Five narratives, loosely connected by brief snatches of conversation between a schoolkid and their tutor on history. Each story different – thematically, stylistically – each story offering different perceptions on humanity and difference and survival.
I’d read “Souls” before – I have it as an Ace double with Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” The Abbess Radegunde is a remarkable woman – highly educated, linguistically talented, devoted to God and her flock of nuns – and then one day the Vikings come a-raiding. And things change, but definitely not in the way the Norsemen were expecting. How can you judge the people around you? What are you willing to sacrifice? How do you know who you are? I love that this story seems like one sort of story and then KAPOW it’s a very different one.
I found “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman” quite hard to come to grips with, and even on reflection it’s still not entirely clear. Partly this stems from language: someone refers to the narrator as an ‘invert’, and I wasn’t entirely clear what that meant although I knew it had insulting sexual/gender overtones; I’m still not clear whether the speaker intended it to mean homosexuality or cross-dressing. In the context, probably either-or. Anyway, the story is written by the titular young man, as a series of letters although we don’t know who the recipient will be. He’s travelling across the Atlantic with a young Spanish girl pretending to be his niece, and there’s a nosy doctor and a few other passengers. Like I said I’m still not entirely sure what was going on here – whether the young man was rescuing a girl like himself, where both of them are like Radegund from the previous story? Maybe. Despite my lack of complete comprehension I did still enjoy the story in a very Russ-type way: it challenges ideas of gender and sex and sexuality and identity and appearance and how much information you need for a story, anyway. Also what sort of stories ought to be read by young women.
“Bodies” goes well into the future and was probably the most opaque of the five stories, for me (possibly not helped by reading while camping, but anwyay…). This is also written as a letter, but this time we know who is being addressed – James – and the writer is reflecting on the time when they met (after he had been pulled from the past/resurrected/ reconstructed) and the immediate aftermath. It’s also concerned with sexuality and gender identity – James has had a bad life because of his, and adjusting to a future where he is actually allowed to be himself is difficult. In some ways I was put in mind of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time in terms of how hard it might be a for a 20th-century mind to cope with something approaching a utopia (especially someone who has been oppressed), because we’re suspicious and guarded.
“What did you do during the revolution, Grandma?” is a bit Greg Egan and a bit Ursula Le Guin and a bit James Tiptree Jr. What if our universe exists on a hypersphere and the point where we happen to exist is the point where cause and effect happen to equal 1? Which means there are other universes where cause and effect does not equal 1… and then what would happen if you could access those other places? What would humans do? … it’s a pretty weird story. I am intrigued by the conceit although I don’t think Russ plays it out as much as she might. Again she goes in for human stories rather than the maths looking at cause and effect in humanity, and love and sex and confusion.
Finally, with “Everyday Depressions”, I nearly cried. It, too, is epistolary – it opens with “Dear Susanillamilla” – and it’s about the letter-writer hashing out the plot and characters for a novel she (I presume) is thinking of writing. The bit that made me cry was when the heroine’s mother is named Alice Tiptree, of the Sheldons of Deepdene. The entire collection opens with a quote from Alice Sheldon:
“I began thinking of you as pnongl. People” – [said the alien] “it’s dreadful, you think a place is just wild and then there’re people – “
I can’t help but see similarities in the way Russ wrote to Alice Sheldon in the style of these letters, and in Sheldon’s letters back. The development of the gothic novel the writer is proposing to write also just makes me ache, in knowing the Russ/Sheldon connections – and also of course Russ’ own discussions about the gothic story. This little story is an absolute gem if you know those connections, and still amusing and lovely even if you don’t.