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Best Female Science Fiction before 1980: The SF Canon Men Don’t See

By / July 21, 2015 / no comments

While I was away (yes, I had a lovely holiday, thank you for asking), a couple of really interesting blog posts appeared: “Communities: Weight of History” by Renay came first, which elicited a response from Nina Allan, “The Weight of History“, and then, just yesterday, Maureen Speller added “{and then} – a writing life beyond reviews“, which in part riffs off the two earlier posts. They are all excellent pieces, you should stop now and go and read them, I’ll wait.

Good, yes? One of the themes that links the three pieces is the sense that coming to science fiction they did not see it as something that women wrote. Oh there were some women writers, almost invariably Ursula K. Le Guin, but they were seen as an aberration. Science fiction was overwhelmingly presented to them as a masculine genre. Sadly, that’s a view of the genre I recognize only too well. So I thought I would look back to see just how invisible women were in my introduction to science fiction.

To simplify things a little, I’ve concentrated on short fiction. My perception of science fiction was basically formed by a handful of big anthologies, and the major awards (primarily the Hugos and the Nebulas). So I went back to see how much science fiction by women I would have encountered there before, as an arbitrary cut-off date, 1980.

For me the anthologies that effectively defined the canon of science fiction were as follows:

The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss (1973)
Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison (1967)
Again, Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison (1972)
Epoch edited by Roger Elwood and Robert Silverberg (1975)
Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology edited by Edward L. Ferman and Barry N. Malzburg (1974)
A Century of Science Fiction edited by Damon Knight (1962)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame edited by Robert Silverberg (1970)

Of these, the Penguin, Century of Science Fiction and Hall of Fame are reprint anthologies, the others are massive and supposedly agenda-setting original anthologies. Between them, therefore, they introduced me to what was considered the best sf to that point, and the best sf at that time.

So, how did women come out of all of this?

The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus brings together 36 stories, the earliest of which (“Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov) appeared in 1941, the most recent (“The Rescuer” by Arthur Porges) was published in 1962. Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Bertram Chandler, Walter M. Miller and William Tenn all appear twice. There is one story by a woman: “The Snowball Effect” by Katherine Maclean.

Dangerous Visions was the groundbreaking anthology that changed the face of science fiction in America during the new wave. It contains 33 stories by the biggest names in the genre at the time, including Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny. There are three stories by women: “The Malley System” by Miriam Allen DeFord, “Sex and/or Mr Morrison” by Carol Emshwiller, and “Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird” by Sonya Dorman.

Again, Dangerous Visions was meant to be even bigger and more radical than its predecessor. Again it featured a host of big names among the contributors, with 40 stories by the likes of James Blish, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut and Gene Wolfe. Women do slightly better in this volume, there are actually seven stories by women (although one of these is “The Milk of Paradise” by James Tiptree, Jr, who, at the time this volume appeared, was still assumed to be a man). The other stories by women are: “The Word for World is Forest” by Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Funeral” by Kate Wilhelm, “When it Changed” by Joanna Russ, “The Test-Tube Creature, Afterward” by Joan Bernott, “Bed Sheets are White” by Evelyn Lief, and “Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon” by Josephine Saxton.

Epoch was one of those big anthologies that tried to cash in on the lead Dangerous Visions had taken, intended to be an up-to-the-minute picture of the state of the art. It contained 24 stories by people like Frederik Pohl, Larry Niven and R.A. Lafferty. There are three and a half stories by women: “Mazes” by Ursula K. Le Guin, “Planet Story” by Kate Wilhelm, “Existence” by Joanna Russ, and Cory Panshin shared a credit with her husband, Alexei Panshin, on “Lady Sunshine and the Magoon of Beatus”.

Final Stage, as the subtitle suggests, was another anthology that was meant to be the last word on sf. It contains 13 stories by the likes of Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. There are three stories by women, though again one, “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”, is by James Tiptree, Jr., who was still not known to be Alice Bradley. The other two are “Great Escape Tours, Inc.” by Kit Reed and “An Old Fashioned Girl” by Joanna Russ.

A Century of Science Fiction is one of a number of anthologies Damon Knight edited that meant to introduce modern readers to the history of the genre. The 26 stories include work by Olaf Stapledon and Ambrose Bierce alongside Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert. There are two stories by women: “The Wind People” by Marion Zimmer Bradley and “Unhuman Sacrifice” by Katherine Maclean.

Science Fiction Hall of Fame was the result of a poll of the members of the SFWA to identify the best sf stories before the launch of the Nebula Awards. 26 stories made the final collection, by very familiar names like Alfred Bester and Cordwainer Smith. There was just one story identifiably by a woman, “That Only a Mother” by Judith Merril, plus also “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett, the name used by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore.

So, in seven pretty substantial anthologies I would have read a total of 198 stories. Only eighteen and a half were identifiably by women, and another two and a half were by women hidden behind male pseudonyms (and though I might at that time have known that C.L. Moore was half of Lewis Padgett, I would not have known that James Tiptree, Jr. was other than male. That is not a very impressive number, is it? And it’s not as if the women were minor figures: Le Guin, Russ, Wilhelm, Reed and Emshwiller are all writers of the first rank, while Bradley, Maclean, Merril and Saxton are not that far behind, and Dorman and DeFord both did interesting work that deserved greater attention. As for the hidden names, Tiptree and Moore, they are inescapably among the greatest of sf writers. Only Bernott and Lief really slipped away without making any further impact on the field. And it is not as if there weren’t other women writers equally deserving of attention.

The proportions are somewhat better in the awards. Up to 1980 60 stories were shortlisted for the Hugo Best Novella Award, of which 10 were by women. This includes five winners: Anne McCaffrey for “Weyr Search”, Ursula K. Le Guin for “The Word for World is Forest”, James Tiptree, Jr. for “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (by the second of these I think her identity may have been known), and Jeanne Robinson as co-author with Spider Robinson for “Stardance”. The other nominees were Joan D. Vinge, Vonda McIntyre and Lisa Tuttle, plus Anne McCaffrey twice. The Nebula Award for Best Novella had 66 nominees, of which 14 were by women. The four winners were Anne McCaffrey for “Dragonrider”, Katherine Maclean for “The Missing Man”, James Tiptree, Jr. for “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and Jeanne Robinson with Spider Robinson for “Stardance”. The other nominees were Anne McCaffrey twice, Kate Wilhelm three times, Phyllis Gotlieb, Ursula Le Guin, Lisa Tuttle, James Tiptree and Vonda McIntyre.

In the Novelette category, the Hugo Awards had 64 works shortlisted, of which 12 were by women, but only one winner, “Eyes of Amber” by Joan D. Vinge. The other shortlisted writers were: Pauline Ashwell, Zenna Henderson, Katherine Maclean, Andre Norton, James Tiptree, Jr. three times, Vonda McIntyre, Kate Wilhelm, and Ursula K. Le Guin twice. The Nebula Award for Best Novelette went in for some massive shortlists in the early years. In 1966, 20 works were shortlisted, none of them by women. 90 works were shortlisted in total before 1980, 10 of them by women. Those who won were Vonda McIntyre for “Of Mist and Grass and Sand” and Raccoona Sheldon (Tiptree) for “The Screwfly Solution”. Other nominees were Ursula Le Guin twice, Joanna Russ, twice, Kate Wilhelm twice, Tiptree and Eleanor Arnason.

And for Best Short Story the Hugo Awards shortlisted 110 works in the period, of which 12 were by women. There were two winners, Ursula Le Guin for “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and C.J. Cherryh for “Cassandra”; the other nominees were: Pauline Ashwell (the only woman to appear on a Hugo Short Fiction list before 1969), Betsy Curtis, Ursula Le Guin three times, James Tiptree twice, Joanna Russ, Vonda McIntyre, and Joan D. Vinge. The Nebulas again had ridiculously long shortlists for short story at the start; the 1966 list had 32 titles, one 0f which was by a woman (Jane Beauclerk). In all 106 works were shortlisted over the period, 13 of them by women. The winners were Kate Wilhelm for “The Planners”, Joanna Russ for “When It Changed”, James Tiptree for “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death”, and Ursula Le Guin for “The Day Before the Revolution”. The other nominees were C.J. Cherryh, Lisa Tuttle, Phyllis Eisenstein, Vonda McIntyre, James Tiptree twice, Kate Wilhelm twice, and Jane Beauclerk.

That’s 496 stories in total, 71 of them by women. A somewhat better average than with the anthologies, but still pretty dismal. And yet the women who show up on these award shortlists are often multiple winners (Le Guin, Tiptree, Russ, McCaffrey); these are major names in the history of science fiction by any reckoning. Look at the names that keep cropping up: Wilhelm, Tuttle, Maclean, McIntyre, Cherryh. And then there are the names that never seem to show up on the shortlists: Kit Reed, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Josephine Saxton.

In short, if you were encountering science fiction at around the same time I did, you would pretty soon form an idea of what were the canonical works, the stories that represented the best of the genre, that somehow defined what it was all about. And that canon would be effectively all male. There are a few women hanging around the edges, names you might notice cropping up every once in a while, but they can’t be what science fiction is. After all, they so rarely appear in the genre defining anthologies that all these big-name (male) writers keep producing.

Unless you are a keen researcher into the history of the genre, I bet there are names that I’ve included here that you’ve never heard of before (there are a couple, Betsy Curtis, Jane Beauclerk, that I had never heard of before). It is like a whole swathe of fiction, an army of writers, have been quietly blotted out of the history of the genre. So one of the things I plan to do regularly in this blog is introduce you to some of the women writers and their stories that deserve to be better known.

About the author

Paul

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