James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Sequel to return to SF about women, by women

Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years  (Women of Wonder, volume 5)

By Pamela Sargent 

28 Mar, 2015

Women of Wonder


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

1995’s Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years is the latest and perhaps final installment in the Women of Wonder series. This collection of stories, novelettes, and novellas presents works written by women and published after Sargent’s 1978 New Women of Wonder. It covers seventeen years, from 1978’s Cassandra” to 1993’s Farming in Virginia.” Even though it covers only half as many years as Women of Wonder: The Classic Years (thirty-four years), it is just as big a book. This would suggest that there was an influx of talented women into the field in the modern era — which there was. 

Despite the fact that there were — and are — those who work tirelessly to keep those pesky wimmin out of SF.


Introduction (Women of Wonder, The Contemporary Years)” • essay by Pamela Sargent

I enjoyed reading a history of 1978 – 1993 SF that did not dismiss most of that period as a worthless diversion from true SF. I am, of course, thinking of the heartfelt efforts of a number of authors to erase the 1970s — Bruce Sterling deserves special recognition in this matter, not only for dismissing the 1970s but for being the spokesperson for a literary movement that generally reduced women to sex objects — and to ensure that the sort of experimentation that brought us so much noteworthy SF would never happen again.

Though I must admit that it’s not all doom and gloom for women in SF. Genuine advances had happened and could not be erased. Had she wanted to, and assuming bookbinding technology of the 1990s had been up to it, Sargent could have produced a book that was much longer.

Sargent concludes her essay with this passage:

In the past, women may have shown good sense by not being interested in science fiction. Why read a literature in which the future was often made by men for men? Why be interested in worlds that excluded women from any meaningful activities? But in the serious science fiction of the past, and in that being written today, we may find an art that life can imitate.

One of the ways that speculative fiction keeps women out of SF is by steering them into fantasy. (I don’t know if that process was already underway in the mid-1990s, although I expect it was; comments invited.) Now, fantasy outsells SF two to one. so moving in that direction is a fiscally reasonable choice (although not as reasonable as heading over to mystery). But it’s not just the money keeping women out of SF.

I can only assume that the reason Sargent didn’t reference Ben Bova’s notable moment of Get Off My Lawnery referenced in this article is because she was unaware of it. In the 1970s, Bova had been instrumental in increasing the number of women published in Analog from a miniscule to tiny. His replacement effectively exiled women from Analog again. Sargent may have thought Bova was an ally; apparently Bova had a change of heart.…

Cassandra” • (1978) • short story by C. J. Cherryh

A woman’s life is disrupted by her ability to see the future. Although not half as much as the lives of the people around her are disrupted by living through the future she forsees. 

It suddenly occurs to me that every variation of the Cassandra story I can recall keeps the essential, dismal premise: seeing looming calamity but not being able to convince anyone that it is going to happen. I wonder if anyone has ever tried a variation where the future the seer can see is the opposite of a calamity.

The Thaw • (1979) • novelette by Tanith Lee

Reanimation of medical patients in long-term hibernation reveals an unanticipated side-effect of hibernation. Happily for the protagonist, who has been an under-achiever until then, her efforts to mentor one of the revived put her in a uniquely privileged position.

I knew I had read this earlier, but I was racking my memory trying to remember where. I realized why I had been confused as soon as I looked The Thaw” up on ISFDB. Not only would I have seen this story in Asimov’s, but if I missed it there, I would have seen it in both the Carr and the Wollheim/Saha Best SF annuals.

Scorched Supper on New Niger • (1980) • novelette by Suzy McKee Charnas

A starship captain on the run from her predatory brother-in-law finds refuge and an ally on a world settled by Nigerians.

Charnas isn’t Resnick and New Niger isn’t Karinyaga. The protagonist benefits from the fact that apparently in the future, white people will be no better informed about planets settled by Africans than they are now informed about Africa.

Abominable” • (1980) • short story by Carol Emshwiller

A militarized group of misogynists hunt women who have inexplicably escaped to freedom.

This is, in its own quirky way, the parable of the blind men and the elephant, except replace blind” with woman-hating” and elephant” with women.”

Bluewater Dreams” • (1981) • short story by Sydney J. Van Scyoc

On learning that her native friend has contracted a human disease invariably fatal to natives, a colonist decides to accompany her friend on a journey she believes can only end in death.

The story depends on the settlers being so confident in their understanding of the natives whose world they are appropriating that they haven’t bothered to double-check their models. That’s a plot premise that I find too damn believable. 

It is also possibly to interpret the story (based on the facts we are given) as hinting that the authorities are quite aware their models are flawed, but are sticking with them because the effects are so fatal for the natives.

The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe” • (1982) • short story by Angela Carter

An atmospheric story about Poe whose point I don’t think I got.

The Harvest of Wolves” • (1983) • short story by Mary Gentle

In a horrid Limits-to-Growth future Britain that has made the inevitable evolution from Thatcherism into open dictatorship, an old woman struggles to survive in a world whose authorities are determined to rid themselves of people they deem useless.

Is Gentle the least appropriately surnamed SF author ever? Although this doesn’t rely on overt violence for its effect; the anxiety created by the protagonist’s knowledge of what will happen if she missteps is all that is necessary.

Bloodchild” • (1984) • novelette by Octavia E. Butler

A young man discovers the dark side of human/alien symbiosis.

Think of this as the answer to if the aliens in Aliens were friendly and personable instead of being ravening monsters, would that make what they do better?” Butler isn’t the author one would read for sympathetic portrayals of one-sided relationships.

Fears” • (1984) • short story by Pamela Sargent

The ability to select the sex of a child before birth combines with social preferences for male children to produce a dystopic world nearly barren of women, one that seems functional enough to persist for quite some time. 

As the technology for prenatal selection has existed for some time, and has already affected birthrates in several large countries, I do wonder if we are going in the direction predicted by this story or if other factors will intervene.

Quite unlike certain other authors, Sargent does not assume that making women uncommon will necessarily result in changes that are in any way good for women. 

Webrider” • (1985) • short story by Jayge Carr

A starfarer and companion discover that the handwavium behind interstellar travel does not work quite the way everyone believed.

This is a classic sort of story, similar in its way to Shaw’s Nightwalk and a Silverberg whose title escapes me, not to mention a number of the Venus Equilateral stories. I might have enjoyed it more had it not been that I usually dislike everything you know about this made up science is WRONG!” stories.

Alexia and Graham Bell” • (1987) • short story by Rosaleen Love

The invention of the telephone completely changes the world!

I admit, I’d never considered whether telegraphic communication is easier for authorities to censor than telephonic. I bet this turns out to be one of those subjects on which everyone else is better informed about than I am. 

Reichs-Peace • (1986) • novelette by Sheila Finch

A Romany woman desperate to get out of a Europe where the Nazis won discovers that she has an unexpected connection to Adolf Hitler’s son, a connection that makes her quite valuable to Hitler’s widow.

Some day I’d like to see a Nazis Won scenario that does not see the Nazis as paragons of R&D, but rather as a collection of gullible kleptocratic thugs. Also, and this is just me, I’d rather not read stories where it turns out the Nazis’ wackier ideas about ethnic minorities were true.

Angel” • (1987) • short story by Pat Cadigan

An outcast from the stars bonds with an outcast from human society. It‘s not a story that can end well but it doesn’t end as badly as it might.

Rachel in Love • (1987) • novelette by Pat Murphy

Following the death of her adopted human father, an intelligent ape struggles to find a place for herself in a world that will not recognize her as a person.

One character in the story, a researcher with whom Rachel has an unpleasant encounter, reminds me of a primatologist whose work I read in the 1970s. This fellow was boggled to discover that his use of cattle prods to control his ape research subjects was upsetting a subordinate who had had electroshock therapy.

Game Night at the Fox and Goose” • (1989) • short story by Karen Joy Fowler

An unhappy woman, tired of being lied to and exploited by men, is convinced to flee to a parallel world where she is assured women have been violently lashing out at exploitative men for a century. 

Yeah, there was pretty much only one way this story could play out. 

Tiny Tango • (1989) • novella by Judith Moffett

An HIV+ woman living in an era long after the discovery of a vaccine relates the story of her life: how she survived the disease itself, years of mob violence aimed at HIV+ people, nuclear melt-down, and finally alien intervention.

This is set in the same world as Moffett’s Holy Ground Trilogy (The Ragged World (1991), Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream (1992), and The Bird Shaman (2008)); I have not read the trilogy but I suspect from hints in this story that I’d hate the trilogy’s basic assumptions.

This was the year 2000, when four separate strains of HIV had been isolated and more than a million people had died.”

If I am reading the story correctly, that’s a million Americans dead; if HIV in Africa was on the author’s radar, I am missing the signs. On the one hand, this story is all too USA-focused, but on the other … do we really want to see how an American SF author on the 1980s conceptualized Africa?

This is a snapshot of how the West saw HIV in the late 1980s; Moffett’s not the only author to suppose that attempts to contain the disease might include efforts, sanctioned or otherwise, to exterminate HIV+ people. 

At the Rialto • (1989) • novelette by Connie Willis

Quantum mechanics are paralleled by real life in this wacky, screwball every-Willis-story-ever.

Not a Willis fan for the most part. This is at least shorter than that dreadful pair of novels that won the Hugo a couple of years back. 

Midnight News” • (1990) • short story by Lisa Goldstein

Humanity is somewhat taken aback when aliens announce that humanity’s fate will be decided by an old woman who has been exploited and abused by everyone she ever loved.

This story lives at the intersection of anthropological SF stories about jerk-ass aliens who love to screw around with humanity and You bastards will get yours in the end” stories like de Camp’s Judgment Day.”

And Wild for to Hold • (1991) • novella by Nancy Kress

Interventionist time travellers try to change history for the better by removing certain disruptive elements from history. Ann Boleyn isn’t pleased to be untimely ripped from history, nor is she pleased to hear the explanation of why she was selected and not, say, Henry VIII. But what threat can one woman from a backward era present to the inhabitants of a more advanced civilization?

In general I do not care for Kress’s fiction. It might be more accurate to say I usually dislike it. In this particular case, the people from the future are particularly obnoxious and they deserve everything that happens to them.

Immaculate” • (1991) • short story by Storm Constantine

A gifted woman’s ability to manipulate virtual worlds discomforts a cyborg.

This didn’t lend itself to a short description.

Farming in Virginia” • (1993) • short story by Rebecca Ore

A pair of aliens living on Earth face unwanted transportation back to their species’ home world, a world with which they are unfamiliar and which they have no reason to think would welcome them. Escape into the secret havens offered by terrestrial allies is complicated by the fact the female alien is pregnant and among the many pieces of information kept from the alien foundlings is a detailed understanding of how their own reproductive processes work.

I can see no way in which this could end in tears. 

One of the things I like about Ore is that her aliens tend to be emphatically alien. The illusion of alienness in this story is somewhat undermined because it reveals too much about the cognitive processes of one of the aliens. These processes seem far too human. However, he is, as we are reminded, a very atypical example of his kind, due to his background. 

About the Authors (Women of Wonder, The Contemporary Years) • essay by uncredited

This is exactly what you would expect, or it would be had Sargent not also included short autobiographical comments by the authors. The passage of years has given an unintended melancholy air to quotations such 

I’m a forty-seven-year-old writer who can remember being a ten-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an eighty-year-old writer. […]

Octavia E. Butler (19472006)

About the Editor (Women of Wonder, The Contemporary Years) • essay by uncredited

And this is also exactly what one would expect.

Recommended Reading: Science Fiction by Women, 1979 — 1993 • essay by uncredited

Once more, I need to complain about the placement of this list of recommended works. (Need to be placed earlier, for emphasis.) Once again, this is a useful list of books for future reading. 

It’s a little distressing to look at this list, made up of what I think of as comparatively recent works, to see so many authors who are no longer active in the field.