Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Review: A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories

A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories by Lisa Tuttle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories" wasn't mind-blowing. I wasn't on the edge of my seat, thrilled by every page I read. It was, instead, haunting. Each story was steeped in a eerie, sharp beauty that dug into me while I wasn't looking and I only seemed to notice when I put the book down and found one of Tuttle's ideas stuck somewhere in the corners of my brain.

I like keeping track of how I found a book or author and this one was pretty fortuitous. Two and a half years ago, my school's English department had their annual book sale. Faculty contribute old books they're no longer using, and prices drop each day (until, at the end, the books are free and stick around on communal shelves for the rest of the year). I picked this one up because it had the word "spaceships" and my first name on the cover, alongside probably three dozen other books because I have a serious book-hoarding problem, and it stayed in that stack until pretty recently. I've read or found-and-have-yet-to-read several other books from the Women's Press Science Fiction collection and recently looked into Tuttle's history. To my pleasant surprise, she's a fairly well-known author (she has a collaboration with George R. R. Martin and wrote the Encyclopedia of Feminism). So, I started this brief collection.

Honestly, Tuttle reads more like Shirley Jackson or perhaps Joan Aiken than Joanna Russ or Alice Sheldon. Her command of language is powerful in its clarity (lookin @ u Russ and Tiptree, u gals famous for ur wonderful obfuscation) and pretty solidly in the camp of New Yorker-style straight fiction of the 70s and 80s. This collection is also heavy on what I keep thinking of as body horror but is also the slow realization of the horrible loneliness of being a human. Over and over again Tuttle's characters see their bodies change as they become different people, or watch their lover's body become a hollow shell forever beyond the narrator's emotional grasp, or realize that their lives have shifted and their past isn't quite what they thought.

It feels like I'm exactly the target audience for this book. I fit the descriptions of many of the narrators: young women with academic pursuits in long-term relationships (and variously successful or not in those pursuits and relationships). There are so many things I love in these stories: queer narratives, linguistics, punch-to-the-gut stories on love and loss. I didn't love it as much as I thought I would but those stories are certainly sticking with me. In particular, I loved "The Cure," about two queer women who share a love of Chomsky and writing until one loses the ability to speak or understand language. It's beautiful and poignant and I want to read it over and over and over again.

Her science fiction concepts are simpler than I expected, not quite as interesting on their own as some of her contemporaries. At times they seemed tacked-on to more mainstream non-genre stories. There was one story that, to me, emphasized how underutilized the SF aspects of her stories can be. It follows several generations of a family that takes in a marooned alien. The alien learns how to sleep and dream, and ends up teaching one young girl in the family how to experience other humans' dreams. While there are powerful vignettes exploring racism and sexism within this larger narrative, on the whole it feels disjointed. The fantastical elements don't cohere with the larger story, and the smaller stories don't build into anything larger. On the whole, the collection does a generally good job of working in the realm of SF but I expected more complexity in the concepts and enthusiasm for the genre. Perhaps I'm reading too much pulp lately.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this quite a bit and I've enjoyed thinking about it even more, even if it wasn't what I expected.

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