James Blish: A feminist gets angry

BlishI 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).

Blish 2The 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.

Blish 3They 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.

Blish 4A 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.

cities-in-flightThere 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?




17 thoughts on “James Blish: A feminist gets angry

  1. “There is no point in getting angry at Blish. He was an unreflecting product of his age and his society” — I dunno… there were numerous authors who really did buck the trend. Perhaps they are that much more special because of it.


  2. If James Blish got that reaction (and it was a common enough phenomenon in that era of sf … and quite well known for anyone who has read much sf/fantasy from the “Golden Age” through the 1970s), then be sure to gird yourself when you read Larry Niven. (And he’s much more current, being still alive and writing.) The guy just doesn’t know how to write women into a plot in any meaningful way. I have to just let it go because he has written some of my favorite books, aside from that flaw.


    1. I admit, I don’t think I’ve read any Niven. I read vast amounts of SF in the 1970s and 1980s, and was gradually ground down into giving up the male writers. So I’m being selective now, trying to read for story. If the incidental social history side gets me annoyed, I’ll try to treat it as part of the story. I think what I’m looking for, ultimately, are writers who could step outside their times and avoid taking their social conditioning with them. I don’t think I’ve found anyone to reach that improbably high standard! Except perhaps John Wyndham. I feel a series coming on …


  3. I do know what you mean, although I think that to “avoid taking their social conditioning with them” is a lot to ask from the majority of any genres’ writers. That is what makes the classics, of course, such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and the like. Even then one finds those who criticize them for being of their own time.

    With sf one wishes the thinkers could often be “bigger” in their writing that way because, after all, science fiction is about looking at the human condition and saying “what if…” And then looking at humanity under those new circumstances.

    I often have to overlook the blatant feminism of women writing in the 70s and 80s especially since so many of them were very angry and it really shows. As someone who was in college and young adulthood in those times I find it very wearying, however “important” I’m always told it is. (Just as with Larry Niven and James Blish in the other direction.) I suppose it just depends on how good the story is as to whether one can throw off the sexism from either direction. 🙂

    I highly recommend Eifelheim by Michael Flynn, which is much more modern but also treats all the characters even handedly. In the older books, I haven’t read tons of Philip K. Dick but he doesn’t seem to give off that sexist vibe.

    Despite the fact that the society is written as if it is in the 1950s, I can’t resist recommending The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It has one of the most riveting “first contact” stories I’ve ever come across.

    I could go on and on, but will spare you that! 🙂


    1. Thanks for the tips!

      I think it’s certainly possible for sf writers to think more widely than just their private hobbyhorse, and consider rethinking society as well as science. but so many never bothered, or couldn’t see … I also agree about overwritten feminist sf, it is clunky but with good reason. The kind that annoys me more is the smug ‘you mean you don’t teach birth control at age 6?’ interjection. Yet another example of hobbyhorsing by telling, rather than simply showing silently.


      1. Agreed!

        I often have the conversation with Jesse Willis from SFFaudio.com (blog and podcast) that another part of the problem is that we are so close to the times when all these things were written. Nothing has had a chance to be weeded out. Choosing a Jane Austen book when it was freshly published put it in competition with a lot of clunky writers. They may have had good ideas but weren’t as good at getting them on paper. He prefers older sf because at least some of it has been weeded out. I like to play the field!


  4. Disclaimer: me be male.

    The only Blish I have read thus far is ‘A Case of Conscience’ and I liked it well enough for the concepts it explored. I found the grafted on 2nd act a bit jarring but overall felt that it was well-written.

    I also plan to read ‘Cities in Flight’ soon.

    I do find the handling of females by these early SF authors irritating and discouraging. Even worse are the authors writing today that still suffer from this particular blind spot. For a male author that bucked the trend, I might recommend James H. Schmitz. His 1968 novel, ‘The Demon Breed’ features a female protagonist that was really unprecedented for the time period in that Schmitz makes little reference to her being a woman. She just happens to be the person that is on hand for an alien invasion of her planet. In the book, the first human character we meet is male, but he has already been ‘conquered’ by the aliens so it’s up to our female protagonist to deal with the invaders – if she can. Even when another male comes into the plot, (relatively late in the narrative), he is not there to gallantly ‘save the day’. Instead, he simply goes to work alongside our heroine, aiding her as an equal.

    Schmitz managed to look beyond the typical gender roles of his day and created a character that could have been male or female – gender just didn’t matter to the plot. I found that remarkable for a book published in the sixties.


    1. Yes, Schmitz wrote several strong female protagonists. Of course they had to be pretty, too, but you can’t expect too much. Heinlein ditto (e.g. Friday). Vance was horrible to the women he wrote (and I hear not too great with the ones he met). Asimov, if you can look beyond the fact that he can’t introduce Susan Calvin into a scene without telling the reader she was plain looking, could at least endow his female characters with wit and agency.


  5. I think you’re a bit unfair to Blish in They Shall Have Stars. I’ve just reread it, after a gap of about forty years, and one of the entertaining things is the relationship between Paige and Ann. The book depicts him as making patronising assumptions about her which are natural to a misogynist society like the one depicted and then undercuts them, ending up with the revelation that while he thought he was seducing her into giving him information out of idle curiosity she was seducing him into helping with her group’s plans to overthrow society itself.
    That said, nearly all SF – including Blish’s – was astonishingly sexist art the time. My own guess is that people concentrated on the difference or innovation that particularly interested them and didn’t bother with other factors. The speed with which SF writers had to write then to make a living wouldn’t have helped either.


  6. Blish worked for the Tobacco Insitute from ’62-’68, denying the well-established science on smoking for his tobacco co. funders. He died of lung cancer at age 54.

    I felt his work, like much of the work of early SF writers, lacked humanity–of any sex.

    A much more rounded writer of the time was Cordwainer Smith, whose short stories were episodes in a far-flung cosmology of the next 15,000 years. I recommend “The Game of Rat and Dragon” and “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” (much loved by Ursula Le Guin).


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