Letter From The Editor - Issue 57 - June 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
October 2016

Title: Women of Futures Past: Classic Stories
Editor: Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Publisher: Baen

First things first: The stories in this anthology are of consistently high quality, and you should buy a copy to make sure you have them, and to support the publication of possible future anthologies that likewise champion excellent work by women writers.

Now that you’re back from placing your order, I’ll say this: Because these stories are all reprints, some of them very well known, I’m going to keep my comments on them brief and spend the remainder of the review on editorial matters.

Of the twelve stories contained in Women of Futures Past, my top picks are Pat Cadigan’s “Angel,” a wonderfully-wrought Starman-ish tale of off-world identity and the longing for connection, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Sur,” which deftly and subversively chronicles the secret history of the first true expedition to the Antarctic (and which happens to be Le Guin’s favorite of her own short stories), Nancy Kress’s “Out of All Them Bright Stars,” a beautifully understated exploration of personal necessity in the face of cosmic visitation, and James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain,” a coolly horrific report of humanity’s annihilation through a bioweapon triggered by one man’s mystical love for the planet.

C. L. Moore’s classic “Shambleau,” in which smuggler of the spaceways Northwest Smith becomes dangerously taken with the titular Medusa-like creature, remains enthralling and vividly colorful eighty-three years after its publication; Connie Willis’s tour de force “Fire Watch” sends a history student back to a gloriously recreated Blitz-era London; C. J. Cherryh’s poignant “Cassandra” weaves a dark spell from the ghosts of war, illustrating the tragedy of foresight; Zenna Henderson’s “The Indelible Kind” is a finely written yarn about a teacher who joins forces with a very special student on a soaring Samaritan adventure; and Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Aftermaths” is a briskly told but somber meditation on the death-duties concurrent with combat. I appreciate the inclusion, for historical reasons, of Andre Norton’s space opera “All Cats Are Gray,” Leigh Brackett’s gloomy lost world story “The Last Days of Shandakor,” and Anne McCaffrey’s coming-of-age tale “The Smallest Dragon Boy,” though they didn’t speak to me as much. Still, it’s easy to see why these stories were, on the whole, well-received when they were first published, and I hope this anthology will introduce them to many new readers.

Now, to those editorial matters. Rusch was obviously passionate about this project from the start, and invested a considerable amount of time and energy researching and assembling it. Her introduction is refreshingly candid about some of the challenges in editing the book (like not getting a story by Octavia Butler) and some of her own personal preferences, such as preferring novellas/novelettes to shorter stories. In the spirit of critical rapport I feel it appropriate to engage with some of her observations. For a useful précis of her three main introductory contentions, I’ll plug in to Paul Di Filippo’s review from Locus online:

“First, she is out to correct a demonstrably false narrative which states that for most of their existence the genres of science fiction and fantasy boasted very few female authors. . . . Second, she is out to remedy the undeniable deficit that does demonstrably exist: that these prolific and capable women writers. . . were underrepresented in the reprint anthologies that built the canon. And third, she wants to show that limiting the scope and themes of what women SF writers can tackle. . . is both counterproductive and narrow-minded.”

In reverse order: This third point is well taken, and I feel that the anthology Rusch has produced effectively illustrates a wide thematic scope, one that by all indications is continuing to expand in current times.

The second idea—underrepresentation in anthologies—I find a little trickier to parse, because of the conflation of original anthologies with reprint anthologies. On the one hand, it’s logical that if women were underrepresented in magazines and original anthologies (which they sadly were), it follows that they would be similarly underrepresented in reprints, since editors would be trawling from a misshapen pool. But were women writers incrementally underrepresented in reprint volumes? In other words, say that for a given year an aggregate of popular genre magazines and original anthologies netted 75% fiction by men and 25% fiction by women. Did the best-of and reprint anthologies of the same year skew even further against women, for example to 85% vs 15%? I’m not sure that particular research has been done, and I think it’s useful to tease out these two strands as separate problems worth considering.

Unfortunately, Women of Futures Past itself doesn’t persuasively redress the perceived reprint imbalance, as from the twelve stories selected all have been previously reprinted at least twice, some as many as twelve times, and five were additionally reprinted in year’s-best volumes, with others in additional “canon-defining” anthologies. These stories spell out a venerable list of major awards and nominations—but I do wish Rusch had also included at least two or three of the many excellent stories that have been completely and unfairly neglected by the reprint arena over the years.

Finally, I think Rusch’s first point is an admirably spirited corrective to notions of women sf writers arising only in the 60s and 70s, claims that are demonstrably false. Rusch quotes examples of notable figures before that time (some included in this anthology), and rightfully so. Of course, this doesn’t negate the fact there was still bias at work in the sf publishing industry, which she also acknowledges. A caveat here. One of Rusch’s key references during this part of her discussion is Eric Leif Davin’s Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965. I can appreciate that Davin provides essential bibliographic information regarding women writers in the history of sf, but several reports indicate it is an otherwise problematic book. Lauren Lacey observes in her thorough review in Science Fiction Studies that Davin’s book contains “penchants for exaggeration and binary thinking,” his “approach fails to satisfy my standards for scholarship,” and “the repeated distortions of feminist scholarship are examples of how this book goes wrong.” A review by Henry Wessells in The New York Review of Science Fiction similarly heeds caution: while Davin’s book “should be read by everyone who has even the remotest interest in the history of science fiction” it is “fundamentally flawed in its structure” and “disappointing.” In light of this, I feel that Rusch’s characterization of Davin’s text as a “purely factual data-driven account” is perhaps misleading. Davin does in fact read into facts to support his own animated “mythbusting,” as the reviews by Lacey and Wessells that I’ve referenced illustrate. Forewarned is forearmed.

On a positive note, Rusch also leans on Justine Larbalestier for scholarly support, and alludes to several other anthologies readers may wish to seek out, including the excellent Sisters of the Revolution, which is greatly complementary to the anthology at hand. I for one am also excited about Lisa Yaszek and Patrick B. Sharp’s Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction.

Rusch is to be commended not only for this anthology, but for her other numerous contributions to sf/f/h, both as editor and prolific author. Given her deep knowledge of the history’s field, I look forward to her future anthology endeavors.

Title: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
Author: Kij Johnson
Publisher: Tor.com

I must be one of the few people in the sf/f/h community who hasn’t read Lovecraft. I’m aware of Lovecraft’s themes and technique, have read a biography of him and plenty of Lovecraftian fiction by others, but somehow have yet to set aside time and imbibe H. P.’s own canonical works. In the past this has made me reluctant to review Lovecraftian work by other hands, but in this instance it may be a benefit. Kij Johnson’s novella “The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe,” while clearly inspired by Lovecraft’s novella “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” has been presented as a stand-alone work that can be enjoyed without familiarity with its source text. I’m well suited to test whether that’s true.

The story kicks off with the disappearance of Clarie Jurat, a third-year student at Ulthar Women’s College, who had been studying Mathematics under the eponymous Vellitt Boe. Gnesa Petso, the Dean of the College, shares with Vellitt the discovery of a handwritten note in which Clarie reveals her reasons for leaving so abruptly. She is in love with a man named Stephan, and they have absconded together so that she can discover for herself the “enormous world” beyond the College, one with “millions of stars.” At first glance this may seem a simple romantic declaration of independence by a strong-willed woman, but a few pages later we understand the true extent of what’s going on. Clarie and Vellitt and everyone else in the “Six Kingdoms” in fact lives in our dream world, and Stephan is one of us, who has dreamed his way there and intends to bring Clarie back to our reality. The girl’s father is one of the College’s Trustees, and if the girl can’t be found quickly he may have the College shut down. Vellitt, familiar with the mechanisms of crossing between worlds via Gates, and formerly a “far traveller” who roamed the wild lands interposed between her College and the girl’s most likely destination, sets off on a quest to find her and bring her back.

Johnson’s novella is artfully told, richly descriptively and imaginatively fecund, particularly in the proliferation of underground ghouls and beasts. Vellitt spends much of her journey traveling alone with a black cat, and I’ll admit I’m automatically drawn to stories in which isolated characters voyage through exotic lands; this one is particularly strong. As the story unfolds there’s a gradual darkening to both Vellitt’s physical reality and our understanding of the capricious and cruel gods operating within it. This conjures up an interesting mix of visceral oppressiveness with a sort of mythically necrotic grandeur. Lovecraft channeled Lord Dunsany in his novella, and though here Johnson may be channeling both of them, her prose is never self-consciously ornate, at times even positively economical. The texture of her fictional University, and the brutishness of the realms beyond, may have been partially informed by her academic background in pre-Norman English history.

While the quest’s ending arises organically from what precedes it, I wasn’t bowled over by the denouement—but that’s probably more of a compliment to the journey than it is a critique of the destination. As I hope this review makes clear, the answer to the question of whether this work can be enjoyed by itself is a resounding yes, and I’m still not sure when I’ll venture into Lovecraft land. At one point Vellitt seeks the help of a former lover from the original story, named Randolph Carter, and now a King. He proclaims that “Women don’t dream large dreams.” This skillful novella suggests two immediate ripostes: 1) They do indeed, as long as we have writers like Kij Johnson around, and 2) Size isn’t everything.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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