Elizabeth A. Lynn is not a prolific writer. She’s published a handful of highly regarded books over the last thirty years, including a World Fantasy Award-winning trilogy and two science fiction novels. I’ve been looking forward to reading her work partly because she’s known as one of the first science fiction and fantasy writers to offer positive representations of lesbian, gay and bisexual characters. The famous chain of gay bookstores, ‘A Different Light’, was named after her first novel. The Woman Who Loved The Moon and Other Stories is her only complete collection and includes works published between 1977 and 1980. Each story is accompanied by a helpful authorial introduction describing its genesis.
Overall, I’m very impressed. Lynn’s writing is fluid and lyrical. She has that wonderful ability to engage your attention in the opening paragraph and, before you know it, draw you into the worlds she creates. Her stories are often unsettling, occasionally terrifying, and when I consider the collection as a whole, I do notice a recurring concern with death, grief and loss. But if death features heavily in her work, Lynn also places high value on love, friendship and moments of connection between people.
One of my favourite stories is ‘Mindseye’. It’s a haunting and eerie tale set in the same universe as Lynn’s novel, A Different Light. The protagonist, Philippa, is a telepath assigned to an X-Team, a group of experts who investigate new worlds. They discover a strange planet divided into a fertile, tropical “light” half and an icy “dark” half. Nothing should be able to survive on the dark half of the planet, but Philippa believes she has made contact with an alien presence there. The ending has stayed with me: “They found her at last after a four-hour search, crouching in a corner of rock and ice, in a cave, unseeing and silent as the ice”. Philippa’s ultimate fate is revealed in A Different Light. It’s not good.
‘The Saints ‘of Driman’ is another unsettling tale about a team of investigators visiting an alien world. Disturbed by the strange culture and the death of a colleague, one of the team members, Alexa, becomes fascinated by women who are known to the planet’s inhabitants as “saints”. These woman starve themselves to death in an apparent state of ecstacy. When she discovers the cause, Alexa feels compelled to experience the state for herself. It’s another story about death, but it’s also about curiosity and our desire to know and, perhaps, our tendency to see what we want to see.
‘I Dream of a Fish, I Dream of a Bird’ is an emotionally compelling story about a little boy called Illis who lives on a tower built out at sea, forty miles off the coast of what used to be Canada. Before the occurrence of an event known as ‘The Change’, the tower was a plaything of the rich. Now it houses a community of refugees. But the story isn’t about the apocalypse, it’s about people trying to survive in difficult circumstances and the moving relationship between a mother and her son.
‘We All Have to Go’ is a bleak story set in a near future in which reality TV has turned death and bereavement into entertainment. The protagonist, Christy, works for a show that pits bereaved families against each other in a bid to win millions. The family that attracts the most sympathy votes from the public gets the money. The show’s host, Jordan Granelli, is a repulsive creation and you want him to get his comeuppance, but the ending is still a shock.
Although I’ve never been a fan of circus stories, I do like ‘The Circus that Disappeared’. A rag tag group of performers join a small circus, only to find themselves performing for a very different audience to the one they expected. I think this one would have made a good script for an episode of The Twilight Zone.
‘The Gods of the Reorth’ is technically science fiction, but it reads more like a fantasy story. A woman from an advanced civilization is assigned to monitor the locals on a less developed planet. The people interpret her presence as that of a Goddess and for a while this suits her purposes very well. But one day she falls in love with the local wise woman and finds herself in conflict with her orders not to interfere in an oncoming war. It’s only then that she finds out what it truly means to be a Goddess. Like many of Lynn’s stories, ‘The Gods of Reorth’ is concerned with female power and autonomy.
Of the fantasy stories, I really like ‘Wizard’s Domain’, which is about the relationship between a wizard and the man who betrayed him. This is Lynn’s first published story (rejected everywhere for four years). When he finds his domain threatened by an evil wizard, Shea Sealord releases Rhune, his former friend and captain of his fleet, from punishment and requests his help. But can the two ever trust each other again? It reminded me of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea, but with more adult, homoerotic overtones.
The most famous story in the collection is the 1980 World Fantasy award-winning ‘The Woman Who Loved the Moon’. Set in the fantasy land of Ryoka, the story is written as a myth. It tells of Kai Talvela and her encounter with a mysterious female warrior who kills her two sisters. The writing is beautiful and I’m glad a story with a lesbian theme won the World Fantasy Award back then, but the story itself doesn’t sit quite right with me. Maybe I’m taking it too literally, but I just can’t get behind falling in love with someone who killed your sisters!
The remaining stories don’t move me as much, but are all readable and interesting. ‘The Dragon who Lived by the Sea’ is a simple fable about fear. ‘The Island’ is a creepy tale about grief which draws on myths about sirens. ‘Jubilee’s Story’ sees a group of women travellers help a girl on an isolated farm give birth and find themselves involved in an ugly family drama. ‘The White King’s Dream’ is a disturbing story about death. It confronts a fear that many of us have of being conscious but unable to communicate with those around us. There are even a couple of light, fluffy stories, such as ‘The Woman in the Phone Booth’ and the rather charming ‘The Man who was Pregnant’. I agree with Lynn’s view that the weakest story in the collection is ‘Obsessions’. It doesn’t seem to have the focus or strong characterization evident in the other stories
Lynn is one of the most thoughtful and emotionally engaging writers that I’ve come across in a while and she deserves to be more widely read. I’d definitely recommend seeking her out if you enjoy the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ and Candas Jane Dorsey. Since finishing The Woman Who Loved The Moon, I’ve already acquired and read A Different Light (post to follow soon) and I’m looking forward to her fantasy trilogy, The Chronicles of Tornor. I’ll also be interested to read her more recent works too, especially since she’s taken long breaks from writing during her career.
Interview with Elizabeth A. Lynn in Locus Online.