The weekly podcast by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe had a guest conversationalist last weekend. Amelia Beamer was on hand to talk about her debut novel, The Loving Dead, and join in the general flow of conversation. I now very much want to read that book, but the part of the podcast I want to highlight is on a rather different topic.
Jonathan, lover of short fiction collections that he is, was talking about the recent SF Signal Mind Meld on essential short story collections. Discussion has apparently happened (though I’m not sure where, it doesn’t seem to be in the SF Signal comment thread) about the gender balance of the selections. Mike Resnick’s picks are almost exclusively male. Mike (again allegedly, I’m going by the podcast here) defended himself by saying that he had focused on the old days when few women were writing. Other people then came back with names like Margaret St. Clair and Zenna Henderson who, coincidentally, were people from the Periodic Table of Women in SF whose names I was not familiar with.
Of course this is the way it works. As I have explained elsewhere, one of the primary reasons for gender imbalance is that women are invisible to many men. Consequently, when men come to write history, they often only write about what men have done. When we look back on a period in time through the lens of history we see a world in which only men were important, but that’s because it is only what the men did that got written about.
In science fiction criticism history is of interest primarily as a means of tracing influence. There is this idea of The Conversation, in which what each author writes is seen as being a response to what has gone before. In the podcast Jonathan speculates on the influence of these invisible early women writers on the field, and suggests the possibility of an alternate past for SF — a sort of reversal of the traditional alternate history idea in that we still got to where we are today, but we actually got there by a different route.
Is this plausible? If the male writers didn’t “see” the women writers, surely they would not have been influenced by them. Well, no, because one of the things you learn as a a feminist — indeed one of the things that tends to make you a feminist — is that men do hear what women say, they just do so subconsciously.
There is a common phenomenon in office life where a group of people will be having a meeting and the woman in the group makes an innovative suggestion. Everyone ignores her. Ten minutes later one of the men in the meeting makes exactly the same suggestion, and everyone praises him for his cleverness. If you don’t believe that this happens, ask any trans woman who has seen office dynamics from both sides of the gender divide. I assure you, it is very real.
So yes, I suspect that the likes of Margaret St. Clair and Zenna Henderson did have an influence on the early development of SF. One day perhaps some feminist scholar will trace those links. Writing history is an ongoing act of discovery.
(By the way, I’m sure that this phenomenon of selective seeing applies to many other social dynamics besides gender. I’m discussing it in a gender context here because that’s how it arise in the podcast.)