Consider Her Ways by John Wyndham

wyndham-consider-her-waysConsider Her Ways by John Wyndham

First published 1956 in collection Consider Her Ways and Others. It was adapted for an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1964.

 

A woman wakes up with no memories. The people she meets call her Mother Orchis. She soon finds out that she is a member of the Mother caste of a future society composed entirely of women. This feels wrong to her and she discovers that unlike other mothers, she can read and write, and they don’t know what men are.

She slowly begins to remember who she is, and that her name is Jane Waterleigh. Once it becomes clear to the doctors that something odd has occurred, it is arranged for Jane to meet an elderly historian. Laura, the historian, explains to her how many years ago all the men died. A disease that had been engineered to kill off brown rats mutated and killed off the entire male population.

Jane is now considered disruptive, and it is decided that she will have her memory wiped. Before this happens, Jane requests that she be given the drug chuinjuatin, which caused her to mentally time travel in the first place. This is done, and she finds herself back in her own time.

In an effort to prevent the future she has foreseen, Jane hunts down the scientist responsible for the disease that kills off all the men, but in a twist it transpires that she has failed to do the research, and that the scientist had a son who works in the same field, and who has vowed to carry on the research.

 

Gynotopia Watch: Everything is pink and pastel.

The society is specifically modelled on that of the ant, with four physically different castes: the Doctors (normal shape), Mothers (grotesquely fat), Servitors (very small), and Workers (large and strong). There’s no effort to show any reason for this in the story beyond it fitting the metaphor. The author doesn’t seem to have much of a clue about what is physically required to carry a baby to term, characterising the mothers as great lumps who are so fat they can barely walk, and just lie around all day on couches, when they would surely be far better at their job of baby ovens if they were physically fit.

Similarly, what is the point of the servitors being tiny? How does that make them better at their work? In the story it just seems to mean that it requires half a dozen of them to do a job, and they need specialised, small versions of everything.

Rereading it, I find it even odder that the Mothers don’t read and write. Okay, so they are great lumps that have no use other than to produce babies, but what do they do with their time? I’m assuming Wyndham was going for some kind of lazy housewife caricature, but they don’t appear to have TV to watch, so allowing them to read would have given them something to do beyond staring at the ceiling. The only books mentioned in the story are those which have been banned for containing men or something. Apparently this future society doesn’t contain cheap romance novels. Which it couldn’t anyway because there are No Lesbians.

There’s no indication of how the society is run beyond the Doctor caste being in charge. There seems to be some hierarchical structure within that, but it’s never addressed.

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Herland documentary

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I just found out that BBC radio 4 is broadcasting a documentary entitled Herland tomorrow, January 28th at 11:30 UK time.

In 1915 women could neither vote, divorce nor work after marriage, yet in that same year the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman envisaged a revolutionary world populated entirely by women who were intelligent, resourceful and brave. Her great science fiction novel Herland tells the story of three men who crash land on an island where the men have died out; women reproduce by parthenogenesis. Until Gilman’s book was published most visions of utopia, though turning the world on its head, struggled to envisage a place where gender had changed. Fantastical machines could be imagined alongside marvellous advances in medicine and technology, but the idea of woman functioning fully in the new utopias was too much for many to imagine. In this programme the award winning science fiction writer Geoff Ryman uses Herland as a starting point to ask why it’s been so had to imagine a world where gender dissolves. In the course of the programme he will write his own short story, avoiding the pitfalls that have skewered many before him. The story called ‘No Point Talking’ will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra and be available as a podcast.

Presenter: Geoff Ryman
Producer: Nicola Swords
Contributors: Stephanie Saulter, author of the Evolution Trilogy; Laurie Penny, writer and journalist; Dr Sari Edelstein, The President of the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Society; Sarah Le Fanu, former Senior Editor at The Women’s Press; Dr Caitríona Ní Dhúill, author of Sex and Imagined Spaces; Sarah Hall, author of The Carhullan Army and The Wolf Border.

Original music composed by Scanner.

More information can be found here.

The War of the Sexes by Edmond Hamilton

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The War of the Sexes by Edmond Hamilton

First published Weird Tales Nov. 1933, reprinted Avon Science Fiction Reader no. 1 1951

I was under the impression that Edmond Hamilton was a popular writer of the Golden Age. Based on this example I have to wonder why. The behaviour and dialogue bears no resemblence to that of actual people, and the narrative is stilted and clumsy. The fact that most of the story turns out to be a dream sequence doesn’t even excuse this, as the behaviour outside this segment is batshit crazy.

Allan Land visits the home of Doctor Daniel Lantin to apply for a job. The job description is, to say the least, vague and a bit disturbing, asking simply “for a young man without connections in search of exciting work”.

“I am a research biologist,” Doctor Lantin explained, “and I want a young man with cold-steel nerve and a strong body to accompany me on a scientific expedition I am making soon to the South American jungles.”

Lantin then has Allan lie on an examination table where he is immediately held fast as shackles shoot out of the table at the wrists and ankles, pinning him down. Lantin then explains that the job was a ruse and he’s actually intending to remove Allan’s brain and put it in a jar where it will be preserved forever for… reasons.

This, it eventually turns out, is a lie. Lantin is really just testing the strength of Allan’s character by pretending to murder him and stick his brain in a jar. Because anyone who would be upset by such a turn of events clearly does not have the required moral fortitude for his South American expedition. One wonders how many other people he’s interviewed for this job, and whether the police might have a few tips about his technique.

Anyway, as part of the ruse, Lantin anesthetises Allan, who has a dream where his brain is kept in a jar for 20,000 years and then transplanted into the head of Thur, ruler of the males. In this vision of the future women have discovered how to have babies by “ectogenisis” without sex and so lost interest in having relationsips with men. Then the men worked out how to do so too, and the two sexes completely separated from each other. Then they started a war and have been fighting it for hundreds of years.

Allan sure has an odd imagination.

So Thur, leader of the males, suffered a head trauma, and rather than suffer the the blow to morale that would have occured if it became known that he was dead, they took the brain that they happened to have lying around in a jar for two millenia and transplanted it into Thur’s head.

Then, before Allan has had a chance to take it all in there’s a raid by the females. Apparently the war largely consists of airbound sorties from each side attacking each other’s cities with their “fire rods”. Allan heroically leads his men to defend their city in “flyers”, conveniently shooting down a female flyer that contains Nara, the ruler of the females.

Neither side takes prisoners, but Allan insists that Nara be kept alive. He then visits her in her prison cell and suggests that they all make peace. We then get a big flashing neon sign saying AUTHOR’S MESSAGE:

Allan remembered how back in his own time, even, there had been signs of this. The emergence of women from their age-old subjection to the other sex had stirred up no small amount of sex-jealousy. Rivalry of men and women had grown in many cases to antagonism and open enmity. And now that the mating of men and women was no longer neccssary for the perpetuation of the race, the two sexes had come to open war and fought, each to wipe out the other.

Apparently Allan thinks that without the need for procreation men and women would lose all interest in each other. Which seems a rather narrow view of human relationships.

Allan then tells Nara that he’s going to free her so that they can make peace and kisses her. She, understandably, fights him off, but later when he tries again lets him kiss her. Allan takes this as a sign of love, rather than that of a woman in a place where everyone wants her executed accepting unwanted advances from someone who is going to help her escape. Of course, since it’s all Allan’s dream, anyway, she actually does fall in love with him as the result of a couple of unwanted kisses.

Allan leads Nara to a flyer so she can escape. She knocks him out and takes him with her so that she can execute him when she gets back to the female city.

“And you fooled me completely!” That fact beat strongest in Allan’s mind. “Fooled me—well, I’ll say that women haven’t changed much after all in twenty thousand years. They can lie and deceive as well as ever.

But how do you really feel, Allan?

Roles are reversed and now Allan is put in a cell while Nara prevents her followers from killing him. Then she decides to help him escape, but as they make off in a flyer the males attack. They are now being shot at by both sides, and as their flyer goes up in flames Allan wakes up to find that it has all been a dream.

Lantin explains it was all a test of character and introduces his beautiful daughter, Janet. Allan is so interested in Janet that he is entirely okay with this treatment.

Gynotopia watch: Very little information is given about either the male or female society. The males live in cities composed of blue cubes of varying sizes, the females are the same only the cubes are green. Although they have been separated for hundreds of years their technology seems identical. Blame it on Allan’s lack of imagination, since it’s all a dream anyway.

Land of the Matriarchs by E. Bruce Yaches

L610oyyo1bjl-_sl500_sx348_bo1204203200_and of the Matriarchs by E. Bruce Yaches

First published in Fantastic Adventures March 1953.

An early anti-feminist short-short in which our hero, Frank Mason spots a vehicle broken down on the alien planet where he lives, and offers to help fix it. The driver, a girl (the story never bothers to give her a name) from City Nightingale, the colony of the Matriarchs, refuses.

The girl was working on the engine and obviously she was from the Matriarchy from the markings on the ’flitter. But she was certainly different. She wore nothing but a brief halter and scanty combination and despite the dirt a grease that marked her, she was beautiful. Her hair was cropped close in the manner of “efficiency” affected by the Matriarchal groups, but even this couldn’t disguise the extraordinary femininity of her. Frank felt his pulse rise as he looked at her.

“May I help?” he said politely.

The girl looked at him curtly. “No, thank you,” she said and turned back to what she was doing.

“You’d better hurry it, Miss,” Frank advised. “Darking’s coming on and it isn’t nice to be caught on the ground, you know.”

The girl dropped her tool-case and faced him in exasperation. Mentally Frank whistled when he saw the full figure. Brother, he thought, if this girl only wasn’t half nuts!,

This is implied to be foolish stubbornness on her part, but since the story has just spent the last two paragraphs ogling her, it’s possible she just fears for her safety.

Later, returning back the same way, Frank sees the woman being attacked by an alien creature. He rescues her and she melts into his arms, immediately spurning the society she comes from now that she’s met a real manly man.

Gynotopia spotting: We are informed that matriarchies are a growing “crazy cult” back on Earth, and they have a city on this planet. The unnamed girl self-identifies as a Matriach. Since she clearly holds no position of authority, either everyone in the matriarchal society identifies as its leader, or perhaps the writer doesn’t know what the word means.

Almost the only other thing we are told about them is that they don’t like men. After his first encounter with the girl, Frank considers dropping by the Matriarch city to inform them of their lost sheep, but suspects they’d shoot him if he went near. No evidence is presented for this and no explanation for why he couldn’t call them on the radio, other than that it would have obviated the opportunity for him to be heroic later.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

bktg04336First published in 1915 in Gilman’s magazine The Forerunner, Herland is perhaps the most widely known of the proto-feminist utopias, but it follows a trend of utopian writing that was a popular theme of the era.

The story concerns the adventure of three friends, Terry, the chauvanist, Jeff, the idealist, and Van, the (according to him, for he is the narrator) pragmatist. They are initially depicted as real Boy’s Own adventurer types who would not be out of place in an Edgar Rice Boroughs story. But they are not in a Boy’s Own story, and this is the basis for a lot of the humour in the book.

The friends go on an expedition to locate a place they have heard rumours about where only women exist. They have some fairly terrible notions of how such a place would work, and discovering a land where women manage just fine and where male involvement is unneeded and unwanted continues to disconcert them throughout the novel. This is particularly true of Terry, who continually moans and complains. He can’t dominate them so he claims they aren’t proper women, that they are deformed in some way. Anything to reframe his situation so that it is they who are at fault, rather than him. It does get rather wearing after a while. Jeff, on the other hand, falls in love with this new society and delights in its every aspect. Van considers himself a realist, and while he doesn’t go to either extreme, he believes that each of them makes valid points at times. The reader, particularly the modern reader, is not going to see him as anywhere near as unbiased as he thinks he is.

There’s not actually a huge amount of plot. It reminded me of another utopian novel, Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race, whose plot consists of a man, who has found his way into a secret underground world being given a tour of the utopia. Then at the end he escapes. Herland is much more readable because it actually has characterisation and wit, but it’s still ultimately the writer showing off their idea for a fantasy world.

I enjoyed it, but came away from it feeling a little unfulfilled. There’s very little actual conflict in the story. Early on, the men believe they have been imprisoned, and it has a certain Prisoner of War escape movie feel to it, but that’s only because they are idiots. They are actually treated with complete kindness, even after the escape attempt, and are only kept contained while they are evaluated, as they are, after all, strange and practically mythical creatures to the inhabitants. Once they have learned the language and got to know the women of Herland they are given complete freedom.

They then each form relationships. Which is actually a little odd in context, since the women of Herland don’t have relationships. They are all sisters together, but apparently even after two thousand years of being a single gender community, lesbianism has not occurred to them. Reading between the lines one can see it as the girls making an effort on behalf of the community to experiment with sexual reproduction, but it’s not really explained.

And then we get to the final section where, apparently, Terry tries to rape his new wife. It’s described in such vague, circumspect terms that it’s difficult to tell, but that seems to be what happens. Terry is exiled, and Van and his wife Ellador return with him to the outer world (where they have a sequel), while Jeff happily stays.

Gynotopia watch: Difficult to summarize, since most of the book is spent explaining how Herland works. It’s primarily based on everyone being related, since they are all ultimately descended from the same woman, lending the society a feeling of sisterhood and family, where everything is done in support of this extended family. Their society has been stable for fifteen hundred years and doesn’t seem to have suffered any memorable natural disasters in this time. There is no crime, no class, and very little in the way of hierachy.

Preamble, or pre-rambling

So I was thinking…

I have an interest in female led societies in science fiction and I have this theory about how such gynotopias are written is reflective of the society that produces them.

There’s the fantasy matriarchies of the immediate post-war period, very definitely hetrosexual, and invariably focussed on the lack of available men. These are perhaps a reaction to the war years, where women were actively taking on work previously restricted to men while they were away. While they often reflect the male response to seeing women in traditionally male roles, I don’t think I’ve seen anything that addresses the female experience of getting shoved back into their former, more limited state after five years of freedom from those restrictions (other than the movie A League of Her Own, which addresses the experience directly rather than through fantasy).

And then there’s the rise of the Evil Female Empire in the sixties and seventies; of male writers responding to the growth of the women’s movement and feminism by describing terrible female dystopias. Into the 1980s where we start to see more women writing female utopias where everything is fine until some man comes along to screw everything up (there were a lot of these in the forties, too, except they were from the man‘s point of view).

And finally there are the post-sex war stories where men are not even an issue. Where the society women build is neither fantastically perfect nor terrible and evil. Where they just get on and have adventures that have nothing to do with the absence or presence of men.

So anyway, armed with my hypothesis I’m planning to read a bunch of books (watch some movies, read some comics, etc) and see how it all fits. A couple of the books are works that are specifically feminist commentaries on science fiction, but most are just going to be whatever stories I can find on the subject; comparing and contrasting works by men and women.

I’m not any kind of academic, and I’ve never even taken a Women’s Studies course, so my views aren’t reflective of anyone except me.

In case you want to play along, the first books on my list are In the Chinks of the World Machine by Sarah Lefanu, Feminist Philosophy and Science Fiction by Judith A. Little, and early female utopian novels Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mizora by Mary E. Bradley Lane (both available at Project Gutenberg for free).

Update: While researching on the net I found an essay on the very same subject on a mens’ rights website. While the article was heavily biased, it had a good reading list that nicely complements my own, and included an even earlier example than Mizora in The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, which dates feminist writing back as far as 1405. Thanks, mysogynist guys!