Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Feminist Futures: Amazons!

Dossier: Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. Amazons! [DAW, 1979]

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary
Amazons! is a slim anthology from DAW books, collecting 13 tales of "Heroic Fantasy" with women protagonists. As that genre description suggests, most of the stories here are  secondary world fantasy, involving warriors of some form, although a couple do stretch the definition beyond that. The contributor list is formidable: Andre Norton, C.J. Cherryh, Tanith Lee, Megan Lindholm (better known now as Robin Hobb), and Elizbeth Lynn all put in appearances. There's even a contribution from Joanna Russ in which she compiles and speculates on the fantasy worldbuilding of Emily Bronte, and the queen of her fantasy childhood world of Gondal.

The editor of Amazons!, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, is known to me through her Tomoe Gozen series of novels, which are on my "must read someday" list. Through this anthology, I also learned that in the late 70s she was editor of a small press zine called Windhaven, which apparently printed both fiction and non-fiction from a feminist angle. I couldn't find any issues of Windhaven online in my admittedly short research attempts for this piece, but I'd love to know if any of it is still accessible to audiences of the intertubes. 

Feminist Future
Although most of its content isn't as overtly politicised as some of the other works of this period (or, indeed, from these authors), Salmonson makes it very clear in her introduction to the anthology as a whole, and to some of the individual pieces, that this work is very much situated in the context of feminist SFF and its concerns at the time. Her introduction, which reminded me of Kameron Hurley's "We Have Always Fought", she notes the historical legacy of women warriors from cultures across our world, and the way in which these have been forgotten or overlooked by writers. In line with that, Amazons! feels primarily like a reclamation - using that legacy to re-situate women in the myths and archetypes that heroic fantasy builds on, and showcase the potential that these magical worlds have for telling stories beyond those of gruff half-naked murder-men. This is also the first fiction anthology I have read with a "further reading" section at the back, which feels very fitting: Joanna Russ' seminal How to Suppress Women's Writing was still a few years off at this point, but I have no doubt that the community represented here were already well aware of the cycles of erasure and lack of canonisation that disproportionately impacts women's work.

Hope for the FutureAs an anthology, there's obviously no one worldview being portrayed here. However, the dominant theme of the anthology is one of triumph, and almost every story ends in an unambiguous (though not necessarily simple) victory for the worthy hero who has put themselves out there to achieve it. There are only a couple of stories where this victory is predominantly against "the patriarchy", such as "the Woman of the White Waste" by T.J. Morgan; more often, any struggles that women face by virtue of being women are secondary to the main plot.  It's not all happy endings, however: some stories, like Cherryh's "The Dreamstone", are tinged with tragedy (although I understand Cherryh updated the ending of this story in later printings), or "Morrien's Bitch" by Janet Fox.

LegacyI read Amazons! in 2018, sandwiched between the Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon, a trilogy about a sheepfarmer's daughter who finds her calling as a warrior, and Redemption's Blade by Adrian Tchaikovsky, in which a woman veteran seeks restoration after killing the renegade demigod who took her entire world to war. In that context, the legacy of Amazons! - and, perhaps more importantly, the writers in it and the movement it represents - is one that has made a huge difference to the range and depth of well-crafted woman-centred fantasy narratives out there to discover. Reading the anthology has definitely piqued my interest in the stories that prefaced full novels, namely "The Dreamstone" - which started the Ealdwold series - and "Bones for Dulath" by Megan Lindholm, which was the first appearance of Ki and Vandrien (although neither is a work that the authors are primarily known for now). 

It's also important to note that this is likely the first major SFF anthology edited by a trans person. While this doesn't really affect the content, I think being aware of the position that trans and queer authors have played in the genre - and particularly in the feminist SF of this era, which often feels a bit "heterosexuals and binary lesbians only" in its focus - is very important to counter the erasure and objections to "exceptionalism" that queer voices still face in genre today.

In Retrospect
Basically, it's hard not to believe that Amazons! is a victim of the genre's own progression since the point at which it was written. While the stories still hold up, for the most part what makes them radical is the presence of women protagonists, rather than any inherent message in the stories themselves. Salmonson specifically notes in the introduction to Tanith Lee's stories that she had passed up more "message heavy" submissions when she felt these detracted from the story, because "the depiction of strong women in heroic fantasy (or any other art) is, in and of itself, so innately political to our male-dominant society that any additional polemic is redundant". While I follow the logic, I don't think this was as true in 1979 as Salmonson believed (this is a very white lineup of authors and there's no overt recognition of intersectionality between gender, race and other marginalisations which were just as salient then as now). 

Moreover, I certainly don't think that its true any more: I could probably fill a library with books about "Strong Female Characters" who spend their time getting rescued and/or undermined despite their expertise, and take time out of their limited third person narratives to describe how their breasts feel at random moments. An anthology of stories which just happens to be about women - especially when most of those women happen to be straight and white - isn't inherently radical now in the way Amazons! was intended, and while that description does a disservice to the intent that clearly went into this volume, it's a sad fact that the impact of the stories themselves has been largely lost in the intervening years.

That's not to say there isn't still relevance here, and areas where concerns authors were raising in 1979 are still with us today. This is particularly the case for perhaps the most morally ambiguous, and interesting, story of the bunch: "The Rape Patrol" by Michelle Belling. This is effectively an urban fantasy about a group of vigilante women who hunt down men who have committed crimes like rape and assault, and dispense their own violent justice upon them, before disappearing back into their regular lives. "The Rape Patrol is uncompromising and strongly resonated as a tale of holding men accountable for gender based violence in the face of systems that fail to do so - a story which most of us will find all too familiar.

As a whole, Amazons! is, I think, a book we should know about, whose overall message and design resonates across the ages, even where its specific content has not retained its radical intent. It's a book I'd love to see back in print, at least as an e-book, and one that I'd recommend picking up if it crosses your path. If nothing else, you'll have a diverting evening with a series of kickass women to look forward to - and lots of further reading to follow up on once you get to the end.


For its time: 4/5
Read today: 2.5/5
Wollstonecraft Meter: 6.5/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.