Carol Emshwiller, who recently turned 90, began writing fiction in her thirties. She has won the Nebula and the Philip K. Dick Awards and in 2005 was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Although she has several critically acclaimed novels to her credit, her short fiction is something special, which is perhaps why her work is chiefly known and loved by a relatively small circle of aficionados who particularly value her short fiction. Since the average science fiction fan tends to consider the short form marginal to the field, despite its originality, intelligence, and occasional power, Emshwiller's work has long flown below the radar of most science fiction readers.
To date, five collections of her short fiction have appeared at intervals, from Joy in Our Cause (1974) to I Live with You (2005), but now Nonstop Press has undertaken to bring out a complete collection. The first volume of The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller offers, in chronological order (with the exception of a story that, presumably by accident, appears in different positions twice in the volume), 88 different stories published between November 1954 and October/November 2001.
If on the basis of this volume I had to choose one writer with whom to compare Emshwiller, that writer would be Kafka (who, along with his work, appropriately figures in a few of Emshwiller's stories). I only know Kafka in translation, however, so such a comparison would be limited to the moral complexity and deft deployment of humor, playfulness, and imagination found in both authors' work. Two additional aspects of Emshwiller's work demand recognition: a distinctive voice and sophisticated development of first-person narration throughout her body of work, which the reader of The Collected Stories is privileged to see take shape and mature.
The first couple of times I met Carol Emshwiller, she remarked, as if to warn me against future disappointment, "I'm not a feminist." Because I'd been reading her work for years, I could only laugh and ask her what she thought a feminist was. Her reply was oblique, and I inferred from it that she thought a feminist was a fervent combatant in the Battle of the Sexes, which she didn't feel she could be for the sake of the men in her life. While I'm never surprised by the bizarre misconceptions individuals born after 1980 often have of feminism, this did surprise me coming from someone in her eighties. We haven't had that conversation for some time now, but I couldn't help recalling it when reading this volume. Emshwiller's style is spare and almost crystalline in its clarity, and as is often the case with such a style, the reader is afforded many ways of reading Emshwiller's stories and several ways to classify them. In my case, a sense of shifting historically situated feminisms resonated powerfully throughout the 567 pages of stories in this volume, beginning with the first story, published in 1954.
"Built for Pleasure" takes place in a world in which human men and women take "sexy robots" for mates. The story opens with Robert Carter deciding he's fed up with "synthetic" mates—complaining that they're too predictable and compliant and that "upgrading" to new models is costly. Determined to make a change, he arranges to marry a "real woman" [sic] who is, for her part, also fed up with "the sameness" of robots (p. 11). Robert is at first thrilled with Eva's non-scripted behavior, but the first morning they wake up together, he informs Eva that he expects her to get up and make his breakfast. Conflict erupts:
She sat up in startled anger. "You don’t expect me to cook?"
"Of course. All wives should."
"What do you think I am, a robot?"
"But there's nothing to it. You sound as if we were back in the dark ages when they had to cook by hand. Just go out and start the stove. Please."
"I never touched a stove in my life. I don't know how to turn it on. My Amberton husbands always did it for me, and they never shouted at me, either." (p. 12)
Robert caves because he fears she's going to "burst into tears." They break up a few days later, after seeing a play and accusing each other of laughing in the wrong places (something their robot mates never did). Most 1950s stories about men taking robots as mates preserved the social roles and attitudes of the day by assuming that only men would acquire "sexy robots" to serve them. But Emshwiller, here, assumes to the contrary that social roles and attitudes necessarily change with technology. Some of her other early stories similarly play with tensions created by shifts in gendered roles and attitudes in response to new technologies. In "Love Me Again" (1956), the narrator, like Robert in "Built for Pleasure," marries a human woman, Lois. The narrator wants to retain Claire, his robot mate, to do the housework, but Lois insists that her robot, John, should be kept instead. Ironically, both the narrator and Lois, who are jealous of one another’s attachment to their respective robots, are forced to realize that their robots apparently have attachments and desires themselves. The theme culminates in "Murray Is for Murder" (1957), in which the wealthy Jason acquires a sexy male robot, Murray, solely in order to tempt his wife Laura into adultery so that he can kill her when he catches her en flagrante with Murray. Needless to say, both Jason and Laura's plans for using Murray go fatally awry.
Other early stories experiment with character types, styles, and themes reminiscent of other writers' work. "Day at the Beach" (1959) might be Shirley Jackson channeling Judith Merril, while "The Coming," "You'll Feel Better. . . .”, and "Baby," published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1957 and 1958, have a distinctly Sturgeonesque feel. Emshwiller herself, writing in the Foreward, marks "Baby" as a key turning point:
In criticizing that story, Damon Knight told me that . . . I had finally hit my subconscious mind. The minute he told me that I realized he was right, though I hadn't realized it until he said it. After that story, I did it often, though I never realized I had done it until after I'd done it. (p. 7)
The protagonist of an Emshwiller story is often non-human. The earliest instances of a non-human point of view can be found in "The Piece Thing" (1956), "Bingo and Bongo" (1956-57), and "Pelt" (1958). Although "Pelt" is not written in the first person (as most of Emshwiller's stories eventually came to be), it inhabits the consciousness of a dog who is used by a fur merchant to hunt exotic animals on an alien planet. The dog, always perfectly obedient, sees more of the world called Jaxa than her master does, yet cannot understand the words a black and silver tiger speaks to her—"Little slave, what have you done that is free today? Remember this is world. Do something free today. Do, do" (p. 99). The reader understands, of course, though the words are inaudible to the hunter and incomprehensible to the dog. And the reader—unlike the dog—also knows why the hunter suddenly flees the planet. This deftly told tale marks the beginning of Emshwiller's narrative work in conveying stories intense with meaning that either contradicts what the viewpoint character (usually a first-person narrator) believes is happening or goes far beyond what the viewpoint character sees or understands. In "Pelt," both the hunter and the viewpoint character—the dog—miss some of what is going on. Later executions of this narrative technique tend to be less explicit, relying on the reader to piece together a different story than the one the narrator thinks s/he is telling. One of the most effective examples is Emshwiller's novel, The Mount (2002).
In her Foreword, Emshwiller reveals that she sees her writing as having developed through five distinct stages. In the first stage, she says, she "was trying to learn how to plot and form a story," learning "one element at a time" (p. 6). In the second stage, she wrote stories "from deep inside" (p. 7). In the third stage, she "learned how not to plot and yet still have a structure" (p. 7). This began, she says, in the late 1960s, and was her avant-garde stage. Her fourth stage, she believes, began after her husband's death: she "needed a family to live with so I wrote my westerns . . . My writing became more expansive and relaxed" (p. 8). She thinks of her fifth stage as being "back to plotting and story," "only starting with nothing. I find the plot as I go along, one piece at a time" (p. 8). Although I can perceive, without difficulty, the first and third stages she distinguishes, I'm not so sure her other stages are as distinct and meaningful for readers. What I see, instead, is the development, over decades, of certain types of stories that can be found in every "stage" of Emshwiller's work.
Consider a story written in the "avant-garde" stage, "Expecting Sunshine and Getting It" (1978). Though the unnamed narrator will likely be taken by the reader for Bertha Mason, Rochester's mad wife in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, or Antoinette, from Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, she is herself uncertain about all but a few details: her rage, that she was Rochester's first love, and that she has locked him "in the tower room and he's the one who’s laughing out the window now, not me" (p. 277). "K" and Kafka’s castle are also mixed up in this story, and a line of Emily Dickinson is quoted. "I am not harmless. I will not be harmless nor will I be sent back into any towers no matter how tall, my hands tied and without knives or matches. I will fill my own sky" (p. 281). Here Emshwiller playfully riffs on well-known stories to let us slip inside her character's thoughts and emotions that, had she instead confronted them head-on, would have built walls between us and what the narrator is thinking and feeling. Interestingly, "The Acceptance Speech," the most direct of Emshwiller's such riffs, first appeared in 1990, during a later one of her designated periods. This tale rewrites Kafka's "A Report to an Academy," in which an ape who was tortured into mimicking humans attempts to represent what it is to be an ape "in human terms" (and thus inevitably misrepresents it). In Emshwiller's version, a "specimen" (who is perhaps human), kidnapped from his/her world, addresses the "Noble poets of the consortium"—who, obviously not human, are poets.
Both literary and graphic play are constant features of her work, sometimes breaking out in unexpected places. Drawings are an intrinsic part of "Eohippus" (1967) and "There Is No God but Bog" (1985). In "Expecting Sunshine and Getting It," the narrator draws "profiles" of sagging breasts, while in "One Part of the Self Is Always Tall and Dark" (1977) the narrator dreams that "every word in the world has only three letters" and decides to "write according to this plan"—interrupting her narrative to offer up an oulipian flash fiction written in only three-letter words (pp. 263-4). In "Modillion" (1994), the narrator becomes obsessed with a symbol that is "fat and feminine" as well as menacing, a symbol she copies over and over, speculating about its meaning. Playfulness, one might say, is a sort of modus operandi of Emshwiller’s prose style.
But it is Emshwiller's development of first-person narrative (usually in present tense) that is clearest in this volume. In her Foreword, Emshwiller writes, "I use first person because it's harder" (p. 7). She repeats this assertion in Matt Cheney's excellent interview of her (available via YouTube here), but also notes that reviewers and other readers frequently read her first-person narratives naively: and thus make the assumption that the author's words, though fiction, when written in the first-person actually represent who the real-life author is and what she think believes. (Which strikes me as hilarious, considering how eccentric and outlandish many of her narrators are.) I've encountered such naiveté about first-person narrative when teaching writing workshops. Many inexperienced writers take first-person narrative as the default voice in which fiction is written—not understanding that any voice the writer produces can never be their own—and imagine that first-person narrative must be an easier voice to write in because they believe it is less mediated than third-person. What they don’t seem to understand is that first-person narrative must first and foremost be about the narrator: it invites the reader to parse the narrator's words in order to infer the narrator's character and motives—thus putting the reader, from the outset, in an alert, if not skeptical, frame of mind. Often, as in her novel The Mount, Emshwiller conveys more to the reader than the narrator—through whose words the reader knows anything at all—understands.
But even when the narration is not ironic, Emshwiller's first-person narrative usually challenges the reader to actively work out what is actually going on in the story, since the narrator's consciousness is often confused, emotionally fraught, distracted, alien to the reader, or operating on not enough information. In Emshwiller's hands, especially in her later stories, such narratives curiously evoke a mixture of curiosity and empathy. In "Creature" (2001), on finding a large, starving, man-made "lizzardy" creature at his door, the narrator says, "I'd probably help even a suffering weapon, I probably wouldn't be able to keep myself from it, but this one seems odd for a weapon, too polite, and with vest pockets full of dried bits of flowers, that book of poetry" (p. 557). This sentence tells us as much about the narrator and the narrator's world as it does about the creature he's describing; and one of the most interesting and affecting aspects of this tale is its acquainting us with both the creature and the narrator at the same time, mostly by way of their interactions. In "Grandma," the narrator is the granddaughter and caretaker of a superhero—"a woman of action" who wore tights, "had big boobs, but a teeny-weeny bra" (p. 568) who is now old and feeble. Though the narrator is on the unreliable side and frank about her faults, she is oddly endearing. In this case, Emshwiller's first-person narrative creates a tone and emotional effect that would be difficult to achieve through third-person narrative, even as she preserves the nuances many writers would need third-person narrative to achieve. Emshwiller's narration often balances on such knife edges.
The Collected Stories, Volume 1 offers not only hours of pleasure through its dozens of wonderful, magical stories, but also the rare joy of seeing a master's work develop over decades. I'm reminded of the delight I take in listening to the complete span of the 104 symphonies of Franz Joseph Haydn, which begin at the dawn of the Classical Age of European music, when the symphony had not yet taken its later characteristic form, and conclude with works of astonishing ease and sophistication. The energy, vitality, and harmonic and rhythmic tendencies that are Haydn's trademark sounds are present in his earliest work, but develop in ways that could never have been predicted. Haydn's own development was not only inextricably linked to the development of the symphony as a form, but also helped determine what that form would be. Emshwiller’s work similarly developed as the short form in science fiction grew and matured; and thanks to this volume, we can now see that her playful subversions, narrative slyness, and attraction to willful, often eccentric characters have been in her work from the beginning. I venture to say that the best short fiction written today would not be the same without Emshwiller's work. I see her traces in Kelly Link's, Karen Joy Fowler's, and my own work (to take just a few examples), as well as more generally pervading the "literary" region of the field. In her 80s, Emshwiller was perhaps more prolific than she's ever been. Let us not forget that she's published scores of stories since "Grandma," the last story in this volume, and hope we have many more than those to look forward to being collected in the second volume.