What should I write next?

Remember way back when I asked you to help me to decide what to write next? You all told me the fairy book, which I dutifully wrote, but now I’m feeling all indecisive again. Can you help me out?

Here are the options:

  • The great Australian feminist monkey knife-fighting cricket Elvis mangosteen fairy novel . This one is written.
  • The compulsive liar book narrated by a—you guessed it—compulsive liar. Downside: will involve lots of outlining. I hates outlining. Plus it’s going to be so hard! Upside: whenever I mention this one folks get very excited.
  • The beginnings of cricket historical romance. Downside: lots of research and all my cricket history books are in storage in Sydney. Upside: yumminess. I am besotted with my protag and her love interest.
  • The baby killing ghost novel set in Sydney in the late 19th century in which the ghost does not kill babies nor do babies kill ghosts. Downside: research materials all in storage in Sydney. Upside: ghost story!
  • The plastic surgery running away from Hollywood novel. Downside: protag is a USian. I am not USian thus writing it will be really hard. All the sentences in my head are Australian. Upside: Very cool structure that makes me grin just thinking about it.
  • Werewolf snowboarding epic. Downside: I’ve never snowboarded making it tricky describing it plus I’d need to do a lot of research on wolves. Upside: Werewolves snowboarding!
  • Northern Territory multi-family multi-racial lots of killing epic. Downside: yeah, yeah, research materials elsewhere. Plus I’d need to spend at least a few weeks up there again, doing lots of non-book research. Fun but not possible for quite awhile. Upside: I love love love writing epics.
  • Kid who grows up in a Vintage Clothes Shop which her mum runs who can pick the best buys at fifty paces (much more interesting than this description makes it sound—honest!) Downside: I know nothing about the vintage clothes industry works. More bloody research! Upside: clothes, yummy delicous magic clothes.
  • Protag’s father goes missing presumed dead on account of he and protag’s mum very into each other. Mum is forced to take in a lodger to help pay the mortgage. She advertises for a female uni student but takes in a strange youngish man who has no visible means of support and yet pays the rent on time. He’s gorge and speaks a zillion languages but the seventeen-year old girl protag doesn’t trust him. Her twin brothers (eight) almost immediately fall under his sway. I could go on, but it’s just not very pitchable. Alas. Downside: Not very ptichable. Tis one of those books that’s clear in my head but takes months to explain. Sigh. Upside: tis very clear in my head.
  • Try to write a short story. I’ve had a brain wave for completely transforming a story of mine that’s never worked into one that will. It involves making the ending not suck (why did I not think of that before?!) and setting it a couple hundred years ahead of where it’s set now. It involves no research. Downside: I suck at short stories. Upside: Not starting from scratch and may lead to an actual good story. That would be cool!

My agent is most excited about the Liar book on account of its ease of pitchability but she also agrees with the famous children’s book editor, Ursula Nordstrom, who wrote

I never want to forget that if Lewis Carroll had asked me whether or not he should bother writing about a little girl named Alice who fell asleep and dreamed that she had a lot of adventures down a rabbit hole, it would not have sounded awfully tempting to any editor.

The book described before writing it rarely exactly matches the finished book and sometimes doesn’t even come close. And if it did what would be the fun in writing? There’d be no surprises!

I could sit down and start writing any one of these. Yes, heaps need research, but writing first and researching sketchily as you go is fun. I do have the intramanets afterall. And it’s not that long till we’re back in Sydney where I can fill in some of my [did they have spin bowling back then? When did they first call them “googlies”] notes.

But I do not have a burning desire to write any of them at the moment. I do not have a burning desire to write at all. My one burning desire is to continue reading lots of lovely manga . . . But I did say I’d write two novels this year. Sigh.

What’s it to be?

Arduous Research

So I have a genius idea for a book1 that requires me to watch lots of old American movies from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. It’s tough but someone has to do it. Plus Scott’s never seen a lot of these movies and I consider that to be criminal. Do you know before he met me he’d never even heard of Preston Sturges? What kind of a life is that?

So far we’ve worked our way through the films of (natch) Preston Sturges, George Cukor, and Douglas Sirk. As well as almost all the ones starring Rita Hayworth (Yay Gilda!).

Today we watched Mildred Pierce. Bless it. Bless Joan Crawford and Anne Blythe. The role of Veda is such a hoot. Has a greater bitch ever graced the silver screen? Sure, probably, there’s always Eve Harrington in All About Eve which we watched the day before. Scott had never seen it and is now smitten. Who wouldn’t be? Such a fabulous movie!

Yes, that's Fredi Washington again. Write a book about her already!Watching these more-than-fifty-year-old movies I’ve been struck by how many of them are written by women and how many of them are driven by women. They have not just genuine starring roles, but also lots of juicy supporting parts. There are women older than forty in these movies.

Last time I went to the movies I sat through the regulation ten minutes of shorts and did not see a single woman. Not one. The time before that there were two women and both seemed to be in the girlfriend role and were a long, long, long way off forty. What on Earth happened in the intervening years? How come most of the good roles for women are now on the tellie?

I’d love to hear your theories. Lauren, ex-Hollywood producer friend of mine?

And bonus question what are your favourite movies from the first three decades of talking pictures? (Doesn’t have to be American.) I’d tell you mine but it would take hours . . .

  1. Scott does not believe in the existence of this genius idea. He thinks I just like watching the same old movies over and over. I’ll show him! []

Write me this book!

My intensive google research has revealed that there is no biography of Fredi Washington. I demand that one of you get off your arse and write one immediately! (Or use your better research skills to find me one.)

Who is Fredi Washington, you ask? Why, let me tell you:

Fredi Washington as Peola in Imitation of LifeFredi Washington was a light-skinned black actor and dancer. She largely starred in movies for the Jim Crow circuit and often with her skin darkened. She was such a compelling screen presence that the Hollywood bigwigs in the thirties offered to make her a big star if she’d pass as white. She told ’em all where to go. Yay, Fredi! (I also want to know if that’s actually true.)

Ironically, her one big role in white movies was playing the “tragic mulatto”, Peola, in the original Imitation of Life.1 She steals the movie. Everytime she’s on screen she’s where you’re looking.

I want to know more about her. I demand to know more about her! I want a big fat bio on the scale of the Tiptree one. I want it to be as thoroughly researched and as beautifully written and I want it right this minute.

On your bikes, people!

  1. I totally recommend watching the two Imitations of Life back to back. The 1934 one followed by the 1959 Juanita Moore one. Fascinating to see the shifts in representations of race relations. Though in both, Peola/Sara Jane’s decision to pass as white seems inexplicable.

    If you were an alien watching the movies you’d be scratching your head trying to figure out what was so very terrible about being a black person. Other than the only other black people being servants, but there are so few of them you’d think maybe they’re off enjoying cool jobs elsewhere. In neither film are there any cafes with signs saying “Whites Only”. The black characters never have to sit at the back of the bus.

    There is one horrible scene of racism in the 1959 version, but it plays out like racism is just that particular person’s problem, not anything systemic. The most you get in the 1935 version are the kids at school looking shocked when they discover that Peola is passing. Their reaction shot lasts less than five seconds. []

Help! Urgent Request for SF Magazine Info

I don’t have the page numbers for the following stories. If anyone out there has them I’d sure appreciate your sharing said knowledge with me. And, yes, please pass this along to anyone you think might be able to help.

Your reward for helping me out? You get your name in the acknowledgments for Daughters of Earth.

Asimov, Isaac. “Profession,” Astounding Science Fiction, (July 1957):

—. “The Mule,” Astounding Science Fiction, (Nov-Dec 1945):

Hamilton, Edmond, “The Man Who Evolved,” Wonder Stories (April 1931):

Piper, H. Beam. “Omnilingual,” Astounding Science Fiction, (Feb 1957):

Reed, Kit. “To Lift a Ship,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, (April 1962):

Sheldon, Raccoona. “The Screwfly Solution.” Analog (June 1977):

Tuttle, Lisa, and George R. R. Martin. “The Storms of Windhaven.” Analog (May 1975):

Wilhelm, Kate. “The Chosen,” in Damon Knight, ed., Orbit 6. New York: Putman, 1970.

And, yes, I realise the last one isn’t a magazine.

For those wondering, nope, still not finished with the ms. of Daughters.

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.
But you did understand it, you see.
Judy Merril

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

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.

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.

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.