Scientifiction: certainly, definitely not “sex-type” pulp literature

Luckhurst describes Hugo Gernsback’s efforts to legitimate SF in Amazing Stories, where Gernsback distinguishes “scientifiction” as “‘literature which requires more intelligence and even more aesthetic sense that is possessed by the sex-type reading public’” (63).  Why focus on “sex-type”? Perhaps elevating scientifiction is a matter of elevating its content above the belt. 

What entails “sex-type” pulp? Perusing Wonder Stories (which Wikipedia tells me was also founded by Gernsback), one finds sex to be a recurring theme, except it’s mostly located in the back of the issue (much like the porn section of by-gone video rental stores). On page 1327, there is a quiz, entitled “What Is Your Knowledge of Science?” posing reading questions based off the stories in the issue: question eight asks, “What is polyandry? (Page 1245).” The question points the reader to the story employing the term, where women “were seldom beautiful or attractive” and “romantic love [and] strong passion were unknown things” (1245). Perhaps pulp is not “sex-type” as long as the women depicted are not sexy

Nevertheless, Wonder Stories is concerned with sexy sex, at least in the advertisements: “Get a 17 Inch Bicep” (1335); “The Greatest Sin of all is total IGNORANCE of the most important subject in the life of every man and woman–SEX…‘MODERN EUGENICS’” (1336); and in the Classifieds: “LONESOME FOLKS!  Dandy little ladies, desirable gentlemen, everywhere, will marry”; “SWEETHEARTS–do you want one?”; “ESCAPE from your lonely existence. Valuable information free” (1340). Though these items address sexy sex, they are framed in utilitarian terms: big biceps mean physical strength, practical knowledge of sex and access to sex is good eugenics (a wildly fraught term underscoring the undeniable significance of racial coding of sex discourses–let’s talk about this). Perhaps, then, scientifiction is not “sex-type” pulp because even its engagement with sexy sex is in service of serious ends. 

Finally, we can posit that “sex-type” pulp entails references to sex—be it intercourse, sexuality or love—that are not intended to be serious or related to knowledge proper. Therefore, legitimate literature like scientification only discusses sex in relation to philosophical, reproductive, or biological knowledge.  In this context, “The Conquest of Gola” represents a refreshing addition to what appears to be a white male dominated publication. This is precisely the kind of engagement with sex that I would expect from scientifiction: a story of technical mastery that complicates (“queer[s]”?) normative understandings of gender, social hierarchies, and human embodiment. The contextualizing paratext, however, doesn’t read Stone’s “‘queer’” story as seriously as a work of scientifiction presumably should be read since it is a “story that you cannot help but enjoy and chuckle over” (1280). Is it humor or is it critique? Or, perhaps the question of sex, at least in a story that denaturalizes white human male supremacy, shouldn’t be taken seriously after all?

One thought on “Scientifiction: certainly, definitely not “sex-type” pulp literature”

  1. Yes, let’s talk about eugenics! Also generally I hope we discuss the racial politics in this week’s readings: what Luckhurst points us toward (“Bill Brown is surely right to suggest that the image of the steam man, with a dark face, rolling white eyes and stovepipe hat, pulling the carriage with a bit between his teeth is a slave, a /black machine/” pp. 55), that seems to be an ongoing theme of robot stories, if the Asimov is any indication.

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