Another Lost Science Fiction Classic

Okay, maybe not lost. But not on everyone’s minds either.

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 8.41.14 PMThe April 1931 issue of Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories contained two rather remarkable stories–the cover story, Edmond Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved” and another, “The Conquest of Gola” by Leslie F. Stone. Hamilton is better remembered these days, but Stone’s story is, I think, more interesting.

Leslie Frances Stone had been writing science fiction for some time, and was one of Gernsback’s favorite writers.Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 8.43.59 PM She also stands out as one of the first women to write in what was largely (and what would remain) a boys’ club. There were a few other women successfully writing SF in the 1930s (C.L. Moore perhaps being the most successful and best remembered), but for the most part it was a man’s game. For that reason alone, Stone’s “The Conquest of Gola” stands out. Beyond its author’s sex, though, is the story’s subject and Stone’s handling of it that make the story memorable.

First, there is the story’s point of view. It is narrated by an alien, a Golan, a member of a race of creatures whose anatomy and culture are radically different from humans’. Up to this point, as far as I’m aware, aliens in science fiction were essentially thinly disguised humans. They might have different physiology–such as an extra set of limbs as with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martians–but there was still a level of humanity there, easily recognizable. Stone’s Golans, however, had a completely different physiology with organs that were not restricted by function or location. Rather, the different parts of their bodies could do whatever the Golan required of it.

Interesting as this is, it gets even more fascinating when the Golans encounter people from earth and are amazed at the foolish appearance and inefficiency of human anatomy. In Stone’s hands, the question of what it means to be alien, to be Other, takes on a new resonance as her 1931 readers are asked to consider how they would be looked upon by members of another species, or another race, or another gender.

And gender, of course, is the other big issue in this story. Golan society is matriarchal; the society is run by a queen, and all the important Golans are female. The males are referred to as “gentle consorts” and are completely passive. When the humans arrive on Gola–all men, of course–they are arrogant and astounded once they realize that females are in charge on this planet. The battle that ensues is as much a clash of genders as it is a clash of cultures.Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 8.42.12 PM

Before you get the sense that this is a feminist man-bashing fable, however, you should know that Stone doesn’t place her matriarchal Golans on a pedestal. In her hands, the female Golans are in many ways as arrogant and ignorant as the chauvinist humans. They ridicule the humans not just because of their foolish physiques but also because human females (whom the Golans assume are dominant on Earth) have sent the males of the species to do their exploration and negotiation.

In Stone’s hands, this story of first contact becomes an examination–at times satirical–of prejudice and xenophobia, pointing out the flaws of any society, whether matriarchal or patriarchal, that refuses to view difference as anything but Otherness. At times, the story is flawed and dated, but the questions it asks are very interesting, and for the time in which it was written, quite surprising.

The story has been reprinted in a few anthologies in the last few years and stands out among Stone’s other stories. If you’re interested, you can find the story in its original format here. Just scroll down to the April 1931 issue and download the pdf. It’s worth reading, and I’d be curious to hear what others think about it.