I actually misplaced one of my lists so that is my excuse for missing Andre Norton, who influenced me a great deal. One could argue that without Norton, women and science-fiction would be mutually exclusive. She was the pioneer unless you want to count Mary Shelley. But Shelley had no idea that there would be a genre of Science Fiction, she was just writing a weird little short story on a dare. If it failed, oh well, she had a good time with her friends. Since it succeeded of course, that makes it a defining event in the history of Science Fiction and women writers.
Ursula K LeGuin I would argue is also a pioneer because she was perhaps the first, the first that I know of, that didn’t have to hide her gender behind initials or a pseudonym. She was unashamedly female, and it was obvious, blatant and there for all to see. Not many men named Ursula. I don’t know any, but who knows.
Andre, who was actually in real life named Alice Norton, used a male first name. She was the first female to be inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy hall of fame. She was a pioneer. Sadly she passed away in 2005. One of my other favorite authors, C.J. Cherryh used initials to hide gender, although I am sure everyone knows C.J. is a woman nowadays as well as Andre Norton, but when they were starting out in the fifties and sixties and even seventies, it was thought that most science fiction readers were male and would balk or not be as likely to read or purchase work written by a female.
I would argue the stereotype of sci-fi readers is still a largely white male base. Whether that is reality or not, I have no idea. But I grew up reading Andre Norton, C.J. Cherryh, Ursula K LeGuin and Anne McCaffery and Patricia McKillip. Katherine Kurtz was also big in the eighties, which by then gender wasn’t considered a bad thing or anything to worry about. Ursula had managed to knock that assumption of what readers would do to a female genre author completely out of the water with the success of her Earthsea Trilogy.
Vonda McIntyre is another one that I can recommend, and there are many, many more. Some of them wandered into historical fiction like Morgan Llywellyn and Colleen McCollough, some went to fantasy like LeGuin and Cherryh. I will say though, for these last two, I adore their fantasy, but I love their science-fiction even more.
Margaret Weiss who wrote many many fantasy novels with a fellow writer Tracy Hickman, called DragonLance which were largely inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, eventually tipped her toe into the waters of science fiction and wrote one solo trilogy plus one. Four books total, a planned trilogy and one additional book. They are called the Star of the Guardians books, and if you haven’t read them, you should. They have been at the top of my list for so long, and there is even a spin off series that I had to hunt down to find. I think I still might be missing one.
They deal with genetics, monarchy versus democracy, politics, and even transgender type issues in the spin off series mostly. They are phenomenal, and are so much better, sorry Hickman, from anything she wrote with anyone else.
Random Tangent Worthy of Victor Hugo…
Her sci-fi was what Hickman affectionately termed “Galactic Fantasy” what I have heard termed space opera in the past, basically if there is a divide in science fiction and you had basically two bins to place them into, one would be Star Trek, and one would be Star Wars.
And yes, I am simplifying it immensely. In reality there are dozens of sub-genres from Cyberpunk, to dystopia, to hard sci-fi, space opera, alternate history, and I am sure several I am forgetting. But if you have to, you can condense it into two bins. Star Trek, okay, you have some science in there. Here is your Heinlein, your Asimov.
In the Star Wars bin, you would have your Battlestar Galactica, your Stars of the Guardians would go here. Sure, it is in a futuristic place, and people seem to go places in space, things are mentioned but not too much. Basically, people use a light saber type of weapon, and it is all about the drama and the people and what they are doing.
In Star Trek, there are people, a few core indispensable characters but it is mostly about the situation. It is about the futuristic problem that they have run into. The plot is driven by the reactions to the futuristic environment or the situation they are in.
In Star Wars, it usually is a situation that is good versus evil and fate and destiny, and it is about how the characters find a way to come out on top.They typically aren’t reacting to the setting, the setting is the window dressing or the background, the problem usually revolves around a dictator, king, emperor, or evil guy, and the good guys must rally and find a way to free their planet, or people.
Basically, you can take this plot to Earth in the far past, or to a Middle Earth type setting, and voila, it still works. If you take Star Trek and do this, you get Star Trek 4, A Voyage Home. Not a bad movie, but it essentially is making fun of Star Trek, showing it as funny and ridiculous and contrasting it with the known world.
The science fiction becomes the joke, the part that is silly. It becomes soft sci-fi as opposed to hard sci-fi. The science is there, in how they explain how they get back in time, and go forward, but like most science fiction that needs to gloss over things, you don’t focus on how it works, it just does and you just assume the writer must know what they are doing.
/end of rant. Now, Back to the Post…Yes, Hugo does this in Les Miserables, he says, and now back to our characters….after going on a lengthy diatribe about society…talk about author’s presence being felt. Not subtle, at all.
So to sum up, Andre opened the door, and Ursula knocked the door completely off the frame, and any genre writer who is also a woman, should be grateful to these two because if they hadn’t broke free who knows when it would have happened. They made what Weiss would do later possible.
I happen to think it would have happened eventually, but so much great fiction in genre or speculative fiction was published in the eighties. It would have been a tragedy if none of that had happened. So, I for one, am very grateful to these two, and the others who came before and have come since. We all make it easier and more possible for future generations of writers.
Part 2 –McKillip
Now, the other birthday I missed I was about to do a post on, and I let myself get distracted. I am blaming Mardi Gras. Although, it is really just poor planning. Patricia McKillip’s birthday was right at the end of February. Her Forgotten Beasts of Eld for a long time was one of my favorites. I had a rare edition, which I lent to a friend. The friend got the impression I gave it to her. And, it disappeared into the nether. I believe it got re released and I bought the new edition, but of course it isn’t the same. The picture of the cover art in the quote post is from the edition I originally had. One thing I learned from this, I have not lent out a book that I care about since.
If I let you borrow a book, trust me, that book isn’t precious to me. I believe McKillip also wrote the Riddlemaster of Hed, and I used to have an edition of this, I think it got lost in the great paperback trade in fiasco. It was also an old edition. I do have some old paperbacks still that survived.
Off the top of my head I still own The Gormenghast novels from the sixties, 1984 an edition from the 50s that unfortunately is falling apart, Cards of Identity which I believe is from the sixties, my LOTR editions which are from the sixties, and my Jack Vance books that are from the seventies or early eighties. First edition Lyonesse? check. Green Pearl? check. And an Avon edition of the Grey Prince from the seventies. I need to go through and see what else remains.
I live in a small apartment, so my paperbacks have been in storage, and so, knowing what I have isn’t something readily available to me at the moment, but maybe someday I will have it organized. That edition of Forgotten Beasts of Eld was from the late seventies and for a while would have been worth considerable money depending on its condition. A pristine copy could easily go for over seventy dollars. Considering i found it was the Salvation Army for maybe 50 cents at the time, it was a great loss.
Unfortunately, I had a fair amount of rare books that I gave away without realizing it. It is a lesson that I hope I have learned for good now. McKillip was a good writer, Forgotten Beasts reminds me of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Both deal with exotic beasts, and the importance of having an identity. McKillip focused on the name. The name of something had magical power, and knowing the name of the being could give you power over it. The power of a name is an old one in fantasy. At least back to Tolkien, and I would say back to the original tale of Rumpelstiltskin; names and knowing names have always been a big deal.
LeGuin’s Tombs of the Atuan also largely dealt with the power of a name, and naming things. So, this is a well tread idea, but McKillip makes it the most important feature of her magician, his power is in knowing the names of things. I would need to re read it to do a fair review of it, since it has been years. But, her books taught me a lot, in more than one way.
Part 3– Victor Hugo, Moral Crusader of the Nineteenth Century
Another birthday I missed was Victor Hugo. I all ready went on a rant about Les Miserables, which I have read, unabridged, translated into English. His style is the typical style of the nineteenth century. Nowadays we like our authors to be hidden in the background. A good author will blend in the background and not draw attention to his or her presence.
Well, Hugo’s hand prints are all over his work. His presence is very much there, and he stops the narrative more than once to go off on what he sees as the decadence of society and how this moral depravity affects the downtrodden. He was a lot like Dickens in that he saw it as his duty to show society what it was doing to the less fortunate. He used his platform to expose and highlight the problems in society. Les Miserables deals heavily with several serious issues among them, poverty, prostitution, homelessness, and injustice.
The main character is imprisoned for stealing bread because he was starving. This simple attempt at survival follows him like his own shadow, he cannot escape this fate. This act always hangs over this character.
Fantine’s fate made me cry more than once. A girl who is in love with a boy. She falls in love, the boy was just playing around. She gets pregnant and is abandoned. There is no safety net back then, and being a single mother is not considered okay. Back then some women were even put in sanitariums for out of wedlock births, and often babies were put into other relatives care or orphanages, or into a baby minders’ care which often did not bode well for the baby.
In this situation, Fantine does everything in her power to take care of her daughter, she cuts her hair off, and sells it, she has her teeth yanked out, and sells them, she eventually sells her body and eventually gives up the daughter because she cannot take care of her.
Cosette ends up in a bad place but eventually she meets up with the main character, Val Jean, and he ends up adopting her and they go by another name and she ends up getting a schooling with some nuns and eventually ends up marrying and being okay.
But, it is her mother that always makes me so very sad. In today’s world, Fantine would have had some recourse; some way to get assistance. In her world, she made a mistake of believing her lover would marry her. Hugo seems to feel bad for her, and shows step by step how she was forced into this awful life and how circumstances just kept getting worse. He doesn’t seem to condemn her for her actions but seems to blame society for allowing it to happen, and he doesn’t seem to believe Cosette deserves that fate and intervenes to prevent it.
He puts a spotlight on this problem as well as later on when there are many gamins running around wild. Gamins are street children who have no family and just fend for themselves, often they survive by begging or pick pocketing, and he seems to describe a ton of these, and these groups of children also appear to exist in Dickens’s world as well, so I can only assume that this was typical of the city during this time period.
No mandatory school, no welfare, no programs, you just ran about looting, and stealing and hiding from the police. Cosette breaks out of this cycle because Val Jean gets her an education. Most of these gamins would not have access to this and outside of a charitable institution and occasional assistance, they would just be a drain on society as a whole for their entire lives, growing up into the criminals that must be jailed.
All in all, I found Les Miserables a dreary tale, but I suppose in the end there was light in the tunnel but it seems like sheer chance, and I can’t help but think had this been a true story, Cosette would have ended up Fantine Part 2. Being a fictional novel the author could get her out of that fate. Reality isn’t always that pretty.
What I learned by reading Hugo is also what I learned by reading Melville, and Dickens. There are more than one way to tell a story. And what may be fashionable now as far as language and structure, does change over time. Not everyone can read these books. I can but it takes serious dedication and work. You have to want to read them. In contrast, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are relatively easy to read.
So, it isn’t necessarily the era but perhaps the overbearing style of these writers. You get the feeling they know better than you and they have the moral high ground. They come across a little pretentious. Who knows what the future readers will think of our current works? Which ones will stand the test of time? Who will get taught in school? Will future students be studying Stephen King, or something more obscure?