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Issue #131 - July 2006

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Aliens in a Man's World

By Cheryl Morgan

As regular readers will know, it takes a lot to get me to review an anthology these days. However, Daughters of Earth, edited by Justine Larbalestier, is not your average anthology. It is more of a collection of academic essays built around an anthology. The stories are all examples of feminist science fiction. They date from 1927 to 2002, and each one is accompanied by an essay by a feminist academic that reflects on the themes addressed by the story, and attempts to put it in context.

Despite my interest in the subject, I had only read two of the stories before: "The Heat Death of the Universe" by Pamela Zoline, and "What I Didnít See" by Karen Joy Fowler. The rest, as you might expect from an anthology, is a mixed bag. Clare Winger Harrisís "The Fate of the Poseidonia", dating from 1927, reminds us that it wasnít only H.P. Lovecraft who wrote horribly stilted prose in the early years of the 20th Century. Thankfully by 1931 we have Leslie F. Stone whose "The Conquest of Gola" is much more readable, and actually very subtle. Eventually you work out that sheís talking about an attempt by Earth to conquer Venus, but as the story is related by one of the alien (and matriarchal) Venusians it takes a while before everything clicks. By 1955 we have "Created He Them" by Alice Eleanor Jones, which is good enough to stand proud todayís much more competitive SF market. It is about a traditional (1950ís) American couple who hate each other but are bound together because, in a post-nuclear war world, they are amongst the few people lucky enough to be able to breed healthy children.

Other stories include works by Kate Wilhelm, James Tiptree Jr. and Gwyneth Jones, but the two I was really impressed by were "Rachel in Love" by Pat Murphy and "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" by Octavia Butler. The former is a tale of a young girl whose father, after she died in a car crash, implanted her recorded mind into that of a young chimp. When the father dies, Rachel has to deal with the outside world herself, and of course all they can see is her chimp body. Butlerís story is about people who suffer from a rare disease that, when it takes hold, makes them abnormally violent and destructive. These two, and Fowlerís now hugely famous story, are remarkably intelligent and thought-provoking pieces that are worth the price of the book all by themselves.

As with the fiction, the academic essays are varied in quality and level of interest. Some rescue an otherwise poor story. Jane Donaweth clearly knows her pulp SF history well, and is good at highlighting the difficulties of studying even such a recent era. I was initially impressed by Harrisí use of television long before it was generally available to the public. But Donawerth points out that Hugo Gernsback was an expert on such technology and, because he was such a proactive editor, we canít be sure whether Harris came up with the idea herself or was asked to include it by Gernsback.

Some of the essays about the earlier stories touch on the controversy surrounding "Housewife Heroine" SF. This is particularly the case in Lisa Yasekís comments on the Alice Eleanor Jones story. This type of fiction, which features women as central characters but has them behaving as early 20th Century women were expected to behave, has been getting shot at from all sides. When it was originally published, male SF fans objected to their reading being polluted by all this emotional, domestic nonsense. Later, during the first flowering of feminist SF in the 1960ís and 70ís, it was attacked for not being radical enough. Yasek and other feminist academics have since pointed out that a) the stories would never have been published had they not conformed to expected social norms, and b) that they are often much more subtle and subversive than they might look.

Some of the stories donít have a lot of feminist content, and the academics have to stretch their subject matter somewhat to make a reasonable-sized essay. Wendy Pearson, in her discussion of the Tiptree story, spends a lot of time engaging with Adam Robertsí analysis of the work as a Postcolonial fable. Pearson champions the recognition of its feminist content. The trouble is that the reading of the story as Postcolonial is screamingly obvious, whereas the feminist aspects that Pearson wants to foreground are much more subtle. As a consequence Pearson comes over as unnecessarily aggressive towards Roberts.

Veronica Hollinger has, I think, made an unwise choice of story to tackle. I can see why she did it. It is hard to imagine an anthology of feminist SF that doesnít contain a story by Gwyneth Jones. But Jones hasnít written a lot of short fiction. The example chosen, "Balinese Dancer", seems to have been created as a taster to get publishers interested in Life (an objective that it presumably failed to achieve, as Life wasnít published until years later when Timmi Duchamp founded Aqueduct Press specifically to publish feminist SF). The story does actually work well as a stand-alone (Gardner Dozois bought it for Asimovís), but to anyone who has read Life, Hollingerís analysis of "Balinese Dancer" is inevitably thin. Indeed, she has to include a lot of material about the Aleutian Trilogy as well to bulk out the essay, making it more of a piece about Jones than one about the story. Rather than trying to discuss "Balinese Dancer" as a story in its own right, Hollinger might have done better to expand on the themes of Life and concentrate on that book. But then maybe she wrote the article before Life was published. I donít know.

Finally we get "What I Didnít See". Timmi Duchampís analysis of that story has further increased my admiration for its cleverness (and you do have to work hard to understand just how good it is). She does a good job of making a case for it being SF, which centers around the fact that you canít actually understand it properly (or at least as Fowler wrote it) without knowing the context of feminist SF from which it came. That could, of course, be a flaw in the story, but it is worth making the effort. What I want to do now is watch Peter Jacksonís King Kong, and then read a Fowler analysis of the film. I have no idea if she has written one, but you know how hard it is to get me to want to watch a movie, which should tell you something about how fascinating "What I Didnít See" is.

Daughters of Earth - Justine Larbalestier - Wesleyan University Press - trade paperback

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
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Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee