Stalking the Inner Unknown
(A review of Carol Emshwiller’s Collected Stories, Vol. 1, published in The New York Review of Science Fiction)
If Carol Emshwiller’s stories were paintings, whose work would they resemble? The question is worth asking: the importance of seeing, and re-seeing, underpins many of her themes. Comparisons aren’t easy, yet to my mind the great Spanish painter Joan Miró, with his flair for structured, brightly colored whimsy, comes close. Both artists create worlds that are almost—yet never fully—recognizable. They weld realism with poetic, dreamlike fantasy, lending their creations a weird, compulsive logic. And at their best they draw us in even when their full meaning eludes, tantalizing us with a sense of deeper mysteries while rousing our desire to plumb them.
For over five decades, Carol Emshwiller has been turning out stories that defy expectations and labels. The volume of her contribution to short fiction is only surpassed by its sheer inventiveness, as she explores her passions with a gentle wit, a subtle style, and a persistent and daring willingness to follow inner truths.
After discovering her work in the early ’90s (before Amazon was a household word), I’d often find myself in my local used bookstore, scouring through musty sf serials. An Emshwiller story, whatever its publication date or source, was always a find. Whether they involved a hunting dog on a frozen planet, where it suddenly hears words from its prey, an aging superhero who’s lost her sense of purpose, or a girl who, intent on being popular, briefly gets her wish through a strange mite that sings, the stories had a jarring immediacy and menace that felt unlike anything I’d read. As I soon learned, however, much of Emshwiller’s output, appearing in old anthologies and obscure literary journals, was nearly impossible to locate, and many of her stories were never reprinted. So my search continued.
Fortunately for fans—and those who have yet to read her—the first volume of The Collected Stories gathers most of Emshwiller’s published short fiction since 1955. (One piece, written earlier, appears for the first time.) Considering the stories en masse, it becomes clear that despite their great variety, their general themes are consistent: the meaning of freedom and slavery, the transformative power of art and art-making, the difficulty in connecting with “the other,” whoever—or whatever—that might be.
Yet the methods the author uses in approaching such topics often vary widely. As she explains in her preface, her career as a fiction writer developed in several stages. Introduced to the science-fiction world through her husband, Ed Emshwiller, a visionary artist and filmmaker, she began attending writing workshops and penning stories while struggling to raise her first child.
In the stories from this period, she seems to be feeling out the form, using mystery and sf tropes while seeking a style of her own. What makes these unusual is their close rendering of felt experience, shown, for instance, in domestic details as viewed by a murderous husband: “There in the sink were dirty dishes half-filled with water, with eggshells and wet bread floating in them, along with round globs of cold fat.” And later: “People say they see red in anger but I’ve never seen it. Never seen any color in anger for that matter, but now I saw green. A greasy, wilted lettuce green.” Even in her earliest work, such inwardness seems willful, bent on turning plot-driven, outbound genres back to the personal and private.
It isn’t until “Baby” (1958), however, that she clearly finds her voice. Set on a future earth populated by caretaker robots and, it seems, one last man known as Baby, the piece shares many of those traits found in her best work. The quirky, subjective voice, the restless turns of phrase, the unreliable narrator/main character who doesn’t grasp his own predicament—all these act as means of engaging readers, as we’re forced to infer facts from half-truths and fragments. Apparently, they also allow her to write, as Damon Knight put it, from “deep inside,” such as in a memorable scene in which Baby escapes from his nursemaid and discovers, in a garden’s fountain, a semi-human statue.
During the mid-’60s, Emshwiller’s fiction became stranger, more experimental, as she learned to structure stories without plot’s supportive frame. Some is postmodern in the sense that while reading we’re partly drawn in, partly skimming a curious, idea-level surface, but more often than not, what appears to be game-playing targets the human heart. In “Eohippus” (1967), for instance, the writer narrator’s quest for escape, through her art, is derailed by fears for her daughter.
What links these works to others—including her more recent, plotted short fiction—is her ongoing ambition to make the familiar strange. Natural resources, the concept of home, even views of the self can all be re-envisioned—sometimes literally through alien eyes (“Venus Rising”  and “Looking Down” ), sometimes, as in “The Circular Library of Stones” (1987), by granting them cultural worth:
But then I found a stone of a different kind and color: reddish and lumpy. Essentially nine lumps: two in front, two in back, plus one head, two arms, and two leg posts. I recognized it instantly. Fecund and wise. Big breasted and a scholar. Fat and elegant. I wanted to bring this librarian to her true place in the scheme of things. Restore her to her glory.
With quiet fervor, Emshwiller dismantles stock assumptions about gender, roles, and age. But her methods are so nimble, so deftly unassuming that typically, it isn’t until after reading her that we realize our view’s been upturned. Rather than pointing up the strange for its own sake, she lets it seep into everyday life, following its impact on sensitive, conflicted figures as it speaks to some deep-rooted need. Like all of us, they struggle to find their place in the world, and to this end the alien, though threatening, offers up new values and destinies, beckons with other ways to be.
In publishing this volume, Nonstop Press has done a real service for critics and fans alike. Whether one dubs them science fiction or fantasy, magic realism or fabulism, these are stories that both challenge and entertain. They’ll make you prick up your ears and sit a tad straighter, and in the process—if you allow them—they’ll take you down passageways to the dark unknown within.
(Copyright @ 2011 by Stephen Delaney)