My first interest in science was space. Aged two or three I asked my father if he could get the moon for me, perhaps if he stood on the wall with a long stick, possibly balanced on a ladder too. But I learned my first lesson in astronomy; the moon was much further away than the reach of a daddy, even one on a wall wielding a long stick, standing on a ladder. Daddies are big, but space is much much bigger. I took to watching Fireball XL5 and wanted to be a space girl.
In the sixties, junior school science was a vague description of things being made up of solids, liquids and gases, which had even vaguer qualities that were hard to apply to real things like cotton wool and ice cream. School science didn’t really cut the mustard. Was that solid or liquid, or somehow both? I had to satisfy my interest in the science by borrowing books from the library and, as I moved to senior school, discovered the likes of Patrick Moore and Carl Sagan. I read all that my local library had to offer on astrophysics, space and life in the universe, alongside a heady and sometimes dubious mix of science fiction and pseudo-scienctific accounts of alien visitations.
At the time, the only female in space – apart from a dog or two and a chimpanzee – had been the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. It was a 19 years before the next woman made it into orbit. Women were not likely astronauts.
In fiction, it became clear to me that there were few women in space unless they were decorative and/or needed rescuing. Women scientists portrayed in fiction were generally of two kinds – ugly man beaters like Susan Calvin in Asimov’s robot stories or nun-like beauties waiting for the right male scientist to take them away from that nasty stuff, such as Dr Stephanie de Marigny in EE Doc Smith’s Skylark DuQuesne. Patrick Moore’s ‘moon-base’ science fiction books had no women at all, even though he was at pains to say throughout the books – ‘There is no Iron Curtain on the moon’. But there was a blue curtain, blue for boys, beyond which no space girl could go! Even in Star Trek, where beautiful females abounded, a woman could not be captain.
Of course, this is a vast over-simplification. The ‘space opera’ and populist fiction that I devoured had elements of story-telling found in popular culture, and of course reflected the culture of the time and place they were written. One reads them with this in mind as entertainment. Or – if one wants to spoil the fun – by overlaying textual analyses according to one’s chosen agendum. My own feeling is to allow them the colours of their context and not condemn the work for being politically, and perhaps scientifically, incorrect. One should take them for what they were intended to be – by and large – as entertainments.
I have not mentioned the word ‘literary’, although clearly there is much in science fiction which is indeed literary fiction, and perhaps it has no need to be singled out as ‘genre’ fiction. Fiction is all to do with exploration and experimentation, whether the ideas are ‘speculative’ or ‘mainstream’. In one way all fiction is sci fi. The worlds are imagined and ideas and experiences are explored. As a youngster, I did not consciously discriminate on quality of writing, or the science. I just enjoyed reading. Now, I do not have that innocence, but that is education. ‘Science Fiction’ is not a term likely to boost a writer’s likelihood of literary acclaim, despite the thought that a knowledgeable reader should be able to appreciate the quality of a work, much like a wine expert should be able to distinguish a brilliant wine poured into a bottle with a generic label.
Thankfully, women have now boldly gone into the world of science and work in space in the real and fictional universe. In the real universe I have probably missed the spaceship for the moon by being born too soon. However, I can write about it in an informed way, so it wouldn’t be science fiction.