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The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women ed. Alex Dally MacFarlane

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33 outstanding science fiction stories by women

Travel by train to the Moon, discover living spaceships born in gas giants and explore the constellations, alternate universes and post-apocalyptic worlds of this compelling collection of SF written by women.

Whether crossing the stars or constructing the future of our planet, women have always written powerful, important science fiction. This anthology showcases the most exceptional SF stories written by women in recent decades, from classic stars Ursula K. Le Guin and Angélica Gorodischer; science fiction greats Karen Joy Fowler and Nancy Kress; new award-winning talents Elizabeth Bear, Nnedi Okorafor and Aliette de Bodard; and many more.
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Alex Dally MacFarlane’s anthology of reprints of science fiction by women sits in a long tradition, including the Women of Wonder series and, of course, Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind. The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, however, includes no story not published in English for the last time in the past two decades, and every writer MacFarlane has reprinted is still alive.

This is a stunningly broad collection. MacFarlane has clearly put a lot of thought into the diversity of her contributors; two of the stories are in translation (‘Invisible Planets’ by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu, and ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’ by Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Ursula Le Guin). MacFarlane has included a wide variety of experiences of the world; where Despatches was overwhelmingly white, …SF Stories by Women takes in post-colonial stories, African-American authors, authors who are also immigrants, and a wide variety of kinds of story, some of which are barely science fiction (although they certainly fit under the speculative fiction category).

The absolutely outstanding set of stories for me are those which are clearly not from a Western perspective, whether it be Nalo Hopkinson’s mythopoetic ‘Tan-Tan and Dry Bone’ written in Jamaican English or Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’, a beautiful, heartbreaking story about the cost of performing one’s culture for those who have colonised it. Loenen-Ruiz is well known as a post-colonialist/anti-colonialist writer, and it is something that comes across powerfully in this story, as a scathing criticism of the idea of the ‘benevolent empire’. MacFarlane’s politics are known to lie in this direction and that affects her choice of stories; no core Baen work here, no Sarah Hoyt to be seen, but rather a selection of stories which are both powerful and beautiful but also have messsages.

That means MacFarlane’s anthology is far more cohesive than Green and Lefanu made Despatches…; the theme of women’s writing as political runs through the selection of stories, as there is ‘[n]o such thing as “just a good story” without a political message’ (Ann Leckie), and women writing is inherently a political act given their social position. The best stories are those that embrace the experiences of their writers, those such as Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘Spider the Artist’, a brilliantly well-written story that is about Africa, but not the usual perspective of SF on Africa; this is urban, modern, and not about exoticisation. It’s what African SF should be, not what white Western writers often make it.

That isn’t to say MacFarlane has assembled a perfect anthology, of course. For instance, I would have liked to see more than two stories in translation, even if …SF Stories by Women draws from across the world for its authors. But there are also stories that don’t stand up to the quality of those around them; Greer Gilman’s ‘Down The Wall’ feels like very typical post-apocalyptic fare that we have seen done much better elsewhere, and Nancy Kress’ ‘Ej-Es’ would be better if it wasn’t trying quite so hard to tug the heartstrings of its reader. Both of these are playing in territory that is heartland SF, but both are playing in that territory without being at the top of their game; there are other, better writers who have accomplished better stories than these.

There are some outstanding stories, head-and-shoulders above the rest of the anthology in my opinion, that MacFarlane has found, though. …SF Stories by Women has the amazing ‘Stay Thy Flight’ by Élisabeth Vonarburg is a stunning story that uses time and Classical tropes to discuss art, life, humanity’s response to the other and more in a most amazing, facscinating way; whereas Carrie Vaughn’s environmentalist romance ‘Astrophilia’ is a paean to the value and importance of theoretical knowledge and a beautiful (lesbian) love story, sweetly and simply told. Both contrast in their slowness to the way Hao Jingfang’s ‘Invisible Planets’ is structured; reminiscent of Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar, it is a series of tales of different planets, interspersed by the responses to interjections from the listener. It’s a beautiful tale, although arguably its conclusion rules it out from being SF and makes it realist fiction; MacFarlane did well to find and include this particular piece, and Ken Liu’s translation is smooth and straightforward, reading very poetically.

In the end, the best thing to say about this excellent-albeit-not-perfect anthology is said by MacFarlane at the end of her introduction to The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women: “Look at what women have written. Enjoy.”
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