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The Fate of Mice
Susan Palwick
Tachyon Publications, 218 pages

The Fate of Mice
Susan Palwick
Susan Palwick holds a doctoral degree from Yale and currently teaches as an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno. A Rhysling, Crawford, and ALA Alex Award recipient, she is the author of novels Flying in Place and The Necessary Beggar, as well as many short stories and articles. Her novella "GI Jesus" was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award.

Susan Palwick Website
IFSDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

The intelligent, literate stories in The Fate of Mice -- eight previously published, three brand-new -- showcase Susan Palwick's range and versatility, moving easily from science fiction to fantasy, from fabulism to realism, from humor to tragedy -- sometimes in the space of a single story.

The collection's standout is "Gestella," a novella about a female werewolf who has been tamed by her human lover. He adores her in both forms, helping her through her transitions and protecting her from a world that would fear and loathe her if it knew her true nature. But though she looks like a woman most of the time, Gestella isn't human, and for every year of her lover's life, she ages seven. A man of thirty-five can fall in love with a girl of fourteen, but what happens when he's forty-one and she's fifty-six? Palwick writes in second person, forcing readers, male or female, to imagine themselves in Gestella's place for every moment of this harsh account of devotion, exploitation, and betrayal. The feminist subtext isn't subtle, but it is powerful, and the ending is both horrific and inevitable.

Also very fine is the title story. It's narrated by an IQ-enhanced mouse called simply "the rodent" by his scientist keeper, but given a more human name, Rodney, by the scientist's nine-year-old daughter. Rodney is caged, but like all intelligent creatures he desires to be free, though he doesn't understand what freedom really means, or realize that it carries a burden of knowledge: that the fate of mice is the same as the fate of humans, of all living things -- to die and be forgotten. An allegory about mortality and the double-edged sword of intellect, "The Fate of Mice" is poignant but also very funny, with a memorable character in the fussy, morally-challenged scientist. Palwick acknowledges her debt to Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon by making Algernon's fate the catalyst for Rodney's most crucial realization.

In "The Old World," humanity has made an evolutionary leap forward, abandoning cruelty and greed and embarking upon a new era of peace and social responsibility. The few who can't adjust to such a radical change are housed in closed facilities where the bad old world is recreated with special effects and actors. But can the bad old world ever truly be left behind? And does good have any meaning without evil to contrast it with? Also science fictional is "Going After Bobo," set in a near future where implanted microchip transmitters have become a common way of keeping track not just of pets, but of people. The deceptively simple premise -- a grieving boy searching for his lost cat -- is the framework for a moving examination of family disintegration, redemption, and the resilience of love. In "Beautiful Stuff," a process that can revive corpses enables an embattled politician to bring back the victims of a terrorist attack to speak in support of his hawkish voting record. The political message, with obvious reference to the Iraq war and 9/11, is rather heavy-handed, but there's resonance in the dead's innocent adoration of the "beautiful stuff" of the world, the things the living take for granted and which are left behind in death: sunlight, a glass globe, a silk scarf.

Palwick turns to fantasy in "Ever After," which melds the basic elements of the Cinderella legend -- a beautiful poor girl, a magical benefactor, a handsome prince -- with vampire lore to create a story that, like "Gestella," comments on the subjugation of women and the power and curse of beauty. Also addressing themes of love and subjugation is "Stormdusk," in which a snow-spirit is captured and enslaved by a human man. Once a year she's allowed to return to the snows, but the rest of the time she lives in suffering. Her daughter, who learns the truth, can't bear to set her free any more than her husband can.

Love is pain -- literally -- in "Sorrel's Heart," where a murderer whose deepest need is to inflict agony and violence on others becomes the protector of a girl born with her heart outside her body, and through her discovers his own capacity for suffering. Pain is also the subject of "Elephant," in which a woman becomes pregnant with the part of herself that, in childhood, expected kindness from the world, and has been battered ever since by the harsh realities of existence. Will giving birth to the child set it free to live a better life, or destroy it? A different kind of alternate life is examined in "Jo's Hair," which imagines an answer to a question few readers of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women may have thought to ask: what happened to the hair Jo March cut off and sold when her father fell ill? Jo's hair goes on adventures that Jo, that self-sacrificing nineteenth century girl, could never have had; its strange and sometimes tawdry odyssey provides a vivid contrast to the dull, dutiful existence to which Alcott consigned her most interesting heroine.

World Fantasy Award nominee or not, the final story, "GI Jesus," is the collection's one sour note. Perhaps this faux-folksy account of small-town prejudice, religious bigotry, and an accidental miracle was inspired by seeing one too many Jesus's-face-on-a-toasted-cheese-sandwich headlines; at any rate, Jesus's face does appear, in an unusual and amusingly blasphemous location (the GI in the title doesn't stand for Government Issue), but the whimsy of this idea isn't enough to compensate for a banal storyline.

Overall, The Fate of Mice is a strong collection by a writer who's as versatile as she is unpredictable.

Copyright © 2007 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Awakened City, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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