Sunday, March 24, 2024

The Novels of Carol Emshwiller

The Novels of Carol Emshwiller

by Rich Horton

I've done a few posts over the years (decades) quickly summarizing the novel length works of various SF writers. So here is one on Carol Emshwiller -- one of the true great writers in SF history, but a writer who did her best work at shorter lengths. That said that, she wrote six novels, of which the first three are, in my opinion, excellent, and the final three are quite good. 

Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019) began selling SF in the mid-1950s, and it was quickly evident that she was a major talent. But while her early work got admiring notice, it was just offbeat enough not to make her famous -- and in the early '60s she wrote little, presumably while raising her children. (Her husband was Ed Emshwiller, the great SF artist and also an important experimental filmmaker.) In the late '60s she resumed writing, and continued to produce original and challenging short fiction for most of the rest of her life (her last story appeared in 2012 -- health problems (most related to her eyesight, I believe) caused her to stop.) But like many SF writers, she was best at shorter lengths, and she didn't publish a novel until 1988. In the end, she published only six novels -- two of them Westerns set in the 20th Century, and four SF novels. By the end of her life, people such as me were suggesting that she should be an SFWA Grand Master, but I suspect that the shape of her career, and her relatively small output of novels, kept her just enough under the radar that she never received that award -- though she was named winner of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award in 2019, and she also won a couple of World Fantasy Awards (including one for Life Achievement), a couple of Nebulas, and a Philip K. Dick Award for Best Novel for The Mount

Carmen Dog (1988)

This novel is a delight. As it opens, we learn that all over the world, women are transforming into animals (of all kinds) and animals are transforming into women. The main character is a dog named Pooch, who is becoming a woman. Pooch is devoted to her master and the baby, and when her master's wife, who is changing to some sort of water creature, bites the baby, she decides she must take the baby away. Pooch has also discovered a talent for opera singing, and loves Carmen above all. The novel follows Pooch's escape, her arrest, her horrifying treatment by an experimental psychologist, another escape and finally connection with a revolutionary group.

This novel manages to be both very funny, very moving, and quite pointed. It's a deeply feminist novel, and through Pooch's naive ears we hear pointed observations about how men perceive women -- both those animals who have been "uplifted" and those humans whose nature is tending towards the animalistic. The revolution is most assuredly aimed at allowing women to be free of male expectations -- but at the same time is not anti-men -- just desiring a future for men and women in which both flourish cooperatively. As the revolution's manifesto goes: "Neither Conqueror nor Conquered, Neither Victory nor Defeat." It is simply a very fun novel, and a very thought-provoking one. It's beautifully imagined, sly, sweet, witty, and inspiring. 

Ledoyt (1995)

The novel is set mostly between 1902 and 1910. We begin with Lotti, a 14 year old girl, writing in her journal, dated 1910, "it all began in the spring of 1902." What began? Well, that's when Beal Ledoyt, whose brother T-Bone is a neighbor to Lotti's mother, Oriana Cochran, shows up looking for work. T-Bone suggests she help out Mrs. Cochran, who came from the East a few years before with her young daughter. 

The point of view jumps between Lotti and Oriana and Beal and eventually Lotti's new brother Fayette. It also jumps back and forth in time, though it's not entirely non-linear. (The 1910 thread, in particular, always moves forward.) Oriana and Beal both have a hard time trusting themselves -- neither sees themselves as worthy of the other. Each believes their dark histories (not at all their own faults) have ruined them somehow. And Lotti is herself confused by the relationship between Oriana and Beal, and by her own lack of a father. 

There is pain, there are deaths, there is violence and rape in this novel. But it is not dreary. There is at bottom love, and much happiness, and family being family. Ledoyt's family -- T-Bone and his wife Henriette and their children and other relatives -- are stable and helpful and loving. The voices of everyone are wonderfully captured, and the novel is suffused with humor. As I said too, there's plenty of action, culminating in a desperate winter trek over the hills (mountains?) in terrible weather, and an encounter with a violent criminal ending with a courageous rescue. And ... well I won't say what's next, but this in the ended a realistic and moving account of frontier life -- and love, very much love -- in the early 20th Century. And it's Carol Emshwiller, so it's witty when it needs to be, profound when it needs to be, and wonderfully written.

Leaping Man Hill (1999)

Leaping Man Hill is a sequel to Ledoyt, set about a decade after the end of that novel, with Lotti (now called Charlotte) more or less the head of the family, as her mother has never recovered from the loss of her husband, and her brothers, Fay and nine year old Abel, do not even speak. As the novel opens she hires Mary Catherine to help teach Abel. 

Mary Catherine has her own scars -- a worthless and grasping mother who cycles through a series of abusive boyfriends (scarily abusive to Mary Catherine, I should add.) Mary Catherine her self is intelligent but socially awkward. She does work hard, and she establishes a bond with Abel. And then she falls hard for Hen, the nephew of Beal Ledoyt (Abel's cousin). Abel has just returned from the war, and has severe PTSD, and has lost an arm. 

Hen is tortured by Mary Catherine -- he's attracted to her but feels himself wholly unworthy of anyone, and worried about his violent bursts, and still remembers his French girlfriend. He delights in Mary Catherine's delight in simple things like the view off the hill behind his shack, and hates that she clearly loves him, and convinces her that he will never marry.

The story then follows the course of their relationship, with flashbacks to Hen's time in the army. There are some shocking events, and some sweet ones -- a trip to San Francisco, for example, with Hen showing off his musical virtuousity and showing her things she's never seen before, like bars on the wrong side of town, fancy restaurants, even the opera. Abel opens up more and more. Mary Catherine cooks for everyone. She becomes close to Charlotte, and to Hen's mother. Fay returns. Charlotte's painter friend (from Ledoyt) comes by. Mary Catherine's dreadful mother and her latest "special friend" try to extort money from her (and worse.)  There are illnesses and fights and running away, also love, beauty, hard work. Passages of great beauty, great power, and also sadness.

Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill are somewhat hard to find. I think they are both ripe for reprinting, perhaps by an ambitious small presses, feminist or otherwise.

The Mount (2002)

The Mount is fairly straightforward science fiction. In simplest terms, it tells of a revolution againstalien invaders. These invaders, called "Hoots", are physically weak and small, but over generations they have bred humans to serve them as "Mounts". The humans, then, become essentially pets to the aliens, treated a great deal like horses are treated by present day humans. Thus the novel explores, quite thoughtfully, human/pet relationships, master/slave relationships, and the question of freedom versus comfort.

There are a few different viewpoint characters, but the story is mainly told through the eye of Charley, an especially prized young Mount who is the property of the son of a very high-ranking Hoot. Charley is extremely proud, to the point of vanity, of his abilities as a Mount. And his relationship with his Hoot, who he calls "Little Master", is complex but largely loving. Loving, though, in an almost creepy Master-Slave fashion. Charley, it turns out, is the son of a rebellious human, who has gone off to live in the wilderness, and who plots to free all humans, but particularly his son. The novel's main action turns on the initial success of this scheme, and then on the ambiguous results. Charley is by no means sure that freedom is all it's cracked up to be, and moreover he misses his "Little Master". He's also jealous of his father's relationship with a woman not his mother -- his mother, of course, being basically a brood mare chosen by the Hoots.

The plot twists a couple of times from there, coming to a moving, thoughtful, and balanced resolution, if not exactly a terribly original one. The storytelling is clear and interesting. The age of the protagonist, the theme, and the relatively simple storytelling make this novel, I would think, appealing to younger readers, but it certainly will satisfy adults as well.

Mister Boots (2005)

Mister Boots, as with The Mount, might be considered a YA novel. It also is, in setting and timeframe, not dissimilar to her great Westerns, Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill. It is about a girl named Bobby Lassiter, who has just turned 10 as we meet her. She is living in the California desert with her mother and her 20 year old sister. The depression is just around the corner, but this family knows poverty just fine -- they barely scrape by on the proceeds of the older women's knitting. The father, who was evidently terribly abusive (physically -- whippings of all three -- not sexually) left them when Bobby was very young. Bobby (full name Roberta) is apparently called Bobby because the father wanted a boy -- and, indeed, no one but her sister and mother knows she's a girl.

She meets a man on their property one night, who tells her he is really a horse, named Mister Boots. He too has been abused by his human owners. Bobby feeds and clothes him, and eventually takes him home. Events follow quickly from their. The mother dies. Mister Boots and the older girl, Jocelyn, fall in love. Their father, Robert Lassiter, returns and the abuse begins again. He wants Bobby to become a magician, just like him -- and she finds she is good at that, and wants to do it. They head to LA (Bobby dressed as a boy -- which her father still thinks she is), and become a successful magic act, despite Mister Boots's refusal to turn into a horse onstage. Bobby makes her first ever friendship with a girl her age: a similarly bereft Mexican girl named Rosie whom she meets in a sort of hobo camp. They meet their father's long time mistress -- or is she really his wife, and are they illegitimate? But then the Depression hits, and the money dries up, and things get worse and worse, until a final revelation and a final horrible act.

It's a charming and hopeful story in one sense, with a delightful narrator in Bobby. (Yet a real seeming narrator -- not a prodigy, for instance, and far from a perfect person.) Yet it is also quite dark -- the depression, the abuse, and a somewhat tragic denouement. Which I think means it's really pretty much like real life. A very fine little novel.

The Secret City (2007)

This tells the story of Lorpas, an alien whose parents were among a group marooned on Earth. His whole life he has wandered, keeping the secret of his identity, and sometimes searching for the rumored "Secret City" that some of his fellow aliens may have built somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas. The other viewpoint character is Allush, also an alien born on Earth. She lives in the Secret City, with only two others: her surrogate mother Mollish, and an aggressive male, Youpas. Youpas has already killed three human archaeologists who nearly stumbled on the City -- and when Lorpas finds his way there he tries to kill him. Lorpas and Allush fall in love, and decide to try to return to human civilization. In their ways they have learned to love the Earth. But then a rescue party arrives -- and Allush is taken to their home planet, while Lorpas remains, with a newly marooned member of the rescuers.

The novel describes Allush's disturbing experiences on the aliens’ planet, and Lorpas's troubles with human law enforcement, his adventures with the newly marooned alien, and also problems with the still violent Youpas. Those three get work with a rancher, and their position is further compromised by the rancher’s young daughter's fascination with one of them. And then Allush returns ... 

The Secret City is sweetly involving. Refreshingly, humans are portrayed as neither markedly inferior nor markedly superior to the aliens. Both species have problems, noticeably class problems. Redemption and happiness come from personal connections. Both narrators are good but na├»ve sorts, giving the novel an innocent sort of voice, not dissimilar to the voice of the narrators of Emshwiller’s other recent novels. 

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