Some authors have major footprints in the genre: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Le Guin, and more who have left major and lasting impressions on the stories that we read and tell. Others are just as influential, but lesser known to the community at large. Margaret St. Clair is one such author. Recently, I had the opportunity to go through a large collection of science fiction books, and ended up coming away with a copy of St. Clair’s collection Change the Sky and Other Stories, and found her stories to be both interesting and engaging. Yet, despite her large output of short fiction, she’s relatively unknown.
Eva Margaret Neeley was born on February 17th, 1911 to Elvira “Eva” Margaret Hostetter, a Kansas teacher, and George Arthur Neeley, a Kansas lawyer, who would soon be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election. Margaret grew up in Kansas an only child; a brother had died several years before. She and her mother would be left alone in 1919, when her father passed away. Around the same time, she began reading science fiction, beginning a life-long fascination with the genre.
By 1928, she and her mother had relocated from Kansas to California, where she attended the University of California at Berkley, studying Classics. There, she met children’s author Eric St. Clair, whom she married in 1932. She continued her education at Berkley, eventually earning her Master’s Degree in Greek Classics in 1934. Much of St. Clair’s personal life remains elusive, and what she did after her graduation is largely unknown. However, in 1945, she began to write, and in November 1946, she published her first science fiction story “Rocket to Limbo” in the magazine Fantastic Adventures. From there, she began a furious publishing spree in a variety of magazines, from Thrilling Adventure Stories, Startling Stories and others, sometimes under the name Wilton Hazzard or Idris Seabright. She described her attraction to the pulp markets as such: “at their best, [they] touch a genuine folk tradition and have a balladic quality which the slicks lack.”
Still, her fiction carried with it a cynical outlook, described by Pamela Sargent in her anthology Women of Wonder: The Classic Years as “seem[ing] to undermine the optimism characteristic of much science fiction; her work, as critic John Clute put it ‘a singularly claustrophobic pessimism could… be felt.’ ” Between her start in 1947 and the 1960s, she wrote over 100 short stories, and noted that she maintained good relationships with the many of the editors of the time, from Sam Merwin Jr. at Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories to John W. Campbell Jr. at Astounding Science Fiction and H.L. Gold at Galaxy Magazine. Eric Leif Davis, in his book Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965, recounted that St. Clair never felt that her gender held her back: the lack of available magazines did, and she often found herself published alongside other authors such as Leigh Brackett.
She and her husband led a comfortable life in California, where they owned a house with an extensive library, gardened and became Wiccans shortly after its introduction in the 1950s. In the mid-1950s, she began writing novels in addition to short fiction, with her first, Agents of the Unknown, published as an Ace Double along with Philip K. Dick’s The World Jones Made. Others followed: The Green Queen likewise came out in 1956 alongside Thomas Calvert McClary’s Three Thousand Years, while one of her best known works, Sign of Labrys, was published by Corgi in 1963. This novel delved into her interest in Wicca, taking place in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by disease.
Other stories followed: Message from the Eocene came in 1964, while another well-known work, Dolphins of Altair, was published in 1967. The Shadow People was published in 1969, and her last long-length work, The Dancers of Noyo, was published in 1973. She continued to publish short fiction through this time, but more sporadically throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with her last story, “The Hashed Brown Buggy,” appearing in Crystalis 9, edited by Roy Torgeson. Her husband died in 1987, and St. Clair died in 1996, almost an unknown figure in the genre.
It’s interesting to see that her work hasn’t garnered a closer look. Frequently, her stories have been highly regarded in reviews, often noted as being more nuanced and written at a level above most of her neighbors on the table of contents. The story of her career is important since it demonstrates that the science fiction genre wasn’t a male-only club, and while women were often outnumbered by their male colleagues, we’ve seen with other female SF authors—such as C.L. Moore, Judith Merrill and Leigh Brackett—that the women of science fiction were notable for their stories and impact on the genre. St. Clair is an author who should be remembered alongside those names: not as a token gender representative, but as a notable pulp author with an incredible output of fiction.