Consider Her Ways
Consider Her Ways is a 1956 science fiction novella by John Wyndham. It was published as part of a 1961 collection with some short stories called Consider Her Ways and Others (where it forms over a third of the book). The title is from Proverbs, Chapter 6, verse 6: "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise".
The story is mostly a first-person narrative. It begins with a woman (Jane Waterleigh) who has no memory of her past waking up and discovering that she is a mother of some description, in a bloated body that is not her own. After some confusing experiences Jane's memory gradually returns and she recalls that she was part of an experiment using a drug (chuinjuatin) to see if it enabled people to have out-of-body experiences. It seems that the drug has worked far better than anyone could have anticipated: Jane has been cast into the future. She also realises that she is in a society consisting entirely of women, organised into a strict system of castes, and that she is now a member of the mother caste. Jane's initial contacts have never even heard of men, and believe her to be delusional.
When it becomes clear to doctors who attend Jane that something strange has happened (since she can read and write, while the mother caste are illiterate) they arrange for her to be taken to meet an aged historian named Laura. It seems that Jane is in a society somewhat more than a century after her own time. Laura relates that not long after Jane's own time a Dr Perrigan carried out scientific experiments that unintentionally created a virus that killed all the men in the world, leaving only women. After a very difficult period of famine and breakdown, a small number of educated women, found mainly in the medical profession, took control and embarked on an urgent programme of research to enable women to reproduce without males. The women also decided to follow some advice from the Bible ("Go to the ant thou sluggard, consider her ways") and created a caste-based society in which Jane has become a member of the Mother caste.
Laura does understand what Jane means when she talks of men. However, she is certain that they were oppressors of women and that the world is far better without them. Jane disagrees and feels the demise of men to be a terrible blow.
Distressed at the prospect of spending her life as a bloated producer of babies, expected to be unable to read, write or reason, Jane requests that she be administered a dose of chuinjuatin in the hope that she might return to her own time. It works, and once transported, Jane decides to stop Dr Perrigan at all costs. The story has an ambiguous ending, which may suggest that it is the narrator's own actions that will lead to the catastrophe she hopes to prevent, an example of the predestination paradox.
Consider Her Ways is more than just an original science fiction story. Particularly notable is a lengthy argument between the narrator and the historian about whether the new society is better than the old one, during which the historian attacks the concept of romance.
The story is perceptibly of and about England in the 1950s, a time and place in which Wyndham's speculation on the nature of a women-only society, and his references to genetic manipulation and drug-related experiences, may have seemed more shocking and alien to many readers than they do now.
The story is vague about exact dates, but some comments suggest that the frame story is set around 1970, and the main part takes place around 120 years after the plague which killed off the men, but the time between the frame story and the plague is unclear.
Other stories in the collection
Odd is a tale of how an ordinary man profited from an extraordinary time paradox when he stops to help a man seemingly lost and confused, and then learns the reasons why.
Stitch in Time concerns an elderly lady reflecting on a lost love and, thanks to her sons' experiments with time, finally discovering the reason why her lover abandoned her so many years ago.
Oh Where, Now, is Peggy MacRafferty? is a social satire on Hollywood glamour in which a bright, individual young Irish woman becomes part of the celebrity circuit, and loses all that makes her special in the process of becoming a star.
Random Quest combines romance and parallel universes.
A Long Spoon is the story of how a demon is summoned by mistake and the lengths the couple that invoked him have to go to get rid of him without losing their souls in the bargain.
Consider Her Ways was an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1964. This was a fairly faithful adaptation of Wyndham's story, although somewhat condensed and with the action moved to America. The screenplay was written by Oscar Millard, and it starred Barbara Barrie as the woman who travels through time and Gladys Cooper as the historian.
Similar themes by other writers
The theme of a "lesbian utopia" – a society composed solely of women, reproducing asexually – was also taken up in Poul Anderson in the novel Virgin Planet and John Varley in the story "The Manikins". A. Bertram Chandler had the mirror image vision of a society composed of men only, in the novel Spartan Planet. Cordwainer Smith in the story "The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal" describes a colony world that falls victim to an ecological disaster that results in the death of all female mammals. A brilliant woman biologist saves the colony by gender changing treatments that transform the surviving women (including herself) into men. She then devises a method of reproduction by parthenogenesis that enables men to carry inplanted embryos to term, to be born by surgical extraction. The generations that follow the first develop a mythos that recalls women as something evil.
- Amazon reviews of Consider Her Ways and Others
- online text of the story
- IMDB entry for Hitchcock's version
- The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: "Consider Her Ways" (1964) on YouTube