ICYMI: From the Attic VIII: Short Stories from the ’80s & ’90s (Mostly)

As previously noted, we will be republishing noted critic and reviewer Kev McVeigh’s ‘From the Attic’ columns over the coming weeks, to give new readers the opportunity to encounter his sage observations on some very important and all-too-often overlooked authors . . .

Two things:

1. SFF has seemed to me to be the one place where it is as easy to discover new writers in short forms as at length.

2. I love short fiction but it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.

There are not many novels that turn somehow on a single line the way the best short stories do. Not just plot twists, but those perfect lines that bring everything into focus, viscerally or emotionally. Some years back I read a review of a gig* I’d attended where the reviewer referred to a chord change where “your skin turns stripy and your heart inverts.” Some short stories do that for me. Others are just a more pure distillation of an idea, a character, a mood, or a statement, uncluttered for intensity and impact.

Later this year The Mammoth Book Of Short SF by Women will be published featuring a long list of fabulous writers, but meanwhile I thought I’d bring up a few of my favourites. These are stories that impacted me somehow, maybe the first thing I read by that author that made me her fan, or just stories that I feel are somehow significant. You’ll notice they sort of span two eras. The mid 80s was when I first started to seriously read grown-up SF, the contemporary writers who wrote with a strong adult sensibility combined with literary abilities, and over the next few years I discovered a whole bunch of great writers I tend to automatically think of when asked about my favourites. I think we all have a personal golden age like that. It was also the time I really started reading outside the genre, which is where many excellent women SF writers have found a home over the years.

And then there are stories from relatively recent years, the new (to me) writers who are making genre fiction exciting and stimulating to me currently. Some of these are more famous than others, but they all deserve attention. Those late ’80s and early ’90s (mostly) writers first . . .

Pat Cadigan is known as ‘the Queen of Cyberpunk’, but tucked away in her debut collection Patterns is a superb vampire/serial killer story called ‘The Power & The Passion.’ Aside from being one of those ideas that you wonder why nobody else used it first, it’s also told with a visceral, dirty, realistic tone that only enhances its payoff. That collection is so good I’d struggle to pick a best story or even a Top 5, but ‘The Power & The Passion’ really gets inside its characters and its readers.

Reading ‘Surviving’ it is surprising to realise that it was Judith Moffett‘s first published SF story. Even more remarkable is how Moffett managed to make something incredibly new from a potentially hoary trope. Surviving tells the story of Sally Barnes, child survivor of a plane crash who is brought up by chimpanzees until ‘rescued’ in her teens. Mostly avoiding the obvious Tarzan cliches by highlighting them using her narrator’s obsessions with Sally, Moffett explores areas of sexuality, faith, social inclusion, and our engagement with the natural world. All of these are recurrent themes throughout Moffett’s subsequent work but when I first read ‘Surviving’ I was deeply impressed by this and I remember eagerly seeking out her debut novel Pennterra a few months later. ‘Surviving’ is part of Moffett’s Two That Came True.

Apes crop up in a couple of other great stories from that era, I have already talked about Pat Murphy in a previous column, ‘Rachel In Love’ (in Points Of Departure) remains her most famous story, the poignant tale of a young woman whose brain is transplanted into a chimp. Karen Joy Fowler, by the way, called Pat Murphy‘s ‘His Vegetable Wife’ a ‘nasty’ story. Leigh Kennedy surpasses that with the shocking ‘Her Furry Face’ from Faces. This is a funny, sad, profound story of human research on chimps, in this case teaching them sign language. Funny that is until the crucial events that turn our emotions on their head. I’ve given this story to friends to read and observed a gasp that tells me exactly where they are in the story. Kennedy is a quiet writer, frequently telling stories in the spaces she leaves, which means that when she drops this brutal moment into the story it really hits hard.

Despite what some tabloids think, SF isn’t about predicting the future, or at least not in terms of technology and discovery. Lisa Goldstein wrote a fantasy story that I remembered a few years later when high-profile news echoed her story. (As an aside, stick around long enough and I will do my utmost to convince you that Lisa Goldstein is the very best fantasy writer on the planet, better than Gaiman, Crowley, Wolfe, the lot.) ‘Ever After’ is a fairy tale, about the woman who marries the handsome Prince and comes to court, where she doesn’t fit in. The courtiers look down on her, she has no friends, and she doesn’t like her new life. The happy ending is, for this Princess, nothing of the sort.

Mary Gentle made her name with a pair of deep, rich and imaginative planetary SF novels Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light, but in 1989 she published a pair of surprising, inventive and different stories that started the path to Rats and Gargoyles, an unsung precursor of China Miéville and co. Within a couple of sentences the first of these ‘Beggars In Satin’ creates a fascinating world of Scholar-Soldiers, steam trains and arcane knowledge. Then she introduces a wonderful, comically mismatched yet deeply, profoundly suited pair of memorable characters, neither of whom is in any way a typical fantasy heroine or hero.

Around the same time a few stories caught my eye by an author who, I must confess, I still haven’t read a novel by. Marta Randall‘s ‘Lapidary Nights’ takes an initial premise of a planet where chemical storms coat anything left out in the forest at night in crystal forms. From there could develop a thriller action story, maybe Pitch Black-style, or something detached and Ballardian about art, but Randall manages to somehow acknowledge both these options whilst telling a totally different story about conscience and exploitation.

Lisa Tuttle has developed a name for haunting, personal, intense horror in the classic sense, but the horror in her story ‘A Spaceship Made Of Stone’ is very much off the page. The story itself is a unique and profound take on First Contact with a very different alien culture and the human response to them. Only at the end does it obliquely ask a question whose answers might just be a little scary.

Rereading most of these stories for this column I started to wonder about similarities between them. There’s a definite set of stories that conceal a stiletto in a velvet sheath, the sort of thing James Tiptree Jr did with stories like ‘The Screwfly Solution’ (under her Raccoona Sheldon pseudonym) and Kit Reed continues to do. If you want nasty stories, in the sense that Karen Joy Fowler meant in the comment above, ‘The Screwfly Solution’ which you can find in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever sits high on the list, but Kit Reed probably tops my personal list. Reed published her first story in 1958 and is still prolifically active in 2014. Most of her best work is available in a superb retrospective published recently called The Story Until Now, but the title of an earlier collection is apt. Weird Women Wired Women fits many of Reed’s characters, but her skill is finding the dangerous, dark, nasty element amidst superficially cosy domesticity and fractured relationships. Connie Willis (whose own short fiction I covered recently) says you never forget your first Kit Reed story, mine was ‘Automatic Tiger’, with its open commentary on self-esteem, personality and relationships. Think Bradbury meets Shirley Jackson maybe.

Then there were the off beat stories, some of Karen Joy Fowler‘s for instance, that sit beautifully on a cusp of genre, hinting at the fantastic from multiple angles. ‘Lily Red’ for instance, glows with a need for the world not to be more magical, but for us to see how the magic fits amidst the world. Kate Wilhelm drew a twilight zone of small town psychic influence in ‘Somerset Dreams’ then analysed it brutally. Elizabeth Hand took us to ‘Last Summer At Mars Hill’ and shone a blacklight into sunny corners of strange communities. And Josephine Saxton was more direct than usual in ‘Big Operation On Altair Three’ when she wielded her scalpel on the advertising world and how it treats women.

The more I think, the more brilliant, powerful, memorable SFF stories by women come back to me from those years. I could repeat this list with the same authors but completely different story selections, Kit Reed‘s vicious ‘The New You’, Pat Cadigan‘s warped eroticism in ‘Roadside Rescue’, Leigh Kennedy‘s love, guilt & politics in space story ‘Helen Whose Face Launched Twenty Eight Conestoga Hovercraft.’ etc. Nor have I mentioned Janet Kagan, Eileen Gunn, Molly Gloss, Gwyneth Jones, Kristine Kathryn Rusch or others like them.

I’ll come back to more recent stories another time . . . it’s a much bigger field than you think.

*Jim Arundel reviewing Buffalo Tom at Manchester International 2 for Melody Maker c.1992