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.

The Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ

hidden_side_moonThe Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ (1987)
Review by Ian Sales

There can be little doubt by now that Joanna Russ was one of the most important figures in American twentieth-century science fiction, although for many years, particularly afterward, her contribution to the genre was downplayed or ignored. Much, in fact, as she described in her important work, How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Of course, she was not the only female sf writer to be “forgotten”. From the twenty-first century it seems like there was a concerted effort from the late 1970s through the 1980s to write female authors out of science fiction history. Only a few managed to hang on in there – Ursula K Le Guin, of course, who is often the only woman writer on so-called lists of “classic sf”. And this despite a huge number of female mid-list writers publishing throughout the 1980s, some of whom went on to bestseller status, like Lois McMaster Bujold.

Joanna Russ won four major genre awards, and was nominated 41 times, during her career; and yet by the turn of the century she seemed to be known only as the author of a little-read classic, The Female Man. In part, I suspect this was due to the fact she was a vocal feminist and feminist writer, and conservative sf fans, echoing a move in wider US culture, tried to demonise feminism and feminist sf. Fortunately, science fiction is a progressive genre, and many of its fans fought against this reactionary rewriting of sf history.

Having said all that, I still think Russ is under-appreciated. While her novels now often appear on “classic sf” lists, much of her short fiction output has been overlooked. And she wrote a lot of short fiction – fifty-six stories between 1955 and 1996. The Hidden Side of the Moon, a collection from late in her career, contains twenty-six stories published between 1959 and 1984. Some are less than a page long. Not all were originally published in genre venues.

Twenty-six stories is too many to cover individually.  Overall, they give an impression of fierce intelligence I don’t recall getting quite so strongly from other Russ collections (although certainly from individual stories). This is especially odd given I don’t believe the collection was curated, or its contents chosen for particular reasons. It may simply be a consequence of the fact that not all of the stories are science fiction or fantasy.

The opener, ‘The Little Dirty Girl’, is a chilling ghost story, told in epistolary style. In ‘Sword Blades and Poppy Seed’, a female writer rails against society, before being told she should, in fact she will, use the nom de plume George Sand. ‘This Afternoon’ describes a play in a park, in which one of the actors plays a satyr, only he may not be an actor…

‘”I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!”‘ is a Cthulhu story. In fact, a number of the stories in The Hidden Side of the Moon play with, or reference, other literary works, something Russ did throughout her career. Given that ‘Window Dressing’ was originally published in 1970, in New Worlds of Fantasy 2, I suspect it’s not referencing the film Mannequin, although it shares the same story.  ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’ is about a friend of the writer who is an anthologist of science fiction stories and, well, the title says it all. After reading the slushpile for the anthology, the narrator: “… that pile of rejected mss must have been the vehicle for a curse … How do I know? I began to write trash.” Some of which is then given.

‘Nor Custom Stale’, published in 1959, is the oldest story in the collection. It’s a variation on ‘The Machine Stops’ by EM Forster, although here it’s the reverse which is true, and which leads to a strange, inexplicable result. ‘The Experimenter’ is a sort of fantasy, but ‘Reasonable People’ is definitely science fiction. Russ’s stories – and these two are good examples – often seem to end on single lines which question everything has gone before. The final three lines of ‘Reasonable People’, for instance, go:

Isn’t it a lovely world?
And so it is. It is.
For reasonable people

 

Both ‘Visiting’ and ‘Visiting Day’, titled here ‘I. Visiting’ and ‘II. Visiting Day’, although originally published in 1967 and 1970, and ‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’, which contains two stories, ”The Autobiography of My Mother’ and ‘Daddy’s Girl’ are more literary experiments than genre fiction. And yet, genre reading protocols still work on them – if anything, Russ’s genre fiction had a tendency to confound genre protocols more than her non-genre work did. Or rather, ‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’ can be read as genre; but something like ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ (collected in Extra(Ordinary) People) is clearly genre but resists an obvious read.

The more of Russ’s fiction I read, the further I want to explore her oeuvre. From what I have seen to date, it is variable but, to borrow from Longfellow, “when she was good, she was very, very good”. But more than that, there was a fierce intelligence driving her fiction – and her non-fiction too, of course – and a fierce commitment to feminism evident in pretty much every word she wrote. As I have said before, the giants of twentieth century fiction we have been lumbered with are Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov; when the true giants were, and are, Russ, Delany and Le Guin.

Two That Came True, Judith Moffett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.

Out of Bounds, Judith Merril

otfbnds1960Out of Bounds, Judith Merril (1960)
Review by Joachim Boaz

I have long been a fan of both Judith Merril’s fiction and edited volumes. The eponymous novella in the collection Daughters of Earth (1968) is one of more delightful visions from the 1950s I have encountered. Merril reframes biblical patrilineal genealogy as matrilineal – i.e. humankind’s conquest of space is traced via the female descendants of an august progenitor. The story is brilliant in part due to a remarkable metafictional twist, the story itself is compiled from historical documents to serve as an instructional template for future generations of women. Despite substantial editorial control that forced Merril to include a rather hokey plot on two hokey planets, the story remains memorable for the well crafted feminist message.

After Judith Merril’s divorce from her husband – and fellow Futurian – Frederik Pohl in 1952, she found that her “risky” SF visions epitomized by ‘Daughters of Earth’ were less welcome. Due to financial and personal reasons, she had to tread carefully. In a few cases her radical explorations of gender/sex, such as ‘The Lady was a Tramp’ (1957), had to be published under pseudonyms.

Judith Merril proved (and still is to some degree) to be a polarizing figure. The SF critic and author Algis Budyrs dismissed and ridiculed this volume’s story ‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) as “agrandiz[ing] the steaming-wet-diaper school of SF, which in many examples defines and dramatizes women as beings whose sensitivity and humanism are at constant odds with something inherently messy in their bodies”. Shocking headline: SF that actually focuses on the lives and experiences of women offends a man! Theodore Sturgeon puts forth an ardent defense of her craft and abilities as a “Writer” (with a capital W) in the introduction to the volume.

Out of Bounds contains seven short fictions that demonstrate the range she produced over the course of the 50s: from her terrifying and radical first story ‘That Only a Mother’ to more populist and “acceptable” space operas such as ‘Whoever You Are’. The collection as a whole fluctuates drastically from the masterpiece ‘Dead Center’ to the banal exploration of telepathic vibes in ‘Connection Completed’. Seek out ‘Dead Center’!

Judith Merril should be read by any fan of 50s SF. The deserving omnibus collection Homecalling and Other Stories: The Complete Solo Short SF of Judith Merril (2005) is a must buy.

‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) reminds me of Richard Matheson’s later SF horror story about a mutant child, ‘Born of Man and Woman’ (1950)…. In Merril’s similarly powerful story in a future nuclear world, everyday exposure to radiation might cause devastating mutation. Margaret fixates on this potential via letters to her husband Hank – involved in the war effort – who claims that there is nothing to fear. When he arrives home Margaret has already given birth, and…

What makes ‘That Only a Mother’ so effective is the careful integration of everyday life. This nuclear war does not leave a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Rather, life continues much as it did before with devastating consequences. I am an ardent supporter of epistolary fiction. Merril’s use of letters serve to limit what the reader knows (these are letters between a couple and information is kept from the reader) and thus heightens the psychological tension. The nebulous ending furthers this effect. Worthwhile.

‘Peeping Tom’ (1954). Telepathy. A jungle. A nameless war. Tommy Bender, “a nice American boy”, recovers from an injury. In the jungle dampness he learns about the less than tender thoughts of his fellow wounded comrades who lust after their nurses. When Bender can walk again – remember he’s “a nice American boy” – he pays for sex, with a “disconcertingly young” woman (pimped by her young brother) in the nearby village, with cigarettes.

One day when he seeks to assuage his lusts, he enters the hut of the local sage and begins to uncover his telepathic abilities. His nurse love interest is also one of the sage’s students…. ‘Peeing Tom’ rises above many similar telepathy stories not due to the very predictable twist ending, but the strange commentary on the transformative effects of injury and war. This was written after the Korean War. Tommy Bender is not really “a nice American boy” and is solely motivated by his own lusts and passions.

‘The Lady Was a Tramp’ (1957) is without doubt the most unusual story in the collection. The premise: IBMen plot the trajectories and jumps of spaceships, an especially dangerous job on a merchant ship due to the small crew compliment. The female psychological officer, who holds the rank of Commander, likewise has an important role to play in the microcosm of the ship. A role that the new IBMan Terrance Carnahan does not want to believe exists. Merril purposefully conflates the spaceship, the Lady Jane, and Anita, the psychological officer. Terrance considers both “tramps”.

The pros: The story is psychologically tense. Also, the focus on some elements of life in a spaceship exudes a certain realism. The cons: Merril clearly positions Anita as the power on the spaceship, the woman who holds everything together by having sex with all the male crew members. She uses her sexuality to keep the crew from fracturing. Just as Terrance must conquer space to achieve his dream, he must also put aside his reservations and take advantage of Anita’s role. Really?! I find it rather unsettling in its ramifications especially since Carnahan never puts aside his extreme sexism. Very problematic.

‘Whoever You Are’ (1952). A space opera with a fun twist…. A vast web encircles the solar system manned by the intrepid men and women who are still seduced by the allure of space. The bravest souls – called Byrds – fly from the energy womb off into the bleak expanse setting up colonies, encountering aliens. One of these spaceships returns but the crew is dead, and aliens are on board. Thankfully the ship is encased in the web and does not appear to be a threat. Via the ship logs of the various dead crew members the mystery is slowly pieced together. As most of Merril’s futures, women play central parts in uncovering the mystery. But, it might be too late!

‘Connection Completed’ (1954). A man gazes at a woman through a window. What transpires are a series of thoughts projected by both characters attempting to compel the other act and thus demonstrate the veracity of their telepathic experience. Both are fearful that it is all a delusion. If Merril pursued a SF horror avenue rather than the rather tepid conclusion, the story might have been more intriguing.

‘Dead Center’ (1954) is the best of collection. It might be superior to ‘Daughters of Earth’ which was forced by the editor to follow a particular plot… I still hold that ‘Daughters of Earth’ is the more ideologically relevant story. But ‘Dead Center’ blends both polemical and narratological elements into a more cohesive story.

Shifting from perspective to perspective, ‘Dead Center’ explores the ramifications of a disaster. In this case, losing contact with a spacecraft. Jock Kruger is the pilot and Ruth, his wife, the designed of the spacecraft. As the plot slowly unravels we soon understand the nature of the relationship between all the characters. A son who is tired of the lies his parents tell… The ambitions, the “cult of the astronaut”, the public gaze… Delightful. Highly recommended.

‘Death Cannot Wither’ (1959). The collection ends on a sour note with a supernatural tale which, according to the Author’s note, was heavily edited by Algis Budrys – “the story should properly carry a joint byline” (p 137). Edna Colby lives with her husband Jack on his estate. She spends her time contributing to Better Homes and Gardens and suspects that Jack might be having an affair on his occasional trips to the city. After his death in a hunting accident on the estate, a strange series of events transpire – as he returns three years later dead but alive. The story never maintains a sense of unease and feels half-hearted. Avoid.

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

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr

hersmokeHer Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990)
Review by Kate Macdonald

The short stories of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever are grim and powerful reading, committing the reader to new worlds and leaving unsettling characters in the mind. They are about love, sex and death in the future, across species and time. In the original introduction to the 1990 edition John Clute writes passionately about the youth and vigour of Tiptree’s writing, and the masculine use of language that “tells the world what it is, tells the world what to do”. The point of this defence (and no defence is needed, but Clute was recapping the situation from the 1970s when Tiptree was an enigmatic secret) is, of course, that the secretive and impressive sf author James Tiptree Jr was unmasked in 1977 as Alice B Sheldon, also writing as Raccoona Sheldon, a CIA operative, psychology PhD, and explorer’s daughter, aged 62. The revelation of the femaleness of this superb writer must have given huge pleasure (it still does) to those who had bristled at Robert Silverberg’s authoritative statement from a few years earlier that Tiptree could not be a woman because her writing was “ineluctably masculine”, implying that only men wrote great sf. That was just a bit too hegemonic for the late 1970s, even for a grand old man of literature.

Clute calls this Tiptree collection “one of the two or three most significant collections of short SF ever published”. The stories are soaringly futuristic, succeeding so much better than many other works of the period in stepping out of contemporary social and cultural restrictions and inventing spectacularly alien futures. Yet there is a problem, a very serious one for these feminist stories written in “masculine” language. They reach for the stars, but cannot free themselves from a 1950s mindset about women. When Tiptree began to write these stories, in a burst of creative genius between 1968 and 1981, she had turned 50, and had already left several careers behind her, one of them as the US Army’s first photo-intelligence officer. Clute claims youth and vigour for her writing, but he acknowledges the weight of her years: “she burns out old”. Her narrative expectation is dated on what the reader would think about society and human development. This produces a straining of invention, as if a marvellous, powerful flying creature was tied to the ground by a single length of pluckable rope that it couldn’t see to cut. An example of this is in the final story in this collection, ‘And So On, and So On’, a conversation piece between a group of travellers in a space shuttle. One character is identified as female, a “clanwife” and nursemaid. The others are male (or neutral gender), and hold professional posts in a future far away in time. Why was it so hard, given her own history, for Tiptree to make a professional character female?

Even where pilots, engineers or scientists in these stories are female, they are almost certain to be sexually assaulted. Most of the stories in this collection feature rape, or violent sex, as a central aspect of the plot. Reading the stories one after another, this focus on an inevitable masculine brutality becomes numbing, even if the number of words used to give the details represent a very small percentage of the story. Tiptree had a “concern”, as we say in the trade, to talk about women, death and rape, and how stunningly, crucially wrong this was for a civilised society intending to fly out to the stars and spread its morality and social practices elsewhere. Graham Sleight’s 2014 introduction to this new edition of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever quotes Tiptree’s 1983 essay, in which she talks about her childhood on her parents’ explorations and trips, in which “she found herself interacting with adults of every size, color, shape and condition […] and above all, women: chattel-women deliberately starved, deformed, blinded and enslaved; women in nun’s habits saving the world; women in high heels saving the world”.

There is more on that theme in this long quotation: its effect is to suggest how Alice’s experiences in the 1920s and 1930s in Africa and Asia had stayed in her mind. After working in intelligence and training in psychology, she started writing terrifying and brutal stories of women’s oppression, just when the second wave of feminism was happening in the West. What disturbs and impresses me most about these stories is the suffering that Tiptree makes the women characters endure, whether they feel it as suffering or not. We have to read it: that’s her point.

In ‘The Screwfly Solution’ men begin killing women, all the women, often raping them first: the horror comes from how easily this could happen. ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side’ is about man’s desire for alien sex, any sex, and any alien. The title comes from Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (doomed love for a cold fairy) and the theme comes from ‘Tam Lin’ (human loses decades of his life in the faery hill). (Tiptree’s titles are baroque fantasies in their own right, epic and ornate.) ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ is a horrific fantasia on Frankenstein and reality TV that reminded me forcibly of a story by (possibly?) Ray Bradbury in which an abortion is performed live on camera in a speeding car with white leather seats to show how superb its stabilising system was. The kind of gripping story which you don’t want to continue reading but you have to, and you don’t forget it either.

‘The Women Men Don’t See’ is apparently Tiptree’s most famous story (I hadn’t heard of it), and is a little lighter because the women don’t die, but escape rather than stay on a planet with voracious male humans. In Tiptree’s narrative perspectives it seems that masculinity is the default option for “human”, and woman’s default option is to do what masculinity requires. ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read’ considers what would happen if there were no longer men on Earth, and then brings three of them back from the past.

Naturally, rape is attempted, but by now I am getting rather depressed: why does a male-female encounter in a Tiptree story always include sex, whether she wants it or not? Is there really no other option in the future, other than this kind of power play? ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’ is a masochistic escape-from-torture novella that ends in the suffering woman’s epiphany and all the brutalising men dead. ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’ is all about sex, in the biological sense, and yes, there is a flashback of critical importance about child sex too. Oh dear. Are we there yet?

‘Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light’ is about an alternative reality where a happy woman is running freely along a long abandoned highway, a courier for the all-women society that seems to have replaced the one who built the crumbling roads and buildings, but, of course, it’s all in her head, and you can guess what happens under the freeway. ‘We Who Stole The Dream’ varies the rape narrative by making it a pan-planetary colonial nightmare, rather like Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest.

All Tiptree’s stories require attentive reading, and often re-reading. She doesn’t make anything easy, and delivers wonders, even if they’re often unpalatable. The title story, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, is hard work, about time travel controlled by psychic scarring. The event that causes the scarring is, predictably, sex. ‘Love Is the Plan the Plan is Death’ is my preferred story of all in this collection because Tiptree gets right away from the corruption of human (actually 1950s American) social norms, and imagines the life cycle of a devouringly powerful race of giant spiders who feel love and passion in the most erotic terms. This story allows love to dominate, rather than violent lust, and is a linguistic triumph in conveying multiple shades of affection and selfless desire that isn’t based on a male-female binary. ‘Slow Music’, a story of the last potential breeding couple on Earth, does include sex, but in its proper place, as only part of the complicated relationship that people must develop when considering impregnation to restock the Earth with people.

The remaining stories are not about rape, thank goodness, but they are absolutely about deaths that are inevitable but slow. A schlock situation is given grandeur and pathos in ‘On the Last Afternoon’ when a herd of immense breeding lobsters crashes into the bay where the humans’ post-crash settlement is struggling to survive. ‘The Man Who Walked Home’ and ‘And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways’ are so sad, stories of the desolate loneliness of death, tempered with pleasure in new knowledge, but not by enough. One man is rushing through time in the same point in space for centuries, trying to get back home, watched with interest by generations of settlers at the desert spot where the explosion threw him out of time. The other has left home for good to get to the top of the forbidden mountain to see what’s there in his last moments. ‘She Waits for All Men Born’ is possibly the ultimate in powerful, lonely women: a mutant girl who can never be killed, and whose gaze kills everyone. What can withstand that?

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a very dense reading experience. It took me several days, and I needed respite in between, to clear my mind of nightmares and hopelessness. Tiptree’s writing is astonishingly powerful, and reading these stories all in one go is probably not at all what she intended (this collection was assembled after her death). The magazines who bought her stories are also factors in considering why she included so many violent sex episodes in her plots: was this a requirement by the editors? Did New Dimensions 3, Phantasmicon, Nova 2, Galaxy, Stellar 4, Interfaces, Amazing Stories, to list only some of the collections or magazines that published these stories, have a high tolerance for sexual violence, or readers with an appetite for it? Was Tiptree unusual or the norm in her detailed writing about rape in space? I find it interesting that Clute doesn’t mention the stories’ obsessive attention to sexual violence in 1990, whereas Sleight does in 2014. Have Tiptree’s violent lessons in feminist thinking about women, sex and fiction finally percolated through into the cultural norm?

This review originally appear on katemacdonald.net.

The Zanzibar Cat, Joanna Russ

zanzibarcatThe Zanzibar Cat, Joanna Russ (1983)
Review by Ian Sales

Although she was first published in the late 1950s, Joanna Russ’s first collection did not appear until 1983 – which at least meant she had plenty to choose from for its contents. And it seems Russ decided to select pieces mostly from the 1970s. With good reason, one suspects – as Marge Piercy writes in the book’s introduction: “One unavoidable observation as I read through these stories is the growth of Russ’s feminism … I doubt if ‘The New Men’ or ‘Poor Man, Beggar Man’ would be in any interesting way different if written by a man … If I seem to find Russ’s more feminist stories more successful than her less feminist stories, it is not only, I believe even chiefly, because I agree with her politics, although of course with any writer that always help. It is because her imagination is more liberated…” (p x). I have been saying for several years it’s past time we had a complete collection of Russ’s short fiction – and it would be a large book, since she published fifty-six stories between 1959 and 1996. However, The Zanzibar Cat, which includes a number of early works, does demonstrate that perhaps not everything she wrote actually belongs in such a collection. This is a much weaker collection than her later Extra(ordinary) People (1984) and The Hidden Side of the Moon (1988), although it does contain several of her more celebrated pieces. Incidentally, it’s worth noting The Zanzibar Cat was originally published by Arkham House, but a paperback edition was published the following year by Baen.

‘When It Changed’ (1972) is perhaps Russ’s most famous short story. It won the Nebula, was nominated for a Hugo, and won a retrospective Tiptree in 1995. And for good reason. The world of Whileaway has has been female-only for thirty generations, after the death of all the men in a plague shortly after the world was settled. But now men form Earth have arrived, and the local sheriff has been called to remote farmhouse to meet the visitors. Russ drops the reader straight into the story, and the casual sexism displayed by the men is brilliantly handled – the visitors keep on asking where are the men, and once they learn the truth… there is a conversation between the narrator and the leader of the visitors which is masterly in how it shows male privilege:

“I’m talking to you, Janet,” he said, “because I suspect you have more popular influence than anyone else here. You know as well as I do that parthenogenetic culture has all sorts of inherent defects, and we do not – if we can help it – mean to use you for anything of the sort. Pardon me; I should not have said ‘use.’ But surely you can see this kind of society is unnatural.” ( p 8 – 9)

A bona fide classic.

‘The Extraordinary Voyages of Amélie Bertrand’ (1979). This opens with the subheading “hommage à Jules Verne” which, to be honest, would be pretty obvious from the plot anyway. Set in the 1920s, the story takes places entirely at a small rural railway station near Lyons. The narrator is travelling on business and must change trains there. But as he walks through the passage linking the two platforms either side of the ticket office / waiting room / café, he seems to be thrown into a strange tropical landscape. A hand grabs him and hauls him back, and he finds himself back at the railway station. The woman who saved him explains that she too fell prey to the same phenomenon, and in fact spent many years exploring that other world – and on subsequent visits had even visited the jungles of Venus and the ranches of Mars. Although the woman’s adventures are well described, the fact the story is almost entirely told robs it of any immediacy. The pastiche is not entirely successful either – the premise appears to draw on a deep pool of pulp fiction inspirations, rather than Verne’s scientific romances.

‘The Soul of a Servant’ (1973). In a northern Russian (I think) town cut into the side of a mountain, the governor and his family await the barbarians. The town is commanded, and managed, by the narrator, who is from the south and is looked down on by the locals. The governor’s niece, however, finds him fascinating, although she is clearly playing at forbidden love rather than forming any real attachment. And then soldiers from the town capture some barbarians – and on seeing how they are being mistreated, the narrator realises he has more in common with them than the town’s inhabitants. Piercy remarks on the off-page rape, which “is used as a male writer uses it … the story buys the male rationalization, in its viewpoint character, that a woman being flirtatious, which may be the only form of friendliness she has been allowed to express, is asking for it”. It’s a well-deserved criticism as the violence serves no real purpose in the plot, and the setting is sketched in so thinly it’s unclear how it is meant to be taken.

‘Gleepsite’ (1971). This is a short and enigmatic story, set in a post-apocalyptic world. According to a footnote, the title is the name of an imaginary material and “[this] story is about another ‘imaginary material’ – the huiman imagination itself. Can it do as much as the the narrator thinks it can do?” The end result in places reads more like a writing exercise than an actual narrative.

‘Nobody’s Home’ (1972). A somewhat dated and hippy-ish vision of the future, in which a “stupid” (but “bright-normal” by present-day standards) is invited home by a family, only for them to grow quickly tired of his inability to fit in with their supposedly extremely high intelligence, this characteristic being chiefly illustrated by a silly verbal game played by the children. Although Russ displays her usual skill at setting up her world quickly and efficiently, some of the details are a little too much of the time of writing. This is a story which has not aged especially well.

‘My Dear Emily’ (1962). The first of two vampire stories in this collection. In this a young woman is liberated by being in thrall to a vampire. Her family insist she is ill, but she no longer considers herself bound by convention – the story is set in San Francisco during the 1880s – and behaves accordingly. It’s an atmospheric piece, but there’s little in it to make stand out above the huge number of vampire stories out there.

‘The New Men’ (1966). The second vampire story, this time set in communist Poland. A travelling Soviet official spends the night at the ruined mansion of a Polish count when his car breaks down deep in the countryside. There’s a nice play on dialectics, historical process and Marxism, but the story does end on a somewhat obvious twist.

‘My Boat’ (1976). The way a story is told is as important as what the story says, and I’m not convinced Russ chose the best way to tell ‘My Boat’ even though the premise is clever and works well. The story is framed as a verbal tale told by a screenwriter desperate for work in conversation with his agent. He recounts an episode from his youth, when the first black pupil joined his school, a girl called Cecilia Jackson. Although very shy, she proves to be a gifted actress, if somewhat erratic, and becomes friends with the narrator and his best friend, Al. One day, all three head to the marina to spend the day on Cecilia’s boat, and while on it – a rowing boat that has seen better days – the narrator witnesses a change come over Cecila and Al, and also the boat. Cecilia becomes a queen, and Al her Francis Drake-like consort, and they begin talking about mysterious lands (from Lovecraft’s “Dreamlands”, in fact). When the narrator jumps onto the jetty to untie the boat, he is accosted by a police officer, and while the two of them are looking away, the boat disappears.

‘Useful Phrases for the Tourist’ (1972). The title pretty much says it all. Mildly amusing.

‘Corruption’ (1976). An agent infiltrates another world, where everyone lives in sealed arcologies because the outside atmosphere is toxic. But the more time he spends in his undercover role, the more he sympathises with the society he is supposed to destroy through sabotage. Nonetheless, he follows his orders. The prose style is experimental – the story is broken down into eleven short sections, most of which begin with, “Look – “. I first read this in Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N McIntye and Susan Janice Anderson, and published in 1976, which is where it first appeared. On reread, it seems a much stronger piece, the prose depicting the regimented society of Outpost effectively, as well as the protagonist’s conflict over his orders.

‘There Is Another Shore, You Know, Upon the Other Side’ (1963). A young Italian man in Rome meets a young English woman, is much taken with her, and there follows a fairly straightforward holiday romance, his charm versus her diffidence. She doesn’t always meet him as promised, and she’s extremely vague about her own situation. Because she’s a ghost. As he discovers at the end of the story. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what this story adds to its overcrowded genre. It feels resolutely ordinary.

‘A Game of Vlet’ (1974). A captain of the guard discovers an assassin sneaking into the palace, but the assassin claims he has only come to challenge the king to a game of vlet. But the king’s new consort appears, and she accepts the challenge instead. The set the assassin has brought is “virgin” – unplayed, and untouched by human hands – which means that the game will be reflected in the real world. And so it is. But the assassin is not as good a player as he thought he was. This one is strong on atmosphere, as each move the players make is reflected in the world about them and violence overtakes the palace.

‘How Dorothy Kept Away the Spring’ (1977). Dorothy dreams a fairy tale with herself as the heroine, because her mother died recently and she is lonely. The fantasy elements feel as though they owe a little too much to The Wizard of Oz, a text which I suspect carries more sentimental baggage on the other side of the Atlantic. The end result reads over-long, its simple message diluted by a combination of whimsy and childish invention.

‘Poor Man, Beggar Man’ (1971). Cleitus the Black, who saved Alexander the Great’s life at the Battle of the Granicus but was later killed by Alexander during a drunken fight, visits Alexander as a ghost as Alexander’s army prepares to cross the Indus. Cleitus argues with Alexander, telling him he should return to Babylon and consolidate his rule, and not attack further into India. Alexander refuses, so Cleitus persuades Alexander’s wife, Roxana, to run away to the nearest Indian village and hide – in the hope her disappearance will change Alexander’s mind. During the search for her, Alexander gets lost in a nearby forest and becomes separated from his men. Cleitus comes to him and shows him something which persuades him to not cross the Indus (Roxana had returned of her own accord while they were looking for her). Russ freely admits in an author’s note that she has mangled the chronology of Alexander’s life… which makes you wonder what the point of the story is.

‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’ (1975). In the introduction, Piercy describes this is “as much prose poem or essay as story” – at least the first section of it. ‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’ is actually two stories, ‘Daddy’s Girl’ and ‘Autobiography of My Mother’, previously published in separate issues of Cornell University’s literary magazine. I found the second section more successful than the first, whose stream of consciousness narrative feels more like a work in progress. ‘Autobiography of My Mother’, however, is reminiscent of some of other Russ’s stories – particularly ‘Bodies’ (1984) – as it directly addresses the reader, and in the way it pulls together a narrative from a variety of incidents and anecdotes, presented in a variety of forms.

‘The Zanzibar Cat’ (1971). Another homage, this one of Hope Mirrlees. I’ve not read Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, so many of the references in this story were lost on me. But despite that, it’s a well-told, if overly familiar in general shape, story about a young woman who confronts Death in one of its many guises and lives to tell the tale – unlike the army she was accompanying.

As collections go, The Zanzibar Cat is bit of a mixed bag. Many of the better stories have been subsequently anthologised, and only four or five appear here and in their original venue. As pointed out by Piercy in the introduction, the late stories are among the best ones. Not only did ‘When It Changed’ deserve its win, but ‘Corruption’ too is good, perhaps followed by ‘A Game of Vlet’ and then ‘My Boat’. Other stories, the dark fantasy ones especially, are a little too generic to stand out, and suffer poorly in comparison to the rest of the contents. What The Zanzibar Cat does demonstrate, however, is Russ’s breadth – from heartland sf to ghost story to fantasy to literary pastiche. The later stories also demonstrate just how good a writer she really was. It’s not just her economy, her ability to sketch out her worlds and cast so efficiently, but also the sharpness of her observation and the way she questions and comments on sensibilities in stories whose actual focus seemingly lies elsewhere. ‘When It Changed’ is a case in point, a first contact story about how the women of Whileaway react to the appearance of men on their world, but it’s really about the way the men behave toward women. But then there are stories such as ‘Poor Man, Beggar Man’, which seem too generic, too in love with their premise to actually interrogate it fully. Sadly, around half of The Zanzibar Cat falls into this latter category. Which, by definition, means half of the stories range from the merely good to excellent.

It’s definitely past time for a collected Russ.

The Power of Time, Josephine Saxton

poweroftimeThe Power of Time, Josephine Saxton (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

Josephine Saxton is perhaps best-known for her 1986 novel Queen of the States, which appeared on the first ever Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist, but lost out to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. However, her first published piece was ‘The Wall’ twenty years earlier in UK sf magazine Science Fantasy. That story appears in The Power of Time, Saxton’s first collection, which contains fourteen stories, dating from 1965 to 1983, and three original to the collection. Reading Saxton’s short fiction, it’s fairly clear she was a writer with marked New Wave sensibilities, who continued to write using them throughout her career.

‘The Power of Time’ (1971). This also appears in More Women of Wonder, which is where I first came across it. The story is set in the distant future, when only a handful of people remain on the Earth. The narrator purchases Manhattan, and wants it moved in its entirety to East Leake in the UK. Meanwhile, a woman in the twentieth century has won an all expenses paid trip to New York, where she is escorted to museums, restaurants and like by a string of handsome men. Not wanting to fall in love with the men, she chooses instead to fall in love with the city… And it’s her descendant who has Manhattan moved to England. It all ends badly, however. The story’s strength lies in its present-day narrative, which is something Saxton is generally good at – as, indeed, was a lot of New Wave science fiction. The far future part of the story, by comparison, feels a little too whimsical and hand-wavey.

‘Lover from Beyond the Dawn of Time’ is original to the collection. An author’s note reads “Homage to HK Giger, and with respect to HP Lovecraft”. Set in the year 6666, a woman is moved to a new unit in a block in what “was once called Switzerland”, and in her dreams finds herself chosen as consort for the eponymous Lovecraftian paramour. I wasn’t especially convinced by the attempt to reference Giger’s art, but the Lovecraftian visuals were certainly done well. A framing narrative describes the story as a medical health report, which felt unnecessary as the main narrative is an effective sf/horror piece.

‘Food and Love’ (1975). Saxton has written about food elsewhere, in the 1986 collection Little Tours of Hell: Tall Tales of Food and Holidays. In this story, the dinner party described very much revolves around food. But this is just a dream – possibly? – by one of a handful of survivors at the end of the world.

‘Silence in Having Words: Purple’ is also original to the collection, and I really couldn’t get on with it. It felt far too self-indulgent, an attempt at something Delany-esque that went on and on, but without the lushness or inventiveness of a Delany story. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it joke reference to Deep Purple, but it felt like a story that far out-stayed its welcome.

‘New Aesthetics’ is the third and final story original to the anthology. It’s also about food, but scenes of eating paper products – newspapers, magazines, detergent boxes – is juxtaposed with loving descriptions of actual food. Both are a reflection of politics and taste in a near-future world, as if the consumption of opinion has become a stand-in for aesthetic judgement.

‘The Triumphant Head’ (1970). This also appeared in The New Women of Wonder, and while it appears to a describe a woman getting herself ready for the day ahead, it presents the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, as something much stranger, perhaps even alien. The New Wave often featured the quotidian, but it didn’t usually focus on the domestic – Pamela Zoline is the only other such writer who springs to mind. Saxton’s careening prose seems an odd way of telling the story, but it actually works quite well.

‘To Market, to Market’ (1981). This is a flash piece, no more than a page and a half long, about a mother feeding her children in a post-apocalyptic world, and it makes no secret of the fact the food is long-dead human flesh.

‘The Wall’ (1965). A wall across a landscape divides a man and a woman – not the most subtle metaphor ever – but the two manage to find a way through it, and so find a way to live together. While science fiction provides plenty of tools for literalising metaphors, the central premise can occasionally feel a little banal… although in this case that may be a consequence of the story’s age.

‘Dormant Soul’ (1969). Probably the strongest story in the collection. In parts, it reads like a dress rehearsal for Queen of the States. The protagonist is a thirty-five-year-old woman who lives alone. One night she is visited by an angel, who reveals he is actually a visitor from another planet. It seems she is at risk of being possessed, or has been possessed, by demons from another planet, and Armaziel has come to free her. Part of the cure involves getting seven random people to pray for her. So she rings names she has picked from the phone book, and it seems to work. Her life improves. As in Queen of the States, it’s not entirely clear how much of the narrative is real – and genre – and how much is simply a reflection of the protagonist’s mental state.

‘Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon’ (1972). On a planet where “everyone is sick on Pergamon, it’s the law”, a young woman in perfect health is examined by doctors. But then the “Congenitals” and the “Starving” invade the hospital theatre, and Elouise is afraid they will tear her limb from limb. So she psychomatically makes herself ill until she is just like them. Much of the story is taken up with the doctors’ examination of Elouise’s body.

‘The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky (1981). This is a weird one. The staff of a research laboratory throw a party to celebrate a recent discovery, and those who attend have to come as animals, but not in costume, they must mime the animal they are pretending to be. Initially, the party goes well, and the scientists’ stock rises. But at a another party, jealousy in the lab causes each of them to use their discovery – the ability to remotely program people with behaviours to embarrass each other… but, of course, they all play the same trick on each other and it all ends badly.

‘No Coward Soul (1982). An artist performs brain surgery on herself in order to insert a means of self-administering drugs to certain portions of her cerebral cortex. With each step, she either re-experiences or hallucinates an incident, such as being caught trespassing on a farmer’s land, or a meeting with “Vennors the Lizard Lord”. The surgery is unsuccessful – or rather, too successful since she can no longer distinguish between the scenes she hallucinated and reality.

‘Black Sabbatical’ (1971). A family are visiting Morocco as the husband is on sabbatical and researching local mosaics. During a picnic in the desert, the wife screams that she’s leaving him and runs off into the desert. She vanishes completely. After taking the children back to the UK and leaving them with relatives, the husband returns to search for his wife, eventually finding himself involved with a local magician who offers him a devil’s bargain. This is a nicely atmospheric story which slowly but inexorably descends into horror.

‘Living Wild’ (1971). A woman lives alone in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic UK, but it is not until halfway through that the story reveals what caused the cataclysm – aliens stole the planet’s metals. At one point, she befriends an escaped lion, and the pair “went for long walks and scrambled around the hills”. Except the lion is actually a dog, and the narrator may not be living rough in a post-apocalyptic countryside.

While not every story in The Power of Time is successful, and some have not aged especially well, there’s little doubt that Saxton possessed a singular voice and often used it in presenting a particular vision. She writes about women and their lives, and she uses science fiction to bend and reshape the way those women perceive their own existence in order to better emphasise the accommodations they have been forced to make in order to survive or even prosper. It’s not just the narrator of ‘The Triumphant Head’ making herself presentable for her husband, as if the only face she can present is one dependent on artifice. Nor is it just the narrator of ‘Living Wild’ who can only imagine true freedom by recasting reality as an Earth after an alien attack.

The domestic is not something which features often in science fiction, although there have been several women sf writers who have made a point of including it in their stories. In many such stories – ‘That Only a Mother’ by Judith Merril and ‘Created He Them’ by Alice Eleanor Jones spring to mind – the woman is presented with adversity, or a world destroyed, and manages to maintain a facade of normality in spite of it. Saxton, however, turns this on its head, and instead destroys the world inside her protagonists’ heads – or, in the case of ‘Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon’, her body – which twists and bends their perceptions as a means of dealing with, or commenting upon, the real world and the difficulties they face living in it. It seems to me this is a technique which came out of the New Wave, and then vanished as the New Wave was subsumed into the general corpus of science fiction. Which makes the output of writers such as Saxton all the more worth reading and treasuring.

The Halfling and Other Stories, Leigh Brackett

halflingThe Halfling and Other Stories, Leigh Brackett (1973)
Review by Martin Wisse

The Halfling and Other Stories is the sixth book I’ve read in the Year of Reading Women challenge I set myself after I’d noticed last year how few female written science fiction books I read. I had chosen this because it was something I hadn’t read before and I always liked Brackett. Unfortunately it turned out this was one of her lesser collections. The stories don’t fit well together, there’s no real theme to the collection and some are decidedly on the weak side.

It doesn’t help that the first two stories are basically the same. In both there’s the hard-bitten protagonist falling for a mysterious beautiful alien girl who he knows is trouble yet can’t help himself but get involved with, who then turns out to be evil. Worse, in both stories this girl is shown to be representative of her race, their evil part of their biology. It’s a bit… uncomfortable… shall we say, but unfortunately these sort of assumptions are build into the kind of planetary romances Leigh Brackett wrote.

As a genre planetary romance has always been a bit dodgy, an evolutionary offshoot of the Africa adventure story, with a lot of the same racist and colonial assumptions built in. So you have cringing Gandymedian natives, mysterious jungles and alien drums, crazed halfbreeds and all those other tropes recycled from Tarzan. Just because the native races are now Martian or Venusian and coloured green or red instead of black or yellow doesn’t make the assumptions behind them any less racist. There’s still the idea that the various alien races encountered have existential qualities that each and every member of such a race shares. Leigh Brackett is usually better than this, with those tropes present in her stories but never this blatant as in these first two stories. Her writing style and sense of atmosphere are still present, but the execution is pedestrian, unlike the Eric John Stark story also present.

It isn’t all planetary romance in this collection. In fact most of the stories here are rather classic sf puzzle stories, something I don’t really associate with Brackett. These stories are okay, but nothing special. The same goes for the whole collection. There aren’t any bad stories in here, but apart from ‘Enchantress of Venus’, the lone Stark story, there’s nothing really outstanding here either. Something for the completists.

‘The Halfling’ (1943). A beautiful alien dancer joins John Greene’s circus. And then the murders start…

‘The Dancing Girl of Ganymede’ (1950). A Terran adventurer down on his luck rescues a strange dancing girl from her would be assassins; his native helper does not like this. Only when he meets her brothers does he realises what a mistake he made…

‘The Citadel of Lost Ages’ (1950). A twentieth-century New Yorker is resurrected in the far future, once the Earth has stopped revolving around its axis and the mutated people from the nightside reign over the Earth…

‘All the Colors of the Rainbow’ (1957). One of the better stories in the collection, this tale of two funny-coloured alien visitors lost in an unreconstructed Southern town is not very subtle, but it is interesting to see a science fiction story of this vintage openly treating racism.

‘The Shadows’ (1952). A small expedition lands on a newly discovered planet and finds the ruins of the once dominant intelligent species that lived there, but who killed them? And what does their disappearance have to do with the strange shadows that start to hang around the expedition?

‘Enchantress of Venus’ (1949). An Eric John Stark story and the best in the anthology, as Stark comes to a half legendary city on the edge of the Venusian ocean in search of revenge. Leigh Brackett’ s pulpish stylings are always at their best when she’s doing a Stark story and this holds up with the best of them.

‘The Lake of the Gone Forever’ (1949). His father came back half mad from the planet Iskar, now Rand Conway is back to see the terrible secret his father left behind – and get rich exploiting it.

‘The Truants’ (1950). When Hugh Sherwin’s daughter and other children start skipping school to play with the “angels” and their “spaceship” in the forest on Sherwin’s land, he’s determined to get to the bottom of this. What he finds surprises him, though perhaps not the reader.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

Cautionary Tales, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

cautionary_talesCautionary Tales, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

Although she started out as a science fiction writer, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is probably best known these days for vampire novels – the fourteenth book in her Count of Saint- Germain series was published in 2014, but she has written several other series featuring vampires. But back in the 1970s, she was a science fiction writer – she even appears in both Women of Wonder and The New Women of Wonder – although it seems most of her short fiction sales were to anthologies rather than magazines. Cautionary Tales is her first collection, and contains material from 1971 to 1978. Each story is followed by a half-page author’s note. Interestingly, the collection features an introduction by James Tiptree Jr, and this is followed by ‘A word of Caution’ by Yarbro herself, in which she writes, “I am very much indebted to James Tiptree, Jr., for her kind and thoughtful words”. ‘A Note of Caution’ is dated August 1977, indicating that by summer 1977 Tiptree’s true identity was known.

‘Everything that Begins with an “M”‘ (1972). To be honest, I’m not even sure if this story is genre. It is set in a small village some time during the Middle Ages. A mad man lives in a “sand pit” (I’d have thought a midden heap more likely), and events lead the villagers to venerate him as a prophet after a tax collector accidentally chokes to death in the local inn. But when the authorities descend on the village, the mad man is blamed.

‘Frog Pond’ (1971). Stories such as this could almost be a subgenre of their own. Although ‘Frog Pond’ initially seems a fairly standard post-apocalypse story, albeit somewhat more optimistic than most, it also has a very Tom-Sawyer-esque vibe to it, with a final twist which shows that country folk aren’t the same as city folk (although it’s very much a science-fictional twist).

‘Un Bel Di’ (1973). This is a surprisingly nasty story, and told entirely from an alien point of view. An undersecretary is banished to a provincial world after being caught abusing the children of a fellow member of the government. The natives of the world are innocent and seem to resemble the children of the undersecretary’s race. So he arranges for one to be gifted to him as a “companion” – the natives alter themselves according to the role they play, and the companion will be bonded for life to the undersecretary. But, he is cruel and evil, and is only waiting to be told his exile has been rescinded. He has no intention of taking the companion with him.

‘Lammas Night’ (1976). Not every story in Cautionary Tales is science fiction, or even fantasy. ‘Lammas Night’ was written for a “magic-and-mystery” anthology and contains no genre elements. Its protagonist is Count Cagliostro, an infamous eighteenth-century occult hoaxster. In the story, he has promised a group of aristocratic rakes that he will raise a demon, but, of course, he can’t. So he offers a deal to the wife of one of the rakes – if she will play the part of the demon in his faked-up summoning, she will have her revenge on her husband.

‘Into My Own’ (1975). A renowned playwright is only a few short years away from dying. He’s already had an artificial heart fitted, and now his liver failing. He’s been offered a replacement, but he has also been offered “transfer”, in which a copy of his personality is constructed in a specially-designed computer. The computer will then go on writing plays as if it were the playwright. However, this is not the mind upload familiar from cyberpunk. The computer is programmed with as many facts about its subject as possible, and for the final stage of the process it interviews the man and uses sensors to determine the emotional import of his responses. Essentially, the story is bickering between the playwright and his computer simulacrum. The process of transfer is not especially plausible, and though Yarbo makes a nod toward a justification with a mention of “Live Performance Laws”, but the choice of a playwright for this honour feels weirdly old-fashioned.

‘Disturb Not My Slumbering Fair’ (1978). This story is original to the anthology, and the following author’s note draws parallels between it and Yarbro’s first Saint-German novel, Hôtel Transylvania, “which develops along similar lines”. The story is about Dierdre, a young female ghoul, who escapes form her grave and goes on the hunt for flesh to eat. She brutally murders a night watchman, and then a young woman – albeit chiefly to provide a body for her own empty grave – before getting a job at a morgue, where she can snack to her heart’s content on cadavers.

‘The Meaning of the Word’ (1973). A member of an exploration team stumbles across an alien room, buried beneath a sea of ash. He’s an archaeologist, and some members of the team can’t see the point of his presence. The alien room contains a wall of alien writing, and some sort of learning tool, which the archaeologist uses to teach himself the language. However, breaching the room has given him a fatal dose of radiation. He chooses to remain behind so he can complete his translation.

‘The Generalissimo’s Butterfly’ (1978). In the somewhat clichéd South American country of Liberación, the female electronics engineer who created Generalissimo Sandón’s Butterfly has fallen from favour and now lives in poverty. The Butterfly is free-flying listening device, a drone disguised as the insect it is named for, and Sandón apparently has hundreds of these which he uses to keep a watchful eye, and ears, on his nation’s population. Except it is all a fake. The Butterfly exists, but has a range of only three kilometres. The butterflies which fly about the city are real ones. Sandón relies on bugs, agents and secret police to maintain his rule.

‘Allies’ (1977). Every character named in this story has a gender-neutral name, and though there are references to men and women, the sexes of the characters is left unrevealed. On an uninhabited world, a station of staffers guard a marsh for the Rare Resources Bureau. The story does not explain what the rare resource is, who else might want the resource, or indeed why a station of people is a cost-effective or efficient way to ensure one particular area on a planet remains undeveloped. (In the real world, a legal document is enough.) Staffers begin dying mysteriously, and Tuttle is convinced there is something invisible and inimical in the marsh. The station doctor, however, suspects suicide, since the RRB has begun firing its staffers six months before they were due to retire in order to avoid paying them pensions, but their families will receive double the pension as a death-benefit. (Something IBM is apparently doing right now in the real world. Multinational corporations really are scum.) ‘Allies’ never quite commits to its central premise, but the gender-neutral cast makes for an interesting read.

‘Dead in Irons’ (1976). Although original to the anthology Faster than Light (1976), this story also appeared in The New Women of Wonder. A new steward joins the crew of an interstellar starship as a steward. Because she refuses to accept the sexual advances of the head steward, she is giving the worst job: looking after the frozen steerage passengers. Her cold suit is even sabotaged by the head steward’s ex-lover, which makes the job harder. Although this story has all the trappings of heartland science fiction, it harkens back to the slave ships of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the ships which carried transportees to Australia. It’s something I never find wholly convincing, perhaps because it leaves a nasty taste and I’ve yet to be persuaded technology would not provide solutions to the problems the story builds into its universe.

‘Swan Song’ (1978). A wealthy industrialist has invited a Finnish engineer to his hunting lodge in northern Canada to offer him a job. But the Finn is a pacifist and the industrial’s corporation is heavily involved in arms manufacture. Initially swayed by the promise of heading up the corporation’s space sciences division, the Finn decides to stick to his principles after the lake beside the lodge reminds him of the myth of the Lake of Tuonela, and the Black Swan which guards the dead from the Hiiet, or Finnish demonic forces of destruction. This is a thin piece, but the atmosphere is handled well.

‘The Fellini Beggar’ (1976). A journalist for a US magazine interviews a disabled beggar about the part he played in a great director’s film (obviously, from the title, it’s Frederico Fellini, although his name does not appear in the actual narrative). The beggar, who has a beautiful singing voice and loves opera, was badly beaten in the movie. The journalist asks what he was paid to accept the role, and the beggar tells him that he was given the manuscript to Turandot, Puccini’s last unfinished opera. It’s the actual manuscript pages by Puccini, giving the ending he had planned and not the one that was later added by another composer. Other than an off-hand reference to the “wreckage of the Vatican”, there’s no real genre content to the story, and while it works well enough on its own, familiarity with Puccini and Turandot would no doubt be an advantage.

The collection ends with a poem, ‘An Indulgence’, which seems aptly titled.

Cautionary Tales is a varied collection in terms of content, but the quality of the stories is uniformly high. Yarbro’s prose is more prone to poetic turns pf phrase than is common in 1970s science fiction, which seemed to think a bland unadorned style the best way to write. I particularly liked the line in ‘Allies’: “They sat apart from each other, like slow private snails on different leaves of a plant” (p 129). Several of the stories were inspired by operas – ‘Un Bel Di’, for example, is loosely based upon Madame Butterfly – which is hardly surprising given that Yarbro is also a composer. But there is also a darkness to most of the stories in this collection, a quite callous view of people, from the RRB of ‘Allies’ to Sandón in ‘The Generalissimo’s Butterfly’ to the stewards in ‘Dead in Irons’. Not mention the paedophile alien in ‘Un Bel Di’. As a result, ‘Disturb No My Slumbering Fair’ actually reads like a light-hearted romp by comparison, despite being about a flesh-eating ghoul. It is also worth mentioning that many of Yarbro’s stories feature female characters either as protagonists, or certainly possessing agency – indeed, hiding the genders of the cast in ‘Allies’ renders any complaints against the presence of female protagonists in science fiction ridiculous. Although of their time, there’s a singular vision in evidence in many of the stories in Cautionary Tales, and it’s a shame Yarbro didn’t see fit to continue writing science fiction.

A Cupful of Space, Mildred Clingerman

cupfulA 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.