From the cheesy cover to the confining title, it’s no wonder few have read Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, edited by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu. The 1985 anthology of feminist SF welds together a wide variety of feminist SF stories from veteran and budding SF writers of the period who contribute tales that lean on some aspect of womanhood, exploring potential utopias to dreadful dystopias, while sparking reflection on the present.
People talk about books that “didn’t age well,” and while that’s often the case for vintage science fiction, it’s more noticeably the case for a lot of feminist vintage science fiction, which, fortunately, has a lot to do with the rapid evolution and intersectional branching and rebranching of the feminist movement, as well as the changing standards of feminist readers (while the generic standards of mainstream SF tend to stagnate for decades at a time). Despite the rapid evolution of the movement, authors like Joanna Russ and Alice Sheldon have achieved a timeless status for their bold antagonisms, which still feel at least instructive and entertaining, if not still relevant, while other feminist writers have slipped into obscurity. The variety of stories presented by Green and Lefanu in Despatches makes for a study of what separates those juggernaut authors and their peers, and what styles promise staying power for the hipper sensibilities of millennial SF readers and millennial post-feminists.
It’s taken me months to digest this collection—partly because I’m not partial to short fiction, and partly because it’s not the most exhilarating of anthologies. But sometimes absence does make the heart go ponder, and snatches of the stories have returned to my mind unexpectedly. It appears this little Women’s Press paperback includes more than a few memorable tales.
Unsurprisingly, the highest points of the collection come from Joanna Russ and “Raccoona” Sheldon (aka Alice Sheldon/”James Tiptree, Jr.”), two stories that should not be overlooked. Had they opened and closed the anthology, I might have walked away with stronger feelings about Despatches.
In “The Clichés from Outer Space,” Joanna Russ satirizes commonplace SF tropes such as Conquer Absolutely Everything and The-Weird-Ways-of-Getting-Pregnant Story when her first-person protagonist starts writing pulp trash with the help of a possessed typewriter. It’s funny because it’s true, and more than a few specific male sci-fi writers come to mind through her pointed criticisms.
Toward the back end of the collection, with a complete about-face in mood, “Raccoona” Sheldon’s “Morality Meat” describes a world in which abortion is outlawed and adoption centers must find creative ways to deal with excess unwanted babies. Some won’t see this as more than an exaggerated horror strawman story, but “morality meat” brings to mind “Morlock meat,” and this story actually serves as allegorical invective to explain why rich male profiteers have such a vested interest in poor women’s reproductive rights: the capitalist business sector is “feasting” on the disadvantaged and destitute. Well done, Alice, well done. (But this isn’t sci-fi. I live in this town.)
The Latent Memorables
Over time, a few stories have returned to me stronger in memory than in text. Most post-memorable is the fragmented cyber-dystopia of “The Intersection” by Gwyneth Jones, which, characteristic to cyber-future fiction, relies on limited perspective, high-impact scenery, and undefined (but very familiar) acronyms, including character names like ALIC, who falls down the gravity well to explore earth; SETI, tasked to report on a rebel citizen who warns of alien visitors; and UBIQ, the omniscient surveillance system. It’s a difficult story to grasp, but the broken atmosphere is equally difficult to forget.
Tanith Lee’s “Love Alters” imagines a world where men can only mate with men, and women can only mate with women and, naturally, taboo love triangles develop, yet she still manages to surprise. In “Words,” Naomi Mitchison introduces us to a woman who wastes away on a perception-enhancing device, addicted to the world beyond the veil. Beverly Ireland’s “Long Shift” employs the “smart engineer” trope of scifi by following a shift at a Women’s Coop of remarkable women workers during an unremarkable workday. Finally, Lisa Tuttle’s “From a Sinking Ship,” follows a female zoologist as she attempts to escape an earth under threat by joining her dolphin friends at sea. Tuttle does dolphin-human relations better than David Brin, and though I remember few details of the story, I’m left with a strong sentimentality about it. It may be that I just happen to like dolphins.
The collection opens with Josephine Saxton’s “Big Operation on Altair Three,” satirizing advertising gimmicks, which, sadly, I expected to be more memorable than time proved. Margaret Elphinstone and Mary Gentle contribute the only fantasy stories with “Spinning the Green” and “A Sun in the Attic,” respectively, which run too close to familiar fantasy territory to make any lasting impact. Also not particularly memorable are Lannah Batley’s “Cyclops,” Frances Gapper’s “Atlantis 2045: no love between planets,” and Pearlie McNeill’s “The Awakening.” In addition, it appears Pamela Zoline and Penny Casdagli never got to read Russ’ story, and thus contribute tales of the most tired feminist clichés: Zoline’s “Instructions for Exiting the Building in Case of Fire” centers on the all-powerful female intelligence of motherhood to undermine governments, and Casdagli’s “Mab” follows a woman’s post-yoga enlightenment head pregnancy, thus making men obsolete, to her yoga classmates’ utter delight. Additionally, Zoe Fairbairnes “Relics” pursues and abandons several potentially interesting directions before settling on a women-scarce, post-apocalypse dystopia story, where the women predictably opt to freeze together in a morgue rather than serve male society.
As a capstone to the collection and its inconsistent quality, Sue Thomason’s “Apples in Winter” presents lots of pretty adjectives about an alien world where a Terran woman scientist violates a type of Prime Directive by joining the society to conceive and birth the King-Twin, in order to change the hierarchical society forever. With sentences like “Suddenly he calls out and runs ahead, dropping her hand” (245), ouch, or descriptors like “gleam heavy as pearls” (245), “Apples in Winter” is the bland finale to a collection that lags more than it leaps, though the leaps are impressionable enough to wish the collection had earned more acclaim, and came with less padding.
Like many short fiction anthologies, the introductory blurbs for each author have their own value, and sometimes the authors’ comments overshadow their contributions. Many of the authors share insightful thoughts, though Zoe Fairbairnes’ blurb states, “She is ‘an ardent believer of feminism, except when feminists go too far, or not far enough,’” which feeds directly into her story, but still begs for some real-world elaboration. Along those same lines, Naomi Mitchison’s comment that “she sometimes finds herself ‘somewhat out of sympathy with mainstream feminism,” could earn a sympathetic head nod, but then she continues, “’I have never been treated in any sense as an inferior by my male friends or relatives, but do prefer them to do car repairs and work out VAT…’” Ah, gender determinism, going both ways since 1886… apparently.
But just because a book “didn’t age well” doesn’t mean it lacks value as a moment in the genre, and Despatches occupies that awkward spot between the second and third waves of feminism, where sexual fluidity stands shoulder-to-shoulder with uninformed gender determinism and binary thinking. Where even the introduction by Green and Lefanu cites “a flowering of women writing science fiction…” in the first sentence— a deliberate word choice that makes the modern reader go ‘ick’– it feels old-fashioned but, as both a specimen of the movement’s mid-80s identity crisis and a snapshot of the diversity of mid-80s perspectives (although, diversity in this context is extremely limited, being 100% white), it’s an illuminating collection that’s worthy of a reprint and further discussion.