Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Astounding Stories #20: “Unwillingly to School”

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Note: With less than half a year to go until the publication of Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’m returning, after a long hiatus, to the series in which I highlight works of science fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

In its broad outlines, “Unwillingly to School” looks pretty much like the kind of novella that you’d expect to find in the January 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, with a premise straight out of a Heinlein juvenile. Its narrator is a stubborn teenager working on a small family farm in a mining colony around the star Excenus. Through a series of unlikely developments, the protagonist goes reluctantly to college on earth, displays a few surprising talents, and ends up studying Cultural Engineering, which is the science of intervening discreetly in the development of immature civilizations—all of which is very Campbellian. The difference is that the main character is a nineteen-year-old girl named Lysistrata “Lizzie” Lee, and she speaks in the first person with the kind of distinct, funny voice that rarely made it into the magazine. For instance, here’s a description of visitors to the farm: “Peoples’ wives from Town come out to board some times, Dad lets them because he thinks they will Mother me. Well mostly I manage to steer them off and no hard feelings, it is my home after all they got to be reasonable about it if they want to stay.” And a little later, when Lizzie still thinks that the plan to send her off to college is part of a convoluted trick to get her out of a jam:

We are to go shopping buying some clothes for me to wear on Earth, it seems to me this is carrying realism too far but I do not want any more time in the hotel with nothing to do…M’Clare is all the time trying to get me to talk, he says for instance Have I ever thought about going to College? I say Sure, I count my blessings now and then.

It’s a tightly imagined, utterly engaging story, and John W. Campbell loved it. In his acceptance letter to the author, Pauline Ashwell, who had originally submitted the story under the pseudonym “Paul Ash,” the editor wrote enthusiastically:

I’m taking “Unwillingly to School”; it’s completely delightful and completely unique. On this one, I really feel you should use your own feminine name; only a woman could have achieved that precise presentation of a girl’s enthusiastic, bubbling-with-life, confused, yet strongly directed thinking…I hope you’ll be able to make the London Science Fiction Convention this September; I’ll be there, and I’d enjoy meeting you.

And in the announcement of the contents of the upcoming issue, Campbell described the novella in terms that would have struck longtime readers as unusually glowing:

The lead novelette will be “Unwillingly to School,” by Pauline Ashwell. She is genuinely, no-kidding, a new author, not an old one in a new disguise. There has never been a science-fiction story like this before; I am hopefully praying, however, that Miss Ashwell can repeat and extend the adventures of Lizzie Lee, who must be read to be believed. Lizzie is a teenage girl that I am extremely glad I never met, and delighted to have read about; she’s a menace, and in the course of “Unwillingly to School” she breaks every rule of English grammar, punctuation, and composition I ever heard about, and I think invents a few in order to rebel against them, too. Lizzie is this year’s Christmas present to the readers, from Astounding Science Fiction.

In the end, the response from readers was underwhelming. “Unwillingly to School” ranked third in the monthly Analytical Laboratory poll, behind “All the King’s Horses” by Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett, a story that was much more typical of what Campbell was publishing in the late fifties. (Both Ashwell and her story did receive Hugo nominations the following year, which wouldn’t be the last time that the tastes of the readers diverged from those of the major awards.) Almost two years later, there was a sequel, “The Lost Kafoozalum,” a likable story that gave up much of Lizzie’s voice—it was basically a Competent Man story with a female lead, which shouldn’t understate how unusual this was. It also ranked third. And on March 25, 1962, Campbell felt obliged to write to Robert A. Heinlein in his rejection of the story that became Podkayne of Mars:

The last yarn we ran which had a teenage girl as the central character was “Unwillingly To School”; it was written by an expert on teenage girls (she had been one; she taught at a girl’s school; she was a biologist-anthropologist—and she could write and had a magnificent sense of humor). It didn’t go over so hot—our readers appear to be less than enthusiastic about the peculiarities of teenage girl’s thinking. That seems to be a reasonable attitude; teenage girls don’t like teenage girls’ thinking either—including their own. They’re inherently frustrated, squeezed thereby into an inferiority complex type of apparent self-satisfaction, are immensely erratic, and utterly undependable.

It’s a shame, because Lizzie was, frankly, a more interesting character than Poddy, and while Ashwell later wrote two more installments in the series in the eighties, which I haven’t read, it would have been nice to see more of her in the sixties.

And the episode gets at something important about Campbell. As an editor, he never had much of an interest in diversifying his writers or characters, at least when it came to race, but he would have been happy to have had more women. His readers, who were overwhelmingly male, weren’t particularly interested, and when such efforts as “Unwillingly to School” failed to make an impression, he dropped it. On some level, this reflects the role that he claimed to see for himself, writing decades earlier: “A magazine is not an autocracy, as readers tend to believe, ruled arbitrarily by an editor’s opinions. It is a democracy by readers’ votes, the editor serving as election board official. The authors are the candidates, their style and stories the platform.” And there’s no question that he listened seriously to feedback from his readers as a whole. On another level, though, it only tells us which battles he was willing to fight. Campbell was more than glad to take on issues that he thought were important, like psionics, and persistently force them onto his audience in the absence of any conceivable demand. He could have chosen to invest the same energy into issues of representation, which could only have elevated the quality of the fiction that he was publishing, but when the readers pushed back, he didn’t press it. That’s more revealing than anything else, and it represents a real loss. Campbell published important work by such authors as Leigh Brackett, Catherine L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Anne McCaffrey, but the magazine mostly lacked straightforward stories like “The Lost Kafoozalum,” in which women appeared without comment as the heroes of the stock gadget and engineering stories that filled the pages of Astounding and Analog. As a result, the migration of women into hard science fiction never really took place, at least not under Campbell’s watch. He wanted it to happen. But not quite badly enough.

5 Responses

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  1. I guess my only question here is whether the men would have ranked the story so poorly, had they believed it was written by a man. Consciously, of course they’ll say ‘no’. Subconsciously, current studies suggest that very well may have been the case.

    Morgan Hazelwood

    March 20, 2018 at 10:48 am

  2. @Morgan Hazelwood: I think you’re probably right!


    March 21, 2018 at 3:32 pm

  3. I’m pretty sure that I read this story once upon a time – it was memorable for having a different feel than most.

    In addition to Podkayne, Heinlein wrote the very nice novella The Menace From Earth. My pick for using female protagonists however would be James H. Schmitz, even over most female authors of the time. My favorite of his novels, The Demon Breed (1968), was serialized in Analog as “The Tuvela”. It’s practically begging to be turned into a big budget blockbuster movie. I’m often frustrated that Hollywood keeps churning out “what is reality?” Dick adaptations while leaving treasures like this untouched (Philip K. Dick was not a Big Name until Blade Runner made him one).

    Schmitz’s story features Nile Etland, a young woman at an isolated off-Earth research facility who thwarts an alien invasion almost singlehandedly, mostly through quick thinking and knowledge of the local environment. She’s both competent and courageous, but gets some crucial help from a bunch of genetically engineered otters and a couple of mostly offstage male characters. At no time does she come across as a male action hero in drag. Although she’s no superhero, the aliens perceive her as exactly that. The book’s a real page turner.

    Since you bring it up, the progressive ideal in those decades, particularly as regards race, was equality via assimilation into mainline culture, not “diversity” or “representation”. This wasn’t about mindless conformity – cultural diversity was respected and also valued as a “spice”, just not as the main component of a society. Considering the present state of affairs, I think it has yet to be proven that this was a mistaken ideal.

  4. The complete Lizzie Lee epic of 4 stories was published by Tor as UNWILLINGLY TO EARTH (1992). The stories are: “Unwillingly to School”, “Rats in the Moon”, “Fatal Statistics”, and “The Lost Kafoozalem.” That of course isn’t the order in which they were published; “Rats” appeared in Analog in the 70s, when edited by Ben Bova. The first and last stories in the book are the strongest. Ashwell published at least one story in Campbell’s Analog as by “Paul Ash;” possibly more than one, but after 50 years my memory can’t be trusted. A pity the readers didn’t respond better to such a striking writer. I suspect Campbell gets a lot of blame for Astounding/Analog that should be laid on the readers.

    Rob Chilson

    July 26, 2019 at 11:50 am

  5. Since the above I’ve read the Wikipedia entry on Pauline Ashwell. Quoting Wiki, “Her 1966 story, The Wings of a Bat under the name Paul Ash, appeared as a nominee on the first ballot of the Nebula Award for Best Novelette.[5] Other than Rats in the Moon in the November 1982 issue of Analog, she published nothing between 1966 and 1988.” Sorry, my error! “Wings of a Bat” isn’t the story I remember, though I remember it; I’d forgotten it was by “Ash”.

    Rob Chilson

    July 26, 2019 at 2:40 pm

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