Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Feminist Futures: The Future is Female!

Dossier: Yaszek, Lisa. The Future is Female! [Library of America, 2018]

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary: The subtitle to The Future is Female! is "25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin", which is a fairly accurate summation of the anthology editor Lisa Yaszek has put together, though it is interesting that in collecting the stories from three eras she has chosen to note Pulp as an era but mark the ending as a single author.

Yaszek reaches farther back in time than most with The Future is Female! The earliest story, "The Miracle of the Lily" was published in 1928 and the next two, "The Conquest of Gola" and "The Black God's Kiss" were published in 1931 and 1934 respectively. "Black God's Kiss" is a particularly well considered selection as marks the first appearance of the legendary sword and sorcery character Jirel of Joiry. 

Yaszek divides the anthology into three major Eras: Pulp, Golden Age, and New Wave. Three Pulp Era stories are included here, a whopping thirteen from the Golden Age, and a solid nine from the New Wave era. There is perhaps a wider gulf between the final pulp era story "Black God's Kiss" to Leslie Perri's "Space Episode" than there is between the Golden Age to the New Wave, at least as defined by Yaszek. There isn't much of a line dividing the Golden Age stories of "Car Pool" and "For Sale, Reasonable" from the New Wave "Birth of a Gardener" and "Tunnel Ahead". There is strong narrative and thematic similarity on either side of the line.

Ending The Future is Female with the powerhouse trio of Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr, and Ursula K. Le Guin is a power statement and an incredible way to close out an anthology.

Feminist Future: Though not all of the stories included in The Future is Female are explicitly feminist, the act of a woman existing is feminist in nature and a woman carving out a place for herself in any industry is a feminist act. It can also be a revolutionary act. In her introduction to The Future is Female!, Lisa Yaszek writes

"Adopting personae ranging from warrior queens and heroic astronauts to unhappy housewives and sensitive aliens, women were pioneers in developing our sense of wonder about the many different futures we might inhabit, partners in forging the creative practices associated with the best speculative fiction, and revolutionaries who blew up the genre when necessary to address the hopes and fears of American women." 

In revisiting the history of science fiction and in noting the continued presence of women most often forgotten at all times in this genre's history, Yaszek reminds us that the existence of the work itself is feminist even if any individual story may or may not be.

Legacy: Much as Pamela Sargent was intending to do with her Women of Wonder anthologies, Lisa Yaszek is reminding readers that women have *always* been a part of science fiction and fantasy. It would be an impossible task to offer up a proper survey of women in science fiction in just one volume or even two. What Lisa Yaszek accomplishes here is a broad as possible survey showing off the range of achievement of women in science fiction and fantasy. 

While luminaries such as Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, and C.L. Moore are included, Lisa Yaszek reminds readers that the field includes a number of names that we might not remember today but really ought to. When we talk about the earliest science fiction writers, we should remember Clare Winger Harris and Leslie Stone. When we talk about that Golden Age, we should remember Rosel George Brown and Alice Glaser and Mildred Clingerman. With The Future is Female!, Lisa Yaszek ensures we don't forget.

In Retrospect: The Future is Female! stands on its own as an anthology surveying some of the history of women in science fiction and fantasy, but I cannot help but compare it to Pamela Sargent's seminal Women of Wonder anthology. More than forty years separate the two anthologies, but they share a common theme and a common purpose: the acknowledgement and remembrance of where science fiction and fantasy has come from, the opportunity to create a platform placing a spotlight on the women of the genre.

Yaszek covers some of the same ground as Sargent did in the original Women of Wonder, including four stories also selected by Sargent for her anthology: "That Only a Mother" (Merril), "Contagion" (MacLean), "When I Was Miss Dow" (Dornan), "Baby You Were Great" (Wilhelm). 

The difference, of course, is that Yaszek has the benefit of time. Though beginning with a story published in 1948, Sargent also included contemporary stories to when Women of Wonder was published. The most recent story in The Future is Female! is fifty years old and Yaszek has had the benefit of a wider range of subsequent anthologies and a revitalized interest in classic science fiction and rediscovering the lost masters. 

Some of that benefit of time makes Yaszek's decision to include a story co-authored by Marion Zimmer Bradley a very curious and uncomfortable one. Bradley's status as an important writer is not in question, but given that Bradley's own daughter came forward in 2014 stating that Bradley sexually abused her and other children, as well as permitting and facilitating the same abuse perpetuated by Bradley's husband, I just don't know how to justify the inclusion of "Another Rib". It is not as horrifying a story as compared to "The Wind People" (which was included in Women of Wonder) in terms of content compared to the personal life of MZB, but continuing to anthologize Bradley is to continue to celebrate Bradley. 

Moving on to writers worth spending the time on, in Leigh Brackett's "All the Colors of the Rainbow" aliens visit Earth, the backwater planet thta we are, to help uplift the planet to eventual membership in a galactic federation. The aliens seem to look just like us (or close enough), except they're green. This is straight up a story about racism as she has two aliens visit a small southern town that never bothered with integration because, well, black folks just didn't want to live there (aka, they were run out of town the same vicious way these aliens are treated). It's a bit simplistic, but compelling and well written. It's also a science fiction story overtly dealing with racism, and I'm not sure how often that happened, especially in 1957. Maybe I would be surprised.

Though I've heard of Jirel of Joiry for almost as long as I've read fantasy, I've never read any of C.L. Moore's stories. I don't think I realized just when these stories were published, certainly not as far back as 1934. "The Black God's Kiss" holds up. It is a classic sword and sorcery story featuring a bad ass heroine and it is told with such timeless craft that with some minor exceptions it could almost have been published for the first time this year. It's good, period.

With "The Tunnel Ahead", Alice Glaser offers up a future with significant overcrowding (the United States has a population of 1 billion), resulting in tightly crammed automated cars and limited opportunities for outside play - a 40 mile trip the beach takes 5 hours, plus several hours waiting in line to go into the water, and no opportunity to actually swim just tread. It's a fairly tightly controlled domestic story, but with a hard twist at the end that's just delightful if you find twists delightful. The twist, in a different sense, in reminiscent of Judith Merril's story "That Only a Mother", a domestic story that lives on a gut punch of an ending.

I enjoyed Joanna Russ's "The Barbarian" far more than I did her seminal novel The Female Man, likely because "The Barbarian" is a story of a strong female warrior reminiscent of Jirel of Joiry, though working from a different base. I'm already looking for more of Russ's Alyx stories.

Ending The Future is Female! with Ursula K. Le Guin's "Nine Lives" was an excellent choice. I still find it interesting that Le Guin is almost an era onto herself here, but I also can't find much to argue with that decision. Originally published in Playboy under the byline "U.K. Le Guin", "Nine Lives" was a finalist for the Nebula Award and that recognition is very much deserved. "Nine Lives" deals with cloning and the idea of self, as well as life in a very hostile environment. 

This is a top notch anthology. If you're looking for a contemporary anthology putting a spotlight on many of the great science fiction and fantasy writers of the past, you can't do much better than The Future is Female!.


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 3.5/5
Wollstonecraft Meter: 8.5/10 

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