Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, June 26, 2015


Great Balls of Fire!  A History of Sex in Science Fiction Illustration by Harry Harrison (1977)

I really shouldn't have enjoyed this one as much as I did, but the 13-year-old boy in me took over.  That's okay, I suppose, because much of early science fiction was aimed at young (by "young," read "awkward") teenage boys.  Zaftig women in metal brassieres fending off tentacled monsters and being rescued by dashing space heroes were something we could relate to, even if the mysteries of what lay under those bronze bras and of what might ensue after said rescue were actually beyond our ken.  Our teen-aged imaginations may have been faulty but we didn't care; our romantic ideation of sex sustained us.

It was the illustrations that shouted sex, never the stories themselves.  Magazine and book editors were businessmen first and dreaded the thought of confronting an angry mother over a less than pure story.  But those zaftig girls on the cover usually sold more copies than those of a tentacled monster alone, so a compromise was established.  What was promised on the cover was not delivered in the content.  **sigh**

(One need only to look at the early covers of, say, the Avon Fantasy Reader or the Galaxy Novels, and compare them to later covers to realize how effectively the publishers got the message.)

Harrison covers the whole gamut of SF in his overview, from comics to magazine to novels, and from science fiction to fantasy and to horror.  He starts his informal survey with what he calls "dirty books" -- most commonly known as Tijuana bibles, although Harrison seems unfamiliar with that term -- and moves to the early science fiction magazines with their schizophrenic attitude to sex, and journeys though the years to the mid-Seventies and the burgeoning boom in what he calls "stories in illustration" (graphic novels).  He gives a nod to Philip Jose Farmer and Theodore Sturgeon for their contributions to advancing the genre, but (perhaps rightly) gives an extraordinary amount of time and illustration European publications and artwork.  (Harrison was, after all, an ardent internationalist.)  He also gives (murkily) some of his personal experiences in the field to illustrate points.

The subject of homosexuality is breached.  Harrison's opinions:  Batman was not gay but Conan probably was, if only unintentionally so.  Feminism, too, is discussed briefly, but (methinks) grudgingly.  The Sixties and Seventies are cited for opening the floodgates and casting aside the metallic bras, steps that Harrison hails.  Finally, the mystery of what those torture implements conceal has been revealed!

So what do we end up with?  A fairly obvious narration.  A few outspoken opinions.  Some great artwork.  Some not-so-great artwork.  A need to brush up on my French to read the caption balloons in some of the illos.  A mild attempt at inclusiveness, although (to be fair) SF has always been a basically white hetero male field and most of the welcome changes to that template have come after this book was published.  And a romp down Memory Lane.

Recommended for the 13-year-old boy in me.

1 comment:

  1. Of course, it helped that the later GALAXY NOVELS were published in partnership with a porn publisher, the 1960s Beacon Books (not the Beacon that arose in the 1970s as a leftish improvement of society kind of imprint). Amusingly, it was Beacon corporate parent UPD which bought GALAXY and its sibling magazines in 1969...and ran them into the ground by the end of the next decade. Italian horror and sf comics were pretty insane by the 1980s.