[Spoilers for the Mad Men episode “Signal 30” contained herein.]

Usually stories about writers writing have an echo-chamber-ish dullness, but Mad Men does just about everything well: last episode’s exploration of Ken Cosgrove’s sci-fi short fiction writing career was fantastic.

Ken is the only character on Mad Men who is happy, and he frequently asserts that he doesn’t get all his satisfaction from his job as an account executive, which is probably why he’s so happy. I had always assumed the satisfaction was coming from his wife, Alex Mack, but on Sunday night’s episode, Ken confessed the secret of his writing career to co-worker Peggy, saying “I’ve quite a bit of success in a particular genre.”

I thought his genre had to be either science fiction or erotica, and I’m so glad it was science fiction. Nothing against erotica, but sci-fi writing in the late sixties is an exciting subculture to rub up against. The action in “Signal 30” takes place in late July and early August of 1966; one month later, on September 8, the original series of Star Trek would debut. It’s too bad Ken’s boss made him quit writing sci-fi — in another year or two, Ken might’ve encountered slash fan fiction and the whole world would’ve collapsed into a pop culture black hole.

The last time Ken told his co-workers about publishing a story, he was featured in The Atlantic, and everyone at his office treated him with a strange brew of mixed feelings, similar to those that Lena Dunham is being treated to by much of America now: excitement, jealousy, and passive-aggressive questions. (Also, someone stole a typewriter and Pete Campbell tried to whore out his wife to get his own stories published.)

After that experience, Ken decided to fly under the radar by taking the nom de plume “Ben Hargrove” and publishing in journals like Galaxy. Through tiny windows into Ken’s world, we see a familiar depiction of a writer’s life. He turns his dinner meetings into drinks so he can go home earlier; he only has one so he’s in good shape to write in the evenings. He met his wife, who works for a fiction editor, because the editor was rejecting his stories. And when his boss tells him to quit writing, he pretends to do so, then switches genres (and names) and gets to work on what could be his first novel.

Writing under an assumed name is a technique for hiding that still works, despite the Internet (E.L. James is a pen name), and provides cover for men like Ken, who want to keep the parts of their life separate. But when I think of 1960s sci-fi writers and pen names in the same breath, I think of Alice Bradley Sheldon, who achieved massive success as a sci-fi short story writer under the assumed male name James Tiptree Jr. There exists a fiction award named after her pseudonym, which is awarded each year to a work of sci-fi or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.

Sheldon is the subject of one of my favorite biographies: James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. Chronicling Sheldon’s upbringing and adulthood, biographer Julie Phillips also makes pit stops to describe how women were regarded in the sci-fi world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Double Life is multi-faceted, but it shares a take away with Mad Men: some things change, but some things don’t.


 

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