Science and Fantasy
By Elizabeth Hand
Oct. 29, 1995
URSULA LEGUIN achieved science fiction immortality in the 1970s, when her novels The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness could be found in any college student's dorm room, alongside works by Tolkien and Carlos Castaneda and Erica Jong. More recently, LeGuin has concentrated on other types of fiction: the melancholy midlife fantasy Tehanu and the mainstream stories in Searoad, the imagined anthropology of Always Coming Home. With Four Ways to Forgiveness (Harper Prism, $20) she returns to the milieu of her two most famous books, the outer reaches of a universe where a culture known as the Ekumen seeks to bring its civilizing influence to more old-fashioned worlds. That these worlds resemble our own, with slavery, warfare and sexual servitude, will come as no surprise. What is remarkable in LeGuin's work is the subtlety with which she spins her tales and draws us into their moral universe--for she is a writer very much concerned with morals, though these stories could hardly be regarded as polemical.
The four interconnected novellas in this collection are set on Werel and its colony world, Yeowe. For eons, Werel's has been a capitalist slave culture. Numerous forces, including first contact with the Ekumen, slowly but irrevocably lead to a War of Liberation waged by Werel's "assets," whose rebellion establishes Yeowe as a free world. But these stories are not concerned with the pyrotechnics and intrigue of warfare (though there is some of both). LeGuin's literary canvas is as busy and colorful as a Brueghel, but she is essentially a miniaturist--Goddess is in the details here.
So "Betrayals" tells of the unexpected and unconventional relationship that springs up between a 60-year-old woman on religious retreat and an exiled politician. "Forgiveness Day" is another odd love story, featuring an envoy from the Ekumen and her soldier bodyguard. Substitute the place-names of Terran Third World countries for LeGuin's interplanetary ones, and these two tales could be found in any contemporary anthology; the other stories, the wistful "A Man of the People" and "A Woman's Liberation" are a different thing entirely. This last is the strongest work of the four, a harshly detailed, often brutal account of liberation from the point of view of a woman who flees one form of servitude only to find another--but who lives to transcend these bonds as well. Like all of LeGuin's best work, Four Ways to Forgiveness is subtle and infinitely rewarding, a rich tapestry of other worlds drawn from everyday life. Pregnant-man Story
OCTAVIA BUTLER is another writer whose books could as easily be set downtown as spaceside. One of a tiny handful of African Americans creating science fiction (and the only woman), a few months ago she was honored with that artistic equivalent of the Holy Grail, a MacArthur Grant (she'd already won the Hugo and Nebula Awards). Bloodchild (Four Walls, Eight Windows) is a slim collection, containing both the award-winning title piece and Butler's first published story, as well as two brief essays on writings and a few stray tales.
"Bloodchild," which Butler calls her pregnant-man story, takes place on a world where humans are bred and valued for their ability to serve as reproductive hosts for an alien species. It's a good story, though reminiscent of James Tiptree Jr.'s "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death," a terrifyingly strange and ultimately more disturbing work. "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" is a neat trope on the post-AIDS trend for deadly viruses. "Near of Kin" is a slight if uplifting piece, "a sympathetic story of incest" (truly). The best story, however, is "Speech Sounds," a short and heartbreaking near-future tale set aboard a Washington Boulevard bus en route to Pasadena. Those reading this remarkable writer for the first time will find Bloodchild a useful signpost to Parable of the Sower and her other novels. Straight from the Coven
EVERY CHILD and wise adult knows that a fairy tale without witches is like an egg without salt. For those of us who will choose Margaret Hamilton over Judy Garland any day, editor Shakrukh Husain has produced an invaluable treasure in Daughters of the Moon (Faber and Faber): a collection of folk and fairy tales all about witches. None of your nurturing, politically correct Wise Women, either. These are tales featuring witches dark of heart and attire, bloodsucking, man-, woman- and child-eating monsters from Britain, Greece, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Americas, Siberia--anywhere someone has ever shivered in their bed while listening to a tale that begins "Once upon a time ..."
Actually, there are quite a few helpful witches here, from the old crone in "I Love You More than Salt" to the two weird sisters in "Hooch for Skye!" whose notions of Women's Aid involve robbing the London Mint. Even Kali the Destroyer does a good deed, though only after gobbling her fill of human blood and bones. Editor Husain does a wonderful job of finding new and unusual stories; her own versions of Pakistani folktales are among the best in the book. And the more familiar pieces, such as the excerpt from Robert Graves's translation of The Golden Ass, seem fresh in this context. "Nobody likes people who play bad tricks," observes the narrator of "Anancy and the HideAway Garden"; but it's impossible not to love the distaff miscreants in Daughters of the Moon, one of the best collections I've read in years. The Annual Screamfest
IF A JEROBOAM of stories about witches doesn't slake your thirst for dark wine, there's always The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eighth Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (St. Martin's Press), the best of the best for fantasy and horror--though in truth the line between the two seems to be blurring, especially in this year's offering. Time was when fantasy as a genre could be relied upon to provide a dainty whiff of Faerie, the sweet scent of gentle gardens beyond "The Fields We Know." Not anymore. Dark fantasy, the literature's stoked-up, tattooed little sister, seems to be getting all the attention these days. When all else fails, she takes her clothes off, as in A.R. Morlan's overwrought contributions, "Yet Another Poisoned Apple for the Fairy Princess" and "--And the Horses Hiss at Midnight."
More genuinely erotic, and genuinely eerie, is M. John Harrison's sublime "Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring," a too-rare appearance by this wonderful British writer. More traditional fantasy is represented by, among others, Jane Yolen's "De Natura Unicorni," Patricia McKillip's "Transmutations," and Geoffrey Landis's "The Kingdom of Cats and Birds," a charming original fairy tale. Horror is given long shrift with stories by Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Brian Mooney and Andrew Klavan.
The finest pieces here are almost uncategorizable: Pagan Kennedy's "Elvis's Bathroom"; Carme Riera' s "Report," an erotic ghost story inspired by a fleeting passage in one of Anais Nin's diaries; Kristine Kathryn Rusch's somber "Monuments to the Dead," which deals with the disappearance of Mount Rushmore. And this collection can boast two truly unforgettable tales: Douglas Clegg's "White Chapel," a bright spark from that literary lodestone "Heart of Darkness," and Jack Womack's "That Old School Tie," a horrific and faintly hilarious cautionary tale about one bore's midlife crisis, complete with post-structuralist commentary and sadomasochistic trappings. Finally, for anyone curious to explore even further beyond The Fields We Know, there is Michael Swanwick's thoughtful essay on what he calls "hard fantasy," as well as extensive commentary by the redoubtable editors. As always, Datlow and Windling's annual collection is one of fantastic literature's high points. Glossing the Genre
READERS who look upon science fiction as the Great Unwashed of Literature would do well to familiarize themselves with the work of John Clute, a critic of almost Jamesian elegance who over the decades has become the genre's Boswell, recording every tic, trend and trope in speculative fiction. His Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (Dorling Kinderlsley) is a fabulous and sumptuous work, gorgeously illustrated with film stills from "Metropolis" to "Blade Runner," and covering writers from Tolstoy (who put socialists on Mars in "Aelita") to Gernsback to Gibson. A decade-by-decade roll call of genre themes (Lost Worlds, Future Wars, Androids et al.) make this a browser's paradise, and the essays on individual authors and novels (again, organized by decade) are superlative. For the neophyte or serious reader of speculative fiction, this is one of those books that should form the cornerstone of any library.
Clute's recent literary criticism has been collected in Look at the Evidence, which spans the years 1987 to 1992. This is a boom time for science fiction, with a new generation of writers taking the stage--people like Jonathan Carroll, Terry Bisson, Paul Park and Sherri Tepper, whose literary models are more apt to be Gabriel Garcia-Marquez than E.E. "Doc" Smith. As the matter of science fiction--spaceflight, bioengineering, artificial intelligence--becomes more problematical, so the literature is becoming more diverse, leaving behind the often simplistic, stylistically barren prose of an earlier era. There is no better guide through these newly gentrified provinces of fiction than John Clute, and these reviews and essays provide an excellent introduction to his stellar work. Long may he write. California Dreaming
JAMES P. BLAYLOCK is one of the most brilliant of that new generation of fabulist writers; All the Bells on Earth may be his best book. In suburban Orange, Calif., strange things are afoot: People and things burst into flame; a man is crushed by a runaway church bell; the Post Office delivers a carton of voudon paraphernalia to the wrong address. Walt Stebbin, a rather reckless businessman whose latest venture is a mail order catalog on the line of Archie McPhee's, finds himself sucked into a whirlpool of otherworldly intrigue involving satanism, damned souls and an entrepreneurial uncle with plans for a line of Pope-inspired products: Corn Cob Pope, Pop-sides, Pope-on-a-Rope, Pope-pourri.
Blaylock's blend of the mundane and the macabre makes for an absolute page-turner, at once reminiscent of C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength and Clive Barker's urban fantasies. But Blaylock avoids the pitfalls of Lewis's dated views on women, and his prose is more restrained and polished than Barker's. Mystical and enthralling, All the Bells on Earth is a terrific novel by a master of the offbeat and the absurd.
Elizabeth Hand's most recent novel, "Waking the Moon," is a finalist for the World Fantasy Award.
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