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.


  1. JeremyT on #

    I don’t know if that last letter included on the page is the final word on the discussion or not, but it looks to me as if Godwin’s Law was invoked–in 1939!

  2. Justine on #

    There ain’t nothing new! Not since Homer. In another Asimov letter from the late 30s, he writes something sarcastic (can’t remember what) and then follows it with: “Not!” I’d always thought that was a Wayne’s World thing.

  3. Ray Davis on #

    I’ve just been reading John Marston’s plays for the first time (a little tardily, since he was a contemporary of Shakespeare), and “Not.” is a frequent response or closer.

    Marston wrote for a theater company of children-to-adolescents (the troupe aged as the years went on, like the Bowery Boys), so a Wayne’s World association might be made — except that the plays’ extreme filthiness reminds me more of South Park.

  4. Justine on #

    More evidence of nothing new. Though I do think it only counts as Wayne’s World if it’s a rejoinder to yourself. Was that happening in Marston’s plays?

  5. Ã…ka on #

    “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.

  6. Ray Davis on #

    “Though I do think it only counts as Wayne’s World if it’s a rejoinder to yourself. Was that happening in Marston’s plays?”

    Ah. Well. This is where my claim falls to the ground.

    But can Marston at least get a little credit for launching a blank verse speech with “Um,”?

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