Review: Heiresses of Russ 2013

Heiresses of Russ 2013 edited by Tenea D. Johnson and Steve Berman

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Among the many hideous tactics Joanna Russ outlines in How to Suppress Women’s Writing, isolation is perhaps one of the most insidious, severing creators from their own community. For instance, Jane Austen is often people’s go-to classic female author, but when was the last time you heard about Jane Austen being influenced and inspired by the works of Fanny Burney? Once you start looking at Austen in the context of her contemporaries and influences, you suddenly realize that she’s not an Excepto-girl—she’s an heiress.

In the same way, any feminist speculative fiction fan is one of Russ’ heiresses. We owe a lot to her glittering, incandescent anger that paved the way for us to engage with speculative fiction and fandom on that level. But, as a queer woman, I feel an especial claim to her, an out lesbian who burst onto the speculative fiction scene in the 1960s. And I’m not the only one, hence the sheer existence of the Heiresses of Russ anthologies, which collect the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Heiresses of Russ 2013 is the anthology’s third outing.

Here’s where I need to fully disclose. (Well, that’s an awkward verb, isn’t it?) I work for Strange Horizons, a publication from which several selections in this collection were culled, under two women whose work is collected here. I don’t say this to namedrop (but did I mention I hosted a Malinda Lo event at the store?), but rather to point out what a small world queer speculative fiction is. As Lo herself has pointed out, representation of gay men far outstrips representation of gay (let alone any other flavor of queer; our flag ain’t a rainbow for nothin’) women in the mainstream media. The very mission statement of Heiresses of Russ means that the playing field is narrower, which leads to a collection rockier than any other short story collection I’ve read.

And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (I mean, nothing can be worse than the inclusion of Barry Lyga’s “The Truth about Dino-Girl” in Geektastic.) The reluctant Publishers Weekly blurb states that the theme tying all of these pieces together is the revolutionary nature of lady love, but each piece actually tackles its qualifying content differently. In Alex Dally MacFarlane’s “Feed Me the Bones of Our Saints,” a group of oppressed indigenous women take doomed revenge on those who have replaced and fetishized them, which is much more central to the story than the fact that the protagonist happens to have a girlfriend. In “One True Love”, a vaguely worded prophecy hinges on the fact that the princess’s lover is female. And that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be. Without the burden of single representation—to go back to Russ herself, without isolating and excusing stories like this—you can have many different kinds of queer women doing many different kinds of things. (Although selkies are well popular in this collection.)

So I’m not as perturbed when some stories fizzle out, even though I’m terrifically old-fashioned about my short stories. (I like them to be about the most important moment in a character’s life. Hangout stories are a near impossible sell for me.) There’s certainly a line between celebrating something fairly middle of the road for its queer representation and consoling yourself that “Well, at least it’s queer representation.” As Cass has said on occasion, we deserve good prose as much as anyone else. But each story here has a striking, engaging idea at its core. “Narrative-Only” fizzles out as soon as it gets started (the conflict is introduced and then immediately resolved), but the idea of becoming narrative only to achieve a kind of immortality is certainly thought-provoking. I imagine, for someone who has never realized that queer people get to not only produce, but be in speculative fiction, this is a wonderful wake-up call.

Many contributors are also proponents of other diversity in SF—Lo gets the ball rolling in “One True Love” and it continues through many of the stories. “Feed Me the Bones of Our Saints”, which, as you may guess, is my favorite story in the collection, is a burning example, with themes of occupation, cultural dislocation, and the way the foxwomen have become a sexualized joke in mainstream culture. All in all, it’s a collection more notable for the view it provides than any specific story, but that remains an incredibly valuable thing in a speculative fiction landscape where something as innocuous and historically-based as, say, the inclusion of people of color in our fantastical settings is often derided as “not accurate”. We’ve certainly still got a long way to go.

Bottom line: Heiresses of Russ 2013 is a rocky collection, but each story has a striking idea at its core and the fact that this anthology exists is quite marvelous. Plus, “Feed Me the Bones of Our Saints” is as burning as Russ’ own anger. If you’re interested.

I rented this book from the public library.

One thought on “Review: Heiresses of Russ 2013

  1. Pingback: dark to one spark and I have your heart | Alex Dally MacFarlane

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