Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists - Sean Eads, Gemma Files, Amy Griswold, Claire Humphrey, Aynjel Kaye, Melissa Scott, Steve Berman

What makes a mad scientist "mad"? It is not a clinical diagnosis of mental illness; instead, it is working far outside the usual collaborative nature of the scientific process, whether due to obsessiveness, idiosyncratic goals, or an intellectual, social, or moral style that doesn't mesh well with others. Women working in science and engineering are perilously close to being regarded as social outsiders at any time, especially previously; Jess Nevins's introductory essay here provides a history of literary depictions of women in these outsider roles and the various ways they were seen as transgressive. It's good to know that sometimes, at least, they could be taken seriously in their depictions.


Given pop associations of lesbians with both social exclusion and insanity, the theme of this anthology would indeed seem obvious, though it may in fact be the first of its kind. It collects two previously published stories and more have been written or will be; see, for example, "Infinite Skeins" by Naru Dames Sundar. One thing all the stories here (even the comedic ones) do is see their characters as worth taking seriously, in their desires, priorities, and intellectual skills. This goes even for morally negative characters or ones who don't thrive at the end of the story. Being outside community is dangerous, both to survival and morality, but luckily many characters here succeed in forming unconventional social ties. Long may authors continue to write smart women who go their own way.


Having gone on so long about the general theme of the anthology, I wish I had more praise to give the stories themselves. But there is a sense of pioneering here; once more authors realize that women as outsider scientists, queer women at that, is a real and valid theme they could write about, the pool of fine stories will grow. The editor was diligent in gathering the work here, though; I was pleased by how varied it was. 


There is a traditionally Gothic story, "Alraune", in which the main sciences are botany and poisons; here, for once, the lesbian characters are not the scientists, but instead the created woman and her lover play the role of innocence struggling to escape from their twisted family. The protagonist of "The Eggshell Curtain" is also the experimented-on; she watches history rather than participating, only to assure people in a rather disappointing ending that her conclusion is human nature doesn't change.


The rest of the main characters, though, are scientists or technicians (where those fields often include a heavy dose of magic). There are two plying that trade in the Victorian setting of steampunk and its cousins. "The Ice Weasels of Trebizond" is maddeningly narrow-minded in its use of tropes, plunking its English characters down in the Ottoman Empire for no discernible reason but having them carry on as if at home, be surrounded only by other English people, and move through a characterless countryside conveniently cleared of all locals. "Hypatia and Her Sisters" at least is set in England, and has a sense of the social realities facing all its characters; this makes it one of the better stories, and satisfying when high tech enables a happy ending. 


"The Long Trip Home" uses steampunk-like technology but its setting is refreshingly not Victorian-English. That proves to be a problem, though, because the author has imagined a fantastically rich world of crossing African and Asian cultures, great cities, numerous characters, extensive backstories, and tried to cram it all into a short story, which just doesn't work. A similar problem limits "Infusion of Waking Dreams": as a fantasy involving travel between a dreamworld and reality, with healing based on its fantastic botany, and strange dangers, it makes an extremely promising premise for a novel, but the short story just peters out. (And the love story could have been great if developed at more length too.)


Speaking of strange fantasy, "A Shallow Grave of Orange Peels and Eggshells" owes allegiance to the New Weird and builds up a wonderfully sinister world, only to throw away all its effect with a sentimental ending. The Lovecraftian "Eldritch Brown Houses" is more of a premise than a story. It has the beginning of a love story in it, but just the beginning. It's my opinion that it's really hard to do justice to romance at short length; "Shallow Grave", surprisingly enough, may have come closest. "Doubt the Sun" made a serious attempt at developing romance over time, but maybe the author's skills couldn't quite pull it off; not to mention that one of the parties is an android, a difficult sell. "Poor Girl" reforms its isolated, hard-hearted main character through love; I wish it was a bit better written, but it does have the originality of its science being Chinese alchemy.


There are a number of dark and horrifying stories here; I appreciate that there wasn't an absolute requirement for a happy ending. After all what is "mad" science without danger and (often) amorality? "The Moorhead Maze Experiment" is a report on a fictitious successor to the Stanford Prison Experiment reminding us how strange, and sometimes terrible, the early 70s could be. "Love in the Time of Markov Processes" is a gloomy piece of science fiction; as a scientist endlessly investigates her past, what becomes of her present? "The Lady of the House of Mirrors" is cruelly decadent. "Imaginary Beauties: A Lurid Melodrama" owns its amorality with full gusto.


There remain to mention only the story of Rosie the Riveter and Eva Braun; a Scooby Doo parody and a Wodehouse pastiche (not bad actually); and my favorite story, "Bank Job Blues". This one may actually be the least science fictional in the volume, since it is set in the 1930s and involves not-particularly-fanciful technology that would be reality within a couple decades. It is the story of a group of women who became friends because they're all lesbians; they decided to gain independence by robbing banks. There's a sense of the times and especially the characters, who have abilities that work well together (including one who created a souped-up car and a radio-controlled machine that could rip the door off a bank vault); the way they depend on each other is crucial.


I got this book from the library; I guess I wouldn't really advise spending money on it. But you might want to seek out a copy if you're like one of the characters in "Bank Job Blues" eager for stories about "women like us", or just want a diverse, mostly entertaining, and novel collection.