Gideon Marcus’ Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women (1958-1963)

Gideon Marcus’ collection Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women (1958-1963) represents a narrow slice of writing from a historically marginalized group within the genre. Featuring stories by both forgotten and known authors, this volume plumbed the depths of old magazines to find women’s stories and present them to the reader.

The forward by Dr. Laura Brodian Freas Beraha claims that science fiction started as a “male…endeavour” and yet my mind drifts to Mary Shelley writing not only Frankenstein but also The Last Man and in the process providing two defining works of SF genius to readers for centuries to come. While the overall point about the male domination of SF publishing is appreciated, accuracy is important in acknowledging women’s accomplishments. The full introduction by the editor goes on to contradict this analysis, providing a more nuanced view, yet leading the collection with such an inaccuracy is an unfortunate choice.

Each story is preceded by biographical and/or bibliographical information relating to the work or the author. These are very nice, and allow the reader to better contextualize a story. 

Among the most interesting pieces is “Of All Possible Worlds” by Rosel George Brown. While there are a number of love stories in the book, this represents a carefully crafted tale in which a man descends from a spaceship and meets an unearthly society, and a girl from that society as well. They seem to fall in love, although the space traveler cannot fully understand. Indeed, many small moments are more by noticing just how different the world is, down to details such as many objects being constructed in fundamentally unusual ways. These glimpses into a culture as alien in small ways as well as the large do a great deal to flesh out the society during a brief story.  The arc of the story shows one person trying to understand another, and their culture, connecting on some levels though perhaps not all. Like any love story there is triumph and tragedy, and a fundamental set of desires drive each partner.

In the introduction to “Satisfaction Guaranteed”, A.J. Howells shows a fundamental misunderstanding of To Kill a Mockingbird, which causes a twinge, referring to Atticus as a “white savior” despite his repeated failure to save his client. His only successful action in the book is killing a mad dog, and that is depicted as something pitiful and necessary rather than truly impressive. While the white savior trope can be annoying, and is historically used rather heavily, although Harper Lee had, if anything, deconstructed and subverted it. This commentary hurts the blurb, and seems more padding since the writer apparently had little information on author Joy Leache. Further direct information about the magazine and the era would have proven a better choice.

“Satisfaction Guaranteed” itself is interesting, a tale that deals with economics, advertising, cultural pride. gender concerns and more. It is also a bit funny, using these themes to great effect in the humor. A man and his assistant/secretary have been sent to help a planet join the Federation, quickly discovering that the planet has little in the way of useful exports and that tourism resulted in an unusual variant on cultural catastrophe. Specifically, the people of the planet look very much like leprechauns. When the world was open to tourists, the reaction was so humiliating it caused a severe drop in the birthrate. Thought provoking humor is difficult, yet Leache accomplishes in this story a style that anticipates Terry Pratchett. The situation is simultaneously ridiculous and understandable, the characters broadly drawn while at the same time sympathetic. A detail that may have aged the worst for some individual would be the use of a drunk for humor; however even this is played for humor related to gender injustice.

The longest story in the collection, and the final piece, is Pauline Ashwell’s “Unwillingly to School” which is somewhat celebrated. It was nominated for awards, and the author herself received no small praise in her time. The style is somewhat stream of consciousness, with a selection of events in the life of a young woman named Elizabeth Lee who absolutely hates her first name, and believes that both she and her father suffer from an incurable, crippling learning disability related to the fact that artificial speed reading machines do not properly work on them. Early on this is not an issue as, like so many, she attempts a more blue collar existence, and finds her own upbringing presents a very great impediment in that direction. Themes of understanding are present, and the idea of needed and deserved accommodations comes into play. This is downright fascinating in a story from 1958, and the fact that this is rarely mentioned in the writings I have seen on the piece is most unfortunate. The issue is looked at sympathetically, with the difficulty of understanding and helping those who do not want to come forward with or do not understand their issues brought to the fore. Those who grow frustrated with the problems of helping such an individual are given sympathy by the narrative, if not by the narrator, and the wry humor of the whole story is enough to keep a reader engaged until they become used to the strange style.

This little volume contains stories on many topics, dealing in metaphor and direct examination both. There are quick little vignettes and novelettes. While not every piece is of interest to the contemporary reader, a great many are. The introductory pieces are not always perfect, but do help to remind the reader of the context of a piece.

Overall this is an easy volume to recommend. There are many stories in a variety of styles, with a greater variety of themes and subgenres. Little volumes such as this are treasures because they can often bring to the fore forgotten authors and stories. Such is the case with this book. While uneven, all of the pieces are interesting, and a few fascinating.

(Journeys Press,  2019)

About Warner Holme

Born in the mid-south and keeps getting dragged back there. Warner Holme is well studied in fantastical and mysterious fiction.