ARC Review: Rediscovery: SF by Women by Gideon Marcus

NB—I received this book in exchange for an honest review via Netgalley, all opinions are my own

I hadn’t read much old science fiction before reading the anthology, and I wasn’t sure I’d like it. As someone who follows a number of women who write on social media, however, I am aware of how much discrimination women still face today—in writing in general, but also science fiction and fantasy specifically. When I found this anthology on Netgalley, I was immediately intrigued, because I think of the 50s and 60s as somewhat of a dark age in terms of women’s rights. This anthology was a great reminder that women always have, and always will, persevere, even in the face of discrimination.

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I like the cover! The noir detective as a woman is something I really enjoy, and the old-school illustration style is very appealing


Straight off the bat I loved that the anthology pointed out that science fiction struggles with diversity. It is pointed out that the genre is becoming more diverse, but sci fi (even more than most other genres) has been overwhelmingly dominated by straight, white, male authors. Anthologies like Rediscovery are thus important not just to showcase great fiction that may not have received enough acclaim in its time, but to shift the perception of the genre as a whole and make more room for diverse works, to enliven science fiction as a whole.

Unhuman Sacrifice by Katherine MacLean was a great start to the anthology, and I loved the Pratchett-esque banter and irony present throughout the story. The switches to the perspective of Spet also provided touches of humour, and allowed the messages of colonialism to hit home even harder. The story was an entertaining look at the arrogance involved in interfering in a way of life you do not understand, the way everyone tends to project their own experiences, and also provided an interesting look at the fear of—and futility of fighting—the natural aging process.

Judith Merrel’s Wish Upon a Star had some interesting gender commentary, and I was glad that she didn’t shy away from having unlikeable characters present in both the men and women in the story, and likewise with level-headed, nurturing characters. Sheik (the main character) is a boy who resents the injustice of being denied leadership on the basis of his gender, and this set-up is probably far more likely (even today, but probably especially so in the 50s and 60s) to gently show men how unfair the situations are in which women often find themselves. I wish the story had resolved more fully, and I found it hard to sympathise with a male character essentially wishing that women were more subservient so that he might benefit, but I appreciated the aim of the story and may seek out more work by the author to see how themes of gender are explored in her other works.

A Matter of Proportion by Anne Walker Gutterman stood out for a few reasons. One being that characters with disabilities are rare in all fiction, especially science fiction where it might seem reasonable for any such differences to be ‘fixed’ with technology of some kind. The other was the odd structure of the story, with the majority of the life-or-death tension up front, and the latter part of the story dealing with a more social/emotional goal, with equivalent stakes; the outcome of which is also known. I enjoyed the story, and appreciated the classically science fiction chance to see through the eyes of a character whose life is very different to mine, and I believe—strange structure aside—that A Matter of Proportion made a strong addition to the Rediscovery anthology.

Jane Rice’s The White Pony is one of the strongest stories in the collection, in my opinion, and I loved the humour interwoven with seamless world building and foreshadowed hints of the story to come. The jabs at the artistic, unconventional life people assume writers lead was an entertaining way to develop the main character, and I loved the way Bill fell in love with Margie in part for her way with words.  The descriptive language in this short story is incredible, equal parts relaying factual information and giving an impression of a person or situation that gives much more of a sense, The White Pony is nearly poetic in its ability to quickly convey complex sentiments in a few descriptive phrases. The ending is surprising and touching and wise, all at once, and I feel the need to share this quote from the work, as I feel it neatly sums up the appeal of The White Pony

“I saw it was the day-to-day stuff that was the challenge and required the most bravery and made the best story in the long run.”

In terms of subtly unusual, thoroughly engrossing day-to-day stuff, it would be hard to beat Jane Rice.

Step IV by Rosel George Brown was a conflicting story for me, because while I found the set-up and some of the commentary fascinating, I felt like the main character’s motivations weren’t adequately fleshed out. Men and women were cast as two rigidly defined groups, and while this was done for reason of commentary, I feel it made the ending rather pessimistic, as though equality is a child’s dream rather than a goal worth working towards. I did enjoy this story, but I wish Juba’s motivations had been a little more clearly motivated.

Rosel George Brown was also the author of the next entry in the anthology, Of All Possible Worlds. I loved the idea of an explorer who not only didn’t, but couldn’t bargain, threaten or otherwise persuade foreign cultures to accommodate them. In Rosel George Brown’s words: “You have nothing to offer but yourself. So you try to make that good.” Words to live by.

I also liked the way prejudice didn’t magically not exist in the main character, but rather it was something he had to actively fight against within himself, the message is as timely now as it was in the 50s or 60s. This story had no firm message to it, and the ending, while haunting, was rather ambiguous. Of All Possible Worlds does not so much tell readers what to do or think, but rather expand one part of life so thoroughly but you can’t help but notice it, any change you wish to see you are then responsible for making. I enjoyed the short story, and the haunting ending, but those wishing for a more conclusive finale may be disappointed.

One of the highlights of this anthology is the sheer range of genres, tones and styles of writing which it includes, even given the rather narrow scope of the stories (science fiction, written by women, in the years 1958-1963). Satisfaction Guaranteed by Joy Leache is a great example of this, as the writing style is reminiscent somehow of a cartoon strip, or an old-timey sit com. I’m reminded once more of Terry Pratchett’s writing by this story, and perhaps if Pratchett wrote Mad Men it would’ve been a little like Satisfaction Guaranteed. I enjoyed this story, and the clever ways Miss Featherpenny got around them. The characters of this story, though hastily presented (as is standard in short stories with more than two characters) were entertaining, familiar, and sympathetic—though I still think Miss Featherpenny could have aimed higher. The setting was whimsical without being ridiculous, and the commentary on gender politics, consumerism and the dehumanisation of entertainers is timeless.

Maria Russel’s The Deer Park was a beautifully written, somewhat disturbing look at the ultimate emptiness of a controlled, perfect life that so many people ostensibly strive for. I absolutely loved the character of Ronde, and the reflection of Vwal and the fantasy world that she lived in that both she and the Envoy provided, though with opposing viewpoints on the life that Vwal himself was living.

To Lift a Ship by Kit Reed was a great mix of 60s technology (black and white films!) and the presumed technology that was soon to be developed. This contradiction made for an interesting story, and I thoroughly enjoyed the way this story ended.

The Putnam Tradition by Sonya Hess Dorman sets up a world that I would gladly read a book or series about, and I loved the almost urban-fantasy feel of it. I loved the different presentations of women present in the novel, and the focus on family that allowed for both character development and backstory in one. I loved the challenging of traditional values based on fear, and I always appreciate an antagonist that is not a villain. The touches of humour are a lovely addition to the story, and The Putnam Tradition was certainly a stand out for me from this anthology.

Otis Kidwell Burger’s The Pleiades is my favourite story of the bunch, and one that I believe will stick with many readers of it. The novelty carnival setting is a great counterpoint to the morbid themes of the story, and without spoiling the magnificent twist ending of this story—magnificently foreshadowed in the rich world-building that precedes it—the message is similar to that of The Deer Park, a criticism of empty, manufactured perfectionism.

Doris Pitkin Buck’s No Trading Voyage was odd, I enjoyed the writing style of the story, but fond the ultimate message a bit unclear. The obstacles that drove the plot also felt a little hollow because of the impersonal way they were described, though again, I did enjoy the story.

Cornie on the Walls by Sydney van Sycoc was another favourite of mine within the anthology, and was a little reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe at times. I was also reminded of Anne McCaffrey’s Ship Who Sang and Robin Hobb’s Liveship series’, and the supposed blending of man and machine is certainly an intriguing one. Cornie on the Walls also deals with the control men at the time had over their partner’s lives, and themes of mental health and grief in a way that is disturbing and intriguing in equal parts.

Unwillingly to School by Pauline Ashwell was yet another of my favourites, though when I began reading it I didn’t realise it was the last story, as it was far longer than I anticipated. The story it tells is surprisingly nuanced, and I loved the determination the main character had without impinging on how entertaining it was to read of her exploits. This story is funny, and tackles serious subjects like health, wealth and disabilities without making light of any of them, and for that reason alone would be worth reading. However, Unwillingly to School also has great characterisation, and a touching reminder of the benefit of asking for help and sharing ideas.

A theme that had become obvious throughout the anthology was the restricted role women played in society at the time these works were written, and much as Kit Reed wrote of psychic craft but did not assume that films would play in colour, while the women in these stories are strong, resourceful and nuanced, they often still take a backseat to the men in the story. Rediscovery is not just a collection of amazing science fiction, it’s a reminder of the need to seek out and lift up diverse voices, not just to enjoy what they have to say, but to create an environment where everyone feels free to share ideas, for the benefit of all.

There’s such a diversity of tone among the works in this anthology that I can make no sweeping recommendations as to who might enjoy this work, but I believe anyone who enjoys science fiction will find something to enjoy in Rediscovery: SF by Women. This title will release on September 2nd, 2020, and I’ll post a reminder then too.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for your thorough review! I speculated to request it at Netgalley but decided against it because it’s out of my comfort zone – I had bad experiences reading SF from the 50s.

    Liked by 1 person

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