Saturday, December 8, 2018

Space Episode

Leslie Perri (1920–1970)
From The Future Is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women

Depiction of an astronaut by American artist Malcolm H. Smith (1910–1966) for the cover of the June 1953 issue of Universe Science Fiction.
During the fall of 1941 two relatively new pulp magazines, Science Fiction and Future Fiction, merged under the decidedly clunky title Future, combined with Science Fiction. Edited by Robert A. W. Lowndes, the second number of the joint magazine ignited a small tempest of controversy with the publication of Leslie Perri’s “Space Episode.” Readers’ scores indicated it was the lowest-rated selection of the issue; one angry letter writer wrote, “Of all the hacky, sour, limping stories, this tops them all. Bah! Triple bah!” The story was not without its fans, however: “Call it loyalty to my sex or what you will but I still like it best.”

The short story that set off a small-scale battle of the sexes among science fiction fans featured an astronaut who comes to the rescue of her fellow space travelers—both of them men who freeze up when faced with a lethal catastrophe. Perhaps predictably, women found the story, with its sardonic comments about heroes and heroism, compelling and realistic while male readers dismissed it as sour grapes. Lowndes considered the story a success because “it served to show, if nothing else, that quite a few girls read Future.”* Moreover, unlike any of the other selections in the issue, the story has been reprinted several times in the eight decades since it appeared, first in the May 1954 issue of Space Fact and Fiction, later in the landmark 1994 anthology New Eves, and most recently in the new Library of America collection The Future Is Female!

Leslie Perri was born Doris Marie Claire (“DoĆ«”) Baumgardt to German immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. In May 1937, while in high school, she met the future novelist Frederik Pohl, and the two seventeen-year-olds began dating. As Pohl later recalled, Baumgardt was “strikingly intelligent in a sulky, humorous, deprecatory way that matched well with most of the people I admired.” Pohl shared his enthusiasm for science fiction with Baumbardt, and she soon went with him to a meeting of the Greater New York Science Fiction Club. When the organization split in two, she became a central figure in the Futurian Society, whose members wanted to incorporate a stronger political perspective in its appreciation of science fiction. The society’s membership, in addition to Pohl and Lowndes, was a roster of future prominent writers and editors, including Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Virginia Kidd, Damon Knight, Cyril M. Kornbluth, and Judith Merril.

Baumgardt soon became familiar to readers and associates as Leslie Perri, the pseudonym she adopted when she began editing, illustrating, and writing for various fanzines. She was well known (and, by many accounts, well liked) within New York’s science fiction community. In 1939, when the organizers of the first World Science Fiction Convention barred the presence of the Futurians, Baumbardt was one of only five allowed into the event. (Asimov was another.) While at the convention, she tried—but failed—to convince the organizers to open up the event to all fans.

Pohl and Baumgardt married in 1940 but divorced two years later; during their period together, she edited (and reportedly wrote most of) the short-lived pulp magazine Movie Love Stories. It was also when she wrote “Space Episode,” her first short story. She published only two others more than a decade later, both in science fiction magazines. Baumgardt had a daughter by her second husband, the painter Thomas Owens, and a son by her third, the former Futurian Richard Wilson, and she worked intermittently as a journalist while raising her children. She died of cancer in 1970 at the age of 49.

* The quotes from Lowndes and both letter writers are from Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction, edited by Lisa Yaszek and Patrick R. Sharp.

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She stared at her two companions for a moment and then a sickening revulsion replaced fear, the fear that held each of the three in a terrible grip of inertia. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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