Cloned Lives, Pamela Sargent

clonedlivesCloned Lives, Pamela Sargent (1976)
Review by Joachim Boaz

There is a reason that Pamela Sargent’s Cloned Lives has been overshadowed by Kate Wilhelm’s clone-themed Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976), which garnered a Hugo award and a Nebula nomination, released the same year. While Sargent’s vision is painfully melodramatic and descriptive to a fault where pages and pages and pages pass without a single metaphor or simile, Wilhelm’s was psychologically taut and beautiful. Cloned Lives is comprised of three previously published works, the short story ‘A Sense of Difference’ (1972), the novella ‘Father’ (1974), and the novelette ‘Clone Sister’ (1973). Each section shifts perspective between each of the clones and their father (with a culminating ‘Interface’ section).

Despite Cloned Lives’ manifold flaws there are a few moments of interest, notably amongst descriptive postulations about the nature of her futuristic society, that are prescient and thought-provoking. Likewise, Sargent’s conscious effort to integrate a vast assortment of races (Indians, Arabs, Africans, etc) and gender roles (homosexual couples who use cloning to have children, female scientists, etc) is admirable and appealing. However, these brief (yet intriguing) interludes and observations do not redeem the banal melodrama and repetition that comprises the majority of the work.

In the year 2000 AD Paul Swenson, a brilliant and famous astrophysicist, is approached by one of his biologist friends Hidey Takamura to be the progenitor of a batch of six clones. Previously this type of experiment was forbidden but the end of moratorium on cloning meant that for a brief amount of time, until new legislation could be passed, it’s legal. In the background of the actual experiment millennialist unrest surges – Apocalyptics hold up trains and preach Christ’s Second Coming. The arrival of clones will also be met with public disapproval and suspicion…

Whether or not the clones will be exactly the same as their progenitor is a topic of debate. Hidey convinces Paul, who never was able to bear children due to the death of his wife, with the following argument: “Your environment influences you. You make choices. I’ve seen artists make things I didn’t think could be made with clay and I’ve seen people do things that seemed far beyond the abilities nature gave them. Your clone would at least start out with some damned good clay” (p 20). Paul agrees to have the clones made – five male clones and one female clone (one dies in its artificial womb).

Initially they are teased and tormented and they each deal with it in different ways. This sense of confusion is heightened when Paul dies while on the moon. They are forced to confront who they are and what others think of them. Edward decides that he will avoid any activity that “might require camaraderie of close personal contact with others” (p 81) while others try to fit in. Each clone pursues a what is ostensibly a different trajectory: Jim decides to become a writer and goes his own way, Al heads to the moon and tries to emulate Paul in the study of astrophysics, Mike tries to fit in and gets a doctorate researching power plants (he works for a company that helps third world countries), Ed retreats into his mathematics, Kira studies biology with the same individuals that oversaw her cloning.

Sargent argues that despite their different paths they will all feel drawn to each other and unable to form lasting relationships with others. This leads to some bizarre intra-clone sex (all with Kira of course and not between the male clones) and each experiences extensive bouts of depression. What follows is a “slice of life” type exposition in the form of a series of narrations from each of the clones at different points in their lives as they all go their separate ways, get married, have children, and ultimately, draw closer again….

There are multiple intriguing ideas mentioned in the course of the novel on medical advances and urban planning. For example, brain implants for epileptics that have recently implemented: “Or think of Simon and his miniaturized electrodes. They were feared once, but not they help thousands of epileptics live normal lives” (p 32). Likewise Sargent’s descriptions of the development of vast urban arcologies, and the urban landscape in general are fascinating: “The arcology was a vast hexagonal latticework, narrow at the top and bottom and wide across its middle. It towered over the surrounding forests and parks. A million people lived in Alasand or owned business there” (p 68). But these observations and details are overshadowed by the banal melodrama that transpires.

A central flaw undercuts Sargent’s vision: if you take a good/brilliant but rather boring character and have five clone copies made of him (including one gender-switched female clone) and combine it with your central thematic concept that the patterns of their lives (relationships, depression, etc) will be the same amongst all the clones, then an excruciating redundancy develops. The episodic structure of the novel with its thirty-seven years (2000 AD to 2037 AD) of coverage means that the narrator of each section has to recap what has happened in the lives of all the other clones up to that point!

…which creates this pattern: I (Clone A) have led a dull life and gotten emotionally involved with these people whom then left or I left because I was incompatible and depressed and every one of my brother/sister clones led a similar life and each almost got married to this person and then went off with these other people and became very depressed and did not do much of anything for a long time. And then when something different happens it tends to read along these lines—I also had sex with my clone brothers… Or, I’ve been hanging out a “mile outside a village in Bhutan” (p 291).

Unless you are obsessed with a clone soap opera with a good dose of inter-brother/sister clone sex (ie, with a version of yourself) then avoid this one…. Despite my dislike of her first novel, I plan on reading some of Sargent’s short fiction, perhaps the collection Starshadows (1977, see here).

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

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The New Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent

newwomenofwonderThe New Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

This is the third of the Women of Wonder anthologies published during the 1970s, and while its title would suggest its aim is to introduce new female science fiction writers, only two – Eleanor Arnason and Pamela Zoline – did not appear in either, or both, of the two earlier volumes (see here and here). Unusually, there is no story by Ursula K Le Guin in the book, but Alice Sheldon does make an appearance under her male pen-name, James Tiptree Jr. It’s difficult not to wonder who exactly the “new” in the title refers to. The Women of Wonder series was rebooted in 1995 with two volumes: Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years ( reviewed here and here) and Women of Wonder: The Classic Years.

Once again, Sargent opens the anthology with an introduction, this time 34 pages long. And, sadly, this only demonstrates that nothing ever changes. After a quick history of women in science fiction, she writes:

Even so, most science fiction is to this day has remained conservative in its sociological extrapolations. In pointing out this flaw, one is likely to be accused of seeking to impose an ideological test on the genre, rejecting works that do not measure up. But in fact I am asking why the the overwhelming majority of science fiction books limit female characters to traditional roles. (p xv)

After descriptions of several sf novels which break this mould – Samuel R Delany’s Triton, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, Kate Wilhelm’s The Clewiston Test – Sargent stresses that restrictions on female writers, and what they were allowed to write, still exists, and even notes:

One author of a successful first novel had her second novel rejected by the same publisher because the book was about an all-female world and there were no male characters in it. (p xxv)

While there are several such books now – Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite immediately spring to mind – they are still very much in a minority… and yet sf novels which feature almost entirely male casts (and what few female characters do exist in them are either presented as victims or have no agency) are still relatively commonplace. Sargent identifies a nostalgia “in recent years” for “traditional stories with familiar trappings”. And that, according to the skewed view of the history of science fiction which seems to be the current-day accepted narrative, means science fiction stories for, by and about men. The fact that the three Women of Wonder anthologies were not repeated until almost twenty years later is testament to this. These anthologies were clarion calls, but more than thirty years later the message still hasn’t been heard:

Perhaps the genre as a whole, having often ignored women – as well as the old, the non-white, and the non-Western – does not quite hold together. It is within this context that we can view the role of women in sf. By adding their voices, they enrich the entire fictional system of science fiction. (p xxix)

The original The Women of Wonder anthology opened with a poem by Sonya Dorman, and so too does this one: ‘View from the Moon Station’. It’s a short poignant piece, which is pretty much described by its title – although its imagery is driven by memory. Though the passage of time has rendered its sentiments somewhat clichéd, it still manages to impress with its choice of imagery and its careful build-up to its emotional payload.

‘Screwtop’, Vonda N McIntyre. The title refers to a penal installation in the jungle on the human-settled world of Redsun. The prisoners are forced to labour drilling holes to deep underground pockets of superheated water, which is used to generate power for the various cities on the planet. Kylis is one such prisoner, and she has joined forces with Gryf, a “tetraparental”, and Jason, a new arrival. It’s Kylis who graces the cover art of The New Women of Wonder, although she does possess a disturbing likeness to Karen Carpenter. Kylis is a space rat, a person who travels from planet to planet as a stowaway, but the Redsun authorities caught her and sentenced her to Screwtop. Gryf is a political prisoner – as a tetraparental, a manufactured genius, he is obligated to work on government-chosen projects, but he refused. He only has to agree to the authorities’ demands and he will be set free. The three of them are plotting to escape Screwtop, although this would involve a potentially-fatal trek through hundreds of miles of alien jungle… There actually is not much in ‘Screwtop’ which actually demands it be science fiction. The penal facility could just as easily be on Earth, and the three inmates guilty of crimes against an existing earthly regime. Also, the entire installation itself doesn’t sound right. The inmates must drill a new hole when the last one has emptied itself of steam… Except that’s not how geothermal power works. Usually, water is pumped down the hole to be heated deep underground, and the steam which results is used to generate power. It is then cooled, and pumped back down the hole. Why would they actually siphon off all the superheated water? It makes little or no sense. It seems a shame that a story with such well-drawn characters and a nice sense of place should fail in such a fundamental fashion. ‘Screwtop’ was originally published in The Crystal Ship, a 1976 collection of three novellas also featuring Joan D Vinge and Marta Randall – but edited by Robert Silverberg.

‘The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons’, Eleanor Arnason. I expect that within weeks of the first science fiction story being written, someone wrote a story about writing a science fiction story. Certainly it’s an established tradition within the genre, if not within literature as a whole. The protagonist of ‘The Warlord of Saturn’s Moon’s is writing a story titled ‘The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons’, a pulp sf tale with spaceships, chases across “Titan’s methane snows”, “strange psychic arts from Hindu mystics”, assassins and the fate of the moon(s) in the balance. Unusually for the form, however, her story has a heroine. And the villain of the piece is perhaps not so villainous after all. As she considers her story, the rescue of her partner, 409, by the heroine, so the writer reflects on her own world. It’s a nicely-judged story, gently mocking the conventions of pulp sf while it carefully subverts them. Presenting it as a meta-fictional piece also makes it more thoughtful than perhaps it would have been had it been presented straight – at the very least, doing it this way doesn’t allow for misinterpretation of its subverted tropes. The story first appeared, unsurprisingly, in New Worlds and was deservedly shortlisted for a Nebula Award.

‘The Triumphant Head’, Josephine Saxton. I’m not entirely sure what to make of what little of Saxton’s fiction that I’ve read, and ‘The Triumphant Head’ is a case in point. It describes the beginning of a day for a married woman, as she wakes up, washes, puts on her make-up, and gets dressed. Yet it is presented as if the woman were an alien in disguise – or certainly not human. It feels like too obvious a conceit to bother fictionalising, but Saxton maintains a slight undercurrent of farce to the story, which not only works in its favour but also makes it an enjoyable read.

‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, Pamela Zoline. If there is one story which is often held up as emblematic of New Wave science fiction in Britain, it is this one by US author Zoline. (The introduction to the story mentions a novel, Dream-Work, on which Zoline is working; it was apparently never published. A shame, it would be interesting to read it.) Structured as 54 sections of text, some of which are titled, the story presents episodes – vignettes, almost – in the life of middle-class American housewife Sarah Boyle, juxtaposed with science-fictional commentary and short essays on a variety of topics, scientific and otherwise:

30. Sarah Boyle is a vivacious and witty young wife and mother, educated at a fine Eastern college, proud of her growing family which keeps her happy and busy around the house, involved in many hobbies and community activities, and occasionally given to obsessions concerning Time/Entropy/Chaos and Death.

31. Sarah Boyle is never quite sure how many children she has. (p 110)

A quick check on isfdb.org reveals that ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ has been anthologised 16 times, the most recent in 2010. Zoline wrote a further four short pieces of fiction, the last of which appeared in 1988 in her only collection, Busy About the Tree of Life. I can only wonder what more she might have written had the genre been more welcoming to women who chose to write about women’s lives in a science-fictional mode.

‘Songs of War’, Kit Reed. In Los Angeles, the women decide they have had enough and form their own army, which occupies a farm up in the hills overlooking the city. Over a period of several weeks, women leave their husbands and families and join the army, which has itself already split into several factions. On first pass, this story reads like a criticism of the women’s movement – for all their ambitions, the women who gather at the farm soon begin to bicker and the various factions begin to work covertly and overtly against each other. The radical militants attack a few soft targets – a shopping mall, for example – while the housewives are given housewifely duties (kitchen, creche, etc). The teenagers are more interested in boys than solidarity, and the woman who becomes the army’s unofficial spokesperson would sooner promote her media career than the army’s manifesto. Eventually, the army disperses in ones and twos, although not after some violence, and the wives and daughters return to their homes, changed by what they’ve experienced – as, in some cases, are their husbands and fathers. As a commentary on the frationalisation of movements, especially ones without clear goals and policies, ‘Songs of War’ is a witty commentary, as it also on the quotidian lives of the women in the story. But there’s nothing in it that’s, well, science fiction. It appears to be set in the present day of its writing (ie, 1974), and there’s not a single sf trope to be seen anywhere. Which begs the question, does it get a pass as science fiction because sf is so bad at incorporating the lives of women into its stories?

‘The Women Men Don’t See’, James Tiptree Jr. This is one of Tiptree best-known stories, though personally I think some of her other works are stronger. The narrator is heading to Mexico on a fishing trip, but his charter plane from Cozumel proves to be unavailable. He persuades the pilot to let him hitch a ride on another plane heading south – and the other passengers prove to be a totally innocuous mother and daughter. The plane crashes en route, leaving narrator, pilot, mother and daughter stranded. Running short on potable water, the narrator and the mother leave the other two – the pilot is injured – and head for an inlet about a day’s walk away. Except it’s not really a walk, as they have to struggle through a mangrove swamp. The two of them witness something very strange – and the narrator belatedly realises it is a landing by extraterrestrials… and the mother has taken something from them. She persuades the aliens to return the two of them to the crashed plane, which they do. She then persuades the aliens to take her and her daughter with them on their interstellar travels. While the story is predicated on the (male) narrator’s realisation that such women have never really impinged on his worldview before, and that such women have thoughts, desires, ambitions no different to his own, like many of Tiptree’s stories it makes its point with a thumb heavily pressed on the scales. The central premise – aliens visiting Earth somewhere in the Mexican jungle – is presented without any real commentary, or any interrogation of the trope. Which perhaps weakens the point the story is trying to make. ‘The Women Men Don’t See’ feels like a story which was written as science fiction only because its author wrote science fiction. I don’t really see that as a strength.

‘Debut’, Carol Emshwiller. I would categorise ‘Debut’ as fantasy rather than science fiction, which does make its presence in this anthology somewhat puzzling. A blind princess is taken to the queen after years of being pampered, but the princess is paranoid and tries to stab the queen… who removes the mask blinding the princess so she can now see. But she cannot interpret what she sees and so fails in her assassination attempt. She escapes the palace and takes refuge in a wood… And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in this story. It feels like I’m missing the metaphor. There’s no denying that Emshwiller writes excellent prose, but the obliqueness of her imagination often leaves me foundering.

‘When It Changed’, Joanna Russ. This story describes the time men from Earth arrived on the world of Whileaway thirty generations after the Whileaway men all died in a plague. The Earthmen can’t process an all-female colony, especially one that functions perfectly well without men, and are by turns befuddled or deeply patronising. The narrator shows remarkable restraint. But the women of Whileaway have decided to accept the presence of the men, and reluctantly accept that their way of life may well be over forever. Though the story only suggests the path the future may take for the colony, it’s a far from happy ending – and all the stronger for what it leaves unsaid. This is easily one of Russ’s best short stories.

‘Dead in Irons’, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. This is heartland sf, both in terms of setting, tropes and its politics. Aboard an interstellar starship, stewards look after the passengers, including the frozen steerage ones. The stewards are run like a satrapy by the most brutish and violent steward, and anyone he dislikes or won’t do what he is told is given steerage duty. Shiller has only just joined the ship, and refuses to be Wranswell’s mate, and so is assigned steerage. But she quite likes it there. Wranswell’s previous lover wants to persuade Shiller not to accept Wranswell’s offer and so sabotage’s Shiller’s cold gear, which makes the duty even more onerous and dangerous. Eventually Shiller is waylaid and frozen with the steerage passengers. When she wakes, she discovers the ship is lost and the stewards have eaten all of the steerage passengers. This is not a pleasant read, and it’s, er, hard to swallow a starship crew that is so violent and savage.

‘Building Block’, Sonya Dorman. Norja is a space architect, but has been forced to visit a recall doctor to help retrieve Norja’s forgotten design, the Star Cup, a “radical and innovative” design for a space home. Norja’s business is failing because she is blocked, and even her frequent drinking binges have failed to unlock her memory. But Dr Bassey withholds the tape containing the results of the recall session and demands money for it. So Norja visits a family friend, Dr Moons, and asks for his help in recalling the memory. But once he has a tape of the design, he insists on being paid to hand over the tape. Since she can afford neither person’s demands, Norja decides the Star Cup is lost forever and so throws herself into the design for something new – a multi-occupant space condominium. It proves very successful, and as she leaves it, a contract for a second already signed, she sees a competitor building a Star Cup, and knows that she has just killed the market for single-occupant space homes… I’m not sure which is sillier in this story – that two people would ransom the information they obtained from a memory retrieval operation (and one of them is a medical professional); the whole “space home” thing; or the revelation that one form of space habitat would comprehensively kill the market for other forms. Norja may be a personable narrator, but as science fiction ‘Building block’ is sadly weak.

‘Eyes of Amber’, Joan D Vinge. T’uupieh is a cast-down noble and assassin who has been befriended by a demon, which possesses the eyes of the title. Except it’s not a demon, it’s a space probe from Earth, and T’uupieh is a native of Titan, the moon of Saturn. Although T’uupie’s narrativeh reads like a fantasy – but for the odd details which reveal her to be an alien, such as the mention of wings – Titan’s environment is rendered quite accurately for the story’s time of writing. It’s an impressive piece of worldbuilding. If the male human protagonist, Shannon, who is the sole human capable of communicating with T’uupieh, is a bit wet, that’s a minor flaw – T’uupieh is much more interesting a character. I’m not entirely convinced by the story itself, however. Shannon tries to impose his own morality on T’uupieh, which she roundly rejects. But in the end, she learns a lesson which aligns her moral compass a little more closely with his. But such sentiments were more widely acceptable in the 1970s than they are now – indeed, ‘Eyes of Amber’ won the Hugo Award for best novelette in 1978.

When the conversation turns to influential science fiction anthologies of the past, the ones most usually mentioned are Asimov’s Before the Golden Age series, or some of the New Wave anthologies such as Dangerous Visions or England Swings. I’m surprised the Women of Wonder books are not mentioned in the same breath. It’s hard to say which is the strongest of the three – it’s probably best to get all of them – because they are all very strong collections of short science fiction, and there’s not a dud story in them (though some stories are more successful, or have aged better, than others). It’s only a shame they have not proven as influential as they should have. Perhaps if cyberpunk had never happened, or had been a little more discerning in its choice of inspirations, they might have been. As it is, it took a further twenty years before the series was rebooted. And yet Sargent’s five Women of Wonder anthologies remain outliers in the genre. I have, to date, identified only a further six women-only science fiction anthologies, published between 1976 and 2006 (see here).

That’s not really a record to be proud of.

More Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent

morewomenofwonderMore Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

Why do such a collection at all? Should it not be evident that women can and have written fine science fiction? (p xlvii)

As in the preceding volume, Sargent opens More Women of Wonder with a long and well-argued introduction. The purpose of this book, she tells us, is to showcase longer fiction – novelettes – written by women, as well as include works she couldn’t fit into Women of Wonder. She also gives a potted history of women in the genre, beginning with Francis Stevens and working her way forward through Brackett and Moore and Norton to the careers of “Vonda N. McIntyre, Suzy McKee Charnas, Joan D. Vinge, Marta Randall, Eleanor Arnason, Lisa Tuttle, Brenda Pierce, and Joan Bernott” (p xxiii), one of which appears in More Women of Wonder and only five of which are still writing in the twenty-first century (although Randall had two stories in F&SF in 2007, and McIntyre two in 2005 and a short-short in 2008). While Sargent claims that women were usually readily accepted as writers, the lives of women as a topic for genre stories was far less common, if not actively discouraged:

When one considers the impact that technology has had on human life throughout human history, it is surprising that more writers have not considered the effects such technical tools might have on women’s lives. (p xxxviii)

Sargent then goes on to consider four contemporary sf novels – Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Thomas M Disch’s 334, before veering off to discuss childbirth, the lack of women characters in hard sf – or rather, the lack of women as characters with agency in hard sf – and then commenting on the infrequent mentions of homosexuality in science fictions. It’s not entirely clear what point Sargent is trying to make. That in its early days science fiction did not actively discourage contributions from women? But Norton admits to being told to use a non-gender-specific pseudonym, and both Brackett’s and Moore’s gender is not obvious from their names. That there is still a problem – in 1976, that is – with the role of women in science fiction stories? This is certainly true, and sadly remains true even today. Six of the stories in More Women of Wonder show that it is not wholly true across the genre – which does make you wonder why Sargent chose Brackett’s ‘The Lake of Gone Forever’ – which features two female characters, both of whom are defined by their relationships to male characters. Despite an argument which could have been tighter and more focused, Sargent’s introduction makes a number of valid points and is an interesting read. Indeed, given that so many anthologies’ introductions are just chaff and waffle, Sargent’s are excellent examples of how it should be done.

In the introduction, Sargent quotes CL Moore on the ease with which she sold her first story, ‘Shambleau’: “My own perfectly clear memory tells me that I sent it first to WT because that was the only magazine of the type I knew well, and that an answering acceptance and check… arrived almost by return mail” ( p xxviii), in part to counter claims that women writers in those days found it hard to get published. There is no mention of whether Moore’s covering letter mentioned her gender, or if the editor believed the writer to be male. However, Moore’s ‘Jirel Meets Magic’ (1935) is clearly the product of a woman writer – the title character is a warrior woman, and I know of no male genre writer using female protagonists writing at that time (all of Robert E Howard’s protagonists’, for example, were male). Despite Jirel’s gender, Moore’s first story featuring her was a success and readers demanded more. ‘Jirel Meets Magic’ is the third such, and it’s notable more for the roles men play in it than for its plot or writing. Jirel has sworn revenge on the wizard Guischard after he ambushed and killed some of her men. She storms his castle with some of her soldiers, but the wizard has vanished… through a magic window in a room in a high tower. Jirel follows him, and finds herself in a mysterious land. She immediately stumbles across a sorceress in the act of killing a dryad, and though she doesn’t prevent the murder, the sorceress flees before taking an important talisman – which the dryad gives to Jirel because. Jirel tracks down the sorceress to her lair, where she discovers that her name is Jarisme, and she is extremely powerful, very much more powerful than Guischard who, in a neat role reversal, fawns over her and wibbles fearfully at Jirel’s presence. There then follows a series of dreamlike episodes in which Joiry tracks down Jarisme in a variety of settings and tries to killer her. Because there is a prophecy that Jarisme will die at the hands of someone she let live three times (clue: the meeting over the dying dryad was the first). There’s a sort of fevered colourfulness to ‘Jirel Meets Magic’ – Jarisme, for example, is repeatedly associated with the colour purple – and the prose reads like the sort of cod-olde-time-speeche popular in fantasies of the time: “For a while there was tumult unspeakable there under the archway” (p 3). But there’s also a pulpish relentlessness to Moore’s vision and it’s easy to see why Jirel proved so popular a protagonist. The plot may be straightforward to the point of banality, and the prose style somewhat over-egged for modern tastes, but the story shines in its clever and natural-seeming reversal of gender roles. Jirel does not feel exceptional; nor indeed, does Jarisme.  And that, I think, is this novelette’s greatest strength.

‘The Lake of Gone Forever’ (1949) by Leigh Brackett is, conversely, a very masculine story – as indeed is much of Brackett’s genre output. Rand Conway has persuaded the wealthy Rohan to mount an expedition to the mysterious planet of Iskar. Conway has history with Iskar – his father journeyed to the world, the first and only human to do so, years before and his experiences there made him a broken man, especially something that happened at the eponymous lake. Rohan’s ship finds and lands on Iskar, and Conway leads the way to the nearby village described to him by his late father. But Conway is after the treasure hidden in the Lake of Gone Forever. The Iskarians are not happy to see Conway and his party and initially threaten them, but Conway persuades them to let them stay. Relations quickly sour, Conway sneaks away in the night – with the help of a rebellious young Iskarian woman – and discovers the secret of the Lake of Gone Forever, and a not-especially-hard-to-figure-out truth about himself. ‘The Lake of Gone Forever’ is typical Brackett from start to finish. While the Iskarians do not possess the sense of history with which Brackett managed to imbue her tales of old Mars, and the existence of an unknown – so much so that only one man ever found it – planet in the Asteroid Belt is wildly implausible… Conway is certainly a characteristically two-fisted Brackett hero.

There’s quite a leap in time from the Brackett to Joanna Russ’s ‘The Second Inquisition’ (1970), and much changed in the genre during those intervening twenty years – and not just the role of women in stories, or number of women writing science fiction. For one thing, the Moore stretches the definition of sf well past breaking point, and Brackett’s planetary romances cannot be mapped onto the real Solar System, and by 1970 most science fiction was expected to contain more rigour and more scientific verisimilitude… and certainly not show its pulp roots quite so plainly. So I suppose it must be perversity which led Sargent to choose a time-travel story by Russ which is set in 1925. The narrator is a teenage girl whose parents have taken in a strange lodger, a forthright woman who is allegedly from the circus. She’s not, of course; and it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal she’s from the future. It’s not clear whether she’s a criminal or a rebel, but she is eventually tracked down by a man from her time who tries, and fails, to take her into custody. All witnessed by the narrator. It’s a curiously laid-back story for Russ, and driven not so much by anger as it is by futility. The narrator has seen what the lodger – she is never actually named – can do, has witnessed her independence, her power and intelligence, and rues her own lack of the same. There is a nice conceit throughout the story in which the visitor reads a lurid romance, and encourages the narrator to read it (she, of course, falls in love with the heroine and her lifestyle in the book) – despite the book being banned by her parents, and her mother actually counting the book among her favourites. Whether that’s intended meta-fictionally is open to question, but given Russ’s meta-fictional games in other stories – such as those in The Adventures of Alyx – then it’s likely deliberate. ‘The Second Inquisition’ manages to feel very 1970s without actually containing any details which refer to that decade – in fact, the time-travellers and their equipment manage not to feel at all dated – and which rather than being a weakness only makes it more appealing.

‘The Power of Time’ (1971) by Josephine Saxton also has a very 1970s feel to it, though half of the story is set at its time of writing. The other half is set in the distant future, when some people on Earth possess great power – so much so, in fact, that one of them, the narrator, has decided to transplant Manhattan from the US to Nottinghamshire, just for shits and giggles. Meanwhile, an unnamed housewife in the present day (as was) has won a competition for an all-expenses trip to New York. A succession of male escorts show her about the city, wine and dine her, and engage in sparkling conversation with her. Meanwhile, in the future, Manhattan is shifted in its entirety – including inhabitants – across the Atlantic and placed in the middle of an artificial lake. There’s a lightheartedness to ‘The Power of Time’ which belies the seriousness of its point – the future narrative feels a little flippant, as indicated by the novelette’s opening sentence:

“It shouldn’t present much difficulty if you approach it in a positive way,” I said to the Chief of the Mohawks, Flying Spider. (p 149)

And while such lightness of tone works well for the sections set in the present day (of the story), the flippancy undermines the difficulty of the narrator’s “project” and the seriousness of its consequences. ‘The Power of Time’ reads as though it were written as a comedy rather than a commentary, but it succeeds better at the latter than the former.

It’s near impossible not to think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when reading Kate Wilhelm’s ‘The Funeral’, (1972), even though Wilhelm’s novelette predates Atwood’s novel by thirteen years. Carla is a pupil at an all-girls school in a US very different to the one we know. It’s not entirely clear what happened to create the US of the story – Wilhelm reveals some details in italicised flashbacks, but she leaves much unexplained. Men and women now appear to be separated into different categories by profession. These are “citizens”, who are enfranchised. One such category for women is “Lady”, which is little more than a courtesan. Carla has been made an apprentice Teacher, and the funeral of the title is for Madam Westfall, who invented the educational system which has led to the society depicted in the novelette. Madam Westfall will be buried in state, and Carla is in attendance on the body. But it seems Madam Westfall had a secret, and Carla’s Teacher, Madam Trudeau, who she hates and fears, thinks those girls who waited on Madam Westfall during her last few months – and Carla is one of those girls – know the dead woman’s secret. ‘The Funeral’ is one of those sf stories which impresses more through its world-building than its plot. It’s a stronger piece than others I’ve read by Wilhelm, though some of the vagueness about its setting does work against it.

The ‘Tin Soldier’ (1974) by Joan D Vinge is the first story in More Women of Wonder which might qualify as heartland sf – the Moore is fantasy, the Brackett pulp sf, the Russ is set in the past, part of the Saxton is set in the present day, and the Wilhelm is set in a post-apocalypse USA. ‘Tin Soldier’ has starships and alien worlds and an interstellar human civilisation. It’s also very much about people. Maris, the “tin soldier” of the title, is a retired soldier and a cyborg. He runs a bar also called the Tin Soldier. Because Maris does not age, his bar is popular with crews of visiting starships who travel between worlds AAFAL – Almost As Fast As Light. A trip to another world and back takes them three years, but twenty-five years passes on Oro. Oh, and all starship crew are female, as neither men nor cyborgs (of either gender) can handle AAFAL, as revealed in one of the most egregious examples of info-dumping I’ve come across in sf:

She frowned in concentration. “‘After it was determined that men were physically unsuited to spacing, and women came to a new position of dominance as they momopolized this critical area, the Terran cultural foundation underwent severe strain. As a result, many new and not always satisfactory cultural systems are evolving in the galaxy…'” (p 218)

Because of the time-lag, women cannot form relationships with men on worlds and have a rule of only having sex with a man once – they call them “Tails”. Because Maris is a cyborg, some starship crew occasionally think it is funny to set up new crew with him. As soon as they show interest, he admits to his cyborg nature. Cue laughter. When her shipmates do this to Brandy, she remains interested and Maris privately admits that he’s not wholly a cyborg. Afterwards, the two become friends, and manage to maintain their friendship for almost a century – Brandy visits Oro every twenty-five years, Maris barely ages… though everything else changes. Eventually, their relationship too changes. There is some very nice descriptive prose in ‘Tin Soldier’ and the central relationship is handled well. There’s also a slight Delany-esque atmosphere to the story, though less so in the language used.

‘The Day Before the Revolution’ (1974), Ursula K Le Guin, is actually a short story rather than a novelette, but since in the previous volume, Women of Wonder, Le Guin appeared with a novelette, one of only two in the anthology, that seems fair enough. Back in April of this year at the Eastercon, EightSquaredCon, in Bradford, I was on a panel about older women in science fiction and fantasy, with Rochita Roen-Luiz, Caroline Mullan, Fred Warrington and David Tallerman. I mentioned the story ‘Mab Gallen Recalled’ by Cherry Wilder, which appears in Millennial Women (see review here), but had I known of it I could also have mentioned Le Guin’s ‘The Day Before the Revolution’. Laia Asieo Odo is a famous revolutionary. In her younger years, she wrote a number of seminal revolutionary texts while in prison. Now, she is in her seventies; now, she remembers he husband, who died decades before; now, she remembers the heady days when she was a political agitator. Though there was no revolution, during the story one happens in another nation, and it’s implied that one is about to begin in the city in which Odo lives – and that this revolution eventually leads to the anarchist society on Anarres in Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed. The story is a reflection by Odo on her life, and her thoughts on the position she now holds in the minds of her followers and the public in respect to what she achieved in the past. It paints her as occupying an elder stateswoman sort of role, one she doesn’t really feel she deserves – and she spends much of the story remembering her husband, and how she first met him. It’s a clever juxtaposition of beginnings and endings, but I suspect that putting it last in More Women of  Wonder has done it few favours. Very little actually happens in ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ and it makes for a slow end to the anthology.

In my review of Women of Wonder (see here), I suggested a similar project should be put together now. Of course, it already has been – Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, edited by Justine Larbalestier, published in 2006 by Wesleyan University Press, and containing stories by Clare Winger Harris, Leslie F Stone, Alice Eleanor Jones, Kate Wilhelm, Pamela Zoline, James Tiptree Jr, Lisa Tuttle, Pat Murphy, Octavia E Butler, Gwyneth Jones and Karen Joy Fowler. But that is just one anthology, and published by a university press. Common perception has it that anthologies don’t sell, and yet more than ever seem to be published each year. Admittedly, of late many have used Kickstarter to finance themselves, but even the big publishers put out half a dozen or more themed anthologies each year. Happily, in late 2014 there will be The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, edited by Alex Dally McFarlane. Until then, Pamela Sargent’s five Women of Wonder anthologies – three from the 1970s and two from the 1990s – are worth tracking down. They’re excellent anthologies in their own right, and Sargent’s introductions are worth reading.

Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent

WomenofWonderWomen of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent (1974)
Review by Ian Sales

The story of women in science fiction clearly suggests the continuing emergence of a body of work characterized by the new-found outlook of its practitioners. This new outlook belongs naturally to good science fiction, where it has always been present to some degree, and to the new social-futurological concerns in the culture at large.

So opens the 64-page introduction by Pamela Sargent to Women of Wonder, a reprint anthology of twelve sf stories by women writers designed to both showcase the talents of the contributors and to demonstrate that women writers have as much to offer as men to the genre, and have in fact been doing so since its beginnings. The stories range from 1948 to 1973, and most of the names will be familiar to twenty-first century readers of sf. Not all of the stories are especially notable, and many have not aged particularly well. Sargent’s introduction, however, is worth the price of admission alone. I do have one small quibble with the quote given above – I think there’s a danger in associating women sf writers with a particular type of sf which provides both an opening to discredit their contributions to the genre and also mischaracterises the breadth of science fiction women writers have produced. After all, Pamela Zoline’s ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ is no more emblematic of sf written by women than, say, ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Godwin is of sf written by men.

Sargent gives a brief history of women in science fiction, both as writers and as characters in the hands of male writers, quoting and citing where necessary to support her argument. Of especial interest is her mention of a discussion between Stanisław Lem and Ursula Le Guin on The Left Hand of Darkness, which took place in the pages of the Australian critical magazine SF Commentary. Lem criticised Le Guin’s novel, saying her “psychological insight … is only sufficient and sometimes even insufficient” (p xxxii). Lem’s chief argument seems to be that Gethenians would always choose to be male during kemmer because there is a natural human tendency to choose the dominant role. Which seems to me to miss the point of the novel by a massive margin. The Gethenians do not have binary gender in the normal course of their lives, so dominance and submission is not linked to biological gender. I’m surprised Lem was too dim to realise this.

The fiction begins with ‘The Child Dreams’ (1975), a poem by Sonya Dorman, which speaks to the purpose of the anthology and contains some effective imagery.

Judith Merril’s ‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) is a bona fide classic of the genre, though you won’t find it on that many lists of science fiction classics (I’ve looked). You won’t even find it in the 1978 anthology 100 Great Science Fiction Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov, Joseph D Olander and Martin H Greenberg (which – disgustingly – only contains 5 stories by women writers). The premise of ‘That Only A Mother’ may be somewhat hoary these days – a nuclear war and its effect on children conceived and born in a world of high background radiation – though events with drugs during pregnancy after its publication have given it added poignancy. Perhaps the gender roles are old-fashioned, but the protagonist is still active and independent and the domesticity of the set-up only makes the final reveal more heart-breaking. As an indicator that women can write sf as carefully crafted as men, ‘That Only A Mother’ is a prime example; but some may also see it as evidence that women write a “different” kind of sf, perhaps of more interest to women readers – and that I think is to wholly miss what it brings to science fiction and why it should be considered a classic. In pulp fiction, radiation traditionally created monsters, making both cause and effect subject to ignorance and fear. In ‘That Only A Mother’ Merril has personalised the cost of an atomic war, and rendered the atomic monster trope mere foolishness at a stroke. If I have one criticism it’s that the title of the story suggests a reading in which the mother is not in her right mind, whereas the story is in fact a damning indictment of the husband’s reaction. ‘That Only A Mother’ deserves to be on a lot more lists of classic science fiction.

‘Contagion’ (1950), Katherine MacLean, unfortunately, initially reads like a piece of 1950s sf silliness, despite being based on an interesting premise and displaying an admirable gender balance in its cast. In fact, the story is remarkable for the general good relations between men and women, and the way in which they work equally together to resolve the puzzle presented by the plot. A spaceship has landed on a new world which appears to be ripe for settlement. But then a young man appears, and proves to be from an abandoned colony which settled the world years before. Unfortunately, a “melting plague” killed off most of those early colonists, and only a handful survived. The spaceship’s crew immediately begin researching the disease, but despite their best efforts at decontamination some of the crew are struck down by it. And then June Walton, one of the doctors, realises what the plague is and why only a handful of the original settlers survived it… The story manages to keep its final reveal well hidden for much of its length, but its reliance on 1950s visions of future worlds – pointy rockets, test tubes, giant computers, etc – gives its world a dated feel which works against it.

I’m a little mystified by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s career. Her The Mists of Avalon is considered a classic fantasy – it might even be considered a break-out genre novel. Her Darkover series proved so popular within the genre it eventually comprised around forty books. And there was even a fantasy magazine bearing her name. Yet every piece of non-Darkover sf I’ve read by her has been… well, not very good. Sadly, ‘The Wind People’ (1959) is no exception. A spaceship lands on an uninhabited planet, and the crew enjoy several weeks of well-earned planetary rest. But one of the crew learns she is pregnant, and babies and young children cannot survive faster-than-light travel. The mother chooses to stay on the planet and have the child. During the years she spends there, and as her son grows to manhood, she feels she is not alone. Occasionally, she witnesses spectral figures in the woods, but each time she persuades herself it is her imagination. Except perhaps the planet really isn’t uninhabited, and perhaps her son has a close relationship with the eponymous people. ‘The Wind People’ unfortunately doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what it’s about, and so it flounders around looking for a point or a revelation, only to cheat the reader with a non-ending.

‘The Ship Who Sang’ (1961) by Anne McCaffrey is a well-known sf story, and spawned a further ten novellas and short stories (some of which were share-cropped), a novel of the same title, and four share-cropped sequels. A baby born with severe physical defects – “She was born a thing” (p 82) – is given the choice of becoming an “encapsulated “brain”, a guiding mechanism in any one of a number of curious professions” (p 83). The profession in this case is the control mechanism of a scout spaceship. Such ships have a single ordinary human crew-member, and the first section of the story recounts how Helva, the “encapsulated brain”, meets and falls in love with her “mobile partner”. Helva proves to have an excellent singing voice – hence the title – and she and her partner become known for the music they make together. But then he dies during a medical relief mission, and Helva must choose a new partner. I have never really understood the appeal of this series. Not only is the idea of making use of disabled people by denying their humanity offensive, but the story itself is clogged with cloying sentimentality. It’s a love story but of a purely romantic kind, because the two protagonists do nothing but mooncalf at each other. And they will never be able to do anything except that. Clearly, however, ‘The Ship Who Sang’ found some fans, given the number of sequels and its longevity (the last share-cropped work appeared in 2004).

I’ve a feeling stories about protoplasmic aliens who take human shape and live among humans are quite common in science fiction. Indeed, the premise has even been used in Star Trek for a recurring character: Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. ‘When I Was Miss Dow’ (1966) by Sonya Dorman may be an early entry, but it’s also quite an odd one. The narrator is referred to as male while he is his protoplasmic self, but he then takes human female form to infiltrate a nearby human colony. The humans know of the aliens, and even suspect some of them are working disguised among the humans, but Dr Procter does not know that his secretary, Miss Dow, is one such alien. As the story progresses, the narrator becomes too deeply involved in his/her role, and finds it hard to return to his natural form. Unfortunately, the story seems to peter out rather than resolve itself, and while it’s clearly played for laughs – Dr Procter, anyone? – the humour feels too incidental to affect the reading experience.

Kit Reed is one of science fiction’s better-kept secrets, which is a shame as she deserves to be much better known. Unfortunately, ‘The Food Farm’ (1967) isn’t, well, actually science fiction. An overweight young woman is sent to a “fat farm” to cure her obesity. Her favourite singer comes to visit, so she tries to pile back on the weight she has lost, even going so far as to stage a revolt. But it is not enough, and the singer mourns the young woman he nearly had, just as she mourns the intimacy she might have had. While not everything in the story need be real, there are no ideas or “nova” in it that might readily identify it as science fiction. It can certainly be read as slipstream, but it might also be read as mimetic fiction – except the latter reading fails because the real-world details are too inexact.

The title of ‘Baby, You Were Great’ (1967), by Kate Wilhelm, unfortunately promises more than the story delivers. The central premise is not unfamiliar these days, though I don’t know how common it was in 1967. An actress has been implanted with equipment which allows her emotional state to be recorded and then broadcast. She has proven so successful at this because she feels emotions very strongly, but now she wants out and the network is having trouble finding a replacement. They’re already having difficulty keeping audience interest, and have had to devise ever more dangerous situations for their star. An unscrupulous producer has plans to keep the actress working, while the inventor of the recording equipment looks on in despair. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to this story, and whatever commentary it might have made on the nature of celebrity has been well and truly superseded by reality television.

The title of Carol Emshwiller’s ‘Sex and/or Mr. Morrison’ (1967) is equally suggestive, but like the Kit Reed it is so peripherally science fiction it’s difficult to see how it might qualify as genre. The narrator is a young woman in an apartment building, and she is obsessed with her upstairs neighbour, the corpulent Mr Morrison. The story describes a series of prosaic fantasies she has about the man – in lovely prose, it must be admitted – before she sneaks into his room one day and remains there hidden when he returns. The story is little more than a view of the world through the narrator’s eyes – and there’s a  a vague hint she may not be human, much like the title character in Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary – and it’s quite an odd world in which she lives. The story originally appeared in Dangerous Visions.

I love the title of Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘Vaster Than Empires and More Slow’ (1971), though I’m less enamoured of its – coincidental, given the exchange documented in the anthology’s introduction – Solaris-like plot. An Ekumen scout ship has been strengthened by the addition of a new crew-member, an empath. Unfortunately, this empath is a thoroughly nasty piece of work and actively disliked by the rest of the crew. Their first mission takes them to an empty world, which they are to survey. But longer they stay on its surface, the more anxious they become and the more they turn on each other. Eventually they realise the forest covering the continent they are exploring is a single giant organism and it is picking up and reflecting back, much increased, their own emotional states. However, the genius in this story lies in Le Guin’s treatment of the ship’s crew-members’ cultural backgrounds. There is “one Low Cetian on the team, one Hairy Cetian, two Hainishmen, one Beldene, and five Terrans” (p 174). These are not Earth cultures with the serial numbers filed off, and the way in which Le Guin presents the various crew-members’ worldviews in the narrative is a thing of beauty. Read it for that and not the disappointing plot.

‘False Dawn’ (1972) by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is post-apocalyptic, but not after a twenty-first-century style apocalypse. Pollution seems to have done much of the damage, but society has fallen apart all the same. Now mutants and self-styled militias inhabit the US. Thea is a mutant, although it is not obvious, and this allows her to survive. While travelling by foot, she finds a man with one arm hiding in a silo, and the two decide to travel together. Then they run into a member of a local powerful militia and he takes the two prisoner. The story starts well enough. Perhaps the setting owes a little too much to cinematic post-apocalyptic landscapes of the time, but Thea is a strong and resourceful protagonist. Until they meet the militiaman. He treats Thea like chattel, verbally assaults her, and then when they stop for the night, sexually assaults her. The one-armed man kills her attacker and rescues her. Why? She could have done it herself – why have a one-armed man rescue a strong female character? Her strength and resourcefulness has already been demonstrated earlier in the story. In fact, until the appearance of the militiaman, Thea has been the dominant of the two travellers. It’s a disappointing turn in what could have been a so much more interesting story.

The past, they say, is a different country; they do things differently there. And it holds equally true for visions of the future made in the past, as is illustrated by Joanna Russ’s ‘Nobody’s Home’ (1972). In the future of Russ’s story, instantaneous travel has apparently turned the population of the Earth – much reduced, though no reason for that is given – into peripatetic dilettantes. Jannina, the protagonist, is part of a large extended family, and lives in a huge house in the Himalayas. Everyone is apparently really clever – especially the children, as is illustrated by mention of a silly verbal game they are playing when Jannina arrives home. Everyone, that is, except Leslie Smith. Whom they have invited to stay with them, and who is “stupid”. But apparently “bright-normal” in comparison to earlier humans (ie, twentieth-century readers). Whatever sympathy Jannina and her family might have felt for fish-out-of-water Leslie soon palls, and… I’m not entirely sure what this story is trying to say. There’s a sort of arrogant hippyness to it all, which not only dates it badly but also leaves a nasty aftertaste.

The Nebula-Award-winning ‘Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand’ (1973) by Vonda N McIntyre was later expanded into the Hugo-Award-winning and Nebula-Award-winning novel Dreamsnake. It is also the only award-winner in Women of Wonder, although three of the others were shortlisted for various awards. Snake is a healer and she uses three snakes to accomplish it: Grass, Mist and Sand. In a small desert community, she is asked to heal a young boy of a tumour, but  the parents are scared of the snakes. The healing is successful, but Snake pays a price. There’s very little in this story – it takes place mostly inside a tent, the world is left unexplained, there are no more than a handful of named characters. What little info-dumping there is explains only the purposes of the snakes in healing. It’s not hard to see why this story won an award. The prose is extremely good, Snake is well-drawn, sympathetic and mysterious, and the world is sufficiently intriguing to merit further exploration. ‘Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand’ is the best heartland genre story in the anthology, which may well explain why Sargent chose to end Women of Wonder with it.

While I can rue the need for an anthology like Women of Wonder, I can also be glad it exists. In an ideal world, writers such as Merril, MacLean, Dorman, Reed, Wilhelm, Emshwiller, Yarbro and McIntyre would be as well-known as, if not better than, their male contemporaries. Le Guin, of course, is perhaps the best known woman writer in genre fiction, and McCaffrey and Zimmer Bradley must run her a close second and third (although the last perhaps less so now). Russ, of course, is an entirely different matter, and while always highly-regarded she has become much more critically appreciated in the last decade or so. This is not only all to the good, it is long overdue. Sadly, it’s only too plain that initiatives such as the Women of Wonder series of anthologies – this volume was followed by More Women of Wonder (1976) and The New Women of Wonder (1978) – do not appear to have had that much effect. A later rebooting of the series, Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years (see here and here) and Women of Wonder: The Classic Years (both 1995), weren’t even reprinted in the UK (as two of the earlier volumes had been).

Women of Wonder is, for 1974, a good anthology. If some of its contents have not aged well, then so is the case for other anthologies from that decade. The stories Sargent chose are actually quite typical of the decades in which they were written – the Emshwiller, for example, is clearly an obvious fit for Dangerous Visions, and even the Le Guin is as characteristic of her work as anything she has written. ‘That Only A Mother’ deserves to be better known, if the MacLean is indicative of her work then I’d like to read more, and ‘Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand’ certainly makes me want to read Dreamsnake. (Russ and Emshwiller I already own books by, waiting to be read.)

Perhaps what Women of Wonder does best, however, is demonstrate that a similar project is needed today. Not just an anthology showcasing the best of women sf writers of the second decade of the twenty-first century, but also something akin to the Asimov anthology mentioned earlier, say, 100 Great Science Fiction Short Stories by Women. There is more than enough excellent material available to fill such a volume, and it’s criminal that so few people are aware of this or that their ignorance is considered unremarkable.

The Shore of Women, Pamela Sargent

shorewomenThe Shore of Women, Pamela Sargent (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

After a nuclear war and a long nuclear winter, small groups of people managed to survive in underground shelters. And once the Earth was habitable again, they ventured out – but by that point things had changed and the women were in charge. So the women built walled cities in which they could live, and all the men were sent out to fend for themselves in the wild. Thousands of years later, the sexes are completely segregated, the women living in technological luxury in their enclaves, and the men, controlled by their worship of the Lady, existing in small hunter-gatherer bands in the surrounding countryside.

Laissa, a young woman in one of the cities, witnesses the expulsion of a woman and her daughter for murder. They are sent out into the country, where they will likely die very quickly. Laissa is having problems with her own mother, who has delayed giving up her very young son. Male children are usually handed to men, who are called to their nearest city to be blessed by the Lady (and have their semen milked while they are drugged and enjoying VR sex). Laissa begins to question the way the cities are run…

Arvil is Laissa’s brother, though neither know it. He lives with a small band of men not far from Laissa’s city, and seems typical of his gender. One day, men on horses appear at the band’s camp and invite them to join their own camp, which is much, much larger. Shortly after Arvil’s arrival there, the big camp is destroyed by flying ships from the nearby city. Arvil manages to escape…

And subsequently stumbles across Birana, the daughter exiled earlier. Her mother has been killed, but her killers had fled on realising they had murdered an “aspect” of the Lady. Arvil, however, is more intelligent and questioning than most men. Thinking Birana is an aspect of the Lady, and so possesses her powers, he helps her. She even hypnotises him so he can convince the women in the city – who the men “talk” to via circlets in shrines as acts of worship – that she has been killed. Arvil and Birana, safe from pursuit by the women of the city, decide to head to the west, where perhaps a refuge of exiled women may exist. They pass out of the lands controlled by the women of the cities, and find several small agrarian male communities scattered around a large lake. An exiled woman lives, and is worshipped, in one of the settlements, and so Arvil and Birana join her.

But men being men, there is a price to pay for the safety the settlement offers. While Nallei, the exiled woman, keeps Birana safe, it’s a situation that can’t last forever. And when Birana finally overcomes her disgust of sex with a male, and begins a secret affair with Arvil, it comes as no surprise when she finds herself pregnant. Events come to a head, Arvil kills the jealous headman, and women from the nearest city attack and raze the settlement. Birana and Arvil escape and head yet further west…

Where they eventually reach the Pacific Ocean, and find a small band of men and women. But the men are in charge. Birana gives birth to a girl, but she wants more for her child then a patriarchal inbred band of seashore foragers, so she and Arvil head back to the interior intending to hand over the child to one of the cities. This is where Laissa re-enters the story. She has persuaded the city to allow her to camp out in a shrine and record the stories of the men who visit there. Birana and Arvil meet her there, tell their story – which becomes the narrative of The Shore of Women – and give her the baby to raise in the city. Laissa’s actions, however, cannot go unpunished, so on her return she is reduced in status and forbidden to have children. Birana and Arvil disappear off into the countryside.

Most novels featuring feminist utopias seem to set out to demonstrate that women do not need men – cf Sally Miller’s Gearhart’s The Wanderground – but in The Shore of Women men are very much necessary. The women use religion, and their technology, to control the men, but without them they cannot breed. Of course, this does not require actual physical contact – see the earlier mention of VR sex. The problem here is that while the men believe women to be divine, as in the many aspects of the Lady present in the shrines, they are also conditioned to see intercourse with women as something to aspire to, as a reward for worship. In their mean camps they may turn to one other for comfort and release (the novel is surprisingly coy on this aspect), but their society is still chiefly heteronormative, even if the women are not actually present.

It’s different for the women in their cities. They consider men to be little better than animals, and their society is built on relationships between women. Though they may use the male of the species to provide genetic material, it’s all done by machine, and any boy children they bear are sent from the city at a very young age (their memories carefully wiped so they don’t know what they’ve lost). This viewpoint is most forcibly expressed by Council member Eilaan, who seems so fierce an advocate of the city way of life that she reads like a deliberate foil to the more considered voices of Laissa, Birana and Arvil.

According to the story, this set-up has been in place for thousands of years, but there’s no real sense of history attached. Who built the cities? Who invented whatever power it is that keeps the flying ships aloft? When Laissa falls out with her mother, and her girlfriend dumps her because she has become “politically undesirable”, Laissa moves in with Zoreen. Who she normally avoided because Zoreen works as an historian. Zoreen also lives near the normal women of the city (Laissa and her friends are all upper class, “Mothers of the City”, the only women in the city permitted to have children). There’s a hippyish flavour to the lives of the normal women, but other than arts and crafts and food outlets, no real indication that they maintain and operate the various services of the city. It’s as if the enclave magically appeared and the women simply populated it.

The men’s society is no less realistic. Given the life they lead, it’s likely nasty brutish sorts would prosper, eventually leading to that type predominating. Any attempt at organisation, at creating larger settled communities, in which other male personalities might prove useful, are quickly destroyed by the women. And yet, despite all this, the system still manages to produce Arvil – who figures out human reproduction from a couple of remarks made by Birana, who works out how the entire society functions after inadvertently waking up while being milked of semen… Not only is he more intelligent than the other men, he is also sensitive and treats Birana like an equal. It is because of this that Birana eventually falls in love with him and overcomes her anti-male feelings.

Despite all this, The Shore of Women is an engaging story, even if the setting is not especially plausible. But that final swerve into reconciliation between man and woman feels too much like an undoing of the point the story initially seemed to be making. The sexes were segregated for the safety of the women, and human society has subsequently survived for thousands of years – unchanged and slowly stagnating, it is true; but the Earth is safe and the race is in no danger of self-extinction. To pretend all along that the women don’t know what they’re missing because they refuse to interact with the men directly contradicts what the cities demonstrate. Birana may have found true love with Arvil, but he’s hardly an average specimen of his gender – and, further, circumstances forced her to find some accommodation with the males of the species. It’s almost as if the story were suggesting male-female relationships were more fulfilling, carried greater emotional weight. It’s a conclusion that sits badly with all that has gone before. In fact, it feels banal, given the contortions placed upon history, society and human nature the setting requires. Disappointing.

Starshadows, Pamela Sargent

Starshadows, Pamela Sargent (1977)
Review by Ian Sales

Sargent’s first short story appeared in 1970 in F&SF, and by the time her first collection, Starshadows, was published, she had almost twenty stories, one novel, and the first of the Women of Wonder anthologies to her name. And yet Terry Carr, in his somewhat patronising introduction to Starshadows, implies that she owes her career almost entirely to him. He writes, “‘Hey, you can write! Both of these stories held my interest and made me want to know what was coming next. That’s a rare quality in writers.’ … But I rejected both stories, for flaws real or imagined.” You’d hope that holding a reader’s interest and making them “want to know what was coming next” would be pretty essential skills for a writer, and not “a rare quality”. But then if the stories in Starshadows, all of which Carr praises fulsomely, are any indication then perhaps in 1977 Carr’s eye wasn’t as sharp as his long career would suggest.

Because the ten short stories in Starshadows are hardly the sort to make you track down every other book written by the author. Some of them, in fact, are quite poor – despite originally appearing in respected sf markets, such as F&SF, New Worlds Quarterly or Universe. The opener, ‘Shadows’, Carr takes full credit for, as it was published in anthology he edited, Fellowship of the Stars. (Amusingly, the anthology was originally called Strange Brothers, but the publishers objected to the title; Carr played with a number of alternatives, including Manly Hands Across Space, before settling on the final one.) ‘Shadows’ is also one of the better stories in the collection, though I suspect Carr overstates his contribution. It is an alien invasion tale, in which the aliens and their motives remain mysterious. It is also feminist, and in some small way reminds me of L Timmel Duchamp’s excellent Marq’ssan Cycle.

‘Gather Blue Roses’ and ‘Oasis’ share the same central conceit: an empath who feels others’ physical and emotional pains. In the former, some slightly dodgy racial politics almost spoil a nicely-told story about a girl suffering from the same empathic condition as her mother. ‘Oasis’, by comparison, has a man hiding in a desert because of his emparthic suffering, and it’s really not a very good story.

However, ‘Julio 204’ which was originally published in New Worlds Quarterly, is worse. It’s set in the sort of New York Brunner described in his embarrassingly hip novel The Jagged Orbit, and is surprisingly sexist. ‘IMT’ reads like a much older sort of sf story – the acronym stands for “instantaneous matter transmitter”, but Lisa Fernandez, city manager for New York, refuses to let it be implemented. After much argument why she should not block it, she eventually reveals her motives: she’s thought through the ramifications. This sort of sf was popular in the 1940s and 1950s.

‘Desert Places’ and ‘The Other Perceiver’ both originally appeared in Universe. In ‘Desert Places’, a group of people appear to live in a depopulated city, forever on the move, but the wider world proves to be very different. There seemed something familiar about it. ‘The Other Perceiver’ certainly scores in terms of novelty value. A man collects samples of human shit for an alien houseguest, though given the end result he probably shouldn’t have done. I think this is the first sf story I’ve come across based on “farming”.

‘Bond and Free’ is very similar to ‘Desert Places’ – a group of oddballs appear to be alone in a deserted hospital, but after one leaves and travels far from their immediate surroundings, she discovers the reason for their isolation. ‘If Ever I Should Leave You’ reads like a précis of The Time Traveller’s Wife – a man uses a Time Station to visit various time periods, so his wife can then travel there throughout her lifetime in order to eke out her relationship with him. There’s something about the story logic which doesn’t quite add up, though it does possess a pleasing circularity.

‘Clone Sister’ was one of the stories which formed part of Sargent’s first novel, Cloned Lives, and is plainly the highlight of the collection. Jim is one of five clones – he has three “brothers” and one “sister”. When Jim’s girlfriend leaves him, he goes into a blue funk – only to be lifted out of it by entering into a sexual relationship with his clone sister. Though Jim comes across as far too self-analytic to be convincingly male and Kira, the female clone, seems perversely enigmatic, the story reads well and has happily not dated especially.

This at least leaves the reader on a high note, because if Starshadows suffers from a problem, it’s that its contents have not aged well. They are typical science fiction of the early 1970s, albeit atypical in their use of female protagonists, for which they should be applauded. But in style and content, they do seem very much of their period. Against some other writers active during that time, Sargent’s fiction does not compare well – not those authors who had been writing for several decades, as their simplistic brand of sf was long past its sell-by date; but other new writers, particularly those associated with the New Wave. However, Sargent clearly went on to do better, and it must be said that Carr’s praise for her writing in the introduction to this collection does feel a little premature.

Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, Pamela Sargent, part 2

Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, edited by Pamela Sargent (1995)
Review by Ian Sales

This review follows on from Part 1 here.

Part 2
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.