If the stories in 2008’s Mammoth Book of SF 21 were particularly concerned with death, annihilation and endings, the overarching theme in this collection from 1992 seems to be a questioning of the relationship between concepts of nature and normality. Some of the best stories collected here look into the ways in which nature, as a concept, is mediated to us through narratives and then go on to interrogate the role played by science in constructing these narratives.
Take Ian R. Macleod’s ‘Grownups’, which is one of the most unsettling science fiction stories I’ve ever read. Its world looks a lot like ours, but it’s different in one crucial way; in order to become a “grown up”, all adolescents must undergo a terrifying and painful maturation process. Once they have grown up, they can get married and have children. Each marriage includes not just a man and a woman, but a third person, known as an “uncle”, and it is the uncle who bears the children. Two of the young people decide that they don’t want to grow-up and attempt to avoid the process altogether. Macleod manipulates our assumptions masterfully in this story and the ending packs one heck of a punch. It’s an allegory about the terrors of growing up, but I think it’s also about childbirth, a painful and dangerous experience that’s considered natural in our society, but which might look horrific and terrifying to an alien with a different reproductive process. And how often do adults respond to their daughters’ fears about childbirth by telling them they’ll understand when they grow up? I’ll never forget it.
Nancy Kress’s story, ‘The Mountain to Mohammed’, is set in a not-too-distant future in which everyone has to undergo genetic screening and those who fail the tests are denied medical insurance. This means they are also denied access to any decent jobs because all the professions require medical insurance. A few doctors decide to break the rules and treat the uninsured anyway. This dystopia is frightening because it’s within the realms of possibility. The story questions the notion that good medical care should be reserved for those who can afford to pay for it, an idea that’s very much normalised in many parts of the world. What would happen if this idea was taken to its logical conclusion? It also warns of the way in which science might be appropriated to produce narratives about nature that serve capitalism. I really need to read more of Kress’s work; I thought her story ‘Dogs’ in The Mammoth Book 21 was outstanding.
In another unsettling story about our understanding of nature, the protagonist in Kate Wilhelm’s ‘Naming the Flowers’ gets a lot more than he bargained for when he buys a child an ice-cream. He discovers that she’s some sort of mutant, a new kind of human woman who will grow to adulthood within a matter of months. And now the government wants him to help track her down. It’s a troubling story in the sense that it’s narrated by an adult man who forms a romantic attachment to someone he met as a child only a few weeks previously, but it also makes some interesting points. What would happen if women didn’t have to go through painful and dangerous childbirth in order to reproduce? Why do we think this is the way things have to be? And what would men do if a new way became possible?
Connie Willis also takes reproductive processes and the narratives that surround them to task in her story, ‘Even the Queen’. In this future, science has enabled women to transcend menstruation. I’m not sure if this is a feminist or antifeminist story, but it’s engaging with feminism somewhere! It could actually be read as a story about disagreements between different feminist theories. I think Willis might have had a bad experience with cultural feminism at some point because the pro-menstruation feminist is represented as extremely stupid and aggravating. I didn’t like this story very much, partly because I don’t agree with the idea underlying the narrative – that menstruation is the root of the oppression of women – and partly because I didn’t feel the humour really worked. Still, it asks interesting questions about what we take for granted as normal. What would happen if women didn’t have to menstruate? What would it do to our world? Is menstruation the problem, or is it the meaning we attach to menstruation, the stories we tell about it?
Kathe Koja’s ‘By the Mirror of my Youth’ is a more overtly feminist story set in a future in which cloning has become possible. A man persuades his terminally ill wife to allow herself to be cloned, to ensure that he has a replacement ready for when she dies. What he doesn’t realise is that she will survive long enough to be around when he goes to collect the clone. When the first wife meets her clone, it throws her whole life into a new light. I read this very much as an allegory about feminism and the way in which different generations of women have been able to think about their lives. It never occurs to the husband that the clone won’t be as submissive to him as his wife was, or that a potential for rebellion has existed within the first wife all along.
Frederick’s Pohl’s ‘Outnumbering the Dead’ also takes nature and science as its theme. In this far distant utopia/dystopia, science has transcended death and the physical complications of human reproduction. People are able to live for indefinitely long periods of time, but there remain an unlucky few for whom the treatment doesn’t work. What would it be like to live as a mortal in a world of immortals, to be aging in a world in which age is irrelevant? And what would life mean if we didn’t have death? Is death what gives our lives meaning? Is our mortal protagonist really so unlucky? I found this story over long, but also quite moving.
Those were the stand-out stories for me, but there were others that I liked very much. I was pleased to come across Pat Cadigan’s ‘Naming Names’ again. I read this story years ago in another anthology, but I couldn’t remember who wrote it. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s doing something on art and power and belief and is very good. Robert Silverman’s ‘A Long Night in the Temple’ is itself a little too long, but it’s an interesting and poignant take on how religions might get started. Terry Bisson’s ‘Two guys from the Future’ is a sweet and funny story in which an artist is confronted by two guys from the future who want to rescue a piece of art that she hasn’t even painted yet. Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Hammer of God’ is a straightforward science fiction story about an attempt to prevent an asteroid hitting the earth and is the only science fiction story ever to be published in Time magazine. I couldn’t help wondering if it was responsible for that spate of meteor-hitting-the-earth movies in the 1990s. It’s Clarke, so it’s very well written and offers thoughts on religion, death the meaning of life, and all that sort of thing. Maureen F. McHugh’s ‘Protection’ is a moving love story about prisoners in a future socialist dystopia concentration camp. Joe Haldeman’s ‘Graves’ is an excellent and effective horror story about war and PTSD based on his experiences in Vietnam.
As with the 2008 Mammoth Book of SF, this anthology is pretty mainstream in content and dominated by white, male authors (interestingly there is almost no difference in the gender ratio in the two anthologies despite being published over 20 years apart), but I have to say, the seven stories by women included here are extremely good.