The New Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent
The New Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent (1978)
Review by Ian Sales
This is the third of the Women of Wonder anthologies published during the 1970s, and while its title would suggest its aim is to introduce new female science fiction writers, only two – Eleanor Arnason and Pamela Zoline – did not appear in either, or both, of the two earlier volumes (see here and here). Unusually, there is no story by Ursula K Le Guin in the book, but Alice Sheldon does make an appearance under her male pen-name, James Tiptree Jr. It’s difficult not to wonder who exactly the “new” in the title refers to. The Women of Wonder series was rebooted in 1995 with two volumes: Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years ( reviewed here and here) and Women of Wonder: The Classic Years.
Once again, Sargent opens the anthology with an introduction, this time 34 pages long. And, sadly, this only demonstrates that nothing ever changes. After a quick history of women in science fiction, she writes:
Even so, most science fiction is to this day has remained conservative in its sociological extrapolations. In pointing out this flaw, one is likely to be accused of seeking to impose an ideological test on the genre, rejecting works that do not measure up. But in fact I am asking why the the overwhelming majority of science fiction books limit female characters to traditional roles. (p xv)
After descriptions of several sf novels which break this mould – Samuel R Delany’s Triton, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, Kate Wilhelm’s The Clewiston Test – Sargent stresses that restrictions on female writers, and what they were allowed to write, still exists, and even notes:
One author of a successful first novel had her second novel rejected by the same publisher because the book was about an all-female world and there were no male characters in it. (p xxv)
While there are several such books now – Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite immediately spring to mind – they are still very much in a minority… and yet sf novels which feature almost entirely male casts (and what few female characters do exist in them are either presented as victims or have no agency) are still relatively commonplace. Sargent identifies a nostalgia “in recent years” for “traditional stories with familiar trappings”. And that, according to the skewed view of the history of science fiction which seems to be the current-day accepted narrative, means science fiction stories for, by and about men. The fact that the three Women of Wonder anthologies were not repeated until almost twenty years later is testament to this. These anthologies were clarion calls, but more than thirty years later the message still hasn’t been heard:
Perhaps the genre as a whole, having often ignored women – as well as the old, the non-white, and the non-Western – does not quite hold together. It is within this context that we can view the role of women in sf. By adding their voices, they enrich the entire fictional system of science fiction. (p xxix)
The original The Women of Wonder anthology opened with a poem by Sonya Dorman, and so too does this one: ‘View from the Moon Station’. It’s a short poignant piece, which is pretty much described by its title – although its imagery is driven by memory. Though the passage of time has rendered its sentiments somewhat clichéd, it still manages to impress with its choice of imagery and its careful build-up to its emotional payload.
‘Screwtop’, Vonda N McIntyre. The title refers to a penal installation in the jungle on the human-settled world of Redsun. The prisoners are forced to labour drilling holes to deep underground pockets of superheated water, which is used to generate power for the various cities on the planet. Kylis is one such prisoner, and she has joined forces with Gryf, a “tetraparental”, and Jason, a new arrival. It’s Kylis who graces the cover art of The New Women of Wonder, although she does possess a disturbing likeness to Karen Carpenter. Kylis is a space rat, a person who travels from planet to planet as a stowaway, but the Redsun authorities caught her and sentenced her to Screwtop. Gryf is a political prisoner – as a tetraparental, a manufactured genius, he is obligated to work on government-chosen projects, but he refused. He only has to agree to the authorities’ demands and he will be set free. The three of them are plotting to escape Screwtop, although this would involve a potentially-fatal trek through hundreds of miles of alien jungle… There actually is not much in ‘Screwtop’ which actually demands it be science fiction. The penal facility could just as easily be on Earth, and the three inmates guilty of crimes against an existing earthly regime. Also, the entire installation itself doesn’t sound right. The inmates must drill a new hole when the last one has emptied itself of steam… Except that’s not how geothermal power works. Usually, water is pumped down the hole to be heated deep underground, and the steam which results is used to generate power. It is then cooled, and pumped back down the hole. Why would they actually siphon off all the superheated water? It makes little or no sense. It seems a shame that a story with such well-drawn characters and a nice sense of place should fail in such a fundamental fashion. ‘Screwtop’ was originally published in The Crystal Ship, a 1976 collection of three novellas also featuring Joan D Vinge and Marta Randall – but edited by Robert Silverberg.
‘The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons’, Eleanor Arnason. I expect that within weeks of the first science fiction story being written, someone wrote a story about writing a science fiction story. Certainly it’s an established tradition within the genre, if not within literature as a whole. The protagonist of ‘The Warlord of Saturn’s Moon’s is writing a story titled ‘The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons’, a pulp sf tale with spaceships, chases across “Titan’s methane snows”, “strange psychic arts from Hindu mystics”, assassins and the fate of the moon(s) in the balance. Unusually for the form, however, her story has a heroine. And the villain of the piece is perhaps not so villainous after all. As she considers her story, the rescue of her partner, 409, by the heroine, so the writer reflects on her own world. It’s a nicely-judged story, gently mocking the conventions of pulp sf while it carefully subverts them. Presenting it as a meta-fictional piece also makes it more thoughtful than perhaps it would have been had it been presented straight – at the very least, doing it this way doesn’t allow for misinterpretation of its subverted tropes. The story first appeared, unsurprisingly, in New Worlds and was deservedly shortlisted for a Nebula Award.
‘The Triumphant Head’, Josephine Saxton. I’m not entirely sure what to make of what little of Saxton’s fiction that I’ve read, and ‘The Triumphant Head’ is a case in point. It describes the beginning of a day for a married woman, as she wakes up, washes, puts on her make-up, and gets dressed. Yet it is presented as if the woman were an alien in disguise – or certainly not human. It feels like too obvious a conceit to bother fictionalising, but Saxton maintains a slight undercurrent of farce to the story, which not only works in its favour but also makes it an enjoyable read.
‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, Pamela Zoline. If there is one story which is often held up as emblematic of New Wave science fiction in Britain, it is this one by US author Zoline. (The introduction to the story mentions a novel, Dream-Work, on which Zoline is working; it was apparently never published. A shame, it would be interesting to read it.) Structured as 54 sections of text, some of which are titled, the story presents episodes – vignettes, almost – in the life of middle-class American housewife Sarah Boyle, juxtaposed with science-fictional commentary and short essays on a variety of topics, scientific and otherwise:
30. Sarah Boyle is a vivacious and witty young wife and mother, educated at a fine Eastern college, proud of her growing family which keeps her happy and busy around the house, involved in many hobbies and community activities, and occasionally given to obsessions concerning Time/Entropy/Chaos and Death.
31. Sarah Boyle is never quite sure how many children she has. (p 110)
A quick check on isfdb.org reveals that ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ has been anthologised 16 times, the most recent in 2010. Zoline wrote a further four short pieces of fiction, the last of which appeared in 1988 in her only collection, Busy About the Tree of Life. I can only wonder what more she might have written had the genre been more welcoming to women who chose to write about women’s lives in a science-fictional mode.
‘Songs of War’, Kit Reed. In Los Angeles, the women decide they have had enough and form their own army, which occupies a farm up in the hills overlooking the city. Over a period of several weeks, women leave their husbands and families and join the army, which has itself already split into several factions. On first pass, this story reads like a criticism of the women’s movement – for all their ambitions, the women who gather at the farm soon begin to bicker and the various factions begin to work covertly and overtly against each other. The radical militants attack a few soft targets – a shopping mall, for example – while the housewives are given housewifely duties (kitchen, creche, etc). The teenagers are more interested in boys than solidarity, and the woman who becomes the army’s unofficial spokesperson would sooner promote her media career than the army’s manifesto. Eventually, the army disperses in ones and twos, although not after some violence, and the wives and daughters return to their homes, changed by what they’ve experienced – as, in some cases, are their husbands and fathers. As a commentary on the frationalisation of movements, especially ones without clear goals and policies, ‘Songs of War’ is a witty commentary, as it also on the quotidian lives of the women in the story. But there’s nothing in it that’s, well, science fiction. It appears to be set in the present day of its writing (ie, 1974), and there’s not a single sf trope to be seen anywhere. Which begs the question, does it get a pass as science fiction because sf is so bad at incorporating the lives of women into its stories?
‘The Women Men Don’t See’, James Tiptree Jr. This is one of Tiptree best-known stories, though personally I think some of her other works are stronger. The narrator is heading to Mexico on a fishing trip, but his charter plane from Cozumel proves to be unavailable. He persuades the pilot to let him hitch a ride on another plane heading south – and the other passengers prove to be a totally innocuous mother and daughter. The plane crashes en route, leaving narrator, pilot, mother and daughter stranded. Running short on potable water, the narrator and the mother leave the other two – the pilot is injured – and head for an inlet about a day’s walk away. Except it’s not really a walk, as they have to struggle through a mangrove swamp. The two of them witness something very strange – and the narrator belatedly realises it is a landing by extraterrestrials… and the mother has taken something from them. She persuades the aliens to return the two of them to the crashed plane, which they do. She then persuades the aliens to take her and her daughter with them on their interstellar travels. While the story is predicated on the (male) narrator’s realisation that such women have never really impinged on his worldview before, and that such women have thoughts, desires, ambitions no different to his own, like many of Tiptree’s stories it makes its point with a thumb heavily pressed on the scales. The central premise – aliens visiting Earth somewhere in the Mexican jungle – is presented without any real commentary, or any interrogation of the trope. Which perhaps weakens the point the story is trying to make. ‘The Women Men Don’t See’ feels like a story which was written as science fiction only because its author wrote science fiction. I don’t really see that as a strength.
‘Debut’, Carol Emshwiller. I would categorise ‘Debut’ as fantasy rather than science fiction, which does make its presence in this anthology somewhat puzzling. A blind princess is taken to the queen after years of being pampered, but the princess is paranoid and tries to stab the queen… who removes the mask blinding the princess so she can now see. But she cannot interpret what she sees and so fails in her assassination attempt. She escapes the palace and takes refuge in a wood… And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in this story. It feels like I’m missing the metaphor. There’s no denying that Emshwiller writes excellent prose, but the obliqueness of her imagination often leaves me foundering.
‘When It Changed’, Joanna Russ. This story describes the time men from Earth arrived on the world of Whileaway thirty generations after the Whileaway men all died in a plague. The Earthmen can’t process an all-female colony, especially one that functions perfectly well without men, and are by turns befuddled or deeply patronising. The narrator shows remarkable restraint. But the women of Whileaway have decided to accept the presence of the men, and reluctantly accept that their way of life may well be over forever. Though the story only suggests the path the future may take for the colony, it’s a far from happy ending – and all the stronger for what it leaves unsaid. This is easily one of Russ’s best short stories.
‘Dead in Irons’, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. This is heartland sf, both in terms of setting, tropes and its politics. Aboard an interstellar starship, stewards look after the passengers, including the frozen steerage ones. The stewards are run like a satrapy by the most brutish and violent steward, and anyone he dislikes or won’t do what he is told is given steerage duty. Shiller has only just joined the ship, and refuses to be Wranswell’s mate, and so is assigned steerage. But she quite likes it there. Wranswell’s previous lover wants to persuade Shiller not to accept Wranswell’s offer and so sabotage’s Shiller’s cold gear, which makes the duty even more onerous and dangerous. Eventually Shiller is waylaid and frozen with the steerage passengers. When she wakes, she discovers the ship is lost and the stewards have eaten all of the steerage passengers. This is not a pleasant read, and it’s, er, hard to swallow a starship crew that is so violent and savage.
‘Building Block’, Sonya Dorman. Norja is a space architect, but has been forced to visit a recall doctor to help retrieve Norja’s forgotten design, the Star Cup, a “radical and innovative” design for a space home. Norja’s business is failing because she is blocked, and even her frequent drinking binges have failed to unlock her memory. But Dr Bassey withholds the tape containing the results of the recall session and demands money for it. So Norja visits a family friend, Dr Moons, and asks for his help in recalling the memory. But once he has a tape of the design, he insists on being paid to hand over the tape. Since she can afford neither person’s demands, Norja decides the Star Cup is lost forever and so throws herself into the design for something new – a multi-occupant space condominium. It proves very successful, and as she leaves it, a contract for a second already signed, she sees a competitor building a Star Cup, and knows that she has just killed the market for single-occupant space homes… I’m not sure which is sillier in this story – that two people would ransom the information they obtained from a memory retrieval operation (and one of them is a medical professional); the whole “space home” thing; or the revelation that one form of space habitat would comprehensively kill the market for other forms. Norja may be a personable narrator, but as science fiction ‘Building block’ is sadly weak.
‘Eyes of Amber’, Joan D Vinge. T’uupieh is a cast-down noble and assassin who has been befriended by a demon, which possesses the eyes of the title. Except it’s not a demon, it’s a space probe from Earth, and T’uupieh is a native of Titan, the moon of Saturn. Although T’uupie’s narrativeh reads like a fantasy – but for the odd details which reveal her to be an alien, such as the mention of wings – Titan’s environment is rendered quite accurately for the story’s time of writing. It’s an impressive piece of worldbuilding. If the male human protagonist, Shannon, who is the sole human capable of communicating with T’uupieh, is a bit wet, that’s a minor flaw – T’uupieh is much more interesting a character. I’m not entirely convinced by the story itself, however. Shannon tries to impose his own morality on T’uupieh, which she roundly rejects. But in the end, she learns a lesson which aligns her moral compass a little more closely with his. But such sentiments were more widely acceptable in the 1970s than they are now – indeed, ‘Eyes of Amber’ won the Hugo Award for best novelette in 1978.
When the conversation turns to influential science fiction anthologies of the past, the ones most usually mentioned are Asimov’s Before the Golden Age series, or some of the New Wave anthologies such as Dangerous Visions or England Swings. I’m surprised the Women of Wonder books are not mentioned in the same breath. It’s hard to say which is the strongest of the three – it’s probably best to get all of them – because they are all very strong collections of short science fiction, and there’s not a dud story in them (though some stories are more successful, or have aged better, than others). It’s only a shame they have not proven as influential as they should have. Perhaps if cyberpunk had never happened, or had been a little more discerning in its choice of inspirations, they might have been. As it is, it took a further twenty years before the series was rebooted. And yet Sargent’s five Women of Wonder anthologies remain outliers in the genre. I have, to date, identified only a further six women-only science fiction anthologies, published between 1976 and 2006 (see here).
That’s not really a record to be proud of.