Another find from the free little library in downtown Essen: Consider Her Ways, by John Wyndham. John Wyndham is actually a pen name, used by Englishman John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (wait, is it a pen name when it’s kind of an abbreviation of your real name?). He published his first three novels, pre-WW2, as John Beynon. Wyndham lived from 1903 to 1969 and is mostly known for The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids. (Btw, if you like old films, do check out the 1960s movie version of the Triffids — it’s good fun!)
Consider Her Ways (and others) (first published in 1956) is a collection of six short stories, some shorter than others, and is an enjoyable read imho. The title story, which opens this edition, is fairly long in comparison, and it’s quite engaging. Laid out as a first-person narrative (really, a written record by the central character of the story, as we learn later), it introduces us to a society that consists entirely of women. There are different castes, such as the Mothers, the Workers (strong, tall, muscular types), the Servitors (very small, maybe 4 ft, timid and obedient), and the Doctorate (educated ruling class, “fifty percent of whom are actually of the medical profession” (57).
This is rather distressing for the narrator, who wakes up to find herself in this unfamiliar world, which is, as we later learn, the future. As if waking up in a strange place wasn’t enough, she wakes up in the enormous, puffy, disablingly large body of a Mother (Mother Orchis). Even before she remembers who she is, she knows this body isn’t hers, and she knows she is a stranger: as a young, educated, ambitious medical professional, she just won’t fit in with the illiterate Mothers who spend their days resting on couches, being fed and massaged and taken care of by the tiny Servitors. Before long, the police come to pick up the subversive element.
This story is particularly memorable for its opening section, which captures the moments of disorientation, waking up from anesthesia with memory loss. I would also be surprised if it hasn’t already been written about in the context of gender in sci-fi: the later part, where the new society is explained to ‘Mother Orchis,’ contains (among other things) a lecture on ‘romance’ and marriage as a means of enslaving women (pp 48-51). There’s of course a lot of social commentary here, and Wyndham’s criticism of consumerism (here from the perspective of the future historian) is quite interesting:
At the beginning of the twentieth century women were starting to have their chance to lead useful, creative, interesting lives. But that did not suit commerce: it needed them much more as mass-consumers than as producers — except on the most routine levels. So Romance was adopted and developed as a weapon against their further progress and to promote consumption, and it was used intensively. (49)
I’m sure you’ve come across stories and criticism that make the connection between women’s rights and industry / commercial interests, but remember, this is from the 1950s. This is 60+ years ago. Sadly, some of what is described here fits today’s (Western) society to the tee: just look at the sheer number of products aggressively marketed to women by telling them that their skin needs repairing, their body needs slimming or shaping, their hair needs expensive products enriched with diamond or silk extract (I’m not even kidding here), — as women, we are told we are broken or imperfect, we need fixing and enhancing. And while by now there is a growing market of cosmetics for men, the approach and the effect are very different. Most commercials / ads seem to boil down to this:
Men — You’re great! You should get this. It’ll emphasize how great you are!
Women — You need help. You need this or you’ll be undesirable.
…As for romance as a weapon, well… nah. I don’t see it. Social conventions and gender expectations as a means of control, however, yeah I can see that. In light of gender / feminist criticism and media criticism, “Oh, Where Now is Peggy MacRafferty?” also provides some material, though it’s less complex both as a story and as an idea. It’s more humorous, I suppose.
Several stories here feature time travel of a sort, and / cases of cross-dimensional personality transfer. With time travel, of course, there’s usually the issue of causation paradoxes, and Wyndham gives us that, too. Good old sci-fi!
The other stories are fun, too. My favorite in this book has got to be “A Stitch in Time” — I won’t tell you what happens, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. Read it. In some ways it is similar to “Random Quest” — and in many ways it’s not. In “Random Quest,” a young man tries to find a woman who supposedly doesn’t exist. Is she a long-dead infant? The love of his life? A figment of his imagination? After all, he did just spend some time in a sanatorium…
And if you want to figure out how to deal with the devil without losing your soul, the last story (“A Long Spoon”) might interest you. Wyndham has a sense of humor, and his brain must have been an interesting place! This is a fun little volume that would be great on the bus / train / a short flight for anyone who appreciates retro sci-fi. Plus, the cover is too cool. I’ll bet you can find a copy of this in your nearest second hand bookstore / Oxfam bookstore.