HomeInterviews, panels and guest blogsGuest blogSean McMullen: From Science Fantasy To Galileo

Sean McMullen: From Science Fantasy To Galileo

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series AWW challenge

Science Fiction by Australian Women, 1951 – 1981

Twenty years ago Sean wrote a ground-breaking article about women in genre titled ‘From Science Fantasy To Galileo’. Sean graciously permitted republication in Dark Matter to provide a brief history of genre in Australia in response to the AWW challenge. This article was presented to the Nova Mob as a talk on July 1st, 1992, and published in Eidolon 10, Spring (October) 1992. It was shortlisted for the William Atheling Award for criticism in Australian science fiction in 1993.  

Australian women have been writing science fiction and fantasy since the Nineteenth Century, but in 1951 an important milestone was reached: the first sale to an overseas science fiction magazine; a British magazine as it turned out. It would be nearly three decades before the first story by an Australian woman appeared in a large American magazine, yet in this period we can see the foundations laid for local women’s contribution to the genre as it has developed since.

In the Northern Winter edition of 1951 the British magazine Science Fantasy published a story by N.K. Hemming, the first of sixteen (known) stories by a 24 year old Sydney author. The “N” stood for Norma and the “K” for Kathleen, and she had migrated to Australia with her family three years earlier. “Loser Take All” is well written and strong on ideas. The first British spacecraft is given its maiden flight soon after London has been wiped out by an atomic bomb. The pilot discovers an alien base on the moon, and it turns out that a group of cosmic refugees, the Kalerians, are trying to spark an atomic war to weaken the Earth prior to their attempt at conquest. The pilot destroys the base by crashing his spacecraft into it, but the Kalerians have a second base. A rather messy war ensues, the Kalerians prove that they are generally superior, but the Earth scientists come up with their own ultimate weapon just in time. Interestingly, instead of reducing the Kalerians to so much ionised gas, the leaders of Earth opt for a negotiated peace, and agree to let the homeless aliens settle on Earth in exchange for a bit of high-tech transfer. For the early Fifties this was quite something, and the story was a good introduction to Hemming’s strong, confident style. British readers would not see another Hemming story for five years however, because her career was about to enter a very strange and murky interlude.

Hemming was the only “serious” SF writer to contribute to the first local SF magazine, Thrills Incorporated, and its successor Action Monthly. Even with the best will in the world it could not be described as a serious magazine, except that the publishers were seriously interested in making money from lightweight space opera. Their house authors – including Hemming after issue 16, October 1951 – had to write to formula, but she must have done her ‘work well as her stories appeared in every subsequent issue. Hemming trod a fine line between being too intellectual for the publishers and too facile for the readers, and did so well that she had the lead story for four out of her eight contributions to Thrills.

In 1954 Hemming was able to sell stories written to her own high standards to two newly established local magazines, and in 1956 “Dwellers in Silence” was published in the September issue of the British magazine New Worlds. It was voted 3rd in the readers’ poll. “Debt of Lassor” (Nebula SF, August 1958) returned to Hemming’s earlier themes of reconciliation. The expansionist government of a conquering alien civilization changes, and its colonial service has the odd task of encouraging its thoroughly subjugated client worlds to rebel and develop some independence. It was voted an impressive equal second in the readers’ poll. When “Call Them Earthmen” was published in Science Fiction Adventures in 1959 Hemming was already suffering from the lung cancer that would kill her in 1960 at a tragically young thirty three. Had she lived into the late Sixties and continued to have works published overseas, she might have become a peer of LeGuin and McCaffrey.

Hemming was not the only Australian woman to sell to British and Australian magazines in this period. While the numbers are a small fraction of what men were having published, the fact that anything was published at all generally comes as a shock to most readers. In Australia, the stories were scattered over such magazines as the Bulletin, The Australian Journal, and even Man. Gwen Hooker’s “The Chair” in The Australian Journal of May 1957, and Janice Jones’ “Cave of Darkness” in Man Junior, August 1972 are two examples. The latter work is an Adam-and-Eve story, involving a naked couple, a cave, and a nuclear war. Hooker and Jones do not seem to have published any other science fiction, which illustrates an important point: even if your couple of stories in print appear in large, nationally distributed magazines, in a decade they might be known only to the most dedicated of collectors and scholars. You have to keep writing or become invisible.

Veronica Wellwood, whose real name was Norma Veronica Williams, sold two stories to the British SF magazine Authentic Science Fiction in the mid-Fifties, making her the first Australian-born woman to sell to an overseas SF magazine. In “The Last Journey’, August 1954, we find that the Wandering Jew figure has got as far as Mars, where he at last finds permanent rest. The second, “The Wilder Talents”, appeared nearly two years later in June 1956, and is a neat little story about self-delusion. A man believes that he is exercising paranormal powers, but when the story is told from the viewpoint of his long-suffering wife it is obvious that he has problems rather than powers. While it is not easy to extrapolate much from only two stories, it can be seen from these works that Wellwood was a competent writer with a good imagination, and that she shared Hemming’s strong concern with human issues. Graham Stone reports that Wellwood did not write any other SF, and died in a house fire in Perth in the Seventies.

The Sixties were a rather bleak period for female SF authors in Australia. Hemming died in the first year of the decade, and even the occasional stories by women in the mainstream magazines seem to have declined. Mary Patchett, who had begun writing children’s SF with Kidnappers in Space (1954), produced another four SF titles over the next fifteen years. By the Sixties she was writing mostly mainstream works, and while she was an excellent writer of juvenile SF, her work was hardly leading-edge SF as hard-core enthusiasts understand it. Susan Chandler was a different matter. Since the Fifties she had been helping and advising her husband A. Bertram Chandler with his science fiction writing, and had a particularly strong influence on works such as Spartan Planet (1968), his novel of a monosexual society. She did, however, collaborate to the point of actual joint authorship on two stories but, while it is difficult enough to generalise on the strength of two works, it is even harder to do so when the works are jointly authored. In “The Long Way” (Worlds of Tomorrow, November 1964), a man who is experimenting with dowsing techniques discovers not only that dowsing works better when he and his girlfriend are naked, but that it can be used for interstellar travel. “The Proper Gander” was simultaneously published in Analog and Man Junior in January 1970, but Susan was only acknowledged as a joint author in Man Junior. Rather than looking for Susan Chandler’s influence in these works, I think it would be better to remember that she probably influenced his writing in a very broad sense, so that if the collaborations look like typical Bert Chandler, then it is because there is a lot of Susan Chandler in the rest of his work of this period.

SF novels for adults by women continued to be rare in this country. Janet Fraham had Intensive Care published by Reed in 1971, and Lilith Norman’s The Flame Takers was published in the UK by Armada in 1973, but these are exceptions in the latter half of this century – so far. When Australian women write novel length science fiction it tends to be for young readers. In the early Seventies Patricia Wrightson began writing a series of juvenile fantasy novels that could also stand up as marginal SF. An Older Kind of Magic, The Nargun and the Stars, The Bunyip Hole, and The Dark Bright Water enchanted her readers throughout the Seventies, and in 1981 Behind the Wind received a Ditmar nomination. Wrightson’s work did, of course, win a lot more acclaim than that in mainstream circles. The Nargun and the Stars (1973) was reprinted several times and dramatised for both radio and television, and is a good example of Wrightson’s use of Aboriginal mythology and settings to create a local brand of fantasy.

Thus women were expanding their place in Australian SF in the early Seventies, and one of the best known was a New Zealander who was by then a long-term resident in Australia. Cherry Wilder began her career in a British anthology series with “The Ark of James Carlisle” (New Writings in SF 24, 1974). This was an early environmental-theme work, and was received very well. Its Ditmar nomination was the first for a story by a woman, and it was republished in Australia and the US. The story is more of a tale for young adults than general SF. Scientists from Earth cut down a large tree that a tribe of alien creatures needs as a refuge during periodic floods. One Scientist builds an ark to save them, and it is later discovered that they have telepathic powers. The message is very worthy: do not wantonly trash the natural world, it may have undreamed-of uses.

Wilder had three more stories published in Britain and one in the US before she moved to West Germany, but she was still thought of as an Australian author for some years after that. In 1977 The Luck of Brin’s Five, a novel for older children, was published in the UK. The plot involves the integration of an astro-castaway into an alien culture and, while not an earthshaking work, it is still well worth the purchase price. The following year Australian fans voted to award the Ditmar to this book, making Wilder the first woman to win this award for fiction.

Wilder could hardly be described as an Australian writer much past 1980, yet it is instructive to note a few of her subsequent achievements: Republication in Terry Carr’s Best SF of the Year anthology series, a work on Carr’s Recommended Reading list for 1984, a work on Dozois’ Recommended Reading list in 1988, stories in magazines ranging from Omni to Interzone, and over a dozen novels. Wilder is living proof to local women that, as long as you have talent and determination, you can make it in a big way.

Once we pass the International Women’s Year, then Aussiecon One (the first World SF Convention to be held In Australia, 1975) and its subsequent SF writing workshops, there is an explosion of SF by Australian women; not only in the workshop anthologies. The Altered I and View From the Edge, but also in the experimental magazine Boggle, and even Paul Collins’ Worlds anthology series. Around this time the percentage of local SF works by women shot up from 7% to 33%. During Aussiecon One Australia’s female SF writers had more than the International Women’s Year encouragement and help from the subsequent workshops. They had the role model of Ursula LeGuin in person, and role models are very powerful agents for change. LeGuin’s workshop led to an anthology of works by the participants being published, and this included stories by three local women: Barbara Coleman, Annis Shepher and Philippa Maddern. The first two do not appear to have had any more SF published, but since The Altered I appeared Maddern has had twelve stories published, three Ditmar nominations, and won second place on Van Ikin’s 1985 survey for the best Australian SF ever. In 1978 she became, as far as I know, the first Australian woman with a story in an overseas SF anthology when “They Made Us Not To Be And They Are Not” appeared in Knight’s Orbit 20. “Inhabiting the Interspaces” is in my opinion her best and most original work. A woman lives in a big office block as a human mouse. She emerges after dark, and takes scraps of food, drink and other resources from the desks of day workers. The writing is strong yet without artifice and Maddern’s characters are vivid. The story came equal 5th in Van Ikin’s 1985 survey, and it has been reprinted twice.

A workshop magazine named Boggle was published in Sydney in 1977, and ran to three issues. It gave five women their first published story, and for three of them it was their only published story. Marjorie Hurst also had her first story in Boggle 1, but she went on to sell “The Girl Who Walked Like a Cat”, which traces the rivalry between a man and a tomcat for a shapechanging girl, to Paul Collins for his Envisaged Worlds anthology (1978). Bev Lane was first published in Boggle 3, went on to the Cygnus Chronicler with “After Their Own Kinds”, and is said to have sold to Weirdbook in the US in the early Eighties – although I have not been able to confirm the latter. In “After …” an artificially conceived baby apparently makes her mother regress into a child as she grows up, until the woman’s bewildered husband murders the child to save his wife. The perspective of this story fascinated me: here was a woman writing in first person from a man’s viewpoint about an area of medicine where women are often considered to be passive subjects for experimentation.

View From The Edge, edited by George Turner, was an anthology from the second big writing workshop following Aussiecon One, and had an astounding 45% of stories by women. Remember that until 1975 their share of the total had been 7% and you can see how rapidly things were moving. Philippa Maddern contributed four stories, including “Ignorant of Magic”, and Petrina Smith contributed three stories, which were her first works in print. I know of only two more stories by Smith, but “Over the Edge” received a Ditmar nomination in 1991. At this stage, around 1978, a very interesting pattern emerged. As the market expanded and became more accessible, a lot more people were selling one or two stories, then deciding that SF was not for them. Note that I said “people”: the trend is not confined to women, although statistics show that women were more likely to give up at this stage than men. The fiction of these vanished authors is mostly nothing special, yet little of it is utterly hopeless. True, many stories were single-idea efforts with awkward language and grey characters, yet most of the authors concerned could have gone on to greater things had they been willing to persist. In addition, because it was much easier to get into print in this period, one can be fairly sure that no hidden talent was excluded for sheer lack: of opportunity. Elizabeth Close, editor of the semi-professional SF magazine Nexus, became our first female SF editor in 1980. Children’s books continued to dominate the novel-length output of local female SF authors. A mainstream author, Margaret Pearce, had “Head For The Year” in the Transmutations anthology in 1979, and went on to publish the juvenile novel Altar of Shulaani with Puffin in 1981, a novel of children involved with time travel. Another mainstream juvenile author, Ruth Park, published the commercially successful novel Playing Beattie Bow with Nelson in 1980; another time travel novel, and one that was later dramatised. By now it was nearly three decades since Norma Hemming had sold “Loser Take All” to Science Fantasy. Most of the major milestones for Australian women writing SF had been passed: first sale to a British magazine, first Ditmar award, near-parity with men, and commercial viability. There remained just one further achievement to notch up, that of a sale in a big magazine in the heartland of SF: America.

Leanne Frahm, as far as I can tell, is the first Australian resident woman author to have had a story published in a large US magazine, in this case Galileo. Frahm had three stories in Torgenson’s Chrysalis series in 1979 and 1980, of which the second, “Deus Ex Corpus”, won a Ditmar award in 1981. The Galileo story, “Passage to Earth” (#16, 1980) involves an orphan turned prostitute on a remote mining planet some time in the next couple of centuries. When she finds herself pregnant she is told to have an abortion by her employer, as she would not be able to look after the child. Instead she persuades the staff of a visiting hospital ship to take the embryo back to Earth and bring it to term artificially. Her Grandmother is on Earth, and can rear the child for a much better life than New Isa can offer. In my opinion this is her best story, and well worth the Ditmar nomination that it received in 1981. Frahm sold eleven stories overseas, and became the first Australian woman to have a story published in Amazing – “Reichelman’s Relics”, July 1990. She demonstrates that even with only one or two stories published over a decade and a half, one can assemble quite an impressive body of work and a good reputation. Rather like Hemming in the Fifties, Frahm’s stories have plausible scientific foundations while emphasising the behaviour and predicaments of the characters. Her themes range from star spanning to domestic.

Having journeyed from Science Fantasy to Galileo, we shall not try to consider any more authors or milestones individually. The Eighties saw so much published by so many locals that we could not hope to do justice to the decade without doubling the length of this article – and the editors allocate me a fixed space for each issue. I have decided instead to examine the statistics of SF by women in Australia, to see what lessons they hold for those writing in the early Nineties. The percentage of stories written by women in the Ditmar awards and nominations makes interesting reading. Overall they have 16% of nominations and winners. Taking a period covering the six years from mid-’80s to mid-’91 and considering the total number of professionally published works by identifiable men and women, we find 54 women and 117 men: women are 32% of the authors. Counting all the works (novels and short fiction) that authors active in this period ever published, we find 13% by women. Thus women were 32% of the authors, but wrote only 13% of the works – which attracted 16% of Ditmar nominations. Further, there are only 6 female authors with more than three genre works published, as opposed to 32 male authors with more than 3 works. Of those 6 female authors, 5 had Ditmar nominations or wins, as opposed to 18 of the 32 men. Thus relatively prolific women had an 83% chance of getting a Ditmar nomination, compared to 56% for prolific men. There are three conclusions to be drawn here. One is that women overall get the recognition that one would expect, story for story. Another is that women are proportionally a lot less prolific in SF than men in Australia. The third is that when women do persist long enough to build up a body of work and develop an individual style, the fan voters show them positive discrimination. And the lesson to be drawn for aspiring female SF authors? Do not give up after your first few works have been greeted with indifference: keep writing and keep submitting, year in and year out, and you will have a better than even.

Chance Of Recognition

Why do proportionally more women tend to experiment with SF, then either leave it for other writing or leave writing altogether? I have no answer for this question, and it is quite a puzzle to me. The facts are that fans are eager to encourage women once they become established as authors, and that women write some excellent SF. Why do they write so much less per head? Are chauvinist husbands and crushing domestic duties to blame? None of the female writers that I know would put up with that any longer than it takes to say ‘divorce’.

The mid-Seventies were undoubtedly a watershed for SF by local women, but there is evidence for an upsurge in such writing from the early Seventies. By the Melbourne Worldcon LeGuin had won the Nebula in 1969 and twice in 1974, and had won the Hugo in 1970, 1973, 1974 and 1975. Overall, the world’s two top awards for SF and fantasy had gone to women fourteen times between 1968 and 1975, and this was proving to women both that they could succeed and that they had something important to say. And finally, remember that the women’s movement was gathering momentum from about the mid Sixties and that Australian women participated from the very start. When opportunities to sell SF came along in the mid-Seventies they were in a good position to exploit them.

Some conclusions. If you want to develop as an author of SF, then you must keep writing and build up a literary Curriculum Vitae that readers can recognise. My research shows that Australian fans, for whatever reason, are very eager to give female SF writers a fair go, so long as they persist long enough to develop a good style. The local market for children’s and young adult SF is very strong in Australia, and women have distinguished themselves in this area. Finally, Australian women do present us with SF whose approaches and concerns are distinct from those of male authors, and provide us with a different perspective on the whole field. Much of their writing resides only in issues of magazines so rare that only single copies exist in some cases, so surely it is time for an anthology of the best SF by Australian women to make amends.

Thanks to everyone who helped with this article, and special thanks to Graham Stone who provided some otherwise unobtainable personal details of authors, and some very, very rare fiction.



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Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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