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.

A Sense of Shadow, Kate Wilhelm

shadowA Sense of Shadow, Kate Wilhelm (1981)
Review by Kev McVeigh

Frequently in Kate Wilhelm’s best fiction memories and dreams become entwined with and are influenced beyond the norm by the protagonist’s social environment. The reader familiar with these stories will recognise much in A Sense Of Shadow that was previously seen in ‘Somerset Dreams’ for instance. At the same time as Wilhelm’s story is familiar her development of tension makes A Sense of Shadow an effective psychological mystery.

When the dying patriarch John Daniel Culbertson summons his estranged children to his wealthy and sprawling Oregon ranch it is to inform them of his will and condemn them to his final psychological torture. Each child must undergo EEG recordings, then on Culbertson’s death they must remain in the house for seven nights before further EEG recordings are to be compared. One will ‘pass’ the test and inherit all, or none will and the ranch will go to the university. Almost immediately after this Culbertson does die.

The four children, all full grown (if not exactly mature in some cases) are joined by the youngest son Lucas’s wife Ginny and research psychologist Hugh Froelich. Culbertson has become intrigued by a paper Froelich wrote about brain waves and has taken these ideas a grand and despotic further step. For the next week they are effectively trapped in the house by the ruling of a crazy old man and their own issues.

The gothic haunted house aspect of this short novel is it’s initial strength, as Wilhelm delicately hints at doors mysteriously closing, lights being turned on and so on, without explicit supernatural involvement. Without overdoing descriptive passages she creates a brooding environment in which her story plays out. In contrast the deaths of each of Culbertson’s three previous wives in manners that seem to point suspicion back at him seem slightly contrived. That each death was witnessed by one or more of the children, but never clearly, may account for some of their individual and collective psychological damage and their feeling haunted in the old house, but it also raises questions of what is really happening now by querying what previously happened.

Froelich’s theories are the SF element here, there is brief discussion of chemical process and electrical impulse in axons causing synapses to fire, leading to his repeated assertion that there is ‘no mechanism for possession’ that true metempsychosis is scientifically impossible. However he also observes later:

Bluebeard’s sons, he thought with a shudder. They were all in a state of heightened suggestibility. Not hypnotized, but so suggestible that any stimulus, even self-induced, made them react. And their reactions were not their usual ones, but what they believed his would have been. (p 126)

As the novel reaches its inevitable climax the characters are rapidly overwhelmed by their fears and apparent memories. The penultimate chapter flashes through an explosion of multiple distorted viewpoints as Culbertson’s influence seems to peak with potentially tragic consequences.

A Sense of Shadow is both evocative in its physical descriptions and intensely creepy in its playing reality and imagination against each other. Whilst the differences between the characters can be hard to see, particularly older brothers Conrad and Mallory, there’s a growing realisation that maybe Wilhelm intended that. The daughter Janet is similarly indistinguishable, although self-defined by her body image perhaps, and even outsider Ginny increasingly is absorbed into the coalescent group. The power of the patriarch to discomfort, to influence and to enforce conformity are the heart of a disturbing feminist short novel on the fringes of SF, Horror (in this case more accurately, Terror) and the literary mainstream.

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.

Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue, Rosel George Brown

gssbGalactic Sibyl Sue Blue, Rosel George Brown (1966)
Review by Kev McVeigh

Amongst the ranks of near-forgotten women SF writers Rosel George Brown is one of the least remembered. Prior to her untimely death aged 41 in 1967 she published one collection of interesting if unspectacular short stories and this novel. A posthumous sequel and a collaborative novel with Keith Laumer complete her scant bibliography.

Sibyl Sue Blue is, however, a character of note for her time and possibly now. She is forty years old, a widow with a sixteen-year-old daughter Missy, a homicide police sergeant and a student of classical Greek. This last is both a direct reflection of Brown’s own academic background and an opportunity for at least one aside on the way female academic progress is hindered by domesticity.

Indeed issues of domesticity and feminine roles recur throughout Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue with Sibyl herself remaining not ambiguous exactly but inconsistent in her characterisation. She is independent, a working mum, tough in handling physical assaults right from the first sentence, and able to respond verbally to blatant sexism. She also worries about her dress, gets flustered by the handsome villain, flirts and expresses her need for a man rather often.

I’m lucky. I’ve got a beautiful daughter and a good figure no matter how much I eat, and naturally curly hair…

The only thing I don’t have is a man. At the moment.

If that makes the 21st century reader cringe it is tempered within a page as Sibyl ponders reading Thucydides and writing about Plataea. The “mad, mod heroine of the future”, to quote the Berkeley edition front cover copy, may define herself by her relationships with men, but it is no longer the only thing she references. Sibyl eventually falls into the handsome, villainous arms of Stuart Grant, but only when she chooses to do so.

The plot of Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue, such as it is, begins as a quirky policier. There have been several mysterious murders possibly linked to the benzale cigarettes illicitly imported from Centaurus. Meanwhile Sibyl is attacked (and defends herself efficiently) by normally peaceable Centaurans, ones with an odd green tinge. Issues of inter-species prejudice and fetishization are dropped in and skim by. Sibyl’s boss is not quite in the Gene Hunt mould, but he is of his time.

It all changes when Sibyl smokes a dodgy benzale and receives a dream communication from her late husband lost a decade before on a mission to the planet Radix. Something links Radix, Centaurus and the murders, and Stuart Grant whose ships have the space trade monopoly, knows more than he admits. From here the rapid action leads to kidnap, escape, a mission to Radix, mutiny, and a wild plot flourish to match Philip K Dick’s minor novels at least. Radix is a planet covered in one single sentient plant lifeform, and Stuart thinks he can use it to rule over Earth and Centaurus by assimilation. Only Sibyl and the creepy Dr Beadle, Stuart’s erstwhile ally, can save the day.

Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue is mainly a superior 1960s SF romp with a hint of domestic romance, but Rosel George Brown mixes it up just enough to offer a subversive note. In Sibyl she tweaks gently at the aspirations of the working mother and simultaneously the systems that deny those aspirations. Sibyl’s concerns are her daughter and a man, yet she repeatedly and easily defeats male assailants. She is affected by emotions but sees beyond them when necessary.

Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue is a slight novel, 158 pages, of rapid pulp action and wild ideas, full of the gender political self-contradictions of its era. Brown tells her story with verve and wit however, and it is a fun novel, if not a classic, neither is it one to languish in total obscurity.

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.

The Anything Box, Zenna Henderson

The Anything Box, Zenna Henderson (1965)
Review by Kev McVeigh

“there is sometime among children another seeingness — a seeing that goes beyond the range of adult eyes, that sometimes seem to trespass even on other dimensions.” (‘Turn The Page’)

The 14 stories collected in The Anything Box almost all feature children in some kind of relationship to a parent or teacher. From the title story onwards teachers observe children with some form of magic, some way of seeing a different world, or of influencing the world, that is denied or lost to adults.

Henderson is probably best remembered for “The People” stories about a community of aliens crashlanded on Earth and hiding out in the South West USA. The Anything Box stories share some similarities of setting, and scenarios, but are significantly darker and less sentimental in most cases. The sometimes twee moralising of The People’s secretive interactions with humans is replaced here with more tragic consequences. In ‘Come On, Wagon’ when Thaddeus is told he can’t use unexplained powers that he used to move his toy wagon, eventually life comes full circle and he no longer has the ability which would save his Uncle’s life. In ‘The Last Step’ the teacher interrupts the children’s game, only to realise later that their game was a premonition of reality, and they have no escape because the game was terminated.

Although children are at the centre of these stories the focus is repeatedly on the power of imagination:

“When I was in the first grade, my teacher was magic” (‘Turn The Page’)

“Imagination is an invaluable asset. It is, I might say, one of the special blessing bestowed upon mankind.” (‘The Last Step’)

“Too young to learn that heart’s desire is only play-like” (‘The Anything Box’)

“Magic, us old-timers would call it. Dunno what you empty, don’t-believe-nothing-without-touch-it-taste-it-hear-it-proof younguns would call it.” (‘The Grunder’)

Written in the 1950s, published between 1951 and 1962, these stories have an innocence of telling on the surface, but their own magic in part through Henderson’s charmingly regional voice. It is often said that SF has very few regional writers, but Zenna Henderson’s native Arizona and Southern California is clear in some of these stories. In a couple of cases they remind me of the great RA Lafferty, (though they pre-date his first publications) in their inventive, quirky language, (‘Things’) and their emphasis on the power of language precisely used (‘The Last Step’, ‘Hush!’) As a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints Henderson is often mentioned as an influence on Orson Scott Card and others, but there is no sign here of the more dubious imagery of some Mormon writers. If anyone the more recent writer I see in ‘Walking Aunt Daid’ is Nicholas Fisk, and in ‘Turn The Page’ possibly the Kelly Link of ‘The Faery Handbag.’

Henderson may not be a religious zealot, though there are touches of spirituality in her stories, but she is a passionate proselyte in her own way:

“I can see that you haven’t forgotten the lessons she taught you. Only you have remembered the wrong part. You only half learned the lessons. You’ve eaten the husks and thrown the grain away. She tried to tell you. She tried to teach you. But you’ve all forgotten. Not a one of you remembers that if you turn the page everyone will live happily ever after, because it was written that way. You’re all stranded in the introduction to the story.” (‘Turn The Page’)

Another aspect of Henderson’s writing, according to her Wikipedia entry is that ‘her work could not be considered feminist’ but the petty arguments between Crae and Ellena in ‘The Grunder’ and his irrational jealousies are foregrounded and highlighted. The best story here, ‘Subcommittee’ looks like an obvious tale of human and alien children learning to play which eventually teaches their military parents to co-operate too. Alongside this however, Henderson demonstrates the dismissive ignorance of domestic reality in the military husband. Elsewhere there are hints of patronising behaviour in male Head Teachers to females, and so on. Henderson, as noted, came from a conservative background and was writing at a time when outright feminism was not visible in SF,so perhaps these little touches were what she was able to offer?

Overall, The Anything Box is an enjoyable collection with an angry undercurrent. Its occasional lapses into sentimental views of childhood are a product of its time, and tempered by a cynical tone in some of the adults. (Two stories open in almost identical words, ‘I don’t like kids’ and ‘I don’t like children.’) Time has taken its toll on Zenna Henderson’s work, as with most of her contemporaries, but her best work remains interesting, slightly charming and shouldn’t be forgotten. She tried to tell you. She tried to teach you.

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.

Passing for Human, Jody Scott

Passing for Human, Jody Scott (1977)
Review by Kev McVeigh

The fantastic travelogue has been a literary staple since the Iliad at least, and as a means of turning a satirical mirror on society’s failings one of the most frequently adopted. Think of Gulliver’s Travels for instance, and all its subsequent copies. Feminist SF has used this model to explore lands from Herland to Whileaway most effectively.

In Passing For Human Jody Scott takes a slightly different tack by telling her story from the distorted viewpoint of a Rysemian alien, Benaroya, on an anthropological research visit to Earth in the 1970s. Benaroya is, however, apparently amoral, pleasure focussed and careless. She doesn’t seem to like the ‘Earthies’ as from the start she is condescending, sneering and labels humans primitive ‘bushmen’ on a ‘savage backwater.’

To visit Earth Benaroya has had to transfer from her giant dolphin-like Rysemian form into one of a choice of human simulacra. When we first meet her she is a faithful copy of Brenda Starr the intrepid girl reporter of comic strip fame. Later she will be Emma Peel and most significantly Virginia Woolf. Her fellow Rysemians will include Abraham Lincoln, Heidi’s Grandfather and General George S Patton. Support drones are modelled on Richard Nixon. Whilst on Earth Benaroya really just wants to have fun, experimenting with the limits of the Brenda Starr form initially, in a road race that leaves several humans dead and a half-naked Starr in custody, where her lawyer is unable to resist sex with her.

On her return to her shipworld Vonderra, Benaroya is informed of a threat. Another alien, the Sajorian Scaulzo is about to invade Earth and Benaroya must prevent this. The Sajorians, we are told, are the only truly psychopathic race to have achieved interstellar travel. They are reminiscent of Klingons in that respect, but are explicitly compared to humanity. Scaulzo himself is referred to by Benaroya as The Prince Of Darkness early on, and later, when captured as Woolf she muses on whether it is wrong to ‘fall in love with the Prince Of Darkness.’

Passing For Human has a plot, the prevention of Earth’s destruction, and Benaroya’s learning about humans and herself, but plot is not really this novel’s focus. Events happen apace, with absurd leaps, and devices such as the assorted ‘identities’ Benaroya adopts are not really explored in any typical SF manner. As a whole, despite its aliens, spaceships, super weapons and so on, Passing For Human doesn’t look like a lot of SF these days, being unconcerned with plausibility, plot cohesion or real characterisation. The novel leaps along with an energy and a disregard for convention that reminds me a little of genre outsiders like Barry Malzberg and possibly Josephine Saxton in that this reads like a romp through the Collective Unconscious. A closer comparison might be with the early novels of Ishmael Reed who shares with Scott a vitriolic contempt for seemingly all and everything, sniping and satirising hilariously along the way.

“Yet the California scenery was ever so pretty. There, just ahead, was some sort of fabulous monument. What could it represent? Aha: a giant taco 80 feet tall, oozing lettuce, bits of cheese and tomato and a thick purple goo, possibly plum jam. She’d seen ever so many pictures in magazines. But the monument was made of plastic! Oh, how inventive. And the sweet, little bushmen were lining up to get small, hot duplicates of the hot food product.

Benaroya felt a pang of ecstasy, this trip was going to be thrilling.”

Even amidst action scenes Scott doesn’t let up on her targets:

‘Emma Peel admired Boolabung hugely. Her Captain was a real man, macho as all get-out, never whimpering or complaining.’

As Emma Peel she is later picked up hitch-hiking by a gangster who asks why she is out on the road:

“‘I’m an anthropologist. On vacation.’

‘Study Indians and that kind of thing?’

She tittered. ‘You might say I try to relate in a meaningful, concerned way to autochthonous bipeds in general.’

‘A little girl like you with a big job like that,’ he marvelled. Benaroya pondered this slippery remark and concluded it was the ordinary Earthie belittler camoflaged as a compliment.”

The rapid non-sequiturs Scott puts into Benaroya’s mouth and her aside justifications combine sharp jabbing observations and great humour. Those who seek to deride feminist SF often suggest that it is too serious, po-faced, but Jody Scott’s wild imagination, seemingly scattershot but tightly controlled, makes Passing For Human an absurdly comic romp of unexpected juxtapositions and witty asides.

Being satire this 1977 novel does show its age perhaps more readily than some of its contemporaries in places, but as so little has changed in many respects its jibes at patronising men, the worship of commercialism and other areas still contain truths. Along with its loose sequel I, Vampire Jody Scott has left SF with two provocative, compassionate, and thoughtful short novels. Her style will certainly not be to everyone’s liking, as I said, these aren’t traditional SF at all, but they are good examples of what SF can do when it steps out of its comfort zone, and of how women’s SF can challenge the genre assumptions by challenging its tropes and its language. Take a look, see what you think.

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.