Dreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre

dreamsnakeDreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre (1978)
Review by Debbie Moorhouse

Dreamsnake is unusual among post-apocalyptic science fiction in that new ways of living have been built, some of them technological, others closer to the land, and there’s very little harking back to the past. The “ancients” are mentioned and some of their buildings and their mistakes survive, but for the most part Dreamsnake‘s characters live in the present. As do we.

Snake is a healer who uses three snakes to diagnose and cure illness and disease. One is Grass, a dreamsnake, a species that originates with offworlders who are mentioned but never appear. Dreamsnakes are incredibly rare and the healers have had very little luck in trying to breed them. Yet at the same time they are essential to the healer’s work – they bring comfort and ease to the dying.

When she is treating a boy called Stavin for a tumour, Snake misjudges the fear and hatred of his clan for snakes, resulting in Grass’s death. Desolate and blaming herself, Snake resolves to return to the healers’ hall where she was trained. But on the way she finds more people to help, and learns of a possible source of dreamsnakes. If she can bring dreamsnakes to her fellow healers, then maybe the loss of Grass will be forgiven.

The writing is spare and overall doesn’t try to evoke emotion in the reader, which perhaps makes for a little distancing. But Snake is an interesting and compassionate character, who is also brave when trying to do the right thing. On her journey she introduces us to the different ways of living that have developed in the aftermath of what seems to have been a nuclear war. Tribespeople, desert people, horse breeders, recyclers, the closed and enigmatic city, all are glimpsed through Snake’s eyes and so imperfectly understood.

The snake medicine is fascinating, being a mixture of breeding, training, and genetic manipulation. Snake can let the snakes free to hunt, drink or explore, knowing they will return to her when she taps the ground. But although she’s immune to their venom, she’s not impervious to being bitten. It’s these small details that make the snakes realistic.

Overall, an intriguing and enjoyable read.


The Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre

theexilewaitingThe Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre (1975)
Review by Victoria Snelling

I read The Exile Waiting by Vonda McIntyre some while ago and I enjoyed it a lot. The story has stuck with me. Humanity has long since spread into the stars except for a remnant population on Earth. The surface of Earth is storm-torn and unlivable and a small city scrabbles a poor living underground. Mischa is a thief, struggling to steal enough to satisfy her uncle who controls her through torturing her telepathic, mentally disabled sister. It’s doubly hard once her brother is lost to the drugs he uses to block out their sister’s psychic cries.

But Mischa has a plan to get off Earth. It involves the ship that arrives carrying genetically modified twins set on removing the ruler of Center and establishing their own power base there. One of the twins finds himself separating from the other, thinking independently, disagreeing, wanting something else. This independence sets brother against brother.

This is a beautifully realised world with layers and depth. I particularly enjoyed the twins, their relationship and their eventual separation. The exquisite pain of growth is well captured. The loss of what one had, the gradual acceptance that what was can never be again, the pain of growing towards something unknown. I loved the hard choices Mischa has to make.

I’m growing to be a fan of Vonda McIntyre.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

Starfarers, Vonda N McIntyre

starfarersStarfarers, Vonda N McIntyre (1989)
Review by Victoria Snelling

Starfarers is the story of a group of people who find themselves on a journey across the stars. For some that was their intention and for others it was the path circumstance led them down. They are scientists and artists for the most part. As Starfarers is the first book in a series so there are two stories. The series story is the one of what happens to these humans when they leave our solar system and can they maintain their ideals while they do it. In the first book, the story is how the characters overcome the internal and external obstacles to starting their journey.

McIntyre makes an effort to present a future in which humans act differently than they do now. Three of the main characters are in a polyamorous relationship which was once a group of four but they are grieving the death of the person who was at the centre of the relationships. I liked the depiction and I thought it came across convincingly. Each member has to manage their intimate relationships and also manage the group dynamic. That wasn’t portrayed as something too difficult but it also wasn’t swept under the carpet. The characters are highly emotionally intelligent and that helps. I liked that it was presented as a slightly old-fashioned relationship in that it was formalised.

The politics of this future world are described in the ways they impact the ship. It’s a research facility primarily so when countries don’t want to support its aims they pull finding and it affects directly the lives of the people on the ship. Their friends leave and they can’t get the supplies they’re used to. The ship believes itself to be egalitarian, but one character is a gardener and he observes that the academics don’t mix with the custodial staff so it’s not as free and equal as they’d like to think. There’s a fair amount of exposition in the book but for me I found it interesting and thought it was well-handled as character development and worldbuilding. But this is a vision of a future I’d like to buy into so perhaps I wouldn’t have thought that if McIntyre had been exploring different ideas. I enjoyed the worldbuilding and I found the characters real and engaging. I’ve been acutely aware of the monoculture of most of the books I’ve been reading and the conspicuous diversity, at least in gender, ethnicity and sexuality, was refreshing.

Clearly this is the first in a series and it is setting up what is the real story – due to political tension on earth the ship and its scientific mission is under threat and eventually the US tries to take it by force. They want to use it as a military base. As the ship is weapon-free their only alternative is to run – to start their mission understaffed, under-supplied and underprepared. It may only be the first peril they face on their journey but it was full of tension.

I enjoyed this very much and am keen to read the rest of the series.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

Dreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre

dreamsnakeDreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre (1978)
Review by Kate Macdonald

Dreamsnake (which won the Nebula, the Hugo and the Locus awards) is an eco-healthcare feminist novel, set in a post-nuclear holocaust world, in which communities have developed astounding gender-equal and sexual orientation-equal communities, but have lost much of the art of modern medicine. It’s a curiously divided setting: the villages in the mountains are medieval and pre-industrial; the towering guarded city called Center is intergalactic, since they host alien visitors and trade with them; and the nomadic communities wandering around the deserts are Bronze Age, only using knives. In The Exile Waiting, McIntyre’s 1975 first novel, which is set in Center, the space-ageness of the society is a total contrast to the outside world, without the midway points of a redeveloping civilisation that Dreamsnake presents.

Dreamsnake is about a healer, a travelling doctor called Snake, who arrives at a nomad community to heal a small boy of a stomach tumour. Her medicines are manufactured for her by her snakes, for this is how these healers make their medicine. She has three: a cobra called Mist and a rattlesnake called Sand, who make drugs from catalysts fed to them by Snake, according to the disease to be cured; and a dreamsnake called Grass, who is the anaesthetist. The dreamsnake can take away pain and give dreams, but it can also kill when it’s needed, giving a painless and easy death when there is no other way. There are no other heavy-duty painkilling drugs other than alcohol in this world (though they do have aspirin), so the dreamsnake is crucial. And this nomad group have never seen snakes used in medicine before, and are scared. The dreamsnake is killed when one of the boy’s fathers sees it snuggling up his son’s chest, as a comforting companion while he sleeps.

I said ‘fathers’ because this is a triploid society. Almost all the family groups and partnered parents are in threes, either two men and a woman, or the other way around. Children are born to the woman (some things don’t change), but all the extended family take care of the child. We get the impression that children don’t come along often, because this is a post-nuclear holocaust world. Mutations are feared and cast out by the people of Center, even though they inbreed among themselves without understanding the consequences. The knowledge owned by these different social groups consists of patches of very advanced science surrounded by swathes of ignorance, coupled with fear of the unknown, and a refusal by many to learn.

Outside the city, there are craters in the badlands where something large and nuclear exploded centuries earlier. Snake’s next patient, Jesse, fell off her horse there, and lay for a day in the radiation-soaked sand before being found. Without the dreamsnake, Snake cannot ease Jesse out of life while her body collapses in agony.

Without her dreamsnake, Snake is crippled: she cannot give relief, and she cannot ease death. She’s also distraught because the dreamsnakes are exceedingly rare. She cloned hers as part of her training, and no-one knows where they come from. Some people think the aliens brought them, and no-one knows where the aliens are. Center won’t let the healers into the city to talk to them. With Grass gone, Snake has no chance of getting another. And so she heads for her home in the mountains to work out what to do.

The novel tackles all sorts of social issues, but the principles for maintaining a strong and socially-responsible community are the most often invoked. This is an idealistic novel, an example of how a society ought to evolve, where equality is already a fixed part of social relations. The women are social leaders along with men: leading tribes, training doctors, running businesses, trading and running matriarchal family groups. Men are just as important, but the women have an equal share of the power. It’s a utopia struggling to emerge in a dystopia, though you’d need to read The Exile Waiting to realise quite how dystopic it is in that huge walled city, to understand better what the outside world communities are getting away from.

Social manners and conduct are extremely important. Snake is constantly coming across new social conventions because she has never travelled outside her mountain home before. Healers didn’t use to leave the mountains, so when Snake decided to explore, and look for new ways to help patients, she was an emissary into the unknown. We and her both; it’s a good narrative technique. The conduct rules in these small societies are designed to prevent conflict, and to maintain acceptable, safe living conditions. Some we can recognise from our own society; anyone fouling the water at a desert oasis will be asked to leave. No-one steals from someone else unless they’re crazy. This also impacts on personal relationships. The mayor of Mountainside spends half his time mediating and arbitrating to prevent conflict. The tribal leaders’ word is law, but they also work with a council and elders. Everyone has rights, and anyone violating those rights in a psychologically disturbed way (like in abusing children) has to go to something rather chilling called ‘the menders’, voluntarily or publicly. Mature teenagers are trained how to have sex, how to maintain control over their fertility. Girls can even bring on their own abortions, after a lot of training, presumably because of the frequent birth deformations that kill the babies beforehand: this is not a novel about Pro-Life or Pro-Choice, it’s too early for that. In some ways, this emphasis on behaving perfectly in a perfectly idealised society gets a bit too perfect, the people seem more like parables than characters. But there is enough erratic behaviour to add scratchy interest for development.

On her miserable way back to her teachers, Snake cures more patients, and meets people who show us more of this society, and wonders about the mystery of why her camp was attacked and shredded by a crazy desert wanderer. There’s a lengthy subplot about the mayor’s son in Mountainside, an outcast among his people, because he was unable to control himself, got his friend pregnant when they decided to have sex, and then she nearly died from the self-induced abortion she hadn’t been trained enough to control. He became an instant pariah: see how well women’s rights are regarded here? Trouble is, his rights, of being given the right training, were neglected, since Snake realises he was taught in an out of date way by a very old, revered and arrogant man whom no-one questions, and so he knows nothing of modern techniques. The scrotum needs heat, not cold, to reduce fertility. (I have no idea how correct this is, but frankly it doesn’t matter; it works perfectly in the plot.) But the point is, again, perfect knowledge is not always correct knowledge, and we all need to update our understanding, talk to other people, see what else is being discovered. As a metaphor for how society advances its knowledge in shut-off communities, it’s pretty effective.

Snake also rescues Melissa, another victim in Mountainside – my, this town certainly has some nasty secrets behind its perfect façade – a little girl who works invisibly in the stables, hiding because of her burns after the stables caught fire. The stablemaster takes all the credit for her work, and rapes her at will. Snake rescues her by adopting her as payment for curing the mayor of gangrene. Melissa will be Snake’s daughter and partner, using her street sense to offset Snake’s idealisation of her mission, and helps her to survive their travels.

The crazy person attacks Snake again because he wants the dreamsnake that he assumes Snake is still carrying in her snake bag, because that’s what all healers do. She realises that he’s been using dreamsnakes for drugs: he has bite scars all over his body. So this is interesting, that addiction exists in this perfectly idealised society. It feels like an infection from the decadent corruption of the city. Second, there must be hundreds of dreamsnakes somewhere if he’s been using them to bite him. Snake heads straight for the mountain where the crazy person leads her, and finds a crashlanded alien spaceship, some really extraordinary alien plantlife that is not so much invading the Earth, but adapting to it, enfolding itself into the earth and colonising it: we hardly notice this part of the narrative because by now we’re all keyed up looking for dreamsnakes and hardly have the attention to spare for McIntyre’s ideas about what is alien and what is natural. There is a great pit in the floor of the valley, and Snake and Melissa are forced into it to receive an indoctrinating overdose of dreamsnake venom, that will tie them both to the owner of the pit, and the dreamsnakes, forever, and make them his slaves. But in the pit, Snake works out the reason why the healers never been able to get dreamsnakes to breed, and how she has to save Melissa from an overdose of biting. It’s very tense. And there’s a muted love story in there too between Snake and a nomad that I haven’t even begun to tell you about.

Dreamsnake is a great novel: stuffed with ideas, and beautifully told, very satisfying, making you want more of this world. For that you’ll need to read The Exile Waiting. Go to McIntyre’s website for details of her short stories and uncollected writing, there’s a lot there to rootle around in.

This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald – about writing, reading an publishing.

The Moon and the Sun, Vonda N McIntyre

themoonandsunThe Moon and the Sun, Vonda N McIntyre (1997)
Review by Kate Macdonald

You know how it is when you had a favourite author, and millions of years later you wouldn’t be able to name her as a favourite, if asked cold, but if you saw a new book by her, you’d be heading for the cash desk? This could be risky: writers you revere in your teens may not be writing at the top of their game now, and you’d be a different reader as well.

I saw Vonda McIntyre’s name in a catalogue and was clicking Pay Now before I could blink. The premise of this 1997 novel that I had never heard of, The Moon and the Sun, sounded outstanding: Jesuit priest catches sea monsters for Louis XIV. I used to read her hardcore science fiction over and over. Although The Moon and the Sun is a counterfactual historical novel; the presence of sea-monsters reassured me that McIntyre would not be neglecting her speculative strengths. Halfway through, though, the plot had gone flabby because the heroine, Mlle Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, was doing too many things at once. She was feeding the sea-monster, composing music for the King, drawing her brother’s dissections, being a lady-in-waiting to Louis XIV’s niece, avoiding seduction by the wrong man, and falling in love with the right one. Finding enough new dresses to wear, sorting out her head-dresses, riding horses and the secret plot to free her Turkish slave are also on her to-do list. Her life is way too cluttered, and neglects the really strong part of the plot, of how to keep the sea-monsters alive.

This part is very difficult, since Louis XIV and the Pope both think that the sea-monsters contain an organ of immortality in their bodies. Marie-Josèphe has to really work on her language lessons with the sea-monster to find a way to keep them all alive, if only she didn’t have to do all the other court-related obligations as well. And be responsible for waking her Jesuit brother from over-sleeping when he ought to be attending the King’s levée.

McIntyre can write great fantasy, but this novel is not great historical fiction. The plot is good, but the historical clangers prevented me from the immersion I wanted into the world of the court. Louis XIV is far too familiar when he should not be, and since the language of court is French, it makes no sense for Marie-Josèphe to be teaching the sea-monster English: ‘Poissssson’, not ‘Fisssh’, surely? And yet, as if sensing the bagginess, McIntyre gets The Moon and the Stars on its feet to lift its skirts and take flight.

The urgency of the sea-monster’s survival compounds the dangerous political games played by the Comte du Chrétien to keep Marie-Josèphe in favour. The motif of damaged bodies (so many characters have impairments! This is definitely a novel for disability studies courses) transforms into hunting and betrayal, and the last section, which begins when the Queen of Sheba’s leopards are hunting the sea-monster in the Seine (one assumes), is totally gripping. Marie-Josèphe is a good strong heroine, and the sea-monster (who is a mermaid, but not the kind we expect to see in our dreams) is a wonderful, aggressive creation, except when she interrupts the narrative with her own thoughts. That wasn’t such a good idea, because the stranger and more alien she is, the more impressive she is as a character.

The Moon and the Sun has been made into a film, coming out soon, starring Pierce Brosnan as Louis XIV. Looking at the stills online, it seems clear that the film and the book have very little in common, and the film is not very interested in historical accuracy, but hey: it’s only a film, and it’s a good novel. Enjoy them both.

This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald – about writing, reading an publishing.

The Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre

theexilewaitingThe Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre (1975)
Review by Kate Macdonald

This was Vonda McIntyre’s first novel, published in 1975, about twenty years after the first thalidomide disaster in Germany, the UK and North America, in which around 10,000 children died or were born with malformations. The novel is about disability, and difference, and how society accepts and rejects different differences. It’s also an astoundingly undated speculation on a future society, which she developed further in her 1979 novel Dreamsnake. By using a medical incident from the recent past and replaying it in a future of decay on earth that can only be escaped by space flight, it’s clear that McIntyre is exploring ethics, medicine and society.

The main plot is about Mischa, a teenage sneak thief struggling to make ends meet for herself, her addicted artist brother Chris, and her greedy uncle who is quietly selling off their younger siblings as beggars to keep himself in paid companions and nice carpets. The whole family is impaired in one way or another, but only those children who don’t look human are cast out into the underground caves. The others have to work. A subsidiary plot is how their degenerate and decaying earth city, Center, is going to survive, given that its economy is being strangled by the decadence of the Families who run its necessary services.

Mischa’s forays into Center’s stratified layers of houses and shops and palaces, looking for targets, show the phenomenal imaginative effort that McIntyre put into creating this massively complex society. It’s complicated by the arrival of Subone and Subtwo, two two-metre tall pseudosibs with computations for brains, who plan to effect a takeover of Center, but their private subplot of fracturing bond conditioning disrupts everything. Jan Hikaru, a mathematician travelling with the pseudosibs, has come to Earth with the body of his elderly navigator friend to bury her on her home planet that she didn’t live to see again. He links all the plots together when he discovers Mischa’s mathematical abilities, and Subone lasers Chris, driving Jan and Mischa underground ahead of the pseudosibs’ pursuit, where they find the secrets of Center’s survival.

Yes, it does sound complex. But The Exile Waiting is so rich, the complexity is barely noticeable when you begin to read, because you are immediately beguiled by the detail. From the first page of the novel – Jan Hikaru’s diary – the reader understands that spaceport bazaars are commonplace, that Jan’s father wants him to be ethnically Japanese rather than the blond genes he so obviously also carries, that Jan is running away from purposeless study to find something worthwhile, that the old navigator’s eyes have been destroyed by too much space radiation, that space navigators have care homes and she has a wide acquaintanceship, and that Earth is held to be abandoned and dead.

The second page, which describes Mischa returning home after an exploratory trip underground, tells us that Earth has many old nuclear-age structures still underground, that robot mice still dig tunnels to lay communications webs underground according to an old and forgotten but still running program, that the underground outcasts are used to frighten Center children, but that the cave panthers are more dangerous. Other marvellous discoveries include organic lightcells that you feed with powdered protein to keep glowing, that the mining Family have soft white flabby hands because all their work is done by machines, that baby sister Gemmi can call Mischa and Chris telepathically, relentlessly, which is their uncle’s hold on them, and Chris’s addiction has blown his and Mischa’s last chance of getting away on the seasonal space ships. Their technology is disconcertingly old and new, reflecting poverty and privilege. Crystal knives aren’t picked up by metal detectors, but punishment by sensory deprivation puts offenders into skintight suits suspended in gel. There is passive, indifferent cruelty and rough, unaccustomed affection in a society that is slowly only able to focus on survival, rather than living. It is joyless, and emotionally dead.

Gender divisions, and disability, which are two very fashionable topics now in the study of fiction, are used to drive this novel’s ethics with breath-taking assurance. What really impresses is me is how McIntyre’s prose is pure enough to remain undated (a very rare talent) and also remain precise and clear in what she is saying: that just as society should develop to not care about gender, it should not make exiles and outcasts out of bodily difference. The multiple focalisations, by which the story is told from the perspectives of Mischa the local, and Jan and Subtwo the visiting aliens, gives the reader a kaleidoscopic impression of Center as a place of hopelessness and cynicism from all sides. We become increasingly desperate for Mischa, and the other characters who attract readerly empathy, to escape, and to leave the filth, misery, and crumbling wrongness of this society behind. We do get there, but the adventure is far too complicated to explain here. Go buy a copy.

This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald ~ about writing, reading and publishing.

Aurora: Beyond Equality, Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson

auroraAurora: 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.