By Erica Smith
December 2015- January 2016
‘It’s good to read outside your comfort zone’, I told myself when I was asked to review this collection of short stories. I had no real idea what ‘speculative fiction’ was and, of the 29 authors, the only names which were at all familiar to me were Angela Carter, Ursula K Le Guin and the visual artist Leonora Carrington.
According to the cover, the editors are a literary power couple with awards for both editing and writing fantasy. Their two-page introduction, in which they explain that the stories have been arranged to ‘speak to one another, rather than in chronological order’, reassured me that there were going to be treats in store.
There are stories from the 1960s through to 2012.
I would have expected Margaret Atwood to be represented, and while she is not, the first story, ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A’ by L Timmel Duchamp, is a thought-provoking tale concerning a journalist who has designed her adult life around arranging a visit to a political prisoner. The latter is forbidden to discuss anything of consequence because of the power and revolutionary potential of her previous speech and writings. It was impossible not to think of prisoners as diverse as Aung San Suu Kyi and Julian Assange.
The following two stories are also about prisoners, although their types of imprisonment have little in common. The story by Leonora Carrington was a particular favourite, a fantastic piece of verbal surrealism, but all of the stories engaged me.
Although the contributors are predominantly North American there are stories from all around the world, including writers with Finnish, Indian, Japanese, Jamaican and Belgian heritage. And folk tales and magical realism are as well represented as stories with a scientific setting.
I loved them all, but it was a surprise to me that the stories that have stayed with me were two disturbing works about illness. James Tiptree Jr’s ‘The Screwfly Solution’ is about a terrifying plague that turns the nicest men into murderous misogynists, while Octavia E Butler’s amazing ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’ is a beautifully-narrated story told by a young woman with a self-destructive genetically-inherited disorder.
The writers selected for this anthology share a dystopian view of the world, but this is more apparent in the writings from the ’70s and ’80s, where slavery, imprisonment and victimhood are more common themes. As the writings move into the ’90s, the protagonists are more likely to be scientists or actors engaging with the world, rather than simply doomed to a miserable end under an oppressive patriarchy.
The authors are all feminists and sisters of a speculative fiction revolution rather than a group of political activists. As such, their role is really to explore possible worlds and ways of being, leaving it to the readers to draw their own lessons from the scenarios painted. In their introduction, the editors state that this anthology is ‘the beginning volume of something even more diverse and rich’. I look forward to the next volume in the conversation. In the meantime, I wholeheartedly recommend this collection as a comfortable exploration of an unknown genre. I would even recommend it as the ideal Christmas present for – anyone!