Tanith Lee’s new collection of short stories is divided into five parts, titled: Myth Remembered, Burning Bright, Falling Angels, Death’s Door, and Exiles.
A vampire story and a werewolf story, but in space! Vampire/robot and werewolf/moon-ghost. The vampire story has some excellent descriptions of aliens. The werewolf story has some nice ethereal imagery, but it’s a little hard to follow the plot as it gets lost in style.
Three harrowing tales of ugly, lonely, dangerous women. The first tale is about a rich but ugly daughter of a beautiful couple who is charmed into marrying a thief. The second is about a homely, shy artist whose great-ancestor is revived from cryogenic sleep, and suddenly she has to share her tiny apartment with the oddly powerful woman. The third is about a frumpy, timid woman incongruously named Appolonia Hartley, who takes a cruise by the sun and magically becomes more beautiful the longer she spends bathing in the rays.
The first and third both end with the main character turning their environment into an inferno. It seems to me that because they were shunned by their peers, negative emotions built up and exploded in a literal way. It might be a reversal of witch-burning, since the women are using fire as a weapon and not being consumed by it (a la Carrie). I empathized a lot with the characters because I’ve had similar feelings and experiences in my life, but I found the endings more scary than cathartic, though they’re still quite powerful.
The ones in this section are based around themes from the Genesis mythology, with a science fiction twist. In “With a Flaming Sword”, God is an alien, in “Black Fire”, Satan is an alien, and in “Written in Water” Adam is an alien. The first one is an alternate history, the second one is told through the perspectives of about ten men and women through their depositions of the UFO event. The third one is another completely heartwrenching story about a lonely woman (Again? Yes. It’s a good one, trust me.) In “Written in Water” an alien crash-lands near the house of a woman who is alone for various reasons.
She had never liked people very much. They had always hurt her, or degraded her, always imposed on her in some way. Finally she had retreated into the old house, wanting to be alone, a hermitess.
One of my favorite scenes in this book is when the protagonist brings the alien in (he looks like a pale young man with long dark hair) and he starts crying, because his ship abandoned him.
“Don’t cry,” she said. But she did not mean it. His distress afforded her an exquisite agony of empathic pain. She had not felt anything for a very long time.
So we have an alien weeping, and our older female protagonist is standing there trying not to take pleasure in his excess of emotion and failing. It’s kind of vampiric, it’s kind of sad, but something about it rings true and is kind of painful. There’s something about this type of character, where I can’t help empathizing with them. I don’t want to be like them, but I know that I am. It provides a bitter counterpoint to the wish-fulfillment in science fiction and fantasy when the main character is socially inept (as long as they don’t become The Chosen One). It brings space down to Earth.
I can’t talk about “Tonight I Can Sleep Quietly” and “Stalking the Leopard” without giving away their endings, so I’ll have to pass. They both have sharp twists at the end, though they’re not my favorite stories in this collection. “Dead Yellow” is an interesting piece based off the concept “What if the color yellow ceased to exist?” It’s mostly the observations of one character on that change.
“By Crystal Light Beneath One Star” is a little over-sentimental but has some interesting worldbuilding. The government has built a special prison that can control the time-flow around it, making it difficult for prisoners to discern how long they’ve been there or whether the present has happened to them already, and can also send them back into their pasts as lookers-on (unrelated: If you’re a voyeur to your past self, is that still voyeurism?).
“A Day in the Skin” is a great story. It’s about a society where there was a giant explosion (an industrial accident) and most of the population got injured to a degree where their bodies couldn’t be saved so they uploaded their minds into a computer. The society rotates the population into the remaining bodies, so most of the time they’re in the machines but some of the time they’re out in the world in other people’s bodies. It’s interesting because sometimes you come out male, and sometimes female. I can’t say much more, but this is one of my favorite stories because it looks at new dimensions of identity, life, and death.
“Within the Ghost” is probably my favorite story in this collection. It’s hard to talk about without giving away too much, but it’s about accepting circumstances, love, nature, and God. I will say if you dream about hippie-ish stuff like free love or living off the grid, you will probably like this one (though even if you don’t, and you just like nature or scifi, or even if you’re religious, you might still find it appealing). This one has something for everyone.
Overall, I’d say this is my favorite of the books I’ve reviewed so far on this blog. Tanith Lee has had a long and productive writing career, and though I haven’t read her other work, this collection showcases her talents very well. She usually writes fantasy for young people, but this collection has a lot of sexual content so I wouldn’t recommend it for kids (maybe for young adults, depending on maturity level). It also has some depression triggers, but it seems like most fiction does… anyway, be wary if you’re trying to avoid stuff that’ll depress you. It is a good collection though, so I’d recommend picking it up, especially if you like psychological scifi.