Review: Rediscovery, Volume 2: Science Fiction by Women (1953-1957) Anthology

I know I’ve said this several times recently, but apologies for the sparse uploads. A combination of illness (apparently not covid, but several family members had it and my symptoms have lasted months at this stage) and personal circumstances (still living with four extra people) means that I have barely had time to read, let alone write about what I’ve (not) been reading.

That being said, I read a book! I enjoyed it! I would like to tell you about it now!

Disclaimer—I received this book for free in exchange for a review, all opinions are my own.

The cover is a touch pin-up y for my taste, but it does somewhat capture the idea of woman-centric sci fi and fantasy from the 50s, so I’m not mad at it

Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women (1953-1957) offers, quite simply, some of the best science fiction ever written: 20 amazing pieces, most of which haven’t been reprinted for decades…but should have been. Whether you are a long-time fan or new to the genre, you are in for a treat.

This collection of works-18 stories, 1 poem, 1 nonfiction piece-are a showcase, some of the best science fiction stories of the ’50s. These stories were selected not only as examples of great writing, but also because their characters are as believable, their themes just as relevant today, their contents just as fun to read, as when they were written almost three quarters of a century ago.

Dig in. Enjoy these newly-rediscovered delicacies a few at a time…or binge them all at once!

This is volume two of the rediscovery anthology, which aims to shine a light on incredible science fiction and fantasy written by women, at a time when many (myself among them, before volume one, which I also reviewed here) may have assumed women were scarcely published in any genre. The stories are fascinating in their own right, and also a very interesting reflection of the social expectations of the time. I especially enjoyed the stories inspired by cold war paranoia and fears of nuclear or germ warfare, and this anthology is proof of the fact that good fiction is timeless and accurate social commentary remains relevant. The afterwords were also a nice touch, revealing more of the author of the stories history, and pointing out or praising subtle details or themes that may have been missed.

Games by Katherine MacLean was a great introduction to the story. Fast-paced and morally nuanced, I enjoyed the scarily possible condemnation of germ warfare (and governments who would cross every line to possess such an ability) while also grounding said possibility in the mundanity of a child playing pretend. It paves the way for the third story in the collection, Gallie’s House, which also begins with a child playing make-believe, with a far more immediately horrifying outcome.

Captive Audience by Anne Warren Griffith was a fun read with a sickeningly plausible (though exaggerated to the point of fiction) premise. I enjoyed the way the generational differences were shown to affect response to a once-unacceptable societal change, and while I have read similar dystopian fiction with young people as the disruptors, I enjoyed this take on it immensely.

Gallie’s House by Thelma D Hamm was incredible. Haunting, touching and genuinely emotional, I loved the lack of dwelling on the scientific impossibility, to instead explore the effect that a nuclear war would have even on people not directly effected by the blast. It reminded me of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, in it’s criticism of parents who failed their children, by ill thought out attempted kindness, or socially acceptable neglect.

Mari Wolf’s The First Day of Spring was a strong contender for my favourite story in this collection, and the majority of my notes on the story are just direct quotes. I’ll include one that stuck with me but that doesn’t give away the ending to include, because the concise, heart-rending dialogue in this story is truly marvellous. It’s odd to again see writers looking to the future, to space travel and an extinct earth, but having 50s gender roles included unthinkingly. There are small language choices throughout (‘the world’ vs ‘the planet’) that truly make the story engrossing and believable, and I think the romance angle in this story really adds to it, helping to add tension and stakes, and illuminate in painstaking detail what it would mean to leave your life, your world, to start a new one with someone else. Again, the idea that suffering is what makes achievements and pleasure have meaning, vs the idea that suffering is something to eradicate really is a sharp divide between people, and I loved the way the story didn’t pick a side either way.

“Well, what do you have? A ship— a tiny ship you can’t get out of, with walls that you can see, all around you.”

“Yes, Trina, with walls we can see.”

The Agony of the Leaves by Evelyn E Smith was funny and unexpected, and without spoiling the story, I liked the slight fun poked at psychology.

Two-bit Oracle by Doris Pitkin Buck and The Canvas Pyramid by Jane Roberts both explored the hypocrisy of false believers who pray on the poor and desperate, although both protagonists get their comeuppance in different ways. The messages of both are quite different, though equally enjoyable. I loved the richly imagined worlds that presented in both short stories, and the thoroughly modern dialogue and hard-nosed cynicism of the protagonists is hard to beat.

For that matter, Evelyn E Smith’s The Princess and the Physicist was also a fascinating exploration of faith, but from a very different perspective. While the two previous stories I mentioned explored faith, and the ways people corrupt it, The Princess and the Physicist looks more at gender roles and class, showing the learned helplessness of those who cannot—or will not—care for themselves.

Change the Sky by Idris Seabright is a story that I’m torn on. On the one hand I loved the concept, and the story had great tension and motivation. But on the other hand, I didn’t like the way the ending seemed to rob the character of true closure or satisfaction. Perhaps that was the point. The story and concepts are truly impressive, nevertheless.

Miss Quatro by Alice Eleanor Jones was a touching story, and while the ending wasn’t as quick or shocking as some of the other stories in this collection, the characterisation and creeping horror was top notch. The story manages to emphasise the importance of treating downtrodden people with kindness without ever slipping into trite moralising. I really enjoyed this story, and much like Jane Rice’s The White Pony from the first anthology, I believe it will stick with me.

Birthright by April Smith was a fast-paced and enjoyable story. I’m sad that nothing is known of the author, because making a main character instantly insufferable (without making them boring to read) takes true skill, and I loved the way she critiqued society through Cyril Kirk. I enjoyed his realisations and growth throughout the story, and appreciated that while he changed due to Nanae’s influence, she wasn’t given the job of his rehabilitation.

The Piece Thing by Carol Emshwiller was a fun, short, gruesome read that I enjoyed. Coming of age stories are a classic, but I loved the unique, slightly undefined story told in this entry.

Of Mars and Men: News for Dr Richardson by Miriam Allen deFord was hands down one of my favourites in this anthology. Not a fiction piece, but instead a brutal, hilarious destruction of a sexist pig’s arguments for an “extraterrestrial bordello” for a crew of all-male astronauts. The words belong to the hilarious Miriam Allen deFord, rather than the previously mentioned sexist pig, Dr Richardson. The points made in this article, while sadly still relevant, are concise, accurate, and pull zero punches. I cannot praise this entry enough.

Woman’s Work by Garen Drussai was a good classic short story, with a great twist. It was a nice, comical change of pace after the heaviness of the last piece, with it’s depressingly accurate view of how sexist men view the world.

Poor Little Saturday by Madeleine L’Engle was a beautiful, fascinating story that I would love to see animated. I just can’t shake the idea that it would make a beautiful, memorable short film. But I’m getting carried away. Something of The Bridge to Terabithia, something of The Secret Garden, but with a witch, a ghost and some magical cats; Poor Little Saturday is a mournful coming of age story that I absolutely loved.

Jane Roberts’s The Red Wagon was genuinely horrifying, but I really enjoyed it. I never really understood why horror was grouped with sci fi and fantasy under the umbrella term of speculative fiction, but this anthology may have shown me. I loved the way that urban legends and common occurences (imaginary friends, children seeming to know more than they should) is used to great effect in both this story and the equally impressive Gallie’s House by Thelma D Hamm.

The Queer Ones by Leigh Brackett was an amazing and engrossing story. The racist language was uncomfortable, and I’m not sure if it was used deliberately to elicit that effect, or if the words were just used more casually when the story was written. Vadi was a great character, and the narrator’s  kindness and sympathy to illegal immigrants is sadly still progressive today. I loved the noir feel of this short story, and while I wish the romance angle hadn’t been tacked on, I felt like the world-building and suspense were spectacular. I’d love to know what Leigh Brackett would do with the surveillance opportunities afforded by modern life, given the eerily accurate prediction of several future technologies.  

We Move on Turning Stone by Leah Bodine Drake was a poem, which I didn’t expect. I enjoyed it, and appreciated the variety of fiction in this collection. I was surprised at the number of short pieces included in the anthology, but not disappointed by any means.

Ruth M Goldsmith’s Moonshine was a hilarious, unique change of pace that I thoroughly enjoyed. I can honestly say I’ve never read sci fi like it, but I certainly hope to read more. The ridiculous (but somehow grounded) scenarios in this story reminded me of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams at their finest, and I hope to read more from this author as soon as possible.

The Wines of Earth by Idris Seabright was a strange choice of ending in my opinion, because I felt it’s message was far less clear than some of the other stories in this collection. However, I loved the vivid descriptions and glorification of dedication to a craft, and there is something classic and beautiful about a wholesome alien encounter.

Sorry for the long-winded review, but I very much enjoyed this anthology and felt each piece deserved to be given it’s due. If it wasn’t obvious from my nearly unanimous positive feedback, I really enjoyed this anthology, and would love to see a volume three come out. The concept is a great way to discover authors you may never have heard of, and often with an extensive back catalogue of published works. This anthology has something for any lover of science fiction or fantasy, and I truly encourage anyone interested to read it themselves.

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