The Venus Factor, Vic Ghidalia & Roger Elwood (1972)
Review by Ian Sales
Although the cover of this book may wrongly suggest to an unobservant browser that it’s a novel by Agatha Christie, it’s actually a somewhat odd anthology of “science fiction” by women authors. And I say “odd” for two reasons: the term is used on the cover, but not all of the stories in the book actually qualify as science fiction (and even more flexible definitions than most would have trouble incorporating them); and second, the anthology contains four stories from the 1930s (and late 1920s) and three from the late 1960s – plus one from the 1950s. It’s a peculiar spread, especially since three of the early stories didn’t originally appear in genre venues. In some respects, then, The Venus Factor is a curiosity, something of an historical document. What it is not, is a good representative selection of science fiction by women writers of the twentieth century.
‘The Last Séance’, Agatha Christie (1926), is, The Venus Factor insists, Christie’s only “science fiction” story, and there is, it has to be said, a definite attempt by Christie to add some sort of scientific gloss to her story of a Parisian medium who performs one séance too many. Sadly, that scientific basis, which treats ectoplasm as something real and produced by the human body, is nonsense, and Christie’s prose throughout is clunky and terrible.
‘God Grante That She Lye Stille’, Cynthia Asquith (1931), is another story that only qualifies as science fiction if the genre is defined so loosely it might as well include anything and everything. A young doctor in a small English village falls in love with the lady of the manor, who is young, beautiful and wan, and, she claims, frequently subjects to bouts of personality loss, where she feels as if she doesn’t exist. She even claims to have experienced occasions where her reflection does not appear in mirrors. Meanwhile, in the cemetery beside the manor house there lies the grave of an ancestor who lived fast and died young several centuries before – and according to family legend refused to “lye stille” on her deathbed. The story pans out pretty much as expected, and though Asquith displays the odd nice turn of phrase, there’s little in this to lift the story above others of its ilk of the time.
‘The Foghorn’, Gertrude Atherton (1933), is not even genre, no matter what definition you use. A young woman falls in love with a young man, they go out into Golden Gate in a rowing boat, but a thick fog suddenly descends. A large ship runs them down in the fog, and the young man dies. The woman wakes to find herself in a hospital. But all is not as it seems. The prose is somewhat excitable, and the twist ending comes as no real surprise.
‘Against Authority’, Miriam Allen deFord (1966). Although mostly forgotten these days, deFord was hugely prolific during the 1950s and 1960s. But then, she never published a novel, only some eighty stories between 1946 and 1978. While ‘Against Authority’ may be from her most successful decade, there’s little in it that stands out. After a war with the Pelagerians, who invaded Earth and then disappeared, the surviving nations banded together under the Authority, the ruler of Turkey. And, forty-eight years later, he still rules; although he promises to hand over power to a democracy eventually. A group of students are part of a plot to assassinate the Authority but, in a twist stolen directly from GK Chesterton, it turns out to have been entirely organised by police spies. But then it transpires the Authority is not what he seems – as one of the conspirators, a daughter of his by artificial insemination, manages to work out. There are a few interesting ideas in this story, but it reads like a substandard work by one of that decade’s more thoughtful writers (which is not to say that those writers did not themselves produce substandard work).
‘J-Line to Nowhere’, Zenna Henderson (1969). While Henderson may be best known for her stories of the People, she wrote plenty of other sf. In fact, she was one of the most successful female sf writers of the 1950s. This story is set in some future metropolis in which nature is absent – Malthusian stories were popular during the 1950s. The narrator stumbles across a forgotten station on the J-Line, which is in a park, and spends an idyllic afternoon there. But when she returns to her sick mother and the realities of life in the city, she knows she will never find the “Nowhere” station again. Although the story strikes an effectively elegiac note, it’s too thin for it to have much impact.
‘The Ship Who Disappeared’, Anne McCaffrey (1969), is one of McCaffrey’s brainship stories, which are based around a premise that today we find distasteful: disabled babies are built into spaceships to be their “brains”. Each brainship also has an able-bodied crewmember, a “brawn”. In McCaffrey’s series, one such brainship, Helva, sings to pass her time and has become quite accomplished. But that is more or less irrelevant in this story. Helva notices that four brainships have disappeared, but her brawn, Teron, refuses to investigate as he’s a stickler for rules and regulations and they have no orders to search for the missing ships. At their next stop, the Antiolathan Xixon, some sort of religious figure, though neither Helva nor Teron recognise his title, asks to come aboard. They let him, he subdues the crew and steals the ship. But because Helva had been arguing with Teron, she had left open the comms link to Central Worlds, and her bosses heard everything. So they rescue her. And the other four ships. It’s a remarkably thin plot, in which Helva proves less than active, padded out with lots of bickering between the two main characters.
‘The Lady Was a Tramp’, Judith Merril (1957). The lady of the title is, of course, a spaceship, a tramp freighter to which “IBMan” Carnahan, navy reserve lieutenant, has been assigned straight from naval academy. Although he is realistic enough to accept his posting as the bets he’s likely to get, he’s dismayed by the seeming laxity of the Lady Jane‘s crew – and he is also shocked by the free and easy sexual relations between the ship’s Medic, the only woman aboard, and the rest of the crew. In fact, his prudishness is little more than outright misogyny: “‘If I go to a whore, I don’t want her around me all day. And if I have a girl, I damn sure don’t want every guy she sees to get into… you know what I mean!'” Time has not been kind to ‘The Lady Was a Tramp’. While the “IBMan” and “analog computers” read as little more than quaint failures at world-building a future, the gender politics in the story are so old-fashioned it makes its entire premise feel unnecessary, if not offensive.
‘The Dark Land’, CL Moore (1936), is Moore’s fourth Jirel of Joiry story and originally appeared, unsurprisingly, in Weird Tales. Jirel is lying on her death-bed, but is abducted – and healed – by Pav of Romne, the titular dark land, a magical place where nothing is what it seems. Pav wants Jirel to become his wife, but she refuses. He accepts a bargain: he will let her find a way to destroy him, if she fails she will wed him. While searching for a weapon, she meets the white witch, who loves Pav and would have him for herself. She tells Jirel how to kill Pav. Jirel kills Pav. And discovers that Pav is Romne, and she was duped by the white witch. The prose is somewhat overwrought, with lines like: “Hell-dwelling madman!” she spluttered. “Black beast out of nightmares! Let me waken from this crazy dream!” And a lot of said-bookisms.
All things considered, The Venus Factor fails at what it purports to be, which is, according to the back-cover blurb: “an anthology of science fiction stories written about women by some of the top women SF writers”. Christie, obviously, was never classified as a science fiction writer – indeed the front cover of The Venus Factor brags that the book “includes the only science fiction story written by Agatha Christie”. And while Asquith’s story is about a woman, the narrator is male and it his attraction to the woman in question which drives the story forward. Likewise, Merril’s somewhat belaboured story of sex therapy may draw parallels between the spaceship (which is, of course, seen as female) and the ship’s doctor, but the protagonist is male and it is his emotional growth which is the focus of the story. There is no single story in The Venus Factor which is alone worth the price of admission, and Christie’s reputation is unlikely to be harmed if ‘The Last Séance’ vanished back into obscurity. A shame.