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December 27th, 2007


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11:50 pm - Wonderful literary surprises from 50 years ago
I've read a great deal of SF from the 1920s- 1960s, and a number of generalizations are possible. Novels and short stories from the 1920s to the 1940s are typically exceptionally racist and sexist. OTOH, there are a number of excellent novels and short stories from the 1950s and 1960s that are doing quite well racially (as well as a nearly equal number that are somewhat regressive, but rarely shockingly racist). However, gender issues are if anything typically worse in 1950s SF, and only a little better in 1960s SF. This is generally as true with female SF authors as with male ones (Andre Norton, being one of the few notable exceptions, since until the mid 1960s, she large avoided having important female characters in her novels, especially female protagonists. OTOH, the situation improved on both counts in the 1970s, and included 1973, the year that several prominent female SF authors (including Marion Zimmer Bradley) "had their consciousness raised" and suddenly started writing fiction with active female protagonists.

However, for any generalizations, there are exceptions. I read a little H. Beam Piper growing up, I remember reading his novel Four Day Planet, as well as his Paratime stories, and the related Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. I enjoyed all of them and noticed that Piper had more and more active female characters than I normally found in novels from the 1950s and early 1960s (tragically, he committed suicide in 1964).

In preparation for visiting my parents, I loaded up some new project Gutenburg ebooks into my Sony Clie PDA and included a fair amount of H. Beam Piper, since his work is now largely out of copyright. In this list, I included a story with the intriguing title of Omnilingual, which was published in 1957. It's a fairly typical SF short story of the era – humans from the shockingly advanced year of 1996 visit a Mars where sentient (and impressively human-looking) life and civilization died out 40,000 years ago. In it a brilliant and free-thinking archaeologist is convinced of a bold theory of how to translate the Martian language and maintains this belief in the face of opposition by both old and stodgy and popular and fame-grubbing opposition, to eventually triumph through brilliance, dedication, and science. Standard themes and ideas, except that the heroic archaeologist who is the protagonist of the story is a woman, the person who takes care of setting the charges to break into the sealed Martian buildings is a Japanese woman, the old and stodgy archaeologist is a Turkish man, and the entire crew of the ship that went to Mars consists of a mixture of military personnel and scientists, at least 1/3 of whom who are named are female, and a fair number of whom come from Asia, the Middle East, and South America. Racism and sexism is largely not present in the stories, not just because they are not mentioned, but because the author included very little unconscious racism of sexism. The only lack I see is none of the characters mentioned are black, but that's about it.

This story was written almost exactly 50 years ago and is more progressive in characters and attitudes than at least 75% of US TV and Hollywood movies. I was impressed, amazed, and very pleased. I salute H. Beam Piper and urge all of you to read his work.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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Comments:


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From:autopope
Date:December 28th, 2007 10:59 am (UTC)
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The downside of Piper's work is the casual racism implicit in his pro-colonialist treatment of indigenous aliens (and humans from other, comparatively backward, time-lines). Not to mention his politics, which veer alarmingly between libertarianism and fascism (if you take them at face value -- but unfortunately his narrative style tends to encourage this).

He was an interesting writer, who, alas, died just before a major political sea-change his the US which would have either turned him into a reactionary or something very interesting indeed.
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From:heron61
Date:December 28th, 2007 04:03 pm (UTC)
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He was an interesting writer, who, alas, died just before a major political sea-change his the US which would have either turned him into a reactionary or something very interesting indeed.

Definitely, I have no idea how he would have reacted to the late 60s and early 70s, but it I agree that it would have strongly affected him - for good or ill.
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From:heron61
Date:December 28th, 2007 10:17 pm (UTC)
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As a side note, the degree of covert fascism present in 50s and 60s SF was quite impressive. A few years ago, I reread Alan Nourse's The Mercy Men (a '68 revision of a '54 novel) and the implicit idea of a technocratic state and well-trained technocrats being perfectly justified in screwing the protagonist's mind around in all manner of messed up ways and eventually performing semi-voluntary brain surgery on him was very creepy indeed, especially with the protagonist thanking them profusely in the end.
From:nancylebov
Date:December 28th, 2007 11:04 am (UTC)
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IIRC, Kornbluth was rather good about gender. At least, he'd have women in positions of responsibility as a routine thing.

And there's a section of _Search the Sky_ which I think was a pretty sharp satire of 50s gender roles. I can't speak for what I'd think of it now, but I remember the bit with the two men from the spaceship figuring out why women cry at weddings.
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From:heron61
Date:December 28th, 2007 03:58 pm (UTC)
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There was essentially no mention of conditions on Earth, other than that the public was eager for new of Mars and potentially interested in colonizing the lowland areas of Mars where the air was breathable. Most of the characters had standard anglo-American names OTOH, I have no idea if this story might have been part of a series of stories in the same setting.
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From:rjgrady
Date:December 30th, 2007 06:48 pm (UTC)
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I'm always amazed at the curious mixture of reactionary racism and sexism and startling progressivism that characterizes SF, especially early SF. In some ways, I find a lot of contemporary stuff a little more troublesome, as fashionable politeness has a way of disguising unfashionable bigotry. And except for the surrealist SF authors, I think I've seen less daring stuff from recent authors.

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