"This Tragic Glass" by Elizabeth Bear: An Appreciation by Heather K Ward
"This Tragic Glass" is something of a dream for this science fiction-loving English Major. In the story, Bear imagines a world of our own, a world of the future, where the great minds and writers of yesterday are retrieved, before their premature deaths, via time travel. One such is John Keats, now continuing his work and chairman of the Poet Emeritus project in Las Vegas, where Dr Satyavati Brahmaptura has just written a software program.
Dr Brahmaptura's software identifies "the biological gender of the writer of a given passage of text". Here, it is used to analyse the prose of Elizabethan poets and thus makes the conclusion that Christopher (Kit) Marlowe was, in fact, a woman. In order to prove that her software works, Dr Brahmaptura acquires permission to retrieve Marlowe.
"This Tragic Glass" juxtaposes the lyrical and evocative world of the Elizabethan era and the cold, cultural shock of the modern world. In doing so, Bear places the reader in the same position as Marlowe herself--jolted between two separate times, two very different worlds, never fully belonging to either. It's a clever effect, and one which works well.
The action alternates between the last moments of Marlowe's life and the events leading up to--and beyond--her extraction. We witness the arguments and prevailing theories for and against Marlowe's influence upon (and contribution to) much of Shakespeare's works; the ethics of temporal relocation and, of course, the impact of Marlowe's revealed gender on the contemporary world. It makes for enlightening reading for the English Major, for those who enjoy Elizabethan poetry and prose, or for those who bonded with Virginia Woolf's Orlando.
The language is expansive and expressive, the theme--that of the social pressure to be who we're not--is handled deftly and with compassionate care. This comes skilfully, toward the end of the piece, in Dr Brahmaptura's comment, "You are what you are . . . Someone will have to appreciate that."
Perhaps, indeed, that is all each of us can ever hope for.
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