This week’s column will be single-topic, and I’m including a giveaway. One commenter will get a hardcover edition of Richard Kadrey’s The Pale House Devil.
In October, 2023, the Library of America released a compilation of the works of Joanna Russ. Russ, a contemporary of Ursula LeGuin, Suzy McKee Charnas, Samuel Delaney, Marta Randall, Kate Wilhelm, Damon Knight and other New Wave writers, was a vocal feminist who brought literary values to her work—even her sword and sorcery stories (a genre she loved). She is probably best known for 1975’s The Female Man, a controversial novel—but she drew the attention of a lot of readers with her Alyx stories, starting in 1967. Many appeared in Damon Knights Orbit editions.
In this column, I’m going to focus on the Alyx stories, since this collection contains all of them, including (for me, anyway) the most baffling of them—“The Second Inquisition,” published in Orbit in 1970.
I read these out of order, starting with Picnic on Paradise, simply because I had wanted to read it for a long time and had trouble finding it. Picnic on Paradise came out as half of an Ace Double in 1968. By reading it first, I think I missed the full “Alyx” experience—that sense of complete dislocation. Picnic on Paradise is straight-up science fiction, which most of the other Alyx stories are not. Alyx has been taken up by the Trans-Temporal Agency and sent to a resort world called Paradise, where a “commercial war”—as opposed to a “real” war—has broken out. Unfortunately, people can die just as easily in a commercial war and Alyx has been commissioned to bring eight stranded tourists to a neutral base, a ten-day hike through snowy mountains.
Alyx is four millennia out of her time, a fact she knows and is only beginning to understand. Her charges do not understand it at all—they grasp the words but struggle with the many meanings of that statement throughout the story. They underestimate her because she is short; “dwarfish” by their reckoning. They are all at least six feet four inches tall, and Alyx is routinely described as small. They mistake her ignorance of their tech and their customs as a lack of sophistication, and more importantly, they underestimate both her ferocity and her indomitability, which are the only things that will possibly keep them alive.
They underestimate and dismiss each other, too, though, these self-centered people who act as if they are on a picnic. Iris is a demanding young woman; Maudey, her mother, takes rejuvenation treatments, and suffers withdrawal from them on the journey, with catastrophic results; two nuns from a sect whose foundations are Buddhist are annoying but funny, and prove useful ultimately; Raydos is an artist who has “rediscovered” the technique of drawing on a flat surface. Gavrily is either a politician or a public relations guy. Gunnar is a “mountain climber and adventurer;” a celebrity who has never been without his support team before this adventure. Machine is a disaffected adolescent who disengages from society and constantly wears a Trivia over his eyes, tuning in to another network (and this is in 1968).
There is something wrong or “off” about this whole adventure from the beginning. Alyx knows this but can never quite identify what it is. Machine, at least, believes it is an experiment by the Trans Temporal Agency, and that seems like the most likely solution—and the most ruthless. When they reach the supposedly neutral base, it has been taken over by one faction. Their ten-day trek takes nearly three months, through increasing snow and increasingly higher mountain peaks, confronting transplanted predators like a polar bear as well as human adversaries. Alyx made an earlier prediction that not all of them would survive this trip, and her words are proven true. Along the way, the real personalities emerge. Iris proves to be more resilient than first expected; Gunnar is revealed as a coward, who engages in a gratuitous act of cruelty near the end of the story. It is Alyx’s sheer stubbornness—and often outright meanness—that herds the survivors, ultimately, to safety.
At the end of the story, Alyx talks to Iris and says that Trans-Temp wants her to teach. They think they can somehow separate her “unique skills,” from her “unique attitudes.” Alyx disagrees, and this may—may—be the germ of the story that becomes “The Second Inquisition.” As all of the Alyx stories have ended up until now, the final words are… “but that’s another story.”
I went back to “classic Alyx” at this point, starting with “Bluestocking,” published in Orbit 2 in 1967, under the title “Adventuress.” In this we visit the ancient city of Ourdh, where we meet a small, gray-eyed woman who is an accomplished lockpick and thief. Alyx came to the city seven years earlier and is making a good criminal living, when she is approached by a dramatic (and spoiled) young aristocratic woman who is trying to escape a nasty arranged marriage. Her plan involves the theft of her own necklace, and while Alyx appears to refuse her, ultimately she helps—for two-thirds of what they get for the necklace. With her funds, Alyx purchases a rattletrap fishing boat and the two, alone, set out for the islands. Edarra, the aristocrat daughter, is incompetent at first, while Alyx can pilot, catch fish, and sword-fight. Gradually, Edarra learns some skills and puts aside her sulky ways. Alyx is a good street-fighter but she understands clearly that usually men out-mass and out-reach her, so when they are accosted by three ruffians in a boat, she’s perfectly willing to start the battle with subterfuge rather than bravado. She and Edarra prevail. The two confront a sea-monster as well as human adversaries before reaching their destination, where things work out well for both of them. The story’s subtext is a smirk the whole way through. Alyx would probably have been bored by Conan the Barbarian, but she would have fit right into the fantasy world of Fritz Lieber, and in “Bluestocking” Russ gives a friendly nod (or perhaps a light, friendly jab) at those tales, when Alyx reminisces about the time she had a northerner, “Farf something,” with his luxuriant red beard.
Alyx clearly has a thing for beards as the next story, “I Thought She Was Afeared Until She Stroked My Beard,” also published in Orbit 2 under the title, “I Gave Her Sack and Sherry,” demonstrates. In this tale a young, rebellious Alyx kills her violent husband and takes up with a pirate crew. The story is unsentimental, and once again, Alyx is a practical woman in a man’s world. Her pirate, Blackbeard, silences her when they’re in company, and even strikes her, and she doesn’t retaliate. Plainly, Alyx is used to this treatment. She is, however, smarter than her pirate companion, and sees through the men he has made his deal with. This is closer to an origin story for Alyx, as we see her learning swordplay and knifeplay.
In 1968, Damon Knight published “The Barbarian” in Orbit 3. This is probably my favorite of the “classic Alyx” stories. Alyc acts as hired muscle for a wizard who claims, at various points, to see the future, and to have created the world. When Alyx grows disenchanted by her employer, he puts her current man under a terrible spell, effectively holding him hostage. To kill the wizard and free herself and her man, Alyx travels to an enchanted tower. She must overcome his powerful magic using only her wits. In the final confrontation with the wizard, Alyx notes that all his so-called magic looks mechanical. He boasts that he wears an invisible shield that repels any weapon (this appears to be true). This is when he also tells her that he created the world, a fact Alyx doubts. She manages to wound him through his shield, then turns off his magical machines before dispatching him. Alyx returns to her man, who is released from the magic. It is clear who the dominant one is in that relationship, and equally clear that, for the moment at least, both partners are fine with that. This is the first Alyx story that seems to have magic, and it shows that Alyx is no stranger to it. The final Alyx story, “A Game of Vlet,” which appeared in 1974 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, depends completely on magic, including a magical gameboard and a chess-like game that morphs into something perilously close to real life. Once again, Alyx seems quite comfortable with magic.
Nebula finalist “The Second Inquisition” (1970, Orbit 6) is the most baffling of the Alyx stories, or I could say, “Alyx” stories. Set in 1925, told by a woman named Beth remembering the summer she was sixteen, it follows Beth’s reactions to a strange woman who is staying at her house. It’s never explained how or why she ends up there, but Beth’s mother says she is visiting from the circus. She is, in reality, from the Trans-Temporal Agency, or more accurately, is part of a rebel cell within the Agency, staging a coup. Her voice and her actions are Alyx-like, but unlike the Alyx we know, she is over six feet tall, with arms and legs that Beth describes as almost freakishly long. Beth compares her movements to those of a heron or a stork. The visitor (never named) is unfamiliar with the customs of society, and while her English is good, her syntax is strange.
In some ways, this is an autobiographical story. Beth’s father has a heart attack, and the resulting fear and anxiety make him petty and controlling, and his wife more passive-aggressive in response, a dynamic that Russ says elsewhere mirrors her own family. Probably, Beth’s feelings of being an outsider, never quite fitting in no matter how hard she tries, is autobiographical too. Beth is, in some ways, an unreliable narrator, and the story is the most surreal of all of them. Has the “circus woman” Alyx, been modified by Trans-Temp? Is she an acolyte of Alyx’s but a completely different person? She is, by the standards of 1925, a “bad influence” on Beth, encouraging her to read “racy books,” and finally deputizing Beth to help her murder the Trans-Temp agent who comes to arrest her. The final pages of the story become frightening and unreal—Beth finds both her parents at the kitchen table, immobile, and thinks they are both dead; a group of strange looking people floods into her living room; she may herself be marked for death until her visitor fights for her. Then it’s all over—her parents are fine and remember nothing, and the visitor leaves by train. Beth is left to costume herself in the characteristic “blackness” the visitor wore, and debate over whether she heard correctly, that the woman is somehow an ancestor of hers—or is Beth her ancestor? Unlike every other Alyx story, “The Second Inquisition” ends with the words, “No more stories.” Does this mean Beth thinks there will be no more stories for her and that her history has somehow ended? Does she mean she’s going to take charge of her narrative, or simply that, for now, she is stuck in a life and a world into which she no longer fits? I have no idea.
Picnic on Paradise and “The Second Inquisition” both excel for what Russ manages to put into them. Picnic on Paradise is a solid people-against-the-elements adventure, with the stakes climbing and options dwindling at just the right pace. The story still manages to deal with sexism, classism and privilege (decades before we used that word to describe it); disenfranchisement and isolation, and serious questions about what gets labeled a war. “The Second Inquisition” confronts gender roles head-on; lampoons “polite society,” explores racism and bigotry. It also studies the sense of being an outsider in your own family, your own town—the adolescent sense (which is correct) of not fitting in. All of this is couched in language that is alternately realistic, beautiful, and often funny. These two stories alone explain why Russ was routinely a Nebula and Hugo finalist, and even a Hugo winner. With this collection, it’s nice to see Russ, who has faded into the background over the past few decades, getting the respect she has earned.