Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, edited by Pamela Sargent (1995)
Review by Ian Sales
This review follows on from Part 1 here.
At $15 in 1995 for twenty-one stories, Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years could never be accused of poor value. Given the quality of the contents, that price-tag becomes even more of a bargain. Of course, these days, sixteen years later, only second-hand copies can be found, but the anthology is certainly worth hunting down.
The title of ‘Reichs-Peace’, by Sheila Finch (1986), signals immediately that the story is a “Hitler victorious” type alternate history. Unfortunately, this results in a couple of early inelegant info-dumps in order to explain the history of the story’s world, but ‘Reichs-Peace’ does possess a number of appealing conceits. Greta is a scientist in isolationist USA. She defects to Germany, but rather than be debriefed for the secrets she carries – Germany is technologically superior to the US, but the US leads in biological sciences – she is taken to meet the widow of Adolf Hitler. Frau Hitler – Eva Braun as was – needs Greta’s help because her son, Wolfli Hitler, is one of the astronauts at the Nazi moon base but he has gone on EVA and can’t be contacted and a solar flare is due. Greta is Romany, smuggled out of Germany as a child; she is also Wolfli’s twin. Frau Hitler believes that Greta can psychically contact the brother she never knew she had, and warn him to return to the base before the flare hits. Marrying the most oddball aspects of Nazi science to this type of alternate history story makes it stand out from others of its ilk, and the character of Frau Hitler is handled especially well.
Pat Cadigan is best known for writing cyberpunk, and while ‘Angel’ (1987) borrows some of the tropes of that sub-genre, it is not a cyberpunk story. The narrator has an angel as a lover. The pair of them just about manage to make enough to survive as rent-boys. And then one of the angel’s previous lovers, a rich woman, turns up and tries to abduct him. There’s a half-hearted attempt to explain the angel as an alien exiled to Earth, but it’s the manner in which this story is told, rather than the story per se, which impresses most.
‘Rachel in Love’, Pat Murphy (1987), was nominated for the Hugo for best novelette in 1988, and won the Nebula. It’s easy to see why. Rachel is a chimpanzee, but she has had the personality of a girl implanted in her brain – the daughter of the scientist who invented the procedure, in fact, after she died in a car crash. But when the scientist dies in his sleep, the animal handlers of the Primate Research Centre see only an ape and not the young girl Rachel knows herself to be. So she plots her escape.
‘Game Night at the Fox and Goose’, Karen Joy Fowler (1989), originally appeared in Interzone, and is one of the stronger pieces in an already-strong anthology. Alison, lonely and disenchanted after being abandoned by her lover, and pregnant, visits the eponymous pub in order to cheer herself up. There she meets an enigmatic women who tells of her a parallel world in which the relationship between women and men is very different.
‘Tiny Tango’, Judith Moffett (1989), is perhaps the longest story in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, and is one of Moffett’s Hefn stories. It’s science fiction lite, inasmuch as what few tropes appear in the story only book-end the main narrative. The narrator is an early victim of AIDS, and chooses to maintain a stress-free healthy lifestyle in order to maximise her chances of survival. This includes growing her own fruit and veg, and she decides, as a project, to develop a strain of virus-resistant melon. But then an accident at a nearby nuclear power plant renders the area where she lives uninhabitable. Meanwhile, the alien Hefn have visited Earth, had a look around, and then left. Later they return, and the narrator’s story is one they have asked her to tell as some sort of lesson. ‘Tiny Tango’ is also part of Moffett’s fix-up story about the Hefn, The Ragged World. On the strength of this novella, I plan to track down a copy.
Connie Willis’ reputation rests as much on stories like ‘At the Rialto’ (1989) as it does on her novels. Certainly this story has appeared in numerous “best of” anthologies. It’s a comic piece, set in the eponymous hotel during the International Congress of Quantum Physics Annual Meeting. It’s also not really science fiction. Some of the strangenesses of quantum physics are mirrored in the interactions between the characters – in other words, the congress is pretty chaotic. It’s an entertaining story, but I must admit to being slightly puzzled by the obvious high regard in which it’s held.
Not all of the stories in the anthology have been overtly feminist, and none have been misandrist, though ‘Midnight News’, Lisa Goldstein (1990), comes perhaps closest to the latter. Aliens have arrived at Earth, judged the human race and found it wanting. And selected a representative to make the final decision on the planet’s fate. That representative is Helena Johnson, an OAP… who is being treated like royalty in order to influence her decision. Stevens and Gorce are two of the reporters interviewing Johnson. There’s something slightly old-fashioned about ‘Midnight News’, something which harkens back to the days of Hildy Johnson – including its sexual politics.
‘And Wild for to Hold’, Nancy Kress (1991), is another long piece. The Time Research Institute exists out of time and its role encompasses more than just research. It also identifies in alternate time streams pivotal historical figures and abducts them as “Holy Hostages” in order to prevent the suffering their existence cause. The practice of taking hostages to prevent wars in well-established in the Institute’s reality – there is even a Church of the Holy Hostage. In the past, the Institute has abducted Hitler, Helen of Troy, and a Romanov prince. But now they’ve taken Anne Boleyn – chiefly to prevent the English Reformation. But Boleyn is a practiced schemer and does not accept her new role willingly. The Church too is trying to seize control of the Institute. The sf in this story never quite convinces, though the characters are well-drawn – especially Boleyn.
‘Immaculate’, Storm Constantine (1991), is another story which presents science fiction as another genre – or rather, tries to offer a science-fictional explanation of its tropes. Donna claims she can feel computers dreaming. She is a model for VR-type entertainments by Reeb, who was nearly killed in a freak accident when his data-suit caught fire. Donna tells him he left part of himself “in the wires”. The title refers to the fact that Donna is an “immaculate” birth, though it is not a miracle but a medical procedure available to anyone. This is another story whose strength lies in its prose style rather than in its plot.
Some writers are better at depicting aliens than others. Ore has always been good at it, and ‘Farming in Virginia’ (1993) provides ample evidence of this. Two aliens have been exiled to Earth and are living quiet lives under the protection of the US government. But Earth has decided it’s time to send them back, as the female of the pair is pregnant. She is also an alcoholic. And the male is addicted to a drug. I will never understand why writers think that throwing random apostrophes into made-up names will make them convincingly alien, but Ore does it here. However, she does well with the biology and psychology of her aliens, especially the male alien’s perception of the humans he interacts with.
Worth mentioning is the excellent introduction to the anthology by Pamela Sargent. It gives a quick history of women writing in science fiction, as well as quoting a number of male reactions to their output. The anthology ends with a fifteen-page ‘Recommended Reading: Science Fiction by Women 1979 – 1993’ bibliography. At some point, I will transcribe this and add it as a separate page to the blog.
An excellent anthology, and certainly worth reading. Recommended.