I discussed Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s essay on women’s contributions to the pulps in my review of Cirsova issue #2. It was that essay that convinced me to pick up Women of Futures Past. And, oh, how I am glad I did. I hadn’t read any of the twelve authors she features. I hadn’t even heard of several.
Six of the twelve stories are Vintage SF by my own arbitrary measure, and two more published in 1982 skirt the edge. All three of the Big 3 female pulp masters are featured. It’s hard to imagine who belongs here instead. Octavia Butler? She is the one Rusch wanted, and couldn’t get, about which she is quite open. Francis Stevens? Jo Walton? Joanna Russ (good riddance)? Margaret Atwood?
In my review of Rusch’s essay, I mentioned young female writers erasing or ignoring their forebears’ contributions. There is a danger to that. Rusch puts stories by Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, and Lois McMaster Bujold in that order because Norton cited Brackett as a major influence, and Bujold Norton. Any young female writers—hell, any writers—who ignore the writers in this anthology do their craft a disservice.
Rusch takes pains to point out women have always been writing science fiction, and doing so with enormous success. That includes awards, which Rusch returns to with each story introduction. But women haven’t found the same success in anthologies. Rusch fingers bias, if only unconscious. Sure, but why is that bias stronger in pulling together anthologies than in accepting stories in the first place or in giving awards? Rusch hints at a couple other possibilities. One may be a bias toward hard science fiction, which skews heavily toward men in writer and reader for the same reasons the STEM fields do. The other is the tendency to ghettoize speculative fiction by women into feminist anthologies. The rather enormous problem being that women don’t just write feminist fiction. They write every sort of fiction. And Rusch does her best to squeeze every sort into this anthology. Almost all of it wonderful, some of it sublime.
The Indelible Kind by Zenna Henderson. Rusch laments denigration of “home and hearth” stories, rightly pointing out the Twilight Zone frequently told stories that would be described as home and hearth if told by a woman. It’s hard not to see Henderson’s lovely tale of a teacher and a peculiar student as a rejoinder.
The Smallest Dragonboy by Anne McCaffrey. McCaffrey’s story is set in the Dragonriders of Pern world. Rusch says this is a science fiction-only anthology, but this is one of several stories that push that envelope. Telepathy or no, dragons be fantasy. The story itself is too conventional for my tastes, but I’m sold on the setting (the original and Harper Hall trilogies, at least, would qualify for Throwback SF Thursday).
Out of All Them Bright Stars by Nancy Kress. This story could perhaps be described as home and hearth as well, and shares a lot in common with The Indelible Kind, but is more X-Files than Twilight Zone.
Angel by Pat Cadigan. This story featuring a, wait for it, angel is fine enough, but not anything you couldn’t find in any given issue of F&SF today.
Cassandra by C.J. Cherryh. Cassandra is one of three stories in the collection that are genuinely terrifying. This Cassandra is a precog who sees the bombed out rubble of the city everywhere she looks.
Shambleau by C.L. Moore. In my announcement post, I fingered three female pulp writers in particular I was interested in highlighting. Lucky me that Rusch lines up C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Andre Norton right in a row for me. After one short story by C.L. Moore, I’m sold. And, as it turns out, it might be that I’ve also been sold on the sort of Lovecraftian horror I thought wouldn’t appeal as much to me. Shambleau has a little bit of everything. It has Northwest Smith, an inspiration for George Lucas and for Kanye and Kim alike. As a quintessential weird tale, it has science fiction, fantasy, and horror, rich with delicious creeping terror. It’s even got a mention of Atlantis. And it’s by a wide margin my favorite story from the collection.
The Last Days of Shandakor by Leigh Brackett. Brackett is the second of three, and The Last Days of Shandakor is my second-favorite story. Pure Sword and Planet, the main character learns of a lost city in a Mars tavern and hares off for the adventure. It’s one of those short stories bulging with an epic fantasy underneath. This story probably had a heavy influence on the citadel from Elven Star by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.
All Cats Are Grey by Andre Norton. A derelict starship, a cat, and an invisible horror feature in this raygun romance. It’s good, but not to the level of the Moore and Brackett stories.
Aftermaths by Lois McMaster Bujold. Space opera, military SF, and stories heavy on philosophical musings rarely grab me. But there is a humanity to this one in Tersa’s quiet dignity and Falco’s youthful bravado. Another derelict, but this time the starship in question was just maimed in a short war and the protagonists are collecting the dead to return to their loved ones.
The Last Flight of Doctor Ain by James Tiptree, Jr. It’s genuinely terrifying (that makes three horror stories I very much enjoyed, me who spurns the genre). And it’s confident enough in its storytelling to leave so much vague and unexplained.
Sur by Ursula K. Le Guin. You wouldn’t think a story about an expedition to the South Pole could be boring, but Le Guin has done it. This is the sort of nasty, dull story the literati love. It isn’t science fiction at all. It’s technically alternative history, albeit not featuring any kind of interesting or thought-provoking alternate history. At least lady Ghostbusters had ghosts!
Fire Watch by Connie Willis. Fire Watch is a time travel story in a world where apparently most of the time travelers are history students (I never would have switched my major from history given that opportunity). What I like most about it is Willis, like Tiptree a couple stories back, having enough confidence in her storytelling to leave things tantalizingly vague.
Disclosure: I requested and received an advance copy of Women of Futures Past from Baen.