Women of Futures Past, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch; a revised review with added acrid thoughts on Eric Leif Davin

women-of-futures-past

I bought this book because I thought there was an Andre Norton story in it that I hadn’t read as well as a few others, though it turned out later that I HAD read that Norton story and forgotten it. I didn’t mind seeing it again, though, as well as reading the stories that were new to me (which turned out to only be the Cadigan, the Kress and the Bujold). The stories themselves were uniformly excellent; though I was familiar with most of them, having read them in the Eighties and Nineties.

The preface, though, seemed – tendentious. Kristine Kathryn Rusch states the problem that women in the history of SF seem to be forgotten too quickly, even citing the fact that Locus once completely omitted her own tenure as the editor of F & SF when naming past editors, also that younger writers, including women, seem unaware of most of them. She states that the purpose of her anthology was to introduce the stories to younger readers who may not be aware that the stories and their writers existed. I was a little nonplussed at that at first. I’d read most of those stories in anthologies printed decades after they were first published, and didn’t think of them as ‘forgotten’ classics, but then I reminded myself I’m becoming a decrepit Old, and it’s surely a good thing to have a primer of these writers for the young who were not yet reading in the 80’s and 90’s.

I also didn’t have any objection to another of Rusch’s stated goals, to choose some of the stories in which men are the protagonists, and don’t deal exclusively with “women’s issues” because ‘feminist anthologies’ tended toward choosing stories which deal solely with such issues and have female protagonists. Given that another of Rusch’s stated goals was to choose writers who were ‘successful’ in having a larger following of fans but have been left out of the “so-called canon” (who called it a canon? Rusch doesn’t say) of accepted classic female writers, even though those omitted writers had a much larger following than the “canon” writers, I can’t blame her for choosing stories to have as broad an appeal as possible to increase potential sales.

What I do have a problem with, is her broad statement that “The idea that women are discriminated against in science fiction is ludicrous to me.”

Yes, it is certainly a problem that younger female writers feel that SF is hostile to women, and feel that the few female predecessors they know of are ‘the exception’, and that they are ignorant of many others. But I think to flatly state that their impression of discrimination is utterly false isn’t necessarily convincing…and the fact that she uses a series of straw men to ‘prove’ her argument doesn’t strengthen it.

“But the narrative in which there has been no female participation in SF, no women writing SF, in which women had to hide under pen names and initials because of being discriminated against…that narrative has triumphed over the truth.
That narrative is insulting. It’s demeaning. And it’s wrong.”

Sure, it’s insulting and demeaning and wrong. But I’m pretty sure no one – not even the young ignorant writers she rails against who believe in the laughable bogeyman of discrimination – believes that there has been NO female participation in SF. AFAIK, they only believe that women have been published less, and marginalized and forgotten more than their talent actually warrants.

As for pen names and initials…in Rusch’s introduction to C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau” (a story I love, BTW) Rusch tells us:

“And now, we ease into the mythbusting part of our anthology…Articles on discrimination against women in SF consistently cite Catherine Lucille Moore’s 1933 decision to use her initials as a byline as proof that she was afraid she would be discriminated against for her gender. Nothing could be further from the truth.” She then cites some biography to say (not in a quote from Moore) that “she used her initials because writing for the pulp magazines was a disreputable thing to do – for men and women – in the 1930’s, and she was afraid of losing her job in the depths of the Depression.”

This is pretty thin stuff. The fact that she wanted to protect her job does not logically exclude the possibility that she might ALSO have wanted her gender to be less obvious to publishers and readers. It becomes even thinner when you realize Rusch is well aware that Moore used many pseudonyms in her career – she even mentions it herself (“She was so prolific under many names, with Kuttner and on her own…”). But, oddly, Rusch omits to mention that most of those pen names – maybe ALL of them – were either asexual or masculine. Since I doubt such an eminent SF personage as Rusch was ignorant of that, I can only conclude she deliberately omitted it to strengthen her argument of ‘no discrimination in SF’.

Why? I’d guess because of something she said about another goal of the anthology: “I did not want the stories in this volume to have a political slant. This introduction and the introduction to the stories have a slant, because I’m trying to introduce the important women writers of science fiction to a generation who does not know they exist.”

To Rusch’s credit, I think her selected stories do not have an overt political slant. But the introductions – why do they require Rusch to pooh-pooh the idea that women in SF were ever discriminated against before she allows the reader to dig in to their goodness? Who is her intended audience of people who do not know women in SF ever existed, but need a spoonful of sugary reassurance that them feminists were full of it before downing what they anticipate to be the bitter medicine of a story by a woman? Do I hear the dulcet tones of puppywhistles in the air?

The rest of her proof of nondiscrimination is equally thin. She cites someone who made a careful count of all stories in SF magazines from 1926 to 1965 (a heroic work indeed) and found “at least” 233 women writers who published a total of 1055 stories in that time. Gosh wow! That’s a lot. And how many total stories and male writers of such, so that we can do the simple math ourselves and see whether the percentage of women is near the 50% we would expect if we accept Rusch’s premises that women have no specific handicap in writing sf AND that there is no discrimination against them in the field? Oddly enough, that number’s not there.

The most upsetting part of the introduction, to me, was Rusch’s treatment of Joanna Russ. To me, if you’re going to talk about the erasure of women from the SF field, you kind of HAVE to talk about Russ’ contribution regarding how to suppress women’s writing – whether you’re going to agree or vehemently disagree with her views. Rusch does neither. She only brings up Russ to dismiss her briefly: “In the 1970s, Joanna Russ doubly dismissed hearth-and-home stories in her analysis of the kinds of SF women tend to write. She called hearth-and-home stories either ‘galactic suburbia’ or ‘ladies magazine fiction’ which she defined as stories ‘in which the sweet, gentle, intuitive heroine solves an interstellar crisis by mending her slip or doing something equally domestic after her big heroic husband has failed.'”

Now, Russ is pretty clearly castigating writers like Mildred Clingerman, whose ladies-in-the-domestic-sphere stories do match Russ’ sarcastic description. Russ was no doubt wrong to dismiss such writers wholesale. But Rusch is wronger than Russ when she says this:

“Russ, as with many critics, often couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Clingerman’s fiction, for example, is extremely subversive and biting. Yes, her intuitive heroines solve problems in untraditional not-always-heroic ways and that is the point. Clingerman, [Shirley] Jackson, early Kit Reed, all focused on powerless people who managed the world much better than the powerful.”

Stop, Rusch! STOP RIGHT THERE!

Do you REALLY think that Joanna Russ was such an idiot that she described any of Shirley Jackson’s protagonists as “the sweet, gentle, intuitive heroine” who problem-solves the apocalypse with her sewing kit? Again, I can’t imagine that you do, and the picture of you straw-manning words of attack on Shirley Jackson into Russ’ mouth that she surely didn’t intend is distasteful to me.

Funnily enough, after defending Mildred Clingerman from Russ, Rusch – didn’t actually include any stories of Clingerman’s in her anthology. Though some of Clingerman’s stories are pretty good, I’d guess that despite all Rusch’s condemnation of Russ’ judgement, Rusch DID tacitly agree by omission that Clingerman’s works aren’t quite good enough to have withstood the test of time.

So, in conclusion – the set of stories themselves are an excellent introductory anthology to these writers. But Rusch’s editorializing is not a lot of value added to it.

I was intending to end the piece there, but thoughts kept gnawing me about it, and I eventually ended up posting further in File 770. These thoughts are presented here in (slightly) more organized form:
What the numbers KKR cited can prove is this, and only this: some women were writing SF between 1926 and 1965. Whether those women were writing SF among SF writers in any percentage close to the 50% of the population they demographically represent, or whether they were were something like a 1% drop in the bucket, we don’t know. If it were close to 50%, or even 40 or 30% – well, it wouldn’t be proof of nondiscrimination in the SF field, but it would be evidence in its favor, IMO. If it were 1% or thereabouts? Not proof of discrimination – but evidence. But KKR does not provide those percentages.
Which would be fine if the only aim KKR had with her anthology was to prove to ignorant young folks (apparently mostly women, in KKR’s view) that, yes, there really were women who wrote SFF between 1926 and 1965 – good SFF, too. I find it hard to believe that there are too many young women who think that absolutely NO women ever wrote SF in the past (except KKR, apparently, since they were talking to her and according to KKR they did evince some awareness that she was an SF writer). But the well of human ignorance is bottomless and I’m fully prepared to believe in the existence of such hypothetical dunces. If KKR’s mission statement was solely to educate these poor benighted souls, as well as the undoubtedly much larger proportion of the young who are aware that women DID write SF but no longer have the information to know about the great foremothers of the field, I don’t think I or anyone else would have a problem with that.
What sticks in my craw and raises my hackles and does other things to portions of anatomy I probably don’t possess is (as I said) her statement that “The idea that women are discriminated against in science fiction is ludicrous to me.” Also her statement that “I was coming to realize that today’s young female writers had no idea that they weren’t storming the barricades – that there were no barricades and had never been any in SF -” (my bolding).
Seriously? She knows for a fact that since 1926 there has been no discrimination? What she writes there is contradicted even within her own preface and story introductions. Later in her book, in her introduction to Andre Norton’s story, KKR briefly mentions that she changed her name legally from Alice to Andre mainly because “she wanted to write boys adventure fiction, and in 1934, she believed it would be easier to sell to that market if she had a male name. She did not become a science fiction writer for nearly twenty years after the 1934 publication of her first novel.”

Sooo – by 1953 or so there was for sure no discrimination problem in SF, so Andre Norton just continued to use the name out of unnecessary habit? Citation needed. Checking Wikipedia, I find Andre Norton’s first SF publication happened in 1947 – The People of the Crater. Now Wikipedia is not that reliable, but Google Books seems to back it up completely – including the fact that Norton published it under the male pseudonym Andrew North. Apparently Norton was still concerned that a male pseudonym was necessary – even for the SF field. Would KKR say that Norton’s concerns were “ludicrous”?

KKR even describes the process in her preface, noting that Damon Knight published an anthology of SF of the Thirties without one woman, that Greenberg and Olander had two women out of 21 in their anthology of the Fifties, that Silverberg had one of 18 in his anthology for the same decade, that Malzberg and Pronzini had 0 out of ten for theirs. She mentions that even a best-of collection from 1993 had only 7 out of 23 women, and among those only one of the 2 female Hugo winners for that year.

She goes on to say, “Discrimination? Oh, probably not. Probably something called unconscious bias or second-generation discrimination. The person who has unconscious bias, unlike a hardcore bigot, will prefer someone who looks like them to someone who doesn’t.”

Er… how does KKR square this with her blithe pronunciation that the very concept of discrimination in SF is ‘ludicrous’? Regardless of whether the discrimination is motivated by conscious mustache-twirling bigotry, subconscious patronizing and dismissal or unconscious bias, the end result to the aspiring female writer still means being often discarded from the slush pile, being forgotten from the anthology, eventually falling out of print.

It’s okay to say that a large proportion of your potential readers hold a belief that you think is wrong, if you’ve got the data to back it up and a convincing way of presenting it. To say that the belief of a large proportion of your potential readers is ludicrous is, IMO, gratuitously insulting. Even being insulting is not entirely out of bounds – but you’d BETTER have the data and be absolutely convincing with it to justify the insult. KKR, IMO, does not.

She may have some doublethink going on regarding discrimination, as when she says, regarding the reasons for the best stories being forgotten, “The young writers, particularly female writers, immediately assumed discrimination. Since I know most of the editors and publishers in the science fiction field, I never assumed discrimination.” (Did she know their unconsciousnesses as well as their consciousnesses?)

Or maybe she’s aware that proclaiming that it’s ludicrous to believe that there could possibly be or ever have been discrimination in SF is insulting and likely to outrage, and she’s less interested in soberly substantiating a controversial claim than in generating publicity for clicks and giggles. Whether that’s what she’s doing or not, it might actually increase sales. I suspect that any lost sales that my review (for example) might cause would be more than offset in some circles by the word that some horrid SJW gave KKR’s book a bad review. I’d rather not believe that’s what KKR is doing, though.

Some significant anecdata in favor of the possibility of discrimination was even apportioned by KKR herself in the book, as I mentioned above (reporting that no woman’s story was published in anthology of the 30’s sf, not even C. L. Moore’s landmark “Shambleau”, women showing up in token numbers or none in other historical and even near-contemporary SF anthologies), but she handwaves this off as “Probably something called unconscious bias or second-generation discrimination” which apparently doesn’t count as real discrimination – thinking so would be ludicrous! (sorry, that still annoys me).

On that note, I looked through the book again (yes, I am getting obsessed, for some it’s the moon landing ‘hoax’, for me it’s this book). I was wondering about this line:
“Articles on discrimination against women in SF consistently cite Catherine Lucille Moore’s 1933 decision to use her initials as a byline as proof that she was afraid she would be discriminated against for her gender. Nothing could be further from the truth.” (my bold).

KKR makes this sound like a flat proclamation of fact, but she then paraphrases some source that says C. L. Moore said she only used initials to keep her employer from finding out about her writing for the pulps, NOT for any other reason (like to conceal her gender). KKR, however, does NOT quote C. L. Moore saying this. I wondered why, wondered if what C. L. Moore said might be open to interpretation. KKR gives her source as Eric Leif Davin, Partners in Wonder, P. 114, which – huzzah! – turned out to be free on Google Books.

“Why did C. L. Moore use initials? Most knowledgeable fans have known the true reason for many years. Far from any desire to conceal her gender from the fantasy and science fiction world where absolutely no one cared [my bold], the reason was purely mundane; to protect her job. Moore worked at a bank, said Marion Zimmer Bradley, and “C. L. Moore told me once that she had adopted initials because had she published her first story…under her own name, she might have lost her job as a bank teller. In 1933, the depths of the Depression, Ms. Moore was the only working member of her family and the sole support of her aging parents; she did not want to risk her livelihood on the uncertain business of fiction writing.”

That’s all? So we have MZB’s memory of a reason Moore gave for using initials that does not include either an avowal that it was her only reason or a denial that gender was a factor. I attempted to find the source for MZB’s quote, but it was inaccesible online. Stymied, I found myself gazing at the statistician’s bold statement that in the SFF world of 1933, absolutely no one cared about C. L. Moore’s gender. I wondered helplessly what numbers he could be privy to that he could so confidently claim that in the world of 1933 SFF not one single person cared that C. L. Moore was female. Davin’s words came after much verbiage apparently intended to prove that all SFF fans and professionals knew C. L. Moore was a woman pretty much immediately at the start of her career and none had a problem with it:

“Obviously, it was quickly and widely known in the fantasy and science fiction communities that the popular “C. L. Moore” was a woman – and it mattered not in the least.”

Er…bullshit? A widely known story about Moore is that she met her husband Hank Kuttner when, as an established SF writer in his own right, thus presumably a knowledgeable member of the SFF community, he wrote a fan letter to Mr. C. L. Moore – in 1936. That is, three years after her landmark tale “Shambleau” was published to acclaim, followed by “Black Thirst”, “The Bright Illusion”, and “Black God’s Kiss” (the debut of Jirel of Joiry, the prototype Warrior Princess) all of which were highly praised and good enough to end up in the “Best of C.L. Moore” volume I own. Even after the renown of these great stories, a prominent member of the SFF community did NOT know that the talented C.L. Moore was a woman, AND assumed that the gender-neutral name of course belonged to a man.

The story of how Moore and Kuttner met is well known to anyone with any significant knowledge of Moore. It is no recent SJW fabrication; a token search on Google Books shows it goes back to at least 1962 (in Amazing Stories). Since I can’t imagine a man so obviously versed in SFF as Davin is NOT aware of it, I assume he deliberately omitted it because it undermines his preferred sweeping conclusion…a depressingly familiar tactic.

Shaken, I search for more on Moore in Davin’s work, and find an explanation why she and other writers ONLY adopted male pseudonyms, as well as a denunciation by Davin on the ridiculous notion that any woman in SFF history ever used a male pseudonym to avoid discrimination. (Davin, Partners in Wonder, P. 99)

“..it is impossible to find any evidence of the practice – anywhere. This widespread allegation is a complete fiction!” (His italics, my bold). Davin tells us that two whole men used female pseudonyms to publish SFF stories, therefore it’s ridiculous to suppose there could be any bias against women in SFF publishing. This drops from mere special pleading into the depths of the sublimely goofy with this explanation of Moore and other women’s male pseudonyms:

“…none were deliberate attempts to conceal gender identities from the science fiction community…this happened because wives collaborated with their husbands – and the resulting co-authored stories by spouses appeared under a single male pseudonym.”

Why of course! That’s the only explanation! When a man and woman get married they become one flesh, and that flesh must naturally display ONLY a penis, never the least public hint of a possible vagina! What could that possibly have to do with gender discrimination, concealment or sexism?

What was Davin’s basis for his sweeping declaration that it is impossible to find evidence anywhere of a woman using a male pseudonym in SFF? His survey of 288 stories published between 1926-1949. When I read those dates I started to twitch. What about Andre Norton? Who has said she took a male pseudonym to avoid discrimination? Who published her first short work of SFF in 1947 under the male pseudonym Andrew North?! I had thought Davin heroic for risking lumbago and postnasal drip in counting stories through countless crumbling pulp magazines to gather a complete index of invaluable hard facts. Is he unreliable even in that?

I search for Norton in his book. I find this (page 154), in a chapter which begins by implying that Tiptree was unjustifiably paranoid for believing in the “myth” that she needed a male pseudonym to be taken seriously in SFF. He goes on, “Sheldon kept up this subterfuge till her gender was accidentally revealed in 1977. Given the number of women who were being nominated for and winning Hugos by that time, it is difficult to believe there was any real need for such secrecy. Indeed, Andre Norton, another woman who published under a male pen name, (which has also been frequently cited as another explicit example of discrimination), explicitly said as much. Speaking in the 1970s she stated that, while there might have been a need for male pseudonyms earlier in the field, “This is not true today, of course.”

My blood pressure rises. And because I have learned distrust, I grimly fetch Andre Norton’s complete quote from its source (More Women of Wonder, p. xxviii):

“When I entered the field I was writing for boys, and since women were not welcomed, I chose a pen name which could be either masculine or feminine. This is not true today, of course. But I still find vestiges of disparagement – mainly, oddly enough, among other writers. Most of them, however, do accept one on an equal basis. I find more prejudice against me as the writer of “young people’s” stories now than against the fact that I am a woman.”

So…Andre Norton was saying in the 1970’s, with an illustrious SFF career of 20 years standing, that she STILL saw “vestiges” of disparagement against her as a woman – just less than previously and less often than she was disparaged as a writer for children. And you, Professor Davin, saw that quote and deliberately cut that part out. And you did it so you could use the remnant to DARE try to throw shade at TIPTREE to imply that she was a deluded ninny for believing that there might be sexism in SFF. You miserable dissembling motherfucker.

…I really have to stop this, I’ve sprained my chiasma with so much eye-rolling. I think I can safely say that Google Books is an invaluable tool for deciding not to buy a book after looking at a few pages (especially a book as thick with WTFuckery as Davin’s). Also that KKR’s praise of Davin as a source seems a tad…disproportionate.

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Women of Futures Past; edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

women-of-futures-past

I bought this book because I thought there was an Andre Norton story in it that I hadn’t read as well as a few others, though it turned out later that I HAD read that Norton story and forgotten it. I didn’t mind seeing it again, though, as well as reading the stories that were new to me (which turned out to only be the Cadigan, the Kress and the Bujold). The stories themselves were uniformly excellent; though I was familiar with most of them, having read them in the Eighties and Nineties.

The preface, though, seemed – tendentious. Kristine Kathryn Rusch states the problem that women in the history of SF seem to be forgotten too quickly, even citing the fact that Locus once completely omitted her own tenure as the editor of F & SF when naming past editors, also that younger writers, including women, seem unaware of most of them. She states that the purpose of her anthology was to introduce the stories to younger readers who may not be aware that the stories and their writers existed. I was a little nonplussed at that at first. I’d read most of those stories in anthologies printed decades after they were first published, and didn’t think of them as ‘forgotten’ classics, but then I reminded myself I’m becoming a decrepit Old, and it’s surely a good thing to have a primer of these writers for the young who were not yet reading in the 80’s and 90’s.

I also didn’t have any objection to another of Rusch’s stated goals, to choose some of the stories in which men are the protagonists, and don’t deal exclusively with “women’s issues” because ‘feminist anthologies’ tended toward choosing stories which deal solely with such issues and have female protagonists. Given that another of Rusch’s stated goals was to choose writers who were ‘successful’ in having a larger following of fans but have been left out of the “so-called canon” (who called it a canon? Rusch doesn’t say) of accepted classic female writers, even though those omitted writers had a much larger following than the “canon” writers, I can’t blame her for choosing stories to have as broad an appeal as possible to increase potential sales.

What I do have a problem with, is her broad statement that “The idea that women are discriminated against in science fiction is ludicrous to me.”

Yes, it is certainly a problem that younger female writers feel that SF is hostile to women, and feel that the few female predecessors they know of are ‘the exception’, and that they are ignorant of many others. But I think to flatly state that their impression of discrimination is utterly false isn’t necessarily convincing…and the fact that she uses a series of straw men to ‘prove’ her argument doesn’t strengthen it.

“But the narrative in which there has been no female participation in SF, no women writing SF, in which women had to hide under pen names and initials because of being discriminated against…that narrative has triumphed over the truth.
That narrative is insulting. It’s demeaning. And it’s wrong.”

Sure, it’s insulting and demeaning and wrong. But I’m pretty sure no one – not even the young ignorant writers she rails against who believe in the laughable bogeyman of discrimination – believes that there has been NO female participation in SF. AFAIK, they only believe that women have been published less, and marginalized and forgotten more than their talent actually warrants.

As for pen names and initials…in Rusch’s introduction to C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau” (a story I love, BTW) Rusch tells us:

“And now, we ease into the mythbusting part of our anthology…Articles on discrimination against women in SF consistently cite Catherine Lucille Moore’s 1933 decision to use her initials as a byline as proof that she was afraid she would be discriminated against for her gender. Nothing could be further from the truth.” She then cites some biography to say (not in a quote from Moore) that “she used her initials because writing for the pulp magazines was a disreputable thing to do – for men and women – in the 1930’s, and she was afraid of losing her job in the depths of the Depression.”

This is pretty thin stuff. The fact that she wanted to protect her job does not logically exclude the possibility that she might ALSO have wanted her gender to be less obvious to publishers and readers. It becomes even thinner when you realize Rusch is well aware that Moore used many pseudonyms in her career – she even mentions it herself (“She was so prolific under many names, with Kuttner and on her own…”). But, oddly, Rusch omits to mention that most of those pen names – maybe ALL of them – were either asexual or masculine. Since I doubt such an eminent SF personage as Rusch was ignorant of that, I can only conclude she deliberately omitted it to strengthen her argument of ‘no discrimination in SF’.

Why? I’d guess because of something she said about another goal of the anthology: “I did not want the stories in this volume to have a political slant. This introduction and the introduction to the stories have a slant, because I’m trying to introduce the important women writers of science fiction to a generation who does not know they exist.”

To Rusch’s credit, I think her selected stories do not have an overt political slant. But the introductions – why do they require Rusch to pooh-pooh the idea that women in SF were ever discriminated against before she allows the reader to dig in to their goodness? Who is her intended audience of people who do not know women in SF ever existed, but need a spoonful of sugary reassurance that them feminists were full of it before downing what they anticipate to be the bitter medicine of a story by a woman? Do I hear the dulcet tones of puppywhistles in the air?

The rest of her proof of nondiscrimination is equally thin. She cites someone who made a careful count of all stories in SF magazines from 1926 to 1965 (a heroic work indeed) and found “at least” 233 women writers who published a total of 1055 stories in that time. Gosh wow! That’s a lot. And how many total stories and male writers of such, so that we can do the simple math ourselves and see whether the percentage of women is near the 50% we would expect if we accept Rusch’s premises that women have no specific handicap in writing sf AND that there is no discrimination against them in the field? Oddly enough, that number’s not there.

The most upsetting part of the introduction, to me, was Rusch’s treatment of Joanna Russ. To me, if you’re going to talk about the erasure of women from the SF field, you kind of HAVE to talk about Russ’ contribution regarding how to suppress women’s writing – whether you’re going to agree or vehemently disagree with her views. Rusch does neither. She only brings up Russ to dismiss her briefly: “In the 1970s, Joanna Russ doubly dismissed hearth-and-home stories in her analysis of the kinds of SF women tend to write. She called hearth-and-home stories either ‘galactic suburbia’ or ‘ladies magazine fiction’ which she defined as stories ‘in which the sweet, gentle, intuitive heroine solves an interstellar crisis by mending her slip or doing something equally domestic after her big heroic husband has failed.'”

Now, Russ is pretty clearly castigating writers like Mildred Clingerman, whose ladies-in-the-domestic-sphere stories do match Russ’ sarcastic description. Russ was no doubt wrong to dismiss such writers wholesale. But Rusch is wronger than Russ when she says this:

“Russ, as with many critics, often couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Clingerman’s fiction, for example, is extremely subversive and biting. Yes, her intuitive heroines solve problems in untraditional not-always-heroic ways and that is the point. Clingerman, [Shirley] Jackson, early Kit Reed, all focused on powerless people who managed the world much better than the powerful.”

Stop, Rusch! STOP RIGHT THERE!

Do you REALLY think that Joanna Russ was such an idiot that she described any of Shirley Jackson’s protagonists as “the sweet, gentle, intuitive heroine” who problem-solves the apocalypse with her sewing kit? Again, I can’t imagine that you do, and the picture of you straw-manning words of attack on Shirley Jackson into Russ’ mouth that she surely didn’t intend is distasteful to me.

Funnily enough, after defending Mildred Clingerman from Russ, Rusch – didn’t actually include any stories of Clingerman’s in her anthology. Though some of Clingerman’s stories are pretty good, I’d guess that despite all Rusch’s condemnation of Russ’ judgement, Rusch DID tacitly agree by omission that Clingerman’s works aren’t quite good enough to have withstood the test of time.

So, in conclusion – the set of stories themselves are an excellent introductory anthology to these writers. But Rusch’s editorializing is not a lot of value added to it.

Seveneves – More Than Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (with spoilers)

Warning. Ranting and raving (as well as ALL the spoilers) ahead.

I’ve decided to take my brand-new Hugo nominating capacity seriously, and so I read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, to see if it qualifies – the first time I have read this author.

The beginning was fantastic. The moon’s disaster, the ticking clock on humanity, the perspective of the shamelessly transparent Neil Degrasse Tyson Clone – all set up so perfectly that I was happy to skim over the infodumps about space design, architecture and robots (my brain’s just not set up for those details – I was perfectly okay taking on faith the author’s reassurance that it all worked without going deeply into the how of it).

Oddly, I first felt a qualm due to an extremely minor detail – the part where Doob the NDTC guy and his new wife make an embryo for transportation to the ISS so their posterity can survive. They make this embryo by having sex, and then taking the embryo out of her body and freezing it. Now, I get that the world of this novel’s at least 20-30 years more advanced than ours. But we already have the capacity to make embryos for freezing and storage for future use. We make them in labs. We currently do not have the capacity to hunt down embryos conceived through sex, to scuba-dive into the Fallopian tubes to find a near microscopic cluster of cells and scoop it up in a net like a minnow, or to dig it undamaged out of the uterine lining when it’s already implanted. That capacity adds an extra complex and unnecessary step to the process of getting an embryo, based solely on a sentimental attachment to conceiving an embryo naturally. It’s interesting that this future world developed this unnecessary capacity, and that even a scientist like the NDTC goes along with it. Why, though? Did this future world develop this weird technique due to anti-abortion pressures forcing the invention of a way to ‘rescue’ an unwanted embryo instead of killing it? Does the NDTC have a revulsion against test-tube baby conceptions despite being a scientist? The author shows no interest in exploring these questions. This disengagement with the question of how human psychology interacts with the intimate intervention of future technology in their lives was only mildly distracting to me at the time, but it turned out to be a harbinger of future problems.

After a few other bumps (only ONE family on Earth is going to try tunneling to survive the catastrophe underground?) my falling-out with this novel really began at the moment of the Hard Rain on Earth, and the mutiny of the Swarm. This event required everyone left alive to act like complete idiots. Not just President Julia, the Hillary Rodham Clinton clone (with shades of Sarah Palin), and her frightened puppets; the Designated Good Guy scientist heroes of the plot as well. (I thought at first this was supposed to be an effect of their collective bereavement, but after reading tons of infodump about the desperate technological marvels the Good Guy scientists were accomplishing in that time, I decided they have no excuse. They were willfully being idiots.)

The way things go pear-shaped seems unlikely to me. Designated Bad Guy Julia escapes from Earth. She as president was supposed to have vowed to stay at her post to the end – a vow that all world leaders kept except her. She broke that vow and fled to the ISS after having ordered a nuclear attack the Designated Good Guys seem to believe was unnecessary. When she arrives, they disgustedly consign her to the Arks, where she swiftly gathers hundreds of willing followers. This is the part that seems utterly unbelievable. All those bereaved survivors left family behind who are dead. This woman broke her solemn promise and came up to save her own life after leaving her husband and daughter dead behind her, as well as ordering a nuclear attack that a large proportion of the survivors would have disapproved of. She stole the place of a person who COULD have survived the apocalypse – a person that could have been a friend or family of the other survivors. In my opinion, the Ark population would have wanted to string her up by the thumbs, not become her adoring acolytes. I could not believe in the level of charisma required for her to overcome that initial hostility. (That charisma certainly wasn’t conveyed in the depiction of the character).

But once confronted with the fact that Julia HAS that supernatural charisma, the Designated Good Guy characters – do nothing about it. Doob the NDTC sees the danger of her and her followers acting on their ill-informed fears, but he heroically and resolutely rams his head up his ass about it. He prissily refuses to speak personally to her and her followers, even though the only reason he’s ON the ISS at all is to serve as a liaison between the scientists and the non-scientists, to inform the second group and allay their fears (do your freakin’ job, man). Julia and her followers are a danger to ALL. By all means, talk to them, inject some reason into their fears, make Julia feel important and included if that’s what’s required to avert the immediate crisis. Hell, study her Charisma Superpower with SCIENCE!, learn to weaponize it in gaseous form, and use it to turn angry riots into orgies – it certainly seems strong enough. But Doob makes no effort to negotiate, and the crisis spirals into a disaster.

Earlier, the scientists mock the government for ‘refusing to negotiate with terrorists’ despite having no good reason not to at that point. But they end up doing precisely the same thing. Doob asks a perfunctory question about whether Julia is taking advantage of real grievances among the Ark population or whether she is inventing grievances to get more followers. Another ISS member brushes this off as unimportant. “Who cares? She’s making trouble!” The question is never brought up again. But when I look at the fact that almost half of the Arks do not follow Julia but stay faithfully with the ISS scientists throughout – and of all those Ark people only ONE survives, who bought the scientists’ goodwill by a huge act of self-sacrifice – I do get the impression that Julia and her followers might have had a bit of a point in believing the ISS scientists had no interest in helping the Ark population survive. We don’t hear about them being taken into the safer ISS. The core scientist characters don’t even learn their names, much less care about them. And IMO, it seems to be implied in the novel that the Ark population has the same role as the human genetic samples sent up from Earth – that they are an unnecessary millstone slung around the Good Guy scientists’ neck for stupid sentimental reasons that the Good Guys are better off without. This may not be the intention of the author, but when he refuses to draw the Ark characters with any sort of depth as compared to his ISS scientist staff, one can’t help but feel he’s playing favorites.

The last straw for me was the epilogue of the first two-thirds of the book, with the splitting of the races. I’m no scientist, but as I understand it the evolution of races on earth occurred because populations relatively isolated from each other at great geographical distances gradually diverged genetically over great periods of time. The idea that these seven women and their immediate descendants – who are all living in a tiny space for hundreds of years – manage to keep their own separate bloodlines so pure as to eventually create and maintain seven separate racial identities in that tiny space stretches credulity (to put it mildly).

Imagining it requires that one accepts that all seven Eves collude to pass on their origin story to their descendants when those children were young enough and impressionable enough to be inculcated.

They end up carrying on their ancestors’ feud for millenia to come (a feud at least partially based on the petty offense Dinah takes at Camila for saying that breeding for excessive aggression would be a bad idea in the tiny confines of the lunar base. Dinah takes this as a shot at her heroic late boyfriend for scant reason, and apparently holds on to this grudge, Mean Girls-style, to the extent of closing ranks with her core group of friends and shutting out Camila to align with Aida the crazed killer or no one in her own lifetime, and posthumously perpetuating the grudge for five thousand years. Which…WTF, Dinah, Ivy, all of you? Seriously?)

The Eves choose to pursue these vendettas and to hand them down to their children to pursue, pretty much intact. They manage to teach their descendants to sedulously hold apart from each other and judge each other’s descendants by the standards of the Eves’ experience. They taught their children to swallow whole the message that Biology is Destiny, that you ARE the child or the grandchild or the great-grandchild of the Hero, or the Dutiful Commander, or the Con Artist, or the Murderer – and it matters. It matters SO much that those children were indoctrinated early enough to influence who they would be attracted to and who would be their choice of mates would be. So much so that their children and children’s children ended up mating almost exclusively with their own near-twins – thus figuratively and literally fucking themselves.

Thus the Seven Eves manage the feat of ending up with seven separate races within the tiny confines of the lunar base…seven separate races that each hold on to stereotypes and prejudices about the others and foist responsibility for their ancestors’ actions unfairly onto the descendants. So successful are the Eves in perpetuating their feud that their descendants maintain their prejudices intact for five thousand years, maintaining separate racial purity despite being crowded for centuries in one tiny space together.

To manage this seems to be such a superhuman feat of sociological genius that I simply can’t find it believable…and it’s done for a purpose of such willful malign stupidity that I can’t believe that a society so built could survive centuries of close confinement under perpetual hardship and danger on a lunar base…and when it does survive in the story I can’t get over the uncharitable feeling that it doesn’t deserve to. Which naturally ruined the last half of the story for me.

I think the failure, for me, has to do with author’s failure of imagination regarding his own characters. He doesn’t really empathize with anyone but his Designated Good Guys, and in the process seems to give the reader to understand that there are really some types of people the world would be better off without.

The author pays lip service to the idea that the qualities of people like Aida, Julia and even Camila are needed in humanity. But in the follow up, Julia and her descendant avatars accomplish nothing that the designated Good Guys of the story ever recognize as vitally useful, as far as I can tell, and seems to do much harm compared to very little (if any) good. Even non-villainous Camila seems to be given short shrift. Her most interesting moment comes when she advocates for breeding less aggression into the human race in the future. This suggestion is treated with contempt and fury by Dinah, and not followed by any of the others. One would think that Camila might realize that if her descendants were non-aggressive compared to the others who decide to breed for average or above-average aggressiveness, she will be dooming her children to be eternal victims of the rest of the human race’s subjugating natures, unless she does something clever like breed for enhanced sociability, sexuality and fertility to spread her desired non-aggressive genes around more effectively. Camila, we are told, is one of the most prolific of mothers. It would be expected that she would have an influence in the society of the future in proportion to her numbers.

But Stephenson depicts the only Cami descendant described in any detail as a nondescript nursemaid, with no visible gender, sexuality or personality beyond her desire to be the very best servant she could be. She is only seen through the eyes of a Dinah descendant who views her efficient servility with dismissive, thinly veiled contempt. Of course, this may be just the character’s attitude, unshared by the author. But the fact that the author never gives the Cami descendant an interesting thing to say or do, or give the character who most knows and depends on her a single enlightening thing to say about her before he kills them both off (and never shows another Cami character as anything but a cameo servile spear-carrier) shows that the author does seem to share his character’s dismissiveness.

The second half of the novel, with its revelation that segments of population survived the catastrophe underground and undersea, did a great deal to undermine the premise of the first half…it seems to basically say that the huge investment the Earth desperately made in space to ensure the survival of humanity was a huge miscalculation.  It’s a lot simpler to dig 10 or 15 miles of tunnel for 100 people than to boost a tiny ark for 5 people out of a gravity well. The pros of doing “tunnel” instead of “space” is literally: it ain’t rocket science (and thank God). If one eccentric billionaire could manage survival in a mine, you would think the combined resources of government scientists and money could do the same. (The author seems inordinately fond of his eccentric billionaires.) For a fraction of the cost in resources, all Izzy and the Arks’ labs and resources could have been duplicated on Earth in underground bunkers and accommodated many more survivors, for the simple reason that they would not have needed to expend insane effort and resources to build rockets and haul everything up in relatively tiny quantities into orbit.

And it seems to me this problem with the novel is based in the same disinterest in the human characters that disenchanted me with this book. The governmental Powers That Be in the book considered the whole Ark program as a boondoggle intended to soothe humanity with a pretty story of how some of their children would survive in space – all while believing it would never work and everyone in space and everywhere else was doomed. The trouble with that idea is that it requires ALL world leaders (except nasty Designated Villain Julia) to accept their own imminent death and those of their loved ones with Socratic philosophical resignation – and calmly do nothing to try to avoid doom for themselves or their children. Is this true to human nature? IMO, no.

Also, it doesn’t make sense that Julia (among those world leaders), having the preconception that Izzy is a goner, chooses to flee to that Doomed Superboondoggle in Space that TPTB think won’t survive. Here’s an idea – why didn’t Julia flee to the Sealab that Ivy’s naval boyfriend fled to? She undoubtedly knows about it – he’s in the Navy, and he answered to her orders to the end (including that nuclear strike). It’s pretty clearly an American military project. Going there would not require her to go through a space launch she hasn’t been trained for, or violate a Crater Lake accord. All she would have to do is order a submarine to take her aboard, as their Commander In Chief.

And another thing – okay, she didn’t go to Sealab. Maybe a launch vehicle was closer than a submarine. But having gone to Izzy – why didn’t she ever tell them about Sealab? Why did she take that secret to her lunar grave? With the sketchily incomplete way Julia’s character is drawn, the only conclusion I can come to is that she is a Designated Bad Guy who therefore does Bad Things. Having designated her as a Bad Guy, the author liberates himself from the need for those Bad Things to actually make any sense on Julia’s own terms. She’s not written as a complete human being with her own reasons for doing what she does – she’s just a stumbling-block for Stephenson to put in front of his heroes so they can heroically overcome her, and so he has no need to understand her any more than he feels his readers need to. But doing that makes her a cardboard villain, which is something the best writers usually try to avoid.

Another failure of characterization that impinges on SF plot: We’re supposed to believe that the master geneticist fixes her offspring so that with any big stress she will collapse for days, need total care, and lose resistance to infection? This is a good idea in a tiny lunar base when everyone is likely to be needed at a moment’s notice to work or deal with danger for the next several hundred years? And the advantage is that she’ll eventually wake up with a completely different personality to adapt to the stressor – regardless of whether the stressor is likely to repeat itself or not? And somehow THIS is a survival trait? Jeez.

Why this failure in a novel that begins so grippingly?

Thinking it over,  the answer lies in the author’s lengthy descriptions of robots and robot chains and whips and rotating flying Manhattans and diagrams of space tinkertoys (all of which I skimmed hastily past, mea culpa).  I think he was just too much in love with all his cool robots and comet-taming and orbiting superstructure thingies to look at them objectively. Seems to me that he made this technological fairyland and fell in love with it, and invented his Good Guys on the basis of imagining scientist characters who would think that fairyland was the Most Awesome Thing ever and bend every effort toward achieving it. His Bad Guys often seemed to be people who doubted the Good Guys’ mission based on crass considerations like, say, a desire for their mere uneducated survival.

It seems to me that Stephenson started out with his cool concepts – his post-Eve space civilization, his new races descended from those Eves (as he mentions here, http://www.oregonlive.com/books/index.ssf/2015/05/neal.html), but he gives relatively little thought how realistically imagined people could get from point A to point Z. Stephenson certainly lavished far more love and care on his descriptions of space technology than he did in drawing his human characters – ANY of his human characters, even his Good Guys. There ARE great SF novels that concentrate on mindbending concepts and plot at the expense of characterization (I think Asimov wrote nothing else during his fiction career). But mindbending concepts and plot fail when the characters assigned to carry them out are too thinly drawn and their motivations too farfetched for us to believe they are capable of accomplishing them, or to maintain our sympathy when they somehow accomplish them anyway by inhuman contortions because of authorial fiat. Which is why, to me, Seveneves doesn’t deserve a Hugo.

And yet – and yet. I consider this book a failure. I wouldn’t vote for a Hugo for it – but I haven’t forgotten it yet, even if it is just to be annoyed at it. The beginning was so powerful that I could have truly LOVED this book, but the many ways the execution fell short made my disappointment all the keener…hence the strength of my annoyance. Which has motivated me to look up some of the author’s earlier novels which may have succeeded better than this one did in its aims. This author has power – and his failure is more intriguing than some authors’ successes.