The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction, Kate Wilhelm (1968)
Review by Joachim Boaz
By the late 1960s Kate Wilhelm’s SF moved from generally uninspiring pulp (à la the collection The Mile-Long Spaceship) to psychologically taut and emotive mood pieces exploring the almost existential malaise of daily existence and the disturbing effects of “programmed” lives (especially the housewife). The fourteen short-stories in The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction comprise a snapshot of Wilhelm’s best New Wave work. It should be noted that not all are SF.
Although some are less engaging than others, her harrowing portrayal of starlets subjected to endless psychological torments at the whims of their viewers in ‘Baby, You Were Great’ (1967) (Nebula nominated) and the evocative tapestry of daydreams, scenes of monkey experimentation, tests on a mentally disabled child and convicts, arrayed against the backdrop of a slowly decaying relationship in ‘The Planners’ (1968) (Nebula winner) will appeal to all fans of New Wave SF. Also, if you enjoyed her Hugo-winning/Nebula-nominated novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) I recommend tracking down some of her late 1960s short stories.
‘Unbirthday Party’ (1968): A very “New Wave” psychologically tense whirlwind of a story… Wellman has the sensation of being on the wrong floor – “although visually there was very little that was not familiar” – and arrives at a room filled with people celebrating. Initially the gathering seems normal, “there was excitement in the room, much laughter, music, and a heady atmosphere created by champagne, good food and convivial people” . However, Wellman soon discovers that people do no know each other and everyone thinks it is someone else’s party. A disoriented Wellman tries to leave, but no one else seems to want to… A cyclical allegory, characters caught up in a mechanism they do not try to understand and do not want to understand.
‘Baby, You Were Great’ (1967) is easily the best story of the collection. John Lewisohn develops programming for ‘A Day in the Life of Ann Beaumont’ – a starlet whose life is literally “programmed”, her emotions recorded, her relationships artifices (all “accidental” meetings are planned, sometimes without her knowledge). The audiences straps in and feels what she feels, lives vicariously through her… “A person fitted with electrodes in his brain could transmit his emotions, which in turn could be broadcast and picked up by the helmets to be felt by the audience. No words or thought went out, only basic emotions [...]. That tied with a camera showing what the person saw, with a voice dubbed in, and you were the person having the experience”. But the audience can turn off the anguish… The starlet cannot, her life is no longer hers, and neither is her suffering. In the pantheon of disturbing future programming with Kit Reed’s ‘At Central’ (1967) and DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974).
‘When the Moon Was Red’ (1960): Neither SF nor speculative fiction, ‘When the Moon Was Red’ tells the tale of a brilliant young boy with ride-ranging interests and the desire to be independent from his father. His father is an overbearing sort who desires to do everything with his son instead of let him struggle on his own. A powerful climax results but I found the telling unconvincing.
‘Sirloin and White Wine’ (1968): An elderly couple live in a house filled with memories. There children have left, they discuss absently their children’s activities from a detached distance, they are weak and dying. A last meal is prepared – sirloin and white wine and sleeping pills. An unnerving sadness fills the pages, they have achieved what was expected, a spouse, children, a house… Effective in its simplicity.
‘Perchance to Dream’ (1968): A speculative tale about Barney who dreams about fragments about the future: “There’s going to be a bank holdup, that new black-and-white marble bank over by your mother’s…”. His wife does not believe him. He recounts all his predictions, train derailments in France, scores for games but without the names of the teams, headlines of fatalities for unknown disasters. As with so many of Wilhelm’s stories, actions puncture the tedium of the daily grind, in Barney’s case, his work at a department store, the contents of his lunch, the exact time he arrived home…. As with Silverberg’s Dying Inside (1972) the skills are not put to use. But this dreamed about bank robbery in his own city, could things change?
‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ (1968): Although it is neither SF nor speculative I found ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ stark and well-told. A woman and her child wandering on the road. Through a series of flashbacks we learn about her past and the reason for her departure.
‘The Downstairs Room’ (1968): Vera is a traditional housewife who spends her day preparing her children for school and her husband for work, and the rest of the time cleaning the house, and coordinating with other mothers for her childrens’ school functions. In her house there is a downstairs room that they had planned on turning into a television-recreation room but never gotten around to doing so. She has fond memories of going into the room with Hank before she was married. And it once again becomes a sanctuary… A mysterious sanctuary… And she transforms psychologically, and soon lashes out.
‘Countdown’ (1968): Life proceeds normally near a military base where disembodied voice announces for all to hear the time remaining until a missile launch (the missile launch contains The Bomb). A baby is spooned full of pablum, the men play cards and raise their bets to a dime a point, plans are made to go boating on the lake, idle talk abounds… Stan and his wife simultaneously go through the movements of life as if there was no countdown to the moment when their world will irrevocably change. But there is an urgency to their movements, a knowledge that their “normal” actions could be the last they ever make. But how should one confront imminent destruction? Multi-faceted and brooding…
‘The Plausible Improbable’ (1968): My least favorite story in the collection follows a man named Jeffrey Wentworth Moore who knew when he was going to die. The reason is bizarre – he has discovered that he lives a life based upon the law of averages. However, he accomplishes the averages by wild swings, he gets all his diseases at a young ages and has remarkable health afterwards. He has wild swings of luck… And then bad luck. Exactly what is statistically most likely to happen happens. He is the embodiment of averages and his death is no different. But, it is through his death that Wilhelm’s point is made. It is an avoidable death, but he does not resist. The average life is his destiny, he could not avoid it even if he wanted to.
‘The Feel of Desperation’ (1964): As with Vera in ‘The Downstairs Room’, Marge is a typical housewife performing all the tasks housewives did. And then suddenly it all crashes around her when she is taken as a hostage at a bank. Despite the trauma of the experience and the pain the kidnapper exerts on her, the events of the kidnapping force her to confront the repetitive programmed nature of her life. And although she wants to escape his clutches, the her previous life suddenly seems unappealing.
‘A Time to Keep’ (1962): Harrison, a long-term faculty in an English department, is ignored by his students and most of the world around him. But when new faculty arrives, Miss Frazer, and she takes interest in him. Unfortunately, whenever he walks through a door he catches glimpses of a series of “frightening hallucinations”. Soon we learn of all his repressed memories and his wife, and children. And when he bursts past Miss Frazer to open one last door…
‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ (1968): A young girl, subjected to endless taunts about her lack of external beauty retreats into a world where her external appearance is all that matters. Where she has wealth without doing anything, power without trying, and the imprint on her pillow next to her of a man who calls her ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’. But even in the invented world the bruises on her arms are for all to see…
‘The Planners’ (1968) deservedly won the 1969 Nebula award for best short story. A surreal multi-strand allegory… The plot: a man, Dr Darin, performs experiments on monkeys (who cannot see their captors) to increase their intelligence. Likewise, he subjects a mentally handicapped boy and convicts to similar experiments. The monkeys show strange signs related to the treatment, including a monkey version of a the Biblical story of Adam… Interspersed with the experiments are sequences where Darin’s conscience questions his actions and flashbacks to the breakdown of his relationship and including how he cheated on his spouse. Are their two layers of experimentation? Just as man experiments on the monkeys unseen, modifying their social order, meddling with their minds, is their some other force at play? Hallucinatory. Surreal.
‘Windsong’ (1968): In the era of The Bomb, Dan Thorton is an advanced programmer working on a new-fangled war machine called The Phalanx. Simultaneously interspersed with his development of the super-weapon, that moves through the jungle killing the enemy via box-like subunits which deploy an assortment of grenades and napalm launchers, are a series of memories of Paula, “the windsong, quick, nimble, restless, long hair salt-dulled most of the time, too thin, sharp elbows, knees, cheekbones, collarbones”. As with so many of Wilhelm’s visions, the main character is confronted with his current actions (he develops instruments of destruction), his current relationships (collapsing), and past repressed visions (of a better time albeit, filled with sorrow that changed his life). All the strands weave together in a remarkable fashion creating complexity of meaning and beautiful scenes galore.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.
Across the Acheron, Monique Wittig (1985)
Review by Ian Sales
Monique Wittig is perhaps best known as a radical feminist, and one of her half-dozen novels, Les Guérillères (1969), is considered a landmark in lesbian feminism. Across the Acheron was her fifth novel, and originally published in French under the title Virgil, non. It’s based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and features a protagonist called Wittig, who travels through Limbo and the various levels of Hell in order to find a route to Paradise.
Accompanied by Manastabal – referred to throughout as “Manastabal, my guide” – Witting makes her way through Hell and Purgatory. Various of the incidents are couched as encounters in San Francisco, and while Wittig is critical – very much so as writer, inasmuch as she is writing the encounters as violent and lethal; but also as narrator, in her response in the narrative to the encounters – Manastabal is a voice of sympathy reason and frequently castigates for her reaction and asks her to question her response. Across the Acheron is very much about the incidents Wittig witnesses during her journey. Some are obvious references to Dante: the Lake of Suicides, for example. Others less so. But all of the incidents Wittig witnesses relate to women and their role in society. Whether it is women being hunted by men, women being dragged about by the neck by men, women prettifying themselves (and so making themselves more vulnerable) for men, in all cases Wittig is contemptuous and unsympathetic and it is Manastabal who suggests she reinterprets or re-evaluates what she has seen.
At one point during the story, Wittig bathes in the River Acheron, and so loses her memory – specifically of the sight of hundreds of women being dismembered by a train in their rush to board it. Manastabal is particularly scathing about Wittig’s response to that:
“You showed an absolute lack of morality towards the distressed souls at the central station … But that gives you no right to crush the souls we encounter with your personal judgement … As for me, I congratulate myself I remain free. All the same, as long as one has this privilege it’s a poor show if you use it to grind down even further the unfortunate creatures who are deprived of it.” (p 33)
As Wittig slowly regains her memory, it gives her sufficient distance to no longer be enraged by the memory of the railway station. While crossing the Acheron later, and plunging into its water when her boat disintegrates, her memory remains intact. The next day, she enters the lowest circle of Hell. But what she sees there in the Temple of Love enrages her as she witnesses “what is called in Hell the practice of Love”. She sets about herself, attacking the men with a whip:
“I pursue them without striking a blow and, after rounding them up with my lash, I whip them as a herd, catching several with one stroke. Some of them, hurt in their tender parts, double up and fall to the ground, their legs drawn up against their bellies.” (p 97)
Eventually, Wittig reaches Paradise, where the angels ride on motorbikes, there is an open air kitchen, all manner of birds frollick, and a “bare-breasted cherub sounds a trumpet” to announce the kitchen is open.
Across the Acheron is somewhat relentless as a read. Wittig the author pulls no punches in describing the depredations and torture visited upon women that Witting the narrator witnesses. What makes this worse is their anonymity. While the men are also unnamed, and referred to throughout simply as either “the hunters” or “the men”, it is the facelessness of the victims which makes their torment more affecting. Nothing in the book is unrecognisable, and while perhaps Witting’s Hell seems mostly a manifestation of the lives of Western women, it makes its points readably and yet quite forcibly. It’s a difficult book to like or enjoy because of its unremitting scenes of torture and violence, and though Manastabal’s commentary offers a welcome sane voice on the proceedings, Wittig’s rage is clearly justified. Despite its slim size of 119 pages, Across the Acheron packs a heavy punch.
The Secret of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett (1964)
Review by Martin Wisse
Back when I was twelve I discovered a novel starring a brave Earthman transported to ancient Mars, a dying world of grand canals and encroaching deserts, populated by noble and barbarian races slowly sinking in decadence. I’m of course talking about Leigh Brackett’s pulp Mars stories rather than Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom series, which I never read until much later. But that Leigh Brackett novel was my first exposure to both Brackett and that grand pulp idea of a dying Mars filled with ancient secrets and half forgotten ruins of a greater past. To this day I still like Brackett better than Burroughs, not just I encountered her first, but because she’s the better writer.
If Leigh Brackett sounds familiar but you’re sure you’ve never read any of her stories, it might just be because you remember her name from the credits of The Empire Strikes Back, the second and best Star Wars film. You see, apart from writing some of the best pulp science fiction ever, Brackett also had a long and distinguished career as a Hollywood script writer, working on such movies like The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye. But it’s her science fantasy I like best.
Science fantasy is that subgenre of science fiction that has all the trappings of science fiction – aliens, other planets, blasters and aircars – but which actually read a lot like sword and sorcery in disguise, with strapping barbarian heroes fighting degenerate warlocks using superscience of an earlier age that they barely understand. It’s very romantic, not very plausible or much concerned with realistic science. Science fiction in that grand pulp tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And like Burroughs had his John Carter, Brackett has Eric John Stark, the outlaw with a twenty year Moonprison sentence on his head, raised by a strange non-human tribe on Mercury, (in)famous on three planets as a barbarian and renegade, but also as a man with his own code of honour.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.
Isaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own, edited by Shawna McCarthy (1984)
Review by Ian Sales
According to isfdb.org, between 1978 and 2001, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine published thirty anthologies of fiction reprinted from the pages of the magazine. The bulk of these were themed – Isaac Asimov’s Aliens, Isaac Asimov’s Mars, Isaac Asimov’s Sf-Lite (whatever that might be), Isaac Asimov’s Detectives and, er, Isaac Asimov’s Mother’s Day, among many others. It’s a little disappointing that Isaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own is the only women-only anthology they published, especially given the number of women the magazine itself published. And, it must be said, many of the choices for this anthology are somewhat, well, bizarre… Connie Willis is indeed a popular genre writer, but she is the only writer to appear twice in this collection, while Le Guin might arguably be said to be more popular (and surely they could have found a better story by Le Guin than the one they chose?).
‘The Sidon in the Mirror’, Connie Willis (1983) I’m not entirely I understand why this story was framed as science fiction. Certainly it has a science-fictional setting – the surface of a dead star… which doesn’t actually seem all that plausible – and the plot twist is enabled by a science-fictional device… but even that device isn’t entirely necessary. In all other respects, this is a Wild West story, and incorporates all the unlikeable sensibilities of such a story. A new “pianoboard” player has been hired by the brothel on Paylay, where minors “tap” the star’s surface and drill wells for hydrogen and/or helium (the story is not entirely clear on this). At the brothel is a blind girl, whose blindness was caused by a miner on another such dead star. The pianoboard player is a “Mirror”, which apparently means he inadvertently copies the mannerisms and thought-patterns of one of the people around him. I have no idea what the setting is supposed to be, it’s quite frankly too silly to be believable. And the Wild West brothel is a trope long past its sell-by date, even in 1983. A “sidon” incidentally, is some sort of ferocious creature, one of which the brothel’s madame kept as a pet… until it attacked her. A “sidon” is also a nickname for a well or “tap” on Paylay. I would not have expected Willis to have written this story.
‘The Sorceress in Spite of Herself’, Pat Cadigan (1982), is a piece of fantasy fluff. A woman who has a history losing things has just lost a pair of expensive diamond earrings given to her by her husband. She was intending to wear them for their anniversary dinner. Husband finds out, they argue, she explains her “talent” and even manages to demonstrate it with his wedding ring. Over dinner, they discuss her talent and the husband decides it’s triggered by swearing – when she says “damn” or “hell”, or anything like it, items disappear. Husband gets drunk, she is annoyed at having to drive home… Yes, it’s the obvious punch-line.
‘Night of the Fifth Sun’, Mildred Downey Broxon (1982). In a Mexican city, a woman who can trace her ancestry back to the Aztecs lies in a hospital bed in labour. There is also an old man, prepared to enact an old ritual which will rekindle a new sun – and it requires human sacrifice. Broxon evokes her time and place well, something I’ve noticed in other stories by her I’ve read.
‘The Jarabon’, Lee Killough (1981), feels very much like a science fiction story of its time, despite being set at some indeterminate time in the future – but this is no bad thing. Kele was a street urchin, but she was caught trying to rob a gangster’s car. He took her under his wing, and now years later she’s his best thief – and he needs her to steal the titular piece of jewellery from a courier while he is travelling FTL to another world. But in the universe of the story, passengers have to be drugged for “hyperlight” travel because it affects people badly. But the theft means Kele has to be awake during the trip. And so she learns that she’s hyperlight Tolerant, which is what pilots must be… and such people are rare. Kele is an engaging character, and if the mechanics of FTL feel a bit 1970s airline travel it doesn’t spoil the story.
‘The Horn of Elfland’, JO Jeppson (AKA Janet Asimov) (1983), reads like it was written a couple of decades earlier. A men’s club meets – they are all “pshrinks”, whatever that’s meant to be – and one of them tells an amusing anecdote about a patient. There is a gentle twist in the tale. Isaac Asimov used to write a lot of these, and they were never any good. Neither is this one.
‘Belling Martha’, Leigh Kennedy (1983), is one of several post-apocalypse stories in the anthology, although in one respect it’s an odd example of the type. Martha has journeyed home to Austin, Texas, after spending several years at the Central Texan Christian Reform Camp. Her father, who lived outside the city, has died, so she goes to live inside Austin’s walls with an aunt and the people who share her house. They all regard Martha with suspicion because she was a cannibal – those who live outside the cities routinely eat human flesh, and often kill people for food – in fact that’s why Martha was sent to the reform camp. The cannibalism adds a weird flavour to what would otherwise be a superior, if run-of-the-mill, post-apocalypse USA.
‘La Reine Blanche’, Tanith Lee (1983). Having just read a number of variations on this theme in Lee’s collection Women as Demons, I was not expecting much of ‘La Reine Blanche’, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover it’s a clever little fairy-tale-like story. The young queen’s ancient husband has died and she has been locked up in a tower in a cemetery, where she is to remain until the end of her days. But a raven visits her and takes her out on a dream outing to a young and handsome prince, who falls in love with her. Like Cinderella, she makes her escape before dawn, and the prince spends the rest of his life pining for his vanished love… until many decades later he meets a young woman who resembles her in every way. But he dies shortly after marrying her, and she is then locked up in a tower in a cemetery where she is to remain until the end of her days…
‘Miles to Go Before I Sleep’, Julie Stevens (1982), is another post-apocalyptic USA story. The narrator is the mayor of a city, and she is making her way to a meeting of mayors in Des Moines City. But the people in the countryside blame the cities for the collapse of the country and civilisation, and kill any city-dwellers they meet. But the cities are not the hives of violence and depravity they believe them to be. Nonetheless, in a small village where the narrator stops en route, in disguise of course, the villagers catch a city-person, and violence ensues. This is one of those stories where you wonder why it was written as sf.
‘A Letter from the Clearys’, Connie Willis (1982). A second story from Willis, though I’m not sure why she should deserve one. Having said that, neither of her contributions are the dated fluff provided by some of the others, even if ‘The Sidon in the Mirror’ doesn’t make a great deal of sense. This story at least makes sense. It’s post-apocalyptic USA – again – and the narrator is the teenage daughter of a family who survived because they were holidaying at their lodge in the mountains. Now they live in fear of being raided by other survivors. The narrator visits the local post office every now and again to pick up issues of a magazine for a friend of the family who is staying with them, and on this trip she has finally discovered the last letter sent to the family by the Clearys – which explains why the Clearys couldn’t make it to the lodge. The story keeps its premise off-stage, and handles its centre-stage family dynamics well. It is far superior to Willis’ other story in the collection, but I find post-apocalypse stories banal and this one fails to rise above that.
‘The Ascent of the North Face’, Ursula K Le Guin (1983) is framed as a climber’s diary but it is abundantly obvious that the edifice being climbed is an ordinary house – but it is described as if it were a Himalayan mountain. I’m not entirely sure what the conceit is intended to convey, but as it is the story reads like a couple of pages of well-crafted fluff.
‘$CALL LINK4(CATHY)’, Cherie Wilkerson (1983). An engineer is working on a project to create computer simulacra of humans, but the only industry interested in such a project is the pornographic industry – so he’s trying to program virtual adult stars (female only of course, this is 1983 after all). But so far the project has met with little success – after a few days, the simulacra go “insane”. So the engineer is persuaded to allow his young daughter, who is dying of cancer, to upload her own personality as a template. And it works. A child’s mind is apparently plastic enough to maintain coherency in the computer. But after his daughter’s death, the engineer realises he cannot live with what he’s done, and destroys the computerised versions of his daughter. This story was an odd mix of nerdishly technical computer-speak and a hand-wavey premise. The daughter’s situation also added a note of over-heavy sentimentality.
‘Heavenly Flowers’, Pamela Sargent (1983), is one of those rare genre stories which features an old woman as a protagonist. And yet again we’re in post-apocalyptic USA, but this time the cause is explained – a nuclear war, possibly started by a briefcase nuke set off by a terrorist, but no one really knows. Each year, the survivors gather to celebrate their continued existence, to broker sex between those born since the war who have been least affected, and to fire the remaining nuclear missiles into space. The premise doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, but Sargent handles the voice of her protagonist well, and this is one of the few hopeful post-apocalypse stories I’ve come across.
‘Exorcycle’, Joan D Vinge (1982). Vinge is better known as a science fiction writer, but this story is fantasy. A director of a Shakespearean summer theatre company and his leading lady (also his wife) happen a man reciting from Hamlet who appears somewhat despondent and at a loose end. So they offer him a job. He proves to be an excellent actor, especially at playing Shakespeare’s ghosts. It transpires he is a ghost himself, and dates from Elizabethan times. But he feels he hasn’t caused enough suffering or performed any sufficiently evil acts in order to end whatever it is that is holding him to the earth. Much of the story is presented as flashback, with the framing narrative implying that the actor has gone into politics (perhaps even through possessing the president at a special performance put on for him by the director’s company).
‘Shadows from a Small Template’, Sharon Webb (1982). Steven Gordon has lost his daughter, but the technology exists to allow him to learn if she has really gone or if her “twistors”, which is what thoughts are made from, still remain. It is, of course, a fruitless endeavour, and Gordon’s wife, Anne, realises it better than Steve does. The premise for this is nicely wrapped around the domestic life of the Gordons, a dimension more sf should consider.
‘Packing Up’, PJ MacQuarrie (1981), reads like something from the 1950s. A middle-level manager in a plant of some sort has concerns regarding the industrial process and rings a psychologist’s telephone number. A second call and he learns something he had not expected. There is nothing in this story which would indicate it was published in the 1980s.
‘Blue Heart’, Stephanie A Smith (1982). So far, this collection seems to consist of silly fantasy stories, post-apocalypse America stories, and a few contemporary/near-future genre-light pieces. Actual heartland sf – despite the magazine’s name – seems in short supply. ‘Blue Heart’ is only the second story that fits this description. On an alien world, a woman who uses the Net to manage interstellar and interplanetary traffic in the system is approaching the end of her life. So she plans to upload herself into a robot body, the same as her companion. But he argues against it, pointing out that her new body does not possess the senses of her human body, and that she will be trading touch, taste and smell for immortality. It’s hinted that he’s a local, and that the traffic post is hidden from the locals, and he discovered it by accident – and was fatally injured in the process, hence the robot body. This is apparently only one of two short stories Smith wrote, which is a shame.
‘The Examination of Ex-Emperor Ming’, Cyn Mason (1982), is yet another piece of dated fluff. An agent of the Intragalactic Revenue Korps (why the “k”?) turns up at deposed emperor Ming’s palace with a demand for payment of back-taxes. Ming resists, is subsequently fined, and so bankrupted. But all is not lost as there is an organisation happy to employ someone with his experience and nature… Yes, it really is that corny.
‘The Crystal Sunlight, the Bright Air’, Mary Gentle (1983), is set on Orthe, the setting of Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed (1983) and Ancient Light (1987). It’s a polished piece, although the prose is not up to the level Gentle reached with Ash: A Secret History (2000). An Intendant of the Dominion visits an inner city on Orthe to determine whether or not the ideas it generates deserve Interdiction. The premise is not exactly subtle, or handled with any degree of subtlety, but the protagonist certainly is. This is one of the few stories in the anthology that’s proper sf, and stands out because of that more than perhaps it should.
‘Missing’, PA Kagan (1982), opens with the sentence, “I am writing from jail to acquaint you with important facts in this missing part crisis.” After a paragraph or two, it switches to journal entries, each explaining that something is missing… but not actually what is missing. And it’s only when you reach the last line that you realise. It’s a slight piece, but cleverly done – perhaps not hugely original, though previous examples have not hidden what it is that makes them different.
‘Fire-Caller’, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1983). I’ve been a fan of Van Scyoc’s science fiction for a couple of decades. She is very, very good at evoking alien societies, which is what she does here. The Pachni have been enslaved by the Washrar for several centuries; and when the Washrar want to rid themselves of unwanted slaves, they send them to the world of Tennador, where they are building their own society. But there’s more to it than that, as Pa-lil discovers when she’s sent to Tennador by her father and master. Because the Pachni actually have psionic powers – which the Washrar have been breeding out of them, but are still very much scared of. This is a typical Van Scyoc story, with a well-rendered alien society, a sympathetic female protagonist, and clear character growth from start to finish. Text-book sf.
There are also a pair of poems – ‘Ancient Document’ by Hope Athearn and ‘Stargrazing’ by Beverly Grant – neither of which are especially memorable.
I’m not sure what Space of Her Own was intended to achieve – that Asimov’s published sf and fantasy by women writers? Any awards shortlist would likely have demonstrated that. Perhaps, the breadth of genre fiction by women that Asimov’s published? But the stories in Space of Her Own are either fluffy fantasy, post-apocalypse USA, or heartland sf, so there’s not that much variety. There are some good stories in this anthology, but there are also a number whose presence, quite frankly, is mystifying. I am not, I admit, a long-time or regular reader of Asimov’s, but from the couple of dozen issues I have read over the decades, Space of Her Own doesn’t strike me as especially representative. Asimov’s first issue was published in 1977, so by the time of this anthology there were five or six years’ worth of material (around seventy issues by my count) to draw from, and consequently McCarthy’s selection feels somewhat disappointing. Of course, without analysing the contents of those issues myself, I can’t say whether McCarthy chose the best stories that met her criteria – ie. written by women – but I would be surprised if they did.
Juniper Time, Kate Wilhelm (1979)
Review by Joachim Boaz
“Everything that is, Robert had said, must be. Every cycle must be completed, must lead to the next cycle. He had talked about times when the desert had been drier than it now was, times when it had been lush and wet, and there had been no questions in his mind that this too must be” (p 170-171)
At the heart of Kate Wilhelm’s Nebula-nominated novel Juniper Time is the notion of historical cyclicality at both the macro- (earth cycles) and the micro- (human historical time) levels. The near future mysteriously drought stricken world where Wilhelm is an important juncture of two such cycles. The macrocycle concerns devastating world-wide desertification, which is most caused by a natural cycle but the precise nature of which is unknown. The microcycle concerns a shift in human populations in the drought stricken countries: mass migrations towards coasts as the springs and rivers of the hinterlands turn to mud. In this world the farmer, in the past linked tightly to his fields, abandons his traditional position in American society and moves to a cluttered and violent state-controlled “Newtowns.”
Although Wilhelm’s characterization of the effects on the drought on individuals and communities no where matches the power of JG Ballard’s masterpiece The Drought (1964), the intense change (and malaise generated by the inevitability of it all) caused by the effect is often evocative. But where the novel suffers concerns the figures and their actions arrayed against this parched backdrop: Wilhelm loses some of her characteristic psychological intensity juggling the unwieldy jumble of plot threads: pseudo-utopian Native Americans seek a return to the wild, the white woman saves the Native American language by creating a dictionary and braves the horrors of a “Newtown”, a mysterious object is found in space near a space station that might indicate alien communication, mystery and cover-up concerning the purpose of the space station, etc. Most frustrating are the uncharacteristic linguistic information dumps near the end of the work that threaten to kill-off the ruminative power of the thematic content.
Wilhelm’s prose can be articulate and beautiful: “I could feel myself not all the way asleep, and I could see myself dreaming a real dream. And I thought how my mind was like a long stretched-out snake. It was in such a hurry to dream that the wrong part went ahead and started before the rest of it was even there” (p 5). But these gorgeous and meaning-rich moments decrease over the course of the novel. Also, the work contains careful and planned movements of plot/character/metaphor: the lives of the two main characters who were childhood friends both change with a death, their eventual meeting later in life pits two vastly different mindsets against each other—cycles within cycles within cycles.
In my attempt to read all of Wilhelm’s pre-1980 SF novels (and short story collections), Juniper Time has proven my least favourite of her post-pulp works so far: Margaret and I (1971) possessed a sheer hallucinatory horror, the collection The Downstairs Room (1968) contained a handful of brilliant and terrifying social SF stories, and of course, little needs to be said about her Hugo-winning masterpiece Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang (1976).
Juniper Time is still worthwhile for fans of 70s social SF and Wilhelm’s other novels.
“For years Jean did not believe in the moon as a real place where people could go. When she became aware that her father believed in it, she had to accept the reality of the moon as a thing, but never as a place. Perhaps there were people already there, she thought, but no one could go there” (p 1)
Jean’s father, Daniel, is an astronaut who heads periodically to the moon. But her family is not the perfect American astronaut’s family, her mother incessantly drinks when husband is away. And Jean struggles to come to grips with her father’s profession. Daniel heads a project to develop a space station that supposedly will help in some vague way with the slowly encroaching drought… But it is a dangerous mission both due to the demonstrators at home and the dangers of building in space. And when Daniel dies while out near the station in a small one-man capsule, Jean exits childhood. This moment is seared into her memory, although its implications will not be felt until later in her life.
Jean becomes a linguist who works for a eccentric genius: as his grad assistant she becomes part “of the complex machinery that finally was proving his theories that any language, even the most difficult coded languages, could be understood and decoded by a computer if only it was programmed correctly” (p 42). At the moment of breakthrough, facilitated by her brilliance, Jean abandons the project as the government sees its potential for weapons and other plots. Drifting from place to place, Jean soon moves to a “Newtown,” one of many camps for the dispossessed who were forced to move by the drought. The “Newtowns” provide food, education, etc paid by the government but are warrens of crime.
After Jean is raped, she recovers from the psychological trauma she experienced she joins up with Richard and a Native American tribe in the Pacific Northwest. A few of the Native people seeks a return to the wild despite the desertification and employ Jean’s linguistic expertise in preserving their language and teaching their children English. It is here that she finds a semblance of peace.
The second plot thread concerns Cluny, Jean’s childhood friend, whose father was also working on the space station with Daniel. Cluny follows in his father’s footsteps and desires above all else the continuation of work on the space station. I found his story less memorable until the point where he seeks the aid of Jean. Cluny and his colleagues have discovered a mysterious object in space (perhaps that’s why Jean’s father was out in his one-man capsule?) with a language of some sort across its surface. Cluny employs Jean’s assistance in decoding it.
The cycles are established: Jean’s return to the wilderness with a people who once migrated across the expanse of the west. The natural cycle of desertification that threatens to change all that was. Cluny is desperate to abate the flow of time, desperate for some real message on the “mysterious object” that will bring all the nations of the world together to finish the space station and fight the what he sees as the end of things. Cluny’s desperation has devastating results and he will use less than savory means to bring force Jean to contribute her knowledge.
But is it even possible to modify these patterns and paradigms of change?
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.
The Warrior’s Apprentice, Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Review by Martin Wisse
As you probably know, Bob, The Warrior’s Apprentice is the second novel in the Vorkosigan Saga series of mil-sf adventures and came out in the same year as the first, Shards of Honor. Whereas that book starred Miles parents, this is the introduction of Miles Vorkosigan, the just under five foot crippled before birth by a neurotoxin attack on his mother, insanely charismatic, insanely hyperactive military genius who, at the start of the novel is trying to make it through the eliminations for officer candidacy in the Barrayaran Imperial Military Service. The written exam is no problem; it’s the physical tests that are a challenge for somebody who could break his bones just by sitting down hard.
His strategy is to take it slow and careful, but being seventeen he lets himself get goaded by one of his fellow candidates, takes an unnecessary risk and breaks his legs, with it shattering his chances to get into the military. Worse than his own disappointment is his grandfather’s, the liberator of Barrayar of the Cetegendans, who dies the next night – Miles convinced he killed him by breaking his heart. In his despair and sorry he’s glad to get away from Barrayar and, because of the political situation his father too would like to see him visit his mother’s family on Beta Colony, a nicely civilised part of the galaxy where aristocratic notions of honour are held for the anachronisms they are. He doesn’t travel alone; his bodyguard, sergeant Bothari, of course has to travel with him and he manages to persuade his mother to ask Bothari’s daughter, Elena, to come with him as well. He’s of course half in love with her and thinks a trip to another planet and perhaps the chance to learn more of Elena’s long dead mother, would get him into her good graces. Yes, Miles is somewhat of a nice guy but trust me, he grows out of it.
To be honest, Miles is a bit of a schemer and an impulsive gambler; not with something as uninteresting as money, but he does have a knack for spur of the moment impulses landing him in jams that only his gift for gab and quick thinking can get him out of. It’s this impulsiveness that got him to take Elena to Beta Colony and that, not even an hour after landing gets him into trouble again, as he intervenes in a dispute between a desperate pilot and the yard owner who wants to scrap the ship he’s holding hostage. In the end he ends up buying the ship, taking the pilot into his service, then devising a plan to actually pay for all this by smuggling a shipload of weapons to a planet under siege, in the process also rescuing a deserted Barrayaran officer stranded on Beta. All of this not so much planned, but the result of Miles boldy going forward to try and gain enough momentum to get himself out of the mess he just made. As Bujold puts it:
At the end of two days he found himself teetering atop a dizzying financial structure compounded of truth, lies, credit, cash purchases, advances on advances, shortcuts, a tiny bit of blackmail, false advertising, and yet another mortgage on some more of his glow-in-the-dark farmland.
Things get worse once his scheme actually gets underway and he and his plucky band of followers – most of whom following out of curiousity as much as anything – arrive at their destination. Ultimately it ends up with Miles in control of The Dendarii Mercenaries, a mercenary band he had first made up to get the representative of the planet he was going to smuggle weapons to to trust him and that ended up consisting of most of the mercenaries actually besieging that planet. Watching this all unfold is a colossal romp punctured by “I’ll figure something out” from Miles.
It’s in fact such an entertaining romp that it can be hard to notice the more serious parts of the story. These aren’t bloodless adventures and when people die, it has an impact, even on their killers. Early in a jump pilot dies as the result of an interrogation Miles had ordered to get the codes for a ship and it haunts him. Similarly, while the way in which he swears people to his service at the drop of a hat is played for comic relief, Bujold also makes serious points about loyalty and leadership.
I’m not sure when exactly I first read The Warrior’s Apprentice, but it was before Shards of Honor. The revelations about Elena’s true parentage and her father’s role in it therefore came as much as a shock to me as it did to her, as she turned out to be the product of rape, the mother who had supposedly died when she was a young child still alive, her father having been the rapist. In the hands of a lesser writer this could’ve been tacky, out of place in what seems at first to be a wish fulfilment adventure story, but Bujold handles this sensibly and believable. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that Elena’s ignorance of her father’s past did her no favours, or that Miles’ parents had been more concerned with her father’s well being than perhaps her own.
What also puts The Warrior’s Apprentice above mere wish fulfilment is the fact that Miles doesn’t get the girl. Elena falls for somebody else entirely, turns out to be her own woman, not just an trophy or a pet project. That’s really what puts the whole Vorkosigan series on a higher level than most other adventure sf series; Bujold never forgets there are other people besides Miles and while he might sometimes only see object to be manipulated, she never forgets.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.
Women as Demons, Tanith Lee (1989)
Review by Ian Sales
SF Mistressworks exists to review science fiction books written by women and published before the beginning of the twenty-first century. While two of those criteria are quite clear, genre can be a nebulous thing. Yet it makes little sense to err on the side of caution in such matters – it’s the fact that the books reviewed here were written by women that is of paramount importance. In other words, the occasional piece of fantasy or mainstream may appear on this site - providing, of course, it’s not too overt, and it has some connection with science fictions that do fit within SF Mistressworks’ remit. Which is why Women as Demons by Tanith Lee, a collection of short stories which are mostly fantasy, is being reviewed here. Admittedly, it was originally published by The Women’s Press and quite clearly states “sf” at the bottom right of the front cover. And the back-cover blurb also says, “In this rich and varied collection of fantasy, science fiction and horror stories…”. Given all that, it would seem churlish to exclude the book because it’s not heartland science fiction. So here we go…
Women as Demons contains fourteen stories, which originally appeared between 1976 and 1988, and two original to the collection. Most are from the late 1970s, and were published in a variety of magazines and paperback anthologies.
‘The Demoness’ (1976) is straight-up fantasy. A woman waits in a tower, and is visited by a man and he learns the hard way that she is a succubus. Some time later, another man visits, a friend and brother-in-arms of the first, but he does not succumb to the succubus’s charms and rejects her. So she sets off in pursuit of him. The story tries for a Matter of Britain atmosphere, but doesn’t quite pull it off. The title character is pretty much the embodiment of the collection’s title, but she still feels like a fairy-tale staple. It didn’t seem as though the story added much to the cliché, and for much of its length it felt somewhat over-written.
‘Deux Amours d’une Sorcière’ (1979) is another fantasy, and is not dissimilar in broad shape to ‘The Demoness’. A beautiful woman kept by an older man meets two young heroes and falls for one of them. Everyone assumes she is in love the blond of the pair, so to protect the brunet, the true target of her affections, she plays along. Her sugar daddy is unhappy, however, and arranges for the putative lover to be murdered by footpads. This is one of those fantasies where it all feels a bit like some 1960s romance of the Age of Chivalry but with names slightly changed – eg, Parys, Jhane…
‘The Unrequited Glove’ (1988). Once you’ve finished groaning over the title, you slowly realise this is quite an effective little horror tale. A Mediterranean resort in the early part of the twentieth century, all very Bonjour Tristesse meets The Talented Mr Ripley, and an obsessive young woman falls for the local desirable playboy. He casts her off once he’s had his fun, she takes it badly… and one of her gloves remains to haunt the playboy until he eventually meets an untimely end. Like the previous two stories, this one relies a lot on atmosphere, and Lee is skilled at generating the necessary ambience through her use of language.
‘Gemini’ (1981) is the first of the science fiction stories in the collection, but its setting is not explained. The narrator appears to suffer from a fear of other people – she refers to it throughout as It – but in this world she must work in “Service” for a specified period every three months. She chooses a job which would limit her interaction with other people, but is soon given an assistant, a young man, who tries to get to know her better. So she kills him. The setting is vague, as is whatever It is.
‘Into Gold’ (1986) is, I think, set in Roman Britain, although it is hard to be sure as Lee gives few details. A fortress commander and his sidekick become de facto leaders of a small town, and under their rule it begins to prosper. Foreign traders appear, their caravans festooned with gold, and the commander takes a fancy to the chief trader’s daughter – who apparently can turn objects into gold. She stays and marries the commander, but the sidekick is suspicious of her. She has a child by the commander, but when she takes it on a trip to a distant village to cure its sick residents, he follows as he’s convinced she plans to either perform witchcraft or run off with the child.
‘The Lancastrian Blush’ (1989) is original to Women as Demons, and though it pretends to historical fiction – as its title would suggest – it’s pure fantasy. A Yorkist on his way to Bosworth Field has doubts about his allegiance. En route he comes across a strange castle, and falls in love with the lord’s daughter. Castles weren’t actually that common, even in the fifteenth century, as they are hugely expensive to build. The lord of the castle magically keeps the Yorkist prisoner so he won’t fight at Bosworth Field (incidentally, the battle was not known by that name until at least 1510, twenty-five years later). The Yorkist manages to escape, with the help of the daughter, fights in the battle, and does indeed swap sides.
‘You Are My Sunshine’ (1980). I have no idea if the title was inspired by the song made so famous by the Muppets. I’d like to think it was. The story originally appeared in Chrysalis 8, one of a paperback anthology series, so it seems unlikely. As, in fact, does the premise of the story. Leon Canna is a sort of chief steward aboard a starship. The story is framed as his testimony after the total loss of the vessel on which he served (he’s the sole survivor). Canna claims the disaster was caused by a woman, but his interrogators are unconvinced… so he explains what happened. He persuaded a dowdy young woman to use the starship’s solarium, which is a side-benefit of the starship’s method of refueling itself from suns. The more unfiltered sunshine she takes in, the more beautiful – and radioactive! – the young woman becomes. And she’s in love with Canna. It ends badly. The central premise of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ is, quite frankly, nonsense, and its “Plain Jane to charismatic beauty” plot is no better.
‘The One We Were’ (1984). Reading this collection, it occurred to me that Lee’s somewhat florid prose was best-suited to this sort of near-Gothic horror fiction, much like the earlier ‘The Unrequited Glove’. Here, a famous writer of “historical romantic novels” in Paris is persuaded by a popular clairvoyant that she is a reincarnation of a minor poet who had died young a century or so earlier. The writer obsesses over the poet, changes her appearance to match the one existing photograph of him, and collects everything and anything she can find about him. And then a young man appears, who also believes himself to be a reincarnation of the poet – and was informed as much by the same medium, in fact. There’s really only one way it can end. And so it does. Bizarrely, most of the characters are named, but some use that fin de siècle convention of an initial capital and an em-dash.
‘The Truce’ (1976) is one of the collection’s few science fiction stories, although it is well-disguised. Two warring tribes – it is implied this is a post-apocalypse world, but it’s not categorically stated – try to make peace by joining a member from each in a sanctioned relationship. But one tribe rejects the other. It comes as no surprise to discover that one tribe is female and the other male. This is the sort of “Shaggy God” story that used to crop up regularly in sf magazines back in the 1940s and 1950s.
‘The Squire’s Tale’ (1980). A knight and his squire pass through a clearing in which a witch has been burned at a stake. At the next town, the squire discovers he is turning into a woman, and is driven out of the castle. He has become possessed by the witch. And that’s pretty much all there is to this story – the setting is identikit Fantasyland, the central premise is obvious from the second page, and the narrative neither resolves the squire’s situation nor uses it to make any kind of commentary.
‘Discovered Country’ (1989). An ultra-rich woman in a future in which the Solar System has been settled has a son whom she ignores for much of his life. But when he turns thirty-two, she welcomes him into her life, though neither seem especially happy with the arrangement. So they go their separate ways. Then she dies suddenly, and she has one last bequest, something he must do in order to inherit her vast wealth. The title refers to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country”. This is a story that succeeds more on its prose than its plot.
‘Winter White’ (1978). Crovak is a Conan-like chief of a clan who, while on a trip, discovers a strange flute in an abandoned “drom-hall”. He blows the flute, which makes a noise like a woman in pain. And from that point on he is haunted by a woman in white that only he can see. And over the following months he gradually falls to pieces. There’s a Celtic fantasy feel to this story, although the central character smacks more of the Cimmerian barbarian than Pryderi fab Pwll.
‘Written in Water’ (1982). The sole survivor of a global pandemic finds a young man who has apparently dropped from the sky in her garden. He’s clearly alien and cannot speak. She looks after him, but after an abrupt epiphany in which she realises – or supposes – he was sent to Earth as an Adam to her Eve, she kills him. And that’s it. Another Shaggy God story which, although it subverts the trope, still manages to be somewhat obvious.
‘Mirage and Magia’ (1982). This one is Lee channelling M John Harrison, and it’s quite effective. A mysterious woman enters the town of Qon Oshen, and at regular intervals entices young men to her magically-protected mansion. The following morning, they are found wandering brain-dead. A master thief breaks into the house and discovers that the woman is searching for someone, and that the young men appear to be captivated by the thousands of mirrors which decorate the house’s interior. And then a mysterious young man appears in Qon Oshen… This is a story which relies more on its prose style than it does its plot, and it works pretty well in that regard.
‘The Thaw’ (1979). This story also appears in Pamela Sargent’s 1995 anthology, Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years. In the future, they have finally discovered how to resurrect those who have cryogenically frozen their bodies, but it seems the first person they resurrect is not quite what they expected. Though she appears to be Carla Brice, her descendant, there to welcome her and help her adjust to the future, learns there is something far from human about her.
‘Northern Chess’ (1979). A female knight happens open an investment of a magician’s castle. The sorceror is dead, but this is his last standing castle and the knights are determined to destroy it. But its magic has beaten them at every turn. Unused to the concept of a female knight, in fact downright misogynistic about it, the knights motivate her to have a go at the castle herself… and she succeeds. Because the magician’s curse said it would be destroyed by “no man”. Yes, it’s really that corny.
Sadly, the title of Lee’s collection promised more than I felt it delivered. Fans of her writing might well enjoy it more than I did, but in terms of what I was led to expect, I was disappointed to find mostly stories of women as femmes fatales, women whose agency existed only in counterpoint to that of male love interests, and women who formed one half of a romantic situation. For all Lee’s fancy prose and inventive – albeit often vague – settings, and her obvious facility at various styles and modes of genre, the stories themselves were not especially original, and their dénouments were all too often all too obvious. I was hoping for something a little more subversive, something that was more of a commentary on the roles women characters play all too often in genre fiction. But this is not that book.