The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller

Nonstop Press

Awards won: Nebula Awards for stories I Live With You and Creature

"Grandma 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

This 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 us think.

Emshwiller, 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.

I 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.'
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:
I 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:
We 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. 

(There is No Evil Angel But Love, published 1991)
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.
I 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 more.

Read a story from this collection in Strange Horizons

Tania Hershman is editor of The Short Review. Her first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Tania is currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University, working on a collection of biology-inspired fictions.

Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Chris Beckett "The Turing Test"

Petina Gappah "An Elegy for Easterly"

Sean Lovelace "How Some People Like Their Eggs"

Amnesty International "Freedom: An Anthology of Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"

A L Kennedy "What Becomes"

Davy Byrnes Stories

Janice Galloway "Collected Stories"

Peter Orner "Esther Stories"

SeŠn ” FaolŠin "Selected Stories"

"The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis"

Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud "A Life on Paper"

Jonathan Papernick "There is No Other"

Edgar Bayley "The Life and Memoirs of Dr Pi"

Anthony Doerr "Memory Wall"
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Carol Emshwiller is an American writer of avant garde short stories and science fiction who has won prizes ranging from the Nebula Award to the Philip K. Dick Award. Ursula K. Le Guin has called her "a major fabulist, a marvelous magical realist, one of the strongest, most complex, most consistently feminist voices in fiction." Among her novels are Carmen Dog and The Mount. She has also written two cowboy novels called Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill. Her most recent novel, The Secret City, was published in April 2007. She lives in New York City most of the year, and spends her summers in Owens Valley, California, and has used this setting in her stories. In 2005, she was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. Her short story, Creature won the 2002 Nebula Award for best short story and I Live With You won the 2005 Nebula Award in the same category.

Read an interview with Carol Emshwiller