The SF That Was: Isaac Asimov Introduces Anne McCaffrey

dragonsingerOne of the things I’ve been trying to do in recent years is look more at the history of the field. In the thrift store, I love finding F&SF anthologies from the 60s and 70s, in part because it’s interesting to see which names kept on going, which faded away. Often the most riveting story in a collection is from a writer whose name I’ll only see that once. In reading anthologies, I find that often one of the most revelatory parts is the introduction, less for anything said about the stories than for clues to the publishing climate at the time.

Recently in the thrift shop, I picked up a couple of paperbacks: two volumes worth of early Hugo winners, edited by Isaac Asimov. Of course I bought them. How could I not, in light of recent controversies? They’ve been an interesting read – particularly when I’m reading the first Nebula volume at the same time — and sometimes illuminating. If you’d like to read the book I pulled these from, it is More Stories From the Hugo Winners Vol II, published in 1971.

I certainly have realized that despite my admiration for Asimov’s work, the good doctor and I would probably have not gotten along particularly well — at least from my point of view. Every intro to a story seems much more about Asimov than either story or writer, in an egocentric way that seems a little charming but I’m betting was pretty grating to be around at times. (I by no means claim that Asimov is the only SF writer to exhibit this trait.) But Mr. Asimov is not here to defend himself and was very much a product of his time, so I’ll leave it at that.

Because I found it striking, this is taken from his introduction to Anne McCaffrey’s “Weyr Search”. It’s a glimpse into the social mores of that time (the early 70s) that’s interesting. I have refrained from adding any inline commentary. As you read, you may admire my restraint in that.

Anne McCaffrey is a woman. (Yes, she is; you notice it instantly.) What makes this remarkable is that she’s a woman in a man’s world and it doesn’t bother her a bit.

Science fiction is far less a man’s world than it used to be as far as the readers are concerned. Walk into any convention these days and the number of shrill young girls fluttering before you (if you are Harlan Ellison) or backing cautiously away (if you are me) is either fascinating or frightening, depending on your point of view. (I am the fascinated type.)

The writers, however, are still masculine by a heavy majority. What’s more, they are a particularly sticky type of male, used to dealing with males, and a little perturbed at having to accept a woman on an equal basis.

It’s not so surprising. Science is a heavily masculine activity (in our society, anyway); so science fiction writing is, or should be. Isn’t that the way it goes?

And then in comes Anne McCaffrey, with snow-white hair and a young face (the hair-color is premature) and Junoesque measurements and utter self-confidence, talking down mere males whenever necessary.

I get along simply marvelously well with Annie. Not only am I a “Women’s Lib” from long before there was one, but I have the most disarming way of goggling at Junoesque measurements which convinces any woman possessing them that I have good taste.

Coupled with all the accounts of Isaac Asimov groping women, the part about the girls backing cautiously away while lusting after Ellison, who was a hottie (IMO) or at least a lot better looking than Asimov, makes perfect sense. Of course, it’s impossible not to mention a much later incident that underscores some of the irony so rife in all of this, although my understanding is that he regrets that episode and is unlikely to repeat it.

Here I typed out and then deleted a protracted rant about the hypnotic powers of breasts. I’ll save that for some other time.

Okay, so back to that intro. It’s interesting because Asimov positions himself very much as one of the good guys, “a ‘Women’s Lib’ from long before there was one” because it is immediately followed up with “plus women really like it when I compliment them on their breasts.” OMG there are the hypnotic powers again.

Well, maybe by the end of the piece, he’s moved away from breasts. Let’s see:

In August 1970 Annie and I were co-guests of honor at a science fiction conference in Toronto. That meant one certain thing. We had another of our perennial songfest competitions. We sing at each other very loudly, and finally we work ourselves up to a climax*, which is always “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”

We each have our pride, of course, not so much in any skill at singing, but in loudness and range. And while everyone in the audience gets far out to non-wincing distance, we get louder and higher. (I happen to have a resonant baritone, but Annie perversely refuses to consider me anything but a tenor. “Never trust a tenor,” she says darkly.)

It always ends the same way. At the final note, she takes a deep breath and holds. I do, too, but before the minute is up, I fade, choke, and halt, while that final note of Annie’s keeps right on going — loud, shrill, and piercing, for an additional fifteen seconds at least.

And then everyone applauds and when I say, “It’s not fair. She has spare lungs,” and point at her aforementioned Junoesque proportions, no one seems to care.

There’s another line about how she’s in Ireland and he misses her, but I’m gonna leave it at that and let’s look at two things.

A. not so much in any skill at singing.

Okay, that’s just so far off the mark that it’s weird. This is from Anne McCaffrey’s biography:

She studied voice for nine years and, during that time, became intensely interested in the stage direction of opera and operetta, ending that phase of her experience with the direction of the American premiere of Carl Orff’s LUDUS DE NATO INFANTE MIRIFICUS in which she also played a witch.

Given that, when I see words like “shrill” and “piercing” applied to that final note, I’ve got some doubts about whether people are scrambling out to “non-wincing distance” on her account. And I find it interesting how all of that experience doesn’t get mentioned, because I’m pretty sure he would have been aware of it.

Was this perhaps an in-joke (always a possibility in this field), Asimov fondly tweaking “Annie”? Even allowing for that, from my vantage position, it seems like not just slightly hostile humor, but humor aimed at diminishing her achievements, and that sets off certain alarm bells for me.

B. And then everyone applauds and when I say, “It’s not fair. She has spare lungs,” and point at her aforementioned Junoesque proportions, no one seems to care.

I must admit, I am sure that this moment happened in real life at least once. Probably more. And I read that “no one seems to care” as an appalled silence in which the rest of the room, including McCaffrey, thought “FFS, Isaac,” exchanged glances, and wordlessly established that they would all ignore the gaucherie of a professional author being such a bad loser that he’s blaming her win on the fact she has “Junoesque proportions” aka a hefty set of mammary glands. Remember, it’s the early 70s, and “women’s Lib” is enough of a catch-phrase for it to fall pretty easily off Asimov’s tongue.

And you know, we can argue that the women of the time didn’t mind it, or didn’t object at the time, but a few things are clear. One, the boob-grabbing, whether verbal or literal, has been going on a while and two, here we’re not getting much talk about the story or the lady’s actual accomplishments, other than being well-endowed. And that, I think, is at the heart of some of this — that women writers often have this “hey, hey, my eyes are up HERE” thing that goes on and while it’s annoying, when it gets to the point of obscuring one’s writing, it’s downright alarming.

This may be why some of us, when reading pieces about the history of the field, object to descriptions of the female writers and editors that focus on their physical appearance and really don’t tell us what we want to know: what were they like? What writers did they like and mentor? How did they help shape the field? What were the friendships and rivalries like? I’d rather know that than cup size; I am aware mileage on such matters varies.

I’ve hit longer than usual length here, so I will leave the introductions to Samuel R. Delany, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison (who has two stories in the work) for another time. There’s a really peculiar distancing thing that happens when Asimov references Delany** that doesn’t happen with any other writer, as least in the intros I’ve read so far (about half). But in looking at those, I’m also going to argue that Asimov’s emphasis on the personal in the introductions isn’t restrained to McCaffrey. There’s a lot about the physical appearance of the male writers as well. It’s just some interesting differences in stress.

Want to know more about McCaffrey? You can hear her talking for herself here:

*See earlier note about admiring my restraint.
**I’m aware of what he said to Delany; what he says in the intro simultaneously reflects and belies it in a way that may provide some insight.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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