Friday, April 4, 2014

Finally, he lifted his ship and went away

One of the several anthologies I'm currently reading slowly, a story here and there, is Pamela Sargent's Women of Wonder, the landmark collection of sf short stories "by women about women," the concept of which was so radical in 1974 that even most of the participants in the Khatru symposium on women in science fiction were palpably uncomfortable with its even existing (similar projects today are not much less radical, but at least sf's feminist vanguard has come to terms with them). Yesterday afternoon I picked it up, turned to Marion Zimmer Bradley's 1958 "The Wind People" — my first Bradley — and began reading.

The story is immediately enjoyable; right away it establishes for itself that particular atmosphere common to many 1950s sf stories about odd things happening to the crews of spaceships exploring far from Earth.* But the first paragraph could have been written by any midcentury sf writer, even an asshole like Heinlein in one of his rare charming moments. It even seems at first like it's going to be sort of gently swaggering, with its "Captain Merrihew" encountering a "unique problem." But once we learn what this problem is — one of his crew members has given birth to a baby while the crew was on planetary leave, and babies cannot live through the "shift into hyperspace drive" — it quickly becomes obvious that we won't be spending very much time with the Captain, that this will instead be the story of Helen, who will be staying alone on the planet with her baby, Robin, in order to save his life and to raise him.** Whether this would have been felt as a jarring shift to readers of If in 1958, I cannot say; for me, it was not particularly. The story I was constructing in my mind in response to the words on the page adjusted itself and carried on smoothly.

*Always a common theme in sf, of course, but there is something in the feel of the ones written in the 1950s, something I don't think I could put my finger on, that I particularly love. Incidentally, speaking of the 50s and since I won't have a chance to mention it later on: this story, with its assertively competent woman protagonist who is not ruined by (socially normative) casual sex even when it results in pregnancy, seems like it must have been downright scandalous when it first appeared, and also further puts the lie to the concept that "the" "new wave" introduced sex into sf.
**For those who have not read the story and will no doubt be wondering: yes, there is a hint of sexist maternal instinct protective mother bear nonsense in these opening pages, but it is amply counteracted later on in the story. From Robin's conception to his birth, to their remaining on the planet and her methods of raising him, Helen makes a series of choices, each of which pain her; though she does not necessarily understand her reasons for making these choices any better than any of us do our own, neither is she beholden to instinct.

But then, four pages into the story, we do leave the planet with Merrihew and crew, with this isolated gruesome fragment:

        Ten days after the Starholm took off, young Colin Reynolds, technician, committed suicide by the messy procedure of slicing his jugular vein, which — in zero gravity — distributed several quarts of blood in big round globules all over his cabin. He left an incoherent note.
        Merrihew put the note in the disposal and [ship's doctor] Chao Lin put the blood in the ship's blood bank for surgery, and they hushed it up as an accident; but Merrihew had the unpleasant feeling that the layover on the green and windy planet was going to become a legend, spread in whispers by the crew. And it did, but that is another story.
And then there's a section break (the story's first), after which we rejoin Helen and Robin on the green and windy planet, where we will stay until (almost) the very end. This "that is another story" is a small thing, perhaps, and not even all that out of the ordinary, but for whatever reason — perhaps it was the preparation behind it, first the slight realignment we must make from Merrihew's story to Helen's and then the larger oddness of the momentary glimpse of the rest of the crew's journey; perhaps it was just the mood I was in yesterday — as I say for whatever reason it hit me just right. It opened the story up to contingency, indeed to openness; it did what we're always meant to believe, for some ungodly reason I've never been able to decipher, is the worst thing a work of fiction can do: it took me out of the story. Quite literally in fact, for Bradley is quite right: the whispered legends, the death of Colin Reynolds: this is another story, one — more than one — that she has chosen not to tell but obviously feels a need to stray into long enough to remind us could be told, that the space in which these untold stories can be imagined has been opened up by the story she has chosen to tell.

And this is not the only way in which I was taken out of the story. The feeling I felt on reading those words required me to look away from the page and reflect, and as I did I was shaken out of the story (all of these stories) and, for a moment, into real life. I had gotten home from work about an hour earlier, and my legs, though not tired per se, could still feel the effort of having biked eight miles — which I'm just getting back to now that the snow has melted, after a few months of taking the bus and losing some of the leg muscle and stamina I'd built up last season. I was not in the far future of the story's setting, nor in the late 50s in which it was written, but in the (then) present moment of a Thursday afternoon early in April of 2014; neither was I in space or on an idyllic alien planet, but on Earth, in Rhode Island, in a moderately uncomfortable chair in my apartment. I was sitting by the window and as I looked up I looked out; it was sunny, there were squirrels digging in the ground outside and birds in the bare trees; beyond them were the neighbors' house and the suburban street. None of this was unexpected, it was all utterly quotidian (though pleasant and refreshing; spring has been a long time coming), but it was transformed somehow by the experience I had just had reading Bradley's story.

This transformation by its very nature cannot be described — for it is experience, which is precisely not description. Peter Handke touches on it in the moment when Andreas Loser, narrator of Across, looks up from the Georgics of Virgil as "a car from somewhere turned onto the canal bridge and, thanks to Virgil's verses, gleamed a special blue." This is the power literature can have. But for Handke's Andreas what lies behind the special blue is a bit different from what, for me, is at play with science fiction stories like "The Wind People". For him, what "I really care about" is to be gleaned from Virgil's

enthusiasm (never uncontrolled) for the things that still matter: the sun, the earth, rivers, woods, trees and shrubs, domestic animals, fruits (along with jars and baskets), utensils and tools. In these objects, justice, before vanishing from the world, left its trace; thus, far from the weapons that divide man from man (the usual word for "weapon" stands here for peaceable implements), every single thing in the poem, removed once and for all from history, distanced from other things and at the same time held in free association with them, gives me access to a very different story — usually invoked with an epithet...that does justice to the thing.... And since poetry should above all be congruent with things, these verses never cease to revive for me, the reader, the existence of the things they sing of.
A breathtaking passage; perhaps I am being selfish when, coming across elements in it I find troubling, I remind myself that Andreas Loser, however sensitive a thinker, is also a murderer. At any rate, though, if poetry should above all be congruent with things, what are we to make of science fiction, where such congruency is in almost every case a failure of artistic integrity, where the interest of the work lies precisely in the things of the story that are incongruent with the things of this world? The fascination Virgil exerts upon Andreas has to do in part with the contrast between the antiquity — extreme to the point of alienness — of the work and its continued relevance, its dealing with "the things that still matter." But Bradley's story, and good science fiction in general, for me? I suppose that it is all about difference, about encountering the attempt to convey the nonexistent, or the existent twisted into unreal form, and then returning to the world to find it, in my perception, changed — and when things go really well, not just changed but laid bare and renewed.

All of this happened yesterday afternoon. But it did not last forever; I am a reader, and I returned to the story I had been taken out of. And when I did, I found a marvelously strange story that resists being returned to even as its functional and straightforward prose pulls the reader through it. Indeed there is much more to be said about even the part I had read already. This Colin Reynolds — we are not, here or anywhere else in the story, given enough information to know whether he kills himself because of the events with Helen; though we are told that she slept with him at about the right time and that she (mostly) believes that he is the father, which makes it likely that he believes so as well, we don't even know for certain if he does. But the presence in the story at all of the information that he did kill himself — which neither Helen nor Robin will ever know — suggests the idea strongly; and it is only ever a suggestion, it never becomes the subject of any story (it is another story), there is no suggestion of what specifically — guilt? grief? over Helen or Robin or both? — prompted his action even if he is the father, and indeed for all we know it could be completely unrelated (or does he know something that Helen does not believe until the end?); by contemplating this, the reader is forced to contemplate the ways in which story, form, all on its own, generates meaning. Later on, halfway through the story, Helen tells the now-adolescent Robin about his origins, skipping over her doubts to tell him that Colin Reynolds is his father.

        He asked at last, "Why didn't my father stay with you?"
        "I don't suppose it entered his head," Helen said. "He was needed on the ship. Losing me was bad enough."
        Robin said passionately, "I'd have stayed!"
        The woman found herself laughing. "Well — you did stay, Robin."
        He asked, "Am I like my father?"
        Helen looked gravely at her son, trying to see the half-forgotten features of young Reynolds in the boy's face. No, Robin did not look like Colin Reynolds, nor like Helen herself.
Maybe it's just me, but "I don't suppose it entered his head" carries just enough slightly-off resonance with the manner of Reynolds's death to come across as a grisly, dramatic-ironic pun; our awareness of his death too puts an interesting spin on "He was needed on the ship", since we know the ship does well enough without him. The gendered implications of all of this are probably obvious. What interests me on top of this though is that, primed by the openness of the story preceding, I at least in reading this passage can't help but notice all the alternate stories spinning off of practically every sentence. "Why didn't my father stay with you?" Robin asks, and an unwritten story in which he did is conjured up; "I don't suppose it entered his head," and a story in which it didn't — which is probably not this one, though Helen's story would be the same regardless — appears. Then too Helen and Robin are both telling each other, and themselves, different stories, though neither of them are aware of the other's, or to a certain extent their own, at this point. Some of these stories (the verging-on-Freud incestuous romance, say) only appear clearly to the reader on a re-read, but some are immediately plain: for Robin, this previously unheard-of person who apparently played a role in his creation has a newly central importance, but for Helen he can only be someone whose life briefly and superficially entangled with hers fourteen years ago ("Am I like my father"/"the half-forgotten features"); "I'd have stayed," Robin says, casting himself as the hero in some fantasy narrative (and a rather patriarchal one at that — where did he learn that from?), to which Helen, rationalist on an irrational world, can only reply with a narrative of biographical fact.

There are many such moments in this story in which it opens up into the possibility of other stories. Some of these stories remain untold because they are "not what happened" — early on, it is suggested that Helen and Robin easily could have died many times over in their first year on the planet, before she figured out what was necessary for survival and dealt, to the extent that is possible, with the immediate shock of isolation; but though a story could be told about these deaths (one, perhaps, not too unlike Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To), they did not occur in the story we are reading — and some remain untold because Bradley has chosen not to look at them (the hardships of that first year, even if Helen and Robin both survived, could easily fill a very different kind of story). Each of these moments is a powerful dual reminder of the nature of story (in which everything is selected by someone who could just as well have selected otherwise) and of life (in which everything depends on contingency, and through which we simply make our way as best as we can, lacking the external perspective that both the writer and the reader of a story possess). Think about Helen as a character in a story, Bradley seems to be saying, and remember that I could have chosen to have her die early had that been the story I wanted to tell; think about real life projected through my portrait of Helen and remember that a woman speaking to her teenage son is only alive to do so because she did not die when he was a baby.

All of this is going on in the telling of a story that is fundamentally ambiguous, open to interpretation. Are there aliens on the planet that the human eye can't quite detect, or are Helen and Robin in their isolation succumbing to a sort of folie à deux? If there are aliens, what, if anything, do they want? Is Robin quite human, is Reynolds his father? (For that matter, is Helen his mother in a genetic sense?) What happens to either of them in the end? The story does not supply any external information sufficient for us to know "what really happened." At the end of the story, after Robin vanishes into what Helen interprets as the society of these aliens, and after she chases after him, going, probably, to her death, we get one last section break and a final paragraph in which, "many years later", a now-old Captain Merrihew manages to return to the planet where he had left Helen so many years before and search it from orbit.

The old buildings [constructed by the crew during its time on the planet] had fallen into rotted timbers, and Merrihew quartered the little world for two months from pole to pole but found nothing. Nothing but shadows and whispers and the unending voices of the wind. Finally, he lifted his ship and went away.
It is easy to read this as confirming that, with Helen's death, Robin has become one of the undetectable aliens (an odd sort of twisting of Freudian theories, that, as are many other elements of the story, in many different ways); to a reader with a different sense of "what happened," it could be equally easy to read it as suggesting that Helen and Robin, both fully human, both died by mishap that night. But I can't help but find it suggestive that Merrihew only searches from orbit (though even this is ambiguous, as the sensory description in the penultimate sentence and the word "lifted" in the last seem vaguely to suggest that he was on the surface), that he searches an entire planet for only two months, and that we have no idea what methods he uses to search or how thorough they could be. Bradley has not told us what kind of relevant technology this future has, and we are left unable even to determine whether or not Merrihew's search is inconclusive! As for me, I found myself much like Merrihew, at the end: after orbiting the story once, then twice, not ever really entering it no matter how hard I searched for something concrete, I lifted my eyes and went away changed — however slightly —, and returned to a world that now looked different. And all of this happened through the elements in the story that pointed out, not in. (And maybe someday I'll figure out how to do something with all this other than turn it into more written words.)

No comments: