Book Review: Xenogenesis, Miriam Allen deFord (1969)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1969 edition — there is some speculation that it might be a collaboration with Leo and Diane Dillon)

3.5/5 (Collated rating: Good)

Miriam Allen deFord—one of the more prolific SF short story authors of the 50s-70s whose works appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, If, Fantastic Universe, Galaxy, Worlds of Tomorrow, etc—deserves a Gollancz Masterworks volume.  But, as Ian Sales has pointed out so forcefully in his recent article (here), despite the number of prolific women SF authors in the 50s-70s they were rarely republished and are perhaps the least read group of SF authors for modern audiences.  There are some exceptions but few readers can name a women author pre-Ursula Le Guin.  deFord’s shorts were collected in only two volumes, Xenogenesis (1969) and Elsewhere, Elsewhen, Elsehow (1971) and both print runs were limited to the first year of publication.

Informed by her feminist activism (she was an important campaigner for birth control) and her earlier career in the newspapers, deFord’s stories tackle themes such as overpopulation, racism, colonialism, gender issues, sexism, and alienation.  Her works range from deceptively simple allegories to future histories vast in scope and complexity (for short stories).  Her female characters are almost all individualistic, resourceful, and highly educated–they often struggle against increasingly regimented/mechanized/homogenized societies in order to raise families in addition to their careers.  In short, deFord advocates forcefully the right to self-determination for her heroines.

Likewise, African American characters who are highly educated and in positions of power, the antithesis of the standard race clichés of the time, proliferate her short stories.  I found the strong social activist streak rather surprising considering the 40s/50s providence of some of the works…  The only contemporary female SF author who I have who that comes close to the radical nature of some of the tales is Judith Merril (most notably, “Daughters of Earth” ).  It is important to keep in mind how early she is writing.

Despite a few duds (a characteristic of almost of all short story collections), the majority are highly recommended.  Her work deserves to be reprinted.

Analysis/Brief Plot Summary (*some spoilers*)

“The Daughter of the Tree” (1951) 3.25/5 (Good):  Miriam Allen deFord’s second published short story, more fantasy than SF proper, is an intriguing allegory.  In late 19th century Indian country a white boy wandering the woods learns about a girl of who looks to be of “white-blood” yet lives with the Indians and is supposedly the “daughter of the tree” (4).  The story is filled with so-called Native American speech, i.e. “I little boy, he bring me” and “sometimes he give big potlatch” (5).  The vaguely fantasy premise becomes an allegory of emotional and physical absence–a settler woman is forced to find companionship in a sentient tree rather than her often absent husband.

“The Superior Sex” (1968) 3.5/5 (Good):  deFord deftly turns the standard SF trope where a (generally male) writer postulates a future where the women are in power in order to construct a “warning” narrative (or titillating tale) of some sort–à la Edmund Cooper’s Who Needs Men? (variant title: Gender Genocide) (1972)–on its head.  A man wakes up to discover he’s a member of an all-male harem for a proud, ferocious, tall “Viking Woman” (13).  But, add in some implanted visions, investigations of “hidden psychological impulses” (23)–a female scientist investigates her husband who might wish he didn’t volunteer.

“The Ajeri Diary” (1968) 4/5 (Good):   An allegory of sex and imperialism, or perhaps, more specifically, the “gaze” of the west.  The exosociologis narrator, voyages via the “Patterson Differential” equation that allows mater transmission, to “virgin” territory (24).  Where, instead of conducting more scientific anthropological studies, he gathers experiences (of all sorts, including lots of sleeping with native women) to write his populist and scandalous series entitled “With Our Galactic Neighbors” (25) i.e. lots of sex with our all our sexy up to this point very similar to us galactic neighbors.  Unfortunately, the planet of Algol IV is not conducive to the narrator’s “research.”  A world where the men are not really “men” and the women “reproduce parthenogenetically” and have no sexual interest in him (37).  A fun, if polemical, allegory of societal clash–definitely reads as a product of the late 60s.

“Quick to Haste” (1969) 3.5/5 (Good):  As with “The Ajeri Diary” the insatiable sexual desire explorers feel towards “native” women is the thematic focus.  But, there’s an intriguing twist that perfectly serves deFord’s satirical purpose.  The world is “Earth-like” and “like a dream” (44).  A paradise filled with scenes from Greek vases, images of classical glory….  Scout ships filled men (and occasionally women) spew out into the stars to combat overpopulation–the men fall for the native women (perhaps it is the plan).  But the women on this planet seem to age at remarkable speeds and produce children in mere days.  The world is the perfect world for interplanetary explorers seeking sexual fulfillment–not only will you not have to deal with long term attachment but any children you might beget will be adults before you leave.

“The Smiling Future” (1965)  3/5 (Average):  In an overpopulated and computerized world where every scrap, including ocean chlorella, is harvested to feed to populace an unusual “embassy? army?” from the sea emerges on the shore in individual tanks.  Mankind is perplexed because the ocean dwellers are sentient dolphins!  But little does mankind know that the dolphins too have evolved, and just as man is destroying the oceans to support their growing numbers, the dolphins have an equally sinister plan.  A somewhat lacking, but enjoyable nevertheless, satire with ecological themes…

“Gathi” (1958) 4.25/5 (Good):  Thematically similar to “The Daughter of the Tree”, “Gathi” is a wonderful parable of sentient trees who are literally “rooted” together.  Explores the forces that compel women to follow certain paths, the “root” with certain people, to avoid leaving what is dictated by traditionalist forces.  Moving away is against “denroid behavior”–the young female trees ought to find rooting companions (69).  A mysterious caretaker of the grove moves at the outskirts reinforcing with blights and sterility those who do not conform.

“The Children” (1952) 3/5 (Average):  The longest story in the collection is one of the lesser ones despite a its grand scope of future history…  Using Time Travel a scientist, after a devastating accident that killed the rest of his family, develops an experiment that will yield him children in the future.  The rather ridiculous (and forced) premise does ruminate on gender relations of the future.

“Throwback” (1952) 4/5 (Good):  Not only one of the better stories of the collection but perhaps the most sinister.  In the far overpopulated future where both men and women are highly educated and have careers, a female artist of ceramics wishes for a child.  In this world where humans are counseled by machines and only pre-selected women produce children she considered atavistic in her longings for a stable relationship with children and realizes that an undocumented pregnancy would result in serious repercussions.  So she hatches a plan to escape  after an accidental pregnancy–but deFord constructs no happy ending.

“One-Way Journey” (1955) 3.5/5 (Good):  An elderly couple in an overpopulated future relate how their son, Hal, signed up for a controversial program that sends young girls and boys off to the stars.  He leaves them, or so they think, without progeny–not only will the program transform their child into something unrecognizable yet suitable for travel into space, but the restrictions on childbearing mean that Hal was unable to have a child on earth.  A rumination on the pangs of separation, on disconnect from a traditional past, on atavistic desires (to reproduce, to have families) that resurface despite rigid legislation.  I found that the ending is all too easy and avoids the issues at stake weakening the grim impact.

“The Season of the Babies” (1959) 3.5/5 (Good):  A hilarious satire on the clash of cultures.  An alien world wants to be admitted to a Federation of Planets started by Earth.  The Earth delegates arrive, everything seems to be going well, until a baby cries…  Soon the entire alien way of reproducing and eating and living is uncovered, to the horror of the Earthmen.  Deftly deploying a mix of elements from Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and Montaigne’s “On Cannibals”, deFord presents the aliens as a hyperbolic foil for humans who practice “traditional” practices that seem abhorrent upon closer examination.  But the humans too can not look beyond what they believe is the one and only way.

“Featherbed on Chlyntha” (1957) 4.5/5 (Very Good):  Easily the best story in the collection, “Featherbed on Chlyntha” is the journal of an Earthman snatched from a colony of Mars and stuck in an alien cage in a zoo.  Unfortunately, he lusts after the alien feathered “women” who looks after him–deFord subverts the standard conquerer who lusts after the conquered paradigm.  However, as he learns about their complex gender-relations–until a certain age everyone is “female” and after a certain age they become male–he loses sexual interests but his human-knowledge helps them unravel the reason for his abduction.  Thankfully, not everything works out in the end!  It is hard not to believe that writers such as Le Guin were inspired by stories such as this one.

“The Transit of Venus” (1962) 4.25/5 (Good):  Archeologists from the future uncover new clues about a particular scandal during the “rite of the Buticontest” (160) (beauty contest) of the 21st century.  The Buticontest is the obsession of Earth and all its colonies.  All women desire to enter, and only those who are PhDs in the sciences and who won’t shrug at parading around naked in front of judges and thousands watching will be considered.  The scandal, covered up forcefully by the horrified Buticontest officials, involved a woman drugged and cast-off by her family for her slightly more traditional ways who entered the pageant with faked credentials and a plastic skin-like body suit.  The real reason for her deception has been uncovered!

“All in Good Time” (1960) 3/5 (Average):  Graduate students of the future are the only ones taught by real humans–all earlier levels of education is mediated by machines.  Law students are presented with a case by the professor involving time-travel and bigamy.  Only a young female law student knows the reason for the ruling…

“The Absolutely Perfect Murder” (1965) 2/5 (Bad):  In a media saturated future where evenings spent with ones spouse equates both individuals tapped into different programs, doped-up on Sensapills, with hearing-plugs and directional conversation-glasses “smelling, tasting, feeling their favorite telecasts” a man resorts to killing is wife…  Fortunately, a time-travel device has recently been invented.  The husband spends his savings and vacation money for a one-time trip into the past.  And discovers his wife’s secret–a lie that might save her life.  The “disconnect of 50s domesticity” rumination devolves in all the standard directions as the story unfolds.

“Operation Cassandra” (1958) 3/5 (Average):  Fascinating premise with an average delivery.  Only three people wake up in a vast Hibernatorium.  The purpose of the facility was to preserve humans in a state of deep sleep until the end of a world-wide disaster.  Unfortunately, the staff died and the power ran out leaving on a few alive–an African American Havard educated man, a college educated woman, a Danish college educated farmer, and a hardworking self-educated Southerner who serves as the narrator.  What sort of society will they create?  What about nascent racism?  Unfortunately, the discovery of other survivors means that all the difficult questions have easy, and rather less radical, answers.

“The Last Generation?” (1946) 3.5/5 (Good):  Way before Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard (1964) or P. D. James’ The Children of Men (1992), deFord speculated along similar lines about the effects of mass sterility.  An accident, presumably nuclear in nature, in New Mexico results in the inability for almost all of humanity to have children.  First there’s panic and massive global searches for anyone who might be able to produce children and quacks take advantage and hawk “remedies.”  Soon massive quantities of money is poured into the IARC (Ingrid Anderson Research Commissions), named after the youngest person on Earth, in order to find a cure.  Even in this 40s vision, African Americans are scientists, and women are in positions of power… But, is it too late?  Is this The Last Generation?  But, we are left waiting, even the narrator does not know.

  1. You’ve sold me! Her name is not familiar to me but the work sounds interesting.

    I’m not surprised there is some speculation about the cover as the center image looks less like Powers’ usual work.

    Reply

    1. They can be slightly polemical — but as much as a 50s short story can be… Some are from the 60s of course, I found that they were generally superior to the earlier ones.

      Reply

  2. I have never heard of deFord, but her stuff (on your summary) sounds really interesting.

    Reply

    1. These are definitely more gender related — hence their grouping. Her only other collection is supposedly more about time travel. I need to get a copy….

      Reply

  3. I thought you’d be reviewing Octavia Butler’s series when I first saw the title :). Can’t say I’ve ever heard of this author, but this sounds like a fascinating collection; I’ve just gone ahead and ordered a copy.

    Reply

    1. Ah yes, I should eventually read the first few Patternist novels… I’ve only read Kindred and it was quite a long time ago.

      Reply

      1. I’d recommend reading her Bloodchild collection as well if you get the chance. The titular story is probably my favourite piece of writing of all time.

        Reply

  4. Yet another interesting author I had not heard of before reading your review. I’ll have to keep a look out for her work.

    That cover is odd, you are probably right, the figure in the center is not typical of Powers. His late work had quite a bit more use of recognizable human figures, and they look nothing like that.

    Reply

    1. Much to my surprise, I found a copy of XENOGENESIS today.

      In and around the Seattle area the most impossible authors to come by seem to be Barry Malzberg, Jack Vance, Cordwainer Smith, D.G. Compton and Stanislaw Lem. Phil Dick as well, in the old format except his works have been resuscitated by so many publishers these days.. it’s alright.

      Reply

      1. Well, all of those authors are amazing… I’ve never found Malzberg on the shelf, I’ve always had to buy his novels online. And PKD because he’s so popular….

        Reply

      2. MKUltra, where do you shop for older SF in Seattle? There’s some interesting stuff at The Magus but aside from that I have a hard time finding a good, chunky inventory of it here.

        Reply

  5. I buy way too many used books after reading your columns.

    This is the second time I’ve had to look up “Dangerous Visions” to try and remember a story (de Ford’s “The Malley System” in this case.) Maybe I need to dig it out of storage and revisit.

    Reply

    1. This sounds horrible but I do not own a copy of Dangerous Visions — I have read quite a few authors in the collection including David R. Bunch’s entire collection, Moderan…. I really need a copy.

      Reply

  6. Yeah, I don’t believe I’d heard of her before but based on this summary I’ll be looking for her writings. All this sounds quite interesting.

    Reply

    1. Some of her work was published in some famous anthologies, like Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. Maybe you already have that on your shelf?

      Reply

  7. Inthebrake –

    Aside from the HalfPriceBooks that have popped up all over like poisonous mushrooms,.. when shopping for Sci-Fi books:

    Culpepper Books in Tacoma (very small selection)
    The Book Exchange in Renton (small)
    Parkplace Books in Kirkland (small)
    Phoenix Books in Northbend (small)
    McDonald Book Exchange in Redmond (good selection)
    Finally Found Books in Auburn (good selection)
    3rd Place Books in Seattle (Ravenna area) and one in Kenmore.
    Finally Found Books (Auburn) – good selection.
    Comstock Books (Auburn) – awesome selection
    Twice Sold Tales in Seattle (Capitol Hill) – awesome selection. Check out the goods in the glass cabinet as well.

    A personal favorite was also the HPB on Capitol Hill before it shut down, had a massive selection. Also, the Tacoma HPB is worth the trip.

    Reply

    1. Half Price Books = Poisonous but yummy mushrooms — at least for SF (some of the time).

      Reply

    2. Wow, great list, thanks! I only knew about the ones in Seattle proper–just went to Twice Sold Tales today.

      Reply

  8. […] This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations. […]

    Reply

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