Houston, Houston, Do You Read?, James Tiptree Jr / Souls, Joanna Russ (1989)
Review by Ian Sales
Back in the early 1950s, science fiction publisher Ace burst onto the market with a series of doubles – two short novels published back-to-back. The practice did not originate with them – it is properly known as tête-bêche – but they certainly popularised it in the US. Ace continued to publish their doubles until 1973. In 1988, Tor re-introduced the format, and in the space of three years published thirty-six doubles of novellas printed tête-bêche. All were reprints. Number 11 in their series was ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ by James Tiptree Jr, originally published in 1976 in the women-only sf anthology, Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Susan Fawcett and Vonda N McIntyre; back-to-back with ‘Souls’ by Joanna Russ, which first appeared in F&SF in 1982. Both novellas won the Hugo Award in their respective years. The Tiptree also won the Nebula Award. The Russ was shortlisted but lost to John Kessel’s ‘Another Orphan’.
‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is told mostly in flash-back. The protagonist is an astronaut aboard the Sunbird mission, a circumnavigation of the Sun. Though no details are given, it all feels a bit like Apollo technology – a crew of three, a command module, and an additional “day-room” – or at the very least based on space hardware of the time of writing. While flying close to the Sun, the Sunbird spacecraft is caught in a solar flare, which apparently throws it forward three hundred years in time. As the astronauts – commander Major Norman ‘Dave’ Davis, Bud Geirr and Dr Orren Lorimer – head toward where they believe Earth to be – the flare also rendered their windows opaque, but for one small section – they discover they can’t raise Houston on the radio. Instead, they overhear chatter between spacecraft which seem to be crewed by women. They make contact with one, discover Earth is not where they think it is, nor is it reachable by them, and learn something of the history of the past three centuries. It seems a plague rendered the human race sterile, and the population dropped from eight billion to two million. The population of the Earth is now chiefly female – Lorrimer at one point speculates on how the plague may have damaged the sex chromosomes to result in this.
As ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ opens, Lorrimer, Dave and Bud have been rescued by the crew of the Gloria, a spacecraft with a crew comprising four women and one man. The three astronauts have been unwittingly fed a drug, and it is affecting their behaviour. Lorrimer flashes back to their discovery that they had jumped forward in time and what they learned of the world of the future, and their subsequent rescue by the Gloria. Dave, already deeply religious, turns more so; and Bud, a stereotypical jock, acts more and more sexist and “alpha male”. It all comes to a head when Bud turns violent and tries to rape one of the women. Meanwhile, Lorrimer has figured out what it is the women have not told them…
In 1975, Robert Silverberg argued in an introduction to the Tiptree collection, Warm World and Otherwise, published in February 1975 that the author had to be male. Some already suspected Tiptree was a woman, but it wasn’t until 1976 that the truth became known. And yet this novella first appeared in a women-only anthology published in May 1976… suggesting at least some people were privy to the secret earlier. According to Wikipedia, ’Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is “Tiptree’s most famous and most reprinted story”, and it’s certainly emblematic of much of her oeuvre. The future depopulated world is presented with rigour, and its details are slowly and cleverly revealed as the story progresses, The three astronauts, however, are not so much stereotypes as caricatures – especially Dave and Bud – and it’s hard to imagine how, in the Seventies, the novella could have been read as written by a man because of them. Yes, many of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts were macho and sexist – but not all of them. By over-emphasising those aspects for the purposes of drama, Tiptree effectively turns the astronauts into single-note characters. It’s a disappointment, given that everything else in ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is so cleverly done. A flashback structure is hard to pull off, but Tiptree makes it work; and yet without that structure, the double ending with its two shocks would not have proven so effective. There’s Bud’s attack on Judy, and then there’s Lorrimer’s realisation of what the women intend to do with the three astronauts…
The other half of Tor double #11 comprises ‘Souls’, Joanna Russ’s only Hugo Award win. Initially, the novella reads like historical fiction, written as the reminiscences of a man telling of when he was a young boy at a German abbey run by Abbess Radegunde some time during the early Middle Ages – as the first line has it: “This is the tale of the Abbess Radegunde and what happened when the Norsemen came.” And it is very much a story about the abbess. She is someone extremely unusual, displaying a relaxed and quite modern view of her religion, fluent in any number of languages, highly-educated, and has in the past admitted to being able to view events over great distances. She is, in fact, suspiciously not at all like a Middle Ages abbess.
When a Viking longboat draws up on the shore by the abbey, Abbess Radegunde goes down to the beach to parley with them. Everyone knows what their fate will be – the Vikings are there to rape and pillage. But Radegunde persuades them otherwise. She freely gives up the riches of the abbey in return for the safety of her people. She claims knowledge of some members of the Viking band – through a cousin met in Rome – and it all seems a little convenient. After a little applied psychology, she extracts a promise from the Viking leader, Thorvald. However, during the Vikings’ walk through the abbey’s courtyard, someone panics and it all turns violent. Thorvald manages to re-assert order, but the promise he made is void. At which point, Radegunde… changes. She becomes a much harder and callous person, very different in personality, and seems to “take control” of Thorvald. The narrator, a young boy called Radulphus, is convinced she has become a demon. She takes Thorvald into the nearby woods where, she tells him, the abbey’s treasure is hidden. But there he – and Radulphus – witness strange humans he thinks are saints, bathed in bright light:
An odd thing was that as I came closer I could see they were not standing on the ground, as in the way of nature, but higher up, inside the shining, and that their white robes clung to the body so that one might see the people’s legs all the way up to the place where the legs joined, even the women’s. (p76)
Ignoring the fact that even a young boy in a German abbey in the early Middle Ages is likely to know what trousers are – indeed, the Vikings would be wearing them – it’s clear that Radegunde is certainly not who she professes to be. Nor is she a demon. It is never made entirely clear if she is from the future or another world, though the former seems most likely. Nor is her purpose – and she apparently was born and grew up as Radegunde – ever revealed. But then the story is really about what she does to Thorvald, and using Radulphus as the narrator allows Russ to filter it through an unsophisticated narrator, thus hiding the true nature of the “saints” and putting the onus on the reader to figure out the puzzle.
For all that ‘Souls’ is a polished piece of prose, and Russ evokes the setting well enough to mostly convince… the novella is over-shadowed by a later novel which follows a similar plot: John Fowles’ A Maggot (1985). It’s unlikely Fowles ever saw Russ’s novella, though his novel shares the novella’s central conceit. But Fowles’s novel evokes its period – a much later one, specifically 1736 and 1737 – far far better than ‘Souls’. In fact, familiarity with A Maggot does make ‘Souls’ feel a little glib and superficial, even though it is most likely far more indirect in style than is typical of science fiction of the time.
Tor double #11 presents a pair of strong novellas, though of the two I think I would sooner present ‘Souls’ as a better example of what the genre can do. ’Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ drifts too close to caricature, and is too reliant upon science fiction reading protocols, to be an effective ambassador for the genre. This is not a problem ‘Souls’ possesses. Unfortunately, Russ’s novellas is sure to remind people of Fowles’ A Maggot, and it is not a comparison in which it fares especially well. It may be the better of the two novellas in the double – though it has been reprinted eight times and collected only once, which is half as often as the Tiptree; but that says more about science fiction than it does about the two stories.
Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue, Rosel George Brown (1966)
Review by Kev McVeigh
Amongst the ranks of near-forgotten women SF writers Rosel George Brown is one of the least remembered. Prior to her untimely death aged 41 in 1967 she published one collection of interesting if unspectacular short stories and this novel. A posthumous sequel and a collaborative novel with Keith Laumer complete her scant bibliography.
Sibyl Sue Blue is, however, a character of note for her time and possibly now. She is forty years old, a widow with a sixteen-year-old daughter Missy, a homicide police sergeant and a student of classical Greek. This last is both a direct reflection of Brown’s own academic background and an opportunity for at least one aside on the way female academic progress is hindered by domesticity.
Indeed issues of domesticity and feminine roles recur throughout Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue with Sibyl herself remaining not ambiguous exactly but inconsistent in her characterisation. She is independent, a working mum, tough in handling physical assaults right from the first sentence, and able to respond verbally to blatant sexism. She also worries about her dress, gets flustered by the handsome villain, flirts and expresses her need for a man rather often.
I’m lucky. I’ve got a beautiful daughter and a good figure no matter how much I eat, and naturally curly hair…
The only thing I don’t have is a man. At the moment.
If that makes the 21st century reader cringe it is tempered within a page as Sibyl ponders reading Thucydides and writing about Plataea. The “mad, mod heroine of the future”, to quote the Berkeley edition front cover copy, may define herself by her relationships with men, but it is no longer the only thing she references. Sibyl eventually falls into the handsome, villainous arms of Stuart Grant, but only when she chooses to do so.
The plot of Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue, such as it is, begins as a quirky policier. There have been several mysterious murders possibly linked to the benzale cigarettes illicitly imported from Centaurus. Meanwhile Sibyl is attacked (and defends herself efficiently) by normally peaceable Centaurans, ones with an odd green tinge. Issues of inter-species prejudice and fetishization are dropped in and skim by. Sibyl’s boss is not quite in the Gene Hunt mould, but he is of his time.
It all changes when Sibyl smokes a dodgy benzale and receives a dream communication from her late husband lost a decade before on a mission to the planet Radix. Something links Radix, Centaurus and the murders, and Stuart Grant whose ships have the space trade monopoly, knows more than he admits. From here the rapid action leads to kidnap, escape, a mission to Radix, mutiny, and a wild plot flourish to match Philip K Dick’s minor novels at least. Radix is a planet covered in one single sentient plant lifeform, and Stuart thinks he can use it to rule over Earth and Centaurus by assimilation. Only Sibyl and the creepy Dr Beadle, Stuart’s erstwhile ally, can save the day.
Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue is mainly a superior 1960s SF romp with a hint of domestic romance, but Rosel George Brown mixes it up just enough to offer a subversive note. In Sibyl she tweaks gently at the aspirations of the working mother and simultaneously the systems that deny those aspirations. Sibyl’s concerns are her daughter and a man, yet she repeatedly and easily defeats male assailants. She is affected by emotions but sees beyond them when necessary.
Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue is a slight novel, 158 pages, of rapid pulp action and wild ideas, full of the gender political self-contradictions of its era. Brown tells her story with verve and wit however, and it is a fun novel, if not a classic, neither is it one to languish in total obscurity.
This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.
More 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.
Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy (1979)
Review by Jack Deighton
After her boyfriend died, Consuelo Ramos descended into grief and alcoholism. As a result of the consequent neglect of her daughter (whom she also injured) she was placed in a mental hospital and her daughter put out for adoption.
Years after her release, she attempts to protect her niece, Dolly, by smashing Dolly’s pimp’s nose with a bottle. His heavies subdue her and she is taken back to the mental hospital rather than to casualty. Her protestations of sanity are ignored.
In the run-up to this incident she had been conversing on and off with Luciente, a time traveling visitor from Matapoisett, a society in the future (or a contingent future.) Once in the hospital she becomes able to travel in the opposite direction and welcomes immersion in this accepting society. In Matapoisett gender is hard to discern and no distinction is made at the level of language; “person” stands in for “he” or “she” and “per” for “him” or “her.” It is a utopia where the population is stable and children cared for by the many. Needs are met on a non-exploitative basis but not denied, resources are husbanded, decisions made in a grand council. Everyone has to spend some time in defence, though, as Matapoisett is at war (against whom and over what is never adequately made clear.)
Most chapters begin and end in the hospital, book-ending episodes in Matapoisett. The travails of mental patients caught in the catch-22 of either accepting treatment or otherwise effectively proving their illness, are exceedingly well conveyed.
At one point Connie escapes incarceration and manages to evade recapture for a few days. Here she exploits Luciente’s knowledge of flora to partially alleviate her sores and bruises. This is the only indication in the book that Connie’s experiences of Matapoisett may be anything other than figments of her imagination. Though written in the third person the viewpoint is hers throughout. Apart from the novel’s title this is the only indicator that her story as presented might be “true” and the narration reliable. Even with that, as neither of the futures are particularly convincing, the simplest interpretation is still that she is in fact mad and her visits to Matapoisett are hallucinations.
Connie is chosen, among others, for an experimental course of treatment involving brain surgery and radio controlled implants. Along with the experimenters, all the staff at the hospital are depicted as cold and uncaring, treating the inmates as subjects, little better than animals.
Despite Connie’s incomprehension of some of the customs in Matapoisett her sojourns there stand in contrast to the inhumanity she is subjected to in her own time. After the surgery she (once) travels forward to a different future, a dystopia where life is harsher and more sexist and which may be the one at war with Matapoisett. After another inmate who has had the treatment commits suicide Connie’s implants are removed and she is able to contact Matapoisett again. Her experiences lead her to a course of action which I shall not spoil here.
Extracts of Connie’s case history are provided at the conclusion where her diagnosis of schizophrenia is revealed.
Woman on the Edge of Time has been interpreted as Science Fiction (not least on the back cover where Connie is described as “heroically sane”) but I must say I find that reading odd. Too much of the incidental detail militates against it. As a study of madness, though, and of a mind utterly convinced of its own rectitude it is admirable.
This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.
O Master Caliban!, Phyllis Gotlieb (1976)
Review by Ian Sales
It’s tempting to imagine it wasn’t the female name “Phyllis” on the cover of this science fiction novel but the awful cover art which has caused O Master Caliban! to be mostly forgotten. But, to be fair, the hardback edition, published three years earlier than the paperback pictured, has quite a nice representative design on its front, although it is an even brighter yellow than old Gollancz hardbacks. Still, there’s no denying the four-armed bald man holding a somewhat befuddled head by the hair, while standing on a carpet of mannequin limbs, does the book no favours. Even if it is actually reasonably faithful to the story.
The depicted figure is Sven Dahlgren, who lives a peaceful existence on Dahlgren’s World with Esther, an intelligent, talking gibbon, and Yigal, an over-sized intelligent, talking goat. The world has been nicknamed for Sven’s father, a scientist, who razed a section of the world’s jungle and created an area in which he could experiment with mutation caused by varying levels of radiation (a topic which also forms the basis of Gotlieb’s debut, Sunburst (1964)). However, the machines, known as “ergs”, which Dahlgren and his scientists used to manage their facility have rebelled and killed everyone but Dahlgren himself. And, of course, Sven and his two talking animal companions.
Then a spaceship containing five teenagers crashes near the rude cottage shared by Sven, Esther and Yigal. The ergs destroy the spaceship, and now the children are trapped. So Sven agrees to lead them south, through the radioactive area, to where the scientists’ spaceship is parked unused. Meanwhile, the ergs – led by a queen robot, Mod 777 (which may be a Unix joke, but I’m not sure) – has built a robot replica of Dahlgren, which it plans to send to a scientific congress on another world.
The five teenagers prove to be more than they seem. The youngest, ten-year-old Shirvanian, can control machines with his mind. All five are members of the Triskelion Order, which apparently exists to control the delinquent children of the Galactic Federation’s powerful. As the group moves south, they encounter ergs, which they must defeat, as well as more natural hazards in the jungle. Meanwhile, Dahlgren plays chess with his machine doppelgänger, erg-Dahlgren, which as a result slowly becomes “too human” and begins to question Mod 777′s plans.
For Sven and the others, it’s pretty much a travelogue, as they journey south through the jungle, avoiding the local fauna and the ergs hunting them. Once they reach the research area, they witness some of the changes brought about by Dahlgren’s experiments with mutation - the whole set-up is wildly simplistic, and reminiscent of 1940s fears of radioactivity and mutant monsters. The trip is not a happy one – some of the characters die en route, and for much of the journey, the likelihood of success seems doubtful.
The title of O Master Caliban! clearly points at Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play which also inspired sf classic movie Forbidden Planet. And it’s clear that Gotlieb envisaged Dahlgren in Prospero’s role. Shirvanian is perhaps Ariel… But the resemblance then starts to break down. I’ll admit to not being intimate with Shakespeare’s play – I’ve seen the 1980 BBC adaptation starring Warren Clarke as Caliban and Michael Hordern as Prospero, and I remember it as disappointing… - but I can’t map what I know of the play’s plot onto the plot of Gotlieb’s novel. Perhaps Sven as Caliban is the only link between the two…
Whatever the inspiration for the story, it’s not the most exciting science fiction novel I’ve read in recent months. Having one narrative as a travelogue and the other featuring two men playing chess does not deliver much in the way of suspense or action. Where O Master Caliban! does score, however, is in the writing. The cover art of the paperback proudly proclaims Phyllis Gotlieb as “Canada’s #1 science fiction writer!”,and while some Canadian sf writers may presently have higher profiles, at the time O Master Caliban! was published the claim seems accurate enough. Indeed, the annual Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic is named for Gotlieb’s debut novel (the 2012 award was won by Geoff Ryman).
O Master Caliban! is a strange novel. Its set-up is a little old-fashioned and not especially plausible. Its central trio of characters are a four-armed young man, a talking gibbon and a talking goat. And yet, the writing is a cut above other novels of its ilk, and the characterisation of Sven, Esther and Yigal, and the five teenagers, is skilfully handled. It’s a book that feels like it should be pulp sf, but it isn’t written as if it were pulp sf.
In 1982, Gotlieb was awarded the Aurora Award for lifetime achievement. She returned to Dahlgren’s World in 1989 with a sequel, Heart of Red Iron. Her last novel, Mindworlds, was published in 2002, and she died in 2009. She deserves to be better known outside her home country.
The Master Harper of Pern, Anne McCaffrey (1998)
Review by Adam Roberts
A series that multiplied with tribble-like pertinacity, McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern (1968-present) is a planetary romance in which certain special individuals (like you, trufan! and me!) have a telepathic bond with a breed of marvellous magical gigantic purring cats, sorry, fire-breathing dragons. Together, trufan and dracono-moggy defend the world of Pern against nasty ‘threads’ which periodically (the period being 50 years) rain down out of the sky from a nearby ‘red star’, threatening to devour all Pernian life. The initial idea, according to McCaffrey’s son, was for a ‘technologically regressed survival planet’ whose inhabitants are united against a external threat in a way that wasn’t true of America during the Vietnam War. ‘The dragons became the biologically renewable air force, and their riders “the few” who, like the RAF pilots in World War Two, fought against incredible odds day in, day out—and won.’
As you can see from the cover, up there, this instalment in the series is ‘The Story of Pern’s Greatest Harpo’, Robinton by name. Like all great Harpos, Robinton plays the harp. He also plays the flute, the ‘gitar’ (an instrument exactly like a ‘guitar’ although, obviously, without the ‘u’) and lots of other instruments too. He is, the novel tells us over and over again, a musical genius. He is, in point of fact, Amadeus:
He began to make a copy of the sonata … he looked back over the score, to be sure he had annotated it properly. He paced back and forth, paused to pour himself a glass of wine, and then went back to the table and proceeded to copy out his Kasia songs. He finished those, drinking as he worked, and rolled up the music with a neat ribbon tying the packet. He had a final glass of wine, realizing dawn was not far away. (p 260)
You may be thinking: this doesn’t sound much like the Tolkien-plus-a-few-ancient-technological-artefacts worldbuilding idiom familiar from other Pern novels. And you would be right so to think. Robinton is sometimes presented as in effect a scop, scald or rhapsode, going from castle to castle, hall to hall, literally singing for his supper. But when it suits the novel’s fancy he is a eighteenth-century genius composer, writing staves fluently upon an endless supply of animal hides, composing melodies that make people weep instantly. We have to take this latter much-repeated fact on trust, since no actual music is included. I assume Robinton composes in D-minor which is, as is well known, the saddest of all keys. His musical ability also gives him a special bond with the giant telepathic feline dragons, because everything that happens in these novels must relate to the dragons, because, you know. Duh. What else are the novels for?
The Masterharper of Pern tells Robinton’s life story from his birth; his distant, disapproving father; his music training; his falling in love with beautiful green-eyed Kasia; their marriage; a disastrous boat trip after which Kasia catches a chill of which she subsequently dies. Robinton is made sad by this, although he’s soon engaging in no-strings-attached shagging with slinky Silvana. Then, in an odd move, he has a brain-damaged son with Silvana. Then things heat up, fight-wise, as we near the end. Most of the fixtures and fittings are castles, potions, bejewelled daggers, swords, bows, arrows and the like; although McCaffrey also says things like “the main Hall had excellent acoustics” (p 353), which isn’t the sort of line you tend to find in Chaucer; and her characters wear “heavy woollen socks” (p 276), items of clothing which aren’t anachronistic yet somehow sound as if they should be. Plus her people are forever drinking cups of tea coffee, here called “klah”. Sometimes on its own. Sometimes with Canderel (“”You are related to MasterSinger Merelan?” Silvina asked as she poured klah and passed around the sweetener”, p 335)
The novel itself is 400-pages of meh, lifted a little from time to time by a few less-feeble-than-the-rest set-pieces (Robinton and Kasia in the boat on the storm isn’t bad; and some of the fighting near the end is readable). Mostly the problem is one of style. From time to time, McCaffrey remembers that she’s writing a cod-medieval dragon-packed planetary adventure and wrenches her style into inelegances of the “many of the capping slabs were athwart the expanse” (p 294) or “he asked for conveyance a-dragonback” (p 336) kind. But the bulk of the novel is written in a could-not-be-blander grey contemporary prose, stitched together almost entirely out of cliché. Cliché is everything in this novel: the characters, the settings, the events, nothing is here to make you see things freshly or to startle you out of your comfortable familiarity. Hardly a page goes by when the author does not fall back, consciously or otherwise, on an inert, clogging, conventionalised phrase. This character finds himself “between a rock and a hard place” (p 51); that other has “a vice-like grip” (p 91). If there is a silence it must be “a stunned silence” (p 109), or indeed “an awful, stunned silence” (p 345). Characters “rue the day” (p 172), “stifle a laugh” (p 195), promise to “show him the error of his ways” (p 222). Men have “rugged good looks” (p 231) and everybody “cocks their head” at things. Actually, people in this novel are forever cocking their heads (“he cocked his head at Robinton, a sly grin on his rugged, weathered face”, p 236; “cocking her head”, p 256; “Nip cocked his head”, p 357; “Tick cocked his head hopefully”, p 375). Rather than leave, people “steal away” (p 272); storms have exactly the properties you would expect them to have (“in the teeth of the gale … driving rain” p 273); coughs are ‘hacking coughs’  and people “refuse to dignify that question with an answer” (p 287). Martin Amis once declared that the primary business of a writer was to wage war on cliché. Stylistically speaking, McCaffrey evidently preferred, as far as that went, to give peace a chance. A slack, underwhelming novel.
Women 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.