Strongly feminist, linguistically muscular, and historically erudite, Lucy Sussex is an Australian writer who deserves to be more widely read outside of her home country. Many of the stories in this collection, released as part of the Conversation Pieces series from Aqueduct Press, are inspired by a palpable curiosity towards historical what-ifs: What if Philip K. Dick were visited by the astral projection of a woman writer who might have influenced him? What if a seventeenth-century feminist writer were channeled by a modern fashion journalist? What if future teachers could use virtual reality machines to probe the moral and biographical unknowables of Werner Heisenberg’s life? This is not Sussex’s only literary outfit—she has darker material in her wardrobe as well. But the best and most original stories here grapple with the tension between the desire to inhabit the subjectivity of people from another time and place and the suspicion that such understanding may be impossible. With a witty and meticulous style, Sussex uses these themes to create challenging and highly unpredictable tales.
The collection begins with the story “Duchess,” about a former graduate student in literature whose addiction to clothes leads her to become a fashion journalist. She becomes obsessed with Charlotte Lukes, a mysterious fellow fashionista, whose ensemble is described with some of the most detailed language about clothes I’ve seen in speculative fiction:
In the light I could register her colors: emerald in the skirt; heather/lichen tints in the waistcoat, of Donegal tweed, I guessed; yellowing ivory of the vintage lace; offset by peacock feathers covering the toque; red fox tails in the stole, and amethysts in the jewelry (along with silver, and what looked like well-nibbled bones).
It shouldn’t have gone together. But it did. That’s fashion genius. (4-5)
Sussex pulls off this sort of descriptive trapeze act with flair, spinning in higher and higher somersaults until the reader is nearly overwhelmed. A passage like this occurs each time Lukes appears and each one is more marvelous than the last, really pushing language to express the liveliness and verve of the character’s dress.
Her curiosity piqued, the narrator puts together bits from Lukes’s speech, her snooty upper-class behavior, and her feminist politics only to run up against an unexpected figure from her days as a graduate student: Charlotte Lukes bears every resemblance to a seventeenth-century icon of feminist letters, the Duchess of Newcastle. Sussex never resolves the question of whether or not Lukes is truly channeling the Duchess, but she nevertheless explores how this woman might live if placed in a society less restrictive than the one in which she was born. It’s easy to share Sussex’s delight as she shows Lukes tearing through London on her motorcycle and arriving outrageously late for the kickoff of the new Versace line. For its comely linguistic playfulness as well as its surprising and unique characters, this story was my favorite in the collection.
“Phil and Kay” also incorporates historical characters. One of these, like the Duchess of Newcastle, is a somewhat obscure woman writer; the other is Philip K. Dick. We meet Dick doing late-night research for The Man in the High Castle, when he receives a most unexpected visitor: Katharine Burdekin, the author of the novel Swastika Night. That work, which Burdekin published under a male pseudonym in 1937, shares the basic premise of Dick’s celebrated novel: an alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II.
Sussex keeps the point of view very close to Dick’s head, rendering his thoughts in an American English that’s surprisingly spot-on given that Sussex herself speaks with a pronounced Aussie accent. Here the voice's diction is pared down, colloquial, and entirely unlike the elaborate fashionese of the previous story. This is important, because soon the characters are leaping together through magical doorways into the worlds of their respective books and Dick’s reactions to what he’s seeing are key. First, the two authors step into Tagomi’s office from The Man in the High Castle and watch him handle some phony American artifacts. Burdekin suggests that Dick's vision was influenced by hers, and, apparently unable to accept this from a woman, Dick denies it. Their subsequent trip to the world of Burdekin’s novel only deepens his confusion. Burdekin shows us a Nazi society steeped in homoerotic paganism. Its misogynistic religion is rife with flowing blond beards, cross-dressing, and operatic performances of Nordic mythology, while women are kept shaved and imprisoned. Dick’s reaction is worth repeating:
“You got one helluva warped vision!” he said. “I read all about the Nazis for my book, and they never put women in camps, unless they were Communist, or Jewish, or . . .”
“Feminists,” she finished. “In 1932 Hitler suppressed the German organizations for women.”
“Yeah, but they wanted to work outside the home and—”
He froze, thinking of the argument this remark would have provoked at home. (42)
The story confronts the difficulty Dick had in relating to women’s issues, from this and many other angles. And although Sussex counts herself a fan of PKD, I couldn’t help being struck by how much further Burdekin was willing to go than Dick when it came to imagining the social differences possible in a world founded on the Nazi brand of fascism. While both authors thank each other for their shared experience at the end, it’s Burdekin who comes out looking the more radical and courageous thinker, especially considering her relative obscurity.
“Frozen Charlottes” departs from the earlier stories in that no historical personages appear, but it comes back to the historical theme by other means. Here we meet a young couple whose suburban life begins to look ever more dull in the context of their inability to have children, and soon they decide to leave everything to renovate a crumbling relic in the inner city. While excavating layers of carpet, the wife falls through the floor and discovers hundreds of porcelain dolls buried in the hard clay. The couple visits a library, researches the building, and discovers that a woman who lived there in the nineteenth century was called a witch and a serial killer in her time and seems to have disposed of unwanted babies for a fee. Sussex savors the moral ambiguities around this character and the story ends with a macabre flight of fantasy that’s bound to stay in the reader’s mind. While the images are beautiful and the meditation on the cheapness of life in the past is intriguing, the story only halfway worked for me. First, I was never able to pin down even a general idea of what the witch was doing and how it connected to the buried dolls. And second, I could have used some acknowledgement of the relationship between time and space: the idea, articulated carefully in David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, for instance, that some of the same problems we find in that “other country” of the past can be found today in places excluded from Western privilege.
In the next story, “A Small Star of Cold,” a woman runs into a deceased friend at a party. Sussex pursues this scenario with a sharp eye for social detail that elevates it above modern ghost stories that might be satisfied just to have a ghost appear. Our hero, Cat, questions her dead friend eagerly, glad for a chance to speak again with a man who added fun to every party, but ends up learning difficult truths that he kept hidden from her while alive. The story is more moving and personal then some of the others and only on the second read did I notice that the ghost provides Cat with a window into her own history, thereby tying the story in with the themes of the collection.
“A Sentimental, Sordid Education” takes us into more science fictional territory. Here we meet a teenage boy named Chris who picks up a well-dressed hottie at a community clubhouse. Just as the action is heating up, though, things get weird. He feels a sting while they’re kissing and she tells him it’s “nanotech,” which of course means nothing to him. Chris eventually asks the right questions and figures out that he’s become part of a futuristic AI’s research into the origins of human creativity. While this Sussex gets points for putting in lots of funky detail about ’70s krautrock, this one lost me a little because I found the pieces impossible to put together into any sort of coherent story. While I like that sort of thing when a writer like Kathy Acker or Hakim Bey uses the sheer momentum of their words to keep the reader hooked, this story lacks the linguistic fireworks that make such experiments ignite.
Sussex follows up on the premise of future people using technology to research the past with the final story, “Absolute Uncertainty,” in which we follow a class of students who program scenes into an “interactive template” that lets them experience realistic events from the past. They utilize this to try and answer pressing questions about the German physicist and Nazi partisan Werner Heisenberg. This story is a must-read for anyone interested in how science fiction can broaden our view of history and the morals of people from other times. Sussex comments in an interview included in the book that she does not believe it is possible for people today to truly enter the mind of a person from the past. This story explores this impossibility compellingly, not only by reference to the complexity of Heisenberg’s personality but also through sly allusion to his own theories, according to which the action of observation alters the subject so that its true and original state can never be known. While most college graduates know this is true of electrons, Sussex shows that it can be true of biography as well.
The feminism of this collection is unusual because so many of the stories don’t concern themselves directly with any conventional notion of women’s issues. “Duchess” clearly asks questions about the freedom of women in the past, and “Phil and Kay” seems to suggest that a woman, with her unique experiences of marginalization, might be better placed to speculate on the potentials of something like a triumphant Nazi empire. But many of these stories operate their feminist dynamics on a less obvious level. They question the hegemony of the master narrative, the single correct answer, the objective truth, and play with different ways in which reality is constructed by experience, positionality, and by the process of searching for the truth itself.
It’s also interesting to note some things that don’t occur in this book. There is no outward violence, a tendency these stories share with most of Philip K. Dick’s writing. There is no contrived or Hollywoodesque suspense; time travel, yes, but no aliens. Sussex’s stories, while perhaps a bit of a challenge to get inside for readers used to such conventions, take their power from less orthodox sources. They create odd historical juxtapositions around which fantasy flourishes. They function as bridges between our day and the past. This book is your chance to test those bridges in all their precarious charm, to take them as far as they’ll go in hopes of inhabiting a few broken moments of life in another time.
James Trimarco's fiction has appeared in Flashquake and is upcoming in A Field Guide to Surreal Botany and the protest anthology Glorifying Terrorism. He also keeps a LiveJournal and volunteers at ABC No Rio's Anarchist Haunted House in Manhattan. His essay "Wounded Nation, Broken Time: Trauma, Tourism, and the Selling of Ground Zero," cowritten with Molly Hurley, appears in The Selling of 9/11 : How a National Tragedy Became a Commodity, edited by Dana Heller.