Thursday, August 31, 2017

And Don't Hold the Guacamole

There are writers who are known as writers' writers: they are appreciated more by their colleagues than by the general reading public, because of their technical expertise and willing to experiment with their art.  I was interested in "experimental" artists when I was a kid, though I was generally liked and appreciated their theories and their lives more than their work.  Now I see experimental art as an attempt to appropriate the prestige of the sciences for the arts.  At best, to support the metaphor, an artistic experiment should confirm an artistic theory, and in my opinion they rarely do.  When a writer I respect recommends such work, I often follow through, but I'm usually disappointed.  That probably reflects badly on me, not on the work, but there you are.  I'm not, I think, a naive or unsophisticated reader, but maybe I'm the wrong kind of writer.

Carol Emshwiller seems to be such a writers' writer.  Wikipedia, for example, refers to her fiction as "avant-garde", and she herself calls it "experimental", though she adds: "Now I'm passionate about what I think of as postmodern. (I've read all sorts of conflicting definitions of postmodern, so I'm not sure I'm right about what I think it is.)"  She's never won a Hugo (science fiction fans') award, but she has won a Nebula (the Science Fiction Writers of America -- hence, a writers' writer).  I believe I got interested in her work because Ursula K. Le Guin wrote some appreciations of it.  At some point I found her 2002 novel The Mount at the library, and found it impressive but rather icy and inhuman, which was probably intentional.  Then last year I read a Le Guin essay which mentioned Carmen Dog (1988), and I've been meaning to get to it ever since.  Finally, yesterday, I did so.

In Carmen Dog, women are turning into other animals and female animals are turning into women.  Emshwiller tells the story mostly from the viewpoint of one of the latter, Pooch, a family pet who's turning human while retaining many of the traits of her breed.  When one of her owner turns into a huge snapping turtle and bites its baby, Pooch runs away with the baby into New York City, where she almost becomes an opera singer, is captured along with other changing creatures by a male scientist who believes that they can be forced to revert if proper discipline is imposed on them, and then by a group of male scientists who want to recover motherhood for men, since women have in their view failed to do the job properly.  These are all familiar tropes in feminist science fiction, which Emshwiller exploits, turns on their heads, and otherwise plays with.  She's very much in control, and her writing is tight and ironic, with a satirical edge reminiscent of Jane Austen.

For example:
All those creatures that have been kept relatively germfree in the doctor's basement are scheduled for artificial insemination the day after tomorrow.  The Academy uses only the best genes in the nation, those belonging to governors, generals (three star or above), atomic scientists, as well as those of the directors of nuclear reactors, presidents of the largest corporations, oil magnates, and so forth.  The men picked are splendid, tall, and for the most part blonde.  All earning well over $100,000 a year, not counting perks. Of course it has taken time for these men to achieve status in their fields, so most of them are by now paunchy and bald.  (Since the imagination is suspect particularly at present, artist' and poets' genes are not used.  Besides, it is hard to tell where artists come from.  Some have dreadfully wizened little parents) [210-11].
Looking again at this passage out of context, I realize that it sounds like a cliche, thinking perhaps of various eugenic fantasies about breeding a master race, of scientists caricatured as soulless control freaks who mock the arts and humanities and so on.  Unfortunately, such fantasies and scientists are still with us, promoting themselves and very much in the public eye.  But it works in situ.  Let's try another passage, about Pooch's encounter with a sinister figure who manipulates her into a three-way with another changer:
Pooch does learn a lot, though, that she had not even suspected before.  Knowledge that may stand her in good stead later on, though she hopes she will be able to use it with someone for whom she had some real feelings.  She had not been aware until now, for instance, of the exquisite sensitivity of the breasts, and especially had not been aware that the nipples of the male are, or so it seems, as sensitive as those of the female; nor had she realized the potential of the backs of the knees, not to mention the toes and the bottoms of the feet.  She had also not realized the many ways that music, ribbons, belts, pepper, and guacamole could be used [143-44].
Better, eh?  "Guacamole" is a fine, Austenish touch.

In addition to The Mount, which I think I had better reread, I've also read Ledoyt (1995), Emshwiller's non-science-fiction novel about a young girl growing up in the American West.  She has several other books, which I'll get to before long.  Carmen Dog drew me in.