We Have Always Been Fighting this Fight

N K Jemisin recently gave a speech in response to the latest kerfuffle around sexism and racism in science fiction. It’s a very fine speech. Go read it.

One of the points she makes is this:

women have been in SFF from the very beginning. We might not always have been visible, hidden away behind initials and masculine-sounding pseudonyms, quietly running the conventions at which men ran around pinching women’s bottoms, but we were there.

I would go further than that. Not only have women always been in SFF1, there have always been women (and some men) critiquing the misogyny and sexism of the genre. We have always been fighting this fight. As Jemisin says “memories in SFF are short, and the misconceptions vast and deep.”

How do I know that we have always been fighting misogyny in our genre? Because I wrote a whole book about it: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.

As research for that book I spent years reading science fiction magazines from the 1920s through to the 1970s. I particularly paid close attention to the letter columns wherein I found gems like the ones featured here which argue about whether women have a place in science fiction. Here’s Mary Evelyn Byers in 1938 arguing against teenage sf fans, Isaac Asimov and David McIlwain (who went on to be the science fiction write Charles Eric Maine):

To [Asimov's] plea for less hooey I give my whole-hearted support, but less hooey does not mean less women; it means a difference in the way they are introduced into the story and the part they play. Let Mr. Asimov turn the pages of a good history book and see how many times mankind has held progress back; let him also take notice that any changes wrought by women have been more or less permanent, and that these changes were usually made against the prejudice and illogical arguments of men, and feel himself chastened.

I found many such discussions and arguments. Arguing about the place of women and sex in science fiction turned out to be one of the continuing themes of science fiction, which is what Battle of the Sexes is about. We have always been having these arguments and fighting these fights. Our rebuttals have gotten a lot more inclusive and nuanced but those arguing for sexism and misogyny? They’re playing the same old song. Read Asimov and McIlwain’s 1938 letters if you don’t believe me.

The biggest difference is that in the 1930s women like Mary Evelyn Byers were far rarer than they are now. And the men supporting them were even rarer. There are more of us now and we have more allies than ever before. Things have gotten better.

N K Jemisin also observes:

[P]eople of color have been in SFF from the very beginning, hiding behind the racial anonymity of names and pseudonyms—and sometimes forcibly prevented from publishing our work by well-meaning editors, lest SFF audiences be troubled by the sight of a brown person in the protagonist’s role.

I have seen many, mostly white people, doubt it, saying things like “I never saw anyone who wasn’t white at a science fiction convention in the old days.” Yeah, I wonder why that was. Could it be the same reason so few white women dared show up? Why, to this day, women sf writers are avoiding the predominantly white male sf conventions?

The role call of sf writers of colour is a long one and almost all of them, like Samuel R. Delany, grew up reading and loving science fiction. In 2009 during RaceFail there was an outpouring of fans of colour talking about how long they and their families have loved SFF to prove that they were not, in fact, rarer than wild unicorns.

I did not find letters from people of colour, or many arguments about race in those letter columns,2 but a) I wasn’t looking for them, I was looking for arguments about sex and gender and b) how would I know? As Nora points out, in print racial anonymity is easy. Also, judging by the rude, patronising, idiotic responses brave letter writers such as Mary Evelyn Byers got to their arguments that women are human too, any such letter writer would have gotten an even worse response.

Those letter columns were hostile spaces for women who didn’t want to play the role of good girl fan. Hell, there are enough online spaces right now that are still hostile to women who speak out about pretty much anything. What would those letter columns of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, have been like for a person of colour wondering where all the sf stories about the civil rights movement are? It’s bad enough when similar questions are asked now.

Which is why I fully endorse N. K. Jemisin’s call for reconciliation:

It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them. It’s time we made note of what ground we’ve trodden upon, and the wrongs we’ve done to those who trod it first. And it’s time we took steps—some symbolic, some substantive—to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone.

Jemisin is so very right that learning the history of this genre and acknowledging that we have always been fighting these fights is a crucial first step.

NB: I have not done any research in this area for more than a decade. Someone else may have found such letters and fanzines. If anyone knows of such research it would be lovely if you could share in the comments.

  1. The abbreviation is for science fiction and fantasy. []
  2. There were many stories in the old magazines dealing with questions of race. Almost all of which were very, very racist. One of the stories I discuss in Battle, “The Feminine Metamorphosis” by David H. Keller, is about uppity white women using Chinese gonads to turn themselves into men and rule the world. The gonads turn out to be syphilitic and the women all go mad as the hero lectures them on bucking God’s plan for them to be “loving wives and wonderful mothers.” No, I’m not making this up. The story was first published in 1929. []

Signed books

If you’re in San Francisco, Seattle, or New York City you can find signed copies of my books here:

Borderlands
866 Valencia St
San Francisco
415.824.8203
They not only have the Magic or Madness trilogy but also Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and Daughters of Earth

Books Inc Opera Plaza
601 Van Ness
San Francisco
415-776-1111

All For Kids
2900 N.E. Blakeley Street
Seattle
206.526.2768

Books of Wonder
18 West 18th Street
New York
212-989-3270

If you’re hankering for a signed copy of one of my books but don’t live anywhere near those shops—they all do mail order.

And because I’m curious how many of you like to have all your favourite books signed by the author? Do any of you collect signed books even if you’ve not read the book in question?

The Former Me

In my previous life I was an academic. Not a very successful or prolific one. I spent four and a half years researching and writing my PhD thesis, while on a scholarship and doing paid-by-the-hour teaching (what’s known in the US as being a TA) as well as IT support. After that I was awarded a three-year post-doctoral fellowship that my university extended for nine months. In that time I wrote and published one book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, and edited a collection of stories and essays, Daughters of Earth as well as writing a bunch of essays and papers (and on the sly I wrote short stories and a novel.)

Twas an eight-year-and-three-month career that ended more than four years ago. Yet, people write to me disturbingly often asking me my opinion of the field I studied, about what books I think are at the cutting edge, and curly questions about my two scholarly books which I wrote ages ago and can’t remember a thing about.

I haven’t read any scholarly work since it stopped being my job. I have no idea what the latest work on science fiction is. I don’t even read science fiction novels anymore. It was never my favourite genre and having to read it for more than eight years put me off for life. Though I don’t mind YA science fiction. I pretty much enjoy YA everything.

Not having to read scholarly work any more is one of my greatest joys. Too much of it is turgid and boring, which is why I’m so relieved I don’t have to write it any more. I hated having to second guess every possible objection to every sentence I wrote. It’s a joy not having to write as if I have constipation or to footnote every single argument.

The only things I loved about being an academic—research and hanging out with like-minded people—I still get to do. For the Magic or Madness trilogy I read a scary amount of books on mathematics and number theory (I’m not saying I understood ‘em). For the book I’ll be writing after The UFB I’ve been going back and reading gazillions of ballads. I even plan to crack open some ballad scholarship. For the book after that I’ll be doing lots of research on [redacted for reasons of spoileration] and [also redacted for the same reason].

The glorious thing about research for fiction is that if the research doesn’t fit I can ignore it. I’m writing fiction—most often fantasy—so I twist the facts to fit my books not the other way round. Such bliss!

I’ve written five novels since I quit being an academic. I can’t remember my research for the Magic or Madness trilogy so I really can’t remember any of my scholarly projects. I’m not alone in this. I remember hearing Jonathan Lethem say that when Motherless Brooklyn came out he was taken up by the Tourette’s Syndrome community. But by that time he was onto the next book and had forgotten all his Tourette’s research. We writers are a fickle short-term memoried lot.

To sum up: please don’t ask me about my scholarly books. I know nothing.

Reviews

The ethics of accepting free things for review is being debated amongst comic reviewers. Can you give an unbiased opinion about a book or comic or DVD or whatever if it’s a freebie? Etc etc blah blah blah.

Please! Of course, you can.

I have to admit I find this debate a bit yawn-worthy. Reviewers and critics have been getting stuff for free and then completely slamming the stuff they don’t like since the dawn of the printed word. If someone out there is giving only good reviews to the free stuff then they’re not worthy of the name “reviewer” or “critic”. They’re poorly paid advertising. Readers can tell the difference.

Colleen Mondor agrees the debate is pretty silly. She also makes a really excellent point over at Comics Worth Reading:

I am sure it is frustrating for creators to know their books (or comics) are being sent out there and then not hear anything from reviewers, but it is just one more step in the long frustrating game of publication. Honestly, I think writers should be glad that there are so many more venues for their books to be reviewed now then in the past —at least with the web you can get your work reviewed by literally hundreds of places, rather than relying on a very few the way it was twenty years ago. At least you have a decent shot to get some publicity.

This is so very true. In the last six months or so I’ve been finding accidentally stumbling across roughly a review a week of one of my books somewhere on the intramanets. Some are just a line or two, others are much longer. That’s a lot of talk about my books that would not have existed ten years ago. Or even five. Not all are positive, not all sites have a tonne of traffic. So they’re not generating oodles of sales. Doesn’t matter. It’s absolutely delicious to be able to read what my audience thinks. To have tangible proof that I have an audience. No matter how small.

I remember way back in 1993, at my very first science fiction convention, meeting a published writer who had already published five or six books. She told me one of the things she liked best about cons was getting to meet people who’d read her books. “Otherwise, I’d just be writing in a vacuum. Most of my books haven’t been reviewed anywhere.”

My eyes bugged out. It had never occurred to me that you could be a published author and not be reviewed. (It had never occurred to me that you could be a published writer and not be living on champagne, mangosteens, and caviar with rainbows of happiness cascading all around you.) Now, of course, I know better.

I’ve just finished a trilogy. The first book was widely reviewed in the offline press, the second book—not so much. I’ll be interested to see what happens with the third. I’ve heard that the longer a series goes on, the less you get reviewed. (You know, unless you’re J. K. Rowling.)

But I do know that even if I get no “official” reviews at all. There’ll still be online ones. There have already been a few. I came across the lastest one today. It’s from one of the regular commenters here, Rebecca, and it’s her very first book review. I think it’s excellent, but I’m incredibly biased. She says

Magic’s Child does everything I could have hoped for and more. If you aren’t already reading it, or on the waiting list to borrow my copy of Magic or Madness (hehe, I have a waiting list), then you should go out and get the books RIGHT NOW. Plus, Magic Lessons just came out in paperback. And so I must conclude that Magic’s Child is awesome and was an excellent, surprising, and exciting end to the trilogy (which, incidentally, I pulled an all-nighter to read. Yes–it’s that good :D ). Read it. Everyone. Now. :)

So, yeah, what Colleen said. This writer is very glad indeed that the intramawebbies has produced so many more venues for reviewing and talking about the things we love. Yay intramanets!

An interview and some questions

Adrienne Martini interviewed me for Bookslut about Daughters of Earth and Battle of the Sexes. Go have a squiz. Co-incidentally Martini was just interviewed by Scalzi and it made me want to read her book.

The questions:

If Stephen Colbert shook your hand today would you ever wash it again? Just wondering.1

Is Diana Wynne Jones’s latest book, The Pinhoe Egg, her best in years?2 Oh, you know it is. That book made me so happy!

  1. Not that I have any plans of washing while it’s still winter. What if the hot water cuts out while I’m all soaped up? I’ll wash again in June when I leave the flat again. []
  2. Not that the last few books were bad in any way, shape or form—I don’t believe that she could write a bad book—they were just less genius-y than my faves of hers. []

To belong or not to belong

I’m a big believer in community. I’m convinced that it’s very very very difficult to produce good art without some kind of a community behind you. I can date the turnaround in my own writing to my first showing it to other writers. Their critiques hurt like hell, but my writing got better in ways it never would have otherwise.

The communities of writers and other publishing folks I’m involved with share a wealth of information with each other. We tell each other about which editors we enjoy working with and why, which houses have the best publicity/sales/marketing departments. Who got paid what by which house. When third person is a better fit than first. What the differences are between writing middle grade and young adult books. What Amazon numbers mean (bugger all). How to survive writing the third book in a trilogy and so on and so forth.

I honestly don’t know how I’d cope in this industry if I didn’t have all my publishing friends to turn to. I’ve also been enjoying passing on what I’ve learned to others via my musings, this blog, at various appearances, and by other means, most enjoyably in person over a yummy meal. Helping other folks is even better than being helped. Who knew?

And yet I’m also extremely reluctant to join organisations.

I’m currently a member of SCBWI because I taught at one of the SCBWI workshops and was comped a year’s membership. I doubt I would have joined otherwise. I’m also a member of ASIF! because censorship makes my blood boil and also it’s not a formal organisation in the way that SCBWI is—it’s more of an activist mailing list based around one particular issue. Mailing lists I can do. I’m also not a member of SFWA which is the premier organisation of science fiction and fantasy professionals.

That’s weird because although I made my fiction debut as a young adult writer, I’ve been a part of the sf and fantasy community for more than fifteen years now, dating back to when I was researching my PhD (which became The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction).

I think it might be because I know too much about SFWA. As part of my doctoral and post-doctoral research I read a vast deal of correspondence about SFWA and a great many back issues of their SFWA Forum. The result is that I feel completely burned out by the organisation without ever having been part of it.

This is not to say that SFWA is any more dysfunctional than any other organisation. Show me an organisation whose members are all a hundred per cent gruntled and I’d want to know what drugs they’re on.

Professional organisations have a great deal going for them. The best of them provide vital services to their members like advocacy when professional disasters occur, cheap lawyers, cheap health insurance, and so forth. They’re also a good way to meet your peers, which (see above) is invaluable.

However, you can be part of a community but not of any its professional bodies. There are some who’d say you’re not being a good citizen in doing so, but, well, I seem to disagree. Thing is I’m not entirely sure why.

It may be a touch of the Groucho Marxes (“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”), or it could be that I worry about being associated with an organisation that is on the record as supporting causes I don’t support. Or not on the record for supporting causes I do. I guess I would much rather keep my solo voice as part of broader and more disparate communities.

Or maybe it’s because I didn’t enjoy playground politics in high school. Nor did I enjoy the university version—either as a student or as a staff member. It could be that I’m just not comfortable with the politics of any formal organisations. I guess there’s a reason that the happiest I’ve ever been is as a work-at-home freelancer.

Could also be that I’m just lazy.

Or something. Those of you who are members of these kind of organisations—what do you get out of it? How do you cope with the politics?

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

At long last Julie Phillips‘ superlatively brilliant biography of Alice Hastings Bradley Davies Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr./Raccoona Sheldon is out. Alli (as Alice was known) was endlessly fascinating. She was the child of adventurers who waltzed her around Africa and India as a child. She grew up to be an artist (before quitting cause she didn’t think she was good enough), joined the military during World War 2, worked for the CIA, ran a chicken farm, became a Ph.d in psychology, as well as two different science fiction writers: James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon. Quite the cv.

Julie’s biography more than does justice to Alli Sheldon. It’s beautifully written and exhaustively researched. There’s not a false note anywhere. Julie’s written the book I wanted to write. Literally.

Back in 1996 I’d almost finished my Ph.D. thesis (The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction). I’d also already figured out what my next project would be: a bio of Tiptree. I had the seed for it in the chapter on Tiptree from Battle. I wrote to my friend, Gordon Van Gelder, who was then an editor at St Martin’s Press, and asked if he thought there’d be any interest. He replied instantly to say not only was there interest but he’d just signed up such a book that very week. A journalist named Julie Phillips was going to write it.

I cried.

And then I weasled info about Julie out of Gordon. He sent me her Tiptree article from the Village Voice. It was excellent, which was a relief (Alli’s in good hands), and a bit of a bummer (she’s not going to drop the ball so that I can step in and take over). We started corresponding and wound up sending each other all the Tiptree material the other one didn’t have. My chapter on Tiptree got a whole lot better; Julie went on to spend a total of ten years researching and writing the Tiptree biography. And we became friends.

I could not have produced the book that Julie did. For starters I don’t have that kind of stamina: ten years exclusively on the one book! I’d die. Nor do I have her awesome research skills. (I’m good at archival material, not so good at getting reluctant folks to agree to interviews, let alone drawing them out.) Plus it turns out that I’m much happier writing fiction than non-fiction. (Making things up is so much easier than researching them.)

Julie’s also a gorgeous writer who knows how to stand back from her material. Julie lets Alli speak for herself. Her commentary about Alli’s life are more musings than conclusions. She gives the reader space to draw their own. (I can think of several biographers I wish would do the same!)

I’ve read The Double Life through various different drafts, each better than the last. The final version is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Do yourself and favour and get hold of a copy immediately.

Self Promotion

How’s about that for a post title to put everyone off?

I’ve been hearing some complaints about writers who are too self promotery, who go on panels at cons waving their book around, saying,”Look at me! Look at me! I’m a published writer! Buy my book!” There are also complaints about certain writers’ blogs which only talk about their books and their latest publishing news with links that only lead to places that sell their books. As well as whinges about the folks who relentlessly campaign for awards.

Accusations of being too self promotery make me a bit jittery. Promoting your books is part of a writer’s job. If no one knows the book exists how is it going to sell? A writer should be out there lining up bookshop appearances, sending out postcards/business cards/tshoshkas of some kind. You should be attending cons/trade shows/schools/libraries or whatever will help get the word out about your work. It may not have that much effect (no one really knows how to get word of mouth going1), but it might, and besides, for your own peace of mind it helps to know that you’re doing something. No one cares how well your book does as much you what wrote it. Not your agent, your editor or your publicist. It seems mighty unfair to complain about a writer doing what they can to secure their livelihood.

I’m sensitive about such accusations because I was accused of it. My promotion of my first book (a non-fiction tome) at WisCon some years back got up some people’s noses. But it was WisCon: the feminist science fiction convention, the only place in the world where my book on, yes, feminist science fiction had a real shot at selling lots of copies. So I kind of overdid the whole “look at me! I have a book” thing. Yes, I did wave around my book on panels and trumpet its availability in the dealers’ room. I’m still sort of embarrassed, but also defensive about it. It was my first book! I was excited! And you know what? Every copy of the book sold out and my publisher was pleased with me. I was doing my job. I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t done what I could to promote the book not as many copies would have sold.

On the other hand, I have seen writers relentlessly promoting themselves at various gatherings. (Hence my embarrassment when I think back on that WisCon.) Drowning out everyone else on their panels, continually using their own work as an example when it’s only tangentally relevant. On one occasion I was accosted by a writer at a party who interrupted my conversation with someone else to tell me all about his book, ply me with postcards of it, and information on how I could buy it. Not a good look.

Obviously a balance needs to be struck. Pissing people off is not actually very self promotery. Neither is being rude. (And really being polite should be the ground rule for all interactions.) But I wish the folks who complain about over-the-top self promotion would cut some slack to first- or second-time authors. You know, the way most of us make allowances for our friends with their brand new baby, who can’t shut up about it, and endlessly show you photos. Yes, it’s boring, but in most cases it will pass.

My third book is about to come out, but I’m too busy working on the fourth to put as much energy into promoting it as I did my first and second books. I’m no longer an enthusiastic first-time author. I’m dead proud of it and I’ll be doing signings and readings to promote it. But I will not be bouncing up and down, thrusting postcards into everyone’s hands, and talking it up at every opportunity. Been there, done that.

Do I not think this book is as good as my others? Magic Lessons is the best book I’ve published thus far. But I’m older and wiser and less energetic. I guess I’m well on my way to being a hardened old pro.

NYC, 12:12PM, 12 March 2006

  1. I’m convinced that the most useful thing you can do to promote your work is get copies into the hands of the opinion makers in your genre. The people who write the most read and discussed blogs, the librarians and booksellers who love to push their favourite titles. How to do that is a whole other question, but, obviously, writing the very best books you can is essential! Getting out and meeting said opinion makers comes in second. []

On Hackery (inspired by Delany’s About Writing)

Samuel R. Delany’s book About Writing will not get out of my brain. I keep thinking about his concept of the usefulness, no, the essentialness of doubt (good! I got plenty of that), about how slavishly following the rules and working hard leads to aesthetic banality (the rules of good writing, not the rules of how-to-get-an-agent/editor—you have to follow those). And about being a hack.

Delany’s book made me feel like one (in a good way). His description of his own writing process, of how to write the absolute best you can, is a recipe for books that go through many, many drafts and take a long, long time to write, books that delve down into every doubt or dream you ever had. These descriptions are sensual and exhilarating and inspiring (if I hadn’t read his book I’d still be working on the draft of M! M! M! O! O! O!). As Delany goes through explaining every word choice, you marvel at not just his brilliance and talent, but at his unerring ability to explain this really, really difficult stuff (how’s that for a word choice!).

The book inspires and it also makes you think seriously and long about your own writing.

I’ve been a freelance writer since 1 April 2003 (excellent day to begin, no?). In that time I’ve sold four books, written four and a half, edited one. Deciding to make a living writing, meant deciding to tell different stories than I would if I had a stayed as an academic. Given that so far it’s earned me about US$1,200, and it took four years to research and write, books like The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction went out the window. I had to tell stories that enough other people wanted to read that publishers who could pay decent advances would want to buy them, and I had to learn to write faster. Much faster. I’m now on a two-books-a-year schedule.1

Every page of Delany’s book made me think about the central tension in my life between writing the best books I can and writing them quickly. How do I not become a hack?

I don’t have an answer.

I’m lucky that I write Young Adult books which are considerably shorter than say, Charlie Stross’ work. Magic or Madness and Magic Lessons are both about 65 thou words. In book form that’s 275 pages with a comfortable sized font and balanced amount of leading. But it’s still 130 thousand words of publishable prose a year.

I’m starting to think that—except for the lucky few—to make a living at writing is to be a hack. The best I can do is to write as well as I possibly can within the time restraints, and hope that one day I’ll be generating enough money that I can slow down. But I temper that hope with the knowledge that most people never do. I’ve already seen any number of writers around me write too fast and burn out. Scott was on a near three-book-a-year schedule and wound up with all sorts of health problems (and also nine very fine YA books). But still: too fast words eat up your body and your brain.

And while on a major deadline crunch—unless you have servants or a traditional wife—the rest of your life is falling apart. Housework doesn’t get done, or your taxes, or any of the other admin, you don’t see your friends, and lots of takeaway and delivery food and ramen noodles are consumed.2 When you finish you really should be turning to the next book before your editor’s notes come back at you. Because that’s one of the worst things about writing more than one book a year: the constant interruptions from the previous book. You do not—as a dear friend of mine imagined—write one book, send it off, and then leisurely write the next. While writing the next you’re also be working on the last. There are rewrites, checking copyedits, proofs, and galleys. I have no idea how those writing four or more books a year cope.

I’m hoping, some day, to have the time and opportunity to write both as slowly and as well as I want. To only go on to the next book when the last one is well and truly finished and as good as I can make it. In the meantime I strive to be the very best hack I can be!

How do all you other hacks manage?

  1. I have many writer friends who are writing many more books than two a year, who consider such a schedule luxury. []
  2. I am well aware that there are much harder jobs than being a novelist. This is the best, most fulfilling job I’ve ever had. Every single day I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to have a go at it. []

Best Quote Ever

Fossicking through my many, many, many boxes of books I found this quote marked:

I once asked a young dissertation writer whether her suddenly grayed hair was due to ill health or personal tragedy; she answered: “It was the footnotes”.

—Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing

Those words bring back my years of PhD thesis research, writing, turning it into a book, and the postdoctoral fellowship that followed it. Not to mention the mighty labours on Daughters of Earth. Footnotes, bloody, buggery footnotes! A pleasure to read and chase amongst; a total pain in the arse to get right. And don’t get me started on bibliographies and indexing. Aaarggh!

So very, very glad I never have to do any of that stuff ever again!

And, yes, I did go prematurely grey.

Nothing Changes

Meghan McCarron has just written eloquently about sexism in publishing. Why do so many anthologies and short stories magazines have way more stories by men than by women? Why do men get more awards and reviewed more widely? The ensuing discussion is very cool, too.

I confess that I get very tired when I consider all of this. I spent years researching gender, sexuality, men, women and hermaphrodites in science fiction. Hell, I even wrote a book about it. Sometimes I wonder if anything has changed at all.

Fortunately, I’m now in a genre—Young Adult fiction—that’s overwhelmingly written by women. And its awards reflect that. The Prinz has only been awarded six times thus far and so far it’s 50% women. The US National Book Award has had a Young People’s Literature award since 1996 and women have won six times to the bloke’s three. The Australian Children’s Book Council Awards for Best Book of the Year (Older Readers) was first awarded in 1987: women eleven; blokes eight. (My counts may be out because I’m innumerate and jetlagged.)

Looks good to me.

Desperately Seeking Inspiration

I’m endlessly fascinated by the search terms that lead people to my website. Today these desperate words typed into google led them to some not-exactly-directly-related pearls of wisdom: inspire me to write my thesis.

Ouch.

I remember those days. I finished my PhD thesis in 1996, having started researching it in 1991 (and taken a year off due to some bone breakage), but it sure felt like it took a lot, lot, lot longer than that. At the time writing my thesis seemed by turns nightmarish, unendurable, hallucinegenic, boring, fun, hideous, never-ending and plain out-and-out pointless. I endlessly procrastinated until, faced with the prospect of no more scholarship, I buckled down and wrote day after day, night after night, barely sleeping, or eating, or doing anything else, until I was a sobbing insane mess and the thesis was finished.

Eventually it became The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, a book I’m still ambivalent about because it’s not the book I wish it was. To me it will always be my PhD thesis: the monster that almost broke my brain.

Hmmm, that’s not very inspiring is it? Here’s why you should write your thesis:

  • Until I finished mine I had never managed to finish anything long. I had started many novels, but never finished one. Finishing my 120,000 word thesis taught me not only that I could crap on at length, but that I could produce a (mostly) coherent, whole text. That’s a mighty fine feeling and a bloody useful skill. I’ve since finished four different novels. Now when I start a novel I’m no longer afraid I won’t be able to finish it, just that it will suck.
  • The research skills I learned have come in mighty handy over and over again. Yours will too.
  • Finishing my PhD thesis meant that I was eligible to apply for a post-doctoral fellowship. I was lucky enough to get an Australian Research Council one, which ended up changing my life. Once you’ve got your PhD you too can apply for post-docs as well as academic jobs. No comment on how much fun writing all those applications is (I applied for six and got one and was ecstatic with my strikerate).
  • Having a PhD under your belt can be helpful in landing other jobs. A PhD proves that you can stick to and finish a major project, that you can organise yourself, that you know your way around a library (or whatever facilities you used for your research—don’t want to leave out science types), and that you know how to make a very small amount of money go a very long way.

On the other hand, I know plenty of people who haven’t got a PhD who are quite capable of finishing long prose pieces, have great research skills, a job, and know how to make a tiny budget stretch . . .

Letters from the Past (Part 2) plus a Rant

Åka the proprietor of the blog, Läst och tänkt i annien dropped into translate:

Läst och tänkt i annien means read and thought in annien, where annien is my “idioverse”, the universe as perceived through my eyes. It is mostly about fandom, books, physics and strange or peculiar things.

I was reflecting over the fact that annien seems to be inhabited by so many more men than women (i’m a physicist and sf fan), and that maybe the books i read are likewise unequally populated. at the same time I happened to see the link to you from mumpsimus, and threw it in together with the other things. i also liked the first letter, but quoted asimov because it tied in better with the science and science fiction theme. I want to avoid too long quotes.

That was it, i think. Just ask if you want to know anything more.

Thanks for making these letters available! I have sometimes read or heard about what kind of discussions that occured in the magazines, and as a piece of history it is fascinating. Now I just want to read some old letter columns about the role of science in society and literature, to see what kind of opinions people had on that.

Thank you!

The letter columns of old sf magazines are wonderful, and yes, the role of science and literature does get debated. (Though by far the most common kind of letter merely rates the stories of a previous issue.) But even the most seemingly banal letter reveals a lot about the thoughts, feelings and ideas of the time. I found the letters columns of Astounding and Thrilling Wonder Stories the most active and interesting.

I’ve been hoping that since my book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, was published there’d be more work on the culture of science fiction that goes into archives (public and private) looking at the letters and editorials in sf magazines as well as the stories and, as importantly, looks at the fanzines. So far, there still isn’t nearly enough. (Though if anyone comes across any such work—do let me know!) But I keep hoping.

Anyone doing work on sf is only doing half the job if they don’t look at sf culture. If you’re writing about sf now, that means you have to look at all the online debate not just published stories and novels. It’s what I encouraged the essayists to do for my collection Daughters of Earth.

But it’s difficult. Most scholars working on sf don’t have access to collections—there aren’t that many in the world—and most collections don’t have large (or any) holdings of fanzines. Private collections (particularly of fanzines) are even more inaccessible, often stored in the attic, garage, boxes under the house: all of which are unlabelled. Tricky. And on top of that many of those magazines and fanzines are falling apart. Particularly the ones from the war printed on inferior paper.

But it’s work worth doing and more to the point it’s fun. Reading those letters takes you back to a whole other world, one full of surprises, I wasn’t expecting to come across such strongly feminist letters in the pages of an sf magazine from the 1930s and yet that’s exactly what I found.

Letters from the Past

Over the past few days there’s been a remarkable jump in traffic to this page of my website. The letters reproduced there are from the late 1930s and debate the role of women in science fiction. I adore them. They’re funny, warm, silly and just plain gorgeous. A little investigation revealed links from mumpsimus, coalscent, swisstone and Läst och tänkt i annien (tragically, I don’t read Swedish, so I have no idea what that means and I don’t share my husband’s love of wacky google translations).

The commentators do seem to be remembering that Asimov was a kid at the time, just eighteen. And, by all accounts, he was a young eighteen with little knowledge of sex, theoretical or otherwise. Readers of these letters should also keep in mind that he was a possum stirrer of the first order, frequently arguing in the letter columns for the sheer joy of arguing. A type not entirely unknown in our equivalent of the letter cols of yesteryear—the comments sections of blogs.

It’s unsurprising that it’s Asimov the commenters focuss on, after all, he’s the big name, but the letter I find most moving is the first one, “five of a kind”, from a Naomi Slimmer of Russell, Kansas. It provides such a vivid window into her life back then. I wondered why none of the people posting and commenting about the letters had mentioned it. Then I realised that I hadn’t put the full text up. Woops. That is now remedied. Thanks to those linking and commenting for giving me the nudge to notice my oversight.

And a little extra treat just for those who read my blog. Here’s my favourite line from a letter to an sf magazine. For context—the letter was part of a debate about whether “sexy” covers and interior illustrations (i.e. scantily clad women) belonged in sf mags or were cheapening a clean and nobel genre:

“What’s wrong with sex inside or outside as long as the gal shows expression in her eyes?”
—B. W. Williams
Startling Stories January 1953, p. 136.

A Few Things I Meant to Say

You can count how many times I’ve been interviewed without moving beyond fingers. The scary thing is that this number includes job interviews. After each and every one of those interviews, my head is full of all the things I wished I’d said.

This morning from 5AM to 7AM I was interviewed by the kindly Jim Freund for his Hour of the Wolf program. It’s a two-hour show and the interview went well (it’s hard to tell when you’re the interviewee, but my unbiased husband assures me it went splendidly). Jim and I talked a lot. I had such a good time I almost forgot I was on air. And despite the TWO WHOLE HOURS, as we approached the final minutes I had to bite my tongue to avoid saying: "Stop! You can’t end now. I haven’t said this and this and this."

So bugger it. I shall say a few of them now:

Many letters to the editors of early science fiction magazines are reproduced in my book The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. I read out a number of them, including a 1953 letter by Lula B. Stewart published in Thrilling Wonder Stories. In it she mentions a Big Name Fan whose last name is Bradley. I neglected to mention the full name of that well-known fifties fan: Marion Zimmer Bradley.

I talked a lot about how much fun it was reading the early letters and editorials of science fiction magazines from 1926 through to 1972, but I did not mention how touching some of those letters can be. I did not remember to read out a wonderful moving letter by Naomi Slimmer of a small town in Kansas, published in 1939. The letter wonderfully evokes how sf magazines were a lifeline for many readers in remote parts of the United States.

We left taking calls from listeners to way too late in the show and so could only take two they both asked smart, interesting questions and I didn’t have a chance to say so on air. I particularly appreciated the chance to rabbit on further about Philip Wylie’s The Disappearance (1951). I forgot to steer the interested listener to this essay where I discuss in detail how and why my book was written at all.

We didn’t discuss how researching and writing The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction led to my becoming a part of the science fiction community, particularly the feminist science fiction community that centres around Wiscon. In other words the thesis that I was arguing in the book–that science fiction is not just a collection of books, but a living breathing community–has been borne out in my own life. I went from someone who quite liked science fiction but read many other things and had never heard of sf magazines or conventions, to becoming an sf person married to another sf person. Gentle Reader, be careful what you research, lest this insidious process take over your life.

We mentioned that Battle of the Sexes was nominated for a Hugo Award, but I didn’t publically thank everyone who nominated and voted for me. When I first found out about the nomination I let out a little scream and fell off my chair. Literally. I’m still gobsmacked that Battle, a university press book, made it onto the ballot at all. I look at my little gold Hugo nominee’s pin with awe and wear it at every opportunity. I still have to pinch myself to check that it really happened.

I can’t believe I didn’t mention Johnny Cash, not even once. May he rest in peace.

There were many, many other things, but I shall attempt to save them for when Scott and I do our double act on Jim Freund’s Hour of the Wolf in November.

New York City, 13 September 2003

The New York Nexus

In 1999 Elizabeth Cummins published an article in Extrapolation, "American SF, 1940s-1950s: Where’s the book? The New York Nexus." This article is a response to Cummins. The short answer to her question, "Where’s the book?" is that I’m writing it. The long answer goes something like this:

In 1996, Judith Merril told me that I should write a book about the Futurians and the Hydra Club (that is, the people she hung out with in NYC in the 1940s and 1950s) because "we were amazing."2 Powerful though an injunction from Judy Merril was, it was not the only reason I decided to undertake such a project. The idea of writing about the postwar period had been growing during my previous research project on the battle of the sexes in sf. It had become increasingly clear to me that the postwar period was pivotal to the development of American science fiction. This importance had also struck Elizabeth Cummins as she worked with Judith Merril’s letters in the National Archive of Canada in Ottawa. Cummins was working on a complete Judy Merril bibliography, but what she found in those letters went far beyond bibliographical research. She worked with "numerous cardboard boxes of material that had been cursorily catalogued and filed" and describes the stimulating experience of "being immersed in the New York science fiction world of the 1940s and 1950s . . . I came away convinced that someone needs to write a literary history of that science fiction nexus" (314).

Judith Merril never had any doubts about the importance of the period or her role in it. She began her memoirs because:

some of my (male) friends and compeers began publishing politely laundered Autobiographies of their successes and I was snowblinded by the bleach in the detergent. Here were lists of stories sold, banquets attended, speeches given, editors lunched, even wives married and divorced, with never a shriek or tear or tremor or orgasm, and hardly a belly laugh anywhere. My memory (notoriously bad for facts and figures, but usually good for character and dialogue) insists that in those down and dirty days of ghetto science fiction most of us were young, passionate, frail, tough, loving, quarreling, horny human beings, testing ourselves against each other and the world. Somebody, I thought, should tell it like it was. (425)3

She was also clear that scholars needed to do work on the period:

the science fiction community I entered in New York in the early forties; that literary ghetto of the 1930s-1950s, with its brilliant and intricately interactive population and its clear/mad insights into both human and technological evolution (before the possibilities of wealth and mundane prestige brought in less intense practitioners), constituted a ‘movement’ (literary and sociological, as in ‘Bloomsbury’) of serious potential scholarly interest. (425)

In 1999, the year Elizabeth Cummins’s article was published, I was granted a three-year fellowship to write a book about the Futurians, the Hydra Club, and science fiction in New York City from 1938 to 1959. I immersed myself in the primary materials available at the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library (an extraordinarily rich resource which includes Donald Wollheim’s collection of Futurian fanzines). Then in September 1999, I made NYC my base and began my fieldwork. I decided to make talking to those who had been around during the period my first priority, and getting to archives—which aren’t going anywhere, right?—second. As a result I did not get to Judy’s letters in Ottawa, which had so inspired Elizabeth Cummins, until April 2001.4

I did not, in actual fact, read Cummins’s article until earlier that year. When I came across it I found myself smiling. How often do you read an article that tells you to write the book that you are in the middle of researching and writing? It’s a wonderful feeling. I too had been struck by the obviousness of it: anyone who has read the primary source material from that period would also recognize the need for such a book. Cummins’s article made Judith Merril’s letters sound fabulous. Judy had told me several times in e-mail, insisted really, that I needed to go to Ottawa. Now I wish I had gone as soon as I arrived in North America. Instead I interviewed and worked through other primary sources, something else that Cummins has called for:

If the secondary material continues to perpetuate factual errors such as that Judith Merril was responsible for calling the new 1960s science fiction "New Wave," or that one of her given names was Juliet, what other errors abound? As evidence of the new insights that occur when one goes back to the primary sources, we have the 1992 Foundation essays by Gary Westfahl in which he re-assessed John W. Campbell’s contribution to science fiction. (315)5

In 1985 and 1989 Judy Merril gave her papers, mostly correspondence, to the National Archive of Canada in Ottawa. During her lifetime they could not be quoted, and a proportion of them could not be consulted, without her permission. (Both Cummins and I had Judy’s permission.)

The Judith Merril fonds (archives) are approximately 15 metres in extent, contained in over 75 boxes. Some contain drafts of stories, cut-outs of early pulp publications, or newspaper cuttings but most are full of letters. Judy corresponded with almost everybody in the science fiction scene. Many of the Futurians are represented: Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Virginia Kidd, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl, Donald Wollheim; science fiction editors: Tony Boucher, John W. Campbell, Ed Ferman, Horace Gold, Mick McComas; sf writers: Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Algis Budrys, Arthur C. Clarke, Mildred Clingerman, Avram Davidson, Philip K. Dick, Carol Emshwiller, Philip Klass (William Tenn), Fritz Leiber, Katherine MacLean, Walter M. Miller, Mack Reynolds, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon. They range from passionate love letters to brief discussions of editorial matters.

In April 2001 I arrived in Ottawa and spent several days working around the clock, trying to get through all the letters in the few days I had. It was an impossible task but I had to make it manageable somehow. At first I decided I would only read through her correspondence with other well-known figures from the period, but a day’s work barely made a dent on the Fritz Leiber files and the Walter M. Miller ones are even more extensive. At the same time I kept coming across detailed correspondences with people I’d never heard of. Merril’s letters to her fans and readers reveal just as much about her and science fiction during the time as do her correspondences with other writers and editors. For example, in this response to a reader claiming not to understand "That Only a Mother," she sets out a great deal of the thinking behind the genesis and writing of arguably her most famous story:

October 5, 1948
Dear Mr. Swartz:
I seem to have left your letter at my office, where it was forwarded to me from the offices of ASF. I’ll do my best to answer it from memory.
So many people have told me they don’t understand the story, and almost always (as in your case), it finally turns out that they do, but just don’t believe it. What you choose to believe possible, of course is your own affair. But yes, I did mean that the mother refused to admit to herself that there was anything wrong with her child. And yes, according to at least four psychiatrists I know who have read the story, and an uncounted number of mothers who ditto ditto, the reaction is not only a possible, but even a plausible one.
Margaret, in the story, had been unable to have a child. She had been almost convinced that her husband’s work with atoms had sterilized him. When she found she was going to have one, knowing as much as she did about it, she was terrified that it might be a mutation. She had wanted a child too long to be able to admit that possibility to herself, and other people—the doctor—the newspapers—all did their best to help her sell herself on the fact that her baby would be normal. Day after day, for nine months, or a large part of that time, she told herself her baby would be normal. So it is not impossible that she developed a mental block which made it impossible for her to admit that there was anything wrong with the child.
I may add that the story was written because I saw an article in the paper (mentioned in the story) about infanticides in Japan, and I wondered what the reaction of a mother to a mutated baby would really be. Then, as it happened, an incident occurred which forcibly brought to my attention the fact that my own little girl had a perpetually objectionable drippy nose—which I had never noticed. That gave me a clue to a possible reaction, and I based the story on it. As I said above, later, a number of psychiatrists who read it bore me out completely in my extrapolation.
OK?
But you did understand it, you see.
Sincerely,
Judy Merril
6

There are a series of letters between her and Cyril Kornbluth (most from Merril to Kornbluth) as they laboured to get Mars Child written for serialization in the May, June, and July 1951 issues of Galaxy.7 At the time Kornbluth was living in Chicago. The writing always seemed to go a lot better when they were both in the same place. The following letter covers a number of Merril’s perennial worries: money, writer’s block, love.8

March 5, 1951
Dear Cyril,
So you’re wondering by now why you haven’t got Part III back yet?
I’m a sap. I should have come to Chi when I was thinking of it, mostly for the reason that I didn’t come. The same reason, I mean.
I was having troubles, and was discouraged, yes.
Then came this stuff, about which Fred says he told you, of Galaxy possibly folding. For which reason I decided I shouldn’t come and spend dough that might not come back so certainly after all. I was wrong; I should have come, and not stuck around here to get daily reports on the fluctuating health of World Editions.
Monday, finally, as you know, they paid off on Part I—then I began getting more rumors that seemed to add up to Part I being paid for and in print, and no magazine after the May issue. I took time out to do an article for Marvel and just yesterday got back to Mars Child.

Here, too, are market worries. It’s easy to forget that magazines with such long runs as Galaxy sometimes looked like they would not be able to keep publishing. Indeed, World Editions, the publisher of Galaxy, ceased publishing it in September 1951 when the Galaxy Publishing Corporation took over. Merril continues:

Pardon me I should blow off steam in your direction, when apologies it’s I should be making, but these gripes will out, and somebody ought to give my old man a course in Merril-psychology. After studiously avoiding discussing the story per se with him, because I know what he can do to my morale, I didn’t think to protect my rear guard, and discussed Galaxy and sale possibilities with him. Better I should have been in Chicago, fighting plot with you.

Her old man was Frederik Pohl. Things between them did not get better, and by the end of 1951 they were divorced:

Anyhow, time is getting away from us. The moving finger has not writ, and if it hasn’t writ enough to send you all I have been promising by Friday, then I shall make the earliest reservation and come too late with too little. No hotel rooms either.

She is, as ever, struggling to get work written on time. Writer’s block was a problem for Merril throughout her career.

I see what you mean about Part II being over-cut. Am restoring some; Fred did not go over it; he decided under the circumstances at World Editions, to sell it to Horace overlength as if it were 20,000, at 3c per, for fear that they would cut the rate on anything longer. So I might as well (since there is time; they’re holding out on going to press too) put back stuff that should be back. You did a beautiful job, though—some really tricky verbiage pruning.
One way or ‘tother, by Monday, the 12th, you will have either Part III, with ideas and suggestions in typescript, to come with, or me to ditto.
Who me? Depressed? What a silly thought!
The fact remains that the sooner it gets finished, a) the sooner we can submit to book publishers, b) the more chance there is of getting some money out of Galaxy, and c) the sooner we can start something else. Also, as of Saturday, Horace says whatever happens afterwards, the May-June-July issues have been made definite. (F. Pohl, my very own everloving husband, only looked wise and shrugged when I repeated same to him. But I’m working on believing what Horace says.)
Depressed, did you say? Bah!
So I shouldn’t be hitting you with this probably. One of us on the skids is enough. Only I do owe you some kind of explanation, and that happens to be it and I’m not in the mood to think up any cheerful lies.
All will doubtless be for the best, and I feel better already.
It sez here.
By the way—did we tell you—we found a house. Near Red Bank, New Jersey. Great big thing. Negotiations now going on for bank loan and such. Will move in mid–May if all goes well. Got to finish this damn novel and make some money.
Cheers and felicitations.
J. Merril Pohl
9

Money, or rather the lack of it, comes up over and over again. I was never under the illusion that science fiction writers in the 1950s lived in the lap of luxury, still, it was startling to this naive researcher to read of Frederik Pohl selling a story "overlength as if it were 20,000" in order to get a higher word rate. Almost all the other writers Merril corresponded with suffered from the same lack of ready cash.

The experience of reading those letters, of getting into Judy Merril’s head, demonstrated my faulty thinking—if only I had read those letters before I interviewed so many 1940s and 1950s figures (some of whom I would not be able to interview again) I would have an entirely different set of questions. And, more importantly, I would have understood their answers differently, having a much better sense of who people were, what their relationships with each other were, how they felt about each other.

Cummins was right: reading those letters—again, there are boxes and boxes of them—makes that period come alive. As I read, I began to get a much better sense of the lives of these science fiction writers, editors, fans in the 1940s and 1950s, something that numerous interviews and second-hand accounts had not conveyed so vividly. For example, a letter from Les Cole made clear what some of my interviewees had implied—Judith Merril had not been universally popular. In the letter Cole explains that:

An anti-Merril fan is one who does not care for the Merril personality. "I like her stories, mind you, but the times I’ve seen her I’ve had the definite impression she thinks her shit doesn’t stink; you might say I resent being patronized." This is not a direct quote; as I remember he didn’t use the word "patronize", but that was what he meant.10

Why are Judith Merril and her letters important to the history of science fiction? Because they throw light on a hitherto neglected area of science fiction scholarship. Neither Elizabeth Cummins nor myself are the first to draw attention to the importance of this period for the development of science fiction. Samuel R. Delany has several times called for more work on postwar science fiction that takes into account not just the stories and novels written and published but also the conditions under which they were published and their reception—that is, the culture of science fiction during that period (Delany 85).11

As Elizabeth Cummins points out, there is work on postwar sf. There are a "number of scholars [who] have written about the 1940s and 1950s New York science fiction scene. In histories, genre overviews, critical essays, and bibliographies" (314). However, no full-length work putting all of these previous efforts into context exists, and it should. A close examination of the period demonstrates that certain notions about science fiction’s reception by the mainstream do not hold up. For example, the conviction that mainstream accounts of science fiction, and of science fiction fans in particular, have always been dismissive—"science fiction fans are written off as unsocialized, media-obsessed weirdos" (Gomoll 5)—has long been held. Researching the 1940s and 1950s, I found many positive (or at least not negative) accounts of science fiction and fandom in mainstream magazines. As early as 1939, an article appeared in Harper’s Magazine that compared science fiction favourably to other genres in terms remarkably similar to those of Kingsley Amis’s 1960 New Maps of Hell:

A cowboy story could not possibly interrupt a stage robbery with a page of rhetoric about sunrise in Raton Pass, but the writer of science fiction can hold his audience enraptured with pages of talk about the FitzGerald Contraction, quanta, the temperature of distant stars, the molecular structure of minerals, and other matters which one would suppose to be far over the heads of the people addressed in the advertisements.
(DeVoto 446)

What he is praising in particular is the readers, the fans, who are "enraptured" by such high-falutin’ concepts and are obviously smarter than the readers of westerns.

During the postwar boom in publishing, many important writers and editors and magazines, such as the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, made their first appearances. Science fiction criticism was taking its first fledgling steps, and science fiction was having its first major impact on the mainstream. All this is reported in a September 1946 article in Harper’s Magazine on postwar science fiction:

Never in America had there been such general interest in scientific fantasies—television, radar, atomic power, super microscopes and telescopes, jet- and rocket-propelled planes, helicopters, robot-like electronic calculators—these and dozen of other marvels-turned-realities had all been forecast and their political, economic, and cultural consequences explored with startling fidelity by science fiction writers months and even years before. Suddenly more and more Americans bewildered by the seven league strides science had taken during World War II, were turning to science fiction for a hint of what the future might have in store. (Baring-Gould 283)

Searching for articles on science fiction in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature for the years from 1926 (the first appearance of an all science-fiction magazine in English, Gernsback’s Amazing Stories) up to 1950 is instructive. There are no articles until 1939, very few during the war years, and then from 1946 on there are several articles every year. In the 1920s and through most of the 1930s the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature did not have a term for the genre; by 1939 it was using "pseudoscientific stories" and then "science in literature." In 1953, the Reader’s Guide began solely using the term "science fiction."12 These articles appeared in such places as Harper’s Magazine, Atlantic, The New Yorker, Life, Saturday Review of Literature, The American Scholar, Collier’s and Publisher’s Weekly. Science fiction stories were published in Collier’s, Madmoiselle, and Saturday Evening Post. Some of these articles were written by science fiction professionals like Asimov, Campbell, and Heinlein.

A 1949 article from the Saturday Review of Literature, "The S-F Phenomenon in Literature" by Claire Holcomb, gives a history of the field and then finishes:

Today’s s-f dreamer of utopia generally avoids the error committed by some of his literary ancestors, that of banning progress. Today we know that there must be change. Will that change be life-giving or life-destroying? Science fiction cannot give the answer. It can, however, be a tonic to the imagination and thus prepare hearts and minds to find—and accept—whatever answers there may be
. (37)

Holcomb’s article emphasizes the great interest the genre holds for scientists. She writes that "near our big wartime weapons research centers" at places like "Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Columbia University, Harvard Square, Berkeley" sales of science fiction magazines (Astounding in particular) were "exceptionally large" (9). She knew what she was talking about: the blurb following the article reveals that Holcomb "worked for a time on the Manhattan Project and later as New York field secretary for the Association of Scientists for Atomic Education."

Sf was taken seriously enough by the Saturday Review of Literature that it had a yearly round-up of sf. These round-ups by Fletcher Prattt are well written and researched and portray sf as a field of limitless commercial potential. For example, in his 1949 account of the field he writes:

They are the people of space, refugees from the pulps. The books that chronicle their adventures are published by houses of unfamiliar names from such places as Providence, Sauk City, Wis, and Reading, Pa. Few of these books reached the regular bookstores at first and fewer still were noticed by the reviews. But old-line publishers who were moved to investigate this phenomenon discovered that these books were selling in quite unprecedented quantities to a public which had seldom or never bought books before but whose devotion to this form literally knew no bounds…. One of the regular publishers, desirous of experimenting inexpensively with this form of literature, offered to take some of a specialist publisher’s remainders for reissue under the name of the larger house. "Remainders?" was the reply, "Listen, when one of our books gets down to where it would be a remainder it becomes a rare book and we charge double for it."
The big publisher was presently issuing a couple of science-fiction volumes on his own account. So have others; by 1949 at least seven of the familiar houses have science-fiction titles on their lists and more are in prospect. The prediction that the form would replace the detective story as the dominant type of escape literature has moved measurably toward realization.
(7)

These round-ups were written by a science fiction insider. Fletcher Pratt was a member of the Hydra Club who wrote science fiction and fantasy.13 (He corresponded with Merril from 1951 until his death in 1956.) But their publication in the Saturday Review of Literature proves that not only were the 1940s and 1950s important to sf, but that sf was important to the 1940s and 1950s mainstream.

Elizabeth Cummins ends her article by outlining her hopes that:

the writer of this literary history would come to the project without allegiance to concepts such as "the golden age of science fiction" and without a belief that it must be defined and defended in order to ensure that it really did occur or in order to ensure its mythological continuance. Equally challenging would be the need to maintain critical distance from the writers, publishers, fans, agents, editors, reviewers who would be a major source of information – in their surviving papers, manuscripts, and publications or in current interviews that the writer of this book would conduct. (317)

I have now spent years reading through their "surviving papers, manuscripts, and publications" in private and public collections across North America and in Sydney, Australia. I have interviewed and corresponded with Harry Harrison, Virginia Kidd, Damon Knight, David Kyle, Judith Merril, Sam Moskowitz, Frederik Pohl, Julius Schwartz, Robert Silverberg, William Tenn (Philip Klass), and others. This project began with Judith Merril. If I had not met her and received her injunction I’m not sure I would have undertaken it. I am aware of her failings, of the erraticness of her memory, her temper, her attention span. But she is one of the most compelling and wonderful people I have ever met. And reading her letters—so prolific and detailed that I now feel like I can account for almost every day of her life from 1944 to 1959—was like meeting her and being seduced by her charisma all over again. I’m not sure that I have the kind of critical distance that Cummins hopes for. I’m also not sure if it’s necessary or even desirable. But I am sure that any history focussed through the lens of Judith Merril’s personality and keen observations will bring this vital period to life.

Works Cited

Amis, Kingsley. New Maps of Hell. New York: Ballantine Books, 1960.
Baring-Gould, William S. "Little Superman, What Now?" Harper’s Magazine September 1946: 283-88.
Cummins, Elizabeth. "American SF, 1940s-1950s: Where’s the book? The New York Nexus." Extrapolation 40.4 (Winter 1999): 314-319.
Delany, Samuel R. Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Dragon Press, 1984.
DeVoto, Bernard. "Doom Beyond Jupiter." Harper’s Magazine September 1939: 445-8.
Gomoll, Jeanne. "Introduction: Visualizing the future." Women of Other Worlds: Excursions through Science Fiction and Feminism. Eds. Helen Merrick and Tess Williams. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press, 1999. 1-11.
Holcomb, Claire. "The S-F Phenomenon in Literature." Saturday Review of Literature 28 May 1949: 9-10, 36-37.
Merril, Judith. "Better to Have Loved: Excerpts from a Life." Women of Other Worlds: Excursions through Science fiction and Feminism. Eds. Helen Merrick and Tess Williams. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australian Press, 1999. 422-42.
Merril, Judith and Pohl-Weary, Emily. Better to Have Loved. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002.
Pratt, Fletcher. "Science Fiction & Fantasy—1949." Saturday Review of Literature 24 December 1949: 7-9, 23.

Notes
1 I would like to thank Scott Westerfeld for his invaluable comments on the various drafts of this article. Also thanks to Emily Pohl-Weary for permission to quote from the Judith Merril fonds at the National Archive of Canada and to Anne Goddard of the Archive for all her assistance.
2 For details of my meeting with Judy Merril, see my article, "Researching the New York Futurians," Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, No. 82 Summer 2001, pp. 45-52.
3 Judith Merril’s memoirs, Better to have Loved, have been completed by her granddaughter, Emily Pohl-Weary.
4 My (lame) excuse for coming to Cummins’s article so late is that at the time I was so obsessively researching the 1940s and 1950s in New York City, reading only books written or published during that time period, particularly sf, listening only to music from the time, starting to dress in styles from the 40s and 50s—I do mean obsessive—that I was not managing to keep up with recent sf criticism.
5 It is a call I am very receptive to. My book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, details the debates about sex, men, women and feminism in letters and editorials in science fiction magazines.
6 National Archives of Canada, Judith Merril fonds, Accession MG 30 D 326, vol. 10, Astounding Science Fiction folder, letter to Mr. Swartz, October 5, 1948.
7 The book version appeared as Outpost Mars in 1952.
8 Let’s face it, they’re the perennial worries of almost every writer.
9 National Archives of Canada, Judith Merril fonds, Accession MG 30 D 326, vol. 10, Mars Child folder, letter to Cyril Kornbluth, March 5, 1951.
10 National Archives of Canada, Judith Merril fonds, MG 30 D326 Vol. 37, Les Cole folder 2-2, letter to Judith Merril, March 3, 1952.
11 Joshua B. Lukin and he have edited an issue of Paradoxa solely devoted to the 1950s.
12 Elizabeth Cummins also draws attention to this shift in terminology and the explosion of primary mainstream sources on science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s (Cummins 315).
13 His best known work was in collaboration with L. Sprague de Camp.

©2002 Justine Larbalestier
First published in Extrapolation, Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 277-287.

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.