Science Fiction Studies


#90 = Volume 30, Part 2 = July 2003

Veronica Hollinger

The Girls Who Were Plugged In

Justine Larbalestier. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Wesleyan Early Classics of Science Fiction Series. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002. xv + 295 pp. $50.00 hc; $19.95 pb.

Particularly in its American pulp variations, sf seems to be a genre that erases itself as it goes along. While many fine studies of the field have been published in the past twenty years or so,1 there has been a relative dearth of historical scholarship published during this time, and only some of that scholarship pays much attention to the field before its radical transformations in the 1960s and 1970s, the decades of New Wave literary experimentations and relatively large-scale feminist interventions. Not coincidentally, this is also the period during which sf began to attract the kind of sustained critical interest that has since developed into a large and flourishing area of academic scholarship. Continuing this trend, the attention-grabbing appearance of cyberpunk in the mid-1980s resulted in even broader academic interest in science fiction from a range of disciplines and inter-disciplines only tangentially related to literary studies. And these days, the varied field of cyberculture studies continues to emphasize the contributions of the contemporary science fiction imagination.

Before 1970 or so, however, common wisdom has it that science fiction was busy growing up, slowly working through its rather embarrassing (masculine) puberty, slowly becoming the mature genre that intelligent readers—especially intelligent women readers—could now take seriously. To some extent, this view helps to account for the relative lack of good histories about first-generation sf. By now there are not so many left of the first generation of scholars—those who grew up reading the pulps—and not so many younger scholars who seem interested in replacing them as the repositories of our historical memory.2 For this reason, among others, Justine Larbalestier is to be applauded for her detailed historical research in The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, which focuses on developments in the sf field between the mid-1920s and the mid-1970s.

In parallel with our tendency to forget sf’s early years, there has been until recently the widespread conviction that—with rare exceptions—there was no significant participation by women in sf before 1970 or so. Larbalestier suggests that the virtual erasure of women from sf’s early history is related, not surprisingly, to women’s long-standing marginalization in the sf community as a whole—marginalization all too easily becomes invisibility. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction goes a long way toward filling in the historical blanks and making a convincing case for the significance of women’s participation in early sf as readers, writers, editors, and fans. While Larbalestier is by no means the first scholar to look at the early history of women’s participation in sf, her study is the most substantial to date.3 Most of the historical and critical studies of women’s and feminist science fiction, as she points out, focus on developments from the 1970s onward, helping to create the impression, as Connie Willis observed in a much-quoted 1992 comment, that women had nothing much to do with sf before the late 1960s and early 1970s: “The current version of women in science fiction before the 1960s ... goes like this: There weren’t any. Only men wrote science fiction because the field was completely closed to women .... There’s only one problem with this version of women in SF—it’s not true” (Willis qtd. 152). The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is a witty, well-documented, and entertaining history of women’s involvement in the sf field over the five decades or so between the very first appearance of “scientifiction” in 1926 and the development of a sustained body of work by women writers in the 1970s.

I use the term “involvement” rather than “writing” advisedly, since one of the most useful features of Larbalestier’s history is its attention to science fiction not only as a literary field, but also as a community of writers, readers, fans, and editors. As she concludes in her epilogue, “Researching and writing this book has made real to me that texts are inextricably part of communities; that genres are embodied, are communities, rather than static collections of markings on paper” (231). Larbalestier’s history is composed as a series of interwoven strands. She examines fan letters and excerpts from fanzines published in the early decades of the last century that debate the roles of women, romance, and sexuality. She also reads early stories and novels by both women and men that focus on issues of gender and sexuality. Her history culminates in a detailed overview of the life and career of sf’s most famous “female man,” James Tiptree, Jr., followed by a brief discussion of the establishment in 1991 of the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award for stories and novels that challenge gender stereotypes and that imaginatively expand the possibilities of human gender roles. As an added bonus, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction features a variety of illustrations (including reproductions of early editorials and fan letters and early magazine covers) and provides a very good bibliography and a well-organized index. The wealth and scope of the material that Larbalestier makes available here add up to one of the most informative and entertaining histories of science fiction published to date.

Larbalestier takes her motif of “the battle of the sexes” from an important early essay by Joanna Russ, “Amor Vincet Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction,” first published in SFS in 1980. Russ’s essay reads a group of “sex-war” stories published between 1926 and 1973, most of them anti-feminist and most of them resolving the “sex war” through women’s reinsertion into the patriarchal sexual economy. Larbalestier’s history covers much of this same period, and includes early stories by women as well as by men. She also reports on the “sex wars” that were ongoing among readers and fans, and between women writers and the male-oriented sf field, during this period. Her title implies not only a series of fictional battles, but also “battles” played out among members of various writer and fan communities.

Larbalestier opens her history in 1926 with the establishment of Gernsback’s Amazing Stories and the subsequent development, initially through letters-to-the-editor, of early fandom and early discursive constructions of “science fiction” in the pages of the pulps. As she does throughout her history, she illustrates this chapter with reproductions of letters and editorials, making this material available to many of us for the first time. Her next chapter, “Mama Come Home,” presents a good overview of some of the “core” battle-of-the-sexes stories published in the early years of the genre. Many are role-reversal stories that construct anxious (and sometimes inadvertently hilarious) fictional scenarios in which women have taken over both social and political power. As Larbalestier points out, “This role reversal serves to demonstrate that female rule is misrule. At the heart of these texts is the struggle to restore male rule and the ‘natural order of things.’ A central aspect of the natural order is a heterosexuality predicated on the romance discourse, which I call the heterosexual economy” (40). These stories about the “natural” relations between the sexes include early examples such as Thomas S. Gardner’s “The Last Woman” (1932) and Nelson S. Bond’s “The Judging of the Priestess” (1940), as well as later examples such as Edmund Cooper’s Who Needs Men? (1972). All tend to be posited on essential biological differences between men and women that “naturally” resolve themselves in a return to the heterosexual economy identified by Larbalestier. Many of the stories are committed to the idea that only “real men” can make women into “real women”; active sexuality is noticeably absent in the stories about all-women societies. In this chapter Larbalestier provides a counter-example in Tiptree’s “Mama Come Home” (1968), an ironically revisionist take on more conventional stories about female dominance.

Chapter Three focuses on stories that offer imaginative “solutions” to the problems of sexual difference, such as the hermaphroditism of Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X (1969) and the successful all-female utopia established in Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed” (1972). Included here also is a fine reading of Philip Wylie’s very interesting but rarely discussed 1951 novel, The Disappearance, which imagines that each sex disappears from the world of the other and traces the development of the resulting all-female and all-male worlds. Repeatedly, however, Larbalestier demonstrates how, in the vast majority of these stories and novels, the heterosexual contract is consistently (re)established. For this reason, she emphasizes the challenge and originality of Russ’s “When It Changed”: “A society that is outside the heterosexual economy is unnatural. This is the absolute given of every other battle-of-the-sexes text from 1926 to 1973. [Russ’s] text marks a crucial shift in the battle-of-the-sexes texts and is indeed a moment ‘When It Changed’” (90). The second part of this chapter includes a very good comparative reading of Venus Plus X and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), texts that explore similar kinds of solutions to the apparently insoluble problems arising from human gender difference.

James Tiptree, Jr. (a.k.a. Alice Sheldon) functions as the tutelary spirit whose career is at the heart of The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Not only does this history close with an account of Tiptree’s life, but a variety of Tiptree’s titles are also used by Larbalestier as her own chapter titles. Her first chapter, for example, which focuses on the beginnings of sf in the pulps and on the establishment of the early fan communities, is “Faithful to Thee, Terra, in Our Fashion,” while the last chapter, on the history of the Tiptree Award, is titled “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.” For me, the most enlightening and certainly the most entertaining chapter is Chapter 4, “Fault,” which traces the ongoing debates in the letters and articles of sf fans and editors about whether or not women, love, and sex have a place in the sf community. Where else will one find reproduced a letter from a 1939 issue of Astounding by an 18-year-old Isaac Asimov insisting that most stories that include women characters “can’t bring the ‘feminine interest’ into a story without getting sloppy. There is an occasional good one (‘Helen O’Loy’ is a beautiful case in point) but for every exceptional one there are 5,739 terrible cases” (Asimov qtd. 124). Given that there are no women in “Helen O’Loy” (1938), a story about two scientists who build the perfect robot-woman, my reactions to the discussions in this chapter run the gamut from annoyance to laughter. Consider Larbalestier’s observation about Philip Josť Farmer’s first published story, “The Lovers” (1952), which “concerns a sexual relationship between a human and a lalitha. Lalithas are parasitic insectoids who are more perfect than human women because they devote themselves to men and have perky breasts” (138). As Larbalestier also demonstrates through her examination of these debates in the sf community, women readers did not hesitate to insist on more adequate representation in the stories being published; in 1939, for instance, Mary Evelyn Rogers pointed out in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction that “Practice makes perfect, you know, and how are the other writers ever going to learn the right way to handle the female characters if they don’t experiment?” (129).

Chapter Five, “The Women Men Don’t See,” outlines the often contentious interactions between women and the field during the years in which they became an increasingly influential presence. It also examines in detail the increasing influence of feminism on women’s participation in sf. As Larbalestier notes here in her review of significant publications by Russ, Tiptree, and others, women “were already a part of science fiction before they discovered feminism, but that discovery changed the nature of their presence within science fiction” (160). In the words of British feminist critic Sarah Lefanu, “Feminist SF ... is part of science fiction while struggling against it” (Lefanu qtd. 5). Chapter Six, “I’m Too Big But I Love to Play,” is Larbalestier’s homage to Tiptree, in which she recounts a wide variety of stories about Tiptree’s life and work, stories appropriate to the career of a writer who himself/herself performed such a variety of identities. Larbalestier’s coverage here is thorough and informative; even those familiar with Tiptree’s career may be surprised by some of it, such as the unexpected appearance of Tiptree as a child in Africa in Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions (1989). Larbalestier’s final chapter discusses the establishment of the Tiptree Award, which helps to guarantee Tiptree’s ongoing influence in the field.

This is one of those rare books that makes itself indispensable as soon as it appears. So obvious are the gaps that it covers in its historical work and so central to the mapping of science fiction as both genre and community is this work, that I couldn’t help but wonder, as I was reading it, why no one had written it before. Whether or not you are a feminist reader, whether or not you are interested in issues of gender as they have been represented in sf narratives, whether or not you care about the roles of fan communities and the contents of fanzines, if you have any interest in the historical beginnings of the genre and in the role played by the American pulps in concretizing something originally known as “scientifiction,” you will want to read this book. You will definitely learn new things, and you will almost certainly have a good time learning them.

1. See, for instance, the range of titles noted in my “Contemporary Trends.”
2. This is not to say that the early history of North American science fiction has been utterly neglected of late, although far more has been published on the “origins” of the British tradition of scientific romance. Gary Westfahl, winner of this year’s SFRA Pilgrim Award, is the author of a useful body of work, especially his Mechanics of Wonder. Other relevant studies include those by H. Bruce Franklin, Martha Bartter, Edward James, and Brooks Landon.
3. Both Robin Roberts and Jane Donawerth, for example, include discussions of women’s participation in the culture of the sf pulps in their full-length studies. In the former, see especially the chapter on “The Female Alien: Pulp Science Fiction’s Legacy to Feminists” (40-65); and, in the latter, see the chapter on “Beautiful Alien Monster-Women—BAMS” (42-108).

Bartter, Martha. The Way to Ground Zero: The Atomic Bomb in American Science Fiction. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1988.
Donawerth, Jane. Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1997.
Franklin, H. Bruce. Robert Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980.
Hollinger, Veronica. “Contemporary Trends in Science Fiction Criticism, 1980-1999” SFS 26 (July 1999): 232-62.
James, Edward. Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.
Landon, Brooks. Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Roberts, Robin. A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 1993.
Russ, Joanna. “Amor Vincet Foeninam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.” SFS 7.1 (March 1980): 2-15.
Westfahl, Gary. The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1998.

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