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Recovering Women's Science Fiction
Recovering Women's Science Fiction
by Liza Jaszek
Esta es la primera parte de la introducción, el texto completo tiene 66 páginas. Espero pronto tener tiempo para hacer una traducción rápida al español, eso me servirá de ejercicio y seguro que será de utilidad para algún paseante. El texto oríginal se puede descargar en este enlace.
A new Science Fiction (SF) magazine called The Avalonianhit the newsstands in 1952. The debut issue featured an anchor story by Lilith Lorraine —an SF veteran who had been writing for more than two decades and who also published The Avalonian— and half a dozen more pieces by writers largely unknown to the genre’s growing readership. Among the latter was a very short story by Helen Reid Chase entitled “Night of Fire.” In less than four pages Chase rallies a galactic civilization, recapitulates cold war nuclear fears, ridicules religious zealots, razes planet Earth, and finally saves a select fraction of humanity for a destiny among the stars. “Night of Fire” is both utterly typical and truly remarkable for its time. An intergalactic alien council decides that humans, with their deadly combination of advanced atomic technologies and apocalyptic religious impulses, have set themselves on the path to total annihilation. Exhibiting a rather fine sense of irony, the council stages a fake rapture and spirits away those few earthlings “of very unusual intelligence” who have adhered to the principles of rational and benevolent behavior, leaving behind a scorched earth for the very same religious fanatics who prophesied apocalypse in the first place (33).
Because Chase valorizes empirical science over fundamentalist religion and reasoned intelligence over rote faith, her story is very much a recognizable part of the SF tradition. But in a historical moment when science and technology (not to mention stories about them) were considered primarily the province of male scientists, politicians, and artists, Chase’s story departs from tradition by focusing on the fate of womenin the high-tech world of tomorrow. “Night of Fire” is told from multiple perspectives, including that of Mrs. Brandon, a woman of “meager intellect” who shuns science, technology, and education in general while embracing strict religious piety and merciless domestic order (32). Not surprisingly, when she is left behind with all the other anti-intellectual zealots, Mrs. Brandon loses both her faith and her mind. As a parodic embodiment of the conventional feminine virtues celebrated by many postwar Americans, the character of Mrs. Brandon serves as a powerful warning about the inadequacy of traditional sex and gender roles in the modern era. If women refuse to embrace scientific and social change, Chase warns, at best they will be left behind and at worst driven insane by the demands of a world that is rapidly evolving past them.
But Chase also insists that women who look forward to the future need not suffer this fate. On the apocalyptic “night of fire” the aliens make good on their vow to save the best of humanity, quietly whisking away scientists, engineers, and housewives alike. Of course, the housewives they save are radically different from Mrs. Brandon. As one of the baffled husbands left behind on Earth remarks, “I know [my wife] did some strange reading. Well, maybe it was along science lines. I didn’t notice much. As long as she took care of the house right, that’s all I cared about. I don’t know how she’d find out about anything big though. But I know she’s gone” (33–34). Chase celebrates the possibility that women in the home—much like men in the laboratory and on the assembly line—might contribute to a new technocultural world order. Even more significantly, she celebrates the possibility that they might do so by engaging in precisely that kind of “strange reading” that Chase’s readers themselves participated in as they turned the pages of her brief story.
In “Night of Fire” SF storytelling emerges as a powerful tool for women interested in reading—and writing—about their roles as citizens of a high-tech future. And writers such as Chase had good reason to place their faith in SF rather than other literary forms. Like the forsaken husbands in Chase’s tale, mainstream publishers of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s usually assumed that women had little or no interest in scientific, social, or political issues. Feminist author Betty Friedan recollects that “by the time I started writing for women’s magazines, in the fi fties, it was simply taken for granted by editors... that women were not interested in politics, life outside the United States, national issues, art, science, ideas, adventure, education, or even their own communities, except where they could be sold through their emotions as wives and mothers” (50). At best, such editors assumed readers might be interested in service articles about how to have a baby in a bomb shelter; at worst, they expected women’s eyes to drift away from such articles in search of more amusing tales about mischievous children and perfect party frocks. Either way, staff writers were expected to meet the supposed needs of readers by focusing on domestic issues at the expense of everything else.
But history is never that simple. Nearly 300 women began publishing in the SF community after World War II, and the stories they wrote both implicitly and explicitly challenged what Friedan called “the feminine mystique” by staking claims for women in the American future imaginary (1). Leading SF author and editor Judith Merril recalls that she turned to the genre in the 1940s because it was “virtually the only vehicle of political dissent” available to socially conscious authors working in a historical moment marked by political paranoia and cultural conservatism (“What Do You Mean” 74). Whether or not SF was the only vehicle for such dissent, it was certainly a useful one. As a wildly popular mode of storytelling that ostensibly revolved around future worlds and alien peoples, SF provided authors with ideal allegorical narrative spaces in which to critically assess the here and now.
This book is about Helen Reid Chase, Judith Merril, and all the other postwar women writers who wrote SF set in a place called “galactic suburbia.” Feminist SF author and critic Joanna Russ first introduced the concept of galactic suburbia in her groundbreaking 1971 essay, “The Image of Women in Science Fiction,” to make sense of the large body of SF stories set in high-tech, far futures where gender relations still look suspiciously like those of “present-day, white, middle-class suburbia” (81). Although tales written by women including Chase and Merril generally “contain more active and lively female characters than do stories by men,” Russ concludes that they are little more than space-age variants of “ladies’ magazine fiction” in which a “sweet, gentle, intuitive little heroine solves an interstellar crisis by mending her slip or doing something equally domestic after her big, heroic husband has failed” (88).
Russ clearly recognizes that women’s writing about galactic suburbia put a feminine face on the future. However, in direct contrast to the feminist fiction that authors such as herself were beginning to produce, women writing for the postwar SF community rarely seemed to take the next logical step and show how new sciences and technologies might produce new sex and gender relations as well. For pioneering critics such as Russ, distinguishing between different types of women’s speculative fiction was key to the project of defining feminist SF as an emergent narrative tradition in its own right. But as artists and scholars turned their attention to this new narrative tradition, earlier women SF authors were relegated to the margins of literary and cultural history (2).
Galactic Suburbiareverses this trend by demonstrating the significant contributions that women writers made to modern SF in the decades following World War II. This project begins by expanding upon the notion of galactic suburbia itself. As Russ rightly notes, stories set in galactic suburbia generally revolve around what appear to be surprisingly conservative sex and gender ideals. But this does not mean that all women writers automatically agreed on the meaning and value of these ideals. SF became central to the American imagination after World War II because it enabled people to explore their hopes and fears about the emergence of a technocultural world order. This was particularly important for women because postwar technoculture hinged on what were then new understandings and representations of sex and gender. Accordingly, women writers used stories about romance, marriage, and motherhood in galactic suburbia as focusing lenses through which to evaluate these concepts. In doing so they produced a unique body of speculative fiction that served as a potent critical voice about the relations of science, society, and gender as they were articulated first in the wake of World War II and as they continue to inform American culture today.
- Figures cited in this book regarding the number of women writers who began publishing in the SF community after World War II are derived from my personal count of those listed in Stephen T. Miller and William G. Contento, The Locus Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Magazine Index (1890–2001). My research assistants, Kellie Coffey and Jason Ellis, confirmed these numbers in two independent reviews of the Index. In all three cases we included only those authors who published short stories rather than novels because the paperback industry was still quite new at the time, and it is likely that authors who published novels also wrote short stories.
further discussion concerning Russ’s ideas about the necessary distinction between
different eras and modes of women’s speculative fiction, see my essay, “A History
of One’s Own: Joanna Russ and the Creation of a Feminist Science Fiction Tradition,”
in Farah Mendlesohn’s edited collection, On Joanna Russ,forthcoming from Wesleyan
Press. For more general discussions concerning the aesthetic and political implications
of the feminist SF canon as it has evolved over the past three decades, see Robin
Roberts’s “It’s Still Science Fiction: Strategies of Feminist Science Fiction
Criticism” and Helen Merrick’s “Fantastic Dialogues: Critical Stories about
Feminism and Science Fiction.”
Copyright © 2008 by The Ohio State University. All rights reserved. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Yaszek, Lisa, 1969–.Galactic suburbia : recovering women’s science fiction / Lisa Yaszek.