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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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Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind eds. Jen Green & Sarah LeFanu

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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.
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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.

Queering The Genre

Borderland eds. Terri Windling & Mark Alan Arnold

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Music is magic – and magic runs wild!

Between the mysterious Elflands and the magicless world are a wild Borderland and the ancient city of Bordertown. Here Elfin magic and human technology work only sporadically. Here elves and humans mingle in an uneasy truce, vying for control of the city in the Council Chambers of Dragon’s Tooth Hill, in the marketplace called Trader’s Heaven – but most of all in the old, abandoned parts of the city where runaways gather, rock-and-roll clubs glitter, and kids and bands clash in musical, magical revelry.

Welcome to the Borderlands, but watch your step. Magic runs wild in the streets here. Beware.
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Borderland is where the cult classic shared-world, recently resurrected by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner in Welcome to Bordertown, began, with two editors, four writers and four stories…

The first, ‘Prodigy’, by Steven R. Boyett, is the longest in the collection, and the earliest chronologically, setting up all the later events. Set recently after the events that brought Elfland and the World (back?) into contact, it is focused on one man, Scooter, but across the course of the story explains the development of the meshed cultures of Borderland, Elfland and the World. ‘Prodigy’ could have ended up terribly solipsistic or white-man-centred, and does at times fall into the trap of being all about the manpain of Scooter, but it also does some very fascinating things with worldbuilding. The story centres on Scooter having to come to terms with his emotions and with responsibility, and in that sense it feels like a standard Literary bildungsroman; but the way it’s treated here is rather different, involving magic, rock-and-roll, and a certain amount of questing. This story is also notable for its approach to music; one of the effects of magic, in some places, is to allow some people who play music to actualise it in a manner rather similar to some forms of synaesthesia. Boyett’s passages around this are really effective and beautiful, and he utilises incredibly evocative but abstract description to show the reader his intent; these bits really are of the highest caliber.

Bellamy Bach’s ‘Gray’, on the other hand, is set many years later, in Bordertown itself, starring Gray, at the bottom of society, and Wicker, a rockstar at the top of the outcasts. Here we see a lot more colour; that is, whereas ‘Prodigy’ is almost rural in its landscapes, ‘Gray’ is set in the urbanscapes, in the slums, in the middle class district, in the punk and rock clubs of the town. This is also the first story to be set when Elfland and the World have mingled somewhat, so it’s the first to introduce us to some of the politics of that; the race-based gangs, the effect on the music and clubbing scene, and the exchange of cultural elements – not artefacts so much as ideas – between the two, along with the development of a whole new subculture. It’s a good story, although most of its twists are telegraphed; and the emotional core at the heart of it, and at the hearts of both Wicker and Gray, ring true and are very effectively done.

‘Stick’, though, is probably the strongest story in the collection. Charles de Lint, luminary of urban fantasy and fairytale, and widely feted, combined Morris Dancing and biker gangs to get this story, and it works much, much better than might be expected. A story about isolation, loneliness, companionship and chosen families, it’s a complex, beautiful story; ‘Stick’ manages to showcase a number of different things, including different kinds of strength (Stick himself has one, Bramble another, and Manda yet another still), different approaches to the world and different forms of fellowship. It also opens up questions about the history of Bordertown and the way it was established. de Lint also fascinatingly highlights the racial tensions between humans, elves and the “halflings”, hated by all and accepted by none except other outcasts; not, clearly, a direct parallel to race relations in 1980s America, but certainly commentary on it. And, of course, it includes a Morris-dancing biker gang!

Unfortunately, the collection ends on its weakest story, Ellen Kushner’s ‘Charis’. Focused on the most privileged members of society, it deals in broken hearts and teenaged angst without really getting into anything interesting; as far as character goes, “whiny and annoying” rather sums the titular Charis up. Furthermore, none of the rest of the cast are any more interesting; while providing something of a contrast with the children with bad backgrounds, ‘Charis’ showcases privilege at its most rank, almost. The whole thing feels contrived and shallow in a way the rest of the collection doesn’t, and adds very little except a glimpse into the high society of Bordertown – but an immature, simple one at that.

Borderland is where the Bordertown shared world began, and there’s a reason it has become a cult classic in the following two decades; this is, for the most part, a really strong collection of stories, so congratulations to Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold on an astounding creation and excellent curation!

Kaleidoscope ed. Alisa Krasnostein & Julia Rios

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What do a disabled superhero, a time-traveling Chinese-American figure skater, and a transgendered animal shifter have in common? They’re all stars of Kaleidoscope stories!

Kaleidoscope collects fun, edgy, meditative, and hopeful YA science fiction and fantasy with diverse leads. These twenty original stories tell of scary futures, magical adventures, and the joys and heartbreaks of teenage.
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Diversity is an increasingly strong theme in discussions of the state of the genre, and the inculcation of that diversity, but rarely are practical steps taken. Rios and Krasnostein decided to take a practical step through Krasnostein’s Twelth Planet Press publishing business, and with the help of Pozible (a crowdfunding site), Kaleidoscope was born!

I have to declare a certain interest here; Kaleidoscope is dedicated to me (in the Acknowledgements section – flip to the back and check!), and I have consistently supported the project and cheered as Krasnostein and Rios brought a host of voices both veteran (Garth Nix! Karen Healey!) and new (Sofia Samatar!) to bear on the broad theme of “diversity”, an idea that the fan community is coming to terms with but that is still seen as too “PC” a theme for an anthology by some. Kaleidoscope is an excellent artistic rebuttal of that.

Entirely made up of original fiction, Kaleidoscope covers themes from trans narratives (though not the narrative you’re expecting!), ablism and the perception of the disabled, and neurodiversity (two stories centre on OCD, one on schizophrenia) through to immigration, class issues, racism, and a lot of sexuality; it’s impressive to see the broad scope of “diversity” Rios and Krasnostein have embraced in collecting and curating this anthology, and the avoidance of some of the common, awful tropes that tend to reoccur in stories. There are no magically fixed people here, and indeed magical fixing as a theme is interrogated quite harshly; there is no sudden cathartic moment of universal reconciliation, and no utopias of perfect acceptance. Instead, the fantastic is used as a lens to interrogate our own prejudices, our own ideas of normalcy.

There is a wide range of types of storytelling on display here, from Samatar’s tragic and beautiful ‘Walkdog’, in the form of a book report, through Susman’s archival compilation of emails, phone transcripts, application forms and more in the stunning and unexpected ‘The Lovely Duckling’, and achronological chapter-sectioned wonderfully self-referential myth in El-Mohtar’s ‘The Truth About Owls’. The table of contents also boasts a lot of more conventional stories, including Roberts’ ‘Cookie-Cutter Superhero’, a truly wonderful subversion of superhero narratives and brilliant satire of the comics of the Big Two all at once. Indeed, to highlight every story here that is a stand-out beauty would take too long, and involve listing every single one; this is an anthology of what would be highlights in any other anthology, truly superlative work.

There is, unfortunately, one misstep in Kaleidoscope, and it is Flinthart’s ‘Vanilla’. ‘Vanilla’ is the sole story that discusses nonbinary genders (there are multiple stories about trans characters, but all within the gender binary), and it situates that nonbinarism in its aliens; that is, literal, non-homo sapiens aliens. Indeed, the story includes the idea that even without gender, the being carrying the child is made female by the act; that femininity is defined by the ability to give birth. Now, it’s inevitable that one story in the anthology would be problematic, and ‘Vanilla’ is, in its discussion of immigration and integration, amazing, but it feels rather unfortunate that the problems in the story punch me in the face.

That said, Kaleidoscope is overall a wonderful, monumental achievement and a really stunning collection of good fiction quite apart from Rios and Krasnostein’s efforts to foster a sense of diversity, empathy and understanding. If you can, buy this book. If you can’t, ask booksellers to order it in so you can buy it. Give it to teachers, to teenagers, to educators of all kinds; to politicians, to friends and family, to community leaders. Kaleidoscope deserves to be distributed far and wide, and its message needs to be distributed far and wide.

And it really is that good.

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