Short Story Reviews: Carol Emshwiller’s “This Thing Called Love” (1955), “Love Me Again” (1956), and “The Piece Thing” (1956)

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.

Recommended.


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25 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Carol Emshwiller’s “This Thing Called Love” (1955), “Love Me Again” (1956), and “The Piece Thing” (1956)

  1. I haven’t read the second and third stories. “This Thing Called Love” is just as you say — its message is not exactly subtle but it gets there in an intriguingly subtle way.

    I will have to get the other stories. I actually really like R. A. W. Lowndes’ magazines (Future, Science Fiction Stories, and Science Fiction Quarterly), even though sometimes the stories weren’t that great. But he has a tiny budget, and with that budget he produced some really nice looking magazines (i like his covers), and often published strikingly good stories. His nurturing of early Carol Emshwiller all by itself earns him a place in SF heaven.

    • Hello Rich, even from these early tales, there’s a wonderful polish. She includes few extra words. The scenes are concise and the dialogue piquant. I’ve already read another so I hope to have another group reviewed in the coming weeks.

      As for the Lowndes’ magazines, I agree on all counts. They look snazzy, have gorgeous Emshwiller art both inside and out, and yeah, he seems to have published many of her earliest tales (I’m guessing before she found a home with The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction).

      • Rich Horton: …he has a tiny budget, and with that budget he produced some really nice looking magazines (i like his covers) ….

        Have you guys only seen these issues of SCIENCE FICTION QUARTERLY online?

        If so, you may not realize that in 1956 Lowndes’s SF QUARTERLY was still being published in pulp format — like the old PLANET STORIES, unlike the digest-sized ASF, GALAXY, and F&SF, and indeed most 1950s-era SF magazines — which means it’s somewhat bigger-sized, about 7 inches (18 cm) wide by 10 inches (25 cm) high, while the paper is pulp and really rough beneath the fingertips, and the binding is pretty basic, too.

        I happen to have a copy of the February 1956 issue (in storage) and the interior pages are yellow darkening to orange-brown, with slightly raggedy and untrimmed edges. The Freas cover (‘Why Should I Stop?’) is quite crudely printed, as you can tell from the visibility of the dots in the JPEG reproduction (and imagine those print dots twice as big in real life.)

        Essentially, it’s a 1930-era artifact. Slice of historicity there!

        Yeah, a lot of 1950s SF that fell outside the limited scopes of Campbell, Gold, and Boucher and/or whoever else was editing F&SF, and was maybe more interesting for it, appeared in Lowndes’s magazines.

        Yeah, nice covers — Lowndes mostly just stuck with Emshwiller and Freas, but it’s hard to go wrong with those guys (not that they didn’t have a few clunkers amid these years of doing several covers a week for the likes of the mystery and men’s magazines, and the 1950s paperback cover scene, as well as the SF mags).

        I’ll read the Emshwiller stories and get back to you. She’s a writer I don’t know much about.

        • While I have not seen these particular volumes in person, I do own a copy of Future Science Fiction, No. 44 (August 1959) in pulp format (although, it reuses its interior art for its cover and seems markedly sadder looking than these).

          I meant the overall quality of Emshwiller’s cover art and nice interior art details (column banners, etc.).

          Hopefully you read one of her best stories first, for example, “Animal” (1968). These definitely feel like early products although they are polished. One of the risks of this chronological project is that I’m exploring bunches of stories that weren’t included in best-of anthologies, etc. So there will be clunkers!

          • JB: One of the risks of this chronological project is that I’m exploring bunches of stories that weren’t included in best-of anthologies, etc. So there will be clunkers!

            Well, that exploration is where the worth of what you’re doing with SF ruminations lies from my viewpoint — to go back and look at what writers were actually doing back in the day, rather than what SF fans and critics now think they were doing, and to see what might actually have been valuable then that we don’t remember or give sufficient weight to now.

            Thus, no need to attempt to add more words to the mountains already written about PKD or Heinlein, for example. There’s not much new to be said about those guys. Whatever you feel about either one.

            Talking of clunkers ….

            JB: I meant the overall quality of Emshwiller’s cover art and nice interior art details (column banners, etc.).

            Oh, sure. Emshwiller was almost always ‘snazzy,’ as you say. He arguably had fewer clunkers than Freas — who was sometimes crappily cartoon-ish — though arguably, too, fewer instances than Freas of really remarkable pieces.

            Both those guys were amazingly productive, though — there are years in the latter 1950s through the early 60s when between them they produced maybe 80 percent of American SF illustration and paperback covers.

          • I read it in “Dangerous Visions”, which was the only short story I’d read of her’s before “This Thing called Love” on your post, but I don’t remember what it was about. I thought this one was a readable piece, even though it didn’t sparkle. However, what you call “the “real world” is but a sad simulacra of the perfect world of television” inversion, is a fascinating theme, recalling those of Philip K. Dick, whom she was influenced by, as well as Ballard.

            • Your Ballard and Dick comments are lifted from the Nonstop press blurb which I suspect is something of a marketing ploy and/or perhaps more related to her later work. Had PKD published a short story pre-1955 that you see in any meaningful way “influencing” Emshwiller’s “This Thing Called Love” (1955)? Perhaps “Second Variety” (1953) [but that felt entirely different]? I don’t any meaningful similarity between the authors of the works I’ve read so far. Perhaps how I phrased it comes off as similar or I’m missing an early PKD short story with similar concerns as hers…. Maybe another way to think about it is that PKD wasn’t alone in all his main mid-50s themes. And that multiple authors who were almost contemporary with each other (PKD started publishing a few years before her and Ballard after her) might have different takes in different milieus. They were all breathing the same air. My skeptical take on press blurbs is taking over! haha.

              Ballard had published no SF by 1955. “Prima Belladonna” (1956) and “Escapement” (1956) would come the following year so I’m assuming they’re referencing Emshwiller’s later works. ttp://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?259

            • From a 2003 interview with her:

              “Q: Whom would you consider your influences in writing?

              A: Since I’m at my summer place I can’t look at my bookshelves and see my favorites. Of course I always say Kafka first. I have a lot of not so well known Latin American writers. Cortazar, Lispecter, and such. And some French. Michiaux is the only one I can think of now. Oh, and there’s the new Portuguese writer Saramago. There’s the Scottish writer Alasdair Gray. In science fiction there’s Urlsula [K.] Le Guin and Molly Gloss. I love Connie Willis’s writing, but I couldn’t be influenced by her if I tried though I’d like to be. Also I read all there is of Alice Monroe and Barbara Kingsolver.”

              http://www.bookslut.com/features/2003_07_000135.php

              Of course, in early decades, her influences might have been different.

            • Maybe we should more be talking about who her work influenced!

              Karen Joy Fowler writes about that here: http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/columns/the-emshwillerians/

              “Here, though, I am thinking more broadly about the influence of her work. I asked a handful of writers if they had written anything they wouldn’t have written, or written something in a different way, because of reading her. The following writers answered yes: Christopher Barzak, Jonathan Lethem, Jim Kelly, Gregory Frost, David Schwartz, Eileen Gunn, Pat Murphy, Meghan McCarron, John Kessel, and Kelly Link. Many of these went on to talk very specifically about the ways and places of that influence, but some of them are writing their own statements about Carol, so I won’t preempt them here. Instead, I’ll note that though this is only a list of writers I happened to ask, it is also a list of writers whose own impact is, or is likely to become, substantial.”

          • JB: Maybe you read her story in Dangerous Visions? “Sex and/or Mr. Morrison” (1967)

            Maybe I did.

            But it was a long ago and in another country, and I was twelve. While I ‘got,’ say, PKD and Joanna Russ just fine, I think I probably grouped Carol Emshwiller’s entry in DV with the likes of Pamela Zoline’s and Josephine Saxton’s stuff, which left me pubescent me cold. So either I skipped Emshwiller’s entry in DV on that basis, or I haven’t remembered it.

            Hell, I didn’t like Ballard when I was thirteen and fourteen. Now I think he’s a god!

        • I have a variety of issues of Lowndes’ magazines, including a couple in pulp format.

          The last few issues of Future and of Science Fiction Stories were a bit sad — as Joachim notes, they went to reusing interior art on the cover (with only a couple of colors, not full color.) And the pubishing schedule could be very chaotic.

          Also as Joachim notes, don’t make your judgement of Carol Emshwiller’s work based on these early stories. They are nicely done and promising, but she kept growing. Her first stories to make a broader impact will come along soon in his project — “Hunting Machine”, “Pelt”, “Day at the Beach” — but it’s by the late ’60s that she really comes into her won.

  2. Well, I read all three. They’re certainly pleasant to read, and it’s delightful to know my mother’s generation had the same freak-outs over TV that my daughter’s is having over Zoom-schooling.
    Unlike you, I don’t feel compelled to seek out more deliberately.
    Maybe if I read “Animal”….

    • SF about media is another JOACHIM BOAZ theme! If you want the reason the theme fascinates me, check out Kate Wilhelm’s “Baby, You Were Great” (1968) and John Brunner’s “Nobody Axed You” (1965).

      But yes, these are definitely early stories that do not have the same impact as “Animal” did. From what I read and how often its been anthologized, Emshwiller’s “Pelt” (1958) is one of her best from this period. I think I have a few more to read in between first.

      As for the allure of media, I’ve recently felt what I never thought I’d feel, deep personal frustration when I see unattainable visions on youtube (specifically, garden and living off-grid envy). haha.

      • I get all sour and lime-green-eyed when I watch baking shows. I want an oven again! And I miss my bread machine with acute stabbing agony (it tripped the breakers every time I tried to sneak it on). It is possible to make quick-bread in the crockpot. It is not satisfactory, at least not to me. Beer bread is nice but I want some einkorn no-gastric-awfuls too.
        Wah poor widdle me.

        • Umm, not having an oven sounds terrible. I’d make tons and tons and tons of pan breads. Although bread isn’t my primary oven inhabitant — love pies, oven-cooked dutch oven feasts, etc.

  3. As much as I hesitate to malign a small press effort, the Nonstop omnibus edition is not worth buying. The text is poorly scanned and completely uncorrected. As in there’s so many typos on every page that it is very difficult to read. Carol certainly deserved better.

    • Hello, thanks for stopping by! Considering how expensive Emshwiller’s collections tend to be (look up Joy in Our Cause prices) and the range of original anthologies she appeared in, it’s probably still worth buying for people wishing to explore her work, despite its flaws. And it is impossible to track down her first story “Built For Pleasure” (1954) anywhere else. But yes, I read on SF Encyclopedia that the second volume included stories missed in the first. That’s some bad editing. Sounds like it needs a rerelease!

      Do you have any favorite stories of hers? Have you read these? Or perhaps my favorite so far — “Animal” (1968)?

    • Do you have both volumes of the collection? I’d love to read Malzberg’s intro essay to the second volume.

      I’m tracking down the individual stories for this project as so many magazines are digitized online and I own Joy in Our Cause. There are individual anthologies I’ll have to purchase but I probably want them anyway — haha.

  4. Thanks for the links. Your description I quoted of the strange world in her piece, instantly recalled Dick’s themes about the difficulty of separating simulacra from reality, but it did occur to me that he probably hadn’t written anything quite like that so early in his career, so could it be, since other authors were influenced by her, that he was too? Also, as you say, he probably wasn’t alone in writing about the themes that he was developing in the early 50s.

    Ballard’s “Prima Belladonna” is excellent, even for a first short story, but I don’t remember the other one you cited. Ballard’s cerebral themes and ideas, aren’t entirely dissimilar though to Dick’s.

  5. I found what I wrote about “This Thing Called Love”:

    This issue includes the great Carol Emshwiller’s first publication, “This Thing Called Love”, a clever 2300 word story. Robert. A. W. Lowndes was central to Emshwiller’s early career, with many of her first stories appearing in Future and in Science Fiction Stories. This story is slight but well done, and definitely shows Emswhiller’s “voice”, which I think one of the more characteristic individual voices in the field. The POV narrator is a woman of the future, who, like every other self-respecting person in the future, has a crush on an android actor. Her husband has the gall to suggest that the two of them emigrate to Mars as colonists — but if she went, she’d be away from TV, and who would she love? Her husband? As if! No masterpiece, but a fine clever story.

    • Yeah, I’m with you here — Emshwiller has a distinctive voice from her first story. There is a polished feel to her first six stories I’ve read so far although none are masterpieces (yet) and clock in from average to solid. I think in two posts I’ll be to “Pelt” (1958). Exciting! I’m having too much fun.

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