In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!
I got a Master’s degree so I could study eugenics and spend more time with a dead man and the dead man is Lovecraft.
I didn’t grow up thinking this would happen. I’ve never fancied myself a scholar or envied the professor’s life. I also had a full-time job when I began tinkering with the idea of getting a Master’s degree in Science and Technology Studies. I wanted the degree because of my longtime interest in both science and history. I also thought it might be useful as general background for the kind of work I do. And it just seemed fun. I like taking classes. However, Master’s degrees are not really geared towards adult learners and I wasn’t going to quit my job, so I cautiously asked if they’d take me as a part-time student. They said yes. I enrolled.
I had to take fewer classes than my cohort and it would be longer for me to graduate. Also, everyone was much, much younger than me. I felt embarrassed the first day I walked into class carrying a notebook and everyone had a Mac. The younger students seemed much better prepared than me, throwing out names like “Latour” and “Haraway” while I kept going “what who where.”
A university education is not only about an academic formation, it’s a lesson in social class. The first time around, when I got my bachelor’s degree in Communications, I did it with two scholarships and on-campus work, the only way I, a kid from Mexico who was nowhere near super wealthy, could ever afford to accomplish such a thing. Life on a college in New England was a bit of a shock, but it was doable and I graduated Magna Cum Laude.
When I started at the University of British Columbia in my MA I felt like a complete idiot. Everyone knew how to write a grad school paper, how to research, what books to read and what philosophers and historians to quote. I’d attended a small college and this seemed a far distance from a large Canadian university. I cried the first week of class and told my husband I was obviously a fool. Even though I actually work for UBC, I don’t do anything in an academic capacity so I didn’t know what the inside of a classroom was like. Boy, did I know now.
I was also worried about my topic of studies. As Wikipedia states, STS is the “is the study of how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these, in turn, affect society, politics and culture.” My interest was in history of science. But my other interest was science fiction, which is still the kind of thing many people think is not worthy of their time. I couldn’t figure how I would tie these interests together, although that was my impulse.
Lovecraft did the trick. I’ve also had a long-time interest in H.P. Lovecraft, but not in a scholarly way. I’ve edited and written things that are called “Lovecraftian” and know a bunch of folks in the “community.” Lovecraft was an amateur scientists and several of his stories reflect scientific concerns of the time.
I decided I would focus on eugenics, the “science of better breeding” and its ties to Lovecraft’s work. Eugenics these days is mostly associated with Nazis, but it was a widespread scientific pursuit in the early 20th century. The United States boasted an Eugenics Record Office and passed eugenics laws which mandated compulsory sterilization for the “unfit” (a whole variety of traits could characterize a person as being unfit, from medical conditions such as hemophilia to simply being poor), but other countries also developed eugenic programs.
Eugenics was a widespread and multi-faceted effort. It also went on longer than most people imagine, into the 1960s. And it seeped into popular culture in ways we don’t think about. There were baby contents to select the fittest children. There were exhibits and lectures, and the YMCA and YWCA sponsored talks on “Home Making and Eugenics.” In 41 textbooks published in the United States from 1914 to 1948, almost 90% tackled eugenics and 70% considered it a legitimate science.
As mentioned before, eugenics helped push sterilization laws. It also created immigration reforms: the Immigration Act of 1924 barred certain groups (such as Arabs and Asians) from entering the United States. And flawed studies were developed to help demonstrate the inferiority of certain groups and the natural superiority of others.
Eugenics was about race, it was about class, it was about disability, and eventually I discovered, it was about gender. I did not intend to focus on women but that’s where my reading led me. Although I thought I had some understanding of this time period, I was surprised by the biological notions of the 1920s and 30s and the way the intersected with portrayals of women. The natural criminal condition of a woman, a text told me, is “harlotry.” I read columns from Ladies’ Home Journal where eugenicist Paul Popenoe offered marriage advice. Popenoe believed it was crucial that the “right kind of people” marry and have children. And so on and so forth.
There were things I expected to find in Lovecraft, such as racial concerns tied to biological notions, but there too lay surprises. For example, when re-reading “The Dunwich Horror” I realized Lavinia gives birth to a “black brat” who turns out to be a monster.
When I thought about the modern culture I inhabit, I found traces of eugenic thought. It was a strange process, full of nasty finds and imagery. Sometimes, there were fun parts: at one point I stumbled upon a beefcake photo of a half-naked man blond man next to a chicken. The farming industry intersected with issues of eugenics at several points (like in the development of county fairs to show off the “fittest” families), so it makes sense that the best chicken would be compared to the best man, but it was still an odd find. I also figured out that the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, which is known for its rides and the ability to eat any food in fried form (ice cream, chocolate bars and more), once housed eugenics contests.
I graduated this summer. My thesis “Magna Mater: Women and Eugenic Thought in the Work of H.P. Lovecraft” can be read online.
My advisor said that now that I have concluded my studies I have “broken up” with my creepy boyfriend, an allusion to Lovecraft, since at one point I told her due to the constant exposure to his letters and stories, I felt like I was almost in a long-distance relationship with a deceased man.
I don’t know if I can “break up” so easily from my interest in history of science and the biological sciences. As I said goodbye to my advisor she mentioned she was teaching a class on science fiction this term and asked if I had any short stories I would recommend in her historical overview. I piped up and said that “Strange Orchids,” a hard-to-find story by Dorothy Quick originally printed in 1937, has been reprinted in Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction this year. I also mentioned how I was in interested in science fiction which deals with women’s bodies and reproduction.
“Maybe that’ll be your PhD,” my advisor told me.
Donna Haraway’s latest book (Staying with the Trouble, published September 2016) states in its description that the noted STS scholar “eschews referring to our current epoch as the Anthropocene, preferring to conceptualize it as what she calls the Chthulucene, as it more aptly and fully describes our epoch as one in which the human and nonhuman are inextricably linked in tentacular practices.”
Maybe I was a visionary with this whole STS and serious university scholar and science fiction stuff. Maybe my advisor wasn’t so wrong about the PhD.
Oh, God. I hope I don’t seriously start going there.
Top image: She Walks in Shadows cover art by Sara K. Diesel.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things focuses on Mexican vampires involved in turf battles. She is the British Fantasy, Locus, Aurora and Solaris nominated author of Signal to Noise and the editor of the World Fantasy finalist Lovecraft-themed anthology She Walks in Shadows.