At the start of this month I participated in the Women Write Classic SFF Readathon. More information on the now finished Readathon can be found on Twitter @ClassicSFFReads. The Readathon offered three challenges, and I chose the Portal Expert challenge, which saw me reading three books from three different speculative genres. I also unintentionally completed the Time Traveller challenge, if you count 1980 as the start of the 80s and not the end of the 70s. It was a bit of a challenge reading three whole books in such a short amount of time, but it was really fun. Now comes the actual hard part; writing down what I thought of them.
A Wizard of Earthsea
By Ursula K. Le Guin
This book is a classic, written by one of the greatest speculative writers of all time. I went in expecting a lot from Wizard of Earthsea, and it did not disappoint.
This story follows Ged, a young wizard living in the archipelago of Earthsea. So, like some sort of wizard of Earthsea type. We follow Ged as he first starts to exhibit magical power, is trained by a local witch, and then uses his power to save his island. Once his power is recognised, he has two choices; he can train with a master wizard, or at a famous wizarding school. The master wizard is a slow teacher, prioritising lessons about the balance of nature and right and wrong over impressive feats of magic. Ged, hungry for power and glory, chooses wizarding school. Once there, his pride causes him to fuck up. The kind of fuck up that results in a horribly scared face and a quest across the world to stop the great evil that he has unleashed.
This story is part bildungsroman (a story about the formative years and spiritual/moral education of a young person) and part epic fantasy quest. The shadow monster that is hunting Ged can’t be beaten by simple force. Ged has to grow and change in order to learn how to defeat the evil shadow. Watching this growth in Ged is very satisfying, though it is a bit hard to connect with him near the start of the book.
One thing that does suck you in right away is the magic system. In Earthsea, names have power. Or rather, true names have power. Every person, animal, river and object in this world has a secret true name, and a wizard that knows a thing’s true name has power over that thing. Even if that thing is a huge dragon that Ged initially mistakes for a mountain. That reveal of the giant dragon was really awesome, I liked the whole Ged dealing with the dragons chapter. Even if it is less important than a lot of the art about this series would have you believe.
There is also a moral dilemma of sorts with Earthsea magic. Most spells that seems to transform or summon are temporary illusions. Powerful magic; using an object’s true name to force it to become something new, is much harder. It is also done rarely and with great care, for to change the world is no small matter. Before a wizard makes such a change, he must be certain that it is a change for good rather than evil. Because of these moral bounds, we don’t really see a limit to the power of wizards in Earthsea, which adds this sense of awe and wonder, yet the magic is limited enough to maintain tension for the plot.
The magic system also ties in with the worldbuilding to an extent; spells work differently in different parts of the archipelago, and with the civilisation of Earthsea being so dependent on the ocean, spellcraft has a huge emphasis on controlling wind and weather. The world being an island civilisation full of dark skinned characters makes this world feel unique. This would have been even more true when the book was originally published back in the sixties.
In conclusion, I’m just going to repeat what I said at the start. This book is a classic, written by one of the greatest speculative writers of all time. And it shows.
Warm Worlds and Otherwise
By James Tiptree Jr.
This short story collection has been sitting on my shelf for years, and I am so glad that I’ve finally completed it. More to the point, I am glad I finally understand what this book is. Now I have less questions about the bendy satellite dish guy on the cover.
As with most short story collections, there are hits and misses here. Mostly hits this time. I think the only story that didn’t have anything I liked was Amberjack, and that’s mostly a case of me just not getting it. And I suppose The Night-Blooming Saurian was dumb, but it did get a chuckle out of me. Overall this collection is a lot of fun. It starts with a hilarious-in-hindsight intro by Robert Silverberg (“It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing”), which in my edition contained a postscript from three years later where Silverberg reveals that Alice Sheldon had contacted him and revealed herself to be Tiptree. We then dive into twelve stories that are though-provoking, surreal, and very 70s. We see aliens having sex with hippies, a scientist abandoning his spaceship to climb a strange mountain, deadly diseases being spread by excessive air travel (ha, what a strange notion), counterfeit dinosaur poop and a colony facing destruction by giant sea monsters.
The two stand-outs are the cover story, The Women Men Don’t See and the Hugo Award winning novella The Girl Who Was Plugged In. These two stories alone are worth the price of admission for the whole collection. There has been a lot of discussion about both, so I’ll be quick. Let’s look at The Women Men Don’t See First. The story kicks off with a plane crash in Mexico, where our narrator Don Fenton is stranded on a sandbar with the Mayan piolet Esteban, fellow passenger Ruth Parsons and her daughter Althea. Don isn’t an incel or MGTOW type; wrong era for that. But he does only sees the women in a sexual way. He doesn’t understand how Ruth and Althea are not being super panicky and useless in this emergency situation. The fact that Ruth makes good suggestions and has something to contribute besides being a pretty face is a shock to him. He automatically thinks Ruth wanting to come with him to find fresh water implies that there may be a possibility for sex later. He assumes that her daughter and the pilot must be banging while they’re away, and that of course it’s the young daughter who is initiating this. Women are invisible to him until they interest him sexually. And then he wonders why Ruth feels alienated from the human race and might want to go with the aliens. Weird right? Took me a while to figure out what was happening, but in the end I liked this one. The Women Men Don’t See is a feminist story that still feels relevant.
Now the star of the collection, The Girl Who Was Plugged In. First of all content warning for ableism. The protagonist, P. Burke, has Cushing’s Disease and as the story progresses she is referred to in increasingly degrading terms. This is one of the main points of the story, which explores how society devalues some bodies and reveres others; how femininity is tied to beauty and performance, and the dehumanising effect of excluding people based on their bodies. The shitty way people treat P. Burke is done well, but she is still treated in a really shitty way that is not always pleasant to read.
The story is set in a feature controlled by a capitalist regime where advertisement is banned. To circumvent this ban, the capitalist overlords go to great lengths to secretly manufacture perfect celebrities that they can use for product placement. After a failed suicide attempt, P. Burke is disappeared and recruited to remotely operate an artificially grown human body dubbed ‘Delphi.’ Delphi is physical perfection; young and beautiful, perfect for secretly advertising products to the masses. With P. Burke – desperate, expendable, and easily controlled – controlling the Delphi body, the corporate overlords don’t have to worry about their star going off-script. Or at least, that’s the plan.
Everyone loves Delphi. She becomes a star overnight, and suddenly P. Burke has fame, influence, friends, love, and money. All the things that she was never allowed in her old life, with her real body. This is like Black Mirror thirty-six years before Black Mirror. This story says a lot about how society treats different bodies, and there has been discussion about how it relates to the author. Alice Sheldon published these stories as James Tiptree Jr. It is no secret that men have an easier time getting published, and Sheldon is not the only women to use a male name or publish under her initials to obscure gender. We’ve come a long way, but even today, there are many, many different ways in which we are granted privileges’ or denied opportunities because of the body we inhabit.
Overall this whole collection has been a lot of fun, and I will read more Tiptree in the future.
The Vampire Tapestry
By Suzy McKee Charnas
Ahhh… a vampire story that doesn’t make the killer vampire a sex symbol for teenage girls. Instead the killer vampire is… a sex symbol for middle aged women? Still, this book does a much better job at re-imagining vampires than certain other franchises have and for the most part I had a good time here.
This story is presented as five shorter stories that fit together to tell a story about the vampire Dr. Edward Weyland. The first three are told from the perspective of humans who encounter Weyland and learn that he is a vampire. The last two focus on Weyland as he deals with the fallout of being discovered, and how coming closer to humans has changed him. Vampire Tapestry is a very different vampire story in a number of ways. The most obvious is that Weyland is a ‘biological’ vampire, rather than a supernatural one. His super-strength is implied to be from his muscles functioning differently, and instead of fangs he has a needle in his tongue so he sucks blood more like a mosquito. He has no issues with sunlight or crucifixes, but a group of armed Satanists or a gun can pose serious threats. He is able to go into a deep hibernation, allowing him to essentially live for centauries. But he doesn’t do this in a coffin. This is a vampire story without the usual dressings of the modern vampire genre, but it still contains the focus on sexuality and immortality that has helped make modern vampire stories popular.
Dr. Weyland is different from most vampires, but he is still a vicious predator who only sees humans as a food source who he must hide his true nature from. The story – or stories- are slower paced and focus on characters mulling over the implications of vampirism rather than the usual gore or fear expected of vampires. The Vampire Tapestry is more a creepy, unsettling intellectual examination of a vampire than a full-blown horror story. The third story, Unicorn Tapestry, is about Weyland seeing a psychologist and explaining how he hunts and how he sees his relationship to humanity. I found that super interesting, though I know a description of ‘a vampire talks to his shrink about his feelings’ is a really weird premise. I think your reaction to that description will be an indication of whether or not you will enjoy this book.
Since The Vampire Tapestry is presented as a set of five stories, it has the same issue any collection of stories has; that not all parts of the collection are equal. This hurts Vampire Tapestry a lot because the first story, The Ancient Mind at Work, is going to be an obstacle for a lot of readers. It feels very exposition-y (more so than the story where Weyland spends most of his time just talking to a therapist, or the one that retells nearly the entirety of the Opera Tosca) and the protagonist, Katje de Groot, is not likable. Katje grew up in Colonial Africa and dreams of going back home. She has ridiculously outdated views on race, sexual assault, and animals rights/environmentalism. Her seeing how much values are changing allows her to relate to Weyland’s need to go into hibernation for long periods of time and then relearn human culture. This in turn allows her to reflect on her own values. It works, but until I got to the end of Katje’s story, I wasn’t enjoying this book. I was intrigued by Weyland and wanted to learn more, but it wasn’t until the second story, The Land of Lost Content, that I really started having fun.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book, but it was definitely a unique experience. Dr. Weyland and his complicated views on humanity will stay with me for a while, and I will keep an eye out for more of Suzy McKee Charnas’s work.
I had a great time doing this readathon. It was interesting seeing what other people chose to read; I got some insight into a couple of books that had been on my radar. It was really fun going back to some older SFF books. The 60s to 80s is a bit of a blind spot to me fictionwise, with the exception of Stephan King. I grew up reading 90s YA science fiction, moved on to mostly 40s and 50s SF, and then started finding modern, post 2000 works as I grew older. This was a fun adventure back in time, and I think I’ll need to arrange more some time soon. At the very least, I should do this again next year. Maybe some of you will join me.