Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, we publish an interview, or a conversation, with an outstanding scholar in American Studies. This issue we are featuring Lisa Yaszek, an associate professor in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She directs the Science, Technology and Culture (STAC) major and curates The Bud Foote Science Fiction collection housed in the university library.
We interviewed her about her interest in science fiction and her new book Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women's Science Fiction (Ohio State University Press 2008).
You got your Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Why did you decide to study there?
Wisconsin offered an ideal mix of traditional and cutting-edge study. My primary research interests were postmodern literature and theory, and Wisconsin’s English department has strong offerings in both those areas. I started working with Tom Schaub (a groundbreaking Pynchon scholar and editor of Contemporary Literature) my first semester at Wisconsin and eventually wrote my dissertation under his direction. Even as they provided me with a very thorough grounding in canonical English and American literature, Tom and various other professors in the English department encouraged me to pursue my secondary interest in popular culture through interdisciplinary classes offered by Keith Cohen in the Comparative Literature department and John Fiske in the Communications department. This allowed me to study narrative across media, which has been essential to my work at Georgia Tech and, more specifically, my work in science fiction studies.
When did you decide to study science fiction?
I’ve been a science fiction (SF) fan all my life – in fact, my very first memory is watching Star Trek with my parents! As a student, I got interested in postmodern literature because authors like Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, and Kathy Acker explored many of the same themes and used many of same techniques as their counterparts in SF: they all built richly detailed worlds that explore the impact of science and technology on society, and they used tropes such as “the stranger in a strange land” and “the fantastic journey” to help make sense of those worlds. And at the same time, I was reading SF authors such as Sam Delany, William Gibson, and Octavia Butler, all of whom incorporate postmodern literary theories and narrative techniques into their own work. It was absolutely fascinating to see how these two modes of literature were inspiring one another.
I decided to write my dissertation on representations of technoscience and society in postmodern literature and contemporary SF after reading Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs.” The idea that SF authors are the best theorists of the contemporary moment made a great deal of sense to me, and it was obvious that I could extend that insight to many postmodern authors as well. I had a great deal of fun writing that dissertation, which was published as The Self-Wired: Technology and Subjectivity in Contemporary American Narrative by Routledge in 2002.
I began to study science fiction as a unique genre unto itself as a faculty member at Georgia Tech. It was a natural extension of my earlier reading interests and intellectual training. SF studies is an extremely dynamic and interdisciplinary field: while much of the discipline is rooted in the methodologies of literary studies, SF scholars often couple these methodologies with others drawn from history, sociology, philosophy, and even the sciences. This allows scholars like myself to demonstrate the central place that SF holds in the contemporary imaginary, and it provides us with important new ways to critically assess other aspects of literature and culture as well.
Why did you decide to make your career at Georgia Tech?
I came to Georgia Tech as a postdoctoral fellow in 1999 and was hired in as tenure-track faculty in 2000. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to work with like-minded people. At Wisconsin people (even in my home department) would ask me: “oh, you work science, technology, and literature? That’s great! There’s something wrong with my computer – can you come look at it?”
Needless to say, nobody asks me this question at Georgia Tech. All of us in the humanities were hired precisely because we use the methodologies of the liberal arts to show how technology-intensive cultures understand and represent themselves through a range of cultural texts, including, naturally enough, SF. Although there are just a few of us here at Tech who teach entire classes devoted to SF, a number of my colleagues incorporate SF texts into their student reading lists, and many more read it for fun. But Georgia Tech does more than provide a generally supportive environment for SF research; it actively encourages interdisciplinary collaboration, so I’ve had the opportunity to do research in tandem with public policy scholars and scientists as well as other literary scholars.
Tell us about the Science, Technology, and Culture (STAC) program. You direct the major.
The STAC program is Georgia Tech’s equivalent of an English or Communications program. Most of our faculty have Ph.D.s in fairly traditional fields – English, Comparative Literature, Sociology – but are dedicated specifically to studying how various cultures represent technoscientific relations across media. We’re very active in interdisciplinary professional organizations including the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT); the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA); and the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) – in fact, we are home to SLSA’s flagship journal Configurations. The unique nature of our program is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that we offer the only humanities-oriented B.S. degree in the United States, and our students go on to pursue graduate work and careers in fields ranging from education and literary studies to computer science consulting and marine biology.
Tell us about The Bud Foote Science Fiction Collection. You're the curator for the collection.
The Bud Foote Science Fiction Collection is one of Georgia Tech’s most unique research resources. It was founded in 1999 when Irving F. “Bud” Foote, professor emeritus in Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Communication, and Culture donated his personal collection of 8000 science fiction related items to the institute’s library. Bud was a genuine leader in the effort to make science fiction a serious field of academic inquiry: he began teaching one of the first accredited, college-level science fiction classes at Tech in the early 1970s, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s he brought major authors to campus including Frederic Pohl, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Kim Stanley Robison – all of which is thoroughly documented in the personal papers that are a central part of the Bud Foote Collection. Other features of the Bud Foote Collection include first edition utopias and scientific romances from the nineteenth century, twentieth-century science fiction novels from every Anglophone country as well as France, Russia, and Japan, and a complete run of the Ballantine Fantasy Series.
Since coming to Tech in 1999, I’ve worked to raise the visibility of the Collection – and of SF studies at Tech in general – in a number of ways. In 2002, I developed an online presence for the collection; in 2004, I organized a lecture series on “Mary Shelley’s legacy to art and science” featuring SF author Kathleen Ann Goonan; and in 2005, I organized a speculative arts festival featuring SF author Paul Di Fillipo and media scholar Rhonda Wilcox. At that same time, I started the Science Fiction Laboratory for students interested in using materials from the Bud Foote Collection to build an online science fiction dictionary and research portal. And in this past year, we’ve gone live as “the Sci Fi Lab,” a monthly 2-hour variety show dedicated to “the best of everything in science fiction.” This show airs on WREK, Georgia Tech’s student-run radio station, every third Sunday of the month, and is available in podcast form at http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/stac/creativeprojects.php. To date we’ve produced shows on the history of SF at Tech, SF writing, SF film and television, SF fandom, and environmentalism in SF; future shows will cover SF gaming and SF in the global context.
The students must love that.
Tell us about the beginnings of Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women's Science Fiction. Why did you write it?
Galactic Suburbia came out of my desire to update the history of SF class I teach at Tech. I was particularly concerned with updating my unit on “Golden Age” SF, which spans the period from about 1940 to 1960 and marks the period when SF took on its modern form and became central to the American imagination. In particular, I wanted to teach a group of stories that would help students understand that the creation of modern SF was a collaborative effort on the part of many, many different writers including, but not limited to, the few “great men” (like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke) with whom they were already familiar.
I wanted this to be a journey of discovery for my students, but I had no idea it would be one for me as well! When I pulled all the midcentury science fiction anthologies from the Bud Foote Collection, I was astonished to see how many women were included in them! Literary and feminist history tell us that women have always written speculative literature, but they did not become major players in the SF community until the revival of feminism in the late 1960s. Yet these anthologies told a different tale – there were just as many women writers included in these midcentury SF anthologies as there were in contemporary ones. And when I started looking through midcentury SF magazines, the story became even more interesting: not only were hundreds of women writing science fiction in an historical period when women supposedly weren’t interested in doing so, but they were specifically using it to explore the relations of science, technology, and gender. And everyone in the SF community recognized that they were doing just that! Debates raged across the editorial and letters pages of the science fiction magazines about the meaning and value of what one editor described as a new kind of “science fiction told from a woman’s point of view”: some members of the community dismissed it as sentimental drivel better suited to the pages of romance magazines, while others celebrated it as the first speculative literature to do both scientific and social extrapolation. What was even more fascinating was that the impact of this new storytelling practice went beyond the boundaries of the SF community: authors including Judith Merril and Mildred Clingerman were included in mainstream literary anthologies, reviewed in the New York Times, and adapted for television. Yet none of this was reflected in literary or cultural history. Galactic Suburbia is my effort to amend this history and remind us of the powerful ways women staked claims for themselves in the American imaginary at the beginning of the contemporary era.
You argue that feminist SF scholars have been some of the "most provocative theorists regarding the relations of gender and popular genre writing." Women writers have used SF "to debunk the myths of objectivity and gender neutrality." The Cold War "fueled the development of women's SF." Would you say SF women writers are largely activist writers?
I would say that SF women writers are often activist writers, but I would also caution that that statement oversimplifies the actual situation for two distinct reasons. First, SF as a modern literary genre has always had an activist agenda. Hugo Gernsback, who is generally considered the father of American SF, began publishing SF magazines in the 1920s, so he could sell both ham radios and the gospel of technocracy (the belief that scientific management should replace political and economic mismanagement of the world). Ever since then, SF authors have used the genre to promote various social, political, and economic agendas. This was particularly true in the postwar era, when many authors turned to SF as a way to escape Cold War literary censorship - as a marginal genre ostensibly about alien worlds and future times, it provided an ideal way to allegorically explore the here and now. So to a certain extent the women writers I discuss in Galactic Suburbia – and the more overtly feminist SF authors who followed them – were (and still are) doing what SF authors have always done. If their writing strikes us as more politicized than that of their male counterparts, it is probably because they introduce a new dimension of social critique by specifically exploring the impact of science and technology on sex and gender relations.
Second, although I’m personally most interested in the politics and aesthetics of women’s SF, I believe it does a real disservice to the complexity of this writing to treat it as exclusively activist in nature. As I explain in the introduction to Galactic Suburbia, postwar women SF authors explored a range of topics and wrote in a variety of styles, not all of which are politically motivated. The goal of SF has always been both to instruct and to entertain, and often women (again, like men) wrote SF simply to have fun and demonstrate their imaginative and aesthetic skills or their loyalty to the SF community. (And of course, that’s true today as well!) And it’s important to remember that sometimes women have been prevented from doing that precisely because people have expected them to be political activists.
Judith Merril’s initial experiences with the SF community provide an excellent example of this. Merril was a self-declared leftist and feminist at a time when it was unfashionable to be either of those things, and her first published SF, 1948’s “That Only a Mother,” set the standards for politically progressive women’s SF – in fact, it pretty much single-handedly converted editor John Campbell to the belief that women could indeed write quality SF. But then Campbell rejected Merril’s next story – a space romp about the adventures of men on Mars – precisely because it wasn’t politically charged. The issue wasn’t quality: Merril went on to sell the story to another magazine right away. Instead, it had to do with Campbell’s own, rather narrow beliefs about what constituted women’s writing. My understanding is that Merril used to love telling this story, and I can see why – I always get a laugh when I tell it now. But it’s more than a funny story; it’s also a real warning about how easily certain kinds of writing – and perhaps especially women’s writing – can get pigeonholed as one-dimensional and so somehow something less than great literature.
Did you find anything that surprised you while writing Galactic Suburbia?
Yes, how many women were involved with SF before they were supposed to be there! Women have always written science fiction – in fact, many scholars identify Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first modern science fiction novel. But for the most part literary and cultural historians have assumed that only a handful of women were involved with SF before the advent of an overly feminist SF in the late 1960s and early 1970s – and that those who were there were not working in any unified thematic or aesthetic mode.
However, when I surveyed the Locus Index of Science Fiction and Fantasy, I found that women comprised 12-15% of all midcentury science fiction authors. This is about the same percentage of women who supposedly entered the SF community after the revival of feminism and the development of feminist SF in the late 1960s and early 1970s! Furthermore, when I examined the postwar magazines themselves (paying particular attention to editorial comments and letters pages), I found that many of those postwar women writers were indeed working in a recognizable subgenre, which was called “sensitive SF told from a woman’s point of view” by its supporters and “heartthrob-and-diaper fiction” by its detractors. As both those names suggest, this new kind of SF examined the impact of science and technology on women’s lives – especially as those lives were so often defined by marriage, motherhood, and homemaking at that time.
So the question is, what happened that all those women were lost from history in the space of a decade? I think there are two answers to this question. First and most obviously, the political and literary scene changed radically in this time period. Midcentury Americans were obsessed with the notion of what Betty Friedan calls “the feminine mystique” – that is, the belief that women were biologically predisposed to prefer caretaking and homemaking in the private sphere over other kinds of work in the public sphere. Naturally enough, women writing SF at this time often used their chosen genre to critically assess the impact of new sciences and technologies on the feminine mystique and women’s work in the home. With the revival of feminism in the 1960s, political activists turned their attention to equal rights for women in the public sphere in the 1960s, and SF authors began to explore the impact of science and technology on women’s work outside the home. Today, you rarely see feminist SF set in domestic spaces or focused on women as wives and mothers. Instead, you are more likely to see male authors tell stories about husbands and fathers – presumably because one of the effects of gender activism has been to let men explore those roles more thoroughly than they have in the past.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, the authors who wrote women’s SF were not self-promoters. They rarely collaborated with one another, and they never published special issues or anthologies of their fiction. Feminist SF authors have been fantastic at self-promotion – from the very beginning they have published their stories in their own amateur fanzines and professional anthologies, hosted their own conventions, and participated in the larger SF community as a more or less unified subgroup. The success of these activities is perhaps best indicated by the fact that academic scholars like myself now write books, edit journals, and host conferences dedicated exclusively to issues of sex, gender, and SF. And I’m glad we do this, or otherwise I may never have rediscovered the rich history of women’s SF that anticipated feminist SF.
What do you hope readers will take from your book?
I hope readers learn many things from Galactic Suburbia! First and foremost, I hope they recognize that women have been significant participants in the SF community throughout its history, and that women’s SF – like men’s SF – changes over time with changing political and literary trends.
But I hope that readers will learn other, perhaps even more fundamental things as well. There is a tendency in the mainstream literary establishment to dismiss SF as one-dimensional fiction without much to say about the human condition – or much to contribute to the history of aesthetics. But as I discuss throughout this book, many writers have turned to SF throughout the history of the genre precisely because it is the kind of storytelling best equipped to explore human relations as they unfold in an increasingly technoscientific world. And, as the case of these postwar women writers demonstrates, SF authors do this by making innovative aesthetic choices and combining elements of preexisting traditions to forge new modes of storytelling appropriate to new scientific and social conditions.
I also hope readers will recognize that SF is not written in a vacuum, but that SF authors use their chosen genre to participate in widespread social and political debates. Stories about lady scientists who build laboratories in their kitchen or women who bond with aliens over their concern for school children might seem at first to be charmingly quaint, but the issues these stories struggle with – how to balance work and family, how to get along with others from radically different cultures – are absolutely central to our lives today.
Finally, of course, I hope this book will inspire people to go out and actually read the stories that I discuss in this book. Postwar women’s SF is amazingly rich and complex; people should experience it for themselves.
And lastly, what are you working on now?
I’m working on several projects. Many of the stories I discuss in Galactic Suburbia are out of print, and I’d like to make them available to the public in an edited anthology. I’m also developing two new lines of critical inquiry that are essentially extensions of the work I began in this book: showing how science fiction offers various groups an ideal vocabulary for understanding and representing the modern world. I’m very interested in the way that Afrodiasporic artists incorporate science fictional elements into their work and have published and spoken about this in venues ranging from local art galleries to scholarly journals to public radio programs. Like the women I write about in Galactic Suburbia, Afrodiasporic artists use SF to make us see scientific and social relations in surprising new ways, and in doing so they very much change the aesthetics of SF itself.
And I’m increasingly interested in the way that scientists and politicians use SF to make sense of their own work as well! I recently received an NSF grant to work with some of my colleagues at Georgia Tech on mapping the development of new ideas about nanotechnology in science, public policy, and popular culture. This has been fascinating because it turns out that both the act of SF storytelling and the concept of “science fiction” itself is utterly central to all three realms. Those of us in the SF community have always known our chosen genre was central to the modern imagination, but it’s nice to see others recognize this as well.
Back to Top