The Feminine Future, Mike Ashley (2015)
Review by admiral ironbombs
Mike Ashley’s had an impressive career in science fiction as an editor and anthologist, from writing the four-volume History of the Science Fiction Magazine in the 1970s to editing the Mammoth Book of anthology series today. It seems he and I share some of the same values based on his introduction; he puts forth two popular genre misconceptions that this volume hopes to correct. First, that science fiction is a genre of just fanciful adventure stories, with its bug-eyed monsters and super-scientists jaunting across space and time. And second, that women writing science fiction is a newer development. Indeed, if you judge science fiction by the average “best-of” list and SF reader’s expectations, Ursula Le Guin was one of the first women to write in the genre. The Feminine Future collects fourteen science fiction stories by women writers, all of them written before the term “science fiction” was coined—even predating Gernsback’s ye olde “scientifiction.” These stories fall across the era of proto-SF, from contemporaries to Verne’s and Wells’ scientific romances all the way to early pulp SF tales in the ’20s and ’30s.
‘When Time Turned’, Ethel Watts Mumford (1902). Our unnamed protagonist arrives at the house of a friend who happens to be a doctor, and meets the doctor’s newest patient: a strange case that began with the passing of the man’s wife, at which point he realized time was flowing in reverse. He re-lived his marriage, then his engagement, and now is suffering through his bachelorhood. A sad case of neurological disorder brought on by trauma – or is it? An interesting story that predates The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by twenty years, and uses a similar reverse-aging theme. The writing style and frame structure – visiting a friend, hearing this man’s life story retold – is very dated though, and while I like the idea, I feel the second story would be a better start to the collection.
‘The Painter of Dead Women’, Edna W Underwood (1911). Rushing to meet her husband at a regal ball in Naples, our Englishwoman protagonist instead finds herself at arriving at the wrong address – trapped by the mysterious Count Ponteleone, the painter of dead women. Ponteleone is behind the abduction of several local women who he uses as subjects for his paintings, injecting them with a rare chemical concoction that leads to a fate worse than death – the body’s beauty is preserved in immobility, while the brain continues to function… A gripping story with strong horror themes: the body horror element, losing control of one’s self, and a perverse and intrusive (male) villain, combined with the nightmare of living through every minute of the process. Crisp writing and constant tension make it a brisk read. It’s my first favorite of the collection.
‘The Automaton Ear’, Florence McLandburgh (1873). The protagonist, upon realizing that sounds do not diminish but instead fade into the background noise of Earth, develops a remarkable hearing machine that allows him to hear echoes of the past – he hears everything, from biblical stories as they happened through to the suffering of starving children in a more recent era. This story felt more like other early SF stories of the time with its inventive idea, but takes a dark turn when the protagonist becomes obsessed with his creation, and his decision to test this invention on a deaf woman – to see if it can cure her illness – proves his undoing. While the science is questionable, the central idea combines brilliant creativity with the same engineering and scientific principles of later works.
‘Ely’s Automatic Housemaid’, Elizabeth Bellamy (1900). In contrast to the earlier, darker stories, this is a lighthearted piece about a household receiving two robots Automatic Household Beneficent Geniuses from an inventor friend. Having gone through several maids and servants who were unable to perform their cooking and cleaning duties to the family’s satisfaction, the hope is that these machines will become capable replacements – until it becomes obvious that the settings dials for these machines require much precision, and need some fine-tuning (as well as some kind of childproofing). A comedic story as the machines run rampant and fight over a broom; I have to assume it was a light jab at the idea of machines replacing human workers, à la The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
‘The Ray of Displacement’, Harriet Prescott Spofford (1903). Our protagonist has discovered a ray that changes molecular structure enough that its users are able to pass through walls and become invisible, but after a mix-up involving a diamond, greedy Judge Brant has the protagonist jailed. Still polarized, the protagonist sets forth to clear his name and earn a legal exit from jail, while getting even with the mean-spirited Judge. The tale gains a supernatural element after a failed suicide attempt that becomes important to the finale. This story felt about thirty years ahead of its time, as its scientific thought-experiment and remarkable gadget would have been right at home in issues of Amazing Stories. The story itself is a bit stilted, and oddly starts well after the scientific discovery, but is a very interesting take on an idea that was uncommon in SF at the time.
‘Those Fatal Filaments’, Mabel Ernestine Abbott (1903). An electrician creates a device which allows its user to read the thoughts of others – though, as he finds out, it isn’t discerning on what or whose thoughts it receives. An interesting if slight piece from a relatively unknown author who wrote quite a bit of fiction for early 20th-century magazines. The question this story poses is one that pulp science fiction would frequently return to: what is a brilliant idea for some kind of future machine, and what kind of impact would its creation have on society?
‘The Third Drug’, Edith Nesbit (1908). Wandering Paris at night, Roger Wroxham is assaulted and wounded by brigands; in an effort to escape, he jumps into an open house and barricades the door. Inside, he finds his salvation may be his undoing – the inhabitant is a mad scientist who plays god with pharmaceuticals, who wants to test his latest creation on Roger… Shades of Frankenstein and the gothics of old, replacing the alchemist with a more scientific (and realistic) chemist who’s developed a kind of super-serum drug. The semi-scientific idea is bolstered by some good tense atmosphere, and the story has a bit more action than some of the other recent stories.
‘A Divided Republic’, Lillie Devereux Blake (1887). Subtitled “An Allegory of the Future,” this story is rooted in the future-history as a metaphor, in the same vein as Bellamy’s Looking Backward and similar. Growing disillusion on behalf of womens’ rights advocates and suffragettes leads to American woman emigrating en masse to the Western territories of Washington and the adjoining flyover country to its east. There they set up their own society, where women take the roles of architects and lawmakers, building beautiful shining cities. Meanwhile the menfolk fall victim to alcoholism and bad manners, as they remain unshaven and their houses fall into disarray. A bit heavy-handed in its allegory, stilted in its writing, and lacking in characters. But as a feminist utopia it crafts a bold and vivid idea for its time.
‘Via the Hewitt Ray’, MF Rupert (1930). Another feminist utopia, though perhaps a bit more relatable for us unshaven menfolk as it’s a swashbuckling yarn from Science Wonder Quarterly. Hotshot pilot Lucille Hewitt receives a letter from her father, explaining that he’s crossed dimensions using a light-wave device of his own creation. Desperate to save him, Lucille straps on her Colt .45 and follows in pursuit. Inside, she finds creatures of three evolutionary planes: strange humanoid-alien monsters; a race of cold, distant women who have created a feminist society and keep their men in harems; and a third race which has captured Father Hewitt. The story could easily have been written by another Gernsback writer like Stanton Coblentz or David Keller, balancing Lucille’s exploration of the alien society (eg, a satire/contrast of contemporary society) with some derring-do adventure… if it wasn’t for the heroine protagonist – only the second so far in this volume! – and the brilliantly creative society Lucille finds inside the Hewitt ray. While it’s pulp to the core and a bit rushed, this is perhaps my favorite tale from this collection.
‘The Great Beast of Kafue’, Clotide Graves (1917). In the aftermath of the Boer War, rumors of a great reptilian beast begin to circulate in southern Africa. One old hunter knows about the beast, having seen it before – he retells the experience to his son. As a monster story featuring some relic dinosaur, it’s rich in atmosphere, and in terms of writing it’s the best story in the collection. Graves had an excellent feel for her setting, having written several popular novels set during the Boer War; for its time, this is one of the more authentic-feeling Africa stories this side of H. Rider Haggard. An excellent story with a deep if subtle message about empathizing with emotional loss.
‘Friend Island’, Francis Stevens (1918). Francis Stevens was the only author of this collection familiar to me, known as the first woman to regularly write SF for the pulp magazines. She’s known for her vivid imagination, and this story doesn’t disappoint on that front. The setting is a world where woman have replaced men as the “superior” gender, and our male protagonist speaks with a salty old woman of adventure who found herself shipwrecked. The feminist future is a minor point compared to the floating island, which empathizes with our castaway and reacts according to her mood. As for the previous castaway, one of the last adventurous males, let’s just say his time on the island was less than pleasant. Solid writing backs up impressive creativity.
‘The Artificial Man’, Clare Winger Harris (1929). After a football injury cripples George Gregory, he undergoes a theoretical surgery to gain an artificial leg. But he doesn’t stop there, and after a series of other accidents, he finds himself more machine than man – while the terminology wasn’t invented yet, he’s one of the genre’s first examples of the cyborg. And he wants his college sweetheart, who’s apprehensive at how all these artificial limbs and organs have changed George. The writing is very dry, and the plot is a simple love triangle between a man, a woman, and a cyborg, that examines the boundaries between physical perfection and honest virtue/morals. Not one of my favorites, but it raises some very poignant questions.
‘Creatures of the Light’, Sophie Wenzel Ellis (1930). Our protagonist runs into a German scientist who’s working to perfect the human race, manufacturing his own society of clones out in the Antarctic thanks to his wonder devices. As our hero falls head-over-heels for one of the clones, he runs afoul of another who’s smitten with the woman: Adam, the first clone, out to destroy humanity and claim this world for himself. Another take on the theme of physical perfection versus morality and virtue; history has not been kind to eugenics, so the theme of cloning a “perfect” race of humans is off-putting. The story displays a wealth of unique ideas, but the wooden characters and eugenics-heavy plot left me cold.
‘The Flying Teuton’, Alice Brown (1917). As the name indicates, a take on the Flying Dutchman legend of old. In the aftermath of World War One – written at a time when that was also science fiction – peaceful commerce resumes, and merchant ships ply the oceans. One passenger, an American reporter heading back to New York, rides the first German trade ship to attempt the journey… running into a fleet of ghost ships along the way. An eerie story that’s also quite prescient, with the world showing sympathy for the Germans a year before Versailles, due to the strange coincidences they found themselves in with the ghost fleet.
The stories in this volume deal with the same themes that early science fiction would investigate over and over again: many of them follow the same pattern of “introduce a creative scientific idea and examine its effects on society/its users”. The difference is most of these stories were written decades before Hugo Gernsback named it “scientifiction” and proved there was enough of a market for this type of material to support monthly pulp magazines. Other stories take even more inventive approaches, dealing with ideas and concepts that are still original and fresh today. Some reflect issues of their day, reacting to Woman’s Suffrage, or impacted by The Boer War or World War One. Mike Ashley should be commended for finding these gems which were overlooked for so long; that they include such a variety of themes and styles is impressive.
As with all collections, this is a mixed bag, and not every story will appeal to every reader. That’s precisely why I like it: this book shows how diverse science fiction was even in its earlier days. It covers the breadth of the early genre from adventure stories (‘Via the Hewitt Ray’), to stories that blend horror and science (‘Painter of Dead Women’, ‘The Third Drug’), to feminist utopias (‘Divided Republic’ and ‘Hewitt Ray’) or wild invention stories (‘Automaton Ear’, ‘Automatic Housemaid’, ‘Fatal Filaments’, etc). Some of the stories are similar in theme or feel, but all of them are unique, different takes on the same concept of scientific invention and discovery changing the world. In some cases it’s for the better, in others for the worse, and in a few it’s good old fashioned comedy. My favorites lean towards adventure and the macabre, and include ‘The Great Beast of Kafue’, ‘Via The Hewitt Ray’, ‘Friend Island’, ‘The Painter of Dead Women’, ‘Ely’s Automatic Housemaid’, and ‘The Third Drug’.
Readers not as familiar with pre-modernist literature may be put off by some of the artistic preferences of the age, like the awkward framing device in ‘When Time Turned’, or the distant and passive prose in ‘A Divided Republic’. I cut my teeth reading Wells, Verne, and Haggard, and still found some of the stories a bit dry and plodding for my taste. And the individual pieces have not always withstood the passage of time. But for anyone with a serious interest in science fiction’s history and origins, and those readers fascinated by genre gender studies, this slim volume fills an important gap in SF’s history. (What’s worse is that many readers remain unaware such a void exists.) It addresses shortcomings in perception and misconception that the average reader may have regarding early SF and the women who wrote it. The Feminine Future amounts to more than the sum of its parts: it’s a piece of science fiction history that is often overlooked by most fans, a rich sample from an esoteric and overlooked niche. And I give it a high recommendation because of that.
This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.