The Future is Female! An Interview with Lisa Yaszek

The Future is Female! An Interview with Lisa Yaszek

Lisa Yaszek, a professor of Science Fiction Studies at Georgia Tech, has been studying the role of women in science fiction history for years. This month, the Library of America will publish her most recent project, The Future is Female!, an edited collection of science fiction stories by American women published from the year 1928

Lisa Yaszek, a professor of Science Fiction Studies at Georgia Tech, has been studying the role of women in science fiction history for years. This month, the Library of America will publish her most recent project, The Future is Female!, an edited collection of science fiction stories by American women published from the year 1928 to 1969. Since the stories are broad in their scope and clear in their presentation, this volume will be of use to many professors and students, and of interest to many casual fans of classic science fiction as well.The book cover of the Future is Female! edited by Lisa Yaszek
I am excited about this collection partly because I love seeing the history of the genre in different contexts, but also partly because so many of these expertly curated stories and their authors are new to me. I shared the table of contents for The Future is Female! with the professor in my department who teaches science fiction, and she, too, was excited to see new names and titles there. It can be difficult to track down great stories from genre magazines of past decades since they were assumed to be ephemeral periodicals, read and then discarded. Similarly, it can be hard to find out biographical information about the authors of these stories, since so many used pseudonyms and lived separate, private lives away from their author personas. Therefore, it was pretty great to read not only the stories themselves, gathered and legible, but also the succinct and fascinating author bios included.

Dr. Yaszek kindly answered my many questions about this timely project, explaining both the draw of these particular stories and her own role in shaping the collection that will introduce them to a new reading public.

In your Introduction, you talk about the chronological range of these stories, saying that the collection includes “three generations of American women.” Elsewhere you mention the pulps as a starting point and LeGuin as a culmination. How did you decide the date range for the collection? Why “Pulp” to “LeGuin” specifically?

My editors at the Library of America (LoA) and I wanted to celebrate women’s contributions to science fiction in an era that was crucial to the development of the genre. It’s common to recognize Mary Shelley as a founding figure in science fiction (this year marks the bicentennial of Frankenstein!) and recognize that women have been a major presence in science fiction (comprising about 30% of all SF creators) since the revival of feminism in the 1960s and ’70s. But what about that long stretch between publication of Shelley’s novel in 1818 and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1969 and which is often seen as one of the first works of modern feminist science fiction? This is one of the big questions that has driven my research for the past decade, and in that time I’ve found that women have always been a significant minority in the science fiction community, comprising about 15% of all contributors and 30-40% of all readers prior to the 1970s. This is knowledge that has long been preserved in the science fiction fan community, and in recent decades authors and scholars have begun to share these marvelous authors with readers outside the science fiction community as well. I’m delighted that The Future is Female! can be part of that effort.

We talked for quite a while about the best way to focus this collection and ultimately decided to hone in on the 1920s to 1960s because that’s when science fiction came together as a popular and commercial genre. It was also an ideal date range for an anthology that treats science fiction as part of a larger American literary tradition, because a lot of that foundational activity happened in the U.S. magazine community.

This gave me a wide range of authors and stories to work with, and it enabled me to highlight the unique accomplishments of three generations of women in speculative fiction. Members of the first generation, including Clare Winger Harris, Leslie F. Stone, and C.L. Moore, were pioneers who helped establish the generic grammar of modern science fiction in the pulp magazines of 1920s and ’30s with depictions of complex aliens and human women who are the “sheroes” of their own technoscientific adventures.

Authors who made their names in the second-generation periodicals of 1940s and ’50s, including Judith Merril, Zenna Henderson, and Doris Buck, increased the literary sophistication of science fiction with complex new characters including housewife heroines, lady teachers, and mutant children who have exciting (and sometimes terrifying) adventures that invite readers to consider the impact of science and technology on interpersonal relations and domestic spaces.

The third generation includes Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, and James Tiptree, Jr., all of whom used perspectives drawn from the soft sciences of anthropology, psychology, and sociology to explore modernity’s discontents, including environmental destruction, overpopulation, and the persistence of sexism in so-called democratic societies. While these authors began and often continued their careers in the science fiction genre magazines of the early and mid-twentieth century, their use of avant-garde techniques to explore the necessary relations of science and society enables them to publish in mainstream and literary magazines as well.

In an interview with the Library of America about this project, you say that your goal is to “showcase the aesthetic space where these women experiment with a range of literary techniques to best capture human reactions to scientific and social change.” Once you decided on that date range, and even honed the list of authors you were considering, how did you go about selecting which of their stories to include, often from very prolific writers?

The selection process for The Future is Female! was an iterative one. Initially, the LoA sent me a 50-item list of authors and stories, based on what they found in a first survey of the major science fiction magazines and anthologies of the early and middle twentieth-century. I compared that with the list of female authors that science fiction scholars including myself have been compiling for the last two decades and with the full range of stories for each of those authors, as listed in the Locus Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Fiction Magazine Checklist. And that’s when the next round of really serious reading began!

Two interlocking set of criteria guided the next two rounds of reading. First, I wanted to make sure I represented the very real range of early and mid-twentieth century women’s science fiction. From the very beginning, women wrote stories that grappled with big ideas ranging from theories of evolution and the mechanics of space travel to the perils of nuclear war and the promises of connecting with alien others. They also—and often at the same time—asked readers to think about the necessary relations of science, technology, and gender while putting women at the center of humanity’s many possible futures. And even as they insisted the future was female, they also insisted that that could mean a lot of different things: women could be alien queens, alienated housewives, heroic astronauts, or humble teachers. They could star in interplanetary romances and daycare adventures, and they might act to support the scientific and political status quo, or to create revolutionary new futures.

From the very beginning, women wrote stories that grappled with big ideas ranging from theories of evolution and the mechanics of space travel to the perils of nuclear war and the promises of connecting with alien others. They also—and often at the same time—asked readers to think about the necessary relations of science, technology, and gender while putting women at the center of humanity’s many possible futures.

That allowed me to prune the reading list down to about a hundred good stories. At that point I filtered those stories through a second set of criteria: literary quality. In other words, I wanted to showcase the best of American women’s science fiction not just as a narrative form that invites women to play with big ideas about science and society, but as an aesthetic space where authors experiment with various literary traditions to best capture human reactions to scientific and social change. In the very first issue of Amazing Stories (the first specialist science fiction magazine, founded in 1926), editor Hugo Gernsback encouraged writers to think of science fiction as what we would now call a remix genre; as a story form that strategically invokes and updates the most popular genre fiction of the past century to speak to the hopes and fears of modern technocultural people in an entertaining fashion.

And that is just what women writers have done from the start! Sometimes this has meant slyly revising traditions more closely associated with male authors, as in Leslie F. Stone’s “The Conquest of Gola,” which firmly turns the nineteenth century male fantasy of the beautiful alien monster who gives up her power for a man on its head. Other times this has meant drawing upon women’s literary traditions: for example, the unhappy housewife heroine of Alice Eleanor Jones’ “Created He Them” is a post-apocalyptic rendering of the mater dolorosa who populated women’s World War I poetry: both roam blasted landscapes and mourn the questionable futures of their children. By the 1960s, women had established enough of a presence within the science fiction community that authors of that era could pay homage to their literary predecessors, as Joanna Russ does in “The Barbarian” with Alyx, the scientifically-savvy thief who defends her world from a power-hungry ruler and who, in doing so, updates C.L. Moore’s 1940s warrior queen Jirel of Joiry for readers of the 1960s and ’70s.

How does this collection address intersectionality? On page xvii of your introduction you list “a host of issues, including sexism, racism, environmentalism, colonialism and capitalism”—how are issues of gender, sexuality, race and class linked in these stories?

Given that intersectionality is technically a critical frame first advocated by black feminists in recent decades, and that most of the women in this anthology were white women from the first part of the twentieth-century, I was actually surprised to find as much intersectionality as I did in these stories! Perhaps not surprisingly, women often used the figure of the alien other to explore interlocking systems of oppression. We see this as early as Leslie F. Stone’s 1931 story “The Conquest of Gola,” which uses a brutal (and sometimes brutally funny) interplanetary battle of the sexes to map the connections between gender discrimination and environmental and economic exploitation. (In fact, it’s interesting to note that while Stone specifically connects masculinity to imperialism, she also recognizes that powerful women might well indulge in sex and gender discrimination as well as any man.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, race becomes central to stories published around the same time as the midcentury civil rights movement. For instance, Leigh Brackett’s 1956 “All the Colors of the Rainbow” explicitly links the physical and sexual brutalization of aliens by humans to the history of American race relations. Working from a different perspective, Rosel George Brown uses the human and alien housewives of “Car Pool” (1958) to explore the connections between class and race discrimination, showing how experience of the former can lead to perpetuation of the latter. Finally, stories such as Sonya Dorman’s “When I Was Miss Dow” (1966) seem to return us to themes first introduced a quarter century earlier in “The Conquest of Gola,” relating, as they do, a story about the complex relations of sex, gender, and economic exchange from the perspective of an alien narrator.  Unlike Stone, however, who assumes that certain kinds of oppression will persist, regardless of whether men or women rule, Dorman explores the complex symphony of machination, love, and regret that sentient beings inevitably encounter when they engage each other for the first time.

Some authors also suggest that intersectionality might work in surprising ways. As mentioned above, Stone refuses to oversimplify the necessary relations of gender and economic oppression, showing how sexism might persist even in post-imperial and postcolonial societies. By way of contrast, both Marion Zimmer Bradley and John J. Wells’ “Another Rib” (1966) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Nine Lives” (1969) show how the demands of colonial expansion across the universe might actually open up the possibility of new sex and gender relations. In the former story, an all-male crew of astronauts learn they must embrace both their implicit attraction to one another and the possibility of male pregnancy to ensure the survival of humanity, and in the latter, clones who are sent into space to prepare new planets for humanity freely enjoy each other’s intellectual and sexual company. As such, these stories anticipate arguments made in recent years by John Emilio and other queer studies scholars regarding the historically complex relations between homosexuality and industrial production.

Related to that issue of intersectionality, how do you see the stories in this collection resonating for our current political moment?

I do think there are a number of story groups in The Future is Female! that speak to our hopes and fears about life in our current techocultural moment. One that I find particularly fascinating and timely is the environmental cluster, which includes Clare Winger Harris’s “The Miracle of the Lily”; Carol Emshwiller’s “Pelt”; and James Tiptree Jr’s “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” (Tiptree was the pseudonym of ex-CIA agent and budding psychologist Alice Bradley Shelton). All of these stories suggest that recklessly aggressive technoscientific manipulation of the environment might well end in madness and war between sentient species—a set of concerns that are still very much with us today in N.K. Jemisin three-time Hugo award winning Broken Earth trilogy. I also recommend the media landscape cluster, which includes Kit Reed’s “The New You” and Kate Wilhelm’s “Baby, You Were Great.” Reed’s story a biting indictment of the American beauty industry and Wilhelm provides a terrifying look at how virtual reality might increase the sexual and economic exploitation of women. In terms of both content and style, these stories very much anticipate the kind of media critique associated today with television shows such as Black Mirror and the forthcoming Twilight Zone reboot.

The last dystopian story group I would recommend to readers who want to connect historic science fiction with modern issues is the domestic cluster, which includes tales such as Judith Merril’s “Dead Center,” Alice Eleanor Jones’ “Created He Them,” and Doris Pitkin Buck’s “Birth of a Gardner.” While Jones’s is the most explicitly dystopian of this group, all three stories explore how conservative social relations that exclude women from the public spheres of scientific and political activity inevitably spell disaster for men, women, and children alike. The force of these stories typically comes from well-drawn characters who react in complex and sometimes contradictory ways to the new world order around them. As such, they very much anticipate modern feminist dystopias such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

In short, these women are all heroes, but they are relatable ones—ones we can aspire to be in our own lives. In an era when we are enjoying unprecedented numbers of sheroes across popular culture—think of the female scientists from Arrival, Annihilation and Black Panther, not to mention the intergalactic witches and girl geniuses of A Wrinkle in Time, it’s exciting to see where such representations come from!

Of course, women do more than simply dramatize scientific and social problems. They also seek solutions to these problems, often by casting themselves as the “sheroes” of their own stories! And so the last group of stories I recommend reading together includes C.L. Moore’s “Black God’s Kiss,” Leslie Perri’s “Space Episode,” and Joanna Russ’s “The Barbarian.” These tales all celebrate women’s intellect, physical strength, and, in true heroic manner, strong sense of social justice. But they also refuse to let their sheroes become unreachable stereotypes: Moore’s Jirel is prideful and short-sighted; Perri’s Lita experiences profound anger and disappointment when she realizes that nobody else in her all-male crew will help her save the day; and Russ’s Alyx is a thief who happily aids an evil wizard with his work until it no longer suits her to do so. In short, these women are all heroes, but they are relatable ones—ones we can aspire to be in our own lives. In an era when we are enjoying unprecedented numbers of sheroes across popular culture—think of the female scientists from Arrival, Annihilation, and Black Panther, not to mention the intergalactic witches and girl geniuses of A Wrinkle in Time, it’s exciting to see where such representations come from! They are not just the products of a mostly male- and white- dominated Hollywood but indebted to a century of women’s imaginative activity. (Indeed, I’d argue that we’re starting to see that recognition with the film version of A Wrinkle in Time, which was written by Madeline L’Engel in 1962 and then brought to the silver screen by screenwriter Jennifer Lee and director Ava du Vernay.)

And finally, a question I ask in all interviews: is there something you think interviewers should ask but they never do?

Yes, I wish more interviewers would ask about the processes of collaboration that are necessary to produce anthologies like these! In my experience, even the strongest, best-informed editorial vision means nothing without the networks of people who support and enact that vision. In this case, I could not have developed the selection criteria or frame for this book without my marvelous Library of America editor, Matt Parr, who always conveyed the practices and goals of his organization in the most diplomatic and useful of manners, or without the many other LoA staff members who read and ranked stories long past their bedtimes. It was exciting and touching to realize this was as much a labor of love for them as it was for me.

I’m even more profoundly indebted to the small army of student researchers who contributed to this project! Our student team included Yara Bauer, Miranda Fyfe, and Cody Trawick from Georgia Tech, Mabel Taylor from Barnard College, and Caroline Fernelius from Duke University. These students were instrumental in researching and developing the author biographies included in The Future is Female! and on the companion webpage. My favorite student discovery was that Alice Eleanor Jones’ used the check she got from “Created He Them” (a horrifying post-apocalyptic story about a desperately unhappy housewife heroine) to buy a fancy red dress that was way beyond her usual paygrade as the wife of an English professor. It’s that kind of detail that really brings these authors to life.

While it is standard to wrap up interviews with my own conclusion, in this case I’d like to offer Dr. Yaszek the final word, since she so clearly articulates her goal with this project:

What is particularly exciting about the focus of this anthology is that while certain aspects of each generation’s writing might feel alien to modern readers—be it the enthusiastic but sometimes awkward prose style of first-generation authors, the seeming cold-war conservativism of second-generation authors, or the incredibly tentative explorations of nontraditional sexuality that characterizes third-generation women’s SF—many others continue to speak to us. We still struggle with our conflicted relations to the Earth and its diverse inhabitants; our hopes and fears regarding the alien other; and our dreams and nightmares regarding women’s roles and women’s work. The Future is Female! shows us that women have always looked to science fiction as a kind of virtual laboratory in which to work out these feelings—all in the form of what one of my friends calls a “rippin’ good read.”

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