Cautionary Tales, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

cautionary_talesCautionary Tales, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

Although she started out as a science fiction writer, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is probably best known these days for vampire novels – the fourteenth book in her Count of Saint- Germain series was published in 2014, but she has written several other series featuring vampires. But back in the 1970s, she was a science fiction writer – she even appears in both Women of Wonder and The New Women of Wonder – although it seems most of her short fiction sales were to anthologies rather than magazines. Cautionary Tales is her first collection, and contains material from 1971 to 1978. Each story is followed by a half-page author’s note. Interestingly, the collection features an introduction by James Tiptree Jr, and this is followed by ‘A word of Caution’ by Yarbro herself, in which she writes, “I am very much indebted to James Tiptree, Jr., for her kind and thoughtful words”. ‘A Note of Caution’ is dated August 1977, indicating that by summer 1977 Tiptree’s true identity was known.

‘Everything that Begins with an “M”‘ (1972). To be honest, I’m not even sure if this story is genre. It is set in a small village some time during the Middle Ages. A mad man lives in a “sand pit” (I’d have thought a midden heap more likely), and events lead the villagers to venerate him as a prophet after a tax collector accidentally chokes to death in the local inn. But when the authorities descend on the village, the mad man is blamed.

‘Frog Pond’ (1971). Stories such as this could almost be a subgenre of their own. Although ‘Frog Pond’ initially seems a fairly standard post-apocalypse story, albeit somewhat more optimistic than most, it also has a very Tom-Sawyer-esque vibe to it, with a final twist which shows that country folk aren’t the same as city folk (although it’s very much a science-fictional twist).

‘Un Bel Di’ (1973). This is a surprisingly nasty story, and told entirely from an alien point of view. An undersecretary is banished to a provincial world after being caught abusing the children of a fellow member of the government. The natives of the world are innocent and seem to resemble the children of the undersecretary’s race. So he arranges for one to be gifted to him as a “companion” – the natives alter themselves according to the role they play, and the companion will be bonded for life to the undersecretary. But, he is cruel and evil, and is only waiting to be told his exile has been rescinded. He has no intention of taking the companion with him.

‘Lammas Night’ (1976). Not every story in Cautionary Tales is science fiction, or even fantasy. ‘Lammas Night’ was written for a “magic-and-mystery” anthology and contains no genre elements. Its protagonist is Count Cagliostro, an infamous eighteenth-century occult hoaxster. In the story, he has promised a group of aristocratic rakes that he will raise a demon, but, of course, he can’t. So he offers a deal to the wife of one of the rakes – if she will play the part of the demon in his faked-up summoning, she will have her revenge on her husband.

‘Into My Own’ (1975). A renowned playwright is only a few short years away from dying. He’s already had an artificial heart fitted, and now his liver failing. He’s been offered a replacement, but he has also been offered “transfer”, in which a copy of his personality is constructed in a specially-designed computer. The computer will then go on writing plays as if it were the playwright. However, this is not the mind upload familiar from cyberpunk. The computer is programmed with as many facts about its subject as possible, and for the final stage of the process it interviews the man and uses sensors to determine the emotional import of his responses. Essentially, the story is bickering between the playwright and his computer simulacrum. The process of transfer is not especially plausible, and though Yarbo makes a nod toward a justification with a mention of “Live Performance Laws”, but the choice of a playwright for this honour feels weirdly old-fashioned.

‘Disturb Not My Slumbering Fair’ (1978). This story is original to the anthology, and the following author’s note draws parallels between it and Yarbro’s first Saint-German novel, Hôtel Transylvania, “which develops along similar lines”. The story is about Dierdre, a young female ghoul, who escapes form her grave and goes on the hunt for flesh to eat. She brutally murders a night watchman, and then a young woman – albeit chiefly to provide a body for her own empty grave – before getting a job at a morgue, where she can snack to her heart’s content on cadavers.

‘The Meaning of the Word’ (1973). A member of an exploration team stumbles across an alien room, buried beneath a sea of ash. He’s an archaeologist, and some members of the team can’t see the point of his presence. The alien room contains a wall of alien writing, and some sort of learning tool, which the archaeologist uses to teach himself the language. However, breaching the room has given him a fatal dose of radiation. He chooses to remain behind so he can complete his translation.

‘The Generalissimo’s Butterfly’ (1978). In the somewhat clichéd South American country of Liberación, the female electronics engineer who created Generalissimo Sandón’s Butterfly has fallen from favour and now lives in poverty. The Butterfly is free-flying listening device, a drone disguised as the insect it is named for, and Sandón apparently has hundreds of these which he uses to keep a watchful eye, and ears, on his nation’s population. Except it is all a fake. The Butterfly exists, but has a range of only three kilometres. The butterflies which fly about the city are real ones. Sandón relies on bugs, agents and secret police to maintain his rule.

‘Allies’ (1977). Every character named in this story has a gender-neutral name, and though there are references to men and women, the sexes of the characters is left unrevealed. On an uninhabited world, a station of staffers guard a marsh for the Rare Resources Bureau. The story does not explain what the rare resource is, who else might want the resource, or indeed why a station of people is a cost-effective or efficient way to ensure one particular area on a planet remains undeveloped. (In the real world, a legal document is enough.) Staffers begin dying mysteriously, and Tuttle is convinced there is something invisible and inimical in the marsh. The station doctor, however, suspects suicide, since the RRB has begun firing its staffers six months before they were due to retire in order to avoid paying them pensions, but their families will receive double the pension as a death-benefit. (Something IBM is apparently doing right now in the real world. Multinational corporations really are scum.) ‘Allies’ never quite commits to its central premise, but the gender-neutral cast makes for an interesting read.

‘Dead in Irons’ (1976). Although original to the anthology Faster than Light (1976), this story also appeared in The New Women of Wonder. A new steward joins the crew of an interstellar starship as a steward. Because she refuses to accept the sexual advances of the head steward, she is giving the worst job: looking after the frozen steerage passengers. Her cold suit is even sabotaged by the head steward’s ex-lover, which makes the job harder. Although this story has all the trappings of heartland science fiction, it harkens back to the slave ships of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the ships which carried transportees to Australia. It’s something I never find wholly convincing, perhaps because it leaves a nasty taste and I’ve yet to be persuaded technology would not provide solutions to the problems the story builds into its universe.

‘Swan Song’ (1978). A wealthy industrialist has invited a Finnish engineer to his hunting lodge in northern Canada to offer him a job. But the Finn is a pacifist and the industrial’s corporation is heavily involved in arms manufacture. Initially swayed by the promise of heading up the corporation’s space sciences division, the Finn decides to stick to his principles after the lake beside the lodge reminds him of the myth of the Lake of Tuonela, and the Black Swan which guards the dead from the Hiiet, or Finnish demonic forces of destruction. This is a thin piece, but the atmosphere is handled well.

‘The Fellini Beggar’ (1976). A journalist for a US magazine interviews a disabled beggar about the part he played in a great director’s film (obviously, from the title, it’s Frederico Fellini, although his name does not appear in the actual narrative). The beggar, who has a beautiful singing voice and loves opera, was badly beaten in the movie. The journalist asks what he was paid to accept the role, and the beggar tells him that he was given the manuscript to Turandot, Puccini’s last unfinished opera. It’s the actual manuscript pages by Puccini, giving the ending he had planned and not the one that was later added by another composer. Other than an off-hand reference to the “wreckage of the Vatican”, there’s no real genre content to the story, and while it works well enough on its own, familiarity with Puccini and Turandot would no doubt be an advantage.

The collection ends with a poem, ‘An Indulgence’, which seems aptly titled.

Cautionary Tales is a varied collection in terms of content, but the quality of the stories is uniformly high. Yarbro’s prose is more prone to poetic turns pf phrase than is common in 1970s science fiction, which seemed to think a bland unadorned style the best way to write. I particularly liked the line in ‘Allies’: “They sat apart from each other, like slow private snails on different leaves of a plant” (p 129). Several of the stories were inspired by operas – ‘Un Bel Di’, for example, is loosely based upon Madame Butterfly – which is hardly surprising given that Yarbro is also a composer. But there is also a darkness to most of the stories in this collection, a quite callous view of people, from the RRB of ‘Allies’ to Sandón in ‘The Generalissimo’s Butterfly’ to the stewards in ‘Dead in Irons’. Not mention the paedophile alien in ‘Un Bel Di’. As a result, ‘Disturb No My Slumbering Fair’ actually reads like a light-hearted romp by comparison, despite being about a flesh-eating ghoul. It is also worth mentioning that many of Yarbro’s stories feature female characters either as protagonists, or certainly possessing agency – indeed, hiding the genders of the cast in ‘Allies’ renders any complaints against the presence of female protagonists in science fiction ridiculous. Although of their time, there’s a singular vision in evidence in many of the stories in Cautionary Tales, and it’s a shame Yarbro didn’t see fit to continue writing science fiction.

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False Dawn, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

falsedawnFalse Dawn, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978)
Review by Joachim Boaz

One of the women wasn’t dead yet. Her ravaged body hung naked from a broken billboard. Her legs were splayed wide and anchored with ropes; legs and belly were bloody, there were heavy bruises on her face and breasts, and she had been branded with a large “M” for mutant. (p 1)

Before there was Mad Max (1979), directed by George Miller, there was Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s False Dawn… In 1972 she published her brutal and terrifying short story ‘False Dawn’ in Thomas N Scortia’s anthology Strange Bedfellows (1972). A few years later the work was deemed important enough to be included in Pamela Sargent’s famous anthology Women of Wonder (1975). This story forms the first chapter of her post-apocalyptic novel False Dawn.

In the 60s highly inventive post-apocalyptic stories flourished: for example, JG Ballard’s masterpiece The Drowned World (1962) filled with images of uterine spaces and encroaching waters, Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard (1964) where the elderly are the inheritors of the earth, and DG Compton’s The Silent Multitude (1966) where conversations drift amongst the decaying cityscapes.

Yarbro pursues a somewhat different tack in False Dawn. She seeks to tell an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of a world gone to hell due to environmental devastation. I suspect this novel and John Brunner’s masterpiece The Sheep Look Up (1972) were influential for later SF.

This is not a cozy apocalypse. This is a world where deranged individuals both male and female who have managed to survive prey on travellers, where roving bands of Pirates loot, rape, and destroy under some tenuous ideology of “survival”. A world where most births produce deformed children, the wandering diseased transmit horrific illnesses, and religious fanaticism of the most virulent sort abounds… A few enclaves manage to eke out a semblance of civilized (rural) existence in the face of these threats. And the promise of more pristine environments that must exist over the next range of mountains, motivate some to keep searching for a better life.

Before society completely collapse groups of scientists experimented on humans in an effort to create bodies that would survive the ravishes of the environmentally destroyed landscape: “they had decided to adapt. They adapted their children. Viral modification, they called it, when it worked” (p 71). Our heroine, Thea is one of these designed “mutants” although her mutation does not play a major role in the novel.

Unfortunately this hyper-realistic recasting is not entirely successful despite its admirable intentions.

False Dawn‘s central protagonist, a “mutant” woman named Thea, is remarkably resilient. The novel stars off with her winding her way through a scene of incredible destruction caused in part by the Pirates: dead bodies, a raped woman splayed on a billboard, packs of wild dogs, dead animals whose decayed bodies show the signs of viral infections. Her objective: Gold Lake, where civilization might still exist. Her trek takes her across Northern California: a vast expanses of mutilated landscapes, dying peoples, and horrific surprises.

However, her solo journey ends when she encounters Evan Montague, the ex-leader of the Pirates. Evan is dying, his men, increasingly radicalized, turned on him and cut off his arm. The Pirates will stop at nothing to kill their ex-leader. Thea, against her gut feeling and desire to remain alone on her journey, joins up with him on her quest.

A third character “joins” Thea and Evan, an unstable man named Lastly who fought for the C. D. militia. Thea and Evan are disarmed by Lastly at rifle point and forced to march with him. Lastly lusts after Thea and rapes her as Evan collects fuel for their fire: no punches are pulled, the scene is devastating. Evan returns and kills Lastly.

As their journey becomes increasingly difficult for a one-armed man, Yarbro strategically has his “mutant” modifications manifest themselves: “Evan’s arm grew back as fall came on. It sprouted slowly as they left the contamination behind them, beginning as a tawny spatulate paddle below the angry cicatrix marking the path of the saw […]” (p 38). The majority of the story’s plot concerns the daily survival of the pair – investigating abandoned houses, building crossbows, avoiding the Pirates- as they make their way across snowy mountains towards Gold Lake.

The more thematic arc of the novel novel follows Thea’s slow recovery from the mental trauma she experienced. I found Yarbro’s treatment of the Thea’s extreme difficulty of recovery from such an experience is admirably conveyed and believable. As she recovers, Evan rekindles her memories of the past – they often reminisce about food, remember fragments of music. Also, she slowly begins to overcome the more general trauma generated by the virtual destruction of the world.

The end is bittersweet.

False Dawn attempts to be a realistic story with an exciting plot and careful character development. I remained unconvinced by some elements of the second point. As soon as Thea meets Evan Montague, the ex-leader of the Pirates, the novel tends to slip into very common gender dynamics (he is much older than her and falls in loves, he kills her rapist, he awakens her earlier memories of music and culture, etc). Evan is also completely unconvincing. How can a man who once lead the Pirates – ie, a force of incredible destruction – suddenly transform into a caring, loving, and tender individual? Yes, he attempted to stem the tide of the Pirates’ increasing radicalism and was nearly killed for his actions…

The sweeping scenes of devastation are well-wrought and terrifying. The horror elements are predictable but effective. I prefer 60s/early 70s post-apocalyptic experimentation over hyper-violent realism.

Vaguely recommended for fans of post-apocalyptic SF.

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

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.

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.