Tuesday, February 5, 2019

In Memoriam, Carol Emshwiller -- a look at her late short fiction

The remarkable Carol Emshwiller died, age 97, on February 2. She was one of the most individual voices in SF over a career of nearly six decades, beginning in the mid 1950s.  She also wrote contemporary novels set in the American West. 

I never had a chance to meet her -- and based on the voice in her fiction, and on the testimony of those who knew her, I dearly wish I could have. But I did have a chance, over the first several years of my time at Locus, to witness and review the truly impressive spate of short stories she produced in her 80s. And so, in her memory, it seems appropriate to post this selection of what I wrote about her work in Locus, with one bonus piece I wrote about her very first story.

Retro-Review of Future #28

On to the short stories, and finally something of real note. 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.

Locus, March 2002

Two fine stories appear in the first half of February at Sci Fiction.  Carol Emshwiller has made a welcome return to the field in the past couple of years, mostly at F&SF.  "Water Master" is her first story for Sci Fiction.  The story is told from the point of view of a solitary woman at an isolated village. The village's water supply is regulated by the Water Master. The villagers distrust him, assuming he takes advantage of his position.  After a time of drought, unrest grows, and when the narrator learns that the villagers will send a delegation to force the Water Master to increase the water allocation, she goes to visit him in advance, to learn his secrets.  She learns some rather surprising things.  The end is nicely turned, and rather sweet.

Review of Leviathan 3, Locus, May 2002

Carol Emshwiller's "The Prince of Mules" reminded me just a bit of her recent Sci Fiction story "Water Master", in telling of a older single woman living in a dry rural place, who becomes intrigued by an isolated man who has something to do with water distribution. This is quite a different story, though, and it's a neat piece, telling in Emshwiller's characteristic deadpan voice of the woman's rather excessive obsession with Jake Blackthorn, who at least loves his mule.

Locus, June 2002

And of course Carol Emshwiller is always readable, and "Josephine" (Sci Fiction, May) is a sweet, odd, story about two residents of an old age home who try to escape. It works mainly because of the somewhat fuddled view of things we get from the POV character, the man of the couple who is fascinated by the title character but never understands her.

Locus, June 2003

The best story from the "in-genre" writers in McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales is Carol Emshwiller's "The General", an affecting look at a man raised by his people's oppressors, who becomes the unsuccessful leader of a revolution, and then finds peace hard to attain. 

Locus, July 2003

"Repository" (F&SF, July), from the reliably brilliant Carol Emshwiller. A nameless, wounded, man, perhaps a soldier or a medic, finds himself in some sort of refuge from a war. "Who is the enemy. And more important, who are we?" He learns to hope to escape the war (what war?) … but is there any escape?

Locus, August 2003

Carol Emshwiller's "Gods and Three Wishes" (Trampoline) is a whimsical fable, about a young woman sent by her tribe to visit the gods and demand better treatment from them, who learns instead about luck and fate – and about making your own luck.

Locus, December 2003

Carol Emshwiller is a wonder, as productive now in her 80s as she has ever been. "Boys", from the January Sci Fiction, is a sad fable in which men and women live apart, the women maintaining cities while the men fight wars with men from other places. When the women make a stand against this way of things, an older man is tempted to stay with the woman he has come to love – but what of the pull of tradition, of what is thought to be "nature"? 

Locus, August 2004

Carol Emshwiller (it becomes clear) has been doing a series of stories about war. Two more have just appeared. In F&SF we see "The Library", about a man leading a band to his enemies' beautiful library, planning to blow it up. But his plans go awry and he falls for one of the librarians – with ambiguous results. Another Emshwiller war story is "My General" from the second issue of the new Argosy, in which a woman takes custody of a POW, a general, for the purpose of field labor. But she falls in love (or something similar). His response seems honest, but the result is sad – he ends up trying to stop the war with more fighting. Taken together these and others of Emshwiller's stories brim with compassion for their protagonists, and a sad and weary view of people who seem trapped into fighting for no discernible reason.

Locus, January 2004

Alchemy is a new fantasy magazine, nicely put together, and featuring an impressive table of contents for the first issue. Carol Emshwiller's "Lightning" is an utterly "Emshwiller" story, told in her unmistakable voice. An older woman is struck by lightning, and comes to with no knowledge of her identity. The story simply and wryly tells of her confused reaction to what we must assume are her own house and family -- little really happens, the story isn't really fantastical, but it's witty and a bit disturbing and just well done. 

Locus, July 2004

Sci Fiction for June has another of Carol Emshwiller's affecting stories about other intelligences, "Gliders Though They Be". In this case two species are involved, both apparently roughly humanoid. One species has wings sufficient for gliding, the other only nubs. A male from the wingless species disguises himself and infiltrates the others, charged with mutilating them, but he falls in love, and finds himself forced to compete in a gliding contest for his beloved's favor. 

Locus, December 2004

Sci Fiction in November features another strong "bird people" story by Carol Emshwiller. "All of Us Can Almost ..." reminds us that her intelligent, large, bird creatures are flightless. But they can almost fly, and small creatures of other species sometimes ask for a flight. The story concerns a female who foolishly promises to give a young boy a flight, with interesting results. Emshwiller gets inside her mostly alien characters' heads beautifully.

Locus, March 2005

Carol Emshwiller has another remarkable story in the March F&SF. "I Live With You" is a spooky piece about a person who moves into someone's house and sort of haunts them – to the point of eventually impersonating them and even starting a new relationship. The story is at once humourous and scary, creepy and almost sweet – and also a very effective character study.

Locus, December 2005

As of 2005, Carol Emshwiller has been a published SF writer for a half-century, but her January 2006 story “World of No Return” is her first Asimov’s appearance. And it’s fine work, about an alien long marooned on Earth, raised to keep himself separate from humans and to remember his heritage. But over the course of a long life, he forgets his parents’ stories of their home world, and he subtly (without knowing himself, perhaps) begins to miss contact with humans. All this comes to a head when he finds himself caring for a lonely old woman.

Locus, November 2006

The short stories are all fine work ... Carol Emshwiller’s “Killers” (F&SF, October-November) is a mordant story of our country ravaged by war, to the point that the protagonist’s town is almost wholly inhabited by women – leading to unexpected results when she finds a man, perhaps an enemy.

Locus, February 2008

Carol Emshwiller is another writer who began in the ‘50s and is still going strong – as with “Master of the Road to Nowhere” (Asimov's, March), a delightful and affecting story about a group of humans who live in animal-like packs, with only one adult male and a “harem” of females, along with the children. The males fight for domination, the losers going off to live alone in the wild. The story concerns one male, a leader of his pack but under challenge, who has fallen in love, strictly forbidden, with one of the women in his pack. 

Locus, October 2009

How do you define Fantasy, anyway? The simplest definition, to me, is “stories with magic”. (Defining magic perhaps a bit broadly: events unexplainable by science.) But as often noted there are some stories that are readily identified as part of the Fantasy genre but which have no magic. (Canonical example: Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner, though one ought to note that its sequel The Fall of the Kings (written with Delia Sherman) reveals that magic is part of that world.) These stories tend to be set in secondary worlds, either fairly detailed ones like the quasi-English setting of Swordspoint, or in lightly sketched unidentified geographies. The latter is the case with any number of short stories by Carol Emshwiller, particularly a long series examining war from the point of view of various people caught up in it. The latest of these stories (all unlinked, I should say) is “Logicist” (which actually seems possibly set in Ancient Greece). A teacher and his students are overrun when the enemy wins a battle they are witnessing. He ends up behind enemy lines, and is nursed to health by a woman with whom he begins to fall in love. But she is of the enemy! Where does his duty lie? 

Locus, February 2010

I’ll conclude with one online site, Fantasy Magazine. The selections for January include a couple about flying, or the dream of flying, that intrigued. Carol Emshwiller’s “Above it All” is about a woman who adopts an abandoned baby girl, a girl who can fly. She keeps the girl weighted down as long as she can, but of course eventually realizes she can’t stand in the way of her adopted daughter’s true nature. As with so much recent Emshwiller, its wry and warm at the same time.

Locus, July 2010

Now to the online magazines. Lightspeed, the new SF companion to Fantasy Magazine, has a wonderful Carol Emshwiller piece in July, “No Time Like the Present”. A group of wealthy people move into the narrator’s town, causing plenty of suspicion and resentment. The narrator, a teenaged girl, befriends one of the young girls among the newcomers, even while the rest of the town grows increasingly hostile. We realize quickly enough from whence the new folks come – it’s an old enough SF idea. And in the end that’s pretty much the story – but it resonates particularly well as told by Emshwiller, through her narrator, and the well-pointed slang, and the implications of this particular “invasion”. Emshwiller remains simply remarkable.


  1. Thanks Rich

    I had not read Carol's work, although she was on my list. So I have been pulling some of her stories from my collection. I have finished Pelt which really blows me away, the more I think about it, the more I see. I intend to write it up for my blog. So I want to thank you for your post on Carol and your website in general. I enjoy seeing your posts and wanted to let you know.

    Happy Reading

    1. Thanks! "Pelt" is probably her first story to really make an impact. Lots more great stuff from her!