In this new collection published by the Library of America, the editor, Lisa Yaszek, brings together a wide range of stories by women science fiction writers from the 1920s to the 60s. In so doing, her volume challenges the narrative that science fiction of the early and mid-twentieth century was dominated by men. It demonstrates, instead, that women have, all along, played a vital role in shaping and creating the genre.
As Yaszek says in her introduction, “SF was never just about boys and their toys. Instead, the future has always been female as well” (p. ix). In scouring mid-century science fiction magazines, Yaszek says she found that women figured more predominantly than the genre’s histories typically admit: “Between the mid 1920s and the late 1960s, nearly 300 women published in the principle genre-specialist magazine—about 15 percent of all contributors, just going by the numbers” (p. xi). In other words, women writers, with their unique perspectives on the technologies and issues of their day, must figure in how we think about this genre and its past.
Yaszek says that one of her goals in this volume is to provide a glimpse into the world of women science fiction writers between Mary Shelley—often seen as the writer who kick-started the genre—and the explosion of women and other non-cis-male science fiction writers in the 1970s and beyond. As she says, “they are the missing link between the pioneering experiments of Mary Shelley and the finely-honed, radiant results we see increasingly in the work of women writing today” (p. xx). As a missing link, the women who created these twenty-five stories have a kind of anthropological interest as well as a literary one. They are, the book suggests, foremothers of the science fiction of our current era.
The stories in the volume represent a range of approaches and subject matters. Some of them have female narrators, but others do not. Some deal explicitly with gender, but others do not. In fact, these stories are just as varied as stories by men of the same period, which becomes one of the more interesting themes of the collection: just because a story’s written by a woman, doesn’t mean it’s a story about women’s issues.
That said, Leslie F Stone’s “The Conquest of Gola,” published in 1931 in Wonder Stories, deals explicitly with gender relations, and with cultural assumptions about the fixedness of gender roles. It tells the story of a woman-dominated planet called Gola, which finds itself invaded by men from an earth-like planet the Golans call Detaxal. There’s much humor in the story, as Stone challenges, one by one, the ideas that the men and the women have about one another. The Golans finally, over a period of time, learn to best use their mental and technological strengths to defeat the invading Detaxalans. The narrator tells us that:
more came from their planet to discover what had happened to their ships and their men, but we of Gola no longer hesitated, and they no sooner appeared beneath the mists than they too were annihilated, until at last Detaxal gave up the thought of conquering our cloud-laden world. Perhaps in the future they will attempt it again, but we are always in readiness for them now, and our men—well they are still the same ineffectual weaklings, my daughters . . . . (pp. 42-43).
There’s a sense of comedy in this reversal, and in the fact that the women, in the end, win. It’s clear that Stone is playing with gender expectations of the 1930s, and this remarkably modern-feeling story purposefully uses speculative techniques to envision a kind of otherworldly end to the ever-present battle of the sexes.
There are, however. other, subtler themes that emerge in the collection and which tie the stories together more consistently than any interest in gender. Many of them do examine domestic, sexual, or familial relationships. Several are concerned with fears and anxieties about radiation and its effects on reproduction. And all of them have a deep sense of speculation and wonder about both the present and the future.
The first story in the volume, for example, is Clare Winger Harris’s “The Miracle of the Lily.” It was first published in 1928 in Amazing Stories. It’s a fascinating tale about battles between humans and insects, and the constant effort by humans to keep these six-legged enemies at bay. Told in the form of various diaries and other accounts across two millennia, and ending with a narrative from the year 3928, the story is a creative use of different documents and perspectives. It’s not particularly environmentally sound, given our contemporary understanding of the vital ecological importance of insects, but it is, nonetheless, a unique take on human survival during trying times. In this sense, it’s almost prescient, unwittingly looking forward to the coming Dust Bowl and the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Several of the stories in the collection deal with another form of adversarial environment: low-grade, Cold War-era fears of genetic anomalies in the aftermath of nuclear disasters. Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother,” published in 1948 in Astounding Science Fiction, is one of these, and is told in the beginning from the third-person perspective of a woman named Margaret, who is pregnant. By the end of the story, we are reading from the perspective of her husband, Hank, who returns home to his wife and child after a prolonged absence. Hank realizes with horror that his child is both wildly advanced in terms of mental function and also barely human in terms of physical form. The worst thing, for Hank, is that Margaret doesn’t seem to see that her child is shaped like a worm:
She didn’t know. His hands, beyond control, ran up and down the soft-skinned baby body, the sinuous, limbless body. Oh God, dear God—his head shook and his muscles contracted, in a bitter spasm of hysteria. His fingers tightened on his child—Oh God, she didn’t know. (p. 100)
It’s an interesting story that plays with perspective. And, tellingly, it doesn’t automatically side with the woman. Instead, Merril plays in this story with our understanding of and assumptions about mothers and fathers, and the story faces head-on both the self-delusion and anxiety that can accompany parental love.
Another story that deals with the after-effects of nuclear technologies, Wilmar H. Shiras's “In Hiding,” was also published in 1948 in Astounding Science Fiction. It tells the story of a young boy, Tim, whose parents were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation in an atomic plant explosion. They died because of that exposure, and Tim is now being raised by his grandparents—who, concerned about his mental state and introversion, enlist the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Welles. Welles soon realizes, after spending time with and interviewing Tim, that the boy is a genius who’s doing everything from breeding cats to studying the intricacies of physics and architecture.
Far from being damaged by his radioactive past, Tim is actually a preternaturally gifted prodigy, and it’s clear to Welles that the boy will soon mentally surpass most other humans on earth. He also surmises that there are likely other genius children out there, and that they will, in the fullness of time, come to dominate the earth. Welles, by the end of the story, is happy to realize that he will remain Tim’s friend, and that this will afford him some protection when the child grows up and inevitably gains significant power:
Tim would never forget, Tim would be his friend always. Even when Timothy Paul and those like him should unite in a maturity undreamed of, to control the world if they chose. Peter Welles would be Tim’s friend—not a puppy, but a beloved friend—as a loyal dog, loved by a good master, is never cast out. (p. 145)
It’s an eerie ending to a story that is haunted by a sense both of wonder and of foreboding. Far from bringing about an apocalypse through destroying the earth, radiation in this story threatens an apocalypse by creating a race of geniuses who could well end up controlling the planet. Many of these stories raise intriguing questions in this way about the role technology plays in shaping human cultures of the future, and in that sense they reveal mid-twentieth-century anxieties and fears. Many of them also look at the ways that human relationships, partnerships, and families are in a constant and unpredictable state of flux.
In Alice Eleanor Jones’s 1955 story, “Created He Them,” for instance, there’s a seemingly “normal” 1950s family, with a tired mother, an emotionally distant father, and two small children. Gradually the reader comes to realize, however, that this family is essentially in forced servitude to the state, breeding children because the parents are some of the few people in a post-bombed-out world who can have healthy offspring. The children, once they turn three, will be taken from them, and the couple will start the whole artificial family-building process all over again. It’s a sort of post-war horror story, at the same time as it’s a critique of mid-century conceptions of what constitutes a traditional and respectable family.
Similarly, Kit Reed’s “The New You,” published in 1962 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, takes a grimly humorous view of the role technology and consumerism play in the construction of self and family, and at the same time glances slyly at cultural expectations of beauty and attractiveness. Ten years before the 1972 publication of The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin, a novel with a parallel theme, Reed’s story imagines a woman ordering a replacement for herself in the form of a perfect, humanoid robot. Martha Merriam takes this step after seeing an advertisement promoting a wonderful new product, the “New You.” “Watch the Old You Melt Away,” says the ad. When she opens the box that contains her new self, however, she doesn’t follow the instructions exactly, and her old self does not, in fact, melt away. Instead, she stays very much alive, slinking around in her dowdy clothes while the new, slim, fashionable Martha—who renames herself Marnie—parties it up.
Howard, the erstwhile Martha’s husband, doesn’t take to his new wife, however. He wants the old Martha—the one he married, the one he loves. Marnie decides to fix this situation by ordering a new self for her husband, as well: this new Howard, we hear, “came forth like a new Adam” (p. 363), glossy and handsome from the box. Marnie’s overjoyed, even as she cruelly kicks aside the old Howard, who at the end of the story is “floundering like a displaced fish” (p. 363) on the floor.
It’s a funny story with a deep awareness of how cultural notions of beauty, perfection, and gender intersect with and are enforced by technology and consumerism. And ultimately, it’s a warning about the lives we might find ourselves living if we simply give in to the limiting identities that we’re sold by the capitalist-industrial complex.
All of these stories grew out of a century of upheaval and shifting power, and their understandings of cultural evolution are, perhaps, what most ties them together. Their unique frame of reference is likely linked, at least in part, to the particular perspective these writers have as women: those who aren’t in power, after all, best understand how power works. They know viscerally how those in power can create narratives that obscure the truth, and they seek with their own stories to critique, rewrite, and remake the world.