Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Three Tanith Lee stories from the early '80s selected by Donald Wollheim

Followers of my twitter feed may recall that I have been buying 1980s hardcover book club editions of Donald A. Wollheim's Annual World's Best SF.  I have been purchasing these largely because of the Richard Powers covers and because many contain stories by Tanith Lee.  (Wollheim was an important champion of Lee's--her breakout novel The Birthgrave, as well as much of her other early work, first appeared in DAW editions.)  This week I cracked open these recently acquired anthologies and read three tales by Lee, one each from 1982, '83 and '84,


"Written on Water" (1982)

Jaina is a thirty-five-year-old woman, anti-social, hermitish.  When a plague wipes out all of humanity it seems she is the only survivor.  She is oppressed by a terrible loneliness.  Then a beautiful young man falls from the sky, and she immediately falls in love with him.  He does not speak or eat, but he efficiently tends the garden, maintains her battered car, and has sex with her.

Jaina's love sours as she comes to believe her mute inamorato is an artificial construct, sent to her by space aliens out of pity or as a part of some kind of experiment, or maybe just for fun.  Are the aliens playing with her the way a child prods an insect with a stick?  Jaina kills her mysterious lover, and as the story ends she spots a second companion falling from the sky, and we are left to wonder if her second go at a relationship with an alien being will be more successful.

"Written on Water" was first published in Perpetual Light, an anthology of SF stories about religion, and Jaina does compare herself and her alien lover to Adam and Eve, and his manufacturers to God.  As God created Eve for Adam, to be his helpmeet, and commanded Eve to obey Adam, so the aliens seem to have created Jaina's lover and instructed him to aid and obey her.

To me, the story seems to be about how relationships that are radically unequal are not satisfying.  Jaina is lonely, but a lover who is merely a submissive and mute servant, and benefactors who are like unknowable gods and treat her as a pet or a specimen, cannot assuage her unhappiness.  If we are optimistic, we can hope that Jaina has conveyed this to the aliens, and that the second alien landing presages the start of a more mature, fulfilling relationship.  Perhaps we are to see the efforts of the aliens and Jaina to start again as exemplifying the Christian virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Thought-provoking with its poetic and Biblical references and the feminist switcheroo of having an Adam presented to an Eve, well-written and at times surprising, "Written on Water" is a solid piece of work.

"As Time Goes By" (1983)

"As Time Goes By" first appeared in Chrysalis 10, which has a very cool cover by Tom Barber.

This is a disappointing and gimmicky story, a sort of SF riff on Casablanca with time travel paradox elements. The main story is embedded in multiple frame stories (our narrator is repeating a story he heard from another guy), which perhaps is a clue that one of the story's characters is making the main story up, basing it on the Bogart/Bergman movie.

The universe is riven by a chaotic space war in which there are lots of mercenaries and space pirates who switch sides all the time in response to higher pay.  These jokers make money running blockades, seizing merchant vessels, and scavenging wrecks at the sites of space naval battles.  Space travel in this story is connected with "time streams" in a way I did not understand, which means people sometimes see ghost ships and that sort of thing.

In a piano bar on a neutral space station where space crews from opposing sides fraternize, the most ruthless and successful of the space pirate captains is confronted by a beautiful woman, who says that in her past she fell in love with him and he broke her heart.  This love affair, though in her past, is in his future.  By the way, she also informs him that his spaceship will get destroyed on its next mission.

The story is resolved with further ambiguities and time paradoxes and reasons to doubt half of the stuff described in the story even happened.

"As Time Goes By" is below average for Lee, and I can't really think of much good to say about it.  Gotta give this one a thumbs down.  

"Medra" (1984)          

I read this story, which first appeared in Asimov's, back in the 2000s, but I had forgotten the title.  I immediately recognized it when I started reading because of the tale's striking central image: a futuristic city, on an alien planet, fallen into ruin and inhabited by huge docile lizards and a single beautiful woman who resides on the 89th floor of the tallest surviving structure, a hotel maintained by automatic systems.

Like Jaina in "Written on Water," Medra is the last human being on a desolated planet until an attractive man falls from the sky and comes to her.  Jaxon is a mercenary-adventurer type, who has been hired by a government to investigate rumors that Medra's abandoned world is the site of a doomsday weapon.

Jaxon and Medra become lovers, and plan to leave the planet together.  But then it is revealed that Medra cannot leave the planet--she is an extraordinary entity, a sort of psychic sorceress who must remain on the planet (the location of a weak point in the fabric of the universe) to make sure the universe does not unravel.  Asleep, her soul leaves her body and she performs this essential service, weaving together the strands of reality, but awake all that is forgotten, and she is merely a naive Earth girl.  It was Medra's own sleeping aspect that started the doomsday weapon rumor in order to attract a lover to ease her waking personality's loneliness.  (Compare to the monstrous spider-like vampire in Lee's "Winter Flowers," who uses illusions to attract a lover to her lair.)

The title of "Written on Water" seems to refer to the inscription on Keats' grave (suggesting that life and love are fleeting and soon forgotten.)  "Medra" also refers to the verse of a major early-nineteenth century poet, that of Tennyson--Lee compares Medra to the Lady of Shallot, who, like Medra, is stuck in a lonely tower, weaving a magical web or tapestry.

I like this one quite a bit.    

*************

All three of these stories have lonely women and their unusual male lovers at their centers, and all three strongly reference important cultural artifacts (Keats' epitaph and the Bible, Casablanca, and "The Lady of Shalott.")  But while "Written on Water" and "Medra" are well-written, involve the reader in their female protagonist's psychology, and are enriched by their cultural references, "As Time Goes By" is convoluted, confusing, makes distracting use of the film that apparently inspired it, and fails to generate any emotional energy.  Well, as I have said before, they can't all be winners.      

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