An Entertaining Anthology of Early and Influential Sci-Fi
The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction By Women Writers
Edited by Mike Ashley
Series: Dover Thrift Editions
Publication Date: March 18, 2015
Publisher: Dover Publications, Inc.
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Featuring hard-to-find short stories published between 1873 and 1930, this original anthology spotlights a variety of important sci-fi pioneers, including Ethel Watts Mumford, Edith Nesbit, and Clare Winger Harris. Imaginative scenarios include a feminist society in another dimension, the east/west division of the United States with men and women on opposite sides, a man who converts himself into a cyborg, a drug that confers superhuman qualities, and many other curious situations.
Editor Mike Ashley provides an informative introduction to the stories. Highlights include “When Time Turned” (1901), which centers on a grieving widower who contrives to relive his life backwards; “The Painter of Dead Women” (1910), the tale of a woman in thrall to a Svengali-like character who promises to preserve her beauty forever; “The Automaton Ear” (1876), in which an inventor struggles to create a machine to detect sounds from the distant past; “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” (1899), a lighthearted fable concerning a robot housemaid; and ten other captivating tales.
There is a special pleasure in reading science fiction written in the early years of the genre, before scientific discoveries and technological advances made it more difficult to pen fantastic plots whose credibility could not be instantly discounted. Certainly, “modern” sci-fi can threaten the boundaries of plausibility, but it generally tends to stay within the realm of the possible. What crashes through those boundaries usually winds up being classified as fantasy. But in the old days, the landscape of possibility was as vast as the author’s imagination, and writers might easily ignore category or sub-genre and take full advantage of the idea that a plot could not be too far-fetched to be believable.
This collection of stories, edited by award-winning anthologist Mike Ashley, not only brings together a nice set of fourteen mostly pre-pulp era science fiction tales, wherein anything goes, it adds a degree of significance by presenting only those written by women. That is, obviously, the reason for the book. As Ashley writes in his general introduction about the “forgotten pioneers” of the genre: “the…misconception is that until recently few women wrote science fiction”. He goes on to credit early female writers with helping to “define the nature of what science fiction is”.
Ashley prefaces each story with an overview of its author, touching on her life and work. Without fail, these brief bios are illuminating and often surprising. Of course, any anthology stands or falls on the quality of its stories. That’s no problem here. It isn’t necessary to pick favorites, as all hold the reader’s interest, but I especially enjoyed Edith Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” — that which grants godlike powers; Alice Brown’s “The Flying Teuton”, with its novel take on ghost ships; Clare Winger Harris’ “The Artificial Man”, a frightening, almost sickening, story about a man obsessed with turning himself into what we call today a cyborg; and Elizabeth Bellamy’s humorous “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid”, which features this clever description of an eccentric genius’ handwriting: “It was addressed…in the Archimedean script always so characteristic of him, combining, as it seemed to do, the principles of the screw and of the inclined plane”.
A purist would not label every story “science fiction”. But that, as Ashley mentions, is the other misconception he attempts to dispel — that the limitations on the genre have, in fact, changed and broadened over the years. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how those borderline tales are classified, for each is imaginative and diverting. And after all, the bulk of the selections employ what would become traditional sci-fi themes. To again quote the editor, the stories included helped to “develop many of the basic ideas of science fiction — alternate worlds, other dimensions, invisibility, super-powers, shifts in time, automatons and cyborgs, thought-reading, immortality…”
Though the tales in The Feminine Future were written by women, it is interesting that so few have female protagonists, or antagonists, for that matter. Several of these involve societies where women have become the dominant sex; a clear reflection of the atmosphere among intelligent females of the day who were still in the first stages of the fight for equality. The fact that most have male leads also serves to demonstrate how severely restricted women were as to what they could do with their lives.
Each of these authors truly was a pioneer, and it’s unfortunate that most have been neglected, if not entirely forgotten. Science fiction wouldn’t be what it is today without their contributions, and The Feminine Future does a service to every fan of the genre. Additional collections along the lines of this first would be most welcome!
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that The Feminine Future sells for a meager $4.50 (at present, the eBook costs even less). If you appreciate early science fiction literature, or wish to expand your knowledge of the genre, then don’t hesitate to grab it!
— Jennifer Michelle
4.5 of 5 Hearts. An Entertaining Anthology of Early and Influential Sci-Fi.
The Feminine Future is a collection of literate and imaginative pre-pulp science fiction stories by talented and unjustly neglected female authors. It should sit comfortably on the shelves of any true SF fan; indeed, it is a necessity for those shelves.
*Disclosure of Material Connection: I would like to thank Dover Publications and NetGalley for providing me access to this title. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Tagged: Alice Brown, Book Review, Clare Winger Harris, Dover Thrift Editions, Early Science Fiction, Edith Nesbit, Mike Ashley, Science Fiction, Science Fiction short stories, The Feminine Future, women writers