The second installment of Lethe Press’s newest series venture, Heiresses of Russ, has recently been released. As with the previous volume, the year’s guest editor (this time around, Connie Wilkins) has collected the best lesbian speculative fiction published last year. In Heiresses of Russ 2012, the “best of” ranges from fiction published in major anthologies to pieces from a variety of genre magazines, by authors new and familiar. Small press anthologies also make a great showing, including pieces from books like Steam Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories and Hellebore & Rue.
There’s so much variety in the contributors and stories, in fact, that Connie Wilkins declares variety the theme of this volume. She references Joanna Russ and other feminist, lesbian forebears’ contributions to the field as the reason that we have this kind of variety available to us as readers of queer women’s fiction today, and how significant it is that mainstream magazines and publishers are releasing explicitly queer work about women.
One of the functions of Heiresses of Russ (both volumes so far) has seemed to be to spotlight work by writers and publications that might have gone unnoticed by readers in the SF community, much more than it has been to reprint works by folks who are already well-known for writing lesbian SF – stories that one might expect to see here aren’t included, but in their place are some pieces that I’m glad I’ve had a chance to encounter for the first time in this best-of. In addition, Heiresses of Russ 2012 has a number of stories that are fun and tend toward the playful or adventurous; I’m reminded in many cases of the pulp roots of much lesbian and speculative fiction.
In this vein are stories like “And Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness” by Lisa Nohealani Morton, wherein there is some witchcraft, a science fiction dystopia, and a daring escape into a happy ending; “Daniel,” by Emily Moreton, about a woman-witch disguising herself as a boy to get on a pirate ship, finding another woman in drag, and them ending up getting captured by a pirate queen to work on her ship; “Amphitrite” by S. L. Knapp, where there are mermaids, submersibles, and a sweet ending that involves crashing a bunch of asshole guys into the ocean floor while our heroines escape capture; then the anthology’s only novella, Lindy Cameron’s “Feedback,” a cyberpunk-noir thriller with a matriarchy, a virus that has killed off most viable sperm, and shapeshifters. Each of these pieces has a happy ending where the women go off arm in arm to romance, having dared an adventure or capture by scary folks; they’re feel-good pieces, fun and fast to read.
There are, of course, more serious offerings as well. These tended to be my favorites in the volume, by virtue of the chords they struck emotionally and thematically. While there are elements of delight and sensuality in them, there are also edges of bitterness, pain, and complexity that deal more with the fullness, the multiple shades, of various sorts of lesbian existence and identity.
Sunny Moraine’s “The Thick Night” is a complicated attempt at exploring cultural clashes between the offering of aid and the folks who receive it in rural Africa, while also dealing with the strength and resilience of the protagonist, Mkali, as she survives the murder of her parents to raise her younger siblings, doing what she must because there’s no other choice. Her unexpected romance with the android that she has been given by the American aid workers is tender, but also immensely ethically complicated. Moraine never lets the reader forget that there are elements of slavery or the impossibility of knowing what is “real” for Madini, the android. It’s an ambitious piece dealing with difficult topics in what seems, to my eyes, a respectful way.
“To Follow the Waves” by Amal El-Mohtar is sharply, dangerously erotic, though without a hint of explicit sexuality. Again, it is a story with ethical complexity and mistakes in love, exploring the meanings of objectification and ownership and desire for a stranger. The prose is also lush and handsome; the Mediterranean setting is wrought in strong strokes of color and detail, and the characters are intriguing. In particular, Nahla, the woman whom Hessa has unintentionally made a dream-object, is darkly thrilling, though she’s only present in the last bit of the piece. The imagery and intensity of this story remain after the reading has finished.
In contrast, Desirina Boskovich’s “Thirteen Incantations” is a nostalgic, occasionally wrenching story of young passion tempered with the silence of fear – specifically, the silence of the closet. The mothers are a strong part of the story: sympathetic despite the girls’ suspicions or fears otherwise, full people in their own right, and developed throughout the story alongside their teenage daughters. The emotional conflict of the story is at once obvious and subtle; obvious in its clear coming-of-age struggles, but subtle in the undertones between the girls, their mothers, and the uncertain future ahead of them.
I’ve reviewed it before in its first appearance, here, but I also very much enjoyed Nalo Hopkinson’s “Ours is the Prettiest” this time around. It’s a culturally complex story – in many senses, from the queer to the ethnic to the magical. The characters are also just an absolute delight, and reflect more clearly the complicated interrelationships that seem to crop up so easily in close-knit queer communities than many speculative stories do. It is perhaps my favorite in the book.
And, finally, there’s An Owomoyela’s “God in the Sky,” a reflective, understated piece that ends the anthology on a poignant note. When a strange light appears in the sky, folks begin to panic, to reevaluate their lives, their faiths, their relationships – except the protagonist, a scientist, who is having more trouble with the reactions of the world around her than her own effective non-reaction. The relationship developed between her and her grandfather is soft-edged and real, full of unsaid things and the simple significance that resonates from their conversations.
As a whole, the second half of the book is where the majority of the sharper, more provocative stories lie; the first half is made up of the fun, adventurous, sometimes-pulpy stories. This lead-through makes a great deal of sense, and draws the reader from a joyous romp into a more contemplative space, ending on a thought-provoking note. The quality of the first installment of Heiresses of Russ has carried through to the second, and I look forward to further editions.