Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: With Her Body by Nicola Griffith

With Her Body (Conversation Pieces, Volume 2)  by Nicola Griffith is, like all her work, worth the money. The Conversation Pieces series are collections of feminist science fiction short stories from Aqueduct Press.

A book of intimate, fierce, intellectual stories about real women,  they all follow the theme of the title: a dancer who uses her body to make music and command attention, a woman whose body has betrayed her and who learns to stop letting it rule her, and a woman who learns to open herself up to the physical, and her companion who falls entirely into the realm of nature.

Because there are only three stories (plus an essay), it's not worth paying too much for. But because of the quality of the stories, it is worth paying rather more than you would otherwise. All of them are powerful, and I had to stop and put my Kindle down for awhile after each one, letting it sink in and pass through me. They are all science fiction, or fantasy, and all focus on women, with the protagonists being lesbians with experiences both exclusive and powerful enough to drown out other voices.

The Stories:

Touching Fire (1993)
My favourite story, and surprisingly affecting. Set in the present day, or some near future, it charts the mysterious encounter and the short, powerful arc of a love affair between a normal young woman working in a women's bar, and the enthralling stranger she meets there. A stranger with the unique ability to create music when she dances with lasers. Would you dance with death for love? And would you give up your belief in flying to be sane?
 Also appears in:

Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese
A more introspective story set in the near future, after a disease of chronic fatigue has infected humanity, killing off the majority of the population and leaving the survivors too weak to do more than survive, and unable to survive the effort of childbirth.
The narrator is one of the few surviving immunologists, who keeps to herself, in mourning for her lost beloved, and is kept alive by a desperate nearby community. A story of acceptance, a body that turns against you, the distinction between humanity and heedless, unaffected nature - and learning to hope and fight again. The real conflict here was mental, and it is both the most thought provoking and the least passionately gripping of the three stories (also, no sex).
Also appears in:
  • Interzone #48 (June, 1991)
  • Aboriginal SF 5(4) whole copy Number 28 (July, 1991)
  • Century XXI (ed. Sylvie Denis & Francis Valery) Encrage, France & Heyne, Germany (1995)
  • The Best of Interzone  (1997)             
  • Infinity Science Fiction (Sept, 2007)
Yaguara (1994) 
An excessively controlled and withdrawn woman arrives in the South American jungle to photograph a researcher and her ruins, only to be thrown into rustic close contact for weeks on end, her composure eroded by sexual tension and jungle mythology - and to watch her companion fall into the grip of the jungle itself, losing her humanity even as they find love. I didn't really know where this was going for most of the story - but looking back from the end, it all seems so obvious, it was just that I was waiting for the expected well trodden storylines to roll out.
 Also appears in:
(NB: was rewritten for this 2004 anthology)
Afterword: A Word for Human is Woman by L. Timmel Duchamp
 The book ends with an essay on the invisibility and otherness of women in most definitions and discussions of 'human' nature, looking at the way that science fiction tends to try and figure out what humanity means, rather than simply illustrate a preconceived (read: white, male, heterosexual) notion. Which Nicola Griffith does mainly by removing men from the picture entirely, casting entirely different lights on the various roles and interactions of the players. The essay is interesting but felt like it was skimming - a good place to start, and an interesting introduction, but not enough on its own. And if you picked this book up entirely for the fiction (and sex), then it probably won't hold your interest.

 Individual Stories 
    • "Touching Fire" - Short Fiction finalist, British Science Fiction Award (1993) 
    • "Touching Fire" - Gender-bending SF nomination, but not a finalist, James Tiptree, Jr. Award (1993)
    • "Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese" - Best Short Fiction finalist, Gaylactic Spectrum Award  (2005)
    • "Yaguara" - Novella finalist, Nebula Award 

Nicola Griffith hasn't written that many books, compared to other famous authors who've been around as long, but they're all very good, and they've all won awards. I strongly recommend her for interesting, well written, lesbian and character focused science fiction.

For some reason, the paperback and the kindle versions of Nicola Griffith's books are all listed separately on Amazon.

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