Spectacular Designs

By Robert KilpatrickJanuary 9, 2016

The Feminine Future by Mike Ashley

THE CENTURY-AND-A-HALF between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) can seem like a period bereft of female science fiction writers. The authors that we typically recognize as central to the development of the genre after Shelley are male: Edgar Allan Poe first; then Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; and then Edgar Rice Burroughs, Hugo Gernsback, and John W. Campbell, Jr., who were major figures of the pulp magazine era of the 1920s and ’30s; and finally midcentury writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick, as well as the decidedly masculine Robert Heinlein and Harlan Ellison. It is only during the 1960s and ’70s, in this view, that female writers begin to participate in the genre in earnest, with the rise to prominence of Le Guin, Alice B. Sheldon (who published under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr.), Anne McCaffrey, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, and Octavia E. Butler. Accordingly, the female sci-fi writer looks like a recent phenomenon.

This gloss of the genre’s history omits a lot, not the least of which is the contribution made to sci-fi by female writers of the 19th and early-20th centuries. Works such as Mary Griffith’s “Three Hundred Years Hence” (1836), Mary E. Bradley Lane’s Mizora (1880-1881), Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett’s New Amazonia (1889), and Anna Adolph’s Arqtiq (1899) may be largely forgotten now, but in their time they represented provocative instances of sci-fi’s utopian strain. Equally, as Eric Leif Davin has shown in Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965 (2006), a large number of women were published in the magazines of the pulp era, most notably Francis Stevens, Clare Winger Harris, C.L. Moore, and Leigh Brackett. Yet Brackett, probably the best known of the four today, is primarily remembered for her career as a screenwriter (she worked with William Faulkner on Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep [1946] and penned an early draft of The Empire Strikes Back [1980]). Of all the works of sci-fi written by women in this period, perhaps only Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) remains widely known and read — and I doubt that many would classify Gilman as a sci-fi author. Instead, female sci-fi writers between Shelley and Le Guin have been given short shrift, overlooked, and under-recognized for their role in the genre’s development.

The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers (2015), a collection of turn-of-the-century short stories edited by Mike Ashley, aims to redress this sizeable gap in the commonsense history of sci-fi. Composed of 14 stories published between 1873 and 1930, the collection brings together a group of underappreciated female writers whose work, in Ashley’s view, “help[ed] develop many of the basic ideas of science fiction.” Some of the collection’s writers might be familiar to sci-fi fans, particularly the aforementioned Francis Stevens and Clare Winger Harris, and some might be recognizable for their other work (e.g., Edith Nesbit, a founder of the Fabian Society and the author of the popular children’s book The Railway Children [1906], or the noted American suffragist and novelist Lillie Devereux Blake). But I suspect that most readers will not recognize any of the authors in The Feminine Future, and I doubt that even those who consider themselves devotees of the genre will have heard of, let alone have read, Florence McLandburgh, M.F. Rupert, or Mabel Ernestine Abbott. As such, Ashley has selected a group of authors who are due credit for their forgotten roles in sci-fi’s early history.

In addition to drawing attention to these overlooked female sci-fi authors, The Feminine Future is valuable for the perspective it provides on a period of transition for the genre. In the first place, the collection expands our sense of sci-fi’s themes and concerns in this era. Typically, the turn of the century is dominated by a handful of figures and works, particularly Verne’s and Wells’s large oeuvres, but also utopian novels such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890); early works by major figures of the pulp era, including Gernsback, Burroughs, and E.E. “Doc” Smith; and, in Europe, Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (1920), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), and Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1926). A handful of themes and tropes are associated with these authors — time-travel, exploration and adventure, utopia and dystopia, robots and labor disputes, and scientific experimentation and invention — and some of the stories in The Feminine Future are early instances of these conventions. Elizabeth W. Bellamy’s “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” (1899), for example, takes up automatons a full two decades before Capek’s R.U.R., the play that coined the term “robot” and popularized the idea of automated workers. But The Feminine Future also includes stories of inter-dimensional travel (M.F. Rupert’s “Via the Hewitt Ray”), superhuman evolution (Edith Nesbit’s “The Third Drug,” Sophie Wenzel Ellis’s “Creatures of the Light”), cyborgs (Clare Winger Harris’s “The Artificial Man”), mind-reading devices (Mabel Ernestine Abbott’s “Those Fatal Filaments”), and atomization (Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “The Ray of Displacement”) — concepts that were relatively novel at the time of these stories’ publications, and which we now either associate with a later period or have for the most part forgotten. By juxtaposing these stories in a single collection, Ashley offers a broader survey of the sci-fi of the era than we usually receive, not only in terms of who was writing sci-fi at the time but also in terms of sci-fi’s themes and preoccupations during this period.

Moreover, The Feminine Future charts the evolution of sci-fi from a mode employed plastically by a variety of female authors to a genre consolidated around the pulps and its preferred form, the adventure story. Formally, this can seem like a winnowing of sci-fi’s diversity, but really it reflects the semi-professionalization of the sci-fi author and reminds us that when we apply the term “sci-fi” to the 19th century, we do so in order to retrospectively corral and organize a diffuse body of literary works. I doubt that the collection’s late-19th- and early-20th-century authors viewed themselves as part of a coherent sci-fi tradition. This is reflected as much by their wide-ranging careers (adumbrated by the brief biographical notes Ashley includes before each story) as by where their stories were published: some of the writers published in early pulp magazines such as The Black Cat, Argosy, and The Strand Magazine; some published in high literary periodicals such as Scribner’s, Harper’s, and The Smart Set; while others published in special interest organs, such as The Phrenological Journal. The collection’s later authors, conversely, published mainly in pulps such as Science Wonder Quarterly and Astounding Stories of Super-Science, which suggests that the genre was beginning to cohere around a few key magazines. And with the emergence of the pulps came changes in the financial and professional dynamics of sci-fi authorship. As Ashley’s biographical notes make clear, a few of the collection’s later authors submitted their stories to the pulps in order to supplement their incomes. For example, Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who worked as a secretary during the day, used the pulps as a reliable source of additional income after her husband drowned, publishing under the pseudonym Francis Stevens in order to provide for her invalid mother and young daughter. That she stopped submitting to the pulps after her remarriage in 1926 might suggest just how expediently she viewed her writing career.

Given this shift from expansive mode to pulp-centric genre, many of the stories in The Feminine Future differ markedly from each other and can seem linked only by the fact of their authors’ shared sex and historical period. There are three clear movements in The Feminine Future, however, that connect the collection’s stories not only to each other but also to the evolution of sci-fi more broadly. Although the collection’s authors may strike us as marginal today, paying attention to these three categories shows how they were in fact part of signal developments in the genre, both in terms of adapting existing forms and tropes and in terms of influencing the shape sci-fi would take during, and even after, the pulp era.

First, a handful of the collection’s stories are tales of monomania directly indebted not only to Shelley and Poe, but also to the moralizing visions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” (1843) and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844). The connection is most apparent in Edna W. Underwood’s “The Painter of Dead Women” (1910), a macabre story about a celebrated artist who, unbeknownst to his admirers, abducts, kills, and preserves beautiful women in order to pose and paint them. More often in these stories, however, monomania afflicts a scientist-protagonist. In Florence McLandburgh’s “The Automaton Ear” (1873), Mabel Ernestine Abbott’s “Those Fatal Filaments” (1903), Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “The Ray of Displacement” (1903), and Edith Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” (1908), scientists and engineers become obsessed with a single purpose and seek to realize it no matter the costs. Needless to say, things do not go well for these possessed scientists and inventors; each comes to a point where he could justifiably exclaim a variant on Spofford’s narrator’s “My God, what had the intrusion of my incapable hands upon forbidden mysteries done!” Yet despite the predictability of their denouements, these stories are entertaining for the minor twists they make to the standard story of monomaniacal downfall. McLandburgh’s “Automaton Ear,” my favorite of the stories, concerns an engineer who invents a device capable of picking up sound waves from the past. Unanticipated results follow (“Great Heaven! It would not always be music that I should hear. Into this ear, where all the world poured its tales, sorrow and suffering and death would come in turn with mirth and gladness”), as do avarice and possessiveness (“I had worked and worked in order to give this instrument to the world; but now when it was finished […] I was anxious only to guard it from discovery […] An undefinable delight filled my soul that I alone out of all humanity possessed this treasure”). Finally, the narrator’s greed transforms into madness and doubt; he begins to fear that he is hallucinating rather than actually hearing the sound waves of the past. As he seeks an independent party to validate his invention, the story careens toward the violent act that monomania seems to demand. McLandburgh thus takes the armature of her story from Shelley, Poe, and Hawthorne, but adapts it in ways that strike me as idiosyncratic.

What is characteristic of this first group of stories is that they rarely leverage the tension between the explicable and the supernatural — a genre that Tzvetan Todorov influentially labeled the “fantastic.” Only McLandburgh’s “Automaton Ear” and Ethel Watts Mumford’s “When Time Turned” (1901), a story about a man who claims to be aging backward, exploit this tension, but even they resolve it fairly quickly. Instead, most of these stories allow their protagonists’ inventions to interact with their physical world coherently in order to better dramatize the pitfalls of heedless scientific invention. These stories accept the inevitability of scientific advancement, but they warn against wholesale, nonreflexive striving for technical knowledge and mastery over the physical world, which all too easily can corrupt the individual scientist. They belong to the long tradition of sci-fi cautionary tales, and are worth reading to see how they advance the tradition after Shelley, Poe, and Hawthorne.

In the second group of stories, authors turn to sci-fi in order to animate specific views regarding the role of women, whether in the household or in society at large. A few of these offer direct and simple lessons: the protagonist of Elizabeth W. Bellamy’s “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” (1899) hopefully comes to appreciate his human help, despite their fleshly inefficiency, while Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” (1918), for all of its proto-steampunk trappings and hints of a female-run society, concludes with a fusty lesson in swearing and the proper way to behave around a lady. At their most expansive, however, these stories depict societies run entirely by women and thus can be considered part of sci-fi’s feminist utopian tradition. In Lillie Devereux Blake’s “A Divided Republic—An Allegory of the Future” (1887), the female half of the US moves en masse to the West Coast to secede in the face of continued anti-suffrage sentiment. The story serves as a platform for Blake to call out a number of figures working against the struggle for women’s suffrage, such as Senators George F. Edmunds and George G. Vest, as well as two redoubtable literary figures of her age: After the women secede, “Mr. Howells remarked that now he could describe New England girls just as he pleased and no one would find fault with him; and Mr. Henry James was certain that the men would all buy the ‘Bostonians,’ which proved so conclusively that no matter how much of a stick a man might be, it was far better for a woman to marry him than to follow even the most brilliant career.” But for all of its bite, the story concludes with a reconciliatory vision rather than a validation of a separatist feminist utopia. Blake’s purpose is to take anti-suffragists to task, rather than to envision a viable political organization run by women, and in doing so she offers a clear example of how late 19th-century authors used sci-fi as an argumentative mode.

In contrast, M.F. Rupert’s “Via the Hewitt Ray” (1930) presents an even more drastically reordered female society, albeit one that can be accessed only through inter-dimensional travel. What the story’s protagonist finds in the new dimension is a world divided into “three evolutions,” one of which is a technocratic, female-dominated society. Rupert uses this society to trade in fears over the full enfranchisement of women, as its origins make clear: “A very long time ago […] the men were the ruling sex of this plane, but gradually the women demanded equal rights and once we gained a footing, it wasn’t long before we were ruling the men […] ‘Eventually […] we destroyed millions of the despised masculine sex. For untold centuries they had kept women subjugated and we finally got our revenge.” Unlike in Blake’s story, Rupert’s female-ruled society does not promote the sentimentalization of public life, but instead organizes itself according to a relentless rational management of all life. From the perspective of the narrator-protagonist, a female from our dimension who is content with advances in women’s positions since the start of the 20th century, the result of this history is a social order dominated by sexless, emotionless viragos, while men are relegated to emasculating roles in human hatcheries and crèches. As such, the story condemns the female-run order for having taken a wrong turn toward technics, even as it grants this system its efficiencies. While it remains unclear whether the story views society’s rationalization as the necessary result of female rule, Rupert’s middle order is a notable revision of the feminist utopia trope, one that seems particularly germane to the interwar years of the story’s publication.

The final category in The Feminine Future is the sci-fi adventure story, the primary genre of the pulp era. Sophie Wenzel Ellis’s “Creatures of the Light” (1930), published in Astounding Stories of Super Science, is a paradigmatic instance of this category: it features an ultra-fast “sun-ship,” voyage to and across Antarctica, a secret laboratory, a battle between two scientists and a superhuman (himself the product of one of the scientist’s experiments), invisibility, and a love story. The primary purpose of its central speculative idea (when humans evolve past their current stage, what will they think of our 20th-century achievements and attitudes?) is to provide a motive for the clash between the scientists and the superhuman. Yet what the story lacks in character development and thematic circumspection it makes up for in its pacing — it’s certainly a brisker read than the handful of stories in The Feminine Future that get bogged down by fussy disquisitions on morality or scientific principles. As such, it serves as a good reminder of the pleasures of reading pulp fiction.

Yet while Ellis’s story is first and foremost a pulp adventure story, it is also evidently part of sci-fi’s tradition of monomania: it warns against experimenting on human beings, even if that experimentation aims to improve man’s condition. Indeed, other stories in The Feminine Future, including Harriett Prescott Spofford’s “The Ray of Displacement” (1903), Edith Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” (1908), and Clare Winger Harris’s “The Artificial Man” (1929), combine elements of monomania and the adventure story, while Rupert’s “Hewitt Ray” adds a feminist-utopian dimension to the mix. Collectively, then, these stories allow us to draw a line of influence from Shelley, Poe, and Hawthorne to the pulps. The examples of Verne, Wells, and Burroughs still loom largest over the pulp adventure writers. But these stories show pulp sci-fi drawing on a broader literary history than it is often credited with, and they prompt us to view the seemingly unsophisticated form of the sci-fi adventure story in terms of its deft incorporation of heterogeneous formal sources.

Almost inevitably, a collection like The Feminine Future is bound to raise questions about the relationship between gender, authorship, and genre. On the one hand, this is precisely the point of the collection: As Ashley makes clear, his goal is to draw attention to female authors who have, for various reasons (many of them related to the authors’ sex), been overlooked, if not outright forgotten. On the other, a reader picking up The Feminine Future may wonder to what extent the collection represents women’s sci-fi, the generic counterpart to the sentimental fiction of the 19th century. Some of these readers, no doubt, will be inclined to perceive The Feminine Future as a regrettable feminization of sci-fi, a debasement of the genre that values diversity above quality. Others may instead welcome it as evidence of sci-fi’s pliability and inclusiveness, and as a testament to the genre’s long history of minority writers. In any event, it’s easy to see how The Feminine Future could provoke value-laden, unsavory arguments over a purported feminization of sci-fi, especially in the context of the ongoing Sad/Rabid Puppies imbroglio that has divided parts of the sci-fi community (for an overview of the Sad Puppies campaign, see the following: Link 1, Link 2).

There are instances of what could be called a feminized sci-fi in The Feminine Future, particularly in the collection’s feminist-utopian stories. Blake’s “A Divided Republic” stands out as the most obvious example, as it avowedly serves the ends of women’s voting rights. But in reading these stories we should be careful not to view them as deviations from some norm, or as a feminist twist on standard sci-fi tropes. Instead, they should remind us that feminism has been a key component of sci-fi since the genre’s inception, and that the feminist utopia is one of sci-fi’s oldest traditions. For women writers from numerous eras, sci-fi has served as a mode capable of expressing dissent and imagining alternative societies. This is a context important to understanding not just Le Guin and Butler’s generation, but also younger authors such as N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Kameron Hurley, and G. Willow Wilson. And the tradition shows no sign of slowing down: 2015 alone has seen the publication of Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology (edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha), and the Feminist Press’s The Feminist Utopia Project, which brings together work by over 50 writers that “imagine[s] a truly feminist world.”

Yet only a few of the collection’s stories offer distinctly feminized or feminist takes on the genre. More often, the authors in The Feminine Future handle issues of sex, sexuality, and gender indirectly or opaquely. For instance, Ethel Watts Mumford’s “When Time Turned” (1901) and Clotilde Graves’s “The Great Beast of Kafue” (1917) use sci-fi tropes to simultaneously flesh out and obscure the psychological trauma of husbands grieving for dead wives. But perhaps the most intriguing roles for female characters in The Feminine Future are the ones they play on the margins of these stories. Many of the female characters in the collection are minor figures that flit in and out of these narratives, abandoned or abused or neglected or simply forgotten by their male counterparts. There is the human female help in Bellamy’s “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid,” cast aside for the supposedly more efficient automatons; the vagrant woman in McLandburgh’s “The Automaton Ear,” who is subjected to the protagonist’s most violent experiment; and poor Mary Burns, the protagonist’s fiancée in Ellis “Creatures of the Light,” who is uncharitably described as “a young woman whose mind was as brilliant as her face was plain,” and who is summarily dropped (by both her fiancé and the narrative) for a superwoman who eclipses her in beauty and brains. There is ample textual foundation here for a study that analyzes the types of female characters that appear in early sci-fi by female authors, something in the vein of Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). These characters are certainly more significant than their marginality lets on.

The Feminine Future should thus be read for its reintroduction of forgotten female authors, for the perspectives it provides on the evolution of sci-fi more broadly, and for the stories themselves, which have much to say not only about women’s roles, but also about science and morality. Most of the stories in the collection are entertaining on their own, and even those that are not retain considerable interest as artifacts of their period. Ashley deserves credit for assembling a group of diverse authors and stories, as well as for his short biographical notes. And, as a Dover Thrift Edition, the collection is downright cheap ($4.50).

Still, The Feminine Future is necessarily a partial piece of the ongoing project to revive neglected female sci-fi writers. Hopefully it will be the thin end of a wedge of publication efforts that will bring early female sci-fi authors to contemporary readers. And there is evidence that this is the case: Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a sci-fi editor and author, is spearheading a “Women in Science Fiction” project (Link) that will publish an anthology, Women of Futures Past: Classic Stories, in 2016. Editors like Ashley and Rusch do a great service to readers looking to expand their sense of sci-fi’s forgotten, and often inaccessible, past. Equally, the materials they bring together can help us to understand the roots of some of the most inventive sci-fi of the past half-century.


Robert Kilpatrick is a PhD candidate in the Literary and Cultural Studies program at Carnegie Mellon University.

LARB Contributor

Robert Kilpatrick is a PhD candidate in the Literary and Cultural Studies program at Carnegie Mellon University. He is writing a dissertation on family narratives in contemporary American fiction. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and teaches at Emmanuel College in Boston.


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