Out of Bounds, Judith Merril

otfbnds1960Out of Bounds, Judith Merril (1960)
Review by Joachim Boaz

I have long been a fan of both Judith Merril’s fiction and edited volumes. The eponymous novella in the collection Daughters of Earth (1968) is one of more delightful visions from the 1950s I have encountered. Merril reframes biblical patrilineal genealogy as matrilineal – i.e. humankind’s conquest of space is traced via the female descendants of an august progenitor. The story is brilliant in part due to a remarkable metafictional twist, the story itself is compiled from historical documents to serve as an instructional template for future generations of women. Despite substantial editorial control that forced Merril to include a rather hokey plot on two hokey planets, the story remains memorable for the well crafted feminist message.

After Judith Merril’s divorce from her husband – and fellow Futurian – Frederik Pohl in 1952, she found that her “risky” SF visions epitomized by ‘Daughters of Earth’ were less welcome. Due to financial and personal reasons, she had to tread carefully. In a few cases her radical explorations of gender/sex, such as ‘The Lady was a Tramp’ (1957), had to be published under pseudonyms.

Judith Merril proved (and still is to some degree) to be a polarizing figure. The SF critic and author Algis Budyrs dismissed and ridiculed this volume’s story ‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) as “agrandiz[ing] the steaming-wet-diaper school of SF, which in many examples defines and dramatizes women as beings whose sensitivity and humanism are at constant odds with something inherently messy in their bodies”. Shocking headline: SF that actually focuses on the lives and experiences of women offends a man! Theodore Sturgeon puts forth an ardent defense of her craft and abilities as a “Writer” (with a capital W) in the introduction to the volume.

Out of Bounds contains seven short fictions that demonstrate the range she produced over the course of the 50s: from her terrifying and radical first story ‘That Only a Mother’ to more populist and “acceptable” space operas such as ‘Whoever You Are’. The collection as a whole fluctuates drastically from the masterpiece ‘Dead Center’ to the banal exploration of telepathic vibes in ‘Connection Completed’. Seek out ‘Dead Center’!

Judith Merril should be read by any fan of 50s SF. The deserving omnibus collection Homecalling and Other Stories: The Complete Solo Short SF of Judith Merril (2005) is a must buy.

‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) reminds me of Richard Matheson’s later SF horror story about a mutant child, ‘Born of Man and Woman’ (1950)…. In Merril’s similarly powerful story in a future nuclear world, everyday exposure to radiation might cause devastating mutation. Margaret fixates on this potential via letters to her husband Hank – involved in the war effort – who claims that there is nothing to fear. When he arrives home Margaret has already given birth, and…

What makes ‘That Only a Mother’ so effective is the careful integration of everyday life. This nuclear war does not leave a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Rather, life continues much as it did before with devastating consequences. I am an ardent supporter of epistolary fiction. Merril’s use of letters serve to limit what the reader knows (these are letters between a couple and information is kept from the reader) and thus heightens the psychological tension. The nebulous ending furthers this effect. Worthwhile.

‘Peeping Tom’ (1954). Telepathy. A jungle. A nameless war. Tommy Bender, “a nice American boy”, recovers from an injury. In the jungle dampness he learns about the less than tender thoughts of his fellow wounded comrades who lust after their nurses. When Bender can walk again – remember he’s “a nice American boy” – he pays for sex, with a “disconcertingly young” woman (pimped by her young brother) in the nearby village, with cigarettes.

One day when he seeks to assuage his lusts, he enters the hut of the local sage and begins to uncover his telepathic abilities. His nurse love interest is also one of the sage’s students…. ‘Peeing Tom’ rises above many similar telepathy stories not due to the very predictable twist ending, but the strange commentary on the transformative effects of injury and war. This was written after the Korean War. Tommy Bender is not really “a nice American boy” and is solely motivated by his own lusts and passions.

‘The Lady Was a Tramp’ (1957) is without doubt the most unusual story in the collection. The premise: IBMen plot the trajectories and jumps of spaceships, an especially dangerous job on a merchant ship due to the small crew compliment. The female psychological officer, who holds the rank of Commander, likewise has an important role to play in the microcosm of the ship. A role that the new IBMan Terrance Carnahan does not want to believe exists. Merril purposefully conflates the spaceship, the Lady Jane, and Anita, the psychological officer. Terrance considers both “tramps”.

The pros: The story is psychologically tense. Also, the focus on some elements of life in a spaceship exudes a certain realism. The cons: Merril clearly positions Anita as the power on the spaceship, the woman who holds everything together by having sex with all the male crew members. She uses her sexuality to keep the crew from fracturing. Just as Terrance must conquer space to achieve his dream, he must also put aside his reservations and take advantage of Anita’s role. Really?! I find it rather unsettling in its ramifications especially since Carnahan never puts aside his extreme sexism. Very problematic.

‘Whoever You Are’ (1952). A space opera with a fun twist…. A vast web encircles the solar system manned by the intrepid men and women who are still seduced by the allure of space. The bravest souls – called Byrds – fly from the energy womb off into the bleak expanse setting up colonies, encountering aliens. One of these spaceships returns but the crew is dead, and aliens are on board. Thankfully the ship is encased in the web and does not appear to be a threat. Via the ship logs of the various dead crew members the mystery is slowly pieced together. As most of Merril’s futures, women play central parts in uncovering the mystery. But, it might be too late!

‘Connection Completed’ (1954). A man gazes at a woman through a window. What transpires are a series of thoughts projected by both characters attempting to compel the other act and thus demonstrate the veracity of their telepathic experience. Both are fearful that it is all a delusion. If Merril pursued a SF horror avenue rather than the rather tepid conclusion, the story might have been more intriguing.

‘Dead Center’ (1954) is the best of collection. It might be superior to ‘Daughters of Earth’ which was forced by the editor to follow a particular plot… I still hold that ‘Daughters of Earth’ is the more ideologically relevant story. But ‘Dead Center’ blends both polemical and narratological elements into a more cohesive story.

Shifting from perspective to perspective, ‘Dead Center’ explores the ramifications of a disaster. In this case, losing contact with a spacecraft. Jock Kruger is the pilot and Ruth, his wife, the designed of the spacecraft. As the plot slowly unravels we soon understand the nature of the relationship between all the characters. A son who is tired of the lies his parents tell… The ambitions, the “cult of the astronaut”, the public gaze… Delightful. Highly recommended.

‘Death Cannot Wither’ (1959). The collection ends on a sour note with a supernatural tale which, according to the Author’s note, was heavily edited by Algis Budrys – “the story should properly carry a joint byline” (p 137). Edna Colby lives with her husband Jack on his estate. She spends her time contributing to Better Homes and Gardens and suspects that Jack might be having an affair on his occasional trips to the city. After his death in a hunting accident on the estate, a strange series of events transpire – as he returns three years later dead but alive. The story never maintains a sense of unease and feels half-hearted. Avoid.

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

The Tomorrow People, Judith Merril

tomorrow_peopleThe Tomorrow People, Judith Merril (1960)
Review by Ian Sales

Two men flew to Mars, but only one, Johnny Wendt, returned. Now he lives in self-imposed seclusion with his girlfriend, famous dancer Lisa Trovi. For reasons not made entirely clear, although it has something to do with jolting Johnny out of his funk and the suspiciously good psychological health of the people living and working in the USAA (United States of All the Americas) lunar dome, Johnny and Lisa are invited to the Moon.

Meanwhile, General Harbridge is trying to trick a Chilean congressman who is opposed to the space programme into actually backing it, by offering him a free trip to the Moon.

Despite being a science fiction fan – and a member of the Futurians – Merril started out writing for detective and Western pulp magazines and it was a number of years before she tried her hand at sf. Some of her genre short stories and novels now deserve to be considered classics, although she is perhaps best remembered as an editor and anthologist. Her Shadow on the Hearth (1950) is generally reckoned as one of the best post-apocalypse novels of its time, even if it doesn’t have the high profile of similar male-authored works. Some of her short fiction too, particularly ‘Daughters of Earth’, ought to be much better-known than they actually are. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of The Tomorrow People. The pulp style, sort of like Robert Heinlein on speed, tries to carry the story in dialogue, but throws so much speech across the pages it’s often hard to keep up with the plot in among all the phatic conversation.

A few days after Johnny and Lisa arrive on the Moon, they fall out, so Johnny returns on the next flight as planned, but Lisa stays on. While Johnny mopes about on Earth, often drunk, Lisa starts work on a low-gravity dance routine to be performed on the Moon. In order to extend her stay, she is then offered a job as an assistant to the dome’s psychologist. Unfortunately, this only convinces Johnny his girlfriend has dropped him for the psychologist, which makes him even more determined not to reconcile with her.

Meanwhile, Lisa has been spending time observing some “bugs” bought back from Mars and which are currently under study in “the Shack”, an open shelter some distance outside the Moon Dome. As a result, she seems to know things, and understand people, considerably better than anyone else. Something similar is apparently happening at the Soviet dome too with a female pilot. And Lisa is also pregnant – yes, Johnny is the father – so she wants to get back with him, but doesn’t know how to do so…

In a review of the novel in his 1967 work In Search of Wonder, Damon Knight accused the book of being written from the “woman’s-magazine viewpoint” and declared it hard to read because of its “coyness, feminine overemphasis and an unaccountable sprinkling of 1960 jive talk” in the dialogue. While the dated slang does often feel anachronistic – especially given the novel’s clear dateline of 1975 to 1977 – Knight’s other criticism are far from fair. Lisa Torvi is a  strong character, and is perhaps more of a protagonist than Johnny, who actually doesn’t much convince as an astronaut. Although he does as a drunk. And even from 1960, missions to Mars, moon bases, and the unification of all three American continents into one nation by the mid-1970s seems not so much far-fetched as completely fantastical.

However, where The Tomorrow People really does fall apart is in its plot. The book opens with a mystery – what happened on Mars – but then can’t make up its mind if it’s about Johnny and Lisa’s relationship, the politics surrounding the space programme, a Cold War on the Moon between the USAA and Soviet domes, or the strange good-feeling the inhabitants of the USAA dome are experiencing. And it is only after bouncing around between these stories for much of its length that the novel swerves abruptly back on course and resolves the Mars mystery – with a page of flashback and two pages of exposition.

Reading the novel, it often seems the prose style doesn’t quite suit the material. Perhaps at a shorter length, it might have worked better. But page after page of wise-cracking and/or emotive dialogue gets wearying after a while. In fact, The Tomorrow People reads pretty much like a 1940s screwball comedy with a thin, albeit mostly convincing, wrapping of science fiction. Seen in that light, it’s mostly successful… except for the fact it badly overstretches its material.

Judith Merril was an important figure in the history of the science fiction genre, perhaps more important than the bulk of sf fans give her credit. None of her works are currently in print, and her membership in, and contribution to, early fandom is often overlooked. If the genre must choose figures from its past to revere, we could do a lot worse than pick Merril – even if not everything she wrote is worthy of classic status.

The Venus Factor, Vic Ghidalia & Roger Elwood

venusfactorThe Venus Factor, Vic Ghidalia & Roger Elwood (1972)
Review by Ian Sales

Although the cover of this book may wrongly suggest to an unobservant browser that it’s a novel by Agatha Christie, it’s actually a somewhat odd anthology of “science fiction” by women authors. And I say “odd” for two reasons: the term is used on the cover, but not all of the stories in the book actually qualify as science fiction (and even more flexible definitions than most would have trouble incorporating them); and second, the anthology contains four stories from the 1930s (and late 1920s) and three from the late 1960s – plus one from the 1950s. It’s a peculiar spread, especially since three of the early stories didn’t originally appear in genre venues. In some respects, then, The Venus Factor is a curiosity, something of an historical document. What it is not, is a good representative selection of science fiction by women writers of the twentieth century.

‘The Last Séance’, Agatha Christie (1926), is, The Venus Factor insists, Christie’s only “science fiction” story, and there is, it has to be said, a definite attempt by Christie to add some sort of scientific gloss to her story of a Parisian medium who performs one séance too many. Sadly, that scientific basis, which treats ectoplasm as something real and produced by the human body, is nonsense, and Christie’s prose throughout is clunky and terrible.

‘God Grante That She Lye Stille’, Cynthia Asquith (1931), is another story that only qualifies as science fiction if the genre is defined so loosely it might as well include anything and everything. A young doctor in a small English village falls in love with the lady of the manor, who is young, beautiful and wan, and, she claims, frequently subjects to bouts of personality loss, where she feels as if she doesn’t exist. She even claims to have experienced occasions where her reflection does not appear in mirrors. Meanwhile, in the cemetery beside the manor house there lies the grave of an ancestor who lived fast and died young several centuries before – and according to family legend refused to “lye stille” on her deathbed. The story pans out pretty much as expected, and though Asquith displays the odd nice turn of phrase, there’s little in this to lift the story above others of its ilk of the time.

‘The Foghorn’, Gertrude Atherton (1933), is not even genre, no matter what definition you use. A young woman falls in love with a young man, they go out into Golden Gate in a rowing boat, but a thick fog suddenly descends. A large ship runs them down in the fog, and the young man dies. The woman wakes to find herself in a hospital. But all is not as it seems. The prose is somewhat excitable, and the twist ending comes as no real surprise.

‘Against Authority’, Miriam Allen deFord (1966). Although mostly forgotten these days, deFord was hugely prolific during the 1950s and 1960s. But then, she never published a novel, only some eighty stories between 1946 and 1978. While ‘Against Authority’ may be from her most successful decade, there’s little in it that stands out. After a war with the Pelagerians, who invaded Earth and then disappeared, the surviving nations banded together under the Authority, the ruler of Turkey. And, forty-eight years later, he still rules; although he promises to hand over power to a democracy eventually. A group of students are part of a plot to assassinate the Authority but, in a twist stolen directly from GK Chesterton, it turns out to have been entirely organised by police spies. But then it transpires the Authority is not what he seems – as one of the conspirators, a daughter of his by artificial insemination, manages to work out. There are a few interesting ideas in this story, but it reads like a substandard work by one of that decade’s more thoughtful writers (which is not to say that those writers did not themselves produce substandard work).

‘J-Line to Nowhere’, Zenna Henderson (1969). While Henderson may be best known for her stories of the People, she wrote plenty of other sf. In fact, she was one of the most successful female sf writers of the 1950s. This story is set in some future metropolis in which nature is absent – Malthusian stories were popular during the 1950s. The narrator stumbles across a forgotten station on the J-Line, which is in a park, and spends an idyllic afternoon there. But when she returns to her sick mother and the realities of life in the city, she knows she will never find the “Nowhere” station again. Although the story strikes an effectively elegiac note, it’s too thin for it to have much impact.

‘The Ship Who Disappeared’, Anne McCaffrey (1969), is one of McCaffrey’s brainship stories, which are based around a premise that today we find distasteful: disabled babies are built into spaceships to be their “brains”. Each brainship also has an able-bodied crewmember, a “brawn”. In McCaffrey’s series, one such brainship, Helva, sings to pass her time and has become quite accomplished. But that is more or less irrelevant in this story. Helva notices that four brainships have disappeared, but her brawn, Teron, refuses to investigate as he’s a stickler for rules and regulations and they have no orders to search for the missing ships. At their next stop, the Antiolathan Xixon, some sort of religious figure, though neither Helva nor Teron recognise his title, asks to come aboard. They let him, he subdues the crew and steals the ship. But because Helva had been arguing with Teron, she had left open the comms link to Central Worlds, and her bosses heard everything. So they rescue her. And the other four ships. It’s a remarkably thin plot, in which Helva proves less than active, padded out with lots of bickering between the two main characters.

‘The Lady Was a Tramp’, Judith Merril (1957). The lady of the title is, of course, a spaceship, a tramp freighter to which “IBMan” Carnahan, navy reserve lieutenant, has been assigned straight from naval academy. Although he is realistic enough to accept his posting as the bets he’s likely to get, he’s dismayed by the seeming laxity of the Lady Jane‘s crew – and he is also shocked by the free and easy sexual relations between the ship’s Medic, the only woman aboard, and the rest of the crew. In fact, his prudishness is little more than outright misogyny: “‘If I go to a whore, I don’t want her around me all day. And if I have a girl, I damn sure don’t want every guy she sees to get into… you know what I mean!'” Time has not been kind to ‘The Lady Was a Tramp’. While the “IBMan” and “analog computers” read as little more than quaint failures at world-building a future, the gender politics in the story are so old-fashioned it makes its entire premise feel unnecessary, if not offensive.

‘The Dark Land’, CL Moore (1936), is Moore’s fourth Jirel of Joiry story and originally appeared, unsurprisingly, in Weird Tales. Jirel is lying on her death-bed, but is abducted – and healed – by Pav of Romne, the titular dark land, a magical place where nothing is what it seems. Pav wants Jirel to become his wife, but she refuses. He accepts a bargain: he will let her find a way to destroy him, if she fails she will wed him. While searching for a weapon, she meets the white witch, who loves Pav and would have him for herself. She tells Jirel how to kill Pav. Jirel kills Pav. And discovers that Pav is Romne, and she was duped by the white witch. The prose is somewhat overwrought, with lines like: “Hell-dwelling madman!” she spluttered. “Black beast out of nightmares! Let me waken from this crazy dream!” And a lot of said-bookisms.

All things considered, The Venus Factor fails at what it purports to be, which is, according to the back-cover blurb: “an anthology of science fiction stories written about women by some of the top women SF writers”. Christie, obviously, was never classified as a science fiction writer – indeed the front cover of The Venus Factor brags that the book “includes the only science fiction story written by Agatha Christie”. And while Asquith’s story is about a woman, the narrator is male and it his attraction to the woman in question which drives the story forward. Likewise, Merril’s somewhat belaboured story of sex therapy may draw parallels between the spaceship (which is, of course, seen as female) and the ship’s doctor, but the protagonist is male and it is his emotional growth which is the focus of the story. There is no single story in The Venus Factor which is alone worth the price of admission, and Christie’s reputation is unlikely to be harmed if ‘The Last Séance’ vanished back into obscurity. A shame.

Shadow on the Hearth, Judith Merril

shadowonhearthShadow on the Hearth, Judith Merril (1950)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

The 1950s were chock-full of science fiction novels on the horror of prospective nuclear war and Soviet attack, after-effects of Hiroshima and Potsdam that rattled the collective consciousness for decades. Merril was one of the Futurians, a “family” of New York science fiction fans; she collaborated with fellow Futurian Cyril Kornbluth, and for a few years was married to another Futurian, the late Frederik Pohl. While she’s best remembered for her series of SF anthologies in the mid-1950s, Judith Merril had a long and distinguished writing career that dates back to the late 1940s.

When her maid calls in sick, Westchester housewife Gladys Mitchell is forced to stay home and do the laundry and chores herself – a fact that saved her life, given that New York City is obliterated in a surprise atomic attack. Urged to stay indoors by radio announcers, Gladys struggles through the day despite crushing uncertainties about the fate of her husband Jon. When her daughters – teenage Barbara (“Barbie”) and toddler Virginia (“Ginny”) – arrive home from school, Gladys must overcome the obstacles of living in a post-nuclear United States. Isolated and with only themselves (and an ever-growing, rag-tag group of neighbors and acquaintances) for support, Gladys must keep her family safe from radiation and hostile looters until they can be evacuated from the danger zone.

In our age of news saturation – twenty-four-hour cable news, social media, RSS feeds, the internet – it’s strange to be thrust back to a time where radio and newspaper was the primary news source. With no papers being delivered, Gladys must rely on over-enthusiastic radio announcers, who read off status updates and casualty lists, along with trite updates of retaliation by remote-control planes. Her obnoxious neighbor is convinced it’s all propaganda, but the Mitchells remain confined to their home, giving the book a constricted setting that Merril thrusts tension and conflict into. Barbara’s possible radiation sickness carries a lot of the burden, as does her teacher, a blacklisted atomic scientist hunted (?!) by the authorities for predicting an atomic attack. Gladys’ maid is a suspected enemy agent, one of the human targets (!?) used to direct the incoming atomic missiles. There’s a gas leak in the cellar, threatening to blow the house up. And there’s the fear of looters and contaminated survivors mobbing the suburbs…

I wouldn’t say that the book is tense or thrilling due to its isolation, though, existing in a vacuum outside of space and time. Some parts read like Civil Defense literature, urging calm and patience until some semblance of government can restore order while explaining the basic details of radiation poisoning and the threat of atomic attack. A pair of rescue workers arrive on occasion to do just that. Merril’s writing is very good, but her plotting is merely competent. Some of the crises stretch the realm of credibility – the “wanted” high-school teacher/physics professor, and her “sick” maid/survivor of the New York holocaust, are character backgrounds I found nigh on hyperbolic.

I expected a female protagonist, written by a female author, in a world relatively devoid of men, would be an exemplary character and rise to the challenge. Instead, Gladys is a hot mess of emotion. She’s often confused, and will panic or become overwhelmed; that’s somewhat realistic given the extenuating circumstances she finds herself in, but it’s more pointed when several bit characters badger and berate her (such as when she calls asking for the fire department, due to the gas leak, and is savaged by the telephone operator). She does take charge and do what needs doing for her family’s survival, and she does learn and grow during the novel; she exists in a world where men are either missing or acting against her best interests. But I’ve seen stronger female characters by CL Moore and Leigh Brackett, and found Gladys overwrought and disappointing – not quite the feminist paragon some reviews had me believe. It’s a shame when the teenager daughter Barbara can hold her own better than her mother.

Gladys’ naivete about “radiations” and post-war hazards brings to mind the elderly couple in When The Wind Blows – Gladys also soldiers through government-issued mimeographed sheets to comprehend the attack’s after-effects. This naiveté reveals the era’s limited scientific knowledge of radiation poisoning and fallout. Which, to be honest, is nowhere near as comprehensive or advanced as it is now, making the novel less grim than if it were written in the 1980s. The characters make several comparisons to Hiroshima – a recent memory for 1950 readers, as would be the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949. But the authorities are more worried about “clouds of hot stuff” blowing around and take a duck-and-cover, “stay inside and you’ll be fine” approach. Rescue crews are scouring New York for (seemingly unaffected) survivors, seemingly unaffected by a radioactive rain; Gladys’ maid survives because she was swaddled in several blankets.

Granted, there’s a running undercurrent that the authorities are overwhelmed and lying to prevent a panic, and the weapons used are Hiroshima-scale and not Reagan-era MIRV ICBMs, which would have flattened New York and saturated lower Westchester County in radiation. The novel is a good case-study of the limits scientific knowledge had about atomic attack. Some elements remain valid, others foreshadow Civil Defense educational films… which this book was made into, for ABC in 1954.

The titular shadow could refer to a number of things: the shadow of atomic attack, the shadow of enemy agents used to direct the incoming missiles, the shadow of Gladys’ missing husband, the shadow of strange men – potential looters, dubious Civil Defense squadmen – looming at her front door. But most clearly it’s the shadow of radiation poisoning, something which may or may not be afflicting Barbara. She was outside and exposed to potentially radioactive rain while on a school field trip; her teacher already knows he’s suffering from radiation poisoning—though it doesn’t seem to affect him in any way – and he and figures Barbara may have taken a strong dose of rads as well. It’s the fear of radiation sickness afflicting her children that drives Gladys to the novel’s darkest point, a hospital used as emergency triage for Manhattan’s survivors. It’s the only time Gladys leaves the security of her home, and it’s a memorable scene.

Merril had a very good idea for a book, which turned into an interesting and well-written novel. However, some of the story elements are chintzy or downright implausible, such as several of the unrealistic characters and their convenient back-stories. As a character piece in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war, the domestic life thrust into the front-lines, I found the novel partially succeeds. Rather than following a general, scientist, or politician, the book views the aftermath of atomic war from the isolation and fear of a housewife, her daughters, and an oddball cast of friends. That down-to-earth perspective makes it more unique, even realistic despite its aforementioned failings. Yet it falters with Gladys’ portrayal, and is now a bit dated.

While a decent novel, Shadow on the Hearth is not a perfect one; its domestic perspective is a brilliant idea, and Merril’s prose keeps the reading moving along despite the straightforward plot. But I think I’m biased in favor of darker, grittier apocalyptic novels. On top of that, it’s a hard book to find; it took me a while to get a copy at a decent price. Shadow on the Hearth may be of interest to the serious completist, but for the average sci-fi reader it’s probably too much effort for too little reward.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

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.