Kev McVeigh is a name that should be familiar to regular readers of this blog. He’s an astute critic and read who has written a number of themed guest posts on the subject of women SF writers: search ‘From the Attic’ to find them all. Kev recently let us know that he had reviewed on our our eBooks – Judith Moffett‘s Two That Came True – and gave us his blessing to re-publish it here.
We did not need a second invitation . . .
Ignore the odd, misleading, title. This slim collection, originally part of the Pulphouse Author’s Choice series and now available from Gollancz SF Gateway as an ebook, consists of two novelettes from the early stages of Judith Moffett’s SF writing career. ‘Surviving’ (1986) won the inaugural Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, whilst ‘Not Without Honor’ from 1989 made various Best of the Year lists and anthologies. Although quite different stories they sit well together and anyone familiar with Moffett’s novels will recognise much here. ‘Surviving’ was Moffett’s first published SF but she was already an established poet with two acclaimed collections on her cv.
‘Surviving’ is a contemporary take on Tarzan. A young woman, Sally, raised by apes after a plane crash is rehabilitated into society. The narrator, Janet, is a psychologist fascinated by the “chimp child, and author of a book about Sally. They finally meet when Sally is appointed at Janet’s university, but Sally repeatedly rebuffs Janet’s overtures, not just because of ‘that book’, but because of her refusal ultimately to truly integrate socially.
By chance, Janet discovers Sally’s secret escape from the university, roaming ape-like, naked, at high level in the trees. After some fighting, to gain the younger woman’s trust Janet joins in and a rapprochement of sorts develops into a stronger (and later, sexual) relationship. Stronger at least in Janet’s perspective, that is.
As Janet narrates ‘Surviving’ from eighteen years later, and after Sally disappears again, she reluctantly acknowledges her own agenda but fails to see where she went wrong. She pursues Sally with intent to be the one who truly socialises the returnee. Even as she submits to Sally in training and relationship rules, Janet has a strong vision of herself as saviour.
Attempting to avoid spoilers, any reader familiar with Moffett’s Holy Ground trilogy will see the same internal moral debates here. The ongoing battle between selfish human urges and our need to engage with the natural world works in a way Kim Stanley Robinson fans might find interesting. Moffett shares with Robinson a passion for the environment, and a willingness to debate issues through her characters (mostly) without preaching.
The other significant aspect to Moffett’s oeuvre is the consistent, open and diverse range of sexuality she covers. (See the controversial ‘Tiny Tango’ for instance, possibly the earliest heterosexual HIV+ protagonist in SFF.) The other is rarely judged as other in her work. The relationship between Sally and Janet develops quite naturally, out of Sally’s comfort masturbation. Janet is hesitant and awkward, but this is her discomfort not the author or reader’s. Sally reached puberty with the apes, and Moffett explores this unflinchingly.
The ending of ‘Surviving’ may be slightly too contrived in terms of personal redemption, but the passage there is a fascinating, provocative look at ego, social structure and discomfort.
‘Not Without Honor’ is a superficially very different story. I glibly described it on first reading as a ‘First Contact collaboration between Kim Stanley Robinson and Howard Waldrop.’ Spoiler alert: it also predates Galaxy Quest by a decade, though it isn’t as funny.
A small, near self-sufficient Martian colony is approaching the finishing stage of a biosphere project when a peculiar signal is received from space. Only one person recognises it. 68 year old Pat identifies ‘The Mousketeers Hymn’ from Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club TV show.
It seems that the aliens have come to find Mickey Mouse Club host Jimmie Dodd for help with their own troubled youngsters, only to be dismayed to learn that he’s long dead.
The colonists, whilst bemused by the scenario, are united in wanting a peaceful resolution. NASA meanwhile sends a provocative ‘rescue’ mission. (The driver of Moffett’s debut novel Pennterra is similar.) Pat’s deep familiarity with Jimmie and the show foregrounds her in the alien contacts and discussion..
This is where ‘Not Without Honor’ fits alongside ‘Surviving’ in its discussion of human power relationships, parenting, and parental needs. For Pat and many others, Jimmie Dodd was a proxy parent providing moral guidance, developing independence, and support. Pat questions her memory, wonders if this is a nostalgia-tinted view, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The colonists get to see old episodes of Mickey Mouse Club but only Pat sees it childlike, and sees its depths. She explains and encourages with mixed results, and a resolution is achieved, for the colony and personally for Pat.
‘Not Without Honor’ isn’t as good a story as ‘Surviving’ perhaps because it romanticises a little of a past that the characters don’t quite relate to. There’s a hard edge to ‘Surviving’ despite the redemptive ending, that ‘Not Without Honor’ almost makes twee. There’s a curious non-sex scene, for instance, that doesn’t go against the author’s sexual worldview, but is quickly passed over where other stories apply challenging emphasis and rigor. That’s not to dismiss it as a poor story, Moffett set very high standards in ‘Surviving’ so ‘Not Without Honor’ inevitably suffers in comparison. As always Judith Moffett asks tricky questions without easy answers.
Reading Letters To Tiptree (the critical volume exited by Alexandra Pierce & Alisa Krasnostein last year) I learned that one of the last tasks Alice Sheldon completed was a reader’s report on Judith Moffett’s manuscript for Pennterra . There’s certainly elements in both these stories I suspect she’d have been interested in, issues of sexuality, and power role playing in particular. Tiptree, of course, never shied from awkward questions either.
Both stories in Two That Came True come with lengthy, informative afterwords, including selections of Moffett’s poetry. She was a poet long before turning to fiction. These pieces cast light on much of Moffett’s oeuvre. The afterword to ‘Surviving’ is perhaps a perfect, precise explanation of several key elements of all her work. It is as though her first SF story defines everything that followed. Certainly themes in both stories match moments of poetry and autobiographical elements from Moffett’s lifestyle, her life and philosophy and the clues here are explicitly delivered.
It is no secret that I believe Judith Moffett to be deeply underrated as an SF writer. ‘Surviving’ should convince you on its own, whilst ‘Not Without Honor’ is also an enjoyable, thoughtful and thought provoking story. Together they make Two That Came True a notable short collection, and a good thematic introduction to the SF of Judith Moffett.
And, of course, you should proceed immediately to Kev McVeigh’s Performative Utterance blog, to read more fascinating reviews.