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Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent

July 3, 2013

WomenofWonderWomen of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent (1974)
Review by Ian Sales

The story of women in science fiction clearly suggests the continuing emergence of a body of work characterized by the new-found outlook of its practitioners. This new outlook belongs naturally to good science fiction, where it has always been present to some degree, and to the new social-futurological concerns in the culture at large.

So opens the 64-page introduction by Pamela Sargent to Women of Wonder, a reprint anthology of twelve sf stories by women writers designed to both showcase the talents of the contributors and to demonstrate that women writers have as much to offer as men to the genre, and have in fact been doing so since its beginnings. The stories range from 1948 to 1973, and most of the names will be familiar to twenty-first century readers of sf. Not all of the stories are especially notable, and many have not aged particularly well. Sargent’s introduction, however, is worth the price of admission alone. I do have one small quibble with the quote given above – I think there’s a danger in associating women sf writers with a particular type of sf which provides both an opening to discredit their contributions to the genre and also mischaracterises the breadth of science fiction women writers have produced. After all, Pamela Zoline’s ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ is no more emblematic of sf written by women than, say, ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Godwin is of sf written by men.

Sargent gives a brief history of women in science fiction, both as writers and as characters in the hands of male writers, quoting and citing where necessary to support her argument. Of especial interest is her mention of a discussion between Stanisław Lem and Ursula Le Guin on The Left Hand of Darkness, which took place in the pages of the Australian critical magazine SF Commentary. Lem criticised Le Guin’s novel, saying her “psychological insight … is only sufficient and sometimes even insufficient” (p xxxii). Lem’s chief argument seems to be that Gethenians would always choose to be male during kemmer because there is a natural human tendency to choose the dominant role. Which seems to me to miss the point of the novel by a massive margin. The Gethenians do not have binary gender in the normal course of their lives, so dominance and submission is not linked to biological gender. I’m surprised Lem was too dim to realise this.

The fiction begins with ‘The Child Dreams’ (1975), a poem by Sonya Dorman, which speaks to the purpose of the anthology and contains some effective imagery.

Judith Merril’s ‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) is a bona fide classic of the genre, though you won’t find it on that many lists of science fiction classics (I’ve looked). You won’t even find it in the 1978 anthology 100 Great Science Fiction Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov, Joseph D Olander and Martin H Greenberg (which – disgustingly – only contains 5 stories by women writers). The premise of ‘That Only A Mother’ may be somewhat hoary these days – a nuclear war and its effect on children conceived and born in a world of high background radiation – though events with drugs during pregnancy after its publication have given it added poignancy. Perhaps the gender roles are old-fashioned, but the protagonist is still active and independent and the domesticity of the set-up only makes the final reveal more heart-breaking. As an indicator that women can write sf as carefully crafted as men, ‘That Only A Mother’ is a prime example; but some may also see it as evidence that women write a “different” kind of sf, perhaps of more interest to women readers – and that I think is to wholly miss what it brings to science fiction and why it should be considered a classic. In pulp fiction, radiation traditionally created monsters, making both cause and effect subject to ignorance and fear. In ‘That Only A Mother’ Merril has personalised the cost of an atomic war, and rendered the atomic monster trope mere foolishness at a stroke. If I have one criticism it’s that the title of the story suggests a reading in which the mother is not in her right mind, whereas the story is in fact a damning indictment of the husband’s reaction. ‘That Only A Mother’ deserves to be on a lot more lists of classic science fiction.

‘Contagion’ (1950), Katherine MacLean, unfortunately, initially reads like a piece of 1950s sf silliness, despite being based on an interesting premise and displaying an admirable gender balance in its cast. In fact, the story is remarkable for the general good relations between men and women, and the way in which they work equally together to resolve the puzzle presented by the plot. A spaceship has landed on a new world which appears to be ripe for settlement. But then a young man appears, and proves to be from an abandoned colony which settled the world years before. Unfortunately, a “melting plague” killed off most of those early colonists, and only a handful survived. The spaceship’s crew immediately begin researching the disease, but despite their best efforts at decontamination some of the crew are struck down by it. And then June Walton, one of the doctors, realises what the plague is and why only a handful of the original settlers survived it… The story manages to keep its final reveal well hidden for much of its length, but its reliance on 1950s visions of future worlds – pointy rockets, test tubes, giant computers, etc – gives its world a dated feel which works against it.

I’m a little mystified by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s career. Her The Mists of Avalon is considered a classic fantasy – it might even be considered a break-out genre novel. Her Darkover series proved so popular within the genre it eventually comprised around forty books. And there was even a fantasy magazine bearing her name. Yet every piece of non-Darkover sf I’ve read by her has been… well, not very good. Sadly, ‘The Wind People’ (1959) is no exception. A spaceship lands on an uninhabited planet, and the crew enjoy several weeks of well-earned planetary rest. But one of the crew learns she is pregnant, and babies and young children cannot survive faster-than-light travel. The mother chooses to stay on the planet and have the child. During the years she spends there, and as her son grows to manhood, she feels she is not alone. Occasionally, she witnesses spectral figures in the woods, but each time she persuades herself it is her imagination. Except perhaps the planet really isn’t uninhabited, and perhaps her son has a close relationship with the eponymous people. ‘The Wind People’ unfortunately doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what it’s about, and so it flounders around looking for a point or a revelation, only to cheat the reader with a non-ending.

‘The Ship Who Sang’ (1961) by Anne McCaffrey is a well-known sf story, and spawned a further ten novellas and short stories (some of which were share-cropped), a novel of the same title, and four share-cropped sequels. A baby born with severe physical defects – “She was born a thing” (p 82) – is given the choice of becoming an “encapsulated “brain”, a guiding mechanism in any one of a number of curious professions” (p 83). The profession in this case is the control mechanism of a scout spaceship. Such ships have a single ordinary human crew-member, and the first section of the story recounts how Helva, the “encapsulated brain”, meets and falls in love with her “mobile partner”. Helva proves to have an excellent singing voice – hence the title – and she and her partner become known for the music they make together. But then he dies during a medical relief mission, and Helva must choose a new partner. I have never really understood the appeal of this series. Not only is the idea of making use of disabled people by denying their humanity offensive, but the story itself is clogged with cloying sentimentality. It’s a love story but of a purely romantic kind, because the two protagonists do nothing but mooncalf at each other. And they will never be able to do anything except that. Clearly, however, ‘The Ship Who Sang’ found some fans, given the number of sequels and its longevity (the last share-cropped work appeared in 2004).

I’ve a feeling stories about protoplasmic aliens who take human shape and live among humans are quite common in science fiction. Indeed, the premise has even been used in Star Trek for a recurring character: Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. ‘When I Was Miss Dow’ (1966) by Sonya Dorman may be an early entry, but it’s also quite an odd one. The narrator is referred to as male while he is his protoplasmic self, but he then takes human female form to infiltrate a nearby human colony. The humans know of the aliens, and even suspect some of them are working disguised among the humans, but Dr Procter does not know that his secretary, Miss Dow, is one such alien. As the story progresses, the narrator becomes too deeply involved in his/her role, and finds it hard to return to his natural form. Unfortunately, the story seems to peter out rather than resolve itself, and while it’s clearly played for laughs – Dr Procter, anyone? – the humour feels too incidental to affect the reading experience.

Kit Reed is one of science fiction’s better-kept secrets, which is a shame as she deserves to be much better known. Unfortunately, ‘The Food Farm’ (1967) isn’t, well, actually science fiction. An overweight young woman is sent to a “fat farm” to cure her obesity. Her favourite singer comes to visit, so she tries to pile back on the weight she has lost, even going so far as to stage a revolt. But it is not enough, and the singer mourns the young woman he nearly had, just as she mourns the intimacy she might have had. While not everything in the story need be real, there are no ideas or “nova” in it that might readily identify it as science fiction. It can certainly be read as slipstream, but it might also be read as mimetic fiction – except the latter reading fails because the real-world details are too inexact.

The title of ‘Baby, You Were Great’ (1967), by Kate Wilhelm, unfortunately promises more than the story delivers. The central premise is not unfamiliar these days, though I don’t know how common it was in 1967. An actress has been implanted with equipment which allows her emotional state to be recorded and then broadcast. She has proven so successful at this because she feels emotions very strongly, but now she wants out and the network is having trouble finding a replacement. They’re already having difficulty keeping audience interest, and have had to devise ever more dangerous situations for their star. An unscrupulous producer has plans to keep the actress working, while the inventor of the recording equipment looks on in despair. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to this story, and whatever commentary it might have made on the nature of celebrity has been well and truly superseded by reality television.

The title of Carol Emshwiller’s ‘Sex and/or Mr. Morrison’ (1967) is equally suggestive, but like the Kit Reed it is so peripherally science fiction it’s difficult to see how it might qualify as genre. The narrator is a young woman in an apartment building, and she is obsessed with her upstairs neighbour, the corpulent Mr Morrison. The story describes a series of prosaic fantasies she has about the man – in lovely prose, it must be admitted – before she sneaks into his room one day and remains there hidden when he returns. The story is little more than a view of the world through the narrator’s eyes – and there’s a  a vague hint she may not be human, much like the title character in Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary – and it’s quite an odd world in which she lives. The story originally appeared in Dangerous Visions.

I love the title of Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘Vaster Than Empires and More Slow’ (1971), though I’m less enamoured of its – coincidental, given the exchange documented in the anthology’s introduction – Solaris-like plot. An Ekumen scout ship has been strengthened by the addition of a new crew-member, an empath. Unfortunately, this empath is a thoroughly nasty piece of work and actively disliked by the rest of the crew. Their first mission takes them to an empty world, which they are to survey. But longer they stay on its surface, the more anxious they become and the more they turn on each other. Eventually they realise the forest covering the continent they are exploring is a single giant organism and it is picking up and reflecting back, much increased, their own emotional states. However, the genius in this story lies in Le Guin’s treatment of the ship’s crew-members’ cultural backgrounds. There is “one Low Cetian on the team, one Hairy Cetian, two Hainishmen, one Beldene, and five Terrans” (p 174). These are not Earth cultures with the serial numbers filed off, and the way in which Le Guin presents the various crew-members’ worldviews in the narrative is a thing of beauty. Read it for that and not the disappointing plot.

‘False Dawn’ (1972) by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is post-apocalyptic, but not after a twenty-first-century style apocalypse. Pollution seems to have done much of the damage, but society has fallen apart all the same. Now mutants and self-styled militias inhabit the US. Thea is a mutant, although it is not obvious, and this allows her to survive. While travelling by foot, she finds a man with one arm hiding in a silo, and the two decide to travel together. Then they run into a member of a local powerful militia and he takes the two prisoner. The story starts well enough. Perhaps the setting owes a little too much to cinematic post-apocalyptic landscapes of the time, but Thea is a strong and resourceful protagonist. Until they meet the militiaman. He treats Thea like chattel, verbally assaults her, and then when they stop for the night, sexually assaults her. The one-armed man kills her attacker and rescues her. Why? She could have done it herself – why have a one-armed man rescue a strong female character? Her strength and resourcefulness has already been demonstrated earlier in the story. In fact, until the appearance of the militiaman, Thea has been the dominant of the two travellers. It’s a disappointing turn in what could have been a so much more interesting story.

The past, they say, is a different country; they do things differently there. And it holds equally true for visions of the future made in the past, as is illustrated by Joanna Russ’s ‘Nobody’s Home’ (1972). In the future of Russ’s story, instantaneous travel has apparently turned the population of the Earth – much reduced, though no reason for that is given – into peripatetic dilettantes. Jannina, the protagonist, is part of a large extended family, and lives in a huge house in the Himalayas. Everyone is apparently really clever – especially the children, as is illustrated by mention of a silly verbal game they are playing when Jannina arrives home. Everyone, that is, except Leslie Smith. Whom they have invited to stay with them, and who is “stupid”. But apparently “bright-normal” in comparison to earlier humans (ie, twentieth-century readers). Whatever sympathy Jannina and her family might have felt for fish-out-of-water Leslie soon palls, and… I’m not entirely sure what this story is trying to say. There’s a sort of arrogant hippyness to it all, which not only dates it badly but also leaves a nasty aftertaste.

The Nebula-Award-winning ‘Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand’ (1973) by Vonda N McIntyre was later expanded into the Hugo-Award-winning and Nebula-Award-winning novel Dreamsnake. It is also the only award-winner in Women of Wonder, although three of the others were shortlisted for various awards. Snake is a healer and she uses three snakes to accomplish it: Grass, Mist and Sand. In a small desert community, she is asked to heal a young boy of a tumour, but  the parents are scared of the snakes. The healing is successful, but Snake pays a price. There’s very little in this story – it takes place mostly inside a tent, the world is left unexplained, there are no more than a handful of named characters. What little info-dumping there is explains only the purposes of the snakes in healing. It’s not hard to see why this story won an award. The prose is extremely good, Snake is well-drawn, sympathetic and mysterious, and the world is sufficiently intriguing to merit further exploration. ‘Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand’ is the best heartland genre story in the anthology, which may well explain why Sargent chose to end Women of Wonder with it.

While I can rue the need for an anthology like Women of Wonder, I can also be glad it exists. In an ideal world, writers such as Merril, MacLean, Dorman, Reed, Wilhelm, Emshwiller, Yarbro and McIntyre would be as well-known as, if not better than, their male contemporaries. Le Guin, of course, is perhaps the best known woman writer in genre fiction, and McCaffrey and Zimmer Bradley must run her a close second and third (although the last perhaps less so now). Russ, of course, is an entirely different matter, and while always highly-regarded she has become much more critically appreciated in the last decade or so. This is not only all to the good, it is long overdue. Sadly, it’s only too plain that initiatives such as the Women of Wonder series of anthologies – this volume was followed by More Women of Wonder (1976) and The New Women of Wonder (1978) – do not appear to have had that much effect. A later rebooting of the series, Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years (see here and here) and Women of Wonder: The Classic Years (both 1995), weren’t even reprinted in the UK (as two of the earlier volumes had been).

Women of Wonder is, for 1974, a good anthology. If some of its contents have not aged well, then so is the case for other anthologies from that decade. The stories Sargent chose are actually quite typical of the decades in which they were written – the Emshwiller, for example, is clearly an obvious fit for Dangerous Visions, and even the Le Guin is as characteristic of her work as anything she has written. ‘That Only A Mother’ deserves to be better known, if the MacLean is indicative of her work then I’d like to read more, and ‘Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand’ certainly makes me want to read Dreamsnake. (Russ and Emshwiller I already own books by, waiting to be read.)

Perhaps what Women of Wonder does best, however, is demonstrate that a similar project is needed today. Not just an anthology showcasing the best of women sf writers of the second decade of the twenty-first century, but also something akin to the Asimov anthology mentioned earlier, say, 100 Great Science Fiction Short Stories by Women. There is more than enough excellent material available to fill such a volume, and it’s criminal that so few people are aware of this or that their ignorance is considered unremarkable.

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