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Starshadows, Pamela Sargent

July 17, 2012

Starshadows, Pamela Sargent (1977)
Review by Ian Sales

Sargent’s first short story appeared in 1970 in F&SF, and by the time her first collection, Starshadows, was published, she had almost twenty stories, one novel, and the first of the Women of Wonder anthologies to her name. And yet Terry Carr, in his somewhat patronising introduction to Starshadows, implies that she owes her career almost entirely to him. He writes, “‘Hey, you can write! Both of these stories held my interest and made me want to know what was coming next. That’s a rare quality in writers.’ … But I rejected both stories, for flaws real or imagined.” You’d hope that holding a reader’s interest and making them “want to know what was coming next” would be pretty essential skills for a writer, and not “a rare quality”. But then if the stories in Starshadows, all of which Carr praises fulsomely, are any indication then perhaps in 1977 Carr’s eye wasn’t as sharp as his long career would suggest.

Because the ten short stories in Starshadows are hardly the sort to make you track down every other book written by the author. Some of them, in fact, are quite poor – despite originally appearing in respected sf markets, such as F&SF, New Worlds Quarterly or Universe. The opener, ‘Shadows’, Carr takes full credit for, as it was published in anthology he edited, Fellowship of the Stars. (Amusingly, the anthology was originally called Strange Brothers, but the publishers objected to the title; Carr played with a number of alternatives, including Manly Hands Across Space, before settling on the final one.) ‘Shadows’ is also one of the better stories in the collection, though I suspect Carr overstates his contribution. It is an alien invasion tale, in which the aliens and their motives remain mysterious. It is also feminist, and in some small way reminds me of L Timmel Duchamp’s excellent Marq’ssan Cycle.

‘Gather Blue Roses’ and ‘Oasis’ share the same central conceit: an empath who feels others’ physical and emotional pains. In the former, some slightly dodgy racial politics almost spoil a nicely-told story about a girl suffering from the same empathic condition as her mother. ‘Oasis’, by comparison, has a man hiding in a desert because of his emparthic suffering, and it’s really not a very good story.

However, ‘Julio 204’ which was originally published in New Worlds Quarterly, is worse. It’s set in the sort of New York Brunner described in his embarrassingly hip novel The Jagged Orbit, and is surprisingly sexist. ‘IMT’ reads like a much older sort of sf story – the acronym stands for “instantaneous matter transmitter”, but Lisa Fernandez, city manager for New York, refuses to let it be implemented. After much argument why she should not block it, she eventually reveals her motives: she’s thought through the ramifications. This sort of sf was popular in the 1940s and 1950s.

‘Desert Places’ and ‘The Other Perceiver’ both originally appeared in Universe. In ‘Desert Places’, a group of people appear to live in a depopulated city, forever on the move, but the wider world proves to be very different. There seemed something familiar about it. ‘The Other Perceiver’ certainly scores in terms of novelty value. A man collects samples of human shit for an alien houseguest, though given the end result he probably shouldn’t have done. I think this is the first sf story I’ve come across based on “farming”.

‘Bond and Free’ is very similar to ‘Desert Places’ – a group of oddballs appear to be alone in a deserted hospital, but after one leaves and travels far from their immediate surroundings, she discovers the reason for their isolation. ‘If Ever I Should Leave You’ reads like a précis of The Time Traveller’s Wife – a man uses a Time Station to visit various time periods, so his wife can then travel there throughout her lifetime in order to eke out her relationship with him. There’s something about the story logic which doesn’t quite add up, though it does possess a pleasing circularity.

‘Clone Sister’ was one of the stories which formed part of Sargent’s first novel, Cloned Lives, and is plainly the highlight of the collection. Jim is one of five clones – he has three “brothers” and one “sister”. When Jim’s girlfriend leaves him, he goes into a blue funk – only to be lifted out of it by entering into a sexual relationship with his clone sister. Though Jim comes across as far too self-analytic to be convincingly male and Kira, the female clone, seems perversely enigmatic, the story reads well and has happily not dated especially.

This at least leaves the reader on a high note, because if Starshadows suffers from a problem, it’s that its contents have not aged well. They are typical science fiction of the early 1970s, albeit atypical in their use of female protagonists, for which they should be applauded. But in style and content, they do seem very much of their period. Against some other writers active during that time, Sargent’s fiction does not compare well – not those authors who had been writing for several decades, as their simplistic brand of sf was long past its sell-by date; but other new writers, particularly those associated with the New Wave. However, Sargent clearly went on to do better, and it must be said that Carr’s praise for her writing in the introduction to this collection does feel a little premature.

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