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The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women, edited by A. Susan Williams and Richard Glyn Jones, Penguin, 1995, 560 pp.

My first objection to this volume is its definition of fantasy. Most of the authors here write science fiction, by any reasonable definition of the term. Williams and Jones consider fantasy to be the overarching term, whereas I consider science fiction to be a distinct genre of its own. Apart from such quibbles, which loom larger than they likely should, I have to say that Modern Fantasy by Women has some fine stories in it. I would recommend reading the book beginning to end, as there are lots of memorable moments. Most of them come from the names familiar to science fiction fans: Wilhelm, Russ, Le Guin, Butler, McIntyre, and so forth. Williams and Jones have picked uniformly excellent writing, and the choices range quite a great deal in subject matter. I will divide this review into three main categories, which are of course arbitrary and shade into one another: mainstream, sf, and fantasy.

Modern Fantasy by Women has several stories by authors like Shirley Jackson, whose works are fantastical or horrific, but have been absorbed by the mainstream. Jackson's "The Tooth" is perhaps one of the reasons why people are afraid of dentists. Written in a realistic style, the story details why you should be worried when you have a sore tooth. The volume includes a story by P.D. James called "Murder, 1986" and written in 1970. It's an Orwellian future that James portrays, and it proceeds as could be expected, corruption in high places and so forth. Margaret Atwood provides the beautifully written "When it Happens," which almost unclassifiable. The main character ponders what will happen when civilization collapses, and starts to lose track of reality.

The bulk of Modern Fantasy by Women is science fiction. We have that fabulous Tiptree story, "The Milk of Paradise," first published in Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions. Leigh Brackett has a story here too, the somewhat pulpy "The Lake of the Gone Forever," from 1949. The Le Guin story, "Sur," is not what I was expecting, and is a successful blend of historical fiction and satire. Suzy McKee Charnas is characterized in the list of biographies at the close of the book by this line: "The content of her work is often controversial" (555). Her story, "Boobs," proves why the editors might say this about her. I enjoyed the vicious satire of Lisa Tuttle's "Wives," which proves a few things about the mindset of male explorers. Dorsey and Butler are here, with excellent stories, and Carol Emshwiller provides the supremely strange "If the Word Was to the Wise." Emshwiller is an old pro who I have just discovered, and I am continually delighted by her stories (on a bit of tangent, I would like to say that Emshwiller's "Acceptance Speech" was my favourite in F&SF's 50th Anniversary issue).

The third category in the book is what I would consider fantasy. The only story that I would label unequivocally as fantasy is Tanith Lee's "Red as Blood," a modern retelling of some old fables. Angela Carter's "Peter and the Wolf" might also be fantasy, but I'm uneasy about that classification.

I would also like to mention the few stories that are published for the first time, here in Modern Fantasy by Women. They are generally strong in idea but weak in execution. To say that the other stories have stood the test of time is somewhat of a misleading statement: the criteria for excellence change constantly, and what we consider a good story might say more about us than the story. Yet, Sturgeon's Law applies, and one of the easiest ways to gain perspective on what is crap and what is not is to let some time pass. On the other hand, the book contains the word modern in its title, and it feels quite contemporary in its selection of recent stories. The one that I felt to be particularly worthwhile is the closing story, "Kay and Phil," by Lucy Sussex. The story is about Philip K. Dick, and describes some events that occur late at night as he was working on his novel, The Man in the High Castle. He gets visited by a ghost named Kay, who tells him the plot of his novel is derivative of her novel, Swastika Night. Would non-PKD scholars know what was going on? Not likely, as the story tells its narrative mainly through obscure details. At first, I was unsure as to the existence of Swastika Night, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was written by a woman by the name of Katherine Burdekin under the pen name Murray Constantine. Burdekin led a life almost as interesting as Dick's, and her novel, published in 1936, predicted many of the excesses of Nazism. Sussex captures the tone of Dick's writing a little too closely, especially in the conclusion of the story where she is trying to preach. I enjoyed "Kay and Phil" but I'm unsure if it would have wide appeal. However, such a selection is just fine, as the anthology covers such a range of material that the volume as a whole should appeal to everyone.

Last modified: September 26, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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