Monday, August 8, 2016

Q&A with Lisa Yaszek

Lisa Yaszek is the co-editor, with Patrick B. Sharp, of the new book Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction. Her other books include  Galactic Suburbia and Practicing Science Fiction, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Extrapolation and NWSA Journal. She is a professor and associate chair in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how did you and your co-editor come up with the women to include?

A: I’ve always been interested in science fiction as a global language that allows us to communicate our experiences with science and technology to one another across centuries, continents, and cultures.

This is a particularly interesting and important project for women, since we are often the objects of scientific and technological scrutiny, but not always in control of the stories that scientists and doctors tell about us!

Even today, as women make significant strides elsewhere in culture, we are still underrepresented in most technoscientific fields…. Science fiction is a powerful way for women to participate in widespread cultural debates about the necessary relations of science, technology, and society—and to stake claims for ourselves as citizens of (what I hope will be) a more equitable future for all.

Indeed, I’ve learned over the course of my career that women have always turned to science fiction in about the same numbers (15-45 percent, depending on what you count as a “science fiction publication”).

But until recently, I’ve mostly looked at science fiction as a literary scholar who gets stories, reads them, and then summarizes and analyzes them for others.

A few years ago the editor for my monograph Galactic Suburbia wistfully noted that the stories I write about sound neat, but most of the older ones are impossible to find if you’re not a scholar with university library access because they were originally printed in magazines that are now hard to find.

I got to talking about this with my friend and colleague Patrick Sharp from Cal State Los Angeles, who was looking at representations of women warriors in 20th century fiction and who had come to some similar conclusions. So we decided to pool our resources and put this book together!

From the very beginning of this project we knew that we wanted to showcase science fiction by women that appealed to—or at least provoked responses from—the early 20th century genre community, rather than filtering our selections through our own political or aesthetic filters.

So, we armed ourselves with two amazing resources (the Locus Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Fiction Magazine Index by Stephen T. Miller and William G. Contento and Science Fiction: The Early Years by Everett F. Bleiler) and generated lists of key artists and stories before heading into the two most comprehensive science fiction archives (housed at the University of California Riverside and the University of Liverpool, respectively) to see what we could learn about the women who helped shape science fiction as a popular genre.

As it turns out, we learned a lot! First and foremost, we learned that there are a lot of assumptions about the history of women in science fiction that just aren’t true.

People assume that there weren’t that many women in the early SF community, but as I noted above, it turns out women have always participated in SF in about the same (significant!) percentages.

We also tend to assume that when women did write SF in the early 20th century, they deliberately passed as male to better sell their stories. While we did indeed find plenty of women who had androgynous names or who used their initials, we also realized quickly that was the fashion of the times, and that men did the same thing. 

In fact, early editors were often quite careful to make sure that fans and other authors knew the proper sex of the artists they featured, either by using the appropriate salutation or by including pictures of the artists in question.

Having said that, we did learn about one woman who deliberately and successfully masqueraded as both a man and an indigenous American for two decades, with the help of key editors and authors who were in on the ruse.

But that was the exception rather than the rule, and it turned out to be such a complex, fascinating story that we ended up featuring that particular artist, L. Taylor Hansen, as both a fiction writer and a science journalist!

And that gets me to the last fascinating thing we learned while researching this project—that women did more than help build science fiction by writing fiction.

The science fiction magazine, like all magazines, is very much an ecology whose main subject matter was (and still is) created not just through storytelling, but through all the supplemental features that comprise “the magazine” as a whole—editorials, poetry, science journalism, and artwork.

Indeed, while women made a strong showing as fiction writers, they were truly the key tastemakers in early fantastic poetry and science journalism! And even in areas where they were not as well represented—as in art and editing—they were very much aware of the aesthetic practices that women were developing in other literary fields and dedicated to bringing those practices to bear on their own chosen genre.

In short—as we put it in the introduction—the first women of science fiction really were New Women looking to create new modes of literary and political expression.

Q: In the book’s conclusion, Kathleen Ann Goonan notes that there are many different definitions of science fiction. How would you define it?

A: I think there are as many definitions of SF as there are creators and consumers of the genre! But having said that, in my experience there are a few common characteristics that most artists, fans, and scholars broadly agree upon: SF has to be set in an alternate world, and the difference that makes the difference between the fictional world and our own should make sense (or at least seem plausible) in terms of what we currently know to be scientifically and socially true about our world.

But that is all very cut and dry, and doesn’t really get at what is most important about SF: it provides a sense of wonder about the universe and humanity’s sometimes seemingly marginal place within it—a sense that it’s okay we are not necessarily the center of the universe, because it gives us that much more to explore and learn!

There are, of course, very old and important gothic and horror traditions associated with SF (and that are particularly popular in film and on television), but when you look at SF across all media forms, you realize that it is ultimately an optimistic genre that tells us change is inevitable, and that we can learn from the past and use the tools of the present to build truly new and better futures.

Q: How were women writers treated by the early science fiction writing community, and how did that treatment evolve in more recent decades?

A: It’s interesting—the way the larger science fiction community perceives women’s contributions to the genre change dramatically over time, but the actual treatment of women writers by the SF community is actually quite cyclical.

The first generation of women working for the SF magazines—from the 1920s to World War II—had feminist and other progressive leanings that they sometimes incorporated into their creative output. But for the most part, they saw themselves simply as authors who were, like their male counterparts, engaged in building a new popular genre that introduced laypeople to the possibilities of modern science and technology. 

That generation also recalls being treated very well by their male peers, which makes sense—after all, they were writing in the 1920s and early ‘30s, right on the heels of the progressive era and universal suffrage movement.

Early male SF authors and editors including H.G. Wells and Hugo Gernsback were progressives with close connections to feminists including Margaret Sanger—they saw themselves as all equally engaged in the process of using science and technology to create better, more rational futures.

Sadly, those same women recall a fairly fierce feminist backlash in the SF community of the late 1930s, when a younger generation of seemingly less politically engaged editors took over the genre magazines. These were the same men who created the first anthologies and histories of SF, and there is direct evidence that they consciously wrote women out of that history.

After World War II, a new generation of women writers made names for themselves by writing what I elsewhere call “domestic” or “women’s SF,” using some of the most conservation gender ideals of that period to made radical arguments about women’s work in a technological world.

This marked the first time that women were seen as a distinct political and literary subgroup within SF, and the community was very divided over what it saw as a new subset of science fiction—some fans dismissed women’s SF as “hearththrob and diaper fiction,” while others praised it as the first speculative literature to adequately capture the very real emotions than humans experience when new sciences and technologies change the most intimate details of their lives.

Indeed, John W. Campbell of Astounding Magazine—a man who is often called the father of modern science fiction, and who as a young editor was vehement in his dismissal of women SF authors—was so taken with postwar women’s SF as a mode of scientific and social critique that for a long time it was the only kind of SF he would accept from female authors!

So eventually that became a new challenge for women writers: how do we get outside this new mode of storytelling that we’ve become conflated with?

Of course, SF authors always work in many different styles, so the answer for some was simply to turn to other kinds of SF storytelling, or other kinds of genre fiction.

But for others—especially those who wanted to speculate about the future of the new sex and gender relations they saw emerging in the 1960s and ‘70s—the revival of feminism provided the most inspiration.

This era ushered in a whole new generation of women writers who seized upon the science fiction community’s increasing interest in the soft sciences and social issues to bring feminist themes and literary techniques to their chosen genre.

Such authors have been particularly notable for updating classic female literary types such as “the witch” and “the Amazon warrior” for a technocultural age and by telling stories about [how] groups of women (and sympathetic men, and sympathetic aliens who don’t necessarily fit our gender roles!) might work together to build new and better futures.

It also marked the first time that women writers deliberately named themselves as a distinct group within SF, complete with its own literary canon (readers can check out one of the earliest and still most comprehensive feminist SF checklists here).

These same women also created the first feminist SF conventions (including WisCon, the world’s largest and oldest feminist SF Con); awards (including the Tiptree Award, which is dedicated to SF that encourages “the exploration and expansion of gender"; and publishing venues (including Janus and Aurora, the first feminist SF fanzines, and Aqueduct Press, the leading feminist SF press today).

Most of these events and institutions are still very much alive and well today and, like other forms of Western feminism, feminist SF writers have expanded their mandate to explore sex and gender issues intersectionally, in relation to other issues including race relations, transnational capitalism, and environmentalism—a great example of this is the Carl Brandon Society, which emerged directly from conversations at WisCon about the need to better represent and celebrate race and ethnicity in SF.

And yet, while we can map a clear set of changes in women’s contributions to science fiction over time, we also see that some men still resist the notion that women can and should write SF! This is particularly apparent in the Gamergate and Puppygate scandals of the past several years.

These scandals were provoked by a group of disgruntled (largely white, middle-class, U.S.) males who claim that women are ruining the fun of both online gaming and science fiction for everyone by mixing fantasy and other “soft” literary genres with science fiction and then using the result to explore issues of science, technology, and social justice.

Fortunately, these campaigns have been huge failures: death threats against women game designers were met by Intel with a pledge of $300 million to fund a diversity in technology program.

Meanwhile, attempts to destroy the Hugo Awards (science fiction’s most famous award system) were met with an explosion of new projects (such as Lightspeed Magazine’s “Destroy SF” Special Issue Series, designed to celebrate women and other minorities as part of a long history of authors who have experimented with science fiction in novel ways.

I see Sisters of Tomorrow as very much in line with these new projects—as we demonstrate time and time again throughout the book, women in science fiction, like their male counterparts, were quick to seize upon early 20th century editors’ suggestions that artists might best develop their chosen genre by mixing together the best of all previous popular genres and updating them to speak the hopes and fears of our own technocultural present.

In other words—the very activities that contemporary malcontents attribute to the destruction of science fiction are exactly those activities that both women and men pursued a century ago to build the genre! Hopefully this time our community’s history won’t be lost and we can learn from it to move toward a different future.

Q: What is the legacy today of these early women writers?

A: As they helped shape their chosen genre, the first women of science fiction very much helped shape debates about the relations of science, technology, and gender that are still very much with us today.

For example, many of the authors and poets featured in Sisters of Tomorrow created woks that showed how we experience technoscientific modernity through our engagement with domestic chores and objects, including food preparation, house cleaning, and entertainment technologies.

And even when they did write about the big, sexy, public technologies that so often captured their male counterparts—such as rocket ships and ray guns—they often thought about how those technologies might impact domestic relations as well.

Meanwhile, artists often drew on their training as commercial illustrators to literally insert active, adventurous female figures into the science fiction landscape! In short, these women staked claims for themselves in the future imaginary in ways that continue to resonate with us today in the work of modern feminist science fiction (and modern feminist practice).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on two new editing projects. The first is an anthology that I’m putting together with my colleague Isiah Lavender III from Louisiana State University called “Afrofuturism in Time and Space.”

Afrofuturism is a global, multimedia aesthetic movement in which artists and scholars use the themes and techniques of science fiction to explore the past, present, and future of race relations in a high tech world.

We’re very pleased with the way that project is coming together, and we look forward to putting scholars and artists from both the black studies and science fiction communities in dialog with one another.

I’ve also recently agreed to edit a volume showcasing the best of women’s early science fiction for the Library of America. I’m particularly excited about this project because it will allow me to share the rich history of women’s work in science fiction with a general reading audience that might not know much if anything about the genre!

I’m also the director of SF@Tech, which means I coordinate science fiction events for units across my home institute, Georgia Tech. We have two events planned for this fall that should be great fun for members of both the Georgia Tech and greater Atlanta communities.

On October 8, 2016 we will host the seconds annual Atlanta Sci Fi Film festival in conjunction with the Multicultural Sci Fi Organization. On October 21 and 22, 2016, we will host a symposium on “Astrobiology and the Humanities.”

This second event will put scientists, artists, liberal arts scholars, and interested laypeople together to explore some of the key technological, philosophical, and cultural issues that we might encounter as we learn more about the origins of life here on Earth and on other planets. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes—as Kathy Goonan notes in her concluding essay, science fiction is a big tent that includes many different voices, many different aesthetic traditions, and many different visions of our possible futures. Moreover, science fiction changes dramatically depending on the medium.

And so I would encourage readers who are not already fans of the genre to do some exploring and see what’s out there! If you’re not sure where to begin, check out the Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell awards lists (all available online) to see what science fiction fans, authors, and scholars deem to be the best of the genre.

Readers specifically interested in issues of feminism and race might also want to check out the Tiptree and Carl Brandon Society award lists as well. Hopefully at least some of you will be intrigued enough to join the project of saving the world through science fiction, one story at a time!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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