Review by Ian Sales
Aliens of the Heart, a collection of three short stories and one novelette, is the nineteenth volume in Aqueduct Press’ Conversation Pieces, a “small paperback series” which “celebrates the speculations and visions of the grand conversation of feminist sf”. The series comprises fiction, poetry and non-fiction – “essays … speeches … interviews, correspondence and group discussions”. It currently stands at thirty-two volumes, with two more due in August this year.
The four stories in Aliens of the Heart are all set in the US mid-west, arguably the heart of the country. They are all science fiction, though in at least one case the story first appeared in a fantasy anthology. But not only does the “heart” of the title refer to the stories’ geographical location but also to the hearts of the protagonists, all women, all the heart of the relationships which form the centres of the stories, and all the hearts of the stories themselves.
‘Lost Road’ is one of those stories with a simple premise that genre fiction does so well. A middle-aged couple – he is suffering from dementia? Alzheimer’s? – drive from their farm into the nearby town of Lost Road. After their errands, they head home… but they cannot find their way. I will happily admit to a dislike of genre stories which use their central conceit as a metaphor, and then proceed to beat that metaphor to death. I call them “Clarion-style stories”, and you can often find one or two on the Hugo Award shortlist each year. ‘Lost Road’ is similar to those types of stories, but it is, above all else, subtle. As Betty Lindstrom and her husband Wayne travel further from the world they know (though the landscape remains disturbingly familiar), so Wayne seems to recover from his condition. Yet nothing is resolved; the power of the story lies in its refusal to explain or resolve. ‘Lost Roads’ originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, in February 1992, and was reprinted in 2002 in an anthology from Tesseract Books, Land/Space.
‘Frost Painting’, however, could be either fantasy or science fiction – indeed, it was originally published in Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, edited by Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel, in 1997, but was also reprinted in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Fifteenth Annual Collection. Art critic Galena Pittman has flown into North Dakota to “rescue” her protegée and lover, artist Thea Nodine. Thea has joined a community of people in the Windrow Mountains who claim to be living alongside aliens called the Dirigo. The aliens are sufficiently vague – they manifest as darting lights – to be also considered anything from a mass hallucination to demons or angels. Whatever they are, when Galena meets Thea, she realises that they have changed the artist such that Galena has lost her. Given the mystery of the Dirigo, it’s easy to see why ‘Frost Painting’ has appeared in both a fantasy and a science fiction anthology. I tend to the latter. It can also be found online in Lightspeed Magazine’s June 2011 issue here.
‘Okanoggan Falls’ is most definitely science fiction. Aliens have invaded the Earth, and are busy exploiting it for their own mysterious ends. A detachment of Wattesoon arrive in the eponymous town and tell its residents they must evacuate because Okanoggan Falls is scheduled for demolition. Susan Abernathy, wife of the town mayor, Tom, is determined to save her town, but not using active or passive resistance. Instead, she befriends the Wattesoon commander, Captain Groton.The more time they spend together, the more concessions he makes to the townsfolk, and the more his appearance changes to mimic that of a human being. Like the previous two stories, there’s no happy ending, only an acceptance of what is. ‘Okanoggan Falls’ was originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine in August 2006, and was reprinted in two year’s best anthologies. It also came twenty-third in the Locus Poll for novelettes that year.
The final story in Aliens of the Heart is original to the collection. ‘The Conservator’ is also the most overtly about landscape. The titular character has been called in by a museum to assist in the conservation of a map of the local territory. The map is a palimpsest, having been added to over the centuries by different groups, and her tools reveal the extent of the changes in landscape and worldview. ‘The Conservator’ is the most distant in tone of the four stories, and possibly also the least science-fictional. It is also the story most tied to landscape, inasmuch as it is about a map of the landscape.
And certainly the landscape of the American mid-west is important in the stories in Aliens of the Heart. In ‘Lost Road’ it dominates the Lindstroms, in ‘Frost Painting’ it is the frame in which the relationship between Galena and Thea dissolves, in ‘Okanoggan Falls’ it is the destruction of the landscape which causes the relationship between Susan Abernathy and Captain Groton, and in ‘The Conservator’ humankind has documented and so dominated the landscape. Further, Gilman’s plots are like the landscape in which they occur. They just are. There’s no end, no resolution, no closure.
I was first introduced to Gilman’s fiction back in the late 1990s when I read and enjoyed her debut novel, Halfway Human. But no further novel-length fiction from her appeared until recently – and that was fantasy. All the same, I enjoyed, and admired, Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles. Which in turn persuaded me to try a science fiction novella, Arkfall, which I then reviewed on this blog here. And that convinced me I should pick up a copy of Aliens of the Heart. Gilman’s writing is very good, and the four stories here are stronger for appearing next to each other. I suspect that if I had read ‘Lost Road’ when it was originally published, the story would have stayed with me for many years.
If I do have one complaint about Aliens of the Heart, it’s that it doesn’t give the original publication details for the stories. But that’s a minor quibble. Recommended.