Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Feminist Futures: Women of Wonder

Dossier: Sargent, Pamela (ed). Women of Wonder [Vintage, 1975]

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary: Pamela Sargent's Women of Wonder anthologies were the first anthologies of science fiction written solely by women. First published in 1975, that is a shocking fact - though one that even in retrospect shouldn't be terribly surprising.

The twelve stories and one poem of Women of Wonder are each written by women and are focused on female characters. The original publication of the stories are from 1948 to 1973. Most, though not quite all, are by authors who I at least recognized by name before reading this anthology, even if I had not read much (or any) of their work. The two I had not heard of were Sonya Dorman and Katherine MacLean, though I was only aware of Judith Merril as an editor and not a writer.

How familiar readers are with the twelve writers of Women of Wonder likely depends on how well and broadly read they are with the overall field of science fiction. For many, Vonda McIntyre may only be known as the writer of one Star Wars novel (The Crystal Star) and five Star Trek novels. Other readers will know McIntyre from her three Hugo Awards and one Nebula Award.

Pamela Sargent put together a powerful lineup of writers (and stories), some of which have become absolute giants of the field. Anne McCaffrey. Ursula K. Le Guin. Joanna Russ. Marion Zimmer Bradley (more on her later). 

Feminist Future: The feminism of this anthology might not be that the stories are inherently feminist in nature. Rather, every story is focused on a female lead and is written by a woman. That's the core of what makes Women of Wonder a feminist anthology. There simply wasn't an anthology like this before Pamela Sargent put together Women of Wonder.

Legacy: Pamela Sargent has put together an anthology including a Nebula Award winner, a Hugo Award finalist, and a Nebula Award finalist. Judith Merril's "That Only a Mother" is an oft anthologized story often considered one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time.

Women of Wonder still influences today. In 2014, Cristina Jurado published Spanish Women of Wonder, the first Spanish language speculative fiction anthology focused on female writers. It was translated into English in 2016. 

The legacy of Women of Wonder is about breaking a barrier, making a statement, and delivering an excellent science fiction anthology that has stood the test of time as an important and vital anthology of feminist science fiction and science fiction written by women. It is a landmark anthology, but I do wonder what the lasting impact was. Sargent documented the existence and power of women in science fiction. To paraphrase Kameron Hurley, women have always written. They have always been a part of science fiction and they have always written some of the best stories of all time. 

But as time passes, so many of those voices have been forgotten. We rightly remember Le Guin and McCaffrey and Russ, but are people still talking about Carol Emswiller and Kate Wilhelm? I hope so, but if they are, they're doing so in spaces that I don't see. 

Women of Wonder is rightly a legendary science fiction anthology, but it might be time for someone to put together the new new women of wonder - under a different name but with the same goal of highlighting those women whose voices have been unjustly ignored over the last twenty to thirty years.

The success of Women of Wonder immediately led to the publication of More Women of Wonder in 1976 and The New Women of Wonder in 1978. Two subsequent volumes followed nearly twenty years later in 1996. 

In Retrospect: Most of the stories anthologized in Women of Wonder still hold up as stories that might be published today. Despite the well regarded status of "That Only a Mother" as an all time great, I don't think it would reasonably be published today. "That Only a Mother" is Merril's first published story and it lives on the gut punch of the twist at the end. It's an overall effective story, but also presents as a touch simplistic. 

I don't think I've read a story quite like Vonda McIntyre's "Of Mist, Grass, and Sand" before. If I didn't know it was later expanded (with other stories) to be a part of the Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel Dreamsnake, I would still think this story felt more like a first chapter (or, rather, a second chapter). The specific story McIntyre told was complete, but there was clearly far more to this tale than was contained in the story.

"The Ship Who Sang" is one of the science fiction stories that is coded into my genre DNA. I've read the story, the novel it was expanded into, and have encountered the Brainships in Anne McCaffrey's Crystal Singer series. It's always been a part of my science fiction, as far as I'm concerned. "The Ship Who Sang" very much holds up today, but I do think there is a conversation to be had about how McCaffrey treats disability in this story and its implications. That conversation would require a much larger forum than this dossier review affords. "The Ship Who Sang" reads differently today, where children who are physically disabled are placed into metal containers and trained to be a living intelligence controlling a ship but knowing no other life. If the technology exists for that, what other technology exists and what is the implication of that technology? How does that play today?

Speaking of things that make me uncomfortable, "The Wind People" is the first story of Marion Zimemr Bradley's that I've read since her daughter came forward in 2014 that Bradley sexually abused her and other children, not to mention that Bradley had permitted (and perhaps facilitated) her husband's sexual abuse of children. If not for its inclusion in Women of Wonder, I likely never would have read this (or anything else by Bradley). It's uncomfortable (the story). There is a doctor (Helen), a mother, who decides to stay on an uninhabited planet with her newborn son because she knows that space travel would kill her boy. There is a moment midway through the story that Robin is sexually aroused and starts kissing on his mother. She rejects him and runs, but there's another very confusing moment at the very end of the story where Helen is either hallucinating or seeing the titular Wind People, one of whom may or may not have fathered Robin - but her vision of that Wind Person turns into Robin and back again - causing Helen to wonder if there was some sort of incest involved. It's weird, confusing, and deeply unsettling on its face, but knowing more about Bradley it's almost impossible to not read more into that story. Bradley was a giant in the field of science fiction and fantasy, but knowledge of her deeply evil actions have put all of her accomplishments and work under a shadow. This may have been an important story at the time, but its legacy now is yet another work of hers touching on incest and sexual assault of a minor. 

There's no effective way to transition off of that discussion of Marion Zimmer Bradley, so let's just briefly talk about Kate Wilhelm's "Baby, You Were Great". A finalist for the Nebula Award, this one was fairly depressing. The woman here is central, but the story is built using two men who have together created and broadcast a VR experience (of sorts, think television, but you can feel the real and honest emotions of the actors) of one woman's life. They selected her because her emotional responses come through so strongly that they manufacture more and more events to get bigger and stronger emotions. Naturally, when she suggests that she wants to get out, they blackmail her. 

"Baby, You Were Great" feels eerily prescient in today's Hollywood following #MeToo and #TimesUp, but I think some of it is also just the same as it ever was. This is what an industry was built on.

The way we read and respond to the stories of Women of Wonder has changed over the years. We're less forgiving of otherwise powerful stories featuring sexual assault. Sexual assault is jarring and upsetting and if that's the point, the assault in "False Dawn" hits its mark. Jarring might just be what Chelsea Quinn Yarbro was aiming for, but that attack shows the age of the story. I'm not sure if it would be written in the same way today. 

We see some of the ways well regarded stories might clunk around the edges, though they might have been groundbreaking fifty years ago. 

As a whole, Women of Wonder remains an excellent anthology that holds up very well today. It reminds us of authors we may have forgotten about, haven't thought about in a while, or perhaps just never heard of. 


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 4/5.
Wollstonecraft Meter: 9/10

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.