Learning from the past

PharaohKatt is the convenor of Swancon 2012 and blogs at Something More Than Sides.

Science fiction is not just about looking to the future: it’s also about learning from the past. Even a cursory glance at the past will show you just how much science fiction has changed and grown. What was once thought of as an “old men’s club” is now read by and written for people of all sexes.

But to see how far we’ve come, we must first look to the past.

What is commonly regarded as the Golden Age of Science Fiction, the period from the late 1930s through the 1950s, is filled largely with men’s names; Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke just to name a few. Despite the notable influences of writers such as Mary Shelley and Andre Norton, women were largely excluded from recognition. If this wikipedia list is to be believed, only one of the prominent writers was female.

But it wasn’t to remain that way. The Golden Age passed and gave rise to the new era: New Wave. Even in this brief jump of 10 years, science fiction progressed, and with it so did the number of female writers who were being recognised! Along side names such as Frank Herbert and Roger Zelany sat some very popular women, like Ursula K. le Guin and…. Well, Ursula K. le Guin anyway. That’s certainly something!

Women have also made great strides in recognition when it comes to awards. A great example of this are the Hugo Awards. Take the award for Best Novel, for example. This award was first won by Alfred Bester in 1953. It wasn’t until 1970 when a woman, Ursula le Guin, finally won this award, although women such as Marian Zimmerman Bradley and Andre Norton had received nominations previously. Since 1970 there have been 42 Best Novel Hugos awarded; a huge 14 of those have been awarded to women! If you aren’t so good with maths, that’s a whopping 33%! You could almost say that women have completely taken over the Hugos.

Anthologies, too, have progressed a long way. Take the Mammoth Anthologies, for example. The first Mammoth Book Of… was The Mammoth Book Of Thrillers, Ghosts and Mysteries. Published in 1963, it was an anthology that featured an entirely male cast. It was followed by The Mammoth Book Of Fantastic Science Fiction in 1984, again featuring an all male cast.

But jump ahead to 2009 and just see the progress that has been made! In 2009, Mike Ashley published The Mammoth Book of Mind-Blowing SF. Filled with some of the best and most mind-blowing science fiction in the field, The Mammoth Book Of Mind-Blowing SF published stories by such great female authors as… Um…. Wait, I’m sure I can think of one, just give me a minute.

But never mind! I’m sure I’ve made my point. As is clear from my examples, science fiction has come along way in terms of inclusion of women. Where once women’s work was ignored, belittled and forgotten, nowadays female science fiction writers can expect to be…. Ignored. Belittled. Forgotten.

In addition to the enjoyment we get from looking back at the history of science fiction, it’s important to correct the record so that we remember and celebrate everyone who was there. Helen Merrick’s “The Secret Feminist Cabal” is a great place to start!