A flock of flying saucers

THE PENGUIN BOOK OF MODERN FANTASY BY WOMEN ed. A Susan Williams & Richard Glyn Jones Viking pounds 17
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The Independent Culture
What is it that women most desire? Handsome, noble Sir Gawain was stumped by the question. Only when he promised to marry the hideous crone he met in the forest did he receive his answer, an answer that still rings down the centuries. What women most desire is mastery over men, and boy are we still fighting for it, even - or especially - in our dreams.

At the beginning of this chronological collection is a ghost story. Written in 1941, "The Demon Lover" is a small, perfect thriller by that most elegant and discreet writer, Elizabeth Bowen. Her heroine, the weary, respectable, middle-aged Mrs Drover, is visiting her bombed London house when she discovers a message from her dead lover. It reminds her of an unfulfilled tryst she made with him many years ago, before he was killed on the Western Front. From that moment, there will be no escape for her: she is destined to be his victim.

Mrs Drover's "most normal expression was not of controlled worry, but of assent". By 1989, heroines neither worry nor accept their fate. Suzy McKee Charnas's protagonist is a teenager teased by the crass boys in her class about her new, embarrassingly large chest. Her gruesome revenge is to use the onset of her menstrual cycle for a monthly transformation. She becomes a wolf when the moon is full and tears out her tormentor's throat, having first practised on a neighbour's terrier.

There is more gore in this book than most of us would care to fantasize over. The unwary are stabbed, impaled or blown up. Hideous diseases abound. In Octavia Butler's "The Evening and the Morning and the Night", only gifted women can cure "Duryea-Gode" disease - why does she call it that? Could it be an anagram of o dread guy? - anyway, sufferers dig out and gobble up bits of themselves. In "Murder, 1986", P D James invents a similarly self-cannibalising race called the Ipdics, though her story has, as we might expect, a neatly-coiled twist in its tail. These Ipdics are aliens, as are the creatures from Parsaea and Iskar, the Crots and the even less appealing Subcrots. When all this ET nomenclature gets too much, it is a joy to discover Muriel Spark's "Miss Pinkerton's Apocalypse", which turns on the origin of a surreal flying saucer: ''It is not radio-active,'' says Miss Pinkerton firmly. "It is Spode'' - but it proves, in fact, to be Royal Worcester.

The future looks dangerous to fantasists. These writers imagine a fearsome world of routine cryogenics, though the weedy man who does the melting in Zoe Fairbairns' "Relics" would have been well-advised to leave Greenham Common Woman frozen. Meanwhile, back in the outer universe, colonising Americans have turned the indigenous triple-breasted lesbian inhabitants of a newly conquered planet into suburban replicas of Doris Day. The women in Lisa Tuttle's "Wives" stage a minor revolution, but it fails and red- necked Jack stays home happy. "Three tits and the best coffee in the universe," he says. "It kind of makes the whole war-thing worthwhile."

Two of the best stories are bogus historical documents. Joyce Carol Oates's "Night-Side" purports to be the journal of an observer at increasingly creepy Victorian seances, and in "Sur", Ursula K Le Guin produces a triumphant fantasy about a group of female explorers who beat Scott and Amundsen to the South Pole. This one inadvertently offered a good argument for using such a vast and varied book only for occasional dipping. The reviewer, dizzy with devouring all 38 fantasies at a sitting, reels back, questioning the very nature of reality, and the enormous volume tumbles to the ground. As she imagines Le Guin's jolly girls knocking back the Veuve Cliquot on their ice-floes, surrounded by those comical little headwaiter birds of Antarctica, she notices the book's full title. Is anything to be trusted any more? Can this huge hardback really be a Penguin?