Science Fictional FantasyDecember 6th, 2010 at 23:49
Okay, it might seems a bit cheeky to start a week of talking about women in SF with the discussion of fantasy stories, but I spent a good chunk of the morning listening to some great critical minds discussing interstitial works (shortly before dismissing interstitiality as a movement, not quite sure if that was fair but let’s move on) and some thoughts started coalescing.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that 2010 was a bad year for science fiction, but it was certainly evident over at the Last Short Story Bar and Grill that for every really good SF story, there were at least 5 really good fantasy stories. Within Australia, I’m pretty sure the ratio of fantasy to SF is far higher – where have all the science fiction writers gone?
But I digress.
One of the topics that Jonathan and the others were discussing on the Coode Street podcast today (well, not TODAY, but today is when I was listening to it) was the way that a story feels being an important element in whether you classify it as genre or not. Some stories, such as Elizabeth Hand’s “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” or Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Pelican Bar” can be read as speculative fiction or not as speculative fiction depending on which lens the reader views it through.
For some reason this got me thinking of a couple of this year’s stand out stories which are most definitely fantasy, but which benefit from a reader viewing them through a science fictional lens.
“My story should have ended on the day I died. Instead, it began there.”
The first of these is Rachel Swirsky’s “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window,” a marvelous novella published in Subterranean Online. While this is undoubtedly a fantasy story, with elements that would not seem out of place in an antique copy of Weird Tales, it is very much a treatise on immortality, or the effects upon humanity of living beyond one’s natural time period, through a conceit that works very similarly to time travel.
Much like classic science fiction novel The Forever War, the protagonist skips across aeons as she is resurrected again and again to advise a series of leaders, and sees the world change into something utterly unrecognisable. She is particularly confronted by changes in perceptions towards gender and sexuality which alienate her from the societies that need her help.
While it is entirely framed as a fantasy story, with the teaching and sharing of magic an essential plot point, not to mention a ghost constantly at the beck and call of her former employer’s descendants, the structure of the story is strongly science fictional. It feels like a science fiction story at its core.
“A pair of protective lenses dangled around her neck and she wore gloves. Not the dainty kidskin gloves of fashionable women, but thick pig leather, to shield her clever brown fingers from sparks.”
The same can be said for Cat Rambo’s “Clockwork Fairies” at Tor.com. This is a steampunk story about a young black woman in Victorian English society, whose skills as an inventor and an artisan are being wasted. The best that she can hope for in such a world is a tolerable marriage to a man who will allow her to continue her work… until the fairies put in a counter offer. The parallels between this story and Tiptree’s classic “The Women Men Don’t See” are evident, and I have discussed that before when I first reviewed the story over at LSS. I think reading the story in association with that one makes it a richer experience, though it’s by no means essential in order to appreciate it.
It also reminds me strongly of my favourite H.G. Wells novel, Ann Veronica, a non-science fiction novel that has a lot to offer the reader with that trusty science fictional lens. Set at the turn of the twentieth century, it explores how hard it was at the time for a women with an interest in the sciences to pursue an independent profession: without a supporting and supportive father or husband, there were simply no options. The comparison is made to the female novelists, who at least required little in the way of resources to work, apart from a pen and paper. I remember one scene in particular which demonstrated how an unaccompanied woman could not walk down a street without being assumed to be a prostitute… it’s a gentle novel, but deeply pointed in its politics, and I don’t want to come across as a raving sexist for saying this, but it’s an extraordinary novel for a man to have written, to so thoroughly grasp that perspective and to express the quiet desperation of what might seem to others to be a thoroughly comfortable domestic existence.
I very much had this novel at the forefront of my mind while reading “Clockwork Fairies.” I think it’s important that the protagonist is a woman of colour, and not just because steampunk (and its companion, gaslamp fantasy) has been accused in recent months of being far too concerned with upper class white people. It’s important that while this obviously hampers her status in society, it is by no means her greatest problem. Her problem is that she wants to invent, to make art, and she has no outlet for that. Her place in society may be improved through marriage to a man who, it becomes clear though we see the story through his point of view, is her intellectual inferior, but that will not allow her to fly as she desperately wants to.
I could continue for some time about fantasy that intersects thematically with science fiction, or offers something of particular interest if you view it through that science fictional lens, but it’s bedtime for me. What fantasy stories or novels made you feel like they might secretly have something to say to the science fiction conversation?