[March 24, 1961] The Second Sex in SF

1961.  The year that an Irishman named Kennedy assumed the highest office in the land.  The year in which some 17 African nations celebrated their first birthday.  The air smells of cigarette smoke, heads are covered with hats, and men run politics, industry, and much of popular culture.

In a field (and world) dominated by men, it is easy to assume that science fiction is as closed to women as the local Elks Lodge.  Who are the stars of the genre?  Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Sheckley; these are household names.  But if there is anything I have discovered in my 11 years as an avid science fiction fan (following another 20 of casual interest), it is that there is a slew of excellent woman authors who have produced a body of high quality work.  In fact, per my notes, women write just one ninth of the science fiction stories published, but a full fourth of the best works. 

For this reason, I’ve compiled a list of female science fiction writers active in this, the second year of the 1960s.  These authors are just the tip of the vanguard.  They are blazing a trail for women to one day share equally in the limelight…and the Hugos!

Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Pauline Ashwell: This young British author is unusual in that her works are confined exclusively (so far as I can tell) to the usually rather stag Analog, the most conservative and widely distributed of the digests.  Her Unwillingly to School, and its recent sequel, The Lost Kafoozalum, were both Hugo-nominees.  Deservedly so, as they are both unique and a lot of fun.  They also feature a creature about as rare as the female author: the female protagonist!  Ashwell also wrote the off-the-wall alien/human friendship story, Big Sword, under the transparent pseudonym, Paul Ash.  More, please!

Leigh Brackett: A Californian, Brackett was a staple of the pulp era, writing a myriad of short stories and novels all the way through the middle of the last decade.  For some reason, she seems to have fallen off the genre radar in the last few years, but I understand she’s making a living at Hollywood and television screenwriting.  I am chagrined to report that I’ve not read a single one of her stories, and I worry that I’d find them dated.  I’d be happy to be wrong.  Recommendations?

Marion Zimmer Bradley: Young Bradley has been writing for at least a decade, but her works have tended to appear in the magazines to which I don’t have subscriptions, with the notable exception of The Wind People, which appeared in IF at the end of Damon Knight’s short-lived tenure as its editor.  She’s just come out with her first book, The Door through Space, which is sitting on my “To Read” shelf.  She’s a bit of an odd duck, having recently founded her own occult religion, the Aquarian Order of the Restoration, filled with trances, discovery of past lives, and clairvoyance.  I guess if L. Ron Hubbard can do it…

Rosel George Brown: I’m on firmer ground with Ms. Brown, an author whom I have watched with avid interest since she first appeared in Galaxy in 1958.  Her stories hinted at a great talent, and her stories had something to recommend them, even if they were not perfect successes.  Her talent flowered with the excellent Step IV, which appeared in Amazing, and her recent Of all possible worlds was even better.  An unabashedly feminine, inarguably terrific writer; I can’t wait to read what she pens next.

Miriam Allen Deford: One of the eldest (ahem…most seasoned!) of the woman authors, Ms. Deford has been writing since the 1920s, though she did not enter our genre in a big way until Fantasy and Science Fiction inaugurated in 1949.  Since then, she has turned out a steady stream of stories.  Their common elements are her slightly quaint style, her versatility (writing horror, mystery, and “straight” sf with equal facility), and her consistency.  She is solid, if not brilliant, and generally a welcome addition to any magazine’s table of contents.

Carol Emshwiller: Say the name “Emshwiller” and you probably first think of the illustrator, Ed Emshwiller, whose drawings have appeared in hundreds (if not thousands) of magazines.  But Carol Emshwiller, who married into that improbable surname, has also appeared frequently in scientifiction magazines.  I am once again embarrassed to confess that I’ve only read one of her stories thus far (this is what comes of only having time to read three digests a month; curse my need for a day job!) Perhaps one of my readers can tell me if A Day at the Beach was representative of her work; I recall enjoying it.  In fact, while I called it forgettable, I still remember it two years later, so I must have been wrong!

I’m going to pause at this point because the list is actually quite lengthy, and I think it merits presentation in multiple parts.  I apologize for the scantiness of my knowledge in places; until one invents a comprehensive Encyclopedia for science fiction works, whereby one can retrieve information about, and stories by, any given author, any one person’s viewpoint will be limited.  I do hope I’ve whetted your appetite, however, and that you will seek out these authors’ work.

See you in a couple of days!

15 thoughts on “[March 24, 1961] The Second Sex in SF”

  1. Thank you for this excellent look at some of the gifted SF writers of the female sex.  I look forward to the second half.

    I don’t know Ashwell or Brown very well, except what you have shared with us.

    Brackett’s stuff does tend to be old-fashioned space opera (although I also understand that she writes hard-boiled crime fiction.) The one outstanding exception is her 1955 novel “The Long Tomorrow,” which is pretty much a “literary” coming-of-age novel which happens to take place after the Bomb.  I can recommend it unreservedly as one of the finest SF novels of the last decade.

    I think you are quite correct that DeFord is a “solid” author.  Bradley isn’t much to my taste.  Emshwiller is indeed a great talent, as is her artist husband.  She does tend to be on the “literary” side.

      1. The recommendation for THE LONG TOMORROW is spot-on, though that is uncharacteristic of Brackett’s work, most of which has appeared in the defunct pulps PLANET STORIES, STARTLING STORIES. THRILLING WONDER STORIES, etc., under titles like “The Dancing Girl of Ganymede” and “Enchantress of Venus.”  One of the best, and maybe more accessible than most, is THE STARMEN, which appeared in one of the aforesaid pulps as “The Starmen of Llyrdis” or some such title but was then published in book form by Gnome Press and subsequently as one of the early Ace Doubles.  Another one worth looking for is “The Queer Ones” from the March 1957 VENTURE SF, which was reprinted as “The Other People” in the last volume of the T.E. Dikty “best of the year” anthologies.  Like THE LONG TOMORROW it is a departure from Brackett’s usual work, but a very different sort of departure.

      2. Good spotting on Carol Emshwiller, who will bear watching.  She had another striking story, “Pelt,” in the November 1958 F&SF (Judith Merril picked it up for her “best of the year” anthology SF ’59), and another pretty good one called “Hunting Machine” in the same T.E. Dikty anthology as Brackett’s “The Queer Ones”/”The Other People.”  This came from that near-bottom-of-the-line magazine SCIENCE FICTION STORIES for May 1957.  If she keeps going she will likely reap much more recognition than she has had so far.

        1. Pelt came out right before I started writing down my reviews.  I just went to check my collection of F&SF and it turns out I don’t have the November 1958 issue!  Thank you for your help, John.

  2. Unlike some of the others, I’m not all that wild about The Long Tomorrow, but that’s probably just me. While it’s true that most of Brackett’s work to date has been of the planetary romance variety (dying Mars and swampy Venus), as a writer about the only other woman likely to appear on this list that I would rank ahead of her is C.L. Moore — and she wrote plenty of planetary romances, too.

  3. What about Zenna Henderson and her People stories?

    I wished you’d show the complete cover where the girl at the top is cropped. I can vaguely remember it.  From a F&SF I think.

    What about Andre Norton?

    I reread The Long Tomorrow recently, when I got a copy on audio. It’s still pretty good.

    I’m trying to imagine other women writers you might select next. Are you only dealing with writers before 1961?

    1. Henderson will be in Part 2 (she is my favorite!) Norton will be in Part 3.

      Yes, just 1961 for now.  I can’t (yet!) see the future.

      That cover is, indeed, from F&SF.  I think I covered the issue earlier in the column.

      Thank you for reading!  I hope to introduce (or reintroduce) you to some unfamiliar names.

  4. I certainly hope there’s more Paul Ash. Big Sword is a charming story, with first class aliens, and it takes a good writer to make it work so you don’t have to forgive anything for the sake of the good ideas.

  5. Thank you. I will come back to this for the full post in a few days. I know all 5 authors, but it is good to be reminded from time to time, and to look at the single year is an interesting take.

    I am a bit puzzled by your comment about an encyclopedia. Surely you know of the SF Encyclopedia? http://Www.sf-encyclopedia.com

  6. I’m afraid that Marion Zimmer Bradley’s occult interests makes me think of her as the female equivalent of L. Ron Hubbard, which is nothing good.  This only goes to show that being female isn’t in and of itself a virtue.

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