Friday, December 22, 2023

Review: The Zanzibar Cat, by Joanna Russ

Review: The Zanzibar Cat, by Joanna Russ

by Rich Horton

The Zanzibar Cat is one of four collections of short fiction that Joanna Russ published in her lifetime. Of these four, it is perhaps the most representative of the main thrust of her oeuvre. The Adventures of Alyx collects four stories and a novel about her recurring character Alyx -- oddly, the other Alyx story appears in The Zanzibar Cat. Extra(ordinary) People is focussed on five late stories, from 1982 through 1984. And The Hidden Side of the Moon is a curious miscellany of lesser known SF/F stories and some mainstream work.

Having said that, I'll note that the publication history of The Zanzibar Cat is a bit complicated. It first appeared as a hardcover from Arkham Press, in 1983. The paperback edition, from Baen, appeared a year later, and it has a somewhat different Table of Contents. The paperback does not include Marge Piercy's introduction, and it also omits three stories ("How Dorothy Kept Away the Spring", "Poor Man, Beggar Man", and "Old Thoughts, Old Presences".) But it includes two stories not in the hardcover: "Dragons and Dimwits" and "The Precious Object". (Two of the stories not included in the paperback of The Zanzibar Cat do appear in The Hidden Side of the Moon.) I'll be reviewing the Baen paperback.

This collection is excellent, but of course not all the stories are at the top level -- though all are worth reading. I'm going to foreground my favorites (five stories in all), and then discuss briefly the rest. The book does beautifully represent Russ's range, and also her wit, her imagination, and her outstanding prose.

The book opens with perhaps Russ's most famous short story, "When it Changed", which won the Nebula in 1973. It is an excellent story (though oddly it's not even my favorite Joanna Russ story from 1972!) It's about the planet Whileaway, on which a plague killed all human males, and which has thus been all-female for 600 years. And now a ship with men has arrived, and it's quickly clear that things will change. The story is particularly good in portraying a real-seeming all-female society without making it a utopia, with real characters, and real problems and virtues.

Since I hinted at it, I'll mention my favorite Joanna Russ story from 1972, also in this book: "Nobody's Home". Russ's brief comment reads: "This one began with Larry Niven's speculations about teleportation and ended as a Utopia -- for some." It's about a future society with teleportation all around the world, and apparent lack of scarcity, and group marriages, and it's fundamentally about a group marriage and what happens when a new woman enters the marriage. It's clever and witty and breakneck and fascinating and thoughtful and at its heart terribly sad -- for some. On this reading (this is a story I've read many times) I was struck in particular by the breathless first three or so pages -- truly a tour de force. One of the great SF stories of all time.

"A Game of Vlet" is the last of Russ's Alyx stories, and the only one not to appear in the somewhat definitive Alyx collections (Alyx, from the Gregg Press, and The Adventures of Alyx, from Timescape, and reprinted by The Women's Press and by Baen -- the reprint editions omit Samuel R. Delany's introduction but are otherwise identical to Alyx.) It's set in Ourdh in ancient Greece -- contemporaneous with the first Alyx stories -- and it concerns a challenge by a magician to the Governor -- a game of Vlet, on a unique "virgin" board such that the winner will defeat all his enemies. The magician is captured -- and a Lady appears, offering to substitute for the Government of Ourdh -- while the magician will play for the Revolution. The results are beautifully ambiguous. The Lady is not identified but is clearly Alyx (and so Russ confirms in the introduction.) It's a characteristically witty and clever story, great fun with some real truth behind it. 

I've written at some length recently about "My Boat" (keep checking Black Gate for that) so I'll just say here that it's one of Russ's very best stories, about a 15 year old black girl in a newly integrated high school, into drama, and her boat. The story is told by one of her high school friends -- as he ruefully admits, a typical white liberal racist who didn't realize he was racist despite his liberal aspirations. The girl and another of the narrator's friends take My Boat on a fabulous trip to glorious fictional lands, but the narrator chickens out. There is wish-fulfillment here, as Russ acknowledges, and a distinct Lovecraftian influence, and it's a beautiful and powerful story.

"The Extraordinary Voyages of Amélie Bertrand" has distinct correspondences with "My Boat" in that it concerns wondrous voyages by an outwardly unprepossessing woman, as described by a man who is a bit afraid to accompany her. This story is explicitly an hommage to Jules Verne -- the narrator is a middle aged Frenchman in the 1920s who describes his curious encounter with Madame Bertrand at a certain train station, at which by crossing the station in the wrong direction one can travel, randomly, almost anyhere. Madame Bertrand tells him of her voyages -- and he experiences a bit of that, but doesn't quite take the full step. Then, it seems, the train station is to be closed ... neat stuff.

Those are my top five stories, but the rest of the book is all worth reading -- some of it is light throwaway stuff, but still fun, such as "Useful Phrases for the Tourist" and "Dragons and Dimwits". There are three very strong early stories -- "My Dear Emily", "The New Men", and "There is Another Shore, You Know, Upon the Other Side", which deal expertly with classical fantasy elements -- vampires in the first two cases, a ghost in the third -- but still surprise. "The Man Who Could Not See Devils" is a well done logical working out of the title premise -- how would things work out for a man who could not see the demons that ordinary people can -- nice work but a bit slight to my mind. "The Soul of a Servant" is very strong work, with the narrator -- the title servant -- telling of his actions as the man in charge of a fortress of sorts in Tibet, when supposed revolutionaries arrive, and in the context of usual visits of privileged tourists. It's a knotty story, with effectively unresolved moral questions at its heart. A couple of stories struck me as pieces that I didn't quite "get" which I still could see were worthwhile, if not quite for me -- "Gleepsite" and "Corruption". "The Precious Object" is a fine mainstream story, in which the narrator becomes obsessed with a gay (male) friend of hers ... strong work, and, I suspect, related to her novel On Strike Against God, which I have not yet read. And the title story is a delightful work based on Hope Mirrlees' masterwork Lud-in-the-Mist, taking a slightly metafictional angle as the people of Appletap-on-Flat send an expedition to deal with the evil undead Duke Humphrey, and his demon cat, and only the miller's daughter survives the expedition to say what resulted.

Joanna Russ was indisputably one of the great SF writers of all time, and a great critic as well. It is a shame she was not named an SFWA Grand Master -- her career was cut short by severe health problems that plagued her for the last quarter century of her life, which may explain that, but the sheer quality of the work she did produce, and the great influence exerted by both her fiction and her crtical work, certainly merited that honor. The Library of America has recently published Joanna Russ: Novels and Stories, which collects three major novels, the Alyx stories, and two other award-winning stories ("When it Changed" and "Souls") -- and that is an essential book. But The Zanzibar Cat is also a necessary read -- it's really an exceptional collection on its own terms, and only two of its stories also appear in the LOA book.


  1. Wonderful review. I'm partial to her fiction -- including "My Boat." I will read your Black Gate review with great interest because I simply do not know enough about Lovecraft to entirely understand it.

    I recommend, if you haven't read it already, Gwyneth Jones' monograph Joanna Russ for the U. Illinois masters series. One of the better installments.

    1. I actually ordered a copy of Farah Mendlesohn's monograph, ON JOANNA RUSS, a short time ago. The bookstore helpfully sent me another copy of THE ZANZIBAR CAT instead! I'll get to Farah's monograph sometime, and to Jones's as well! Next up, however, are EXTRA(ORDINARY) PEOPLE and ON STRIKE AGAINST GOD.

    2. Let me know how Mendelsohn's monograph is -- the Jones was spectacular and I wonder if I need another... maybe she approaches it from a different angle.