Dispelling More Misconceptions About the Golden Age

Approximately, two weeks ago I wrote a post about the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists in the novelette category and how those stories show that the so-called Golden Age of science fiction was a lot more diverse than most people assume. I’ve since read/reread more of the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists (I’m alternating between current year and Retro Hugo finalists to avoid overdosing on any particularly style or theme), so here is a follow-up post with more of my observations about the Golden Age and how it doesn’t quite match our ideas of what Golden Age science fiction was like.

My previous post got quite a bit of traction and also inspired this great post by Font Folly, part of a series of posts explaining that science fiction has never been only or primarily for and about straight white cis men and that women, people of colour and LGBT folks have always been part of the SFF community as fans, writers, editors and artists.

ETA: I’ve also written a follow-up post looking at more themes and patterns to be found in the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists.

On a related note, in this Facebook post Connie Willis also points out that women have always been writing science fiction and lists some women writers of SFF from the 1930s to 1960s she wishes were better remembered (found via File 770).

In my previous post, I talked about the women who appear on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot, both as writers and characters, and about the fact that three stories in the novelette category alone feature characters of colour. Two of them have protagonists of colour. There are two more characters of colour in the short story category, by the way, a black barkeeper in Robert Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” and Paul, the protagonist of C.L. Moore’s “Doorway into Time” is briefly described as dark-skinned, while his girlfriend Alanna is clearly described as white and blonde, so we even have a mixed race relationship in a story published in 1943. However, I didn’t talk about LGBT characters and creators, because – even though LGBT people absolutely did write and read SFF during the Golden Age and characters implied to be LGBT appeared in Golden Age fiction – there are very few examples on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot.

Warning: Spoilers for some very old science fiction stories behind the cut!

One exception is Weird Tales cover artist Margaret Brundage, one of the comparatively few female cover artists of the pulp era, who is nominated in the Best Professional Artist category for the 1944 Retro Hugos. Margaret Brundage was married to a man, a marriage which eventually ended in divorce, and I know little else about her private life beyond the fact that she was involved in radical politics. However, her artwork, which is maybe a little too erotic for modern audiences, which may be the reason she has been nominated for a Retro Hugo several times, but never won, tells a different story. For there is a definite lesbian vibe to many of her famous Weird Tales covers.

Oddly enough, I never really noticed this, even though I am a longtime admirer of Ms. Brundage’s work. Until one day, when I read an article about the visual depictions of Conan. The author lamented that even though Margaret Brundage did the covers for several Weird Tales issues featuring Conan stories, she only depicted Conan himself three times and never as impressive as the author of the article would have liked to see him. Margaret Brundage, the author lamented, simply seemed to like painting naked women and rarely portrayed men in a heroic way. And as I looked at the covers, the scales fell off my eyes and I thought, “Crap, he’s right.” For the vast majority of Margaret Brundage’s covers for Weird Tales feature only women, either alone or with other women, animals (here is another), statues (here is another classic woman with statue cover by Margaret Brundage) or monsters. If men show up in those covers at all, they are usually torturers (here is another), executioners (not actually a Solomon Kane cover, though I always assumed it was), kidnappers. otherwise sinister figures or in need of rescue (this is actually Conan, though not as most people imagine him). Margaret Brundage simply wasn’t very interested in drawing men, particularly conventionally attractive and heroic men.

Moving away from artists, let’s take a look at writers and characters. Font Folly mentions Edgar Pangborn, Jim Kepner and Edythe Eyde a.k.a. Lisa Ben a.k.a Tigrina as LGBT fans and writers who were active during the Golden Age. Arthur C. Clarke would be another name to mention for this era.

Looking at characters, there is a definite gay vibe to the relationship between Seabury Quinn‘s occult detective Jules de Grandin and his Watson analogue Dr. Trowbridge, more so than I ever got from Holmes and Watson. Of course, Margaret Brundage, who provided the cover art for several Jules de Grandin stories, usually used them as an excuse to portray yet more scantily clad women, since she was no more interested in drawing Jules de Grandin than she was interested in drawing Conan (and indeed it’s fascinating that Weird Tales‘ most famous characters are never actually seen on the covers). But Seabury Quinn was happy enough to oblige and inserted respective scenes featuring scantily clad young ladies in his stories. But then I suspect that Margaret Brundage was more interested in the female characters of the Jules de Grandin stories than de Grandin himself.  Meanwhile, Seabury Quinn’s novel Alien Flesh, written in 1950, but published posthumously in 1970 and actually based on one of his short stories for Weird Tales, features a man approaching a (male) childhood friend after he has been magically changed into an attractive young woman. Naturally, they fall in love.  As we will see, magical sex changes were a thing during the Golden Age.

Alas, Seabury Quinn spent WWII as a lawyer working for the US government and therefore has no stories on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot. However, we do find an example of what is probably the greatest bromance in the SFF genre on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot, namely “Thieves’ House”, one of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories.

Now Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are clearly the most important person in each other’s lives, more important than their respective lovers (of which there are many), parents (okay, so only Fafhrd has parents; Mouser is an orphan) or – late in the series – children. They met by chance on the streets of Lankhmar, when they both tried to rob the same thief, and fell in friendship at first sight. On that same night, they lost everything – for the second time in the space of a few months* – and have been inseparable ever since. But are Fafhrd and Gray Mouser truly just friends or is there more?

We do have a definite answer to this question, courtesy of one who should know, namely Fritz Leiber himself. For in “The Mouser Goes Below”, last of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, published in 1988, Mouser chances to observe his on and off lover, the rat princess Hisvet, engaging in some lesbian BDSM play, which would have had Margaret Brundage leap at the chance of illustrating the scene, if she hadn’t died twelve years before.

Watching this scene, the Gray Mouser muses that same sex attraction makes absolute sense to him and wonders why Fafhrd and he never seemed to have experienced anything like that. He also wonders whether it’s actually unusual not to be attracted to the same sex at least on occasion. So yes, they really are just very good friends (and I suspect that Leiber ran across some fanfic and decided to settle the question once and for all), but it would have been perfectly okay, if there had been more .

Of course, “The Mouser Goes Below” was published in 1988, a much more liberated time than the 1940s. And indeed, there are quite a few mentions in the later Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories from the 1970s and 1980s that LGBT people not only exist in Nehwon, but are also accepted. Since Leiber was a straight man, he is more interested in lesbian relationships  (and the lesbian scenes feel like something out of a 1950s sleaze paperback and were not exactly progressive for the 1970s/80s, but then these late stories were the work of a man in his 60s and 70s), but there is one supporting character in the latter stories who is hinted to be gay.

Compared to the later Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, the early stories, which appeared in Unknown Worlds between 1939 and 1943, have no sexual content at all. There also are only three female characters in five stories, two of them unnamed. Even Fafhrd and Mouser are celibate in those stories, which they are definitely not in the later stories (and Leiber actually had to come up with an explanation why Fafhrd and Mouser show no interest in women in those early stories for the fix-up collections of the 1970s). But then, those stories were published by that well-known homophobe and sexphobe John W. Campbell, so Leiber may well have been bowing to editorial pressure.

However, there is one Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story, which dates from the same period as the Unknown stories, but was not published by John W. Campbell.  In many ways, “Adept’s Gambit” is the odd one out among the many Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, because it’s the only one that is set in our world rather than Nehwon. It’s also the earliest story and was written sometime in the 1930s, even though it was not published until 1949  in the Arkham House collection Night’s Black Agents in 1949. Since only a handful of copies of Night’s Black Agents exist, it is difficult to determine how much later reprints have been revised. S.T. Joshi recently dug up an even earlier draft of “Adept’s Gambit” from the 1930s, but he is mainly interested in H.P. Lovecraft’s influence on Leiber and not in the inclusion of LGBT characters.

“Adept’s Gambit” is a curious story, which still shows some beginning writer issues such as a lengthy flashback in the middle, and quite a few people don’t like it. However, it’s also closer to what Leiber would have written, when not catering to Campbell’s rather puritanical tastes. But what really struck me about “Adept’s Gambit” is that it not only mentions that gay people exist and that there is nothing wrong with that, though Fafhrd personally isn’t interested in young men propositioning him (and since Leiber was from a family of actors – his father Fritz Leiber Sr. is actually in one of the Best Dramatic Presentation finalists for the 1944 Retro Hugos – he likely know quite a few LGBT folks), but that the story also mentions that trans people exist. For both Fafhrd and Mouser fall for the same woman in the story (as happened to them a few times), only that Mouser suspects that she may be a transwoman and wonders whether that would even matter to him at all. In the end, it turns out that the lady in question is magically swapping bodies with her twin brother, so we have another example of a magical sex change. Of course, these magical sex change stories seem corny to modern readers, but I suspect that this was the only way authors could write about such issues at all at the time.

But even though John W. Campbell’s tastes ran towards the puritanical, some authors managed to sneak sex scenes past him. Fritz Leiber snuck some reference to (married) sex into Conjure Wife. And C.L. Moore managed to sneak a sex scene past Campbell at least twice in 1943, once on her own in Judgment Night and once together with her husband Henry Kuttner in Clash by Night. The sex is mild by contemporary standards and definitely heterosexual. But then, even the notoriously racy Spicy pulps are remarkably tame by modern standards and the most risqué thing in those pages are usually extensive descriptions of attractive young women losing their clothes.

Both Judgment Night and Clash by Night are unusual stories, not just for Astounding Science Fiction (and indeed, I had to doublecheck that they were indeed published in Astounding, cause they feel more like what you’d find in Planet Stories), but for the Golden Age in general. Clash by Night, a 1944 Retro Hugo finalist in the novella category, is basically military science fiction, though published sixteen years before Starship Troopers, which is considered the birth of military SF as a separate subgenre. The protagonist Brian Scott is an officer in a mercenary company which fights the endless and largely futile battles between rivalling undersea cities on Venus, after Earth has been destroyed in an all-encompassing nuclear war (another unusual subject for 1943, where the atom bomb was eagerly awaited rather than feared). Scott wants to give up the mercenary life and settle in one of the undersea cities, but after much soul searching decides that he is a soldier first and foremost. Another thing that makes Clash by Night unusual for a story from the early 1940s is that the mercenaries live in open relationships called “free marriages”. Scott’s soul searching whether to remain a mercenary or settle in one of the undersea cities is manifested through his relationships with two women, Jeana, the woman with whom Scott is in an open relationship, and Ilene, an aristocratic city girl who mixes some mean cocktails. When Scott announces his intention to settle with Ilene in the city, Jeana is unfazed and predicts that he’ll return to her in the end. She remains right. If I hadn’t known that Clash by Night was a Kuttner/Moore story from the early 1940s, I might easily have mistaken it for a lesser known Heinlein story from the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Judgment Night, which sadly missed the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot (honestly, people nominated crap like The Weapon Makers or Perelandra over this?), is unabashed space opera. The protagonist Juille is the daughter of the galactic emperor (galactic empires were beginning to become a thing in the 1940s – see also the early Foundation stories) and a warrior woman in the mould of C.L. Moore’s famous creation Jirel of Joiry. She spends much of the novel locked in a love/hate relationship with Egide, the leader of a rebel force threatening her empire, which again parallels the experiences of Jirel of Joiry, who also fell in love with an enemy knight and even traveled into hell itself to save him. In the end, Juille gets her man, but unfortunately the human race is largely destroyed in the process. So here we have a science fiction romance with a female protagonist that ends with the human race being destroyed courtesy of alien superweapons. I couldn’t imagine a less likely story to be published by John W. Campbell in Astounding.

And in fact, I find that quite a few of the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists that were first published in Astounding subvert Campbell’s famous dictum that humanity must always triumph, which suggests that plenty of authors were tired of inevitably having the humans win even as early as 1943. In “Death Sentence”, Isaac Asimov gives us a (very obscure) story in which humans triumph, except that they’re actually sentient robots. In “Attitude”, the Retro Hugo finalist which is probably closest to what one would expect an early 1940s Astounding story to be like, Hal Clement has the humans use their ingenuity to escape the aliens who have imprisoned them only to reveal that the aliens deliberately left the humans to their own devices to see what they would do. And in C.L. Moore’s Judgment Night, love triumphs, but humanity is destroyed anyway. John W. Campbell may have insisted on humans always winning, but his writers clearly had other ideas.

*All this happens in “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, winner of the 1970 Hugo award for best novella, which you should absolutely read.

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