Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
July 2015

Title: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology
Editors: Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Publisher: PM Press

In their introduction to this excellent compilation of twenty-nine feminist sf/f/h stories, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer observe that there's "a current renaissance in feminist speculative fiction," a statement which the stories themselves -- many of recent vintage -- amply support. The editors further remark that they see this anthology as "a contribution to an ongoing conversation." Indeed it is that, and may spark a conversation or two of its own.

Normally, with a table of contents this long, I would single out maybe ten names and relegate the remainder to "and others." But in this case I feel it's important to name all the contributors. We have a superlative lineup: L. Timmel Duchamp, Leonora Carrington, Kit Reed, Nnedi Okorafor, Eleanor Arnason, Kelley Eskridge, Angélica Gorodischer, Nalo Hopkinson, Leena Krohn, James Tiptree, Jr., Rose Lemberg, Octavia E. Butler, Anne Richter, Kelly Barnhill, Hiromi Goto, Angela Carter, Pat Murphy, Joanna Russ, Vandana Singh, Susan Palwick, Carol Emshwiller, Eileen Gunn, Tanith Lee, Karin Tidbeck, Ursula K. Le Guin, Pamela Sargent, Rachel Swirsky, Catherynne M. Valente, Élisa Vonarburg. Tonally, many of these stories sizzle with anger and dip into despair: more than one features body horror and gruesome physical transformations, or violent and volatile emotional landscapes. I'll admit that as I started turning the pages I braced myself for provocation, for narratives that would bash my brain and hatchet my heart. I shouldn't have bothered putting up a fight. A dozen pages in I'd been wrestled to the ground. So be it. If fiction provides empathy, and empathy is a recommended staple of one's emotional diet, consider this anthology a mega-dose of literary vitamins.

Aesthetically, we encounter outright bizarreness (Carrington's "My Flannel Knickers"), allegorical fantasy (Arnason's "The Grammarian's Five Daughters"), sword-and-sorcery (Lee's "Northern Chess"), mythical realism (Okorafor's "The Palm Tree Bandit"), historical realism (Le Guin's "Sur," Carter's "The Fall River Axe Murders"), "classic" extrapolative what-ifs (Butler's "The Evening and the Morning and the Night," Russ' "When It Changed"), sf horror and apocalypse (Tiptree, Jr.'s "The Screwfly Solution," Murphy's "Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates"), parodic absurdism (Gunn's "Stable Strategies for Middle Management"), supernatural horror (Hopkinson's "The Glass Bottle Trick"), surrealism (Richter's "The Sleep of Plants," Singh's "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet"), and all sorts of other experimentations, like the brilliant melding of poetic cosmogony and intimate realization in Valente's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time" or the pitch-perfect, second-person haunting of Swirsky's "Detours on the Way to Nothing." Of course, all these reductive labels are ultimately silly, because these idiosyncratic tales resist categorization. In fact, resistance -- whether stoic or raging -- is a good word to describe whatever mode of abstract literary kinship these stories might share. The VanderMeers are to be commended not only for their editorial selections but for the sequence into which they've arranged them. With two exceptions I read the stories in the order presented, and the journey was full of welcome contrasts and variations.

I hope that this anthology is read by many and goes into multiple printings. (If so, perhaps the galleys can be re-proofed. There's at least one incorrect publication date, several spelling mistakes, and the sporadic typographical upheaval. Also, Octavia Butler's story is followed by an author's afterword, which is interesting but jarring). For a rich discussion of feminist sf/f in the 1970s, a fertile and innovative period for sf at large, I recommend "Female Counter-Literature: Feminism," the tenth chapter in Andrew M. Butler's Solar Flares: Science Fiction in the 1970s; and for a substantial recent overview, see "Feminism" by Lisa Yaszek in The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction.

To return, in closing, to the anthology's introduction: Ann and Jeff VanderMeer say that "In a perfect world, Sisters of the Revolution would be followed by several more volumes, each edited by someone different, with a profoundly different perspective." That's entirely appropriate. Even with the twenty-nine authors listed above, there are many other brilliant writers, like Karen Joy Fowler, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Maureen F. McHugh, Kelly Link, Gwyneth Jones, or Margaret Atwood, just to name a few, who could and should be featured in subsequent entries. Science fiction and fantasy truly contain multitudes, and an ongoing exploration of these manifold, aesthetically variegated expressions, as refracted in the prism of gender, is necessary to understand not only ourselves, but the possibilities of our art.

Title: Tales of Time and Space
Author: Allen Steele
Publisher: Fantastic Books

In my previous column I discussed Tom Purdom's Romance on Four Worlds, published by Fantastic Books. And now I'm here to tout another recent collection issued by the same publisher: Tales of Time and Space, which happens to be Allen Steele's sixth such ensemble. The title might be a nod to H. G Wells (Tales of Space and Time, 1899) or simply an irresistibly archetypical, non-specific allusion to what has come before, a reminder of our genre's roots -- and scope. Either way, it works.

We have here twelve entertaining stories which might be divvied up into three categories: two set in Steele's Coyote universe, four in his Near Space series, and everything else. Rest assured, one doesn't need to have read previous Coyote or Near Space works to follow along. Steele provides the necessary backdrop, and a little extra for additional texture. The collection is thus a robust sampler of Steele's recent work, though it's less than perfect as an overall showcase of his talents, precisely because all of these stories are from the last four or five years and therefore don't do justice to a career that stretches back almost three decades.

The majority of these stories are richly ideated and neatly conceived. They move along at an unhurried pace and have an almost genteel quality to them. A number of first-person narrators (Steele himself notes their preponderance in his introduction, "Pattern Recognition") look back on events that happened decades before, and that retrospective viewpoint provides, if not nostalgia, a confessional pathos. In the somber "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," for example, Matt Garris reminisces about a brilliant childhood friend, Terry Koenig, and pieces together the trajectory that eventually extinguished Koenig's bright light. This tragic end is revealed upfront; Steele is more preoccupied with character, and the quiet moments through which character can be glimpsed clearly only in hindsight, than with suspense or overt drama. Time travel informs "The Observation Post," which begins with this rumination: "Now I'm old, but when I was young I did something which has weighed upon my conscience ever since."

I don't mean to suggest that the collection is morose. One of Steele's narrative strengths is his ability to emulate tropes and storytelling styles of days past, including literary periods/genres where brisk pacing was the rage. He does this very well indeed in "Martian Blood," the collection's opener, in which we're treated to a 1950s astrophysical vision of Mars, heavily imprinted with the footprints of Burroughs and Brackett, but featuring a few modern ideas. The whole thing is cool retro-charm at its finest, though it may grate readers unwilling to embrace the cultural norms of Steele's literary models, decidedly politically incorrect by our standards. "The Jekyll Island Horror" is my favorite outing in this mode. In this classic investigation of terrifying alien contact, Steele exuberantly channels 1930s pulp fiction, including a prototypical "How-I-came-to-learn-of-these-true-events" foreword. "The Big Whale" riffs off Moby Dick by way of Mickey Spillane: it's colorful and amusing, though perhaps a bit overlong. "Sixteen Million Leagues from Versailles" and "Alive and Well, A Long Way from Anywhere" represent perhaps the best balance between these tendencies towards placid introspection on the one hand and marvelous melodrama on the other.

History, and an acute perception of the passage of time, pulse throughout the collection. Alternate pasts, counter-factual presents and retro-futures provide Steele with elegant parallax shifts through which to examine our deepest impulses and drives. We may not be surprised by what he discovers, but the dignity and loving detail with which he weaves his spells make for a gratifying journey nonetheless.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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