“Then occurred an extraordinary adventure.” This understated declaration, appearing halfway through Molly Gloss’s novel Wild Life (2000), transforms a quirky historical novel into speculative fiction that probes the positioning of human beings within the wider world. The year is 1905 and the author of this short diary entry is Charlotte Bridger Drummond, a single mother who impulsively joins the search for a little girl gone missing from a logging camp in the foothills of Mount St. Helens. When Charlotte finds herself lost in turn, she survives her adventure with the aid of a Sasquatch family who are certainly more humane than some of the humans in the story.
Saga Press has recently reissued Wild Life along with Gloss’s two other SF novels—Outside the Gates (1986) and The Dazzle of Day (1997)—and has slated a collection of her short stories, called Unforeseen, for July 2019. It’s a good time to consider her science fiction alongside The Jump-Off Creek, The Hearts of Horses, and Falling from Horses, historical westerns that are perhaps more familiar to mainstream readers who are unlikely to visit Strange Horizons.
A common thread across these genres is the specificity of landscape. Gloss is capable of describing sweeping vistas but is more interested in the details of dwelling … surviving … in a landscape. How does the specific place where we live affect what we do, and what can we do to shape it? Her characters are embedded in place and live placed lives. In Gloss’s breakthrough novel The Jump-Off Creek, Lydia Sanderson, the widow who takes over a derelict homestead in Oregon’s Blue Mountains, learns a landscape where little things make a difference. Where does a natural pond nourish abundant grass for cattle; how is a house sited for best light between forest and meadow; which road towards town is most passable in the spring; is there a nearby fallen cedar that can be turned into roofing shakes for a falling-down house?
Wild Life’s Charlotte Drummond lives along the lower Columbia River outside the small town of Skamokawa, Washington (it’s real, current population around 500). She is a local character who smokes cigars, swaps between men’s and women’s clothing, and rides herd on four rambunctious boys after her husband takes the steamer upriver to Portland and never returns. She supports herself by writing scientific romances that blend H. Rider Haggard and H. G. Wells; as the book opens the news of Jules Verne’s death startles her to tears. She is smart, independent, and ambitious, but also uncharitable and overconfident, and will pay the price for this with a wilderness ordeal.
Gloss uses brief correspondence between Charlotte’s granddaughter and an academic specialist to introduce Charlotte’s recently found diary from the spring of 1905, which then constitutes the body of the novel. Readers familiar with Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose will note the parallel to his use of a contemporary framing device to introduce a woman writer of an earlier era. Stegner fictionalized the life of Mary Hallock Foote, who followed her mining engineer husband around the west while selling drawings, stories, and realistic novels to eastern publishers; as historian Rodman Paul titled her edited reminiscences, she was an astute and creative “Victorian gentlewoman” enmeshed in social conventions. Charlotte Drummond likes to flout the conventions and is definitely not cast as a gentlewoman, although she is someone whose work supposedly merits a PhD dissertation and a minor spot on women’s studies syllabi (but not, we’re told, so prominent a spot as the other Charlotte who wrote speculative fiction in the same era).
The first half of Wild Life sets Charlotte in the context of the maturing frontier, establishes her eccentricity and independence, and takes her from the Columbia River into the southern Washington Cascades on the search for the little girl. Her extraordinary adventure begins when she becomes hopelessly lost among the dense trees and ravines, nearly starves, and then encounters a Sasquatch mother and children who save her life by allowing her to tag along. The transition from historical novel to speculative fiction comes quietly and matter-of-factly as Charlotte first doubts what she sees, then accepts it as real. Without verbal communication she learns by imitation what to eat, shares their shelter, meets the father who joins the family group, and comes to know them as tool-using beings. The adventure ends with the family attacked and scattered by humans, and Charlotte returned to human society. After six weeks of living apart, she feels at first like “a Wild Child raised by wolves” who can scarcely like or understand the people who have found her. Only gradually does that ambivalence fade and allow her to reintegrate into her family, community, and career.
We can be sure that Wild Life vibrates with a deeply realized sense of place. Set along the lower Columbia River and among the tangled Cascade Mountains, it is a western wilderness adventure with a most “unwestern” location. There is scarcely a rumor of Great Plains vistas in the fishing town where Charlotte and her neighbors navigate the channels and backwaters of the Columbia estuary as often as they travel by land. The damp and jumbled forests on the southern slopes of Mount St. Helens have no Monument Valley grandeur; sightlines are close and cramped, marked by dark tangled ferns rather than a far blue-gray horizon. It is a landscape where Bigfoot plausibly walks unseen. The novel’s realization of landscape puts it in dialogue with other landmarks of Pacific Northwest fiction, such as Don Berry’s Trask, about a mountain man trekking the stormy Oregon coast, and Annie Dillard’s fictional retelling of the early years of Bellingham, Washington, in The Living.
Outside the Gate shares the dominant presence of a forest landscape. Aimed at young readers, using short declarative sentences and few three-syllable words, the book follows Vren, a boy who is exiled from his community because he possesses the special mental talent of understanding animals. Cowering in fear and cold in the early pages, he learns to survive with the help of an older exile who fills the Sasquatch role in the plot. The cold forest is alive with water. Small streams hide in ravines, rain falls hard “through the arms of the trees,” and nourishing elki bulbs grow in the spring mud (like the camas root that the native people of the Columbia River harvested from marshes and sloughs). The story itself highlights the undoubted virtues of friendship, of accepting one’s own gifts, and distrusting the temptations of power.
The Dazzle of Day, by contrast, opens on a generation ship that has reached its destination planet after 175 years, only to find it icy, tempestuous, and forbidding as a place for settlement. Do the voyagers, whose ancestors came from Quaker communities around Earth, accept their disappointment and try to adapt, or do they extend their journey in a slowly failing ship in hope of finding a more hospitable world? The ship itself has become a mental cocoon. It encapsulates and protects its inhabitants, but at the expense of creating a quietly mounting unease and dissatisfaction. A decision must be made before the ship’s trajectory carries it past the planet. The dilemma is similar to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, in which an initially promising planet turns deadly and uninhabitable and the starfarers have to choose—return to Earth as costly failures or keep going into the unknown. Robinson, with his deep interest in politics, imagines disagreement spiraling into political coup and a permanent split between those who turn back and those who continue. In contrast, Gloss creates a community that manages, eventually, to reach agreement through Quaker decision-making, finding a “sense of the ship” rather than a “sense of the meeting.”
Where Wild Life challenges the conventional western, The Dazzle of Day tackles and subverts the most common version of generation ship stories by showing a society that has grown more cohesive over the generations rather than falling into anarchy or ignorance, as in the classic Robert Heinlein and Brian Aldiss versions, thus entering a plea for the power of social connections in a strongly individualistic genre. The novel is a homesteading story in which life on the outward trail in the ship Dusty Miller is as important as the destination, with rich detail about the ways that the voyagers inhabit their temporary home. Even inside the ship’s metal shell, we see and smell and hear the “naturalness” of the unnatural landscape with its fields and aqueducts and crops adapted to distinct microdistricts—maize, upland rice, figs, pears, mangoes, and sapote for food, rattan and wood for tools and furniture. Gloss understands the intense physicality of life in a confined environment as inhabitants work the soil, eat, sleep, and have sex. She describes in detail the messy effects of a flulike plague in crowded housing and one character’s experience as he is laid low by a stroke while crossing a corn field. It is a small world of three thousand people and one we see in intimate detail.
Gloss writes science fiction that is quiet and slow, sometimes as deliberately paced as the thoughts of the stroke victim who tries to understand what’s happening in that corn field. The people of the Dusty Miller face their momentous question by talking, setting up committees, hearing reports, and talking some more. Gloss boldly makes a Quaker business meeting serve as the dramatic pivot. Quaker decision-making is often described as a search for consensus, but it is considerably different. Consensus usually comes through compromises that lead to a middle ground. Quakers ideally seek a “sense of the meeting” on important questions, believing that discussion and exploration with awareness of a higher presence—God, Spirit, inward light—will allow the community to find a shared understanding that is more thanthe vector sum of different arguments and can sometimes emerge most unexpectedly.
In the crucial meeting to deliberate their options, speakers voice practical concerns about the new planet and, simultaneously, their comfort with the familiar. If they are seriously thinking about dismantling their ship and reusing its parts on the new planet, why not stay in the ship and save the trouble? “What is the point of taking the Miller apart and rebuilding it down there? … If we’re going to go on living under a roof, we ought to just stay where we are … [where] people with arthritis can go on without the weight getting into their bones.” That comment triggers more: “I don’t see why we need to come out into the sunlight. We’re doing pretty well, after all.” Alternative voices rise. The voyagers fear the new, but they also fear for the future of their ship. Systems may function smoothly from day to day, but as one says, “We’re living in a mechanical thing, eh? And we’ve got to work hard to keep it from going to ruin. People can’t be expected to carry such a burden, can they?—knowing it’s our human intervention prevents the whole world from collapsing.” Having started with ideas about reproducing a protected environment on the planet, then veering into arguments for avoiding the surface entirely, the group finally acknowledge that the Miller is frightening as well as comforting. They begin to hold up the value and excitement of taking the planet on its own terms and reentering the natural world: “We ought to be listening to this New World instead of asking it so many questions.” The meeting ends without obvious resolution or summarizing speeches, but with a growing sense that the ship has locked minds and spirits onto narrow tracks and that there is no option but to choose the planet. Gloss does not follow this understated climax with a more dramatic event. Instead, the concluding pages let readers realize that things have fallen into place, that a sense of the community has coalesced around the decision to risk the planet.
Strangeness seeps into Gloss’s speculative fiction without fanfare or special effects. It sneaks into the stories, all the more compelling for emerging out of the ordinary run of life. Consider “The Grinnell Method,” published in Strange Horizons in 2012. It starts with an ornithologist pursuing her field work on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula, “a twenty-five mile long finger of land trapped between the Pacific Ocean and Willapa Bay, built of sand washed north from the mouth of the Columbia River.” The time is 1943 and the story seems first to be about the daily routine and larger challenges facing a woman who wants to do science with minimal academic support. We follow her careful observations and share her hard–earned knowledge of how to move through the willows, salt marsh, arrowgrass, brackish ponds, mud, and high points secure from eight-foot tides. But uncanny things begin to happen, even as Barbara Kenney tries to get on with her work. A towering storm greater than anyone recalls drives scores of whales ashore, strikes thousands of birds out of the sky, and leaves dry blue flakes on their carcasses. An oyster boat catches fire. Birds disappear into a “rupture in the roof of the world.” Is it simply a terrible storm? Is she imagining the ghost of her brother? Are aliens sampling terrestrial life (the Grinnell Method is a protocol for collecting contextual information for natural history specimens). We’re still not sure before the story ends.
Molly Gloss creates striking characters, places them in deeply described landscapes, and then launches ambiguous stories where strangeness inserts itself into what start as seemingly ordinary adventures. The passengers on the Dusty Miller are surprised and challenged by their new planet and surprised again by the decision they reach. Charlotte Drummond’s adventure seems to have been real, but maybe not. She may have hallucinated from hunger and strange food. She writes speculative fiction and may be trying out a new plot for an adventure-fantasy novel, as her granddaughter wonders. She’s not sure and neither are we. And that’s one of the pleasures of rereading Molly Gloss.