Monday, March 28, 2016

1982 stories from Russ, Effinger, Ellison, and Platt & McCarthy

The cover illustrates "Starhaven"
by Platt & McCarthy
Back in February I read the Thomas Monteleone story from my copy of the January 1982 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  Let's read some more from its 34-year-old pages.

"Souls" by Joanna Russ

Am I really going to read a forty-page story by a feminist college professor who (according to wikipedia) thought pornography was "the essence of evil in society?"  Besides seeming ridiculous, such an idea goes against all my free speech sensibilities.  What am I thinking?  Well, "Souls" won a Hugo and some other awards; let's see if we can figure out why.

"Souls" is set in medieval Europe, and is the tale of the Abbess Radegunde, narrated by an old man who knew her when he was a seven-year-old boy.  Radegunde is apparently some kind of genius--she was able to read at the age of two, and after an education in Rome could read and speak every conceivable language and was an expert on Christian scripture and classical literature.  She is also a skilled healer of broken bodies and soother of troubled minds.  Beloved by all for her extraordinary kindness and generosity, Radegunde also has great powers of persuasion, so that her words are always obeyed, making her the natural leader of the German village where her abbey is located.  This sounds like just the kind of protagonist a feminist college professor would dream up, a woman so good and so smart that everybody does whatever she tells them to!

When Vikings attack the village, Radegunde tries non-violent resistance and to appease the raiders by just handing over all the abbey's treasures.  This works about as well as you'd expect it to.  After half the villagers get massacred and all the young women get raped, Radegunde uses her uncanny abilities and extensive knowledge to heal the sole Viking casualty and to ease the mind of one of the rape victims, who has gone insane.

In the second half of the story we learn there is more to Radegunde than meets the eye!  She has vast psychic powers--she can see what is going on anywhere in the world and read and control the minds of people nearby!  She has contempt and pity for everyone because everybody is so selfish and greedy and hateful!  She doesn't believe any of that Christian gobbledygook herself, but is more than willing to tell everybody comforting lies like "your friends who got murdered by the Vikings are happy up in heaven!"

The crisis of the Viking attack spurs Radegunde's mind, and, casting her clairvoyance/remote viewing powers skyward, she discovers she is not really human, but a member of a peaceful space faring race!  I think she is on Earth to study us and try to improve us, her alien nature hidden from her own mind, kind of like in Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell.  Her true origin was concealed from her because our world is so evil that it would drive one of these goody goody aliens insane to live here--witnessing the evil of the Earthman, for these extraterrestrial paragons, is like being raped by a Viking!

Before the Vikings can drag her off to slavery Radegunde's true fellows arrive in their spaceship and whisk her away from our crappy planet!  (The Earthlings think she was carried to Heaven by angels.)

So, "Souls" is one of the many SF stories which damn the human race for its manifold sins by contrasting us with utopian aliens.  People love these kinds of stories--no wonder it won a Hugo!  But "Souls" is better than a lot of those other stories which denounce our civilization; Russ focuses on characters and their emotions, has a good writing style, and fills her story with lots of classical and medieval factoids.  Maybe this story really deserved that Hugo!

"Souls" is a long story, and Russ has room to fit in thought-provoking philosophical points and psychological theories.  One of the themes that comes up several times in "Souls," one that is reminiscent of Russ's "Zanzibar Cat," is the power of the storyteller and the artist.  The Abbess's storytelling helps mend the psyche of the rape victim, and, reminding me of Russ's abomination of pornography, Radegunde relates how nude statues she saw in Italy excited in her a sexual desire.  Reminding me that Russ was a lesbian, Radegunde explains that she never took a lover in Italy because men are universally evil--it was impossible for her to find one who didn't disgust her.  The idea that real men can't measure up to idealized depictions such as those of Greek gods also reminded me of one of the standard criticisms of pornography, that it damages real-life erotic relationships by creating unattainable expectations.

So, my fears that "Souls" would be an impenetrable New Wave morass or a leftist harangue were unfounded; this is a smoothly written traditional science-fiction story with a feminist edge; that edge doesn't overwhelm the literary virtues of piece, which is engaging and entertaining as well as polemical.  I didn't expect to be giving this one a positive review, but life is full of surprises.

"Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson" by George Alec Effinger

In the intro to this story, editor Ed Ferman calls it "preppy science fiction." When I was a kid there was a lot of talk about preppies, jokes about them and their clothes and so forth, but I never met any preppies and really had no idea who they were or why I should be laughing at them. As an adult, of course, it looks to me like these jokes were just a lot of naked class envy, at least on the part of the people I knew as a kid.  Maybe actual preppies had a good sense of humor and enjoyed all the jokes.

Anyway, "Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson" is a parody of Edgar Rice Burroughs' immortal classic A Princess of Mars, one of my favorite books.  What if, instead of an American Civil War veteran, an upper-middle-class college girl who loves to shop was magically transported to a war torn Barsoom?  Effinger doesn't produce a plot here, he just exactly copies various things that happen in Burroughs and has his broad caricature of a character slotted into the John Carter space, in the same way an episode of the Simpsons or South Park will have everything that happened in The Prisoner or Great Expectations happen to one of the cartoon's regular characters.

In my teens and twenties I thought this kind of thing was funny, but I'm 44 years old now, and I thought this story a waste of my time.  Presumably there are lots of people who find this story amusing--believe it or not, it has like ten sequels!

"The Outpost Undiscovered by Tourists" by Harlan Ellison

Gadzooks, another derivative joke story!  This one is a parody of the story of Christmas, full of ethnic jokes and references to 20th Century pop culture.  Kaspar (Chinese), Balthazar (black) and Melchior (Jewish) drive a Rolls Royce across the desert, following the star that marks the site of the messiah's birthplace.  Like the Effinger, I thought it lame, but I'm sure it has its partisans, people who think it hilarious that Balthazar calls Kaspar "Yellow Peril" and carries around the collected works of James Baldwin and a "hair-conking outfit," that Kaspar calls Balthazar "Black-is-Beautiful over there," and that Melchior is a hypochondriac who says things like "those latkes are sitting right here in my chest" and "You know, it's funny, but he [the baby Jesus] doesn't look Jewish."

"Starhaven" by Charles Platt and Shawna McCarthy

Ed Ferman tells us this is a "SF gothic."  You can believe I was hoping, praying, that this was not another feeble joke story.

"Starhaven" is a parody of or homage to those "gothic romances" in which an innocent young woman is swept off her feet by a wealthy man and, in his big old house, discovers sinister secrets.  The big old house in this story is the centuries-old space station, Starhaven.  Once aboard with her beau, the narrator discovers a secret door, meets the crazy great-grandfather, and is sexually enjoyed by clones of her boyfriend whom she initially mistakes for him.  Those clones are illegal, and so to protect the secret of their existence the great-grandpappy will now try to murder her! Fortunately the old robot butler and her boyfriend help her escape the station.  The fiance declares that he truly loves her, and is willing to give up his family's wealth to marry her.  The End.

Platt and McCarthy play it more or less straight ("Starhaven" feels more like a pastiche than a satire), and the jokes aren't too distracting or outlandish; I'll judge this one acceptable.


If you follow the SF gossip you perhaps remember that a few years ago Barry Malzberg got in trouble with feminists because he admitted he thought some chick was hot or something; I don't recall the details.  I felt bad for poor Barry, but something in this issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction made me consider that Malzberg's suffering might be justly filed under the heading of "poetic justice."  The first letter in the magazine's letter column is from Charles Platt, who is writing to defend himself from a claim by Malzberg in the pages of F&SF that Platt doesn't care for women writers.  Platt spends the letter, of which I provide a scan here, detailing the evidence that he likes the work of numerous female writers and has supported women authors in his capacity as an editor of books and periodicals.  It makes it a little harder to sympathize with Malzberg as a victim of unfair charges of sexism if he himself has made a practice of levelling, apparently unfounded, accusations of sexism at other members of the SF community.  I wonder if Malzberg ever explained or apologized for his comments about Platt.


This is a good issue if you are into joke stories or feminist topics--Michael Bishop's Books column includes much discussion of stories by women, including two stories by Russ.  The Russ and Monteleone stories justify my own purchase, and there are still three pieces of fiction in the magazine I haven't read yet.


1 comment:

  1. Read more Russ. If you liked that, try her Alyx stories -- they are at first glance sort of traditionalist narratives (at least some of them) but the protagonist is a woman (who also has gone through hell in her earlier life).

    Knight wrote this fun little intro to Russ' "The Barbarian" (1968) in Orbit 3:

    "If Joanna Russ had consulted me before beginning to write her Alyx stories (see "I Gave Her Sack and Sherry" and "The Adventuress," in Orbit 2), I would have told her nobody could get away with a series of heroic fantasies of prehistory in which the central character, the barbaric adventurer, is a woman. [...] It is a little idiotic, isn't it, that woman in adventure stories should have been restricted to the roles of simpering princesses and insatiable vampires? ...and that even women writers, crushed by convention, should have been too timid to tell us what women are really like? The attractive thing about Alyx is that she really is not a cardboard fantasy figure, but a real person. And incidentally, this is the overlooked clue to the age-old "mystery" about women: they are people."

    And yeah, Malzberg and Platt... loved mudslinging.