Emma Donoghue is one of my favourite writers and I particularly love her historical short fiction.
The stories in Astray are based on fragmentary and marginal historical sources, such as news reports, letters, obituaries, legal records and museum exhibits. The overarching theme is people who are on the move, out of place, in transition physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The book is organised into three sections (‘Departures’, ‘In Transit’, and ‘Arrivals and Aftermaths’), and the characters we meet within them are immigrants and emigrants, drifters, adventurers and runaways.
Each story explores the opportunities and risks of movement and boundary-crossing, what’s gained and what’s lost. An elephant is sold to P.T. Barnum, much to the dismay of his zookeeper. A woman supporting her family through prostitution in mid-Victorian London considers making a fresh start in Canada. An eighteenth-century wife tricks her husband out of his fortune and disappears. Another wife persuades a slave to run away with her. A married couple’s new start in America is blighted by tragedy before they can be reunited. Two young men go prospecting in the gold rush. A frontierswoman drags a prodigal husband home. A child is adopted and sent abroad against her first mother’s will. A seventeenth-century puritan community grapples with accusations of sexual “deviance”. A child soldier is caught up in a campaign of organised rape. The daughter of a businessman in New York discovers that the man she knew as her father once lived as a woman. A lesbian artist contemplates her life as her partner descends into dementia.
I really enjoyed Astray and found the stories fascinating and poignant. Donoghue is an emigrant/immigrant herself, moving from Ireland to Canada to pursue a relationship. The ‘Afterword’, in which she talks about how this experience shaped the book, creates a real sense of empathy and resonance. As with much of her work, there’s a focus on the lives of women and queer people, as well as people who live on the margins and don’t really fit into any normative categories.
*** Just one word of warning: ‘The Hunt’ is a deeply disturbing story about rape and I think it could be extremely triggering for people who’ve experienced sexualised violence
We didn’t buy each other any presents this year because we spent our December budget on going away for the holidays. However, any hopes that this decision would result in less stuff entering the house were quickly dashed by the presence of secondhand bookshops in the town where we stayed.
I was very pleased to pick up Elizabeth A. Lynn’s fantasy trilogy, The Chronicles of Tornor (1979 – 80), which I mentioned in my post about her short stories. You’ll often see one of these in secondhand bookshops, but rarely all three together.
Gay’s the Word is an essential stop for us whenever we visit London. This time around, we picked up Alexis De Veaux’s Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde (2004) in the used section for £5. The used shelves also yielded up a couple of good lesbian short story collections: Anna Livia and Lilian Mohan (eds.) The Pied Piper: Lesbian Feminist Fiction (1989), which contains stories by the likes of Gillian Hanscombe, Patricia Duncker and Mary Dorcey, and Ruthann Robson’s Lambda nominated Eye of a Hurricane (1989).
Andy bought a new copy of Lolly Willows (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner. This is a novel about a middle-aged spinster who abandons her family responsibilities to become a witch. She also got Ash (2009) by Malinda Lo, which is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella and had the shop assistant raving. Apparently, he’s bought it for all his friends.
“the only freedom lies in being this machine, and not another”, Mr Volition.
A sinister genetically-engineered jungle; a super-computer made out of light; a piece of software that could reveal the true nature of consciousness; a religious icon from Chernobyl; a mysterious, deadly new disease; a barrier to protect the foetus in the womb; radical brain surgery that might allow you to choose your own happiness. These are some of the delights and terrors contained within the stories of Greg Egan.
Greg Egan writes hard science fiction. His stories are concerned with the ways in which people respond to scientific advances and, just as importantly, how science shapes the possibilities of human existence. These are stories about the politics and the ethics of science and its interactions with economics, culture and belief.
Top 5 Novels
I can’t pick an overall favourite because I loved them all for different reasons.
Connie Willis, Doomsday Book (1992)
Despite the objections of her supervisor, Mr Dunworthy, a postgraduate history student called Kivrin insists on travelling back in time to the fourteenth century. I don’t know how a Medievalist would respond to Willis’s depiction of the period, but not being a Medievalist myself I just enjoyed it as a great story about death which managed to be entertaining and profound at the same time.
Nancy Kress, Steal across the Sky (2009)
Aliens set up a base on the moon and state their intention to atone for a crime committed against humanity by their ancestors. This is a lovely little novel which takes the question of belief in the afterlife as its starting point. If we could prove the existence of an afterlife, how would this knowledge change us and our world? I enjoyed it enough to forgive the ‘dead gay best-friend’, even though that’s a trope I particularly loathe.
Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1999)
More time-travelling historians in this charming, delightful, fluffy romance. I would definitely recommend reading Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) beforehand and you’ll have to leave your feminism at the front cover if you want to enjoy it fully.
Nicola Griffiths, Ammonite (1993)
But if you do want some feminist science fiction, look no further than Ammonite. A researcher travels to the mysterious planet called Jeep where a virus wiped out all the male colonists hundreds of years ago. Somehow the remaining women have found a way to survive and reproduce. This is an intense and profound book about self-discovery.
Kage Baker, In the Garden of Iden (1997)
This is the first in Baker’s popular ‘Company’ series about cyborgs who are employed by a mysterious company to manipulate the past. It’s very funny and deadly serious at the same time. I can’t wait to read the next one.
The stories in Candas Jane Dorsey’s collection Machine Sex are melancholy and evocative. They are concerned with themes of alienation, displacement, transition and loss, but also with the importance of making connections and the possibilities that may be played out within the limits of our human lives.
The two linked stories, ‘The Prairie Warriors’ and ‘War and Rumours of War’, are set during a moment of transition at the end of old relationships and the beginning of new ones. As part of a long tradition, a small community gives a young girl to a separatist society of female warriors. The story is told from the perspectives of the girl and the two women who are sent to collect her. Traumatised, addicted to drugs, hostile and desperately needy, the girl finds herself faced with an entirely new set of values and ways of relating. She must decide whether to let go of her old life and take the risk of connecting with her new companions. The story features one of the best representations of a disturbed teenager that I’ve ever come across and probably draws on Dorsey’s own life experience as a social worker. Dorsey also identifies as a queer writer and sexuality is well-handled in her stories. I especially liked the way ‘Prairie Warriors’ contrasts the sexually abusive patriarchal world of the town with the dynamics of the warrior society in which sexuality is not commodified.
Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the sofa with my Mum watching re-runs of Dr Who, Blake’s 7 and the original Star Trek. I’m not sure if she knew I was paying attention, what with Blake’s 7 hardly being suitable viewing for a five year-old. A few years later I was into Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap and would try and get away with staying up late to watch The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits reboots. Then it was The X-Files, Babylon 5 and all the rest of those 90s shows.
Considering how much science fiction I watched on television, I was surprisingly slow to start reading the genre. When I did eventually come to the literature of science fiction, it was through reading short stories and this is a list of the ones that have stayed with me.