I’ve been reading a good lot of science fiction lately, so let’s talk rocket science! Full disclosure, I have a soft spot for vintage sci-fi magazines. When I came across Faber’s Best SF (ed. Edmund Crispin), I knew I wanted to read it. Also, I kept hearing about N.K. Jemisin’s book, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, so I got a hold of that, too. Finally, Lauren James’ Loneliest Girl in the Universe caught my eye in the YA section.
My highlights in Crispin’s (inaugural) edition have to be “No Woman Born” by C. L. Moore, “The Fire Balloons” by Ray Bradbury, and “Dumb Martian” by John Wyndham.
Moore’s “No Woman Born” is the story of an idolized actress whose body is too badly hurt in a fire for her to survive. After her brain is transferred into a highly sophisticated mechanical body created especially for her, she is about to attempt her comeback, and this is where the story begins, with the concerns her former manager has: Should Deirdre go back onto the stage? Will the audience accept this new version of her? Will they accept her as human or see her as some monstrosity? Her new body is very different from what he expected, but after seeing her, he isn’t sure whether he believes the mind in that new body is actually her. This story struck me stuck with me because it works on several levels and can be read with eyes on feminism, gender / identity, dis/ability, ethics, sociology, and other interesting angles. Also, the descriptions of Deirdre’s new form – they really drew me in.
Bradbury’s “Fire Balloons” had me chuckling as I began reading. A group of Episcopal Fathers heads out to Mars to do the Lord’s work there. One question that troubles Father Peregrine is whether Mars might have its own, new kind of sins: any new senses or abilities that Martian life might have opens up new possibilities to sin. His fellow holy men think it’s all poppycock. Their plan is to go teach the Martians the fear of God and put up a few churches. Clearly they haven’t exactly read up on their new flock: one of their first questions is what color Martians are, because “We must know when we put human figures in the stained glass so we may use the right skin color.” When they find out that the Martians are elusive and, for the most part, not human in form, most of the Fathers feel they should take care of the mechanics and miners – who are at risk of damnation because of the ‘wicked women’ and Martian wine. Peregrine insists on trying to make contact with the ‘spheres of blue fire’ that are the non-human Martians. He believes that if they’re intelligent, they need to be saved. Peregrine challenges his fellow preachers to focus on content, not form, and adapt their approach, to some murmuring and ridicule from the brethren, but first (Christian – Martian) contact finally happens, and suddenly, the tables have turned.
Wyndham’s “Dumb Martian” follows Duncan, a human space pilot and his Martian companion Lellie on a long-haul assignment. To stay sane on assignments that can last many years, the human contractors basically purchase a Martian girl (which they are required to marry, so it’s legally not slavery), and in some cases sell them again once the job is over. Duncan knows nothing about Martians and that’s fine with him. In his eyes, they are barely sentient, and he’ll have to teach her everything he wants her to do or know. Lellie’s lisp, to him, confirms his assumptions of her lack of intelligence. When they settle in at the base, things quickly sour between the two as Duncan keeps insulting Lellie for not looking ‘like a real woman’ – Martian faces, skin color and hair are different from what he’s used to in Earth women. His abuse becomes physical. When a geologist (Alan) is sent to work alongside the two for a year, Duncan is unsure what to make of it. Alan treats Lellie as an equal, much to Duncan’s annoyance. At this point, Lellie is reading books when she’s not doing Duncan’s bidding. She asks Alan about ‘female emancipation.’ When Alan doesn’t return from one of his routine prospecting trips on the surface, Lellie says nothing. After a while, things return to the way they were, or so Duncan thinks.