The title of this essay borrows from a by-now classic article in feminist literary criticism, Nina Baym's "Melodramas of Beset Manhood." Baym asserts that literary criticism developed a theory of "American" literature in such a way that it was nearly impossible for women writers to be included in the canon. While this may not immediately seem to have much bearing on the state of "golden age" science fiction, it is at times striking how those who repeatedly bemoan what has become of contemporary SF seem to echo the praise of the American Myth by such literary critics as Richard Chase and Leslie Fiedler: the lonely (male) hero who sets out to conquer new lands where the principle of individuality is ultimately triumphant. A very manly myth. Interestingly enough, those who complain most loudly about the state of the genre often also tend to complain about its emasculation, or at least state the problem in similar terms, emphasizing that, gosh darn, it just isn't male enough anymore!
The last 'Best-Of' anthology that I read (I think it was for 1999) didn't have a single white adult male as protagonist in ANY of its stories (at least up to the point until the shame at being confronted with the blood guilt of my vile race caused me to stop reading)...
—Joe Schembrie, on the Asimov's discussion board.
There are a number of theories about the roots of science fiction, but one highly regarded hypothesis—proposed by none other than the Grand Master Brian Aldiss—traces the genre back to a novel by a woman: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. (On the other hand, the protagonist of this proto-science fiction novel was a white male scientist.)
As Cheryl Morgan points out in her essay "Myths of Origin," histories of science fiction often have an agenda—which determines when the genre first came into being according to the individual historian. But no matter where one sets the beginning of science fiction, it is undeniable that the predecessors are many and varied, from utopian fiction to fantastic voyages to parallel worlds to scientific romance (1) to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. (2) Even those who would like to make Hugo Gernsback the father of science fiction (and thus, perhaps, elevate his positivist view to dogma) would do well to note that in his 1926 definition of "scientifiction," he too harks back to Wells and Verne as well as Edgar Allan Poe to give his readers an idea of the kind of fiction he will be publishing in his groundbreaking magazine Amazing Stories. But the forebears he cites do not quite jibe with the definition he gives:
...a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision....Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading, they are always instructive....Posterity will point to them as having blazed a new trail, not only in literature and fiction, but progress as well. (3)
It is an interesting juxtaposition: few nowadays would label Poe a model for being instructive and progressive, not to mention for including scientific fact and prophetic vision in his fiction.
Campbell insisted on realistic, mostly human positive stories, wherein the possible effects of advancing science and technology WERE the story, and cultivated writers who would give him same. He wanted clear, direct prose, and he thought that mankind was, for the most part, noble and capable....
In short, Campbell looked at the future and shouted, "Go for it!" Dozois looks at it and cries, "Be afraid of it!"
—Jon Bromfield, on the Asimov's discussion board.
The era conventionally referred to as the "Golden Age" of SF largely coincides with the first ten to twenty years after John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding Stories in 1937. This, however, is not always the era meant by those who decry recent trends in SF and long to return to a time of "stories for men," (4) even if that is not precisely how they phrase it. As has been pointed out more than once, the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve (or fourteen, as the case may be); Tobias Buckell adds in his blog, "If a Locus interview includes the interviewee's opinion of when SF was at its best, I check the birthdate—and so far, it's always been when that writer was a teenager" (n.p.).
Be that as it may, let us briefly consider the general era known as the "Golden Age." In the anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame I: The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of all Time, voted such by the members of SFWA in 1968, the most recent story is from 1963. The volume contains only one story obviously written by a woman, "That Only a Mother," by Judith Merril; the second female presence in the anthology is through the inclusion of "Lewis Padgett," the pseudonym for the writer team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner. This makes all of two women writers represented out of a total of twenty-six stories.
Several of the stories in this anthology themselves also reflect the male bias of the genre during this period. In Lester del Rey's story "Helen O'Loy," a knockout female robot displays "typically" feminine traits such as watching romance serials on the stereo-visor and going gaga on a shopping trip, "as any normal girl might" (Silverberg, 71). With her looks and her cooing and her excellent cooking and housewife skills, it's hardly surprising that one of the male leads falls in love with her. Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" is often regarded by historians of the genre as the first treatment of aliens who are more than green men from Mars or humans in funny costumes. Nonetheless, it has a strong resemblance to the ultimate male romance, the Western, complete with a shootout at the end of the story with the creatures referred to as barrels:
"So I went 'bang' with my gun and Tweel went 'puff' with his, and the barrels were throwing darts and getting ready to rush us, and booming about being friends. I had given up hope. Then suddenly an angel dropped right down from Heaven in the shape of Putz, with his underjets blasting the barrels into very small pieces! (Silverberg, 39)
It is the darts of the barrels against the guns of the masculine hero as the desert frontier is won again on a habitable Mars.
[Critics] cast doubt on the very notion that a "melodrama of beset womanhood" could be either true or important. At the same time, ironically, they are proposing for our serious consideration, as a candidate for intellectually engaging literature, a highly melodramatic novel with an improbable plot, inconsistent characterizations, and excesses of style that have posed tremendous problems for all students of Charles Brockden Brown. —Nina Baym, "Melodramas of Beset Manhood" (70)
Obviously, during the Golden Age, SF was not as infiltrated by women as it is now. Given the preponderance of male authors, it is perhaps not surprising that no woman writer won a Hugo for fiction until 1968, when Anne McCaffrey received the award for her novella "Weyr Search," a tie with Philip José Farmer. In fact, from 1953—when the Hugos were first awarded—until 1980, women writers won the award for novel, novella, novelette or short story a total of twelve times, while male writers during the same period received sixty-eight fiction Hugos. (5)
In the last twenty-five years, the situation has improved somewhat for women writers of SF, who have taken twenty-eight of the awards for fiction while male writers received seventy-three. But slightly over a fourth hardly qualifies as a takeover.
Sometimes I have this unnerving and spine-chilling thought that too much short SF today is naught but metrosexualized SF.
—Dave Truesdale, "Politically Incorrect Ramblings or The Metrosexualization of Short SF" (n.p.)
Contrary to the pink-hued vision of Golden-Agists, SF from the beginning has been replete with forgettable, average, and even bad stories (just as all other genres are, including "literary" and "mainstream"). The "science" in science fiction has never been always rigorous; the vision of the future never always positive; the social criticism never always hard-edged and well-explored. These criticisms are dancing around the real complaint, betrayed in such word choices as "metrosexualized SF."
What seems to be going on is that science fiction has expanded and become more inclusive, and certain readers resent that. But since its inception, science fiction has also been replete with fiction which didn't easily fit into the hard SF or space opera categories, fiction which pushed the envelope of genre conventions. There has always been room for a number of different kinds of fiction, as long as they provided at least some readers with what might be the ultimate requirement of speculative fiction: sensawunda. Perhaps instead of trying to prescribe, we should see it as encouraging that those stories considered average or even bad by a Ruth Nestvold or a Jay Lake will be the same stories that Joe Schmoe or Otto Normalverbraucher loved—just as Joe Schmoe might consider the stories bad that Gardner Dozois loves.
The wonderful thing about our ghetto is that it is large; it contains multitudes.
- "Scientific romance" was the most common term in the nineteenth century for works such as those of H.G. Wells, and was still used well into the twentieth century until it was replaced by "science fiction." [back]
- For a concise and extremely informative survey of the genre, see John Clute and Peter Nichols, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (entry: "History of SF"): 567-572. [back]
- Cited in Clute and Nichols: 311. [back]
- But one assumes that John Kessel's story of that name, winner of the Tiptree Award for 2002, would also fall into the category of "the very tired theme" of gender (Truesdale, n.p.) for most of the "what has become of science fiction!" crowd. [back]
- These numbers do not include the retro Hugos. [back]