Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965
by Eric Leif Davin
Review by Ernest Lilley
Lexington Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0739112678
Date: 28 December, 2005 List Price $28.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
I had just gotten back from an excellent talk on "Feminism and Science Fiction" by Nancy Jane Moore over at the Library of Congress when I picked up my review copy of Partners in Wonder off the front stoop. It must be my day for women in Science Fiction I mused...and it turned out to be not just my day, but a great day for them. Partners in Wonder explores a premise that I've long held, that contrary to feminist thought from the 60s to the 80s, and lingering on today, that though SF certainly had it's boorish male authors and perhaps editors, by and large it's been very receptive to female authors since Mary Shelly cranked up the voltage to release her novel Frankenstein on an unwary public.
Chapter by chapter he explodes the myth of the missing woman in SF from the mid-twenties to the mid-sixties, chronicling "203 female authors, under their own female names, (who) published over a thousand stories in science fiction magazines between 1926 and 1965." I'm not sure whether he ever gets around to pointing out that this is an order of magnitude less than the stories published by male authors, but considering the period in question, this strikes me as a significant body of work, and a contribution that has been under-rated during my reading lifetime, which coincidentally started just about when this book stops.
There are a number of men in this history that earned SF its bad reputation, and this book offers them no quarter. Asimov in particular comes off badly as author, editor and person, with recollections of his rants against romance in SF, crude behavior towards women, and his efforts to rewrite the history of SF's golden age.There are women in this story as well, and the author puts forth the notion that given the willingness of editors like Joesph Campbell to accept stories from them that stories about having to change their names to sell to the young male audience mask other issues that the authors may have had, including a desire to sell to new markets without their previous work impeding them.
In his chapter "Women Without Names" I was delighted to learn that "Doc" Smith had collaborated (and credited) a "Mrs. Lee Garby" on the Skylark novels, as he did not feel comfortable enough handling the romantic aspects of the story on his own. Nobody, writes the author, seemed to be trying to hide Ms. Garby's gender or marital status from the public. I wondered what happened to the legendary Alice Sheldon, who wrote as James Tiptree (for which the Tiptree Award at Readercon for gender bending SF is named) until I discovered in the "Anecdotes and Antidotes" chapter that she didn't enter the field until 1968, just after the book's span, though the author includes her for which I'm grateful. He also examines the claim by authors like Andre Norton that they had to change their names in order to get published, but he points out that she did so not to write SF, but boy's adventure stories, which she did for a number of year's before her first SF (Star Man's Son).
Although its a solidly written and researched academic text, there's fascinating stuff throughout...right down to the footnotes, many of which recount downright amusing incidents.
Besides redressing a misogynist myth, Davin has another agenda, to resurrect a forgotten body of work, and one that offered compelling viewpoints and reflected on a period of great social upheaval. The author points out that the repression of these writings is not just a loss to Science Fiction but to our society as a whole. In particular he cites the socialist and feminist utopias that appeared in the "pulps" between 1920 and 1950, and are largely lost or forgotten. It was in SF, and only there, that such speculation found a haven while the rest of literature appears to have thrown aside progressive and gender revolutions for the safe sound of capitalistic coin. Only in the fanciful flights of SF was it safe enough to even whisper that the future need not look like the past.
This is not a balanced book. The author has an axe to grind and is putting blade to stone with a vengeance. It happens to be an axe that I've long felt needed sharpening though, and I'm happy to see him taking it on, especially in such a substantial work. Does it need counterpoint? Certainly, though no shortage of that already exists. Does it exonerate the actions of anyone who marginalizes women (or any group) and their contribution to or welcomeness in the field? Heck no. What it does do is redress the general impression that SF was a boys only club, when quite the opposite may well have been the case.
In a literature written by and read by people who always felt themselves to be outsiders, I've always found it unlikely that anyone who wanted to write was denied access. Call me naive, I'm used to it, but it's not consistent with the viewpoints of SF readers, authors, or perhaps most importantly, characters, at least as I know them. If you're looking for facts to back this up, you need look no further than Partners In Wonder.