For as gloriously dynamic as Vance’s plots and settings are, his main characters are all occupied by clever men cut from the same cloth. Far from the only author to consistently use the same hero in almost every story, few are aware Vance wrote a few stories with women as his protagonists. Story mode entirely the same, it’s fair to say Vance did not have a feminist agenda writing them. That being said, the presentation is not the same as his male heroes, and are worth a visit for the Vance connoisseur. For those interested, Golden Girl and Other Stories collects all such stories (plus a couple more) published between 1951 and 1974, and will be of specific interest.
The collection opens on “Golden Girl”, a short but tragic tale of a woman crash-landed on Earth with no hope of returning to her home. Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land in short form, Vance’s content is, however, more readable.
In “The Masquerade on Dicantropus” an anthropologist is stuck in a quandary: to disturb or not to disturb the native's pyramid on the planet he studies? Plot tension a bit forced, this may be the weakest story of the collection, but does superficially dig into the man's relationship with a woman.
In Abercrombie Station, a man tries to work a scam on a young but dying playboy using a beautiful but intrepid woman. Though space ships exist, it is more a work of realism. The pace is slower, there is internal monologue, and the woman, while appearing the victim in the beginning, takes on a forthright dimension much to the story’s success.
In Cholwell’s Chickens, Jean Parlier, unsatisfied with what she ended up with in Abercrombie Station, heads to her home planet to find her parents. Running into a man named Cholwell who claims to be raising chickens, she learns that the feathered birds are not what one might think they are, as well as the surprising identity of her parents.
One of the most singular stories Vance ever wrote, “The Mitr” is the short tale of a young girl stranded on an alien planet amongst beetle creatures. The story bears Vance’s name, but if it didn’t, one would be hard pressed to attribute it to him. Hard and cynical, it takes the standard male planet exploring hero Vance is so famous for and puts him on his head—much the same as Tiptree Jr. in Houston, Houston Do You Read?.
“The World Between” – On a colonizing mission falling to pieces, Explorator Bernisty and the crew of the Blauelm come across a planet right where it shouldn’t be: a world between two others. But settlement of the planet is not certain. A neighboring alien called the Kay likewise claim the planet as their own. The dispute which ensues entails terraforming like no work of science fiction ever has.
The life of the lighthouse keeper is a lonely existence, and in “When the Five Moons Rise” Vance takes full advantage. In this horrific tale on a planet with five moons, a man’s lighthouse partner goes missing the night all the moons rise together. And things only get stranger and stranger for him...
When a newspaperman decides to hold an interstellar beauty contest, complications arise dealing with the variety of species which participate. Those complications are especially felt by the organizer and his intents for the winner in “Meet Miss Universe”.
Assault on a City (aka The Insufferable Redheaded Daughter of Commander Tynnott, OTE), while opening with the story of the anti-hero Bo, quickly becomes the story of the young lady he targets. Highly humorous given the haughty self-righteousness Vance endows the characters with, it becomes a funny caper involving a lovestruck, ne'er-do-well told in the same Hemingway-esque narrative style as Abercrombie Station.
In the end, the aim of Golden Girl and Other Stories is clear: to collect Vance’s short fiction related to women. A tiny group of stories compared to Vance’s oeuvre, not all feature women as heroes, and a couple do not feature women at all. That being said, Abercrombie Station, Cholwell’s Chickens, and Assault on a City feature strong female leads—the only in Vance’s oeuvre, while “Golden Girl” and “The Mitr” intentionally invert gender roles in satisfactory fashion. Beyond gender presentation, the collection remains fair Vance, and is probably for Vance completists only.