Out of Bounds, Judith Merril

otfbnds1960Out of Bounds, Judith Merril (1960)
Review by Joachim Boaz

I have long been a fan of both Judith Merril’s fiction and edited volumes. The eponymous novella in the collection Daughters of Earth (1968) is one of more delightful visions from the 1950s I have encountered. Merril reframes biblical patrilineal genealogy as matrilineal – i.e. humankind’s conquest of space is traced via the female descendants of an august progenitor. The story is brilliant in part due to a remarkable metafictional twist, the story itself is compiled from historical documents to serve as an instructional template for future generations of women. Despite substantial editorial control that forced Merril to include a rather hokey plot on two hokey planets, the story remains memorable for the well crafted feminist message.

After Judith Merril’s divorce from her husband – and fellow Futurian – Frederik Pohl in 1952, she found that her “risky” SF visions epitomized by ‘Daughters of Earth’ were less welcome. Due to financial and personal reasons, she had to tread carefully. In a few cases her radical explorations of gender/sex, such as ‘The Lady was a Tramp’ (1957), had to be published under pseudonyms.

Judith Merril proved (and still is to some degree) to be a polarizing figure. The SF critic and author Algis Budyrs dismissed and ridiculed this volume’s story ‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) as “agrandiz[ing] the steaming-wet-diaper school of SF, which in many examples defines and dramatizes women as beings whose sensitivity and humanism are at constant odds with something inherently messy in their bodies”. Shocking headline: SF that actually focuses on the lives and experiences of women offends a man! Theodore Sturgeon puts forth an ardent defense of her craft and abilities as a “Writer” (with a capital W) in the introduction to the volume.

Out of Bounds contains seven short fictions that demonstrate the range she produced over the course of the 50s: from her terrifying and radical first story ‘That Only a Mother’ to more populist and “acceptable” space operas such as ‘Whoever You Are’. The collection as a whole fluctuates drastically from the masterpiece ‘Dead Center’ to the banal exploration of telepathic vibes in ‘Connection Completed’. Seek out ‘Dead Center’!

Judith Merril should be read by any fan of 50s SF. The deserving omnibus collection Homecalling and Other Stories: The Complete Solo Short SF of Judith Merril (2005) is a must buy.

‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) reminds me of Richard Matheson’s later SF horror story about a mutant child, ‘Born of Man and Woman’ (1950)…. In Merril’s similarly powerful story in a future nuclear world, everyday exposure to radiation might cause devastating mutation. Margaret fixates on this potential via letters to her husband Hank – involved in the war effort – who claims that there is nothing to fear. When he arrives home Margaret has already given birth, and…

What makes ‘That Only a Mother’ so effective is the careful integration of everyday life. This nuclear war does not leave a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Rather, life continues much as it did before with devastating consequences. I am an ardent supporter of epistolary fiction. Merril’s use of letters serve to limit what the reader knows (these are letters between a couple and information is kept from the reader) and thus heightens the psychological tension. The nebulous ending furthers this effect. Worthwhile.

‘Peeping Tom’ (1954). Telepathy. A jungle. A nameless war. Tommy Bender, “a nice American boy”, recovers from an injury. In the jungle dampness he learns about the less than tender thoughts of his fellow wounded comrades who lust after their nurses. When Bender can walk again – remember he’s “a nice American boy” – he pays for sex, with a “disconcertingly young” woman (pimped by her young brother) in the nearby village, with cigarettes.

One day when he seeks to assuage his lusts, he enters the hut of the local sage and begins to uncover his telepathic abilities. His nurse love interest is also one of the sage’s students…. ‘Peeing Tom’ rises above many similar telepathy stories not due to the very predictable twist ending, but the strange commentary on the transformative effects of injury and war. This was written after the Korean War. Tommy Bender is not really “a nice American boy” and is solely motivated by his own lusts and passions.

‘The Lady Was a Tramp’ (1957) is without doubt the most unusual story in the collection. The premise: IBMen plot the trajectories and jumps of spaceships, an especially dangerous job on a merchant ship due to the small crew compliment. The female psychological officer, who holds the rank of Commander, likewise has an important role to play in the microcosm of the ship. A role that the new IBMan Terrance Carnahan does not want to believe exists. Merril purposefully conflates the spaceship, the Lady Jane, and Anita, the psychological officer. Terrance considers both “tramps”.

The pros: The story is psychologically tense. Also, the focus on some elements of life in a spaceship exudes a certain realism. The cons: Merril clearly positions Anita as the power on the spaceship, the woman who holds everything together by having sex with all the male crew members. She uses her sexuality to keep the crew from fracturing. Just as Terrance must conquer space to achieve his dream, he must also put aside his reservations and take advantage of Anita’s role. Really?! I find it rather unsettling in its ramifications especially since Carnahan never puts aside his extreme sexism. Very problematic.

‘Whoever You Are’ (1952). A space opera with a fun twist…. A vast web encircles the solar system manned by the intrepid men and women who are still seduced by the allure of space. The bravest souls – called Byrds – fly from the energy womb off into the bleak expanse setting up colonies, encountering aliens. One of these spaceships returns but the crew is dead, and aliens are on board. Thankfully the ship is encased in the web and does not appear to be a threat. Via the ship logs of the various dead crew members the mystery is slowly pieced together. As most of Merril’s futures, women play central parts in uncovering the mystery. But, it might be too late!

‘Connection Completed’ (1954). A man gazes at a woman through a window. What transpires are a series of thoughts projected by both characters attempting to compel the other act and thus demonstrate the veracity of their telepathic experience. Both are fearful that it is all a delusion. If Merril pursued a SF horror avenue rather than the rather tepid conclusion, the story might have been more intriguing.

‘Dead Center’ (1954) is the best of collection. It might be superior to ‘Daughters of Earth’ which was forced by the editor to follow a particular plot… I still hold that ‘Daughters of Earth’ is the more ideologically relevant story. But ‘Dead Center’ blends both polemical and narratological elements into a more cohesive story.

Shifting from perspective to perspective, ‘Dead Center’ explores the ramifications of a disaster. In this case, losing contact with a spacecraft. Jock Kruger is the pilot and Ruth, his wife, the designed of the spacecraft. As the plot slowly unravels we soon understand the nature of the relationship between all the characters. A son who is tired of the lies his parents tell… The ambitions, the “cult of the astronaut”, the public gaze… Delightful. Highly recommended.

‘Death Cannot Wither’ (1959). The collection ends on a sour note with a supernatural tale which, according to the Author’s note, was heavily edited by Algis Budrys – “the story should properly carry a joint byline” (p 137). Edna Colby lives with her husband Jack on his estate. She spends her time contributing to Better Homes and Gardens and suspects that Jack might be having an affair on his occasional trips to the city. After his death in a hunting accident on the estate, a strange series of events transpire – as he returns three years later dead but alive. The story never maintains a sense of unease and feels half-hearted. Avoid.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

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Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Kate Macdonald

Three months ago I had never heard of Kate Wilhelm. Science Fiction and other Suspect Ruminations ran a week of Wilhelm guest reviews recently, which alerted me to her existence. I found Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang in Aberdeen’s fine second-hand bookshop Books and Beans, a week after that, and carried it home in triumph. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo Award in 1977 for the best science fiction novel, as well as the Jupiter and the Locus in the same year. The Jupiter Award for best novel, according to Wikipedia, was only awarded four times, and two of the other three winning books were Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. These three have also won the Locus Award, along with, for instance, Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake. So, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang should be a good indication of the quality of Wilhelm’s 1970s sf.

I read Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang with increasing attention over a day. Though it was highly absorbing, beautifully written and had a good, thought-nagging central premise, it bothered me. Afterwards, in chats with other folks online, it appears the novel was stitched together from a set of novellas, which helped me understand its curious structure, constructed of sections with overlapping character involvement. It’s set in a post-disaster scenario sometime in the future, on the east coast of America (yawn … why do American writers think this is the optimum location for futuristic survival narratives? There are other areas in the world …) in a remote valley somewhere near Washington DC (convenient for a later metaphor on the destruction of the Capitol equalling the Destruction of the Nation).

A tight-knit and frankly rather creepy family, called Sumner after its patriarch, decide that they will pool all their cash and technical training to build a secret underground laboratory and learn to clone human beings. Any day now, the very obvious changes in weather, disease resistance and crop failure will kill off most of the Earth’s population, and they want to ensure some kind of survival.

In the Sumner family all its professionals and technically trained people are male, whereas the women are only allowed to be mothers and cooks. This is disturbing: this speculative novel was written after many other sf novelists had managed to imagine a future society in which social systems had evolved along with science and technology, yet it will not let go of the social norms of the era in which Wilhelm grew up, the 1940s. What was she thinking? Wasn’t she aware of feminism, or civil rights developments in her own society? She creates a conveniently normate group of characters to enhance the lesson her central plot gives – that artificially repressing difference suppresses humanity’s strengths – but it also suggests that she wasn’t interested in drawing a whole society, only an idea.

The big, big futuristic, wildly speculative aspect of this idea that does show Wilhelm thinking totally out of the 1970s box in terms of social evolution is in how she uses sexuality. The clones are encouraged to be sexually active in all possible permissive ways from as early an age as they want, and they evolve a mat-playtime component to their socialising. This is essentially a long group sex session for group bonding and mutual satisfaction and comfort, enhanced by their in-group telepathy. I assume that the germ of this idea came from Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Some other 1970s preoccupations – for instance ecology – also made it into her story of the possible future.

Wilhelm was clearly thinking only about the social effects of cloning on society, since the successive four sections of the novel deal with what happens when cloning has been achieved; what happens to an isolated society when a child is born naturally and grows up outside a clone group; and how cloning reduces imagination and lateral thinking to such an extent that the highly trained clones can’t think for themselves, and are ultimately an evolutionary dead-end. This vision is brilliant, a splendidly-told and enacted extrapolation of a single idea, that works so well as a central thread of narrative. This is why this novel won its awards.

Wilhelm writes with most power when she’s describing how Mark, the throwback human in the community of clones, behaves and acts in opposition to his environment. This is a very effective way of imagining being human as ‘other’, and works so well to add tension to the brave but hopeless expeditions of the clones to try to find new supplies. They can’t learn to find their way in the woods, they don’t understand how to rebuild a mill, they can’t improvise or imagine, they don’t believe what they haven’t been told, they die of exposure and radiation, but not stupidity. The clones are not stupid, they’re just incapable of learning and adapting. Ultimately, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is about what being human means.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey

DragonflightDragonflight, Anne McCaffrey (1968)
Review by Megan AM

It’s about humans who leave Earth for a new planet, shun existing technology, adopt feudalism, breed lizards into genetically enhanced dragons, and even figure out teleportation and time-travel (by way of the fire-belching dragons).

And beat their women.

Unfortunately, I read these books out of order. I tend to do this a lot, normally by accident. Other times, I think I can get away with reading the meat of the series, without the appetizer. In this case, I really thought that Dragonflight, born of McCaffrey’s Hugo Award winning novellas, was an appetizer and would be absorbed into the follow-up novel Dragonquest. I was correct in my assumption, sort of, but it was bland and unsatisfying, so I went back and read the first novel, and I’m so glad I did. Dragonflight is time-jumps more enjoyable than its sequel, the 1972 Hugo Award Best Novel nominee, Dragonquest.

Dragonflight is a combination of the 1968 Hugo Award winning novella ‘Weyr Search’ and the 1969 Hugo Award nominated novella ‘Dragonrider’. In the far distant future, humans leave Earth for a new planet called Pern. They adopt an agrarian, feudal society and, after many passing centuries, all advanced technology is completely forgotten. (Where are the science rebels? Surely some surly teen, angry at his/her old-fashioned parents, might dig up an old spaceship artifact and start asking questions. Or uncover steam technology or penicillin, something…) Shortly after settlement, the strange phenomena of Thread, silver strands that fall from the erratically orbiting Red Star (a planet, not a star, dammit) pummel the land and destroy all organic material. For defense against the Thread, the Pernese decide to breed dragons from lizards, to whom they feed firestone, which gives the dragons indigestion and makes them belch fire, which burns the harmful Threads.

Dragonflight is about Lessa, a young woman who is discovered on a weyr search (sort of like American Idol for dragon riders, but with possible bodily injury). We learn that she can communicate with all dragons and related animals, and can even psychically manipulate humans into doing her bidding. (Why not just use this power to make the evil overlord kill himself and get her kingdom back?) She impresses the newborn queen dragon, Ramoth, and her spunk and sass bemuse the macho dragonriders. While she is settling in at her new home with the dragonriders, the first Thread attacks in four hundred years become a looming threat, but forgotten knowledge and a dwindling dragon population cause the dragonriders to scramble for ideas to defend their planet. Oh, and there’s time-travel!*

I poke fun at this story, but it was an enjoyable read. Lessa is a fun character, and her antics distracted me from the constantly occurring writing mistakes. This novel is flooded with clunky dialogue, jarring perspective changes within chapters, misused words (bemused, ahem), and an overuse of adverbs. McCaffrey often ruins the flow of dialogue by interrupting sentences in awkward places to give directional cues. But, the concept is intriguing, the action is strong, and the plot moves smoothly enough. The characters were likable, albeit the supporting cast was a little 2-dimensional, but I liked Lessa enough to overlook it.

However, I did take issues with a few things. Sensitive readers need to beware of the archaic male/female relationship behaviors, which I attribute to the feudal structure of Pern. In Dragonflight, we see domestic violence, references to forced sex, and sexual double standards. There is, however, a strong feminist element in Lessa’s character that I hope will result in some progressive changes throughout the series. (Unfortunately, the second novel, Dragonquest, seems to take a few steps back in this regard.)

I was also bothered by the mobster-like tactics among the dragonriders in their demand for tithes, while they contributed nothing to society. They stood by while Fax ransacked Lessa’s home of Ruatha and murdered her entire family. I couldn’t blame the lords for balking at the tithe requirement, when there had not been Thread to fight for over four hundred years. In fact, I most identified with the lords who lacked the blind faith to believe in the absent threat of space spores. Four hundred years is a long time to financially support a gang of dragon dudes who do nothing but warn of a vague, impending apocalypse. Couldn’t the dragonriders implement some sort of security task force, or offer labor services during the non-Thread years? Hell, my lawn guys are off-call firefighters.

But my main issue with the whole story: I just don’t buy the concept of a society that successfully purges itself of technology and scientific knowledge. Science is too resilient, and no society is impervious to the birth of willful scientists. Some curious, rebellious mind is going to be born and turn the world upside down. I hope this is addressed somewhere in the sprawling Pern series. It would make some for interesting, and necessary, conflict.

Regardless of these major problems with the story, Dragonflight is a pleasurable read, with its interesting take on dragon lore, and a fun main character. And it is much better than its successor, Dragonquest. I’m actually sorry that it’s over, and I look forward to reading more about the Pern world.

*Interesting tidbit: The time-travel element was actually a suggestion by the editor, and not part of McCaffrey’s original idea. In 1967, it was probably brilliant, but it might seem a bit hackneyed to modern readers. Still, it helped to give the story a neat and tidy ending, with a few WTF twists, which sort of reminded me of the TV series Lost. (And, considering the poor writing style, I’m shocked an editor was involved at all. Apparently, all he cared about was the time-travel.)

This review originally appeared on From Couch to Moon.

The Clewiston Test, Kate Wilhelm

clewistonThe Clewiston Test, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Nicolette Stewart

The Clewiston Test is a modern, science fictional The Yellow Wallpaper. As taut, tense and claustrophobic as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 feminist short story, The Clewiston Test is physically painful to read, even as it forces you to marvel at the talent that wrought its infectuously uncomfortable atmosphere.

The parellels between The Yellow Wallpaper and The Clewiston Test are uncanny. Not because it is an odd source of inspiration, but because the repetition of the same feminist tale in two (we like to think) drastically different time periods highlights that women have been dealing with the same old bullshit for hundreds of years. Uncanny? How about depressing?

Both stories contain an injured or ill female first-person narrator, confined in the name of recovery. Both women are married to scientists: Gilman’s a doctor, Wilhelm’s the narrator’s partner in pharmaceutical research. Both women suffer because of the confinement of the sick bed, and both of their husbands make the situation worse with a patronizing, “Daddy knows best” attitude. As the two women teeter on the brink of (in)sanity their spouses use their disability in order to disempower them through condescation, infantilization, discredition, and still more horrifically in Wilhelm’s story, rape.

But where Gilman took 6,000 words to examine this dynamic, Wilhlem takes… far more, and this allows her story a depth and complexity for which The Yellow Wallpaper does not have the space.

The Clewiston Test begins with Anne and Clark still in love, though an offhand comment forshadowing the coming rape is the start of readerly unease; this isn’t going to be a happy scientist-on-scientist romance. Anne must remain in bed recovering from severe injuries (car crash) while her colleagues continue to work on the miracle pain killer she discovered. When the project gets government approval ahead of schedule, the team are pressured to forge on without Anne – leaving Clark with the credit for her work, and creating an ideal oppurtunity for Wilhelm to depict workplace sexism. When Clark decides to withhold this information from Anne, their relationship begins to disintegrate. Meanwhile in the lab, moral qualms about the new painkiller’s safety are pushed aside in favor of speed and profit. And they all fall down.

The Clewiston Test is a page turner, and though I was never tempted to put it down – I read the last half in a fury late one night, unwilling to sleep until I knew what had happened in the end—I had a stomach ache for over half of the book. Anne’s confinement and helplessness became my own. This is a deeply uncomfortable book, but it is also an important book because at its core The Clewiston Test is about consent: giving it, taking it, and the fucked up power dynamics involved when informed consent is ignored in favor of force.

There is a rape. A horrible, on-screen rape. (What some people refer to as “marital rape”, though I see no value in qualifying the term, as if to imply that “marital rape” is not really rape.) I am getting tired of seeing rape in fiction, but I have to hand it to Wilhelm: she depicts rape in a way that feels realistic in its horror and emotional consequences while at the same time not making the rape the defining characteristic of the female victim. The rape defines Anne’s relationship to Clark, but never defines Anne, a smart woman with agency. Though we are with Anne for the rape, she disassociates, and we aren’t given any of the lurid, pornographic details that so often make fictional rape scenes feel like they were written with pleasure, not horror, in mind. I repeat: the rape scene is horrible.

But not horribly handled, and Anne immediately calls it by name, pointing out the shudder-inducing “Daddy knows best” attitude that makes Clark think forcing himself on Anne is good for their relationship. He doesn’t understand what the problem is. They’re married aren’t they? He knew her doctor had given her permission to have sex again. What about his needs? What a fuckwad. As she weeps in bed afterwards, she has to explain to him why raping her was fucked up: “It had to be your way. You always know what will be best for me don’t you, and I have to do it that way. If my legs ache, or I get a cramp in my thigh, or whatever, it has to be your way. For my sake, of course.”

Clark, unwilling to face the reality of what he has done, chooses instead to question his wife’s sanity. Because questioning his privelege and his misuse of that power are not an option. As Anne later tells a friend, “… he would rather believe…that I am going crazy, that I’ll become a psychopathic killer, than face the truth. That isn’t love. That’s the wail of a child who’d rather see the end of the world than give up his grubby teddy bear.”

Kate Wilhelm: calling out male privilege since 1976. (At least.)

This would be an important statement of itself, but Wilhelm addresses the issue of consent and force in almost a dozen other situations throughout the novel without ever making the story feel like a mallet.

Anne’s painkiller research team worry about the possibility that they are being used as test subjects for gen modified food another department is working on without their permission or knowledge. The thought really pisses them off (p 69). Animal test subjects – who obviously have not given consent, though it is a credit to Wilhelm’s light hand that she never points it out directly – in their experiments experience horrific side effects from the painkillers, leading to several even more horrific deaths. Meanwhile, at home, Anne coddles a pet kitten (p 81), and she and Clark are very upset when it gets hurt. Though Anne insisted (and was promised) that the human test subjects in the next stage of painkiller testing would be fully informed and fully consenting (because for some reason they need to test pregnant women? I didn’t catch why), the boss man decides that uninformed pregnant women in a local prison will be used instead.

Women as pets, women as test subjects. Animals as pets, animals as test subjects. Women in cages, animals in cages. The anger unconsenting adults feel at being unwitting test subjects. Who is allowed to consent and when and why? Who is forced to participate against their will and when and why?

Do you see how many layers Wilhelm has going here? This book spent at least 100 pages making me nauseous, and I still want to re-read as soon as I can to see just how she managed to put together such a layered, complex tapestry.

Why isn’t Kate Wilhlem on evey single “Best SF” list ever? It is fucking criminal that this book isn’t praised more vehemently, more often. If I hadn’t picked up this massive yellow omnibus at LonCon3 (thanks Gollancz), I may never have read it because Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is the obvious first choice with Wilhelm’s books.

There is so much more to say. I haven’t even mentioned Deena, the office’s “militant (straw) feminist” or the questions of ethics in scientific research or the way shifts between point of view characters give us a wide-frame view of every issue. I didn’t mention my slight dissatisfaction with the ending (which felt too optimistic, too light, to follow the dark contents of the previous pages, though it was a win for feminism) or my annoyance at having to hear about Anne’s dreams. I’ve run out of time. But I will tell you this, The Clewiston Test gets a rating of nine out of ten from me.

This review originally appeared on Bookpunks.