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More Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent

August 7, 2013

morewomenofwonderMore Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

Why do such a collection at all? Should it not be evident that women can and have written fine science fiction? (p xlvii)

As in the preceding volume, Sargent opens More Women of Wonder with a long and well-argued introduction. The purpose of this book, she tells us, is to showcase longer fiction – novelettes – written by women, as well as include works she couldn’t fit into Women of Wonder. She also gives a potted history of women in the genre, beginning with Francis Stevens and working her way forward through Brackett and Moore and Norton to the careers of “Vonda N. McIntyre, Suzy McKee Charnas, Joan D. Vinge, Marta Randall, Eleanor Arnason, Lisa Tuttle, Brenda Pierce, and Joan Bernott” (p xxiii), one of which appears in More Women of Wonder and only five of which are still writing in the twenty-first century (although Randall had two stories in F&SF in 2007, and McIntyre two in 2005 and a short-short in 2008). While Sargent claims that women were usually readily accepted as writers, the lives of women as a topic for genre stories was far less common, if not actively discouraged:

When one considers the impact that technology has had on human life throughout human history, it is surprising that more writers have not considered the effects such technical tools might have on women’s lives. (p xxxviii)

Sargent then goes on to consider four contemporary sf novels – Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Thomas M Disch’s 334, before veering off to discuss childbirth, the lack of women characters in hard sf – or rather, the lack of women as characters with agency in hard sf – and then commenting on the infrequent mentions of homosexuality in science fictions. It’s not entirely clear what point Sargent is trying to make. That in its early days science fiction did not actively discourage contributions from women? But Norton admits to being told to use a non-gender-specific pseudonym, and both Brackett’s and Moore’s gender is not obvious from their names. That there is still a problem – in 1976, that is – with the role of women in science fiction stories? This is certainly true, and sadly remains true even today. Six of the stories in More Women of Wonder show that it is not wholly true across the genre – which does make you wonder why Sargent chose Brackett’s ‘The Lake of Gone Forever’ – which features two female characters, both of whom are defined by their relationships to male characters. Despite an argument which could have been tighter and more focused, Sargent’s introduction makes a number of valid points and is an interesting read. Indeed, given that so many anthologies’ introductions are just chaff and waffle, Sargent’s are excellent examples of how it should be done.

In the introduction, Sargent quotes CL Moore on the ease with which she sold her first story, ‘Shambleau': “My own perfectly clear memory tells me that I sent it first to WT because that was the only magazine of the type I knew well, and that an answering acceptance and check… arrived almost by return mail” ( p xxviii), in part to counter claims that women writers in those days found it hard to get published. There is no mention of whether Moore’s covering letter mentioned her gender, or if the editor believed the writer to be male. However, Moore’s ‘Jirel Meets Magic’ (1935) is clearly the product of a woman writer – the title character is a warrior woman, and I know of no male genre writer using female protagonists writing at that time (all of Robert E Howard’s protagonists’, for example, were male). Despite Jirel’s gender, Moore’s first story featuring her was a success and readers demanded more. ‘Jirel Meets Magic’ is the third such, and it’s notable more for the roles men play in it than for its plot or writing. Jirel has sworn revenge on the wizard Guischard after he ambushed and killed some of her men. She storms his castle with some of her soldiers, but the wizard has vanished… through a magic window in a room in a high tower. Jirel follows him, and finds herself in a mysterious land. She immediately stumbles across a sorceress in the act of killing a dryad, and though she doesn’t prevent the murder, the sorceress flees before taking an important talisman – which the dryad gives to Jirel because. Jirel tracks down the sorceress to her lair, where she discovers that her name is Jarisme, and she is extremely powerful, very much more powerful than Guischard who, in a neat role reversal, fawns over her and wibbles fearfully at Jirel’s presence. There then follows a series of dreamlike episodes in which Joiry tracks down Jarisme in a variety of settings and tries to killer her. Because there is a prophecy that Jarisme will die at the hands of someone she let live three times (clue: the meeting over the dying dryad was the first). There’s a sort of fevered colourfulness to ‘Jirel Meets Magic’ – Jarisme, for example, is repeatedly associated with the colour purple – and the prose reads like the sort of cod-olde-time-speeche popular in fantasies of the time: “For a while there was tumult unspeakable there under the archway” (p 3). But there’s also a pulpish relentlessness to Moore’s vision and it’s easy to see why Jirel proved so popular a protagonist. The plot may be straightforward to the point of banality, and the prose style somewhat over-egged for modern tastes, but the story shines in its clever and natural-seeming reversal of gender roles. Jirel does not feel exceptional; nor indeed, does Jarisme.  And that, I think, is this novelette’s greatest strength.

‘The Lake of Gone Forever’ (1949) by Leigh Brackett is, conversely, a very masculine story – as indeed is much of Brackett’s genre output. Rand Conway has persuaded the wealthy Rohan to mount an expedition to the mysterious planet of Iskar. Conway has history with Iskar – his father journeyed to the world, the first and only human to do so, years before and his experiences there made him a broken man, especially something that happened at the eponymous lake. Rohan’s ship finds and lands on Iskar, and Conway leads the way to the nearby village described to him by his late father. But Conway is after the treasure hidden in the Lake of Gone Forever. The Iskarians are not happy to see Conway and his party and initially threaten them, but Conway persuades them to let them stay. Relations quickly sour, Conway sneaks away in the night – with the help of a rebellious young Iskarian woman – and discovers the secret of the Lake of Gone Forever, and a not-especially-hard-to-figure-out truth about himself. ‘The Lake of Gone Forever’ is typical Brackett from start to finish. While the Iskarians do not possess the sense of history with which Brackett managed to imbue her tales of old Mars, and the existence of an unknown – so much so that only one man ever found it – planet in the Asteroid Belt is wildly implausible… Conway is certainly a characteristically two-fisted Brackett hero.

There’s quite a leap in time from the Brackett to Joanna Russ’s ‘The Second Inquisition’ (1970), and much changed in the genre during those intervening twenty years – and not just the role of women in stories, or number of women writing science fiction. For one thing, the Moore stretches the definition of sf well past breaking point, and Brackett’s planetary romances cannot be mapped onto the real Solar System, and by 1970 most science fiction was expected to contain more rigour and more scientific verisimilitude… and certainly not show its pulp roots quite so plainly. So I suppose it must be perversity which led Sargent to choose a time-travel story by Russ which is set in 1925. The narrator is a teenage girl whose parents have taken in a strange lodger, a forthright woman who is allegedly from the circus. She’s not, of course; and it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal she’s from the future. It’s not clear whether she’s a criminal or a rebel, but she is eventually tracked down by a man from her time who tries, and fails, to take her into custody. All witnessed by the narrator. It’s a curiously laid-back story for Russ, and driven not so much by anger as it is by futility. The narrator has seen what the lodger – she is never actually named – can do, has witnessed her independence, her power and intelligence, and rues her own lack of the same. There is a nice conceit throughout the story in which the visitor reads a lurid romance, and encourages the narrator to read it (she, of course, falls in love with the heroine and her lifestyle in the book) – despite the book being banned by her parents, and her mother actually counting the book among her favourites. Whether that’s intended meta-fictionally is open to question, but given Russ’s meta-fictional games in other stories – such as those in The Adventures of Alyx – then it’s likely deliberate. ‘The Second Inquisition’ manages to feel very 1970s without actually containing any details which refer to that decade – in fact, the time-travellers and their equipment manage not to feel at all dated – and which rather than being a weakness only makes it more appealing.

‘The Power of Time’ (1971) by Josephine Saxton also has a very 1970s feel to it, though half of the story is set at its time of writing. The other half is set in the distant future, when some people on Earth possess great power – so much so, in fact, that one of them, the narrator, has decided to transplant Manhattan from the US to Nottinghamshire, just for shits and giggles. Meanwhile, an unnamed housewife in the present day (as was) has won a competition for an all-expenses trip to New York. A succession of male escorts show her about the city, wine and dine her, and engage in sparkling conversation with her. Meanwhile, in the future, Manhattan is shifted in its entirety – including inhabitants – across the Atlantic and placed in the middle of an artificial lake. There’s a lightheartedness to ‘The Power of Time’ which belies the seriousness of its point – the future narrative feels a little flippant, as indicated by the novelette’s opening sentence:

“It shouldn’t present much difficulty if you approach it in a positive way,” I said to the Chief of the Mohawks, Flying Spider. (p 149)

And while such lightness of tone works well for the sections set in the present day (of the story), the flippancy undermines the difficulty of the narrator’s “project” and the seriousness of its consequences. ‘The Power of Time’ reads as though it were written as a comedy rather than a commentary, but it succeeds better at the latter than the former.

It’s near impossible not to think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when reading Kate Wilhelm’s ‘The Funeral’, (1972), even though Wilhelm’s novelette predates Atwood’s novel by thirteen years. Carla is a pupil at an all-girls school in a US very different to the one we know. It’s not entirely clear what happened to create the US of the story – Wilhelm reveals some details in italicised flashbacks, but she leaves much unexplained. Men and women now appear to be separated into different categories by profession. These are “citizens”, who are enfranchised. One such category for women is “Lady”, which is little more than a courtesan. Carla has been made an apprentice Teacher, and the funeral of the title is for Madam Westfall, who invented the educational system which has led to the society depicted in the novelette. Madam Westfall will be buried in state, and Carla is in attendance on the body. But it seems Madam Westfall had a secret, and Carla’s Teacher, Madam Trudeau, who she hates and fears, thinks those girls who waited on Madam Westfall during her last few months – and Carla is one of those girls – know the dead woman’s secret. ‘The Funeral’ is one of those sf stories which impresses more through its world-building than its plot. It’s a stronger piece than others I’ve read by Wilhelm, though some of the vagueness about its setting does work against it.

The ‘Tin Soldier’ (1974) by Joan D Vinge is the first story in More Women of Wonder which might qualify as heartland sf – the Moore is fantasy, the Brackett pulp sf, the Russ is set in the past, part of the Saxton is set in the present day, and the Wilhelm is set in a post-apocalypse USA. ‘Tin Soldier’ has starships and alien worlds and an interstellar human civilisation. It’s also very much about people. Maris, the “tin soldier” of the title, is a retired soldier and a cyborg. He runs a bar also called the Tin Soldier. Because Maris does not age, his bar is popular with crews of visiting starships who travel between worlds AAFAL – Almost As Fast As Light. A trip to another world and back takes them three years, but twenty-five years passes on Oro. Oh, and all starship crew are female, as neither men nor cyborgs (of either gender) can handle AAFAL, as revealed in one of the most egregious examples of info-dumping I’ve come across in sf:

She frowned in concentration. “‘After it was determined that men were physically unsuited to spacing, and women came to a new position of dominance as they momopolized this critical area, the Terran cultural foundation underwent severe strain. As a result, many new and not always satisfactory cultural systems are evolving in the galaxy…'” (p 218)

Because of the time-lag, women cannot form relationships with men on worlds and have a rule of only having sex with a man once – they call them “Tails”. Because Maris is a cyborg, some starship crew occasionally think it is funny to set up new crew with him. As soon as they show interest, he admits to his cyborg nature. Cue laughter. When her shipmates do this to Brandy, she remains interested and Maris privately admits that he’s not wholly a cyborg. Afterwards, the two become friends, and manage to maintain their friendship for almost a century – Brandy visits Oro every twenty-five years, Maris barely ages… though everything else changes. Eventually, their relationship too changes. There is some very nice descriptive prose in ‘Tin Soldier’ and the central relationship is handled well. There’s also a slight Delany-esque atmosphere to the story, though less so in the language used.

‘The Day Before the Revolution’ (1974), Ursula K Le Guin, is actually a short story rather than a novelette, but since in the previous volume, Women of Wonder, Le Guin appeared with a novelette, one of only two in the anthology, that seems fair enough. Back in April of this year at the Eastercon, EightSquaredCon, in Bradford, I was on a panel about older women in science fiction and fantasy, with Rochita Roen-Luiz, Caroline Mullan, Fred Warrington and David Tallerman. I mentioned the story ‘Mab Gallen Recalled’ by Cherry Wilder, which appears in Millennial Women (see review here), but had I known of it I could also have mentioned Le Guin’s ‘The Day Before the Revolution’. Laia Asieo Odo is a famous revolutionary. In her younger years, she wrote a number of seminal revolutionary texts while in prison. Now, she is in her seventies; now, she remembers he husband, who died decades before; now, she remembers the heady days when she was a political agitator. Though there was no revolution, during the story one happens in another nation, and it’s implied that one is about to begin in the city in which Odo lives – and that this revolution eventually leads to the anarchist society on Anarres in Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed. The story is a reflection by Odo on her life, and her thoughts on the position she now holds in the minds of her followers and the public in respect to what she achieved in the past. It paints her as occupying an elder stateswoman sort of role, one she doesn’t really feel she deserves – and she spends much of the story remembering her husband, and how she first met him. It’s a clever juxtaposition of beginnings and endings, but I suspect that putting it last in More Women of  Wonder has done it few favours. Very little actually happens in ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ and it makes for a slow end to the anthology.

In my review of Women of Wonder (see here), I suggested a similar project should be put together now. Of course, it already has been – Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, edited by Justine Larbalestier, published in 2006 by Wesleyan University Press, and containing stories by Clare Winger Harris, Leslie F Stone, Alice Eleanor Jones, Kate Wilhelm, Pamela Zoline, James Tiptree Jr, Lisa Tuttle, Pat Murphy, Octavia E Butler, Gwyneth Jones and Karen Joy Fowler. But that is just one anthology, and published by a university press. Common perception has it that anthologies don’t sell, and yet more than ever seem to be published each year. Admittedly, of late many have used Kickstarter to finance themselves, but even the big publishers put out half a dozen or more themed anthologies each year. Happily, in late 2014 there will be The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, edited by Alex Dally McFarlane. Until then, Pamela Sargent’s five Women of Wonder anthologies – three from the 1970s and two from the 1990s – are worth tracking down. They’re excellent anthologies in their own right, and Sargent’s introductions are worth reading.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2013 3:56 pm

    Thank you for writing this. I loved those old Women of Wonder anthologies. After loving Foundation, despite sexism and homophobia, I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington and working at the University Book Store in the 70s. I went looking for books portraying a future that included women, for science fiction that projected possibilities I could see in my own life, and for adventures where women were active in their own lives and not mere window-dressing. I found Women of Wonder, and many other fine writers. All-time favorites: The Rite of Passage by Alexie Panshin (68 Nebula) and later The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss (1998).

Trackbacks

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