A Spaceship Built of Stone, Lisa Tuttle (1987)
Review by Ian Sales
Back in 1975, two authors who had yet to have novels published collaborated on a novella. It was published in Analog, was shortlisted for both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and placed first in the Locus Poll for novellas. Two more novellas followed, in 1980 and 1981, the bulk of the work apparently done by only one of the authors. The other writer, however, had since had a collection and a novel published. In 1981, a fix-up novel of the three novellas was published, the debut novel of one of the pair. In the decades since… one author had nine novel in a variety of genres and six collections published, while the other wrote a further three novels, edited a successful series of shared-world anthologies, before turning his hand to epic fantasy and becoming one of the best-selling writers in genre fiction. That 1981 fix-up novel was Windhaven and, obviously, one of its authors was Lisa Tuttle. The other was George RR Martin. And it’s a shame Tuttle’s career has not followed the same trajectory as Martin’s because she’s plainly the better of the two writers… as this collection, A Spaceship Built of Stone, plainly shows.
While the stories in this collection are all science fiction, not all of them read like science fiction – they skirt the edge of genre, they flirt with genre tropes, they make use of science fiction’s toolbox but refuse to place themselves firmly in the genre landscape. And that is perhaps their greatest strength.
In opening story ‘No Regrets’, a published poet returns to the university town in which she once lived fifteen years before to take up a post as a visiting lecturer. She had not been a student at the university, but her boyfriend had and she’d moved to the town to be with him. He wanted her to marry him, but she wanted to be a poet… so she left him. She is lent a house owned by the university in which to stay… and it proves to be the one she’d shared with that boyfriend of years before. Who is still at the university, but now a lecturer. The house proves to be haunted – not by ghosts, but by echoes of the life the poet might have led had she chosen to stay with her boyfriend all those years ago. And when she gets to meet her ex-boyfriend – now married, with two children of his own – and they discuss the life they might have lived had she stayed… Well, there’s a superb deconstruction of the ex-boyfriend’s perception of what might have happened had they actually married. Read this story not for its central premise but for the excellent way Tuttle uses it to interrogate women’s roles.
Women’s roles are also central to ‘Wives’… except the wives of the title are not human, but the natives of some alien world that has been conquered by humans. The “wives” use techniques unique to their alien nature, as well as those used by human women, so as to effect the appearance their husbands desire. But Susie begins to question the role she has been forced to play:
She thought about going back to her house in the settlement and wrapping herself in a new skintight and then selecting the proper dress and shoes to make a good impression on the returning Jack; she thought about painting her face and putting rings on her fingers. (p 29)
She thinks the wives should reject the parts they are playing, throw off their disguises, and return to the lives they led before the humans came. She is persuaded against this by the other wives because all that would happen… is what has already happened. It’s perhaps not the subtlest of allegories, but it makes its point forcefully and intelligently.
‘The Family Monkey’ is one of the longest stories in the collection. An alien crashlands in Texas in the nineteenth century and is taken in by a nearby family. The alien cannot talk, and its telepathy has been severely restricted by injuries sustained during the crash. Over the generations – the story is told in the voice of one member from each generation – the alien remains with the family, and at least one member can communicate emotionally with it. Until the present day, when its fellows contact Earth and arrived to take it home. But the alien’s presence in the family has led to changes in the women – they have become more independent. One goes off to New York to study, and on her return finds the courage to stand up to her father. And another in the present day doesn’t want to go away with the alien because her telepathy makes her a freak. ‘The Family Monkey’ feels a little like two stories welded together – one set in the nineteenth century and one set in the present day – and suffers as a result.
The wrasse, a brightly-coloured fish found in on the Great Barrier Reef, apparently exhibits unusual social behaviour. Each male has a harem of up to six female fish, but when the male dies, one of the female takes over his role and biologically changes sex to do so. This is the central premise of ‘Mrs T’, in which a journalist visits a woman who has discovered something important. There’s no much that is unexpected in this story, and though the writing is good its predictability makes it seem a lighter read than it is.
Though the title might suggest otherwise, ‘The Bone Flute’ is one of only a few stories in A Spaceship Built of Stone which inhabits genre heartland. It is set in a sketchily-described interstellar civilisation, and involves a trip to a world that has been cut off from the mainstream of humanity for several centuries. The protagonist is a trader and has taken her toy boy, Venn, with on her trip to the world of Habille. The world is notable for the fact its inhabitants form life-long attachments – in direct contrast to the trader and Vann. While visiting a small village, the two witness a man playing haunting music on a flute, and he later explains that the flute was made from a bone of his dead, and still much-loved, wife. Venn then falls in love with a local woman and decides to stay on Habille, despite being warned by the trader that he must remain committed to his new lover for the rest of his life (and she knows he’s incapable of doing so). A decade later, on another world, the trader is present at a recital given by a bone flute player from Habille – and it is the woman her boyfriend left her for. Venn is also present. But the flute player tells the trader that the flute is made from the bone of her dead lover… Apparently, there was some controversy around this story and its Nebula Award nomination – see here.
The title story is based on one of those superb premises every genre writer wishes they had. Tuttle only skims lightly across the top of the premise, rather than interrogates it rigorously, and while she uses the same approach in some of the other stories in A Spaceship Built of Stone, here it demonstrates its effectiveness. A teaching assistant at a university is using dreams as a topic for discussion, and himself dreams of visiting a ruined city in a desert, beneath which the inhabitants are hiding in tunnels. On the bus to the university, he sits beside a young woman he finds attractive and sees that she has doodled in her sketchbook a design he remembers from his dream. They discover their dreams matched… as do a further five of his students in his class. Some time later, a new Anasazi ruin is discovered in New Mexico, and it resembles the ruined city the teaching assistant and the other dreamt. And then the Anasazi are among them, as if they had never died out, and they petition the US government for their ruined city… No one seems surprised or puzzled by this except the protagonist, who theorises about a people who use dreams to prepare their way before peacefully infiltrating Earth and becoming just one more culture on the planet.
‘The Cure’ refers to an injection designed “to stimulate and strengthen the body’s own defences against microscopic invaders” (p 128). But babies born to women who have taken the Cure prove to be without language. A woman has given birth to such a son and she appears to have lost language in sympathy. The story is addressed to the woman by her lover, who wonders if she too might end up the same but wlecomes it if it means saving their relationship.
Ron has died but Felicia has paid for him to be “revived”, but in ‘The Hollow Man’ the husband who comes home from the hospital is not the man she remembers. As the title suggests, there is something missing inside him – and this is apparently true of all of those who have been revived, though their loved ones may refuse to see it. Ron originally committed suicide, but since being revived he can’t even care enough to do it again. He will go on living as a revived person because to do anything would require some sort of commitment. Again, the shape of story is hardly unexpected once the set-up has been described, but Tuttle’s story is not about Ron and his struggle to survive, it’s about Felicia and her relationship with the person she knows to be her husband.
If ‘The Other Kind’ feels a little old-fashioned in plot, the sort of story that might not have looked out of place in a 1960s or 1970s sf magazine, the way the story is told certainly owes more to the New Wave. The humans on the world of Ederra live lives of plenty, waited on hand on foot by the native Ederrans, or Teddies. The aliens are not slaves, the humans tell themselves, because they work for the humans out of love. The narrator is a young man who feels at odds with his fellows humans, and is increasingly drawn to the Ederrans – even sexually. He explores his new feelings, enters into a relationship with an Ederran, and discovers that it is possible, through surgery, to become a Teddy. Except what he learns as he undergoes his transformation is not what he had believed. Perhaps the final revelation is not exactly a surprise,
The final story, ‘Birds of the Moon’, is the most overtly fantastical of the stories in the collection. Amalie dreams of cold birds on the Moon, and has done since her husband Jim, an Apollo astronaut, returned from there. He is also having an affair, but when Amalie is confronted by her husband’s lover in the supermarket she knows the affair is not serious. Meanwhile, her daughter Carmen is – autistic? Amalie has lost her husband – not physically but certainly emotionally, a result of his lunar mission. Nor can her daughter connect emotionally to her, or indeed anyone else. This is what the birds are. Stories featuring astronauts, especially ones from real space programmes, I feel need to be solidly grounded in detail, because there is something extraordinary in the profession and to treat it like any other fails to make use of that. While Jim’s experiences have created the situation described in ‘Birds of the Moon’, his background doesn’t really impinge, other than providing the central metaphor and some of the imagery used to describe it. This is a story that bears rereading, but I would have preferred it be better earthed, so to speak.
For a collection published in 1987 and containing stories published between 1976 and 1985, A Spaceship Built of Stone is very strong. The title story alone is worth the price of admission. Some of the others perhaps feel a little well-worn these days, though there’s no denying they’re written in classy prose and several still have power. ‘No Regrets’, ‘Wives’ and ‘Birds of the Moon’ are good, the ending of ‘The Bone Flute’ lifts it above other stories of its type, and ‘The Hollow Man’ works really well because it is not about the titular character.
Jo Fletcher Books is apparently in the process of republishing Lisa Tuttle’s back-catalogue, and A Spaceship Built of Stone is already available as an ebook. I don’t know if a paperback edition is planned, but if you have an ereader then this is certainly a collection worth buying.