No, I’m not talking about simple gaps in the record (though those exist, too); I’m talking about singular events so culturally massive that they bend historical space-time, sucking in every related event both before and after they came to pass.
One such historical black hole involves Hugo Gernsback, “The Father of Magazine Science Fiction.” Back in the 1920s, he shepherded magazines that allowed him to craft a specific vision of what commercial SF could be. Critically, too, he established a history of the genre prior to that date: a history centering Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells as the agents of precursor SF.
These extraordinary feats—unlike Gernsback’s payment practices and racist ideas for fixing racism—are still to be commended by SF-lovers today. But where we fall short, a century on, is in continuing to take his history at face value: that is, as the only vision of what SF was, from whence it came, and to what cultural preoccupations it answered.
In the wake of Gernsback’s influence, however, we have been trying to build a chronology that gives other participants their due, and undoes the systemic erasure of diverse voices from our genre’s history. Here at Strange Horizons in 2015, seasoned SF writer Eleanor Arnason articulated incredulity at newer generations of female writers regarding her an “exception,” and offered a formidable counterpoint with a rundown of women in SF from the 1960s to the 1990s. Likewise, in the introductory essay to Women of Futures Past (2016), Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote with astonishment at being regarded as a rarity even by people who knew she was putting together a whole anthology about early female SF writers.
However, if a recent republishing of Clare Winger Harris’s SF stories is any indication, we still have a long way to go in figuring out how to rebuild our genre’s history outside Gernsback’s shadow, without also unduly whitewashing those we choose to reclaim. Yes, Harris has been acclaimed as the first named female SF short story writer in the United States (unlike Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who published as early as 1917 under the pen name “Francis Stevens”), and so her work merits consideration alongside others of the period. Brad Ricca’s The Artificial Man and Other Stories, though, is a reprint collection that neither sufficiently contextualizes Harris as a woman publishing in the 1920s, nor confronts the fact that her contributions did little to challenge the predominantly very male, very white, and very ableist milieu in which she wrote. To read Harris best, we need to read her, instead, as someone whose work explored dominant SF themes of the era, and who can thus serve just as well as any other author in early twentieth-century magazine SF, to show us both the genre’s preoccupations, and how it handled them.
Granted, the 1920s are a difficult time in women’s history. Women’s trade journals—yes, trade journals, for working professional women, including engineers—record a stark rollback of social valuation for women in the workforce: a frustrating state of affairs after significant gains in World War One saw women on production lines and involved in related industries. But even amid this depreciated feminism (a fairly predictable consequence of men returning from a traumatizing war, longing for the world they’d left behind, with job security and clear social hierarchies), women still starred in Hollywood roles that reflected agency and wit, wrote wry Modernist poetry and prose, painted, and worked.
They also tended to withdraw from those spheres—not always, but quite frequently—when marriage and child-rearing became more central aspects of their lives. Harris was, in this way, no exception; after publishing a novel in 1923 and a burst of SF in the late 1920s and early 1930s, she expressly turned to motherhood as her primary pursuit, before collecting her SF work in a 1947 collection subtitled “Stories in Pseudo-Science.” She died in 1968.
Harris was also no exception in the facts of her actual writing. Rather, she was an engaged participant in SF discourse during the years in which she contributed to the genre’s output. This is especially evident in a Letter to the Editor published in the August 1931 issue of Wonder Stories, in which she proposed a list of all possible SF themes. The editor situated these assertions in conversation with Harris’s peers among readers and authors in the genre.
Harris’s short stories also show how seamlessly she adhered to SF’s dominant style in early magazines. The first eleven stories in Ricca’s collection (all, that is, save for a later contribution to a smaller ’zine) plainly follow the structure of other work from the era. They’re written in formal chapters of short, declarative sentences, reporting on events as they unfolded, with little stylistic innovation and quite a few wincingly over-the-top exclamatory phrases. Many also parrot the exact concerns one would expect from white male writers of the period.
A common theme, for instance, is anxiety about the rise of other cultures, advanced through fantastical ciphers of ape-men or Martians. In this collection’s most explicit example, “The Fate of the Poseidonia,” we’re given a protagonist increasingly alarmed both by the prospect of Martian theft of Earth’s resources, and by a Martian stealing the protagonist’s beloved. And … what do these women- and water-stealing Martians look like?
For a moment I thought I had been transplanted chronologically to the discovery of America, for the being who approached me bore a general resemblance to an Indian chief. From his forehead tall, white feathers stood erect. He was without clothing and his skin had a reddish cast that glistened with a coppery sheen in the sunlight. Where had I seen those features or similar ones recently. I had it! Martell! The Indian savage was a natural replica of the suave and civilized Martell, and yet was this man before me a savage? On the contrary, I noted that his features displayed a remarkably keen intelligence. (p. 74)
Indeed, Harris’s stories never show an interest in the empathetic representation of other demographics. For instance, “The Artificial Man” has an ableist character firmly disapproving of her fiancé adopting the supposed falsity of a prosthetic limb (she would rather he used blatant props, crutches or wheelchair, for the rest of his life?), and then being vindicated in her disapproval by his metastasizing obsession with artificiality over the story’s fatal course.
Similarly, “A Certain Soldier,” a time-travelling mystery involving a common nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary interest in first-century Rome, offers this pointed commentary about artistic representation, upon two characters finding Jewish features in a bas-relief of Roman soldiers:
“To be sure!” I exclaimed, my excitement equaling his own. “That figure near the middle certainly belongs to the conquered race. But there were Jews who were Roman citizens,” I added; “and the chances are they were even more numerous in 70 than in 40 AD.”
“That is very true,” Lee answered a little abstractedly, I thought, “but it is very poor taste for the artist to be so realistic in a symbolic creation where comparatively few figures are represented. I think he showed decidedly bad judgment—unless,” he added, “the Jew in question was a man of considerable importance.” (p. 152)
Such uncontested statements shouldn’t surprise readers today. The 1920s were a time of white female activism in lockstep with white female eugenics and active xenophobia/racism. As such, Harris needn’t be considered essential reading for those who have no interest in spending more time on the blatant advancement of white-supremacist, able-bodied rhetoric.
But she is a speaker for her cultural context, as much as contemporaneous male SF writers: men, that is, also writing their stories from places of social anxiety—and not just along demographic lines, but scientific ones, too. In this capacity, then, there is merit to a clear-eyed inclusion of her work in our genre discourse and anthologies.
After all, when it’s not other species emerging in her stories to imperil her domestic, upper-middle class worlds of white professors, students, and scientists, it’s reality itself. It’s the cosmos-as-recursive-multiverse (“The Fifth Dimension”), cosmos-as-atomic-experiment-carried-out-by-supra-realm-chemists (“A Runaway World”), cosmos-as-invasive-fungal-energy (“The Menace of Mars”); as well as microbes undoing “God’s” plan for gradual evolution (“The Evolutionary Monstrosity”), the loss of plant life destabilizing (but somehow not destroying?) humanity (“The Miracle of the Lily”), and drugs and vibrational potentials revealing dangerous new realms of existence (“The Diabolical Drug,” “The Vibrometer”). Only “Baby on Neptune,” a tale of a species living at a different speed on a molecular level, escapes this preoccupation with that which might destabilize Earth—and especially, its western upper-middle-class citizens’ futures.
Why so much fixation on the fear of impending chaos and cultural doom? Well, as one character cries out in “The Fifth Dimension”:
“If you can prove my time-cycles are not incompatible with progress, evolution, and growth,” I cried eagerly, “you will make me the happiest woman on Earth!” (p. 29)
This story has been highlighted with some excitement as one in which the protagonist’s gender is atypically feminine, but more importantly: this protagonist’s anxiety is not at all atypical of the genre in that moment. Rather, the drive to resolve the seeming precarity of observed reality (via early twentieth-century physics and cosmology) with notions of teleological social evolution (that is, of Modern-industrial society progressing toward some greater, more civilizing end) was common to early twentieth-century SF writing up to Harris’s publication window. From H. G. Wells at the turn of the century, through to fellow writers in Gernsback’s and John W. Campbell’s magazines, tales of artificial- and ape-men, metastasized non-human monsters, and alternate cosmic realities, filled the genre’s topical landscape.
Suffice it to say, then, for the half decade in which she published SF, Harris was a resonant voice in the genre’s chorus of cosmological preoccupations. When the 1920s chorus is spoken of in histories of SF, Harris—flaws and all—merits inclusion in the count.
We must ask more, though, of our genre’s curators: our biographers and historians, that is, and also our editors of new reprints.
Despite his clear fondness for the work, Ricca’s introduction to this 2019 reprint is wanting, especially because of the two ways in which his 9.5-page essay decenters its supposed subject. Not every reprint editor needs to engage in historiography or literary analysis when reclaiming a lesser-known figure, but if they are going to choose biography—as Ricca does, writing “I don’t want to tell you what to think of her stories; I just want you to read them. Instead, I want to tell you about her.”—then let it be about the author.
Instead, this essay focuses far more on Ricca’s own, stymied questions when describing a visit to Harris’s house (two pages), her husband (post-divorce, from accounts in which he says nothing about her), and the life of surviving family (three pages, plus a section in which Ricca narrates his struggle to connect with a living family member at all). This last part also includes the grandson’s story of becoming Buddhist after seeing his father’s face in a dog, and gives that relation the final word—which isn’t about Harris.
In consequence, much as I want to follow the narrative thread Ricca lays out when he writes
She left only her stories behind.
But for someone who wrote about spaceships, cyborgs, and apemen, such an ending is, if we’re being truthful, a little unsatisfactory. (p. xv)
there’s little here to satisfy even on that accord.
This leads to the second way in which this essay decenters its supposed subject, because there’s an argument to be made that choosing biography over literary analysis for a lesser known female writer engages in the polite sexism of wanting to know a feminized person domestically in a culture that’s quite content to linger on the intellectual contributions of masculinized persons.
What does Ricca forward in the way of biography? Birth, schooling, marriage, children—all dispensed with in two paragraphs, giving way to a sentence apiece on her only novel and first published short story. Then we get Gernsback’s backhanded praise of her, as an exceptional woman who proves the general unexceptionalism of women (for the business of writing SF), after coming in third in his Amazing Stories contest.
Finally, there’s a bit of meat about her career, which dovetails into Ricca’s personal interest in Jerry Siegel (of Siegel and Shuster’s Superman, and the subject of one of Ricca’s other books), as a young writer whose request for a story for his ’zine, Harris obliged. But in that meat, the real biographical absence also leaps out. As Ricca writes,
When Clare quit, her popularity was so great that her name was regularly being used on covers as advertising. She could have, like her peers, gone on to write novels, comic books, or even for the screen. But she walked away. Or did she? (p. xiii)
“[L]ike her peers”—but what peers? Where does Ricca push past Gernsback’s tepid remarks to offer anything resembling a literary context for what he terms a “woman author” of the time? Even when remarking on Harris’s death, an unexpected fall in the hallway in 1968, the obvious female-literary corollary—Shirley Jackson, dead of an afternoon nap in 1965—doesn’t follow in this write-up. Indeed, other than Mary Shelley and Emily Dickinson, as offhand references (the latter poorly applied, because Dickinson was also largely unknown in life—until curatorial figures promoted her work effectively after death), there are no female authors mentioned here—and no mention, either, of Harris’s peers in SF.
Instead, Harris’s literary contributions are lost to stories about the men around her.
Meanwhile, one aspect of her biography—that novel, published in 1923, offers a thread that this reviewer sorely hopes future biographers, historians, and literary analysts will take up, not just as they continue to reclaim Harris but also other marginalized figures from early SF history. That novel’s theme, after all, is not science-fictional in the way we understand the term, but Persephone of Eleusis: A Romance of Ancient Greece does invoke the escapist mythologizing of a far broader scope of “pseudo-scientific” writing that strict Gernsbackian histories overlook.
Specifically, the mid-nineteenth century through to the 1920s also featured writers who were unabashedly neo-Romantic, effusive, ecstatic, Christian, and historically revisionist in their tales of dystopia, utopia, time travel, and voyages through the cosmos. Some were particularly popular, like Marie Corelli, whose absolutely bonkers A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), a rewriting of Christianity to match a rewriting of astronomy in the wake of electricity’s novel applications in late Victorian society, launched a thirty-five-year career in which she outsold H. G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle (100,000 copies a year to their 15,000 apiece, according to Corelli-scholar Annette Federico).
And the impact of these escapist, often historical, fantasies can still be seen in the supposedly stringent scientism of SF’s 1920s short story magazines. Indeed, the time-slipping conceit of Harris’s “A Certain Soldier” (Weird Tales) is absolutely of a piece with that very different, yet absolutely thriving approach to speculative fiction in the era. But so long as we’re always framing Gernsback in the center of our literary reclamations, we’re always going fall short of effective historical correction in this, and no doubt many other thematic regards.
Simply put, Clare Winger Harris was very much an artifact of her era, not the mysterious exception she is unfortunately treated as in Ricca’s The Artificial Man and Other Stories (2019). But where this reprint falters, an invitation yet awaits: to look at literature of the period with an open mind, and to see the fuller intricacy of speculative fiction (and its writers) that it contains.