Gardner Dozois (ed.), Best New SF7 (1992)

If the stories in 2008’s Mammoth Book of SF 21 were particularly concerned with death, annihilation and endings, the overarching theme in this collection from 1992 seems to be a questioning of the relationship between concepts of nature and normality.  Some of the best stories collected here look into the ways in which nature, as a concept, is mediated to us through narratives and then go on to interrogate the role played by science in constructing these narratives.

Take Ian R. Macleod’s ‘Grownups’, which is one of the most unsettling science fiction stories I’ve ever read. Its world looks a lot like ours, but it’s different in one crucial way; in order to become a “grown up”, all adolescents must undergo a terrifying and painful maturation process.  Once they have grown up, they can get married and have children. Each marriage includes not just a man and a woman, but a third person, known as an “uncle”, and it is the uncle who bears the children.  Two of the young people decide that they don’t want to grow-up and attempt to avoid the process altogether.  Macleod manipulates our assumptions masterfully in this story and the ending packs one heck of a punch.  It’s an allegory about the terrors of growing up, but I think it’s also about childbirth, a painful and dangerous experience that’s considered natural in our society, but which might look horrific and terrifying to an alien with a different reproductive process.  And how often do adults respond to their daughters’ fears about childbirth by telling them they’ll understand when they grow up? I’ll never forget it.

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Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories (1948)

Ever since I finished reading the stories in this collection, I’ve been trying to articulate the effect they’ve had on me. It’s easy enough to appreciate Shirley Jackson as a superb writer who had absolute control of her material, but when it comes to discussing the content of the stories, I find myself struggling because they seem to say so much and I always end up with more questions than answers.  If I had to try and sum it up, I suppose I’d say these stories explore the high price attached to the modern western construction the “self” as something that must be constantly defended against the “others” it attempts to exclude and deny.

Jackson is very much a gothic writer and one trope that appears in a lot of the stories, and is often associated with the gothic, is that of “the double”.  Her use of doubling produces a sense of what Sigmund Freud would call “the uncanny”, that is, the deeply unsettling feeling that something which should have remained secret and hidden has come to light. Like seeing oneself reflected in a distorted mirror, the uncanny double makes the familiar world appear disturbingly strange. In ‘The Renegade’, we find a middle-class housewife doubled with her “chicken killing” dog. The doubling of woman and dog reflects her position in the family in a very unsettling light, but in so doing makes the horror of that position finally visible. Meanwhile, in the story ‘Charles’, the doubling of a supposedly perfect child with his monstrous other shatters his parents’ illusions. Adult denial about the nature of children is a theme in several of the stories. My favourite use of doubling occurs in the chilling story ‘Of Course’ in which a family is confronted with some alarming new neighbours. But this new family is (of course), an uncanny mirror held up to the supposedly “normal” family, the flipside of the deadly, conventional, suburban lifestyle that the story’s protagonist is herself living. The neighbours are horrifying because they are not really so very different.

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Gardner Dozois (ed.), The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction 21 (2008)

This is my first encounter with the acclaimed Mammoth Book of Best New SF and I can see why its editor has won so many awards over the years. The stories selected here are of consistently high quality and offer a balanced collection of new and established writers.

On the downside, the content of issue 21 is dominated by white, male authors (25 men to 8 women) and you can see that in 2008, women writers and writers of colour were not getting the same level of attention as white, male writers. As far as I could tell (without looking everyone up) there are only two writers of colour included in this anthology! On a somewhat more positive note, the stories do feature a lot of female protagonists (16 of the 25 stories) which does at least suggest that male writers are starting to consider women as being worth writing about, which is something.

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Ursula K Le Guin, ‘The Wind’s Twelve Quarters’ (1975)

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is Le Guin’s most famous collection, bringing together short stories published between 1962 and 1974 in various magazines.  It’s a wide-ranging collection that really showcases Le Guin’s talents and each story is prefaced with an  illuminating and humerous short commentary from the author.

For fans, such as me, it’s lovely to read stories that engage with her other works.  The opening story, ‘Semeley’s Necklace’, is recognisable as the prologue to one her of first novels, Rocannon’s World.  ‘April in Paris’ (the first story she got paid for) is a sweet, funny little piece about an accident of time travel bringing together a bunch of misfits, and also seems to be set in the Hainish Universe.  ‘The Word of Unbinding’ and ‘The Rule of Names’ are set in early versions of Earthsea, the first of which has trolls in it, and the second features a wizard  who isn’t quite what he appears to be. ‘Winter’s King’ revisits the world of The Left Hand of Darkness and in this story Le Guin (partly in response to critiques from feminists) changes the pronouns used to describe her androgynous Gethenians from the masculine to the feminine. This has an interesting effect on the way their society comes across to the reader. The Nebula Award winning ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ tells of the final days of Leia Odo, the woman whose political theories made possible the anarchist colony of Anarres in The Dispossessed.

There are two powerful allegories about science, ‘The Masters’ which is set on a future Earth where the study of mathematics and physics is forbidden, and ‘The Stars Below’ in which an astronomer pursued by some kind of inquisition is forced to hide out in a mine.

There are also some classic stand-alone science fiction stories which involve space ships and missions to other planets and, which like the best science fiction, also ask big questions.  ‘Nine Lives’ is ostensibly about cloning, but reaches into philosophical territory, asking questions about identity and the nature of interpersonal relationships.  ‘Vaster than Empires and more Slow’ tells the story of a mismatched crew of people on a mission to a planet far out on the edge of the galaxy where they find themselves at the mercy of a vast empathic life form that does nothing but transmit its terror at their arrival back to them. It’s a story about facing the fear of the other.  ‘The Field of Vision’ is a story that takes on the nature of God.

Then there are some that are kind of unclassifiable.  ‘The Direction of the Road’ is a story about relativity told from the perspective of a tree – have you ever thought about how people and cars must appear to a tree standing by the side of the road?  ‘Things’ is one of Le Guin’s psychomyths, a dark tale set in an apparently dying world looking at how people face death and the giving up of ‘things’.  ‘The ones who walk away from Omelas’ is a haunting allegory about the ways in which we rationalise the horrific abuses that underpin our society. It deservedly won the Hugo Award for best short story in 1973.

This is essential reading for fans of Le Guin’s writing, but probably isn’t the best place to start for new readers – for that I’d recommend one of the novels.

M. R. James, Count Magnus and Other Stories

Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 and died in 1936.  He was a well-regarded scholar of medieval manuscripts and early Christianity at Cambridge University, but is now remembered for the ghost stories that he started writing in the 1890s as a hobby and an amusement for his friends and students. They are still considered to be among the most terrifying stories ever written.

My mother loves M. R James, so I’ve been aware of him for about as long as I can remember and have read his collected stories through at least three times. I recently acquired Penguin’s new 2 volume annotated edition of the stories and decided to give them a re-read.

Reading an M. R James ghost story goes something like this: a repressed, middle-aged male scholar/antiquarian goes delving around in something he probably shouldn’t. The story bumbles along pleasantly enough for quite a few pages, then something a bit creepy happens, then something a bit more creepy happens, and then oh. my. God. Aaaargh! Well, for me anyway.

James is very influenced by the great Victorian, Anglo-Irish writer of gothic and supernatural tales, Sheridan Le Fanu.  His stories have a similarly elegant, understated use of language and a gradual sense of slow-building terror.  But James exceeds even Le Fanu as an absolute master of ‘the uncanny‘, that is, the sense that something that should have remained repressed has come to light.  He draws on the Gothic tradition in basing his stories on an eruption of the past into the present in such a way as to defamiliarise the present.  He works a lot with defamiliarisation, the feeling that something’s a bit off with the world: a picture that seems to have a figure where it didn’t before, a room that looks smaller at night than it does by day, a figure in the distance that isn’t moving quite right:

There was something about its motion that made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters.  It would stop, raise arms, bow itself towards the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the waters edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, p, 91.

His ghosts are material creatures; they threaten and sometimes manage to touch, grab, injure and even kill his protagonists.

Count Magnus and Other Stories contains fifteen of his most famous stories.  I would say that the best ones are ‘Lost Hearts’, ‘The Mezzotint’, ‘Number 13’, the famous ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll come to you, My Lad’, and ‘Casting the Runes’.   These stories are about as good as ghost stories have ever been, but almost all of the tales collected here contain moments of brilliance.  ‘Count Magnus’, a story which I thought one of his weaker ones, gave me a nightmare after reading it, and ‘The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral’ manages to make the simple line, ‘There is no kitchen cat’, pants-wettingly scary.

In terms of more serious critical issues, from a feminist perspective there is the lack of women in the stories.  In fact there are more women in the stories than I remembered, but it’s the way they’re positioned that makes them seem absent.  There are also class issues as many of the stories show a disdain for working-class people.  Some hint at very dark meanings; reading ‘Lost Hearts’ again, a tale about a man who harms children to service his selfish desires, this time I saw in it a repressed story about paedophilia.  It’s not that I think James intended that meaning, but the language of the text can produce it for us now.

James is not really spring or summer reading so I probably won’t get around to the second volume The Haunted Dolls House and Other Stories until the autumn now.

Bessie Head, The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977)

Bessie Head had a traumatic life. She was born in South Africa in 1937, the illegitimate daughter of a black woman and a white man. She was put into foster care as a child.  Her marriage ended in divorce; she lived as a refugee in Botswana for years and died at the young age of 49.  But she put her difficult experiences to good use in her fiction and became one of Africa’s best known women writers.

The stories in this collection seem simple on the surface – the language direct and uncluttered – but when you start to think about them, you find that their meaning is complex and elusive.  They tend to start and end abruptly, throwing you into and out of the characters’ lives, leaving you to make up your own mind without offering much sense of direction or resolution from the author.  It feels like you’re visiting with these people and being given a glimpse of their lives, but the visit leaves you with a strong impression that we can never really know why people do the things they do.

The stories are full of tensions between men and women, tradition and modernity, communal gift economy and capitalism, and between different religious beliefs.  A lot of them depict the breakdown of older communal ways of life in the face of encroaching capitalist, western values and the impact this shift has on people, especially woman.  ‘Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest’ is a particularly good example which brings out these themes and which is critical of both traditional and new ways of living.  ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Snapshots of a Wedding’ are other stories that offer a perspective on this conflict.  ‘The Wind and a Boy’ is a profoundly sad story in which the senseless death of a boy at the hands of a member of the new rich civil servant class symbolises the death of a whole way of being and relating.

You can imagine that Head based her work on stories that she heard from local people in Botswana.  The tragic tale ‘Looking for the Rain God’ feels like a semi-mythical story that comes out of a community’s real experience.  Figures like Galethebege, the devout Christian woman who marries a man who adheres to Setswana religious tradition, and Mma-Moompati, the ‘village saint’, who finally undoes herself by mistreating her daughter-in-law also feel like they have their roots in real village characters.  And one of Head’s strengths as a writer is her creation of vivid characters.

My favourite is the title story, ‘The Collector of Treasures’, which is about a woman who has a difficult life and murders her husband, but who somehow always manages to find moments of happiness (treasures) in the pain. The story seems to sum up the attitude of compassion, the (not always happy) sense of acceptance of life as it is, and of people as they are in all their complexity, that characterises Head’s work.

I’ll be interested to read one of her novels.

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, The Revolt of Mother and Other Stories

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman was a late nineteenth-century American writer.  Her stories are  set mostly in New England and deal with the lives of ordinary people, especially women.  This collection contains eight of her best known works spanning twenty years of her career.

The impression I was left with after reading the stories was ambivalence: ambivalence about the place of women under patriarchy, about female sexuality and about relationships between men and women.  This ambivalence is often played out in Freeman’s work through the doubling of a passive, self-effacing, devoted woman, with another woman, who is aggressive, demanding and determined to ‘do for herself’ in life.  ‘Gentian’ and ‘The Selfishness of Amelia Lamkin’ both feature sisters, one married and subservient to her man, and the other, who is an assertive, independent spinster.  The question underlying the latter story is whether Amelia has actually damaged her family through her self-sacrificing behaviour.  In ‘One Good Time’ we have a trembling, weepy mother and her assertive daughter, and in ‘The Butterfly’, a devoted daughter with a mother who we never see, but whose questionable sexuality haunts the story.  The title story, ‘The Revolt of Mother’ is probably the most straightforward in its joining of these two female positions in the figure of a farmer’s wife, who after years of devoted submission to her husband finally insists that he fulfil his promise to give her the one thing she’s ever asked him for, a new house.  In almost all the other stories, though, there is a splitting of female subjectivity into different figures.

In two of the stories, ‘A New England Nun’ and ‘Old Woman Magoun’, this ambivalence and sense of splitting becomes positively sinister.  In the first story, gentle Louisa has waited 15 years for her fiancée to return from making his fortune overseas, only to find that when he does come to claim her, she doesn’t want him disrupting her perfectly ordered life of embroidery, cream teas and distilling essences.  Louisa’s double, however, is not another woman, but an old yellow dog chained up in the overgrown part of her garden.  This dog once bit somebody and Louisa is afraid that if she marries Joe, it will get loose and go on the rampage through the village.  There is something terrible about this uncanny canine symbol of repressed female sexuality (or perhaps, of the way female sexuality has been viewed).

‘Old Woman Magoun’ is another haunting story about a grandmother (one of Freeman’s assertive angry women) who takes drastic measures to prevent her sweet, innocent granddaughter coming under the influence of her father, who the grandmother believes wants only to sexually corrupt the girl.  Is this the tale of a loving grandmother forced to an extreme act to save her granddaughter, or is it something worse, a story about a power struggle between a man and a woman over the body of a child in which both adults are actually cruel abusers?

Most of the stories can be read from more than one perspective: is Amelia Lambkin a self-sacrificing wife and mother, or is she actually the power in her family controlling everyone through rendering them helpless? Is the daughter in ‘The Butterfly’ right to choose her father over her mother? Is the wife in ‘Gentian’ right to return at the end to the husband who has dominated her entire life? These stories present no easy answers and ultimately the women who people them remain oddly resistant and elusive.

Brilliant stories that will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading.  My only complaint is that they didn’t include the eerie Gothic story ‘Luella Miller’ which goes even further, presenting passive femininity as parasitic, even vampiric.

UPDATE: Further reading, Luella Miller: A Marxist Feminist Vampire Story