A Woman's Liberation 
edited by Connie Willis and Shelia Williams 
Paperback - 302 pages (October 2001)
Aspect; ISBN: 0446677426
Review by Ernest Lilley
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Connie Willis and Shelia Williams have put together a thoughtful but subdued anthology of stories by and about women. Radical feminism seems pretty much reduced to Subdued Sisterhood, and though the stories are unilaterally excellent, they lack a certain call to arms that I've associated with feminism in the past.

Indeed, I can't help but think that part of the message in these stories is that what women do is endure, not rise up. That change is a male province and only extreme circumstances can stir women to it. I'm probably projecting. I'm not a woman, though some of my best friends are.

Connie Willis' introduction talks about the role of women in early Science Fiction and though she disses Deja Thoris as a less liberated princess than the later Leia, a comparison I have to question, I was pleased to see that she noted that many women were engaged by the female characters of Robert Heinlein and others and encouraged to create their own female heroes when they started writing. Though any field is bound to have varied viewpoints, she notes that female writers have been largely welcomed into the field, and recalls the effect of Robert Silverberg's essay showing how overtly male the writing of James Tiptree, Jr. was…just before Alice Sheldon revealed it to be her pseudonym.

Outside SF we're confronted with the treatment of women in the Moslem world, complete with images of women being shot in the streets of Afghanistan for reasons we in this "open" society can't readily fathom. I'm a New Yorker, of sorts, and the notion that women have anything less than equal opportunity is more alien to me than most aliens in science fiction. On the other hand, my fiancée is a Naval officer, and I've had a front row seat for the perils of integrating that service.

I know that America once again faces a dangerous balancing act in the Middle East, shutting down terrorism while keeping the entire region from rising up in arms, but it seems like someone should be shouting about the basic rights of women…at least to be able to choose their religion, regardless of how extreme it may seem to us. Well, actually some of the stories here make just those points, but I'd like to see them made harder.

The title of the collection, A Woman's Liberation, is taken from a story by Ursula LeGuin. In my opinion, it fits LeGuin's story better than this collection.

Nancy Kress's story, "Inertia", has a lot of typically Kressian elements in it. A community of diseased humans has been walled off for generations, externally disfigured, and subtly changed internally. Outside the world has been self destructing as population and other pressures push humanity into a frenzy that may well devour itself, while inside the diseased live quiet lives for the most part, unfazed by things that can't be changed. This seems to me to be a matriarchal approach to community, though the story is told through an old woman, and the characters are mainly women it's not billed as such. But as she's done in other stories, Nancy wonders if humanity might need some fundamental changes in order to survive, and wonders where those changes might come from.

In Connie Willis's "Even the Queen" a group of women gather together to confront the notion that the natural order of a woman's body has been disturbed by a male agenda. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to guess what the flower strewing order of the "Cyclists" an all woman order, is about…and it's not a movement to put crossbars on women's bikes. Every one has the right to their own choices, but to forget what lead to the choices made before them leads to a traditional end.

In Vondra McIntyre's of "Of Mist and Grass and Sand", the woman called Snake is a healer, come from across the desert with her cargo of venomous serpents, most likely bioengineered snakes. Though it is a fine piece of writing, this story has a lot to do with alienation, and little to do with a woman's liberation. Yes, Snake rides into a community where a woman is in authority, but that's an established element before the story opens. It has much more to do with a fear of outsiders and serpents than anything gender based. Worthwhile themes, but a bit off the track.

Further on we come to a witch of the future, scaring the peasantry and nobility alike with obscure incantations, mutterings like, "Acetaldehyde" and "Ketone" and other forgotten bits of biotechnology. In a not too distant future, where the Earth's magnetic poles have reversed and with it the lengthening of life spans and the level of knowledge, Katherine MacLean's "The Kidnapping of Baroness 5" shows us an interesting corollary to Clarke's law; "any sufficiently devolved culture will regard it's own lost knowledge as magic."

Octavia Butler's "Speech Sounds" is another post-plague tale, and another non-obvious story of feminism. The world has been shattered by a virus that attacks the speech center of the brain, or wherever reading is kept, or writing, having different effects on different people. Valerie Rye, once a teacher, now living alone after her family has died of plague,  wonders if there's anyone left alive that she knows. To find out she decides to take the bus to Pasadena from LA to search for family, an epic voyage in a world without language. Along the way she meets a man, falls in love, or what passes for love in post apocalypse LA, and faces a world in which she suddenly has something to live for, something to lose. Octavia shows herself to command the written word as surely as the characters in this story are bereft of it..

Anne McCaffery contributed the oldest story of the bunch, written back in the fiery 1960s, "The Ship Who Mourned". It's not exactly a bra burning epic, but the story of one of her main characters; a woman who was born deformed and as a result plugged into a starship to serve as its brain. Though "Helva" has had many great adventures over the books, the idea of the whole practice seems intolerant of humans that aren't born perfect. Of course I'm looking at it from the vantage point of more than thirty years of biotechnology and genetic advances, as well as a changing sea with regard to handicaps. In the current episode, Helva has just lost her human physical counterpart, her "brawn", who she had fallen in love with and then watched die on a mission. She's teamed up with another woman who's know a lot of loss in her life, for a one time mission to stop a plague that turns everyone it touches into minds with trapped inside bodies they have less control an infant does. Between the two of them, and charged with the responsibility of healing others, they find some healing for themselves.

Then at the end, is the title track, so to speak, Ursula LeGuin's "A Woman's Liberation". Like her novel, The Dispossesed, it takes place on two worlds, with Earth Aliens, humans like us, hovering in the background. It is a tale of the overthrow of several different kinds of slavery, and of the long journey to freedom taken by a woman against long odds. LeGuin is the only writer in this collection whose talent may exceed Octavia Butler's, and the editors cite this story as the seed from which the collection sprang. I wish the fruit had fallen closer to the tree.

A Woman's Liberation is a collection of excellent stories by and about the lives of women in the future, but I wish more stories had followed the lead made by LeGuin. Indeed, I wish the "A Woman's Liberation" had led off the book, setting a tone to follow rather than ending it.

Personally, I'd like to see a second collection come out, possibly without the restriction on gender of the authors.

© 2001 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu