Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hortense Calisher: Alien Gender and "Math" vs. "Word" People

A continuation of my series of posts on science fiction author interviews in the Paris Review. Previously: Aldous Huxley, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury.

While the previous interviews in this series were with authors who should be familiar to most readers of both SF and literary fiction, Hortense Calisher's writing probably nearly so widely known to genre fiction fans*. Which isn't to say that she was in the least an obscure writer.

Calisher served terms as president of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the PEN international writers' association. Her short stories won an O. Henry Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and she was a finalist for the National Book Award three times. She had a number of stories published in The New Yorker and Harper's Magazine  (subscription required).

Calisher's work is known for its "intellectually challenging fictional situations and complex plots", with "extensive explorations of characters and their social worlds".  She brought those writing qualities to her 1965 science fiction novel Journal from Ellipsia.  According to one review, the novel
... details the frequently comic misadventures of a genderless being from the planet Ellipsia, who comes to Earth to learn to be come human as part of an apparent exchange program between the two planets. To do so, s/he must learn the concept of "I-ness," having experienced only "we-ness" on Ellipsia.
When Calisher was interviewed for the Paris Review in 1987, the introduction describes it as anticipating the feminist fiction of the 1970s:
Her Journal from Ellypsia[sic] foretold by twenty years the 1970s’ preoccupation with issues of gender. Though Calisher resists the term feminist, her sense of direction and personal certainty might seem to suggest otherwise. 

In the interview,  Calisher describes how she trying to explore gender issues:
I was trying to get down to basic—a priori—flesh sensations in the beings we call the human animal. And in those we may know nothing of. It’s always amused me that run-of-the-mill science fiction—another genre I don’t go for—so often imputes our own sexual orientation to other possible worlds. Scientists themselves do the same. It’s hard not to.
Yeah, unfortunately that's a jab at "regular" science fiction - of course as a literary writer, she's not a fan.  (But to be fair, she could have enjoyed non-run-of-the-mill SF, whatever that might include.)

But she makes a valid point. Before the advent of the "New Wave" of the 1960s, most SF featured traditional gender roles and explicitly heterosexual heroes.  Before the 60s there weren't many SF authors exploring sexual orientation. And it's indeed true that scientists' implicit assumptions about gender differences can affect their interpretation of scientific data.

But sexual orientation and gender were not the only themes in Journal to Ellipsia. Calisher explains:
... I was interested in so much else in that book—the gap, for instance, between “word” people and “math” people, there for me ever since high-school algebra. Or between word philosophers and physicists, and their supposedly opposed explanations of the universe. When one critic called that book the first feminist book of the decade, I was utterly surprised. Flummoxed.
Not having read Journal from Ellipsia (which is long out of print), I can't comment on whether I would consider it feminist or not. But what Calisher seems to be saying is that she was surprised her novel was considered "feminist", because it did more than just explore gender roles.  If that is what she meant, I'm a bit surprised that she would be surprised, since even today many people associate being a "word" person with the feminine and being a "math" person with the masculine.

I looked up a couple of contemporary reviews of Journal from Ellipsia, and it seems to have been the sort of novel one either loves or hates. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, for example, called it "undoubtedly the best science fiction novel of 1965", while the reviewer for Time Magazine thought it was "plonk" and suggested a potential reader should instead "throw it in the wastebasket". 

So putting the novel's aspects together - exploration of gender and differences between the worldviews of humanities and science; plus F&SF love and Time hate - it sounds like a book I need to find myself a copy to read.
Journal from Ellipsia was not Calisher's only book with speculative elements. Her 1983 novel Mysteries of Motion was set on a space shuttled in a then-future 1990.  She spent about a week doing technical research:
I read NASA’s own reports. Which stank to high heaven—excuse the pun—of bad possibilities. When the Challenger fell [in 1986], I was teaching a class at Brown. Students brought me the news. All I could say was “Yes.” Not that I was a prophet. It was just—all already there if you looked. Later I thought of going over the book to check all the stuff that had come true, but I couldn’t bear to at the time.
Even though one might consider a speculative near future story set in space would be science fictional,  the novel totally was not science fiction, at least according to the author.

Calisher - who died in 2009 - only wrote one other work of speculative fiction: the horror story "Heartburn", published in The American Mercury in 1951.

Read the full interview with Hortense Calisher at the Paris Review.

Tomorrow: Doris Lessing.
* Which is to say, I had never heard of her before reading this interview.

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