Envisioning the Feminine Future

Feminine FutureThe Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers
Mike Ashley
Dover Thrift Editions
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So in a previous post, I wrote about forgotten women writers from the early days of the science fiction pulps.  While I was reading Partners in Wonder (the book under discussion in that post), I came across a review of The Feminine Future.  Several of the stories in the latter were specifically singled out by Eric Leif Davin in the former.

I immediately picked it up.  It didn’t cover quite the same ground as Partners in Wonder, which looked at women authors in the early pulps.  In other words, the time period it was concerned with began in 1926, when Hugo Gernsback launched the first pulp devoted entirely to science fiction, Amazing Stories.

Science fiction had of course existed long before then, although it was called scientific romance.  (I find it interesting that scientific romances were considered respectable, science fiction was, and at times still is, viewed as trash.)  Mike Ashley doesn’t confine himself to the pulp era.  He gathers stories from women writers going back to the popular fiction magazines of the late 1800s.

Here’s what the book includes:

“When Time Turned” by Ethel Watts Mumford (1876-1940), published in The Black Cat, January 1901.  The opening story concerns a man who begins to live his life backwards.  He’s a widower, so he relives a happy marriage which ultimately ends when he passes the point where he met his wife.  His happiness, that is, not the story.

“The Painter of Dead Women” by Edna W. Underwood (1873-1961), published in The Smart Set, January 1910.  On the surface this selection is a more of a horror story than anything else.  A beautiful woman is kidnapped by a mad painter who has a potion (passed down in his family through the centuries) that turns a person into essentially a living statue.  The brain and consciousness continue to live on even after the body has died.  He has been collecting beautiful women, and she is about to be his next victim.  It’s the serum that makes this one science fiction.

“The Automaton Ear” by Florence McLandburgh (1850-1934), published in Scribner’s Monthly, May 1873. An inventor makes a device which can hear things said from any period in history.  The science in this one, along with some gaps in logic (how does he understand ancient languages?) made this one hard to but into at times.  Of course, there’s the possibility that he may be mad.  He’s certainly heading in that direction by the end of the story.

“Ely’s Automatic Housemaid”by Elizabeth W. Bellamy (1837-1900), published in The Black Cat, December, 1899. What can only be described as an early robot story.  A man is contacted by on old college friend who is an inventor.  He’s invented automatic housemaids.  Against his wife’s advice, he orders two prototype models, one to work in the kitchen and one to clean the house.  The guy should have listened to his wife and at least waited until they had been beta tested.

Harriet Prescott Spofford

Harriet Prescott Spofford

“The Ray of Displacement” by Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835-1921), published in The Metropolitan Magazine, October 1903.  Here a scientist discovers a ray that can transport objects into the Fourth Dimension.  (I love how these early writers, both male and female, didn’t really understand the concept of a fourth dimension.)  All sorts of troubles ensue when he accidentally destroys a valuable diamond owned by a corrupt judge.  A collection of Ms Spofford’s work is (according to their website) still available from Ash-Tree Press.

“Those Fatal Filaments” by Mabel Ernestine Abbott (? – ?), published in Argosy, January 1903.  This story is a light comedy of errors in which a man who invents a device that enables him to read someones thoughts if they are touching certain filaments connected to his machine.  He mistakes his daughter’s amorous thoughts about his assistant for those of his younger second wife.   Mike Ashley writes that he could find very little biographical information about Mabel Ernestine Abbott in spite of her being fairly prolific writer for nearly 40 years.

Edith Nesbit

Edith Nesbit

“The Third Drug” by Edith Nesbitt (1858-1924), published in The Strand Magazine, February 1908 as by E. Bland.  Edith Nesbitt is still remembered today among fans of the bizarre and strange story.  This is a dark tale about drugs being used to create a superman.

In Partners in Wonder, Eric Leif Davin points out that after the Great War, about the only place where utopian fiction was still being published was in the American science fiction pulps, and most of that was written by women.  Mike Ashley provides us a look at two of them next.

The first is “A Divided Republic – An Allegory of the Future” by Lillie Devereux Blake (1833-1913), published in The Phrenological Journal, February-March 1887.  This is the only story I outright didn’t like, because it has such a simplistic and unrealistic view of human nature.  In the future presented here, women get tired of being oppressed and of men acting like men.  So they all up and leave, setting up their own republic in the Northwest, where they’ve kicked all the men out.

At first all the men love it, because they can hang out in saloons, go to the fights, and smoke cigars anywhere in the house.  Also run with scissors, drink milk from the carton, and burp out loud.  (Sorry, I added that last part; it’s hard to take the portrayal of either men or women in this story seriously.)  Meanwhile, the women’s republic prospers with free education and healthcare because there is no military and everything is run sensibly, the women discovering they can all do things as well as or better than men.  Because women never, ever fight and always get along.  Of course, everyone gets lonely, the men promise to be good and act gelded nice, and the women take them back.sciencewonderquarterly_spring1930_frpaul

The next women’s utopia is one Eric Lief Davin referenced in Partners in Wonder and devoted a bit of discussion to, “Via the Hewitt Ray” by M. F. Rupert, published in Science Wonder Quarterly, Spring 1930.  Here an older scientist invents a ray that lets him travel to an alternate dimension.  His grown daughter Lucille, an accomplished commercial pilot, goes in search of him.  There she discovers three societies, one primitive, one ruled by women, and one of highly evolved men who have the stereotypical enlarged heads and atrophied bodies that were popular then.

The women’s utopia executes any men who don’t tow the line, and Lucille uses her status as a guest among the women to rescue one from death.  Her father is with the highly evolved men.  The women and the advanced men are trying to wipe each other out, and Lucille aids the women in order to rescue her father.

I liked this one overall, although there were aspects of the societies described I didn’t care for.  It has that travelogue feel to it that much of the sf of the 20s and early 30s had, but the prose is good, and it’s quite readable.  Very little is known about M. F. Rupert.  This is her only published story (at least under this name).  It is reprinted here for the first time.

“The Great Beast of Kafue” by Clotilde Graves (1863-1932), published in Under the Hermes (New York: Dodd, Meade, 1917 as by Richard Dehan.  Monster hunting in darkest Africa.  A well told tale with a sympathetic monster.  I liked this one a lot.

“Friend Island” by Francis Stevens (1883-1948), published in All-Story Weekly, 7 September 1918. Francis Stevens is probably one of the best remembered women sf writers from this period, although that’s not saying much.  I wasn’t crazy about this story.  It’s about a living island that befriends a stranded woman sailor.  I can’t say the central idea does much for me.  On the other hand, the women run society that serves as a background for this story came across as complex and well-thought-out, even though I don’t buy any society that is based on one sex’s superiority of the other.


Clare Winger Harris

“The Artificial Man” by Clare Winger Harris (1891-1968), published in Science Wonder Quarterly, Fall, 1929.  Clare Winger Harris was the first woman to publish in science fiction pulp, and published enough stories in the pulps (including Weird Tales) to have them collected into a book, Away From the Here and Now.  This brief story concerns a man who has himself turned into a cyborg.

“Creatures of the Light” by Sophie Wenzel Ellis (1894-1984), published in Astounding Stories of Super-Science, February  1930.  Ellis is another woman who wrote quite a bit for the pulps.  This was a fast-paced adventure story about a scientist attempting to produced highly evolved humans who have the ability to become invisible by slipping a few minutes into the future.  This one had the most overt sexual overtones of all the stories in the book, although by today’s standard’s it would seem tame.  Still, I found this one to be quite a bit of fun.

“The Flying Teuton” by Alice Brown (1857-1948), published in Harper’s Magazine, August 1917.  This one would qualify more as fantasy (it concerns a ghost ship and the title is a play on The Flying Dutchman) except that it was written before the Great War ended.  Kind of a thin basis for science fiction, but there you go.  I found the universal peace and love among all men after the war to be a bit far-fetched, but it was a nice little story.

To sum up, I enjoyed The Feminine Future.  It gave me some idea of the types of stories Eric Leif Davin discussed in Partners in Wonder.  In spite of the age of most of these tales, overall I found them quite readable.  I certainly didn’t buy all of the assumptions behind the authors’ philosophies.  But I was entertained.  It was especially interesting to see how some common tropes were handled before they became common.  This book won’t be for everyone.  But if you’re interested in early feminist writing, check it out.

5 thoughts on “Envisioning the Feminine Future

  1. Pingback: The Women Other Women Don’t See – Keith West | madgeniusclub

  2. Suburbanbanshee

    E. Nesbit is of course best known for her children’s sf and fantasy. (And the bit where the phoenix took the kids to the future was a pretty darned Edwardian version of utopia.) She was superduper progressive, so the BBC did a little audio play about her apparently interesting private life recently. Anyway, Bland was her married name and Nesbit her maiden name, so neither one is really a pseudonym! 🙂

  3. Pingback: The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers | Science Book a Day

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