I finished reading James Blish’s really excellent space opera novel Earthman, Come Home (1955) in a towering anachronistic feminist rage. The novel is exciting, expertly-paced and has rightly been acclaimed as one of the truly innovative masterworks of science fiction. The edition I have – the 2010 SF Masterworks edition, as it happens – gives the reader three introductions to the four novels of the Cities in Flight sequence: Earthman, Come Home (book 3 in chronological terms; 1955), They Shall Have Stars (the first in the sequence; 1956), The Triumph of Time (the last one; 1958) and A Life for the Stars (a prequel giving backstory for Earthman; 1962).
The concepts behind Cities in Flight are stunningly original: an anti-gravity engine that lets cities uproot themselves from Earth and roam the galaxies looking for work, and an anti-death drug that permits near-immortality, because what is the point of roaming the galaxies if you can’t live long enough to get out of your own? Out of these splendidly simple ideas a new science-based way to manage space travel was born. There is debate over how best to read Cities in Flight, with different sequences giving different effects, as discussed by the SF Masterworks introductions. But not one of the three introductions mentioned a blindingly obvious fact: that Blish writes women like cattle.
They Shall Have Stars is slightly less offensively androcentric than Earthman, Come Home, since the main female character (one of two) has a professional role, and functions in the plot by means of her wits. The narrative voice shows us how the men of this world, and Blish’s generation, view women, after we’ve seen Ann Abbott in action for most of the novel and know how intelligent she is. She arrives at Jupiter space station in company with Paige Russell, and is described as ‘a rather plain girl who was possibly his secretary’ whereas Paige is ‘a tall man wearing the uniform of the Space Army Corps and the eagles of a colonel’. Her appearance equates to her rank. The other woman, a space engineer, is in the plot to be ridiculed for her desire to have a baby, and to fall into the arms of the man she left. Blish could allow a woman to have a science-based conversation with a man, but otherwise she was only there to get married. How was it that so many male SF writers could not (cannot) conceive of an evolution in society, as well as in space flight? John Wyndham is the only one I can think of who made the effort, in Trouble With Lichen, but even in that tremendous attack on patriarchal social conditioning, marriage was the genius woman scientist’s inevitable ending.
A Life for the Stars contains precisely two female characters: one is an elderly teacher whose pupil finally accepts her when he suddenly sees that she might once have been beautiful. The other is a faceless mother figure who keeps house for her husband, laughing musically, for centuries. She gets one shot at making the point that perhaps she and other women in the city travelling through space for decades without planetfall might be given more useful work to do than cook lunch. It is ignored, by the men trampling through her life, and by Blish.
The Triumph of Time is even more pathetic, because Blish does attempt to work out what women might want to do when they’ve been married to the same man for five hundred years and are getting bored of rearing their descendants. All he can come up with is that they’ll want an affair with the man they first thought of.
There is no point in getting angry at Blish. He was an unreflecting product of his age and his society. The failure of the modern introductions to acknowledge how women were treated in these historically important novels is a shocking acknowledgement of how routine misogyny still is, now, today, in science fiction publishing. Had Blish’s novels reflected the racism of the 1950s, or even used words like ‘cripple’ and ‘freak’, I’m pretty sure that Adam Roberts, Stephen Baxter and Richard D Mullen would have explained the cultural contexts pretty darn quick. So why did they think it was OK to ignore women being written like cattle and servants in perpetuity?