“Science-fiction starts with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” Paul K. Alkon writes in Science Fiction Before 1900. You could point to other origins, perhaps – Cyrano de Bergerac’s moon-flight fantasy or the scientific wonders in Gulliver’s Travels. But certainly Shelley’s monster was a hugely important turning point in the transformation of Gothic horror into science-fantasies — a direct influence on everything from H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man and The Island of Dr. Moreau to this year’s Ex-Machina.
The genre as we know it begins not with square-jawed heroes with blasters rescuing damsels in distress but with a female author writing about artificial reproduction. Science-fiction and feminist science-fiction entered the world together, with the help of the same midwife.
And yet, while everyone knows who Mary Shelley is, what she represents has been forgotten in recent discussions of science-fiction. Just this weekend, the Hugo awards for excellence in science-fiction and fantasy were embroiled in a controversy around diversity. Some writers and readers (known as the “Sad Puppies” and the “Rabid Puppies”) objected to what they saw as a liberal political bias towards works focusing on race and gender by women and minority writers. The Puppies managed to get a raft of their own selections as nominations.
The Puppies’ selections were soundly and joyously defeated on Hugo night. But the Puppy narrative, which sees women and minorities as newcomers in sci-fi, persists. An otherwise excellent article by Amy Wallace at Wired states that “in recent years… sci-fi has expanded to include storytellers who are women, gays and lesbians, and people of color.” The Puppies, in this narrative, are the representatives of the old, traditional sci-fi demographic, trying to hold the door shut against interlopers.
Women, LGBT people and people of color aren’t newcomers to sci-fi, though. As Mary Shelley shows, they invented the genre. And they’ve been active ever since. “We were always there,” Publishers Weekly editor Rose Fox wrote on Twitter, “We wrote and edited and published books and stories. We organized book clubs and conventions. We founded and worked in bookstores.” People who were not white males were often marginalized or ignored within science-fiction, Fox said. But they existed.
“It’s always been a known thing within the SFF (science fiction fantasy) community that women were the ones running the conventions,” science-fiction writer N.K. Jemisin told me by email. It was women, she said, who were “writing the fanzines and organizing the don’t-cancel-Star-Trek letter campaigns and doing all the other things that have made this genre what it is — even as Isaac Asimov was running around groping women in elevators and Robert Silverberg was pompously declaring that James Tiptree couldn’t possibly be a woman, perish the thought. (She was.)”
“Meanwhile,” Jemisin added, “everyone knew Arthur C. Clarke was gay, but somewhere between the desire to protect him from discriminatory American laws and the homophobic fear of ‘tarnishing’ his legacy, the knowledge has been all but buried in whispers.”
Jemisin pointed out that the African-American writer and historian W.E.B. DuBois wrote science-fiction. And there is a whole tradition of feminist utopian science-fiction, stretching from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in 1915 through Marge Piercy’s 1976 Woman on the Edge of Time and up to the much-derided but extremely popular vision of eternal egalitarian loving vampire spouses in Twilight.
For that matter, one of the most influential and critically acclaimed movements in modern science-fiction is the progressive and diverse experimental sci-fi of the 1970s. Writers like Hugo award winners Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany and, later, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood and Gwyneth Jones followed in the footsteps of Mary Shelley. For them, sci-fi was a way to think about issues of sexuality, reproduction and race, rather than (or in addition to) spaceships and space opera.
The conflict over the Hugos, then, isn’t really a confrontation between traditional white guy sci-fi fans and diverse newbie progressive writers trying to steer the genre in a new direction. Rather, the conflict is about two competing, longstanding visions of science-fiction.
One of those visions sees the genre starting sort of with H.G. Wells, but really with Isaac Asimov and the pulpy writers of the 50s. In this view, sci-fi is about technological advancements and thrilling swashes buckling. It’s about mostly white guys whooshing into a future that differs from the present because it’s got more gadgets.
The other vision is more expansive, in every sense. It starts even before Mary Shelley, as Mikki Kendall argues, with fairy tales from Africa and China and many parts of the globe. And it goes forward to include worlds in which gender, and race, and how society works, and what it means to be human, are all radically transformed.
Whether it’s Ursula Le Guin’s planet where there is only one gender, or Octavia Butler’s vision of humanity breeding with aliens through tentacle sex, this sci-fi imagines worlds in which not just technology but people and society change. Which means, among other things, that it imagines worlds in which straight white guys are no longer the default.
To see that future, though, you need to acknowledge a past in which straight white guys were not the default either, despite some of their strident claims to the contrary. The Sad Puppies can dream as small as they want, but the sci-fi fandom, and the universe, has always been a big place. Mary Shelley’s creation has been walking around for a long time. Dr. Frankenstein could never hold it, no matter how he tried.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.