As inspirational as reading science fiction can be, the genre's primary texts won't tell you all you need to know about the "literature of possibility." That's because no other genre generates as much creative input or feedback from its fandom. Yeoman editor David Hartwell of TOR books, an SF tastemaker since the late '60s, likes to recall that a few decades ago America's SF production was so small that every fan could read every book and story published within a year, and potentially respond to every idea introduced into the field's mind stream.
SF remains so interactive that new editors and writers are routinely recruited from the ranks of fanzine self-publishers and avid Letters to the Editor correspondents. SF novels stimulate a huge amount of paraliterature: letters, fanzine essays, memoirs, convention speeches, and oral histories. Two new books focus on such paraliterature as the best way to understand science fiction. Both were written by women, who've typically been underrecognized as key players in the evolution of SF. Justine Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is a solid compendium of rare facts and fannish artifacts scrutinized by a University of Sydney academic. The other tome, Better to Have Loved and Lost: The Life of Judith Merril, contains the gleefully unsanitized memoirs of recently deceased SF author, editor, and critic Judith Merril, edited by her granddaughter Emily Pohl-Weary. This awesome career biography gives its subject a chance to wax eloquent on her Trotskyite roots, the shortcomings of contemporary feminism, and the merits of casually fucking whichever of one's peers, idols, or possible employers appeal most to one's intellect. Early on she admits her prime motivation for doing this book was to correct the unduly prissy biographies of "Great Men" of SF alongside whom she'd struggled to literary acclaim in the '40s and '50s: "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."
The books dovetail in tone and content, providing full and lively accounts of what the SF community was like from the '30s on. Merril's memoirs are, of course, more anecdotal and intimate, but Larbalestier, who spent several years interviewing aging legends, peppers her more formal analysis with plenty of feisty reminiscence and poignant commentary.
Both authors are self-assured Third Wave feminists. Larbalestier offers a fresh look, without bitterness, at science fiction's lengthy engagement with issues of sex, sex roles, and gender rivalry. Thus she coolly floats the notion that the ultimate blossoming of sophisticated feminist SF owes much to earlier explorations of similar themes by male writers. "The increase in feminist engagements with science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s was made possible . . . by science fiction's prior engagement with feminism. This is demonstrated by the many battle-of-the-sexes stories, as well as by debates about the place of women in the field . . . in the 1930s and 1950s."
These debates weren't just in the magazines. In the bars of SF conventions and in writers' homes, SF people thought and argued about their respective roles in life, often inventing in fiction the prototypes they tried to explore in reality. Merril got early work as a freelance ghostwriter, and fell in with a fraternal think tank of SF fans that included Isaac Asimov and Merril's second husband, Frederik Pohl.
Merril's first published SF story, "That Only a Mother," was bought by Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1948. By 1956 Merril had put out two genre novels and debuted her influential anthology series SF: The Year's Greatest. Soon thereafter she teamed with Damon Knight and James Blish to found the Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference, a sort of residential boot camp for SF authors, which vetted promising SF innovators for over 20 years. Today the yearly Clarion Writers Workshops (arch-feminist Joanna Russ and the award-winning black SF writer Samuel R. Delany were members of its inaugural teaching staff) rework the Milford tradition.
Merril's 1968 relocation to Canada removed her somewhat from the American scene at a time when women were beginning to contribute many of the texts most celebrated in The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness appeared in '69, while Joanna Russ's short story "When It Changed" blew everyone's mind in 1972. Gender was becoming the final frontier in science fiction 20 years after Merril published her galaxy-spanning feminist novel Daughters of Earth. Then Alice Sheldon, a reclusive CIA employee, took the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. and wrote a series of award-winning science fiction tales different in voice and attitude from all that had gone before. In a chapter titled "The Women Men Don't See" (after a notorious Tiptree tale), Larbalestier describes the reaction to Tiptree's work before and after her gender was revealed, then examines the struggles of women SF writers to have work judged on its merits and not merely as another feminist parable.
Larbalestier suggests that the real problem illustrated by most battle-of-the-sexes fiction is societal conditioning. In 1931 Leslie F. Stone, the female author of The Conquest of Gola, got around this problem by telling her tale of gender insurrection from an alien race's point of view. In 1956 the male author of Consider Her Ways imagined a matriarchal world that was successful because its women had abandoned the conceit of romantic love. Joanna Russ still rails against any tacit SF-nal assumption that female-dominant worlds result from some undesirable breach of natural law and thus need heroic correction. And yet the fact that female characters were generally absent in "golden era" SF unless cast as love interests or nemeses makes even the tackiest tales of extraterrestrial gynophobia read like miracles of gender parity. The challenge and joy of SF has always been to predict the unpredictable, and breaking the hierarchical and binary model of masculine/feminine, which Tiptree did so artfully, is part of the same job.
Ultimately, Merril and Larbalestier arrive at the same conclusion, albeit one from the trench-level perspective of the artist-practitioner, and one from the lofty post of the academic-observer. To the extent that SF texts continue to have deep, intertextual conversations about gender roles that seldom take place in other mediums, SF-nal discourse remains one of the best propaganda tools any peace-loving gender warrior could ask for.
Other book reviews this week:
Lisa Kennedy on Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination by Robin D.G. Kelley
David Mills on Translating Mo'um by Cathy Park Hong
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.