I grew up during the sixties and seventies, yearning to see my female self reflected in the world around me -- in history, business, government, and literature. Those were heady days as women reclaimed their past, forged ahead in careers, and asserted their rights. But it was a struggle. I fortified myself with science fiction, stories that promised a future of bold, confident women -- a future where women existed. That's why, in the beginning of a new millennium, I eagerly perused the contents of A Woman's Liberation and settled in for a pleasurable session with familiar friends and new acquaintances.
I was not disappointed.
Generally, when I review anthologies, I find a few outstanding stories, a large number of good stories, and one or two clinkers. This anthology delivered ten outstanding stories -- not a clinker in the bunch. And why wouldn't it? Connie Willis, who has been honored with more Hugos and Nebulas than any other author, edited the collection with Sheila Williams, the executive editor of Asimov's Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact (in which all ten stories appeared). The authors include such well-loved artists as Octavia E. Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Anne McCaffrey. Nine of the ten authors are recipients of multiple significant awards (Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, etc.) and Butler received a 1995 MacArthur Genius Grant.
So what's not to like? The cover. WarnerAspect did a disservice to the sparkling content by cloaking it in dull, unimaginative garb -- a dreamy cosmic haze with a somber woman's eyes staring out. Luckily, we know better than to judge a book by its cover. I was also slightly put off at first by what I felt was an awkward subtitle: "A Choice of Futures By and About Women." But it became clear as I read that choice was the thread connecting these superbly written stories. In each one, female characters make brave and conscious choices. The characters in these stories discredit the damaging stereotype of women as "victims" -- victims of society, circumstances, their own nature. Even when in such familiar roles as matriarch or concubine, these women take charge of their own lives, make choices and live with the consequences.
Willis introduces the book with "Women's Lib, 'The Liberation,' and the Many Other Liberations of Science Fiction" -- a brief survey of women authors and characters in science fiction. The title of the collection reflects Willis's view that science fiction was able to move beyond its early female stereotypes -- the princess and the scientist's pretty daughter whose main function was to scream and be rescued. This anthology presents some of the foundational authors who came into science fiction during the heyday of the Women's Lib movement and made it their own: Le Guin, McCaffrey, and Katherine MacLean. These pioneers were attracted to science fiction's "what if?" nature. They were eager to explore the possibilities of women in new roles and different societies. The anthology also presents authors from the second wave of women who entered the field in the eighties and nineties. They invaded science fiction space where, as Willis tells it, "abstracts can be made actual, and political, social, and philosophical ideas can take on human (or alien) form." They liberated their imaginations as well as their characters.
The collection's imaginative tales, old and new, fall into three rough categories: post-apocalyptic, out-of-this-world, and "laugh out loud" stories.
The book leads off with "Inertia" by one of my favorite authors, Nancy Kress. Kress brings her superb characterization and science research skills to this first person account of an old woman struggling to shelter her family in a near future devastated by social upheaval. Gram lives with her daughter and granddaughter in the Inside -- an internment colony for those who have contracted a non-fatal, but contagious, disfiguring disease. Much to the chagrin of the violence-racked Outside, the Insiders develop a stable society. Kress tells a morally ambiguous story of the ordinary trials and triumphs of Gram and her family and the extraordinary choice that confronts them. The disease that made them pariahs might be the key to stabilizing the Outside. Should they stay in the safety of their enclave and let the Outside go to hell in a handbasket or risk their lives for those who shunned them?
Octavia E. Butler also addresses the effects of disease gone wild in her award winning story "Speech Sounds." The world is struck by a plague that kills or leaves the survivors unable to communicate. Written and spoken language, symbols, and concepts become gibberish to them, but some are more affected than others. Rye, a former history professor, is one of the less affected. She can speak, but she cannot read. Rye starts a dangerous twenty-mile journey across Los Angeles to find possible survivors from her family. Butler paints a chilling picture of love and loss, but Rye has the opportunity to choose hope in the midst of despair.
Medical themes also appear in "July Ward," the debut story of an author who writes under the pen name of S. N. Dyer. Dyer, a physician, writes about what she knows. Dr. Watson, her protagonist, is a resident in a decaying hospital set in a ravaged neighborhood terrorized by "Dude Brothers" (as in: "Who shot you?" "Some dude.") With exquisite detail Dyer builds the hopelessness of Dr. Watson, her fear of never making a difference, and her escape to that ghostly "place of which all doctors know, and none will speak."
The final entry in the post-apocalyptic category is "The Kidnapping of Baroness 5" by Katherine MacLean (the first person in the anthology to be published, in 1949.) In this story, Lady Witch works her bio-technical "magic" in a world where anti-aging experiments went horribly wrong. Each short-lived generation learns less, and society regresses to a feudal state. Lady Witch has high hopes for reversing the process using the experimental offspring of a sow named Baroness 5, but the porker is stolen. Lady Witch must get back her pig before Baroness 5 gives birth to her special litter or is turned into bacon.
The post-apocalyptic tales all have a "science/society failed us" theme as opposed to a military-disaster scenario. This might be the women's touch -- reflecting either the pool of available stories or the preference of the editors -- or just coincidence. If these stories are set in a bleak future, they also hold out hope for those willing to grasp for it.
But not all the stories in the collection are doom and gloom. Two tales in particular had me laughing out loud.
Humor is hard to do, so I always appreciate when an author does it well. Connie Willis, who had me in stitches with her 1999 award winning book To Say Nothing of the Dog, scores another hit with "Even the Queen." A quick-witted and sharp-tongued family of high-powered women lunch on veggies and dandelion wine. The dialogue volleys are as fast and furious as a Chinese table tennis match. Three generations scheme about how to save one of their own from the Cyclists (they are not a biker cult). After all, life before "Liberation" included monthly bloating, cramps, mood swings, and messy tampons. Why would any woman want to go back to that?
Pat Murphy provides more gentle humor, punctuated with the occasional guffaw, in "Rachel in Love." A chimp with the mind and memories of a human teenage girl, Rachel can read, write, understand English, and communicate in American Sign Language. When her scientist "father" dies, she is shipped off to a Primate Research Center. There Rachel meets Jake, a middle-aged deaf man who works as night janitor. Jake gives her whiskey and potato chips and lets her read True Confessions-type magazines. During the day she teaches the young male chimp in the next cage to talk using ASL. Rachel is torn between what she thinks is human love and her animal nature, between the face she remembers and the one in the mirror, between Jake and her fellow chimp Johnson. She knows one thing for certain -- she will escape and return home with one of her loves. But which? Murphy renders Rachel's dilemma with sympathy and a sly poke at the thin line between the civilized and the animal in all of us.
The final group of stories are the more traditional "out-of-this-world" type rendered, with the exception of relative newcomer Sarah Zettel, by the pioneering authors in the collection. Zettel provides the intriguing "Fool's Errand." Like many of the works in this anthology, the story was later expanded into a novel, Fool's War. Dobbs, the ship's fool, is not who she seems. This resourceful young woman must save her crew from a rogue AI programmed for destruction and hide her true purpose on the ship. Zettel keeps the action coming and ends with a surprise.
I was pleased to see Vonda N. McIntyre's "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," the forerunner of one of my favorite books, Dreamsnake (published in 1978). Mist, Grass, and Sand are poisonous snakes and the intimate companions of a healer named Snake. Snake, one of the few from her guild honored with that name, uses their deadly venom to prepare specific cures for otherwise terminal illnesses. McIntyre paints a vivid tale of betrayal and loss when Snake battles, not only for the life of a child, but against the fear and prejudice of the people who summoned her. Snake's dilemma harks back to Gram's story -- should/will Snake help the people who fear and shun her?
"The Ship Who Mourned" by Anne McCaffrey is also an old friend. This early chapter from the novel The Ship Who Sang kicks off McCaffrey's series of tales about "shell people" -- people with full mental capacity but with physical deformities beyond correction. Their bodies are encased in shells, and they are trained to work as the living minds of space ships and cities. In this story, the space ship Helva mourns the death of her human pilot and companion, but a medical emergency sends her on a mission before she can deal with her loss. She can choose to reach out to others who suffer or to retreat into her shell, doing only what is required of her. McCaffrey turns this "space story" into a human one.
The final and titular story in this collection is from famed author Ursula K. Le Guin, sometimes dubbed the first feminist science fiction writer for the award winning Left Hand of Darkness. Set in Le Guin's Hainish universe, the story takes place on the twin worlds of Werel and Yeowe. The institution of slavery is under attack, and rebellion seethes on Werel as the slaves of Yeowe break their shackles and start to build a society for themselves. Rakam, born a slave on Werel, is freed, enslaved again as a "use woman," and escapes to the city. Here she meets her first alien, a woman from the Ekumen, and realizes how different life can be for those who choose it. She begins her long dangerous journey toward self-liberation, becomes an activist and wanted woman, and flees Werel for the different perils of the "free" Yeowe. In this 1995 story, (also printed in Four Ways to Forgiveness, a collection of stories set on Yeowe-Werel) Le Guin puts several societal ills -- abuse of power, sexual politics, race discrimination -- under a microscope. But "A Woman's Liberation" is ultimately a story of one woman's realization that liberation -- like love -- is not something given by others, but given to ourselves.
Le Guin says she only writes stories about humans -- that's all she knows. In the end, that's true for all the authors in this collection, whether their characters are genetically altered humans, animals, or machines. Even when dealing with traditional science fiction fare such as space ships, rogue computers, and life after the fall, these authors bring something uniquely female to the genre. One thing is certain. Whether you read this collection for the story, sociology, adventure, or history, it's a great read by some of the best writers in science fiction -- women or men.