The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley, as the poet wrote. I’d meant to be writing a wee column about Leigh Brackett sometime this past summer, but I’m having a small bit of trouble when it comes to actually enjoying her Eric John Stark stories. Since I take my role as part of the WOO YAY brigade seriously, I fear Brackett will have to wait until I’ve got my head around to being able to enjoy ’50s pulpishness. (Okay, so The Ginger Star was published in 1974. It feels like the 1950s. That is a far different world, my friends, and I must peer at it like an anthropologist for a while before I figure out how I feel about it.)
But while peering at 1970s space opera, the thought struck me that one of the things we do, when we’re talking about the history of women—as writers and as characters—in science fiction (and fantasy, but science fiction’s pedigree is more easily traced) is… pass over them. A year ago, apart from C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, I wouldn’t have been able to name a single woman writing SF before the 1960s off the top of my head.
No, I didn’t know that Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley started before the 1960s. I didn’t know about Judith Merrill either, or Naomi Mitchison. I certainly didn’t know that they were far from alone in their glory, and that women writers, far from being rare as hens’ teeth before the late 1960s, weren’t actually all that unusual. Exceptional, perhaps—at least the popular ones—but not terribly unusual.*
*Being by training and inclination liable to research as a hobby, I’ve been attempting to fill in the blanks in my understanding of the skiffy field. Learning new things is a slow process, but fun.
The 1970s may have witnessed a radical encounter between SFF and feminism, and the two point five decades between the publication of The Female Man and the point at which I started to read SFF with some (however slight, at that point: I was all of fourteen in 2000) critical awareness saw exponential growth in the visibility of women within the genre. I’m not sure if Honor Harrington would have been possible in the 1970s: I’m damn sure Farscape’s Zhaan or Aeryn Sun, or Jacqueline Carey’s Phèdre nò Delauney, wouldn’t have seen the light of day. It has become more normal, in sci-fi/fantasy literature and television, for women to hold a variety of roles and a variety of kinds of power. We’re not yet free of the Exceptional Woman or the Smurfette, but we’ve started moving beyond the argument that informs all of the women characters in, say, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books: to choose between self-actualising freedom, and love/children/man. Some rare Darkoverian characters get to have some measure of both, but this is an exceptional outcome. It seems more usual that the choice is framed as exclusionary.
I’ve been rereading my way through the Darkover books at random over the last little while, so Bradley is very much on my mind. The Darkover books,** being something on the lines of a family saga, and one in which new installments were written by Bradley herself for over four decades, strike me as something of a bridge between then and now.
**It makes me uncomfortable now to recognise that Darkover is canonically a “Planet of the White People,” being affected by colonialesque tensions, I have to say. I didn’t even notice it when I first read the books.
Bradley, as a writer, isn’t part of the feminist SFF canon the way some of her contemporaries are. You can no more leave Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr./Racoona Sheldon/Alice Sheldon out of the genealogy of SFF feminisms than you can leave Campbell and Gernsback out of the genealogy of the pulps, but Bradley’s position is much less clear-cut, marked by a tension within her own work, and by her self-positioning within the wider SFF community as more reasonable and more talented than women who owned the label feminist.***
***Helen Merrick quotes Bradley’s conversations in fanzines in her 2008 The Secret Feminist Cabal, with some sympathy. See also Bradley’s piece in Denise Du Pont’s 1988 Women of Vision, reviewed here on Tor.com by Lee Mandelo.
Outspoken feminism and popular recognition—or at least, commercial success—have rarely gone hand in hand. It’s not surprising, in light of her commercial success, to find that Bradley’s relationship with feminism is complicated. But her work is informed by feminist tensions (evident as early as Darkover Landfall, in 1972), between society’s roles for women—on Darkover, limited to mother/wife (and appurtenance to a man), Tower sorceress, and socially precarious Renunciate—and the women’s own capabilities and desires.
While Bradley’s earlier books partake quite a bit of the boys’ own adventure vibe, starting in the 1970s, with Darkover Landfall, The Shattered Chain, and The Forbidden Tower, and running through the 1980s (Hawkmistress!, in which the protagonist Romilly defies her father and refuses a potentially happy marriage in favour of making her own choice later; and Thendara House and City of Sorcery, which focus on relationships between women as much as—or more than—relationships between women and men), her Darkover books take a lot more interest in the lives of their women. Bradley never quite joined the beginnings of the Genre Adventure Fiction Starring Female Persons which seems to have kicked off at the start of the 1990s (Mercedes Lackey, David Weber, and Laurell K. Hamilton all published their first novels within a five-year period between 1987 and 1992, to name three people—all working mainly in different subgenres—who’ve made the NYT bestseller list in the time since), but in the 1980s she came close. As close, perhaps, as any other popular writer of her generation, and closer than many.
Can you see a microcosm of the genre’s developments—at least as it regards women—in the work of a single author? I almost think you can. It’s in the popular books where tensions play out between the way things have always been and the way things may come to be. Popular entertainment, I think, when it incorporates the arguments of the times, has the power to reshape boundaries in ways as lasting as any literary pioneer.
Liz Bourke has been told she thinks too much. She considers this statement to require careful examination before she can reach any conclusions.