July 13, 2006


Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Edited By Justine Larbalestier. Wesleyan University Press. $24.95.

     Justine Larbalestier may have a great future as an anthologist – more so than as a writer.  Her previous book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, was an over-academic, shrill and polarizing work that discussed SF mainly in passing.  Daughters of Earth, cleverly conceptualized and well assembled, is a far better study of women in SF.  And it is not just a study – it is a book that a reader can pick up simply to enjoy the 11 SF stories it contains, some of which have been unavailable for decades.  Furthermore, because the stories are presented intact and in their entirety, a reader can decide on his or her own how much sense the essays about the stories make.

     Larbalestier, an honorary associate in the School of English, Art History, Film and Media at the University of Sydney, Australia, has found 11 essayists and turned them loose on SF stories of their own choosing, allowing each writer to select a tale and then comment on it.  The approach has the great strength of eliciting genuinely interesting (even when wrong-headed) commentary on the stories.  It has the weakness of creating huge holes in the anthology: for example, although there is a story or two from almost every decade from the 1920s through the 2000s (the most recent tale, from 2002, belies the book’s Twentieth Century subtitle), the decade of the 1940s is omitted – although it was one of the most productive in SF.  Larbalestier points out that no essayist chose a story from that decade, but this is a poor excuse: such a creative compiler as Larbalestier could surely have bent someone’s will just a bit.

     Within its limits, though, this is a really well-done anthology.  Few SF readers are likely to know Clare Winger Harris’s “The Fate of the Poseidonia” (1927) or Leslie F. Stone’s “The Conquest of Gola” (1931).  Many will know Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967) and Pat Murphy’s “Rachel in Love” (1987), but few will have analyzed them as do the essayists here.

     Those essayists are a mixed bag, as are their analyses.  Cathy Hawkins, assistant editor of Australian Feminist Studies, wastes the reader’s time with her attempts to find depth in Lisa Tuttle’s “Wives” (1976), a shrill and dogmatic story that is also not particularly well written.  Joan Haran of the University of Cardiff spends far too much time discussing the relationship between “Rachel in Love” and cyberpunk, but makes some interesting points about the story’s exploration of what it means to be human.  Wendy Pearson of the University of Western Ontario seems totally immune to the gorgeously poetic prose of “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side” (1972) – written by Alice Sheldon under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. as a retelling of John Keats’ poem, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” from which the story’s title comes.  Pearson follows the eight-page story with a pedantic 22-page essay (including 43 footnotes – all the essays are heavily footnoted) that oddly uses the pronoun “he” for the author.

     There is no single theme to the essays, except for the overarching one that defines these stories as feminist (or proto-feminist) literature and views them exclusively, or at least primarily, through that lens.  Given Larbalestier’s design of the anthology, this is perhaps inevitable.  But it nevertheless frequently makes the focus too restrictive, and results in some writing that would be hilariously funny in its political correctness if it were not meant to be taken seriously – as when one essayist discusses “radical feminists of color.”  Indeed, it is the weakest stories here, such as “Wives,” that are the most narrowly feminist in orientation.  The best stories reach out with a universality that intrigues and moves men and women alike.  In her next anthology – hopefully there will be one – Larbalestier would do well to provide some commentary of her own to interrelate the stories and the essayists’ viewpoints.  This time, the reader must do that on his or her own – and if it is not always worth doing where the essays are concerned, there are always the mostly excellent stories themselves on which to focus: to engage, entertain and, perhaps, even instruct.

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