We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ

wewhoareWe Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Bart

After finishing a book, I usually read up on other reviews and stuff before starting my own. There’s no use in repeating what others already have written. When I came across a review by L. Timmel Duchamp – an SF author herself – published in the February 2006 issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction, it quickly dawned on me it was no use of even starting the review I had in mind, as her text said about everything I wanted to say – references to Robinson Crusoe included – but better. It also opened up my understanding of the novel. Not that I had totally missed one of the political messages of the book, but I hadn’t perceived its full importance:

As I read it, the soliloquy not only allows the narrator to put herself – once a “Neochristian” – on trial for murder, but also explores enough of her history to make it possible for the reader to understand her series of responses to the situation following the crash. Through the soliloquy we discover that the narrator’s despair is not so much existential as political in the most fundamental sense of the word. At the time of the crash, the narrator was in full flight from a life of political activism and idealism that had smashed on the rocks of discursive politics. As part of a burgeoning movement of dissent, she learned the painful lesson of who may speak in a polis controlled by vast political and financial machinery (which these days we generally name “global capitalism”).

The main gist of what I want to say is that We Who Are About To… is a lot more than a feminist novel. Framing the novel only as such – an easy mistake as Russ is the author of the better known The Female Man, and maybe even more importantly as identity politics is important in today’s discourse on culture – does the novel a tremendous disservice. Not that its feminist stance is not important, on the contrary, and well-done at that. But I’ll refrain from elaborating further, and urge you to read the entirety of Duchamp’s take – if you’ve read the book already that is, as the first experience of this book suffers badly if you’ve had too many spoilers.

What’s left for me to say? I thought maybe of writing a text on how the unnamed protagonist of this book is a kind of opposite to the childbearing character in PD James’s Children Of Men, but doing so would also focus on the feminist side of the novel, and that wouldn’t be in sync with what I wrote above.

For that same reason I’ll refrain from elaborate comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that’s about forced pregnancies as well. Atwood’s book is 10 years younger, but it’s a lot less radical in conception. More importantly: as a social analysis, it is also a lot less believable.

Then Lord Of The Flies popped into my head, and sure, there are parallels aplenty, if you just look at what Wikipedia has to say about Golding’s themes:

At an allegorical level, the central theme is the conflicting human impulses toward civilization and social organization—living by rules, peacefully and in harmony—and toward the will to power. Themes include the tension between groupthink and individuality, between rational and emotional reactions, and between morality and immorality.

What’s maybe left underdeveloped in Duchamp’s review, is the existential, philosophical aspect of We Who Are About To… Not that I have a lot to say about that either, just that at certain times the main character seems to live out her life simply being – and explicitly referring to Eastern modes of thinking: acceptance, the works, including Tao – yes, Tao, again. I think it’s one of the important themes in the book, and I could quote a few bits here and there, but ultimately it would be like reading a rehash of stuff you’ve already read on all those millennial lifestyle blogs – I know they didn’t exist in the 1970s, but hey, what kind of reader of speculative literature would you be if you’d object to a bad time-travel paradox?

There’s one final thing I want to highlight, and that’s Russ’s visionary power. Certain aspects of male chauvinist psychology are brilliantly evoked in the following passage, and without a lot of words Russ nails a part of the reason why movements opposing the importance of identity politics have gained so much traction recently.

Alan looks happy. I mean it: not triumphant, not overbearing, simply happy. He glows. The twenty-first century can’t have been kind to this enormous fellow, and now he’s discovering other interesting things to do: chopping down trees, lifting rock with his bare hands, fighting, knocking down women. Too bad he’s so young…

It might read like caricature, but I’m quite sure it isn’t. The increased empathy of the last couple of decades indeed hasn’t been kind to the mindset of those people that reserve their moral concern for a circle that’s less expanded than the circles of the progressive discourse that was dominant before Trump got elected.

I guess I’m only left with a quick assessment. The prose is snappy and confident. Russ shows keen psychological insight more than a few times. As far as plot and structure goes her choices are awesome: this book is not what you think it will be when you start reading it with only the feminist-planet-crash blurb in mind. Russ made some radical decisions, and it’s best those aren’t spoiled.

In short, We Are About To… is a brave book, not an easy, generic read. It’s definitely recommended for fans of vintage scifi that do not mind their stuff a bit different.

This review originally appeared on Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It.

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Wayward Moon, Denny DeMartino

wayward_moonWayward Moon, Denny DeMartino (2001)
Review by Ian Sales

There’s little point in reviewing the plot of Wayward Moon as it makes little sense and is almost impossible to summarise. It is the sequel to Heart of Stone, and appears to be the last book in the series. The two novels are about Phillipa Cyprion, who is the personal astrologer to Emperor Theo of Earth, but has somehow ended up working as a troubleshooter/private detective, with her boyfriend, ex-policeman Artemis Hadrien, for the emperor. Wayward Moon opens with a murder during an experiment on a space station. That is the only part of the plot that makes sense. The experiment was being conducted by the Idealians, a cyborg race (although the word cyborg is not used once throughout the novel). It is something to do with moving a moon, which is being used as an anchor point by an energy shield for a planet in another dimension occupied by another alien race. It is, in fact, almost impossible to tell what is going on from one page to the next. The plot contradicts itself constantly, characters explain things they did not know; and whenever Cyprion and Hadrien come up with a theory of the crime, they learn something which makes a nonsense of everything they had previously thought. Philip K Dick’s plotting was more coherent than this.

However, the most notable element of Wayward Moon is DeMartinos’ completely inability to write a British character. Cyprion is from the East End of London, and fond of dropping local expressions into her conversation. And they are all spectacularly wrong. Here are some samples…

Surely, his recommendation had buttered his backside (p 10)

… we were flying with our bloomers flapping open in the sweet, Brighton Beach breeze (p 14)

I’ve stayed in better fleabags on Earth (p 31)

… and air that smells like a fresh wank in the heat of the summer (p 32)

I’ve learned to keep my jelly-bits into myself over the years (p 36)

I was the last hot buttered crossbun left on the shelf (p 41)

It was orange, bright and brilliant, like my mum’s St Patrick’s day glad rags (p 45)

I couldn’t tell if it had titties or a Hampstead wick (p 45)

I was as weak as fiddlesticks (p 49)

Intuition. That’s me bread and treacle (p 56)

Telroni’s words instantly bothered me, but I couldn’t tell if he was blowing raspberries (p 69)

… it bubbled and squeaked just like a pot of my granny’s cabbage (p 69)

… and craned his neck like a Sunday plucker at the pony races (p 72)

… it’s like someone is punching raisins into the rising bread dough (p 87)

I could tell right off Fay-et was all suckers and mash (p 92)

Earth scientists found this mode of travel to be as randy as trying to punch out of [zero-gravity point] in the midst of an asteroid belt (p 102)

I can’t be going on with this knicknack that you’re talking (p 105)

It put jelly atop his butter; it pissed him off (p 113)

“You look like you’ve been buggered a few times,” I said in way of greeting (p 117)

I take it that once the investigation is over, you’ll be next up at the plate to play cricket (p 125)

… it smelled like an overflowing yank on a hot summer’s day (p 136)

I got me a Scotsman doing a kick and a prance in me bongo drum (p 159)

“And that gives you a crink in your pride?” (p 159)

“I’m not a nig nog, you bunch of metal turds, and I demand to know what you’re saying” (p 166)

It was a Shakespearian [sic] question – that was for diddly certain (p 167)

Or maybe he was feeding me Sunday’s leftover pork pie (p 172)

It was right about that time, the yeast started to rise in my bread loaf (p 172)

… he took a good pull of the plink-plonk (p 191)

Taking a big titfer of it, I luxuriated in the burn of the liquid (p 191)

… he’d had his load of old cobblers taken from him by a fierce decree at population control (p 203)

Hadrien was better than I at buttering the crumpet (p 203)

That was the penny in the peach pie (p 215)

I joined him, feeling like I might chuck a little bubble and squeak at the smell (p 216)

… so I bent the gooseneck down so I could get a better look at Marctori’s bread and butter (p 217)

Being British, it’s a little hard to let go of the conservatism that keeps our conscious thought in control of our sensitivities (p 226)

… he tested the meat by poking me with his own understanding (p 227)

Hadrien pushed the ragged edges of the manila mailer (p 233)

“I feel like me bric-a-brac is hanging out” (p 244)

And I think that’s quite enough. This is a book to avoid.

The Killing Thing, Kate Wilhelm

killing_thingThe Killing Thing, Kate Wilhelm (1967)
Review by Ian Sales

Kate Wilhelm, who died last month at the age of 89, was probably best-known for her 1976 Hugo Award-winning novel, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, although she won a number of awards, during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and wrote a large number of novels, novellas and short stories. And not just science fiction. She was also prolific as a writer of crime, or mystery, novels. The Killing Thing was Wilhelm’s third novel, and while it’s a thin novel, it doesn’t deserve the cover art Panther put on the paperback in 1969.

Trace has crashlanded on a deserted alien world, after being chased halfway across the galaxy by an implacable killing robot. It follows him down to the surface and hunts Trace. He must stay one step ahead, despite not knowing the robot’s full abilities, until help arrives.

It’s a tense, if overlong and somewhat over-stretched, narrative, and Wilhelm pads it out with lots of description of the alien desert in which Trace has found himself. A second narrative details the origin of the killer robot, which is not, as the opening suggests, alien but a mining robot repurposed for war by a rogue scientist on  subjugated world. Because humanity – and Trace is human and a member of its military – has conquered the galaxy and considers all the races it has found inferior to its own. And he has a personal connection to the robot’s origin too. It was on a tour of a mining facility that he discovered it.

So on the one hand, The Killing Thing has a man hunted by an implacable foe; on the other, it is humanity’s own hubris which has put Trace in this situation. The novel owes a little too much, however, to its central pulp fiction premise. This means that humanity’s attitude to other races doesn’t read so much as commentary as the natural order of things. Which is entirely the wrong message – and not, I suspect, what Wilhelm intended. True, early science fiction was rife with such sensibilities – and even now there are those who will happily write novels in which the superiority of humanity over all others is baked into the world-building. But then, science fiction is equally happy to normalise slavery, genocide, mega-violence and all manner of prejudice. And has been since its beginnings.

The Killing Thing is not an especially good novel. Wilhelm went on to write a number of better ones. It is, perhaps, the most overtly science-fictional of her novels, given it features spaceships, alien worlds and alien races, when her late books were more about psychology, scientific experiments and, of course, cloning. Wilhelm is hardly read these days, which is a shame as she was much better than a number of writers of her generation who still appear regularly on “best of” and “top ten” lists.

While The Killing Thing is probably one for fans only, others of her works – like Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, The Clewiston Test, Margaret and I; and much of her fiction – are worth tracking down and reading.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison

memoirsofaspacewomanMemoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
Review by Bart

Each and every contemporary review of Memoirs Of A Spacewoman I have found is overall positive, if not glowing. That’s understandable, as an obscure 60ies title by an author that is not generally known in the SF community takes a special kind of reader: the lover of “vintage scifi”. One does not coincidentally read this kind of book.

I’m not a total, unconditional vintage SF fan. I read older SF for two reasons: to broaden my view on the history of the genre, and as a part of my search for SF that has endured the ages, and still does the job in 2018 as well. I’m a lenient reader as far as the first reason goes, but hard to please in the latter. Schizoid inner conflict being the result, it makes certain reviews harder to do.

This book can be considered partly as feminist writing, yet it was not marketed as such back in the days: publishers used to stress the sexual content, as Memoirs of a Spacewoman “explores with compassion and wit the infinite possibilities of erotic relationships between a human space-traveller and the bizarre incumbents of the planets she visits” according to my 1976 edition.

Mitchison does a few things I have not come across often, if at all, and as such this book has a radical quality to it.

For starters, she imagines a far future in which humanity has evolved to be uncompromising ethical beings: vegetarians that are even unable to use violence in times of need.

We can’t any longer put our full hearts into violent restraint of another human being.

Peaceful utopias are nothing new, but I haven’t read anything that envisions a future that is so radically peaceful and strictly ethical as this. Mitchison adds to this communication between humans and animals that resembles human-human communication, most animals turning out to be full conscious actors. Such conversations are partly achieved via telepathy, or so it seems – Mitchison is not fully clear on this.

However, I myself would not classify this society as fully utopian. Concepts of the 60ies are thought trough, and free, uncommitted love – coupled with the time relativistic effects of space travel – ends up having an effect on familial structure and love and friendship, ultimately leaving people to be less connected.

‘I wasn’t leaving you, Mary, the way you were.’ I didn’t know what to say. One doesn’t expect an adult colleague to behave in this kind of way.

I wonder what Mitchison felt about all that herself. Not so much the parts about love & relationships, as that’s clear: she and her lifelong husband agreed on an open relationship indeed.

What’s more puzzling are Mitchison’s true feelings about the parental aspects of this novel, as in it mothers leave their children with their peer group after a year. Mitchison gave birth to 7 children, and raised five of them to adulthood.

I did not know about this before I read the book however, and rereading the parts in which an alien ‘child’ of the protagonist dies, gain an eerie vibe because of it – Mitchison wrote Memoirs Of A Spacewoman at 63, about 20 years after her daughter died shortly after birth, and 30 years after she lost a 10-year-old son.

There is emotion, and numbness, and yet at the same time, “I myself was completely unchanged. I had almost hoped I would not be. That was the measure of my grief.”

The opening lines of the book explicitly talk about thoughts of her living children and the two alien ones she lost, and the rest of the opening chapter is dotted with conflicting meditations about parenthood – there is both the perspective of motherhood – a loving, biological urge – as that of sympathy with youngsters wanting to break free from authority.

Some other reviewers tend to highlight the “complex moral problems” this book presents, as Mitchison herself has her protagonist proclaim in the first chapter. I have to rain on that parade, I’m afraid.

The main ethical conundrum of this book is the question whether an alien race, resembling butterflies, is justified in killing some of their caterpillars, as according to these butterflies, some of the caterpillars engage in behavior that the butterflies feel is harming their chances of transforming into healthy butterflies. This causality is not proven however. Mitchison doesn’t leave it to the imagination of the reader, and spells things out clearly:

‘Isn’t it more like what has been done in human history in the name of religion? When people were tortured and burnt alive in order to save their souls in another life, which most of them, perhaps, did not believe in. But the torturers did. (…) So far, I have always found these actions inexplicable, and singularly revolting, but now I think I begin to understand them.’

I do not see the “moral complexity” here. A fair amount of the book’s 160 pages are devoted to the butterfly world, but in the end it’s all pretty straightforward: sometimes people do things because they think they are doing the right thing. Big deal.

The other main philosophical issue is not really of a moral nature, but similarly aims at depth, and again fails. It is more interesting, admittedly. It is about the fact that the human tendency for dichotomies and either/or thinking is a result of our bi-symmetric bodily form, but I’m not sure whether this theory would hold up to careful scrutiny. Mitchison sets up humans against aliens that resemble starfish: their radial body would stimulate other forms of thinking. In the end, it’s all just armchair theory of mind, as the starfish are clearly outclassed by humans, radial thinking notwithstanding. Thinking things through, in reality the starfish might be just as dichotomy-prone as bipedals, as a dichotomy like dead/alive would matter to them too. As such, these metaphorical parts of the book are sloppy.

Not that this matters: Memoirs Of A Spacewoman is set up more as a parable, not a rigorous hard SF story, and Mitchison’s main point – that our thinking originates in our body, stressing the corporeal nature of humans – can’t be refuted, regardless of the fictional simile she uses.

What I did feel worked 100% was the outrageous sexual satire. Some reviewers claim this book is not about sex at all, and stress the book is ultimately about Empathic Communication with the Other. This empathy is indeed important in Memoirs, but sex is a theme too. It’s approached liberal and open-minded, and the highlight of the book for me was a scene wherein the spacewoman gets possessed by something resembling the wild need to be fertilized by an alien phallic outgrowth. Again Mitchison stresses the bodily, instinctual needs of humans. The fact that the phallic outgrowth also doubles as a dead child makes these parts only more baffling, if you would like to release your inner Freud.

The fact that part of this book is satire seems hardly noticed by reviewers. Maybe my reading was influenced a review of Sirius by Olaf Stapledon. That review highlighted the comic significance of a scene I didn’t perceive as comedy at all, so that may have sharpened my senses a bit. This next quote more or less puts all the deep thoughts about empathic communication in a different light.

We used to take our rations and eat them where the creatures could observe us. This roused their sympathy, though they wanted to see the results of the digestive process. I believe Françoise obliged, but they found the result aesthetically disappointing, and tried to express to her their pity and even some thoughts on how a better results could be achieved. This was a first important point of higher communication between our groups.

For those who missed it: they are talking about the aesthetics of shit, as the alien creatures’ main occupation is shitting in patterns. The book is worth the price of acquisition for this passage alone, and with it Mitchison brilliantly subverts her own set up.

I should mention this is not really a regular story with a beginning, an arc, and an end – it could have been easily marketed as a collection of short stories and novellas, sharing a protagonist. This vignette form for worked and did not work. It made the reading light and open, without the burden of a full construct. On the other hand, I hardly felt an emotional connection with any of the characters, not even with Mary, the protagonist – but I would be surprised if that was Mitchison’s main intention.

While this book has many strengths – there’s a ton of big and small imaginative ideas – I have to say I was not fully convinced by its total value as a work of literary art. Novels use language as their medium, and Mitchison’s prose is not remarkable. It’s not that it’s bad, but it simply doesn’t compel. She is not a smith of sentences. So while the content is remarkable, the verbal form not so much.

Then again: not every story needs to be a poem, so is there any redeeming value to reading this, or would a thorough summary suffice? I guess there is: Mitchison manages to utterly surprise a few times, and that by itself is no mean feat.

Still, I didn’t love this as some others do. I’m not inclined to check out Mitchison’s other books – she wrote over 70, in diverse genres – nor to read this ever again.

If you are interested in brave, quirky vintage SF, this book is 100% recommended. Readers interested in an escapist story with a nice plot – wether driven by character or action – should look elsewhere.

This review originally appeared on Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it.

The Birth Machine, Elizabeth Baines

the-birth-machine-bainesThe Birth Machine, Elizabeth Baines (1983)
Review by Joachim Boaz

“Ladies and Gentleman: The age of the machine” (p 11).

Zelda, described by others as a “good girl” who made a good marriage, enters a hospital for what appears to be a routine pregnancy. Her doctor husband Roland, preoccupied with his upcoming membership exam, ignores and dismisses her worries as those attending her imply they want to induce labour with a new machine: “This machine will revolutionise care on these wards” (p 12). She soon discovers that Roland might have a hand in offering her to his superiors as a potential test subject. At the very least he is complicit. But first she must struggle with her own past that rears up as the drugs are pumped in.

Roland is more concerned with her attractiveness than her experiences before and during her C-section birth:

“‘Oh,’ says Roland. ‘Marvellous.’ Marvellous. Especially for Roland. ‘We’re getting it nice and low, below the pubic hair-line.’ Oh, good. This surgeon must consider she wears very brief bikinis. This patient is a very sexy patient. Or so he flatters Roland” (p 77).

And there are past (well-hidden) struggles between the couple, that must be confronted if Zelda is to assert herself.

Beautiful and powerful moments populate the pages. Zelda’s memories of her family feel like memories. They focus on sensory cues and searing images – things you would remember! Her mother prepares a rabbit:

“She pushed it into the mincer, it choked, she churned hugely at the handle, and slapped back the little arms that flailed; purple bits flew off and stuck like leeches. The air was filled with the high metallic stink of blood” (p 17).

In another passage Zelda and her sister attempt to fix a broken doll – a physical state of the doll forms a recurrent image throughout the novel: “The green-brown liquid dripped through the holes in the skewered head” (p 37).

The hospital embodies the impersonal: “The sheets and pillows are grey, these days no longer boiled, but steeped in disinfectant distilled in some industrial laboratory, a process which leaves them antiseptic but grey” (p 10). Baines’s touches, the plastic sheet doors, the condescending child-talk offered by the nurses make these scenes distinctly unnerving.

Chapter 4 features Baines’s most adept weaving of parallel stories. Three strands interlock: Zelda’s dehumanizing experience in hospital, her personal memories that lead up to the traumatic moment, and the experience of birth abstracted out as university lecture. Baines, predictably, links Zelda’s husband’s medical experiments on hormones in rats with the experience of Zelda, also a test subject unaware of the exact nature of her predicament:

“Everyone waits. Zelda waits. Waits for bread and jam. Waits for her husband. Up at the centre for Medical Research a rat technician takes up a pin and drives it through the pale pink palm of the first rat for dissection” (p 22).

I must confess, I was at a loss about many of fairytale elements of the story due to my lack of knowledge about them. Someone else out there should give it a go! However, they provide some of linking themes and images. For example, a large black bird – “like a mechanical bird” with its breast lit up “with iridescent colours, the fluorescent light of underworld” (p 59) – embodies the forces of oppression that beset her. The cover artist, Hannah Firmin, narrowed in on the visceral essence of the story!

In a discussion with Megan, over at From Couch to Moon, she mentioned that SF about birth has the tendency of “alienifying” the woman’s body. For example, Judith Merril’s ‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) and the countless horror films about women giving birth to monsters (ie, 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby)… Baines in The Birth Machine positions her narrative and polemical aims counter to this tendency. Rather than presenting the birth as unnatural, Zelda struggles against attempts to “alienify” her body by the medical establishment, the patriarchal forces in her life, and the growing technological transformation of the birth processes. In addition, she moves past the tendency to blame herself for the flaws and faults of others. And via her resistance to these forces she comes to grips with her personal trauma.

Note: Although described in the SF encyclopedia as “dark semi-surrealist sf,” The Birth Machine takes place in the 1970s. Perhaps an alternate recent past? The machine itself is never described in much detail nor do I know about experimental 1970s machines to facilitate birth, if they existed at all… But the feel surrounding the device is otherworldly, alternate, sinister.

Publication note: I read the original 1983 edition published by The Women’s Press. Apparently Baines was displeased with the ordering of chapters in the first edition and in 1996 released a self-published restored version. I have not compared the two. However, with this in mind I too found the chapter ordering in the beginning of The Birth Machine slightly odd. It did not detract from my overall perspective on the novel.

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

The Two of Them, Joanna Russ

two_of_themThe Two of Them, Joanna Russ (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

Irene (apparently pronounced I-ree-nee “in the British way”, which, er, isn’t true) was taken from 1950s USA to a parallel universe where humanity has spread out into the galaxy and settled many planets – and many other universes. Her rescuer is an agent of the Trans-Temporal Authority called Ernst Neumann. The name is obviously a pseudonym, perhaps indicating that Ernst hails from a similar background. He chose Irene because she did not fit in her milieu, too headstrong, too tomboyish, too “masculine”. And so he took her away with him. And now the two of them are partners, and lovers, sent on missions to various planets.

The Two of Them opens with Irene and Ernst on the world of Ka’abah – or rather, inside the world of Ka’abah, as the inhabitants live and work in tunnels beneath the inhospitable surface. They are also Muslims. Well, caricatures of Muslims. The women have the social and legal standing of chattel, are kept in purdah, and are apparently so content, and indeed complicit, with their lot they spend all their time beautifying themselves and developing their “feminine personality”. A way of life to which Irene vehemently objects. And because she is so unlike the women of Ka’abah, she is often mistaken for, and treated like, a man.

When Zubeydeh, the twelve-year-old daughter of their host, states she wants to be a poet, an occupation forbidden to women – in fact, all occupations are forbidden to women: Irene even has an encounter with a celebrated female impersonator who plays women on stage… When Zubeydeh is forbidden to become a poet, Irene decides to take the young girl with her when she and Ernst leave. She also wants to take Zubeydeh’s mother, who is almost permanently medicated, and Zubeydeh’s aunt, who was a poet, and is now an inmate of an asylum. But she can’t; and only Irene, Ernst and Zubeydeh depart Ka’abah.

Onboard the spaceship taking them from the world, Zubeydeh “adopts” a young boy who seems to have been abandoned by his parents or guardians. When Irene realises that Ernst plans to institutionalise her on their return to Center because of the events on Ka’abah, she runs away – and takes both Zubeydeh and the boy with her. Back to the world she left. Although now, of course, she is much changed:

You’re in a dress and and coat, although you’ve drawn the line at high heels; you’re wearing penny loafers with your nylons. (p 219)

The depiction of Islam in The Two of Them would only play today on Fox News. It is ignorant and Islamophobic. Russ may have been writing a feminist sf novel about the role of women, but she has cherrypicked common misconceptions about women in Islamic societies as part of her argument, and ignored everything else. This is not an Islamic society, it’s a made-up society based on anti-Islamic myths and clichés.

Russ’s worldbuilding is not helped by her decision to use her own latinisation for Arabic names – perhaps in an effort to render them more accurately. So علي, Ali, Russ spells through the novel as ‘Alee. Which just looks plain weird. Arabic words that are quite common in English, such as wazir, are also given variant spellings.

There’s a good story in The Two of Them, and the prose shows Russ at her best. Toward the end, Russ even begins breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the reader. The narrative also discusses alternative outcomes of Irene’s story, probabilistic worlds and events that would naturally arise out of the premise of the Trans-Temporal Authority. Her depiction of Irene, contrasting both her lack of agency in 1950s USA and her agency in the Trans-Temporal Authority, makes an effective argument. But the attempt to contrast it with Islam is a definite mis-step. The ending at least ties back to Irene’s origin, and not her adventures in the first half of the novel.

I don’t honestly know if The Two of Them is, well, salvageable. Strip out the depiction of Islam, and use a completely invented society, and the novel would be much stronger. And far less offensive. True, the book is forty years old. And written by an American, at a time when American sf was generally considered the only mode of science fiction… because so little sf from other languages was translated, and then often presented as a curiosity – cf 1970s anthologies of translated Soviet science fiction – and the most successful British sf was transatlantic in flavour… So, it’s no real surprise The Two of Them saw publication – although I am surprised The Women’s Press reprinted it eight years later.

And yet… According to Gwyneth Jones in her collection of critical essays, Imagination/Space, Russ’s The Two of Them was written as a deliberate response to Suzette Haden Elgin’s ‘For the Sake of Grace’, a Coyote Jones story, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in May 1969. In Elgin’s story, also set in a society based on Islam, poetry is the only route to fame and fortune available to women. Zubeydeh (Russ even uses the same names in her novel) remains determined to become a poet, even though failure caused her aunt to go “mad”. Russ was not responding to Elgin’s depiction of Islam, but to her central premise of the failure by women to reach male-imposed standards driving those women insane – which in turn harkens back to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. This, at least, explains Russ’s decision to create the society of Ka’abah – although it does not, I would argue, excuse the hash she made of it. Ka’abah was not necessary to continue the conversation begun by Gilman, although it was to directly address Elgin’s story.

I suppose it could be argued Russ’s invented society is peripheral to the main argument of The Two of Them. And it’s certainly true there’s more to the novel than just Ka’abah… It might also be argued the sections set on Ka’abah are intended to be humorous – it’s not a commentary on Islam, it’s certain elements of the religion exagerrated for comic, and/or parodic, effect. Except it doesn’t read funny, and it doesn’t feel funny. And that interpretation only really works if the reader is aware of the Elgin story (even if they have not read it, which I have not), which I was not until beginning this review.

The Two of Them does some things really well, things that were characteristically, er, Russ-ian (Russ-esque?). It’s a much cleverer book than it initially seems, and much more experimental narratively as it progresses. Irene is a great character (although I was less impressed by Ernst). But there’s that massive hurdle in the first third of the book to get over. And I don’t think the novel makes its case well enough for it to be forgivable.

The Best of Leigh Brackett, Leigh Brackett

best_brackettThe Best of Leigh Brackett, Leigh Brackett (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

These days, it’s likely Brackett is better known as the screenwriter of The Empires Strikes Back (and The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye and others). But back in the day, she was almost science fiction royalty, published in many magazines, a collaborator with Ray Bradbury, and married to Edmond Hamilton. And throughout the 1940s and 1950s, she churned out dozens of science fiction stories, most published in Planet Stories, and a handful of novels. Much of her output could be described as “planetary romance”, stories in which the planets of the solar system – Earth excluded – hosted the dying remains of ancient civilisations. Titles included ‘The Dragon-Queen of Jupiter’ (AKA ‘The Dragon-Queen of Venus’), ‘Sea-Kings of Mars’ and ‘Enchantress of Venus’, among many others.

These were stories in which adventurers sought alien treasures and became trapped by ancient curses, or the last members of a dying race managed to exact their final revenge. The sensibilities were pure pulp, but the prose was hard-boiled noir polished to a diamond sheen. Brackett was  very very good at what she did, and her nearest male rivals – including her husband – were no match. Perhaps the closest was CL Moore, Catherine Lucille Moore, with her tales of Northwest of Earth, or her superior space opera novel, Judgment Night.

Given the nature of Brackett’s science fictions, it’s no real surprise that despite her skill she is these days mostly forgotten. The style of what she wrote, irrespective of its quality, has fallen out of favour. The real indignity of this, however, is that other such progenitors, like EE ‘Doc’ Smith, whose writing was so vastly inferior, are still remembered fondly. Make no mistake: of the sf authors writing planetary romance or space opera in the 1940s and early 1950s, Leigh Brackett was probably the best.

And so it seems reasonable to expect superior stories in a collection titled The Best of Leigh Brackett. Which was, incidentally, edited by her husband, Edmond Hamilton. It would not be unreasonable to expect Hamilton to be in an excellent position to select Brackett’s best fiction. But this collection feels more like an attempt to show her range rather than simply showcase her best. It would also not be unreasonable to expect her husband of such motives in selecting stories for the collection.

Sadly, the end result does not play to Brackett’s strengths. There is some classic stuff here, science fiction of the 1940s/1950s that demonstrates it could be serious and superior pulp fiction, like the aforementioned ‘Enchantress of Venus’, or ‘The Jewel of Bas’, or ‘The Last Days of Shandakor’… These are hits of the pure stuff. Known planets of the solar system, ancient civilisations, magical technology… Planetary romance does not get better than this.

Unfortunately, The Best of Leigh Brackett also includes some of her “straight” sf stories, such as ‘The Tweener’ or ‘The Queer Ones’, neither of which compare well to similar contemporary material. If they suited at the time they were published, that’s one thing; but Brackett’s planetary romances are, happily, mostly timeless and still hold up well today…

Albeit perhaps not as well as Moore’s Judgment Night, which rings some changes which took nearly fifty years to take hold in the genre… And Brackett’s fiction was often so well-tuned to its time it now reads as misogynistic… But she had the elegiac tone down pat, and her evocation of long-dead cultures is second to none in genre fiction. There is perhaps a tendency to recycle plots, but no more so than is the case in hard-boiled detective fiction.

Brackett’s style of science fiction is these days considered passé, and was thought so when she returned to it in the late 1970s after a hiatus of a decade or more. It’s certainly true the genre has a tendency to faddish-ness, inasmuch as certain styles and “preoccupations” may prove more popular than others at various times… But good fiction is timeless; and the best fiction evokes timelessness even at the time it is published. Some of Brackett’s stories – and she liked to write at length, so much of her best fiction is novelette- or novella-length – has that quality.  Yes, it could be argued Brackett’s planetary romances were colonialist and orientalist; but because they were constructed to a specific pattern – albeit only inasmuch as they were seemingly patterned on ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’ by J Milton Hayes in much the same way Heinlein’s sf was apparently inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim… And the former being a pastiche of the latter… And both being imperialist and racist to a considerable degree…

Of course, this relies on a particular reading of Brackett’s fiction, or indeed of much American sf of the first half of the twentieth century, and it is perhaps unfair to complain of issues endemic to her entire generation. If Brackett’s fiction did not overcome those issues, it at least made them a mostly unobjectionable element of her stories. Her tales of Mars and its dying races are good stories, put together with enviable skill and economy. She even collaborated with Ray Bradbury – in ‘Lorelei of the Red Mist’ – and her voice drowned out Bradbury’s.

During the 1940s, the two best writers of science fiction were arguably Leigh Brackett and CL Moore, and if history has not recorded them as such, that may well be due to their gender. Some male writers of the period went on to greater success – such as Asimov and Clarke – and so occluded better writers whose subsequent careers did not really survive the 1950s. But the history of women writers in sf is filled with examples who enjoyed historical success, only for their success to be forgotten in subsequent years in favour of the few male authors whose success continued into following decades. True, it also happened to male writers; but the many of the female writers thus forgotten were of better quality.

The Best of Leigh Brackett is not the best-named collection ever published. But Brackett was extremely good at, well, at what she was extremely good at. Her fiction is long out of print, bar collections from some small presses; although she did appear in the original Fantasy Masterwork series from Gollancz, with Sea-King of Mars, despite it not actually being fantasy…  But books by Leigh Brackett are not hard to find, and she is totally worth reading. She should be in print – more so than the likes of Asimov or her other contemporaries. If you see one of her books snap it up. You will not be disappointed.