The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller
won: Nebula Awards for stories I Live With You and Creature
used to be a woman of action. She had big boobs, but a teeny-weeny bra.
Her waist used to be twenty-four inches. Before she got so hunched over
she could do way more than a hundred of everything, pushups, situps,
chinning.... She had naturally curly hair. Now it's dry and fine and
she's a little bit bald. ... She won't say how old she is. She says all
the books about her are wrong, but, she says, that's her own fault. For
a long while she lied about her age, and other things, too."
Reviewed by Tania Hershman
collection was both easy to review and very very hard. Easy because I
fell in love with Carol Emshwiller's writing, her bizarre scenarios,
her playful language, her sharp humour and phenomenal imagination. Hard because this
book, The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller,
contains around 90 stories, published between 1954 and 2002. How to sum
up? How to give an overview of a life's work? I decided not to even
attempt such a feat but just to whet your appetite and send you to find
out for yourself.
Emshwiller's work was introduced to me using the terms "science
fiction" and "feminist", but I find this reductionist in the extreme.
Please do not keep her from those readers who think they don't like
writing tagged with these labels! What we have here are astonishing
stories, unlike anything I have ever read, with flights of fantasy, of
imagination, of language, of form. Playfulness with a serious
undercurrent, using the fabulous to address the everyday from new
angles, showing us our follies and foibles, making us laugh and making
who turned 90 this year, explains in the introduction how she sees her
work as being divided into five periods. For a writer, it is
fascinating to see
how someone looks back over from the vantage point 57
years hence. And also because it gives some insight
into Emshwiller, whose writing clearly shows the sharpness of her
perceptions, how she sees and what
she sees. It is fascinating to watch the shifts from 1954 and 2002.
However, I saw things differently from the author across the 90
stories, as readers are wont do.
The early stories are fairly traditional. Emshwiller's first
published story, from 1954, Built for Pleasure,
for example, concerns a mail-order robot/android wife who is supposed
to be pliant and agreeable, but things don't quite go as planned. These
stories tend to deal with love and marriage, with enough of a
speculative twist for them to find publication in science fiction
magazines. But then, with The Piece Thing, published only two years later, there
are already signs of the way Emshwiller is moving. It begins:
'Mother, mother. Please. What is the word? Where is the thread? Send, send, loud and strong for me. I must come home. The language is more experimental; we are
thrown straight into a mysterious situation with no firm "real"
location, there is an unnamed creature. These will become Emshwillerian traits as the years pass. Ten years later, Chicken Icarus follows the thread of a strange creature in a strange place trying to find a place to belong:
soared high and veered to the right, then I turned around quickly and
went back, faster and farther. Then I slowed and turned left.
'Mother, Mother. I cannot hear you. I've lost the thread. Send out to me. Please, Mother.'
keep thinking there must be some place for me somewhere. I keep
thinking of some kind of gelatin land, some puddingy spot all viscous,
muculent, where the air is thick and wet as water. I wouldn't even ask
to be able to fly around it. I'd be happy just to ooze along the bottom
as long as it was nothing like floors or matresses or pillows. But the
way it is around here you can get pretty bored with gravity. There
are increasing undercurrents of violence and sex as the years pass,
more talk of wars, as well as many sly - and not so sly - digs at
society and gender inequalities. For example, The Promise of Undying Love (published 1989) begins thus:
have always yearned for great men. We have been impressed by them. In
fact dazzled! Spellbound! We have even hoped to have a truly great man
of our own one day. Dressed in our best, we have gone where great men
go. We have watched them from the balconies of theaters and concert
halls. Watched them on TV. We have sat in their classes and agreed with
them desperately... We have always felt that the achieving of any
achieving man was worth any amount of pain and trouble...But usually
our attempts to contact the great and the near-great fail and we have
to turn to ordinary men.Yes, you giggle while reading, but
something tickles, something lingers. Over the decades Emshwiller's
confidence increases, she throws you straight into the story, she
doesn't explain, she confounds with setting, language, plot, even
character. She muses on the role of words, of poets, of linguistics, of
prizes, of praise and adulation.
As the author ages, age becomes
a theme too:
She is eighty-two and in love. Impossible
to be in love now but she is in it. Dried up just there where love takes
place, so no more of that for her. Yet she loves. Cries about it. Not
cries for any real reason because so far nothing lost. Nothing gained,
that is, in order to have lost anything yet. Moving up to the present, Creature,
published in 2001, won Emshwiller the 2002 Nebula Award for Best Short
Story, and in many ways it embodies a lifetime of her writing. There is
a strange lost creature, and a human, isolated. There is war.
(There is No Evil Angel But Love, published 1991)
want to comfort her. Put my arms around this green scaly thing. (My son
had an iguana. We never hugged it.) She reaches toward me as if to hug
too. But even those little arms... those claws... And my head could fit
all the way in her mouth, no problem. I flinch away. I see her eyes
turn reptilian - lose their wide childlike look. She says, 'Kh...khss
ssorry.'This is a beautiful, poignant story and here,
almost 50 years later, Emshwiller is returning to quite conventional
language, almost as if she has done the playing, tested novelties, and has
now moved through that need to another place.
This is a fantastic collection for any reader who loves great stories
and for any writer who wants to witness the life-cycle of a great
writer, from quiet beginnings through experimentation and oddity,
approaching themes from many angles and in different ways. Whatever you like to read, you will find it here. These
are not all of Emshwiller's stories, another collection of collected stories was published
in May. I'm very glad of that, because, even after these 90, I want