ICYMI: From the Attic IX: This Map IS the Territory

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 . . .


Rereading the stories of Karen Joy Fowler I am made aware of some things I already knew. That is not entirely the paradox it seems. In her collection Black Glass almost every story appears to incorporate an early statement asserting some degree of unreliability.

“One day Lily decided to be somebody else” (Lily Red)

“even if everything in it was true when written, it was entirely possible that none of it was true now” (Lieserl)

“I have learned to distrust words, even my own” (Letters From Home)

“Of course it was an illusion” (The Brew)

“I couldn’t tell you in what year or in what sequence anything happened, only in what season.” (Go Back)

If such a pattern were not enough, Fowler admitted in an interview on Strange Horizons that she deliberately wrote her debut novel Sarah Canary with the intent that Science Fiction readers would read it as Science Fiction and mainstream readers would see mainstream fiction. But this wilful ambiguity is not just a broadening of her market; it actually reflects a crucial aspect of Sarah Canary‘s meaning. Set in the Pacific North West in 1873, Sarah Canary tells the story of the eponymous mystery woman who appears at a Chinese logging camp. Through a series of occasionally too overtly staged set pieces Sarah Canary encounters, or more pertinently is encountered by, a motley collection of borderline outsiders who each see her, and attempt to exploit her, in their own ways. The passive tense I used above is important I think because she never speaks and is drawn into events by those she meets. As John Clute notes, Sarah Canary traces “the ways in which it might be possible to understand, and to misconstrue” but does it while “allowing no SF premise to shoulder into the knowledge of the text.”

It makes great aesthetic sense to me, therefore, that a novel about people imposing identity on the Other is created in such a way that readers impose genre upon it. Sarah Canary is alien, strange and a tabula rasa to those who meet her, but is she an Alien? Decide for yourself.

There are other Karen Joy Fowler stories that also approach genre SF tangentially at best, like Sarah Canary concealing their nature beneath delicate filigree realism. “We discern symmetries, repetitions, and think we are seeing the pattern of our lives. But the pattern is in the seeing, not in the dream.” (Sarah Canary) Her stories are “part map, part picture” (Duplicity) Her latest novel, the deeply moving and provocative We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year and most shops are shelving it away from SF.

Most infamously Fowler’s controversial Nebula Award winning story “What I Didn’t See” has no SF elements in its body. It is the story, told in hindsight, of an African expedition to view and hunt gorillas and a mysterious disappearance of one of the women in the party. Fowler’s narrator challenges her own narrative at several points, questioning her memory and assuring us that her attitudes have changed over time. Beneath that there is also an engagement with SF tropes, and we are informed of this by the titular echo of James Tiptree Jr‘s “The Women Men Don’t See” and our knowledge outwith the story of Tiptree’s anthropologist mother, Mary Hastings Bradley. In the way the expedition leader views the women of his party I almost see Fowler putting into fiction parts of Joanna RussHow To Suppress Women’s Writing. On all these levels it is a powerful, thoughtful, evocative and beautiful story, as so many of Fowler’s are.

That looking back in hindsight also typifies a lot of Fowler’s oeuvre. Her novels after Sarah Canary, The Sweetheart Season (about WWII Women’s baseball) and Sister Noon (again in the 19th century) are historical set novels. The Jane Austen Book Club may have a contemporary setting but obviously reflects back on Austen and the Regency era. This use of studying romantic fiction as plot device accompanied by commentary is something Fowler also did in one of her most Science Fictional stories “The View from Venus.” If these stories make it clear Fowler is invoking a dialogue between now and the past of these books, and between us and the books, that adds weight to the case for “What I Didn’t See” engaging with SF and Tiptree.

These historical stories are not nostalgic however, though moments of wistfulness for futures missed are inevitable if not predominant. In ‘Lieserl’ Albert Einstein receives a series of letters from his wife Mileva about their daughter Lieserl who in real-life seems to vanish from the records. Fowler plays with relativity here as scientific theory, metaphor and perhaps, pun, whilst her story explicitly records the neglect of the scientist for his wife and daughter.

They are the characters on the edge of existing narratives, frequently women, occasionally people of colour, that Fowler gives voice to. Gulliver’s wife, left behind whilst he travels (The Travails); Tonto who defends the public hero at the same times as complaining about him, (The Faithful Companion At 40); the young Elizabeth I who “should have been a boy” (The Elizabeth Complex)

Karen Joy Fowler is a writer SF needs, a writer who probes at the genre and re-imagines its futures. Her work engages with the world, with the genre and with the reader but, as noted, ambiguously and frequently asymptotically. Relativity informs the plot of ‘Lieserl’ and Sarah Canary reflects perceptions of women in perceptions of a novel. ‘Game Night At the Fox & Goose’ has clever dialogue where the bar patrons’ commentary on the football game can read as discussion of the pregnant protagonist’s predicament. (As an aside this story has a lot of overlap, albeit from different perspective, with James Patrick Kelly’s “Dancing With Chairs” which was published the same month, Fowler in Interzone, Kelly in Asimov’s.)

So, Karen Joy Fowler, witty, ambiguous, engaging, informed; great prose, and unique approaches to old stories. The old maps bore the legend “Here be Dragons”; well, there may or may not be dragons in Karen Joy Fowler‘s stories, but if you’d like a guide to take you off the edge of the map but who might leave you there to find a way back to what might not be quite where you departed from anyway, well Fowler is the one I choose.