The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"When It Changed" by Joanna Russ: An Appreciation by Kameron Hurley

There is a world where women measure their lives in duels, where the only thing to fear on a dark night are the beasts women can kill with their own hands, where the solace one finds is in the arms of another woman. It's a world where women's words on history, science, theology, agriculture, astronomy, politics, aren't dismissed out of hand as being from the mind of a person whose biological destiny has already predetermined their lack of intellectual merit.

It's a world where things can be really different.

It's a world that belongs to Joanna Russ.

I grew up being told that I lived in a world where women are equal in every way to that standard default of humanity, men. I had to be told this, in case it wasn't clear. I was told I could grow up to be President. I could drive as fast, run as hard, as anybody else.

And when I was eighteen years old I broke out and down and found that I was supposed to be smaller and eat less, because I was a woman. And against all reason, I had gotten so tangled up in the idea that I was supposed to become the nurturing, submissive half of a happy hetero pair that I rewrote the abused woman script all by myself.

Why was the world I found so different from the one I grew up believing in? Why was I measured by the status of my boyfriend (and whether or not I was straight?)? Why did I have to fight over the rights to my own reproduction? Why was I still being told that my woman's brain was too weak for math and science? Why were so many of society's ills blamed on "single" mothers who'd seemingly procreated all by themselves?

I read Joanna Russ's "When It Changed" in one of those coveted courses in "Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature" at my local community college. I read:

Katy drives like a maniac; we must have been doing over 120 km/hr on those turns. She's good, though, extremely good, and I've seen her take the whole car apart and put it together again in a day. My birthplace on Whileaway was largely given to farm machinery and I refuse to wrestle with a five-gear shift at unholy speeds, not having been brought up to it, but even on those turns in the middle of the night, on a country road as bad as only our district can make them, Katy's driving didn't scare me. The funny thing about my wife, though: she will not handle guns. She has even gone hiking in the forests above the 48th parallel without firearms, for days at a time. And that does scare me.

In Whileaway, women were people. They weren't "equal" to anyone but each other. They were strong. They could take apart their cars and put them back together again. They could love each other without fear of reproach. And no one told them they were weak or stupid for having been born a woman.

Things could be really different.

What I always appreciated about Russ as a writer was her fearlessness in challenging the happy-hetero status quo and assumptions of social gender equality. A writer like Ursula LeGuin will build you a world where men and women are the default pair, where even in the most radical of social arrangements, the man narrates, pairs up with a willing woman, loves monogamously, and all is happy in the end.

Russ peels back all those assumptions and looks underneath them. She'll tell you a story about those who assume their superiority, about men who assume a woman lacks the core humanity that men are born with, a story about how women view men entering what is a woman's world, and how men will look to change that world into one that suits men. She'll tell you what she's seen of what men expect, what women will give.

Then Russ will tell you to shove it up your ass.

And I love her for that.

Thirty years after Russ wrote that story, I'd like to say a lot has changed, that I live in that world I grew up believing in. But that's not quite so.

I'm lucky to live in a city where I can shack up with a lesbian couple and have sex outside of wedlock with a younger man from another city and nobody's been by to burn my house down. I can support myself on my own salary, defend myself in a fight, and I hold three degrees. In some circles, that's acceptable.

In many circles, it's not.

Because for all that I'm still living in a country nearly as fearful of single, financially secure women who can change their own tires as the one Russ was writing in, and I'm not sure when that will change. I want to live in a world where my strength and character and worth isn't measured in my ability to fake the submissive feminine ideal. I won't pretend I'm stupider than my male boss (or my female boss, for that matter). I won't be anybody's office eye-candy. I won't lie about what I think. I won't pretend I don't think anything at all.

I want to measure my life in duels.

"Where are all the people?" said the monomaniac.

I realized then that he did not mean people, he meant men, and he was giving the word the meaning it had not had on Whileaway for six centuries.

"They died," I said. "Thirty generations ago."

And I don't want Russ's solution to be ours, either.

It's stories like this that challenge our assumptions about our own world, about the way we think, about the way we treat one another. And it's stories like this that ask us how we would make things really different.

If not Russ's way, then how?

Link to story.

"Articles of a Personal Nature" by Deborah Coates: An Appreciation by Stephanie Burgis

Deborah Coates's Articles of a Personal Nature is a story about the hidden gaps of alienation lurking within even the closest relationships. It's also a story that uses the canine-human tracking partnership as a powerful metaphor for the search for personal connection.

When I volunteered to write an appreciation of this story, I did so based on the warmth I felt when I remembered it, even though many of the details of the plot and characters had faded from my mind since first reading it. What I remembered was the beauty of the final scene--not exactly who said or did what, but that perfect evocation of transcendence, that fleeting but amazing feeling of having established a connection of total intimacy. When I sat down to re-read the story, I found myself teary-eyed at the end again . . . and so grateful that I'd had the motivation and opportunity to re-experience this piece, one of my favorites that SCI FICTION published.

Tommy and his partner Sarah were always very different people, but their relationship somehow managed to work anyway. Then one day, after being experimented on by her company, Sarah disappeared, sucked into what Tommy thinks must have been an alternate universe or black hole. Now, seven years later, she's suddenly reappeared . . . and deeply unfamiliar. But did he ever really know her?

Just as Sarah and her dogs work to track hidden scents across difficult, confusing landscapes, Tommy must work to trace the remnants of their broken relationship, searching for any way to put it back together. The truths exposed in his search are brutally honest...which makes the ending, with its tentative, fragile offer of hope, all the more emotionally rewarding.

A beautiful, beautifully written story. I’m so glad to have read it again.

Link to story.

"Refugees from Nulongwe" by M. Shayne Bell: An Appreciation by Rhonda S. Garcia

When you decide to write, when you sit down and start writing (which is the only sure-fire way to learn how), when you take that plunge and decide to put words to paper for someone other than yourself to read, you start changing. You see things differently; you ask yourself "Is that sound dripping water makes really drip or plonk? Or is it something else?" You start trying to describe things to yourself the way they really are, not the way someone else wrote them in your favourite novel. You start listening to the way people talk, watching the way they act, so you can build realistic characters out of them later.

And you change the way you read. No, that's wrong. You don't really change the way you read--the way you read changes. Before you could read just for the pleasure of it. You could lose yourself in the perfect story, regardless of the imperfect structure. You could recommend something purely because you enjoyed it. But once you start writing, there's a voice in your mind that you can't shut off ever again. A voice that compares your skills to the writer you're reading, a voice that scoffs at the overuse of adverbs and "was." This seems to be true for all writers, no matter what genre they write.

In short, to paraphrase John D. Macdonald, you start reading everything with weary contempt or grinding envy.

What I talked about before was the weary contempt part. "Refugees from Nulongwe" . . . well, that's all about the grinding envy for me.

I call myself a writer because that's what I do when I'm being myself--truly myself. I've got jobs, dependants, lots of chores--the usual. I have yet to see my name in print in something other than a contest also-ran list. But I've been in this world of words since I was two, and I've been writing novels since I was ten, and I think that qualifies me to judge what works for me when it comes to writing.

This story worked for me. Worked like a dream that you're really enjoying, so much so that when you come out of it, it's a slow waking, a soft wondrous letting go that, nevertheless, stays with you as you return to the real world. I read "Refugees from Nulongwe" years ago, when it was first posted to the SCI FICTION site. When I was done, I sent a note to my sister (another struggling writer) asking her to take a look at it. She did.

It's that simple. If you love something, you pass it on. If you love a story, it's impossible for you to find the flaws or to critique from an unbiased place. You lose yourself in it, and when it's time to stop, you do so with some reluctance, but also with jubilation. You've found a story that didn't make you grind to a halt over an ill-chosen phrase or a cliché. You've found a writer that didn't make you roll your eyes over their pursuit of flowery prose.

When I told my sister I was going to do an appreciation, the first thing she said was "do that elephant story." I laughed. I thought she would have forgotten it by now. I should have known I would be wrong.

I remember quite a few stories from SCI FICTION, but none stuck in my gut all this time the way "Refugees" did. In M. Shayne Bell's story, the refugees are elephants, wise creatures that we can finally communicate with due to the technological advancements. The elephants, led by an amazingly graceful animal called Elizabeth, are running from the threat of genocide. Yes, despite the advancements, despite the clear evidence that elephants are intelligent creatures, there are still those who will not share the Earth with another intelligent species--even if they are no less human than…well, humans. Some things never change.

Bell managed to imbue the elephants with a dignity and wisdom all their own, yet we recognize their suffering and their courage, because it is the suffering of all displaced peoples. The courage of those that have no choice but to be courageous or die.

I won't spoil the rest of the story for those who haven't read it yet (this is an appreciation, not a review, so I get to be greedy and just gush), but I will say that at the end of the story, what really stuck it to me was the footnote. The footnote that pointed out that the work to protect and rescue orphans in the story was actually being done at that very moment.

That was amazing for me. The idea that I was not just reading a story, I was reading a real science fiction story. Because it was all about possibilities . . . and truth.

Good stories do more than tell a story - they open our eyes to new possibilities, new ideas. New truths. "Refugees from Nulongwe" is a story that tells the truth about our nature, our society and they way we see them both. How that one thing--that ability to finally talk to a being we never could before--can so completely change us and the world around us. If we let it. If we can overcome the flaws that sometimes, regrettably, make us so human.

"Refugees from Nulongwe" did all this without one useless line. With the perfect prose that made you see the beauty of what was being talked about without the fussiness. Beautiful prose that never drew attention to itself until you really, really read it, and then it made you sigh at the simplicity of it--the rightness.

Easy. That's the word. The whole story felt easy, like it had been written, from beginning to end, with no effort at all--and it was no effort to read either. For a writer, and readers as well, that's one way to recognize that the story is more than good. It's special.

I can't remember if "Refugees from Nulongwe" won any awards. It should have, in my humble opinion. If it didn't, though, it wouldn't matter. To this day, I still recommend it. This story lit me on fire, made me push to be a better writer. I knew then that I couldn't do something like this--I probably can't even now. Maybe I never will. But, oh, the sweet jealousy that made me say, "I want to do that. I want to write a story that sticks in the gut and doesn't let go. That never fails to impress you no matter how many angles you look at it from." I still want to write a story that makes people gush about it the way I gushed about M. Shayne Bell's "Refugees." It's the goal that keeps me going.

So I guess what I want to say is, thanks. Thank you, M. Shayne Bell, for sharing this amazing story, for touching the lives of at least two writers--and lifelong readers--in a way they'll never forget.

Thank you, most of all, for introducing me to the concept of grinding envy.

Link to story.

"Hell Notes" by M.K. Hobson: An Appreciation by Eugie Foster

One of the defining characteristics of SCI FICTION has always been the variety of consistently high quality fiction that it publishes--a testament both to the extraordinary caliber of writers that have graced its webpages, as well as the keen, discerning, and eclectic editorial eye of Ellen Datlow. The stories published in the Originals section of SCI FICTION are all brand new reading adventures, never before seen by fan or fowl. On any given week, it was possible to find a postmodern fantasy, or a gritty fright fest, or a futuristic alien-and-ray-guns saga, or even a postmodern gritty ray-gun parable: virtually anything from within the realm of "speculative fiction."

Discovering these fresh, weekly offerings has been an unfailingly satisfying experience for me, whether the tale is thoughtful, tearful, inspiring, poignant, or funny. However, I've been particularly fond of the funny stories. Comedy can be so many things--intelligent, witty, charming, painful, whimsical, foolish, guilty--and by its nature, it is never ostentatious . . . when done well. And that's the rub; good funny is difficult to write and hence rare. I don't get to laugh as often as I'd like to (then again, perhaps I've got a reluctant sense of humor). My recalcitrant funny bone aside, humor is subjective. So when I find something as broadly appealing as M.K. Hobson's "Hell Notes" that can make me giggle with unabashed glee, I know I've found a gem.

In this story, a marketing consultant wanders into a shoddy Chinese buffet for lunch, gorges himself on the most exquisite twice-cooked pork he's ever eaten, gets mistaken as a walking undead by the lovely chef, and discovers that the path to his heart really is through his stomach. With lines like "The pork was of melting tenderness in a perfectly balanced garlic sauce, with impetuous slices of water chestnut and insouciant threads of onion" to tempt the palate, and "Dishes three, four, and five held, respectively: chunks of clove-spiked raw liver drenched in a bloody sauce; lacy webs of pearl-colored tripe fanned out like exotic sea flora; and a phlegmy stew of cancerous tubers" to repel it, this is a supremely enjoyable blend of droll wit and understated horror. But "Hell Notes" is more than just a gratifying giggle. This story has a bit of everything--danger, romance, incomparable Chinese food, ghosts, the afterlife, and even a dash of philosophy to provide depth--in a context both unusual and striking. Hobson's descriptions are evocative and visceral, her punch lines are agile and witty, and her sense of whimsy and the absurd is nothing short of genius. It's funny horror! You just gotta love funny horror.

My thanks to M.K. Hobson for writing this delightful tale, and to Ellen Datlow and the Sci Fi Channel for bringing it and hundreds of other marvelous stories to the public, free of charge.

Link to story.