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May 2003
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by James Sallis

Report to the Men's Club, by Carol Emshwiller, Small Beer Press, 2002, $16.

The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller, Small Beer Press, 2002, $16.

If Lions Could Speak, by Paul Park, Cosmos Books/Wildside Press, 2002, $15.

I first met Carol Emshwiller around 1966. Like Judy Merril in her columns for this magazine and like Mike Moorcock's New Worlds, Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm had become a kind of epicenter of the seismic shocks coursing through science fiction. Damon and Kate hosted a yearly conference at their home in Milford, Pennsylvania, which (depending on your age, I suppose) looked like something out of Charles Addams or one of John Irving's magical hotels. It was a house of many levels and surprises. When later I took up residence there, Damon and Kate having relocated to Florida, I'd remark only half in jest that visitors wandering up the steps from the living room often were not seen again for weeks.

Carol had been publishing stories in F&SF since 1957. At least seven appeared between then and the time I met her. We were more or less of an age, but I felt she'd been a part of my life much longer. Not only had I read her stories, I'd seen her face on the cover: husband Ed often used her as model. A couple of years later, Ed took the photograph that appeared on my first collection of stories, A Few Last Words.

Some writers are in the pocket from the first. They may be writing romances or Ace doubles for $500, they may be publishing in literary magazines with a circulation in double digits or in magazines considered low-end even for genre fiction, but when you find their work, when you read it, you just know. Tom Disch, Chip Delany, Joanna Russ, David R. Bunch, Phil Farmer, Ted Sturgeon, Alfred Bester, Walter Tevis. Carol Emshwiller.

Though she's one of the finest and most original writers in the United States, outside the genre Carol remains spottily known. That second adjective, original, may be the tip-off—the tell, as gamblers say. Her work is undefinable. She's a feminist writer who adores men, a literary artist who often prefers to work in or springboard off fantastic literature, an experimentalist anchored firmly to plot and character interaction. So, while near-universal acclaim showers down on the like of T. C. Boyle, Toni Morrison, or newcomer Zadie Smith, Carol's forever slipping past the border guards, under the radar, into new territory.

Select readers who hadn't encountered Carol's work in magazines were jolted awake with her collection, Verging on the Pertinent, in 1989 from Coffee House Press. (Harper & Row's modest 1972 collection, Joy in Our Cause, went largely unnoticed.) Another collection, The Start of the End of It All, and a novel, Carmen Dog, appeared in 1990 from Mercury House. Lines outside the tent began to grow. 1995 brought, again from Mercury House, Ledoyt, Carol's reinvention of the Western. A sequel, Leaping Man Hill, followed in 1999.

It's difficult to define just what it is that Carol does, to divine how she achieves this admixture of the comic and tragic, how she finds her way to such extraordinary voices. Part of it's a certain intimacy, this constant sense that she's whispering in your ear. Part of the larger secret is that, while the general role of literature is to reinvest the ordinary, the daily—to recover the wonder at its heart—most Emshwiller stories move in quite the opposite direction, taking up the extraordinary—a foundling child who happens to be an alien, a love affair with Bigfoot, women who turn into dogs, dogs who turn into women—and making it seem not at all unusual. The reader doesn't merely suspend disbelief. He or she merrily, with the scoop of the first sentences, chucks it over the side of the boat.

Report to the Men's Club contains nineteen Emshwiller stories published between 1977 and 2002, most of them toward the late end. The first, "Grandma" (which originally saw print in the magazine you're holding), limns the final days of a superhero from the point of view of her granddaughter.

"She tried to fly as she used to. She did fly. For my sake. She skimmed along just barely above the sage and bitterbrush, her feet snagging at the taller ones. That was all the lift she could get."
The last story, "After All," follows a confused elderly woman in her flight from home. Just as she starts back, there are bright, bright lights, no cameras, and far too much action.
"Who would have thought it, the end of the world as if just for me. Right on time, too, before my slippers give out entirely."
"Mrs. Jones" tells the story of spinster sisters, one of whom finds a creature in the orchard, rescues and rehabilitates it even to the extent of hacking off its wings, and finally takes it on a honeymoon. "Water Master" and "Desert Child" are, like many of Emshwiller's stories, novels in miniature, creating entire, teeming worlds while offering up but a single slice—never figuratively, from the outside, but always intimately, from within. As readers we're instantly inside the story looking out.

So it is with her latest novel, The Mount. Here's the whole of an alien world presented in all its complexity, piece by ill-fitting piece, impression by confused impression.

A century and a half ago, mankind was overrun by aliens, odd fellows with huge heads, incredibly strong hands and Thalidomide-like flippers for legs. Mankind has become, not dogs as in Tom Disch's Mankind Under the Leash, but mounts: beasts of burden destined to take the Hoots from place to place. In return, the Hoots (as they keep insisting) give mounts better lives than they could ever have imagined. Nice stalls, warm food, light blankets, loving ownership. Only occasionally a touch of the pole. Portraits of great mounts grace the Hoots' residences. Humans are known by pedigree: Charley out of Merry Mary and Beauty.

"I have a good conformation. They said so when they came to take a look at me and watch me on the go-round. They said I have a nice trot. That didn't just happen."

"I'm a Seattle. We're the best for size and strength, though we're not as fast as the Tennessees. I want to be a good Seattle. I want to be the best there is."

There is, of course—this is a novel, after all, and a science fiction novel of rather pure strain—a revolution of sorts. Humans break away from the masters, killing them, leveling towns, fleeing into the mountains to establish their own tribal society. In traditional science fiction such triumphant return to the status quo might well be the point, the narrative become little more than an extended allegory of racism. But in Emshwiller's world nothing is that uncomplicated. Charley Horse and Little Master flee, but they flee together, bound in ways they are just coming to understand, and coming of age together.

Theodore Sturgeon wore a medallion on his neck signifying "Ask the next question." Carol Emshwiller's work begins with the next question.

Paul Park is known inside the field for his trilogy the Starbridge Chronicles (Soldiers of Paradise, Sugar Rain, The Cult of Loving Kindness), for the novel Coelestis, and for a handful of stories published in top venues such as Interzone, Omni, and the magazine at hand. Beyond the field he's known chiefly for The Gospel of Corax, a brilliant historical novel exploring the Jesus myth. Elsewhere I've written of Coelestis as one of science fiction's great achievements, and as perhaps the consummate novel dealing with colonialism.

What I said then of the controlled, closely written Coelestis could as easily be said of the saga of the Starbridge Chronicles, which is at once religious allegory and an exercise in cyclic, Viconian history, rich in textures in a manner rare to science fiction. "Park's achievement," I noted, "is to write a novel at once believably the story of another world, and at the same time one whose archetypes and symbology resonate at every interface with our own. In a way, in the sense of André Gide's statement that he wrote to be reread, Coelestis is not one novel—albeit a thoughtful, brilliantly conceived and realized, profoundly symbolic and, at its heart, classic novel—but a series of novels."

Much the same might also be said of the thirteen stories collected by Cosmos Books/Wildside Press in If Lions Could Speak. Dedicated to the author's children, this collection brings together roughly a decade of stories, 1992 to 2002, along with one heretofore unpublished and a final piece carved from Soldiers of Paradise (1987).

Here again, as with Emshwiller, is an intimate voice. But whereas Emshwiller's seems more the voice of a diary or of confidences among friends, Park's is that of the person who sidles up to you at the bar with something he just has to tell you.

"Here's how I found out," he says. ("Get a Grip")

"I had been to Los Angeles before and hated it." ("A Man on Crutches")

Or the opening of "The Last Homosexual":
"At my tenth high school reunion at the Fairmont Hotel, I ran into Steve Daigrepont and my life changed. That was three years ago. Now I am living by myself in a motel room, in the southeast corner of the Republic of California. But in those days I was Jimmy Brothers, and my wife and I owned a house uptown off Audubon Park, in New Orleans."
Time is not an arrow. The past is forever collapsing into the present—as is the future. Park's opening story, recalling both Woody Guthrie's "Do-Re-Mi" and Ben Hecht's assertion that tomorrow is a hammer aimed at the skull of man, begins: "Everybody wants to see the future, but of course they can't. They get turned back at the border. 'Go away,' the customs people tell them. 'You can't come in. Go home.' Often you'll get people on TV who say they snuck across. Some claim it's wonderful and some claim it's a nightmare, so in that way it's like before there was time travel at all."

Often with Park you have the sense that simultaneously he is walking across eggshells without breaking them and kicking footholds in a cliffside as he climbs. Apocalypses, the ones that matter, are private.

Of his fascination with religion, Park says:

"What I find interesting . . . is that in no other enterprise (except, perhaps, democratic politics) does the heartbreakingly pure idealism of human beings exist in such close proximity to their foulest and most corrupt instincts....There's something Jeshua says in Corax, which I believe: 'There is no word that men put in the mouth of God, that is not a dangerous lie.'"
Or in the mouth of politicians, teachers, mentors, parents.

For Paul Park's final message is that we are what we think we are, what we strive and yearn to be, as much as what our actions make us—and that both have the capacity to destroy or redeem us. Like our social orders, like the religious and mythic templates alongside which we lay our lives, we are self-begetting, forever reworking on the frame of destiny a patchwork of freedom.

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