NYT Times Books logo over a woman's face as Billy Eichner (covered by a Twitter logo) asks her to name a woman. Behind his is a ripped page with Mary Shelley peeking through and smiling. Image inspired by one of the embedded tweets. (Image: NYT Books, Twitter, Comedy Central, and Alyssa Shotwell.)

Twitter Reminds NYT Women Exist After H.G. Wells Credited With Creating Sci-Fi

"For a dollar, name a woman" is always relevant, and I wish it weren't.
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As mentioned by The Mary Sue writer Brittany Knupper yesterday in Things We Saw Today, Sunday was quite a day considering it was the anniversary of the first major feature film depicting Frankenstein, and the tail end of a weekend when Twitter tore up a tweet/article saying H.G. Wells (along with two other men) invented the genre of science fiction, rather than those who came before—women like Mary Shelley among them.

The fuller passage of the New York Times profile of author Claire Tomalin and her new Wells biography reads:

“With Jules Verne and the publisher Hugo Gernsback, he invented the genre of science fiction. A crater on the moon’s far side is named after him. Nominated four times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Wells, the futurist, foresaw the coming of aircraft, tanks, the sexual revolution, the atomic bomb, and created the classic templates for every story that has been written about alien invasion (his inspiration for The War of the Worlds, says Tomalin, was ‘Tasmania, and the disaster the arrival of the Europeans had been for its people, who were annihilated’) and time travel (he was the first to imagine such travel made possible by a machine).”

The NYT really gasses up Wells (and he did important work, but still) at the expense of others. The bold, false claim that he invented the genre is in the article and was pulled for the now-viral and ratio’d tweet. Tomalin seems to understand nuance by even acknowledging that, despite Wells’ progressiveness and prolificness, he is human and, therefore, unreliable at times.

On the other hand, the man who wrote the article, we know for sure ignores those who influenced the genre before Wells and the greater public that would have been aware of these stories when Wells came around. We know this because he fails to mention them, meaning he is just contributing to a longstanding tradition of writing women out of history—even wealthy, white women.

General reactions on Twitter

One user linked to a Pacific Standard article exploring the gender bias in NYT book reviews. The article Tomalin’s Wells biography wasn’t a review, but obviously, these issues aren’t just in one capacity, department, or even news organization.

It sucks that this significant error not only made it to press but was shared on social media, because other than that line and maybe other smaller parts, the profile was really interesting. The author is a Black man and brought up some of Wells’ politics in contrast to what one might think of today. The perspective of Charles Johnson—writer of The Middle Passage and of the NYT profile in question—perspective as a Black writer and child that loved sci-fi comes through and finds him a new connection with Wells.

Mary Shelley and her predecessors

In addition to pointing out the omission of Shelley, some sci-fi enthusiasts and scholars pointed to the others even before her (including more women) who shaped the genre. For (some) more, check out this list of utopias and sci-fi by women ranging from 1621 to 1950 (and work that analyzes it), put together by those at the University of Pennslyvania.

One person even brought up an example from Greek antiquity, which raises the questions: “How far beyond the future imagined by the author(s) are we when their science fiction is considered our antiquity?” and (a less new question) “Where do we draw lines between magic, mythology, and science fiction?”

Could this have been avoided? Yes.

Will it happen again? Also, yes.

As mentioned before, there is the inherent bias based on different marginalizations, be they (actual or assumed) gender, sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, and more. In the meantime, firsts that aren’t easily verifiable or up for debate among the experts (in this case, science fiction scholars) should generally be acknowledged. Artworks are not birthed from a person in a way we could do a simple DNA test; it is more like a 23 and Me—messy and complicated.

Hey, I’m totally part of the problem and have colloquially done this, which has influenced my writing. However, as I’ve learned more and more about art history (visual, literature, etc.), I’ve come to realize with possibly no exception, things (ideas, motifs) don’t come out of thin air. Nothing is original, and that is okay. We learn history as a series of great moments by great men, but these moments, people, and text that fall through the cracks of time are also important.

Instead of this person or that person creating this genre, something more along the lines of “these prolific writers are celebrated for their large contributions to the genre.” Name those names (like Mary Shelley!), but then also leave space for those that faced barriers to publication, come from cultures where oral traditions are valued more, and in spaces where stories were a collaborative effort (The Illiad, One Thousand and One Nights, King Arthur and more).

(via Twitter, image: NYT Books, Twitter, Comedy Central, and Alyssa Shotwell.)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.