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.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

"When I Was Miss Dow" by Sonya Dorman Hess: An Appreciation by F. Brett Cox

The first sf magazine I ever bought was the November 1970 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. From front to back, it contained stories by Keith Roberts, Robert Sheckley, Christopher Anvil, Charles E. Fritch, Richard A. Lupoff, Prosper Merimee (no kidding--a story from 1837, translated by Francis B. Shaffer), and one Sonya Dorman.

Her novelette "Alpha Bets" was the issue's cover story (artwork by Jack Gaughan) and also earned her a spot on the back cover. At that time, F&SF's back covers occasionally featured a small photo and bio blurb of an author. The photo of Dorman--a head shot by Jay Kay Klein--shows a woman of early middle age, with short dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses, looking somewhere off to the photographer's left and smiling broadly. As I look at that picture now, I have a strong sense of her smiling not at something she's seeing, but at something she's thinking.

I probably recognized her name; I'm pretty sure at that point I had already latched onto my older brother's book club edition of Harlan Ellison's original anthology Dangerous Visions and read her story therein, "Go, Go, Said the Bird," as I would later read her work in other original anthologies such as Damon Knight's Orbit and Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker's Quark. When I first came to sf, Dorman's (most of her work was published without the Hess) was one of those names that was just there, familiarly, not sticking out, just part of the scene, part of the crew: oh, yeah, her. She's good. Wonder why she doesn't publish more?

And then some time around 1980 she stopped publishing fiction altogether, and in 2005 she died, and the SFWA obituary mentioned her most famous story, "When I Was Miss Dow," and I realized, to my dismay, that I had never read it. Just slipped through the cracks, one of those Real Soon Nows that never arrived.

But there it was on my bookshelves in The Norton Anthology of Science Fiction, and online at SCI FICTION. So I read it. The timing is important: although Dorman Hess' name held fond associations with my lost skiffy youth, I came to this particular story as an adult, my critical judgment presumably unimpeded by nostalgia.

And still: wow.

On one level, the story revisits the territory of the classic sf horror flick, as a male human scientist doing research on an alien planet falls in love with an alien disguised as a human female. I'm confident there were at least a few people who read the story as exactly that when it was first published in Galaxy magazine in 1966. But from its first words, the story is much more:

Those hungry, mother-haunted people come and find us living in what they like to call crystal palaces, though really we live in glass places, some of them highly ornamented and others plain as paper. They come first as explorers, and perhaps realize we are a race of one sex only, rather amorphous beings of proteide; and we, even baby I, are Protean also, being able to take various shapes at will. One sex, one brain lobe, we lie in more or less glass bridges over the humanoid chasm, eating, recreating, attending races and playing other games like most living creatures.

Eventually, we’re all dumped into the cell banks and reproduced once more.

Imagine: a story whose opening is pure exposition--the above quotes tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the rest of the story--but moves more quickly, exudes more energy, than half a hundred in media res attempts at narrative momentum. And it's not just a matter of telling the story from the alien's point of view (although that certainly doesn't hurt); it's a matter of how the author perfectly matches the resources of her language to the resources of her imagination, as when the alien-as-human starts learning "Terran history": "When the clown tumbles into the tub, I laugh. Terran history is full of clowns and tubs; at first it seems that's all there is, but you learn to see beneath the comic costumes."

It's a story that doesn't hesitate to be sentimental, as the alien shapeshifters have pet "kootas" that are, for all intents and purposes, dogs. (According to her autobiographical comments in Dangerous Visions, Dorman Hess and her husband raised and showed Akitas.) It's a story that buys into audience expectations when the alien-as-human-female falls in love with the male scientist and utterly defies them when the alien, well, just gets over it. It's a story that is of its time and has been overtaken by history (happily, it's no longer easy to imagine an interstellar expedition whose "scientific parties . . . are 90 percent of one sex"), and it's a story that could have been written last week. In its exquisitely energetic language, drill-to-the-bone imagination, and fundamentally subversive view of the alienness of the human, "When I Was Miss Dow" may be the missing link between Alfred Bester and James Tiptree, Jr.

I am very grateful to Ellen Datlow for making this remarkable story available to a new generation of readers. I hope somebody will collect all of Sonya Dorman Hess' stories someplace, so I can see what else I missed.

Link to story.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How nice to read about Sonya. We were friends from her time in Mystic CT, thru' Maine, then to Taos. We wrote letters often and did a cookbook together! Sonya was generous, funny, gentle, green-thumbed, spiritual, and dedicated to her work and her friends. SF's loss was poetry's gain, I suppose. If spirits endure, hers is on the wind, being nice to people of good will. Have you read 'Carrying What You Love'? Avisson Press. Regards.

12:22 PM  

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