Every Possible Kind of Science Fiction Story: An Exhaustive List Created by Pioneering 1920s SciFi Writer Clare Winger Harris (1931)

When Jeanette Ng gave her accep­tance speech at the 2019 Joseph W. Camp­bell awards (now called the Astound­ing Award for Best New Writer), she described “Gold­en Age” edi­tor Camp­bell as “a fas­cist” who “set a tone of sci­ence fic­tion that still haunts the genre to this day. Ster­ile. Male. White.” The list of Hugo win­ners this year show how much the sit­u­a­tion is chang­ing. Ng her­self won a Hugo for her Camp­bell speech. (The unpleas­ant per­for­mance of the awards’ online pre­sen­ter sad­ly got more head­lines than the win­ners.)

Yet pop­u­lar canons of sci-fi, even “seem­ing­ly pro­gres­sive books for their time,” Liz Lut­gen­dorff writes, still con­tain a “per­va­sive sex­ism.” Camp­bell was hard­ly the only offend­er, but the charge cer­tain­ly sticks to him. “The first sci­ence fic­tion antholo­gies were pub­lished dur­ing a back­lash against first-wave fem­i­nism,” Wired explains. In response to grow­ing women’s activism, “male edi­tors such as John W. Camp­bell and Groff Con­klin specif­i­cal­ly exclud­ed women from” the pages of Astound­ing Sci­ence Fic­tion’s pop­u­lar anthol­o­gy series and Con­klin’s many best-ofs.

Pri­or to these pow­er­ful edi­tors, “women writ­ers were rel­a­tive­ly com­mon through­out the pulp era, and the pro­por­tion of women read­ers was even high­er.” Lisa Yaszek, Pro­fes­sor of Sci­ence Fic­tion Stud­ies at Geor­gia Tech, found that “at least 15 per­cent of the sci­ence fic­tion com­mu­ni­ty were women—producers—and read­ing polls sug­gest that 40 to 50 per­cent of the read­ers were women.” These fig­ures sur­prised even her. Many of the writ­ers whom Camp­bell exclud­ed were huge­ly pop­u­lar dur­ing 1920s, influ­enc­ing their con­tem­po­raries and inspir­ing read­ers.

One such writer, Clare Winger Har­ris, pub­lished her first short sto­ry “The Run­away World,” in the July 1926 issue of Weird Tales (after writ­ing an ear­li­er his­tor­i­cal nov­el in 1923). That same year, she won third place in a sto­ry con­test run by leg­endary Amaz­ing Sto­ries edi­tor Hugo Gerns­back, from whom the Hugo Awards take their name. She would go on to pub­lish ten more sto­ries in pop­u­lar sci­ence fic­tion pulps, most of them for Gerns­back. Then she dis­ap­peared from writ­ing in 1930, osten­si­bly to raise her three sons.

But she had more to say. In the August 1931 edi­tion of Gernsback’s Won­der Sto­ries, a let­ter from Har­ris appears in which she ral­lies the com­mu­ni­ty to insist that Hol­ly­wood make sci-fi films. “Come on, sci­ence fic­tion fans, let’s go!” she writes, “Our unit­ed efforts might bring this coun­try a few films in 1932 that are not wild west, sex dra­ma or gang­ster stuff. I think we’re all strong for good come­dies, but let’s have of our seri­ous dra­mas a lit­tle less of the emo­tion­al and more of the intel­lec­tu­al.”

Har­ris goes on, in response to anoth­er read­er let­ter, to cor­rect the notion that “there are only five or six orig­i­nal plots.” (This num­ber has var­ied over the ages from sev­en to thir­ty-sev­en). “That may be true as regards the tech­nique of plot devel­op­ment,” writes Har­ris, “but I have made a table of six­teen gen­er­al clas­si­fi­ca­tions into which it seems to me all sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries writ­ten to date can be placed.” See it above.

Sci-fi author Doris V. Suther­land points to the redun­dan­cies and dat­ed quaint­ness of much of the list. Giant insects have fall­en out of fash­ion. “A num­ber of the cat­e­gories speak of the tech­no­log­i­cal lev­el of the day. The inclu­sion of ‘ray and vibra­tion stores’ harks back to an era when the unseen effects of var­i­ous elec­tro-mag­net­ic waves had only recent­ly been grasped by researchers.” More­over, the atom­ic age was yet to dawn. After it, “the idea of a man-made apoc­a­lypse would become rather more top­i­cal.”

The sta­tus of Harris’s let­ter as a “time cap­sule” that sum­ma­rizes the “dom­i­nant themes in SF” at the time doc­u­ments her keen appre­ci­a­tion for, as well as inno­va­tion on, those themes. She was val­ued for this tal­ent by many in the field, Gerns­back includ­ed. Upon learn­ing she had won third prize in the 1926 Amaz­ing Sto­ries con­test, he “gave praise,” Brad Ric­ca writes at LitHub, “couched in the cul­tur­al moment”—as well as indica­tive of his own bias­es.

That the third prize win­ner should prove to be a woman was one of the sur­pris­es of the con­test, for, as a rule, women do not make good sci­en­tifi­ca­tion writ­ers, because their edu­ca­tion and gen­er­al ten­den­cies on sci­en­tif­ic mat­ters are usu­al­ly lim­it­ed. But the excep­tion, as usu­al, proves the rule, the excep­tion in this case being extra­or­di­nar­i­ly impres­sive.

These insult­ing beliefs did not pre­vent Gerns­back from con­tin­u­ing to pub­lish Harris’s work, nor any of women whose writ­ing he approved. (He also helped make Camp­bel­l’s career.) Some have found it remark­able that Har­ris pub­lished under her own name rather than a male pseu­do­nym, but Yaszek argues this was fair­ly com­mon at the time. In fact, sev­er­al male authors pub­lished under female pseu­do­nyms. (Gerns­back him­self once adopt­ed the moniker “Grace G. Huck­snob.”)

As women writ­ers were edged out of sci­ence fic­tion dur­ing Campbell’s reign in the 1930’s, Har­ris retreat­ed. Her only pub­lished lit­er­ary pro­duc­tions were the 1931 let­ter and a short sto­ry that again proves her sta­tus as a pio­neer. Her last sto­ry orig­i­nal sto­ry “appeared in 1933 in the fifth and last issue of a sta­pled, mimeo­graphed pam­phlet called Sci­ence Fic­tion that had a print run of maybe—maybe—50 issues,” Ric­ca writes. The sto­ry had been solicit­ed by the tiny mag­a­zine’s edi­tors, Jer­ry Siegel and Joe Shus­ter, major Har­ris fans who would, of course, “go on to cre­ate Super­man, the most rec­og­nized sci­ence fic­tion char­ac­ter on the plan­et.”

Learn more about Harris’s fas­ci­nat­ing life—including her father’s brief stint as a Gerns­back-influ­enced sci-fi nov­el­ist and her sta­tus as an ear­ly Amer­i­can con­vert to Bud­dhism before her death in 1968—at Ricca’s excel­lent LitHub inves­ti­ga­tion. See her full let­ter above.

via @jessesheidlower

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Enter a Huge Archive of Amaz­ing Sto­ries, the World’s First Sci­ence Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, Launched in 1926

Stream 47 Hours of Clas­sic Sci-Fi Nov­els & Sto­ries: Asi­mov, Wells, Orwell, Verne, Love­craft & More

The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Sci­ence Fic­tion: 17,500 Entries on All Things Sci-Fi Are Now Free Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Evelyn C. Leeper says:

    Alis­tair Cameron pub­lished his “Fan­ta­sy Clas­si­fi­ca­tion Sys­tem” (which includes sci­ence fic­tion) in 1952; it ran to 52 pages.

  • David Markham says:

    “These insult­ing beliefs did not pre­vent Gerns­back from con­tin­u­ing to pub­lish Harris’s work, nor any of women whose writ­ing he approved.”

    What, exact­ly, is insult­ing about these beliefs? He is reflect­ing the real­i­ty that women of that time weren’t as well edu­cat­ed in the areas of use to a sci­ence fic­tion author as men. Also, he would be in a posi­tion to actu­al­ly *read* what was sent in, and if he found wom­en’s con­tri­bu­tions to be gen­er­al­ly infe­ri­or, there’s noth­ing insult­ing about point­ing it out.

  • Abdoulhay Ceesay says:

    Yeah I saved this arti­cle think­ing it was a list or ret­ro­spec­tive of sorts about all the premis­es Sci­fi sto­ries used over the years… only to read the first para­graph and be dis­ap­point­ed.

  • Mike Gutowski says:

    seems i have much to do (research, writ­ing) and learn in order to attain the intel­lec­tu­al lev­el of Mrs. Har­ris. i much enjoyed the pin pricks of knowl­edge and per­spec­tive to the brain. thanks much for such insight.

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