Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersTitle: Broken Monsters
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
Umuzi
Published:
 July 2014
Genre: 
fantasy, crime, horror
Source: 
Umuzi
Rating:
 
8/10

I think Lauren Beukes has hit her stride with crime fiction, or at least her distinct brand of crime fiction – a kind of character-driven, urban-fantasy crime thriller with elements of horror. The Shining Girls was like no other crime novel I’d ever read, and now I’m glad to find something similarly fresh but with a totally different story.

Like The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters juggles multiple POVs, a large cast of great characters, and explores the intricacies of an American city (this time it’s Detroit). Beukes uses the killer as a POV character again, which means there’s no mystery as to who he is, but you do have the opportunity to see him work and experience his insanity more intimately. And, like Harper Curtis in The Shining Girls, Clayton Broom is driven by a force he doesn’t understand and cannot control.

This time though, the killer isn’t trying to snuff out brilliance but create art. The figure on the cover of the South African edition is a representation of the body that sets the story in motion – the top-half of a ten-year-old boy, fused to the bottom half of a deer. But the cover achieves what the killer does not – it is art, with a sense of beauty and magic and life. The boy in the novel is dead and butchered and he’s never going to leap like the killer intended.

Detective Gabriella Versado investigates the crime scene after a rookie discovers the body, and she’s put in charge of the case. Gabi is a single mom and has a slightly uneasy relationship with her teenage daughter, Layla. They can get on pretty well, but Gabi’s always working, and Layla is a typically feisty teenager going through more than the usual troubles. Her best friend Cas has cooked up a scheme for trapping an online sex predator, and you just know it’s not going to turn out the way they expect it to.

TK is a homeless guy who survives by scavenging the abandoned buildings of Detroit. He’s a good man who tries to help others and makes an effort to improve himself, but you know that, sadly, he’s never going to get over the rough start he had in life.

Jonno is, in some ways, like his polar opposite. While TK does meaningful work, and makes real connections with people, Jonno made a living as a blogger writing the kinds of clickbait lists we see on the internet everyday: “‘10 Rules for the New Gentleman’s Guide To Dating’ […] It’s all chum to pull in the likes” (57). He recently fucked up his life and his career, and now he’s in Detroit, ransacking the pretentious hipster scene for the edgy content that will rack up enough likes for his ex-girlfriend to notice.

If TK comes across as an unassuming, unrecognised hero, then Jonno is a kind of thoughtless villain. He isn’t the murderer, but when he finds out about the bizarre killings, he sees his chance to become a social media celebrity. He jeopardises Gabi’s investigation in his relentless bid to make the most horrifying, sensational information public, meanwhile spouting bullshit about finding the truth for the sake of the people.

Social media is a major theme in the novel and forms part of the structure of its narrative. Beukes uses chats, texts, Facebook messages and other digital communication – sometimes in text-speak and/or barely coherent ranting. Issues of privacy in a social media age become important plot points and have profound effects on the characters and their relationships.

The novel also happens to be a great police procedural, capturing the realities of being a cop in “The. Most. Violent. City. In. America” (9) and getting into the weirder information required for the investigation, like the meat glue used to fuse the boy and the deer, or the process of taxidermy. Beukes has clearly done her research, and it pays off.

Equally well-crafted are the characters. If shows like True Detective or Broadchurch appeal to you, where the narrative takes its time to develop the characters instead of focusing only on the murder investigation, then you might like Broken Monsters for the same reason.

Rather than give you a general overview, I thought I’d take an in-depth look at a few small details. On the very first page, while Gabi is checking out the body that sets the whole story in motion, we learn a lot about her relationship with Layla. She happens to think about the myth of “mothers and daughters bonding over fat-free frozen yoghurts” and counters it with her own feeling that “the best conversations she has with Layla are the ones in her head” (9).

So there’s a longing for Gabi and Layla to be a cute, quirky mother-daughter pair, perhaps something like the Gilmore Girls, but we’re immediately told that that idea is a fantasy. When we later see Gabi and Layla together, it’s clear that they could make a great team (I love the line “don’t forget the code to the gun safe, beanie, just-in-case” (26)), but there’s always a fundamental disconnect between them.

This is illustrated on the other two pages of the brief opening chapter. The hybrid body reeks, and Gabi is with a rookie cop who is hanging back because of the smell. She offers him some fruity lipgloss that she bought for Layla, to smear on his upper lip:

“Here,” she offers, fishing a small red tub of lipgloss out of her pocket. Something she bought at the drugstore on a whim to appease Layla. A candy-flavoured cosmetic – that’s sure to bridge the gap between them. “It’s not menthol, but it’s something.” (10)

Again, I love what this says about the characters. Gabi is trying to be thoughtful by buying her daughter a little gift, but she doesn’t hesitate to give some of the lipgloss to a colleague. When she later gives it to Layla, her daughter immediately scoffs, pointing out that it’s just a scam and doesn’t do your lips any good. At the same time though, she’s thinking about how she’d actually like to use some of the lipgloss. A few lines later, she complains rudely that she doesn’t want to hear Gabi’s cop stories, while texting her friend Cas and admitting that she actually likes the stories.

Another interesting thing about the lipgloss detail is that it plays a role in the depiction of Gabi’s character and her relationship with the rookie cop. She’s not actually trying to help him – as Layla snarkily points out later, rubbing menthol or whatever on your upper lip won’t cover the smell of a body (she watches the crime channel). Gabi’s playing a prank on the rookie because he’s an FNG – Fucking New Guy. Because the lipgloss has glitter in it, the squad ends up calling him “Sparkles”. At first Gabi tries to brag about her prank to Layla (who isn’t interested) but later she feels bad about embarrassing the guy because he proves to be a conscientious, observant police officer. That affects the way Gabi treats him later in the story, and subsequently affects the way she thinks about herself, so that that random thing with the lipgloss ends up being meaningful all the way to the end of the novel.

I really appreciate this sort of writing – it’s clever, it’s thoughtful and it makes good use of the words (and thus of the effort we put into reading them).

Oh and, in case you were wondering, this is definitely a fantasy novel. I haven’t gotten into the details of how it’s fantasy, because for most of the story it’s quite a subtle thing, hovering between symptoms of madness and the decidedly supernatural. Sometimes I only realised later that a certain event had had a supernatural influence. If this isn’t enough of a fantasy element for you, then just be patient and brace yourself for the ending.

Giveaway: Gridlinked by Neal Asher

Guys, I need to clear some space on my shelves, so I’ll be giving a few books free to good homes. Can you help me out?

First on the list is Gridlinked by Neal Asher (2001), book one in the Agent Cormac series.

Gridlinked

Blurb on the back:

A technician passing through the runcible of Samarkand at a fraction below light speed causes a fusion explosion that kills thousands and obliterates a terraforming project. Earth Central sends agent Cormac to investigate.

Cormac must find a resolution without the support of the AI grid, for thirty years of being gridlinked have left him devoid of humanity. But he does have the help of Shuriken, a throwing star with a mind of its own, as well as Golem combat androids and the ambivalently motivated ‘dracomen’. And he’ll need all the help he can get as he’s being tracked by a vicious psychopath, backed by augmented mercenaries and a killing machine called Mr Crane…

To enter:
1. Follow me on Facebook or Twitter.
2. Leave a comment on this post (and leave the name or Twitter handle you used to follow me, if it differs from the one you use here).

Rules:
– I plan to do several of these, so for budget reasons this giveaway is currently limited to South Africa.
– Entries close at midnight on Thursday 4 June.
– The winner will be selected randomly and announced on Friday.

I have to thank the good people at the South African offices of Pan Macmillan for sending me this book years ago, and offer my apologies for not getting around to reading it. Hopefully it’ll go to someone more appreciative :)

Gridlinked detail

Book Lounge Launch of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes

Last night was the launch of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes, and I think it’s quite possible that I was there because of this gorgeous cover:

GL Full

I splurged on the first edition because it’s a stunning piece amidst the generic or boring covers that most books get, and because I’ve slowly been building a collection of favourite and beautiful books in hardcover. For me, the cover can be a major selling point, the reason that I’ll spend extra for the best possible edition instead of waiting for it to hit the bargain bins, opting for a cheaper eBook (if there is one) or borrowing it from the library.

Having bought a first edition, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to get it signed, so off I went to the Book Lounge, where some dedicated soul had reproduced the cover on the window:

Gl window display

I wasn’t just there to indulge my book fetish of course; I love hearing authors talk about their work, and Rose-Innes had a great discussion with Hedley Twidle, a lecturer in English Language and Literature at UCT.

GL Launch

You can read Twidle’s review of Green Lion over at Books LIVE. I loved the observation he made at the beginning of the conversation: he referred to Ivan Vladislavić’s quote on the cover, which says that the novel is “as full of life as the Ark”, and noted that the ark is, of course, full of the very last of all types of life.

That grim paradox seems perfect for Green Lion. It’s set in a future where many more wild animals and environments have been lost, and Table Mountain has been fenced off as a kind of ark where surviving species are preserved. Rhodes Memorial has become a research institute where attempts are being made to bring animals back from extinction, like the attempt to bring back the quagga. It’s the home of Sekhmet, the last living black-maned lioness, at least until she mauls someone and escapes. Con, a friend of the man who was mauled, travels up the mountain to track her down.

This was the inciting image, says Rose-Innes – a man travelling up a mountain, finding revelation, and coming back down. What she did then was fill in all the human impulses leading up to that. She described the story as wedge-shaped – it begins with all the chaos of human complexity, then narrows to focus on one moment of disaster and transcendence.

IMG_0041

It’s also a novel about Table Mountain and Cape Town, but she sought to subvert the usual images and approach it from a fresh perspective. The wilderness she depicts is hybrid and corrupt, abutted by human construction. Having destroyed so much, people are now fenced off from nature in an attempt to save it. Rose-Innes describes it as the poignant human impulse to stop death, but emphasises that that cause is fraught with contradiction. We seek to preserve animals not for their own sake but because of the emotional and symbolic meaning they hold for us. Animals are fetishized and idealised, symbolising what is beautiful, meaningful and lost, but these ideas are divorced from the reality of the animals themselves. We need to rethink our ideas of pristine nature, which often exists in isolation from nature. I’m guessing then, that this is how a man gets mauled in the beginning of the novel – because his idea of the lion is a fantasy far-removed from the reality of a dangerous carnivore.

IMG_0061

The term “green lion” comes from a similar sort of mysticism. In alchemy, Rose-Innes explained, green lion (possibly sulphuric acid) is a substance used in the creation of the philosopher’s stone – the ultimate goal of alchemy. The reference to this fruitless quest parallels the implausibility of bringing dead things back to life in the novel.

The novel is a bleak vision of loss, says Rose-Innes, and that makes me a little apprehensive about reading it, because environmental destruction and extinction are issues that I find deeply disturbing. At the same time though, I’m fascinated by the portrayal of our relationship with animals. Our use of animals as tourist attractions has always bothered me. I hate zoos. I’ve never been especially interested in game drives. I love animals, so I’m grateful that these things play a role in conservation, but most people aren’t interested in conservation for its own sake; they just want to protect the animals they like. So it’s always the beautiful or majestic endangered animals that are chosen to represent conservation projects, because no one would care about some dull brown bird or ugly frog, regardless of its role in the ecosystem. And what happens if we lose that emotional connection to animals and environments? There’ll be no respect for life to back it up.

So, death and futile conservation. Not a happy subject, but I’m keen to see how the book tackles it. Perhaps the beauty of the book itself can help me handle whatever lies in its pages.

 

GL Umuzi

Daily Reads: 5 May 2015

BM bag

Sjoe, I haven’t done one of these for a while! Time to get back into the swing of things. The past month was a bit slow in terms of reading, but I do have a review of Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes in the works and I got my sister Ruth to take a few shots of the book, as you can see above and on the cover of my Facebook page.

I’ve been slacking on my online reading, so yesterday I took some time out to see what had been posted recently. One of the most notable things to pop up on my feed was Cat Hellisen’s new novel Charm, which is available for FREE on her blog in serial form. Here’s the synopsis:

Irene Kerry thinks she’s dealing with her mother’s suicide just fine until the day her best friend Rain falls in love with a much older man. A man who knew her mother, and believes Irene is a magician like her. In order to protect her friend and family, Irene must hunt an ancient magician who steals and eats magic, and discover the truth behind her mother’s life and death.

The first chapter of twenty-two went up on Friday, and subsequent chapters will be posted every Wednesday. If you don’t want to wait, you can buy the whole book on Smashwords.

If you enjoy read-alongs, you’re a Jacqueline Carey fan, or you’ve always wanted to read Kushiel’s Dart, there’s a great read-along starting this week with some of the awesome bloggers who I’ve joined for previous read-alongs. You can find the schedule here. Leave a comment if you want to be added to the mailing list. If you’re interested in this and other read-alongs, you can also join our new Goodreads group – SF/F Read Alongs – to keep in touch.

Then I went trawling for interesting articles on sff. I loved Jennie Goloboy’s article “Never Enough Farmers! Class and Writing Fantasy Novels” in this month’s issue of Apex Magazine. She writes about the way fantasy authors tend to project their modern, middle-class values onto pre-industrial societies where those values or assumptions would never fit. For example, there’s too much focus on towns and cities, given that most people would have been farmers. Too many characters focus on time even though people in that sort of period wouldn’t have had the technology to keep track of time – “none of that ‘I have fourteen summers’ please – that’s still too precise!” she says.

Goloboy proposes a fantasy about a farmer who never leaves the farm. It probably wouldn’t be epic fantasy, but there are lots of place-bound genres – horror, mystery, Gothic, romance. And I think that sounds like a great idea. I think an author like Tom Holt, who also happens to be a historian, could do something amazing with that.

Finally, Foz Meadows has an article about The Importance of Writing Sex Scenes, and things to consider when writing them. I particularly like her comments about the way scenes of positive consensual sex are typically considered gratuitous or taboo while scenes of bad sex, sexual assault or rape are not:

it’s often assumed that positive, consensual sex scenes serve a strictly pornographic function, such that, unless you’re actively trying to titillate your audience, the only sex that ought to appear in other genres is bad sex, or sexual assault, or rape. The logic here is maddening: that only violent, unpleasant or non-consensual sexual encounters can have such a transformative, narratively relevant effect on the characters that you’re justified in showing them in detail, rather than simply fading to black or leaving it up to the reader’s imagination.

[…] if you feel comfortable including rape, sexual assault, bad sex or sex that only one party enjoys in your stories, but aren’t similarly willing to write positive, consensual sex scenes, too, because you think they’re too porny or irrelevant, then you’re a hypocrite.

[…] to the extent that you’re willing to include sexual content at all, it makes no sense – and is, I’d argue, actively problematic – to restrict yourself to purely negative depictions across the board. Sex in all its forms can serve a narrative purpose, and if it also happens to be titillating sometimes, then so what? Literature is meant to make us feel things, and I see no reason bar a culturally ingrained sense of puritan shame that arousal should be considered a less valid, worthy response to evoke than fear, or grief, or horror.

And that’s it from me today guys. I hope I’ve given you some good reads and interesting ideas to chew on. It looks like it’s about pour with rain on this grey day in Cape Town, so I’m going to brew another cup of coffee and get into the grim details of Broken Monsters.

Happy reading!

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments.

Photography for this post is courtesy of Ruth Smith. You can view or buy her work here, follow her on Facebook or contact her at photobunny24@gmail.com.

Two Serpents Rise read-along: Final

Two Serpents RiseIt’s the final week of the the Two Serpents Rise read-along! Things suddenly got very brutal and bloody, although that’s exactly what you’d expect when you’re reading a book based on Aztec mythology. Nothing I couldn’t handle, but I did have a few issues with the way certain things turned out. Luckily, our host, Lynn from Little Lion Lynnet’s, set some questions that let me get to grips with what happened. Please let me know what you thought in the comments.

This section naturally covers all the final events of the book, so don’t even look at the questions if you want to avoid spoilers!

____________________

1. I think we all pegged Mal as being involved with whatever is going wrong in Dresediel Lex after the way Book 3 ended last week. How do you feel about discovering how deep that involvement goes?

The massacre at Bay Station was a shock; I didn’t expect that she’d go right back there and slaughter everyone. It was an entertaining kind of shock, but it bothers me. Caleb showed Qet to her as a surprise; she didn’t seem to know the god was still alive, where he was, or how to get there. Did she just decide to kill him, cut off the water supply and send the city into a rioting panic on the spur of the moment? If Caleb hadn’t shown her Qet, what would she have done? Surely she should have been busy doing it, preparing for the rise of the serpents, not going on a pre-apocalypse date with Caleb.

And it’s not like she just decided to cut off the water supply in addition to whatever else she was planning – it was an essential step that crippled RKC and left the Red King unable to fight back.

Plot holes aside, I’m not quite sure how I feel about Mal’s role. It was no surprise that she was the villain and I loved that she was, but I expected her to be a more sympathetic. Instead she ends up being the psycho vengeance monster who can’t be reasoned with and has to die. At one point it’s stated outright that this is what motivates her:

She was rage, dying, and born again she was vengeance.

 

I find that a bit simplistic, given the scope of her plan and the nobility of her commitment to saving the world. Maybe it’s a way of making it easier for the reader to side with Caleb and accept Mal’s demise? She’s at least a bit more complex than Denovo in the first book, but I would have liked the narrative to be more sympathetic towards Mal and made the reader feel genuinely dreadful that either she or Caleb had to lose. Personally, I didn’t really feel bad about it even though I mostly agreed with what she was trying to do.

She’s not that different from Caleb, Temoc or Kopil though. Each of them is so set in their convictions that they can’t be swayed, except perhaps for Caleb and Kopil, at the very end. Was Mal’s decision to take down RKC so different from Kopil’s decision to fight the gods or Temoc’s terrorist activities? Is her hatred for RKC any different from Caleb’s hatred of the gods? And, as it turns out, her ideas are actually great, which is why Caleb adopts them at the end. She was doing the right thing, just in the wrong way.

I was thinking a while back about how “mal” in French means “wrong” or “immoral”, and you see it in English words like “malfunction”, “maladroit”, “malpractice”. In the South African language Afrikaans, “mal” literally means “mad” or “crazy”, referring to both anger and insanity. At the time I thought maybe it was a bit too obvious if Mal were a psycho villain, but… yeah.

 

2. Caleb and Temoc have to work together to save Dresediel Lex (and the world) from certain destruction. Do you think they make a good team?

No, not really. I mean they did a decent job of working together for a while, but neither of them can compromise for the other. Caleb refuses to sacrifice even one person to safe Dresediel Lex, even if the sacrifice is willing. Temoc agrees to Caleb’s plan, but this turns out to be a ruse to allow him to sacrifice Teo. Temoc also refuses to use an optera because it goes against his religious principles, which is a bit ludicrous given that he’d just tried to convince Caleb to kill someone. And then they end up beating the crap out of each other… They can work together, but they’re a terrible team.

 

3. What do you think of the narrative’s overall treatment of Teo? Especially in light of her role in the finale?

This is actually something that’s been bothering me very slightly throughout the book, although I wasn’t quite sure how to articulate it or if it was worth discussing, so I didn’t say anything. I immediately liked Teo, but I got the sense that she was there to be a helper of some sort – for the reader, for Caleb, for the plot. The first thing she does in the book is explain a key aspect of Caleb’s character – that he’s become afraid to take risks and his life is a bit dull. Then she pops up whenever he needs to talk, providing an opportunity for conversations that the reader needs to hear. She’s Caleb’s best friend and she works at RKC, so Caleb is free to discuss pretty much anything with her.

She has other traits that seem to exist for their own sake, making her a fuller character, but then these things all end up being what makes her the perfect sacrifice for Temoc – lesbian (so never had sex with a man, supposedly), noble blood, feisty, brave, committed. On the one hand, I loved that twist and thought it was quite clever. I totally didn’t see it coming, and it was all so neat in a way I quite like. On the other hand, Teo ended up being used for the narrative’s convenience, again. I like it, but I don’t like it. Is it efficient writing, or is Teo used as a plot device? I don’t know.

But what the fuck is up with this virgin sacrifice crap? I get the stupid purity thing, but how is Teo more “innocent” because she’s never had sex with a man? Even if she’s really never had sex with a man (something Temoc just assumed) I don’t consider her a virgin, and I hardly think she would call herself one. And surely it’s the physical and emotional intimacy of sex that changes you, not the physical act of penetration by a penis? Does Temoc know anything about lesbian sex? Anyway, the whole thing is a crock of bullshit.

 

4. In the epilogue Caleb seems to have found a way to compromise between the ways of his father and the new world brought about by the God Wars. Do you think he’ll succeed in his goals?

Yeah, I think he will, given that he has Kopil’s support. Also, it might have some major benefits other than sustainability, like opening the oceans to travel and industry again. Caleb mentioned that, without the gods, the sea was just too dangerous for fishing, but with his new scheme he might be able to fix that.

 

Overall, I didn’t like this as much as the first book. It’s not bad, and I’d keep reading the series, but i wouldn’t get terribly excited about it.

 

LOLs
Things get pretty serious at the end, but I had a few little laughs:

– “You did not tell me you were seeing anyone.” [Temoc, when Caleb tells him that his girlfriend is the villain. The absurdity of this man expecting Caleb to keep him up to date on his personal life :D]

– “I apologize for hitting you.” Temoc bowed his head. “I do not relish striking women.” “Thank you,” Teo said with a cold edge, “for your condescending, sexist apology.” [Yay Teo!]

– Temoc, Priest of All Gods, sipped water from a blue coffee mug emblazoned with the words “World’s Best Daughter” above a picture of a goddess suckling a serpent. [This city is weird.]

– “The trouble with atheism,” Temoc said, “is that it offers a limited range of curses.” [A lot less guilt though.]

The Feminine Future edited by Mike Ashley

The Feminine FutureTitle: The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers
Editor: Mike Ashley
Published: 18 March 2015
Publisher: Dover Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, short stories
Rating: 4/10

As editor Mike Ashley notes in his introduction, it’s often assumed that women only recently started writing science fiction, despite the fact that Frankenstein, one of the first works regarded as sf, was written by a woman. The Feminine Future attempts to dispel that misconception with a collection of sf short stories by women, published between 1873 and 1930.

You probably won’t know most of the authors (I’d only heard of Edith Nesbit), but there are some historic names here. Clare Winger Harris was the first woman to contribute to the first sf magazine, Amazing Stories, and several of the other authors here made regular contributions to the early pulp magazines.

Many of these women were among the first to explore new ideas. Edna W. Underwood was inspired by the increased use of anaesthetics when she wrote “The Painter of Dead Women”, where drugs are used to preserve the human body in a comatose state. The light-hearted “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” by Elizabeth W. Bellamy was published at a time when many new inventions were being patented and, like other stories of that period, it takes a humorous approach to “madcap inventions that go awry”. In “The Ray of Displacement”, Harriet Prescott Spofford uses ideas about atomic theory to imagine a device that dissipates matter, allowing an individual to walk through walls. “The Artificial Man by Clare Winger Harris is one of the first stories about an augmented human or cyborg.

Historic details aside though, it’s worth noting that this is not, in fact, a feminist anthology. Only a few of the stories are gender-conscious or have feminist themes. Most of them have male protagonists. Some of them don’t even have female characters. I’m not trying to suggest that female writers have a duty to write feminist fiction – they don’t – but if that’s what you’re looking for, be warned that you’re not going to get it.

The stories that are openly feminist tend to take a simplistic approach to gender. In “A Divided Republic – An Allegory of the Future” by Lilli Devereux, women get so fed up with men that they set up their own society. With no one to either nag them or take care of them, the men go out and get drunk whenever they want, never shave, and live in filth. On the women’s side, there’s no drinking, everything is pretty and well organised, but it’s a tad boring.

“Friend Island” by Francis Stevens also suggests that women are rather delicate in some ways, even when they’re in power. In the world of the story, it’s long been established that women are superior to men. A lowly little man boldly goes to a tea shop where female engineers and pilots like to hang out, and, ignoring the stares, buys an old sailoress a cup of tea and a plate of macaroons in the hope of hearing some of her stories. She tells him about the time she was stranded on a sentient island. She could tell, from the island’s behaviour, that it was a “lady” which is why her volcano erupted when a man came to the island and swore too much. Ladies, apparently, cannot abide swearing. Even when they’re islands. And, again, women just naturally choose tea over alcohol. How cute.

There’s another matriarchal society in “Via the Hewitt Ray” by M.F. Rupert, and I sort of liked this one for being adventurous, but with some serious reservations. A man travels to another dimension and, when he fails to return, his daughter, a pilot, goes to rescue him. She finds herself in a world with three vastly different societies, including a technologically advanced city of women who keep a few docile men around for reproduction and pleasure. One of the men gets sentenced to electroshock therapy and sterilisation for his insubordination, but the heroine saves him by asking if she can take him home for experiments. The women are in conflict with a more highly evolved race, and it’s decided that they’ll use the father’s tech to wipe out this super-intelligent race. The heroine gleefully helps them with this impromptu genocide and goes in, blasting enemies with a ray gun. She doesn’t feel bad because these people are so highly evolved that they’ve got giant heads to contain their giant brains and are therefore quite ugly. Later, she goes home with her sexy man-slave, and when he behaves too timidly, as he’s been taught, she yells at him and tells him to be a man, that men are superior to women (a lie to boost his confidence), and that he needs to bully any woman who disagrees with him. She then claims that she doesn’t mind being considered inferior by the “right man”. Overall, “Via the Hewitt Ray” was one of the most ridiculous stories I’ve ever read, topped only by other stories in this anthology.

And this brings me to the main reason I didn’t like this – it’s pulp fiction. And, as it turns out, I really don’t like pulp fiction. While it was interesting to see some of the early expressions of feminism in sf, no matter how absurd, there was little else about the anthology that interested me. The title suggests that these stories are gender-conscious, but it’s really more like a general collection of early pulp sf by women.

This gives it some distinctive and – depending on your tastes – unpleasant characteristics. For the most part, it’s all just silly. Obviously, it’s also dated. The writing is often stiff and formal (to my ear, at least) with many tedious infodumps, so some stories could be a real chore to read. Kooky science is to be expected, but there’s also a weird lack of rationality to the characters and plots.

It’s no surprise that the stories are conservative too, and I’m not just talking about the assumption that ladies don’t swear or drink. The Christian god is frequently invoked as a certainty, something that I never see go unquestioned in contemporary fiction. The religion remains benign, but some of the other conservative content is pretty offensive, usually because it involves the assumption that some people are naturally inferior to others. Sexism is rampant, even in the more progressive stories. One story is casually ableist: “The Artificial Man” by Clare Winger Harris, about a man whose lost limbs and other body parts are replaced by augments, is based on the premise that the title character is mentally and spiritually corrupted every time he loses part of his original body.

Racism rears its ugly head. Edith Nesbit’s story, “The Third Drug” begins with a man being attacked by “Apaches” – a term for muggers or gangsters, based on European assumptions about Native American Indians. “The Great Beast of Kafue” by Clotilde Graves not only refers to a “black man-ape” but also uses the word “kaffir”, a South African racial slur so offensive that its use is actionable in this country. I really felt that the editor should have written a footnote to accompany these slurs rather than allowing them to pass without remark. Or better yet, pick stories without racial slurs.

Then, as I mentioned there’s the genocide of the ugly smart people in “Via the Hewitt Ray”, which is not even the only thoughtless mass killing in the anthology. In “Creatures of the Light” by Sophie Wenzel Ellis (quite possibly the most absurd story in an anthology of absurd stories), the main character (sort of accidentally) wipes out an entire community, babies and children included, and doesn’t give this a second thought except to keep an eye out for survivors on the way back to the airship that will take him home. This story also includes an attempt at eugenic marriage, which the main character quite happily agrees to when he sees a picture of the beautiful woman who has been promised to him.

Did I like any of these stories? Well the first one, “When Time Turned” by Ethel Watts Mumford is quite touching. It’s about a man who experiences his life twice – once normally, and then in reverse, watching passively as his life rewinds. The idea is similar to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but was written twenty years earlier.

I also liked the end of “The Painter of Dead Women” by Edna W. Underwood, when the protagonist – a stunningly beautiful socialite – effortlessly escapes a serial killer through her athletic skill and endurance. Similarly, “The Ray of Displacement” by Harriet Prescott Spofford ends with a wonderful moral complication that I enjoyed more than the rest of the tale. I experienced most of the other stories in this way – I liked one or two aspects, but not the whole thing.

So yeah, if you already like pulp sf, this would be a good anthology for you, especially if you want to know more about women writers in the genre. But if, like me, you’re more interested in the feminist angle but aren’t a fan of pulp, you might not like it either.