There are those who would paint old-time SF as an exclusively masculine affair. Those people are wrong and a subset of them is willfully lying. Take Margaret St. Clair (1911–1995) for example. She was a fairly prolific pulp writer (over 130 short works and eight novels), specializing in short works in the 1950s before moving into novels in the 1960s. Although she was armed with a Master of Arts in Greek Classics, she seemed content to play in the pulps, where she published works unlike anyone else’s.
Rather frustratingly, St. Clair is out of print these days; if there are any modern editions of her books, I was unable to find them. If she is known to younger readers at all, it is because of a particularly dire bit of cover copy inflicted on her by some editor (who seems to have been an idiot and also bad at his job). Luckily for me, I was sent a copy of her 1985 collection The Best of Margaret St. Clair and luckily for you, I was paid to review it.
In addition to her own name, St. Clair used the pen name Idris Seabright for her The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction stories. I’ve marked the Idris Seabright stories so you can marvel that there was a time when F&SF knowingly bought stories by women.
Introduction: Thoughts from My Seventies • (1985) • essay
St. Clair seems to have preferred not to reveal too much of herself, letting her stories talk for her. In this essay, she gives a brief account of her life and beliefs. In the context of discussing her own career in science fiction, she attempts to give a wider view of science fiction.
I don’t think it’s simplifying too much (although it is simplifying a bit) to call her a Quaker. Yet another Quaker SF writer! Someone should do an essay about them. (My essay “Quaker SF Writers: Are They Alien Starfish Here to EAT OUR BRAINS?” got as far as “NO” and then stalled.)
At one point she complains politely about SF fans not having much in the way of a sense of humour. I must confess that not only am I an example of that, I admitted as much in a recent review title.
Idris’ Pig • (1964) • novella
A young man agrees to deliver a Martian pig (pig-like creature; how cunning of St. Clair not to invent a Martian name) for an ailing friend. He little suspects that the pig is the central figure in one of Mars’ weird cults or that by accepting the errand, he has just painted a giant target on his back.
SF (and mystery) has a long, rich tradition of people agreeing to deliver packages, only to run into unforeseen complications because the couriers made absolutely no attempt at due diligence. Never agree to deliver something unless you know what it is and more importantly, understand the significance. If you cannot be bothered to ask what’s in the box, pray that the story in which you figure is a comedy.
Having just finished the Leigh Brackett Solar System books, it was a pleasant change to read an adventure story set on a Mars every bit as old or poor as Brackett’s where, to put it diplomatically, one can imagine people sometimes smile.
“The Gardener” • (1949) • short story
An officious Terran bureaucrat, confident that his position gives him full immunity to the quaint laws of the alien worlds under Earth’s control, ignores local taboos and callously mutilates a sacred tree. His faith in his immunity proves misplaced.
Who doesn’t like an uplifting tale of a bureaucrat’s comeuppance?
This ties into something I noticed when re-listening to X Minus One, which is that there was a considerable amount of anxiety about colonization expressed in the science fiction of the 1950s, whether in the form “it’s wrong to treat subjugated people badly” (a trope of which her contemporary William Tenn was fond) or, as in this story, of the suggestion that the colonized may have resources their conquerors overlooked. But don’t get me wrong; this is still a comic tale. Just a dark one.
“Child of Void” • (1949) • short story
A single mother and her children struggle to save the Earth from some rather unpleasant energy-beings living on their isolated farmstead. Told from the point of view of one of the mother’s children.
Something I notice reading older stories is that writers (or at least the ones I am reading) seem to have had a better sense than do modern authors of how long a story needed to be. This has about a short story’s worth of plot and character development and it’s a short story. Kevin J. Anderson could probably have got six fat novels out of St. Clair’s basic idea.
“Hathor’s Pets” • (1950) • short story
Kidnapped by a powerful alien, a group of humans tries various ploys (all founded in the assumption the aliens sees the humans as her pets) to order to convince the alien to send them home. The model is accurate, but their application of it proves sadly incomplete.
I cannot emphasize how important it is if you think you are in a comedy to ascertain whether it is a dark comedy; those can end very badly for the protagonists. These poor bastards have the misfortune to be a story that slides into horror, although I suppose from some perspectives it is a happy ending.
“The Pillows” • (1950) • short story
What dark secret explains the willingness of enigmatic alien beings to provide humans with health and good luck?
This had some similarities to Russell’s “Homo Saps” and “Into Your Tent I’ll Creep”. Never let secret masters spot that you’ve worked out that they are secret masters.
“The Listening Child” • (1950) • short story [as Idris Seabright]
A tragic story about an old, ill man who befriends a young boy who, while deaf to mundane sound, can hear Death’s approach.
“Brightness Falls from the Air” • (1951) • short story [as Idris Seabright]
Earth’s cruel policies become personified for one young man when he befriends an alien woman whose race is slowly being exterminated in the name of entertainment. Alas, disapproving of brutal, willfully cruel exploitation isn’t the same thing as being able to do anything about it.
Another example of a ’50s story wresting with colonialism.
“The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” • (1951) • short story [as Idris Seabright]
An ambitious rope salesman falls afoul of his lack of research into his clients. Despite the unpleasantness that results, the Gnoles treasure their moments with him.
Along with never asking what’s in the ichor-seeping package, a surprising number of SFnal salespeople are all too willing to jump into a new business relationship without bothering to learn very much about their new client’s culture. Actually, given that the TV series Mad Men drew from real life, and that it featured a scene in which advertising agency Sterling Cooper innocently presented some potential clients, who just happened to be Jewish, with a shrimp buffet … I don’t need to qualify that with “SFnal”.
“The Causes” • (1952) • short story [as Idris Seabright]
Barflies debate the cause of the world’s doleful march towards technologically ambitious doomsday. At most, one of them can right. One is.
“An Egg a Month from All Over” • (1952) • short story [as Idris Seabright]
An unhappy man comes into possession of an egg of strange and wondrous abilities. His dreams are realized in a way he never would have envisioned.
“He had had, if not all he wanted, then all he was ever going to get.” That’s like a happy ending, right?
More and more, I think the moral of one strain of SF is “be very sure you know what you are getting into.”
“Prott” • (1953) • short story
An ambitious explorer learns that where first contact is concerned, nothing fails like success.
See previous story’s comment about being sure what you are getting into.
“New Ritual” • (1953) • short story [as by Idris Seabright]
Trapped in an unrewarding marriage to a much older man, a housewife discovers that new appliances can occasionally bring real happiness.
I wondered a bit at the unrevealed backstory. What on Earth did Marie see in the elderly and aloof Henry that made marrying him seem like a good idea? Even Henry’s family seems to wonder a bit, or at least have some sympathy for poor Marie.
“Brenda” • (1954) • short story
For everyone else on Moss Island, the new visitor to their little island is a figure of horror. To Brenda, he’s a chance to reinvent herself.
“Short in the Chest” • (1954) • short story [as Idris Seabright]
When the US’s initiatives in the endless Cold War are threatened by inter-service rivalry, inter-service sexual liaisons are mandated. It is hoped that this will endear the branches to each other. One young marine finds her assignations unsatisfactory; luckily for her, her robot therapist can offer advice that will ensure her superior officers know her name, advice that will transform her life forever!
Again: comedy or dark comedy? It really matters which sort of comedy one is in.
This was featured in Women of Wonder: The Classic Years.
Horrer Howce • (1956) • short story
Although his presentation does not go quite as he hoped, an ambitious inventor believes he can salvage something from the debacle.
“The Wines of Earth” • (1957) • short story [as Idris Seabright]
Aliens and man bond over a shared love of wine.
This gentle little story was almost Simakian in its sensibilities.
“The Invested Libido” • (1958) • short story
A minor mix up in medications sends a man on a glorious voyage of personal transformation.
In the protagonist’s defense, this is one of the cases where reading the label would not have helped him at all.
“The Nuse Man” • (1960) • short story
A time-traveling salesman discovers that customers are persnickety everywhen.
The detail that caught my eye is how dimly the salesman (whose beat seems to cover 3000 AD to 3000 BC) views the 20th century his pal calls home.
An Old-Fashioned Bird Christmas • (1961) • novelette
A well-meaning Reverend makes the mistake of thinking mere piety will ever be allowed to get in the way of what really matters: the Nous Corporation’s bottom line!
Nous seems to be the same company the salesman in the previous story worked for. It’s not so hands-off in this tale.
Wryneck, Draw Me • (1980) • novelette
The last dim shadow of an emulation of one of the multitudes who fled into virtuality inside a vast, powerful, world-spanning computer occupies itself watching its host’s moronic, futile attempts to find love, physical or otherwise. Trapped in an existence that is by turns pathetic, contemptible, and doomed, the immaterial observer nevertheless manages to find hope.
Less dark than it sounds. At least in the end.
As the title indicates, this is a collection of St. Clair’s best short works. Unlike certain other authors’ Best Of collections I could mention, this doesn’t have any clunkers of the sort that make me suspect the editor was blinded by juvenile nostalgia. There’s certainly no hint that St. Clair held herself to lower standards just because she was selling to pulps like Thrilling Wonder and Startling Stories.
You know, I could totally do a Complete Novels of Margaret St. Clair once the 50 Nortons in 50 Weeks is over. Or I could if only St. Clair’s books hadn’t been out of print for decades.
(It has been said that if enough people go up to Tor-Forge personnel at cons and quietly intone “klaatu barada nikto” while telepathically relaying the image of an out-of-print classic, Orb is obligated to reprint the work in question. Of course, I cannot advise you to actually try this.)