this is not the 1950’s

I guess ‘most people’ will know that. One thing that disturbs me a bit is the frequency with which I come across 1950’s style fiction in workshops or the slush.

Yes, I totally get that you may have adored the SF greats. I am in no way suggesting that those writers weren’t great in their time, and some perhaps even now. However, a lot of that fiction has aged badly. I don’t mean technology. OK, we now have the net and computers, but sometimes it’s fun to read about a society at the time when a computer with the capacity of my geriatric laptop took up an entire room. This is part of the setting, and can be used successfully in new fiction.

I don’t mean 1950-style plots, those reminiscent of the great SF works. I love SF and space opera and while there is nothing edgy about the subgenre, it’s a lot of fun and still sells.

I mean the treatment of certain people in fiction, OK, ‘minorities’ and I’m especially talking about women.

The 1950’s style fiction will probably have women. It may even have women as major characters, but the way those characters are treated is patronising, or alternately, they exist solely to make a point. The woman is either a bitch or an object of sexual fancy, and viewed as a woman, not as a character or a person. The woman will be pretty and young. The woman will be a secretary in an office (if you’ve read my fiction, you’ll know that my secretaries are almost exclusively male). The woman won’t be a mother. If the woman is married, she will exist solely to serve dinner. The men will be protective and often kind.

The ultimate feeling I have about 1950’s style fiction is that the woman is a prop and a shallow character, a token, part of the scenery.

That’s why I will reject those stories which smack of 1950’s style fiction.

I am the last person to call myself a feminist. When I think of a one-word tag to identify myself, I think ‘writer’, ‘science nerd’ or ‘parent’. ‘Woman’ is a tag that comes very low on that list.

So, by all means, write golden-age-inspired SF, but treat all your characters like real people.

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9 comments on “this is not the 1950’s

  1. I can so relate to this post right now. I am reading Alfred Bester’s Hugo Award winning “The Demolished Man” right now for the first time and have had to stop and pick my jaw up off the floor several times over this issue.

    I can’t believe anyone would want to emulate that in modern fiction.

    • I don’t understand that either, but I see it all the time. The phoenix-like secretary at the (male) CEO’s door, the lab assistant with the big boobs, and the scientist slavering over her, never mind that she has two PhDs. It’s not about the woman’s achievements but about her sexual presence.

      When I see this, I hit ‘reject’. No comment.

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  3. Pardon the pun, but I agree Bester was the worst. I read THE STARS MY DESTINATION a few years ago and could not believe people were still calling in a classic.

    But why should science fiction be any different from the mainstream media? Try finding a movie with an equal number of male and female stars! And the only women start are usually younger than the men.

    I went on Rotten Tomatoes and started picking random movie titles and looked at the cast as shown. Here is what I got:
    Unknown: 4 men, two women
    The King’s Speech: 5 men, 1 woman
    True Grit: 5 men, 1 “woman” (much younger but at least she’s not there for sex)
    Another Year: 4 men, 2 women
    The Fighter: 4 men, 2 women
    No Strings Attached: 3 men, 3 women (FINALLY!)

    I am so glad I didn’t want to be an actress!

    • I know movies are bad.

      To be honest, I frankly care very little about equality in numbers. A lot of workplaces featured in movies are male-heavy. The reasons for that is a whole other issue, and one I find myself uncomfortable pushing. I worked in a male-dominated industry; I understand why there are few women. I only pity the men who don’t have the freedom to vote with their feet.

      I care about how those characters are portrayed, especially in old-style SF. I don’t buy into the ‘strong female character’ BS, but I want women to have a function in a book or story other than sexual or decorative.

      I got very annoyed with someone recently where an older male boss only saw an assistant in terms of tits. I asked the author why the character wasn’t recognised for her work quality first (and then maybe as subject for desire, if that was part of the plot).

  4. You’re thinking of Stranger In A Strange Land, aren’t you? 🙂 Funny thing, I kept saying “Heinlein’s awful!” then getting sucked into another of his books. He is pretty sexist. And I have a vague memory that SIASL inspired that nasty bunch “the Family” who murdered Sharon Tate and her friends, but then, the Bible has also inspired plenty of murder and torture…

    If you want SF with good strong female characters where the author isn’t saying, “Look! Look! I’ve got a strong female character, aren’t I wonderful?” Stephen Baxter is the best, IMO. I also can’t stand so-called feminist SF where the author is trying to Make A Point.

    • Not so much Heinlein, but yes, he did have that ‘look, a woman’ feel, where the point of the woman is being a woman.

      I was actually thinking of some stuff I’ve seen in the slush over the past two years, and wondering why people still write like this, and why they can’t see how distasteful it is. As I said above, I don’t care at all if there are more male than female characters, as long as the characters of any gender don’t just exist to make a point to the reader.

  5. OK, you young folks need to get your decades straight. Stranger in a Strange Land was the 1960’s, all the way. No way could that book have been published in the ’50s. In the 1950’s, American women did not work except as teachers, nurses, or housewives, and they did not put out until they got married– or if they did, they were called sluts. In the 1960’s, all that changed. They still had trouble getting work except as teachers, nurses, or stewardesses, but if they WANTED to put out, at least they had the Pill.

    • But I just said I wasn’t talking about Heinlein, although his attitudes towards women disgusted me, too. He did have female characters, but most of them were there to make a point. I know he was Heinlein, and thus a god, but reading it makes me feel all queasy

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