18 July 2004

Four Recent Stories by Carol Emshwiller

Carol Emshwiller's work has remained remarkably consistent throughout her long career, though it is only recently that she has attained wide recognition for her writing -- or, rather, wider recognition, since her name is still not known as widely as a writer of her skill deserves. Early on, she was published a few times in Judith Merrill's Best SF anthologies, and she had a story in Dangerous Visions, but until the last few years it was perfectly understandable for even the most voracious readers of science fiction and fantasy to have read none of her strange and unsettling tales, and for a while she seemed to have abandoned SF markets, a tactic that allowed her to garner some grants and even a Pushcart Prize. She came back to SF, though, and has developed a devoted readership and finally won some of the awards she has long deserved.

Emshwiller's stories work best when a few are read together, because often she seems to use her stories to explore variations on themes. Four recent stories show this particularly well: two from SciFiction, "On Display Among the Lesser" and "Gliders Though They Be" could conceivably be set in the same universe, while "My General" from the second issue of Argosy and "The Library" from the August issue of F&SF take place in worlds ravaged by war. (Numerous recent Emshwiller stories explore the social and psychological effects of war.) Thematically, though, the four stories are much more closely related, exploring the possibilities and consequences of love between people of different cultures.

A simplistic and propagandistic approach to writing such stories would be to show that people from different cultures can learn to appreciate and love each other so as to be role models for everybody else. Emshwiller often begins her stories so that they could follow this route, but she lets her characters live in complex worlds, ones where love may be a pleasant and euphoric balm, but it is seldom a solution to much of anything when the world around the lovers remains destructive.

"On Display Among the Lesser" is the only one of these four stories where love triumphs, and it does so because the lovers escape the society that captured and tortured them, but do not return to their own society. Throughout the story, their love is shown to be not only pleasant but practical, because psychologically and physically they complement each other. They have attained freedom, because they are not subject to the requirements, expectations, or prejudices of the worlds they have left. They answer only to each other, and the only criterion of success is survival.

"Gliders Though They Be" offers a different view, one where, as in "On Display Among the Lesser", love is a motivation for tremendous accomplishment, but fate intervenes, and in the face of disaster, the person most valued is saved. Beauty sparked love (the singer's singing), and the society preserves the beauty for itself, allowing the lover to be carried off by an eagle. As he soars higher and higher toward his inevitable death, he is granted a greater vision of beauty than any of his people or his lover's people have ever had, but he is not granted a way to communicate that beauty.

"The Library" offers a similar view of possible transcendance. Here, love allows two people from societies that do not understand each other (a kind of cartoon Sparta versus a cartoon Athens) to develop patience, to try to understand. In some ways Emshwiller has stacked the deck in this story, making the peaceful culture of the librarians an appealing and beautiful one, and suggesting at the end of the story that this culture has a unique view into a transcendent heaven. Nonetheless, she doesn't let her characters off easily. For a brief time, they enjoy the same society-of-two that the characters in "On Display Among the Lesser" end with, but it is not a society that can be sustained, and the walls come tumbling down.

"My General" offers the bleakest variation on these themes, leaving us in a world so ruined by violence that love has no chance of conquering anything. Yet the love of a mother for her children does survive, and offers a certain hope for the future, so long as the children are not destroyed by the forces that destroyed their parents. The village overcomes its prejudice against the narrator's son, whose father is an enemy soldier, because men are useful, particularly as cannon fodder. The violent world makes all decisions grimly pragmatic, and in such an environment emotions only get in the way -- and, in the case of the narrator's treatment of the general, deadly.

The landscape of war has brought a complexity to Emshwiller's fiction that has sometimes been absent in the past. "On Display Among the Lesser" and "Gliders Though They Be" are accomplished and interesting stories, but they lack the power of "My General" and "The Library". The latter in particular seems to me to be one of the best stories Emshwiller has published recently, a story that rewards careful rereading, because it explores enough emotional and philosophical territory for a novel. The other three stories offer clear and not particularly ambiguous endings, but the conclusion of "The Library" answers fewer questions than it raises, exploding the implications of the story far beyond where they were a page before.

(For more explorations of Emshwiller's short fiction, see Trent Walters's consideration of "Boys", another war story, and L. Timmel Duchamp's in-depth reading of two early Emshwiller stories.)