11 October 2006

"Created He Them" by Alice Eleanor Jones

I've begun reading (more or less randomly) around in Justine Larbalestier's anthology of stories and criticism, Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. It's a rich and rewarding book, particularly for anyone interested in literary history and gender studies, because the format of having each story followed by an in-depth essay about the story's era, author, and perspective allows a more vivid view than would a book that was either primarily an anthology of fiction or primarily an anthology of criticism.

Of the stories that I have read so far and was previously unfamiliar with, Alice Eleanor Jones's "Created He Them" is the one that has remained in my mind. Lisa Yaszek's essay on "1950s SF, the Offbeat Romance Story, and the Case of Alice Eleanor Jones" provides fascinating background on Jones, a writer who mostly wrote stories for the "slicks" such as Ladies Home Journal and Redbook, but who also had published a handful of science fiction stories in 1955. Yaszek provides some background on what has been called "diaper" or "housewife heroine" SF, stories that featured women protagonists in domestic roles, and she makes a good case for giving more political value to these stories than they have received in the past.

(I have to pause for a tangential comment: The historical analyses and socio-political manuevers of the essays are certainly interesting, but as I was reading Josh Lukin's essay about the story following "Created He Them", Kate Wilhelm's "No Light in the Window" from 1963, I began to think about the value in reading mediocre work from particular periods. Though Lukin makes a heroic effort to redeem Wilhelm's story, it would be absurd to argue that it is among Wilhelm's best work, and I, at least, can't see that it's much more than a competently-told tale with a clangingly predictable twist ending. Yet this is where the design of Daughters of the Earth is particularly strong -- we do not need this to be an anthology of "the best SF stories by women". Indeed, an anthology such as this, one that seeks to examine and re-examine particular types of writing within their historical and political contexts, would do a disservice by including only great stories, because that would create a false picture of literary history. [Which is not to suggest there aren't great stories here -- there are.] The essays are insightful, and the stories provide the material for their insights, thus creating a new context, one in which a discussion occurs between generations and various types of writers, a discussion that I may be undermining by focusing on only part of the book here, because it seems that this is a book best evaluated and absorbed as a whole, which means that I am writing against my own better judgment. But what's the fun in writing if you don't, at least occasionally, go against your better judgment?)

All I really have to say is that "Created He Them" is a devastatingly efficient post-apocalypse story, and a fine example of what well-crafted popular fiction can accomplish. It was published in the June 1955 issue of F&SF, and it tells the story of a woman unhappily married to a bitter, verbally-abusive husband. The society in the story increases the need for the two people to remain married, and this raises the stakes of everything. It also allows a nuanced conclusion to the story -- a tale that could have ended with a neat and ostensibly satisfying resolution instead opens up to offer a dilemma where the personal and the social are pitted against each other. The sad and damaged world in which the events occur is drawn with evocative details, and the general mood of melancholy that fills the plain, spare prose of every sentence accumulate real emotional power. This is a story where the careful telling allows readers even now, more than fifty years after it was first published, to feel the plight of its characters, and to care. Without denying the subtle political commentary or historical interest of "Created He Them", the first thing that hit me, and the sense that has remained with me days after reading it, is the elemental emotional power conveyed by its originality of conception and its careful structure and language.