If the Hugo Award is important to me, then how do I get my head around the lack of female representation in the first three Hugo Award-winning Best Novels? Do I excuse it (products of their era)? Do I write frantically in anger about it? Do I agree with it?
Thus far, I have read Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, Mark Clifton and Frank Riley’s They’d Rather Be Right, and Robert Heinlein’s Double Star. None of these novels feature a single woman as anything more than an accessory to their male-dominated casts. None. Not one. The next novel on the list, Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time, does feature a female protagonist, but the summary also bills her as a ‘part prostitute, part nurse, part psychotherapist’. That’s a step forward, right?
In The Demolished Man, one of the female characters is the daughter of a murdered man. She’s being hunted by the novel’s primary character, the man who murdered her father. Eventually, she comes to be protected by the novel’s second primary character, a psychic detective who is trying to bring her father’s murdered to justice.
Bester’s themes in The Demolished Man revolved around the new science of psychology. Traumatized by witnessing her father’s murder, the she retreats into the innermost part of her mind. Being a psychic detective, Lincoln Powel goes after her, in her own mind, and tries to bring her back so she can be a witness of the crime. In so doing, he begins a healing process where she must relive her entire life thus far at an accelerated rate. In other words, she starts off a baby, then becomes a child, and so on and so forth, despite being a full-grown woman.
Throughout her recovery, Detective Powell serves as a father figure to her, but by the end, she is in love with him. He’s in love with her too. I would go into greater detail as to why this is problematic, but I think it all speaks for itself.
In They’d Rather Be Right, an ugly, old woman is put into a machine that can repair and rejuvenate the cells, thus de-aging her into an incredibly beautiful, incredibly smart, and very psychic individual. Again with the psychology, which seems to be an obsession of the time.
She’s a fuller character than any of the women in The Demolished Man, but she exists solely because the main character wanted a psychic counter-part to fall in love with. She’s an Eve to his Adam, at most. There’s also very little exploration of the issues with going from an old person with a lifetime of experience to a permanently younger person who has moved on past all of those prior experiences. She’s more like two separate characters than one well-developed character.
Finally, we come to Double Star by Robert Heinlein. The only female character in the entire novel is the secretary to the politician in which the main character is impersonating. She spends a lot of the novel bouncing between emotional states of sadness and depression (she’s in love with her boss who has been kidnapped) to anger at the main character for being too good at his acting job. In the end, she marries the double despite little to no romance between the two outside of a few lines by the protagonist about her being attractive.
I do not consider myself a feminist, if only because the world has become problematic and toxic in so many circles. I do subscribe to many of the tenants of feminism in its most universal state. I believe in equality among all and I agree that fair representation of both sexes is necessary, especially in culture.
It is easy pickings to yell about women in early science fiction. This entire era was dominated by white males and it shows. None of these novels can be removed from the context of the environments in which they were written if you want to retain any of their value. Otherwise, they’d be open to all sorts of problems in other areas too. All three novels feature microfilm and other forms of tape as a major technology in the distant future. That makes zero sense from our modern vantage in the digital age.
I cannot excuse it altogether though. To me, science fiction has always had a hopeful tinge to it, even at its most pessimistic. How many novels take for granted a united federation of humans and then set the conflict against alien, non-humans? A whole lot! That means that humanity has found a way to move past issues of race, religion, country, and gender enough so that we can all unite into a shared government. Even Heinlein used similar ideas multiple times and he became an unabashed right wing libertarian by the end of his writing career.
I also do not think this is worth yelling about. These novels are what they are and they have been just that decades longer than I have been alive. I am not so much angry as I am reflective. The science fiction genre and the Hugo Award specifically have changed significantly since then, some for the better and some less so.
Most important of all, I wanted to reflect on this lack of female representation because an absence of one kind of representation often lends itself to an abundance of another. In the wake of the Sad Puppies kerfuffle from a couple of years ago, it is worth remembering that the Hugo Award once did award the kinds of novels those individuals wish to still award today. Novels focused first and foremost on adventurous males who took on the stars. Not novels about gender politics.
I suspect that reading the Best Novel Hugos in award order will net me a better view of the shift from pulp to purpose. As the award grew over the years, it also began to change and I agree that it became more political in nature. However, I do not see that as necessarily bad, especially since I prefer science fiction with a point rather than schlocky fantasy in some sort of deep space trapping. Then again, the Hugo for Best Novel did go to fantasy novels on a few occasions within my lifetime and I did not mind that very much.
I do not need every Hugo Award winner to be everything for everyone. I do need variety though. Time will give me the variance I seek, but in this small sampling size, its all mostly the same. To me, science fiction works because it can tap into infinite ideas about infinite places in ways that other genres cannot emulate. That includes giving a platform for infinite voices as well. If every Hugo Award winner were like these first three, then I would quit this journey immediately. Ursula K Le Guin cannot come soon enough!