A curate’s egg

Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1965 — Eric Leif Davin

Partners-in-Wonder

Gary Farber occasionally cites 2006’s Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1965, a text by Eric Leif Davin on the history of women in science fiction. This is a topic that interests me, but I’d never gotten around to tracking down a copy of the book. Then one of the Sadly Rabid Puppy fans, cited it favourably in File770’s comment threads on the current unpleasantness. That made me go “hmmm” while stroking my beard in a way that I hope makes me look thoughtful and not as though I have a flea infestation. It occurred to me that my collection of library cards includes one for the local academic libraries and that this is exactly the sort of book on SF such libraries might have.

What I found was a curate’s egg, a text ranging from useful to dire and often genuinely interesting—as long as you ignore the loud sound of ax-grinding in the background.

A warning: I treat non-fiction as a collection of linked essays. This is one of my longer reviews.


Acknowledgments

As I read this, I found myself thinking of Patterson’s two-part biography of Robert Heinlein, the first part of which was released to great acclaim on tor.com and the second part of which was simply … released. The degree to which Partners in Wonder is superior to the Patterson can perhaps be credited to certain attitudes revealed in the acknowledgment sections of both books. Patterson is openly resentful of the efforts of his editor, David G. Hartwell, to prune his excesses; Davin makes a point of thanking everyone who helped him (including various fact checkers). Davin is particularly grateful to his copyeditor, A. Langley Searles, for showing the author “how to look at my writing for useless verbiage.”

Introduction: science fiction and the contested terrain of popular culture

Davin takes exception to the narrative that women only appeared in SF in significant numbers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which he sees as crucial to the claim that throughout much of its history, SF culture has been unwelcoming to outsider groups. He believes that, on the contrary, science fiction culture between 1926 and 1965 was “more liberal, tolerant and progressive” than is commonly portrayed and that a study of women in SF prior to 1965 will support that.

Davin goes on at some length about the limits of academic and in particular feminist academic analysis of science fiction.

 Comments

Davin is taking exception to an extreme form of the thesis he opposes, that is, that women have historically been marginalized in SF culture. I couldn’t help but notice that whereas he quotes the most strident section of Shawna McCarthy’s 1983 discussion of women in SF (which appeared as an editor’s note in Isaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own and is not so far as I know linkable], he relegates her later admission that she was overstating the case to his endnotes. It’s much easier to disprove a thesis if you tackle the most extreme possible version of it. I will be returning to this point in my general comments.

I also noticed, very early in my plod through this book, that Davin made assertions that seemed odd enough that I was moved to dive into Google to doublecheck them. Alas, online sources often proved insufficient and the academic libraries in KW are at the other end of town.

For example, to show that male SF writers welcomed women, he mentions that “in the summer of 1959, the novice Kate Wilhelm was invited to attend the prestigious Milford Conference for professional science fiction writers.” Now, my memory, which is so reliable I have devised a ritual to ensure I am wearing pants before I go outdoors, was that while Damon Knight founded Milford, Wilhelm was an important player in it early on (and a co-founder of Clarion). What I discovered by searching online is that even the Milford’s own website documents the early years poorly. Since “in the summer of 1959, the novice Kate Wilhelm was invited to play an influential role in the etc.” would still support the case that at least some men—one man, Damon Knight—was open to the idea of some women—one woman, Kate Wilhelm—attending, exactly what Wilhelm’s role might have been isn’t crucial, but … it’s still annoying not to have the information handy.

What would be more useful for Davin’s purpose would to be to show that Wilhelm wasn’t an exceptional case [1] as far as the early Milford conferences were concerned, perhaps by providing a list of attendees; there is a big difference, I think, between “a number of women were invited to the early Milfords” and “Kate Wilhelm was the lone woman invited to the early Milfords.” I am not sure that this information is documented; someone might want to interview Kate Wilhelm.

Part One: Presumption of Prejudice: Science Fiction’s Contested Terrain 1926–1949

The genesis of the mythology

Davin explores the reasons why people believe pre-Disco SF was hostile to women and minorities. After providing several examples of people asserting just that, Davin then complains that SF circles accepted those claims uncritically.

Davin then launches into a long discussion of the treatment of women in Western society in general, leading up to a suggestion that the absence of women in SF could be explained by general social trends, not trends peculiar to SF. For example, if society in general discouraged women from taking an interest in science and science fiction was seen as science-y (not his term), then one doesn’t need to hypothesize gatekeepers within SF who were blocking women from publishing.

 Comments

The late Thomas Disch’s The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of is one of the sources about which Davin grumbles. I own the Disch volume and I must admit that Disch’s text is one whose absence would enrich any library.

Davin attempts to ground generalizing pronouncements in fact. Can claims of an absence of women can be verified—or not? A lot of what is to follow in this review is going to sound rather critical of his work, so I would like to say up front that “actually checking one’s facts” is a very useful process. I am not entirely convinced by several of Davin’s theses, but I would love to have access to his raw data.

There are people whom he quite rightly takes to task: Fred Pohl, for example, made a rather foolish statement that erased the work of two of his wives from history. Davin’s discussion of Isaac Asimov proves the old adage “No matter how awful a person you think Isaac Asimov was at cons, the reality always manages to be worse.” But there’s a pattern here: the people whose foolishness and bad behavior he highlights are people seen as liberals. When a particular conservative editor is discussed, he is handled with kid gloves.

Present at the creation

Davin provides evidence that women were writing SF right from the start.

 Comments

In his introduction, Davin says “I am discussing only women who published in the science fiction magazines.” He also seems to accept Asimov’s claim that SF began in 1926. It is somewhat odd, therefore, that in this chapter he spends a certain amount of time talking about women writers of the 19th and early 20th century. I am not the sort of OCD sufferer who spends an entire party trying to ensure that the three pens on the drinks table remain parallel (though I did spend some time complaining that the list of people who pre-bought soft drinks was sorted chronologically by sale and not alphabetically) … but from time to time this book struck me as inconsistent, generally in ways that supported his thesis.

Weird sisters

Davin carries out what I assume was a time consuming and expensive task of actually physically checking old magazines like Weird Tales to see if in fact women are absent. They are not. That said, while women wrote a large fraction (perhaps 40%) of the poems, only 17% of the prose fiction is by women.

 Comments

I myself am a fan of bean counting, but I must admit I rely too much on online sources. There is no replacement for actually finding a copy and cracking it open to see what is inside.

Female fandom

Starting with a survey of letter columns, Davin explores the role of women in early fandom. He castigates various people for understating the role of women in fandom, and suggests that at least in some cases the deviation from veracity is self-serving mythologizing.

Women without names

Were women forced to adopt gender concealing pennames? Davin does not think the evidence supports this. The examples he does acknowledge are deemed peripheral. Davin also points out that various men used female pennames, an odd choice if having a woman’s name was a sale-killer.

 Comments

Bear in mind that while C. J. Cherryh began publishing after the period Davin is exploring, her publisher, Donald Wollheim, was a product of that period. The fact that Wollheim insisted that Cherryh adopt a gender-neutral pen name, as he did to Brenda Clough (published as B. W. Clough) is at least suggestive.

This seems like a good time to mention that I thought I was the only one who remembered Bainbridge’s forays into SF criticism. Davin remembers.

The usual suspects

Davin looks at the role of women as writers and editors within SF. He takes a close critical look at women’s claims that they were subjected to various forms of prejudice.

 Comments

One of the unstated goals in this book (or perhaps one subsumed within the greater goal of showing that science fiction culture between 1926 and1965 was “more liberal, tolerant and progressive” than is commonly portrayed) is to rehabilitate John W. Campbell’s reputation. If I wanted to show that science fiction culture between 1926 and1965 was “more liberal, tolerant and progressive” than is commonly portrayed, John W. Campbell would not feature highly in my narrative.

People unfamiliar with Campbell but familiar with Heinlein may wish to think about the implications that Heinlein’s Yellow Menace adventure Sixth Column is a rewrite of Campbell’s “All,” which Heinlein reportedly “had to reslant [to] remove racist aspects of the original story line.”

Anecdotes and antidotes

Davin acknowledges that women authors from Norton to Tiptree believed that there was a prejudice against women in their chosen field. He then asserts that these women were misinformed about the field of which they were a part.

 Comments

In order to support his thesis, Davin must show that women who claimed to have encountered prejudice were wrong, no matter how strong their assertions. In effect, Davin doesn’t value the testimony of the women who lived through the period in question. He doesn’t seem to value any testimony against his thesis that cannot be supported with numerical data. IMHO, he devotes more effort to disproving claims that contradict his thesis than he does to taking a close look at claims that support it.

Haven in a heartless world

Davin takes a look at anti-semitism in the science fiction community, which—and I am certain you are all as astounded as I am at this development—brings us back to John W. Campbell, Jr. Notable figures in the SF community have denounced Campbell as a racist and Davin feels that this is unfair. Consider Campbell’s assertion that Jews are homo superior (page 183, if anyone wants to check): how can this possibly be considered anti-semitic? asks Davin. Davin’s examination of anti-semitism in the arts worlds is just as impressive as his study of Campbell in this matter.

 Comments

Again, getting back to the whole “three pens in parallel on a table,” if the title of this book had been Partners in Wonder: Women, Jews, and Minorities and the Birth of Science Fiction, Which Was Totally More Liberal, Tolerant and Progressive Than is Commonly Portrayed, the inclusion of this chapter and the next one wouldn’t bother me so much. It’s not that the subjects involved aren’t interesting or that racism and religious prejudice don’t overlap with institutional misogyny, but in this specific book, arranged and presented as it is, this chapter and the next seem out of place.

Also, it’s possible there may be a Jew or two out there who doesn’t find arguments of the form ‘I was calling you an Ubermensch, not an untermensch! Ubermensch!’ as convincing a proof of the absence of anti-semitism as Davin thinks.

Ebony and ivory

Building on the previous chapter, Davin looks at racism in the science fiction world, with a particular focus on blacks in science fiction, from characters to creators. He believes it is “clear that there was an open door in science fiction for this particular (black) outsider group.”

Delany’s comments about Campbell are drawn from this essay. Inexplicably (because it would have given Davin a chance to poke at Asimov again) he doesn’t discuss the part of the essay where Delany relays Asimov’s comment to SRD about his Nebula Award:

“You know, Chip, we only voted you those awards because you’re Negro … !”

 Comments

And here we return to John W. Campbell, whom Davin feels has been unjustly treated. I am impressed by the diligence with which Davin discounts the claims of figures like Delany. I am also intrigued to find that so few African Americans made it into fandom or pro-dom, given that they were apparently buying SF magazines in fair numbers judging by the neighborhoods in which magazine were being sold.

I am a bit disappointed H. Beam Piper’s diverse casts didn’t rate a mention in this chapter.

Devin reminds me of something I meant to address in my review of Starship Troopers. He says:

For example, in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, about midway in the 1959 novel, the hero looks into a mirror and his black face looks back at him.

I have seen other people reference this scene, but, to my great frustration, have never been able to locate it myself. When I reread the novel in the fall, the text suggested that Rico was Filipino. It would have been out of character for Heinlein at this stage in his career to state outright that a protagionist wasn’t a WASP, rather than relying on hints that keen-eyed readers could catch and racist dullards could overlook. Could someone do me the great favour of giving a page number in a particular edition so I can hunt it down?

To be blunt, I don’t think that scene exists. In fact, I believe the belief it did exist began when Samuel R. Delany misremembered details of the novel [see footnote 6].

The importance of the detail is that Davin accepts SRD’s account (either directly or through an intermediary source) when it confirms his beliefs about SF, in contrast to how claims that contradict Davin’s thesis are treated.

Femalien empathy

Davin begins by acknowledging that Pamela Sargent isn’t entirely without some knowledge of women in SF prior to the modern era, although this is only a springboard from which he can leap to castigate Lisa Tuttle for holes in her knowledge about the history of women in science fiction. He then launches into an attempt to identify various strengths common to many, if not all, women writers of the early years.

Feminist futures

After discussing various noteworthy examples of feminist visions, Devin wonders why it is that, given women were demonstrably active in early SF, this fact seems to be forgotten. He argues that anthologists like Conklin and Haining appear to have played a role in this great forgetting by omitting works by women from their anthologies.

 Comments

Anyone know if Conklin left any letters that might help explain why it was his books were so heavily dominated by men?

History and mythistory

To a large degree, this is a summary of section one: what Devin asserts that others claim, what he claims, and why he’s right.

Part Two: The Crest of the First Wave: Science Fiction’s Female Counter Culture 1950-1960

Ecce femina

An overview of women active in pulp-era SF, combined with a defense of the quality of their work.

 Comments

Quite often Devin will stick to absolute numbers, but when he does mention percentages, they tend to be comparatively low [2]. Only about one in ten of the stories in Galaxy were by women, for example.

I must point out again that Devin seems to invest a lot more effort into disproving claims that, if true, would undermine his thesis, than he appears to invest in double-checking assertions favourable to his thesis.

Alone against tomorrow

Devin looks at US culture in the post war era. SF written by men seems to be rather socially conservative.

Across the great divide

Devin sees a tendency for women active in SF to be less imaginatively constrained than their male counter parts, at least where social convention is concerned. He does admit that no sharp line can be drawn between male and female imaginations. Devin helpfully points to various intrinsic differences between men and women to explain why women’s SF and men’s SF might tend to diverge. [Editor’s note: WTF?!]

 Comments

I believe this is the first time I have ever seen an SF critic reference Dr. Baron-Cohen.

A counter-culture of tending and befriending

Devin characterizes the specific features of women’s SF published in the 1950s before finishing with a vigourous fist-shaking at 1970s feminists.

 Comments

I may be reading too much into the text, but this is the tone I imagine every time the subject of 1970s-era feminists comes up in this book. 1970s-era feminism comes across in this as rather monolithic.

Part Three: Hidden from History: The Ebbing of First Wave Women’s Science Fiction, 1961-9165

Into time’s abyss

Devin discusses how various vast systemic transformations in the SF field, in particular the collapse of the magazines followed by the transition to novels, helped erase the knowledge that women had been active in the field.

 Comments

Of course, we saw something similar in the 1980s and that wasn’t caused by an industry collapse, but by people who benefited from erasing vast swathes of genre history.

The persistence of myth

A short chapter arguing that people who don’t find Devin’s arguments persuasive are illogical and irrational.

Appendix I. Bibliography of women science fiction writers, 1926-1965

Exactly what it sounds like. Lengthy, impressive and potentially useful.

Appendix II. The women that time forgot, 1926-1960.

Brief biographies of 133 women active in SF, 1926-1960. Also potentially useful.

Some online resources

Time is cruel to online resources. I didn’t check to see how many of these are dead links.

Index

There is one. This should not be notable. It is. All of you non-fiction writers who didn’t include indexes? I am looking at you with the expression of a man who has just noticed that his pens are no longer parallel.

General comments

I don’t begrudge the time I spent reading this. There’s certainly information in the two appendixes that I would use if I owned this rather than having checked it out of the library. As for his goal of demonstrating that women were indeed writing science fiction back to 1926 and earlier, I would say that Davin succeeded.

Otherwise Davin falls a bit short. On occasion, the goal posts for this book appear to migrate (this is about a specific period except when it suits Davin to talk about other periods; it is about women in SF except when it’s not) and I am not keen on his frequent use of absolute numbers when percentages would be more illuminating.

Davin’s attempt to rehabilitate John W. Campbell by proving that he was not a racist—John W. Campbell, a man who once said

The Caucasian race has produced super-high-geniuses by the dozen in the last five thousand years; the Oriental race has, also. The Negro race has not.

is utterly bizarre.

For someone critical of extreme claims about the historical absence of women in the field, Davin is surprisingly comfortable with statements like:

“Second, women continue to be a comparable minority in the field currently—and yet there are no claims that the field is currently biased against women.”

All it takes is one roughly contemporary claim that the field is biased against women to falsify that statement. If the only thing of Davin’s I had read were that statement, I would conclude that his view of the genre is not only skewed, but blinkered.

If Davin had stuck to data collecting and left the theorizing to someone less steadfastly ideological, we would have a useful book. Instead, we have a text that appears to be what someone else once called slansplaining, a misguided attempt to paint SFdom better than it actually was. Or, as the recent unpleasantness with the Hugos shows, is.

1: Someone may pop up to point out that Knight and Wilhelm were married, but that wasn’t until 1963, well after 1959. From 1947 to 1962, Kate Wilhelm was married to Joseph Wilhelm.

2: Well, unless compared to the number of African Americans active in professional SF 1926–1960, in which case the numbers are huge.


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