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Women of Wonder, Edited by Pamela Sargent

THE CLASSIC YEARS. Science Fiction by women from the 1940 to the 1970s
A Harvest Original, Harcourt Brace, 1995, 446 p, including 20 p Introduction by Pamela Sargent, 14 p “About the Authors”, 1 p “About the Editor”, 13 p Recommended Reading: Science Fiction by Women 1818-1978, and 2 p Permission Acknowledgements.

 Women of Wonder: The Classic Years cover

Since it covers some of the same ground it was odd reading this at the same time as All that Outer Space Allows. (I tend to read short fiction during the day and novels in the evening.)
In the Introduction Pamela Sargent traces the history of women writing SF which goes back a long way even if you discount Mary Shelley. It is true, though, that the profile of female SF writers certainly became more prominent in the 1970s. The stories in the book are listed on the contents page by the date when they were first published. I have included those dates below.
No Woman Born by C L Moore (1944) explicitly riffs on the Frankenstein story. Here a female dancer who died in a theatre fire has had her brain preserved and placed in a wonderfully supple metallic body so that she (it?) can continue performing. “‘The whole idea was to re-create what I’d lost so that it could be proved that beauty and talent need not be sacrificed by the estruction of parts or all of the body.’” The usual philosophical considerations apply.
In the war-ridden, radiation-raddled world of That Only a Mother by Judith Merril (1948) there has been an increase in the mutation rate, but the worst cases can be predicted and prevented. Infanticide committed by fathers is also on the rise. Margaret gives birth to a daughter while her husband is away on war service. The child is precociously gifted as regards cognitive development and speech. The father does not realise anything else might be amiss till he returns.
Contagion by Katherine McLean (1950) is set on a planet where a newly touched down expedition discovers previous settlers, who it turns out were severely affected by a disease they called melting sickness. Only certain genetic strains are able to survive.
In The Woman from Altair by Leigh Brackett (1951) the title character has been brought back from Altair as his wife by, David, one of the famous spacefaring MacQuarrie family. His brother Rafe, never eager to go into space, and his girl-friend Marthe begin to have suspicions when odd things start happening in the MacQuarrie household.
In a time of cold-war stress Short in the Chest by Margaret St Clair (1954) features the curious military custom of dighting, sexual encounters between members of the various armed services in order to relieve inter-service tension. Marine Major Sonya Briggs takes her problems with it to a huxley – a philosophic robot.
The box of Zenna Henderson’s The Anything Box (1956) is the invisible possession of Sue-lynn, a pupil in the narrator’s class. It nevertheless has weight and is where she goes to retreat from the world and find herself.
Death Between the Stars by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1956) is the tale of Helen Vargas, forced by circumstance and against all Terran norms and expectations to occupy the same cabin as a telepathic alien on her way back to Earth to avoid the outbreak of a war. The treatment of the alien by the prejudiced crew dismays her but its telepathic intrusions are equally disturbing. In death – brought on by its inhumane treatment – the alien finds a way to prolong its life, and study humans in secret.
The Ship Who Sang 1 by Anne McCaffrey (1961) is the story of the brain of a child malformed at birth but taken and grown inside a metal case eventually to become the controlling entity of a spaceship. She finds she can sing at any pitch and register.
The aliens in When I Was Miss Dow by Sonya Dorman Hess (1961) – who started her writing career as plain Sonya Dorman – can take various shapes at will and are able to be reconstituted in tanks. However, some of them are dependent on sulfadiazole which they can earn by working for humans. Our narrator reconstitutes as Miss Dow (recquiring her to have two brain lobes) and finds she is attracted to Dr Proctor, the human colony’s head biologist, whose assistant she becomes.
The Food Farm by Kit Reed (1966) is where our narrator is now in charge. Sent there by her parents to get over her addiction to binge-eating, a habit encouraged by hearing the singing of Tommy Fango on the radio, she rebelled when Fango visited and she was not allowed to see him, sought him out and discovered his main predilection, which she now seeks to fulfill.
The Heat Death of the Universe by Pamela Zoline (1967). “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 only occasionally given to obsessions concerning Time/Entropy/Chaos and Death.” Yeah, right. More like, “a woman’s work is never done” – and sometimes undoes her.
The Power of Time by Josephine Saxton (1971) uses the word Negro, likely to be frowned upon nowadays. It reverses the usual way of cross-Atlantic transactions. An English woman buys the whole of Manhattan island (previously owned by a descendant of native Americans) and transfers it to Leicestershire.
False Dawn by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1972) is set after an environmental apocalypse. A woman armed with a crossbow makes her way across the devastated landscape, trying to avoid the Pirates and mutant hunters. This contains the usual violent scenes accompanying such tales.
Nobody’s Home by Joanna Russ (1972) posits a future time of resource plenitude where people can travel the world at whim via transmission booths and hold parties willy-nilly. Leslie Smith turns up at one of these and puts a downer on it.
In The Funeral by Kate Wilhelm (1972) all non-citizens are the property of the state. This is a dystopia, with pre-echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale, where Carla has been brought up under the educational tenets of Madame Westfall. The funeral of the title is Westfall’s. She had hidden some secret knowledge the powers that be want to uncover. Carla finds the hiding place.
Vonda N McIntyre’s justly award-winning Of Mist and Grass and Sand (1973) tells of an incident in the life of a healer whose medicines are incubated by snakes before they bite the sufferer to “inject” the cure. Her clients of course fear her reptilian companions.
Another celebrated piece of feminist SF is The Women Men Don’t See2 (1973) published by Alice Sheldon under her pen name of James Tiptree Jr. Given that at the time of publication many thought “Tiptree” was a man, the story’s title is deliciously ironic. In it a plane with three passengers, our narrator Don plus a mother and daughter, goes down off the Yucatán peninsula. Don’s fantasies about female abilities are soon disabused as Ruth Parsons turns out to be very capable indeed. Also when he mentions women’s rights she tells him, “Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like … smoke. We’ll be back where we always were. Property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.” Sadly, probably only too true. However, the intrusion of aliens near the end into felt like it came from another story altogether.
The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons by Eleanor Arnason (1974) tells how a cigar-smoking, tea-drinking, silver-haired maiden of thirty-five in a world where the usual bad stuff is on the news writes the story of the title, a somewhat schlocky enterprise which will read as bad as it sounds.
In Ursula K Le Guin’s The Day Before the Revolution (1974) an old anarchist, inspiration to her followers remembers her life of struggle and ruminates on what it all means. “Favouritism, elitism, leader-worship, they crept back and cropped out everywhere. But she had never hoped to see them eradicated in her lifetime, in one generation; only Time works the great changes.” She also comments on how people see her. “How brave of you to go on, to work, to write, in prison, after such a defeat for the Movement, after your partner’s death, people had used to say. Damn fools. What else had there been to do? Bravery, courage – What was courage? She had never figured it out. Not fearing, some said. Fearing going on, others said. But what could one do but go on? Had one any real choice, ever?” Human and humane.
The Family Monkey by Lisa Tuttle (1977) is an oddly constructed tale told from four different viewpoints of the adoption by a couple in Texas of an alien who crashlands in their graveyard. He is effectively part of the family down several generations. The concept of sleep is alien to him but when he finally achieves that state he experiences the humans’ dreams – and some of them experience his. The story contains the word “nigger,” reflecting the time and place in which that scene was set.
A totally immune-compromised woman is the ideal choice for the first interstellar human traveller in View from a Height by Joan D Vinge (1978.) Her trip gives her a perspective on life.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“When they were forced to, Central Worlds shrugged its shoulders” (either ‘it was forced to’ or, ‘their shoulders”,) “sound issued through microphones rather than mouths” (microphones take in, they do not emit sound. Loudspeaker is the appropriate word,) “her throat microphone” (her throat loudspeaker,) “spoke to Jennan only through her central mike” (through her central speaker.) 2“A flock of ibis are circling us” (a flock of ibis is circling us.)

Anne McCaffrey

I discovered today that SF writer Anne McCaffrey has died.

I mentioned her briefly a few months ago in my review of Legends.

I wasn’t over familiar with her work – her only book on my shelves is Dragonquest from the old Corgi Master SF series. I also have her contributions to Roger Elwood‘s uneven Continuum series – in which McCaffrey’s stories were better than most. But hers was a high profile name in SF circles in my youth.

She has been quite prolific, though but most of her woek has passed me by.

Anne Inez McCaffrey: 1/4/1926-21/11/2011. So it goes.

Legends; edited by Robert Silverberg

Voyager, 1998, 591p.

This is a collection of fantasy stories set in the various worlds created by “the best known and most accomplished modern creators of fantasy fiction.” There are two cover paintings, the one above is in the normal orientation, one based on that on the right below being upside down on the back cover.

The Little Sisters of Eluria by Stephen King. (Set in the milieu of The Dark Tower.)

A gunslinger staggers into town with his knackered horse, which promptly dies. He gets beaten up by zombies and handed over to a set of nurses who wish to feed on him and is saved only by the medallion he removed from a dead body earlier.
I’ve never read any Stephen King before – horror isn’t much my thing – and after this I doubt I’ll be reading any more. I wasn’t drawn in, nor was I engaged with the main character at all and as a result didn’t much care what happened to him. This story also betrays an inordinate fondness for the word mayhap. Four instances in fifty pages is at least three too many. Arguably four.

The Sea and Little Fishes by Terry Pratchett. (A Discworld story.)

Granny Weatherwax is asked not to compete in this year’s Witch Trials because she always wins. She accedes, graciously, and everyone else is spooked.
I have read some Pratchett previously and this is the mix much as usual, competently written, diverting, but not earth shattering.

Debt of Bones by Terry Goodkind. (The Sword of Truth.)

A young woman petitions The First Wizard for help to rescue her husband and daughter who have been captured by the evil invaders the D’Hara. For reasons of his own the Wizard assents, but not without seeming reluctance. From there the story unfolds as you might expect, though Goodkind throws in the odd twist or two. The resolution depends on the utilisation of magic; which is always bothersome. If anything can be done (no matter the cost in terms of deterioration to the health of the caster of the spells) then nothing is of consequence. In short, where is the real peril? And why was the good magic not used long since to prevent the bad situation occurring? (Except, of course, to provide us with a story.) On a less philosophical note, just before the climax of the story – the obligatory pyrotechnics and illusions – one of the enemy sorceresses, a Mord-Sith – is, unconvincingly I would have thought, fixated on her immediate task and as a result is overcome too easily. But this is required for plot purposes. In addition, the story’s dénouement is not as dark as the setup warrants.
Goodkind is also new to me. While his writing is readable, I wasn’t moved to seek him out further.

Grinning Man by Orson Scott Card. (The Tales of Alvin Maker.)

Alvin Maker and his companion, Arthur Stuart, meet a man who enters grinning contests with bears. (The winner gains power over the other.) They then travel on to a small town where they at first – due to the grinning man’s lies – encounter mistrust but are accommodated by a miller with dodgy business practices which Alvin eventually reveals with the aid of a bear. The bear, with Alvin’s intervention, has taken the grinning man as a kind of slave. This all sounds bizarre but within the tale it has its own logic.
I have read Card before; and was never enthused by him. This is entertaining enough, but slight.

The Seventh Shrine by Robert Silverberg. (Majipoor.)

Lord Valentine, now Pontifex of Majipoor, delighted to escape The Labyrinth to which his position normally confines him, investigates a murder in the former capital of the aboriginal inhabitants of the planet, the shapeshifting Metamorphs. The Metamorph archaeologist Dr Huukaminaan (or Huukaminaam; the two spellings appear annoyingly interchangeable) has been found dismembered in an ancient Metamorph religious site. Lord Valentine eventually solves the puzzle of the untimely death.
Silverberg is one of my favourite authors. His early stuff was standard 1950s SF but since his re-entry into the field in the late 1960s he has been a major figure, even at his worst never less than interesting. (Silverberg’s worst is always technically accomplished and a cut above the best of most writers in the SF and fantasy fields.) The Majipoor tales, which are from relatively late in his career, are entertainment. The Seventh Shrine duly entertains. Not vintage Silverberg though.

Dragonfly by Ursula K Le Guin. (Earthsea)

Dragonfly is the first female ever to be admitted to the establishment on the island of Roke where mages are trained. The reasons for this, her journey to that point, the reluctance of some of the mages to accept her, are rendered with Le Guin’s characteristic sympathy and attention to detail.
Le Guin is my favourite author of SF/fantasy. Her understanding of the human condition is profound. Her characters’ motivations are always clear and understandable. She can even overcome my reluctance to engage with stories which feature dragons.

The Burning Man by Tad Williams. (Memory, Sorrow and Thorn)

A young woman, Breda, whose widowed mother remarried but died a few years later, tries to understand the remoteness at the heart of her stepfather, Sulis, a political refugee from a foreign country, but one who has retained a retinue of armed guards. The burning man of the title is one of the old Powers, summoned by a witch under duress in order to relieve Sulis of his existential angst.
Williams is also new to me. His writing here is impressive, particularly his invocation of the infatuated love affair Breda has with a young soldier, Tellarin. However, he gives his narrator a tendency not so much to foreshadow as to lay out future events. Fair enough, in that she is relating the defining time of her life from the perspective of old age but the habit was a more than a touch relentless and crucially failed to prefigure adequately Tellarin’s core and the choice Breda has to make at the climax.

The Hedge Knight by George R R Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire)

Dunk, squire to Ser Alan of Pennytree, takes over the old man’s possessions when he dies. Despite never having been dubbed he passes himself off as a hedge knight, Ser Duncan the Tall. He travels to a large tournament where he hopes to succeed in a challenge and thereby make his fortune. Along the way he picks up a stable lad, who seeks training as his squire. So far, so predictable. Martin, however, complicates and recomplicates his narrative – much as he does the larger Song of Ice and Fire cycle – to great effect. This world of aristocratic houses, heraldry, jousting, (some) chivalry and war, while a straight lift from history, seems to be rendered whole. Each walk on character is believable.* For a story this long, though, there are too many names. Too many Sers clump each other on the tournament field before we get to the point.
*Perhaps my familiarity with A Song of Ice and Fire helped.

Runner of Pern by Anne McCaffrey (Pern)

A young graduate carrier of messages between the various outposts of civilisation on Pern (the runner of the title) suffers a mishap in her first great long journey across the world. Her convalescence and medical treatment are described in detail as is her outfitting for the Gather to take place in the Hold where she is rehabilitating. There is little conflict, if any, only misunderstandings (telegraphed at that.) None of the characters are in any way wicked, sinful or bad. Nothing much happens here. Move on.
I read some McCaffrey many years ago, Dragonflight and The Ship Who Sang. This hasn’t encouraged me to enlarge that experience further.

The Wood Boy by Raymond E Feist (The Riftwar Saga)

Topped and tailed by a crude framing device which highlights the unreliable point of view in the main narrative this is the story of a young servant boy who survives the massacre of his household by another of its retainers and tracks the perpetrator (and the young girl who was his co-conspirator) both of whom die in the struggle that ensues when he catches up with them.

New Spring by Robert Jordan (The Wheel Of Time)

A long tale with two main viewpoint characters, Moiraine, one of the Aes Sedai who can channel powers and Lan, the now stateless King of the Malkieri, where a black sisterhood within the Aes Sedai is trying to prevent the coming of age of a boy who can channel. The familiar mayhem and bloodshed ensue. An unusual touch has a coup de grace in a magic duel not delivered by magic.

Feist and Jordan were also new to me but too generic for my tastes.

Overall I found this a bit of a slog. Some of the settings in Legends are arguably SF rather than fantasy ones but there is a tendency to stock mediævality in too many of the outright fantasies which I find both deadening and disheartening. Is the modern world so unappealing that the comfort of a hierarchical social order is a necessary palliative? Can no-one write a fantasy story set in the here and now?

But then, any sufficiently advanced magic would be indistinguishable from technology.

Legends II is on my tbr pile. It may be some while.

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