters from readers who were led to study science by reading science fiction: One of his readers writes that the "science in most of the stories is an inspiration to me in my studies in electrical engineering” (Science Wonder Stories [October 1929]: 467).

I was utterly fascinated by this wealth of primary material. I was also out of my depth. I realised I was going to have to read some secondary material to help make sense of it all. In the midst of doing that I came across Joanna Russ’ 1980 article "Amor Vincit Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction” and suddenly my thesis, now book, was born.

In the article, Russ uses the term "the battle of the sexes" to refer to sf texts which are explicitly about the ‘Sex War’ between men and women. She discusses ten stories published in the USA between 1926 and 1973. Stories in which women have turned on men—literally battled against them—and taken over the world. Worlds in which women have been eliminated because they are no longer necessary in a male scientific utopia. In most of the worlds where women have taken there will be one brave man left who will find the one feminine woman left and together they will lead the world back to how it should be. The stories sounded bizarre.

Before I read the Russ article I had no idea there were such stories in science fiction. Yet because I was sitting reading this article down in Rare Books surrounded by the majority of the science fiction published in English between those dates 1926 and 1973, I was able to get up and find the original of each story on the shelves. The majority of the stories Russ refers to come from Sam Moskowitz’s anthology When Women Rule (1972) I was able to read the stories in their original context, with the editorial descriptions of them, blurbs about their authors, and readers’ responses.

It was clear that the sf community recognised it as a subgenre of science fiction and could name many other examples. Often berating a particular story for merely copying an earlier and not doing it nearly so well. Having read the stories in situ it was easy to find those other examples and I could read debates about the relationship of men and women taking place not just in the stories but in the letter columns and editorials of the science fiction magazines and in the fanzines. All of which gives a very different picture, a more complex one, than that set forth by Russ in her article. As I said access to this kind of material is historian heaven.

In one day I had read Joanna Russ’ article, most of the stories she refers to, as well as some letters in response to those stories. Because of my earlier random reading through other science fiction magazines I had already come across letters to the editor that dealt with the Sex War. I knew I had a wonderful topic.

One of the letters I had already seen was by the 18 year old Isaac Asimov supporting the idea that women and love (interchangeable items) have no place in science fiction. They’re interchangeable terms because according to Asimov and others, the only place for a woman in a science fiction story is as the love interest not as, God forbid, a scientist. In one letter, in support of another correspondent he writes:

Three rousing cheers for Donald G. Turnbull of Toronto for his valiant attack on those favoring mush. When we want science-fiction, we don’t want swooning dames, and that goes double. You needn’t worry about Miss Evans, Donald, us he-men are for you and if she tries to slap you down, you’ve got an able (I hope) confederate and tried auxiliary right here in the person of yours truly. Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science! (Astounding Science Fiction [September 1938]: 161).

I read with interest the many replies of female—and male fans—who disagreed. That particular debate comes up in science fiction again and again. I had no shortage of material.

Sitting in Rare Books surrounded by thousands of sf fanzines, magazines and books I was able to follow the emergence of science fiction fandom and the science fiction community. The majority of academic work on science fiction either ignores or says very little about the importance of the science fiction magazines and of science fiction fandom. I believe the major reason for that is simply lack of access. If Rare Books did not have this collection, I doubt that I would understand science fiction in the same way that I do now. (Even if I had actually done a PhD on science fiction and not one on the reception of Elvis Presley amongst indigenous communities of Australia.) The majority of my information would have come from secondary not primary sources.

Rare Books is also where I first discovered the New York Futurians who are the subject of the book I am working on now. I discovered them one day when I had reached my limits of reading battle of the sexes stories. This happened every so often.

Here’s a plot synopsis of a typical sex battle story: "The Priestess Who Rebelled,” published in 1939 by Nelson S. Bond is the first in three stories about Meg, a priestess in a postapocalyptic matriarchal world. She meets a man, Daiv, who is unlike the soft, weak men who serve her people as breeding stock. He comes from the one unmatriarchal people left on Earth. Meg is on her way to see the Gods, this being the last rite before she becomes the Mother, head priestess of her people. The man, Daiv, tells her that her Gods are men and implores her to be his mate as she is very beautiful—though his first words to her are: "You . . . talk too much. Sit down, Woman!” (208).

Before Meg goes to see her Gods, Daiv kisses her, "the touching of mouths,” and she is swept off her feet but still determined to do her duty. She arrives at Mount Rushmore, which turns out to be the Place of the Gods, and sees that her Gods are in fact men: Jaarg, Taamuz, Ibrim, and Tedhi. Meg realizes that her sterile, unnatural, virgin existence need not continue: she can become Daiv’s mate and live happily ever after. She tells the priestess of her people:

It is no Man-thing, Mother. It is a Man; a real Man such as were the Gods! Not a scrimping parody like our breeders, nor a foul brute like the Wild Ones – but a Man. He is Daiv, my mate! (Bond 1940: 46).

As you can imagine reading stories like that everyday for several years can become a bit much. So every so often I would get up, prowl around the shelves, until something would catch my eye. Very early on two beaten up cardboard boxes did. They turned out to contain early Futurian fanzines, a few letters and some photographs. I’m pretty sure Pauline had pointed them out to me during that initial tour.

Although I recognised some of their names, Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, and knew the Futurians were a fan group I still had only a vague idea of what science fiction fandom was. Reading their fanzines from the late 1930s/early 1940s was a lot of fun. They were funny, lively and engaging. I learned about the first ‘world’ science fiction convention held in New York City in 1939 in conjunction with the World’s Fair and about their feud with some of the members of the rival sf fan group, the Queens Science Fiction League, which led to four of the Futurians being barred from attending the convention.

I became obsessed and spent several days reading Futurian material. Their fanzines varied from one- or-two page notices which were circulated in their share households to full scale productions with artwork, stories, poetry and articles. I did not know as I read them that the Futurians were the most famous of all sf fan groups. Famous because almost everyone of them went on to a distinguished career within the field. Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Damon Knight, Judith Merril and James Blish were all Futurians.

The Futurians formed in the late 30s when a cadre of left-wing science fiction enthusiasts got together in New York City. They were aged between 14 and 21. They adopted the Gernsbackesque motto, "Save humanity with science and sanity”. Though unlike Gernsback there was a certain amount of tongue in cheek. Though not always, in 1939 Frederik Pohl had the following letter published in "Under the Lens,” the letter column of Marvel Science Stories:

Readers of your magazine will be interested in the new Futurian Federation of the World, an organization which will make strong attempts to enroll every science fiction reader in its ranks. It is not necessary to be one of the ten most popular fans to join The Futurians or to enjoy its organ; it is merely required that one have an active and alive interest in science fiction and in the future.

The official organ of the Federation, The Futurian Review, furnishes the most adequate and interesting coverage of what is going on in science fiction and allied fields of any fan magazine. Subscriptions to this paper are given free to all members of The Federation and can be obtained in no other way, but a sample copy, plus information on the club itself, may be had for 10c in coin of any country of the world sent to Frederik Pohl, Provisional President 280 St John’s Place, Brooklyn, New York (Marvel Science Stories August 1939: 108).

The drive to gather lots of other Futurians did not last very long. The group never exceeded twenty and by the early forties the desire to conquer the world and turn it into a Futurian Federation had vanished. They were happy just hanging together reading, writing, arguing.

Reading their fanzines as I did–with precious little context–raised more questions than answers. What I wondered was Ghod and Ghu? Who were the evil Quadrumvirate? What on earth were they raging a battle against?

Some of the answers to these questions I found in a fabulous amateur publication, The Fancyclopedia, published in 1944 by one Jack Speer which I found underneath one of the boxes of Futurian material next to the run of Wonder Stories. There was an entry on the Futurians:

Futurians – A group of New York fans, of whom Wollheim, Lowndes, Pohl and Michel have been the central figures. Others thot [sic] of as belonging to the group are Cyril Kornbluth, Harry Dockweiler, Chet Cohen, Dan Burford, Jack Rubinson, David A. Kyle, Dick Wilson, Isaac Asimov, Herman Leventman, Walter Kubilius and leslie perri.

The Futurians present a peculiar differentness in whatever sphere of fan activity they engage in, being, with some exceptions in each case, Bohemian in social practices Marxistic in politics, anti-Sykora in fan feuds, Michelistic in fanish whiterings, inclined fanarchistically with regard to general fan organization, given to vers libre in poetry, eroticism in literature, and decadence in all forms of art, and having taken part as a bloc in Progressive and Constitutional parties of the FAPA.

They emerged upon the breakup of the ISAA, and were the dominant faction in the Second Fandom, when they were called Wollheimists. When the GNYSFL broke up, they formed the FSNY in September 1938. With Pohl’s Futurian Federation of the World, the term "Futurian” became a common word for that type of stefnist. After the Quadrumvirs resigned from FAPA office, they became less active, but lived in various science fiction houses, and many graduated in time from author’s agents to editorships of some of the new pros, where they put quite a lot of their personalities into their magazines, and were noted for the number of Futurian authors appearing in Futurian-edited magazines (41).

This raised a whole lot more questions. Who’s Sykora? What’s the ISAA? I spent a lot of time flipping from entry to entry in the book before realising that I really needed to get back to reading about real Men and real Women and the battle of the sexes.

I did not forget the Futurians or their fanzines. I realised that this was a very interesting and weird group of people who had an enormous effect on shaping science fiction. I became even more determined to go back to them when I discovered how rare the fanzines were–a large part of the collection of Futurian papers in the Rare Book no longer exist anywhere else in the world.

So that’s how this book and the one I’m writing came about and how I’ve found myself transformed into a science fiction expert. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the staff of Rare Books who since 1991 have been absolutely amazing. Thank you.