The Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ

hidden_side_moonThe Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ (1987)
Review by Ian Sales

There can be little doubt by now that Joanna Russ was one of the most important figures in American twentieth-century science fiction, although for many years, particularly afterward, her contribution to the genre was downplayed or ignored. Much, in fact, as she described in her important work, How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Of course, she was not the only female sf writer to be “forgotten”. From the twenty-first century it seems like there was a concerted effort from the late 1970s through the 1980s to write female authors out of science fiction history. Only a few managed to hang on in there – Ursula K Le Guin, of course, who is often the only woman writer on so-called lists of “classic sf”. And this despite a huge number of female mid-list writers publishing throughout the 1980s, some of whom went on to bestseller status, like Lois McMaster Bujold.

Joanna Russ won four major genre awards, and was nominated 41 times, during her career; and yet by the turn of the century she seemed to be known only as the author of a little-read classic, The Female Man. In part, I suspect this was due to the fact she was a vocal feminist and feminist writer, and conservative sf fans, echoing a move in wider US culture, tried to demonise feminism and feminist sf. Fortunately, science fiction is a progressive genre, and many of its fans fought against this reactionary rewriting of sf history.

Having said all that, I still think Russ is under-appreciated. While her novels now often appear on “classic sf” lists, much of her short fiction output has been overlooked. And she wrote a lot of short fiction – fifty-six stories between 1955 and 1996. The Hidden Side of the Moon, a collection from late in her career, contains twenty-six stories published between 1959 and 1984. Some are less than a page long. Not all were originally published in genre venues.

Twenty-six stories is too many to cover individually.  Overall, they give an impression of fierce intelligence I don’t recall getting quite so strongly from other Russ collections (although certainly from individual stories). This is especially odd given I don’t believe the collection was curated, or its contents chosen for particular reasons. It may simply be a consequence of the fact that not all of the stories are science fiction or fantasy.

The opener, ‘The Little Dirty Girl’, is a chilling ghost story, told in epistolary style. In ‘Sword Blades and Poppy Seed’, a female writer rails against society, before being told she should, in fact she will, use the nom de plume George Sand. ‘This Afternoon’ describes a play in a park, in which one of the actors plays a satyr, only he may not be an actor…

‘”I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!”‘ is a Cthulhu story. In fact, a number of the stories in The Hidden Side of the Moon play with, or reference, other literary works, something Russ did throughout her career. Given that ‘Window Dressing’ was originally published in 1970, in New Worlds of Fantasy 2, I suspect it’s not referencing the film Mannequin, although it shares the same story.  ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’ is about a friend of the writer who is an anthologist of science fiction stories and, well, the title says it all. After reading the slushpile for the anthology, the narrator: “… that pile of rejected mss must have been the vehicle for a curse … How do I know? I began to write trash.” Some of which is then given.

‘Nor Custom Stale’, published in 1959, is the oldest story in the collection. It’s a variation on ‘The Machine Stops’ by EM Forster, although here it’s the reverse which is true, and which leads to a strange, inexplicable result. ‘The Experimenter’ is a sort of fantasy, but ‘Reasonable People’ is definitely science fiction. Russ’s stories – and these two are good examples – often seem to end on single lines which question everything has gone before. The final three lines of ‘Reasonable People’, for instance, go:

Isn’t it a lovely world?
And so it is. It is.
For reasonable people

 

Both ‘Visiting’ and ‘Visiting Day’, titled here ‘I. Visiting’ and ‘II. Visiting Day’, although originally published in 1967 and 1970, and ‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’, which contains two stories, ”The Autobiography of My Mother’ and ‘Daddy’s Girl’ are more literary experiments than genre fiction. And yet, genre reading protocols still work on them – if anything, Russ’s genre fiction had a tendency to confound genre protocols more than her non-genre work did. Or rather, ‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’ can be read as genre; but something like ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ (collected in Extra(Ordinary) People) is clearly genre but resists an obvious read.

The more of Russ’s fiction I read, the further I want to explore her oeuvre. From what I have seen to date, it is variable but, to borrow from Longfellow, “when she was good, she was very, very good”. But more than that, there was a fierce intelligence driving her fiction – and her non-fiction too, of course – and a fierce commitment to feminism evident in pretty much every word she wrote. As I have said before, the giants of twentieth century fiction we have been lumbered with are Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov; when the true giants were, and are, Russ, Delany and Le Guin.

Advertisements

Darkchild, Sydney J Van Scyoc

darkchildDarkchild, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1982)
Review by Ian Sales

It’s tempting to describe Sydney J Van Scyoc as a solid mid-list science fiction writer of last century, but I’m not sure how true that it is. She was published throughout the seventies and eighties, although she began publishing short fiction during the sixties. She appeared in year’s best anthologies on several occasions, but was never nominated for an award. Her last novel, Deepwater Dreams, was published in 1991. During her career, she never seemed to be much of a “name” – you had to look for her books, in other words, especially in the UK ehere she was only haphazardly published. And I often did, because I thought her fiction worth the effort of tracking down.

Darkchild is the first book of the Daughters of the Sunstone trilogy, which appeared between 1982 and 1984. Khira is the daughter of a barohna on the world of Brakrath. It is a cold world, and its people spend the winters in hibernation. They live in valleys, each one ruled by a barohna. And it is the barohna who makes life possible there – they can focus the sun’s energy into a sunstone, which is used to heat the valley so that crops may grow. When they reach adulthood, the daughters of barohnas go up into the mountains to kill, or be killed by, one of the fearsome beasts which live there. Killing one of the creatures triggers a physiological change in the daughters, giving them the power to control the sunstone. They then either return and take over from their mother, or found a new settlement in another valley.

Khira is spending the winter alone in the palace. Her older sister has failed her test to become a barohna, and everyone else is hibernating. One day, she finds a boy of her own age wandering the palace. She teaches him her language – he learns amazingly quickly – and befriends him. The boy is a Rauth image. A space-based civilisation called the Benderzic drop Rauth images, clones of a long-lost explorer called Rauth, on worlds to learn as much as they can… so the Benderzic can sell the data to anyone who wants to exploit the world.

Thanks to Khira’s friendship, the boy – she names him Darkchild – breaks his programming. But Khira has her own trial to complete – killing a beast on the mountain and becoming a barohna. And she doesn’t think she possess the necessary hard-heartedness to succeed.

Darkchild has two chief viewpoints – Khira and “the boy”. Some other characters have viewpoint chapters. One of these others is “the guide”, which is the personification of Darkchild’s programming, a sort of base personality which can take over should the Rauth image lose his focus on his mission. For much of Darkchild, the boy and the guide battle for control of the boy’s body and mind – and it’s a close-run thing. It is Khira’s friendship, of course, which proves the deciding factor.

The boy remains a cipher for much of the novel, and although a series of flashback nightmares fill in some of his background – not all of it, as his identity as a Rauth image is not revealed until near the end. But there is more to the boy than just being a human recorder, there is something he knows and he does not know what it means…

Van Scyoc’s strength has always lain in her depiction of alien societies – typically human societies on other worlds, but never based on some Earth culture with the serial numbers filed off (as far too many other science fiction writers tend to do). Perhaps the concepts which underpin the story of Darkchild are not entirely plausible – the change brought about in the palace daughters, for example; or the powers of the barohnas… But the society described by Van Scyoc which has grown around those concepts is well-handled and internally rigourous. It is a well-drawn portrait of an invented culture, and surprisingly effective despite being presented chiefly using only two characters.

Van Scyoc’s novels are also usually well-plotted. Though they have a tendency to resemble a travelogue, or anthropological guide, in their early chapters as Van Scyoc describes the world of her story, once the plot kicks into gear it moves smoothly from revelation to revelation. In Darkchild, there is first the mystery of the boy’s sudden presence in the deserted palace, then his origin, and the meaning of his origin as a Rauth image, and, finally, the puzzle surrounding the nightmares he experiences. It’s clear there is a story arc to the entire trilogy, even if the foreground plot of Darkchild is resolved by the end of the book.

Darkchild was followed by Bluesong (1983) and Starsilk (1984).

Falcon, Emma Bull

falconFalcon, Emma Bull (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

There is a type of story which appears in American science fiction with surprising frequency. The main character is a pilot of starships, and often the best in the story’s universe. They may or may not have once been military. But now they are very much at odds with the authorities. Falcon may have been published in 1989, suggesting Han Solo from Star Wars as the inspiration for such a character, but I suspect it stretches further back. Perhaps it’s a consequence of the romanticisation of jet fighter pilots during the Cold War; or the public adulation directed at the test pilots who became the early astronauts. Whatever the origin, there are plenty of examples in sf, written by both female and male writers. Most of these characters, as in the case of Niki Falcon in Emma Bull’s Falcon, are male; the only female examples which immediately spring to mind are Dancer in Michelle Shirey Crean’s Dancer of the Sixth, Gaelian YnTourne in Angel at Apogee by SN Lewitt, and Nicole Shea in Chris Claremont’s trilogy of First Flight, Grounded! and Sundowner.

Niki does not start Falcon as a pilot. He is Viscount Harlech, a prince of the ruling family of the world of Cymru. And there are no prizes for guessing which culture Bull has “borrowed” for her invented planet. Niki is something of a wastrel, with no interest in supporting his brother the ruler, Lord Glyndwyr, and much prefers to spend his time carousing in low dives in the capital, Canaerfon. And then he stumbles across what appears to be a plan to destabilise the government. But before he can act on what he las learnt, the Concorde attacks, kills his family and seizes control of the planet. Niki only just manages to escape.

The novel then jumps ahead several years. Niki is now Niki Falcon, the sole survivor of an experimental military programme to create a superlative pilot. The programme worked, but was expensive, dangerous, and, thanks to the drugs and surgery used, the pilots died gruesome deaths after only a handful of years. Niki does not have long left. He is now a pilot for hire, and is hired by Chrysander, a singer, for an unspecified mission… which proves to be breaking the blockade around Chrysander’s home world, Lamia. Because Lamia is under attack by the Concorde, who intend to massacre its inhabitants. And so Niki’s past catches up with him, and he reluctantly helps the Lamians to defeat the Concorde’s forces…

For all that Falcon is a very readable heartland sf novel, there’s little in it that stands out. Universes comprising worlds with monolithic cultures, especially cultures borrowed from Western nations, were common in science fiction throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, but the idea is now considered passé. Bull uses a variation on hyperspace, called Cheatspace, for her FTL, but it’s just semantics. In fact, Falcon is more or less bolted together from well-used tropes, some perhaps given a quick lick of paint to fool the eye as to their freshness. This is not necessarily a bad thing – sometimes, it’s all that science fiction readers want, even if it feels like squandering the genre’s potential.

There are a couple of good set-pieces in Falcon, and the characters are likeable. The prose is very readable. But it all feels a bit tired, and days after finishing the novel it’s hard to remember the details of the plot or characters. Bull did not return to the universe of Falcon, and most of her output has actually been fantasy. She is perhaps best-known for her debut, a fantasy novel published in 1987, War for the Oaks. A lot of her published work has been in collaboration with her husband Will Shetterley, including two anthology series, Liavek and Chronicles of the Borderlands.

Falcon is an enjoyable read, but a forgettable one. It’s good a for a longish journey, but it’s hardly surprising it’s pretty much forgotten these days.