Imaginations of Her Own: Women Pioneers of Science Fiction

The following is a guest post by Megan Metcalf, a reference librarian in the Library’s Researcher and Reference Services Division.

Frontispiece [detail] of Mary Cavendish's Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy: To which is Added, the Description of a New Blazing World (London: A. Maxwell, 1668). British Library copy, available through the Internet Archive.

Frontispiece [detail] of Mary Cavendish’s Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy: To which is Added, the Description of a New Blazing World (London: A. Maxwell, 1668). British Library copy, available through the Internet Archive.

In 2018 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein turns 200, and readers everywhere, including here at the Library of Congress, are celebrating. While Frankenstein has enjoyed enduring popularity, what many don’t know is that this work from 1818 is widely considered to be the very first science fiction novel. Science fiction as a genre is defined by Merriam-Webster as “Fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.”

Women writers of science fiction are often obscured, becoming hidden figures in the history of the genre. This led me to search for women who were science fiction pioneers, and if possible, to find their works at the Library.  I quickly discovered a number of other early science fiction writers represented in the collections. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, just a serendipitous exploration of the Library to see what might be waiting to be discovered in a dark corner of the stacks.

Here’s what I found:

  • Duchess Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673). I discovered that some believe the first science fiction novel is not Frankenstein, but The Blazing World (also known as The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World) published in 1666 by Margaret Cavendish. While the Library doesn’t own a first edition of The Blazing World, our Rare Book and Special Collections Division is home to several of her 17th century works, including the 1664 publication Poems and Phancies . It is worth pointing out that the social position of Margaret Cavendish, an aristocrat, had much to do with her ability to publish at a time when many considered female authorship inappropriate or even scandalous.
Costume contestants posing, Tricon (1966). From the Jay Kay Klein Photographs and Papers on Science Fiction Fandom collection, UC Riverside, Library, Special Collections and University Archives. https://calisphere.org/item/ark:/86086/n29s1pdq/

Costume contestants posing, Tricon (1966). From the Jay Kay Klein Photographs and Papers on Science Fiction Fandom collection, UC Riverside, Library, Special Collections and University Archives.
https://calisphere.org/item/ark:/86086/n29s1pdq/

  • Andre Alice Norton (1912-2005) worked for the Library of Congress in the cataloging department from 1940-41.  She went on to become the first woman to receive the Gandalf Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement in fantasy fiction (1977), first to be Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) Grand Master (1984), and first inductee to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame (1997). The Library has many of Norton’s first editions here, including Quag Keep, the first novel set in the Dungeons and Dragons Universe. In 1976, Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax invited Norton to play in his Greyhawk world. To find out more about the prolific career of Andre Norton, search the Library’s online catalog for Norton, Andre.
  • Lisa Ben (1921-2015). Interested in reading what many consider the first lesbian science fiction story? Look no further than Lisa Ben’s “New Years Revolution,” published in the January 1948 issue of Vice Versa, the first dedicated lesbian publication in the United States. You can access this title at the Library of Congress via the subscription database Archives of Human Sexuality and Identity.
  • Zines & Serial Publications. For many women, access to mainstream publishing has been difficult and often impossible. Therefore, when looking for science fiction pioneers, I made sure to look at zines and periodicals. Science fiction has a rich tradition of zine publishing, first embracing the format in the 1920s. Decades later (1975), Janice Bogstad and Jeanne Gomoll created a feminist sci-fi fanzine called Janus. Janus (later renamed Aurora) examined sci-fi for and by women, and grew out of a science fiction book club in Madison, Wisconsin. Luckily, you can read Janus online courtesy of the Society for the Furtherance & Study of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

3 Comments

  1. Jodi Hosale
    November 1, 2018 at 8:18 am

    Very interesting. Good learned facts .

  2. Sheri Irvin
    November 1, 2018 at 6:57 pm

    Enjoyable read! Was there a reason you did not include Ursula Le Guin? I thought perhaps LC’s collection didn’t represent much of her writing but that does surprise me. Still, I am looking forward to reading the writers you listed, particularly Duchess Margaret Cavendish. And I didn’t know Andre Norton worked for LC! Sci and Fantasy are the most interesting literary genres. Thanks for writing this post.

  3. Meg Metcalf
    November 6, 2018 at 2:13 pm

    Sheri- Thanks for reading! I chose not to include Le Guin because I wanted to focus on lesser known writers, and Le Guin is usually the first person to come to mind when I think of feminist science fiction. Also, there simply wasn’t room to even begin to discuss all of Le Guin’s accomplishments while also including other writers. I think Ursula Le Guin deserves her very own post, so keep your eyes peeled for that.
    I know Project Gutenberg has a free copy of The Blazing World on their website. I just started Norton’s Witch World Series myself!
    Best, Meg

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