Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Fri Jun 08 23:23:26 EDT 1990

Raymond's Reviews #68

%T Sword and Sorceress #6
%A Marion Zimmer Bradley
%D July 1990
%O paperback, US$4.50
%P 286
%G 0-88677-423-3

This anthology almost makes it embarrassing to be a Goddess- worshipping anti-sexist fantasy fan. And though I am all of those, I write this review in the grim certainty that some readers are going to write me off as an unreconstructed MCP and No-Good-Shit for daring to criticize. Oh well...integrity makes difficult demands sometimes.

The trouble with S&S#6 is that it demonstrates how quickly `feminist' fantasy has become just as cliche-ridden and mind-numbing as the testosterone-fueled formula fiction it was supposed to help liberate us all from. Couple this with the earnest naivete of a bunch of dewy-eyed new writers `discovering themselves' by writing wish-fulfillment fantasies, or cute little neo-pagan morality plays or yet another day in the life of some implausible macha warrioress, and you've got a recipe for well-intentioned awfulness.

Not that there isn't some good writing here; there's a lot, actually. It's the content, not the execution, that's the problem. Too many of these stories read as though they were therapy for the writer rather than a challenge to the reader. Too many are `romantic' in the most trivializing sense of the term. And too many have special bonds with stalwart animal companions in them (including the usual wearying plethora of wolves and horses).

The very concept of this anthology series implies some painful ironies. Obviously, MZB wants to encourage women writers and the few male fantasists willing to write from a definably feminist perspective. Unfortunately, the effect of creating this "wimmin's corner" has been to spawn a new category of junk fiction, one isolated from the rest of the genre by special pleading of an essentially political nature. As a result, writers who might otherwise actually be growing enough to widen the horizons of SF or fantasy can instead opt to churn out banalities from the comfort of this ghetto within a ghetto.

I particularly don't think it does feminism any service to write stories that either a) just work a sex-change on characters that would rightly be called macho or stupid if they were male, or b) present sugary fantasies about women who draw mystic powers from eldritch wellsprings inaccessible to mere males. The first is merely dumb; the second is itself sexist. To the extent that `feminist' fiction means anything it ought to be fighting both these sorts of nonsense; instead, too often, it embraces them.

Perhaps the fundamental problem is that treating the sexes equally is an ideal only possible to a modern, industrialized society with an adequate birth-control technology. In the sorts of low-tech societies that form the backdrop for fantasy, biology really is destiny; such societies cannot ignore the multiple sexual specializations bequeathed to us by our evolutionary history, if only because they lack the surplus of wealth necessary to support `equalist' mores.

Does this mean feminist fantasy is doomed to silliness? I don't think so -- but the reality check it needs won't be helped any by institutionalizing special pleading. Thus, I think one must conclude that the existence of the Sword and Sorceress series is, ultimately, destructive to its own stated objectives.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Fri Jun 08 23:23:26 EDT 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>