New Eves, Janrae Frank, Jean Stine & Forrest J Ackerman, part 2
New Eves, edited by Janrae Frank, Jean Stine & Forrest J Ackerman (1994)
Review by Ian Sales
This review follows on from part one here.
If New Eves has excelled at introducing long-forgotten women sf writers from earlier decades, it is less successful in regard to more recent years. Though the lengthy introduction mentions a number of writers whose careers have since ended, the names found in the final two sections of the anthology are likely known to most genre fans. While not necessarily a bad thing – some of these writers are indeed important – it does feel a little like it’s undermining the anthology’s purpose.
The 60s & 70s
‘Sense of Duty’ by Phyllis Eisenstein is phrased as a monologue toward the narrator’s child, and as it progresses it cleverly reveals that the speaker is part of an alien force secretly living on Earth as humans. The final twist is far from unpredictable, but it’s done well nevertheless.
Sydney J Van Scyoc’s ‘Bluewater Dreams’ also appeared in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years (see here), and I said of it there that “Van Scyoc’s strength has always lain in her invention and depiction of alien societies, and ‘Bluewater Dreams’ shows this in microcosm.”
‘Death Between the Stars’ by Marion Zimmer Bradley, on the other hand is less successful. It’s the sort of hand-wavey space opera which was popular in earlier decades. A woman needs to urgently return to her home planet and so is forced to share a cabin aboard a starship with an alien, a Theradin. The starship’s crew are horribly racist towards the alien and it dies through their neglect. The neat sting in the tail comes too late to save a quite nasty story.
James Tiptree Jr is the only male name to appear in New Eves (other than editor Ackerman), but, of course, he was really Alice Sheldon. ‘The Snows Are Melted, the Snows Are Gone’ is a post-apocalypse story and thin on plot. A young woman with no arms leads a healthy male savage a merry chase, so he can be captured to breed vitality back into civilised people with birth defects. The last sentence is “Before them the road stretched away neutrally to the crests above the Rift, in the land that had been Ethiopia.” Perhaps this is meant to be some ironic play on the Great Rift Valley being the birthplace of humanity… but both the young woman and the savage are white.
‘The Last Days of the Captain’ by Kate Wilhelm is another story which did not strike me as entirely successful. A military officer has to oversee the secret evacuation of a settlement on an alien world before the enemy arrive and bomb it into oblivion from orbit. A woman’s husband and son are out hunting and have yet to return. Though the captain and her wait until the last minute, they do not return. So the pair have to make a long journey in a low-flying aircar. As a result, the captain decides his previous contempt for colonists was unwarranted. I didn’t think the change of heart had been set up particularly well.
‘Changeling’ by Anne McCaffrey was apparently written for Dangerous Visions, but Harlan Ellision rejected it. He took another story by McCaffrey instead. I can understand why McCaffrey thought the story suitable for that anthology, and also why Ellison rejected it. A woman and a homosexual man enter into a marriage of convenience (their sexuality is open and public). A third man joins the family as the husband’s lover, and then a fourth man as the wife’s lover. All four are happy and contented and prosperous. The woman then gets pregnant with her husband’s baby and he kidnaps her so… he can deliver the baby himself? The motivations all seemed a little confused.
Pamela Sargent’s ‘Fears’ is another story which also appeared in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years. I didn’t think it was entirely successful when I read it in that book, and rereading it in this one has not led to me re-evaluating it.
‘Gleepsite’ by Joanna Russ is a strange piece. It’s short, it’s set in polluted post-apocalyptic city, and its narrator visits women and sells them a “Circle of Illusion”, which seems to be a device to make dreams appear real. The narrator may or may not be who she says. The title apparently refers to a made-up meaningless word. It doesn’t appear in the story other than in the title.
‘Winter’s King’ by Ursula K Le Guin is, as the title suggests, set on the same world as The Left Hand of Darkness. Each section of the story is introduced using a description of a painting depicting an incident in the titular king’s reign. But the story is far from that simple. The king is kidnapped and brainwashed, but no one knows in precisely what way she has been programmed. So she abdicates in favour of her young son, and travels by NAFAL ship to Hain. Years later, she returns to Gethen… to discover her son has not proven a good ruler. Given the size of her output and its uniformly high quality, it’s difficult to pick favourites among Le Guin’s short stories, but this is one. Unfortunately, it is also marred by some unfortunate typos, like “Her guards fled, her city bums, and now at the end she is face to face with the usurper” (p 315).
The 80s – and Beyond
‘Symphony for a Lost Traveler’ by Lee Killough, although originally published in 1984, felt like a story from the preceding decade. A famous composer is invited to the Moon to meet a reclusive billionaire. He has an unusual commission for her: operatives of his asteroid mining company have discovered an ancient alien starship with a working FTL drive, and he wants her to write a piece to use during his announcement of his discovery. The composer’s music is based on DNA, and it strikes me that four notes are somewhat limiting when it comes to writing music. I disagree with the rich-man-driving-progress trope, though it’s sadly deeply embedded in science fiction. Though most of Killough’s novels were sf, her more recent have been urban fantasy. The sf ones look worth a go.
‘Speech Sounds’ by Octavia E Butler is another post-apocalyptic story. This time, humans have lost the power of speech – all, that is, but a handful of them of which the protagonist is one such person. As a “last person” story, it’s done well, and also manages to somehow read as if it could be set at any time during the late twentieth or early twenty-first centuries.
The more I read by Maureen F McHugh, the more surprised I am she is not held up by everyone as one of science fiction’s very best writers. She has won only three awards during the twenty-four years since her first story was published: a Hugo for best short story in 1996, a Tiptree in 1993, and a Shirley Jackson Award this year for her recent collection. ‘The Missionary’s Child’ is an early work from 1992, but reads like a section of a very good novel. On a low-tech world visited by more advanced humans known as Cousins, a mercenary gets into trouble when hired as a guard for a dodgy deal by a merchant. It’s the mercenary’s background, however, that makes this story – the idea that the Cousins tried to uplift the world’s inhabitants but were blocked the entrenched power structure… and the mercenary is a survivor of one community which accepted the Cousins’ teachings and technology. One of the anthology’s better stories.
Sheila Finch fares poorly at the hands of New Eves proofreaders – the only place her name is spelled correctly, and not as “Shelia”, is underneath the title of her story, ‘A Long Way Home’. An amnesiac with healing powers on a barren world wonders why she is so different and so hated – “… whose two eyes were set evenly in her brow, the ears likewise on either side of her head, neither one larger than the other; whose nose was a slight protuberance on her face, not a beak the size of a fist or a gaping hole” (p 377). In despair, she leaves the village… and meets up with someone she recognises, someone like herself, and so learns the truth of her world and her origin. There’s a bleakness to the world-building that’s perhaps only been matched in recent years by Paolo Bacigalupi, but Finch pulls back from this to deliver a more uplifting, albeit not happy, ending.
It would be a strange anthology of sf by women writers that did not include Karen Joy Fowler, and her ‘The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things’ is typical of her oeuvre. A woman undergoes a procedure which allows her to confabulate encounters with people from her past as reconstructed from her memories. In this case, it’s one particular person – a boyfriend who left her to go fight in Viet Nam. It’s that Viet Nam connection which makes the story feel a little older than its 1985 year of publication, though that’s the only criticism that can be levelled at it. Not Fowler’s strongest work, perhaps, but still extremely good.
A massive earthquake has hit California in Mary Rosenblum’s ‘California Dreamer’, but Ellen was unaffected as the house she shares with Rebecca is outside the affected zone. Unfortunately, Rebecca was in San Francisco when the quake hit and did not survive. Ellen doesn’t think she can carry on without the love of her life. Then Beth, a ten-year-old girl, turns up at the house with her sick mother. Except the woman isn’t the girl’s mother, and who she is provides a way for Ellen to go on living. Though initially not reading like sf, and finally teetering on the edge of genre, this is one of New Eves‘ strongest stories. It has certainly persuaded me to read more by Rosenblum.
Nancy Kress’s ‘Down Behind Cuba Lake’ is an odd choice on which to end the anthology because, well, it’s not sf. A woman trying to reach a married lover’s home gets lost en route, and every road she takes leads back to the eponymous body of water. As a result, the woman realises the errors of her ways.
New Eves opens with a long introductory essay outlining the history of women in genre writing. Though it tries to put a positive spin on events, it does not make for edifying reading. Initially, fiction magazines were seen as family-oriented, and work by women writers was not uncommon in their pages. This carried over to the early pulp sf magazines – Hugo Gernsback, for example, “eagerly welcomed women writers” in his Amazing Stories. However, when he lost control of his magazines, the companies that owned them decided to reposition the titles alongside men’s adventure story magazines. Women were no longer welcome. It wasn’t until the 1950s that some women writers began to reappear in the magazines, and by the 1960s and 1970s they dominated the genre, and have gone from strength to strength ever since…
Except I look around at sf now and I have to wonder, what went wrong? Books by men from those decades are more likely to remain in print, more likely to be judged “classics”, more likely to be recommended to non-genre readers. Male authors from those decades had longer careers. Many are still writing now; but only a handful of the women writers are. I’m not convinced the editors of New Eves entirely believe their own argument. The introduction ends on too self-congratulatory, too positive a note. It seems to be saying, the war is over. Even twenty years ago, it is unlikely the future looked as rosy as the editors would like to have readers believe.
And then there’s the final section of the introduction which, with painful irony, undermines the entire argument laid out in the rest of the introduction. Many male sf writers too, it points out, have written strong female characters. This may be true, but is irrelevant. Worse, to suggest writers such as Heinlein, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Niven and Asimov, among others, as examples is to completely miss the point. The section feels like it was added at the insistence of the book’s one male editor. He should have kept his mouth shut – the male authors named have nothing to offer in support of the anthology’s thesis, and, in fact, demonstrate only how badly it has been misrepresented over the decades.