The Women Science Fiction Fans Don’t See

Today, I’m over at Galactic Journey again, where I review the 1964 science fiction books, Message from the Eocene and Three Worlds of Futurity, both by Margaret St. Clair as part of the December Galactoscope. Furthermore, our editor Gideon Marcus also reviews The Greks Bring Gifts (not a typo) by Murray Leinster, The Arsenal of Miracles by Gardner F. Fox and Endless Shadow by John Brunner, all of which sound more promising than they evidently were. Meanwhile, I hit the jackpot, because I got to review two excellent books.

Margaret St. Clair is one of several women science fiction writers from the Golden and Silver Age who have sadly fallen into the cracks of genre history. From that era, the only women authors who are still widely remembered and reprinted today are Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore and Andre Norton – everybody else is more or less obscure. Furthermore, Brackett and Moore have undergone something of a rediscovery in recent times – at any rate I remember a time in the late 1980s/early 1990s when their work was out of print and very hard to find. It’s also notable that while Brackett and Moore have done well in recent Retro Hugo Awards, they were almost completely ignored in the Retro Hugo Awards given out in the 1990s, in spite of having eligible works that are often better than what actually made the ballot. As for Andre Norton, the reason she is still remembered fairly well is because she was so very prolific and because much her work was aimed at young readers, so her books were a gateway into science fiction for many fans.

Margaret St. Clair was about the same age as Brackett, Moore and Norton. She debuted several years after Brackett and Moore, around the same time as Norton, but is much less remembered today. I knew her mainly as the author of the Wiccan-influenced Sign of the Labrys (Margaret St. Clair and her husband were both Quakers and Wiccan, which is certainly an interesting combination), but hadn’t read anything by her otherwise. Which is a pity, because – at least based on the sample of her work I’ve read – Margaret St. Clair was really, really good and a lot more versatile than a writer of Wiccan inspired fantasy.

Of the two books I reviewed, the novel Message from the Eocene is very trippy, very 1960s and very good. It literally spans billions of years, the main protagonist is a disembodied alien spirit with massive communication issues, who eventually helps to usher in the Age of Aquarius. That’s not all, the novel is also at times a Hal Clement style “truly alien aliens in an alien environment” story, a Victorian ghost story, a galactic suburbia style science fiction tale which attempts to grapple with the consequences of colonialism and even contains a bonus comment on the Vietnam War, which was just heating up as the story was written, and a mid 1960s space exploration story, in which a multinational, Iron Curtain overcoming spaceship crew finds something amazing during the second mission to Venus. And Margaret St. Clair manages to pack all this and more into a short novel (114 mass market paperback pages) by modern standards. In fact, Message from the Eocene was so good that I wondered, “How the hell did this not even make the 1965 Hugo ballot, especially since it’s much better than the book that eventually won?”

The second half of this Ace Double is a collection of short stories, originally published between 1949 and 1962, which really showcase the breadth and versatility of Margaret St. Clair’s work. Two are galactic suburbia stories, a term I couldn’t use over at Galactic Journey, because Joanna Russ only coined it in 1970, even though it is perfect to describe a certain type of domestic science fiction, often sharply satirical, occasionally dystopian or tragic, that usually focusses on the travails of typical suburban American mid century couples or families in a very mid century vision of the future and that was mostly, though not exclusively, written by women. Joanna Russ’ use of the term is perjorative, but that’s unfair, because I have read some very fine galactic suburbia stories. Yes, they are very much artefacts of their time – literally Mad Men era science fiction – but they are usually critical of the suburban middle class mid-century lifestyle and sometimes downright subversive. One of the stories in the collection, “The Rages” mixes galactic suburbia science fiction with the consumerist dystopias of Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. “The Rages” also casually predicts the hormonal birth control pill, but that isn’t such a remarkably feat considering that the pill was already in development when the story came out in 1954, though it would not become available to the general public until 1960. Coincidentally, “The Rages” is also where Equilibrium, the 2002 dystopian movie which borrowed from every dystopian novel it could find and added good martial arts choreography and a fine performance by Christian Bale, stole the bit with the mandatory behaviour modifying drugs from. Well, I guess it was too much to expect that a movie as derivative as Equilibrium would contain a single original idea.

Another story “The Island of the Hands” is very much Leigh Brackett type planetary romance adventure and in fact so reminiscent of the slightly earlier Leigh Brackett story “The Moon That Vanished” that I’m pretty sure Margaret St. Clair must have known the story, if she didn’t know Brackett personally. They both lived in California, after all. And then there is a story (“The Everlasting Food”) which mixes Leigh Brackett style planetary romance and galactic suburbia science fiction, a subgenre combination I haven’t seen before. Even Leigh Brackett herself wrote straight galactic suburbia science fiction in the few instances that she did (“The Tweener” is probably the best known), but did not mix both styles.

Finally, there are two truly remarkable stories, if for very different reasons. One story, “Idris’ Pig” is pretty much a screwball comedy set on Mars. It’s delightful, hilarious and – as I wrote over at Galactic Journey – pretty much Bringing Up Baby on Mars, with a blueskinned and sacred Martian pig instead of a lost dinosaur bone. Now the funny side of the Golden Age is often forgotten today, partly because the humor is badly dated and partly because science fiction is a serious genre, dammit, and we will have no laughs here, unless written by Douglas Adams. But while I have read quite a few examples of funny Golden Age science fiction, none of them were as charming and delightful as “Idris’ Pig”. So why is this story not the beloved classic it deserves to be?

The other remarkable story in this collection is “Roberta”. It is a science fiction story with a transwoman protagonist – from 1962! And it is not one of those magical/semi-magical sex change stories that occasionally pop up during the Golden Age – no, the titular character has had gender reassignment surgery, though I could not use that term over at Galactic Journey, because it didn’t yet exist in 1964. Of course, gender reassignment surgery was hardly science fiction even back in 1962, but had been science fact for more than thirty years at that point. It wasn’t even that taboo a subject in popular culture – Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda came out in 1953, nine years before “Roberta”. But it was not a subject science fiction chose to tackle at the time. But while “Roberta” was a clearly pioneering story (the word “abortion” is even uttered on the page and implied to be a regular and not very bad occurrence, which is something that is rare even today), it is also highly problematic, because the transwoman protagonist is also mentally ill and tends to kill random men (to be fair, they were arseholes). Joachim Boaz is unsure what to make of the portrayal in his review of Three Worlds of Futurity and Rich Horton, who reviewed the same Ace Double here, found the story transphobic. He is correct, for viewed through a modern lens, it absolutely is.

However, one of the issues with older science fiction (and indeed any older fiction) that tries to be more progressive than what was common at the time and features marginalised people that were rarely depicted elsewhere is that quite often, the results are badly stereotyped and sometimes downright offensive to modern readers, even if it is clear that the story was well intentioned. You can see this at several points in this Ace Double. For example, the parts of Message from the Eocene that are clearly critical of colonialism and state that the anger of the colonised at their colonisers is justified nonetheless manage to present the colonised people the narrative clearly sympathises with as superstitious and backwards and in need of a white, if not American saviour. Early attempts to address issues that are either taboo or rarely discussed often tend to be offensive – see how badly Dynasty handled Steven Carrington, one of the first gay characters on mainstream television. Maybe the first writers to address a subject that hasn’t been talked about before need to seek out every pitfall and put their foot in it first, before those that can come after can do better. And that process can take a long time.

So even if the magical sex change stories of the golden age and later works like Glen or Glenda (I’m sort of coopting it for SFF here) or “Roberta” are offensive to modern readers, they remind us that trans people (and women, people of colour and LGBTQ people in general) were always there, always a part of our genre and did not simply fall from the sky in approximately 2010.

Message from the Eocene and Three Worlds of Futurity were both huge and pleasant surprises for me and make me all the more sad that Margaret St. Clair isn’t better remembered. Of her three better known women SFF writer contemporaries, Andre Norton was named an SFWA grandmaster, C.L. Moore was offered grandmaster status, but her husband declined on her behalf, and Leigh Brackett died too early. Maragret St. Clair lived until 1995. She never became an SFWA grandmaster, though at least some of her works are in print (again).

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2 Responses to The Women Science Fiction Fans Don’t See

  1. nighthawks says:

    I haven’t read this Ace Double, but I do recommend Agent of the Unknown, published in 1956, as another interesting book by this author.

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