Sunday, August 10, 2014

Clarion stories by Vonda N. McIntyre, Octavia E. Butler, and Glen Cook

Vonda N. McIntyre, Octavia E. Butler, and Glen Cook all achieved some measure of critical and commercial success in the years after their participation in the 1970 Clarion Writers' Workshop.  Each of these writers has one of her or his Clarion Workshop stories in the 1971 anthology Clarion, and this weekend I read them.  Is their later success presaged in these early works?

"Only at Night" by Vonda McIntyre
The New American Library financed prizes for the top three stories at the Clarion workshop, and McIntyre won the second place prize with her story "Spectra."  "Spectra" does not appear in Clarion (it appeared in 1972 in Orbit 11) but McIntyre is represented in Clarion by her tale "Only at Night."  Editor Robin Scott Wilson tells us that "only a woman could have written a story as sensitive as this one," and that he envies women such sensitivity.

"Only at Night" is a first person narrative (in the present tense we see so often in "literary" short stories) of a nurse who has the lonely night shift in a ward occupied by children with incapacitating birth defects.  Being alone with these children is depressing and even dangerous, as at least one is exceptionally strong and can be violent, but the narrator would rather be in the ward at night, because during the day she would have to interact with the callous and selfish parents who have abandoned these children.  It is suggested that those who would abandon their own children are less human and more monstrous than the babies who lack limbs or brains or eyes who populate the ward.  The story seems to be an indictment of the way individuals and society would rather not deal with, not even see, the least fortunate among us.

The story is quite effective; McIntyre uses a direct style, short sentences, and shows rather than tells.  Fiction about this subject matter could easily feel manipulative, or schmaltzy, or hectoring, but McIntyre avoids those pitfalls. This is probably the best story I have yet read in Clarion; "Wheels" by Thurston is its only competition, and "Only at Night" tackles new and different material, while "Wheels" is about typical stuff (car chases, urban violence, race relations) you read about all the time.

I've never read anything by McIntyre before; if this is a representative sample of her work maybe I should seek out more of her short fiction. (Both "Only at Night" and "Spectra" appear in the collection, Fireflood and Other Stories.)

"Crossover" by Octavia Estelle Butler
This is a competent mainstream story about a woman with a sad, dangerous life.  She works in a factory where the other workers resent her, she lives in a neighborhood where drunks and punks harass her, and she has a boyfriend who gets into fights and has just returned from a 90-day stint in jail.  She has considered suicide and at the end of the story, following the example of the drunks she has lived among "most of her life," she decides to get drunk to forget her problems.  Of course, it looks like turning to the booze will only worsen her situation.

"Crossover" isn't a science fiction story, but it has characters, a plot, and memorable images, and doesn't waste your time with bad jokes or confusing "literary" experiments, in contrast to some of the Clarion stories I have been reading.  I've never read anything by Butler before, and this story leaves me with a good impression of her.

"Crossover" was reprinted in 1995 in Bloodchild and Other Stories.

"Song From A Forgotten Hill" by Glen Cook
I've read 12 novels by Glen Cook, two of which (The Black Company and The Silver Spike) I really enjoyed.  The rest were sort of forgettable, though most of them were entertaining.

"Song From a Forgotten Hill" is set in a post-apocalyptic future.  Nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union killed all the white liberals (the Soviet missiles targeted the cities where they lived) and was followed by a civil war in America between the surviving whites ("rednecks") and blacks.  The rednecks won the civil war and enslaved most of the blacks.  The story describes how one of the last free black families, hiding in a cave, is discovered by a party of white hunters and destroyed.

This is an uninteresting anti-racism and anti-war story.  It is competently, but unremarkably, written, the characters feel like archetypes or stereotypes, and nothing about the story is surprising or challenging. I guess I would grade it "barely acceptable."

"Song From a Forgotten Hill" returned to print in 2012 in the collection Winter's Dreams.


It is certainly nice to read three stories that are not bad; Clarion is looking better.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the three most famous people with fiction in Clarion contributed some of the best stories. There are still a dozen stories in the anthology I haven't read, most by people I have never even heard of, and I have to consider if I will give them a try.

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