Jennifer Pelland is a relatively new writer—the first of these stories was published in 2003—but has already made a mark on the genre short story scene. "Captive Girl" (included here) was a finalist for the 2007 Nebula Awards and was shortlisted for the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards. Pelland's fiction, primarily published online, has appeared in Strange Horizons, Electric Velocipede, Apex, Coyote Wild and Helix, among others.
Unwelcome Bodies, a collection of eleven short stories, spans her career to date, and includes three previously-unpublished stories: "Songs of Lament," "Firebird," and "Brushstrokes." I'm not sure it's the best selection of her available work, however. A few of the stories collected here are weaker than the rest. "The Call," though it successfully tells a story of alien abduction and a sacrifice that saves humanity, reads like a writing exercise; the conclusion of "Immortal Sin" reminds me of all those Golden Age SF stories with a twist; "Last Bus," a tale of purgatory based on a dream, feels slight beside the expansive themes explored in most of the other stories. There are certainly stories by Pelland ("MarsSickGirl," "Mercytanks," "YY") that, to my mind, would better fit the tone of this collection.
For this is a collection of stories about bodies: about living in personal or social isolation; about the human need for, and modern fear of, physical contact; about changes that people make to their bodies and changes that are made to them with or without consent, by others. It's about identity, and how we define it by our physical selves. "You all see your bodies as so permanent," says (four-armed, snake-haired) Giancarla to Joseph Merrick in "The Last Stand of the Elephant Man." Merrick begins to protest:
"—aren't." (p. 161)
Why are these bodies unwelcome? Whose bodies are they?
The protagonists are mostly female, though some of the stories are told from the point of view of a male character. Sometimes the women choose their fates. As a young child, "Captive Girl" Alice volunteered to be blinded, deafened, and cyborgised after an alien attack that killed her family. Suze, in "Songs of Lament," is a cetacean biologist who "can't wait" to hear what the whales are singing; it's never entirely clear how this gift, this curse, of understanding is bestowed, but it cannot be undone. The nameless inquisitor of "The Call" is a volunteer, too, though she (she?) regrets what she has lost, and what she has become. In "Firebird," teen pop idol Kay Myerson makes a grand gesture in protest against continued inaction on the issue of climate change: it irreversibly changes her body, but it also changes her mind. Njeri, her college roommate (a wickedly accurate portrait of fangirl obsession), is inspired by Kay's action: by the end of the story, though, she is beginning to realise that in imitating Kay she's lost a significant part of her own identity—not just psychologically, but physically.
Other female protagonists have change forced upon them. In "Big Sister / Little Sister," for example, the choices that stifle Big Sister's entire life are made by her mother. She has to live with the physical consequences until she takes control and condemns Little Sister to a chilling fate. (But whose story is this? The tale is told from Big Sister's point of view, but both sisters are victims. )
The men in these stories are more likely to control their own lives—or at least have the illusion of so doing. Alex Denton, in "Immortal Sin," experiments on his own body in the hope of eluding death. "Brushstrokes" tells a story of revolution from the perspective of Seph, a gay man who begins to question the ruling Order and ends up both victim and victor. In "The Last Stand of the Elephant Man," Joseph Merrick finds unexpected healing in a bleak future San Antonio, where he sees himself from the outside—and the inside—and learns that his body is not his self. This may be the strongest story in the book: the tension between body and mind, between physical identity and selfhood, is subtly and delicately explored. Brought forward from the nineteenth century, Merrick (or, rather, his body, uniquely deformed by Proteus Disease) is a valuable commodity in a society where diversity and difference are rare and celebrated, and extreme physical modification is the height of fashion. Merrick finds himself effectively reborn as a strong, healthy man—a black man—his Victorian mindset quite intact and wholly out of step with the society into which he's woken.
"Madonna, Osama, Obama," run the broadcasts from Earth in "Brushstrokes," bringing a sense of immediacy to another planet and a very different society. This is happening now, or near enough: the futures explored in Pelland's stories are close, often bleak, and overshadowed by the fear, or the memory, of apocalypse. Whether the threat is posed by mysterious or actively hostile aliens, by the revolt of the oppressed, by ecological disaster or by plague, these futures share a sense of isolation. "For the Plague Thereof was Exceeding Great" shows us a near-future America where people are afraid to touch one another, and there's a "one at a time" rule in the library locker-room where librarian Kathleen performs her daily ritual, shedding the mask, goggles and gloves that have protected her on her commute. Alex Denton isolates himself from society: "he hadn't touched anyone in nearly a decade. It kept him clean. And it kept him from wanting to be touched some more" (p.60). The colony planet of "Captive Girl" is still, ten years after a devastating attack, waiting for the relief convoy from Earth, and Alice is further isolated by the walker that envelops her altered body and the metal mask that hides what's left of her face. "Last Bus" is set at a lonely bus-stop that's neither here nor there. San Antonio, 2304—famous for last stands—is a domed Protectorate shielded from a new Ice Age and from the threat of incursion by "genetically damaged people, plants or animals." And "Brushstrokes" takes place in the rigidly hierarchical and literally layered society of a world hundreds of light years from Earth, inhabited by victims of alien abduction who may be the last bastion of humanity. You don't get much more isolated than that.
"Brushstrokes" is not, objectively, the most successful story in the book, but I found it one of the most intriguing: out of all these stories, this plot and setting seem most likely to bear expansion. It's also, unashamedly, a love story between two men, a romance in which the structure of the unnamed world's society is intrinsic to the relationship. Homosexuality is not criminalised—though Seph is married, and will be expected to breed—but Order, the governing entity, prohibits any formal attachment between individuals of different castes. Seph, who is Paintclad, and his Adorned lover Roland can have desperate, anonymous sex, but Roland has never seen Seph's bare skin. There's an element of perversity at play that's also present in "Captive Girl," though Alice and Marika's relationship is considerably darker, bordering on the fetishistic. The eroticism of these two stories—the most explicitly sexual in the collection—is neither sensationalist nor salacious, and Pelland doesn't linger on the mechanics or the novelty. This is not a freak show, but an honest and unsentimental portrayal of love and sex between human beings in ... unusual circumstances.
I found in these stories a strong undercurrent of mythic, archetypal themes. Seph's journey down to the Masked levels, in "Brushstrokes," feels like Campbell's "hero's journey." Suze, in "Songs of Lament," wants to be a Prometheus for the whales she loves. "Flood" shows us Callie, a self-absorbed star whose stagename is Undine; it's possible to read her story as a twisted, dark take on "The Little Mermaid," with the heroine at last embracing not humanity but its works. Time and again, echoing the myth of Psyche, there are barriers that need to be removed before lovers can see one another as they truly are: facepaint, surgical masks, the imprisoning metal of Alice's interface.
Sometimes the masks need to be retained, regained.
Pelland's style is clear and sharp. There's little elaboration and less purple poesy, though the occasional singing phrase stands out from the spare, dialogue-heavy prose. The imagery is vividly visual and resonates even after plot and structure fade: "The clutter of the former oceans makes its way across the land. Bleached-out bath toys bounce off the train's windows in a rubbery hail" (p. 69). There's also (in case you thought these stories sounded unremittingly gloomy) an undercurrent of darkly satirical humour: in "Brushstrokes," an evening's "depressing" programme of broadcasts from Earth includes "the firebombing of Dresden, female infanticide in India, and an entertainment special on the rise and fall of Milli Vanilli"; Njeri's diary entries, which form "Firebird," parody the self-absorbed melodrama of a million teen LiveJournal posts.
Each story is followed by the author's notes, which are often illuminating. "You should write about things that fascinate you to the point of scaring you," Pelland observes in the notes for "Captive Girl": perhaps it's her emotional engagement with the subjects of her stories that gives them such immediacy.
Reviewing a collection of short stories is a balancing act. There's the temptation to analyse each story separately, but the mark of a successful collection is how well the stories work together. Unwelcome Bodies is aptly titled, with each story exploring a different aspect of the human condition: sex, death, the mind/body dichotomy, our personal futures and the future of humanity. The collection showcases Pelland's progress as a writer, and her increasing facility with the short story form. I'm eager to read future work as she refines her art and discovers more fascinating fears.
Tanya Brown lives in Surrey and has been reading and arguing about books lo these many years.