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 In some respects, then, The Venus Factor is a curiosity, something of an historical document.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.

Xenogenesis, Miriam Allen deFord

162 Miriam Allen deFord Xenogenesis Ballantine069Xenogenesis, Miriam Allen deFord (1969)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Miriam Allen deFord – one of the more prolific SF short story authors of the 50s – 70s whose works appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, If, Fantastic Universe, Galaxy, Worlds of Tomorrow, etc – deserves a Gollancz Masterworks volume. But, as has been pointed out, despite the number of prolific female SF authors in the 50s – 70s they were rarely republished and are perhaps the least read group of SF authors for modern audiences. There are some exceptions but few readers can name a female author pre-Ursula Le Guin. deFord’s shorts were collected in only two volumes, Xenogenesis (1969) and Elsewhere, Elsewhen, Elsehow (1971) and both print runs were limited to the first year of publication.

Informed by her feminist activism (she was an important campaigner for birth control) and her earlier career in the newspapers, deFord’s stories tackle themes such as overpopulation, racism, colonialism, gender issues, sexism, and alienation. Her works range from deceptively simple allegories to future histories vast in scope and complexity (for short stories). Her female characters are almost all individualistic, resourceful, and highly educated – they often struggle against increasingly regimented/mechanized/homogenized societies in order to raise families in addition to their careers. In short, deFord advocates forcefully the right to self-determination for her heroines.

Likewise, African American characters who are highly educated and in positions of power, the antithesis of the standard race clichés of the time, proliferate her short stories. I found the strong social activist streak rather surprising considering the 40s/50s providence of some of the works… The only contemporary female SF author who I have who that comes close to the radical nature of some of the tales is Judith Merril (most notably, ‘Daughters of Earth’). It is important to keep in mind how early she is writing.

Despite a few duds (a characteristic almost of all short story collections), the majority are highly recommended. Her work deserves to be reprinted.

‘The Daughter of the Tree’ (1951) Miriam Allen deFord’s second published short story, more fantasy than SF proper, is an intriguing allegory. In late 19th century Indian country a white boy wandering the woods learns about a girl of who looks to be of “white-blood” yet lives with the Indians and is supposedly the “daughter of the tree”. The story is filled with so-called Native American speech, ie, “I little boy, he bring me” and “sometimes he give big potlatch”. The vaguely fantasy premise becomes an allegory of emotional and physical absence – a settler woman is forced to find companionship in a sentient tree rather than her often absent husband.

‘The Superior Sex’ (1968) deFord deftly turns the standard SF trope where a (generally male) writer postulates a future where the women are in power in order to construct a “warning” narrative (or titillating tale) of some sort – à la Edmund Cooper’s Who Needs Men? (variant title: Gender Genocide) (1972) – on its head. A man wakes up to discover he’s a member of an all-male harem for a proud, ferocious, tall “Viking Woman” (p 13). But, add in some implanted visions, investigations of “hidden psychological impulses” a female scientist investigates her husband who might wish he didn’t volunteer.

‘The Ajeri Diary’ (1968) An allegory of sex and imperialism, or perhaps, more specifically, the “gaze” of the west. The exosociologis narrator, voyages via the “Patterson Differential” equation that allows mater transmission, to “virgin” territory. Where, instead of conducting more scientific anthropological studies, he gathers experiences (of all sorts, including lots of sleeping with native women) to write his populist and scandalous series entitled “With Our Galactic Neighbors”, i.e. lots of sex with our all our sexy up to this point very similar to us galactic neighbors. Unfortunately, the planet of Algol IV is not conducive to the narrator’s “research.” A world where the men are not really “men” and the women “reproduce parthenogenetically” and have no sexual interest in him. A fun, if polemical, allegory of societal clash–definitely reads as a product of the late 60s.

‘Quick to Haste’ (1969) As with ‘The Ajeri Diary’ the insatiable sexual desire explorers feel towards “native” women is the thematic focus. But, there’s an intriguing twist that perfectly serves deFord’s satirical purpose. The world is “Earth-like” and “like a dream”. A paradise filled with scenes from Greek vases, images of classical glory…. Scout ships filled men (and occasionally women) spew out into the stars to combat overpopulation – the men fall for the native women (perhaps it is the plan). But the women on this planet seem to age at remarkable speeds and produce children in mere days. The world is the perfect world for interplanetary explorers seeking sexual fulfillment – not only will you not have to deal with long term attachment but any children you might beget will be adults before you leave.

‘The Smiling Future’ (1965) In an overpopulated and computerized world where every scrap, including ocean chlorella, is harvested to feed to populace an unusual “embassy? army?” from the sea emerges on the shore in individual tanks. Mankind is perplexed because the ocean dwellers are sentient dolphins! But little does mankind know that the dolphins too have evolved, and just as man is destroying the oceans to support their growing numbers, the dolphins have an equally sinister plan. A somewhat lacking, but enjoyable nevertheless, satire with ecological themes…

‘Gathi’ (1958) Thematically similar to ‘The Daughter of the Tree’, ‘Gathi’ is a wonderful parable of sentient trees who are literally “rooted” together. Explores the forces that compel women to follow certain paths, the “root” with certain people, to avoid leaving what is dictated by traditionalist forces. Moving away is against “denroid behavior” – the young female trees ought to find rooting companions. A mysterious caretaker of the grove moves at the outskirts reinforcing with blights and sterility those who do not conform.

‘The Children’ (1952) The longest story in the collection is one of the lesser ones despite a its grand scope of future history… Using Time Travel a scientist, after a devastating accident that killed the rest of his family, develops an experiment that will yield him children in the future. The rather ridiculous (and forced) premise does ruminate on gender relations of the future.

‘Throwback’ (1952) Not only of the better stories of the collection but perhaps the most sinister. In the far overpopulated future where both men and women are highly educated and have careers, a female artist of ceramics wishes for a child. In this world where humans are counseled by machines and only pre-selected women produce children she considered atavistic in her longings for a stable relationship with children and realizes that an undocumented pregnancy would result in serious repercussions. So she hatches a plan to escape after an accidental pregnancy – but deFord constructs no happy ending.

‘One-Way Journey’ (1955) An elderly couple in an overpopulated future relate how their son, Hal, signed up for a controversial program that sends young girls and boys off to the stars. He leaves them, or so they think, without progeny–not only will the program transform their child into something unrecognizable yet suitable for travel into space, but the restrictions on childbearing mean that Hal was unable to have a child on earth. A rumination on the pangs of separation, on disconnect from a traditional past, on atavistic desires (to reproduce, to have families) that resurface despite rigid legislation. I found that the ending is all too easy and avoids the issues at stake weakening the grim impact.

‘The Season of the Babies’ (1959) A hilarious satire on the clash of cultures. An alien world wants to be admitted to a Federation of Planets started by Earth. The Earth delegates arrive, everything seems to be going well, until a baby cries… Soon the entire alien way of reproducing and eating and living is uncovered, to the horror of the Earthmen. Deftly deploying a mix of elements from Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ and Montaigne’s ‘On Cannibals’, deFord presents the aliens as a hyperbolic foil for humans who practice “traditional” practices that seem abhorrent upon closer examination. But the humans too can not look beyond what they believe is the one and only way.

‘Featherbed on Chlyntha’ (1957) 4.5/5 Easily the best story in the collection, ‘Featherbed on Chlyntha’ is the journal of an Earthman snatched from a colony of Mars and stuck in an alien cage in a zoo. Unfortunately, he lusts after the alien feathered “women” who looks after him – deFord subverts the standard conqueror who lusts after the conquered paradigm. However, as he learns about their complex gender-relations – until a certain age everyone is female and after a certain age they become male – he loses sexual interests but his human-knowledge helps them unravel the reason for his abduction. Thankfully, not everything works out in the end! It is hard not to believe that writers such as Le Guin were inspired by stories such as this one.

‘The Transit of Venus’ (1962) Archeologists from the future uncover new clues about a particular scandal during the “rite of the Buticontest” (beauty contest) of the 21st century. The Buticontest is the obsession of Earth and all its colonies. All women desire to enter, and only those who are PhDs in the sciences and who won’t shrug at parading around naked in front of judges and thousands watching will be considered. The scandal, covered up forcefully by the horrified Buticontest officials, involved a woman drugged and cast-off by her family for her slightly more traditional ways who entered the pageant with faked credentials and a plastic skin-like body suit. The real reason for her deception has been uncovered!

‘All in Good Time’ (1960) Graduate students of the future are the only ones taught by real humans–all earlier levels of education is mediated by machines. Law students are presented with a case by the professor involving time-travel and bigamy. Only a young female law student knows the reason for the ruling…

‘The Absolutely Perfect Murder’ (1965) In a media saturated future where evenings spent with ones spouse equates both individuals tapped into different programs, doped-up on Sensapills, with hearing-plugs and directional conversation-glasses “smelling, tasting, feeling their favorite telecasts” a man resorts to killing his wife… Fortunately, a time-travel device has recently been invented. The husband spends his savings and vacation money for a one-time trip into the past. And discovers his wife’s secret – a lie that might save her life. The “disconnect of 50s domesticity” rumination devolves in all the standard directions as the story unfolds.

‘Operation Cassandra’ (1958) Fascinating premise with an average delivery. Only three people wake up in a vast Hibernatorium. The purpose of the facility was to preserve humans in a state of deep sleep until the end of a world-wide disaster. Unfortunately, the staff died and the power ran out leaving on a few alive–an African American Havard educated man, a college educated woman, a Danish college educated farmer, and a hardworking self-educated Southerner who serves as the narrator. What sort of society will they create? What about nascent racism? Unfortunately, the discovery of other survivors means that all the difficult questions have easy, and rather less radical, answers.

‘The Last Generation?’ (1946) Way before Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard (1964) or PD James’ The Children of Men (1992), deFord speculated along similar lines about the effects of mass sterility. An accident, presumably nuclear in nature, in New Mexico results in the inability for almost all of humanity to have children. First there’s panic and massive global searches for anyone who might be able to produce children and quacks take advantage and hawk “remedies.” Soon massive quantities of money is poured into the IARC (Ingrid Anderson Research Commissions), named after the youngest person on Earth, in order to find a cure. Even in this 40s vision, African Americans are scientists, and women are in positions of power… But, is it too late? Is this The Last Generation? But, we are left waiting, even the narrator does not know.

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