Queer characters and science fiction are a perfect match in “Daughters of Frankenstein”

Daughters of Frankenstein, like any short story collection, is a mixed bag. Some stories are truly wonderful; some are just delightful in putting queer women in stories that are not, necessarily, themselves narratively groundbreaking; some are just okay; and some are outright bad. The anthology has a noble mission: consider the female “mad scientist,” imagine the intersections between “mad science” and desire among women, and be inclusive in the process by welcoming sci-fi, fantasy, otherworlds and altered worlds, a variety of cultural backgrounds, time periods, relationships with the body, and sometimes gender identities. I was somewhat surprised to realize that the unifying theme was not specifically queer women who are also mad scientists, but rather stories that include both mad scientists and women who love women. This is not a failing, just a change in expectations. If you are put off by this revelation, rest assured that there are plenty of stories that do feature the genuine article of the lady-loving lady who also loves science.

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The stories are impressively varied in scope, setting, and conceptual interests, which is part of the fun of a good short story anthology. While I wouldn’t say there are themes that run through the collection consistently (other than what it says on the tin, that is), a few do pop up more than once. Troubled relationships with bodies, one’s own or others, are common. Learning to love appears a few times, particularly learning to engage with love (and life) instead of channeling emotional needs into complicated and unlikely projects instead. Also, there are a lot of cats of various sizes, compositions, and phosphorescence levels. All very much in order, then; had editor Steve Berman informed me he was collecting stories about “lesbian mad scientists” I would have fully expected to encounter all of the above.

Daughters of Frankenstein’s only failings are as follows. First, it included perhaps too many stories at the expense of quality control. Second, while it joyously escapes the negative connotations of difference and (supposed) deviance, a few of its stories imply negative bias about more performatively conventional queer women. There’s nothing egregious on this front, just certain sentiments—often limited to a sentence or two—that pop up here or there about, for example, the presumed “shallow” nature of a woman who uses makeup. While of course authors shouldn’t be presumed to believe everything that their characters do, when ideas like these pop up in a text and are never challenged or addressed it’s hard to assume that they’re not being endorsed. Embrace your femme sisters, friends! (The same goes for the occasional remark or choice that I will describe as racially troubling. These instances—which are not many—clash oddly with some stories’ clear interest in being racially and culturally inclusive. As a white woman I’ll refrain from commenting further, since I’d be speaking on the representation of a wide range of cultures and ethnicities that I’m not always qualified to judge.)

As I stated in the beginning, anthologies are by nature a mixed bag, and the good here certainly outweighs the bad.

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The single most ethically and emotionally confusing—and so in at least one sense the best—story in the anthology is Sean Eads’ “The Riveter.” It re-imagines Eva Braun as a closeted lesbian whose inability to fully accept herself leads to a desperate, mad-science-ridden search for a woman to love. Eva’s affair with Hitler is only a means of securing access to the materials she needs for her experiments, and we see that throughout her life she has been willing to debase herself ethically or otherwise in service of this quest. The story revels in multiple forms of taboo and abjection until Rosie the Riveter enters the story and quite literally liberates Eva from her self-deception: Eva stops passively letting life go on around her while searching for a perfect woman who will never exist, and begins using her scientific knowledge to help save Jews from concentration camps. Eventually she finds what she was looking for all along in an ordinary woman, not produced by science, by her side. This is, I promise, just the barest minimum of the absolutely wild stuff that goes on in this story. As I have told multiple people since reading it, I could probably write an entire paper about it; it fascinated me, made me laugh (kindly imagine Eva Braun, regressed to a baby, nursing on “the milk of liberty” from Rosie the Riveter’s breast), and troubled me. I can ask for no more from short fiction.

Another standout is Faith Mudge’s “Doubt the Sun,” perhaps the most romantic story of the bunch and pretty much everything I could ask for from lesbian transhuman romance. Girl meets (makes) robot. Girl and robot fall in love. Girl and robot conquer the world of robotics and home security. Girl and robot face all kinds of discrimination from people who insist robots are not real people and cannot be treated as such; when things turn medical, parallels to discrimination against LGBT+ relationships are clear but never overwrought. I won’t ruin the ending, but “Doubt the Sun” is one of the best-written, sweetest, and conceptually clearest entries in the anthology, with a remarkably detailed and full-feeling world for a work of limited scope. I loved it. Someone make me a movie. (It would also make a great comic.) 

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Had I but world enough and time, I’d go into detail on every story I liked and why, but nobody wants that. I have to leave you something to read in the book! So, briefly: Jess Nevins’ “From Alexander Pope to Splice” is an entertaining and useful orientation on the state of female mad science in fiction to date. “The Eggshell Curtain” by Romie Stott gave me a truly rounded, lovable protagonist and some of the best writing craft; it’s also one of very few in the collection to successfully engage with lust. (Most don’t really deal with desire as a physical phenomenon, sticking more to the need for companionship and understanding; they leave little room for what Stott describes as “linger[ing] in the pleasurable moments of rising possibility.”)

“Bank Job Blues” by Melissa Scott is a fairly fun caper that ends on a true high note of self-acceptance in the face of a homophobic and sexist world. Christie Morgan’s “Preserving the Integrity of the Feminine Mystique” offers one of my favorite worlds in the entire collection, a sort of steampunk neo-Victoriana with a constant impish wink that renders the story’s predictability one of its charms. Morgan is having more fun with her words than anyone else in Daughters of Frankenstein; this was the story I most wanted to share with my nearest and dearest in the field of English literature. (Don’t worry, I didn’t, they can buy it with money.) Finally, Megan Arkenberg’s “Love in the time of Markov Processes” is perhaps the fullest-formed story, the best adapted to the strengths and limitations of short fiction. It starts us off with a complex and difficult statement about the high SF concept of parallel universes. Arkenberg takes us through an eerie and fantastical experience of undersea universe-hopping until, by the end, we understand the statement completely. (If you’re like me, the end will also give you a good shiver.)

I don’t want to go into great detail on the entries I actually disliked, as I think, in general, Daughters of Frankenstein is absolutely worth your money and your support and I want you to buy it. But there are definitely a few that either fail to really reach for a concept or fail to communicate their concept: I finished them and thought, “Okay, but what did that mean?” One or two work so incredibly hard at being conceptual and fantastical that they are a bit of a chore to read.

The great thing about an anthology, though, is that if you don’t enjoy a story (and aren’t reading the whole book for review) you can just skip to the next; and in this anthology, the odds that you’ll enjoy the next are pretty good. Here is a collection of science fiction and fantasy that offers you everything from ice weasels to shrunken immortality to robots to probability-calculating mutants, and on top of that you can be assured every time you start a story that it will be full of women and at least several of them will be queer. This is no small thing. There is a kind of profound relief in reading a collection where you know for a fact that you needn’t brace yourself for boringly typical male protagonists, for casual homophobia, for a dearth of interesting women or for female characters that obviously ought to be dating but inexplicably will barely touch. It’s a real pleasure to just focus on the stories, to appreciate the imagination on display and evaluate the craft without having to constantly push such tiresome tendencies aside.

Daughters of Frankenstein is available now an an e-publication through Smashwords and Amazon, with print copies available soon.