Copyright 2012 by Paula S. Jordan.
I share Darkcargo’s complaint about the limited range of female characters in science fiction and fantasy, and her mother’s question: “Why do I have to be a mother, a maiden, or a crone? Can’t a woman just be a woman?”
So, can a woman in science fiction or fantasy just be a woman? And does she always have to validate her fiction-worthy exploits by undertaking them in service of her children?
Well, yes she can, and no she doesn’t. You have to know where, and sometimes when, to look, but strong non-mother, non-maiden, non-crone woman characters can be found, and reading them feels like coming home.
It is not often remembered now, but during the 1970’s there was a major upwelling of science fiction and fantasy by women, and some feminist men too, who appreciated the freedom to move outside the world they knew to explore genuinely egalitarian societies, or at least female characters who followed their own path in whatever worlds they inhabited. In fact, I’ve even heard it said that cyberpunk was created expressly to save science fiction from what male writers feared would be the too-pastoral worlds of the women!
I am going to be revisiting some of these authors and stories from time to time in future posts, beginning right here with a series of four anthologies published between 1975 and 1978.
The first, Women of Wonder, Science Fiction Stories by Women About Women, edited by Pamela Sargent (Vintage Books, 1975), contains 14 widely varying stories. I can’t say that I liked them all, but I admired the explorations they dared. Some of them I found unforgettable. Among these are:
“The Ship Who Sang” is an imaginative, heartwarming story by Anne McCaffrey which grew into a series of novels about the severely handicapped young woman who explored space as the controller of a ship, singing all the way.
In “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow,” a powerful environmental story by Ursula K. LeGuin, the forest is the primary character. Ursula will also get her own post sometime soon.
“False Dawn” by Chelsea Quin Yarbro, led to what I think was her first book, a dark post-holocaust story that left me depressed but admiring.
And the magnificent “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” by Vonda K. McIntyre. This story, of a young woman trained as a healer in a medical tradition far different from our own, also grew into an excellent novel.
Two others in that series, More Women Of Wonder, and The New Women Of Wonder, also edited by Ms Sargent, were published by Vintage Books in 1975 and 1978 respectively. MWoW includes classic stories by C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Day Before the Revolution.” This is the story of Odo, the woman who made possible the revolution that created the Utopian society depicted in LeGuin’s great novel The Dispossessed. TNWoW includes the great feminist classic “The Women Men Don’t See,” by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon). Ms. Sheldon kept her identity secret for some time, though many tried to guess who the promising new author might be. Robert Silverberg commented at one point that whoever this writer might be he was most definitely male, because no woman could write that way. When the truth came out (someone staked out Sheldon’s P.O. Box) Silverberg was deeply embarrassed.
A fourth anthology of that period was Aurora: Beyond Equality (a Fawcett Gold Medal book, 1976), edited by Susan Janice Anderson and Vonda K. McIntyre, featured men as well as women authors. It includes two more stories by Alice Sheldon (one as Raccona Sheldon, the other as James TipTree, Jr.), Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Is Gender Necessary,” and Marge Piercy’s “Woman On the Edge of Time.”
As I suggested earlier, not everyone will like all the stories in these books, but I submit them as an introduction to the feminist sf/f writing of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. They were mine.