Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, Pamela Sargent

Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, edited by Pamela Sargent (1995)
Review by Ian Sales

Part 1
In 1975, Pamela Sargent edited the first in a trilogy of women-only science fiction anthologies for US publisher Vintage. Fast forward twenty years and it’s time for more, this time published by Harcourt Brace & Company. Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years is subtitled “science fiction by women writers from the 1970s to the 1990s”, and its contents are just that. There is also a companion volume, Women of Wonder: The Classic Years (1995), which contains some of the more notable names who appearing to be missing from this volume’s table of contents.

The title of ‘Cassandra’, CJ Cherryh (1978), references the Ancient Greek doomsayer but this story is set in the near-future. Alis can see ghosts – or rather, everyone she sees has the spectral presence of ghosts. Because she can see their future deaths. That is until she meets someone who does not look like a ghost to her. And then she learns why everyone appears spectral… In terms of subject, this is not your typical Cherryh, though the brusque muscular prose is familiar.

‘The Thaw’, Tanith Lee (1979) is one of those stories which forces a science fictional explanation onto a fantastical conceit. At the tail end of the twenty-second century, those who had themselves cryogenically frozen in the twentieth century are defrosted. Or rather, the first of them, the narrator’s many-times- great-grandmother, is resuscitated to see if the process is actually possible. And so it proves. And os Carla Brice becomes something of a celebrity, her every whim catered for, her every desire met. Except the narrator can’t quite understand this power her ancestor has over everyone. It’s unnatural. In fact, it’s almost as if Carla had made a pact with the Devil. Lee turns this suggestion on its head by providing a science-fictional explanation, though it’s all very hand-wavey. The somewhat irritating voice of the narrator doesn’t help much, either.

Given the title of ‘Scorched Supper on New Niger’, Suzy McKee Charnas (1980), and the fact that Charnas is best-known for her post-apocalypse feminist trilogy which begins with Walk to the End of the World, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that ‘Scorched Supper on New Niger’ is actually a light-hearted space opera. Dee Steinway is a freighter pilot, but the ship she flies – with her uplifted cat, Ripotee – is stolen. Sort of. Her brother-in-law has seized control of the haulage firm her mother founded, and wants Dee hand over the ship and settle down (there is a swing against feminism in the background of the story). Desperate to keep her ship, Dee lands on New Niger, a planet settled by Africans, and does a deal with Helen Nwanyeruwa, head of a rival firm. Except it doesn’t quite go down as Dee expected, or was promised. This is a fun, staunchly feminist space opera, and I’d happily read more stories set in the same universe.

There’s an elliptical quality to Carol Emshwiller’s ‘Abominable’ (1980) which both makes the story a difficult read and yet perversely makes it hard to forget. The central conceit is plain enough: women have become as elusive as the Abominable Snowman, and a group of men have set off to track down and capture the Commander’s wife. The story is too dream-like, for all that its conceit verges on absurd, and while this initially makes for an unsatisfactory read, it is also the reason why the story bears multiple reads.

I’ve been a fan of Sydney J Van Scyoc’s science fiction for many years, and her ‘Bluewater Dreams’ (1981) provides ample reason why. (The story, incidentally, has nothing to do with her 1991 novel Deepwater Dreams.) On the world of Rahndarr, human colonists and native Birlele co-exist peacefully. Except, every now and again, those Birlele which live with humans develop a fatal disease to which there is no known cure. Driven to return to their mountain home, they usually die en route. But human Namir choose to help her Birlele friend Mega journey home to the dreaming pools of her race… only to learn something important about the aliens. Van Scyoc’s strength has always lain in her invention and depiction of alien societies, and ‘Bluewater Dreams’ shows this in microcosm.

‘The Cabinet of Edgar Allen Poe’, Angela Carter (1982), is perhaps the least overtly science-fictional story in the anthology. It is an alternate life of Poe which drifts perhaps more into the fantastical than the alternate history mode. There’s more in there than that just – references to various fairy tales, for one thing; though I am sure I missed many of the references. While Carter certainly belongs in a volume such as Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, her inclusion here is a puzzle as her career actually began in the 1960s and this story isn’t sf per se.

‘The Harvest of Wolves’, Mary Gentle (1984), first appeared in Interzone and is typical of the magazine during that period in British sf short fiction. It’s the near-future and Britain is ruled by a New Puritan government after the near-collapse of society and the economy – this is the future of Thatcher’s Britain, V for Vendetta territory; and not so very far from what is imaginable now as the future of Cameron’s Britain. Flix is an old woman, an activist in the old days, living in poverty and being helped, and reported on, by a youth on community service. It’s all very grim and very British, and does elicit a sad nostalgia for the days when science fiction used to be an angry genre.

‘Bloodchild’ by Octavia E Butler (1984) must be one of the most anthologised science fiction stories of the 1980s, and yet it is often missing from lists of great sf short fiction. But then it was not written by a white male. Gan is  a young human boy living in a preserve on an Earth dominated by the alien Tlic. The aliens procreate by laying parasitic grubs in human hosts, and Gan has been brought up to be one such host. Except the realities of the process of “birth” have been kept from him. And he rudely discovers them when a man carrying Tlic grubs ready to hatch appears on the family doorstep. Though ‘Bloodchild’ features on of my pet hates, the apostrophe used in “alien” names, it’s a minor quibble.

‘Fears’, Pamela Sargent (1984), is perhaps the least successful of this batch of stories. In a near-future US, the ability to choose the gender of babies before birth has led to a very sharp decline in the number of women. so much so, in fact, that they have once again become highly-prized chattel. The narrator is female, but can disguise herself as male. She lives outside of society and the story recounts one of her visits to a nearby town for supplies, and her conversations with the bodyguard she hires for protection.

The name Jayge Carr was new to me, but on the strength of her ‘Webrider’ (1985) I’m tempted to seek out some of her longer fiction. In the space opera setting of the story, FTL interstellar travel is only possible via matter transmission. But only certain people can survive the process, and even then the odds of lethal failure are extremely high. Such people, known as “webriders”, are feted when they arrive on worlds, and their every whim catered to. But when the companion – groupie – selected by Webrider Tamarisk during her stay proves a little too interested in the web and its workings, his actions have unforeseen consequences. An accomplished sf tale with a cast of aliens and an interesting universe.

‘Alexia and Graham Bell’, Rosaleen Love (1986) suggests that the invention of the telephone by a young Australian descendant of Alexander Graham Bell actually causes the past to change such that it seemed Bell did really invent the device in 1875. Gone is the peaceful alternate present of telegraphs and letters, in which all long-distance communication is written down and so open to censorship. Which has, perversely, led to a peaceful twentieth century, without world wars. The story is played for laughs – which is just as well as the central conceit doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. But it’s an entertaining idea and handled well.

While the modes of science fiction in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years are varied, the quality is not. Some stories are more successful than others, but there are no duds. This is no real surprise – the anthology is, after all, to some extent a “best of” as it is a showcase of science fiction written by women, and its table of contents were chosen accordingly. That there is no discernible difference in quality between sf written by women or sf written by men should be obvious to all, but the fact of the existence of Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years suggests it’s a lesson many still need to learn. They should immediately seek out a copy of this volume and read it.

19 thoughts on “Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, Pamela Sargent

  1. Thanks, I’ve had this on my wishlist for a while and you’ve convinced me to go ahead and get it.

    1. The second half of the review will be up here on Thursday – and some of the stories in the second half of the anthology are better than those in the first half.

  2. This is a great review. I’m not a huge fan of short stories (prefer long-form fiction), but you’ve won me over. Really fantastic names there.

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