Nicole L. Tilford


Modern science fiction writers often draw upon the biblical flood story as inspiration for their own narratives. It is not uncommon to find humans fleeing on space arks to escape some cosmic disaster. In the process of adapting the biblical narrative to contemporary circumstances, these writers also frequently transform the unnamed female characters in the biblical story. Noah’s wife, Noah’s daughters-in-law, and the daughters of men become dynamic characters that actively shape the narrative and are vital to the survival of the human race. This article examines the character type of the “Noahic woman” as it appears in three early twentieth century science fiction narratives.


Noah; woman; science fiction

Genesis 6–9 tells the story of how one family struggles to survive a great catastrophe. Prompted by his deity, the righteous Noah builds a great vessel and gathers upon it his wife, his sons, his daughters-in-law, and animals of various kinds. Together, they ride out an unprecedented flood that destroys all life around them. When the waters finally subside, the animals and people disembark to begin civilization anew.

Women are an important part of this biblical flood narrative. The “daughters of men” are one of the listed causes of the flood that washes away almost all of creation (Gen 6:1–2, 4); the “wife of Noah” and the “wives of his sons” are specifically chosen to occupy the ark and thereby perpetuate the human race (Gen 6:18, 7:7, 13; 8:16, 18).[1] Yet, as in many biblical narratives, the women in this story are minor characters. Unlike their male counterparts, the women are not named; they do not speak; they do not act of their own accord. They are simply the wives and daughters of the male figures.

Not surprisingly, interpreters throughout history have attempted to add depth to these unnamed women and have used gaps in the narrative to do so, often with condemnatory results. For instance, gnostic interpreters described how Noah’s wife Norea set fire to the ark after being denied entrance. In some gnostic traditions, this action is a sign of Norea’s wickedness, a side-effect of her being the servant of the demiurge, an evil creator deity (see, e.g., the recitation in Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion–9). In other gnostic traditions, the episode is used to emphasise Norea’s piety as she fights against the evil spirits that assail her (e.g., Nature of the Rulers[NCH II 4 92.14–93.14]).[2] In either case, Noah’s wife becomes a definite character whose actions threaten the survival of humanity.

Perhaps more telling, however, are those interpreters who have condemned women for being the cause for the flood. The Genesis tale itself is somewhat ambiguous about the cause of the flood: the first few verses describe how the “sons of God” mate with “daughters of men” (6:1, 4) and produce offspring, “warriors of renown” (6:4). The narrative does not explicitly condemn this union or the offspring, although the next verses note that the deity “saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth” (6:5) and regrets making humanity (6:6). Interpreters, however, have exploited the close proximity of these verses to cast blame on the daughters of men. The daughters of men become petty, licentious creatures, who tempt men to polygamy and sexual infidelity (e.g., Testament of Reuben 5.6–7; Genesis Rabbah 23:2; John Gill’s eighteenth-century Exposition of the Bible, on Gen 6:1–2). Even the so-called sons of God, understood as divine beings, cannot help but be tempted by these wily daughters of men (e.g., 1 Enoch 6–8, 106.13–16; Testament of  Naphtali 3.5; 2 Baruch 56.10–16). The resulting offspring were not heroes at all, but rather, violent, lawless men (e.g., 3 Macc 2:4). Although other vices like violence and sodomy are condemned in the history of interpretation (e.g., the Middle English poem “Cleanness”; Jan Sadeler’s 1586 engraving, Wickedness and Violence on the Earth), it is the uncontrolled sexuality of the daughters of men that hold the bulk of the blame for God’s ire and by extension the flood.[3]

Twentieth- and twenty-first century science fiction writers were no exception to this expansionistic tendency. Retellings of the biblical flood permeate the genre, with protagonists throughout the two centuries building sea vessels, underground bunkers, and spaceships to survive literal and figurative floods.[4] As they projected the biblical narrative into contemporary society, these authors recast the women of the flood. The unnamed women became central figures with names, physical characteristics, and emotions. They speak; they feel; they act. The results, however, were often more positive than their predecessors: these women were not negative influences that that threatened the survival of the men around them; rather, they were active partners who helped ensure everyone’s survival. In this article, I examine the portrayal of women in three science fiction flood narratives from the early twentieth century. These three narratives, all written in the infancy of the genre, used developing science fiction conventions to transform their biblical referents—daughter of men, daughter-in-law of Noah, or wife of Noah—into dynamic characters. This new character type, what I call the “Noahic woman,” enabled the authors of these narratives to imagine a society that could move beyond the pettiness and corruption that the authors saw in the world around them. For these authors, in other words, the Noahic woman was not merely an interesting character; she was a dynamic, positive force that was vital to the survival of the human race, both literarily and in reality.

The Deluge (1927) and the Daughters of Men

My first example expanded the role of the biblical daughters of men. The Deluge was first published in England in 1927, where it was an overnight hit; it was quickly released the following year in the United States, where it enjoyed similar success.[5] A sequel soon followed (Dawn, 1929), as did a movie (Deluge, 1933). The author, S. Fowler Wright (1874–1965) was a practicing accountant, but he eventually left accounting to become a professional writer. Throughout his career, he wrote and translated over sixty novels, compilations of short stories, and poetry collections.[6]

Fowler Wright’s The Deluge focuses on what happens after the flood. The narrative describes how a young couple survive a global flood, meet and fall in love, escape a roving gang, and create a new society. Although the flood is described in the book’s preface, the cause is not specified. There is a “tremor,” and the earth sinks.

Unlike the other narratives discussed here, The Deluge does not feature a clear Noah figure nor an ark. Individuals survive the flood on small pockets of high land purely by happenstance. Still, the narrative establishes itself in the preface as a modern equivalent to the biblical narrative:

Once before the earth had trembled along the volcanic fissure which was then the fertile Eden of the human race, and a hundred legends and the Mediterranean were its mementoes. Now it sank again, slightly and gently, along the same path.[7]

The narrative that follows details the challenges that humanity would face if civilization was washed away. Given Fowler Wright’s upbringing as the son of a Baptist minister, the comparison is hardly surprising. Yet, Fowler Wright was critical of the theology he had inherited, preferring instead a worldview centred upon individual freedom and responsibility.[8] This worldview lies at the heart of the two Noahic women Fowler Wright constructs in The Deluge.

The first major woman to be introduced is Helen Webster, the prediluvian wife of the hero, Martin Webster. At the beginning of the narrative, Martin is a lawyer, and his wife enjoys the comforts that such an occupation provides. Little is said of Helen at first, other than that she is “polite” and has two young daughters.[9] More detail is given later, when Helen meets her romantic rival. There, Helen is described as tall, young, and beautiful. Even in the postdiluvian world, she is well-kempt, with “slim hands, fine and white, with rose-pink nails.” She has “a charm, a wild-rose beauty” that puts her rival to shame.[10] She is the quintessential wife; she is situated in the home where she can dutifully watch over her children.

Helen is gravely injured in the first chapter when the roof of her house collapses upon her, an injury that should have killed her. Yet Helen survives, and her husband carries her to temporary safety. Helen and the children are separated from Martin when he leaves to search for food, at which point we discover more about Helen’s character:

She had never been credited with any physical courage. She would be startled by a dog’s bark. She would walk wide of a quiet cow.… But she had that high quality of passive courage which can face pain and wounds, after their infliction, with a more resolute spirit than is possible to many who may more lightly take the risks which incur them.[11]

Helen’s faith in her husband never wavers, but left to fend for herself and the children, Helen rises to the occasion. Though injured, she carries her children out of the path of rising flood waters and secures them safely in a nearby skiff. Helen and her children are eventually found and enter safely into the new community that forms in the aftermath of the flood.

Although a prediluvian woman, a character type Fowler Wright is normally quick to judge, Helen finds approval in the eyes of the author.

Born of a race of women that had learnt to esteem their children as less than their pleasures, who would even pay to have them murdered in their own bodies, she had redeemed her own soul at the bar of God.[12]

When given the chance, the author does not discard Helen. He does not replace her with another woman. Rather Fowler Wright lauds Helen and gives her a place of priority in the new society he envisions. If more women had been like the dutiful housewife Helen, the author seems to imply, the world may not have needed literary annihilation.

However, according to the author, most women were not like Helen. They are like the daughters of men in the biblical narrative; they appear beautiful, but their fruits led to violence. In the passage cited above, for instance, the desire for (sexual) pleasure leads women to abort their children, an action the author condemns. These women, asserts Fowler Wright, cause the downfall of the human race.

Helen, although a positive figure, cannot fully escape the taint of her fellow women. Therefore, Fowler Wright constructs a new Noahic woman, Claire Arlington, who is better suited to survive postdiluvian circumstances. Unlike Helen, Claire is athletic, “finely formed, with a body well-fitted to overcome the floods which had been fatal to millions.”[13] She has short wavy dark-brown hair, long limbs, and grey eyes. Also unlike Helen, Claire is self-sufficient. Before the flood, she had earned a BA and drove supply vehicles for the military.[14] She had been married to an infirm husband and had lost a child, yet she still almost swam the English Channel. She is, in short, a “woman, with a full experience of life behind her.”[15] Claire begins the narrative, then, as one of the daughters of men, but she quickly moves beyond that role.

After the flood, Claire is clearly a new Eve. As she says to herself in the first days of the narrative: “She was the Eve—perhaps the only Eve—of the new world.”[16] Here, the narrative plays into another common science-fiction trope, the last man narrative, in which the last man on the earth is frequently described as Adam and his mate, Eve (see, e.g., Wallace G. West, “The Last Man”).[17] As the reader soon discovers, Claire is not the last woman on the earth, but she continues to carry the reproductive expectations such a label implies. The men around Claire do not disagree. At first, Claire finds herself in the company of two men, both of whom she loathes. Even knowing that they may be the last two men alive, she refuses their advances. Instead, she swims incredible lengths to find a suitable Adam. Find him she does in the person of Martin. Martin is instantly attracted to Claire, finding in her “the Eve of [his] lonely Paradise.”[18] Thinking Helen dead, Martin welcomes Claire to his hideout, going to great lengths to keep her from those who would steal her away.

Although she comes to adore Martin, Claire is his superior in some ways. Claire has a practical mind. When Martin hesitates to strike those who attack them, Claire moves without hesitation, killing two men in the process. She becomes known as “the fighting bitch,” a “Valkyrie,” the “hell-bitch.”[19] In this, Claire is an early example of the woman as warrior trope that would become increasingly popular in science fiction after the 1940s.[20] Yet Claire is also “by nature sensitive, kindly, and chivalrous beyond the custom of women.”[21] She is willing to concede Helen’s prior claim to Martin, whom she has come to call husband. She is not, however, willing to give him up.

The new society that forms from the more rationally minded survivors is grounded by a central tenant: the women choose their mates. More men survive than women, which leads to a secondary rule: a woman must choose a mate or the choice would be made for her. At first, Martin and Claire live outside this society, finding each other as they do in the wilderness. But they are eventually incorporated into the society, with Martin as king, at which point Martin is reunited with Helen. Now, Martin has a problem. Women are scarce, and he has two women. Should he cling to his prediluvian wife or his new Eve? The choice, however, is conveniently not his to make. Martin must abide by the society’s rules. Each of his so-called wives, Helen and Claire, must choose her own mate. Helen’s choice is obvious; her faith in her husband has not waivered, and she will remain his wife. Claire, in the eyes of the community, must concede the prior claim to her rival and choose another husband.

Claire refuses. Her independent spirit shines through as she insists that she is Martin’s wife and will remain so. The fact that she is now carrying Martin’s unborn child seems to validate her claim. Claire presumes that her child will be a son, a fact which if true could threaten the birthright of Helen’s two daughters. Yet, after only a moment’s hesitation, Helen acknowledges the claim on Martin and accepts Claire into the household as an equal wife. “There is no first between us. It is one honour for both,” Helen declares.[22] The narrative ends with both women entering Martin’s house together.

An American reviewer criticised this ending, arguing that Helen’s acceptance of Claire displays “ignorance of feminine psychology.” Fowler Wright bit back, using the opportunity to criticise the ease with which Americans divorce.[23] Yet whether the ending is plausible or even palatable to readers is beside the point here. For Fowler Wright, it served to further his counter-cultural agenda. Throughout the narrative, Fowler Wright is hostile towards contemporary society, lambasting everything from birth control to motorcycles. He blames the downfall of the human race on such ill-conceived ventures and casts his characters accordingly. Most of the men in the narrative “were typical in many ways of the disease which festered within the body of a civilization which was insensitive to its own corruption.”[24] They are violent, concerned only with their own pleasure, and incapable of working together to build a productive society.

The Noahic women of The Deluge provide an alternative model, a chance for society to redeem itself before it is too late. Helen and Claire are both practical, generous, and courageous in their own way. They have blind faith in their man but are willing to make difficult decisions on their own to protect what they value. Women, as Fowler Wright presents them, should act likewise. They should care more about taking care of their families than securing their own physical comfort. The role that Fowler Wright assigns to women is obviously limited according to contemporary standards. Their primary responsibility is to bear and raise children. However, they also make decisions about their own futures, proactively respond to secure those futures, and advise their men as to the appropriate course of action. Women do have a positive role to play in Fowler Wright’s ideal society, however limited that role may be.

When Worlds Collide (1932) and the Daughter of Noah

My second example expanded the figure of Noah’s daughters-in-law. First published as a serial in Blue Book Magazine in 1932, When Worlds Collide was one of six collaborative efforts of Edwin Balmer (1883–1959) and Philip Wylie (1902–1971).[25] Balmer, an established writer and magazine editor, was known for his ability to weave complex plots. Wylie, the son of a Presbyterian minister and a Princeton dropout, was a young freelance writer who was already developing a reputation for himself as a social critic.[26] With their combined skills, they created a novel that was not only well read but turned into a popular motion film in 1951.[27]

When Worlds Collide is a fairly straight-forward science fiction flood narrative. A group of scientists, secretly working under the name “League of the Last Days,” discovers that two rogue planetary bodies are heading straight for the earth. The first (Bronson Alpha) is projected to collide with the earth; the second (Bronson Beta) will nearly miss. Although not made of water, these planetary bodies are the impending disaster that will wipe humanity away, first with volcanic eruptions, floods, and earthquakes, then with direct impact. Unable to stop the impending collision, the league, led by the Noahic astrophysicist Cole Hendron, works to create an interplanetary vessel (the Ark) to transport a preselected group of male and female scientists from the earth to the second planetary body. The serial novel follows the small group as they hurry to save the human race.

Central to these efforts is Cole’s daughter, Eve Hendron. On the surface, Eve fits what science fiction scholar Brian Attebery calls the “professor’s daughter” trope. In this trope, the beautiful daughter of the lead scientist (or a surrogate in the form of his assistant/secretary) is a relatively passive figure who (1) has complex science explained to her, (2) performs domestic duties (e.g., makes coffee), (3) gets rescued, and (4) marries the hero, typically the professor’s young protégé.[28] At the beginning of the narrative, Eve falls into this stereotype. No longer the daughter-in-law of the Noah figure, she is the biological daughter of the lead scientist who runs errands, entertains guests, and assists her father in his work. She is also the novel’s romantic ideal, “lovely in face, and beautiful in body,” slim with reddish-brown hair, dark eyes, and pale skin.[29] Unsurprisingly, she is poised to marry the hero.

Yet, Eve subverts this trope. She is neither passive nor ignorant. Eve is a scientist like her father. She has a “brain that [her] father’s trained so that [she’s] beyond any other girl—and most men too.”[30] She works tirelessly with Cole to solve the complex problems of the novel, and her intellect is only second to his. In Eve “a woman’s instincts and tenderness dwel[ls] with a mind ordinarily as honest and unevasive as a man’s.”[31] Such intellect comes at a price. Eve is aloof, lost in her own thoughts even at dinner parties; she is burdened by the knowledge of the future, fearful of and saddened by it; this sets her apart from her companions.[32] However, Eve is willing to sacrifice everything—love, monogamous marriage, even her individual identity—for the survival of the human race. Eve is the equal to, even superior of, the men in the narrative around her.

The positive comparison of Eve to men throughout the narrative is striking, but it should not be viewed as unqualified support of an early feminist manifesto. In the 1930s and 1940s, Wylie was well known for his scathing critique of the existing social order and especially women’s role in its corruption. This critique peaked ten years after When Worlds Collide with the release of Generation of Vipers (1942).[33] In this extended philosophical essay, Wylie blasted the depravity of American women. Among the charges: being uneducated, overprotective mothers who coddled their sons to the point that they were ineffective citizens.

Men live for her, and die for her, dote upon her, and whisper her name as they pass away. In a thousand of her, there is not enough sex appeal to budge a hermit ten paces off a rock ledge. She plays bridge with the stupid veracity of a hammerhead shark. She couldn’t pass the final examinations of a fifth grader.[34]

These and similar statements throughout Wylie’s career have rightly earned him the label of a misogynist. Yet, as Wylie himself pointed out in a 1957 interview, his critique was not of all women but of a certain type of woman—of which there were many in his opinion—who were ruining American society: women who were ignorant, selfish, and spiteful.[35]

Such women are condemned in When Worlds Collide. In one scene, set days after the league announces the impending apocalypse, women utter a number of complaints:

If anybody expects me to give up my apartment and pack up my duds … then they’re crazy.

I’m a working-girl, and I’m gonna be a working-girl all my life.… I’m gonna get out of this car right here and now, end of the world or no end of the world.

Laugh that off. Go ahead. Let me see you laugh that off. You’ve been laughing everything off ever since we were married. You laugh off the unpaid bills. You laugh off my ratty fur coat. You laugh off not being able to buy an automobile. Now let me see if you can laugh off an earthquake.[36]

Most women in the narrative are bitter and relate to the world around them in terms of their social symbols: job, apartments, clothing, cars. Most do not accept the danger of the approaching planetary bodies; those who do use it primarily as a weapon by which to goad their significant others. These daughters of men, to name their biblical counterpart, are petty, ignorant, and selfish.

Eve represents another sort of woman, a woman who was educated, industrious, and willing to sacrifice her own needs for the betterment of humanity. Eve is not concerned with the comforts of life. She knows that she must sacrifice her individual dreams and desires if the human race is to survive. She and the few women scientists who join her in the league work diligently to construct the Ark, not even knowing if they would be granted a seat on it when it departs. Wylie may have been a misogynist, but he was one who allowed for the possibility that women of merit could exist and contribute meaningfully in a productive society.

Eve’s status in the narrative mirrors that of the woman she is named after. Like Fowler Wright’s Claire, Balmer and Wylie’s heroine is a new Eve; her sole reason for surviving is to become the “mother of men.”[37] She and the others chosen to travel on the ark are chosen due to their intellectual excellence, but once chosen, they cease to be individuals. They become, in Eve’s words, “bits of biology, bearing within us seeds far more important than ourselves—far more important than our prejudices and loves and hates.”[38] Eve begins the narrative in a monogamous relationship. Yet, she quickly recognises that she and her companions must be willing to mate with multiple partners on Bronson Beta in order to repopulate the human species. She embraces this fate willingly, developing a close relationship not only with her boyfriend but also with a young pilot in the league.

Such attitude conforms well with the perspective promoted elsewhere in the novel, which condemns the self-centred individualism its authors (primarily Wylie) found in the contemporary American capitalistic system. Eve and her fellow scientists promote the authors’ vision of the perfect collective society, one in which a select group of intellectual elites accomplish amazing feats after having pruned those elements—the bulk of humanity—that hinder its progress.

“The Fortress of Utopia” (1939) and the Female Noah

My final example flipped the paradigm on its head by creating a female Noah. “The Fortress of Utopia” was published in 1939 by John (“Jack”) Williamson (1908–2006) in the science fiction magazine, Startling Stories.[39] Williamson was a professor of literature and an award-winning professional writer. Over the course of his life, he composed over fifty books and countless short stories. The present narrative was written early in his literary career, at the cusp of a decade that came to be considered the peak of Williamson’s creative activity.[40]

The premise of “The Fortress of Utopia” is simple enough: a “cloud of gas and dust and meteoric debris” (i.e., a stellar nebula) is on a collision course for the earth.[41] Although the approaching nebula will not strike for two hundred years, humanity is not advanced or focused enough to advert the coming disaster. Therefore, a team of four men and one woman develop a plan to save the entire human race: they erase the memories of every human being on the planet and program the empty shells with just enough scientific knowledge to solve the problem. The team members, whose memories remain intact, become the self-appointed guardians of the world. They establish a base on the moon where they sleep for decades at a time, awaking only periodically to check on the progress of the human race. The ensuing plot is complicated, but the narrative finally resolves when the descendants of humanity transform the planet itself into a spaceship, one that is capable of moving outside of its established orbit and surviving without the light of the sun.

Central to this plot is Patricia “Pat” Wayland, the female member of the team. Like Eve of When World’s Collide, Pat initially seems to fit the professor’s daughter trope. As the narrative begins, she is described as a woman of inhuman beauty. “The girl was exquisite. A light tan warmed her flawless skin. Her hair was shining platinum. Her face had a smooth, doll-like perfection.”[42] Blond-haired, blue eyes, with a sugar-sweet voice, Pat captivates the men of the narrative, leaving them dumbfounded. Pat capitalises on this feature, positioning herself as a “particularly gorgeous and particularly dumb show-girl.”[43] She poses as the team’s secretary, answering the door when strangers call. Thus, when the newest member of the team first meets Pat, his eyes pass right over her, and he dismisses her as office eye-candy. Even the author, who knows better, continually refers to Pat throughout the narrative as “girl,” as if she was nothing more than a pretty face.

Yet, Pat is anything but eye-candy. She is a “beautiful woman and a splendid scientist.”[44] In fact, says one male teammate, “it is better to forget that she is a woman. Just remember that she is a biologist who ranks with Mendel and Darwin, a psychologist who is the peer of Watson and Pavlov.”[45] Even more so than Balmer and Wylie’s Eve, Pat is an intellectual giant. She creates an “ideophore,” a device that programs specialised knowledge directly and instantaneously into the brain of the receiver. It is by this device that she teaches her teammates to fly spaceships and how the team teaches the mindless humans to construct an advanced civilization. She creates the hibernation chambers that keeps the team alive for two centuries. She creates the “tau-ray,” the device that erases the memories of the entire human race. Finally, she works with the people on the ground to transform the earth into an earth-ship. Without her genius, the narrative would not have progressed; the planet would not have been saved.

Within the narrative world that Williamson establishes, Pat’s intellect cannot be reconciled with her beauty. Because of her beauty, all of the male teammates are in love with Pat; because of her intellect, they remain at arms-length. Unrequited love for Pat even drives the team’s leader to erase all of his memories. Only after forgetting Pat does he find peace. We find out late in the narrative that Pat’s love for her leader is what brought her to the project in the first place, but her commitment to the plan drove her to push him, and her other teammates, away.

Pat seemingly prefers the distance. She is cold, calculating, and caustic. Her words sting. “The simplest theory,” says one teammate, “is that the woman in her quarrelled with the scientist—and the scientist won.”[46] When Pat displays emotions, it is worthy of note. After a rare display of admiration for the grandness of space, her teammate remarks: “you’re human tonight. I really believe you have a heart.”[47] When the memory of her leader is inadvertently erased, Pat bites her lip and her face grows pale. One of her remaining teammates responds bitterly, “sometimes you’re human. Mostly, you’re just an adding machine, with a dash of paint and one of poison. But sometimes you really act like a human being.”[48]

In presenting Pat in this fashion, the author plays with another trope, that of the “male woman” scientist. Identified by film scholar Eva Flicker, the male woman is a female scientist who works as part of a male team and adopts male characteristics: she is “assertive,” “has a rough, harsh voice,” “dresses practically,” has an “unhealthy lifestyle” (e.g., smokes), and is “missing female charm.”[49] Pat fits much of this characterisation. Although beautiful, she is caustic and lacks feminine mannerisms. She holds her own among her male teammates and is not concerned with how others perceive her. She is more scientist (i.e., man) than woman.

In general, Pat does not seem to mind the characterisation. Indeed, she seems to revel in it. At the end of the narrative, however, when salvation seems at hand, the coldness melts away. She cries. She laughs. She embraces her male teammate. It is as though Williamson is not comfortable with a woman who does not conform to his expectation of a beautiful woman. In the end, the author brings Pat back into established social parameters. No longer a scientist, Pat is an emotional woman in love, ready to start anew.

Pat is never called “Noah,” nor does she single-handedly construct an ark upon which the human race escapes destruction. In fact, as the romantic interest of the more traditional male Noah figures, she is more akin to Noah’s wife. Yet she is no less a Noah figure than her male counterparts. It is Pat’s ingenuity that paves the way forward time and time again. It is she who constructs the devices that carry the human race to safety. Williamson, then, has taken a more radical step in the transformation of the biblical narrative that his counterparts. He has changed the gender of his protagonist. Noah has become a woman.

As with Eve, this portrayal of Pat should not be taken as an unqualified acceptance of early feminism. Although Williamson supported equal pay and opportunities for women, he was sceptical of feminist movements, arguing in a later interview that they were motivated by self-centred individualism and hatred of men.[50] Pat, by contrast, places the survival of the human race above her own needs. While she does destroy society by erasing everyone’s memories, she does not hate men in particular and the society she helps create does not radically reshape the social order; men are still in charge. Moreover, it is only by acting as a scientist—as a man—that Pat is able to achieve equality with her male counterparts. Pat is capable of achieving remarkable feats in this narrative, but she is not a feminist.

The Noahic Woman: Wife, Daughter, Scientist

The Deluge, When Worlds Collide, and “The Fortress of Utopia” each provide an early twentieth-century retelling of the biblical flood narrative. In doing so, they cast the Noahic woman as a central character. The Noahic woman is no longer an unnamed wife or daughter-in-law. She is Helen Webster, who survives a great injury and keeps her children alive until she can be reunited with her husband. She is Claire Arlington, who swims extreme lengths and battles violent men in order to secure a mate. She is Eve Hendron, who works tirelessly with her father to construct a ship that will save the human race from annihilation. She is Pat Wayland, who reshapes society in order to find a solution to impending disaster. The Noahic woman has become a central figure whose actions positively influence the future of humanity.

The portrayals of these women are grounded in the biblical narrative. They are the daughters and/or wives of the flood generation. Yet these women also expand the biblical narrative. Helen remains a prediluvian wife, one of the notorious daughters of men who Fowler Wright and Wylie each condemn. But Helen is a new and improved version of her biblical counterpart: she has depth, emotions, and agency. In fleshing out the figure, Helen flips the interpretation of the daughters of men on its head. Unlike most of her narrative generation, Helen is a righteous figure. Without hesitation, she leaves behind the comforts of home in an effort to safeguard her children. For this, she finds approval in the eyes of the author. She provides a glimpse at what is possible for society and thereby earns a place in the postdiluvian world. She is not washed away.

Claire is also a daughter of men. She is a mature woman with a full set of experiences behind her. But she is also an Eve figure, the mother of an unborn son and the de facto female leader of the new human society that will be governed by her husband. She reflects the author’s highest aspirations for womankind, a belief that educated, practically minded women can advance the aims of a righteous society. Eve Hendron, on the other hand, is part of Noah’s direct family; she is the youthful biological daughter (rather than daughter-in-law) of the chief Noah figure. Like Claire, she is also an Eve character, the proposed mother of the society that will grow on Bronson Beta. She represents for her author the possibilities of the next generation, who, cleansed of the sins of the past, can fulfil humanity’s true purpose. Both Claire and Eve, then, are Noahic Eves. They are mothers of a new postdiluvian race.

Unlike many retellings, which reinterpret Eve as a wily sexual temptress (e.g., Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio in laudem Basilii 18.8), the Noahic Eve is a positive figure, an ideal put forth for the reader to aspire to. Claire is not a beautiful seductress that lures her man away from the safety of the garden (i.e., his prediluvian wife). She acknowledges Helen’s prior claim on Martin and presents a peaceful resolution that is acceptable to all parties. Eve Hendron is not a siren that flaunts her beauty to attract the best mate. She is dedicated to her father’s mission and is willing to expand her perception of a fulfilled marital life to ensure the perpetuation of the human race. The Noahic Eve is a noble figure. Her sexuality is tempered by sacrifice.

Pat is a different kind of Noahic woman altogether. She is wife in as much as she is the romantic interest of her teammates, the male Noah figures of the story. But she is not a mother. Rather, she is Noah herself. She works, in conjunction with her teammates, to devise a means by which the human race can survive. She thus is the functional equivalent of Noah and his wife, a loose harmonisation of the two. This female Noah, too, is a positive figure. She sets her emotions and individual desires aside to focus on a larger goal. In this, she fits the evaluation of Noah from the biblical narrative: she is a righteous woman.

The narratives are able to make these interpretive moves in large part because of the genre in which they operate. Science fiction writers, in general, are not interested in retelling biblical narratives;[51] rather they focus on contemplating the possibilities and limitations of human nature. Thus, when authors use a biblical story, they freely recast it, bringing the narrative into contemporary times and reshaping its characters. Science fiction writers do the same with other literary conventions. They creatively play with established tropes, like the beautiful professor’s daughter or the sexless male-woman scientist, to reflect on the virtues and vices of their society.[52]

In the case of these narratives, the Noahic woman is beautiful, but she is not dumb. Helen is a sensible woman. She is calm in the face of danger and easily adapts to changing circumstances. Claire has a BA and a practical mind. She can quickly assess a threatening situation and devise a means of escaping it. Eve is a noted scientist. She is able to check her father’s complex astronomical figures and help plan the construction of a spaceship. Pat is an accomplished biologist and psychologist. She invents various devices and a plan for using them. Although the degree and application of their intelligence varies, each woman possesses a keen mind and is not afraid to use it. Moreover, the Noahic woman does not wait to be rescued. She takes an active role in preserving herself and her species. Helen carries her children out of rising waters to safety without waiting for her absent husband to return. Claire quickly grabs a gun when her mate hesitates. Eve is actively involved in planning, building, and recruiting inhabitants for the ark that will carry humanity to a new world. Pat is the intellect behind the devices that transform her world. These are not helpless damsels; they are heroines who actively shape their own story. In sum, the Noahic woman is not simply the professor’s daughter or assistant. She does not need to have complex concepts explained to her or have a man rescue her. She does not cower in fear or act ignorantly like the daughters of men. She is intelligent in her own right and capable of controlling her own destiny.

By building such a character, the authors of these narratives reflect contemporary social developments. During the early twentieth century, Western women were increasingly moving out of the domestic sphere. They attended college, entered the workforce as typists and teachers, and became active in politics and philanthropies. Even women who remained within the household, which still constituted the majority, were cast in popular imagination as a new type of housewife, a “domestic scientist” capable of using technology to manage an increasingly complex environment.[53] The Noahic woman expanded to match her historical counterparts, transforming from wife (Helen) to independent woman (Claire), from assistant (Eve) to independent scientist (Pat). The Noahic woman was, in short, a measure of the changing times. But she also challenged these social developments. The Noahic woman demonstrated that it was not enough for women to establish a presence outside the home; such independence had to be tempered by intellect, self-sacrifice, and an ability to think of the greater good.

In making the claim that these early twentieth-century science fiction authors positively reshape these biblically derived figures, I do not wish to overstate their feminist advancements or understate the misogyny present in these narratives. The three narratives discussed here were all written by men before the Second World War and thus before the so-called Golden Age of science fiction. Although women did write science fiction in these early days, their narratives largely conformed to the tone and subject matter of their male counterparts, and readers would have been hard pressed to tell the difference in the gender of the authors based solely on the content of their stories.[54] It would be another decade before strong feminist writers began entering the genre and another three before feminist science fiction was in full swing.[55] These three narratives may have reflected some societal advancements brought on by first-wave feminism, but they were still constrained by the presuppositions of their male authors.

For instance, although the Noahic women do not conform intellectually and socially to the expectations of the author’s society, they still reflect its standards of beauty. Helen is graceful and polished. Claire is lean and athletic. Eve is slim and pale. Pat is flawless and doll-like. Each woman is young, thin, and desirable. Presumably the women represent each author’s individual sexual preferences. But they also reflect their society’s perception of the ideal woman, or rather, the ideal Caucasian woman. It is important to note that our four heroines are all white, as are the men who pursue them. The narratives remain wedded to the expectations of the majority Western culture to which their authors belong, even as they wrestle with the implications of those expectations.[56]

Moreover, the resolutions in these postapocalyptic scenarios reflect the male fantasies of their authors. The Noahic woman is polygamous, or at least willing to tolerate multiple partners. Both Helen and Claire willingly share their declared husband. Eve is willing to take at least two men as mates, with the knowledge that those men would also have multiple partners. Only Pat appears to end in a monogamous relationship; yet, for most of the narrative, she strings multiple men along, neither choosing nor explicitly rejecting any of her teammates until the final page of the narrative. It is only at the end of the story that her independence is reined back in to what appears to be the author’s perception of acceptable female behaviour. Whether the reader views the behaviour of these women in a positive light is irrelevant. In the narrative world that each author creates, each woman is applauded for her choice, whether that choice be to share her husband, to take more than one mate, or to finally choose a single partner. Although some female readers might identify with such resolutions, that perspective is irrelevant to the authors. The focus in the narratives is on what the men want. It is still the hero who gets the girl(s), not the other way around.

Yet, although these narratives are not as forward-thinking as later feminist writings, they still reflect an important step in the history of the genre. The authors were willing to critically examine contemporary norms and push the boundaries for what it meant to be a woman character in science fiction. They certainly expanded the female character beyond their biblical model. In the years to follow, the women of Noah would continue to develop, becoming politicians (e.g., Laura Roslin, Battlestar Galatica reboot), warriors (e.g., Clarke Griffin, The 100), even superheroes (e.g., certain origin stories of the Supergirl tradition).[57] Such characterisations that readers are now accustomed to finding in the genre owe a great deal to these early authors, who were willing to look to developing trends in society, subvert reader expectations, and expand minor biblical characters into such positive, dynamic forces.


A prediluvian mother. A Noahic Eve. A female Noah. In the three early twentieth-century science fiction narratives discussed here, the unnamed women of the biblical flood have become central characters with identities, emotions, and physical characteristics. They use their wits to survive great challenges, contribute intellectually to the society around them, and actively shape their own stories. Yes. The Noahic woman is a wife, mother, and daughter of a male figure. But she is no afterthought. She is a central figure whose actions drive the narrative and ensure the continuation of the human race.


Aldiss, Brian W. “Dr. Peristyle.” New Worlds 155 (1965): 125.

The 100. 19 March 2014, on CW.

“The Ark in Space.” Doctor Who. Season 12, Episodes 5–8. Directed by Rodney Bennett. Written by Robert Holmes. 25 January–15 February 1975, on BBC1

Attebery, Brian. Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2002, doi:10.4324/9781315870038.

Battlestar Galactica. 18 October 2004, on NBC.

Baxter, Stephen. Flood. London: Gollancz, 2008.

———. Ark. New York: New American Library, 2009.

Bendau, Clifford P. Still Worlds Collide: Philip Wylie and the End of the American Dream. San Bernardino, CA: Wildside, 1980.

Bradbury, Ray. “Way in the Middle of the Air.” In The Martian Chronicles, Grand Master ed. New York: Doubleday, 1950.

Dalton, Russell W. Children’s Bibles in America: A Reception History of the Story of Noah’s Ark in US Children’s Bibles. London: Bloomsbury, 2015, doi:10.5040/9780567665409.

Donawerth, Jane L. “Science Fiction by Women in the Early Pulps, 1926–1930.” Pages 137–52 in Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference. Edited by Jane Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Deluge. Directed by Felix E. Feist. Written by John F. Goodrich and Warren Duff. 1933, RKO Radio Pictures.

Flicker, Eva. “Between Brains and Breasts—Women Scientists in Fiction Film: On the Marginalization and Sexualization of Scientific Competence.” Public Understanding of Science 13 (2003): 307–18, doi:10.1177/0963662503123009.

Fowler Wright, Sydney. The Deluge. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.

———. Dawn. New York: Cosmopolitan Book, 1929.

Haynes, Roslynn D. From Madman to Crime Fighter: The Scientist in Western Culture. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2017.

Hood, Yolanda, and Robin Anne Reid. “Intersections of Race and Gender.” Pages 191–201 in Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Edited by Robin Anne Reid. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2009.

Mains, Christine, Brad J. Ricca, Holly Hassel, and Lynda Rucker. “Heroes or Sheroes.” Pages 178–90 in Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Edited by Robin Anne Reid. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2009.

Minov, Sergey. “Noah and the Flood in Gnosticism.” Pages 228–36 in Noah and His Book(s). Edited by Michael E. Stone, Aryeh Amihay, and Vered Hillel. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.

Obuchowski, Mary DeJong. “Edwin Balmer.” Pages 51–52 in The Authors. Vol. 1 of Dictionary of Midwestern Literature. Edited by Philip A. Greasley. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Schmidt, Brian B., Heath D. Dewrell, Janet E. Spittler, Hans Förster, Nadav Sharon, Aryeh Amihay, Joseph Davis, et al. “Flood, The.” Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception 9:220–52.

Serviss, Garret P. The Second Deluge. New York: McBride Nast, 1912.

Stableford, Brian. Introduction to The Deluge, by Sydney Fowler Wright. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.

Stone, Michael E., Aryeh Amihay, and Vered Hillel, eds. Noah and His Book(s). Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.

Tilford, Nicole L. “The Ark in Space: Battlestar Galactica and Other Seed Ships.” Noah’s Flood: Ancient Stories of Natural Cataclysm. 2014.

Truesdale, Dave. “An Interview with Jack Williamson.” Tangent 5 (1976):

Wallace, Mike. “Philip Wylie.” The Mike Wallace Interview. 12 May 1957.

West, Wallace G. “The Last Man.” Amazing Stories (February 1929): 1030–39.

Williamson, Jack. “The Fortress of Utopia.” Startling Stories 2.3 (1939): 14–88.

———. Wonder’s Child: My Life in Science Fiction. New York: Bluejay, 1984.

Wylie, Philip. Generation of Vipers. New York: Rinehard, 1942.

Wylie, Philip, and Edwin Balmer. When Worlds Collide. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Yaszek, Lisa. Galatic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008.

When Worlds Collide. Directed by Rudolph Maté. Written by Sydney Boehm. 1951, Paramount.

[1] Translations of biblical texts follow the NRSV.

[2] Norea’s name, her relation to Noah, and the details of her story varies. For a summary, see Sergey Minov, “Noah and the Flood in Gnosticism,” in Noah and His Book(s), ed. Michael E. Stone, Aryeh Amihay, and Vered Hillel (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 228–36.

[3] For a general survey of the flood’s interpretation throughout history, see Brian B. Schmidt et al., “Flood, The,” Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception 9:220–52. For closer look at the traditions in early Judaism, see the various essays in Stone, Amihay, and Hillel, Noah and His Book(s). For a special focus on the same time period as the science-fiction narratives discussed in this article, see Russell W. Dalton, Children’s Bibles in America: A Reception History of the Story of Noah’s Ark in US Children’s Bibles (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), doi:10.5040/9780567665409.

[4] See Garrett Putman Serviss, The Second Deluge, (New York: McBride Nast, 1912); Ray Bradbury, “Way in the Middle of the Air,” in The Martian Chronicles, Grand Master ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1950); “The Ark in Space,” Doctor Who, Season 12, Episodes 5–8, directed by Rodney Bennett, written by Robert Holmes, 25 January–15 February 1975, on BBC1; Stephen Baxter, Flood (London: Gollancz, 2008)and Ark (New York: New American Library, 2009); and The 100, 19 March 2014 on CW, to name but a few examples. For more examples, see Nicole L. Tilford, “The Ark in Space: Battlestar Galactica and Other Seed Ships,” Noah’s Flood: Ancient Stories of Natural Cataclysm, 2014,

[5] Sydney Fowler Wright, The Deluge (Fowler Wright, 1927); Fowler Wright, Dawn (New York: Cosmopolitan Book, 1929); Deluge, directed by Felix E. Feist, written by John F. Goodrich and Warren Duff, 1933, RKO Radio Pictures. References to The Deluge will be to the following edition: Sydney Fowler Wright, The Deluge (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003).

[6] For more information on Fowler Wright, see Brian Stableford, introduction to Fowler Wright, Deluge, xi–lviii.

[7] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 1.

[8] Stableford, introduction, xi–xii.

[9] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 9.

[10] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 254

[11] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 34.

[12] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 37.

[13] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 72.

[14] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 109.

[15] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 51.

[16] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 42.

[17] Wallace G. West, “The Last Man,” Amazing Stories (February 1929): 1030–39. For more on the last man trope, see Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction, 2nd ed. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 121–25, 166–69.

[18] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 104.

[19] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 251, 255, 263.

[20] For examples, see Brian Attebery, Decoding Gender in Science Fiction (New York: Routledge, 2002), 82–105; Christine Mains, Brad J. Ricca, Holly Hassel, and Lynda Rucker, “Heroes or Sheroes,” in Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. Robin Anne Reid, vol. 1 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2009), 178–90, doi:10.4324/9781315870038.

[21] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 144.

[22] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 300.

[23] Fowler Wright’s recollection of the criticism and response is recorded in the preface to the second edition of the novel, reprinted in Fowler Wright, Deluge, 301.

[24] Fowler Wright, Deluge, 128.

[25] References will be to the following edition: Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, When Worlds Collide (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).

[26] For more on Balmer, see Mary DeJong Obuchowski, “Edwin Balmer,” in The Authors, vol. 1 of Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, ed. Philip A. Greasley (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 51–52. For more on Wylie, see Clifford P. Bendau, Still Worlds Collide: Philip Wylie and the End of the American Dream (San Bernardino, CA: Wildside, 1980).

[27] When Worlds Collide, directed by Rudolph Maté, written by Sydney Boehm, 1951, Paramount.

[28] Attebery, Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, 45.

[29] Wylie and Balmer, When Worlds Collide, 10.

[30] Wylie and Balmer, When Worlds Collide, 10.

[31] Wylie and Balmer, When Worlds Collide, 11.

[32] See Wylie and Balmer, When Worlds Collide, 9–12, 61.

[33] Philip Wylie, Generation of Vipers (New York: Rinehard, 1942).

[34] Wylie, Generation of Vipers, 185.

[35] Mike Wallace, “Philip Wylie,” The Mike Wallace Interview, 12 May 1957, archived at the Harry Ransom Center: The University of Texas Austin,

[36] Wylie and Balmer, When Worlds Collide, 48–49.

6/29/2021 12:28:00 PM[37] Wylie and Balmer, When Worlds Collide, 192.

[38] Wylie and Balmer, When Worlds Collide, 45.

[39] Jack Williamson, “The Fortress of Utopia,” Startling Stories 2.3 (1939): 14–88.

[40] For more on Williamson, see Jack Williamson, Wonder’s Child: My Life in Science Fiction (New York: Bluejay, 1984).

[41] Williamson, “Fortress of Utopia,” 26.

[42] Williamson, “Fortress of Utopia,” 19.

[43] Williamson, “Fortress of Utopia,” 28.

[44] Williamson, “Fortress of Utopia,” 20, emphasis added.

[45] Williamson, “Fortress of Utopia,” 20.

[46] Williamson, “Fortress of Utopia,” 32.

[47] Williamson, “Fortress of Utopia,” 37.

[48] Williamson, “Fortress of Utopia,” 46.

[49] Eva Flicker, “Between Brains and Breasts—Women Scientists in Fiction Film: On the Marginalization and Sexualization of Scientific Competence,” Public Understanding of Science 13 (2003): 311, doi:10.1177/0963662503123009. For more on the literary portrayal of female scientists, see Roslynn D. Haynes, From Madman to Crime Fighter: The Scientist in Western Culture (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2017), 302–18.

[50] Dave Truesdale, “An Interview with Jack Williamson,” Tangent 5 (1976), repr. online at Williamson here is speaking specifically of the women liberation movements of the 1970s, but his comments would presumably apply to first wave feminism as well since he saw the liberation movements as a continuation of eighteenth-century Romanticism.

[51] Note, however, the complaint voiced anonymously by Brian W. Aldiss that magazine editors too frequently receive “shaggy god stories,” that is, poorly written biblical narratives set in space. [Brian W. Aldiss], “Dr. Peristyle,” New Worlds 155 (1965):125.

[52] For the creative play of science fiction with respect to gender tropes in the early twentieth century, see Attebery, Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, esp. 39–61.

[53] Though how much this popular characterisation matched reality for the majority of women before the Second World War is debatable. Lisa Yaszek, Galatic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008), 9–10.

[54] For women authors who break this mode, see Jane L. Donawerth, “Science Fiction by Women in the Early Pulps, 1926–1930,” in Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference, ed. Jane Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1994), 137–52.

[55] For the rise of women authors in science fiction after the Second World War, see Yaszek, Galatic Suburbia.

[56] See Yolanda Hood and Robin Anne Reid, “Intersections of Race and Gender,” in Reid, Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy, 191–201.

[57] Battlestar Galactica, 18 October 2004, on NBC; The 100, 19 March 2014, on CW.