Saturday, 14 March 2015

Review: The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers

The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers
The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers by Mike Ashley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As someone who's interested both in early SF and women writers, I leapt at the opportunity to review this (via Netgalley). It didn't disappoint, although for some reason I had misunderstood and was expecting specifically feminist fiction. It's "feminine", not "feminist". There are a couple of proto-feminist stories, but most of the stories, written between 1873 and 1930, read very much like stories by men of the time.

The viewpoint (whether first or third person) is almost always a man's, notably, with a couple of exceptions. Did genre stories from a female POV not sell, or did the women of the time just not think of writing them?

The quality of the stories is generally high, though there is one - the fantasy of a frustrated suffragist in which all the women of the USA migrate to the west and set up their own republic there - which is almost entirely in "tell" mode, and more interesting because of its content than its form. The editing is good, with only five mostly minor errors that I noticed - not always the case with these collections of older works, which are often scanned from spotty pages and end up full of typos.

Overall, I notice a greater focus on relationships in many of the stories than is the case with stories by men of the time, something that's also apparent in the great C.L. Moore. I don't think I'm just reading that in. A lot of the SF stories by men of the 1870s to 1930s read as if written by adolescents, as far as the emotional background and connection of the characters is concerned. Many (not all) of these stories do considerably better - though not all of them were published in the pulp ghetto where SF was increasingly herded, a number of them appearing in more "literary" magazines.

Story by story, here's how it went down.

"When Time Turned" by Ethel Watts Mumford, 1901: Benjamin Button 20 years earlier, with an elderly man who is experiencing his life backwards. Not just a novelty "wouldn't it be rum if" story, but a moving account of the man's loves and losses, joys and sorrows. Told from the viewpoint of a (male) observer.

"The Painter of Dead Women" by Edna W. Underwood, 1910: Unusual among the stories in this volume, particularly the early ones, in that it's told from a woman's point of view (in first person), and the woman is very much a protagonist - as much as it looks as if she's going to be a victim.

"The Automaton Ear" by Florence McLandburgh, 1873: The oldest story in the book, and (like the first two) with a strong thread of insanity running through it. A scientist is obsessed with the idea of recapturing the sounds of the past. Male narrator, first person.

"Ely's Automatic Housemaid" by Elizabeth W. Bellamy, 1899: A technology-gone-wrong funny story, a genre still very much alive today. The frustrations of a middle-class household in getting competent servants seems to be solved when the (male) first-person narrator's friend offers them a pair of automatons. His wife and daughter don't do much, compared to him and his son.

"The Ray of Displacement" by Harriett Prescott Spofford, 1903: Male first-person narrator, a scientist, develops a ray which can make him able to pass through solid objects and, at a different setting, to become invisible. Many writers of the time (or of 30 years later) would have just infodumped about how cool this was, but Spofford manages a gripping story full of drama, injustice, revenge and a glorious and disturbing twist.

"Those Fatal Filaments" by Mabel Ernestine Abbott, 1903: Male first-person narrator, an engineer, develops a thought-reading device, and instead of infodumping about how cool it is, Abbott manages a gripping story of emotional and relational near-tragedy.

"The Third Drug" by Edith Nesbit (as E. Bland), 1908: [a:E. Nesbit|7935185|E. Nesbit|] is the only author in the volume that I'd heard of (she wrote some classic children's stories which are still enjoyed today). This one has a male protagonist, is told in tight third-person, and is an action-packed adventure in early-20th-century Paris involving a mad scientist.

"A Divided Republic" by Lillie Devereux Blake, 1887: Subtitled "An Allegory of the Future," but not actually an allegory, this is the story I mentioned before, mostly in "tell" rather than "show" mode and without depth to the characters, but told to convey ideas rather than to entertain. The women of America all pack up and move west when the men refuse to grant them the vote (something which, in fact, took another 30 years). "It must not be supposed that their departure took place without protest on the part of the men. Some of them were greatly dismayed when they heard that wife and daughters were going away, and attempted remonstrance," she remarks with delightful gravity. There are several burns directed at various named men of the time who, apparently, were known as opponents of female suffrage of one kind or another.

"Via the Hewitt Ray" by M.F. Rupert, 1930: The second story in the book to have a female point-of-view character (and first-person narrator), this one depicts a female-dominated society in the fourth dimension. It's no utopia - the women are depicted as cold-hearted and cruel to the men and to their enemies. Yet the protagonist, a liberated young woman pilot of the relatively near future (when the story was written), who has gone to the fourth dimension to rescue her scientist father, joins gleefully in a genocidal attack on another race, justifying her participation by observing that the enemies were not much like her so it didn't bother her. The 1930s, eh?

"The Great Beast of Kafue" by Clotilde Graves (as Richard Dehan), 1917: From the first-person POV of a young boy, this could easily have just been a Great White Hunter in Africa story, but it manages to be a tale of deep emotional loss and the wounds that inflicts.

"Friend Island" by Francis Stevens, 1918: A story by a woman (Gertrude Barrows Bennett), using a man's name, told from the POV of a male narrator who is, however, only there to mediate the story of a woman, a female mariner in a time when women are dominant and have most of the seagoing jobs. Like a lot of early fiction that imagines a female-dominated society - including "A Divided Republic," but definitely not including "Via the Hewitt Ray" - it assumes that if women took men's roles society would become gentler and more civilised. Even in the "shabby little tea shops frequented by able sailoresses of the poorer type," we see "spruce, smiling young maidens... despite their profession, very neat in gold-braided blue knickers and boleros," and the chronicler treats the raconteur to tea and macaroons, not alcohol.

"The Artificial Man" by Clare Winger Harris, 1929: One of a couple of stories in this volume which raise the question of outward appearance versus moral virtue. Harris was the first woman to sell a story to the world's first SF magazine, Amazing Stories, and this story is among the first to depict a cyborg (not by that name). The moral decline of a man who replaces parts of himself with machinery raises all kinds of questions and is dramatically told, with love and friendship among the casualties of his fall.

"Creatures of the Light" by Sophie Wenzel Ellis, 1930: This is the second story dealing with outward vs inward perfection, in which an outwardly perfected man's inner contempt for "lesser" beings, including his Igor-like creator, brings tragedy and destruction to an attempted utopia. The hero is also good-looking, though he affects to despise his own looks; yet he struggles only briefly with abandoning his brilliant but plain fiancee for someone much more outwardly attractive.

"The Flying Teuton" by Alice Brown, 1917: A story set after World War I, written and published during the war, in which a kind of divine punishment falls on Germany and the allied nations, in sympathy, make a fair and lasting peace. Again, the viewpoint character is male, as are all of the characters.

View all my reviews

No comments: