Marvels, myth and microchips from classic writers of science fiction, and a dazzling array of new authors. From farflung planets to Greenham Common, from distant futures to the here and now, the stories explore the myriad possibilities of women’s lives: women under attack, women in control, women alone and women together. With stories set in societies barely recognisable, and societies only too credible, this collection comes from the frontiers and offers a glimpse of what lies beyond.
Published in 1985 by The Women’s Press, Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind is an anthology almost entirely of original work (Joanna Russ’ story is a reprint) by female science fiction authors, many of whom have now faded from view; it’s not a comprehensive overview of the field at the time, but it is a broad look at what was being written.
The absolute stand-out stories are two political ones by significant, and enduring, names in (feminist) science fiction, Joanna Russ and Raccoona Sheldon (who also wrote under another pseudonym as the “ineluctably masculine” James Tiptree Jr). The first, Russ’, is as much parody as itself a story; framed by the idea of possession by an evil spirit, ‘The Clichés From Outer Space’ sees Russ parody the approaches to women taken in much science fiction, ripping to shreds the matriarchal utopia, the matriarchal dystopia, the equalist society and the future-patriarchy of stated-but-unseen equality. Each of these is in itself riotously hilarious, but Russ’ comments at the end of each, and her acerbic framing of the whole thing, raises this above the simply joy of parody to absolutely brilliant brutality.
‘Morality Meat’, on the other hand, is a very downbeat story, a political warning rather than a literary joke. Sheldon’s story is very bluntly about a woman’s right to choose, and about the socioeconomic gap she saw developing in society under Reagan; it’s a fantastic tale, slowly revealing the darkness at its heart that is hinted at from the very opening of the story but doesn’t get confirmed right until the end of the piece. ‘Morality Meat’ is the darkest story in here, and Sheldon carries that darkness off amazingly, and believably.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of stories in the anthology are very political, whether it is Josephine Saxton’s broadside against advertising culture in ‘Big Operation on Altair Three’ or Lisa Tuttle’s environmentalism and anti-nuclear ‘From A Sinking Ship’, with its startling similarity in premise to elements of the 1981 TV adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some take a more broad view of politics, such as the far-ranging ‘The Awakening’ by Pearlie McNeill or ‘The Insurrection’ by Gwyneth Jones, where others are incredibly particular, such as Zoe Fairbairns’ story of Greenham Common, ‘Relics’. They’re not subtle but nor are any simply diatribes, all working their politics into stories that are good in and of themselves.
Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind does have one or two stories that I felt didn’t belong, including the closer of the anthology, Sue Thomason’s ‘Apples In Winter’; trying to be mythic, it ends up simply dragging, in a style that doesn’t seem to suit anything, including itself. Similarly, Pamela Zoline’s ‘Instructions for Exiting This Building In Case of Fire’ has a good core, and some great moments, but on the whole the mix of scale between abstract intentionally-fictional and concrete pseudo-real is a little broken, and the concept at the heart of the story is nearly nonsensical.
In the 1980s, queerness was a big part of feminism, so it is no surprise to see it come up time and again in these stories. The most interesting of these is Tanith Lee’s ‘Love Alters’, which is a brilliant, dark satire on the treatment of gay relationships and the way it is societal norms, not heterosexuality per se, that is the problem. Lee convincingly creates her world in very short order, and proceeds to highlight the extent to which that world is ours, just twisted only a little, and it works incredibly well. Similarly, Mary Gentle’s ‘A Sun in the Attic’ is an interesting little steampunk tale about the dangers of discovery, but it includes a society based on multiple-marriage; bisexuality and polyamory are both completely normalised parts of society, it seems, and Gentle plays with some of the implications of that as the story wends towards its Galilean conclusion.
Despatches From the Frontiers of the Female Mind is, perhaps inevitably, a bit dated now, and some of these concerns seem less relevant; but some of them are shockingly present now, and Green & Lefanu’s selection, whilst including a few duds, is overall excellent. An anthology very much worth your time.