I felt like a traitor giving this book only three stars on Goodreads. But it has to be said that I don’t feel the anthology lived up to what it was setting out to do.Does that make me a heretic? Possibly.
In the introduction, Susan Janice Anderson discusses how hard a lot of people said they found the topic. That they had to invent an entirely new society in order to talk about men and women being actually equal (to which in my head I say, duh; you’re writing SF aren’t you? Maybe that’s a bit harsh). It was very interesting reading about what they wanted to avoid (female monsters), and how hard it was to find models of what they did want. The Dispossessed and “When it changed” were of course mentioned.
I’d read the Raccoona Sheldon story, “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” Really recently for the Galactic Suburbia Alice Sheldon spoiler ep, but I decided to reread it to get the full experience. Here a woman is living in two places – from the outside, it looks like she’s delusional. In that place every one is a ‘sister’ and I’ve never been quite sure whether this is a term of equality, or whether there are no men. At any rate that world is quite pleasant, living in the aftermath of some cataclysm, but her body is in the ‘real’ world and that doesn’t have a good ending. So… you can dream of freedom but it has consequences? Note that I’m not saying these stories of beyond equality should be all sunshine and rainbows, I’m just commenting on what Sheldon is saying.
James Tiptree Jr’s “Houston. Houston, Do you read?” Is another that I read for our spoiler ep – and let’s stop and admire Alice Sheldon for a moment by realising that she wrote two stories for this anthology, including this mammoth novella. Anyway here three astronauts from the late 20th century have been slingshot around the sun and into the future (that bit’s by accident) where they find the world distinctly changed. <spoiler>The world is inhabited only by women, and those clones of only about eleven thousand originals.</spoiler> Does this really count as beyond equality? I’m not sure. I’m not even really sure that that’s the question the story is addressing,
Dave Skal write “The Mothers, the Mothers, How eerily it sounds…” and it’s an interesting enough story about recovering from some sort of environmental cataclysm (Anderson notes in her intro how many writers addressed that issue) but again it’s not clear that the sexes have moved beyond equality. One of the main characters is a competent anthropologist (female) but the main action seems to take place between two male characters rather than Ana having much to do with it. Mildred Downey Broxon gives a fairly classic under-the-fairy-hill story with a slight twist in the woman going to rescue the man, in “The Antrim Hills,” and I guess the fairy King and Queen are equals, and I know that the point shouldn’t be to focus on the equality itself but it’s hard to SEE the equality when there’s no focus on it.
Including Ursula Le Guin’s “Is Gender Necessary?” is an interesting interlude for its discussion of some of the issues involved in writing about sex and gender, and I liked that Anderson and McIntyre didn’t feel it necessary to include only fiction.
Then there’s a few stories I don’t really get. Joanna Russ’ “Corruption” sort of has a male-only society that’s being eroded by an intruder? I think? I feel a bit uncomfortable about this story given the way the only female character is discussed and as with much Russ work I think I’m missing some points. This was definitely the case with Craig Strete’s “Why has the Virgin Mary never entered the wigwam of Standing Bear?” Strete is (was?) Cherokee so I presume at least some of what I don’t get here has to do with narrative style and expectations. I liked some of the ideas of exploring the clash of white/Cherokee assumptions about life, and I think the female narrator is shown to be Standing Bear’s equal, but I also think I missed some of the ideas being discussed.
PJ Plauger’s “Here be Dragons” is a classic story of post colonisation where things have gone bad so groups have split up etc. I quite liked it I terms of thinking about technology and how politics might develop and hierarchies and so on. But for a story that’s meant to be beyond gender – slight spoiler, but I guessed I. The first paragraphs, when Captain Grimes is not described as having a beard, that this must be a woman (and she’s revealed to be so on the second page). There are a few other incidental women, which I appreciated. However Grimes appears a couple of times as the captain, and competent, and then her other appearances are as being available for sex. She’s not developed at all like Karl Dedalus, the focus of the story. Dedalus’ mother is clearly a powerhouse and he’s taken her name, but this is not enough to claim gender is irrelevant.
The final story is another I was already familiar with: it’s excerpted from the novel Woman on the Edge of Time which I read a few years ago. Here Marge Piercy really has done the heavy lifting to imagine what would be required in a society that saw zero differences between sexes, to the point of making men able to breastfeed and removing the idea of live-bearing children… which the traveller from the 20th century, battered though she is, finds horrific. Now it’s true that Piercy is clearly writing a much more obvious story another gender equality and that’s not the only way of showing gender equality. But the society she shows does have so much more obvious equality than, really ANY other story in the collection.
Perhaps these reflections are the result of reading the stories in 2015. Perhaps they were more bold, more daring, in 1976. I can’t apologise for reading in my own time. I can find it fascinating that writing gender equality as natural was clearly so hard then, and apparently still seems to be so now.