Cautionary Tales, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978)
Review by Ian Sales
Although she started out as a science fiction writer, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is probably best known these days for vampire novels – the fourteenth book in her Count of Saint- Germain series was published in 2014, but she has written several other series featuring vampires. But back in the 1970s, she was a science fiction writer – she even appears in both Women of Wonder and The New Women of Wonder – although it seems most of her short fiction sales were to anthologies rather than magazines. Cautionary Tales is her first collection, and contains material from 1971 to 1978. Each story is followed by a half-page author’s note. Interestingly, the collection features an introduction by James Tiptree Jr, and this is followed by ‘A word of Caution’ by Yarbro herself, in which she writes, “I am very much indebted to James Tiptree, Jr., for her kind and thoughtful words”. ‘A Note of Caution’ is dated August 1977, indicating that by summer 1977 Tiptree’s true identity was known.
‘Everything that Begins with an “M”‘ (1972). To be honest, I’m not even sure if this story is genre. It is set in a small village some time during the Middle Ages. A mad man lives in a “sand pit” (I’d have thought a midden heap more likely), and events lead the villagers to venerate him as a prophet after a tax collector accidentally chokes to death in the local inn. But when the authorities descend on the village, the mad man is blamed.
‘Frog Pond’ (1971). Stories such as this could almost be a subgenre of their own. Although ‘Frog Pond’ initially seems a fairly standard post-apocalypse story, albeit somewhat more optimistic than most, it also has a very Tom-Sawyer-esque vibe to it, with a final twist which shows that country folk aren’t the same as city folk (although it’s very much a science-fictional twist).
‘Un Bel Di’ (1973). This is a surprisingly nasty story, and told entirely from an alien point of view. An undersecretary is banished to a provincial world after being caught abusing the children of a fellow member of the government. The natives of the world are innocent and seem to resemble the children of the undersecretary’s race. So he arranges for one to be gifted to him as a “companion” – the natives alter themselves according to the role they play, and the companion will be bonded for life to the undersecretary. But, he is cruel and evil, and is only waiting to be told his exile has been rescinded. He has no intention of taking the companion with him.
‘Lammas Night’ (1976). Not every story in Cautionary Tales is science fiction, or even fantasy. ‘Lammas Night’ was written for a “magic-and-mystery” anthology and contains no genre elements. Its protagonist is Count Cagliostro, an infamous eighteenth-century occult hoaxster. In the story, he has promised a group of aristocratic rakes that he will raise a demon, but, of course, he can’t. So he offers a deal to the wife of one of the rakes – if she will play the part of the demon in his faked-up summoning, she will have her revenge on her husband.
‘Into My Own’ (1975). A renowned playwright is only a few short years away from dying. He’s already had an artificial heart fitted, and now his liver failing. He’s been offered a replacement, but he has also been offered “transfer”, in which a copy of his personality is constructed in a specially-designed computer. The computer will then go on writing plays as if it were the playwright. However, this is not the mind upload familiar from cyberpunk. The computer is programmed with as many facts about its subject as possible, and for the final stage of the process it interviews the man and uses sensors to determine the emotional import of his responses. Essentially, the story is bickering between the playwright and his computer simulacrum. The process of transfer is not especially plausible, and though Yarbo makes a nod toward a justification with a mention of “Live Performance Laws”, but the choice of a playwright for this honour feels weirdly old-fashioned.
‘Disturb Not My Slumbering Fair’ (1978). This story is original to the anthology, and the following author’s note draws parallels between it and Yarbro’s first Saint-German novel, Hôtel Transylvania, “which develops along similar lines”. The story is about Dierdre, a young female ghoul, who escapes form her grave and goes on the hunt for flesh to eat. She brutally murders a night watchman, and then a young woman – albeit chiefly to provide a body for her own empty grave – before getting a job at a morgue, where she can snack to her heart’s content on cadavers.
‘The Meaning of the Word’ (1973). A member of an exploration team stumbles across an alien room, buried beneath a sea of ash. He’s an archaeologist, and some members of the team can’t see the point of his presence. The alien room contains a wall of alien writing, and some sort of learning tool, which the archaeologist uses to teach himself the language. However, breaching the room has given him a fatal dose of radiation. He chooses to remain behind so he can complete his translation.
‘The Generalissimo’s Butterfly’ (1978). In the somewhat clichéd South American country of Liberación, the female electronics engineer who created Generalissimo Sandón’s Butterfly has fallen from favour and now lives in poverty. The Butterfly is free-flying listening device, a drone disguised as the insect it is named for, and Sandón apparently has hundreds of these which he uses to keep a watchful eye, and ears, on his nation’s population. Except it is all a fake. The Butterfly exists, but has a range of only three kilometres. The butterflies which fly about the city are real ones. Sandón relies on bugs, agents and secret police to maintain his rule.
‘Allies’ (1977). Every character named in this story has a gender-neutral name, and though there are references to men and women, the sexes of the characters is left unrevealed. On an uninhabited world, a station of staffers guard a marsh for the Rare Resources Bureau. The story does not explain what the rare resource is, who else might want the resource, or indeed why a station of people is a cost-effective or efficient way to ensure one particular area on a planet remains undeveloped. (In the real world, a legal document is enough.) Staffers begin dying mysteriously, and Tuttle is convinced there is something invisible and inimical in the marsh. The station doctor, however, suspects suicide, since the RRB has begun firing its staffers six months before they were due to retire in order to avoid paying them pensions, but their families will receive double the pension as a death-benefit. (Something IBM is apparently doing right now in the real world. Multinational corporations really are scum.) ‘Allies’ never quite commits to its central premise, but the gender-neutral cast makes for an interesting read.
‘Dead in Irons’ (1976). Although original to the anthology Faster than Light (1976), this story also appeared in The New Women of Wonder. A new steward joins the crew of an interstellar starship as a steward. Because she refuses to accept the sexual advances of the head steward, she is giving the worst job: looking after the frozen steerage passengers. Her cold suit is even sabotaged by the head steward’s ex-lover, which makes the job harder. Although this story has all the trappings of heartland science fiction, it harkens back to the slave ships of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the ships which carried transportees to Australia. It’s something I never find wholly convincing, perhaps because it leaves a nasty taste and I’ve yet to be persuaded technology would not provide solutions to the problems the story builds into its universe.
‘Swan Song’ (1978). A wealthy industrialist has invited a Finnish engineer to his hunting lodge in northern Canada to offer him a job. But the Finn is a pacifist and the industrial’s corporation is heavily involved in arms manufacture. Initially swayed by the promise of heading up the corporation’s space sciences division, the Finn decides to stick to his principles after the lake beside the lodge reminds him of the myth of the Lake of Tuonela, and the Black Swan which guards the dead from the Hiiet, or Finnish demonic forces of destruction. This is a thin piece, but the atmosphere is handled well.
‘The Fellini Beggar’ (1976). A journalist for a US magazine interviews a disabled beggar about the part he played in a great director’s film (obviously, from the title, it’s Frederico Fellini, although his name does not appear in the actual narrative). The beggar, who has a beautiful singing voice and loves opera, was badly beaten in the movie. The journalist asks what he was paid to accept the role, and the beggar tells him that he was given the manuscript to Turandot, Puccini’s last unfinished opera. It’s the actual manuscript pages by Puccini, giving the ending he had planned and not the one that was later added by another composer. Other than an off-hand reference to the “wreckage of the Vatican”, there’s no real genre content to the story, and while it works well enough on its own, familiarity with Puccini and Turandot would no doubt be an advantage.
The collection ends with a poem, ‘An Indulgence’, which seems aptly titled.
Cautionary Tales is a varied collection in terms of content, but the quality of the stories is uniformly high. Yarbro’s prose is more prone to poetic turns pf phrase than is common in 1970s science fiction, which seemed to think a bland unadorned style the best way to write. I particularly liked the line in ‘Allies’: “They sat apart from each other, like slow private snails on different leaves of a plant” (p 129). Several of the stories were inspired by operas – ‘Un Bel Di’, for example, is loosely based upon Madame Butterfly – which is hardly surprising given that Yarbro is also a composer. But there is also a darkness to most of the stories in this collection, a quite callous view of people, from the RRB of ‘Allies’ to Sandón in ‘The Generalissimo’s Butterfly’ to the stewards in ‘Dead in Irons’. Not mention the paedophile alien in ‘Un Bel Di’. As a result, ‘Disturb No My Slumbering Fair’ actually reads like a light-hearted romp by comparison, despite being about a flesh-eating ghoul. It is also worth mentioning that many of Yarbro’s stories feature female characters either as protagonists, or certainly possessing agency – indeed, hiding the genders of the cast in ‘Allies’ renders any complaints against the presence of female protagonists in science fiction ridiculous. Although of their time, there’s a singular vision in evidence in many of the stories in Cautionary Tales, and it’s a shame Yarbro didn’t see fit to continue writing science fiction.