Am pushed for time tonight. Just time for a little post on a little book: Ordinary People, a collection of six short stories (plus the titular poem, and the text of a speech) by Eleanor Arnason. It was published last year as part of Aqueduct Press' Conversation Pieces, a series of nifty wee paperback books - featuring a variety of old and new stories, poetry, correspondance, essays, etc. - which aims, in the publisher's words, "to both document and facilitate the grand conversation of feminist sf".
The stories here - spanning Arnason's career from the 1970s to the present - are all warm, wise and witty explorations of gender and society through a number of fantasy and SF lenses. "The Grammarian's Five Daughters" (my favourite) weaves feminism and a delight in the use of language into its deceptively-conventional fairy-tale structure. The Grammarian in question is too poor to provide dowries for her five daughters. Her clever, capable daughters mind not a bit, however, and each in turn sets out to seek her own fortune. None of them set out entirely alone, for their mother gives each girl a gift before she goes: a bag of words. One gets nouns, another verbs, another adjectives, and so forth. With the words, and their own ingenuity, the daughters overcome the challenges they meet, and find their (pleasingly diverse) happy endings (let's just say that not everyone cares to marry the prince!). A very fun and clever story, told with a nice, dry humour.
Three of the other stories are set within the same fictional society, that of the Hwarhath. I was reminded quite strongly of Ursula Le Guin, here, in terms of the themes and also to some extent of the tone; like Le Guin, Arnason is interested in the transgressive possibilities of SFnal scenarios, in genuinely different social structures and configurations of human relationships. Among the Hwarhath, men and women live and love separately; heterosexual relations are carried out strictly for biological necessity, and are seen as unacceptable and rather perverse outwith breeding purposes. "The Lovers" charts the development of just such a taboo relationship between a woman (Eyes-of-crystal) and the man (Shawin) brought in by her family to get her pregnant. Arnason skilfully manages to avoid (most of) the unsubtlety-pitfalls of the flipside conceit, and provides a mature and unexpected ending.
The other two Hwarhath stories come from the people's legends. "Origin Story" is a red-in-tooth-and-claw creation myth that neatly reflects the society's unease with heterosexuality and unregulated procreation. "The Small Black Box of Morality" is a tongue-in-cheek Adam and Eve retelling, in which Eve's decision to eat from the apple is represented as an informed choice - an open-eyed willingness to learn morality and thus allow humankind to assume responsibility for their own actions.
While I'm on the topic of short fiction, here are a few links to some completely wonderful SF/F stories available online (I've mentioned some of these before at the old blog, but it never hurts to see them again...):
Catherynne M Valente - 'Bones Like Black Sugar' (Hansel & Gretel, afterwards; beautiful, beautiful prose)
Margo Lanagan - 'Singing My Sister Down' (for the three or four people who haven't read it yet ;-))
Theodora Goss - 'The Rapid Advance of Sorrow'
Neil Gaiman - 'A Study in Emerald' (bottom link, PDF; brilliant, mordantly-funny Sherlock Holmes/Cthulu crossover)