Armed Camps, Kit Reed

armedcamspArmed Camps, Kit Reed (1969)
Review by Joachim Boaz

… and the men were on the way to the bar, they were talking about the performance, they had to compare it to every other performance, they had to link them all and form them into something continuous, something to keep away the dark (p 19).

Kit Reed’s first SF novel Armed Camps is all about characters constructing narratives and conjuring visions in order to keep the aphotic tides of societal disintegration at bay. The two paralleled narratives – a woman (Anne) running from her past and a man (Danny March) slowly recounting what led to his own downfall – are two different ways of fighting off what is bound to come. An oppressive melancholy that never lifts soaks the passages, presaging the motions of the characters as if they are trapped in some Thucydidean manifestation of the cyclicality of history.

The style and content of Armed Camps is best described in context of the New Wave movement within SF of the late 60s and early 70s – but, it is worth noting that Kit Reed, unlike John Brunner or Robert Silverberg who had to radically depart from what they they had previously written (pulp) to construct their New Wave masterpieces, deployed a similar literary style in her first published works of late 50s. If you are interested in her earliest SF work I recommend the short stories collated in her 1967 collection Mister Da V, and of course, her recently published “retrospective” collection of shorts from her entire career as of now – The Story Until Now: A Great Big Book of Stories (2013).

Firmly a practitioner of social science fiction, Kit Reed has explicitly said in interviews that Armed Camps was her “why are we in Vietnam” novel – it is worth pointing out that the Tet Offensive, the largest military campaign of the war, was launched in early 1968. That said, unlike many anti-war visions of the period, I found Armed Camps a finely wrought commentary that does not resort to simplistic answers. Neither Danny March’s resort to terroristic violence nor Anne’s desperate adherence to pacifistic utopianism are presented as the way we can extricate ourselves from endless war.

Recommended for fans of New Wave and anti-war SF – and especially, for all fans of literary SF.

Kit Reed’s dystopic near future Earth is mired with unrest. A sort of police state exists, and gun ownership is ubiquitous and necessary for protection: A government inspector proclaims in shock, “Of course you need guns, everyone needs guns” (p 64). Likewise, war has manifested itself in an almost allegorical form that illustrates its endless nature – a sort of single combat with flame throwers is waged between vast military bunkers.

Danny March was one of the best soldiers who flamed countless enemies (p 33). However, after an incident – that isn’t divulged until the end of the novel – March, after he’s found guilty, is trussed on a pole above a military installation as punishment. The military panoply of his ritualistic punishment is piped to America’s TVs. In March’s interior monologue he proclaims morosely: “You wonderful folks at home have all turned to some other channel, you tuned out as soon as the ceremony was over and they rolled the scaffolding away, you couldn’t ever wait for that final drum roll, you tuned me out and forgot me, just like that” (p 11). One of Reed’s central themes are the rituals that we adhere to in order to find some solace in a chaotic space: The ceremony of March’s punishment is one of many such rituals within the text. But Reed argues that there’s a rather more sinister edge to ritual – just as TV audiences changed the channel to order to avoid seeing the more mundane realities of March’s life while fastened to a pole, ritual can obscure a rotten core.

March’s life plays out as an attempt to break from the ingrained military ritual and the seductive (and meaning generating) forces of tradition. His father was a soldier, his father’s best friend was a soldier, his mother wanted March to be a soldier after his father’s death, the military wants March to sign over his son to the military… March himself never had a childhood or someone to stand up for him – after his father’s death he has to “be the man” at a young age. However, he did find solace in the adventures of Captain White and “his dusky friend Hassim” (p 58) in the newspaper funnies: The Cap gets in trouble (but never dies of course) and Hassim comes and rescues him, repeat, repeat, repeat. As March languishes away his existence bound to his pole, he recounts how he found solace in the presence of Hassim. March, of course, is a stand in for Cap. Although never explicitly stated, Reed’s novel adeptly evokes the power that such stories had (and have) on youth – the ritual of reading, the stability of the plot, the simple messages.

The second narrative line follows Anne who is running from her past. As with Danny March, she is desperate to find meaning in her earlier actions. As she runs, she encounters others who have constructed meaning-forming rituals: e.g. at the Opera house, “men were on the way to the bar, they were talking about the performance, they had to compare it to every other performance, they had to link them all and form them into something continuous, something to keep away the dark” (p 19). Later she encounters Billy, who, along with throngs of other wealthy individuals, parties away behind walls that block out the chaos of the streets in an unfinished mansion (p 29). Billy’s mantra is an empty one – the shallowest possible – “Be pretty and dance” (p31).

Eventually, Anne joins up with Eamon in Calabria. Eamon is a pacifist and Calabria is a series of ramshackle houses and barns located in a National Forest. He espouses radical pacifism and wants to believe that his idealism can be implemented. Anne buys into this vision completely but slowly observes Calabria fall into ruin…. Eamon himself, although the last to give up his own message, lashes out. And as Anne’s utopia crumbles she too is forced to confront what made her run.

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

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The New Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mister Da V., Kit Reed

mrdavMister Da V., Kit Reed (1967)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Kit Reed has been publishing literary, thought-provoking, and darkly satirical sci-fi + speculative fiction + non-genre fiction since the late 1950s… And she is still going strong — her most recent novel Son of Destruction came out last year. Reed’s collection Mister Da V. and Other Stories contains three stories from the late 50s including her first published work, ‘The Wait’ (variant title: ‘To be Taken to a Strange Country’) and ten others from the 1960s. A few of the stories in the collection are not overtly science fiction — regardless, one could argue that all but ‘I am Through with Bus Trips’ contain speculative and/or sci-fi elements.

Most stories are deceptively simple moral fables that put a twist on everyday family life. For example, a mother daughter trip in the countryside becomes a sinister nightmare — ‘To Be Taken in a Strange Country’ (variant title: ‘Wait’). And in ‘At Central’ a boy’s harmless crush on a television actress causes him to uncover the truth about the world. ‘At Central’, ’The New You’, and ‘Automatic Tiger’ are the best of the collection. They are told with energy and wit and bitterly rip into the heart of things with relentless glee.

‘To Be Taken in a Strange Country’ (variant title: ‘Wait’) (1958): A dark and surreal fable in what might be a post-apocalyptical landscape (but perhaps that is a stretch). A mother and daughter head out on a car trip in order “to reassure themselves that there were other people in the town, in Georgia, in the world” (p 8). They arrive at the town of Babylon which appears to be a normal place. However, the town square is filled with beds under the trees where the ill and dying reside waiting to be cured. But, there are no doctors… The mother falls ill and doesn’t mind sleeping all day with the other ladies under the trees while various medicines are applied with the half chance that they work. And the daughter is forced to confront her new world and the wishes of her mother who doesn’t detect (or is purposefully oblivious to) the sinister undercurrents of what is really happening. The coercive powers of small town life allegorically embodied….

‘Devotion’ (1958): ”Harry Farmer loved his teeth” (p 24). He really loves his teeth. More than anything else in the world. And the world knows that he loves his teeth and while his friends’ teeth decay and fall out he shows his off with glee. But everyone must grow old but Harry has a plan to con his friends into believing his teeth are still perfect. Another slightly fantastic but sinister allegory….

‘The Reign of Tarquin the Tall’ (1958): An unusual assortment of characters — children and thirty-year olds — live together in a house. Lukey obsesses over his ant colony which he believes is a microcosm of the world “and if doesn’t like the way things are going, he’s going to take an axe and destroy the whole thing — and when he does, that the world will go too, under some bigger axe” (p 34). Martin and Leroy play with their play spaceship. And Tarquin declares himself king of the house and invents rituals of power…. And the truant officer — concerned with the kids in the house who have skipped school — threatens to destroy their strange existence.

‘Ordeal’ (1960): The first overtly science fiction story in the collection concerns a drugged future where most everyone resides in massive cities hooked up to machines which pump happy drugs into the system. But Dario isn’t interested in living this type of existence — he’s transfixed by the small bands of warriors who wander in-between the cities fighting their increasingly ritualistic battles. Soon Dario meets Andrew who had previously attempted to join the warrior band. But there are ordeals of entry to this exclusive group.

‘Judas Bomb’ (1961): A post-apocalyptic future where youth gangs have taken over America. Few adults remain alive…. And the youth end their lives — often fighting other gangs — by the age of twenty. Netta is the head of the Hypettes, the female members of the Hypos gang. Netta and Johnny set out to steal a bomb from a rival gang. She’s the only one who has a plan… Despite the heroic intelligent female character whom we root for, the context of her actions and the outcome is purposefully nihilistic. A march towards inevitable entropy…

‘Piggy’ (1961): In the hands of a lesser writer this story would have been giggle inducing rather than deeply moving. A mysterious form descends from the sky and impregnates a mare on Theron’s farm. Theron, a young boy, becomes intensely attached to the offspring of this mating, a strangely proportion/weak/oddly pink horse-like creature named Piggy. Theron discovers that Piggy, despite its physical ailments, has other properties… Theron’s father on the other hand is frustrated that Piggy can’t pull a card or plow. I found this tale moving, and as with many of her others, on the surface deceptively simple.

‘Mister Da V.’ (1962): The narrator’s father hatches a money-making scheme to create a time machine and bring Leonardo da Vinci to the present. Instead of showing the world the great man, the father keeps him cloistered upstairs while he writes a book on Leonardo. The narrator and the narrator’s siblings find ways to communicate with Leonardo and soon he escapes downstairs. But Leonardo isn’t happy with his existence despite the growing knowledge that many of the marvels did in fact come to fruition.

‘The New You’ (1962): One of the best of the collection — this was recently included in Ian Sales’ list of 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women (although I would argue that ‘At Central’ is better)… ”Now — The New You” (p 109) the ad reads. All you have to do is buy the product and you will be transferred into a new body. Unfortunately, the old body still remains. Martha often pretends that she is more desirable and attractive. She even has conversations with her alter-ego, named Marnie, who possesses all the characteristics Martha wishes she had. Martha gives in and purchases the product. Marnie walks out of the box svelte, six inches taller, gorgeous, perfectly proportioned… Marnie and her husband become the center of attention, the talk of the town. But Martha still lives in the closet, eating chocolate, wandering around. A virulent and effective condemnation of commonly held conceptions of the relationship between beauty and worth. A particularly memorable and disturbing moment occurs when Marnie forces Martha to be a maid at their dinner party. Highly recommended.

‘Automatic Tiger’ (1964): Benedict means to get a present for his second cousin but when he brings home the incredibly expensive luxurious automatic, life-like, voice activated Royal Bengal Tiger he keeps it for himself. The Tiger seems to make Benedict more of a man…. And when their out running together he feels powerful, above the law. Soon he rises in the ranks at his business, successfully solicits his sultry secretary, the microphone that connects him to his tiger almost always around his neck. But soon he forgets about Ben the Tiger who gathers dust in the corner, whose luxurious whiskers droop and break. Explores similar themes as ‘The New You’.

‘I am Through with Bus Trips’ (1967): This contains neither fantastic or speculative elements and is the sole disappointment of the collection. The narrator, a cheerleader in grade school, wages a war against her history teacher Mr Armitage. Rivalries, cheerleaders, football players, etc — not my cup of tea.

‘Golden Acres’ (1967): Nelda and Hamish leave their home — compelled by their children — and head to a retirement home. The benefits promised are spectacular including around the clock medical care (and a hospital called The Tower of Hope), nice residences, tons of potential friends, clubs and societies. But then they arrive they discover that there are stringent rules on bedtimes and dinnertimes. “No clutter!” Mr Richardson proclaims sweeping their family photos away from sight…. Nelda and Hamish soon discover Golden Acres’ less golden core — is escape even possible? A satirical take on our treatment of elders.

‘At Central’ (1967): The best story in the collection. In an overpopulated future those who are able to procure housing sit in front of their televisions with their doors barred. Whenever an ad appears the TV’s coin slot guarantees the product is quickly transported to your home. Want the dinner the actress is eating? Simply insert coins and the chute will deliver it in no time… Experience the world through the TV. Van has a childhood crush on the actress Missy Beaton who winks at him through his personal TV set. Little does he know that his journey outside in search of Missy Beaton will result in him learning how much the world has changed since they locked themselves inside their rooms to escape the press of the crowds.

‘Janell Harmon’s Testament’ (1967): A vaguely fantastical story about a woman who cleans an immense castle owned by an Italian. She spends her entire time moving from room to room cleaning — cleaning becomes an obsession. When she gives birth she fears for the state of the castle…. And the dust that seeps over everything and the smudges and mold and wrinkles and diminishing sparkle of the candlesticks. She argues that castle, and the work it embodies, compelled her to act violently.

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

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.