"Feminism is as much a way of reading, as it is of writing," observes Justine Larbalestier in the introduction to this anthology (p.xvi). To which I might add that there are also as many feminist readings of a story as there are feminists to read it, and to write about it. Larbalestier comprehensively illustrates her point, and mine, in Daughters of Earth. Part historical survey of women as writers of SF short stories, and part a critical response to those stories, its format is ingenious, with each of the eleven selected stories accompanied by a critical essay from an SF critic or academic. To read the story, then the commentary, and then the story again, is to have one's eyes opened to their deeper complexities in a most satisfying way. I don't recall seeing this format used before but I certainly found it incredibly effective.
In the almost twenty years that have elapsed since the publication of Sara Lefanu's In the Chinks of the World Machine (1988), the SF community at large has become much more aware of the presence of women as writers, commentators, and as fans. Even so, it can still come as a surprise to realise that women have been reading and writing science fiction since the very inception of the first true SF pulp magazines, and participating in the discussions surrounding the stories. As Larbalestier herself showed, in her previous book The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (2002), women's presence as readers and as vocal fans of the genre has frequently been contentious, sometimes distinctly unwelcome, but they have always defended their right to participate, despite the sometimes appalling responses of male fans and editors alike.
One wonders what Clare Winger Harris, the first woman to publish a short story in a pulp magazine (in 1927), must have thought when she saw her $500 Cover Contest prize-winning story, "The Fate of the Poseidonia" damned with the faint praise of Hugo Gernsback's observation that "as a rule, women do not make good scientifiction writers, because their education and general tendencies on scientific matters are usually limited." It apparently did not deter Harris from producing further published stories, but Gernsback's comment leaves me wondering whether he was being deluged with work from female writers, and what, precisely, those worrying "general tendencies" were. Jane Donawerth's accompanying essay shows how Harris's story touched on issues of feminism, race anxiety, invasion, the effects of new inventions, in a way that the modern SF reader would easily recognise. Here, I inevitably think of J.G. Ballard's comments about SF holding up a mirror to its own world, but such an approach would, I think, be entirely at variance with Gernsback's desire to use SF to promote a positive future, a scientific future.
Gernsback's response was by no means unusual, though he, unlike some of his successors, did actually publish the story. Brian Attebery's essay, accompanying Leslie F. Stone's "The Conquest of Gola" (1931), describes a scenario that would become only too familiar to female writers: the editors who rejected the work of women, and here Stone singled out John W. Campbell as being particularly disapproving of women writing SF; the fans who did not want to see female characters or what they thought of as female concerns in their stories; the gradual recognition that the desire for publication would become inextricably mixed up with the need to conceal one's (female) identity behind an androgynous name or initials, or an outright pseudonym. Stone's narrative, as Attebery shows, skilfully up-ends the classic "planet of women invaded by planet of men" trope, with her women acknowledging but resisting the role that is expected of them. Stone herself eventually left the field, but other women did not, and continued to resist the editors wherever possible.
Post-World War Two, things changed, as so many people are so fond of remarking. It's true, they did, but while many writers were intent on documenting the brave new world in which everyone found themselves, for many women the sense of anxiety increased. During wartime many had found a new sense of freedom; in the UK and in the US women had taken on men's jobs while the men were away fighting. Once the men returned, expecting to recover their jobs and the apple-pie domesticity they'd dreamed of while they'd been away, women found themselves expected to retreat happily to the domestic arena once again.
The 1940s and '50s saw the rise in SF of the so-called "housewife-heroine," the mocking term bestowed by male readers on a figure who seems to me to represent a profound expression of women's anxiety at this time—what did this future hold for them? A.E. Jones's "Created He Them" (1955) addresses the grim possibilities of a future post-war home front, in which the impulse to people the brave new world would be undermined by the effects of that war, meaning that fertile men and women would be forced into loveless coupledom, in order to repopulate. Lisa Yaszek's accomplished essay teases out the many subtle implications of Jones's story, with its politically charged critique of the militarisation of daily life, and its examination of sex and gender issues. In contrast, Kate Wilhelm's "No Light in the Window" (1963) plays with the notion that given the choice between keeping her man and seizing the opportunity of a lifetime, there is of course no choice at all, while Josh Lukin's intriguing commentary explores the ongoing resistance to female autonomy as exemplified in post-war fiction.
As the collection moved closer to familiar territory (that is, to the authors I began reading when I first came to science fiction) I was struck by what I missed at the time, in terms of the stories I didn't read, and the messages I perhaps internalised but couldn't articulate, at least not until much later. I didn't come to Tiptree's fiction until much, much later than most people, for example, well after James was revealed to be Alice, and I was well into my twenties before I became fully aware of the discussions concerning feminism and science fiction. Which is not to say that I would claim now that, in good Gernsbackian fashion, science fiction written by women, had a specific message that I picked up as a reader, but I'm sure it had an effect. If your mother is constantly trying to guide you, in your early twenties, towards a diet of romances in which faux-Gothic heroines of improbable slenderness get their man, the house, and the lovely clothing, because that's what proper women read, while you are tackling Lisa Tuttle's "Wives" (1976) or some such, it is possible that not only Houston has a problem. I am sure that I am not the only female reader of science fiction who relied on stories such as those included in Daughters of Earth to remind her that, yes, there was another way, and while it wasn't all fun, beautiful frocks, and parental approval, it was equally valid and worth pursuing.
Looking at Tiptree's "And I Awoke and Found Me Here On the Cold Hill Side" (1972), or Pat Murphy's "Rachel in Love" (1987), or Octavia Butler's "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" (1987), or Gwyneth Jones's "Balinese Dancer" (1997), it's impossible to avoid acknowledging that the science fiction project to examine women's roles in the world just keeps on going, and that it hasn't yet run out of possible themes and subjects. By the same token, academic readings of those stories keep on teasing out new ideas and insights. In particular, Wendy Pearson's detailed examination of the Tiptree story, "(Re)reading James Tiptree Jr.'s 'And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side'" employs many different facets of current literary theory to invest a story that initially seems quite straightforward with immense, resonant depths, and was for me a highlight in a collection in which there were no bad essays at all.
It is invidious to single out favourites, but having already hinted at a favourite among the essays, I must also acknowledge a favourite among the stories, and at the same time make a confession. I have, of course, been aware of Pamela Zoline's 1967 story "The Heat Death of the Universe" for years, but it was only when I started reading this anthology that I realised, with considerable embarrassment, that I had never actually read it. Still, better late than never, and now I know what really incendiary science fiction looks like. If I had to choose one story to express how the twentieth century has seemed for women, I think it would have to be this one, for the way in which it articulates the frustration of a competent woman, struggling to achieve the seemingly impossible.
Justine Larbalestier, along with a stellar cast of critics, has done a marvellous job in assembling this anthology. It's not so much about drawing attention to the women men don't see as showing just what women have seen, understood and written about, and how this has drawn others into an extraordinary discussion between author, reader, and critic that still exists within the SF community.
Having said which, there is always the problem of who should be included, who left out. In particular, Larbalestier's introduction specifically regrets the absence of Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Suzy McKee Charnas, while noting that the essayists were left to choose which story they wanted to write about. Although these absences are clearly going to raise eyebrows, it means that the essayists themselves did not choose to write about "When It Changed" (1972), "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" (1973) or "Boobs" (1989). Had Daughters of Earth been presented as a definitive historical survey, then these would indeed be glaring omissions. However, as Larbalestier's introduction makes clear, this collection has a different purpose. Daughters of Earth is "aimed squarely at newcomers to feminist science fiction" (p.xvi) and as such the contributors have clearly taken this to heart. I think Daughters of Earth does a good job of sketching the development of feminist SF during the twentieth century, introducing the reader to a wide range of stories and approaches. Newcomers are inevitably going to hear about Le Guin, McKee Charnas, and Russ as they explore the literature. It makes sense to me that they should hear about some of the other feminist SF writers past and present who also live in the world machine. Daughters of Earth ensures that they do just that.
Maureen Kincaid Speller is a freelance copyeditor, a part-time student taking a degree in English Literature, and a full-time reader; in her spare time she eats, sleeps, and grows plants.