Look, any book whose title is taken from a Tiptree story – and “The Women Men Don’t See” no less – is likely to be very appealing to me. And ta dah! It was.
This delightful feminist, academic, personal, humorous, thoughtful, and passionate examination of women in science fiction and women writing science fiction came out in 1988. So yes, it’s dated – of course it has. There have been lots more stories written in the last (oh heck) nearly thirty years that have a variety of female characters, and of course more female authors challenging and playing with science fiction ideas. But I think that the categories that Lefanu considers – Amazons, utopias and dystopias, women in love, and so on – these categories often still apply to the ways that women appear, or are thought that they should appear, as characters. So I certainly found these chapters resonant and not only from a historical perspective.
The second half of the book was the bit that I really loved, though. James Tiptree Jr, Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas and Joanna Russ: what a magnificent set of women, and a magnificent set of stories between them. Lefanu examines a set of the novels and short stories of each of the women (in Russ’ case, almost all her science fiction) and dissects the ways in which they present women. She’s not always flattering – she has some issues with Le Guin’s early female characters, which I don’t entirely agree with – but she is always interesting and insightful.
One of the things I really appreciated and enjoyed about this book is that while Lefanu is absolutely writing an academic piece and interrogating issues of feminism and how science fiction fails or encourages women, there are also personal moments that didn’t feel at all out of place. I really, really like this idea that the writer actually exists and has an opinion – that the book isn’t pretending to be a disembodied, clinical examination but acknowledges the very real body behind the … well, typewriter probably.
If you’re interested in feminist science fiction, in women in science fiction (in all senses), or have a somewhat historical literary bent, this is a really great book. It’s very approachable and even if you haven’t read the stories Lefanu examines (I’ve only read one of the Charnas books), she explains them enough that her analysis makes sense… and I still want to read the books.
This is the delightfully-packaged third book in the Twelve Planets series, from Twelfth Planet Press. I should mention that I am friends with the editor/publisher, Alisa Krasnostein, and a passing acquaintance of the author, Lucy Sussex. But don’t worry; I would have no trouble saying I didn’t like it much, if that were the case…
The first story is, for me, the blazing outstanding story of the four. Called “Alchemy,” it is set in Babylon, a city as evocative, perhaps, as it is foreign. We are presented with a story told from two perspectives. The first is that of Tapputi, a perfumer from a long line of such. She is a mother, a widow, and a skilled artisan. She has also attracted the attention of Azubel, a spirit whose point of view we also read. Azubel has knowledge of the past and the possible paths of the future, with a particular passion for and understanding of what we would call chemistry. The stories of these two, over a long span of time (by human standards) has many strands, weaving in examinations of knowledge and the dangers thereof; juggling career and family; tradition and innovation and the pitfalls of each; and that essential conundrum, discerning good from evil when the world is grey, not black and white. Tapputi is finely, delicately drawn, the balance of concerns inherent being in being a widowed mother and artisan nicely indicated. She is both practical and romantic and, perhaps most wondrously, is actually based on a woman known to historians because her name and trade are recorded in cuneiform from the second millennium BC. This is a story that mixes fantasy and history in a glorious blend, and is one of my favourite stories for the year.
The second story in the collection is Krasnostein showing her readers that the Twelve Planets series is not going to follow the path set by the first two sets (Nightsiders and Love and Romanpunk), because it neither follows “Alchemy” (sigh) nor falls into SF/fantasy. “The Fountain of Justice” was first published for the Ned Kelly Awards, given in Australia to crime authors, and is indeed a story of crime and policing set in Melbourne, Sussex’s home city. It wasn’t really my sort of thing – crime never really has been. We get the story predominantly from the point of view of Meg, a solicitor who works mainly for the Children’s Court, and with the juveniles accused there. It’s a convoluted story questioning issues of justice and truth, asking I think whether our legal system delivers justice and even whether it can/should. It is clever, but it didn’t ultimately work for me.
Thirdly, “The Subject of O” is again completely different, and perhaps on the face of it far simpler than the preceding two – although it would be a mistake to actually believe that. Petra, a probably twenty-something university student, is the focus, as a stupid comment from an acquaintance sends her memory over the past few weeks and months in which she has been thinking about, and learning about, women and orgasms. On one level it is quite a funny story about students and their conversations, and plays into the common theme that university students are all rather busy with sex and drugs. But the reality is that underneath is a genuine questioning of why discussion of women’s sexuality and experience of sex is more often than not hidden, or spoken of only hazily, or left to blokes leering and imagining them as God’s gift to womankind. It’s frank and honest, refreshingly spiked with wry humour. But don’t read it on public transport if you are the blushing type.
Finally, the collection is rounded out by the eponymous story, “Thief of Lives,” which itself contains a book of the same name (confused yet?). This is the most complicated story of the set, although fortunately almost everything is clarified by the end, making hindsight a wonderful thing. It’s set in Bristol, and told from the first person by someone who is not what they at first appear to be, and whose intentions in Bristol are far from straightforward. It’s impossible for me to give a good idea of the narrative, really, without spoiling it. Let me say that it toys with ideas like a cat with string: why (as the blurb puts it) do writers think that other people’s lives are fair game? How do writers get their ideas? Can writers and their writing have a concrete impact on those around them, especially when drawing on them for inspiration? It’s a little bit labyrinthine, which is echoed somewhat in the maze-like qualities of Bristol itself for our protagonist. It’s very, very clever, and the main character herself is a little bit hypnotic.
Also, isn’t it a totally lovely cover?
In which we hit and run the Locus Recommended Reading List, tackle e-books and piracy, and delve into the knotty issue of religion in science fiction. You can download or stream us at Galactic Suburbia, or subscribe to us on iTunes.
Locus Recommended Reading List – hot off the press!
Philip K Dick shortlist.
First annual Geek Girl Con in Seattle.
Discussion of ebook piracy: Jim Hines found out the world is not the USA and the rest of the world does not experience publishing nor this ebook revolution apace with the USA. (Hines’ original post here). Charles Tan responds; Karen Healey says I was wrong and I’m sorry.
Weird Tales revamp (new website; pay rate to 5 cents per word; and implemented a new submissions portal for potential contributors).
Feedback (we love feedback)
Sean, Thoraiya, Niall
The place of religion in science fiction. A Jew, a Christian, and a lapsed pagan discuss.
Modern religions, made up religions, machine religions… or no religions? What place can/does/should religion play in sf?
Jo Walton on religion in SF!
“There’s the kind of SF where the writer is themselves a member of some religion and this imbues their writing… .
Secondly, there’s theological SF… where the writer rigorously extrapolates science fictionally the consequences of some religious dogma being true. …
Thirdly, there’s the story as analogy thing… .
Fourthly, there’s using the way religions have worked in history and extrapolating that into the future.”
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