Two That Came True, Judith Moffett

two_that_came_trueTwo That Came True, Judith Moffett (1991)
Review by Kev McVeigh

Ignore the odd, misleading, title. This slim collection, originally part of the Pulphouse Publishing’s Author’s Choice series and now available from Gollancz SF Gateway as an ebook, consists of two novelettes from the early stages of Judith Moffett’s SF writing career. ‘Surviving’ (1986) won the inaugural Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, whilst ‘Not Without Honor’ from 1989 made various Best of the Year lists and anthologies. Although quite different stories they sit well together and anyone familiar with Moffett’s novels will recognise much here. ‘Surviving’ was Moffett’s first published SF but she was already an established poet with two acclaimed collections on her cv.

‘Surviving’ is a contemporary take on Tarzan. A young woman, Sally, raised by apes after a plane crash is rehabilitated into society. The narrator, Janet, is a psychologist fascinated by the “chimp child”, and author of a book about Sally. They finally meet when Sally is appointed at Janet’s university, but Sally repeatedly rebuffs Janet’s overtures, not just because of “that book”, but because of her refusal ultimately to truly integrate socially.

By chance, Janet discovers Sally’s secret escape from the university, roaming ape-like, naked, at high level in the trees. After some fighting, to gain the younger woman’s trust Janet joins in and a rapprochement of sorts develops into a stronger (and later, sexual) relationship. Stronger at least in Janet’s perspective, that is.

As Janet narrates ‘Surviving’ from eighteen years later, and after Sally disappears again, she reluctantly acknowledges her own agenda but fails to see where she went wrong. She pursues Sally with intent to be the one who truly socialises the returnee. Even as she submits to Sally in training and relationship rules, Janet has a strong vision of herself as saviour.

Attempting to avoid spoilers, any reader familiar with Moffett’s Holy Ground trilogy will see the same internal moral debates here. The ongoing battle between selfish human urges and our need to engage with the natural world works in a way Kim Stanley Robinson fans might find interesting. Moffett shares with Robinson a passion for the environment, and a willingness to debate issues through her characters (mostly) without preaching.

The other significant aspect to Moffett’s oeuvre is the consistent, open and diverse range of sexuality she covers. (See the controversial ‘Tiny Tango’ for instance, possibly the earliest heterosexual HIV+ protagonist in SFF.) The other is rarely judged as other in her work. The relationship between Sally and Janet develops quite naturally, out of Sally’s comfort masturbation. Janet is hesitant and awkward, but this is her discomfort not the author or reader’s. Sally reached puberty with the apes, and Moffett explores this unflinchingly.

The ending of ‘Surviving’ may be slightly too contrived in terms of personal redemption, but the passage there is a fascinating, provocative look at ego, social structure and discomfort.

‘Not Without Honor’ is a superficially very different story. I glibly described it on first reading as a “First Contact collaboration between Kim Stanley Robinson and Howard Waldrop”. Spoiler alert: it also predates Galaxy Quest by a decade, though it isn’t as funny.

A small, near self-sufficient Martian colony is approaching the finishing stage of a biosphere project when a peculiar signal is received from space. Only one person recognises it. Sixty-eight-year-old Pat identifies ‘The Mousketeers Hymn’ from Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club TV show.

It seems that the aliens have come to find Mickey Mouse Club host Jimmie Dodd for help with their own troubled youngsters, only to be dismayed to learn that he’s long dead.

The colonists, whilst bemused by the scenario, are united in wanting a peaceful resolution. NASA meanwhile sends a provocative ‘rescue’ mission. (The driver of Moffett’s debut novel Pennterra is similar.) Pat’s deep familiarity with Jimmie and the show foregrounds her in the alien contacts and discussion..

This is where ‘Not Without Honor’ fits alongside ‘Surviving’ in its discussion of human power relationships, parenting, and parental needs. For Pat and many others, Jimmie Dodd was a proxy parent providing moral guidance, developing independence, and support. Pat questions her memory, wonders if this is a nostalgia-tinted view, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The colonists get to see old episodes of Mickey Mouse Club but only Pat sees it childlike, and sees its depths. She explains and encourages with mixed results, and a resolution is achieved, for the colony and personally for Pat.

‘Not Without Honor’ isn’t as good a story as ‘Surviving’ perhaps because it romanticises a little of a past that the characters don’t quite relate to. There’s a hard edge to ‘Surviving’ despite the redemptive ending, that ‘Not Without Honor’ almost makes twee. There’s a curious non-sex scene, for instance, that doesn’t go against the author’s sexual worldview, but is quickly passed over where other stories apply challenging emphasis and rigor. That’s not to dismiss it as a poor story, Moffett set very high standards in ‘Surviving’ so ‘Not Without Honor’ inevitably suffers in comparison. As always Judith Moffett asks tricky questions without easy answers.

Reading Letters To Tiptree (the critical volume edited by Alexandra Pierce & Alisa Krasnostein last year) I learned that one of the last tasks Alice Sheldon completed was a reader’s report on Judith Moffett’s manuscript for Pennterra . There’s certainly elements in both these stories I suspect she’d have been interested in, issues of sexuality, and power role playing in particular. Tiptree, of course, never shied from awkward questions either.

Both stories in Two That Came True come with lengthy, informative afterwords, including selections of Moffett’s poetry. She was a poet long before turning to fiction. These pieces cast light on much of Moffett’s oeuvre. The afterword to ‘Surviving’ is perhaps a perfect, precise explanation of several key elements of all her work. It is as though her first SF story defines everything that followed. Certainly themes in both stories match moments of poetry and autobiographical elements from Moffett’s lifestyle, her life and philosophy and the clues here are explicitly delivered.

It is no secret that I believe Judith Moffett to be deeply underrated as an SF writer. ‘Surviving’ should convince you on its own, whilst ‘Not Without Honor’ is also an enjoyable, thoughtful and thought provoking story. Together they make Two That Came True a notable short collection, and a good thematic introduction to the SF of Judith Moffett.

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.


Pennterra, Judith Moffett

Pennterra, Judith Moffett (1987)
Review by Sam Kelly

Pennterra is a colonization[1] novel, and a Quaker novel, but any similarity to Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day is fairly superficial. It begins in media res, with the colonists thoroughly planted on Pennterra, and already firmly in contact with the native hrossa[2], while the other ends as the travellers reach the surface of their planet. Another dissimilarity is that Pennterra has many characters who aren’t Quakers, and the cultural dialogue between them enriches the text – though it would have been interesting to have seen someone cross over properly, or even be in much doubt about their position.

The book was written in 1987, and it shows in the future it depicts – Earth has been ruined, worn out, broken. The overcrowded population are starving, living on algae cakes, so presumably everything went Malthusian. And mass colonization of another planet is still a real possibility. The irresistible comparison, for me, is Anne McCaffrey’s Decision at Doona, and that was from 1967, so it’s almost certainly an influence.

As regards themes, it’s mostly about food, and sustenance, and how to keep right relations with the world around us. It’s a constant ethical quandary for Quakers and other thoughtfully spiritual people, and this book gives an interesting perspective on it. I don’t think it’s a story that only SF could have told in the same way that The Dazzle of Day is, but it’s still a very good and powerful one.

The Quakers – all scientists – gradually find out a lot of the way this new world works, and find clearness on the restrictions the natives have placed on their expansion. On Pennterra, there are no predator/prey relations; all consumption is a gift. This is… not an easy thing to get used to, even for the Quakers, and we see quite a bit of their bitterness and resentment at being casually denied the future they were expecting.

Moffett does a good job of showing us how they find the nature of the planet out, mostly by giving us excerpts from their diaries-cum-informal-lab-notebooks, making no distinctions between biological research, botanical studies, practical anthropology, and conversation between friends. At the same time, we see the characteristic painful Quaker honesty about themselves and their reactions to their work.

The pacing of discovery is good, without playing I-know-something-you-don’t-know tricks on either reader or characters; it might have been good to have seen the author coming down less heavily on the Quaker side, but then I may well be seeing more of that than there is there as a Quaker myself.

[1] Which isn’t the same as a colonial novel; nor is it a postcolonial novel. It’s an interesting beast all of its own. There are some problematic aspects to casting humans as the colonizers (though they’re explicitly multi-racial) and aliens as the colonized party, but otherwise it provides a very interesting vehicle to look at huge differences in cultural practice and needs.
[2] A deliberate in-universe reference to CS Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy – the hrossa there are natives of a planet whose people did not Fall.

This review originally appeared on Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood.