Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. In our last installment, we discussed some stories from the first half of The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1 (2005), edited by Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Debbie Notkin and Jeffrey D. Smith. As I noted last time, the Tiptree Award anthologies are a mix of nonfiction, novel excerpts, and short stories that, as the introduction says, “seduce or repel you. Instruct and surprise you. Push you around a bit. Take no prisoners. Make no apologies. […] stories for women. And stories for men. And stories for the rest of us, too.”
So, this week, I thought we’d finish off our discussion with the some stories from the second half of the collection: “Looking through Lace” by Ruth Nestvold and Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See.”
“Looking through Lace” is, in some sense, a fairly traditional science fiction story in the vein of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Eleanor Arnason’s A Woman of the Iron People—it’s about anthropology and linguistics, as well as the conflict between different cultures that occurs in first-contact situations. That the conflict revolves around gender and the social implications of gender—in this case, primarily through language—is what I feel links it to other stories of its type, along with some particular plot points.
In “Looking through Lace,” the protagonist Toni is brought on to a first contact team because the women of the planet have their own language that is not spoken with men; the lead xenolinguist Repnik has developed his own sense of the language as secondary and fairly insignificant. He is also reluctant to have a woman on the team, and attempts to control her contact with the other women. As she eventually discovers, the reason for this is that their initial assumptions about gender in Edaru were entirely incorrect: it’s a matriarchal society wherein men fulfill the secondary/property role, and the system of writing is actually the “crocheting” that Repnik dismissed. In the end, Repnik is exiled off the planet for striking Toni—instead of being executed, which is the tradition. After that, Toni has difficulty sorting her feelings for a local man because she realizes that he is socially inferior to her; she cannot see him the same way, through the lens of her own culture, any longer.
The elements of this piece are familiar: the role-reversals, the puzzle of the language made more difficult by the implicit cultural assumptions of the contact team, the “villain” being the older male team lead who is threatened by the gendered truth of the land—which would mean he, a man, could no longer head the research team. This is not to say that the familiarity is a bad thing, though. I often appreciate considering the approach to telling similar stories that different writers take. While the pieces here are familiar, the arrangement Nestvold places them in is nonetheless compelling.
The interactions between Toni and the rest of her team are complex and interesting, as are the relationships she builds with the people of Edaru through her research. While Repnik’s character does seem a bit flat—his actions and dialogue can be rather one-note—the role he fills is also believable in the context of a research team. So, though the moving parts of the plot echo traditions and tropes in this particular subgenre, Nestvold’s attention to the feelings and intellectual processes of her protagonist give it a depth and believability that I enjoyed. I also liked the research details; the reinterpretation of one cultural artefact, in particular, was a real kicker—at first the story is translated as a girl becoming the greatest in the land at crocheting lace; once Toni realizes what the laces are (written language) it is retranslated as a story about the girl becoming the greatest poet in the land. Those small but massively significant details about the implications of language and culture are what make this story a worthwhile read.
The other story from this second half I’d like to talk about is Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See”—in some respects almost an opposite to Nestvold’s piece. As the long introductory note tells us, this story won the Nebula in 2003; it’s also a genre-slipping, perhaps “mundane” piece that pushes the boundaries of the category sf. Despite that genre-slippage within the plot of the thing, however, as the title strongly implies, it’s bound up in concerns that haunt the genre and inform the narrative within the piece itself.
It’s sf from an angle—sideways, perhaps, compared to the direct and distinct tropes of Nestvold’s “Looking through Lace.” One is straightforward, fairly traditional anthropological science fiction with the full speculative complement; the other is in some sense about science and culture—a reflective piece dealing as much with things unseen and unsaid as with the things that were “known.” The Fowler could pass quite easily in a mainstream collection: it’s exploring an old woman’s recollections of her (she now knows) problematic excursion to Africa to be the first white woman to see gorillas and the gender politics that informed her experience.
Of course, the title also calls to mind Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See” and pairs it with the sense of the things that even a woman complicit in the system might not choose to see, might not acknowledge. Both stories involve women disappearing and the men left behind being unable to cope with or comprehend the situation; both involve “native” peoples; both are in conversation with discourses of colonialism and feminism. The echoes—particularly considering Alice Sheldon’s own childhood and her mother’s writings as an explorer in Africa—are too intense to miss; though the story could function without knowledge of them, they’re certainly part of its strength.
As a whole, this is a story in conversation with sf and the background of the writing of it: science and culture. I find that sense of relation intensely compelling and dense, pleasant to hold in the mind while reading the piece and considering its layers of commentary and complexity. And it’s also got its own elements of the odd. That the other woman in this story, Beverly, might have ran off to the jungle to be with the gorillas seems fantastical and ill-fated; however, the protagonist retains it as a strange hope, as potential unspent.
“What I Didn’t See” is, finally, also stupendously handsome, as Fowler’s work tends to be. The historical detail and the voice that brings that detail to complicated, difficult, personal life are both stunning. I appreciate its density and shortness, the work of implication and reference and allusion that strengthens an otherwise straightforward realist fiction. It’s delightful to unpack and consider—and that’s the sort of thing I very much enjoy reading. The other material in this anthology is also certainly worth checking out—the nonfiction, the novel excerpt, and the section at the end of Snow Queen stories are all compelling. But “What I Didn’t See” is the piece that most gives me a sense of the potential for this sort of fictional work on gender and sf and human nature. Definitely recommended reading.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.