Tag Archives: katherine maclean

[May 11, 1961] Spotlighting Women (The Second Sex in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Part 3)

Here’s a question I’ve gotten more than once: what is the point in spotlighting woman writers?  Shouldn’t I simply point out the good stories as I find them, and if they happen to be written by women, bully for them?  Why should I create an artificial distinction?

Those are actually fine questions, about which I’ve given much thought.  I make no claims to being an expert, or even someone whose opinion should matter much to you.  All I have is my taste, my gut and (lucky for me) my own column in which to voice my opinions.  So take my words as strictly my viewpoint.

We live in a particular kind of world.  Men are the default: the default heroes, the default writers, even the default pronoun.  Open a history book, and it will be filled with the names of great men.  Women are a seeming afterthought.  You may not even have thought twice about it.  It seems “natural” that movies should star men, that books should star men, that men should be the generals, the presidents.

But, there is a change a brewing.  Black men universally won the right to vote in 1865.  Women secure duniversal suffrage in 1920, fully three generations after the least privileged men.  The gap is narrowing.  This year, a Black man became skipper of a U.S. Naval vessel.  1961 also marks the year a woman became a shipboard U.S. Naval officer for the first time.  Women are now just one generation behind the least advantaged of the men.  Someday, we may be on a level playing field, all races of men and women.

Science fiction is supposed to be forward-looking, yet socially it seems stuck in the present, or even the past.  One almost never reads about woman starship captains or woman presidents or woman…well… anything.  I don’t think this is the result of deliberate collusion by the science fiction writing community.  It’s just that society is the air we breathe.  We are unconsciously bound by its rules and traditions.  Unless something shakes up our viewpoints, we’ll stick in our ruts and continue to accept this male-dominated paradigm as the natural order of things.

So when I spot something unusual that I think should be universal, I note it.  I encourage it.  I enjoy it.

Without further ado, part #3 of my encyclopedic catalog of the woman writers active as of this year of 1961:

Zenna Henderson: It should come as no surprise to any regular reader of my column that I love Zenna Henderson.  While her The People stories do not comprise all of her work, they are representative — unabashedly personal tales, bittersweet and feminine, utterly unlike anything else.  Henderson’s science fiction career began early last decade and is one of the most vivid hallmarks of the divide between the digest and pulp eras.  I strongly recommend Rosemary Benton’s recent article as a introduction to his brilliant author and her work.

Katherine MacLean: One rarely forgets first impressions, and MacLean made a significant one on me with Unhuman Sacrifice, single-handedly saving the November 1958 Astounding, the first magazine I ever reviewed for this column.

This was actually a sort of a rediscovery — she has been publishing stories since the late ’40s, many of which I read in Galaxy.  I wonder if she’s now near the end of her career.  Once a prolific writer, her pace slackened after 1953, and I’ve only seen one of her stories since Sacrifice, the good Interbalance.  Perhaps she’s just busy with other things, or maybe she publishes in the few remaining magazines I don’t cover on a regular basis.  In any-wise, Ms. MacLean is highly regarded, both by me and the general community.  Check her out, and don’t miss her early work published under the name of her former husband, Charles Dye.

Anne McCaffrey: Speaking of first impressions, one of the fun aspects of my job as surveyor of our genre is spotting new authors as they arrive.  Ms. McCaffrey hit the ground running with her 1959 story, The Woman in the Tower.  She topped herself with the recent The Ship who Sang.  Two points make a line; if we continue the trend, it is clear that Ms. McCaffrey is destined to produce some pretty spectacular stuff.  I can’t wait!

Judith Merril: There once was a SF club in New York City.  It was called the Futurians, it only lasted 8 years (ending around the same time as WW2), and it had an outsized impact on the genre.  The 1st WorldCon was a Futurian event, for instance, and its members included future famous personages such as Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl. 

And Judith Merril (who was Mrs. Pohl for a little while).  She has been a pillar of the community ever since, both as a writer and a prolific anthologizer; she has produced a series of “Best of” books since 1956, and her taste is sharp.  My experience with her own writing has been mixed.  They comprise just two stories and a novel.  The stories were good, the novel was terrible (though Fred Pohl and P. Schuyler Miller liked it; what do I know>).  I suspect Judy will be around for a long time, so I imagine I’ll have more on which to evaluate her by the next time I do one of these.

C.L. Moore: I may be stretching a point in calling Ms. Moore a current writer.  A veteran of the pulp era, Ms. Moore wrote most prolifically in partnership with her late husband, Henry Kuttner (who I knew best as Lewis Padgett).  He died in 1958, and I’ve not seen hide nor hair of her since.  For this reason, the Journey has covered none of her works, and while I’m sure I must have read some of Moore (psuedonymously, collaboratively, or solitarily), I couldn’t tell you about any of those stories off the top of my head (though I do own the Galaxy Novel, Shambleau; perhaps I shall try it out.)

Andre Norton: Despite the name, Andre Norton is a woman, and she has enjoyed a burgeoning career since her debut a little over a decade ago.  She is given to florid, adventury prose, filled with strapping folks and derring-do.  In a recent review of one of Ms. Norton’s latest books, Alfred Bester opined dismissively that perhaps women just can’t write action.  Well, he’s wrong.  Now, mind you, I haven’t yet read much Norton.  I started Stargate, which failed to grab my interest, and I finished Crossroads of Time, which I quite enjoyed.  She’s got a new one coming out this Summer, which I’ll call the tie-breaker. 

Meanwhile, Bester hasn’t published a story since 1959.  Maybe men just can’t write science fiction anymore…

I’ll have the fourth (and final) installment in this series sometime next month.  Cheer-i-o!

(Part one is here!)

(Part two is here!)

[Sep. 18, 1960] Keeping things even (October 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

I’ve said before that there seems to be a conservation of quality in science fiction.  It ensures that, no matter how bad the reading might be in one of my magazines, the stories in another will make up for it.  Galaxy was pretty unimpressive this month, so it follows that Fantasy and Science Fiction would be excellent.  I am happy to say that the October 1960 F&SF truly is, as it says on the cover, an “all star issue.”


from here

“After-the-Bomb” stories always appeal to me.  I like stories about starting with a clean slate, rebuilding, and pushing onward.  Thus, James Blish’s The Oath, this month’s lead novelette, starts with an advantage that it, thankfully, never gives up.  In this story, an atomic apocalypse has decimated humanity, which has reverted to subsistence farming.  Specialization is virtually impossible, in part because most of the specialists were slaughtered early on by a resentful populace.  But everyone needs a doctor, and in one remote part of the former U.S.A., an erstwhile copywriter becomes an amateur pharmacologist.

In doing so, he attracts the attention of a real doctor, a recruiter for one of the few bastions of civilization left standing.  The resulting dialogue is a compelling one that gives the reader much to think about.  What is a doctor without the Hippocratic Oath?  Is it better to be a demigod among savages than an intern amongst professionals?  What is more important: fulfillment of personal dreams or serving a larger community?  Excellent stuff, if a bit speechy.  Four stars.

Something, in which an elderly antiquities curator comes face to face with an ancient evil presence, is brought to us by Allen Drury.  He won the Pulitzer this year for his novel, Advise and Consent.  Atmospheric, it’s a mood piece more than a story piece.  Three stars.

Arthur C. Clarke, the hybrid who stands precisely in the gap between scientist and fictioneer, brings us the rather archaic-seeming Inside the Comet.  The crew of the Challenger, dispatched to investigate a comet, become trapped in its coma when the ship’s computer breaks down.  Without the machine to compute orbital calculations, the ship might never get home.  Until, that is, a canny crewman teaches his shipmates to use abaci.  The description of the comet feels quite current, scientifically, and I like the idea of humans being able to rely on low technology solutions when the advanced options have failed.  It’s just a bit dated in its structure and with its gimmick ending.  Three stars.

The least of the issue’s stories is Poul Anderson’s Welcome, featuring a fellow who time travels from modern day to five centuries in the future.  He is received as an honored guest, which is why it takes him so long to realize the crushing poverty in which most of the world lives.  The kicker at the end is the reveal that the future’s elite literally dine on the poor.  Readable satire treading ground long since flattened by Swift and Wells.  Three stars (barely).

But then we have From Shadowed Places from that master, Richard Matheson.  The premise is simple: an adventurer in Africa offends a witch doctor and is hexed with a fatal curse.  Only the help of a woman anthropologist / part-time ju ju practitioner can save him.  It’s a perfect blend of horror, suspense, social commentary, and erotica–the kind that made Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man a book for the ages.  Extra praise is earned for having a strong Black woman as the focal (if not the viewpoint) character.  This story definitely pushes the envelope in many ways.  Five stars.

I’m happy, as always, to see Katherine MacLean in print.  Interbalance, her first tale in F&SF, is a meet cute set in Puerto Rico some twenty years after the Bomb has wiped out most of the world.  More is at stake than simple romance, however–it is a clash between the straightlaced mores of the old world and the liberated, survival-minded culture of the new.  Delightfully suspenseful.  Four stars.

A quick dip in quality accompanies Howard Fast’s tale, The Sight of Eden, in which Earth’s first interstellar travelers find themselves barred from a park-like pleasure planet.  It seems that humans are unbiquitous in the Galaxy, but only Earthlings are nasty and violent.  The planet’s caretaker offers no words of advice to cure the peculiar ailments of our species; he just sends the Terrans packing.  Fast tells the story well enough…I just don’t like what he has to say.  Three stars.

Asimov has a good article this month, Stepping Stones to the Stars, about the halo of icy objects in our solar system orbiting so far out that it takes a year for the light of the Sun to reach it!  Too dim to see, we only know about these little planets because, every so often, one gets nudged out of its orbit such that it careens into the inner solar system.  As it approaches the sun, its volatile contents sublime, creating a dramatic glowing tail.  And so, these inconspicuous bodies become comets.  If one thinks of this cloud of comets-to-be as the edge of our solar system, and if we presume that our nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri, hosts a similar cloud, then our systems are probably less than two light years from each other.  It’s a fascinating revelation, and it makes me feel similarly to when I discovered that the Soviet Union and the United States are just twenty miles apart…by way of Alaska.

By the way, both James Blish and the good Doctor have come to the conclusion that Pluto has no moon of significant size.  They thus urge people to save their good underworld-related names for the 10th and 11th planets, should they ever be discovered.

Back to fiction, writing duo Robert Wade and William Miller, writing as Wade Miller, offer up How Lucky We Met.  We’ve all heard of were-wolves, but what happens when the condition is more subtle and constant than the traditional malady?  Four stars.

Finally, Philip Jose Farmer once again has the concluding novella.  A Few Miles is the fourth in a series detailing the life of ex-con and current-monk, John Carmody.  Carmody and Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” have a lot in common.  They are both canny former criminals for whom the transition to law-abiding citizen is not 100% complete.  In this story, the good Brer John is given orders to sojourn to the planet “Wildenwoolly,” presumably to demonstrate his worthiness for ascension to the priesthood.  He does not even make it halfway through his hometown of Fourth of July, Arizona, thwarted by a series of increasingly difficult obstacles. 

I imagine Farmer will compile all of these stories into a book someday.  It will be a good one.  Four stars.

All told, this has been the best issue of F&SF of the year, with a needle quivering solidly above the 3.5 mark.  A good way to end this month’s digest reading.  Stay tuned for a review of Ted Sturgeon’s new book, Venus Plus X!

Astounding Science Fiction, November 1958 (10-24-1958)

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: An actual review of an actual science fiction magazine! 

NOVEMBER 1958, ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION

I usually save Astounding for last among my subscriptions.  I have mixed feelings about this magazine.  On the one hand, it is physically of the lowest quality compared to its competitors (F&SF being easily the highest).  Editor John Campbell, with his ravings about psionics, perpetual motion and Hieronymous machines, as well as his blatant human-chauvinism, is tough to take.  But he has a fine stable of authors, and some of the best stories come out of his magazine.

This issue’s headliner, Poul Anderson’s short novel, “Bicycle Built for Brew,” does not look like it will be among them.  It is the first half of a two-parter set some time in the next century in the Asteroid Belt.  The setting is interesting, and so is the set-up: a renegade faction of an Irish-colonized nation of asteroids has taken over Grendel, a small asteroid under the sovereignty of the “Anglians,” and the crew of the trader, Mercury Girl is stranded until it can find a way out. 

Unfortunately, this is one of those “funny” stories, the kind of which Bob Sheckley is a master and Poul Anderson is not.  Moreover, Anderson phonetically transcribes the exaggerated accents of his multinational cast of characters, which quickly becomes a slog to read.  I had high hopes for Anderson after “Brainwave” (1953), but everything since then has been generally (though not entirely) mediocre to turgid.  It’s all very chauvinistic stuff, too.  More so than most contemporary authors.

“Goliath and the Beanstalk,” by Chris Anvil is forgettable, like all of Anvil’s stuff I’ve read to date.  He and Robert Silverberg are much alike: prolifically generating serviceable, uninspired space-filler.

The next story is by a fellow named Andrew Salmond, a name so unfamiliar to me, that I suspect it is a pseudonym for one of the regular contributors.  “Stimulus” is a mildly interesting yarn about Earth being the one planet in the universe made of contra-terrene matter (also known as anti-matter), and the effect this has on spaceflight and humanity’s future in general.  The gotcha is that the situation was recently imposed upon the Earth–right before our first moon launch, in fact.  Can you guess how the Earth figured out what had happened?  I (he said smugly) did quite early on. 

By the end of the story, humanity is the most powerful race in the galaxy and rather insufferable about it, too.  I’m sure this appealed to Editor Campbell, given his taste (editorial requirement?) for stories where humans are better than everyone else. 

Gordy Dickson’s “Gifts…” is not science fiction at all, and it reads like a screenplay for a short television episode.  It is about a man given the opportunity to wish for whatever he wants, and his decision whether or not to use the power.  Slight stuff.

Katherine MacLean’s “Unhuman Sacrifice” is reason enough to buy this issue.  I had not read much of MacLean’s stuff before, but I will be on the look-out for her stories from now on.  Her tale of a spaceship crew’s encounter with an alien species with a singular life cycle, told from the viewpoint of both the humans and the aliens, is fascinating and haunting.  I won’t spoil it by telling you anything more. 

Asimov’s new science column continues.  This time, it attempts to answer why, in a galaxy filled with billions of suns, Earth has yet to be contacted by alien civilizations.  He ultimately concludes that galactic civilizations are likely to form in the center, where stars are densest, and may well avoid the backward edges, where we live.  He further opines that we may well have been discovered by vastly superior races (for any race that could find us must be far beyond us, at least technologically) and are being left alone so as not to disturb our development.  It’s a cute idea, but it is also indistinguishable from our being undiscovered.  Until the flying saucers announce themselves outside of the deep Ozarks, we have to assume We Really Are Alone.

P. Schuyler Miller’s book review column remains the most comprehensive available.  His comparing and contrasting of Bradbury with Sheckley, Matheson and Beaumont is interesting and arch.  The rest is good, too.

The issue wraps up, as always, with Campbell’s letter column, Brass Tacks.  I skipped it, as always.  Campbell may fill his magazine with fine stories, but I find the quality of his own opinions (like the quality of Astounding’s paper) to be lacking. 

New magazines come out on the 26th.  Stay tuned!

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.