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Talking Back cover

Recently I came across a sad story, about an artist who fell in love with her sitter. The social mores of the time meant that she could not express her feelings for him. Instead, she wrote a letter declaring her love, and slipped it between the finished portrait and its frame, knowing he would almost certainly never see it. The letter finally came to light when the painting was cleaned in the twentieth century. Apparently the sitter and the artist both married and lived as happily ever after as anyone might expect to, but he never knew that she had loved him.

What fascinates me about the story is the possibilities represented in the existence of that letter. Suppose the gentleman had found it almost immediately; what would he have done? Or what would have happened if he’d found it later in life? Or if his wife had found it? Suppose it had never been discovered at all. In fictional terms the power of a letter lies as much in its potential to initiate as in anything actually realised; the letter written but not read, read but not answered, or read by another person, the wrong person even. So much is still possible, so much is not yet said or acted on. Until the moment the recipient acknowledges the letter’s existence, it remains a liminal thing, potent yet inert.

This slim volume of what editor L. Timmel Duchamp terms "epistolary fantasies" engages with the possibilities of the letter, as eighteen writers address eighteen potential recipients. We peer voyeuristically over their shoulders as they do so. Yes, it’s a self-conscious exercise, but isn’t any letter? The writer always has an audience in mind, even though the eventual reader might not be the one they anticipated. Here, the conceit is that the intended recipient will never, ever (with one exception) read the letter. What freedom this invites.

Of the putative recipients, the famous dead are popular choices, and comprise a varied crew—Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, alongside John Dalton Hooker and Madame De Farge. I particularly liked Duchamp’s own letter to Alice Sheldon, and Victoria Elisabeth Garcia’s missive to Sarah Winchester. The fictional are far fewer in number, though Carol Emshwiller offers two for the price of one in her brief but illuminating letter to Abiel and Beal Ledoyt. Heather Lindsley takes junk mail very seriously in a very amusing way, yet her letter is tinged with an underlying sadness. And yet, the letters which most attracted me were those to the unknown people, such as Nancy Jane Moore’s letter to Lula Mae Cravens, her grandmother’s best friend, or Ada Milenkovic Brown’s letter to Sofia, a very troubled woman. So much not known, so much to be said. And then there are the letters that challenge our idea of what a letter is. Leslie What writes to Timmi Duchamp, the one living recipient, enclosing other letters. With the imprimatur of that framework, reality’s edges blur in very intriguing ways, prompting the reader to reflect on what it means to write or receive a letter. So, a slim volume, yes, but filled with potential, great fun to read, and thought-provoking too. What more could one ask from a book, or a letter?

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a freelance copyeditor, a part-time student taking a degree in English Literature, and a full-time reader; in her spare time she eats, sleeps, and grows plants.



Maureen Kincaid Speller was a critic and freelance copyeditor. She reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and was assistant editor of Foundation. She was senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons when she died in September of 2022. You can read a 30 January 2023 special issue devoted to Maureen.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
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