Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Miracle of the Lily

Clare Winger Harris (1891–1968)
From The Future Is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women

Full-page illustration [uncredited] for “The Miracle of the Lily” in the April 1928 issue of Amazing Stories. (Click on image to see the full drawing.)
The back section of the August 1931 issue of Wonder Stories includes a letter from Clare Winger Harris, one of the more popular authors to appear regularly in the various pulp magazines edited by Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo Awards are named. Noting the dearth of science fiction movies (and acknowledging they might be expensive to make), she encouraged readers to write to Hollywood producers and urge them to make films that are not limited to “wild west, sex drama, or gangster stuff.” In addition, responding to the canard that there were only five or six SF plots, she offered an expanded list:
1. Interplanetary space travel.
2. Adventures on other worlds.
3. Adventures in other dimensions.
4. Adventures in the micro- or macro-cosmos.
5. Gigantic insects.
6. Gigantic man-eating plants.
7. Time travel, past or future.
8. Monstrous forms of unfamiliar life.
9. The creation of super machines.
10. The creation of synthetic life.
11. Mental telepathy and mental aberration.
12. Invisibility.
13. Ray and vibration stories.
14. Unexplored portions of the globe: submarine, subterranean, etc.
15. Super intelligence.
16. Natural cataclysms: extra-terrestrial or confined to the earth.

The extremes of diabolism and Utopianism are frequent themes, but these are social topics that use one of the above mentioned methods as mere vehicles for the expression of an ideal. . . .
Her list, of course, shows the preoccupations of readers and the limitations of available technologies of the period. Nevertheless, British science fiction author Doris V. Sutherland (after spending some time slogging through pulp magazines of the 1920s), calls it “a pretty accurate summary of the main themes of SF literature as it existed at the time.” In her introduction for The Future Is Female, Lisa Yaszek notes that, living up to their reputation as “pulpy,” Harris’s own stories were based on several of these plots; they are “less interested in sentence-by-sentence literariness than in big what if questions and the seemingly boundless imaginative possibilities of futures to come.”

Credited as the first woman to publish fiction under her own name in the SF magazines of the 1920s, Harris was born Clare M. Winger in Freeport, Illinois, the granddaughter of the town’s richest man (inventor and industrialist D. C. Stover, founder of Stover Engine Works). Her father, Frank S. Winger, was an electrical contractor who in 1917 self-published an early SF novel, The Wizard of the Island; or, The Vindication of Prof. Waldinger. As a child, Harris favored the stories of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells over more conventional girls’ fare. In 1910 she entered Smith College but married before completing her degree.

In the early 1920s, after moving to Fairfield, Iowa, with her husband and three sons, she wrote a historical novel, Persephone of Eleusis: A Romance of Ancient Greece, published in 1923 by the Stratford Company, a relatively small firm in Boston with a diverse list, including such authors as W.E.B. Du Bois and Isaac Goldberg, as well as books on science and religion. Two years later, in a neat stroke of coincidence, Stratford published the book edition of Gernsback’s debut novel, Ralph 124C 41+, which had been serialized fourteen years earlier in Modern Electrics magazine.

Harris’s first science fiction story, “A Runaway World,” appeared in the July 1926 issue of Weird Tales. Her second story, “The Fate of the Poseidonia,” earned Harris third place (and $100) in a contest organized by Gernsback, who published it in the June 1927 issue of Amazing Stories. “That the third prize winner should prove to be a woman was one of the surprises of the contest,” he wrote in the pages of the magazine, “for, as a rule, women do not make good scientifiction writers, because their education and general tendencies on scientific matters are usually limited.” Her last story in the pulps, “The Ape Cycle,” appeared in the Spring 1930 issue of Science Wonder Quarterly, yet another Gernsback publication.

There the story of her career as an author of science fiction would have ended but for a fascinating coda. In 1933 a high school student in Cleveland, Ohio, wrote her a fan letter and asked if she might contribute a new story to the mimeographed magazine that he and his best friend published for SF fans in their area. Whatever was in that letter must have impressed Harris, because she sent them her last known story, “The Vibrometer.” The teens, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, included it in their fifth (and last) issue of Science Fiction. During the next five years the two young men would develop, in fits and starts, the comic-book hero Superman.

“The Miracle of the Lily,” perhaps her most popular and most anthologized story, surprised readers of her era by turning the “gigantic insects” plot (#5, above) on its head with what would now be regarded as a Twilight Zone–style twist. After the story appeared, she responded to fan mail in the pages of Amazing Stories and, addressing one reader who questioned how an eradicated species could suddenly reappear, she offered her view of how good speculative fiction should leave some of the speculating to readers:
If you recall, my last chapter was entitled “Ex Terrano,” which indicates “out of the ground.” However, I did not really want this point to be any too clear, for I merely wished to convey an idea and preferred not to garb it in too concrete language. The theme I wished to be left with the reader was that, after all man’s struggle to attain a definite objective . . . , and just when he has apparently reached his goal, he discovers that he has to do it all over again. . . . Personally, I do not like a story to be too explicit. It is often desirable to have something left to the imagination.
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Note: Much of the above biographical information is adapted from The Future Is Female, edited by Lisa Yaszek.

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