UDBHAV SETH | 29 JANUARY, 2020
No Night Without Stars
Women, a monster, and a barely fastened literary history
This January’s been a strange one for science fiction.
For one, it is a month which saw the birth of the biggest giant of the genre, Isaac Asimov, on 2 January 1920, reach its centenary. A Russian-American writer enshrined in the Big Three of science fiction (with Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke, the ABC of scifi if you will) Asimov’s birthday is hailed as National Sci-Fi Day in the US. Articles and op-eds flooded the internet on the occasion, celebrating the timeless relevance and sociological ramifications of his tales.
And relevant he is, no doubt.
His stories, ranging from the Foundation series, a birdsong to the power of mass psychology predictable by mean formulae, to I, Robot which famously laid down the laws of robotics, and The Last Question, one of the most influential meetings of theology, philosophy and fantasy in all literature, are some of the most acclaimed and beloved pieces of scifi ever written.
But January saw another massive upheaval rock the community to its foundation, only two years ago. When a writer hailed by such critics as Harold Bloom and TA Shippey for having, ‘more than Tolkien, lifted fantasy to high literature’ and deserving ‘a shelf alongside Fyodor Dostoevsky and CS Lewis’, passed away at the age of 88.
This was a writer not nearly as well-known as Asimov, for sure, but who did for ‘soft sci-fi’ what he did for ‘hard sci-fi’ (more on that later). A writer who made it a quest to excavate the submerged undercurrents of feminism and Taoism from mainstream scifi-fantasy in the 1970s and 80s, efforts that ultimately earned both the Hugo and Nebula awards, the highest honours in the science fiction community.
She was also the first woman to do so.
That was not all. She went on to explore the delicately predicated roles of men and women in androgynous communities in ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, and a cosmic balance between light and dark in the Earthsea series, both groundbreaking at the time for their injection of gender studies into a largely philosophical discourse that dominated ‘intellectual scifi’.
‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ has been called a seminal work of science fiction by Donna White, as important as Frankenstein.
The author’s name: Ursula Le Guin.
But what’s so important about Frankenstein, you ask? And why is a gothic novel being compared to an SF icon?
Yet again, our answer springs from January somehow.
Frankenstein, a novel with themes of failed character arcs, creator-vs-creation conflicts and humankind’s primal subconscious need for romantic companionship, was also a novel published on January 1, 1818 – this year it reached its 202nd year of being read.
A work that basically introduced the archetypes of the ‘mad scientist’ and ‘irresponsible science paving horrible circumstances’ into literature, mined endlessly by succeeding writers, Frankenstein is the story that’s most commonly considered to be the first science fiction story ever written.
Yet the book has been riddled with controversy for nearly the entire length of its existence, with doubts over authorship, ownership, the extent of editorial input and critical bias all thrown into the stew, giving rise to a foggy steam that downplays the prestige of a work that essentially created the genre of science fiction.
Its author is denied the recognition she deserves by anyone outside exclusive feminist and critical circles.
So this month, almost solely and exclusively, is celebrated for the birth of a goliath of science fiction, rather than the birth of science fiction itself.
Asimov, instead of Frankenstein.
Might not seem like such an enormous issue to begin with. Icons rather than their fields are more often celebrated and decorated and that’s perfectly acceptable. Perhaps I’m just a salty fan on a tirade to sully a literary occasion for no apparent reason.
Move along, nothing to see here?
Well, add the hushed-up, often buried and swept under the rug history of Isaac Asimov pinching women’s buttocks at public events for years, with complainants being tossed out of events entirely, damging untold numbers of women’s careers, with his reputation so notorious in his set that he was once invited to give a lecture on ‘The Power of Posterior Pinching’… and you might just see why you shouldn’t.
Oh, and also- the author of Frankenstein was a woman. Mary Shelley. So that might clear things up a bit.
Because that splotch —that one blemish on the legacy of Isaac Asimov, a glorious legacy to be sure, for nobody can discount his indomitable contributions to the genre, the community, readers and writers alike, all around the world for decades— might restrain me from elevating him to too high a pedestal.
His untouchability, his status as an icon might not indicate anything other than the commonplace industry hot-shot shielded from any form of repercussions for sexual harassment— but it’s the widespread neglect, and the even more widespread ignorance of this history of his, that moves me to rally against the celebration of arguably the biggest event for scifi readers around the globe.
Coupled with the frequent dismissal of Mary Shelley as the rightful writer of the first book in the genre, it strikes an even more tender spot for me.
‘Women in science fiction and fantasy’ has long been a hotly debated topic, with the genre as a whole not being the loudest voice for women and other historically othered peoples— although developments in the past 25 years in both literature and film have strived to correct that. Historians of the genre have for decades speculated on the reason for this, with no clear answer.
But however you frame it, you cannot deny that the lack of non-male protagonists, the conditioning of women away from the ‘rational empowerment’ of science and their steering away from the ‘trashy’ nature of ‘those lurid magazines’ of scifi and pulp, must have inevitably contributed to their long underrepresentation in this field.
But the story of Mary Shelly is no speculation. Her story is that of a single woman, whose credibility was doubted for simply being the wife of a world-famous poet, PB Shelley, and the blatant dismissal of her work only after it was discovered to be by a woman.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus emerged from a game between Byron and the Shelleys one evening, a tale often recounted by Mary after the publication of Frankenstein. Where they competed day after day to pen the best ghost story, with Mary failing to do so repeatedly. Until, in one brilliant moment of nocturnal inspiration, the idea for an atrocity of nature from the irresponsibility of science popped into her head— and Frankenstein was born.
Doubts over the book’s authorship emerge from the contributions by PB Shelley to his wife’s handiwork, with many modern critics claiming that they were no more than any line editor’s collaborating on a manuscript today, but those of the time saying that the entire manuscript probably belonged to the husband himself.
This, coupled with the first edition of the book coming out with a preface by PB Shelley and the author termed ‘Anonymous’ on the front page, led to the British Critic saying:
“The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”
Just like I shall therefore dismiss this review. Without further comment.
Other theories were thrown in, with her being the daughter of another famous writer, William Goodwin, and her homeschooling (incongruous from the usual Eton to Oxford education of writers at the time) cited as reasons to deny Mary the credit she deserved. But ultimately, her frequently quoted insights on the subconscious origins of the characters she penned in Frankenstein, as well as readers’ tracking of themes found in the novel to her own painful experiences of bearing children, have convinced most schools of thought that Mary Shelley was in fact telling the truth.
In fact, it was precisely this fusion of hardcore scientific experimentation with the humane vulnerability of a lumbering monster, two very disparate themes that get swirled into the frequent discourse of ‘hard’ scifi (more bent on technological leaps, societal advancements and civilisational paradigm shifts) and ‘soft’ scifi (more contemplative, personal, ponderous and ruminative in its conflicts of character, rather than concepts) that grant further height to Frankenstein’s stature as the genre’s first work.
That too, by a woman. Because traditionally, hard scifi was seen as the territory of men whereas soft scifi (implicitly lesser in its name) was that of women. Brushing aside for now the oft-mentioned gripe of seeing science fiction as a ‘childish’ and ‘intellectually stunted’ genre (a claim Margaret Atwood herself, a celebrated scifi author, once made by calling it the genre of ‘talking squids in outer space’ – before perhaps accepting that her own novels ‘The Heart Goes Last’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ fall squarely in that category), it is clear where the implication lies.
Men had the brains. Women had the heart.
But Frankenstein has both.
And this long history of invisibility, erasure or neglect, one proven by the incessant questioning of the authorship of this novel, is reflective of the larger status of science fiction as a representative community. For a genre that is supposed to draw in the othered and marginalised into the mainstream through sensitive, thoughtful, delicate and most importantly imaginative storytelling, its history of exploring concepts (mind-blowing ones, stimulating, unimaginable and explosive ones no doubt) rather than the people in those concepts, might just be the consequence of the domination of men in the field, with un/intentional sidelining of those who might just actually bring those experiences into what is a highly conductive and malleable genre.
The past few decades have however seen a surge, a stark change to what preceded them. The ‘second wave of feminism’ in the 60s and 70s brought with it new female voices, who with their long-brewing indignation and acerbic wit, strode into the mainstream with works like ‘The Female Man’ (by Joanna Russ, widely considered the first of feminist scifi) and ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’ (by Marge Piercy).
And the mere emergence of these ideas in this genre wasn’t enough; their evolution and progress through the decades was just as essential.
Ursula Le Guin has expressed public regret of her portrayal of wizards in the Earthsea series, calling them ‘a complete bust’ if considered as feminist stories, which they were lauded for being at the time. She has since gone back to revise those works to better project ideas that she herself had struggles elevating then, saying, ‘I was being a woman, pretending to think like a man’. She also accepted the criticism levelled at ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ for writing non-gendered characters only in the traditionally masculine roles of politics and not in the feminine ones of raising children or keeping home.
She spoke often of how children and family were seen as constraints on the ‘newly liberated woman’, a trope she gradually aimed to subvert over time because of her own joyful experience raising children with a supportive husband, all the while sustaining her compulsive habit of retreating to her study every night to cook up new strange tales— once the kids had been tucked into bed.
Many women are now household names when it comes to SFF, with works by Margaret Atwood, Cornelia Funke, Alice Bradley and Suzanne Collins spawning adaptations in film and TV, furthering their ubiquity in the ‘mainstream’ of art.
While the greats like Philip K.Dick, Arthur C.Clarke and Robert Heinlein can never be robbed of their magnificent contributions to the field, the injection of heart and humour, love and family, inclusiveness and wit and seclusion into a genre that once only spoke of the physical sciences as ‘worthy enough’ to be catapulted into the future as fodder for thought experiments, should be dedicated at this crucial juncture of January to the historically othered.
Who will remain othered no more.
This January was unique—a literary giant was born, another died, and their playground came into being. A playground sprawling across galaxies, universes, time and space, yet grounded firmly in our present moment, springing from minds determined to imagine realities ineffable in their own.
Whether the entire genre is just a massive crusade to fetch those realities closer, or to flee them as fast as possible, is a debate for another time, for if there’s one thing that Mary Shelley and her scientific abomination have proven through the centuries, it’s that the answer is irrelevant.
As long as those realities belong to everyone.
Cover photo: Isaac Asimov in 1967 / Jay Kay Klein