You’ve got your popcorn, the theater darkens, orchestral music blares, and text crawls up the screen. And crawls, and crawls. Then we meet some characters who don’t matter, get jokes where there shouldn’t be jokes, there’s tons of unnecessary backstory, and it all moves at a glacial pace. This is George Lucas’s cut of Star Wars. Yet the film won an Oscar…for editing…for *Marcia Lucas.
Name the earliest science-fiction author you can? Isaac Asimov? Born in 1920. Hugo Gernsback? Solid reference; he was born in 1884. Jules Verne? A good guess, born in 1828. But we’re still not at the origins of scifi yet. Many people would say, and rightly so, that sci-fi has many fathers, but only one mother, the woman credited with creating the fledgling genre, Mary Shelley. Born to a renowned feminist writer and philosopher in 1797, Mary was sixteen when she fell in love with the poet Percy Shelley and the two ran away together to become a power couple of the literary Romantic movement. Onel summer at friend Lord Byron’s villa in Switzerland, the three of them spent long nights debating everything from art to politics to galvanism, also known as raising bodies from the dead using electricity. On one eerie night, Byron challenged everyone to write a ghost story. Mary crafted a tale of in which the fantastic could happen within the realm of the possible. The book contains very little science, but it masterfully explores the social and moral repercussions of what might happen if certain scientific advances were possible. If you’ve only seen movies, you’ve been robbed of some of the best aspects of the story. It also bears noting, she was nineteen at the time. I would definitely not want anyone reading what I wrote at nineteen.
Frankenstein was published anonymously in 1818 with a preface by Percy Shelley, causing many to assume he was the author, since writing books wasn’t a proper undertaking for a woman. Following bestseller status and a successful stage adaptation, Mary set the record straight with the second edition in 1822, finally taking credit for her masterpiece. Sadly, that was also the year she lost Percy in a shipwreck, leaving her a 24 year old widow. In a strange twist that you would, hopefully, only see among Romantics, Mary had to fight with Byron over which of them got to keep Percy’s preserved heart, giving him Percy’s skull as a sort of consolation prize.
Surprisingly, you can make a strong case that even Mary Shelley wasn’t the first scifi author. To talk about her, we have to move further from the time of the American civil war and closer to the time of the English civil war. Presenting Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623–1673), one of the first women to write using her own name — including 20 volumes of plays, poems, essays, and satires — the only woman to publish her own natural philosophy in the 17th century, and the first woman to be invited to visit the newly formed Royal Society. With no education after childhood tutoring and denied a career because of her matching chromosomes, Cavendish wrote as she pleased, exploring ideas like atomism, materialism, and animal rights, mixed with discussions on gender and etiquette.
In exile in France, the wealthy Cavendishes were both patrons and practitioners of science, and it was through their connections that Margaret was exposed to scientific debate. She and her husband William held salons in Paris that included such great minds as Hobbes and Descartes. In the 1650s, Cavendish was developing her scientific mind and published a number of short books. After the Restoration of the Stuarts to the throne and the Cavendishes to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, she worked to refine her ideas, publishing the impressive-sound Philosophical and Physical Opinions, Philosophical Letters, and Observations on Experimental Philosophy, in the span of three years. Before we get too terribly excited, let me asterisk all this by saying she wasn’t a fan of this “new science,” believing that knowledge gained by experimental methods wasn’t reliable and would *always be tainted by the self-interest of the observer, not just in cases of badly-organized experiments perfuse with confirmation bias. “[Man] can not know the truth of those Infinite parts,” she said, “being but a finite part itself.”
Cavendish tried to join the The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (Royal Society, to its friends). They said no. [sfx door slams] Repeatedly. She may have authored science books, but she was still a woman. She would be invited to visit the Society and witness its experiments, and her appearance became a bigger attraction than the experiments. That may have had something to do with her reputation for eccentricity, what in us working-class people is called ‘being freaking weird.’ In evidence of this, I offer the time she attended a play written by her husband wearing an outfit of her own design based on ancient Cretan costumes which left the breasts bare, and other such behavior that earned her the nickname “Mad Madge.”
But now we’re up to 1666, the year of the Great Fire and the most relevant bullet point in her CV, The Blazing World. No, I don’t know when it came out relative to the fire, but the fire was September, so I’d say it was probably BF, before fire. The Blazing World is considered by some to be the world’s first science-fiction novel, 152 years before Frankenstein. The main character, a young lady, is kidnapped by an amorous foreign merchant and taken to sea, but a storm forces his boat toward the North Pole and into a new world. While all the men aboard the boat all freeze to death, she survives and meets remarkable species of hybrid manimals, “Bear-men,” “Fox-men,” “Ape-men,” and more—which she organizes into scientific societies. If you choose, you may picture it as 1996’ The Island of Doctor Moreau starring the girl from The Golden Compass, aged up slightly, and you will, now that I said it. The Blazing World has become Cavendish’s best-known work: in it a young lady travels to a world joined to ours at the North Pole, where she encounters a kingdom of hybrids—“Bear-men,” “Fox-men,” “Ape-men,” and more—which she organizes and leads in scientific societies. Like the clergy in Dante’s Divine Comedy, members of the Royal Society populate the novel and Cavendish might as well include them; she included herself! Guess who she was, and the last two guesses don’t count. Did I mention the main character becomes empress? We shouldn’t say Mary Sue, we should call author self-inserts Margaret Lucas.
As refreshing as it’s been to get out of the boy’s club, there is another conspicuous similarity to our list today, the same holding true for most of my source material – the lack of scifi authors of color. Which is an especially egregious oversight, considering female authors of color swept the Hugo Awards in 201 6. Names like Susan Power, Sabrina Vourvoulias, Daína Chaviano, Sofia Samatar and, of course, Octavia Estelle Butler. Butler was born in 1947 to a housekeeper mother and shoe-shiner father, who died when she was seven. Butler’s mother raised her with the help of her own mother in a strict Baptist household. Because Butler’s mother had received little formal education herself, she made sure that her daughter was given the opportunity to learn by bringing her books and magazines that her white employers threw away. Though Butler’s mother bought her a typewriter, it was in the hope that Butler would grow up to work as a secretary. Neither mother nor grandmother encouraged Butler’s burgeoning love of writing. In their minds, and in the minds of many people of that era, women and people of color could not be professional writers.
Sitting in front of the low-budget movie Devil Girl From Mars, Butler, then twelve years old, said to herself, “Someone got paid for writing this story! I can write a better story than that.” Butler began reading science fiction at a young age, but she soon found the genre’s unimaginative portrayal of ethnicity and class, as well as by its lack of noteworthy female protagonists, disappointing. A shy only child, awkwardly tall and a target for bullies, Butler found solace reading at the library and in writing.
An avid reader, Butler prevailed in her education. She graduated from Pasadena City College in 1968, her college years coming during the rising Black Power movement. Listening to classmates criticize the “subservience” of previous generations of blacks to whites, Butler thought of her housekeeper mother and felt empathy for those forebearers rather than judgement. A major through-line of this series, and Butler’s work as a whole, in the struggle of people of different lifestyles trying to co-exist when one lifestyle has been labeled subversive, transgressive, or simply wrong. Butler would later claim to have three loyal audiences, from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds: people of color, fans of science-fiction, and feminists.
While participating in a local writer’s workshop, Butler was encouraged to attend the Screen Writers Guild Open Door Program. There, she found a mentor in celebrated science fiction author Harlan Ellison, who was impressed by her writing. He urged her to attend the six-week Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop in Clarion, Pennsylvania. Butler sold her first stories. Crossover was published in the 1971 Clarion anthology, and Childfinder was purchased by Ellison for an anthology that was never published.
For the next five years, Butler worked on the five novels that would become known as the Patternist series. The series explored themes of what it means to be human, racial and gender-based animosity, the ethical implications of biological engineering, and how power changes people through a secret history spanning from ancient Egypt to the far future, involving an alien pandemic and telepathic mind control. In 1978, a scant seven years after selling her first story, Butler was able to stop working and support herself as a writer. The next year, she published Kindred, which told the story of a black woman who is transported from 1976 to 1815 where she is assumed to be an escaped slave and treated accordingly. While many are quick to categorize the book as science-fiction because it involved time-travel, Butler herself pointed out that the science of the time-travel is effectively ignored. While Butler enjoyed science-fiction as both a reader and a writer, calling it “potentially the freest genre in existence,” she resisted the label of “genre writer.” Many call her work “literary science fiction” or “speculative fiction,” a more nebulously defined genre that deals with the future without focusing on technology.
That being said, Butler experimented with alien contact, gene manipulation, contamination, hybridity, non-consensual mating to shape characters built by sociobiological violence. The futuristic communities she created drew on African culture and the black experience in the diaspora of America. That is why she is called “the queen of afrofuturism.” The term “afrofuturism” generally refers to literature, music, moves, and visual art that explores the African-American experience through science fiction, how the culture intersects with technology and futurism. Coined by science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany in a 1995 interview, the purpose of the term is to set apart “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture — and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future…African-American voices have other stories to tell about culture, technology, and things to come.” Marvel’s Black Panther comics and film, the works of artist Jean-Michele Basquiat, Missy Elliott’s best videos, Authors like Rivers Solomon, Nalo Hopkinson, the work of Jeanelle Monee, and even the musical The Wiz stand as examples of afrofuturism.
Octavia Butler died suddenly outside her home of a possible stroke and a fall in 2006 at age 58. However, the themes of her works–humanity’s natural tendency toward oppression, overcoming disenfranchisement, embracing change to survive–are timeless. “Simple peck-order bullying”, Butler wrote in the essay A World without Racism, “is only the beginning of the kind of hierarchical behavior that can lead to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and all the other ‘isms’ that cause so much suffering in the world.”
Though we’ve already disproven it, “conventional wisdom,” in big air quotes, holds that science fiction was written almost exclusively by men until the advent of feminism in the 1960s and ’70s. You can prove that that wasn’t the case if you go through old sci-fi story magazines, as Georgia Tech professor Lisa Yaszek did. What does she teach? Science fiction studies. So if she says women have always been part of sci-fi, you can take that to the bank. “I was so surprised to see how many women there were in science fiction before women really came into the genre in the 1970s with feminist science fiction,” Yaszek said on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I kept uncovering these anthologies with all of these women who were clearly well-known and celebrated in their day, and who I had never heard of.” Not only were female authors fairly common, at least 15%, female readership was even higher, more than 40%.
“Umm, actually, Moxie, it just looks like there weren’t female authors because they wrote under male pseudonyms.” Aren’t you a clever sausage? Well, if you’re going to correct people, make sure you’re correct. According to Yaszek, that’s mostly a myth. Women did write under male names, but male authors also used female pseudonyms. You couldn’t swing a dead alien cat creature without hitting a pen name. So why do we have such a distorted view of history? Yaszek says that the first science fiction anthologies were published during a backlash against first-wave feminism, and that male editors such as John W. Campbell and Groff Conklin specifically excluded women from their lineups.
With attitudes like that running the joint, it’s no wonder we got feminist sci-fi. Feminist sci-fi
focuses on themes like gender inequality, sexuality, race, economics, or reproduction, whatever aspect of the dominant culture needs tearing down. Some authors use utopias to explore a society in which gender differences or gender power imbalances do not exist, while some use dystopias to explore worlds where gender inequalities are intensified. Need an example? Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, that’s the obvious one.
For feminist sci-fi that hasn’t been optioned by a premium streaming service, check out Joanna Russ and “galactic suburbia.” Have you ever noticed how, no matter how advanced the technological backdrop of a story is, the society is still roughly the same as ours. So the characters are living in cloud cities with robot butlers and interstellar travel, with their hetero spouse, pet dog, and 2.3 kids. This struck Russ as odd, since, in all of human history, when science and technology change, society changes.
Joanna Russ was born to a pair of teachers in The Bronx in 1937. In her youth, she filled countless notebooks with stories, poems, comics and illustrations, often hand-binding them with thread. Russ entered college at fifteen and sold her first story at twenty-two. Her work was experimental, strange, and unabashedly feminist, exuding her belief that the scifi genre was ideal for expressing radical thought. Russ was one of the most outspoken female authors to challenge male dominance of the field, and is generally regarded as one of the leading feminist science fiction scholars and writers. Russ’s most often-cited book is The Female Man, from 1975, which features four women in different parallel universes who visit each other’s realities and compare and contrast the lives and treatment of women.
Russ further helped to shape the field through her essays and criticism. Science fiction, Russ felt, gives something to its readers they can’t easily get from other genres, but the science should be accurate, and that seriousness is a virtue. Despite that latter point, she was also one of the first major science fiction writers to take slash fiction seriously, much to the mixed relief and embarrassed chagrin of us semi-recovered fan fiction authors. Slash fiction, for those who had friends and a social life during high school, is fan fiction that pairs up same-sex characters and dates all the way back to Star Trek TOS with Kirk and Spock.
Russ’s most significant non-fiction was her 1983 book, How To Suppress Women’s Writing, outlining the dozen or so different methods commonly employed to ignore, condemn or belittle the work of female authors. Repressing female writing doesn’t require anything as dramatic as prohibiting females to learn to read or write. It can be done after the fact, quietly and with the wave of a dismissive hand. Russ gets her point across right on the cover; you don’t even have to open the book. Rather than any sort of graphic, the cover is just text, reading “She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist and it isn’t really art. She wrote it, but she had help. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. She wrote it BUT…” Wow. Makes me want to write a second book just on general principle. I’m still waiting for distribution details on the YBOF audiobook, btw, but in the meantime, there’s always the print version at url.
Before you think Russ was some beastly man-hater and probably dumped on the works of all male authors, her feminine contemporaries weren’t safe either including Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the most-awarded scifi authors ever, and her double-Hugo winning The Left Hand of Darkness. To say Le Guin is a legend of the genre may be to damn with faint praise — she was literally recognized by the Library of Congress as a Living Legend. She also received, among *many awards in her life, the short-lived World Science Fiction society award, the Gandalf Grand Master. [sfx nerd] Best-known for her Earthsea series, Le Guin spent (or wasted) years trying to get the attention of mainstream fiction, but the scifi/fantasy world embraced her almost immediately.
Born in California in 1929, Ursula was the only daughter of an anthropologist father and writer mother, who chronicles the story of Ishi, the last of the Yahi. If you want to learn more about Ishi, and you definitely should, but you’re pressed for time, you can check out the movie The Last of His Tribe, starring my favorite under-appreciated actor, Graham Green. Don’t believe the cover art giving Jon Voigt top billing. Anyway, Le Guin was raised in a household that encouraged the exploration of art, ideas and cultures. The Left Hand of Darkness, part of what’s called the Hainish Cycle, after the planet on which they take place, details an alien race who only exhibit blatant gender characteristics when it’s time to mate, has won both Nebula and Hugo awards, and was accused by Russ of reinforcing gender stereotypes. Have you read it? Are you with Russ or was she way off-base? Tell me on the soc med or groups. You should also hop on if you have a strong opinion about which is the better student wizard story, Harry Potter or A Wizard of Earthsea? Then we can debate why there isn’t an Earthsea extension to any theme parks when Earthsea books have sold millions worldwide. Maybe it’s the emotional depth the series has been praised for, even though it’s about and geared toward teens.
Breaking into mainstream publishing also proved difficult for Alice Bradley Sheldon, but she came at the problem side-on. Like many female authors before and since, she took up a male pen-name, James Tiptree Jr. What’s unusual in this care was that most people assumed it was a pen-name because of the author’s *actual job, working for the CIA. The readers of the machismo-heavy stories just didn’t imagine that CIA spy was a woman. That revelation in ‘77 left a lot of cognitive dissonance in its wake.
Alice Sheldon, born in 1915, had quite the CV, from chicken-farming to Army intelligence during WWII, when she became an expert in reading aerial photographs. She went to college at age 40 and earned a PhD in experimental psychology, *then she started writing science fiction. Her first story was published in 1968 under the name James Tiptree, which, by the by, was inspired by a brand of jam. Sheldon chose a male name, not only for the marketability, but because “I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.” “Tiptree” wasn’t Sheldon’s first or only pen name, either; she also wrote under the adorably dubious Raccoona Sheldon. In fact, the two alternate identities not only coexisted, but cooperated. As Tiptree built up clout in the literary world, he wrote to editors recommending Raccoona to them.
Tiptree had been likened to Earnest Hemingway, but their themes are distinctly un-Hemingway-esque. The Hugo/Nebula/Jupiter award winning novella “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” for example, sees an astronaut crew blown off-course by solar flare, to be rescued by another ship whose crew, they slowly realize, is almost all female. In fact, there’s only one male crewmember. The astronauts eventually learn that they are in fact in the future and in the three centuries they skipped, all the men of Earth slowly died out, the 2mil women populating the planet are clones of 11,000 original women, and the only “male” crew member was a female clone given male hormones. I don’t think Papa would have written about that.
Why were Tiptree’s books so convincingly, supposedly masculine? She herself explained it thus: “Men have so preempted the area of human experience that when you write about universal motives, you are assumed to be writing like a man.” Scholar Kim Kirkpatrick reads Tiptree/Sheldon’s work as “public discourse on gender and sex within American society and as a specific discussion about Sheldon functioning as a woman in a male-dominated world. Readers liked Tiptree’s writing; therefore he must be a man; a James Bond-type of smooth adventurer.” Kirkpatrick pays particular attention to the story “The Women Men Don’t See,” in which the male narrator thinks a mother and daughter going off with aliens are literally crazy for leaving Earth and the narrator can’t understand why they don’t want to be “rescued” by him, either. “Men may dominate the story,” Kirkpatrick says, “but to understand the story, follow the women.”
And that’s…Marcia was the only Lucas to bring home an Oscar, along with fellow editors Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew. Marcia was an accomplished film editor in her own right before George ever came along, working under the likes of Martin Scorsese. She rearranged the scenes to create tension where it was needed, trimmed redundant exposition, and gave the audience the right amount of information. It was even Marcia’s idea for Obi Wan Kenobi to die. She’s inguarably a big chunk of the reason that the movie spawned a media empire. So why isn’t her name as well-known a part of that as John Williams? There is conjecture that after their divorce in 1983, George actively worked to repress her contributions. For example, he put scenes back in that she had taken out, like the scene with Han and Jabba as Mos Isley, which is one more reason to hate that scene and the whole re-cut of the film. Remember… Thanks..