"Some anthologies are canon-defining. Others are treasuries or compendiums,
baggy and vast. Still others, like Sisters of the Revolution, serve as a
contribution to an ongoing conversation." (p. i)
Thus Ann and Jeff VanderMeer open the introduction to Sisters of the Revolution. They go on to further define and discuss their intention—to reflect and honour the work in particular of women writers of the 1960s and 1970s, whose contributions reshaped and redefined SFF, a period they associate with the rise of the New Wave. This is, by any standards, an ambitious project, but by and large in this volume the VanderMeers have succeeded. This is an impressive selection of stories (and one novel extract) from a wide range of writers, including some of the second half of the twentieth century's most influential work in our genre. Butler, Russ, Lee, Arnason, LeGuin, Sargent, Gunn: there are stories and writers here I have loved for years, stories I have gone back to over and over. There are also stories that are new to me—and a handful of writers, too—and in each case encountering them is a pleasure and a revelation. This is a strong and valuable entry in that conversation about genre and gender, culture and context, in which we are all engaged and to which the editors refer in their introduction. And yet, and yet . . .
I like this book. I like this book a lot: there is not a bad story in the collection, and very few that feel slight or weak. There is not a writer included whose presence I question. Reading it is an adventure and a delight. It is a book I can imagine recommending to friends and setting for students. It is, I hope, a book that will stand the test of time and will lead to further anthologies on similar themes (something the VanderMeers suggest themselves). And yet, and yet . . . There is for me, at least, a sense of something missing. This book is eighty per cent there, and that eighty per cent is splendid. But the other twenty per cent is under my skin, itching. There is a glimpse here of what could be something even bigger, even more of a contribution. Some of this is down to the nature of the project. Some of it is down to the selection of stories.
As I said above, these are all good stories, and a significant number are great. I have read Russ's "When It Changed" many times before and always found it engaging. Here, placed roughly midway, it reveals the extent of its influence; Russ's voice speaks loud and clear amongst those who came after her, or engaged with her as contemporaries. Butler's "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" is another old friend, and one in which I find something new every time I reread it. It remains one of the most poignant reflections on exclusion and prejudice and as painful a work of recovery and rebuilding as SFF has ever produced. Ann Richter's "The Sleep of Plants," on the other hand, was new to me, and I am grateful to the editors for the introduction. Translated from the original French, it is the earliest story in the collection and is a languorous, dreamlike meditation on female escape from convention and expectation. It's one of a handful of stories in translation in the book (along with work by Angélica Gorodischer, Élisabeth Vonarburg, and Leena Krohn), as well as work in English by writers who are multilingual (Rose Lemberg, Karin Tidbeck, Nnedi Okorafor, Vandana Singh). The editors have made an admirable attempt to step outside the familiar territory of American, Canadian, and British writing and the stories by Singh, Okorafor, Hopkinson, and Lemberg in particular are an important glimpse of the multiple ways in which women write and think and create in different cultures and contexts.
The anthology sets out to look to the 60s and 70s, but it is not confined to them. A substantial number of the writers included began writing in those decades but are here represented by work published later. There are also a considerable number of writers who did not begin to publish until the 90s and later, engaging with those who preceded them. The anthology is not arranged chronologically, for which I am grateful—chronological ordering imposes a reading that assumes influence and "growth" and all too often stifles insight. Indeed, the ordering of this book must have been a considerable work in itself, for the stories flow into each other thematically, which is a joy. "The Sleep of Plants" is followed, for instance, by Kelly Barnhill's "The Men Who Live in Trees," which opens out the issue of female agency and escape, and builds a new dynamism on Richter's foundations, alongside a sly critique of colonialism, embodiment, and patriarchy. These themes are echoed in Hopkinson's "The Glass Bottle Trick" earlier in the collection, and returned to at the end in Vonarburg's "Home by the Sea." These are rich stories, layered in nuance, experience, and insight.
And yet . . . This is a strong anthology, but the necessity for its existence itself poses problems and questions. Undoubtedly, we need this book and others like it. The problems lie in why and how—and they are big problems which are in no way the fault or product of the editors. The book does not attempt to define feminism in the wider sense (or, indeed, revolution) and that is probably a good thing. But it also does not define what feminism means to the editors, and that matters, because it varies across time and culture. We are not told which authors were considered and rejected, or overlooked, and nor should we be. But at the same time I suspect many readers will note absences and ask questions. As a genre community, we redefine our canon regularly: we draw lines based on preference and experience as well as on content or style or influence. We forget. While Sisters of the Revolution speaks to the changes in SFF inspired by writers and stories of the 60s and 70s, most of the stories included date from after that period and many of the writers debuted much later. Some of the writers who are missing have been removed from the canon: Anne McCaffrey comes to mind. Her work is problematic to modern readers; that is undeniable. But she was at the forefront of women's writing and feminist writing from the mid-60s and her work was formative for many, many of the women who followed. If we are addressing that sea-change, she should be here. There is no Margaret St Clair, no Kate Wilhelm, no Vonda McIntyre, no Zenna Henderson; I particularly mourn the absence of the last, as her commitment to community and to pacifism was and remains radical. The book cites the importance of the New Wave, but where is Hilary Bailey? The breakthrough British women of the 1970s are represented by two very fine writers indeed, Tanith Lee and Angela Carter, but there is no Jane Gaskell—and Jane Gaskell, in her accounts of female sexuality, agency, and wilfulness, remains as revolutionary today as she was at her debut in the 1960s. But she seems to be forgotten, outside a small circle of fans. I miss these women; I do not hold their absence against the editors, for I suspect it may be due as much or more to the habit this genre has of just dropping women writers out of our history.
And then there's the question of Otherness. Any one of us who belongs to one or more group that is routinely Othered by our US-dominated, white-saturated, sexist, heteronormative culture knows that alongside being forgotten comes other baggage. The Other is routinely expected to perform their Otherness for the consumption of the norm in order to be considered "authentic." Women are both expected to write about the condition of being female and dismissed for it. Feminist women are expected to address "feminist" issues and these issues are often pre-defined for them by outsiders: birth, motherhood, marriage and divorce, abortion, oppression, negotiation of patriarchy. These are all important themes that need to be addressed, and many of the stories in this anthology deal with them, and well. Yet at the same time we are caught, here, within the bounds set by patriarchy for women's concerns. And that is part of the problem, for as long as we accept that confinement, we do not break it, even if our acceptance is qualified by anger and resistance.
I want a wider set of assumptions, a wider definition. There are stories here that step over that boundary, particularly those by Vonarburg and Murphy. There are stories which frustrate it, gleefully, notably Okorafor's wonderful "The Palm Tree Demon," Singh's "The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet," and Gorodischer's "The Perfect Married Woman." It is notable that all three write from outside the Western white feminist default: that should be, I think, a signal and a call—we should open out our definitions and look for other modes of feminist action and writing. Western feminism, like much of Western culture, has tended to prioritise individualism over community, and again, most of the stories in this collection reflect that. We have women fleeing, women resisting, women fighting back, but all too often they are alone, marked by their special status. There are exceptions: Russ, Tidbeck, Okorafor, and Emshwiller all write about communities. But the overall impression is of women fighting back alone. The editors in their introduction speak of the growing diversity in SFF and go some way to reflect that here. But I would like more, and in particular, I would like more different models of feminism. There are many, many important inclusions in this book, but there are also significant absences and lacunae. It exposes clearly how white SFF was until the 90s, at least in the English-speaking world. Most of the writers here are American, or Canadian, including some of the writers of colour. There are no Southeast Asian writers, which is a painful absence. I would like to have seen Zen Cho and Joyce Chng in these pages, with their very different, community- and family-centred feminisms. I would like to have seen Aliette de Bodard. Most of all, I would like to have seen Miyabe Miyuki. Miyabe was not translated into English until the very end of the 1990s, but has been writing SF and fantasy since the 80s. An extract from her novel Crossfire, which confronts head-on the contradiction of female superpower in a patriarchal context, would be a great addition to the other works collected here.
For all this—and it is easy to cavil, far easier than it is to assemble and edit so many fine, significant stories—this remains a very good book indeed. Even the problems are contained within: the strongest story of all may be the very first, L Timmel Duchamp's "The Forbidden Words of Margaret A," first published in 1980. Margaret A—a woman marginalised for more than simply her femaleness, but for her race, her age, her agency and daring—has been silenced for the good of all, as defined by the powerful. She has challenged, she has used her voice and displeased. Neither the narrator, a journalist, nor the reader learn the nature of these words. It is not permitted. And yet they are there, at the centre of the story and the heart of this anthology: the dangerous, challenging, provocative words of women.
Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (DAW 2009), (winner of the 2010 Sydney J. Bounds Award, shortlisted for the William L. Crawford Award and a Tiptree Award Honours’ List book) and The Grass King’s Concubine (DAW 2012). As Kari Maund, she’s an academic mediaeval historian, and author of 5 books on early Welsh, Irish, and Scandinavian history. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: The True Story of d’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos (2005).