Slightly Behind and to the Left — Claire Light

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Slightly Behind and to the Left: Four Stories & Three Drabbles

by Claire Light

Aqueduct Press (December 2009)

“Drabble #1: Herna”
“Pigs in Space”
“Drabble #2: Snake”
“Pinball Effect”
“Drabble #3: Christmas”
“Abducted by Aliens!”

Reviewed by Carole Ann Moleti

Slightly Behind and to the Left by Claire Light is Volume 26 in the Conversation Pieces series published by Aqueduct Press to document and facilitate, as L. Timmel Duchamp explains in her introduction, a “grand conversation” about feminism, which began with Mary Shelley and extends into the “continually-created future.”

Feminist science fiction has classically sought to challenge the status quo by presenting visions, mostly dystopic, of what could be if gender didn’t matter. Some feel that female biological functions and imperatives, which dog every aspect of our lives, are so reviled, envied and/or feared by men that elaborate patriarchal systems to control, manipulate, dominate, and sometimes eliminate women have evolved. As such, feminist literature deliberately seeks to create that discomfort, that angst, that dramatic examination of what happens when the slippery slope gives way and things go too far.

Bear with me while I present background essential to place this review of Ms. Light’s work in the proper context. I “liked” this collection in the same way one delights in waking up after surgery in pain but glad to be alive and anxious to get back to some semblance of normalcy.  I have not read the preceding twenty-five volumes in this series so, for purposes of comparison, turn elsewhere.

In her academic and very complex treatise Feminist Philosophy and Science Fiction: Utopias and Dystopias (2008), Judith Little examines not only feminist literature but philosophical theories from Aristotle on, and how they nourished the evolution of the feminist movement. Dr. Little utilizes as examples fiction from speculative feminist writers published between 1944 and 1994 by (in no particular order) C. L. Moore, Leona Gom, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr. a/k/a Alice Sheldon and Raccoona Sheldon, Octavia Butler, Carol Emshwiller, Karen Joy Fowler, Vonda McIntyre, Pat Murphy, Suzette Haden Elgin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Lisa Tuttle, Pamela Sargent, Lois Gould, and Molly Glass. Men can be feminists, and indeed this book includes work by male writers Manuel van Loggem and John Varley. The works of Margaret Atwood, and Ursula LeGuin are heavily referenced.

According to Dr. Little,

“Feminist utopian and dystopian science fiction sharpens the moral and political focus of the genre. It tests the inferences of moral and political hypotheses for sexual justice. […] By fleshing out the design and practices of the institutions of religion, family structure, education, work, and of economic and political systems, utopian and dystopian science fiction offers concrete applications of theoretical assumptions for our evaluation.”

How does Claire Light’s collection fit into that framework? Published in late 2009, Volume 26 makes new inroads in this sub-genre, very far removed from C. L. Moore’s gentle probing of what makes a female a woman in “No Woman Born” (1944) and the scathing indictment of everything male, with characters angry to the point of abject hatred as in Joanna Russ’ The Female Man (1975).

Decidedly futuristic, surreal (indeed bizarre at times), and heavily laden with poetic symbolism and metaphor, Slightly Behind and to the Left, like many of the stories in Feminist Philosophy and Science Fiction, is painful to read because of the horrible wrongs perpetrated on other human beings. But Ms. Light takes this in a different direction, with males as victims of women so detached and impassive, they made me squirm.

Some of Ms. Light’s stories, like those in Judith Little’s anthology, require a depth of contemplation, dissection and discussion best accomplished in a female consciousness raising group or graduate philosophy course. Slightly Behind and to the Left is not an escapist read.

“Vacation” conforms to the typical dystopian tale:

“The day all the men disappeared she went outside to see if it was true, if they were really all gone. […] It seems sad, but when men leave, the less their leaving means. Some men leave before they leave. Some were never there to begin with, and others absent themselves without ever leaving. Some were never there to begin with –markers of men who took up space where a real man should be: Father, Uncle, Minister, Mentor, First Lover of Youthful Glory.”

Portraying the persistent guilt women experience when they fight against constraints and make painful choices, “she” notes,

“And the streets were now filled with wandering women […] as if they couldn’t believe that this wasn’t their fault, as if they knew deep down that they had been overlooking so many of the men for so long that they deserved to have them all, all taken away. […]There were still boys among the children, but with the older ones, if you looked away sometimes, they wouldn’t be there when you looked back. […] They were just gone, without leaving notes, and no one had seen a thing.”

In this profoundly disturbing story, “she,” who is never named, therefore implying she is “every woman,” devolves into what females oft accuse males of being: sexual predators.

Am I troubled by the child molestation or the implication that I, meaning “woman,” could resort to this behavior. Yes.

Am I more troubled by Ms. Light’s character than that of Carol Emswhiller’s in “Killers” (Fantasy and Science Fiction October/November 2006)? Probably. Both sets of women have survived an apocalyptic event, but in Emshwiller’s it was implied to have been caused by men and their warring ways. In “Vacation,” it seems to be a case of be careful what you wish for because it might just come true.

Am I troubled that Ms. Light wrote this story? No, but rather by the implication that survival, both personal and that of the species, depends upon the basest of instincts, no matter if you’re male or female.

“Pigs in Space” starts off like a straightforward tale of two astronauts on a mission, one trying to conserve enough resources to keep them alive until they get home, the other trying to enjoy the journey. Darryl cooks, sings, and ministers to the pigs whose flatulence provides needed fuel for the ship while the first person narrator obsesses over his waste of energy units.

The story, rife with religious and political allusions, gets more and more bizarre and ends on an unexpected note. There are cows on board (who I’ve always heard generate the most methane gas), yet female pigs and their devoted keeper are the emphasized. A nod to the 1970s term male chauvinist pig?

“Pinball Effect” is my favorite story in this collection. Kenji, who has been abducted by aliens, fights back against the bland, homogenous and strange world aboard their ship.

“Cradled naked in our transparent ship, every molecule of my flesh—my limbs, my genitals—was enclosed and encased in gel, touched and caressed at all times. I was a young man, my nerves not fully formed, my courage still in question.[…] able to see and feel everything but touch nothing […].”

He rages at the leader, Ufluuuk, who calls him Kei, “My name is Kenji, Godammit. If we’re talking in concepts, can’t you stop mispronouncing it?”

Kenji defies the rules on the low gravity planet F&***rk, where it is forbidden to bump into others because it sets off a chain reaction pinball effect. He meets O#%M#T) and falls in love, though the kindly, amorphous Utluuuk warns him he will get in trouble with F&***rkian authorities for causing a disturbance.

Like “Pigs in Space,” the science in “Abducted by Aliens!” is seamlessly woven through this story and it has the least unhappy ending.

Ms. Light, in an afterward to “Abducted by Aliens!,” admits she failed to adequately capture exactly what she wanted to portray in the fiction, presenting it as an exercise in understanding how survivors of trauma, internment, or torture bumble through their worlds making few, if any meaningful connections to others.

Her nonfictional essay is a much more effective way of expressing what she set out to say, but good fiction, experimental and literary in particular, is hard to write and often harder to understand. While reading “Abducted by Aliens!” I bordered on comprehending and grasping the essence, knowing what was happening while at the same time not having a clue. The protagonist was male, Kenji from a preceding story, yet the piece was introduced by his sister.

“If I had been his brother and not his sister, perhaps I would have been a partner, not an assistant. Perhaps I am weak minded or just a woman. Or perhaps one must truly be raised to develop one’s own voice, to be able to escape the insistent tones of another.”

Kenji instructs Imouto to take up a pen, which has “a second life, or a soul, what’s called a ghoti on the Planet pos*on. There it writes “not in red ink but in the tears of a virginal flighted, a precious substance.”

Imouto then turns the mic over to Kenji, so to speak, for an epistolary ramble through space and time with his abductors, led by the passive, always patient leader Ufluuuk, and  the GGGGGgggggReNaDuhInes.

Kenji chooses to return to Earth, finding a strawberry still warm from the ground, picked the day he was abducted, but he’s the one changed, damaged by the journey through time and space, surrounded by well-meaning aliens who just don’t understand humans.

Four themes emerge at the end of “Abducted by Aliens!” and tie all those in this collection together: The reasons one undertakes a perilous journey, the risks, the regrets about decisions made, and the rough transition upon return.

All three drabbles are fourteen lines of flash fiction, bordering on prose poetry, interspersed between the longer stories, a bridge from one world to the other.

The link to fruit and strawberries, which runs through the collection and between “Abducted by Aliens!” and “Drabble # 1: Herna,” is subtle, leading me to believe it reflects Kenji.

“Drabble #2: Snake,” alludes to spoiled food and the smell of wet sheep as the spaceship “walks the finite curves,” is perhaps the voice of Darryl, the unfortunate shipmate in “Pigs in Space.”

“Drabble # 3: Christmas,” could be either Kenji or Darryl reflecting that “Oranges here would be worth a man’s life, coal worth diamonds.” Indeed, one of Kenji’s last conclusions in “Abducted by Aliens!” is “Perhaps winking stars are grimaces: devil’s loops.”

Kate Walbert, whose mainstream A Short History of Women (2009) is simple, clear, and all too realistic, and Susan Palwick, whose speculative collection The Fate of Mice I reviewed for Tangent in 2007, present work front and center with the realities of the new millennium.

Slightly Behind and to the Left, is more forward reaching, more groundbreaking. Claire Light has pulled together a poetic and surreal collection for the second decade of the twenty-first century, which will likely generate much discussion and controversy. In the same style as stories by James Tiptree, Jr., a/k/a Raccoona Sheldon, some are, in my humble opinion, candidates for a Tiptree Award nomination.