When you read a book of fiction written decades ago, you steel yourself for possible sexism, racism and general intolerance. You accept that the hero will likely be a tall, non-elder, physically fit and able, straight white male possibly assisted by inferior but lovable sidekicks from other demographic groups. I’ve listened to many a lively discussion about how much slack a writer from days past is entitled to before the enlightened reader of today gets tired of the stereotypes and throws down the book.
I don’t have an answer. But I do know that there is a difference between writing that reflects cultural norms of its time and writing that has a mean spirit. It’s a little like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous 1964 quote regarding obscenity. “I know it when I see it.” I think we can all agree that we would never all agree completely on what is obscene and what isn’t, yet the vast majority of people would reach identical conclusions on either side of a small fuzzy line. That is obscene. That isn’t. We know it.
I believe that the same sort of standard applies to older fiction. I just finished reading Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s 1952 science fiction satire The Space Merchants. I enjoyed it. But being female, I’m particularly sensitive to sexism in a story and, let’s face it, older science fiction often was as sexist as anything else of its time. On the surface, The Space Merchants suffers in this way. The hero is a tall, non-elder, physically fit and able, straight white male. The women are called “girls”, every executive has a female secretary he orders around, and most of the rest of the work force is male.
As I finished the book, however, I decided that the authors’ failing was not one of prejudice, but rather an inability or unwillingness to see some parts of future society as significantly different than their own. In 1950, women were called “girls”, every executive did have a secretary, and most of the work force was male. This story was intended to focus on other changes in society. Even if the authors did consider it, reworking the common role of women was not necessary to the plot, and might well have distracted from the main messages of the book when was being read back in the 1950’s.
In the authors’ further defense, the love interest is a female surgeon, the main character’s compliant secretary is uncommonly capable, and one of the evil characters is a deranged woman who is an expert at torture. Women may play a fifties-style role in the book, but they are as three-dimensional as the males and as good at what they do. It’s hard to call that sexism.
I know that in the seventies and eighties Frederick Pohl went on to write Gateway and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, both excellent books filled with fully-developed and competent women. C.M. Kornbluth died at age thirty-four. We will never know what masterpieces he might have written as he aged.
I’m completely okay with giving this book a pass on its treatment of its female characters. Other science fiction books of that era? Well, that’s another blog post waiting to be written.
(For more about the Space Merchants, see my posts The Kinky of the Future, Through the Eyes of Another, and Predicting the Future or Shaping It.)