After a brief discussion of Eurocentrism in Science Fiction, you’d think we’d hit the worst already. But that flaw came about organically as a result of the culture that invented the scientific concepts that gave rise to the action and settings of the genre. Much worse, in my book, is the continuation for decades of the misogyny and racism of Science fiction.
The last blog mentioned that the heroes were northern European stereotypes and that held true across many decades. Books and stories written by various ethnic authors tended to have the same bland protagonists. Women writers who began to be prominent early on in the golden age also wrote stories dominated by these same tropes.
One important figure in the field, whose story illustrates many of the problems within the writing of Science Fiction and in the real world of publishing Science Fiction is Andre Norton.
She was born as Alice Mary Norton in February of 1917 and she began publishing stories in the early 1930s. Her pseudonyms included Andrew and Allen—both distinctly male—but she eventually had her name legally changed to the slightly less gendered Andre. Her early reviewers often referred to her as male or studiously avoided gendered pronouns altogether.
This gender avoidance continued despite her place as one of the leading voices of Science Fiction and of Fantasy. One of her later credits is Quag Keep (1976) the first novel based upon the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, after she was introduced to the phenomenon by sitting in on games run by Gary Gygax. That’s a hefty bit of nerd-cred if ever there was one.
Today’s many award winning women authors rarely hide behind masculine sounding pen names or genderless initials (J.K. Rowling notwithstanding). Still, the tide has only slowly changed toward the acceptance of women writers in Science Fiction, even years after Robin Hobb and Anne McAffrey have become accepted staples of the Fantasy genre.
This problem, like that of Eurocentrism, arose partly because of the male-dominated readership and also because of the male-dominated sciences. The tragic part of the history, from my point of view, is the relatively positive view of the future and women’s place in that future that much of Science Fiction espoused. Asimov’s Arkady Darell was certainly a heroic protagonist in one of the many stories that make up the Foundation novels—although surely she could have employed a more deft hand at the typewriter than Asimov to capture something that felt more like a character than a 1960s female stereotype. Still, she was there and she was important to the story.
However, for every powerful female voice, for every Lt. Uhura there were dozens of Yeoman Rands, ready to be the willing victim in a male-dominated universe. So, we should celebrate the rise of the women authors if for nothing else than to broaden the imagination and the range of ideas—the true meaning of diversity.
Justifying the past is less important to me than judging where the genre is going. David Denby has written about the “Great Books” of the Western canon and how the best critiques of that canon come from Western ideas, the building blocks of freedom and justice, of equality and liberty and based upon the collected language built up over millennia. In much the same way the greatest critiques of Science fiction come from within as well.
The language of Science Fiction is growing all the time as science itself pushes the envelopes of knowledge. New ideas find life in science fiction which in turn inspires new ways to think about science. Whole generations of science-minded youths have grown up reading fiction rooted in this common language.
Few of us are imperialist monsters these days. Yet, we should never forget that many of the founding members of the Science Fiction Canon were imperialistic, misogynistic, Dead White Men. Their goals were often more noble than their execution, but they were still noble—even while women like Alice Norton changed their names to sell books.
There’s more critiques to face, but next time let’s explore some of the history again and maybe take a side trip down some paths on the internet where you can find many of the early works I’ve been referencing for free!