It might be a bit apples and oranges to compare the current comic-book-blockbuster landscape to the last century of science fiction magazines. Nonetheless, as I worked my way through New Eves, an anthology of lady-penned science fiction from decades past, this is the comparison that came to mind.
I was supposed to be so excited to see Iron Man 3 — and not just because I owned Iron Man on DVD before I moved in April for the millionth time and left it on a sidewalk in Montreal along with assorted old math textbooks and winter gear.
I had read in a post by Laura Hudson on Wired’s Underwire blog that Iron Man 3 displays — and they are on display, aren’t they — supporting female characters that appear to have some cognitive function beyond interactions with Tony Stark. Headline: “How Iron Man 3 flipped the script.” The script-flip: Stark-girlfriend Pepper Potts and biologist slash former-Stark-love-interest Maya Hansen pass the Bechdel test, when they spend one scene discussing the impending doom of the world.
New Eves, in contrast, opens with a story published in 1918, titled “Friend Island,” a world where people live at sea, lives backdropped with misandry-lite as women have “ousted man from his heroic pedestal.”
In the next story, we meet a woman who kills her husband with a paralyzing potion of his own creation. Then, an alien species ruled by a queen, where men are “sweet,” “gentle,” “fun-loving,” and, according to the narrator, a princess, “unable to grasp the profundities of our science.”
We’re taken through plot reversals that are more simultaneously wholesale and subtle: the letters h-e-r-o simply appended with i-n-e.
Take that, Mr. Stark.
Named for the beginnings that the authors and their characters represent, New Eves found its way to me in a used bookstore in Moab, Utah. The cover suggests adventure on other worlds, featuring a curling dragon and a lady in a space suit. (I refuse to tell you to cringe or not at the overall design, which does include some Papyrus-like font; that’s your choice to make for yourself.) The pages inside make good on the cover’s promise — we go to the ocean, to Mars, to war, to strange caves, to sand dunes prickling with radioactivity.
As is the case with good sci-fi, many of these worlds uncannily mirror our own: a moment of bravery takes place on a spaceship, and is executed by a female astronaut decades before men would even go to space, let alone consider sending women. Here’s a woman toying with Wolfram Alpha to solve a math problem – except it’s 1940, computers haven’t even been invented yet, and instead of timing out on an impossible problem,the so-called “visi-math” has the potential to swallow the neighborhood, not just fuck up her homework. Here’s a woman in English lit class who is going to grow up to be an agent in an interstellar militia. Everyday bickering taking place on Mars, and there’s just a dog that’s pyramid-shaped and charmingly parrots snippets of conversation.(“Thatspyramidshapedandcharmingly!”). Or, there you are, in your apartment, casually contemplating moving to another planet with your boyfriend on an intra-solar-system arts grant when he unexpectedly shows up and you say, “Jon! What in the galaxy are you doing here?”
There’s a world that’s maybe just a few decades ahead of ours, where parents have selected relentlessly for male children, where the few women left on Earth hide in houses: “Men always ran everything. Some say they didn’t, but they had all the real power. Sometimes they’d dole a little of it out to the girls, that’s all. Now they don’t have to anymore.”
With writing samplings from key authors from the ’20s to the ’90s — ‘virtually every key author’ — each introduced by a couple paragraphs from the editors, New Eves takes readers through one final strange place — the world of pulp magazine publishing, and the ebb and flow of feminist presence within it over the years.
Sci-fi pulps kicked off with Amazing Stories in 1926, published by Hugo Gernsbeck. Many female authors were published in Amazing Stories, and, after it folded just a few years later, Gernsbeck’s Wonder Stories. It wasn’t long until Wonder Stories was sold into someone else’s hands, had the qualifier “Thrilling” pre-fixed onto the title, and launched a “transmutation of science fiction into a genre of men’s and boy’s adventure pulps.” Women were pushed to fringe pulps where pay was minimal and occurred “on lawsuit.”
There were the pseudonyms that sometimes swallowed careers whole. Gertrude Bennett, who wrote “Friend Island” (pre-Amazing Stories), and a handful of other stories, under the name Francis Stevens (the traditionally male spelling of a somewhat male name), before turning her attention to being a secretary at the University of Pennsylvania. There was the very popular — still-popular — Alice Mary Norton, who wrote as Andre Norton (or sometimes Andrew North, or Allen Weston), and mostly wrote about male protagonists, which could have had something to do with the whole popularity thing. There were woman who became fan favorites by writing the same kinds of stories that men usually wrote, that were so germane to what pulps liked to publish— namely, stories with strong male protagonists.
There’s Helen Clarkson: “We have been unable to discover a single fact about Helen Clarkson,” says the editor’s note that precedes her story, perhaps her only story, about a women who may be the only survivor on earth following a nuclear apocalypse.
There was the resurgence of female authors in the ’60s and ’70s and the role of their stories as a “tools against the patriarchy.” In the ’70s there was a switch in the authorship and readership of sci-fi that the editors’ introduction explains thusly:
“[S]cience fiction’s audience would remain largely male until the 1970s, when the shopping mall emerged as the major point of distribution for American books – causing a seismic upheaval that resulted in almost complete reversal of the fields readership, with women who visit malls more frequently than men, becoming its dominant market, and hence, inevitably, the dominant writers of science fiction.”
Though several writers from this later period are still recognizable parts of the field (Octavia Butler, Karen Joy Fowler, to name a few) most — because of popularity that was lost with time, or never there to start with — are either out of print today, or only “fitfully available” in bookstores.
The book itself, with its strange cover and old pages, recovery of stories from the depths of space and time; otherworldly down to the place that I found it — in a bookstore tucked away in a dusty tourist town – is itself an artifact from another world. The editor’s introduction feels like a note delivered from the future, declaring finally that deliberate themes of gender in science fiction became a “receding wave:” “The New Eves live in a world reborn whose Genesis has made gender simply not an issue.”
What a great, strange place! I wonder if they have free abortions there.
But New Eves was published in 1994. I was 4 (Ed. note – hahahaha oh my God). A whole world of misogyny had yet to skim the consciousness of a whole generation.
At a party one evening in August, I get in to the same dumb argument about the male-to-female ratio in the hard sciences. (In undergrad physics, it was 80:20 boys:girls.) (How do these arguments start — do I start them? Do I have a sign on my forehead? I think its the first one, but sometimes I don’t even know.) I get the same “No, but you’re one of the awesome girls,” my cue to excuse myself and do a shot or literally anything else.
Even if the field had more ladies than it once did, sci-fi prizes still largely go to men, and in-clicks of writers remain a problem. We’ve been promised a modern world that’s designed to bend and upend, challenge and be changed, but it still largely….doesn’t. Sure, Dr. Who could be anyone — female, black, trans, disabled — but he’s chosen to be a white man every single time. In fantasy video games, you can transcend your body…to become a damsel in distress. In the real world, anyone can be a physics professor, but the deeply overwhelming majority “just so happen” to be white men.
The superhero world is, like other forms of sci-fi, uncannily our own — but the tweaks and bends and mirrors are arranged in such a way to reflect and amplify power: brains, courage, passion, and male strength. The landscape of superhero movies is its own little dystopian world. And in Tony Stark’s world, women might save the day in the final moments — they have been the recipients of a little power. But the series is still called Iron Man, the women are still conventionally fuckable, and — as Hudson concludes in her Underwire post — largely optional. And still, the whole thing barrels into first place as one of the more feminist superhero movies of the summer.
(Noted-forward-thinker Joss Whedon’s Avengers arguably took that first-place spot in summer 2012. As Megan Kearns observed on Fem2.0, in ensemble movies like X-Men, the female characters tend to “orbit” the men — though this is not the case with Avengers, female characters never speak to each other, securing a Bechdel-test grade of “F.” In an interview, Scarlet Johansson calls Whedon “gender-blind.”)
Meanwhile, in July, DC Entertainment Chief Diane Nelson told The Hollywood Reporter that a movie featuring Wonder Woman would be tricky because “she doesn’t have the single, clear, compelling story that everyone knows and recognizes.” (A few years ago, Whedon was slated to make a Wonder Woman movie for a minute, which did not work out due to creative differences with the production company.)
Back at Wired’s Underwire blog, Noah Berlatsky argues that Wonder Woman is “tricky” because she is an “avowedly, even militantly, feminist icon,” pointing out her status as a 1940s queer Amazonian warrior. Unlike her male counterparts, she has not been reincarnated on the screen in her own film.
As Hudson points out in her post on Iron Man, “we still have yet to see a single (successful) superhero movie centered around a female character.” The word “successful” links to an article title “Catwoman coughs up hairball.” We’re pretty much on the brink of Huxley-style feelies, but the only superhero flick featuring a lady garners reviews that liken it to a sick domestic animal.
Somehow, in superhero world, its still always a guy that saves the day.
Reading New Eves in 1994, you wouldn’t expect that this — this, this now — would be our future, our 2013. The stories contained in New Eves are, as they have been for decades, enduringly both an escape and reflective of current truths. Not some artifact of the past.
This is the final story in New Eves, “Down Behind Cuba Lake,” by Nancy Kress: A woman drives to meet a married man who she’s been seeing on-and-off, to maybe break things off with him. She finds herself writing notes in her head to him — “Dear Nick,” “Dear Nick,” “Dear Nick,” – thinking up different ways to beg, explain, and plead. She quickly finds herself trapped — literally trapped, this is sci-fi after all. All roads lead to this one deep dark lake.
Just before she finds her way out, finds a path that does not lead to drowning and does not lead to him, she writes the first line of the letter one almost-last time: “Not Wordsworth, not Byron, not even Stephen King. They had it backwards. We shape it.”