A Tour Guide in Utopia
By Lucy Sussex
Mirrordanse Editions, 2005
A Tour Guide in Utopia is the first short-story collection from New Zealand-born writer Lucy Sussex in over a decade. Sussex is one of those Kiwis Australians love to call our own (like Sam Neill, the Finn brothers and Russell Crowe, before it became apparent that he takes TOFOG seriously). Fortunately, in this case, Sussex self-identifies as Australian, so the label can be applied guiltlessly. She's a writer and editor of some status, having judged the Tiptree and taught at Clarion West and South; won the Aurealis (twice) and Ditmar (four times) awards in this country, as well as the A. Bertram Chandler Award for Achievement in Australian Science Fiction; and been short-listed for the World Fantasy Award.
Sussex is also an author who wears her feminism on her page, so to speak. This is no bad thing, given how completely SF used to be dominated by unreconstructed willy-waving. I've not read too many other SF authors who are as direct in expressing feminist perspectives in their writing as Sussex. That's not to say there aren't many strongly feminist SF writers, just that I haven't read them. In a number of stories, one gets the impression that the author herself is very much present in the protagonists. There's nothing really wrong with this, but it does have the effect of distancing this particular reader a little from the action—as though someone had already staked a claim to the characters I wanted to empathize with. Still, I suppose some of Lucius Shepherd's more testosterone-heavy moments (for example) might have a comparable effect for many women readers.
Four of the twelve stories in A Tour Guide in Utopia spring from the oppressive conditions of nineteenth-century Western women and the ways they found real or imagined liberation. These stories have obvious roots in the author's scholarly interest in female writers of that era. One of Sussex's more renowned investigative achievements was to uncover the real identity of Australia's first female crime writer, Mary Fortune, who wrote under the pseudonym Waif Wander. Fortune is a direct antecedent to the time-traveling nineteenth century feminist writer of "A Tour Guide in Utopia," a neat little tale which contrasts both the naive utopianism and the unreflective prejudices of early modern feminists with the more inclusive but cynical identity politics of the present.
In "La Sentinelle" and "The Ghost of Mrs Rochester," by contrast, empowerment comes through the supernatural. In both cases, this supernatural assistance is ultimately necessary to enable the present-day female protagonists to deal with male violence. The point of this parallel could, for me, as easily be read as defeatist as constructively critical of contemporary gender relations. "La Sentinelle" is, along with "Frozen Charlottes," one of a series on Victorian dolls (the latest of which, "Matricide," can be read in the SciFiction archives). In "Frozen Charlottes," the role of the dolls is both more prosaic and more repugnant, starkly highlighting the difference a hundred-or-so years has made to (Western) procreative concerns.
Not all of the stories in the collection are completely successful. "Frozen Charlottes" and "A Tour Guide in Utopia" are tightly written stories that avoid an excess of words. "La Sentinelle," on the other hand, overstays its welcome long after it has become evident what is going on. Its narrative edifice also teeters atop a coincidence (of the protagonist's unusual name and a misheard question) that was just too big a gap of disbelief for this reader to build a bridge across. (I'm probably marching to a very different drum on this one, since this story garnered Sussex both an Aurealis and a Ditmar). I felt a tiny bit cheated, too, by "The Ghost of Mrs Rochester." A key clue to the mystery is withheld that could have been dropped earlier without ruining the nasty surprise. Removing the clue deprives readers of the small reward of an "aha!" moment when the revelatory postcard from the protagonist's mother arrives. Instead, the revelation came across as the author saying, "Look how cleverly this fits together," without having given the reader the chance to figure it out along the way.
The good news about this book far outweighs the bad. The good begins with the opening story, "Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies," from the World Fantasy Award winning anthology Dreaming Down Under. This story was one of the highlights of that self-evidently strong collection, and (in my not-quite humble opinion) would've been one of the real gems that got Dreaming Down Under its gong. This is a gorgeous, cheeky revisiting of Banjo Patterson's "Waltzing Matilda," Australia's informal national song, told from the perspective of the very Ocker bunyip who lives in the billabong in question. (Although, given that singing "Waltzing Matilda" is the means by which Australians pretend we aren't scared sh**less by the All Black haka prior to Australia-New Zealand rugby matches, one can't help wondering if there isn't a hint of Kiwi subversion in debunking its myth.)
Second in line and setting the book on a less frivolous footing, "The Queen of Erewhon" is the kind of anthropological dissection (in this case of the politics of lesbian sexuality) that one would expect from LeGuin, Cherryh or Maureen F. McHugh. Sussex sets up a polyandrous society on the Suff (South, in thick Kiwi dialect) Island of a post-apocalyptic New Zealand. As in the sole surviving example of polyandry in the world (if my hazy recollection of my anthropology major serves), in Nepal, it ain't quite the exact opposite of polygyny. Sure, a woman marries multiple husbands but, like polygyny, its purpose is the perpetuation of male power: the husbands tend to be brothers, and the marriage is about ensuring that scarce arable land stays in the one family. Or, in Sussex's story, if the husbands aren't brothers, they're lovers, whereas lesbian love is repressed.
"Runaways" is another post-apocalyptic (or, rather, mid-apocalyptic) tale, this time set in Australia. Sussex cleverly illuminates the collapse of modern society without directly showing it at all. The story is small-scale, set among the Runaways, a tribe of fringe-dwellers who've never belonged to any wider society—whitefella or Aboriginal. In telling an effective tale, Sussex doles out just enough information for the Runaways to seem plausible and to give a picture of what's happening out in the big wide world.
"The Gloaming" is an understated borderline fantasy and a cautionary fable for generation XXL. It's also a story in which Sussex manages to pull off an ungendered human narrator (who's statistically most likely to be male, but it never actually says so). In a couple of other stories she doesn't immediately identify her protagonist as female, which has the refreshing effect of leaving readers to expose their own gendered assumptions (i.e., that a person in an SF story who is attracted to women will be male). Of the three occasions Sussex does use a male protagonist, two are historical figures (Philip K. Dick and the man sent to assassinate Werner Heisenberg) and the third is a narrative necessity to accommodate the gender prejudices of the 1930s and '40s.
"Absolute Uncertainty" is an account of the mysteries surrounding Heisenberg and, particularly, his role in the Nazi atomic programme and whether or not he was a committed Nazi. Heisenberg and his colleagues claimed after the war to have deliberately misdirected Nazi atomic weapons research. Sussex tailors her narrative style to the subject matter, cleverly blurring the line between reality and virtuality, fact and speculation. She refers to the key evidence for and against Heisenberg, the Farm Hall tapes, but ultimately leaves the question open. Given the number of opinions either way (do a quick Google search, and you'll see what I mean), leaving the verdict to the reader is perhaps the best choice. This story was certainly an eye opener for me—I recall being instructed by a (raving Yankeephobic Leftist, now that I think of it) politics lecturer that the Farm Hall tapes unequivocally proved the Nazi scientists had made a moral decision to impede the development of atomic weapons, whereas Oppenheimer and co. didn't.
A couple of the less successful entries are "The Lottery" and "Kay and Phil." "The Lottery" is a straightforward time-travel piece in which someone goes (way, way, way back) back in time to cheat, only to find that someone else has cheated better. The protagonist is motoring about on a prehistoric sea in a small boat with a large apparatus and some lotto balls, with which she can apparently predict which Cambrian life forms will evolve into, eventually, us. That I was left without the slightest clue how the apparatus worked was less of a concern to me than why in the world the time traveller would want or need to lug it back in time with them in the first place.
"Kay and Phil" has Sussex engineering a supernatural meeting between authors Katherine Burdekin and Philip K. Dick, in order to answer "yes" to her rhetorical question: "Did Burdekin's 1937 novel Swastika Night, in which the Axis powers won the Second World War, influence Dick's The Man in the High Castle?" It's a curious exercise, but not really enough to carry this story. The major element, apart from the noted question, is to reiterate Burdekin's (now redundant) thesis that the Nazis were woman-haters as well. I'm not knowledgeable enough to comment on that—although I've never encountered that thesis anywhere else. (What is intriguing is that, in the mid-1930s, Burdekin identified Nazism as a messianic religious cult, a tendency I don't think emerged fully, through Himmler and the SS, until later.)
My pick of the collection, aside from the possibly seditious "Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies," is "Merlusine," a rambling investigative tale that begins in the domain of Cajun music and winds up, via the carnival freaks implied in the title, in the midst of Southern US race politics. The story could easily have meandered off into nowhere, and it does end without neatly wrapping up—a fine distinction, but the difference between excellence and failure (as Maureen F. McHugh's brilliant Mothers & Other Monsters, reviewed here in 2005, so ably demonstrates). Along with Rjurik Davidson's "Bones" in the current Year's Best Australian SF&F, this story has made me reconsider my disdain for fiction about music. That being so, there was for me a parallel between the conclusion of "Merlusine" and two of the less successful stories in this book—"The Ghost of Mrs Rochester" and "La Sentinelle"—in that I was left with the nagging suspicion that the author might've shied away from the more confronting or disturbing endings she'd made available: choosing the less freakish freak; allowing a glimmer of light to penetrate the end of the dark fantasy.
I must admit, I felt quite ambivalent about this book when I first finished it. Only a few of the stories grabbed me right away, and only a couple positively demanded that I read them. I'm not someone who can't bear to part with books: if a book didn't work for me, or if it has nothing I might want to revisit, it's off to the second-hand shop. But the more I thought about it, the more I discovered that I did, in fact, find quite a bit of meat even on those stories that didn't immediately work for me. It's worth reading for the sheer eclectic range of Sussex's intellectual interests. A Tour Guide in Utopia is a keeper.