Sisters of the Revolution: A Review in The New York Review of Science Fiction

by Gwyneth Jones
The New York Review of Science Fiction

This “highly curated” collection of feminist speculative fiction definitely bears the VanderMeer stamp: not only choosing their stories from every genre of the fantastic, including horror and fantasy” but offering a greater preponderance of the surreal and the richly grotesque than one might expect in an anthology on this theme. Of the surreal element, my favorite has to be Ann Richter’s “The Sleep of Plants,” an understatedly elegant escape story, translated from the French, though I also liked Rachel Swirsky’s “Detours on the Way to Nothing” and admit to having a soft spot for Eileen Gunn’s sly fable of corporate climbers, eagerly ditching their humanity just to get a corner office, “Stable Strategies For Middle Management.”

In the grotesque contingent, I liked Karin Tidbeck’s “Aunts.” This study of stultifying, matriarchal domesticity, replicating itself through the generations, is compelling: gruesome, relentless, and glutinously horrific, but never less than sharply political.

You can’t “expand the conversation about feminism” without first stating its terms: of course a selection of stories from the canon of feminist sf had to be included. Most of the well-known stories here, including Octavia Butler’s bleak, challenging, “The Evening, the Morning, and the Night”; Kelley Eskridge’s slippery, shape-changing “And Salome Danced”; Pat Murphy’s hallucinatory “Love and Death Among the Invertebrates”; and Nalo Hopkinson’s Caribbean Bluebeard tale, “The Glass Bottle Trick” are excellent choices, fitting neatly into the curated scheme. I welcomed the wider perspective of the Hopkinson story, suggesting that her pantomime villain is himself caught in the net of internalized racism: although this collection is reasonably international, I felt that politically it was rather narrow. Other canonical stories don’t seem quite as well chosen. Does Joanna Russ’s sparsely written and deliberately, painfully, unsensational account of the loss of a dream, “When It Changed,” really belong in this highly charged, emphatically sensuous company? It’s not as if Russ never had anything sensual or disturbing to say in her short stories. How about “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman”? I also wondered about using Timmi Duchamp’s “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” as an opener.

It’s a great story, but its closing promise of a world after the revolution “far wider and brighter than I’d ever dreamed existed …” is not exactly accurate as to what’s in store here! (N.B., there’s a typo in the Acknowledgments. As internal evidence shows, “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” was not published in 1980. It was published in Pulphouse 8 in 1990).

Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Sur,” on the other hand (in which an international party of ladylike, responsible, and modest South American wives and mothers secretly prepare an expedition, embark, and succeed in reaching the South Pole before Amundsen), is unexpectedly successful: a counterpoint or even a rebuke to some other accounts of old-fashioned domesticy in this volume.

Among the well-known classics I have to give honorable mention to, James Tiptree Jr’s “The Screwfly Solution” with its spooky premise that all human males, no matter how hard they fight the plague, are a chromosome’s tweak away from slaughtering all human females instead of mating with them—the best and by far the most intelligent zombie apocalypse story in the world, ever. And lastly, my favorite vintage story is in fact my favorite in the whole collection: Élisabeth Vonarburg’s “Home by the Sea.” But I won’t say a word more about it, in case you’re lucky enough to be reading it for the first time. Enjoy.

I’ve now reached the point where the anthology reviewer traditionally lists the stories she or he thinks ought to have been included. I’m not going to do that although I did miss the Australians and the Southeast Asians. Malaysian female writers, at home and in the diaspora, have a particularly wild and rich vein of folklore-based speculative fiction. Instead, I’m going to tell you that this is a very good collection, absorbing, thoughtfully put together, and though it’s mostly a little serious and grim, there are at least two exceptional, witty, and charming female-authored fairytales to warm your heart, Nnedi Okorafor’s “The Palm Tree Bandit” and Eleanor Arnason’s “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters.”

But there’s a problem. Practically all the protagonists and female characters in these stories are defined by their traditional, female-ordered roles in society. We have a police chief, Janet Evason, in “When it Changed.” We have some very unhappy homemakers, daughters, and girlfriends with no other vocation. We have a couple of scientists, two artists, a Grammarian (of course), a journalist, a party of Antarctic explorers, and a Sword and Sorcery Woman Warrior, but almost without exception what they’re all doing in their stories is Being Female. Even the protagonist of “The Screwfly Solution,” though she gets a “Dr.” in front of her name in the text, is presented exclusively as homemaker and mother. Mother, daughter, bride, wife, crone … It’s all very well, but I want more. I want a bit of weird listmania to break out in the next volume, and I’m not asking for a change of tone, not at all. I don’t share the assumption that the surreal and the grotesque as literary forms can only accommodate women who know their limited place.

There is more to be said about the sisters of the revolution than appears in this first episode, and despite the awful troubles of our twenty-first century, despite the horrific conditions under which many women live in the world today, not all of it is bad news.

Back to Ann VanderMeer’s Author Page | Back to Jeff VanderMeer’s Author Page