In September 2010, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention was held in Melbourne, Australia, affectionately dubbed ‘Aussiecon 4’. The convention marked the inauguration of a new award: the Norma K. Hemming award, which would mark excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class, or disability in speculative fiction.
To celebrate this new award, a small cast performed a staged reading of Norma Hemming’s play, ‘The Matriarchy of Renok’. The play was originally written in 1958 and staged at a fan convention, but no one had performed it in 50 years so anticipation ran high. The abridged version, scripted and directed by author Sean McMullen, included readers in costumes and retro-1950s audiovisual effects, and from all accounts, seems to have been a rousing success.
An annotation for the play provided by Utopian Literature sums up its humor and light-heartedness:
A matriarchy that keeps men in their “proper” role as slaves is visited by a man from Earth, which leads the all-powerful Galactic Empire. The man is crass in the extreme and assumes that the women will fall for him. They don’t.
The tales of Norma Hemming are difficult to track down. She wrote only 20 short stories, published between 1951 and 1959, a couple of plays for science fiction conventions, and a few romance novels under a pseudonym. Most of her short stories are impish satires on relations between the sexes, pitting men and women against each other in unconventional situations. In light-hearted tones and with humor, she explores matriarchs and cosmic Amazons, inter-galactic love affairs, and children with super-human powers, bringing a sense of romance and playfulness to science fiction.
Norma Hemming was born in England in 1928 and trained as a secretary, but before beginning her career, she emigrated to Sydney, Australia, with her parents and younger brother in October 1948. Three years after arriving in Australia, her short story ‘Loser Takes All’ was published in the British magazine Science Fantasy. This seemed to open a flood-gate of creativity for Hemming: in 1951, she had three stories published, then another seven published in 1952.
She became active in the Sydney science fiction scene, attending conventions and events, but the casual sexism of the time only allowed men to join the Sydney Futurian Society; women could participate as guests, but not members. The January 1942 issue of the Futurian Observer noted that “…most of our friends in the Futurian Society have not a high opinion of the intelligence of females.”
For a forward-thinking genre, this would not do! During a lively campaign to include women, she revealed that she was a professional science fiction writer, and this caused a bit of a stir amongst the men. As one fellow in his convention report stated, “… it came as a surprise that the N.K. Hemming” of Thrills (Incorporated) is the N.K. Hemming of New Worlds, and an actual person, Norma K. Hemming. Why doesn’t someone tell us these things?” As a result, Hemming became one of the first female members of the society in 1952, and was introduced to the society as “…the only pro-author at present in Sydney fandom”.
The fight to be included in the Futurian Society had galvanized the new women members. Their victory inspired them. Norma Hemming, Rosemary Simmons, and Laura Molesworth wanted to provide more opportunities for women in science fiction. Banding together, they launched a fanzine for female fans entitled Vertical Horizons. It contained news and reviews, as well as passionate essays. The zine challenged boundaries and concepts that a male-dominated industry had never before broached — the new forum gave women a venue to explore their own ever-expanding cosmos.
Hemming was a great champion for women’s involvement in Australian Science Fiction, and she used her clout to raise up others through new opportunities. However, despite her blazing journey over the landscape of science fiction, her life would soon to come to an abrupt end. In the late 1950s, Hemming was diagnosed with breast cancer, which then spread to her bones and lymph nodes. She died in Melbourne on July 4, 1960, at the age of 31. One can only wonder at the many ways that Hemming would have continued to shape and influence science fiction, if she’d lived just a little longer.