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August 1998
 
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Elizabeth Hand
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Books
by Elizabeth Hand

Ports of Call
by Jack Vance
Tor Books, 300 pp, $24.95

Black Glass: Short Fictions by Karen Joy Fowler
Henry Holt, 242 pp, $23.00

LIT CRIT 101: THE VIEW FROM HERE

1. Certain pleasures accrue from book reviewing. Reading is not necessarily one of them.

2. If there is an occupational hazard to reviewing and criticism, it's overpraising books. Not because they are all good, but because so many of them are bad, and the relief one feels upon finding anything that remotely resembles a decent piece of fiction (or, these days, the even more rare experience of reading something that appears to have actually been touched by an editor or copy editor) provokes the sort of hysterical response more commonly associated with individuals who have successfully navigated the Necrocoaster at Six Flags Over Willimantic.

3. BUT -

4. Sometimes you get lucky.

This weekend, for instance, when Black Glass, Karen Joy Fowler's new collection, unexpectedly arrived in the afternoon post. I picked it up, intending to give it the sort of preliminary but utterly serious glance one gives everything that doesn't have a dragon or the word "cat" on the dustjacket; and didn't put it down until after one a.m. This is a superior collection, gracefully written but also utterly absorbing. I only wish it had been twice as long.

The author does not suffer from overproduction, the affliction that exhausts too many good genre writers. Since her first publication twelve years ago, Fowler has produced only two novels and two story collections. All are exceptional. She is probably best known for her 1991 novel Sarah Canary, a subtle, unsettling tale of First Contact involving the enigmatic figure of the book's title and a motley crew of individuals making their way through the muddy, spiritually desolated landscape of America's Pacific Northwest circa 1873. (Last year brought us another novel, The Sweetheart Season, which I have not yet read.) The 1986 collection Artificial Things raised the bar for short fiction in SF, and now Black Glass has done the same.

Like that of her contemporaries John Crowley, John Kessel, and Nancy Willard, Fowler's work straddles the fence between traditional genre and mainstream fiction. Her characters are not unlike many of us: moderately intelligent, college educated, struggling with the vagaries of family, relationships, jobs. So Tonto, the protagonist of "The Faithful Companion at Forty," drives a "a little white Saab with personalized license plates. KEMO, they say." And when Patrick Harris, the DEA agent in "Black Glass," registers fear at the thought of a zombie Carry Nation being co-opted by the Agency, it's not in the language of Scream or Scream 2 -

His heart had never beat faster except for maybe that time in Mexico when Rico had slipped and used his real name during a buy, and that time above the Bolivian mountains when two engines failed, and that time when his wife was supposed to be home by seven and didn't arrive until after ten because the class discussion had been so interesting they'd taken it to a bar to continue it and the bar phone had been out of order . . .

Like John Crowley, Fowler's work is steeped in the 1960s and the inevitable (and seemingly interminable) aftershocks that era continues to send rippling through our culture. But Crowley's characters are eidolons of longing, whose desires ultimately redeem them, whether or not they're fulfilled; whereas the people in Fowler's stories tend to escape salvation, sometimes as fast as their little feet will take them. That is not to say they are unchanged by their brushes with the extraordinary: in "Duplicity," two women vacationing in the rain forest make contact with aliens, and are imprisoned and presumably killed by them. Alison, the pregnant woman in the superb and creepy "Game Night at the Fox and Goose," makes a decision reminiscent of that in James Tiptree Jr.'s classic "The Women Men Don't See," with an even more slyly understated horror lurking at tale's end.

Most of these stories deal, directly or indirectly, with women's choices: to stay, to go, to lie, to heal, to kill. But the results are never neatly wrapped up, save in the somewhat disappointing title story, which relies too heavily on cartoonish humor rather than Fowler's usual subtlety. The rest, however, are marvelous; even the shaggy girl stories "Letters from Home" and "The View from Venus: A Case Study," which read more like late-60s memoir masquerading as fiction than missing pages from the Feminist Archives. Fowler often turns to history for her subjects - the seventeenth-century siege of a Japanese fortress in "Shimabara"; the temperance activist Carry Nation in "Black Glass"; various monarchs (of England and the arts, movies and mayhem) in "The Elizabeth Complex." "Lily Red," in which a woman walks away from a supernatural encounter, brings to mind M. John Harrison's recent unsparing novels Signs of Life and The Course of the Heart. Best of all are the heartbreaking "Lieserl," which conflates Einstein's life and work in the person of his mentally retarded daughter, and "The Black Fairy's Curse," a haunting and succinct tour-de-force that may be the last word in revisionist fairy tales.

There is a striking clarity to Fowler's stories, a refusal to provide happy endings or even easy ones. These days that seems courageous, almost radical. Black Glass is a remarkable collection that reflects our own lives and losses, darkly.




I never read much science fiction as a kid. I did devour Judith Merril's anthologies - they shared space in the library with ghost story collections - and had the inevitable class-assignment encounters with Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, which left me underwhelmed. When I finally did read a real science fiction book, it was by mistake - I was about eleven years old, we were vacationing in Maine, it was a rainy day. My mother had brought a box of paperbacks she'd bought at the library, and I picked one up and started to read it. But because the book's cover had been stripped, as well as its title page, I had absolutely no idea what I was reading.

Turjan sat in his workroom, legs sprawled out from the stool, back against and elbows on the bench. Across the room was a cage; into this Turjan gazed with rueful vexation. The creature in the cage returned the scrutiny with emotions beyond conjecture . . .

I read, captivated, for hours, sprawled in a chair while the rain beat down outside and I ate an entire bag of doughnuts from the local general store (the kind of doughnuts it's probably illegal to make now, fried in lard and doused with white sugar). The voluptuous prose combined with the misty green light and the increasingly sick-making taste of the doughnuts to produce an almost unbearably intense sensory experience, so that for years I couldn't eat a doughnut without having a bizarre flashback to Turjan's creations -

. . . the thing all eyes, the boneless creature with the pulsing surface of its brain exposed, the beautiful female body whose intestines trailed out into the nutrient solution like seeking fibrils, the inverted inside-out creature . . .

But when we left Maine, the coverless book remained behind, and I still had no idea what the damn thing was called. It haunted me for years. I was in my twenties before I encountered it again, having embarked upon a late course of study in post-New Wave SF. Somehow or other I managed to pick up a second-hand copy of The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance, and upon opening I started shouting: THIS IS IT! THIS IS THE BOOK I'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR ALL THESE YEARS!

And so it was. Since then I've read a number of Vance's novels (though by no means every one). None, of course, could recreate that primordial thrill of The Dying Earth, but all produce a sort of unalloyed morning-of-the-world pleasure that I find in few other books, certainly not since Fritz Leiber's Grey Mouser tales. Vance's latest novel, Ports of Call, doesn't have the depth of the Dying Earth sequence (what does?) or his Lyonesse fantasies of the 1980s, but it's delightful nonetheless.

Myron Tany, "mild and dutiful by temperament," dreams of going into space, but his father sensibly insists that the boy get an education so that he may become a financial analyst. To this end Myron "enrolled at the College of Definable Excellences at the Varley Institute, across the continent at Salou Sain." Fortunately, Fate puts her thumb in it, in the form of Myron's Great Aunt Hester, who has recently inherited a space yacht as settlement in a libel suit.

"Initially Dame Hester thought of the Glodwyn only as proof that whoever chose to call her a 'bald old harridan in a red fright-wig' must pay well for the privilege." But soon she is outfitting the ship for a cruise; she brings Myron on as captain, and heads out in search of a rumored fountain of youth in the far precincts of the galaxy. So it seems in its opening chapters that Ports of Call is going to be an SF version of Travels with My Aunt, one of the more intoxicating notions I've met in years.

Alas, not to be! After an unfortunate shoreleave on Dimmick, a planet described as a "graceless world, shrouded by a dismal overcast which often condenses to a pall of lugubrious drizzle . . . The most popular recreation is a program of dogfights, which arouse passionate emotions in the audiences."

Myron signs onto a cargo ship. His subsequent adventures take him to the various ports of call of the title, some of them disgusting places like Dimmick, others only slightly more amenable.

Sexual customs are most peculiar and complex, and cannot be analyzed here. The visitor, however, is earnestly warned never, under any circumstances, to make overtures to local women, since unpleasant consequences may be expected, the extreme penalty being marriage to the woman involved, or her mother.

The book is almost pure picaresque. Plot has never been Vance's primary concern, and one enjoys Ports of Call as one does a Restoration comedy, for the sheer outrageous of its characters and the precision of Vance's often lunatic descriptive powers. Critic Paul Di Filippo recently noted Vance's most obvious literary reference point, the works of Dr. Seuss. I would add that there is an almost Nabokovian detachment to Vance's writing, which actually meshes quite nicely with Ted Giesel . . .

" 'The "blue" course will be best. Duhail, on Scropus, will be the first junction; next, to Coro-coro; then out to Cax on Blenkinsop . . .' "

"Now then, are any of you carrying power guns, flashaways or pinkers? It is imperative that we keep such gear from the local thugs, which is to say, most of the population."

" 'I am carrying my whangee,' said Maloof, displaying his walking stick. "It is powered only by the strength of my arm.' "

There are also characters named Schwatzendale, Wingo, and Moncreif the Mouse-rider, and a creature known as the squonk. My personal favorite, however, is Imbald, "the so-called Sultan of Space," who builds a Trump Towers palace named Fanchen Lalu and proceeds to kidnap the most Eminent folk in the universe to its grand opening.

The formalities continued for three days, after which Imbald executed a few of the notables who had annoyed him, then sent the others home.

Throughout, it is Vance's voice that keeps one enthralled, and laughing - at once ironic and world-weary, the voice of an unrepentant opium smoker recalling some of the more amusing sights observed on his way to Xanadu and back. As Vance writes at the end of Ports of Call -

The universe had been opened to him; he was free to leave this frowsty little town of mad sprang-hoppers and, in dignity and pride, return to the cloister of academia, where his wry anecdotes of life on Mariah would grace many an intimate little dinner party.

Bliss!

Bliss!

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