Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review of The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers ed. by Mike Ashley

Regardless of preferred genre, most readers know the names Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and H. Rider Haggard.  On the strength of Jekyll and Hyde, Captain Nemo, the lost worlds of Africa, and Martians attacking Earth, they are considered pioneers, and by default, stanchions of science fiction and fantasy of the late 19th century.  And all are men.  Who were the women writing speculative fiction at the time?   Unless the reader is a connoisseur of 19th and early 20th century genre, their answer is probably like mine: don’t know even if there were women writing spec fic.  Having just finished editor Mike Ashley’s The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers (2015, Dover Publications), I have been educated: there were women writing in that period, and not just writing, but producing stories of similar, groundbreaking quality as Verne, Wells, Stevenson, Haggard, and the rest.

The Feminine Future anthologizes fourteen short stories published between 1876 and 1930 by women writers.  Having read this byline, my initial concern was that Ashley had little material to work with, and therefore selected stories with only the thinnest of connections to sf.  My concerns were very misplaced. The stories selected are undeniably genre.  The speculative elements not minor or incidental, they occupy fundamental positions or are the foundations upon which the stories are built.  Whether it be robots or alternate history, shifts in time or social experiments, each possesses a recognizable trope or element still in use today, including some that are arguably their first appearance in print.

Expected given the era, several of the stories examine the potential negative effect of technology.  Supposing we could build a machine that could read thoughts. Would it be beneficial or not?”, such is Ashley’s intro to “Those Fatal Filaments” by Mabel Ernestine Abbot.  A quirky “electrician” testing the device on his wife, he learns things he’d rather not.  It is every little boys dream to be able to walk through walls, and in “The Ray of Displacement”, Harrier Prescott Spofford brings the idea to life.  Using Y-rays, a scientist is able to achieve not only invisibility, but also permeability, the subject’s cells able to pass through solids.  Earliest published in the anthology, “The Automaton Ear” (1873) by Florence McLandburgh is about a man who is determined to construct the ultimate listening device.  It’s the price he pays for creating such a thing, however, in which the real story exists. 

Positively divisive for the time, a handful of the stories invert or reverse gender roles in intriguing fashion.  The longest piece in the anthology, “Via the Hewiit Ray” by M.F. Rupert opens on a letter from a scientist to his daughter Lucille.  Telling the young woman he will soon transfer himself to another dimension, he also instructs her where she can find his laboratory notes on the light-wave machine that will send him there.  Getting to know the ins and outs of the machine, it isn’t long before Lucille (Colt .45 and cigarettes in hand) finds herself in another dimension—one ruled by supremely civilized women.  Extra-dimensional adventure with sharp gender overtones, it’s a fascinating read when taking into account the social context of when it was published.  But perhaps more fascinating is the manner in which it puts to shame such modern efforts as Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire.  One would think the idea would have evolved to be more complex, not less. “Friend Island” by Francis Stevens is framed by a women-ruled world, but is about a grizzled bartender, the shipwreck she once was part of, and the strange island she washed onto.  “A Divided Republic—An Allegory of the Future” by Lillie Deveraux Blake answers the question: what if women abandoned men and started their own state. 

     At first, most of the men pretended that they were glad.
    “We can go to the club whenever we like,” said a certain married man.
    “And no one will fault us if we drop into a saloon,” added another.
    “Or say that tobacco is nasty stuff,” suggested a third.

A story to be read in the context of its era—a time when women’s right to vote was not yet a reality, the humor takes on sharply satirical bite.

Karol Capek is given credit for bringing the term ‘robot’ into English idiom in his 1920 theater production R.U.R.  But in The Feminine Future, as early as 1897 we see evidence of anthropomorphized machines: before there were robots there was “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” (1897) by Elizabeth W. Bellamy.  Containing no Three Laws of the Electric Automatic Househould Beneficient Genius, it does contain charisma in bucketloads—“Papa, you better come, quick!  It’s a-tearin’ up these beds!” an actual quote.  About two B.G.s purchased to help clean a family’s home, it engenders a spot of fun (I kept thinking of Tom & Jerry).  One of, if not the first cyborg story, “The Artifical Man” by Clare Winger Harris possesses a main character whose quest, after a freak football accident, is summed by:“I shall find out yet by how slender a thread body and soul can hang together.” Believing in corporeal perfection, he sets out to fully mechanize himself—a story that incidentally forms a nice precursor/left bookend to Philip K. Dick’s “The Electric Ant”.

From the known (Astounding and Harper’s) to the unknown (Argosy and The Phrenological Journal), the anthology’s bibliography contains a fascinating list of source material.  Before “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” there was “When Time Turned” by Ethel Watts Mumford, published in a successful magazine of the time called The Black Cat.  About a woman who goes to meet a friend for dinner, she is introduced to a most intriguing guest, and over the meal learns how he moves backwards through time.   Each story opening with a brief bio, the reader is not only introduced to the story, but also the writers, their places in the field, and their relative accomplishments—very welcome indeed considering the high obscurity factor.  Before “The Flying Teuton”, the reader learns about the successful career of Alice Brown, and then goes on to sample why.  Not about not a ghost ship as the title might imply, rather a ghost fleet, it slowly twists into a state of fabulism the New Weird could embrace.

Unlike today’s publishing environment, turn of the 19 th century writers had to have their technique down.*  “The Painter of Dead Women” by Edna W. Underwood is a superbly written story of a woman who is taken to a ball by her husband.  But when entering the gaudy room, she finds herself in an entirely different world—one more of her mind than body.  Superman almost half a century before the Man of Steel came to exist in comics, “The Third Drug” by Edith Nesbitt is likewise very well written.  About a man attacked on a dark Parisian street, he finds refuge at the nearby home of a doctor but quickly learns that the locked door keeping his would-be assailants on the street also prevents him from escaping.  Offered a potion like no other, the assailants, however, become a minor concern.

In the end, The Feminine Future is an amazing collection of stories.  Not necessarily in the every-selection-blows-your-mind sense (though there are several high quality stories), rather in the gender/historical perspective it offers.  It is as esoteric as sci-fi gets, in fact.  Verne, Wells, and Stevenson no flukes, they were part of a wider community which included women writers producing stories just as quality, but who have been swept under the rug in the intervening time.  Ashley is thus doing the community a wonderful service by pulling back the rug.  Absolutely fascinating to read a story about a robot from the 19th century perspective, this anthology is not just for feminists or the p.c. crowd.  It can be enjoyed by the whole spectrum of sf readers, and comes highly recommended.

Published between 1876 and 1930, the following are the fourteen stories collected in The Feminine Future:

“When Time Turned” by Ethel Watts Mumford
“The Painter of Dead Women” by Edna W. Underwood
“The Automaton Ear” by Florence McLandburgh
“Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” by Elizabeth W. Bellamy
“The Ray of Displacement” by Harrier Prescott Spofford
“Those Fatal Filaments” by Mabel Ernestine Abbot
“The Third Drug” by Edith Nesbitt
“A Divided Republic—An Allegory of the Future” by Lillie Deveraux Blake
“Via the Hewiit Ray” by M.F. Rupert
“The Great Beast of Kafue” by Clotilde Graves
“Friend Island” by Francis Stevens
“The Artifical Man” by Clare Winger Harris
“Creatures of the Light” by Sophie Wenzel Ellis
“The Flying Teuton” by Alice Brown

*Writers of the time also were apt to use words that apparently have disappeared from vernacular.  I encountered the following, which sent me scurrying to uncle google:

shandygaff – beer diluted with a non-alcoholic drink
bisque – unglazed pottery
helpmeet – a helpful partner, usually the spouse
exordium – the introductory portion of a speech or presentation
coadjutor – a specific type of bishop in Catholocism
buddensick – (couldn’t find anything)
sluit (sloot) – a drainage ditch


  1. Really interesting! I rely heavily on Ashley's The Age of the Storytellers for work, and I need to read this too. Did he give a date for Winger Harris's story? I've found a 1917 cyborg story (actually a play), which is early but not the earliest, I know..

    1. The bibliography is complete. He provides a date of 1929 for the Harris story.

      You must have an interesting job. ;)