The Best of CL Moore, CL Moore

bestmooreThe Best of CL Moore, CL Moore (1975)
Review by Martin Wisse

In the mid seventies Ballantine Books, just before it renamed itself into Del Rey, launched a “Best of” series of short story collections by classic science fiction and fantasy authors which I personally think is perhaps the best such series ever produced. Just at a time when science fiction was switching from being a short story, magazine orientated genre to one in which the novel is supreme, here were collections by all the old masters who had made their name in the pulp magazines of the thirties, forties and fifties. The series offered a sense of history to the genre just when science fiction was in danger of losing touch with its roots. It offered both a reminder to old fans of what had attracted them to the genre in the first place and to new fans a sampling of authors they may have thought old-fashioned or perhaps never had the chance to read in the first place.

One of such authors must have been CL Moore, who had made her reputation writing science fantasy stories for Weird Tales in the 1930s. In the 1940s, after she met and married Henry Kuttner she almost completely stopped writing on her own, instead collaborating with him (often under the Lewis Padgett pseudonym) on a series of classic sf stories, then moving on to writing crime stories and for television, both of which unfortunately paid better, in the late 1950s. By the time The Best of CL Moore was published it had been the better part of two decades that she had written much new science fiction. Now that more than twice as much time has passed, this collection is still a great introduction to what CL Moore had to offer when not collaborating with her husband.

The story that first introduced me to CL Moore, ‘Vintage Season’, was however originally published under both her and Kuttner’s names. I first read it in a Dutch anthology of crime and detective stories written by women, which sort of made sense as it can be read as a detective puzzle story. For years that was the extent of my CL Moore reading, until I read this collection. It was enough to realise how great a writer she was.

The Best of CL Moore is a well balanced collection, with most of the stories from before she met and married Henry Kuttner. Both of her best known heroes, Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry are represented but do not dominate. In general the stories here vary from outright fantasy to pure science fiction, but what they have all in common is the human touch. Her characters are fully human, three dimensional in a way that was rare for pulp science fiction. She builds her stories around the characters of her protagonists, even in the science fantasy of her Northwest Smith and Jirel stories. There are no clunkers whatsoever in here, as we’ll see.

‘Shambleau’ (1933). This is the story that introduced both Northwest Smith and Moore herself to Weird Tales, her first published story. It’s space fantasy of the kind Leigh Brackett also wrote, with some of the clichés of that genre, but already with the same craft and power brought to all the stories here. It starts with a mixed race mob – Martians, Venusians, Earthmen – chasing a slim nutberry brown beauty in a radiant scarlet cloak down the streets of a Martian town and Northwest Smith rescuing her. But she’s shambleau and Smith does not know what this is and only finds out — almost too late.

‘Black Thirst’ (1934). Another Northwest Smith story, about a Venusian castle where they breed beauty and its master who feast on it. Almost as good as the first story.

‘The Bright Illusion’ (1934). A man dying of thirst in the great Saharan desert is set on a quest on a strange world by an intelligence so powerful it can only be described as a god, to meet this god’s priestess and fall in love with her, no matter her innate alienness. This should be schmaltzy as hell, but Moore’s skill as a writer makes this work.

‘Black God’s Kiss’ (1934). The first Jirel of Joiry story, a Medieval French swordswoman whose kingdom is taken over through sorcery, who manages to escape her captor, then has to travel much farther than she could’ve ever imagined for her vengeance. As with the first Northwest Smith story this has an immediate impact: everything Jirel is, is here fully formed.

‘Tryst in Time’ (1936). Another love story, where a man who has grown bored with everything the modern world has to offer, who has tasted all adventure and sensation that’s in it, volunteers to be the guinea pig for his genius friend’s time machine. He gradually realises that in all the historic scenes he witnesses one girl remains constant and falls in love with her – but does she know him and could they ever be together?

‘Greater Than Gods’ (1939). On one man’s decision which of the two women he loved he wanted to marry rested the faith of the future. Hinging on this decision, Earth would become either a slowly dying, rural idyllic paradise, or it would rule the universe but at the cost of human happiness. Which alternative is better and is there truly no other option? As a story it does depend on a certain gender essentialism we’ve largely grown out of, but if you can swallow this, this is a clever, sentimental story.

‘Fruit of Knowledge’ (1940). According to Jewish legend, before Eve Adam had another wife, Lilith, who refused to be dominated by him and therefore was cast aside. Normally I don’t like this kind of Biblical fantasy, but Moore manages to make this story interesting by making Lilith a sympathetic character without quite making either Adam or Eve into the villains of the piece.

‘No Woman Born’ (1944). A woman, the greatest dancer of her generation, is caught in a horrible accident and given an experimental cyborg body, her brain in a metal shell. The male scientists and psychologists responsible for her transformation worry about her and whether or not she can remain human living like this. An interesting psychological story.

‘Daemon’ (1946). A simple-minded Brazilian boy is shanghaied on a Yankee clipper as a cabin boy, but he has a secret: he can see the soul or daemon every person but he himself carries with him. It keeps him alone in a world full of people, until on a small remote island he discovers others like him…

‘Vintage Season’ (1946). The best story in the collection, this bittersweet tale of how a group of strange foreigners hiring a house at the edge of an unnamed American city slowly are revealed to be time-travelling tourists with a penchant for the horrible and tragic. In this way Moore shows us the mirror image of how we ourselves treat historical horrors as entertainment, where whatever tragedy we’re witnessing can be dismissed as destiny, just as these tourist from the future dismiss what happens to the narrator and his city and world as something that happened long ago in their past…

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

The People: No Different Flesh, Zenna Henderson

thepeopleThe People: No Different Flesh, Zenna Henderson (1966)
Review by Ian Sales

Although popular during the 1950s, and in print up until her death in 1983, Zenna Henderson is mostly forgotten these days. Her last book in print appears to be a NESFA retrospective collection in 1995. She is best-known for her stories of the People, a group of humanoid aliens with psychic powers who settled secretly on Earth. This may well be why she is no longer read, because those stories are the sort of backwards-looking science fiction popular during the first half of the twentieth century which confuses its future setting with nostalgia. The People: no Different Flesh, the second collection about the People, is a case in point.

According to isfdb.org, The People: No Different Flesh was first published in the UK in 1966 – although its contents, six novelettes, all originally saw publication in F&SF between 1961 and 1966 – and only saw print in the US the following year. It is in fact arguable whether it qualifies as a collection or a fix-up novel, as Henderson uses a framing narrative extended from the first story, which gives the book its title, to introduce each of the following five novelettes.

Mark and Meris live somewhere in rural USA, and have just lost their baby. One stormy night, they find a young girl, no more than three or four years old, who can float through the air, speaks no English, but seems to be able to read minds. They name the girl Lala after the only word she seems to be able to say, “muhlala”, and look after her, hoping to find her family but also realising that may not prove possible as they’ve realised she’s not from Earth. Soon afterwards, Lala’s father turns up, and explains that the two of them are of the People, born on another planet, but sent to settle secretly on Earth. Their “lifeslips” crashed during a storm, and the father, Johannan – although most of the People have ordinary Anglophone names, some have weird made-up ones – has no idea where to find the nearest People community. Happily, they find him instead – although not before an incident with a young rich tearaway and the neighbourhood’s “good kid”, Tad, who has been running around with him and his crowd.

Once the other People have arrived, they tell stories to Mark and Meris to describe who and what they are, and it’s these that form the bulk of the book. The first, ‘Deluge’, is set at the time of the break-up of the People’s home world, called by them Home. It is narrated by an old woman, who elects to stay behind. Nothing is explained, not how the People live, nor what destroys their planet. It’s implied the People were once highly sophisticated but have since lost the bulk of their knowledge – although apparently not all of it, as they are capable of building spaceships to evacuate their planet. The spaceships scatter, and some head for Earth. The second story, ‘Angels Unawares’, tells of a young couple travelling into an unnamed Territory in the late nineteenth century as the husband has been hired as the superintendent of a mine. En route, they stumble across a farmstead that has been burned to the ground, and in the ruins they find a young girl, around eleven or twelve years old. Like Lala, she quickly shows her extraterrestrial origin by floating through the air; and, like Meris and Mark, the narrator, Gail, and husband Nils decide to look after the injured girl, and don’t seem at all bothered by her magical abilities. Before reaching the mine, they spend the night at a town founded by a Christian fundamentalist – it was men from that town who killed the young girl’s parents and brother and burned their farmstead. Once at the town, the three settle quickly, but a member of the fundamentalist town who recognised the girl has followed them…

‘Troubling of the Water’ is set at roughly the same time as ‘Angels Unawares’, and again the narrator is not one of the People, but a teenage boy. His parents, young sister and himself are trying to eke out a living in Fool’s Acres, a farm in the Territory, but water is scarce and their creek is beginning to run dry. A meteorite crashes nearby and from it they rescue a young man who is badly-burned. Although he heals quickly, his damaged eyesight does not return although he can apparently sense objects about him. With the injured man’s help, the family discover water on their property beneath the bedrock, and the farm is saved. The fifth story, ‘Return’, is told from the point of view of one of the People, a young woman who persuades her husband to take her back to Earth from New Home so her baby can be born there. But their spaceship crashes and he is killed. She is rescued by an old couple who are working a played-out mine. The canyon where the People lived has been dammed and turned into a lake, which is what caused the crash. The young woman is arrogant and condescending, despite being treated well by the old couple. Eventually, she learns the errors of her ways.

The final story, ‘Shadow on the Moon’, mentions the Space Race without actually giving any details, or even mentioning NASA. It was published in early 1962, so it’s possible it was written before either Gagarin or Shepard made their historic flights. Remy, seventeen years old and one of the People, wants to go to the Moon, but his parents forbid. Then he and his sister, Shadow, stumble across a mad old man living in a shack near an abandoned mine… and it transpires the old man’s on built a rocket in the mine-shaft, but then died in a cave-in, and his father is trying to finish the spaceship in order to bury the son’s body on the Moon. The story makes no concessions toward realism – the spaceship is shaped like a giant bullet, it’s powered by a thought-amplifier which would allow non-telekinetics to lift it into space, and it was built by four ex-armed forces (possibly from WWII) men who appear to have no relevant qualifications or experience.

Although published in the mid-1960s, it’s hard to identify when the framing narrative in The People: No Different Flesh is set. While the stories follow an historical timeline, beginning at some unspecified time on Home, the first story set on Earth, ‘Angels Unawares’, takes place in the late nineteenth century. The teenage girl from it is mentioned in ‘Deluge’ and appears to be roughly the same age, which suggest the journey from to Earth took days or weeks at most. The setting for all stories is identified only as “the Territory”, and since by the turn of the twentieth century only Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico had yet to gain statehood (Alaska didn’t even become a Territory until 1912, and a state until 1959), the People seem to have settled somewhere in the south-west US. Which also fits in quite well with the mention of deserts and mines. But, it’s implied, Mark and Meris are more contemporary, especially given that at least one of the People they meet is the offspring of the children named in ‘Angels Unawares’ and ‘Troubling of the Water’, and yet… There’s mention of television, but everything feels like it belongs several decades earlier. Tad finds a Model A in a junkyard, and Ford stopped making them in 1931. The People travel to Mark and Meris’s house in an Overland, a car company which folded in 1926. True, there are thirty-year-old cars still on the road in 2014, but would cars from the early days of motoring be routinely seen, even in rural America, in 1965? By 1960, 20% of US farms still didn’t have electricity, so I suppose it’s possible. Perhaps it’s worth noting that Henderson was born in 1917 in Arizona, so her stories of the People may well be set in the world in which she grew up…

Having said that, there is a lot of 1940s to 1960s science fiction which, despite its galactic empires and alien worlds, always manages to feel like it’s set in 1930s USA. It’s not just the often-unimaginative extrapolation – which is mostly not an issue in the case of The People: No Different Flesh – such as computers the size of small buildings, everyone using paper to record things, or storing data on tape… But details such as men wearing hats and smoking cigars, the rigid gender roles, the way in which technology is not prosaic but tied to specific science-fictional signifiers – there are spaceships but no hair-driers, for example… This lack of immersive world-building proves a strength in The People: No Different Flesh because the bulk of the book is historical. The framing narrative, however, is weak, not only because its setting doesn’t entirely convince as contemporary but because its entire raison d’être feels weak – gratitude for the rescue of Lala, and curiosity – and far too authorial. The People themselves are also too much paragons, the protagonist of ‘Return’ notwithstanding, and read like real good neighbourly sorts dialled up to eleven. With magical powers.

I can see how some might find these stories charming, but for me I’m afraid they’re somewhat too insipid and saccharine, and far too driven by nostalgia for a “simpler time” which all too often romanticises the hardships of past days. Disappointing.

 

The Downstairs Room, Kate Wilhelm

downstairsThe Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction, Kate Wilhelm (1968)
Review by Joachim Boaz

By the late 1960s Kate Wilhelm’s SF moved from generally uninspiring pulp (à la the collection The Mile-Long Spaceship) to psychologically taut and emotive mood pieces exploring the almost existential malaise of daily existence and the disturbing effects of “programmed” lives (especially the housewife). The fourteen short-stories in The Downstairs Room and Other Speculative Fiction comprise a snapshot of Wilhelm’s best New Wave work. It should be noted that not all are SF.

Although some are less engaging than others, her harrowing portrayal of starlets subjected to endless psychological torments at the whims of their viewers in ‘Baby, You Were Great’ (1967) (Nebula nominated) and the evocative tapestry of daydreams, scenes of monkey experimentation, tests on a mentally disabled child and convicts, arrayed against the backdrop of a slowly decaying relationship in ‘The Planners’ (1968) (Nebula winner) will appeal to all fans of New Wave SF. Also, if you enjoyed her Hugo-winning/Nebula-nominated novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) I recommend tracking down some of her late 1960s short stories.

‘Unbirthday Party’ (1968): A very “New Wave” psychologically tense whirlwind of a story… Wellman has the sensation of being on the wrong floor – “although visually there was very little that was not familiar” – and arrives at a room filled with people celebrating. Initially the gathering seems normal, “there was excitement in the room, much laughter, music, and a heady atmosphere created by champagne, good food and convivial people” . However, Wellman soon discovers that people do no know each other and everyone thinks it is someone else’s party. A disoriented Wellman tries to leave, but no one else seems to want to… A cyclical allegory, characters caught up in a mechanism they do not try to understand and do not want to understand.

‘Baby, You Were Great’ (1967) is easily the best story of the collection. John Lewisohn develops programming for ‘A Day in the Life of Ann Beaumont’ – a starlet whose life is literally “programmed”, her emotions recorded, her relationships artifices (all “accidental” meetings are planned, sometimes without her knowledge). The audiences straps in and feels what she feels, lives vicariously through her… “A person fitted with electrodes in his brain could transmit his emotions, which in turn could be broadcast and picked up by the helmets to be felt by the audience. No words or thought went out, only basic emotions […]. That tied with a camera showing what the person saw, with a voice dubbed in, and you were the person having the experience”. But the audience can turn off the anguish… The starlet cannot, her life is no longer hers, and neither is her suffering. In the pantheon of disturbing future programming with Kit Reed’s ‘At Central’ (1967) and DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974).

‘When the Moon Was Red’ (1960): Neither SF nor speculative fiction, ‘When the Moon Was Red’ tells the tale of a brilliant young boy with ride-ranging interests and the desire to be independent from his father. His father is an overbearing sort who desires to do everything with his son instead of let him struggle on his own. A powerful climax results but I found the telling unconvincing.

‘Sirloin and White Wine’ (1968): An elderly couple live in a house filled with memories. There children have left, they discuss absently their children’s activities from a detached distance, they are weak and dying. A last meal is prepared – sirloin and white wine and sleeping pills. An unnerving sadness fills the pages, they have achieved what was expected, a spouse, children, a house… Effective in its simplicity.

‘Perchance to Dream’ (1968): A speculative tale about Barney who dreams about fragments about the future: “There’s going to be a bank holdup, that new black-and-white marble bank over by your mother’s…”. His wife does not believe him. He recounts all his predictions, train derailments in France, scores for games but without the names of the teams, headlines of fatalities for unknown disasters. As with so many of Wilhelm’s stories, actions puncture the tedium of the daily grind, in Barney’s case, his work at a department store, the contents of his lunch, the exact time he arrived home…. As with Silverberg’s Dying Inside (1972) the skills are not put to use. But this dreamed about bank robbery in his own city, could things change?

‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ (1968): Although it is neither SF nor speculative I found ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ stark and well-told. A woman and her child wandering on the road. Through a series of flashbacks we learn about her past and the reason for her departure.

‘The Downstairs Room’ (1968): Vera is a traditional housewife who spends her day preparing her children for school and her husband for work, and the rest of the time cleaning the house, and coordinating with other mothers for her childrens’ school functions. In her house there is a downstairs room that they had planned on turning into a television-recreation room but never gotten around to doing so. She has fond memories of going into the room with Hank before she was married. And it once again becomes a sanctuary… A mysterious sanctuary… And she transforms psychologically, and soon lashes out.

‘Countdown’ (1968): Life proceeds normally near a military base where disembodied voice announces for all to hear the time remaining until a missile launch (the missile launch contains The Bomb). A baby is spooned full of pablum, the men play cards and raise their bets to a dime a point, plans are made to go boating on the lake, idle talk abounds… Stan and his wife simultaneously go through the movements of life as if there was no countdown to the moment when their world will irrevocably change. But there is an urgency to their movements, a knowledge that their “normal” actions could be the last they ever make. But how should one confront imminent destruction? Multi-faceted and brooding…

‘The Plausible Improbable’ (1968): My least favorite story in the collection follows a man named Jeffrey Wentworth Moore who knew when he was going to die. The reason is bizarre – he has discovered that he lives a life based upon the law of averages. However, he accomplishes the averages by wild swings, he gets all his diseases at a young ages and has remarkable health afterwards. He has wild swings of luck… And then bad luck. Exactly what is statistically most likely to happen happens. He is the embodiment of averages and his death is no different. But, it is through his death that Wilhelm’s point is made. It is an avoidable death, but he does not resist. The average life is his destiny, he could not avoid it even if he wanted to.

‘The Feel of Desperation’ (1964): As with Vera in ‘The Downstairs Room’, Marge is a typical housewife performing all the tasks housewives did. And then suddenly it all crashes around her when she is taken as a hostage at a bank. Despite the trauma of the experience and the pain the kidnapper exerts on her, the events of the kidnapping force her to confront the repetitive programmed nature of her life. And although she wants to escape his clutches, the her previous life suddenly seems unappealing.

‘A Time to Keep’ (1962): Harrison, a long-term faculty in an English department, is ignored by his students and most of the world around him. But when new faculty arrives, Miss Frazer, and she takes interest in him. Unfortunately, whenever he walks through a door he catches glimpses of a series of “frightening hallucinations”. Soon we learn of all his repressed memories and his wife, and children. And when he bursts past Miss Frazer to open one last door…

‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ (1968): A young girl, subjected to endless taunts about her lack of external beauty retreats into a world where her external appearance is all that matters. Where she has wealth without doing anything, power without trying, and the imprint on her pillow next to her of a man who calls her ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’. But even in the invented world the bruises on her arms are for all to see…

‘The Planners’ (1968) deservedly won the 1969 Nebula award for best short story. A surreal multi-strand allegory… The plot: a man, Dr Darin, performs experiments on monkeys (who cannot see their captors) to increase their intelligence. Likewise, he subjects a mentally handicapped boy and convicts to similar experiments. The monkeys show strange signs related to the treatment, including a monkey version of a the Biblical story of Adam… Interspersed with the experiments are sequences where Darin’s conscience questions his actions and flashbacks to the breakdown of his relationship and including how he cheated on his spouse. Are their two layers of experimentation? Just as man experiments on the monkeys unseen, modifying their social order, meddling with their minds, is their some other force at play? Hallucinatory. Surreal.

‘Windsong’ (1968): In the era of The Bomb, Dan Thorton is an advanced programmer working on a new-fangled war machine called The Phalanx. Simultaneously interspersed with his development of the super-weapon, that moves through the jungle killing the enemy via box-like subunits which deploy an assortment of grenades and napalm launchers, are a series of memories of Paula, “the windsong, quick, nimble, restless, long hair salt-dulled most of the time, too thin, sharp elbows, knees, cheekbones, collarbones”. As with so many of Wilhelm’s visions, the main character is confronted with his current actions (he develops instruments of destruction), his current relationships (collapsing), and past repressed visions (of a better time albeit, filled with sorrow that changed his life). All the strands weave together in a remarkable fashion creating complexity of meaning and beautiful scenes galore.

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

Women as Demons, Tanith Lee

womasdemWomen as Demons, Tanith Lee (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

SF Mistressworks exists to review science fiction books written by women and published before the beginning of the twenty-first century. While two of those criteria are quite clear, genre can be a nebulous thing. Yet it makes little sense to err on the side of caution in such matters – it’s the fact that the books reviewed here were written by women that is of paramount importance. In other words, the occasional piece of fantasy or mainstream may appear on this site – providing, of course, it’s not too overt, and it has some connection with science fictions that do fit within SF Mistressworks’ remit. Which is why Women as Demons by Tanith Lee, a collection of short stories which are mostly fantasy, is being reviewed here. Admittedly, it was originally published by The Women’s Press and quite clearly states “sf” at the bottom right of the front cover. And the back-cover blurb also says, “In this rich and varied collection of fantasy, science fiction and horror stories…”. Given all that, it would seem churlish to exclude the book because it’s not heartland science fiction. So here we go…

Women as Demons contains fourteen stories, which originally appeared between 1976 and 1988, and two original to the collection. Most are from the late 1970s, and were published in a variety of magazines and paperback anthologies.

‘The Demoness’ (1976) is straight-up fantasy. A woman waits in a tower, and is visited by a man and he learns the hard way that she is a succubus. Some time later, another man visits, a friend and brother-in-arms of the first, but he does not succumb to the succubus’s charms and rejects her. So she sets off in pursuit of him. The story tries for a Matter of Britain atmosphere, but doesn’t quite pull it off. The title character is pretty much the embodiment of the collection’s title, but she still feels like a fairy-tale staple. It didn’t seem as though the story added much to the cliché, and for much of its length it felt somewhat over-written.

‘Deux Amours d’une Sorcière’ (1979) is another fantasy, and is not dissimilar in broad shape to ‘The Demoness’. A beautiful woman kept by an older man meets two young heroes and falls for one of them. Everyone assumes she is in love the blond of the pair, so to protect the brunet, the true target of her affections, she plays along. Her sugar daddy is unhappy, however, and arranges for the putative lover to be murdered by footpads. This is one of those fantasies where it all feels a bit like some 1960s romance of the Age of Chivalry but with names slightly changed – eg, Parys, Jhane…

‘The Unrequited Glove’ (1988). Once you’ve finished groaning over the title, you slowly realise this is quite an effective little horror tale. A Mediterranean resort in the early part of the twentieth century, all very Bonjour Tristesse meets The Talented Mr Ripley, and an obsessive young woman falls for the local desirable playboy. He casts her off once he’s had his fun, she takes it badly… and one of her gloves remains to haunt the playboy until he eventually meets an untimely end. Like the previous two stories, this one relies a lot on atmosphere, and Lee is skilled at generating the necessary ambience through her use of language.

‘Gemini’ (1981) is the first of the science fiction stories in the collection, but its setting is not explained. The narrator appears to suffer from a fear of other people – she refers to it throughout as It – but in this world she must work in “Service” for a specified period every three months. She chooses a job which would limit her interaction with other people, but is soon given an assistant, a young man, who tries to get to know her better. So she kills him. The setting is vague, as is whatever It is.

‘Into Gold’ (1986) is, I think, set in Roman Britain, although it is hard to be sure as Lee gives few details. A fortress commander and his sidekick become de facto leaders of a small town, and under their rule it begins to prosper. Foreign traders appear, their caravans festooned with gold, and the commander takes a fancy to the chief trader’s daughter – who apparently can turn objects into gold. She stays and marries the commander, but the sidekick is suspicious of her. She has a child by the commander, but when she takes it on a trip to a distant village to cure its sick residents, he follows as he’s convinced she plans to either perform witchcraft or run off with the child.

‘The Lancastrian Blush’ (1989) is original to Women as Demons, and though it pretends to historical fiction – as its title would suggest – it’s pure fantasy. A Yorkist on his way to Bosworth Field has doubts about his allegiance. En route he comes across a strange castle, and falls in love with the lord’s daughter. Castles weren’t actually that common, even in the fifteenth century, as they are hugely expensive to build. The lord of the castle magically keeps the Yorkist prisoner so he won’t fight at Bosworth Field (incidentally, the battle was not known by that name until at least 1510, twenty-five years later). The Yorkist manages to escape, with the help of the daughter, fights in the battle, and does indeed swap sides.

‘You Are My Sunshine’ (1980). I have no idea if the title was inspired by the song made so famous by the Muppets. I’d like to think it was. The story originally appeared in Chrysalis 8, one of a paperback anthology series, so it seems unlikely. As, in fact, does the premise of the story. Leon Canna is a sort of chief steward aboard a starship. The story is framed as his testimony after the total loss of the vessel on which he served (he’s the sole survivor). Canna claims the disaster was caused by a woman, but his interrogators are unconvinced… so he explains what happened. He persuaded a dowdy young woman to use the starship’s solarium, which is a side-benefit of the starship’s method of refueling itself from suns. The more unfiltered sunshine she takes in, the more beautiful – and radioactive! – the young woman becomes. And she’s in love with Canna. It ends badly. The central premise of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ is, quite frankly, nonsense, and its “Plain Jane to charismatic beauty” plot is no better.

‘The One We Were’ (1984). Reading this collection, it occurred to me that Lee’s somewhat florid prose was best-suited to this sort of near-Gothic horror fiction, much like the earlier ‘The Unrequited Glove’. Here, a famous writer of “historical romantic novels” in Paris is persuaded by a popular clairvoyant that she is a reincarnation of a minor poet who had died young a century or so earlier. The writer obsesses over the poet, changes her appearance to match the one existing photograph of him, and collects everything and anything she can find about him. And then a young man appears, who also believes himself to be a reincarnation of the poet – and was informed as much by the same medium, in fact. There’s really only one way it can end. And so it does. Bizarrely, most of the characters are named, but some use that fin de siècle convention of an initial capital and an em-dash.

‘The Truce’ (1976) is one of the collection’s few science fiction stories, although it is well-disguised. Two warring tribes – it is implied this is a post-apocalypse world, but it’s not categorically stated – try to make peace by joining a member from each in a sanctioned relationship. But one tribe rejects the other. It comes as no surprise to discover that one tribe is female and the other male. This is the sort of “Shaggy God” story that used to crop up regularly in sf magazines back in the 1940s and 1950s.

‘The Squire’s Tale’ (1980). A knight and his squire pass through a clearing in which a witch has been burned at a stake. At the next town, the squire discovers he is turning into a woman, and is driven out of the castle. He has become possessed by the witch. And that’s pretty much all there is to this story – the setting is identikit Fantasyland, the central premise is obvious from the second page, and the narrative neither resolves the squire’s situation nor uses it to make any kind of commentary.

‘Discovered Country’ (1989). An ultra-rich woman in a future in which the Solar System has been settled has a son whom she ignores for much of his life. But when he turns thirty-two, she welcomes him into her life, though neither seem especially happy with the arrangement. So they go their separate ways. Then she dies suddenly, and she has one last bequest, something he must do in order to inherit her vast wealth. The title refers to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country”. This is a story that succeeds more on its prose than its plot.

‘Winter White’ (1978). Crovak is a Conan-like chief of a clan who, while on a trip, discovers a strange flute in an abandoned “drom-hall”. He blows the flute, which makes a noise like a woman in pain. And from that point on he is haunted by a woman in white that only he can see. And over the following months he gradually falls to pieces. There’s a Celtic fantasy feel to this story, although the central character smacks more of the Cimmerian barbarian than Pryderi fab Pwll.

‘Written in Water’ (1982). The sole survivor of a global pandemic finds a young man who has apparently dropped from the sky in her garden. He’s clearly alien and cannot speak. She looks after him, but after an abrupt epiphany in which she realises – or supposes – he was sent to Earth as an Adam to her Eve, she kills him. And that’s it. Another Shaggy God story which, although it subverts the trope, still manages to be somewhat obvious.

‘Mirage and Magia’ (1982). This one is Lee channelling M John Harrison, and it’s quite effective. A mysterious woman enters the town of Qon Oshen, and at regular intervals entices young men to her magically-protected mansion. The following morning, they are found wandering brain-dead. A master thief breaks into the house and discovers that the woman is searching for someone, and that the young men appear to be captivated by the thousands of mirrors which decorate the house’s interior. And then a mysterious young man appears in Qon Oshen… This is a story which relies more on its prose style than it does its plot, and it works pretty well in that regard.

‘The Thaw’ (1979). This story also appears in Pamela Sargent’s 1995 anthology, Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years. In the future, they have finally discovered how to resurrect those who have cryogenically frozen their bodies, but it seems the first person they resurrect is not quite what they expected. Though she appears to be Carla Brice, her descendant, there to welcome her and help her adjust to the future, learns there is something far from human about her.

‘Northern Chess’ (1979). A female knight happens open an investment of a magician’s castle. The sorceror is dead, but this is his last standing castle and the knights are determined to destroy it. But its magic has beaten them at every turn. Unused to the concept of a female knight, in fact downright misogynistic about it, the knights motivate her to have a go at the castle herself… and she succeeds. Because the magician’s curse said it would be destroyed by “no man”. Yes, it’s really that corny.

Sadly, the title of Lee’s collection promised more than I felt it delivered. Fans of her writing might well enjoy it more than I did, but in terms of what I was led to expect, I was disappointed to find mostly stories of women as femmes fatales, women whose agency existed only in counterpoint to that of male love interests, and women who formed one half of a romantic situation. For all Lee’s fancy prose and inventive – albeit often vague – settings, and her obvious facility at various styles and modes of genre, the stories themselves were not especially original, and their dénouments were all too often all too obvious. I was hoping for something a little more subversive, something that was more of a commentary on the roles women characters play all too often in genre fiction. But this is not that book.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr

hersmokeHer Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990)
Review by Chris White

Now, I’ve done a bit of research, and apparently when you review a collection of short stories you have to review each individual story – I’m not going to do that. And it’s not only because I’m lazy – I actually don’t want to ruin any of these beautiful stories for you. You should buy this book, I’m not joking.

James Tiptree Jr was probably one of the best science fiction authors to have ever written. Why am I tagging a bloke called James Tiptree Jr in my year of reading women? Because James Tiptree Jr was actually Alice Sheldon, an intelligence agent for both the USAF and the CIA, who wrote as Tiptree to protect her professional career.

“It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” – Robert Silverberg

Tiptree’s work collected here deals with sex, and violence, and arousal, and death. From the tragic xenophobic xenophile of ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’ to the story that has haunted me since childhood – although I forgot the name of the author, I always remembered ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ to the sad, haunting victory of ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’. Yes, James Tiptree Jr was a master of titles.

I cannot recommend this collection highly enough, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a beautiful, moving exploration of humanity and of real science fiction – our humanity is exposed through our non-humanity, to each other and to the aliens that we conquer and subjugate in her stories. The cold hostility of humanity toward the conquered in ‘We Who Stole the Dream’ and to one another in ‘The Screwfly Solution’ are breath-taking, as is the beauty found in ‘Slow Music’.

What a beautiful collection. Equal parts terrifying, beautiful and tragic. Glorious science fiction.

“Passing in any crowd are secret people whose hidden response to beauty is the desire to tear it into bleeding meat.”

This review originally appeared on Chris White Writes.

Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline

Zoline-TreeBusy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988)
Review by Ian Sales

Zoline is pretty much known solely for ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, a 1967 story which appeared in New Worlds and which is often seen as emblematic of the New Wave. In fact, lists of classic New Wave sf short fiction often place it in the top ten, if not the top three; although such lists with wider remits just as frequently omit it all together. And while yes, that last may in part be due to the fact Zoline is female, it’s also symptomatic of a genre-wide rejection of the New Wave and what it produced. Whether it was that rejection, or a later rejection of feminist sf, which effectively wrote women authors out of science fiction’s history, the end result is the same. Having said that, it’s difficult to describe Zoline as one of this revisioned history’s casualties as she was far from prolific – in fact, Busy About the Tree of Life contains Zoline’s only writing output. Between 1967 and 1988, Zoline published five stories – and one of those, the title story of this collection, was written specifically for this book.

‘Busy About the Tree of Life’ opens the collection. Like ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, it is presented in numbered sections – although each section is much longer, and the numbering scheme begins at 5.16/15 and counts down to 1. The story opens with a young child, Gabriel, and then flits back and forth through time, telling the stories of his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, before revealing that Gabriel is a somewhat special little boy. What a quick summary of the story’s plot fails to get across, however, is that it’s very funny, with Gabriel’s ancestors bordering on grotesques and mostly succumbing to absurdly unlikely fates.

Is there any sf fan who has not read ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’? And if not, why not? The SF Encyclopedia describes the story as “an icon of New Wave sensibility”, and though it may be true, it might also be doing it an injustice. Because, New Wave or not, ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ is an excellent piece of short fiction and a great deal better than the genre typically produces. Even more astonishing, it was Zoline’s first piece of fiction (she was heavily involved with the New Worlds coterie, and also provided illustrations for the magazine; so this likely influenced her). ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ describes the life of an American housewife in 54 numbered sections, and among them are a series of inserts on various topics, such Dada, light, Weiner on entropy, and turtles. The housewife’s day-to-day activities illustrate the inserts, and they in turn provide commentary on her thoughts and actions:

50. Sarah Boyle imagines, in her mind’s eye, cleaning and ordering the whole world, even the Universe. Filling the great spaces of space with a marvellous sweet-smelling, deep-cleansing foam. Deodorising rank caves and volcanoes. Scrubbing rocks. (p63)

You can read the story on the Wayback Machine’s archive of Sci Fiction, which reprinted the story in its “classic sf” section – see here.

‘The Holland of the Mind’ originally appeared in The New S.F., an anthology edited by Langdon Jones and published in 1969. The stories in that anthology appear to have all been by New Worlds regulars – Aldiss, Sladek, Ballard, Moorcock and Disch. Zoline is the only woman. The story, like ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, is structured as a mix of fact and fiction. A couple have flown from New York to Amsterdam to view the city’s sights. The narrative describes their time there, and is interspersed with paragraphs from guide-books, menus and a Dutch language guide.

‘Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire’ was written for The Women’s Press’ only science fiction anthology, Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, published in 1985. A woman engaged in a cloak and dagger exercise, although she doesn’t know how she knows what to do, eventually leads to the kidnap of the young daughter of a French armaments magnate – assisted, improbably, by one of a troop of Shakespearean gorillas in a theme park. The kidnap is, apparently, only one in a global conspiracy. Like the other stories in the collection, ‘Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire’ approaches its premise elliptically – although its opening and closing sections directly address the reader – and its only in the penultimate section that Zoline reveals the purpose behind the protagonist’s actions:

If a nuclear missile aimed at my ‘enemy’ is now, also, by definition, aimed at my children, will it stay my hand? (p 122)

The final story, ‘Sheep’, is from the anthology Likely Stories, an anthology of “experimental” fiction by authors published by the editor’s publishing house, McPherson & Co. (It is the publisher of the US edition of Zoline’s collection, under the title The Heat Death of the Universe, in fact.) ‘Sheep’ certainly qualifies as experimental, but no more so than Zoline’s other stories. It mixes four narratives – an insomniac unsuccessfully trying to get to sleep, a western, a pastoral idyll, and a spy thriller, all of which eventually bleed into each other – with found text, particularly regarding sheep. In fact, the insomniac is counting them, and at the end of each section enumerated sheep jump over a fence and are tallied. As each narrative progresses, so it takes apart the conventions of its genre, occasionally having a little too much fun doing so:

He approached her, and said in a conversational tone, ‘When the sheep call Wolf Wolf, the Shepherdess gives heed,’ and the apple woman replied, ‘The wolf’s great teeth can make the sheep to bleed.’ He continued, ‘So good folk guard your cattle and your brood.’ ‘The wolf prays in a church of bones and blood,’ she concluded. ‘Amen to that, come with me Comrade, Buddy, Amigo, this way.’ (p 136)

Not everything is entirely successful in the story – the redacted lyrics of ‘The Wiffenpoof Song’, for example, don’t really feel like they serve much purpose. Other found texts, the nursery rhymes, for example, seem to exist more to remind the reader of the importance of sheep in the story than to actually progress the narrative.

Zoline’s fiction resists easy review because it demands new ways of reading. These are not linear narratives, with beginnings, middles and ends, and if they do have them they’re “not necessarily in the right order”. Not all of the stories in Busy About the Tree of Life are wholly successful. ‘The Holland of the Mind’ trades too much on its quotidian, ‘Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire’ relies too much on the absurdity of how its plot unfolds, which cheapens the premise. But what Zoline’s reputation, based as it is on ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, appears to have failed to record is that her stories are often quite funny – not just surreal or absurd, but comic and witty. It’s a crying shame these five stories are all we’ve ever seen from her. She was apparently at one point working on a novel; it has never materialised. And, of course, she had a piece of fiction in The Last Dangerous Visions, which will likely never, ever see the light of day.

It’s certainly past time Zoline was “rediscovered” but I don’t think she’s really SF Masterwork material. The stories in Busy About the Tree of Life require too much work to be comfortable reading for those looking for the sort of straightforward ideas-led prose found in the science fiction classics published in that series (at least, that’s true of most of the SF Masterworks). But if you’re looking for challenging science fiction which plays with structure and narrative, that forces you to think about how you’re reading just as much about what you’re reading… then Zoline is a pure hit of the stuff.

Fireship, Joan D Vinge

fireshipFireship, Joan D Vinge (1978)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Like so many SF fans, my first exposure to Joan D Vinge’s work was via her wonderful Hugo-winning novel The Snow Queen (1980). Eventually I found a copy of her first published novel, The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978), which had an intriguing premise but a less than satisfactory delivery (poor characterizations, pacing, etc). The collection Fireship (1978) is comprised of two novellas: the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated ‘Fireship’ (1978) and one of her earlier works, ‘Mother and Child’ (1975).

The title story is the lesser of the two despite its (dare I say dubious) award nominations. It’s a light-hearted and unchallenging proto-cyperpunk novella. I would characterized the work as “popcorn SF”. Its plot is straight from the pulps with some late 1970s technological updates and told in a vigorous and readable manner.

The second novella – ‘Mother and Child’ – is more a product of 1970s anthropological science fiction. It attempts (with intermittent success) to develop a premise, a culture clash between humans groups and alien “observers,” which exudes social commentary. Although nowhere near as eloquent as Michael Bishop or Le Guin who are true proponents of literary prose and though-provoking scenarios, Vinge’s ‘Mother and Child’ is easily worth the price of the volume for any fans of her more famous work and 1970s social SF in general.

‘Fireship’: A single human body contains three distinct personas. First, there is Michael Yarrow, a generally unintelligent man with little ambition. The second is ETHANAC, a super computer whose entire circuitry is easily hidden in the structure of a portable case. When jacked into Yarrow’s body “his” voice “speaks”. When this machine/man conjunction occurs between Yarrow and ETHANAC a separate altogether different persona emerges, Ethan Ring. Yarrow was selected for this dangerous experiment because of his lack of ambition and disposable nature. However, Yarrow’s transformation – into the altogether more manly/intelligent/and ambitious Ethan Ring – allows him to escape from the confines of Earth to Mars. The settlers on Mars are comprised of a vast assortment of various cults and other renegade individuals like Ethan desperate to escape the increasing totalitarianism of Earth.

Post-WWIII, Russia and other superpowers have been mostly wiped out. Two forces gain hold sway in the changed world, the US and the Arab states due to their natural resources. The Arabs are one of the key proponents of investments in the Mars colony. Khorram Kabir is one of these “sheikh-like” investors who establishes a lavish and highly profitable casino, aptly named Xanadu. During an intensive bought of gambling where ETHANAC took over and acquired vast sums of money, Ring encounters the luscious Hanalore Takhashi. Little does Ring know that she works for a shadowy organization that seeks to blackmail him unless he hacks Kabir’s computer network!

I enjoyed the idea of the Arab states taking an active role in colonization (just think of all the massive building projects and investments in Manchester City and other teams in the EPL princes and sheikhs from the region are engaged in). This reminds me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars) where one of the main groups of colonists are from the Middle East. The shifts between the weakly Michael Yarrow, the more manly Ethan Ring, and the super computer ETHANAC are effectively done. The proto-cyperpunk premise filled with computer hacking, portable super computers, man-machine hybrids is entertaining but forgettable.

‘“Mother and Child’: A three-part novella where each section is told from the perspective of male character whose life becomes increasingly intertwined with Etaa, a human “priestess” of Mother (ie, the personification of the planet). It is slowly revealed that the humans are not on Earth but some planet colonized long before. A mutation causing plague wiped out the majority of the colonists and destroyed many of their senses. Etaa’s people, who placed the mother as the center of the society, hold priestess with “special abilities” (ie, hearing) in high regard.

The first portion of the novella follow’s Hywel, Etaa’s mate, and his childhood and the events leading up to a disaster. Etaa’s people, the Kotaane (“Mother’s children”) are bordered by the Neaane (“Motherless ones”). The Neaane king Merton steals Etaa from her spouse and rapes her. His society is a more traditional male-centric one – with pseudo-medieval inspired social systems – where an hair is of paramount importance. Merton himself the narrator of the second portion. He does not believe in his “gods” who take for the form of humans and physically wander among the Neaane… Despite his initial treatment of Etaa, whom he wants to bear his heir, he begins to feel for her. And, in her own way, Etaa does as well (she thinks that Hywel has been killed). Vinge’s characterization of Etaa, who despite her rape/imprisonment/and Merton’s less than honourable intentions, begins to see virtue in her captor strikes me as odd. The third portion is from the perspective of one of the gods who in reality, is neither male nor female.

The most effective element of the novella is the shifting male narration on Etaa, the connecting character in all three parts. Hywel is clearly a good man yet his goals are simplistic, he seeks to recover Etaa who has been stolen from him rather than change resolve the culture clash between the Gods and the Neaane and Kotaane. King Merton is much more flawed although again, yet his beliefs (or lack thereof) about the Gods are instrumental in changing Etaa’s view of the world. The final “male” God who “rescues” has represents a people desperate to modify the make human society malleable and easy to “guide.” He too is transformed by his “friendship” with Etaa.

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

Xenogenesis, Miriam Allen deFord

162 Miriam Allen deFord Xenogenesis Ballantine069Xenogenesis, Miriam Allen deFord (1969)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Miriam Allen deFord – one of the more prolific SF short story authors of the 50s – 70s whose works appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, If, Fantastic Universe, Galaxy, Worlds of Tomorrow, etc – deserves a Gollancz Masterworks volume. But, as has been pointed out, despite the number of prolific female SF authors in the 50s – 70s they were rarely republished and are perhaps the least read group of SF authors for modern audiences. There are some exceptions but few readers can name a female author pre-Ursula Le Guin. deFord’s shorts were collected in only two volumes, Xenogenesis (1969) and Elsewhere, Elsewhen, Elsehow (1971) and both print runs were limited to the first year of publication.

Informed by her feminist activism (she was an important campaigner for birth control) and her earlier career in the newspapers, deFord’s stories tackle themes such as overpopulation, racism, colonialism, gender issues, sexism, and alienation. Her works range from deceptively simple allegories to future histories vast in scope and complexity (for short stories). Her female characters are almost all individualistic, resourceful, and highly educated – they often struggle against increasingly regimented/mechanized/homogenized societies in order to raise families in addition to their careers. In short, deFord advocates forcefully the right to self-determination for her heroines.

Likewise, African American characters who are highly educated and in positions of power, the antithesis of the standard race clichés of the time, proliferate her short stories. I found the strong social activist streak rather surprising considering the 40s/50s providence of some of the works… The only contemporary female SF author who I have who that comes close to the radical nature of some of the tales is Judith Merril (most notably, ‘Daughters of Earth’). It is important to keep in mind how early she is writing.

Despite a few duds (a characteristic almost of all short story collections), the majority are highly recommended. Her work deserves to be reprinted.

‘The Daughter of the Tree’ (1951) Miriam Allen deFord’s second published short story, more fantasy than SF proper, is an intriguing allegory. In late 19th century Indian country a white boy wandering the woods learns about a girl of who looks to be of “white-blood” yet lives with the Indians and is supposedly the “daughter of the tree”. The story is filled with so-called Native American speech, ie, “I little boy, he bring me” and “sometimes he give big potlatch”. The vaguely fantasy premise becomes an allegory of emotional and physical absence – a settler woman is forced to find companionship in a sentient tree rather than her often absent husband.

‘The Superior Sex’ (1968) deFord deftly turns the standard SF trope where a (generally male) writer postulates a future where the women are in power in order to construct a “warning” narrative (or titillating tale) of some sort – à la Edmund Cooper’s Who Needs Men? (variant title: Gender Genocide) (1972) – on its head. A man wakes up to discover he’s a member of an all-male harem for a proud, ferocious, tall “Viking Woman” (p 13). But, add in some implanted visions, investigations of “hidden psychological impulses” a female scientist investigates her husband who might wish he didn’t volunteer.

‘The Ajeri Diary’ (1968) An allegory of sex and imperialism, or perhaps, more specifically, the “gaze” of the west. The exosociologis narrator, voyages via the “Patterson Differential” equation that allows mater transmission, to “virgin” territory. Where, instead of conducting more scientific anthropological studies, he gathers experiences (of all sorts, including lots of sleeping with native women) to write his populist and scandalous series entitled “With Our Galactic Neighbors”, i.e. lots of sex with our all our sexy up to this point very similar to us galactic neighbors. Unfortunately, the planet of Algol IV is not conducive to the narrator’s “research.” A world where the men are not really “men” and the women “reproduce parthenogenetically” and have no sexual interest in him. A fun, if polemical, allegory of societal clash–definitely reads as a product of the late 60s.

‘Quick to Haste’ (1969) As with ‘The Ajeri Diary’ the insatiable sexual desire explorers feel towards “native” women is the thematic focus. But, there’s an intriguing twist that perfectly serves deFord’s satirical purpose. The world is “Earth-like” and “like a dream”. A paradise filled with scenes from Greek vases, images of classical glory…. Scout ships filled men (and occasionally women) spew out into the stars to combat overpopulation – the men fall for the native women (perhaps it is the plan). But the women on this planet seem to age at remarkable speeds and produce children in mere days. The world is the perfect world for interplanetary explorers seeking sexual fulfillment – not only will you not have to deal with long term attachment but any children you might beget will be adults before you leave.

‘The Smiling Future’ (1965) In an overpopulated and computerized world where every scrap, including ocean chlorella, is harvested to feed to populace an unusual “embassy? army?” from the sea emerges on the shore in individual tanks. Mankind is perplexed because the ocean dwellers are sentient dolphins! But little does mankind know that the dolphins too have evolved, and just as man is destroying the oceans to support their growing numbers, the dolphins have an equally sinister plan. A somewhat lacking, but enjoyable nevertheless, satire with ecological themes…

‘Gathi’ (1958) Thematically similar to ‘The Daughter of the Tree’, ‘Gathi’ is a wonderful parable of sentient trees who are literally “rooted” together. Explores the forces that compel women to follow certain paths, the “root” with certain people, to avoid leaving what is dictated by traditionalist forces. Moving away is against “denroid behavior” – the young female trees ought to find rooting companions. A mysterious caretaker of the grove moves at the outskirts reinforcing with blights and sterility those who do not conform.

‘The Children’ (1952) The longest story in the collection is one of the lesser ones despite a its grand scope of future history… Using Time Travel a scientist, after a devastating accident that killed the rest of his family, develops an experiment that will yield him children in the future. The rather ridiculous (and forced) premise does ruminate on gender relations of the future.

‘Throwback’ (1952) Not only of the better stories of the collection but perhaps the most sinister. In the far overpopulated future where both men and women are highly educated and have careers, a female artist of ceramics wishes for a child. In this world where humans are counseled by machines and only pre-selected women produce children she considered atavistic in her longings for a stable relationship with children and realizes that an undocumented pregnancy would result in serious repercussions. So she hatches a plan to escape after an accidental pregnancy – but deFord constructs no happy ending.

‘One-Way Journey’ (1955) An elderly couple in an overpopulated future relate how their son, Hal, signed up for a controversial program that sends young girls and boys off to the stars. He leaves them, or so they think, without progeny–not only will the program transform their child into something unrecognizable yet suitable for travel into space, but the restrictions on childbearing mean that Hal was unable to have a child on earth. A rumination on the pangs of separation, on disconnect from a traditional past, on atavistic desires (to reproduce, to have families) that resurface despite rigid legislation. I found that the ending is all too easy and avoids the issues at stake weakening the grim impact.

‘The Season of the Babies’ (1959) A hilarious satire on the clash of cultures. An alien world wants to be admitted to a Federation of Planets started by Earth. The Earth delegates arrive, everything seems to be going well, until a baby cries… Soon the entire alien way of reproducing and eating and living is uncovered, to the horror of the Earthmen. Deftly deploying a mix of elements from Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ and Montaigne’s ‘On Cannibals’, deFord presents the aliens as a hyperbolic foil for humans who practice “traditional” practices that seem abhorrent upon closer examination. But the humans too can not look beyond what they believe is the one and only way.

‘Featherbed on Chlyntha’ (1957) 4.5/5 Easily the best story in the collection, ‘Featherbed on Chlyntha’ is the journal of an Earthman snatched from a colony of Mars and stuck in an alien cage in a zoo. Unfortunately, he lusts after the alien feathered “women” who looks after him – deFord subverts the standard conqueror who lusts after the conquered paradigm. However, as he learns about their complex gender-relations – until a certain age everyone is female and after a certain age they become male – he loses sexual interests but his human-knowledge helps them unravel the reason for his abduction. Thankfully, not everything works out in the end! It is hard not to believe that writers such as Le Guin were inspired by stories such as this one.

‘The Transit of Venus’ (1962) Archeologists from the future uncover new clues about a particular scandal during the “rite of the Buticontest” (beauty contest) of the 21st century. The Buticontest is the obsession of Earth and all its colonies. All women desire to enter, and only those who are PhDs in the sciences and who won’t shrug at parading around naked in front of judges and thousands watching will be considered. The scandal, covered up forcefully by the horrified Buticontest officials, involved a woman drugged and cast-off by her family for her slightly more traditional ways who entered the pageant with faked credentials and a plastic skin-like body suit. The real reason for her deception has been uncovered!

‘All in Good Time’ (1960) Graduate students of the future are the only ones taught by real humans–all earlier levels of education is mediated by machines. Law students are presented with a case by the professor involving time-travel and bigamy. Only a young female law student knows the reason for the ruling…

‘The Absolutely Perfect Murder’ (1965) In a media saturated future where evenings spent with ones spouse equates both individuals tapped into different programs, doped-up on Sensapills, with hearing-plugs and directional conversation-glasses “smelling, tasting, feeling their favorite telecasts” a man resorts to killing his wife… Fortunately, a time-travel device has recently been invented. The husband spends his savings and vacation money for a one-time trip into the past. And discovers his wife’s secret – a lie that might save her life. The “disconnect of 50s domesticity” rumination devolves in all the standard directions as the story unfolds.

‘Operation Cassandra’ (1958) Fascinating premise with an average delivery. Only three people wake up in a vast Hibernatorium. The purpose of the facility was to preserve humans in a state of deep sleep until the end of a world-wide disaster. Unfortunately, the staff died and the power ran out leaving on a few alive–an African American Havard educated man, a college educated woman, a Danish college educated farmer, and a hardworking self-educated Southerner who serves as the narrator. What sort of society will they create? What about nascent racism? Unfortunately, the discovery of other survivors means that all the difficult questions have easy, and rather less radical, answers.

‘The Last Generation?’ (1946) Way before Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard (1964) or PD James’ The Children of Men (1992), deFord speculated along similar lines about the effects of mass sterility. An accident, presumably nuclear in nature, in New Mexico results in the inability for almost all of humanity to have children. First there’s panic and massive global searches for anyone who might be able to produce children and quacks take advantage and hawk “remedies.” Soon massive quantities of money is poured into the IARC (Ingrid Anderson Research Commissions), named after the youngest person on Earth, in order to find a cure. Even in this 40s vision, African Americans are scientists, and women are in positions of power… But, is it too late? Is this The Last Generation? But, we are left waiting, even the narrator does not know.

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

Extra(ordinary) People, Joanna Russ

Extra(ordinary)_People_coverExtra(ordinary) People, Joanna Russ (1984)
Review by Ian Sales

Recent years have seen the works of Joanna Russ rightly reclaimed as classics of science fiction. During her heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s, she was very successful, garnering eight nominations for the Nebula Award and winning once, but earning only two nominations for the Hugo, one of which was a win. Her The Female Man (1975) has long been considered an important work – and is now in the SF Masterworks series –  but much of her short fiction no longer seems so popular. This is a shame, as it is considerably better than that of many of her contemporaries, and large number of her stories have stood the test of time well. The five pieces of fiction in Extra(ordinary) People are excellent examples of this.

‘Souls’ (1982) was Russ’s only Hugo win. I read and reviewed it last year – see here – and on reread, the clues scattered throughout the text suggesting that the Abbess Radegunde is far from usual for the time the story is set not only seem more obvious… but also indicate she is almost non-human – reading at the age of two, for example. Then there’s the ease with which she addresses the raiding Vikings, even going so far as to crack a blue joke with them. But that unsettling sense that, despite the setting, Radegunde is a science-fictional creation still doesn’t help when it comes to deciphering what is really going on. It’s as if Russ deliberately offers an obvious reading of the strange figures in the wood – ie, aliens or time-travellers – but some of the foreshadowing doesn’t quite fit, and Radegunde’s subsequent revenge on Thorvald, the leader of the Vikings, undermines that assumption yet further:

“I cannot make long thy life – that gift is beyond me – but I give thee this: to the end of thy days, long or short, thou wilt know the Presence about thee always, as I do, and thou wilt know that it is neither good nor evil, as I do, and this knowing will trouble and frighten thee always, as it does me, and so about this one thing, as about many another, Thorvald Peacemaker will never have peace.” (p 54)

‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ (1982) was shortlisted for the Nebula. It first appeared in Speculations, an anthology in which the authors’ names were given in code, and needed to be deciphered to determine who had written which. It’s tempting to wonder if Russ’s story was considered easily identifiable. Certainly, like much of her short fiction, it requires work by the reader – there is a lot happening, but very little is explained. This is one of Russ’s strengths, and a reason why much of her fiction continues to be readable today. ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ is written in the form of a journal by the eponymous young gentleman, who is travelling from London to New York aboard the SS President Hayes. It is June 1885, and he is accompanied by a twelve-year-old Spanish girl, Maria-Dolores. Except the young gentleman is not a young gentleman, and nor is Maria-Dolores who she purports to be. When one of the passengers, whom the young gentleman describes in his diary as “Dr Bumble”, takes a fancy to young man, a fancy he cannot explain, he decides it is because the young gentleman is in fact a woman in disguise. Except…

“An actress? Half a head taller than yourself? Where in Europe, on what possible stage? And this business of dye for the skin – which doesn’t smell, won’t wash off, and can’t be detected even in the most intimate contact, not even by a medical man?” (p 87)

There are clues throughout ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ which indicate the young gentleman and Maria-Dolores could either or both be male or female, but the last page suggests their identities are not so easily categorised. Like ‘Souls’, ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ reads for much of its length like historical fiction, and only takes an unexpected swerve into genre in its final pages. And, also like ‘Souls’, it resists an easy reading, genre or otherwise. It has become one of my new favourite pieces of short fiction.

The narrator of ‘Bodies’ (1984) is a resurrectee in the distant future, and she is writing a letter to another such person. Both are from the twentieth century – James, the recipient of the letter, from London in 1930, and the letter writer from Portland in the 1970s – and they have been resurrected two thousand years later. And it’s a world neither can really understand – not that its inhabitants understand them either. For one thing, it’s hinted they have non-binary genders. The letter-writer is asking James for understanding, that he accept his new life and come to terms with it, but she’s also explaining that she’s lonely, that she too finds this future world strange and alienating and that she needs his company. Like the preceding two stories in this collection, ‘Bodies’ is a story which needs work by the reader, and while it suffers a little because its setting is not historical but an invented future and so prone to feeling dated, it does showcase the strong voice which characterises much of Russ’s fiction. This story is original to the collection.

‘What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?’ (1983) is another epistolary story, this time from a woman who has been sent undercover to a parallel Earth. In the world of the story, an infinite sequence of parallel realities have been discovered, where “the relation of cause to effect” varies by distance from the narrator’s “prime” Earth, called Ru 1.0. The narrator has been sent to Ru +0.892437521, which she has nicknamed Ruritania, disguised as a demon prince (ie, a male demon), called Ashmedai, in order to subtly steer local politics. Unfortunately, things don’t go quite according to plan – there’s a princess involved, of course – and then it transpires Ru 1.0 isn’t 1.0, after all. Again, Russ uses the letter format to put across the voice of her narrating character, and while it’s tempting to claim there’s a Russ “type” in protagonists, much as other sf authors of the same era relied on a handful of characters for their fictions, the narrator of ‘What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?’ and, say, ‘Bodies’, do possess a characteristic forthrightness. ‘What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?’ originally appeared in The Seattle Review.

‘Everyday Depressions’ (1984) is also original to Extra(ordinary) People and is structured as a series of witty letters by a writer to her editor in which she outlines the plot, and her thoughts regarding, a book she may or may not write. The novel will be a Gothic romance – there are numerous references to the literature of that time, such as Jane Austen’s novels – albeit between two women. There’s also a character called Alice Tiptree (obviously a reference to Alice Sheldon). In fact, the story is full of literary references and in-jokes and, while not at all genre, it makes a number of important points about gender politics and sexuality.

Between 1959 and 1996,  Joanna  Russ wrote fifty-six pieces of short fiction, and yet only three collections of her fiction have to date been published. There’s no denying the impact Russ had on the genre, nor the quality of her writing – which strikes me as more than reason enough for a volume of her collected short fiction. Recently, Ursula K Le Guin has had a two-volume collection of short stories published, there are plenty of male sf authors with complete collections available; and yet it seems only in recent years has Russ’s career been given the attention it rightly deserves. For such an outspoken author, this seems… peculiar. Perhaps it was her message, perhaps too many people didn’t want to hear it. Whatever the reason, the time is clearly right for Russ to be represented by more than just The Female Man. And the proof of that is in Extra(ordinary) People just as much as it is in any other piece of Russ’s short fiction. ‘Souls’ is an award winner and an excellent novella; ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ immediately became one of my favourite pieces of short science fiction. Let’s have Russ’s short fiction back in print, please. She was very, very good at it, and the genre needs to celebrate its good writers – not the ones its readers remember fondly from when they were thirteen years old…

Fireflood and Other Stories, Vonda N McIntyre

firefloodFireflood and Other Stories, Vonda N McIntyre (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

Vonda N McIntyre was one of several women science fiction writers who came to prominence during the 1970s, but by the end of the 1980s seemed to have drifted from the public eye. That was likely due to cyberpunk, which shook up the genre and pushed feminist sf authors out to the edges… from where they eventually disappeared. Which is a shame, if not a crime. Though the genre’s history may claim the 1970s was a creative and artistic wasteland in science fiction, comprised only of tired old American white male middle-class fiction such as Heinlein’s late novels, Niven and Pournelle’s best-selling bloated epics, and Asimov’s futile attempts to tie all his fiction into one Gordian Knot of continuity, in point of fact there was a lot of excellent science fiction written during that decade, novels and stories that carried on what the New Wave had started, that introduced feminist concerns to a genre that had been resistant to them for far too long. While Star Wars (1977) may have in one fell swoop re-positioned science fiction as a genre of swashbuckling adventure in space in the public mind, that same period also gave us stone-cold sf classic sf novels such as Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) and Samuel R Delany’s Dhalgren (1975).

McIntyre was one of the many casualties of cyberpunk’s “re-imagining” of science fiction’s history, and that’s shown clearly in Fireflood and Other Stories, her only published collection. Its eleven stories won a Hugo and a Nebula award, and were shortlisted for three Hugos, two Nebulas and five Locus awards. Clearly, she was not ignored at the time. After a pair of well-regarded sf novels, McIntyre spent much of the 1980s writing Star Trek novels and film novelisations, before returning to sf in the late 1980s with a hard sf quartet. Her last novel was published in 1997, although she has written a handful of short stories since then. The stories in Fireflood and Other Stories date from 1972 to 1979.

‘Fireflood’ (1979). This originally appeared in F&SF and was shortlisted for the Hugo Award in 1980. At some undefined point in the future, groups of human beings have been altered to live on other worlds. Dark is one such, a digger, and she is more comfortable tunnelling underground than living on the surface. She is also one of six who have escaped from a strip mine where her people are treated like serfs. She heads for an area of land that has been handed over to yet another group of changed humans – these have wings and were designed to colonise a low-gravity world. ‘Fireflood’ describes the encounter between Dark and one of these winged humans, Jay, and they both reflect on their situations – their similarities and their differences.  While the flyers are free within the land given to them, they are just as much prisoners as the diggers, and Dark’s request for sanctuary among them is to neither’s advantage. Both groups have not been given the chance to do what they were designed for, and are now treated like second-class citizens and freaks. Dark is subsequently captured, and Jay decides to follow her. But a human warns him off –

“We can’t control anyone outside your preserve.” Strangely, the human sounded concerned. “You know the kind of thing that can happen. Flyer, stay inside your boundaries.” (p 31)

I’m not entirely sure who the diggers and flyers are intended to map onto, or indeed if they represent anyone or anything. As a general commentary on humanity’s predilection for creating and then abandoning objects, it packs more of a punch by making those “objects” living, breathing people, but that, perversely, also muddies its points by suggesting it’s just as much about race relations. The thinness of the background – humanity can create other human races for other worlds, but still flies around in helicopters – also confuses matters somewhat. I’ve a horrible feeling the story’s success was as much a result of a “slans are fans” reading of it as of the quality of its prose. Which is a bit sad.

‘Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand’ (1973). This novella was reprinted in Women of Wonder, the first of the three women-only anthologies edited by Pamela Sargent – see here. It won the Nebula Award in 1974, and in my review of Women of Wonder I wrote: “It’s not hard to see why this story won an award. The prose is extremely good, Snake is well-drawn, sympathetic and mysterious, and the world is sufficiently intriguing to merit further exploration.” On reread, ‘Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand’ remains just as strong a piece of heartland science fiction.

‘Spectra’ (1972). Set in another undefined future, the narrator was taken from her mother as a child, had her eyes replaced with devices, with which she is plugged into a machine in order to process some sort of visual patterns. The narrator is one of many such women. They live in a complex, sleep in pods and are fed via a valve in their ankle while they sleep, are carried to their work stations by a moving belt, and then spend all day identifying patterns in the signals sent to them through eyepieces. But the narrator remembers her past, and she remembers what the world looked like when she could distinguish colour. As a result, she is punished. There’s a definite 1984 feel to ‘Spectra’, but it reads more like a writing exercise than an actual story. In fact, it’s little more than a a depiction of the contrast between the reader’s situation, as represented by the narrator’s memories, and the narrator’s current situation.

‘Wings’ (1973). This first appeared in an original anthology, The Alien Condition, edited by Stephen Goldin. On an alien world, the winged natives have all flown up above the sky, an injured youth comes to the temple where an old keeper is the only person remaining – and who cannot fly himself. The keeper tends to the youth’s injury until he is well enough to join the others. McIntyre handles her alien culture well, although the keeper’s use of “thee” and “thou” to signal an older form of language occasionally feels clunky. All the same, it’s a well-written elegiac piece, and it comes as no real surprise to learn it was shortlisted for both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

‘The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn’ (1974). This story is set among the same people depicted in ‘Wing’s, but aboard one of the starships in which they departed their dying world. An old female who remembers life on their world enters into a relationship with a youth who has known only life aboard the starship. The story is pretty much a reflection of ‘Wings’, a story of love between two generations in an alien culture. Unlike the earlier story, however, this one didn’t make any shortlists – despite being more heartland sf with its starship setting.

The End’s Beginning (1976).  Originally published in Analog, ‘The End’s Beginning’ appears to be told from the point of view of a dolphin – hardly the sort of sf for which Analog is known. The dolphin is being compelled to perform some task by men through the use of a machine, but the details are vague. As the story progresses, it becomes clear the dolphin is a weapon – and the prose compares and contrasts humanity’s destructiveness with the natural predators of marine life – and it eventually swims into a harbour full of – enemy? – ships.

‘Screwtop’ (1976). This was reprinted in The New Women of Wonder, and I covered it in my review of that anthology – see here. On rereading it, I’m still not entirely sure why the story was written in a science fiction mode, or how the actual thermal-power generation system is supposed to work. While ‘Screwtop’ is well-written, it fails for me in its world-building, and that I think is too fundamental a flaw.

‘Only at Night’ (1971). A nurse on night shift in a hospital spends her time wandering through the ward of deformed children rejected by their parents. One of the “larger children (I can only think of him as a large child) … He’s perfectly formed and beautiful, but he has no mind” attacks and injures her, and there’s a hint she accepts it as expiation of the parents’ abandonment of their newborns.

‘Recourse, Inc.’ (1974). At some point, it seems, every sf writer of the twentieth century had a go at an epistolary story. Most seem to involve computers behaving badly, and this one is no exception. A customer is misbilled by a giant corporation, and so asks the titular company to intercede on his behalf. The situation spirals out of control and… Stories like this are as a rule not especially amusing, and they do not age well. This one even features a punched card. It would be undeserved flattery to call it “slight”.

‘The Genius Freaks’ (1973). Lais is one of the freaks of the title, a genetically-engineered genius, but she has escaped from the Institute where she and her kind are kept and tasked with making life better for the rest of humanity. She has discovered by chance a new virus that will undo the effects of “clean-gening”:

It might wait ten or fifteen or fifty years, or forever, but when injury or or radiation or carcinogen induced it out, it would begin to kill. (p 193)

But Lais is herself dying, and she’s on the run. She knows the authorities are not interested in her discovery – on the contrary, they would likely cover it up.

‘Aztecs’ (1977). This novella first appeared in an original anthology, 2076: The Third Centennial, edited by Edward Bryant and Jo Ann Harper. It was shortlisted for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. There’s a definitely Delany-esque feel to this story – although, to be fair, throughout this collection McIntyre has demonstrated a more lyrical prose-style than is common in science fiction. Laenea Trevelyan is a Pilot. She has had her heart removed and replaced with a special pump, because Pilots must stay conscious during interstellar travel and can only survive by means of a biocontrolled pump in place of their heart. Laenea discharges herself early from hospital after her surgery and heads for the spaceport to revel in her new status. Pilots are elite. Although not the only people to travel routinely between worlds – starships have Crew as well, but they must spend the journeys asleep like the passengers – there is a definite pecking order. In a bar frequented by Pilots and Crew, Laenea meets Radu Dracul, an unsophisticated Crew from a backwater world. Even though Pilots and Crew don’t mix, Laenea takes Radu to a party, then to her bed. She falls in love with him, but as a Pilot she cannot live in the same world as him…

Between 1974 and 1980, McIntyre was shortlisted five times for the Hugo and won once, five times for the Nebula and won twice, and nine times for the Locus Award and won once. I suspect there are only a handful of genre authors who can better that record. And yet McIntyre is all but forgotten today. This is a shame – the stories in Fireflood and Other Stories demonstrate a lyricism and poetry more in tune with twenty-first century science fiction than what we’re told was common back in the 1970s. Many of her stories are written from the point of view of an alien, or an outsider – usually female – and that, plus her prose style, suggests she is ripe for rediscovery. She was a singular, and successful, voice in science fiction four decades ago, and it’s long past time she took her rightful place in the history of the genre, and was introduced to a new audience.