Science Fiction Studies
#110 = Volume 37, Part 1 = March 2010
Bisexuality in New Wave SF. Doing research for my July 2006 SFS article on “Sextrapolation in New Wave SF” (recently reprinted in the anthology Queer Universes, reviewed in this issue), I was surprised to discover, given all the taboo-shattering experiments with controversial content launched during the 1960s and 1970s, a relative lack of affirmative depictions of bisexuality in New Wave fiction. The rare bisexual characters that appear in New Wave texts are usually deployed as comic figures, or else designed to shock in stereotypical ways; and few attempts were made to extrapolate future or alien worlds based on bisexuality—by contrast, say, with lesbianism or non-monogamous sexual practices.1 This is particularly surprising in that bisexuality would seem to pose one of the most pointed challenges to prevailing sexual paradigms, especially those linking erotic desire with gender identity, and the movement’s authors were, if nothing else, quite willing to scandalize reigning orthodoxies. Their silence in this regard is telling, reflecting a lacuna within both sexuality studies scholarship and the history of modern sexual politics.
As transgender activist Kate Bornstein puts it, bisexuality runs counter to “the dominant cultural binary of sexual orientation: heterosexuality/homosexuality”— a binary that, as she points out, both straights and gays are invested in maintaining. “[A]ll these models,” she goes on to assert,“depend on the gender of the partner. This results in minimizing, if not completely dismissing, other dynamic models of relationship which could be more important than gender and are often more telling about the real nature of someone’s desire” (33; emphasis in original).2 Bisexual advocate Jane Litwoman claims to be unable even to imagine basing sexual attraction on her partner’s genital makeup, preferring instead less gender-specific factors such as intelligence or eccentricity; she feels as a result “color blind or tone deaf to a gender-erotic world” (qtd. in Hutchins and Kaahumanu 5). As David Allyn argues (in terms that converge with the extrapolative perspectives of science fiction), “[w]e are reluctant to accept bisexuality as an identity because it does not serve as a predictor of the future based on the past. Indeed, bisexuality is not an identity at all, it is a statement of possibility” (219).
Theoretical sanction for such erotic openness has been provided by none other than Sigmund Freud, whose model of the psyche assumes a constitutive bisexuality at the core of libido:
Heterosexuality is, just like homosexuality, the contingent outcome of a fluid developmental process rather than a fixed or pre-given form of identity. As Freud’s language of “normal” versus “inverted” types suggests, the psychoanalyst would obviously prefer a heterosexual outcome, thus mandating therapeutic intervention when individuals stray from this path. Yet despite its conservative bias in practice, his theory is actually quite radical in its anti-essentialist standpoint.3
Of course, a general rebellion against Freud (or against the reactionary version of Freud characteristic of postwar psychoanalysis, especially in the US) marked a large part of the sexual culture of the 1960s. Feminists attacked his latent misogyny and masculinist bias, proponents of gay rights scorned his heterosexism, and counterculture advocates mocked his defense of erotic sublimation as necessary to civilized life. Moreover, the rampant identity politics of the period made it unlikely that any theoretical model challenging the fixity of gender or sexual orientation would find much purchase. To lesbian feminists and gay male activists alike, bisexuals seemed almost like traitors to the cause—secretly harboring, in the words of Paula Rust, “political allegiances to the heterosexual majority” (475). Carl Wittman, author of “Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto” (1970), was one of the few gay pride militants to offer positive words about bisexuality, endorsing Freud’s vision of an innately “undefined” erotic instinct and affirming “the capacity to love people of either sex” (158-59). Yet the fraught sexual politics of the era seemed to make this possibility into a distant utopian prospect at best: “Gays will begin to get turned on to women when 1) it is something that we do because we want to, and not because we should; 2) when women’s liberation has changed the nature of heterosexual relationships” (159). In other words, for the time being, any move in a bisexual direction had to be seen as potentially reactionary, shoring up a hegemonic (hetero)sexist social order.4
New Wave fiction was produced within this cultural matrix, so it is unsurprising that it should reflect the period’s endemic blind spots and polemical tendencies. The controversy that emerged around Ursula K. Le Guin’s depiction of her “bisexual” Gethenians in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is instructive in this regard. By “bisexual,” Le Guin did not mean what we commonly take the term to imply, but rather that the inhabitants of her planet Gethen could assume either the male or female role in reproduction during the period of “kemmer”—thus, “bigendered” would have been a more accurate term. As far as specifically erotic behavior is concerned, the novel makes clear that heterosexual pairing is entirely dominant: if there are “kemmer-partners of the same sex, they are so rare as to be ignored” (90). Feminist and gay commentators at the time criticized the book for its default masculinism and heterosexism, charges Le Guin herself eventually accepted as not without merit.5 Lost in the entire debate, however, were the truly destablizing implications of Le Guin’s ambi-gendered world for normative assumptions about erotic desire and attraction, since for the vast majority of their lives, Gethenians interact intimately and form lasting bonds based not on the structure of their genitals (which alternate with each kemmer cycle) but on less palpable aspects of temperament or personality. For all the attention it has drawn from critics, we are still awaiting a truly bisexual reading of this celebrated novel.6
Yet Le Guin’s scanting of the topic is much to be preferred to the way some other authors used bisexual characters for cheap laughs or shock effects.7 Brian N. Ball’s Planet Probability (1973), for instance, features a “a slim handsome bisexual” named Dyson, whose “boyish mannerisms” seem a kind of “witless affectation” (7-8) and whose main narrative function is to swish around and clap his hands enthusiastically at the prospect of “total-reality simulation” (the novel’s main theme). In short, his bisexuality is purely nominal and he occupies the sort of role usually reserved for the stock comic faggot. Harry Harrison’s pastiche-cum-parody of classic space opera, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers (1973), concludes with the novel’s two heroes embracing and kissing enthusiastically under the doting eyes of their erstwhile girlfriend: “‘that’s all right,’ Sally said, smiling with understanding. ‘I’ve known for a long time that you both were AC-DC, and I was waiting for you to make your mind up which way you were finally going to jump” (188). Her bemused tolerance is, however, undercut by the underlying narrative thrust of this revelation: to expose the macho pretensions of the traditional space-cadet/scientist as a laughable sham. This sort of cute ironic twist is also deployed in a more serious work from the period, Robert Silverberg’s Nebula-winning short story “Passengers” (1969), which uses an invasion of alien parasites as an allegory of Sixties-era casual sex. These creatures—known as “Riders”—take an obscure pleasure in forcing humans to debase themselves in meaningless acts of pseudo-intimacy with total strangers; when the male protagonist and a young woman come close to establishing a genuine connection, he is abruptly seized by one of the Riders and compelled to hook up instead with a young man with smooth cheeks and pomaded hair. Cue the gasps of readerly astonishment.8
Not all New Wave stories tackled the topic of bisexuality so superficially. Silverberg himself offered sophisticated speculations on the subject in other works, such as his 1971 fix-up novel The World Inside, where the dwellers in a vast high-rise routinely vary the genders of their partners in a leisurely roundelay. The author makes clear, however, that this seeming freedom is little more than vacuous “lifestyle,” with the characters smugly congratulating themselves on their open-mindedness even as they ignore the general impoverishment of spiritual life in their dismal urban hive.9 While most of his treatments of sexual diversity are colored by this cynical view of the empty hedonism of such “liberated” options, Silverberg deserves credit for his forthright explorations in this area, including his depiction of some of the most believable and sympathetic gay characters in the New Wave canon.10 His other novel from 1971, Son of Man, projects its vaguely macho protagonist, Clay, into a kaleidoscopic far future, where he consorts with the glamorously indolent Skimmers, sleek creatures who can switch sex at will and who compel Clay to come to grips with the psychic limits of his own erotic instincts. It must be admitted, however, that the deeper implications of bisexuality tend to get lost amid the many delirious role-reversals and protean transformations of identity the novel chronicles—a problem that besets another time-traveling extravaganza of sexual confusion, David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself (1973).
This theme of gender-bending aliens inspiring bisexual dabblings among counterculturally-inclined youth was also taken up by James Tiptree, Jr. (a.k.a. Alice Sheldon) in her 1972 story “All the Kinds of Yes,” which literalizes the notion of first contact in an orgiastic scene featuring four hippies and a randy ET.11 “Oh, Gandalf,” one of the hippies cries. “Earth’s greatest day. I’m living it. The first alien contact. Me. You too… Us. The first” (13). The alien also seems deeply moved by the encounter: “‘I had no idea it was so beautiful—the two kinds and all the—all you—’ He choked up, patting blindly at them all” (19; emphasis in original). It is hard to know how seriously readers are meant to take this sappy, trippy sequence—and, of course, by the time the story was published, bisexual alien chic had gone mainstream in the form of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. With tracks like “Starman” and “Moonage Daydream,” this 1972 concept album remains one of the greatest works of pop sf, though the full nature and scope of its influence on the genre has never been critically examined.12 The youth counterculture certainly began to adopt the messianic postures of Bowie’s starlost superman, with such self-proclaimed “metasexuals” as Marco Vassi launching manifestoes whose rhetoric of feverish metamorphosis had a strong science-fictional flavor: “At the far edge of bisexuality I realized that all that had gone before was but the task of perfecting the instrument, the mindbody that is myself” (qtd. in Heidenry 146).
Vassi’s extraordinary 1973 memoir, The Stoned Apocalypse, is worth reading alongside Samuel R. Delany’s The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village (1988) as evidence of how readily urban-bohemian eroticism during the 1960s could edge into (implicitly or explicitly) science-fictional scenarios. For Delany, the connection was quite direct, a matter of extrapolation from first-hand knowledge: his membership in a bisexual commune, chronicled in his 1979 book Heavenly Breakfast, was clearly the impetus for the sundry forms of intimate bonding depicted in his fiction, such as the triune partnerships in Babel-17 (1966) and the communal marriage in “The Star Pit” (1967). Virtually alone among New Wave writers, Delany shows how these unconventional modes of human companionship might become socially essential, the foundation for future custom and collectivity.13 In Babel-17, for instance, starship navigators must be “tripled”—i.e., linked in a three-way, bi-gendered sexual-economic partnership—to do their jobs effectively. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his personal background, no other sf writer conveys so convincing a sense of the lived experience of bisexuality, to the point that such behavior loses whatever exoticism it may possess in the present day and becomes an all-but-mundane future reality. Among its many other accomplishments, his 1975 novel Dhalgren is the genre’s first, and so far only, bisexual epic.
For most other New Wave writers, bisexuality was largely indistinguishable from homosexuality in the sense that both were colorful and kinky new topics for the genre, especially useful for making ironic commentaries on heteronormativity. The comic-horrific charge of several of Barry N. Malzberg’s tales of gay-dominated futures—such as “Culture Lock” (1973) and The Sodom and Gomorrah Business (1974)—derives from the effects of shifting margin to center. In these worlds, bisexuals are doubly strange, objects of scorn and suspicion for both the gay authorities and the heterosexual minority.14 Although it is a considerably more seriously-purposed work, Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed” (1972) shows a similar pattern, especially in the narrator’s lingering anxiety that her daughter, reared in a lesbian utopia, might secretly harbor an attraction for the earthmen newly arrived in their midst. Even Thomas M. Disch’s densely imagined novel 334 (1974) tends to view bisexuality as at best a droll footnote to the hetero-homo battles that, in his near future, have largely run their course. In other words, many New Wave authors treated bisexuality as little more than an opaque marker of position in the presumably more fundamental sexual-political conflict between straight and gay worlds—a situation many bisexual activists have decried in reality.15
What all this suggests is that, even for the most sexually forthright work ever produced within the genre, bisexuality remained something of an enigma or an absent presence. This is perhaps unsurprising since, as Maria Pramaggiore has pointed out, the “continual construction and deconstruction of the desiring subject” that bisexuality highlights—and celebrates—can only be perplexing, not to mention vexing, to a culture that embraces “restrictive formulas that define gender according to binary categories, that associate one gender or one sexuality with a singularly gendered object choice, and that equate sexual practices with sexual identity” (3). Even the considerable imaginative resources of New Wave sf found it difficult to grapple with this mysterious novum—though at least some authors made hesitant attempts at experimental engagement and, in the case of Delany, a kind of personal testimony garbed as future world-building. Were it not for these pioneering efforts, we probably would not now have more full-throated work by the likes of Melissa Scott and Candas Jane Dorsey, and certainly not the James Tiptree, Jr. Award to spur further dimensions of speculation in the realms of gender and sexuality. As that award’s conspectus affirms, what the genre needs is not work that “falls into some narrow definition of political correctness, but rather … that is thought-provoking, imaginative, and perhaps even infuriating.”16 That final triumvirate of adjectives offers a fitting summary not only of the challenges posed by the best sf, but also of bisexuality itself, to normative definitions of desire and selfhood.—Rob Latham, SFS
Whether it is myth or hyperbole surrounding Ellison’s public appearances at conventions, I have been told by several people that Ellison has ripped up copies of Sex Gang that have been presented to him by fans for an autograph, which certainly calls into question legal issues of destruction of valuable personal property. On the other hand, a collector showed me a copy that Ellison signed as “D.S. Merchant”; he said that Ellison seemed in good spirits and didn’t mind, although he did indicate that on a different day, he “might” destroy it. Ellison wanted to use the pen name D.S. Merchant (for “Dirty Sex Merchant”), but publisher William Hamling did not approve. Some of the eleven stories in the volume originally appeared in Gent, Dude, Rogue, Adam, and other second-tier men’s magazines under the pen names Sley Harson, Landon Ellis, Derry Tiger, and Price Curtis; among other pen names that Ellison has used are Ellis Hart, Jay Solo, John Doyle, and the infamous Cordwainer Bird.1 Pen names were used to sign genre works deemed unworthy of a writer’s real name, and also because one writer under different names could pen the bulk of stories and articles in a magazine. Robert Silverberg, for example, wrote entire issues of Hamling’s magazine Imagination, as did Ellison; sometimes the two worked together. This was done because not enough publishable stories were coming in from freelance writers; besides, tested writers were consistently professional and would not require much editing and the publisher could make a bulk story deal, getting an issue’s worth for a bargain price from writers who desperately needed the cash.
Ellison claims he put Sex Gang together “for a schlock publisher because I needed the money.”2 The back cover reads: “A smoldering collection of modern stories mirroring the lust, lives and tempestuous love affairs of woman-hungry men and ... man-hungry women!”3 The stories include “Sex Gang” (originally published in Cad); “The Girl with the Horizontal Mind” (originally “The Gal with the Horizontal Mind” by Price Curtis in Mermaid); “Wanted: Two Trollops” (original to book); “The Ugly Virgin (originally “God Bless the Ugly Virgin” in Dude); “Sin Time” (originally “The Silence of Infidelity” in Caper); “The Pied Piper of Sex” (originally “The Pied Piper of Love” in Knave); “Bayou Sex Cat” (originally “A Blue Note for Bayou Betty” by Derry Tiger in Mermaid); “The Lady Had Zilch” (originally published in Adam); “Girl with the Bedroom Eyes” (originally “Jeanie with the Bedroom Eyes” in Rogue); “The Lustful One” (originally “The Hungry One” in Gent); and “Bohemia for Christie” (originally “The Bohemia of Arthur Archer” in Dude). Currently, the two printings by Nightstand Books range in price from $900-1200 on the collectors’ market and the Greenleaf Classics reprint is worth $400-500. The stories are not horrible. They resemble vintage Ellison such as Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled (1968) or Gentleman Junkie (1961). “The Lustful One” was re-titled “Nedra at f:5.6” in Ellison’s No Doors, No Windows (1975). Ellison has been open about his days as a men’s magazine and pulp magazine writer, typing up to 10,000 words a day to make ends meet at a penny a word, as did many other writers, including Ellison’s lifelong friend, Robert Silverberg.
Soft-core novels kept a number of genre writers financially afloat. Evan Hunter (also known as Ed McBain) wrote as Dean Hudson; Marion Zimmer Bradley as Brian Morley, Dee O’Brien, Marlene Longman, Morgan Ives, John Dexter, and Miriam Gardner; Robert Silverberg as Don Elliott, Loren Beauchamp, David Challon, John Dexter, V.S. Clark, and Mark Ryan. Don Elliott is his best-known pen name and was a favorite among sleaze paperback fans, most likely because these books were quite well-written, given the quality of most of the literature on the newsstands. John Dexter, J.X. Williams, and Andrew Shaw (originally Lawrence Block’s pen name) were house names, but only Silverberg wrote as Don Elliott, except for one title that he delegated to a ghost-writer when he could not meet a deadline. (Silverberg does not recall which title this was.) As with Sex Gang, the Elliott books are not bad, albeit riddled with typos and awkward grammar, more the copy-editor’s and typesetter’s mistakes than the writer’s. Silverberg’s early style, found also in his 1950s and 1960s sf, is evident in such titles as Gang Girl (1959), Roadhouse Girl (1963), Expense Account Sinners (1961), Sin Servant (1962), and Sexteen (1962):
The set-up here is obvious and common: the young professor succumbing to the flesh of precocious girls, students or otherwise. Silverberg explored the psychology of desire; consider the opening of Sin Servant: “I don’t know why it is I like to hurt people. I just do. Especially women. It’s the kind of guy I am, that’s all, and I don’t try to make excuses for it” (5). In Roadhouse Girl (1963), Silverberg offers commentary on the socio-economics of the era: “You work hard for your money here, she thought. You started at six o’clock and you worked four hours straight without so much a coffee break. Then they gave you an hour and a half off, from ten to half past eleven. Then it was back to duty until four in the morning ... eight and a half hours on your feet” (5). The sex scenes in these books were by today’s standards PG-13 because of the strict obscenity laws of an era in which Lenny Bruce was arrested for saying “Fuck” onstage. There were no dirty words, no cussing, and no graphic description of genitals, although breasts were often described as “fleshy globes” or “mounds.” The writers used euphemisms and metaphors: arousal was a “fire in the loins,” and orgasm was “fulfillment,” and characters said “Love me” when they wanted sex. In Convention Girl, Silverberg employs dialogue to describe foreplay in a scene reminiscent of the sex-against-a-tree scene in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), a scene also conveyed by dialogue and hints that may have influenced this scene in Silverberg:
In his essay “My Life as a Pornographer,” Silverberg reminisced that
He writes that he could produce a soft-core novel for Hamling or others in six days, working in the morning to write an 18-page chapter, taking a lunch break, then writing another chapter in the afternoon. (In the evenings he would switch to writing sf and non-fiction.) By the sixth day, he had twelve to fourteen chapters, 212 pages in typescript—all the Hamling books were 190-192 pages—and would send the novel off. He produced two to three titles a month at $1000 each, very good money in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Silverberg was able to rent a four-room Manhattan apartment and eventually purchased his first house with this revenue: an $80,000 twenty-room mansion once owned by former New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
Hamling had come to the rescue of many genre writers who needed to pay the bills. Sex was selling, and Hamling contributed significantly to the destiny of paperback publishing and helped to shape sf’s vintage years. He was born in 1921 on Chicago’s South Side, a former Irish-Catholic altar boy whose faith was tested during his service in World War II. When Hamling returned to Chicago, he started to write science fiction. He sold his first story, “War with Jupiter,” a collaborative effort with Mark Reinsberg, to Amazing Stories in 1939. In 1940, he founded a fanzine called Stardust. He then landed a job with Ziff-Davis Publications, editing the pulps that he had been writing for, working alongside a young Hugh Hefner, who, like Hamling, had lofty notions about branching out as an independent magazine publisher.
In 1948, Hamling established Greenleaf Publishing in the basement of his house in Evanston, Illinois: Greenleaf was his telephone exchange. He was pumping out sf pulps such as Imagination and Imaginative Tales (which featured an entire novel in each issue). The science-fiction market was dwindling and Hamling noticed that there was money to be made in soft-core sex books with flashy covers such as those offered by Bedstand and Beacon Books. Robert Silverberg wrote the first offering, Don Elliott’s Love Addict (Nightstand #1501) and soon was delivering one title a month; at the same time, as Loren Beauchamp he was supplying Midwood with novels and writing also for Bedstand as David Challon and Mark Ryan. As Stan Vincent, he wrote The Hot Beat (1960) for Magnet Books. Only Hamling knew that Silverberg was behind all of these names; they came to the publishers blind, through the Scott Meredith Literary Agency.
Hamling had worked out a contract whereby the agency supplied new manuscripts for paperback books from a team of young writers, including Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, Hal Dresner, and William Knowles. Each churned out a monthly title. Most were paid several hundred dollars per manuscript, a flat rate with no royalties but with a $200 bonus for each reprint. Some of the more successful authors such as “Don Elliott” later received up to $1,500—about the same advance that porn writers receive today from such presses as Masquerade Books, Blue Moon Books, and Cleis Press. The books were sent to Hamling under pen names and the agency kept the writers’ true identities secret. Literary agent Richard Curtis, who wrote a handful of the smut books as Burt Alden and Carl Aldrich (Isle of Wantons and Lover’s Swap), represented a number of these titles:
Hamling began publishing Rogue, a low-brow men’s magazine not quite in the same neighborhood as Playboy; Rogue was edited by an up-and-coming young writer named Harlan Ellison. Having noticed the success of Beacon and Bedstand soft-core books, Hamling began the Nightstand imprint. Technically, these books and magazines were not published through Greenleaf but by a shell company, Blake Pharmaceuticals, a failed firm whose shares Hamling had purchased for pennies. When Ellison returned to New York to pursue his writing career, Earl Kemp, a familiar face in sf fandom, replaced him. Hamling was tired of paying off the police and the city officials to look the other way and soon decided it was time to get out of Dodge. In a San Diego Reader article, “Porno Kings (and Queens),” Kemp reminisced that
Hamling fancied himself a publisher of adult literature in the tradition of Barney Rossett at Grove Press or the infamous Maurice Girodias of Olympia. Hamling also published a number of political books under the Greenleaf colophon. In 1963, he released Ben Hass’s expose, KKK. The Truth About Vietnam: Report on U.S. Senate Hearings appeared in 1966, as did The Illustrated Presidential Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. The last was a reprint of the government report accompanied by lewd and shocking (for the times) illustrations that generously filled the pages. J. Edgar Hoover sent his G-men after Greenleaf, an operation for which he had a personal loathing—and he was not alone.
“At times there were as many as half a dozen competing agencies bugging the lines,” Kemp states in the San Diego Reader article. “We could get nothing but police radio calls on our phones. I remember going out to a pay phone and calling the cops and demanding that they release at least one phone line for business purposes” (98). In 1966, Hamling was served a 25-count indictment out of Houston, Texas, for violating the Federal criminal statutes of Interstate Transportation of Obscene Materials. The case was declared a mistrial, much to the chagrin of Federal prosecutors, but “Hamling was ecstatic,” Kemp claims. “As he saw it, the courtroom battle that had begun more than 30 years before in the case of United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, resulting in a victory for the literary elite, had now ended in 1967 with a triumph for the man in the street.”
On 5 March 1971, Attorney General John Mitchell held a news conference on the steps of the Justice Department to announce the indictment of four Greenleaf Classics employees for alleged crimes associated with the “unauthorized” production of the book The Illustrated Presidential Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. They faced a 20-count indictment. One count prosecuted the book on grounds of obscenity, another on knowingly distributing obscenity. The jury was hung on the obscenity issue and the Justice Department tried a secondary strategy: twelve counts of violating Post-Office prohibitions against sending sexual material through the mail. This had nothing to do with the actual book, but rather with mailing 55,000 copies of a brochure describing it that included sample illustrations.
“Petitioners were convicted of mailing and conspiring to mail an obscene advertising brochure with sexually explicit photographic material relating to their illustrated version of an official report on obscenity, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 2, 371, and 1461,” wrote Judge Thompson of the Federal Court in San Diego in his ruling.5 Hamling received one year’s imprisonment on the conspiracy count and, consecutive with that, concurrent terms of three years each on the remaining eleven counts, plus a $32,000 fine. Kemp—who had since resigned from Greenleaf—received one year and a day on the conspiracy count, followed by concurrent terms of two years for each of the eleven counts. Hamling and Kemp were also sentenced to five-year probation terms following their respective release dates.
In February 1976 Hamling and Kemp began serving their time at Terminal Island in Long Beach. “We spent three months and one day there,” Kemp recalls. “This was (at the time) the federal ‘legal bad boy minimum.’ As things were constructed then, convicted criminals were the personal possession of the judge who sentenced them for three months and one day. At three months and two days, they become property of the Justice Department, so the judge has only that much time, one day, to salvage that criminal from the Justice Department grist mill.”6
Greenleaf continued publishing books until 1985, fronted by a shell company owned by Hamling’s son-in-law, Jack Abey. The only publishing survivor existing today and doing business is Leisure Books—and barely, having had one owner after the other over the decades. Leisure is currently an imprint at Dorchester Publishing; the colophon issues original horror paperbacks and sf/fantasy reprints from Prime Books and Wildside Press. Olympia Press has been resurrected as an e-book and print-on-demand provider of many old, out-of-print titles without copyright holders; the company also issues old titles from other long-gone presses under its Ophir Press imprint.7 Many of the Don Elliott books are collector’s items, selling in the collector’s market in the $20-100 range, depending on first or second printing and condition of the book. And of course Ellison’s Sex Gang is a prized treasure among collectors. Publications such as Daley’s Sin-o-Rama (2004) and Lovisi’s Dames, Dolls, and Delinquents (2009), reprinting many of the now-classic covers, are examples of the public’s fascination with the salad days of the soft-core paperbacks. I have an extensive collection of these paperbacks—hundreds lined on a shelf in protective wrappers that immediately attract the attention of guests, who find these books and their covers far more interesting than my shelf of literary, sf, and mystery books. The era of soft-core sleaze will fascinate scholars, collectors, and readers well into the twenty-second century.—Michael Hemmingson, University of California, San Diego
Everything seemed to be pretty screwed up heading out of the 1950s, starting to run all out of whack. It was as if the world had started some massive upheaval, shaking itself as if trying to get rid of an infestation of pesty fleas.
About 1954, a movement taken behind my back at the University of Chicago Science Fiction Club did it to me, pushed me out in front. And somehow the improbable became the reality; I became the leader. I didn’t volunteer for that job; I was sort of commandeered into it, maybe because I talked so much. So there I was, the leader of the pack, and loving it, and discovering much to my amazement that I was really good at it.
That pack, from time to time, consisted of Fritz Leiber, Rog Phillips, Fred Saberhagen, Frank Robinson, Bruce Elliott, Ajay Budrys, Dean McLaughlin, Larry Shaw, and others on a regular basis. Passing through town, every big-name writer was paraded before the ever-growing Chicago Group. Robert Bloch was a frequent visitor, as was everyone’s favorite, Bob Tucker. There were Philip José Farmer, “Doc” Smith, Sam Moskowitz, Hugo Gernsback, Harry Harrison, Kelly Freas, Ed Emsh, Avram Davidson, Cyril Kornbluth, Willy Ley, Sky Miller, Alfred Bester, Ted Cogswell, Ted Sturgeon, Ray Palmer, Bea Mahaffey, Thomas Scortia, and the ever popular Robert A. Heinlein.
In 1956, a handful of those devoted local science-fiction fans decided to go into business together. They became Advent Publishers, dedicated to producing books about science fiction and hoping to sell enough copies to pay the publishing partners’ way to the annual WorldCon. Their first title was Damon Knight’s In Search of Wonder (1956). The rest of that story is history. This group of allied sf fans all worked together for years, hosting “Vote Chicago” parties, trying to bring the WorldCon back to Chicago again.
I never had it so good. At one time, I thought I knew personally everyone associated with science fiction and sf magazines. Better yet, they knew me. I was going to be 25, married with children, and thought I knew just about zilch about everything I encountered. Fortunately the things I saw and experienced insured rapid knowledge acquisition—things I never dreamed about, much less thought could happen. Some were good, some bad; a few were terrifying.
In New York City, Scott Meredith (formerly known as Sidney Feldman), always willing to pursue almost any nefarious scheme, had a couple of interesting rackets going on within the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. One was a “school” or “evaluation” of the output of prospective writers—for a fee, of course. This was a “reader’s service”: each manuscript would be read and evaluated and a detailed letter would be written to the writer who had paid them to do so. The real purpose of that letter was to keep the writer coming back again and again, paying more and more reader’s fees. Through the same service, any writer that looked the least bit encouraging was quickly set aside for special handling and eased into Meredith’s pulp-writer’s pool. At least that’s what they tried to call it in those days.
Meredith already had under contract most of the regularly producing science-fiction writers who had materialized over the previous decade or so, and new ones turned up through Meredith’s “reader’s service” or from other sources. He was furnishing much of the short-story material filling the sf magazines of the day. Scott Meredith was Big Business.
He was also the single largest producer of pornography in the United States. This was the real product of Meredith’s pulp-writer’s pool, except that he had nothing to do with it. It was operated for Meredith by Henry Morrison (sf fan Henry Moskowitz) out of a Post Office box at Grand Central Station. All the pornography manuscripts were mailed from there in plain black boxes. For this reason the whole scheme became known as the “Black Box” operation.
From those black boxes Meredith provided a string of publishers in New York City and elsewhere with porno hacked out by those pulp writers. Among them were several well-known writers, including Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, and Evan Hunter, as well as people who had made their reputation in other genres (Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, Hal Dresner). Some others eventually grew out of the confines of black-box pornography and made star-quality names for themselves in other directions.
But then the bottom fell out of the periodical world. As Robert Silverberg puts it: “The collapse of the ANC signaled the collapse of science fiction” (Who Killed Science Fiction? 116; full-text at <http://efanzines.com/EK/eI29/index.htm>). By the end of the 1950s, American News Company had disappeared. ANC had furnished newsstands and bookstalls nationwide with the publications customers loved to find waiting for them, week after week, month after month. When it closed, most major magazine and periodical publishers were stranded. If you can’t get your magazine on sale, you have no product, and if you have no product, you have no business. A few entrepreneurs began structuring regional companies, attempting to recapture the business that ANC had lost; some of them were also publishers. Notable among these were two science-fiction people who moved into prominence, the first being Milton Luros, who went into business in Los Angeles.
The inexpensive magazines, pulps, digests, etc. almost all died an abrupt death and high among them for popularity were the sf magazines. Some publishers, at Scott Meredith’s urging, moved into producing soft-core erotic paperbacks to replace their missing magazines in the marketplace. Initially, the bulk of those manuscripts were written by sf writers.
It was easy to show them how to turn a roaring spaceship into hot, hard, throbbing manly maleness destined for orgasmic ecstasy—and, not to be forgotten—changing those brass-bra-Bergey sultry sluts from outer space into the ordinary nymphos you see every day. Sf writers were, if nothing else, adaptable where writing-for-food was concerned—they were thoroughly pulp whores.
The black-box machine rolled merrily along, erecting one satisfied member after another. Some even ventured into outer space. In 1959, William Hamling, who had been editor/publisher of Imagination, Imaginative Tales, Space Travel, etc., began his notorious Blake Pharmaceuticals operation, which published some of Meredith’s black-box fillers. Harlan Ellison was his first editor-in-chief, followed by Ajay Budrys, Bruce Elliott, and most-worthy me (I had come aboard early in 1961 as the company expanded). This was my first encounter with law enforcement and their very, very illegal ways of doing whatever it was they were doing. The company was located in the rear suite of the second floor of the Graphics Arts Building on the corner of Sherman and Dempster in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. William Hamling’s Rogue occupied the front suite on the same floor. Golf Digest was upstairs on the third floor.
Further into the 1960s, some funny stories started surfacing about outrageous things happening on the West Coast, something to do with “hippies and flower children.” And, before you knew it, people you didn’t even know were inviting you to parties that involved some frantic mixed-gender bed sharing. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t smoke pot. Often.
Only I wasn’t one of them; I was Johnny Straight, morally upright and as naïve as they come. I was really into that. I was serious, constructive, and working my ass off, and turning into little Mr. Science Fiction all at the same time. I was shaking my fannish tailfeathers double-time. The first Science Fiction WorldCon that I attended was in 1952, in Chicago, and I foolishly made myself a promise that I could do a WorldCon. But it wasn’t easy. It took years of concentrated action by a large group of Chicago fans. They were willing to work long, thankless hours so that I could realize my fantasy. It took ten years.
Before that, by 1961, those soft-core porn novels, originating at numerous locations, were blanketing the whole country, and selling out at the newsstands at an ever-increasing pace. The demand from the eager public was almost impossible to satisfy.
Politicians, law-enforcement types, and other reprehensible lowlifes began lining up to get to those publishers. Not one of us could ever figure out what we were doing wrong. Those books, at that time, were unbelievably inoffensive. Yet every law-enforcement agency in the nation began to ride the publishers hard and fast. It got to the point where it was difficult just getting through a day at the office for all the employees. There were wiretaps on each of our phone lines. We had the bugs swept for and removed, but the same night they would be replaced by the same subcontractors we had hired to remove them; they were being paid again by the cops for that service.
We were followed everywhere, especially if we left the US, by teams of Feds. It was like a vacation for them and an amusing sideline for us. We played “Spot the Feds” and would keep score, often making sure that they knew we knew they were following us again.
In 1962 my best fantasy materialized. Finally, backed by a strong, loyal crew, I was Chair of ChiCon III, the 20th World Science Fiction Convention. It was an incredible time filled with nonstop activity. Ted Sturgeon was guest of honor and delivered a remarkable speech at the convention awards banquet. Hugh Hefner held a lavish, by-invitation-only party at his original bunny hutch. Playboy had a suite at the convention and hosted nonstop parties for big-name pros.
In 1965, Hamling closed his publishing offices in Evanston and reopened them in San Diego. I went along as vice president and editorial director. In short order we were publishing fifty novels a month and more than one naked-people magazine a day. Moving to California was a radical event in my life. I was not prepared for how it would change me. Almost everything was different. For the very first time I felt that a me long hidden was beginning to surface. My life began. Our readers loved us.
In response to the absence of science fiction magazines brought on because of the demise of American News Company, I published Who Killed Science Fiction? in April 1960. The study, the first SaFari Annual, won a Hugo award in Seattle in 1961. (The full text is available as a free download at <http://efanzines. com/EK/eI29/index.htm>.) As E.J. Carnell wrote in this study: “a greater part of the loss of sales of the magazines to the pocketbook market is due largely to the chaotic system of distribution—in fact, the sf depression stems largely from the collapse of the American News Company. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back and had repercussions throughout the American trade.”—Earl Kemp, Flagstaff, AZ
Captain James T. Kirk’s sexual exploits have been a long-running joke and point of contention in the Star Trek mythos. Viewers have guffawed, admired, and been appalled by the Captain’s macho method of saving the galaxy, taking off his shirt and showing off his physique whenever the opportunity arises. He romances every human, alien, or android female with whom he crosses paths, falling in love and, in three cases, having his heart broken and soul shattered by the death of that love. His greatest loss is Edith Keeler in “The City on the Edge of Forever” (first aired 6 Apr. 67). The second is an American-Indian-like woman/alien he marries after a head injury and amnesia, believing he is a god called “Kurak” in “The Paradise Syndrome” (4 Oct. 68); this wife is also several weeks pregnant, so he loses two lives that are dear to him. The third is an android female in “Requiem for Methuselah” (14 Feb. 69); she malfunctions and short-circuits when she feels deep and painful love with Kirk and does not know how to process the strange post-human emotions. Kirk’s grief over her is so great that Spock uses a Vulcan mind-meld that causes Kirk to forget her.
He has also had women from his past come home to roost—Dr. Janice Lester in the last episode to air, “The Turnabout Intruder” (3 June 69), who switches her soul with his so that she inhabits his body; and Dr. Carol Marcus in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), who bore him a son he never had the chance to know, and who is murdered by a Klingon in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1985). In “Court-Martial” (2 Feb. 67), the lawyer from the Federations’ judge advocate general’s office is a former girlfriend, who prosecutes Kirk; in “Shore Leave” (29 Dec. 66), Kirk remembers fondly a past flame from his Academy days, whereupon a psychic planetary computer manufactures a simulacrum-body that imitates her. Captain Kirk’s penis is busy in the twenty-second century and other centuries that he visits when time traveling. Pocket Books canonizes this fact with the publication of Captain Kirk’s Guide to Women (2008), in which the jacket copy exclaims: “Casanova, Don Juan, James Bond—these are men of legendary romance, but only one man can boast that his seductive powers take him boldly where no man has gone before: James T. Kirk.”
Kirk is a man who does not like to lose; he does not believe in the “no-win scenario” referred to as the “Kobaysi-maru” test in The Wrath of Kahn, an Academy test that has no positive, winning outcome—it is a test of character and mettle for potential command officers. We learn that Kirk, as a cadet, cheated and reprogrammed the test so that he could win and received a “commendation for original thinking.” He always saves the Galaxy and never fails; he is attractive to the opposite sex for his prowess and power; and he expects the sexual conquests that are the end result. He would not know what to do if a woman said no. Kirk’s salad days seem to be the period from when he was a Starfleet cadet through the five-year mission. There are two occasions where Kirk does not seek the amorous attentions of a woman and he is compelled to fall in love: in “A Private War” (2 Feb. 68), Kirk is bitten by an alien beast and the only cure available is provided by a local woman who practices herbal “witchcraft.” Kirk falls into a drugged daze. This also happens in “Elaan of Toyius” (20 Dec. 68)—Elaan’s touch can make a man emotionally enslaved to her; when she cries and her tears contact Kirk’s flesh, he turns to mush.
Two incidents of Kirk’s ability to make the opposite sex swoon raised some brows. Sado-masochist imagery predominates in “The Gamesmasters of Triskelion” (13 Jan. 68), wherein Kirk, Uhura, and Chekhov are kidnapped and forced to become gladiators for three bored, disembodied brains that are entertained by observing their captives fight and mate. These slaves wear “collars of obedience” and outfits with an S/M fashion flair. Kirk is paired off with a barely-clothed silver-haired woman with ample breasts and long legs; her role is fight trainer and bed companion. He makes her fall in love with him as they spend time together in their shared cage, so that she will rebel against the gamesmasters. This disobedience almost kills her. Next, a Lolita complex and shades of pedophilia are subtext in “Miri” (27 Oct. 66), in which Kirk intentionally uses his charms to make pubescent Miri (who is thirteen or fourteen) fall for him and do his bidding. He compliments her with a soothing voice and tells her how beautiful she is. She absorbs this attention because she is lonely. We later learn Miri is actually 300 years old, so Kirk is romancing an older woman, not a girl.
In the cartoon series that aired on Saturday mornings in 1973-74, we see Kirk somewhat out of character, perhaps for the sake of young audiences: in “The Jihad” (12 Jan. 74), a vivacious, statuesque female alien, Lara, expresses her attraction toward Kirk and makes several blatant sexual suggestions. Kirk tells her, “Maybe some other time.” In the live-action series, we know that he would have acted on her proposal.
Legs, love, and lust in the Star Trek universe are liberated. We have to view the show’s treatment of sensuality within the context of the so-called sexual revolution, but today we must also question’s Kirk’s professionalism. If he behaved as he does in today’s military command structure, he would have a short career plagued with sexual harassment charges, reduction in rank, loss of command due to incompetence, and quite possibly court-martial and a dishonorable discharge for acts unbecoming of an officer.
Consider Yeoman Rand, Kirk’s attractive, feisty, personal assistant at the top of season one. She wears the obligatory mini-dress uniform and has long blonde hair bundled up in a 1960s-style beehive. At first Kirk is uncomfortable with having a female yeoman assigned to him—she brings him his lunch and dinner, pays attention to his diet, and waits on his every need. Rand goes on away missions and is a strong presence in the first half of season one, but later fades into the shadows, appearing sporadically with few lines of dialogue. There does seem to be a relationship developing between them, perhaps never consummated or discussed. In “Mirror, Mirror” (6 Oct. 67), however, when Kirk notices a new Yeoman on the Enterprise with whom his alternate-universe self once had a serious relationship, his interest is piqued; in the coda, we see Kirk coyly sidling up to this Yeoman, engaging her in flirtatious conversation. His pursuit of female subordinates is plagued by unequal power; for if a female crew member does not find him attractive, it is unlikely that she is going to brush her Captain off. One may surmise that Kirk’s repeated knack for courting and conquering women on other ships and planets—humanoid or otherwise—would be of concern for that generally invisible body, “Starfleet Command.” It could be that sexual harassments lawsuits have been done away with in the Star Trek universe.
Kirk is not the only senior officer practicing biology. In fact, everyone in the crew does except Sulu and Uhura,whose alternate selves both had some kind of history in the “Mirror, Mirror” universe. In “Who Mourns for Adonis?” (22 Sept. 67), Scotty is enamored with a young female ensign and becomes jealous and irrational when the Greek god, Apollo, takes an interest in her and she reciprocates. So deep is his jealousy that Scotty nearly gets himself killed, despite knowing very well that he is no match for an all-powerful deity. In “The Lights of Zetar” (31 Jan. 69), Scotty falls in love with a scientist and makes foolish choices again.
In “Shore Leave” (29 Dec. 66), Dr. McCoy has a budding relationship with Ensign Tonia Barrows. She becomes jealous when McCoy, after being killed, rises from the dead “repaired,” with two “dancers” that resemble Playboy Bunnies on each arm. In “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” (8 Nov. 68), McCoy finds a humanoid-alien woman to love and marry; she lives inside a hollow asteroid that is also a vast ship. McCoy has contracted an incurable disease and only has a year to live. He decides to leave the Enterprise and spend his last days in his wife’s arms.
Mr. Chekhov runs into a former girlfriend in “The Way to Eden” (29 Feb. 69), the episode referred to by fans as “Hippies in Space.” Irina Galilulin is a scantily-clad fellow Russian national that he knew back in the Academy; she dropped out for an alternative hippie-like lifestyle, while he remained in the military. Chekhov is not always the young Casanova, however; in “Day of the Dove” (1 Nov. 68) he is possessed by a violent alien entity and attempts to rape a Klingon woman. He proves to be a fool for love, much like Scotty, when he falls for a woman who does not exist—a simulacrum created by an alien intelligence—in “Spectre of the Gun” (25 Oct. 68).
Mr. Spock, suppressing all emotions of his human half, has the most complicated love life of all. Nurse Chapel has an impassioned crush on Spock but can never verbalize her desire. Spock is aware of her feelings yet never discourages her, sometimes giving her mixed signals. In “Amok Time” (15 Sept. 67), when Chapel finds out that Spock has been betrothed to a Vulcan woman since childhood—Vulcans engage in arranged marriages to create power families—her heart sinks. “Amok Time” reveals the sexual cycles of Vulcan males, when they lose all sense of logic and have the burning need to mate every seven years—the Ponn far—andmust do so or die in celibate madness and agony. In “This Side of Paradise” (2 Mar. 67), Lelia Kalomi, who once had futile feelings for the love-challenged Spock when the two knew each other on a different planet, exposes him to the spores of a plant on Omicron Ceti III. The spores alter his physiology, causing his human side to emerge. We witness a carefree, playful Spock in love. We also glimpse a deeply serious, lustful, violent Spock in “All Our Yesterdays” (14 Mar. 69), when, traveling back 6000 years in time, he reverts to the ways of his barbaric ancestors. He is seduced by a woman, Zarabeth; all Spock wants to do is have sex and eat animal flesh (Vulcans in his own era are vegetarians). This is the first time we see Spock truly happy, outside the alien influence in “This Side of Paradise.”
The women in Star Trek are fiercely independent yet dress provocatively. Their roles were widely varied: some were high-ranking officers, doctors, world leaders, formidable antagonists, and assassins; others were slaves, seductresses, and catalysts of destruction. The uniforms worn by women serving on board the Enterprise are basically mini-dresses that barely cover the hips, sometimes revealing panty shots and always a good deal of nylon-covered leg. (In the more sedate later spin-offs, women and men wear the same single-piece red or blue attire.) Other women—human and alien alike—wear sheer, light, revealing outfits, exposing skin (pink, brown, or green) including midriff and cleavage. The executives and producers knew the sf demographic well: young men with active hormones and an appreciation of the female form. This is the same reason that many sf novels and magazines often featured women in sexy outfits on their covers even when the image had nothing to do with the plot.
In her on-line article “Sex and the Star Trek Woman,” Laura Goodwin contends that feminists do not have a negative critical view of Star Trek’s portrayal of women and that it was not a sexist show. In the original series, women were respected and well represented. We met priestesses, soldiers, warriors, villains, queens, and heroines: “Virtually all of the Star Trek women had careers and were self-supporting .... It’s pretty clear that TOS-era men and women are 100% casual about the sight of women’s bare legs, to such an extent that the military issues these skimpy uniforms.”
Yet some critics disagree. “That the original Star Trek was sexist hardly needs articulation,” contends Elyce Rae Helford in “A Part of Myself No Man Should Ever See,” adding: “Feminist critics attack the stereotypical femininity of the series’s women, the oversexualization or demonization of the few competent female characters, and the eroticization of women of color” (11). Helford reads “Turnabout Intruder” as Kirk’s repressed feminine side taking over and his masculine resistance (which wins the gender battle) representing a sexist message that men are superior to women. Edward Whetmore maintains the same view in “A Female Captain’s Enterprise,” suggesting that the Enterprise might have been better off commanded by a Kirk with a woman’s soul, who would make less violent choices and think twice about interfering with alien cultures.
“Turnabout Intruder” has sparked more critical discourse on gender and inequality than any other episode. Although The Next Generation had women in the role of Starfleet Admirals and Voyager had a tough, no-nonsense female captain, the original series will always be criticized for its portrayal of women as sex objects, as in Karin Blair’s “Sex and Star Trek,” Anne Cranny-Francis’s “Sexuality and Sex-Role Stereotyping in Star Trek,” and Mary Ann Tetreault’s “The Trouble with Star Trek,” which outline the faults of power and position in the futuristic military, contending that the women in the show are merely eye-candy for the men in charge and the male fans. In “Miri,” Yeoman Rand becomes a victim of her attractiveness: she breaks into tears and confesses to Kirk that she feels unattractive because of the aging disease the landing party has contracted, the effects appearing on her legs. She is ashamed of her legs, and admits that on the Enterprise, she tried to make him look at her legs. Goodwin suggests that Rand only wants Kirk to see her as a woman, not as an equal or an officer, and that the insecurities between the sexes have not changed much in the future. Other critics might interpret Rand’s anxieties as weak, showing her desire to please her boss and drawing viewers’ attention to her legs rather than to her role as an officer.
In the early 1970s, two subgenres emerged: fan and “slash” fiction. Fan fiction (“fanfic”) is the amateur’s take without concern for canon, the market, good writing, or structured plot; fanfic could be a plotless day-in-the-life of, say, Mr. Spock as he meditates in his quarters or a poem written by Uhura. In fanfic, the writer can indulge in his or her fantasy with stories that would never be possible, such as explicit sexual encounters that usually have to do with homosexual couplings—“slash” fans indulge in Kirk and Spock showing their “true love” for each other, perhaps adding in McCoy or Scotty for a threesome; or with Mr. Sulu and Mr. Chekhov meeting late at night, having suppressed their sexual longings all day while sitting next to each other at the helm. Slash has been critically examined in academia as a pop-cultural oddity; critics of sociology, psychology, mass media, and literature alike have examined and explicated slash texts, which are not limited to Star Trek; there is slash for nearly all successful genre television—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Angel, and Dollhouse. Slash offers fans of Star Trek (and other popular series) an avenue to explore sexual desires they project onto their favorite characters.—Michael Hemmingson, University of California, San Diego
Strange Leafy Sex. Boston University’s literary journal AGNI (issue 66), edited by critic Sven Birketts, contains a story by William T. Vollmann, “Widow’s Weeds,” from a forthcoming collection of “romantic love stories.” What is curious about “Widow’s Weeds” is that the narrator soon discovers his paramour is a plant-being, and their sex becomes green and leafy. This brings to mind Philip José Farmer’s Strange Relations (1960), a collection of novellas that deal with sex and procreation between humans and plant-type aliens. This is also a departure for Vollmann, who for the past decade has been focusing on journalism and memoir. In a previous issue of SFS (35.1), I discussed how Vollmann’s first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), is an unacknowledged cyberpunk tome. In Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader (2004), we learn that Vollmann’s early influences were Philip K. Dick and James Blish and that as a pre-teen he wrote an sf novel about space explorers on the moon mysteriously plucked away one by one. It is unknown if any other stories in Vollmann’s as-yet-untitled collection will have fantastical elements.—Michael Hemmingson, University of California, San Diego
Even more insidious is the second sentence quoted above, about the dethroning or demotion of the Earth and its human inhabitants from the privileged center of the universe. This is commonly, almost universally, believed even in twenty-first century scholarly circles. But is it true? In a word: no. The familiar assertion arises from the recycling of received wisdom without ever reading the primary documents produced by Copernicus, Rheticus (his first disciple), Galileo, Kepler, et alia, and their theological contemporaries. Freud popularized this misconception for the twentieth century in a secularist and self-serving argument, which assumed that religious authorities opposed Copernicus for “dethroning” humankind. (For his infamous “three blows” to human self-esteem claim—Copernicus, Darwin, and then Freud—see his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, trans. Joan Riviere [London: Allen, 1922], 240-41.) Freud was not the first to misread Copernicus and the implications of his achievement. Apart from Donne’s much-quoted 1611 poetic lament, erroneous interpretations of the Copernican shift were slipped into the early sf satires/seventeenth-century plurality-of-worlds narratives of Cyrano and Fontenelle. The image of dethroning was popularized in the nineteenth century by John William Draper in an influential and inaccurate polemic, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (New York, 1874).
Whatever its provenance—and the above is only a sketch—there is no excuse, given the last few decades of historical research, to keep this misconception on life support. My modest intention here is not to provide a bibliographic essay, only to request others to stop presenting the popular falsehood that Copernicus demoted humans from their divinely appointed place at the cosmic center. (Among other early modern fictions, that is. The medieval church did not suppress science, teach that the world was flat, or prohibit human dissection; nor was Giordano Bruno martyred for his scientific beliefs or Galileo imprisoned and tortured for defending Copernicus. Gardner Dozois’s editor’s preface to Galileo’s Children: Tales of Science vs. Superstition is a hardly unique embarrassment to sf studies that would have been excusable in 1805, but not in 2005. Great stories, though, as always.)
Dethronement requires prior enthronement. I suppose those who have not studied Jewish and Christian theology in the medieval and early-modern periods would blame the Bible.
A cursory reading of the creation myths in the first three chapters of Genesis would reasonably indicate that humans were the unique capstones of creation and lords of the Earth, around which circled the sun, moon, and stars. Certainly, humans are depicted as special and distinct, though I’d argue that the narrative shows the Sabbath as the blessed and beautiful crown of creation. In any event, the false claim about Copernicus assumes that geocentric theology and cosmology is by definition anthropocentric. But while geocentric discourse was literal and physical, anthropocentric imagery in early-modern theology and natural philosophy was surely figurative and metaphoric. Those who contemplated “man’s place in nature” were not idiots. Mere spatial location did not determine moral and metaphysical value. Without presenting detailed evidence, it is (and was) apparent through careful and contextual study of scripture that we humans are the non-unique objects of divine blessing and covenant love (e.g., Genesis 9) and are creatures especially beloved despite our physical finitude, against the immensity of creation and the otherness of the Creator (e.g., Psalm 8). I’d argue that humanity was not biblically ensconced on a throne, waiting to be overthrown, in the first place.
To summarize a body of scholarship outside my own specialty (the Victorian period, full of its own misconceptions about Darwin, for instance), the Galileo Affair, which historians of science and theology have examined in minute detail, reveals that Copernicanism was not seen as representing the demotion of humankind. Indeed, in moving the Earth closer to the sphere of the fixed stars and to Heaven beyond, Copernicus (and later Galileo) raised our status.
But wasn’t the center of the world-system where the honor, power, and glory were? Not really. In scientific terms, Earth’s centrality in Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmology merely reflected the elemental heaviness of earth. The cosmic center—both for natural philosophers and monotheists—was base, inert, much lower in value than the bright bodies dwelling in celestial light. As people before and after Dante knew, the dead center of the Earth, and therefore of the cosmos, was the darkest pit of Hell.
In terms of the initial Christian responses to Copernicus (who was himself a pious Christian and church canon), the scandal of heliocentrism was in exalting the fallen inhabitants of the Earth at the expense of the shining Sun. The Copernican cosmos changed the Center of All into a place of honor, one worthy of the Sun. And the transformation of the Earth from cosmic center to planet-among-other-planets was actually a promotion. (We were now “closer to heaven” if one thought in spatial terms.)—Paul Fayter, History of Science, York University
A Response from Adam Roberts. I must thank Professor Fayter for his detailed and interesting response to my original (as he notes) thumbnail statement. Whilst I agree with him that history is not simple, and the history of the Reformation more unsimple than most, I hope he will permit me, respectfully, to disagree with almost everything else he says. His main argument, that “the transformation of the Earth from cosmic center to planet-among-other-planets was actually a promotion,”seems to me to misunderstand early-modern cosmological thought. “Promotion” assumes a linearly up-down logic, as if the Earth were being pegged up a few notches and placed in a more spiritually elevated position. That is not right, I think. Copernican cosmology was not about shuffling the vertical order of the planets; it was about challenging deep-rooted and at base fundamentally theological tenets about the finitude of the universe, the perfection and mutability of creation—the zone from the moon upwards being conceived as perfect and changeless—and the human scale of the universe. A more profound change still was in eliminating the qualitative difference between earthly life and life elsewhere in the cosmos: “and now what of all this?” John Swan, in Speculum Mundi: or A Glasse Representing the Face of the World (1635), asked of the observations of lunar landscapes, sunspots, comets, and novas: “nothing but onley this … it seemeth that there is no great difference between them and things here tlinebelow.” That chilly and ontologically disorienting realization is a conceptual breakthrough necessary for the promulgation of science fiction.
It is true as far as it goes to say that “those who contemplated ‘man’s place in nature’ (in the early-modern period) were not idiots” and that “mere spatial location did not determine moral and metaphysical value.” Indeed not. But that an anthropomorphic moral and metaphysical value had been asserted, nonetheless, was axiomatic for both Catholic and emergent Protestant churches—asserted not by geographical positioning but by the uniqueness and magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice and atonement. It is this, more than all the other things put together, that the new Copernican cosmology threatened, and (I would say) that explained the establishment hostility towards it: myriad inhabited worlds would require myriad Christs to be crucified to save them, which diluted the crucial uniqueness of our Christ’s sacrifice; or else would imply a God heartless enough to permit myriad alien beings to go to Hell unatoned.
Professor Fayter suggests that “the last few decades of historical research” have contradicted the assumptions behind my argument, although he mentions no specific texts. I have read if not comprehensibly then I would like to think widely in that research, and would like to know where my reading has been delinquent. My particular argument is advanced in a book from the last few decades that I can understand Professor Fayter not considering significant, The History of Science Fiction (2006): namely that Reformation cultural fascinations forged what we now call sf out of a broadly Protestant cultural logic, and that certain core thematics of the contemporary genre (a persistent interest in questions of atonement, for instance) can be explained by this point of origin.
Kenneth Howell’s God’s Two Books: Copernican Cosmology and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science (2002) explores the way sixteenth- and seventeenth-century astronomers and theologians, particularly in Protestant Northern Europe, attempted to reconcile the new sciences with religion. Steven Vanden Broecke’s review essay “Astrological Reform, Calvinism, and Cartesianism: Copernican Astronomy in the Low Countries, 1550–1650” (Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, 2004) explores this territory very persuasively. At this point I might dilate upon questions of what “materialism” means, if I had not already gone on at too great a length. It may be enough to note that I agree with Professor Fayter that materialism and “theism” (I’d be tempted to be more historically contextual and say “deism”) need not be at odds with one another; this is not the same thing as saying that the Catholic Church was prepared to countenance either.
Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston put it well in their co-edited third volume of The Cambridge History of Science: Early Modern Science (2006). They point out that recent research has stressed the disunity and diversity of cultural and scientific work at this time: “it is no longer clear that there was any coherent enterprise in the early modern period that can be identified with modern science.” But they do not question that a revolution took place:
In 1979, buoyed by a grant from the estate of fantasy author and FAU faculty member Thomas Burnett Swann, on whom Bob later wrote a scholarly monograph, Bob sent out a call for papers for the first ICFA. Expecting to mount a small event, he was astonished by the overwhelming response: over 600 submissions flooded in from academics and others who had long read, taught, and studied in the area but who had never had a serious outlet for their scholarly work. The first ICFA, held at FAU in 1980, featured 225 papers by presenters from six countries. The early conferences attracted major authors and critics as guests of honor, including Brian W. Aldiss, John Barth, Leslie Fiedler, Stephen King, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. A writing workshop coordinated by James Gunn brought in Harlan Ellison, Frederik Pohl, Kate Wilhelm, and Gene Wolfe (among others) as teachers. Over the years, the ICFA has welcomed such prominent writers as Philip José Farmer, Neil Gaiman, Doris Lessing, Kim Stanley Robinson, Dan Simmons, Vernor Vinge, and Nalo Hopkinson (next year’s guest of honor). As this diverse list of distinguished attendees shows, ICFA’s vision of the field has always been catholic, including not only genre writing but also the work of postmodernist and other non-realist authors, artists, and filmmakers. ICFA, in short, sees science fiction as one subset of a long and distinguished tradition of “the fantastic” that also encompasses Spenser and Surrealism, Borges and Batman—a tradition that, as Bob never tired of pointing out, forms the true mainstream of world literature and art.
By 1982, the conference had become so large and complex that the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts was established to coordinate and mount the event. In 1988, IAFA began publishing The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts (JFA), an interdisciplinary quarterly whose editors have included Carl Yoke, Bill Senior, and Brian Attebery. As Roger Schlobin, the second President of IAFA (who helped to insure the continuity of the conference through its moves to Texas and Fort Lauderdale), observes: “Opportunities that were created under Bob’s watch have become fountains of knowledge. ICFA and IAFA gave the fantastic the credibility that carried it into the universe of the Modern Language Association. Volumes of conference proceedings burst forth. JFA sprayed articles throughout the canon. The multitude who have benefitted from Bob’s vision is beyond counting.”
It was at FAU that I first met Bob: I was a student in his 1987 sf class and became, at his invitation, an intern for Fantasy Review magazine, which he published out of his always cluttered, always busy, always cheerful office. I eventually became the magazine’s review editor, and when it folded in favor of an annual volume, I coedited four installments of this series with Bob for Greenwood Press. The first conference paper I ever gave was at ICFA in 1988, and my first scholarly publication was in the subsequent volume of proceedings. I am one of that multitude Roger mentions who has benefitted professionally from Bob’s trail-blazing work, and I will always be grateful. But more than this, I will be grateful for having had the chance to know such a smart, funny, and generous man who gave of himself unstintingly so that others could prosper. Rest in peace, Bob.—Rob Latham, SFS
Special SFS issue on Octavia E. Butler for November 2010. It has been three years since the death of Octavia E. Butler. Her unexpected passing silenced a unique and major voice within science fiction and African-American literature. Readers, writers, scholars, and friends continue to discuss her life and legacy. This special issue of Science Fiction Studies offers a way of making permanent those critical and personal conversations. It also seeks to provide a preliminary evaluation of her accomplishments and of their impact.
American Literature Invites Submissions. We invite submissions for a special issue on science fiction, fantasy, and myth (individually or in combination) as they contribute to American literatures and cultures. How might a focus on sf, fantasy, and/or myth change our understanding of literary history, of literary engagements with scientific innovations, or with the pressing political concerns of the moment? What questions arise if we read more canonical works through the lens of sf, fantasy, or myth? Conversely, what happens to these categories when we take seriously, as scholars such as H. Bruce Franklin have done, their early appearance in American literary history?
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