Xenogenesis (1969) by Miriam Allen deFord
Full of extraordinary range, relevancy and variety, this anthology of 16 unconnected thought-provoking, sci-fi stories are by turns tremendously exciting, engaging and amusing. Each is deftly told and though recognisably sci-fi, they encompass other genres such as horror, adventure, and mystery.
Originally published in magazines from 1950 to 1968, this tumultuous time span covers momentous moments in society such as the widespread legalisation and availability of divorce, contraception, and abortion. And all this tectonic social dynamic provides much fertile inspiration for the author.
The ears of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk will be burning as you read this as many of the stories can be read as critiques of contemporary future visions of brave interplanetary space captains romping across the cosmos and having consequence-free relations with alien species.
And elements of the stories would seem to be a forerunner to and a probable influence on the script for director Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece, Alien, and possibly on authors such as John Wyndham and PD James.
All great sci-fi such as this uses the future as an analogy of the time it’s written in, and by beginning in the US colonial past and then blasting off to the space-bound future, allows deFord to stretch connective tissue across human history while firmly addressing the present.
Yes, deFord deploys sci-fi paraphernalia such as robot soldiers, suspended animation for interplanetary travel, spaceships, and laser guns in her always entertaining yarns of exploration.
But she’s not exploring new worlds and civilisations, and boldly going where no man has gone before for the manly derring do of it, but to sail into the heart of darkness of contemporary issues surrounding gender, motherhood, insanity, crime and punishment.
In her stories, government agencies favour men over women for status, privilege, genetic tinkering and the potential evolution of humanity. Agency and autonomy are removed from or denied to women, often by male control of the reproductive process, while punishment is meted out to pregnant or promiscuous women by society and government.
And the destruction of indigenous peoples and culture by colonisation is a repeated theme as stories challenge our understanding of civilisation.
Despite this, the stories are always entertaining, often global in scope, and even have notes of optimism. In common with many female sci-fi writers, such as Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett, and Mary E. Bradley Lane, education is emphasised as the bedrock of equality and civilisation.
DeFord mocks contemporary capitalist US by making anarchy synonymous with socialism, and of course this lack of an ‘executive class’ appalls our all-American heroes of the patriarchy.
New worlds are an opportunity for men to indulge in sex, and men’s ego-driven, one-track mind and lust-driven exploration are mined for humour as deFord constantly toys with male attitudes to sex and fatherhood.
Male fragility is a running joke. The many thrusting Captain Kirk-a-likes littering the book like a virus are careless and callous about fatherhood, and suspicious and dismissive of women’s behaviour. Male explorers are puzzled by pacifism of aliens they meet, and are bemused when they’re not immediately attractive to the opposite sex.
Women reproduce without sex or male involvement and male protagonists are frequently unable to grasp their redundancy in the reproductive process. One male character is so alarmed at his sudden lack of sex drive he decides the only recourse is to commit suicide, rather than be shamed for being thought ‘queer’.
Despite or possibly because of this, many of the stories are underpinned with hope, though it must be noted those hoping for race and class intersectionality will find little, if any signs of it here,
Still, this is a huge amount of easily digestible fun, and Xenogenesis proves you can deliver challenging and overtly political narratives as long as the storytelling is sufficiently smart and gripping. And this is on a par with Asimov’s, I Robot, in the pantheon a crowd-pleasing and thought provoking sci-fi anthologies.
Here’s a synopsis of each story in turn.
1 The Daughter of the Tree
This opening story sets the tone and themes for all the stories to follow. A frontier fable set in the year 1880, it describes an encounter north of Seattle between a white 18 year old orphan, Lee, and an unnamed Native American* who introduces Lee to a mute young woman called, ‘the daughter of the tree’.
It’s an expert mystical mystery story of ancient tree spirits which touches on colonialism, racism and the liquidity of family bonds, as well as the frailty of life, the power of nature, eco-concerns and the scarcity of resources. A haunting introduction before
* in keeping with the date of publication, the term ‘Indian’ is used in my 1969 edition
2 The Superior Sex
Satirising the ridiculousness of inequality, this gender-flipping tale is full of humour and violence, and sees a pair of astronauts land on another planet where due to a surfeit of men, woman practise polyandry and men are pejoratively described as a ‘seed-bearers’.
The world is mixes advanced tech and feudal hierarchy with robot soldiers, brain-implanted language translators and medical experimentation to explore issues of legal rights governing consent over one’s own body.
3 The Ajeri Diary
Set in the year 2297, this story is written in the form of the diary of a Federation ‘exosociologist’ who travels to a distant planet, Algol IV, to study a humanoid alien race and their gender demarcated society.
While our male protagonist is made welcome by the males, he’s unable to meet or interact with any females of the species, and his innate prejudice leads him to draw the wrong conclusions as to why.
4 Quick to Haste
Four colonist astronauts are initially delighted when they land on an idyllic agriculture alien world populated by carefree humanoids, whose uninhibited young women offer sex, but not without consequence.
5 The Smiling Future
English speaking ‘Super-Dolphins’ with immense psychic power rise out of the polluted Pacific Ocean to take the politicians of a computerised over populated future earth to task for polluting the seas with atomic waste, and come with a eye-opening proposition to save at least part of humanity from extinction.
A noirish fable of the social punishment of a promiscuous young woman, as seen from the perspective of an ancient tree, and explores how a woman’s life chances are dictated by procreation and exploitation.
7 The Children
Set in the the then future of 1982, a group of mostly male scientists conduct an experiment into the efficacy of time travel, and is a dizzying account of the fall and rise of humanity through a narrative which employs millennium-hopping and interstellar travel.
Wrestling with questions of the ownership of reproductive rights, prejudice and pride thrive before the story turns on itself and becomes a reflection on guilt and redemption. Marvellous!
A bleak tale of betrayal exploring how insanity and criminology are defined and deployed by the 30th century state, which sees a non government-sanctioned pregnancy resulting in an artist having more than a brush with the authorities.
9 One-way Journey
A rumour-fuelled family story involving a state lottery and the Asteroid belt which ends on a nightmarish note.
10 The Season of the Babies
A planet’s desperate bid to be admitted to the prestigious Federation of planets is threatened by cultural breeding differences in this funny and savage satire with echoes of Jonathan Swift, which explores the connection between maternity, income, employment, and economics.
11 Featherbed on Chlyntha
Raising transgender and first published in 1957, a full 14 years before the publication of Kurt Vonnegut”s Slaughterhouse Five, this sees a human scientist kidnapped by aliens and exhibited in a zoo on their home world, where they conduct experiments to see if he’s reproductively compatible with their humanoid species.
12 The Transit of Venus
Nudity is a form of control and clothing is rebellion in this love story which uses a state scandal to explore social conformity, the evidence of insanity, and medical diagnosis an act of control by the state.
13 All In Good Time
A law professor teaches his class about a trial for a case of time-travelling bigamist from the year 2160. By some stretch the weakest story here but by no means a dud.
14 The Absolutely Perfect Murder
There’s a bleak view of heterosexual marriage in this noirish Manhattan murder mystery set in the year of 2146, which sees a disaffected husband plot to use time travel to kill his domineering wife. The pair’s life in a drug-upped hi-tech stupor speaks to monotony of their existence.
15 Operation Cassandra
Death cults, racism and artificial insemination feature in this tense post-apocalypse tale which mocks men’s ego, chivalry and sensibilities, while highlighting women are far more essential to the survival of the species the men are.
Amusingly it imagines a cult forming around George Orwell’s novel, 1984, and I’m not sure a less extreme version of this hasn’t happened, and this may easily be read as deFord considering Orwell’s seminal work to be over-praised.
14 The Last Generation?
A suitable conclusion for the anthology it draws all deFord’s preoccupations together in one tidy bundle, and is a compelling an argument for putting science at the centre of democracy and politics, and placing women and children at the centre of society.
Set in the then future of the 1970’s, a minor nuclear incident triggers a global infertility of all mammals with catastrophic eco-consequences.
A pointed reminder the power to shape the future is our hands, this final story is a cliff-hanging study about the hubris of playing god, and is possibly an influence on John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, and PD James’ The Children of Men.