A Cupful of Space, Mildred Clingerman (1961)
Review by admiral ironbombs
In the 1950s and 1960s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction featured a good number of women writers like Zenna Henderson, Kit Reed, Carol Emshwiller, Miriam Allen deFord, and Mildred Clingerman. Back then they were strongly associated with the magazine; now they are much less well-known, overlooked by many SF readers. As I read through those old issues, I find myself drawn to these unknown authors by the quality of their writing; Clingerman’s story ‘The Wild Wood’ impressed me enough that I tracked down a collection of her work. Stellar cover art by Richard Powers didn’t hurt.
Clingerman’s 1961 collection A Cupful of Space includes 16 stories, most of them from F&SF; it forms an almost complete collection of Clingerman’s work as she only wrote three more, one the next year and two more in 1975. It’s assumed her career ended due to the same unfortunate circumstance that caused other such talented women to stop writing SFF: her husband asked her to stop.
‘First Lesson’ (Collier’s, June 1956). Our unnamed protagonist’s husband Hugh is a paratrooper training in the South, soon to be shipped out to the European Theater. But for the past few months as Hugh makes his first night jump, she’s been having a growing nightmare: Hugh making a jump, drifting down and impaled on a jagged fence-post. When her maid Iris finds her moping and hears of her nightmare, Iris offers up a solution that may get Hugh through alive. A well-written story, commentary on the power of faith and superstition with its surprise revelation.
‘Stickeney and the Critic’ (F&SF, Feb 1953). When the Bottle family settled in Oklahoma, their farm was built next to the strange stone well and stone barn home to what the natives called Stickeney – some kind of ancient monster living in the well’s oily waters. The Bottle children fed it chickens when their parents weren’t watching, and have thrown it a chicken once a year ever since. Enter a critic – scholar of the one Bottle son who fled to England and became a poet, hoping to see the old homestead. Equal parts horror and tongue-in-cheek send-up of horror stories, it’s a well-crafted piece.
‘Stair Trick’ (F&SF, Aug 1952). You’ve seen the stair trick without knowing what it is – the gag where someone pantomimes walking down stairs, crouching while the lower half of their body is obscured by something. Dick the bartender does that gag every night to thrill the regulars and confuse the newcomers – but for him the trick is real to him, as he walks into another dimension. A surreal idea wrapped up in a short, insubstantial story.
‘Minister Without Portfolio’ (F&SF, Feb 1952). Mrs Chriswell is a decent old soul, but now that her husband has passed and she’s living with her son’s family, she feels like an outsider with nothing to do. Sent out by her hostile daughter-in-law to do some birdwatching, she bumps into a group of strange men and their “low, silvery aircraft of some unusual design”. They are, of course, aliens, though Mrs Chriswell doesn’t realize this; all they want is to ask some questions about Earth, and desperate for pleasant conversation, Mrs Chriswell is willing to oblige. A cute moral fable where a colorblind old woman shows that yes, there may be something on Earth worth saving after all.
‘Birds Can’t Count’ (F&SF, Feb 1955). Recovering from a hangover, Maggie tries reading herself to sleep by picking up an old book on birdwatching. But she can’t quite get over the shadow she sees moving in the corner of her eye, which perturbs her cat as well. The theme of birdwatching comes full circle – intergalactic bird watchers? – only the alien observer is more interested in the cat than Maggie. An amusing trifle.
‘The Word’ (F&SF, Feb 1953). A trio of space explorers break the cardinal rule and leave their ship, venturing among the lifeforms they study. They blend in well with the children, poor figures with the faces of crones and skeletons and dressed in rags; they struggle to learn “the word,” which turns out to be “triggertree” – trick or treat, geddit? You should catch on pretty quick. Like several other stories in the collection, it’s a decent short told in a giddy, whimsical tone.
‘The Day of the Green Velvet Cloak’ (F&SF, July 1958). Timid and mousy Mavis feels trapped, settling for a bore of a fiancé named Hubert who set to work “fibering her up” and she “had shudderingly tried pot-gardening, dog-patting, and automobile-driving”. Her bold venture is to use her savings to buy a luxurious green velvet cloak, and head to the Book Nook in search of her favorite reading material, Victorian travel journals. It turns out the owner of the Book Nook was looking for this journal too; he was one of the people on that trip, and wants to read through the entries until he finds the point where he was thrown forward in time. A kind of fairy-tale where time-travel gives Mavis more moral fiber and character than Hubert ever could;
‘Winning Recipe’ (Collier’s, June 1952). Miss Clare shares a house with her oppressive brother, John. He’s always bringing home more and more machines and devices, arguing that this progress will make Clare’s life easier and telling her to “stop sniveling” as she finds herself replaced by automation. With this last one, she’s taking a stand: she will not surrender cooking, her last beloved duty, to the Kitchen Autocrat. If only she could find a recipe it can’t handle… As a story, it’s a thin satire, but it voices a viable concern women might have felt about technology at the time.
‘Letters from Laura’ (F&SF, Oct 1954). Told in epistolary form as a series of letters home to her best friend and mother, Laura takes a Grab Bag Tours trip to the past in hopes of a thrill. Sad to say, she doesn’t get the thrill she was after, and it turns out ancient Crete and the labyrinth of the Minotaur are not as interesting as history and myth make them out to be. Not Clingerman’s strongest piece – I found Laura kind of a snob, and think epistolary stories are interesting but awkward in short works – but it’s interesting how the author touches on themes of female sexuality and time-travel tourism. The twist is a subtle one: the salesman who pitches her this trip also makes sure to up-sell “insurance,” having cut a deal with the Minotaur, but if you recall your mythology the Minotaur only eats virgins…
‘The Last Prophet’ (F&SF, Aug 1955). Reggie is well-known as the local party boor, and any time he shows up at a party he’s doomed to kill all interest and drive everyone away. The problem is that, without fail, he’ll somehow launch into his mantra about the great discovery he’s made, someone that always occurs twenty minutes after the hour. While his discovery is of vital importance, nobody is willing to listen to him long enough to hear it – and even then, Reggie may run out of time before he can reveal what he’s learned, making him the last (if unfulfilled) prophet. Another whimsical tale that turns oddly metaphysical near its end; not my favorite, but not entirely without merit.
‘Mr. Sakrison’s Halt’ (F&SF, Jan 1956). Our narrator and Miss Mattie ride the train round-trip at least twice a week, Miss Mattie looking for the stop that her beau, Mr Sakrison, stopped off at many years ago. She retells the tale every time: he was a traveling Yankee, she a young Southern gal, and together they fell in love. One train ride into the big city, the train stopped unexpected, and Mr Sakrison wandered off into a strange place – a place where there were no drinking fountains labelled white or colored, a place where black and white folk mingled, a place beyond segregation – a place he never left, as the train chugged along. Miss Mattie hopes the train will once again make that stop, and will ride until it does… A heady piece for the Jim Crow era, a love story through space and time and a “future” of racial equality. The bitter undertone at the end condemns racism, alluding to burning crosses and hounds baying in the woods.
‘The Wild Wood’ (F&SF, Jan 1957). Margret and her family shop at the same store for a Christmas tree every year, a simple family ritual but one that Margret loathes. She’s unnerved by the store owner, a lecherous creep; in the past he felt Margret up, giving her horrible dream-state visions. But Margret is compelled to return year after year, unable to escape. As mentioned, I was impressed when I previously reviewed this story; it chilled me this time as well. A well-written and unsettling horror tale dealing with violation of self and control, disturbing due to its surprisingly sexual nature and creepy, intrusive shop-owner. I’d say it’s the best in the collection, and the best Clingerman wrote.
‘The Little Witch of Elm Street’ (Woman’s Home Companion, 1956). When the Bayard family moves to Elm Street, eldest daughter Garnet goes from home to home, warning all the inhabitants of their rambunctious toddler Nina. And Nina proves to be hell on wheels, biting the mailman, running down groups of ten-year-old boys on her tricycle. Garnet and our unnamed housewife protagonist are determined to do something to fix this; Garnet has occult rituals in mind, an exorcism of sorts. But when the bad spirits are driven out of this toddler, who will they inhabit next? A nice piece of fantasy from a mainstream publication, and it fits the pattern of domestic setting and married female protagonist.
‘A Day for Waving’ (F&SF, Aug 1957). Young Eden is jealous of her mother’s affection and plans to remarry a bucktoothed dentist, worrying about the jealousy of a dead father she can barely remember. Today, she, her mother, her grandmother, and her brother Lyle are heading into the graveyard to see the graves of their relatives, father included. Told from a child’s perspective, the story is unique in its fantastic obfuscations, which helps obscure its ghost story elements in among truth and hyperbole.
‘The Gay Deceiver’. Verna has been travelling the world with Papa Frolic for a while now, going from town to town to delight all the children with a magical parade full of whistles and balloons. And for every balloon Papa Frolic sells, he’ll give away ten times as many to children in the poor side of town. But why is Verna worried about the evils of the world, and the mysterious deaths that occur in towns they’ve just passed through? Original to this collection, it’s a capable horror tale, homage and retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamlin.
‘A Red Heart and Blue Roses’. Our protagonist and another woman discuss family and talk about the holidays; as their dialogue progresses, we realize they are in a mental institution, and may be one and the same person. Our unreliable narrator(s) retell a tale of their son bringing home a strange friend for Christmas who refused to leave, a strange being that, much like a cuckoo, attempts to take over the empty nest vacated by the real son when he left to join the Navy. Also original to this collection, it’s another horror tale of male intrusion, violating the normalcy of the family homestead; the plotting is murky and complex thanks to our crazed narrator(s) which makes it hard to follow, but the horror is palpable.
‘The Bottom Line’. To my surprise, while she’s categorized as a science fiction author, much of what Mildred Clingerman wrote would be called something like “slipstream” or “magical realism” today – a melange of the fantastic and the horrific underlying our mundane reality, a journey to where Matheson and Bradbury intersect by way of The Twilight Zone. She wrote stories of whimsy and dread in a literate tone; her vivid protagonists are often married women or housewives, slices of domestic life threatened by intrusive monsters, time-travelers, or aliens. Most of her stories are very short, a few thousand words and often less; as such, several are just a lead-up to a cutesy surprise ending. They would have made ideal Twilight Zone episodes, showing the same blend of humor, horror, and social consciousness that Rod Serling employed.
The overall quality of her stories is good, and Clingerman was impressive at her best. ‘The Wild Wood’ I’d argue is the high point, a potent horror tale of male intrusiveness and the loss of self. ‘Mr. Sakrison’s Halt”’is a brilliant time-travel love-story and critique of racial inequality in America, inspired perhaps by the failed Civil Rights Act of 1956 (HR 627, as opposed to the successful act the next year). ‘Minister Without Portfolio’ and ‘Green Velvet Cloak’ are warm, light-hearted stories; the first espouses that humanity is not without redemption, the second that even the most faint-hearted can gain some courage. ‘A Day for Waving’ is a memorable ghost story; ‘Letters from Laura’ is a neat twist on myth. Most of the rest are amusing trifles: charming, well-written, and lighthearted, but neither ambitious or substantial. If you’re looking for pure SF, Clingerman won’t deliver, but she knocks the fantastic and the wondrous out of the park. With a distinct woman’s voice, too. A collection for us collectors to keep an eye out for, with several underrated gems inside.
This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.
Voodoo Planet, Andre Norton (1959)
Review by Martin Wisse
Genre science fiction got its start in the pulp magazines of the twenties and thirties and many of its early writers were just pulp authors writing the same old stories they’d always written, just with some sf flavourings. So instead of the brave sheriff depending on his horse and trusty six-gun to fight off the bandits out in the Oklahoma badlands, you got the brave space marshal depending on his trusty rocket and raygun to take out the bandits hiding out in the Martian badlands. It’s this that fans meant when they talked about space opera, before that got co-opted for something more respectable, crappy fake science fiction stories that might just as well have been westerns. As the field matured and new writers moved in actually interested in science fiction as a genre, these stories quickly disappeared.
Even so, they never completely went away and every now and then you run across a story whose pulp roots are clearly visible, even with a writer like Andre Norton. Voodoo Planet, as you may have guessed, is one example. The sequel to Plague Ship, this is another adventure of the crew of the Solar Queen, who have been invited to a big game hunt on Khatka, a planet settled by African colonists, where they run straight into a trap set by the resident witch doctor.
Which is just as pulpy as it sounds. Khatka is a planet that’s like the Africa out of pulp magazines, mostly untamed wilderness full of dangerous animals, while the natives are somewhat more sophisticated than in the pre-war pulps. Norton is at pains to emphasise that Khatka is just as civilised a planet as any other, they just prefer the primitive life of their terran ancestors. It’s all a bit separate but equal, not very progressive even for the fifties.
The plot doesn’t help, pitting the rational crew of the Solar Queen against one of the hoariest of pulp clichés, the evil medicine man who uses superstition to oppress the hapless natives. Even though the various black characters are just as well rounded as the Solar Queen’s men, ie, solidly two-dimensional, that kind of plot still taps into all sorts of racist, colonial imagery. Again, Norton does seem to do her best to avoid this, but the shape of the story works against her. It remains too obviously a pulp African adventure transplanted to a science fiction setting. Not her best story.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.
The Luck of Brin’s Five, Cherry Wilder (1977)
Review by Ian Sales
Another science fiction novel that seems to have bounced from adult sf to Young Adult and back again. The Luck of Brin’s Five was published as adult sf in the US, but as children’s fiction in Australia (Wilder is from New Zealand). In truth, the book can pass as either. It’s a simple story, told simply, but its alien world is well-evoked and well-rendered. There are other sf novels less sophisticated than this that have never been considered children’s fiction or YA.
On the world of Torin, orbiting 70 Ophiuchi, the native Moruians organise themselves into family’s of five – three adults (either two male and one female, or two female and one male), an Ancient (the parent of one of the adults) and a Luck (a disapled person, either by injury or from birth). There are also usually children – the Moruians are marsupials, so some may be “hidden”, ie, still in the mother’s pouch. Brin’s Five – Brin, Mamor, Harper Roy and Old Gwin – have just lost their Luck, Odd-Eyes (so called because his eyes were different colours), to old age. But as they lay Odd-Eyes to rest, a spacecraft crashes into Warm Lake, and the Five manage to rescue its pilot. This is Scott Gale, a human male, one of four scientists studying the planet unbeknownst to the Moruians from their base on a distant island. The Moruians are humanoid – their chief differences from humans are larger eyes that stretch up to the temples, a slighter build, and less differences between the two genders (so much so that Moruians often can’t immediately tell the sex of another Moruian). Brin’s Five adopts Gale as their Luck, and gives him the name Diver.
Gale’s arrival, however, has not gone unnoticed. The Great Elder – the chief of the ruling council of five – manages to retrieve Gale’s spacecraft, but he also wants the pilot. Fortunately, Gale can pass as a Moruian if he wraps up well and he wears goggles. He also picks up the Moruian language very quickly (so quickly, in fact, that no one remarks on any accent or strangenesses produced by the human larynx). The Moruian society is peaceful, war has not been known for many centuries, and is technologically on the cusp of an industrial revolution. Some industrial processes are known, though most industries are still cottage-based and much of the population is agrarian. They do have flight, however – pedal-powered gliders, balloons, and perhaps even some steam-powered craft. Brin’s Five are weavers, pretty much country yokels, and at the moment of the social order. There are also townees, and an aristocracy, grandees.
Brin’s Five agree to take Gale to Rintoul, the capital, to meet the Maker of Engines, a Moruian scientist currently at odds with the Great Elder. En route, they discover an abandoned glider, Gale uses the batteries from some of his devices to power propellers on it, and they decide to enter it into the Bird Clan, an annual air race. Which Gale then wins. By this point, they’re making a poor effort at hiding their human Luck. And the Great Elder’s minions have made several attempts to take Gale from them. When the family does reach Rintoul, Gale is captured, a meeting of the council is held, but the Great Elder is defeated on a point of law, and Gale is allowed to join his family.
The story of The Luck of Brin’s Five is told by Dorn, the eldest of Brin’s Five three children. Perhaps this is why the Australian publisher chose to publish the book as children’s fiction. Certainly, Dorn is an unsophisticated narrator. But he’s also a clever choice, because he’s young enough to be happy to explain things he already knows to the alien Gale. The world of Torin may not be entirely convincing, but it’s one with bags of charm. Even the villains are nice. Despite a couple of violent set-pieces, Gale never really seems to be in much jeopardy – and even at the dénouement, the Great Elder backs down with suspicious ease.
But, for all that, The Luck of Brin’s Five is a breezy read. Novels set in alien societies and told from the alien point of view are difficult to pull off. Make the viewpoint too alien, and readers cannot sympathise; make them too human, and suspension of disbelief is lost. Wilder manages her balancing trick with ease and, not only that, even succeeds in making Gale seem somewhat alien to the reader. This is a light book, but quite a fun one. Although complete in and of itself, The Luck of Brin’s Five spawned a pair of sequels: The Nearest Fire (1980) and The Tapestry Warriors (1983). I am tempted to track down copies.
Barryar, Lois McMaster Bujold (1991)
Review by Martin Wisse
Barrayar was actually the first ever Bujold story I ever read and I hated it. That’s because it was the last part of its serialisation in Analog that I read and I had no idea of what was going. Coming back to it now, after having read all the Miles Vorkosigan books at least once, I enjoyed it much more. Like any prequel Barrayar depends for some of its impact on the reader’s knowledge of the main series. If you don’t know who Miles Vorkosigan is and why he is the incredibly determined little mutant runt that he is when we first met him in The Warrior’s Apprentice, the details of how he got to be that way won’t matter all that much.
Chronologically, Barrayar takes place almost immediately after Shards of Honor and is the second and so far last novel to star Cordelia Vorkosigan/Ransom. Cordelia and Aral are settling in to newly married live on Barrayar, with Cordelia pregnant with Miles. Then the old emperor dies and Aral becomes regent to his young grandson and he and Cordelia are soon plunged into the dangerous, still very medieval politics of the Barrayaran court and nobility. How dangerous Cordelia only realises when they’re the victims of an assassination attempt, with poison gas grenades thrown into their house.
They survive, but the antidote Cordelia has to take to counteract the poison gas has a very bad side effect, acting as a teratogenic agent on the fetus she is carrying, posing a real risk to its bone development. Normally there would be nothing for it but to abort the fetus or risk a stillbirth, but Cordelia is not the type of woman to just give up. On a more civilised planet, where medical science was more advanced, there would be chance for the baby, as it could be put into an uterine replicator and treated outside the womb. But Barrayar doesn’t have any of them, or does it?
There are after all still the uterine replicators which housed the children born of the rape of female prisoners of war taken in Barrayar’s last war, which had been forgotten about after they served their purposes. Cordelia manages to track them down, get Miles installed in one and get a bone strengthening programme going on. It takes all her strength but she gets her way and everything looks to be on the up and then the civil war breaks out.
And Miles is behind enemy lines, in the capital, trapped with the rebels. So Cordelia decides to go and get him to safety. Which is sort of where I came in the first time I read this, in the last third of the story. No wonder I was confused.
In retrospect, Barrayar is a turning point in the Vorkosigan series. The novels before it had been cleverly written, more intelligent than they needed to be, light science fiction adventure stories. With Barrayar the series took a leap in quality and became more serious and slightly darker, setting the tone for later entries like Mirror Dance and Memory.
Barrayar is also another reminder of how subtle Bujold can be in showing the effects of her science fictional technology. There isn’t any of the technogeekery or infodumping of some authors I could mention, but at the same time the plot is very much driven by a classic piece of science fiction kit, the artificial womb or uterine replicator. Here it is more of a macguffin of course, something for the protagonist to chase, but over the course of the series we slowly see the impact the introduction of uterine replicators has on Barrayaran society. And here is where it started.
Barrayar is not the best of the Vorkosigan series, but it is the best of the early part of the series. Don’t read it if you haven’t read the earlier published novels yet.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.
The Best of CL Moore, CL Moore (1975)
Review by Martin Wisse
In the mid seventies Ballantine Books, just before it renamed itself into Del Rey, launched a “Best of” series of short story collections by classic science fiction and fantasy authors which I personally think is perhaps the best such series ever produced. Just at a time when science fiction was switching from being a short story, magazine orientated genre to one in which the novel is supreme, here were collections by all the old masters who had made their name in the pulp magazines of the thirties, forties and fifties. The series offered a sense of history to the genre just when science fiction was in danger of losing touch with its roots. It offered both a reminder to old fans of what had attracted them to the genre in the first place and to new fans a sampling of authors they may have thought old-fashioned or perhaps never had the chance to read in the first place.
One of such authors must have been CL Moore, who had made her reputation writing science fantasy stories for Weird Tales in the 1930s. In the 1940s, after she met and married Henry Kuttner she almost completely stopped writing on her own, instead collaborating with him (often under the Lewis Padgett pseudonym) on a series of classic sf stories, then moving on to writing crime stories and for television, both of which unfortunately paid better, in the late 1950s. By the time The Best of CL Moore was published it had been the better part of two decades that she had written much new science fiction. Now that more than twice as much time has passed, this collection is still a great introduction to what CL Moore had to offer when not collaborating with her husband.
The story that first introduced me to CL Moore, ‘Vintage Season’, was however originally published under both her and Kuttner’s names. I first read it in a Dutch anthology of crime and detective stories written by women, which sort of made sense as it can be read as a detective puzzle story. For years that was the extent of my CL Moore reading, until I read this collection. It was enough to realise how great a writer she was.
The Best of CL Moore is a well balanced collection, with most of the stories from before she met and married Henry Kuttner. Both of her best known heroes, Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry are represented but do not dominate. In general the stories here vary from outright fantasy to pure science fiction, but what they have all in common is the human touch. Her characters are fully human, three dimensional in a way that was rare for pulp science fiction. She builds her stories around the characters of her protagonists, even in the science fantasy of her Northwest Smith and Jirel stories. There are no clunkers whatsoever in here, as we’ll see.
‘Shambleau’ (1933). This is the story that introduced both Northwest Smith and Moore herself to Weird Tales, her first published story. It’s space fantasy of the kind Leigh Brackett also wrote, with some of the clichés of that genre, but already with the same craft and power brought to all the stories here. It starts with a mixed race mob – Martians, Venusians, Earthmen – chasing a slim nutberry brown beauty in a radiant scarlet cloak down the streets of a Martian town and Northwest Smith rescuing her. But she’s shambleau and Smith does not know what this is and only finds out — almost too late.
‘Black Thirst’ (1934). Another Northwest Smith story, about a Venusian castle where they breed beauty and its master who feast on it. Almost as good as the first story.
‘The Bright Illusion’ (1934). A man dying of thirst in the great Saharan desert is set on a quest on a strange world by an intelligence so powerful it can only be described as a god, to meet this god’s priestess and fall in love with her, no matter her innate alienness. This should be schmaltzy as hell, but Moore’s skill as a writer makes this work.
‘Black God’s Kiss’ (1934). The first Jirel of Joiry story, a Medieval French swordswoman whose kingdom is taken over through sorcery, who manages to escape her captor, then has to travel much farther than she could’ve ever imagined for her vengeance. As with the first Northwest Smith story this has an immediate impact: everything Jirel is, is here fully formed.
‘Tryst in Time’ (1936). Another love story, where a man who has grown bored with everything the modern world has to offer, who has tasted all adventure and sensation that’s in it, volunteers to be the guinea pig for his genius friend’s time machine. He gradually realises that in all the historic scenes he witnesses one girl remains constant and falls in love with her – but does she know him and could they ever be together?
‘Greater Than Gods’ (1939). On one man’s decision which of the two women he loved he wanted to marry rested the faith of the future. Hinging on this decision, Earth would become either a slowly dying, rural idyllic paradise, or it would rule the universe but at the cost of human happiness. Which alternative is better and is there truly no other option? As a story it does depend on a certain gender essentialism we’ve largely grown out of, but if you can swallow this, this is a clever, sentimental story.
‘Fruit of Knowledge’ (1940). According to Jewish legend, before Eve Adam had another wife, Lilith, who refused to be dominated by him and therefore was cast aside. Normally I don’t like this kind of Biblical fantasy, but Moore manages to make this story interesting by making Lilith a sympathetic character without quite making either Adam or Eve into the villains of the piece.
‘No Woman Born’ (1944). A woman, the greatest dancer of her generation, is caught in a horrible accident and given an experimental cyborg body, her brain in a metal shell. The male scientists and psychologists responsible for her transformation worry about her and whether or not she can remain human living like this. An interesting psychological story.
‘Daemon’ (1946). A simple-minded Brazilian boy is shanghaied on a Yankee clipper as a cabin boy, but he has a secret: he can see the soul or daemon every person but he himself carries with him. It keeps him alone in a world full of people, until on a small remote island he discovers others like him…
‘Vintage Season’ (1946). The best story in the collection, this bittersweet tale of how a group of strange foreigners hiring a house at the edge of an unnamed American city slowly are revealed to be time-travelling tourists with a penchant for the horrible and tragic. In this way Moore shows us the mirror image of how we ourselves treat historical horrors as entertainment, where whatever tragedy we’re witnessing can be dismissed as destiny, just as these tourist from the future dismiss what happens to the narrator and his city and world as something that happened long ago in their past…
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.
Skirmish, Melisa Michaels (1985)
Review by Ian Sales
As a general rule, we prefer not to review books published as YA on SF Mistressworks although, of course, there has been a long tradition of “juveniles” in science fiction and many genre writers who wrote successful sf adult (ie, not YA) novels also wrote works aimed at a slightly younger audience. It might even be argued that, for example, the works of Andre Norton, although not published as such, qualify as juveniles. Indeed, some genre works originally published for an adult audience have in the past few years been re-released as YA – David and Leigh Edding’s Belgariad is a good example.
Skirmish, however, is the opposite. It was originally published in the US by Tor as a sf novel for adults, the first volume of the Skyrider quintet. In the UK, however, it was published by The Women’s Press science fiction YA imprint Livewire – which only ever published two books, Skirmish and Gwyneth Jones’s The Hidden Ones (which was written specifically for Livewire). Which makes for an odd YA line, as Skirmish is arguably not YA.
Melacha Rendell, AKA the Skyrider, is a pilot in the Belt. A recent war between the Company and the freelancers has left relations between the two somewhat strained. While Melacha, who is the best pilot in the Belt, works for the Company, she also smuggles supplies to freelancers. Nor did she fight during the war – a fact which some people hold against her. After a run-in with the Company’s Patrol, Melacha only just makes it back to Home Base in one piece, although her shuttle is wrecked on landing. She’s far from happy about this, especially since she might have made it if another shuttle hadn’t jumped the line to the launchpad. Melacha takes an immediate dislike to the pilot of that shuttle, Jamin… But the two are thrown together when the Company asks them to rescue a space liner with sabotaged engines currently falling into the Sun – Melacha because she’s the best pilot and the only one capable of docking with the runaway liner, and Jamin because he’s qualified to pilot a liner. Meanwhile, Melacha’s feelings toward Jamin have softened somewhat since she discovered that a) he’s a freefall mutant, who can only survive in a gravity environment thanks to a severe drug regimen, and b) he has a six-year-old son, Collis, who can’t survive in freefall.
Melacha demands a Falcon-class shuttle as payment, and in this spacecraft, newly named Defiance, Melacha and Jamin – and stowaway Collis – head off to save the liner. But a series of events threaten to sabotage the mission, and Defiance, and Melacha puts two and two together and realises that it’s not the Insurrectionists who sabotaged the liner as claimed…
While Melacha is an adult protagonist, and there’s little in Skirmish which is self-evidently YA, I can see why it might be seen as such since it really is quite simplistic. Melacha may be an engaging protagonist, but her love-hate relationship with Jamin runs on well-travelled lines. Her maternal feelings toward Collis, however, are a nice touch, and not so common among heroines of her ilk. The background, on the other hand, is a standard Wild West in space – the pilots even wear guns, although, bizarrely, despite only being stun guns it’s considered taboo to actually fire them. Otherwise, the politics are of the sort seen all too often in US heartland science fiction – bad Company, good pioneering freelancers, and the sort of “Rand lite” economic structures that are far too prevalent in the genre.
One piece of silliness in the book, however, involves those “freefall mutants”. In the universe of Skirmish, humans are split into three types: Fallers, Grounders and Floaters. Fallers have a gene which allows them to live in zero gravity, and they need drugs to survive in a 1G environment. Grounders, conversely, can live in zero-G for short periods, but need regular bouts in 1G. Floaters are equally at home in both, without penalty. Melacha is, of course, a Floater. It’s all complete nonsense, of course; and it was in 1985, when this book was originally published. The Asteroid Belt is also treated as though the asteroids were no more than a few thousand metres apart, rather than thousands of kilometres.
Skirmish is a light and quick read, and though Melacha is a likeable female protagonist with a great deal of agency, the science fiction furniture is a bit too well-worn for the book to stand out. The other YA novel published under the Livewire imprint, Gwyneth Jones’s The Hidden Ones, which was original to Livewire, is much the better book.
Picnic on Paradise, Joanna Russ (1968)
Review by Joachim Boaz
Joanna Russ’ first published novel Picnic on Paradise delightfully subverts traditional SF pulp adventure tropes. Although not as finely wrought as The Female Man, And Chaos Died, or her masterpiece We Who Are About To…, Picnic on Paradise is worthwhile for all fans of feminist SF and the more radical visions of the 60s.
Unfortunately, the metafictional implications/literary possibilities of the Alyx sequence of short stories and novels – of which Picnic on Paradise is part – are not realized until the publication of the short story ‘The Second Inquisition’ (1970).
She was a soft-spoken, dark-haired, small-boned woman, not even coming up to their shoulders, like a kind of dwarf or miniature – but that was normal enough for a Mediterranean Greek of nearly four millennia ago, before super-diets and hybridization from seventy colonized planets had turned all humanity (so she had been told) into Scandinavian giants. (p 1).
And so Alyx enters the fray… She’s a Trans-Temporal Agent, snatched from a near death situation and her difficult past (abusive relationship, realities of childbirth in the ancient world, et) in the time of the Phoenicians for a dangerous mission. The mission, extricate a series of “rich tourists” and nuns from a rare surface war on the planet Paradise from point A to point B. Unlike normal wars where the entire surface of a planet would be blasted into oblivion and re-terraformed by the winning side, Paradise is a tourist resort with little financial value other than its gorgeous mountains and vistas. But, there is a hitch: “no fires […] no weapons, no transportation, no automatic heating, no food processing, nothing airborne” (p 10) are allowed as they would be picked up on an infra-red spectrum at levels higher than the local wildlife. Weapons would narrow in and kill them on the spot.
Alyx, from the ancient city of Tyre, would have no problem trekking across the dangerous planet without modern necessities, but the inhabitants of this sterile, technologically dependent, rather coddled future would most likely die within days. Her survival skills and “sheer ignorance” of the modern world is the reason Alyx is assigned to the mission.
She has to contend with an intriguing and varied cast of individuals whose interactions with her and each other critique a range of social/cultural issues. First, there’s Maudey who is obsessed with plastic surgery: “You ought to have cosmetic surgery […] I’ve had it on my face and breasts. It’s ingenious. […] And you have to be careful dying eyebrows and eyelashes, although the genetic alterations are usually pretty stable. But they might spread, you know. Can you imagine having a blue forehead?’” (p 31).
And Maudey’s daughter Iris, who is the rebellious teenager desperate to escape her mother. The nuns are adherents to some vaguely defined Buddha inspired religion using sex and drugs to access the religious experience. Gunnar, an amateur explorer, initially challenges Alyx doubting the diminutive woman has the requisite skills necessary to lead the expedition. He belittles her before she proves him otherwise, “they had never, she supposed, seen Gunnar on the ground before. Or anyone else. Then Maudey threw up” (p 22). Gunnar starts to admire her. The Machine, a normally mute teenager, hides from his past but shows interest in Alyx’s. And then there is Raydos, an artist and “intellectual.” And finally there is Gavrily, a man who holds great influence.
In the first part of the novel the journey from point A to point B goes mostly without a hitch: Alyx learns about each of tourists and reaches some understanding of the foreign world in which she has been plunged. But then they discover that point B has been abandoned, and they must trek into the mountains to find some other way to escape: and unfortunately, “Paradise was not well mapped” (p 44).
At the time of publication Picnic on Paradise was and continues to be a radical vision. Alyx, although 26, is an “middle-aged” in her original time who has seen and suffered more than anyone can in Russ’ future. Her body is prematurely old and in no way adheres to western conceptions of beauty. Those around her are shocked and deeply suspicious of her abilities. But Alyx possesses an incredible drive to survive – the antithesis of the 1960s clichéd pulp woman in distress.
An outsider inserted into a varied cast is one of Russ’s favorite techniques: it is most adeptly used in We Who Are About To…. Despite their unappealing angst and frustration with Alyx, we come to feel for them as Alyx molds them into a group able to survive the planet. Their initial childlike perspectives on the world are perfectly embodied by the following passage:
“I ran away from home,” said Iris, “at the age of fifteen and joined a Youth Core. Almost everyone has Youth Cores, although mine wasn’t a delinquent Youth Core and some people will tell you that doesn’t count. But let me tell you, it changed my life. It’s better than hypnotic psychotherapy. They call it a Core because it forms the core of your adolescent rebellion, don’t you see, and I would have been nobody without it, absolutely nobody, it changed my whole life and my values. Did you ever run away from home?”
Yes, said Alyx. “I starved” (p 31).
Picnic on Paradise is a dense, well-written, and moving adventure. The appealing polemic is neatly integrated into the plot and Russ dismembers some of the more pernicious clichés in SF. Russ continues to impress me. Pick up a copy.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.