When I was around 11 years old, a girl in our English class read aloud her creative writing assignment. It was about a soldier in the first World War, so badly wounded that he couldn’t stop the rats in his trench from chewing his feet off. The teacher, who had up until that moment been hearing dull little “what I did on my holidays” stories, was speechless, as was the rest of the class. My previous crush on the girl deepened – I was officially in love.
Much as I’m in love today with Lightspeed magazine’s 49th special issue, whose double-entendre title, Women Destroy Science Fiction! says it all. The writers within this massive volume, in their fiction and essays, destroy the genre fiercely, arrestingly, creatively, scientifically, playfully, politically, ironically, subversively (sorry, I’ve run out of adjectives – feel free to add your own).
Containing Lightspeed’s usual mix of original stories, reprints, author interviews, essays, artists’ features and novel extract, this is a mammoth volume, with a digital page count higher even than John Joseph Adams’ new anthology, Dead Man’s Hand. It is guest edited by Christie Yant, while others edited the rest of the content: Rachel Swirsky, reprints; Robyn Lupo, flash fiction; Wendy N. Wagner, nonfiction; and Gabrielle de Cuir, podcast producer.
The magazine’s opening gambit is a kickbutt story by Seanan McGuire, Each to Each, which sees bio-engineered women serving as, in effect, military mermaids. The world building is immense, the science hard as it comes, in a tale with an emotional heart and a political punch. There was a bit of an info-dump to explain some of the technical stuff and some spelled-out sexual politics (mermaids being sexualized for marketing purposes) that the story didn’t need, as the points were made clear enough in the narrative itself, but these are minor reservation about an overall amazing story.
A Word Shaped Like Bones by Kris Millering sees a sculpture en route to another planet trapped inside her ship with a dead body. Creepy and claustrophobic.
Cuts Both Ways by Heather Clitheroe is about an espionage agent who senses emotions and suffers a terrible side effect of not being able to forget thousands of deaths. Sensitive, and powerfully emotional, this one had a big impact on me.
N.K. Jemsin’s Walking Awake is possibly my favourite story, tackling as it does the notion of parasites using human bodies to prolong their lives, and the caregiver looking after the children who will become the unwitting hosts. It makes for some gut-wrenching reading, and raises all sort of questions about morality and the directions science can go at its worst.
Rhonda Eikamp riffs wittily on the Sherlock Holmes genre with The Case of the Passionless Bees, featuring a steampunk version of our sleuth, named Gearlock. The murder investigation is more of a subtext to the examination of our hero’s emotionally vacuous condition.
The mall as an entire world is disturbingly explored in Gabriella Stalker’s In the Image of Man, while The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick by Charlie Jane Anders sits alongside it nicely, looking at the emotional consequences of memory capture in the dating scene.
Dim Sun by Maria Dahvana Headly wouldn’t be out of place in the early issues of New Worlds magazine. Imagine a peripatetic gourmand, his president of the universe ex-wife, and meals consisting of everything from black holes to cosmic dust and parts of planets. It’s deeply weird, hugely entertaining and original.
The Lonely Sea in the Sky by Amal El-Mohtar is about a planetary geologist with an unusual ailment involving an obsession with diamonds (though decidedly not in the “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” mould).
A future world in which a young debutante has to steal something from a prospective husband is the central conceit of Elizabeth Portal Birdsall’s lovely, brilliantly written Regency style comedy of manners, A Burglary, Addressed By a Young Lady.
Canth by K.C. Norton sees a woman in search of her symbiotic submarine, while uncovering the nasty reasons why her machine went missing in the first place. It’s a great little adventure story that’s begging to be made into a novel.
The reprints are stories by Tananarive Due, Maria Romasco Moore, James Tiptree Jr, Eleanor Arnason and Maureen F. McHugh. As with the plethora of flash fictions, each in their own way excellent, space doesn’t allow me to comment on them all. Suffice it to say – you really ought to read them.
The non fiction and personal essays address a diverse range of feminist topics in science fiction, from how various writers’ interest in the genre evolved, to diatribes against injustices in the publishing industry and more. While I experienced some repetition in themes and topics, which I felt might have been better served by fewer, larger essays, it was good to hear all these women’s voices. Some of what they had to say surprised me, some angered me (in that I empathized with the crappy treatment experienced by women writing SF out there). The topics were handled with grace, wisdom, outrage, wit and style.
In a perfect world an anthology like this wouldn’t be necessary. But it ain’t a perfect world, folks, so instead we must truly welcome the very existence of Women Destroy Science Fiction!. Long may they continue to do so.
John Dodds is the author of The Kendrick Chronicles crime novels (Bone Machines and Kali’s Kiss ) and, under a pseudonym, JT Macleod, has written a collection of historical/paranormal/erotic/romance stories calledWarriors and Wenches, as well as the first novel in YA steampunk superhero series which he is shopping around agents.