When we named our podcast Galactic Suburbia, I quite naturally googled the name. What kept popping up was a book by Lisa Yaszek, from 2008, of that name. She didn’t invent the term; no, that was Our Heroine, Joanna Russ, and I do believe she was using the term in a derogatory way. Yaszek, though, has written this book to reclaim the term, and to point out the subversive, radical, and altogether fascinating things that female writers of ‘galactic suburbia’-type stories were up to, in the roughly two decades following WW2.
Few things about this book to get out of the way first.
1. Although I don’t think it has come out of a thesis, it’s written like a thesis – and I know this because it sounds like mine. There’s lots of “in this chapter I have…”, which in a book actually gets pretty old pretty fast. But as with all writing, if you know the tropes, you can just skip over it.
2. It’s very American. There are a few points at which she mentions things that happened in Britain, but not many. Thing is, though, that she rarely comes out and says that it’s an American book. The reader is left to figure this out themselves from references to the civil rights movement etc that only make sense in an American context. As an Australian reader I found this somewhat alienating and off-putting.
3. She uses ‘woman’ as an adjective. Now, I presume this is because of issues over gender/sex identification, etc, but it still bugs me because ‘woman’ is a noun, not an adjective. Even more than that, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone described as a ‘man writer’, whereas ‘woman writer’ seems totally de rigeur. Is it just me, or is ‘female writer’ less offensive – when it has to be specified at all, that is?
Anyway, these quibble aside – and I know they’re basically minor – I really enjoyed GS. I’ve been hugely enjoying my exploration of feminist science fiction from the 20th century, and acquainting myself with what I am increasingly identifying as ‘my’ history. But because I’m coming to it all largely through later anthologies, I fall into the very trap Yaszek sets out to rectify: that writers and anthologisers post-second wave feminism, in the 60s and 70s, have mostly discounted the writings of those women active in the 40s and 50s. Now, my 20th century history is so poor in areas like this that I didn’t realise this period is traditionally seen as a nadir of feminism, so I was quite blind to the sorts of history re-visioning that has, often not deliberately, gone on. And it makes me terribly sad that later historians of the field have apparently discounted women who were powerful in the time because they didn’t live up to those later ideals, which seems to be where Russ was coming from.
The book very cleverly places historical context and literary analysis together, over four chapters: Writers, Homemakers, Activists, and Scientists. In each chapter Yaszek uses contemporary events, non-genre writing, ads, etc to set the scene for those topics, and then puts forward case studies of authors who examined those issues in their SF writing.
In Writers, she looks at Judith Merril, Alice Eleanor Jones, and Shirley Jackson as three very different, contemporaries who all experienced significant success in their writing, and how they approached their writing – their influences, how they played with generic expectations and tropes.
The chapter on Homemakers was perhaps my favourite, and it made me realise that I really do like ‘galactic suburbia’ writing when it’s done well. I like imagining everyday life in the future. I adore the truly escapist writing – space ships, explosions, crazy adventures – but considering the impact of technology, or war, or alien contact on the things that I experience everyday? That’s breathtaking. And the other thing that was absorbing about this chapter was the contextualisation. I’ve seen the pictures, I know a bit about postwar America’s attitudes etc; but gosh it made me happy to be a child of the 80s, and an adult of the 00s. I’m allowed into the workplace; I’m welcomed into the workplace (hello, Mr Abbott). Should I choose to have children, I would still be welcomed into the workplace. Nyer nyer nyer. Most bizarre was the suggestion that by being a good housekeeper and mother, American women were being patriotic domestic cold warriors – fighting the good fight against Communism in their homes. I feel that this is one of the big differences between America and Australia; I just don’t see that sort of parliamentary politics being part of our households.
The Activists chapter was fascinating because for all my bluster that SF can be a magnificent way of exploring contemporary issues in a sophisticated way, I forget that sort of connection especially when I read older stories. To be shown ways in which authors interacted with the two most pressing postwar American issues – the threat of nuclear war and the civil rights movement – was uplifting, and exciting, and suggests ways in which modern writers can do the same. I know there are writers interacting with climate change etc now, but… I guess I hope they continue to do so. Yaszek certainly suggests that such writing can be powerful for change.
Finally, the last chapter is on Scientists, looking at both the ways in which female scientists were presented in mainstream media and science fiction, and at the women who wrote scientific books and columns. Did you know that there was a programme called WISE – Women in Space Early? Me neither. But how cool is that?? (It was run by a man named Lovelace!) Pity it got canned awfully quickly. Did you know that women wrote a lot of science books, especially natural history, for young readers? And wrote science columns for the SF magazines? Yeh. Sad, isn’t it? Anyway – great chapter, exploring those representations, the options available in reality and what authors could imagine.
The book finishes by looking at how these progenitors (progenitrices?) have influenced the field today. She points out a few men who have started incorporating galactic suburbia into their writing, and how gay&lesbian writing has also coopted some aspects. I wonder if we could have a revival of galactic suburbia? We’ve got space opera, and steampunk, and mannerpunk, and the new weird… maybe there’s room for sophisticated domestic SF, too. That would be nice.
As I said above, one of the things reading these sorts of histories makes me realise is that I am so glad I live today. And I actually really hope that my goddaughter and my pseudo-nieces think exactly the same thing, when they compare the world of their birth with the world of their adulthood.