Sisters of Tomorrow

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Wesleyan University Press, at no cost. It’s available now.

Unknown.jpegIt’s no secret that I like science fiction and history and am feminist, so books like this are like a perfect conjunction for me. I’ve previously read Helen Merrick’s Secret Feminist Cabal, and Justine Larbalestier’s Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction AND Daughter of Earth, which is a compilation of early female SF writers. So I’ve got a bit of background knowledge – not that you need it at all for this anthology, because Lisa Yaszek and Patrick B Sharp set the scene magnificently in their intro to the book and to the chapters.

Here’s the thing that makes this book really special: while the biggest section is on the authors, because they include some stories – including a fairly long novelette – the editors don’t stop there. They also have sections on the female poets, and artists, and journalists, and editors of the 30s and 40s. This blew my mind. I’d vaguely heard of Margaret Brundage, I think? But I certainly didn’t realise that there were women active and influential in all of those spheres. Yaszek and Sharp also cross into the amateur magazines, where women were also hugely important in the development of “understandings of science, society, and SF in different arenas of SF production” (xxiii). If you’re interested in early science fiction at all, if you’re interested in women in literature, if you’re interested in the history of SF – this is an excellent anthology.

The book opens with fiction authors, and I had never read any of these stories; the only name I immediately recognised was CL Moore. Each story is introduced with a short bio of the woman, focusing on her SF productions, and then a short discussion of the story itself. The stories are very much of their time, of course, but/and it’s really interesting to see the representations of men and women in them. In Leslie F Stone’s “Out of the Void,” the male narrator is “not as slender as I was once, nor as spry” (30), which made me giggle. In Leslie Perri’s “Space Episode,” it’s the female astronaut who has the guts to do ‘the only neat thing’, to steal a phrase from Tiptree, and much of the story is taken up with reflecting on the male astronauts. CL Moore’s “Shambleau,” probably her most well-known short story, is in the ‘terrifying woman’ mode although as Yaszek and Sharp point out, the terrifying woman resists straightforward readings as strictly female (or male).

The stories are not afraid of politics; Lilith Lorraine (who features heavily throughout) wrote “Into the 28th Century” and imagines a near-utopia (shades of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time) coming out of great destruction: emerging “from the wreck of private ownership”, and “the chariot of diabolical ‘efficiency’ [had] rolled on and either converted all men into cogs in its machinery or crushed them to powder under its wheels” (118). Full employment meant no more charity and those unfit for labor didn’t deserve charity… and the utopia of many centuries later has all citizens embarking on grand educational schemes and a world fully united – and the first World President was a woman (121). Although there is still some eye-rolly stuff about woman is a “more delicate organism” (122), they are full participants in education and so on, and I suspect there is some underlying eugenics in there too. Nonetheless it’s a story of magnificent scope. Overall, with the stories, Yaszek and Sharp have chosen a good range of stories to show what women were producing – horror, near and far future SF, and so on. You certainly couldn’t say that these were ‘girly’ stories; there’s basically no common thread between them. I was fascinated by the historical comparisons with gothic and domestic fiction that Yaszek and Sharp drew, as well as the discussion of innovation.

The poetry section isn’t very long, and I’m no poet, but I liked reading them and considering SF poetry – which I’ve never really given much thought to. The journalist section is intriguing, because Yaszek and Sharp talk a bit about the prevailing attitude towards science journalism and how some of these women go along with that style, and how some challenge it, and how some wrote very provocative articles (“The White Race – Does it Exist?” for example… which is cringe-worthy in the 21st century but taken in context, where it’s challenging prevailing notions, is quite remarkable).

The Editors section really surprised me. I don’t think I’d heard of Dorothy McIlwratith: she ran Weird Tales from 1940 until 1954! And then there’s Lilith Lorraine, again, who reminds me of Alisa Krasnostein and Twelfth Planet Press in their determinedly political stance. Lorraine established six amateur press publications over about two decades. In one of her editorials, Lorraine calls for training for ‘world citizenship,’ claiming that ‘He who does not love all humanity is a traitor to his country’ (316). And that was in 1946. Again, I deeply appreciated the historical context that Yaszek and Sharp provide, by showing how these editors followed a tradition of women editing magazines in the 19th century and how this was updated and changed for a new century and a new genre.

Finally there’s the section on artists, which again I can’t comment on the art itself but the historical context was great. The idea of women trained in fashion art moving over to covers for Weird Tales and so on is initially odd but of course makes sense, because they understand proportions and so on. Also somewhat odd is Brundage creating the sexy images (seriously, boobs out on a magazine from 1931??), but Yaszek and Sharp point out how often the women are centre stage and not all damsel-ed.

Finally, Kathleen Ann Goonan writes a marvellous essay to conclude the work, tying the works of these women from the 30s and 40s with the work of women up to 2015, commenting on the all-female Nebula podium in 2013 and the Puppies, with some stats of publication rates for women (c/ Cheryl Morgan and others) as well as some particularly well-known examples of misogyny in the field (Connie Willis and Harlan Ellison; that SFWA Bulletin debacle from Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg). In the end, what Goonan concludes and what the whole volume shows, is that women have always been in SF and that what SF can and should do is to welcome all voices, because this “is the first step toward using that strength [of dreams] to point our universe toward unlimited future” (362).

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