Science fiction, why not? | Beamer Books

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The Future, circa 1965 …

With our hundreds of years (combined!) of reading science fiction, it is hard to believe that much could have escaped the collective intelligence of the Beamers.  Until we came face to face with the history of female authors who labored long and were, in many cases, complete surprises to us.  Editor Lisa Yaszek complied 25 stories, spanning the 1920s to the 1960s (terminating with Ursula Le Guin), to give us a good lesson on the contributions of women to speculative literature.  Would we take careful notes and pass the exam, or would we goof off and flunk out of fandom?

The Future, where we will spend the rest of our lives ….

The Future is Female! is an anthology of science fiction (and related) stories, edited by a professor of science fiction (at Georgia Tech) and past president of the SF Research Association, Lisa Yaszek.  Published by Library of America, it is a handsome volume, and it has a companion volume focusing on the Second Wave feminist sf of the 1970s.  Plus, Library of America has supported the volume with extra stories, interviews, background articles about the authors, their lives, and their other works.  The Beamers thus were given an opportunity to get deep into the contributions made by women to the sf field, especially when we did not know it already.

Or were able to recall it.  One of the most pleasant experiences for us in reading this anthology was recognition and re-encountering works that still could trigger memories.  Roberto talked about “Nine Lives” by Le Guin coming right back into focus as soon as he saw the word ‘tenclone’.  And the Marion Zimmer Bradley/John Jay Wells collaboration, “Another Rib”, sprang up with a single image, a scene of characters on a hill looking over the settlement of the last remaining humans.  I had to concur, as I had the dual pleasure of reading both stories I remembered fondly (“Ararat” by Zenna Henderson, say) or reading new stories that impressed me with their emotional force or their exuberance, whether comic or tragic or a slice-of-life mixture of both (“Car Pool” by Rosel George Brown). 

The grassroots are always greener

Not to say that all was solar radiation and botanic efflorescence.  The mission of the book to survey a stretch of literature from its early beginnings in the 1920s is sure to include some works that are of their time and not terribly good pieces for ours.  The first two stories suffered from their “pulp” roots in that regard, relying on the type of authorial trick (Earth’s insect-slaying humans are talking to the giant insects of Venus!) that has lost most of its interest for contemporary readers.  Even later stories could be a bit too “on the nose” when the social concern (racism, homophobia, overpopulation) has changed or become more nuanced in current literature.  But a lot of the classics, like Judith Merril’s last-minute surprise “That Only a Mother”, retain their power to shock and upset.

Perhaps the best example was Catherine (C. L.) Moore’s seminal sword-and-sorcery tale, “Black God’s Kiss”.  Published originally in Weird Tales, the home of Robert Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith, it is a phantasmagoric trek into a dark underworld in search of vengeance.  Penn quoted several of its more descriptive and eldritch passages (“a round tower of sheeted luminance, as if walls of solid flame rose up from the ground”) with glee.  Chris was unsurprised to learn of its publishing history, given his sense of how close it came to Howard and Lovecraft.  Roberto saw its influence on every dungeon crawl in table-top roleplaying.  And it still had the ability to stop some of us while reading to shake off a chill of fear.  What also stopped us was the very end of Jirel’s journey, where she falls weeping over her dead rival.  Was that remorse over her contact with primal evil, or was it a romantic sop to her womanly heart?  We debated, but we did not decide.  Perhaps we need to read the sequel, “Black God’s Shadow”.

Nature and/or nurture?

The actual role of gender was another point for us to chew on.  With few exceptions, the stories tend not to address gender issues, roles, or boundaries, except explicitly in the Bradley/Wells “Another Rib”, which male pregnancy tale is streaked with homophobia, or in more strident terms of “war between the sexes” style, as with the early (1931) “The Conquest of Gola” by Leslie Stone, where the females of Venus mentally dominate the invading males of Earth. One good debate came from Leslie Perri’s “Space Episode” (1941), a short piece about a woman sacrificing herself to save a spaceship.  It seemed to me to be the woman’s perspective on the situation used in the notorious sf classic, “The Cold Equations” (1950), and so should be at least as well-known as the latter story.  Roberto found the male characters to be overly incapacitated by cowardice for the story to be workable, but that portrayal of weakness might have been necessitated by the publishing demands of the times. Fran appreciated the agency of the female characters in the stories, women who acted instead of merely reacted.  In general, Alan found it hard to say if the stories were giving any insight into gender and science fiction, even failing to highlight the distinctiveness (if any) of women authors.  Except perhaps “Black God’s Kiss”, where several of us thought that a male author would have put a dagger into Jirel’s hand instead of tears on her cheeks.

Whatever we carried in our hands, we found a lot to enjoy in The Future is Female!, with the biggest fault perhaps being too much of a good thing, leaving Fran still working on finishing the book.  And she would like to finish it.  The overall rating we awarded was a pretty uniform ‘7’, mainly stemming from the clash between being a survey and being a celebration, which pushes the reader towards and away from the rougher patches that may give the truer take on the history of women in sf.  And it looks like we have a lot of inspiration for future books (The Best of C. L. Moore being at the top of the list).  So, even if it is not the future in general, at least the future Beamer reading list is female!

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