Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson (1976)
Review by Ian Sales
I was in two minds whether or not to review this for SF Mistressworks, despite it being one of the first feminist science fiction anthologies to be published. This was because three of the contributors – Dave Skal, Craig Strete and PJ Plauger – are male, and this website is about women science fiction writers. But mention of Aurora: Beyond Equality in Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon, persuaded me otherwise. Not only was Strete a confident of “Tip” (as Tiptree was known before “his” unmasking), but Tip was also very supportive of McIntyre and Anderson as they were putting the book together – so much so, in fact, that he recommended a “friend” of his, Raccoona Sheldon. As a result, Sheldon appears in Aurora: Beyond Equality in both of her published disguises.
It’s probably also worth noting that not every story in Aurora: Beyond Equality is science fiction – some are fantasy. Which is another reason it’s not entirely relevant to SF Mistressworks. But never mind. All stories, incidentally, were original to the anthology.
‘Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!’, Raccoona Sheldon. While I’ve read a couple of dozen Tiptree stories, I suspect I’ve read only a handful as by Raccoona Sheldon. Perhaps if I’d not known they were the same person, I might have considered their writing styles very different. As it is, knowing both were Alice Sheldon I see more similarities than I do differences. Having said that, ‘Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!’ is written in the present tense, which I don’t recall Tiptree ever using. It’s also a more stream-of-conciousness type narrative, rather than Tiptree’s more considered prose. The protagonist is a young woman. She is a messenger in a post-apocalyptic USA, but as she travels through a ruined travel she finds people friendly and helpful – although she knows to avoid areas where danger lurks. Except, she isn’t a messenger a post-apocalyptic USA, she’s a young woman with a mental health condition who has not taken her meds and is currently wandering around the city – and who eventually comes to harm. It’s a bitter and pessimistic story, more so, I think, than anything Tiptree wrote.
‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is arguably James Tiptree Jr’s best-known story. It’s certainly emblematic of his fiction, with its dry, caustic tone, its somewhat caricatured male characters, and its ambivalence toward feminism – or at the very least toward a feminist or women-only utopia. A mission to orbit the Sun comes a cropper when the spacecraft is unknowingly thrown into the future – a future which, the astronauts discover after being rescued by a nearby spacecraft, turns out to be women-only… The men react badly, the women inadvertently reveal a few details about their world which do not bode well. As on previous reads, the story feels hamstrung by its caricatured male characters – while the women are well-drawn, more nuanced men might have made the resolution more powerful. Tiptree was certainly capable of writing well-drawn male characters, and did so in other of his stories.
‘The Mothers, the Mothers, How Eerily It Sounds’ by Dave Skal is set in the future after some unidentified disaster. A man and a woman are studying Digger, a mutant, and his people, perhaps in order to use their genetic material – shades of Tiptree’s ‘The Snows are Melted, the Snows are Gone’ – as well as to heal Digger’s people of their mutations. To be honest, there’s not much about this story that sticks in the memory.
‘The Antrim Hills’, Mildred Downey Broxon, is one of the anthology’s few fantasies. The author was apparently a “student of Irish history”, which explains the setting. Maire’s husband, a harpist, has been taken by the Sídhe, and she determines to rescue him. The Sídhe live in a place at the bottom of a lake and, with the help of a magical trout, Maire sets off to win back her husband, Tadhg. But she too ends up trapped up the faery folk, and when the pair do finally escape they discover they are now in the present day. Despite being little more than a string of Irish/Sídhe clichés, the story has plenty of charm, and I rather liked it.
‘Is Gender Necessary?’, Ursula K Le Guin, is actually an essay. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness has been criticised because, among other things, Le Guin used the male pronoun throughout… which somewhat undercuts its point regarding the mostly genderless Gethenians. Asa a result, Le Guin wrote this essay to address some of those criticisms. In part it reads like a defence of the decisions she made writing the novel – expressed through a potted history of the Gethenians, and her thinking behind that fictional history – and yet it also is an apologia, an acknowledgement that perhaps if she were to tackle something similar she would do it differently.
‘Corruption’ by Joanna Russ is an odd story, and feels uncharacteristic of her work. On an alien and inhospitable world, people live in small sealed arcologies. Their occupations are indicated by the colour of their clothing. Alpha, however, is not who he appears to be. He has infiltrated the world in order to destroy it. There is a dystopian uniformity to the world Russ paints, which is reinforced by the commentary embedded in the prose.
Although PJ PLauger has written two novels, both have only appeared in magazines and not book form. He also appears to be more of an Analog writer, which makes him a strange choice for Aurora: Beyond Equality. And his story, ‘Here Be Dragons’, while enjoyable, isn’t noticeably feminist. It’s set on a colony world some centuries after landfall. The colonists have settled one continent and maintain a low-tech agrarian civilisation. The descendants of the crew, however, occupy another continent, and use legends and rumours of monsters – as well as a motor boat tricked out to look like a fire-breathing dragon – to keep the colonists away. But the crew’s civilisation is stagnating and no longer understands how its technology works. The colonists, on the other hand, are slowly discovering science and technology – as is embodied in an encounter between a newly-designed colonist sailing boat and the aforementioned “dragon” motor boat.
‘Why Has the Virgin Mary Never Entered the Wigwam of Standing Bear?’ by Craig Strete is a monologue by a Native American woman about Standing Bear, a warrior, and about white people and what they mean to her and her people. But the woman might also be a goddess, and she revenges herself on those who have mistreated her people – “I am the chief, the warrior who killed Hugh Hefner. I killed him very poetically. I gave him the most beautful body a girl ever had. It was his own.” (p 180).
‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, Marge Piercy, is an extract from the novel of the same title, described as “in progress, soon to be published by Knopf”. Consuelo is a woman of our own time who “hallucinates” her way to some future time. The extract describes a couple of her visits and basically consists of her horrified reactions to the way the near-utopians of the future do things, while they explain to her how everything works.
According to Phillips, McIntyre and Anderson “wanted fiction that explored what the world might look like after equality between the sexes had been achieved” (p 352, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon). In that respect, the anthology fails badly. And yet the editors admit they had trouble finding suitable material: as Anderson writes in the introduction:
As stories began arriving, we soon realized what a difficult assignment we had given writers. Some, alas, hadn’t quite understood our theme. By no stretch of the imagination does a mutated squash story qualify as nonsexist sf. (p 14)
While Aurora: Beyond Equality contains some very good fiction, few of the stories actually meet the theme. Sheldon’s has men being violent toward women, Tiptree’s has the same but in a women-only world. In Skal’s, Broxon’s, Russ’s and Plauger’s stories, gender equality feels incidental to the plots. Le Guin’s essay is about the Gethenians, who have no gender when not in “kemmer”. Strete’s is about a Native American woman revenging herself on white people. Only Piercy’s novel extract is on point – and that has no discernible plot and drops the reader straight into the novel’s world.
Despite that, Aurora: Beyond Equality is not a bad anthology. Its stories are not especially dated – the Broxon almost certainly might appear today, although its premise has been done to death in the decades since 1976. The Plauger too feels somewhat timeless, although its concerns probably wouldn’t interest a twenty-first century reader. Then there’s the Sheldon and the Tiptree, both making their original appearances, which are worth the price of entry alone. And Woman on the Edge of Time the novel, of course, is still in print. Which is a problem – the best stories have been subsequently collected elsewhere, and there’s nothing unique to Aurora: Beyond Equality which makes the book worth tracking down.