Early Science Fiction by women writers. A SF short story collection from 1887-1930.

Publication year: 2015
Format: print
Page count: 228
Publisher: Dover Publications

As the subtitle says this is a collection of SF short stories. Most of them have written other stuff and have been regular contributors to the early SF magazine. But these days they aren’t known. Next time, when someone claims that women don’t write SF, or haven’t written SF until modern times, this is the book to wave at them. Of course, the stories reflect their times and can feel outdated. Some of them use science which seems fantasy today and some use clichés, like beautiful=good, ugly=evil. They also have racism and sexism. But they’re readable and I enjoyed most of them but I tend to enjoy Weird Science. I also found Ashley’s introductions to the writers very interesting since they were all new to me.

Most of the stories have strong atmospheres and some of them resemble ghost stories or horror more than modern SF. Most have male narrators and some use a device that might grate on modern read-ers: another character tells his story to the narrator.

When Time Turned by Ethel Watts Mumford (1901): The main character encounters a man who claims that he is living his life backwards.
The Painter of Dead Women by Edna W. Underwood (1910): A terribly powerful and evil man lures a beautiful socialite woman to his castle where he intends to kill her and preserve her body forever in its youthful beauty.

The Automaton Ear by Florence McLandburgh (1873): A brilliant professor gets the idea that he can build a device which can enable him to hear all sounds ever made. His obsession with the device takes over his life more and more.

Ely’s Automatic Housemaid by Elizabeth W. Bellamy (1899): The most fun story in the collection. The main character’s friend has invented automaton devices (Automatic Household Beneficent Genius) and the MC orders two of them. Chaos and hilarity ensues.

The Ray of Displacement by Harriet Prescott Spofford (1903): The main character has invented a device which allows him to pass through solid objects. Another use of the devise makes the user also invisible. The MC accidentally dematerializes a judge’s diamond and even though he brings the diamond back, the judge throws him in jail. The corrupt judge wants to use the device for profit but the MC refuses.

Those Fatal Filaments by Mabel Ernestine Abbott (1903): The main character invents a device which allows him to hear other people’s thoughts.

The Third Drug by Edith Nesbit (1908): Roger Wroxham is so depressed that he wants to die. However, when he comes face to face with ruffians, he finds that he was too hasty and wants to live after all. He’s wounded but manages to flee into a large house. A kind old man living there alone helps him. But the old man has a chilling reason to appear to help.

A Divided Republic: An Allegory of the Future by Lillie Devereux Blake (1887): Perhaps the most badly aged of these stories. Women get fed up for asking for the same rights that men have and they up and leave. Women form their own two states and men are left to their own devices. This feels satirical to me so it’s not meant to be realistic. Still, both men and women are shown as stereotypes; all men gamble, drink, and smoke to their heart’s content and are planning wars while the women live in “calm monotony” building schools and tending gardens.

Via the Hewitt Ray by M.F. Rupert (1930): This is pure pulp. Fun but in a E. R. Burroughs way. Lucile is an airline pilot. Her inventor father disappears leaving behind a letter where he explains that he’s going to use his Hewlett Ray device to beam himself into another dimension. Lucile is frantic with worry but she’s not a scientist. However, she contacts her friend Marion and together they build another ray device and send Lucile into the other dimension, looking for her father. There, she finds strange lands and stranger creatures, including a society where women rule over men.

The Great Beast of Kafue by Clotide Graves (1917): An African hunter tells his son about the time he hunted the terrible beast and why his young son must promise not to kill it.

Friend Island by Francis Stevens (1917): Set in a future where women “naturally” rule over men. An old, weathered female sailor tells the story of how she was stranded to a very strange island.

The Artificial Man by Clare Winger Harris (1929): George Gregory is a great athlete and also a scholar. One day he loses his leg and has it replaced with an artificial one. In the next accident he loses his arm and some internal organs, and those too are replaced with artificial ones. But he starts to think that he loses a part of his soul along with his body.

Creatures of the Light by Sophie Wenzel Ellis (1930): Another longer pulp story with Weird Science. John Northwood is an athlete and a very handsome man. One day he sees a hunchback and a very handsome man together. The hunchback drops a wallet to John’s feet and the handsome man warns him not to get mixed up with the hunchback and then disappears into thin air. However, it turns out that the hunchback a famous doctor who wants something from John. The story also has people falling in love based on a picture and a very creepy romance.

The Flying Teuton by Alice Brown (1917): A sort of ghost story set in after the end of WWI (but written before the end of the war).

Many of the stories have technological advancements which have gone wrong and even in “Via the Hewitt Ray” the working ray tech reveals unexpected results. Many of the stories have the inventor as a main character, something which isn’t too common today (except for Tony Stark). On the whole, these aren’t terribly feminist stories; in most of them the main character is a man doing manly stuff in a world full of males. But these were written for early SF magazines where the readership were, presumably, mostly males. But is there any way to find out if most readers were, indeed, males?

Surprisingly many of the stories also had rather disturbing themes or tech. Some of them were horror in atmosphere and some had eugenics in one fashion or another. Most of them also have more spir-itual or religious themes than modern SF.

While the stories aren’t without their flaws, they’re an interesting glimpse into the history of SF and women SF writers.

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