Title: 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
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.