"Best of" collections that gather the work of famous authors sometimes suffer because their stories are pulled out of a career that has its own trajectory, dislocated from stylistic periods, plucked from collections that were compiled to work as one book. But in the case of Tanith Lee's Space is Just a Starry Night, the table of contents is compiled with enough care to provide a thematic rhythm to the book, with stories divided into different sections with titles like "Myth Remembered" and "Exiles." It is also—as a newcomer to Lee's work like me can attest—a fine sampling of her fiction, one that makes it easy to see why she's held in such high regard as an influential and celebrated writer in her field.
The stories here are varied in content and style, showcasing the diversity and breadth of Lee's work. Her eagerness to work in different modes and mix genres also demonstrates the reach of speculative/nonrealist fiction, which, when goaded by the right talent, can insinuate its tentacles into practically any other genre with fascinating, and often subversive, results. Lee's gorgeously crafted imagistic prose and wide-ranging use of pulp conceits (body-snatching and body-switching, vampire fetish bots, monsters on the moon, alien visitations, falling angels) create a hybridized fiction that's equal parts poetry and titillation, fusing high and low art to once again render such dubious distinctions pointless.
Lee's stories, no matter how simple or complex, often trace their power back to myth, to a human inclination to use imagination to express fear, awe, and wonder at the incomprehensible, vast universe that surrounds us. They vividly express the conceit that modern fictions—in particular the archetype-littered modes of science fiction and fantasy—are recursions of mythology that has gestated within the cultures of humanity since we first walked. The opening section, "Myth Remembered," illustrates this blatantly by transposing mythic creatures into futuristic settings.
In this section Lee imagines vampirism in a future where interstellar travel and contact with alien civilizations has been achieved in "The Beautiful Biting Machine," and explores the transformation of the werewolf myth on a manned moon base in “Moon Wolf.” The first is a fairly simple tale given alchemical potency through Lee’s vision and language. Consider, for example, the description of the "Nightfair" where we find a robotic vampire designed to service customers by giving them a brush with partial exsanguination: "Here there are spinning wheels of yellow sparks against the dusk, and glimmering neon ghost towers ringing with screams, and carousels that maybe come alive" (p. 1). One can hear the echoes of horror and literary fiction in the imagery and language, unabashedly placed in what is ostensibly a science fiction story, with humanoid aliens appearing on the same page. When the story ends with an actual vampire revealing that he's using the vampire bot's "sac" to feed on blood safely and conveniently, the point isn't the twist itself, but its appreciation for the recursive nature of human mythmaking.
"Moon Wolf" is a richer story, a haunting tale of a woman on a moon base who slowly finds herself succumbing to the seductive reality of an off-hand local myth that claims a werewolf is running around the surface of the moon. Protagonist Bailey's pondering states plainly what's evident in Lee’s tales:
stories of werewolves, as of vampires, ghosts, ghouls, and dragons. That plethora of fearsome exotic things that plagued the lives (fictionally?) of mankind. To her, they had that element of old pagan supernaturals. They were like the dark wood, the coming of night—events, beings, over which man had no control—or very little—but which nipped endlessly at his heels, no matter how clever he was or how high he built his walls . . . they broke through reason, demanding tribute in a dark leopard-speckled by moonlight. (p. 19)
Bailey's time on the moonbase is "plagued" not by fearsome myth, but by modern mundanity—a nagging ex, squabbles between the inhabitants of the moonbase, professional hierarchies. The lure of the terrifying silence outside, of the empty landscape that was once unreachable, "romantic . . . living Science Fiction" (p. 19), now conquered by reason, becomes an escape as it transmutes back to the magical. The idea of a werewolf outside becomes awful, in the original sense of the word. Her hallucinations of this phantom "moon wolf" become increasingly real, and heartbreaking in their beauty. The lunar werewolf of the story is a literalization of the allure of myth and imaginative fiction, and the connection between the two.
As the book moves through its phases, the stories (picked from various different points in Lee's career, ranging from the 1970s to present day) remain resolutely strange, mixing and matching genre and myth in a way that might have proved disastrous for a lesser writer. The segment "Falling Angels" gathers stories that reimagine the creation myth of Genesis, but in ways that can't really be pigeonholed into either SF, fantasy or horror, again combining all of the latter. "Black Fire" uses the format of witness interviews to a strange and unexplained event; a gimmick that can often seem tedious and lazy, an easy way to avoid scene setting, characterization and description. But Lee uses this lack of information to heighten the story's mysterious pull, as it describes the mass sighting of what appears to be a man falling out of the sky, which incites various women to infidelity, and causes various men to become emasculated or enraged. When we are told there were 666 such sightings, and that the handsome man appeared "sinuous" like a "snake," and that the witnesses have been classified by investigators into Adams and Eves according to their gender, the recursive effect of Lee's prose begins to ring a haunting tone again. This is Genesis reworked with the devil as a handsome spaceman in the mold of a hero ripped from the covers of romantic novels, Adam as insecure, hapless lout, and Eve as liberated sinner. The use of certain romance novel tropes (women being swept away by a dark, smouldering stranger with long hair, women waking up naked on hills) in "Black Fire" make for a brilliantly discomfiting take on the misogynistic undertones of the Christian creation myth. It simultaneously reveals the lack of agency that male-oriented myth can saddle women with, while imparting agency to its Eves in a way that prods at the subtextual fear of womanhood that lurks in so much male-centric myth and fiction like a coiled serpent.
"Black Fire" turns its Eves into sinners in the way of femmes fatales from film noir, an expression of male anxiety and insecurity and a celebration of female empowerment, as they realize that original sin is nothing less than liberation. As one witness describes of her encounter with her violent husband after fucking the spaceman/devil:
I'm such a coward normally. . . . But when he ran at me his first blow never even touched me. . . . I drove my knee into his genitals. And I ripped at his eyes. I am terribly sorry. . . . But I knew he might have killed me otherwise, and frankly, I think you know that too, don't you?
When I hurt him I felt nothing. Or rather, all I could feel was what I'd felt when the alien had sex with me. This incredible, blissful opening to all things, in the most amazing way. (p. 124)
The male figure of the "alien" is a symbol who barely speaks any lines. This story belongs to the women who are awakened by that symbol, and to the terror of the men who witness that awakening.
This kind of feminist subversion can be seen in Lee's other stories as well, including those in the section "Burning Bright," which is populated with even more blatant femmes fatales, or rather women reborn like phoenixes in the fire of male-inflicted suffering. In "You Are My Sunshine," a womanizing hunk on the Solarine Space Galleon Pilgrim recalls how a virginal woman on the ship "makes herself beautiful" for him by absorbing solar radiation, and then combusts and destroys the entire vessel. The woman becomes either a martyr for a man, or reborn a sun goddess (her name is Apollonia) in response to his repulsion at her beauty, at the fact that she begins outshining his own perfection, which "enough women had told him about, using the analogies of Greek heroes, Roman gladiators" (p. 89). Tragedy and revenge, at the same time, told through the lens of an "exercise in masculine ego" (p. 102), which is what Lee, never one to tiptoe around authorial intent, has a superior officer call the survivor's tale.
Similarly, "Felixity" is a fairy tale that subverts the tendency of such stories to punish women for being "plain" or "unexceptional," until they are made "beautiful" by their union to a man. Its eponymous heroine is a woman resented by her father for being "ugly . . . ungainful and gauche" (p. 38), for not being a paragon of beautiful womanhood like her late mother. In the manner of fairy tales, she is "rescued" from her misery and loneliness by marriage to a man, only to find he's married her for her father's riches. Imprisoned by her husband, she slips into the stuff of dream, and is reborn in fire, like Apollonia, turning her prison and her wrongdoer to ashes. Whether the transformation is dream is irrelevant, because it exists in a fairy tale, where we can rejoice in her turning the tables, rejecting the false dream of indentured slavery to a terrible man for a more potent one, rebirth as a creature with "hair like a cascade of golden serpents . . . and the white and flawless teeth of a healthy predator" (p. 58).
Exhilarating as Lee's fiery subversion is, there's also great tenderness and longing in these stories, because the need for intimacy is as hardwired into humanity as mythmaking. "A Day in the Skin," from "Exiles," sees a heterosexual man come to terms with grief for his dead wife by making love to his male friend Haro while in the body of a woman, on a planet where periodical body-swapping is not only possible but necessary for survival. "By Crystal Light Beneath One Star" imagines a political prisoner in a prison beyond linear time, as he contemplates the timeless influence of "fiction the sharpest weapon" (p. 182), of artifice and cumulative recorded history in comparison to the fragility of human lives—such as that of his lover Merah, long dead outside the prison's stasis—in the spacetime continuum.
The book builds to a powerful finale with "Within the Ghost," one of two original stories written for the collection (the other being "With a Flaming Sword" from "Falling Angels," a simple if effective retelling of the creation myth as alien visitation and uplift). "Within the Ghost" is a deeply moving novella about Vils, the last survivor of the meteor-struck planet Arkann, who drifts in his self-aware space station Kayis until the two settle down on the Edenic, uninhabited forest world of Jangala. There, Vils develops a curious relationship with the changing A.I. Kayis, and the planet itself. It's essentially a mysterious love story, full of wonderment at the unknowable, at the universe and humanity’s place in it as progenitors and dependents to our ceaseless creations. Its opening reads like an epilogue for the collection, ringing again as it does that note, that echo of recursive infinity, of myth repeating itself through time until it is reborn over and over into worlds far removed from the one we know in this particular portion of time and space:
Once worlds have ended, and the curtains of space closed upon them, where does their genius go? Their great music and art, their architecture, literature, and though, their beauty. . . . Is everything obliterated merely, rinsed away and lost?
Nothing is ever lost. Though every atom, notes, and perfume perishes, yet it remains caught within some vast awareness that needs no fascimile, no re-creation, neither speech nor vision. And this is it that, thereafter, leaves indelible, golden paw prints on the glass sands of eternity, and all across the darkness of the deepest void. (p. 207)
Space is just a starry night, stories are just increments of myth, and myth is just the ghost of every passing version of humanity that retreats into the past. It’s enough to put the time taken reading a collection of short stories as good as this one into perspective.
Indrapramit Das is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines including Asimov's, Apex Magazine, and Redstone Science Fiction. He has written reviews for Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, and Tangent Online. For more, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter (@IndrapramitDas).