New Eves, edited by Janrae Frank, Jean Stine & Forrest J Ackerman (1994)
Review by Ian Sales
Hands up if you’ve heard of Francis Stevens, Leslie F Stone, Helen Weinbaum, Leslie Perri, Miriam Allen deFord, Sonya Dorman, or Betsy Curtis? All were popular science fiction writers in the first half of the twentieth century, and regularly appeared in pulp magazines. Sadly, as the magazines repositioned themselves to be sold alongside men’s magazines, their gender, and the gender of their stories’ protagonists, meant they found it increasingly harder to place fiction with the big magazines and were relegated to the lesser-known titles. Few, if any, of their stories are currently in print, or have been reprinted since their original appearances. Even those who wrote novels – such as Francis Stevens – are also mostly forgotten.
New Eves, subtitled ‘Science Fiction About the Extraordinary Women of Today and Tomorrow’, is an anthology of short stories from the 1920s through to “The 80s – And Beyond”. There are number of familiar names among the thirty-two contributions – including, among others, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, James Tiptree Jr, Ursula K Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Karen Joy Fowler. However, where this anthology really scores is in the early decades it covers, reprinting stories that have likely not been seen since the days of All-Story Weekly, Thrilling Wonder or Startling Stories…
“The 20s & 30s”
‘Friend Island’ by Francis Stevens originally appeared in All-Story Weekly in 1918, and it’s very much a product of its time. In a matriarchal world, a curious young man listens to an old sea salt tell a story of her shipwreck on a desert island with a man with whom she “come the nighest in [her] life to committin’ matrimony”. It’s a tall tale, written in a prose style that now seems awkward and over-written, but it offers a glimpse into a world astonishing for the time it was written.
‘The Man of Stone’ by Hazel Heald from 1932 is only science fiction by the very loosest of definitions – and indeed, Heald was better known as a regular contributor to Weird Tales. Tales of strange statues in the Upper Adirondacks lead the narrator and his companion to investigate. But the statues are so lifelike it’s as if they were actually a petrified man and his dog. The cause is later discovered, revealed through the diary of mountain man “Mad Dan”, and it’s more to do with magical formulae than chemical ones. Despite its age, and its strange construction – one half first-person narrative, one-half journal entries – it’s still very readable.
There’s no doubting the sf credentials of Leslie F Stone’s ‘The Conquest of Gola’ from 1931, although there’s much in its science which is doubtful. Humans reach Venus and discover an alien, telepathic and matriarchal society who are not at all interested in trading with them. The humans – all male, of course – return with conquest in mind. They lose. The story is told from the point of view of one of the aliens, and I suspect time has not been especially kind to its prose.
Helen Weinbaum was the sister of Stanley Weinbaum and, after his death, completed one of his unfinished stories, and then went to write several under own name. ‘Honeycombed Satellite’ from 1940 is, like the preceding three stories, pulp sf. A newly-married couple visit Thetis, the eponymous moon, to discover why the supply of blue amber from the moon’s indigenous termite-like aliens has shrunk to almost nothing. Although the wife spends much of the time acting like a typical female pulp heroine, at the end she turns the tables on the villain. That may have been shocking at the time.
‘Space Episode’ by Leslie Perri was published in 1941 and, while it has all the verisimilitude of a Flash Gordon serial it is astonishing in that the sole female character is the only one to behave rationally – even going so far as to sacrifice herself to save the two men. It may be dated and the writing in it somewhat overwrought, but it still packs a punch.
Leigh Brackett, of course, needs little introduction. ‘Water Pirate’ from 1941 is a typically polished Brackett piece, set in a populated Solar System in 2148. Someone has been stealing tanker ships, and so Jaffa Gray, son of the Chief of Special Duty of the Convoy Fleet, investigates. A Keshi woman leads him to a strange crashed spaceship, but Jaffa is captured and forced to fix it, and so is taken to the pirate’s lair. There’s some great imagery in this story, though for all its spaceships and blasters and “By the Nine Red Hells of Jupiter!” it’s more fantasy adventure than science fiction.
‘Aleph Sub One’ by Margaret St Claire from 1948 is, sadly, the sort of silliness that gives sf a bad name. A ditzy housewife inadvertently causes the “Vizi-Math” to create a spacetime vortex by feeding it a made-up equation for it to work on. As the city is slowly subsumed by the vortex, she realises – for no reason whatsoever – what her mistake was, and feeds in a correction. The vortex disappears.
Miriam Allen deFord was a popular sf writer during the 1940s and 1950s, but is forgotten today. On the strength of ‘Throwback’ from 1952, there’s no real reason she should be. It’s all very Brave New World, though the gender roles are sadly traditional and unquestioned. A young woman in an over-populated future risks all for an unlicensed pregnancy. It’s not especially original, but there’s a good sting in the tail.
Sonya Dorman is another forgotten writer. ‘The Putnam Tradition’ from 1963 reads a little like Zenna Henderson but also reads like, so far, the most feminist story in the anthology. The women of the titular family had all been special, but the latest may not be because her father is an engineer.
‘All Cats Are Gray’ from 1953 is typical Andre Norton, although it features a strong female heroine. It’s a shame Norton didn’t understand how colour blindness, or indeed colour, works. A man, woman and cat attempt to salvage an infamous derelict, but the woman’s colour blindness fortunately means she can see the invisible monster. But only against a grey background. Pulp tosh.
Zenna Henderson is best known for her stories of the People, though New Eves claims that until the appearance of Le Guin, she was “the leading woman writer in the field”. So it’s a shame that 1962’s ‘Subcommittee’ is a piece of feelgood tosh with fluffy aliens, a fraught housewife, and sternly protective military men.
Of all the stories so far in New Eves, ‘Idol’s Eye’ by Carol Emshwiller probably comes closest to modern sf, despite being published in 1958. A young woman is about to be married off to a man she hates, but she has unknown talents and that results in her being rescued by aliens.
According to New Eves, ‘The Last Day’, also from 1958, was apparently Helen Clarkson’s only piece of published fiction. In fact, Clarkson was a pseudonym used by Helen McCloy, who had half a dozen stories and a novel published under that name. ‘The Last Day’ itself was also expanded to novel length, as by Helen Clarkson. It’s a nicely-written end-of-the-world tale, and would not look amiss in any modern reprint anthology.
I didn’t get ‘The Lady Was A Tramp’ by Judith Merril, from 1957. A young “IBMan” fresh out of the academy joins the crew of a slovenly tramp spaceship. The ships’ medic is an attractive woman who appears to offer more than just medical services to the crew’s five male members. I couldn’t work out if the woman’s role was exactly what was implied, or how Merril felt it was a good thing.
‘A Peculiar People’ by Betsy Curtis from 1951 reminds me of similar stories by male authors, and is unremarkable for precisely that reason. Mars is so underpopulated it has robots who appear entirely human and are treated as such. One of these is now an attaché on Earth but, for obvious reasons, cannot reveal his true nature. But then he gets friendly with an Earth family… only it seems Earth has a secret of its own. In many respects, this story reads like something from an earlier decade, though the prose is perhaps slightly better than its contemporaries.
”The Captain’s Mate’ by Evelyn E Smith from 1956 is a fairly standard piece of 1950s science fiction, although I can imagine the final twist might not have sat well with most readers. A shrlangi – a type of matriarchal insectoid alien with tentacles – has crewed her ship entirely with humans, and they’re now close to mutiny because she doesn’t appear to know how to pilot it. When one of the engines exploding, throwing the ship out of hyperspace, they have to lighten the load, but the captain refuses to give up her trunk… because it contains the pupa of her mate. And then it turns out she’s not exactly who she claims to be.
Few reprint anthologies could be described as important historical documents, but New Eves is, I think, one such anthology. While perhaps not all of the stories in the book’s first three sections deserve to be remembered, their authors certainly should not be forgotten. It’s a shame the book has been so badly proof-read, with every story featuring far too many sentences with typos or words missing. Even the sections themselves seem somewhat arbitrary – they are perhaps based on the careers of the authors, but the stories chosen were often published in other decades. The 1960s section, for example, features two from 1950s magazines.