11 August 2007

"The Faithful Companion at Forty" by Karen Joy Fowler

I recently told someone that every thought I've ever had about science fiction and fantasy could probably in some way or another be blamed on Gardner Dozois's best of the year collection for 1985. Then I thought for a moment and said I'd have to add a few issues of Analog and Asimov's from the late 1980s as well, particularly the April 1986 and July 1987 issues of the latter, both of which were edited by Gardner Dozois.

Since it is the 30th anniversary of Asimov's this year, I thought I would delve into some back issues during the coming weeks to highlight certain stories and authors, to copy out some fun quotes, to indulge in nostalgia, to compare and contrast. No other magazine of any type has so influenced my taste, for better or worse, and I want to both admit to and examine some of that influence.

First, the story that most perplexed me when I began reading science fiction, Karen Joy Fowler's "The Faithful Companion at Forty". This tale appeared in the July '87 Asimov's along with such other stories as James Tiptree's "Yanqui Doodle" (which I've written about before) and Lawrence Watt-Evans's "Why I Left Harry's All-Night Hamburgers". Also in that issue appeared an essay-review by Norman Spinrad, "The Edge of the Envelope", about science fiction and "literature", in which he reviewed Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Steve Erickson's Rubicon Beach, and Lisa Goldstein's The Dream Years, among others.

I had read hardly any science fiction other than stories by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov when I read "The Faithful Companion at Forty" (which I suspect I read, along with "Why I Left Harry's..." before "Yanqui Doodle", given that I tended to read the shorter stories in magazines before the longer). As "Yanqui Doodle" would, it annoyed me. Why was this befuddling bit of whatzit in a science fiction magazine?!

I was young enough at the time to think the problem was my own and not the story's or the magazine editor's. Clearly, the author and editor knew more about what is and isn't science fiction than I. If they thought this story was SF, then it must be, and I set out to figure how such a thing could be. (Fowler's story was later reprinted in Dozois's 5th annual best of the year anthology and in Fowler's second story collection, Black Glass. It was also nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards.)

"The Faithful Companion at Forty" is narrated by the American Indian friend of a certain masked man. It begins:
His first reaction is that I just can't deal with the larger theoretical issues. He's got this new insight he wants to call the Displacement Theory and I can't grasp it. Your basic, quiet, practical minority sidekick. The limited edition. Kato. Spock. Me. But this is not true.

I still remember the two general theories we were taught on the reservation which purported to explain the movement of history. The first we named the Great Man Theory. Its thesis was that the critical decisions in human development were made by individuals, special people gifted in personality and circumstance. The second we named the Wave Theory. It argued that only the masses could effectively determine the course of history. Those very visible individuals who appeared as leaders of the great movements were, in fact, only those who happened to articulate the direction which had already been chosen. They were as much the victims of the process as any other single individual. Flotsam. Running Dog and I used to be able to debate this issue for hours.

It is true that this particular question has ceased to interest me much. But a correlative question has come to interest me more. I spent much of my fortieth birthday sitting by myself, listening to Pachelbel's Canon, over and over, and asking myself: Are some people special? Are some people more special than others? Have I spent my whole life backing the wrong horse?
No spaceships. No aliens. No whizbang geewhiz sensawunda. Of course, reading the story now it's obvious to me that it's some form of SF -- it takes place in a world where the faithful companion and the masked man actually existed and had various exploits together, and in the end there's some implied time travel. Reading the story now, I'm amazed I got through those first three paragraphs. They're masterful, but no matter how precocious I was, I was still just a kid, and I don't know how I made sense of most of those sentences.

Perhaps I noticed one of the letters in the front of the magazine, a letter where a reader thanks the magazine's editors for publishing "Elephant" by Susan Palwick, which is not obvious SF: "I'd like to think that you and the other editors sat down at a big table, each with a copy of 'Elephant' in front of you, and argued the merits of side-stepping the somewhat narrow definition of science fiction in order to publish Susan Palwick's story." To which Isaac Asimov replied, "We sometimes forget that psychology is one of the sciences, too. Even though my own penchant is for the physical sciences and if I were Gardner I might not have grasped 'Elephant' and might not have accepted it -- that just shows how much better off we are having me stay a figurehead while Gardner, with sweet Sheila's aid, does the real work."

If I read that letter and reply, perhaps I went back to "The Faithful Companion at Forty" and decided it was about psychology, and thus science fiction (I'm fairly certain I didn't pick up on the time travel at the end). Perhaps I decided any story containing psychology was science fiction. That would explain a lot of my later ideas, when for a while the term "science fiction" became a term of valuation for me, not a term of description. Any story could be science fiction, so long as it was a story I liked. If I didn't like it, it wasn't science fiction.

Because I could not fit it into the tiny box of my preconceptions, I really hated "The Faithful Companion at Forty" for a few years. Since it first appeared, though, the story has become a favorite of mine, not just because it's wonderfully written (with a sharp intelligence and a light touch), but because it and a handful of other stories kept the young me from adhering to a narrow definition of science fiction, and even perhaps contributed to my skepticism toward most labels and boundaries, a skepticism that has provided me with many hours of thought and conversation ever since. For that, I am more indebted to Gardner Dozois and Karen Joy Fowler than I could ever put into words.

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