Friday, January 22, 2010

Readings — The Adventures of Alyx

The Adventures of Alyx
by Joanna Russ

There’s something understated in this collection of short stories about an adventuring swordswoman and thief. Understated; also thoughtful. Superficially, there’s not much similarity to something like Fritz Leiber’s swashbuckling Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, though Alyx apparently cameos in two of those and vaguely recalls Fafhrd in one of the stories here. The stories are nominally adventure fiction in content, but aren’t structured much like it — the high points seem to come at other points than the action scenes.

In fact, each of the five stories here has its own feel, almost as though each were in its own genre, ranging over both fantasy and science fiction. It’s actually a confutation of genre, changing approach and tone each time out, rather than riffing on a standard concept. The last story, in particular, “The Second Inquisition”, almost entirely discards adventure trappings to tell an affecting SF tale.

The world-building is haphazard, but that’s fine; that’s usually the case in picaresque adventure fantasy, I think. At least, writers like Leiber and Moorcock seem to make up their worlds from story to story, as the individual piece requires; and so it is here. But Russ has a consistent and politicised world-view, with stories shaped by issues of class and gender and power. This seems to make up for a relative lack of imaginative detail, substituting ugly human truths for invention quite effectively.

Russ is known as an early feminist sf writer, and certainly one can see that in these stories. One could argue that there’s a greater interest in these tales with what might be called women’s concerns, and specifically with women relating to other women; the first and last stories both show Alyx in a sort of mentoring role with a younger girl. On the other hand, there’s also strong irony in the handling of domesticity and relationships, which matches the dry tone of the writing overall.

In the end, it’s that laconic style that makes the stories work. Russ is capable of writing lush fantasy scene-setting when she wants, particularly in the first story, but mostly aims for a spare, tight style. It works quite well, and emphasises the untraditional aspects of the stories as a whole.

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