Science fiction began to be recognized in the 1960s and 1970s as a powerful tool for examining gender issues. Writers like Joanna Russ, Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, and James Tiptree, Jr, demonstrated just how amenable the genre was to revising relationships between (or, sometimes, among) the sexes. Yet, at the same time, feminist critiques of science fiction revealed that for most of its history, sf has generally functioned as a boys’ club, excluding female characters and concerns and uncomfortable with overt expressions of sexuality. How, then, could the No-Girls-Allowed sf of the 1930s have evolved into the sort of fiction honored in the 1990s by the Tiptree Award, which recognizes the role of sf in exploring and expanding gender codes? Does the later work merely overturn the earlier, or were there features already present in early magazine sf that lend themselves to the exploration of sexual behaviors and identities?
It is not easy to read one's way back into the 1930s, to try to understand how stories from that time functioned for their readers. However, when one reads an issue of Amazing Stories or Thrilling Wonder Tales from cover to cover, complete with ads, editorials, and letters from readers, reading the hacks along with the more ambitious writers, one gets the sense that it is all one thing. Rather than being self-sufficient objects of art, the individual stories are part of a continuous stream of discourse, like the ‘flow’ that television programmers aim for.
The story of Professor Jones's evolutionary accelerator or Professor Brown's time machine is part of the same whole as the letter from a reader who wants to know whether electricity might be broadcast without wires. The story has its meaning within the same discourse about the ways we come to know the natural world and the place of the scientifically minded individual within society. Furthermore, this conversation about science incorporates the scantily clad maiden on the front cover and the ad for razor blades or a body-building course on the back: ‘No skinny man has an ounce of SEX APPEAL, but science has proved that thousands don't have to be SKINNY! ’ declared Astounding Stories, April 1932, on the inside front cover.
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