Once upon a time I was an undergrad Arts student. I was going to study English and History. One of my first semester English classes was Modern Literature. I had no idea ‘modern’ was a critical term rather than just a temporal one; I had never done any literary theory or real critique. I discovered that I loved Orlando (Virginia Woolf) and could barely keep my eyes open for Dubliners (James Joyce); I was captivated by Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) and finally watched Apocalypse Now as a result. And I read Good Morning, Midnight and I don’t even really remember the story but I remember being absolutely bowled over by Jean Rhys. I later read Wide Sargasso Sea (because I kinda do love Jane Eyre) and was astonished all over again.
Some years later I supported The Second Shelf in their Kickstarter, and as part of my reward I got a first edition of Sleep it Off Lady, a collection of Rhys’ short stories. This was a pretty great result for me, since I had let her fall off my radar, and now I could re-discover this writer that A. Alvarez in 1974 called “quite simply the best living English novelist”.
In some ways I don’t really know how to talk about this collection. They are, by and large, realist fiction – and most are more along the vignette line, rather than having fully developed narratives. But all of them comment on some aspect of life, or relationships, or social interactions. And none of them have superfluous words and none of them are sentimental and all of them left me thinking about what life is like.
“Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers” is set on a Caribbean island, where Rhys grew up; from the perspective of a young girl we get a view on how the Europeans might view another European who doesn’t really match their idea of how a European man should act.
“Goodby Marcus, Goodbye Rose” is also set on a Caribbean island, again told from the perspective of a young girl… whose innocence and expectations of an ordinary life are basically removed when an old man grabs her breast.
Some of the vignettes are reflections on being a young woman in the pre- and inter-war years in Britain, or Paris. And several are haunting reflections on getting old, as a woman, and how people might view you, and how you might view yourself.
This is a really short collection and all of the stories are short, too. They pack an immense punch and they will definitely be re-read.
It took me a while to read this one. I read “Vox” and “Baggage” and then had to have a metaphorical lie down for a week, to catch my breath, then read the last two stories.
Seriously. These two ladies. THEY DO THINGS TO MY BRAIN.
The no-spoilers version is: this collection is about being a woman, and children, and social expectations, and identity.
Now go read it. No, seriously.
“Vox” is incredibly chilling, probably the most of the four stories, and on two laters. Kate’s obsession with the voices of inanimate objects is kooky but not that strange; her despair at not being able to have children is a familiar one. The further despair at having to choose just one child cuts deep… but the fact of what happens to the children she doesn’t choose? I had to reread the sections about the electronics’ voices a couple of time to check whether HannSlatt really had gone there. And yes, they really really had. Plus, Kate’s attitude towards her existing child… says some hard things about maternity. Confronting, in fact.
“Baggage” is a nasty little piece of baggage, with a central character lacking pretty much any redeeming personality features and a quite unpleasant world for her to feature in. Her particular ‘gift’ is never clearly explained, which I liked, given how supremely weird it is. There are definite overtones of The Handmaid’s Tale, although obviously it’s very different, and also perhaps Children of Men? Once again with maternity, although I imagine Kate would be horrified by Robyn’s attitude towards her own fertility, and the cubs she produces.
I loved “All the Other Revivals.” Well, I… hmm. Maybe I didn’t love all of them, but it’s not to say I didn’t love the others…. Oh anyway, it was interesting to come across a male voice, after the first two strong female voices. Not that Baron would see himself as a particularly strong <i>male</i> voice, I suspect. Once again the central conceit – the car in the billabong – isn’t explained at all; it just does what it does. And Baron is who he is, whoever that is – and will be. Once again the nature of motherhood is really strong here, although in a very different way from the first two stories; this time it’s a matter of absence, and one that’s never explained. I guess the billabong can be seen as a sort of mother, too, now that I think about it.
Finally, the titular “Female Factory” – named for a real place, I discover, in Tasmania OH MY BRAIN again. Again with the absence of motherhood (so it was a wise thing to do, to read the first two together and then the second two) – this time the story is from the perspective of young children – orphans no less – influenced by daring medical science in the early nineteenth century and their proximity to two cadaver-obsessed adults. Somehow this story, while creepy, felt perhaps the most comfortable of the lot; perhaps because its ideas are a bit familiar? Which isn’t to say it’s not an excellent story, which it is.
Overall this is an excellent #11 for the Twelve Planets, and once again Lisa Hannett and Angela Slatter have well broken me. You can get it from Twelfth Planet Press.
I have had this collection on my electronic TBR shelf since… well, the info at the start says it was being given away free when it first came out in 2008, so I guess for six years. And I have had no recollection as to why I might have wanted to grab it; I vaguely knew Kessel’s name but couldn’t associate anything with it. Until I got to the last story.
This is the author of “Pride and Prometheus,” which I read in 2008 (when it was published) and must absolutely have been the reason for me wanting more of his stuff. Because I really, really liked “Pride.”
The collection is an interesting assortment of stories. Some riff off others – Austen, obviously, and Orson Welles, and The Wizard of Oz, and just possibly Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s series, at least for part of one story, and maybe X-Men too. Other stories are straight “lit’ratyoor” with nary a scrap of speculative about them; “The Snake Girl” is a bittersweet undergraduate tale, for instance. Some I really didn’t connect with; “Every Angel is Terrifying” drags you in but it’s the sort of horrified fascination where you can’t look away. Others…
“The Last American” is one of those stories that is genuinely post-apocalyptic – there’s been gross climate change and massive die-offs due to disease – and dystopic; it’s the story of a man who was the president of America for 33 years, whose life spanned the 21st century. It’s told, though, as a review of someone’s new biography of the man, which has been constructed both as a sensory experience (normal) and with these odd inclusions of text – which is so not normal that you have to download a patch to allow you to experience it. This is the one with the Scott Card and X-Men resonances.
The centre of the collection (just about literally, perhaps metaphorically) is the “Lunar Quartet,” described somewhere in the opening as a ‘modern classic… about life on the moon.’ But it’s not life everywhere on the moon; it’s life in the Society of Cousins, which is run as a matriarchy. You are surnamed for your mother, fathers are largely irrelevant, men have the option of living on centrally provided subsistence which means they don’t get to vote… as a feminist I can tell you it sounds absolutely horrendous. It comes out that this is intended to curb men’s propensity for violence and domination, but it just ends up sounding like an incredibly restrictive society where you almost don’t blame some of the men for acting out. One of the stories is focussed on that, and I was also incredibly uncomfortable with the words coming out of the rebel’s mouth – it was horrid, repellant, appalling. So Kessel takes the opportunity to start a new human society and imagines its possibilities, and is pretty damned ruthless in the process. It’s almost enough to make you despair of hoping for real change. But I don’t think that’s what Kessel wants. I think he’s just being honest about how hard it’s going to be – and that crushing the spirit of half the population is never going to be the answer.
A good eclectic collection. Another one I can finally tick off my TBR list, which is very exciting, and all because I thought I was running out…
L. Timmel Duchamp says that Love’s stories consist of “fairly plain words (and never very many of them),” in her introduction to this collection. That might sound like faint praise indeed, except that the rest of the introduction praises those same words’ “amazing, amusing magic” – and she’s right. It’s also why, when Alisa Krasnostein (of Twelfth Planet Press, who put this collection out – yes, fair dealing, she’s a friend) asked what I thought of it I had to pause, and think through my response. Which initially concerned her, I think, but my hesitation wasn’t about “how do I tell my friend I didn’t like the book?” but “how do I my feelings into words?” It was compounded by the fact that I read the collection in very fast time (two and a bit tram rides, to be exact) – it is only 80 pages long, in the cute little format that all of the Twelve Planets have come in.
So what did I think? Well, most of the stories feel pretty easy to read, thanks to that simplicity of prose Duchamp identifies and the fact that there’s no padding in any of them. Most of them, though, are likely to sneak around to the back of your head and whack you one to make you realise that simplicity of prose is by no means the same as simplicity of purpose, or theme, or consequence.
“Secret Lives of Books” has the most straightforward narrative structure of the stories here. Ritchie is dying, and his books have always been of far more importance to him than human relationships. So, simple: after death, go live with the books. In the books. But as he whispers to his ex-wife Luisa: Books suck your blood. How will they respond to this invasion, and how will they react when their existence might be threatened? And when they find out about the internet? … A simple narrative, yes, but a provocative probing into our relationship with books and with other people, and with the concept of knowledge. I read once a (mostly tongue-in-cheek) suggestion that humanity was the weapon grasses like wheat utilised in order to fight the trees. I was reminded of that, here.
True fact: I have never heard of Kiddofspeed. Turns out this is a real thing, a website where Elena Filatova discussed riding a motorbike through the area around Chernobyl, post-disaster. In “Kiddofspeed” Love does a glorious job of interrogating the question of fact v fiction, and especially the question/issue of how the internet makes the casual reader’s understanding of the line between these two things so much harder. If it’s on the internet it’s true, right? If I say it is? (I’m put in mind of this article suggesting/explaining that Tom Cruise did not, actually, jump like a mad thing on Oprah’s couch – well, not how most of us “remember” him doing so, anyway.) Love also has a dig at some of the wilder “theories” about Chernobyl, and shoots them down in very few, scathing, words.
A qasida is “a form of lyric poetry from Arabia about the pain of lost love” – at least so says the prologue to the story of the same story, and coming straight after “Kiddofspeed” there is part of me that pauses and wonders whether the entire collection might be playing some sort of grand didactic prank… but surely not. (Right?) This story flicks between Bronnie, living now and with the knowledge that Mars-obsessed Del is lost, and Livia Wynne – general fixer for the British Empire in its last gasp, after the First World War. I could completely spoil the narrative (Del is on Mars) and not spoil the story. I haven’t, promise. (And because it’s on the internet….) Relationships, the quest for knowledge, the (im)possibility of cross-cultural understanding, the drive to go, the complexity of language: all of these are touched on, lightly but generally profoundly.
“The Kairos Moment” is probably my least favourite story. I don’t dislike it, it just doesn’t work for me like the others. ‘Kairos’ is the Greek term (apparently… who me, paranoid?) for a moment of something wonderful happening. The narrator theorises that music is one method by which to achieve a kairos moment, and proceeds – as part of her research (I just realised I’m assuming it’s a her – I don’t think it’s revealed) – to try and create one. It’s not entirely straightforward, nor entirely a healthy experience for some.
The final story is
The slut and the universe
The relations between feminism, global warming, global financial meltdown,
asteroid impact, the nuclear arms race and the mass extinction of species.
How feminism got to be both the root of all evils and the means of salvation from them.
It opens with “One upon a time, there will be a young girl who live with her family in the middle of the woods.” Can you tell this is my favourite story? Marysa lives with her mother and her grandmother. They argue about the clothes she wears, with the word ‘slut’ bandied around – “Not that they mean Marysa is a slut… [but that she] has chosen to dress like a slut, and therefore… people she meets… will treat her like a slut and TAKE ADVANTAGE” (68). A condemnation of slut-shaming in a page of prose, hell yes. And then they get on to the patriarchy and all of the things suggested in the multiple titles. With Gaia along to stir up the conversation a bit. The narrative is tenuous, true; there are hints of a world that has gone bad (worse than ours at the moment anyway), and the relationships between the three generations. The focus is absolutely on conversation and argument between the four. It’s a place for Love to set up ideas and be provocative and maybe even extreme, and I loved it.
This collection is awesome. You should buy it.
Thoraiya Dyer is an award-winning Australian writer based in the lush, sweeping NSW Hunter Valley. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld #75, Apex #35, Redstone SF and Nature; it is forthcoming in Cosmos #51 (full list). Her collection, Asymmetry, is out now from Twelfth Planet Press.
Turns out I have loved Kij Johnson longer than I thought I had. I first remember reading something of hers and being blown away with “Spar,” in 2009. Except, though, it turns out she wrote “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” which I read and adored (possibly unreasonably) in 2008. And
now I own these two and a whole bunch of other glorious work in this fabulous collection. Also, “Ponies.”
“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is told in 24 parts of varying length and purpose. It revolves around Aimee, who one day became the owner/manager/carer of a troupe of 26 monkeys (well, 25 monkeys and a primate), who travel the fairs and carnivals of America (127 in a year, with time off for Christmas) performing their routine… which ends with them disappearing from a bathtub. It’s a story of the unexpected things in life and how they are the things which can matter most; that the things we love don’t have to make sense, and it’s ok when they don’t. Life has loss and love and discovery. And, sometimes, monkeys. (And a primate.) I love, LOVE, this story.
“Fox Magic” is one example of Johnson’s penchant for Japan and Japanese culture and myth. Here, a fox falls in love with a man, and the magic is to make it reciprocal. This, of course, has Repercussions. One thing I admired about this story in particular is that the fox maiden is mostly very aware of the doubled world created by the magic. There is little pretence that the magic has made everything (some things, yes, but not everything) different. Also, it confronts some of the detrimental repercussions, beyond the fox and her beloved. This sort of honesty and, well, bluntness is a bit of a hallmark of Johnson’s.
“Names for Water” is utterly unlike the previous two stories – which, let’s face it, is also a hallmark of Johnson’s stories. You never quite know what you’re going to get. This one… well, it could be read as a reason for keeping up your studies; it could be read as a meditation on the long-term and unexpected consequences of small things, and on the inter-connectedness of the universe. Johnson takes the idea of static on a phone call and… goes places. It’s also lovely how many names for water she includes.
“The Bitey Cat” is a fairly unpleasant little story – that is, well written, but the narrative itself is not nice. A little girl and her bitey cat and the trouble they get into. It’s dark with the sort of darkness that you can only talk about with childhood.
“The Horse Raiders” is also dark, this time the sort of dark you get when a story’s about, well, horse raiders; a planet where things are not going that well, where communication between different groups has broken down, and different groups have very different sets of values. Katia’s family are nomads, travelling with their horse herd; she is the vet. Tragedy strikes and she must adapt, through pain and difficulty and anger, to a new life. One of the most intriguing parts of the whole story is the concept of n’dau. The world here turns so slowly that it is possible, being a nomad, to always be where a person and her shadow are matched in height; a right place. I love this idea of the psychic matching the landscape.
This is not a generally happy collection, is it? Brilliant, but by no means happy. “Dia Chjerman’s Tale” is in some ways the impersonal story of an entire planet – one that is theoretically part of an empire, and has contact with an alien race, and the repercussions of that. But it is also a heartbreaking personal story, as the opening indicates; Dia Chjerman is the 27-times grandmother of the woman relating the tale, who is now living those repercussions. Yeh. Personal and political, hello.
On a completely different note is “My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire – Exposition on the Flaws in my Wife’s Character – The Nature of the Bird – The Possible Causes – Her Final Disposition.” For a start, oh that title. This is Johnson playing with what I think of as 19th-century prose that’s quite different from her normal style. And it is clever. Oh, so clever. Nice layers, nice inversions.
It took me a little while to fully understand the joke that Johnson was making with “Schrodinger’s Cathouse,” but I got there. It’s a one-shot trick, but she does play it out nicely.
After those slightly more lighthearted tales, it is back to the bleaker side with “Chenting, in the Land of the Dead.” Choices that we make, and how perception is everything, how even when the outcome appears exactly the same for two people it’s not – it’s really not. She’s good at gently and softly and smilingly breaking your heart, Johnson.
I seem to be coming across tales of prophecy a lot recently. “The Empress Jingu Fishes” deals with that ever-vexed question of if you know the future, can and should you change it? Does trying to change it lead to exactly the foreseen outcome? Ah predestination; it will never cease to be a human challenge.
“At the Mouth of the River of Bees” is, I think, my really Great Big Discovery of this collection. It’s glorious and bewildering and comforting and inexplicable. It’s another story of a woman who makes a choice even though she doesn’t understand what motivates it, or where it will lead – in fact even though she knows that it might be a bit crazy. Like following a river of bees. I did not want this story to end, although when it did it was absolutely perfect.
“Story Kit” is one of those stories with multiple strands that don’t immediately seem to connect with one another at all until… and then… oh yes. The story of Dido and Aeneas; lists of reactions, of words, books; an author’s notes on her attempts to compose a story, the decisions she makes, the consequences around her. I suspect this is very much a writer’s story. I love this sort of playing with structure, through short stories.
“Wolf Trapping” is a story of obsession and the desire to belong, and ways in which that can go wrong. I don’t know where Lake Juhl is, or even if it’s real, but Johnson made me feel cold just reading about it – and glad to live in a country with no wolves. And also glad not to experience the sort of obsession that might drive someone to want to be a wolf. Interestingly, she doesn’t actually make that much attempt to explain that; it just demands to be accepted at face value, and if you can’t – well. Too bad.
“Ponies.” How I dislike “Ponies.” I appreciate that it is well written, but I just cannot like it. It’s just too, too unpleasant. Not least because on a symbolic level, it’s just too too real.
The last 130-some pages is made up of four stories; one quite short, the others novellas (I think). This is an interesting choice of structure; I would have thought you would want to spread the long ones out a bit more. Anyway, not my decision! I am conflicted by “The Cat Who walked a Thousand Miles.” It’s a rambly sort of story, and isn’t fantasy or sf – unless one counts the idea of self-aware cats as fantasy. Maybe that does fit. Anyway, it’s Japan, and has to leave its home. It has adventures… cat adventures, anyway, involving mice and lakes. It is captivating prose – it’s lovely – but… it’s kinda boring. The plot’s not that interesting, but neither are there particularly absorbing character developments or discoveries. Maybe this just isn’t the story for me.
… and then there’s “Spar.” Oh, “Spar.” A story that might have been written in order to answer the question, “can a story that revolves entirely around sex actually explore interesting issues?” with an “absolutely.” Because the story does just that – revolve around sex between a human and an alien – and explores questions of identity, and belonging, and communication, and ohmyhowcouldwehopetotalktoaliens? It’s squicky, that’s for sure, but it’s masterful too.
Penultimately comes “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” and here I gave to admit that the first time I read this I skimmed it and did not appreciate it. It was while reading for the Hugos, and it seemed so long and a bit dull and… yeh. I skimmed. And, it turns out, I missed a lot. It is long; it’s a novella, it’s allowed to be. But things do happen; a bridge, for one, plus lots of complex and interesting and beautiful and difficult human interactions. To what extent are we what we do? Do we get to make our own decisions about things like that? While I appreciated the story of Kit and his bridge-building this time, I also really savoured Kit’s back-story, which I completely missed last time; it has some wonderfully poignant moments. I loved the affirmation of life and love and choice. I now fully endorse, long after it matters, its inclusion on the Hugo ballot. And I kinda wish it had concluded the collection, because
“The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” does not really compare. It too is poignant, and clever, and the rumination on what might happen if our pets suddenly developed the ability to speak is chilling and pointed and discomfiting. But it’s just not on the same level as “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” for me. Maybe I’m just not enough of a pet person.
Overall, this collection cements for me that Kij Johnson is one of the most talented and varied writers of speculative fiction going at the moment. She changes style and genre effortlessly, she pokes fun and makes serious comments on the human condition, and she writes glorious prose. MORE.
“Road of Skulls” is hardly a story, barely a vignette – seems like a riff on Waiting for Godot without the existential angst. The last couple of paragraphs are clever, bit they made it feel more like a prologue to a novel than a standalone story.
“A Gift from the Culture” is about someone having left the Culture to live on a normal planet, and then getting blackmailed to do something only a Culture person could do. It had a lot of potential – how a relationship might work with such a disparity of backgrounds, how someone from the Culture might respond to being blackmailed… but in the end it did not live up to any expectations.
There’s another vignette in “Odd Attachment,” where a first contact scenario is played out from the point of view of the vegetative alien, who would rather being thinking about his lady love, actually. Amusing enough, but not exactly mind-blowing.
The story that had the most impact on me was probably “Descendant,” entirely focussed on one man, his thoughts and his interactions with his spacesuit as he trudges around a barren little world trying to find the one settlement on it, after being blown out of the sky. Melancholy in a readable way.
I found “Cleaning Up” a bit frustrating, because while it had a fun premise – alien gifts start appearing on the earth, how does the West deal with it when the Soviet is still a threat, etc – the characters were so unpleasant as to be almost unreadable.
The absolute lowlight for me was “Piece.” Less a story and more an anti-religion diatribe. The author is recounting two experiences of having been the oh-so-intelligent and smug atheist intellectual confronted by two religious nuts, over the span of 15 years; one an old man, a Christian who dislikes science, the second an otherwise intelligent Muslim man (this is the perspective the reader is presented with) who objects to The Satanic Verses. The conclusion may be trying to suggest that it’s not quite as obvious as the protagonist is suggesting, but it does nothing to redeem the story.
The second last story is the novella “The State of the Art,” another piece about the Culture. Here, the Culture comes into contact with – wait for it – Earth, in 1977. The focus of the story is on Sma and her experience of Earth, as well as her interactions with some of her fellow Contact personnel and the ship Arbitary. While it was interesting enough to consider how the Culture might view Earth, especially perhaps at that time – Apartheid going strong, genocide in Cambodia, war in Ethiopia, etc – in the end it once again felt more like an excise for a rant about everything that is wrong with the world, wrapped up in a story that only just better than average. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am – I expected way more from Banks. Maybe I was setting the bar too high; maybe the short form just doesn’t work for him.
The last story is “Scratch,” and I didn’t really read it for the same reason that I haven’t read the last twenty or so pages of Joyce’s Ulysses (well, also I just didn’t get up to it): stream of consciousness does absolutely nothing for me, and when it’s several people’s worth of consciousness, even less.
So there you go. Disappointed.
I’ve had a hit and miss record with Valente over the last few years. The novel Palimpsest did absolutely nothing for me – I found it impossible to get into and the premise didn’t interest me that much either. I could, though, appreciate the beauty of her language, which made it perhaps more frustrating not to enjoy it as a piece of writing. I’ve liked her short stories more, although again not all of them – there have been a few which frustrated me, a couple because I think they were trying too hard and a couple of others because I just didn’t GET what she was trying to do.
And then there’s this collection.
I signed up for the Omikuji Project recently, because I found out about it when Valente was considering shutting it down for having too few subscribers. The deal is, you pay a certain amount and you get a short story – written just for the subscribers – every month, on beautiful paper with an envelope sealed with wax (apparently; haven’t got my first one yet). This collection is the first two years’ worth of those stories, made available via Lulu, and I figured I would buy it to have nearly the full set.
Many of these stories are riffs on fairy stories, which can be a dangerous thing to approach, but I don’t think Valente hits a bum note with any of them.
I would normally just talk about my favourites in a collection, but I feel like I want to mention every single one of them… so the TL; DR version is just: it’s beautiful. Well worth getting from Lulu.
“The Glass Gear” is a delightful, wistful and bittersweet spin on Cinderella, while the three parts of “A Hole to China” are about a child who attempts to dig just that, and what she discovers at the centre of the earth (hint: not what you were expecting. Whatever you were expecting, not that). “The Kunstkammer of Dr Ampersand” is a travel guide explaining a curio cabinet and OH I WANT that novel! Love triangles, heart-of-darkness experiences… it would be poignant and beautiful, like the cabinet. “How to Build a Ladder to the Sun in Six Simple Steps” takes the idea of planetary spheres of influence in intriguing directions, while “The Pine Witch Counts her Knuckle Bones” takes the idea of natural witchcraft and makes it… greener. Valente gets vicious on Chaucer and Boccaccio with “The Legend of Good Women,” and although I’ve not read all of either of the male-authored accounts I know exactly what she is stabbing at here, and she does it well. “Mullein” is one of the most poignant of the collection, a rather heart-breaking little story about the lengths someone might go to for love, and the reader is definitely left wondering whether it’s worth it or not (although I don’t think the characters are). “That Which lets the Light In” is probably my least favourite, perhaps because I am not as familiar with the Russian stories that she is playing with. A story, or set of stories, I am more familiar with feature in ” A Postcard from the End of the World,” which combines Norse and Greek myths into a homely little story about apples (kind of), and “How to raise a Minotaur” sees your Cretan labyrinth, picks it apart, and puts it back together again with added nuance, contemporaneity and a little bit more hope. “The Economy of Clouds” reverses the traditional perspective of Jack and the Beanstalk; “The Still” is a slightly creepy story about girls and plums. I adored “The Wedding” – the idea of the mismatched couple, or mismatched families, is a banal staple of romantic comedies but this – a human and a rime giant? Delightful. “Reading Borges in Buenos Aires” reminded me that I have been meaning to read more Borges – I’ve only read one collection, and that many years ago – and it also connected in a weird way to The Dervish House, because of its ideas of cities as books with social geography that can be read. “The Folklore of Sleep” didn’t work particularly for me, although I appreciated what she was doing both with the idea of sleep as fundamental but more deeply with the idea of what makes individuals and how others react to that. I think the only clearly SF story in the collection is “Oh, the Snow-Bound Earth, the Golden Moon,” and it would make a wonderful novel too: children and an abandoned lunar colony, where they’re all given lunar names and don’t understand the Earth. Two of the stories in the collection are actually first chapters of novels finished over this period, from Deathless and The Habitation of the Blessed. As a result of reading them here, I must read the former and will be avoiding the latter studiously (which I already guessed based on their blurbs). I only understood the title of “The Opposite of Mary” as I was looking back over it today, and that because last week at church the sermon was about Mary’s response to the annunciation. In this story, there is no announcement of imminent divine arrival, but rather just a divine presence… in the shed, with the tools. And the human interaction is humanly motivated. It’s quite an interesting take, for me, on the idea of such interactions. Valente apparently wrote “Blue with those Tears” almost as a challenge to herself because she loathes other stories of Atlanteans so much – and in typical Valente fashion she cannot leave the idea unproblematised. “The Consultant” was inspired by a friend suggesting the need for a fairy tale consultant, and showcases Valente’s depth of knowledge about the subject. And finally, “Grandmother Euphrosyne” is a wonderful, slightly cranky story – just like a grandmother – that brings in Greek myth and family relationships in a beautiful, beautiful way.
The last thing to say about this collection is that aside from the glorious prose, there are pictures to go with every story – which I believe are largely from the community of Omikuji recipients (can’t wait to join them!), and also the beginning of the letters that Valente sends with each story, which contribute to the larger meta-narrative. This is a really special set of stories.
I bought this collection of James Tiptree Jr’s short stories (and two of Raccoona Sheldon’s) because I was going to be part of the 2011 Women in SF Book Club, being run over at the (now-defunct) Dreams and Speculation blog. D&S’s now-defunct status is part of the reason why it’s taken me the whole year to read the collection – although to be fair it would have anyway, since the idea was to read 1-2 stories per month for the book club. But instead I’ve read the last third in the lat two days. I tried to host the Tiptree bit here on my blog: I posted my own spoiler-y thoughts on Delicate Mad Hands and Houston, Houston, Do You Read? However, I didn’t get much interest in them, so I discontinued it.
Now, however, I have finally finished the collection! And what a collection.
I have read bits and pieces of Tiptree’s work before, but most of these stories were completely new. The thing that most immediately strikes is that that they are intimately concerned with life and death, and with reproduction in defiance of the latter. I know this could be said about a lot of authors, but it really is a clear and obvious preoccupation in many of these stories. Perhaps not coincidentally, Tiptree can in no way be described as a happy writer. Which is not to say that she lacks joy; there is a great deal of that fierce, loving-life-in-the-face-of-death joy that can be both poignant and exultant, in these stories.* But you could bet on a story having a not-entirely-happy ending, and much of the time you would win.
And yet I love it. Tiptree breaks my heart and yet I love her writing. She is confrontational – about humanity, about individuality, about reason – and she is challenging, she is grim and she breaks my heart but there are very few stories that I didn’t love in this collection, even if they gave me agony.
What didn’t I like? I didn’t enjoy the titular “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”, nor “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death.” The former was, I think, too… cold? for my liking; the latter was, dare I say it, a bit too weird – it was too hard to really figure out what was going on, who was speaking and why. Really, it just didn’t grab me. Ditto “And So On, and So On,” which was a let-down of a piece to end the collection with, although I guess I can understand the rationale; it sort of wraps up the entire collection and everything it’s been saying, and suggests that maybe it’s just the self-involved mutterings of a “kid these days.” That sort of deliberate invitation to dismiss everything that came before really didn’t work for me.
However, that leaves 15 stories that really worked for me.
The collection opens with “The Last Flight of Dr Ain”, and it meshes quite nicely with “The Screwfly Solution.” Both appear to deal with some sort of plague affecting the whole world, although the diseases have different impacts. “Screwfly” in particular is a scary read, as a woman – how male sexuality could be manipulated.
“And I Awoke and Found me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” – the title an allusion to Keats – is one that I had read before and one that gets me every single time. Human-alien contact stories generally fall into two categories: “zomg they’re going to kill us!!!” or love-in. Tiptree presents a third option: we care, they don’t. It’s a subtle story, and I think one that tends to play on the mind – whose impact deepens the longer you think about it. “The Women Men don’t see” deals with a similar-ish story, and is probably the least obviously SF of the stories in the collection. But the description of male/female interaction, and the perception particularly of men’s behaviour, is brilliant. And heartbreaking. Probably the weirdest story of the lot, also dealing with an alien encounter, is “A Momentary Taste of Being.” It’s also I think the longest in the collection, I’m sure reaching novelette length. It’s amazing and horrendous at the same time: the interactions of the humans on a survey mission are, to a large extent, frightful; the backstory Tiptree gives some of the characters abhorrent; the reality of the alien is weird and mind-blowing and masterfully original. I’m not sure that I loved it, but I’m definitely in awe.
“The Girl who was Plugged In” is a most remarkable piece for 1973, anticipating as it seems to GPS and reality TV is horrendous ways. This is one that made my heart bleed and yet I loved it. It’s so clever – Tiptree had such a searing way of evaluating humanity, our foibles and penchants, and they come through here, in talking about what we love and what we discard; in this case, humans who do and don’t fit our preferences. That also connects in some ways to “With Delicate Mad Hands,” which is another heart-rending but fiercely awesome stories – of beating the odds, of being what you want to be, and finding fulfilment. Cold Pig is one of the most wrenching of Tiptree’s protagonists, because of what she endures and the dreams that she holds.
“The Man who Walked Home” is post-apocalyptic and takes place over a long period of time, and shows Tiptree’s very clever manipulations of time and physics; it’s one of the few stories that doesn’t deal with aliens, in some way or other. It suggests a somewhat gloomy view of humanity’s future, which isn’t necessarily present in all of her work – for example, “And I Have Come upon this Place by Lost Ways” and “On the Last Afternoon,” along with numerous others, imagine humanity having spread out through at least part of the galaxy, if not always to everyone’s betterment. “And I Have Come” reflects a certain view of how to colonise, I think, which Tiptree challenges in really interesting – if somewhat nihilistic – ways – while “Last Afternoon” has a human dealing with two different types of alien creature and being confronted with his own, and his species’ mortality. Also post-apocalyptic-ish is “She Waits from All Men Born,” which is Tiptree’s most obvious meditation on the issue of death and its intimate connection to life. Very, very, clever.
“Your Faces, O my Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” seriously, seriously broke me. IT’S SO SAD. I’m pleased to see that this one was published as Raccoona Sheldon, because I cannot imagine anyone thinking this was actually written by a man. At the same time, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” was published as Tiptree, and it’s one that I can kinda understand as being seen as masculine, but at the same time – so, so not. “Houston” is one of my favourites of the whole collection; it’s just so damned clever, the reveals come so teasingly and obviously, once they’re there.
“We Who Stole the Dream” is, I think, the only story not written from the point of view of humanity. Instead humanity is in the place of ignorant, unhelpful alien – which is quite a shock in the middle of the collection. It’s also, to my grieving heart’s extra battering, apparently set in the same universe as Brightness Falls from the Air, because it references Star Tears which are intricately involved in that (brilliant) novel’s plot. This is another really clever story about the lengths people (in this case non-human ones, but whatever) will go to, for their children. And so, in some ways, is “Slow Music” – another of my absolute favourites. Here humanity has interacted with aliens, but we never see them – we just see the result, which is the River, which appears to have attracted almost everyone on Earth. And so we’re left with a boy, who comes across a girl… and then there’s a most marvellous examination of modern life and its trappings.
This is a seriously brilliant collection. I would recommend, though, not reading the introduction first, because there are a few spoilers, as I found to my annoyance.
*In case you’re just joining us, James Tiptree Jr = Raccoona Sheldon = Alice Bradley Sheldon.