The Science Fiction Museum, BBBs and BEMs, and Ursula K. LeGuin

I’ve just been a cultural connoseiur lately (well, when I’m not giggling over rickrolling)– over Thanksgiving, I not only visited the Vancouver Art Gallery with Crowfoot, but also the Seattle Science Fiction Museum with a friend from college. I really had no idea what a Science Fiction Museum was, exactly– a place for sci fi geeks to gather and geek out?

As it turns out, yes!

Now, I had a fantastic time as a geek, combing through everything for my favorite books and fandoms, but once I put on my Gender Goggles (TM), things get a little more…mixed.

On the one hand, sci fi, especially the older sci fi that was the focus of many of the exhibits, can be pretty darn sexist. On the other hand, the curators seemed to try to fight it as much as they could.

One of the little exhibits was about the phenomenon of Brass Bra Babes and Bug-Eyed Monsters. It displayed a huge collection of magazine covers showing, well, brass bra babes in the clutches of bug-eyed monsters. The tone of the informational cards was matter-of-fact, not approving but not quite calling out the covers on their egregious sexism. They phrased it more like “the sci fi community at this time was not very open to female writers, and these sorts of covers have been particularly criticized for sexism.” Especially given that without the informational cards as a counter, the covers are just a wall of gratuitous sexism, I would have been a lot more blunt about the misogynistic undercurrents of the covers, stories, and sci fi community in general which tended to marginalize women in sci fi (they couldn’t keep women from reading, or even from writing, but they could discount their contributions.)

It was disappointing, but it wasn’t too bad, given that it WAS in the middle of the mainstream sci fi community, which still struggles with sexism just as much as the rest of the world. I decided my standards were too high, and walked on to the next exhibit…which was about feminist sci fi!

Later, thinking about the Vancouver Art Gallery, I was able to figure out why I was SO overjoyed to see a big collection of books and covers and authors’ portraits, all part of an exhibit about how important and groundbreaking feminist science fiction is. It’s because, well, it was about how IMPORTANT it was– not some fringe movement, not a bunch of feminazis ruining everything, but a legitimate and important literary movement that influenced the world of science fiction in valuable and interesting ways. The little exhibit talked about how feminist authors like Ursula K. LeGuin were the first to consider sci fi universes that focused on the social sciences rather than natural sciences, and it gave a lot of space to explaining the premises of a number of groundbreaking works, like the Left Hand of Darkness. It had a lot of books I didn’t recognize, too, and I probably would have written down every title for future reference if I’d had any paper. (In retrospect, I should’ve taken pictures of the covers.)

But then I kept walking, to the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. The list:

Brian W. Aldiss
Poul Anderson
Isaac Asimov
Betty Ballantine
Ian Ballantine
Alfred Bester
James Blish
Chesley Bonestell
Ray Bradbury
Edgar Rice Burroughs
John W. Campbell, Jr.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke
Hal Clement
Samuel R. Delany
Philip K. Dick
Gordon R. Dickson
Ed Emshwiller
Frank Kelly Freas
Hugo Gernsback
William Gibson
Harry Harrison
Ray Harryhausen
Robert A. Heinlein
Frank Herbert
Damon Knight
Ursula K. Le Guin
Fritz Leiber
George Lucas
Anne McCaffrey
Abraham Merritt
Michael Moorcock
C.L. Moore
Andre Norton
Frederik Pohl
Richard M. Powers
Gene Roddenberry
Eric Frank Russell
Ridley Scott
Rod Serling
Mary W. Shelley
Robert Silverberg
E. E. Smith
Steven Spielberg
Theodore Sturgeon
Wilson Tucker
A. E. van Vogt
Jack Vance
Jules Verne
H. G. Wells
Kate Wilhelm
Jack Williamson
Gene Wolfe
Donald Allen Wollheim

That’s FIFTY-THREE names, of which only SEVEN are female. That’s 13%. Women do not make up a mere 13% of the population. Do they make up 13% of noteworthy contributors to science fiction? Maybe, but if so, that’s a problem.

Of course, to make it into the Hall of Fame, you have to be active in sci fi for a good, long time– so it can’t be representative of current representation, only the past. And I don’t think there’s much argument that it was tough for female sci fi writers in the 1950s, when most of these women got started. So am I infuriated by this Hall of Fame? Not really, I guess.

Like I said, it was complicated. I don’t want to be complacent, like, “Oh, sci fi’s sexist, nothing can be done.” But I also don’t feel it’s entirely fair to apply my usual standards to a historical exhibit that focuses on publicly popular, published works, of which there were fewer with female creators. The curators seemed to have a basic understanding that sci fi has had gender problems, and attempted to acknowledge them with the “BBBs and BEMs” display, and move beyond them with the “Feminist Science Fiction” display, but ultimately the museum operates within the same paradigm as everything else.

As a geek, I had a FANTASTIC time. And as a feminist, they did a pretty good job. If you’re ever in Seattle, check it out.


4 Responses to The Science Fiction Museum, BBBs and BEMs, and Ursula K. LeGuin

  1. Dolly says:

    Hey, that’s pretty cool. I actually just got a copy of a book by Usrula over the summer– I found out Miyazaki was a fan of hers, so I decided to check her out. Imagine my surprise when I discovered she was all feministaish! Made my day!

    But that’s really too bad about only 7 of the authors being female. And frankly, I’m no fan of Stephen Spielberg so I cringe a little when I see his name.

  2. eloriane says:

    Honestly, I cringed at William Gibson. My dad remembered loving his books so we dug up his old copies from the 80s and I tried to read them on the plane to and from India, but they were just unbearable. He sacrificed everything for his tech and convoluted plots, but the former didn’t stand the test of time and the latter isn’t interesting without characters who care.

    But honestly I winced at Anne McCaffrey too. Have you read this?

    It’s not really about whether or not they’re good, really, just whether or not they had an impact on sci fi in general. Under those guidelines I can accept basically everyone on the list– but we still need more women!

  3. Dolly says:


    That, uh, McCaffrey summary… OMG… that’s a book? That a WOMAN wrote? A “wo-man.” Right? I mean, I know women have said and done sexist things in the past (I’m looking at you Ann Coulter), but whazuhhh?

    You know who I’m really suprised isn’t on the list? Aldous Huxley! Brave New World, anyone? I know it’s more dystopian fiction, but it’s still pretty sci-fi to me.

  4. […] Trouble and Her Friends, Neuromancer, and what makes sci fi last. I can’t believe I forgot this moment of absolute GLORY at the Science Fiction Museum! […]

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