I have decided to do something I have never done before–read a contiguous chunk of an author’s work in chronological order. “Philip K. Dick? Robert A. Heinlein?” you might ask. “No! You know me….” I respond [in jest]. I have chosen to chart Carol Emshwiller’s short stories published in genre magazines and anthologies between 1955 and 1979. SF Encyclopedia conveys my fascination best: “In her hands, sf conventions became models of our deep estrangement from ourselves.” Of the two short stories of hers I’ve read–“Animal” (1968) and “Lib” (1968)–the former, an unnerving fable of the sexualized “Other” whose exclusion reinforces a community’s self-identity and cohesion, resides in my mind like a luminescent beacon. And I have finally latched on to its ever-present light.
If you are interested in all of Emshwiller’s short stories, check out Nonstop Press’ 2011 (vol. 1) and 2016 (vol. 2) omnibus release which includes those in non-SFF genre magazines. Here’s an example of what I am cutting: while her first published short story “Built for Pleasure” was SF, it only appeared in Long Island Suburban (November 1954) before the omnibus. Instead, I will start with 1955’s “This Thing Called Love” in Future Science Fiction, #28, ed. Robert A. W. Lowndes.
As I’ve only scratched the surface of Emshwiller’s output and can’t adequately summarize her work (I hope to by the end of this project), here’s the blurb from the Nonstop edition:
“Crossing the boundaries between fabulist literature, science fiction, and magical realism, the stories in this collection offer a valuable glimpse into the evolution of Carol Emshwiller’s ideas and style during her more than 50-year career. Influenced by J. G. Ballard, Steven Millhauser, Philip K. Dick, and Lydia Davis, Emshwiller has a range of works that is impressive and demonstrates her refusal to be labeled or to stick to one genre. This exhilarating new collection marks the first time many of the early stories have been published in book form and is evidence of the genius of Emshwiller, one of America’s most versatile and imaginative authors.”
This series will happen concurrently with the other short story reading exploration I am conducting and other reviews I have planned. Caveat: like my attempt to watch and review Survivors (1975-1977), this series could stop after three posts or take five years. I am a reader of whim.
Her next three published short stories can be found in Part II.
“This Thing Called Love” (1955), 3.5/5 (Good). First appeared in Future Science Fiction, #28 (1955), ed. Robert A. W. Lowndes. You can read the story online here.
Carol Emshwiller’s first story published in a SF magazine scrutinizes love in a TV-obsessed future. Here’s a bit of background to the 1950s TV boom: in 1944, 7k TV sets were sold, in 1948, 172k sets, and in 1950, 2 million! By the end of the decade, 90% of homes contained a television (source).
In this future, TV actors and actresses are perfectly beautiful robots and the objects of adoring fans who proclaim their love (and willingness to buy merchandise and products). The “real world” is but a sad simulacra of the perfect reality of the television… And an emotional bifurcation occurs in the narrator, who professes her love for the robotic stars rather than her husband. After she falls out of love with Allen, her husband Mike begs for two days to prove his love for her (a concept the narrator views as alien). Addiction to this other world is expected: “I haven’t been away from the TV set that long [two days] since I was a year and a half. Mother always said I was a precocious listener” (89). And soon she falls in love again with a new idol, Jerry.
There are careful touches throughout that hint at the transformation of the world. The narrator scorns two men she encounters in the museum who can still read. In another instance she prefers the news’ visualization of the pioneer rocket ships than seeing them with her own eyes. And, of course, humans are far more interested in the televised fantasies of exploration than actually joining them themselves–the pioneer space ships take off without their full crews.
Recommended for fans of SF on future media.
“Love Me Again” (1956), 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good): First appeared in Science Fiction Quarterly (February 1956), ed. Robert A. W. Lowndes. You can read the story online here.
Emshwiller’s second story published in a genre magazine also charts future love territory (with a similar twist ending as “This Thing Called Love”). Charley’s friend Dan thinks he might need a new wife. Charley mopes and can’t keep his mind on his hobbies. The thing is, Charley spent most of his money on his robot wife Claire. Dan, breaking all societal taboo, proclaims “let’s team up with REAL women” (70). Population laws require no children without permission. As a result, both men and women prefer to purchase programmed spouses–designed to function exactly as society expects. And when you get tired of one, you can buy another… The problem is Charley, after meeting a “real” woman named Lois who also has a robotic spouse, can’t pin down his “real” feelings. Neither Charley nor Lois want to turn off their robotic partners.
In the 50s world of suburban dreams and strife-free TV families, this is the perfect setup for Emshwiller’s exploration of gender roles, the idealized conceptions of marriage vs. lived experience… Read through that lens, Emshwiller’s delightful satire–while a bit on the nose—succeeds.
“The Piece Thing” (1956), 3.5/5 (Good): First appeared in Science Fiction Quarterly (May 1956), ed. Robert A. W. Lowndes. You can read it online here.
Flickers of the unsettling brilliance of Emswhiller’s “Animal” (1968) appear in this fable of uncaring man. “The Piece Thing” charts the self-realization of an alien spore/offspring/scion cast-off on Earth. Flitting through the air waiting to receive the telepathic “thread” from its mother, soon the entity tires in its search: “I went on. A long time passed; I grew thin and small until I began to be afraid I would be gone altogether” (61). A drunk wanders past and imprisons the shriveling entity. Disturbed by its plaintive telepathic calling, the man decides to sell the creature to a scientist. Its protestations of discomfort (at heat and a dousing of whiskey) go unheeded. But soon a transformation which creature doesn’t entirely understand begins to occur: “After a little while longer, my cracking top broke up into hundreds of tiny pieces. Loveable little pieces, I felt, every one of them. They belonged to me; I had made them and they no longer frightened me” (65). Perhaps due to its treatment, the creature suddenly knows its purpose and no longer needs its mother.
While the ending might not be surprising, Emshwiller’s “The Piece Thing” transposes the self-realization narrative into a truly alien body. It’s hard not to read the tale as a fabulation on the effects of the lack of compassion. Or perhaps, a sinister recounting of motherhood… The story leaves open the possibility that the cruelty of the drunk had no bearing on the entity’s terrifying purpose.
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