The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers

the feminine future mike Ashley feminine-futureA new anthology from  Dover, The Feminine Future:  Early Science Fiction by Women Writers, traces the development of women’s science fiction from 1873 to  1930.

The editor Mike Ashley provides a historical context for the 14 stories. He says in the introduction that it is commonly believed that women did not write
SF until recently.   Here he has resurrected women who wrote for the pulps, including Clare Winger Harris, the first woman who wrote for science fiction magazines.  And he reminds us “that science fiction is only about adventures in space and time, with alien monsters or mad scientists or superheroes.”

Certainly the stories here are usually centered on Earth. In E. Nesbit’s story, “The Third Drug” (1908),   SF is combined with elements of horror.  The narrator escapes a gang of thugs in the streets of Paris by rushing through a gate and barricading it.  Then he  falls into the hands of a mad scientist who has been experimenting with three very creepy drugs. An eerie, terrifying story. and a departure for Nesbit, who is best known for her children’s books.

My favorite story is Edna W. Underwood’s “The Painter of Dead Women” (1911).   Underwood, a vividly offbeat writer, may have developed  her bizarre imagination by the translation of Gogol which was her first book in 1903. In “The Painter of Dead Women,” she explores a horrifying premise:  Count Ponteleon, a famous painter of dead women, kidnaps women and  administers a poison developed by his ancestors which causes death and arrests physical decay.  He has kidnapped the narrator on her honeymoon in Naples, because he lacks an Englishwoman for his collection.  Very sinister, but fortunately the heroine is six-ft.-tall, athletic, and an invincible swimmer.

Are you ready for a humorous story? Elizabeth W. Bellamy’s story, “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” (1900), is charming and comical.  The narrator buys two robot housemaids invented by a genius, Harrison Ely.  “I had known him in college, a man amazingly dull in Latin and Greek and even in English, but with ideas of his own that could not be expressed in language.  His bent was purely mechanical…”  But t is difficult to program the maids to do just what you want them to do. If you don’t get the time right, they make the beds over and over.  And you really don’t want your children to program mechanical housemaids.  One of the funniest scenes is when both maids are programmed to sweep .  They have a kind of sweeping fight with their brooms.

In general the women are not sanguine about the future.  In Clare Winger Harris’s “The Artificial Man” (1929), a man becomes a cyborg.   George Gregory, a brilliant student and football stars has a series of terrible accidents that reduce him from strong man with a bright future to a cripple with prostetic limbs. . Then he needs an artificial kidney, and eventually, like a plastic surgery addict, he has all of his body parts replaced by artificial materials.  He  becomes a cyborg to take revenge on the woman who dumped him.

M. F. Rupert takes a different tack.  In this partly epistolary story, “Via the Hewett Ray” (1930), her heroine, the daughter of a scientist, travels to another dimension    After her father develops a light ray device , he disappears and she goes to rescue him.  She does not, however, end up in the right place.  She visits a highly organized society ruled by unemotional women where men are the underdogs. There is much humor in this story:  she finds her father, but also rescues a man who has been condemned  for sedition against his female oppressors..  it’s as good a way to find a mate as any.

Are these stories good? Well, some are, and the others are historically important.   It is a wonderful introduction to the history of women’s contributions to SF.

2 thoughts on “The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers

  1. Sounds fascinating! And hopefully will redress the balance so that women can be seen as participating to this genre!

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