Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Fear of a female planet

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The Legion of Time

In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov describes some of the earliest stories that he wrote with an eye to publication, when he was just eighteen years old, and concludes:

There were no girls in [these stories]…But then, women were very much an unknown quantity for me…In 1938, when I was writing my first stories, I had yet to have a formal date with a girl. In short, the circumstances of my life were such that it never occurred to me to put a feminine character in my stories…I eventually had dates, and I eventually learned about women, but the early imprinting had its effect. To this very day, the romantic element in my stories tends to be minor and the sexual element virtually nil.

When you dig a little deeper, however, you find that the absence of women wasn’t just an accidental quality of the young Asimov’s work, but a conscious decision. Or at least that’s how he chose to spin it. In a letter that was published in the September 1938 issue of Astounding—or just as he was making his first serious efforts as a writer—Asimov wrote: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science!” A year later, after his letters had inspired a debate among fans, Asimov doubled down, writing: “The great philosophers and the great religious leaders of the world—the ones who taught truth and virtue, kindliness and justice—were all, all men.”

To be fair, Asimov was only nineteen, and later in his life, he probably would have been embarrassed by the sentiments expressed in those letters. (They feel a lot like a defense mechanism to justify his own shyness with women, both in fiction and in real life.) But the trouble that science fiction has always had with its female characters is so fundamental that you could almost point to it as a defining quality of the genre. The case of Robert A. Heinlein is even more problematic than Asimov’s, in large part because he was a better writer. In an essay published in the memorial volume Requiem, the writer Spider Robinson disputes the accusation that Heinlein was “a male chauvinist,” listing a few dozen female characters who seem to disprove the allegation. “Virtually every one of them,” Robinson concludes, “is a world-class expert in at least one demanding and competitive field.” And there’s no question that Heinlein’s fiction is full of tough, smart, attractive women. The trouble is that they possess these qualities mostly because it’s what the protagonist—invariably male—likes to see in a prospective mate. These strong, intelligent, liberated women become the prize that the hero gets for surviving, and they’re often openly eager to have his babies. They aren’t allowed to drive the story or have an inner life of their own, and even the toughest of them meekly submits to the hero as soon as he takes charge. The only really convincing adult woman in all of Heinlein is Cynthia Randall in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” and I don’t think it’s an accident that she feels so much like a portrait of his wife Leslyn in the years before their marriage fell apart.

"The Door into Summer" by Robert A. Heinlein

I’m being hard on Heinlein precisely because he was the best writer the genre ever produced, which makes his failure here all the harder to forgive. If we judge science fiction’s treatment of women by the extent to which they’re allowed to affect the stories in which they appear, then none of the central figures in Astounding pass even that rudimentary test. On the whole, in fact, science fiction has done better when its women are openly allowed to be sinister. Belle in The Door into Summer, my favorite Heinlein novel, isn’t exactly a positive role model, but as a femme fatale—much of the first half of the book reads oddly like James M. Cain—she’s twice as interesting as the usual pneumatic secretary with a genius IQ whom Heinlein submits for our approval. As far as other writers go, A.E. van Vogt, whose background was in confession stories, is surprisingly good with women, especially when they’re a little menacing. And then there’s Jack Williamson, who was so much better at female villains than at heroines that it became a running joke among his friends. (You can see this most clearly in his masterpiece, “The Legion of Time,” which amounts to a Betty and Veronica story told on a cosmic scale.) In a letter to John W. Campbell, Heinlein writes:

At a recent gathering of the Mañana Literary Society, [Cleve] Cartmill and [Anthony Boucher]…were trying to determine why Jack’s sinister female characters were so solid and convincing and his heroine-like females so cardboard. Someone suggested that it was because Jack was really afraid of women. Jack considered this and said that he thought it might be true. “I may have a subconscious conviction,” avers Jack, “that vaginas are equipped with teeth.”

It’s tempting to blame much of this on the historical circumstances in which pulp science fiction emerged: Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing came out of a community of electronic hobbyists that consisted mostly of young white men, and the fan groups that emerged followed suit. As you see in even a cursory glance at the letters columns from that period, girls were regarded with active suspicion. (Asimov sarcastically observes that there must be “at least twenty” female science fiction fans.) It certainly wasn’t an environment in which most women felt welcome, and it became a cycle that fed on itself, with writers unable to see the contrary examples that were right in front of their faces. Ray Bradbury was mentored by the likes of Catherine Moore and Leslyn Heinlein, but in The Martian Chronicles, he blows much of his goodwill whenever he has to talk about women. There’s the punchline in “The Silent Towns,” for example, in which the last man on Mars goes in search of the last woman, only to be dismayed to find that she’s dumpy and unattractive. And there’s the unforgivable line about the early days of settlement of Mars: “Everyone knew who the first women would be.” It’s a massive blind spot that reminds me of the androids in Westworld, who can’t see anything that conflicts with their programming. Given the times in which they lived, you could argue that it’s unreasonable to wish that these writers had done better. But these were the men we trusted to tell us about the future. If they can’t be held to the highest possible standard, then who can?

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