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.
Although structuralism is no longer the fashionable critical mode it was in the 1960s and 1970s, it still underlies most theoretical discourse (everything labelled ‘poststructuralist’, ‘semiotic’ or even ‘deconstructionist’ builds upon structuralist concepts) and is of particular relevance to the study of fantasy. The very origins of the structural analysis of literature are tied to traditional fantastic genres such as fairy tale and myth, and structuralist approaches remain useful as correctives to critical assumptions about the pre-eminence of realism as a literary mode.
Most histories of structuralism trace it back to linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure's lectures on language, assembled by his students as the influential Course in General Linguistics (1916), sorted out syntax, speech sounds and even the generation of meaning into orderly systems of parts and features. Saussure's scientific approach to language was imitated by other disciplines, including anthropology, art history, psychology and literary criticism. In each case, the approach was to break down a cultural product or expression into a set of constituent parts and then examine the way those parts were articulated, like boiling a body down to a set of bones and then assembling the bones into a skeleton. One might as easily describe the structure of a skyscraper or a psyche; a kinship system or a myth. This approach was both liberating and limiting: liberating because it did not assume that the essential structure of a thing was related to its apparent form or to the conscious intentions of its creator, and limiting because it tended to flatten out differences and to mistake the structure for the functioning whole.
The period of sf history from 1926 to 1960 can justly be called the magazine era. Even though many well-known works appeared in other venues during this period - books, comics, movies, and even radio plays - sf magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction were chiefly responsible for creating a sense of sf as a distinctive genre.
Science fiction is not only a mode of story-telling but also a niche for writers, a marketing category for publishers, a collection of visual images and styles and a community of like-minded individuals. All of these aspects of the genre took on their most familiar guises within the magazines that dominated the field for half a century. The magazines exerted considerable influence on sf's form and subject matter; the nature of magazine publishing and distribution, and, in particular, boom-and-bust cycles within the industry, have likewise played a part in shaping what is written and read. In addition, the location of most of the magazines' publishers in the USA has strengthened the association between sf and American culture, both in the United States and abroad.
Origins of the science fiction magazine
The first English-language magazine entirely devoted to sf was Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories , founded in 1926. Nineteenth-century literary magazines, such as Blackwood’s and The Strand in the UK and Putnam’s and Atlantic Monthly in the USA, had occasionally published works of fantasy and what might be called proto-science fiction alongside more realistic fare. Early in the twentieth century, a number of inexpensive periodicals, called pulp magazines because of the poor-quality woodpulp paper on which they were printed, included sf stories by writers such as Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs as one of several categories of exotic adventure. Burroughs’s first novel, A Princess of Mars , was first published in one of these pulps, All-Story Magazine , in 1912.
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