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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

The Fate of Mice by Susan Palwick

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“The Fate of Mice”
Image“Gestella”
“The Old World”
“Jo’s Hair”
“Going After Bobo”
“Beautiful Stuff”
“Elephant”
“Ever After”
“Stormdusk”
“Sorrel’s Heart”
“GI Jesus”

Susan Palwick’s collection, The Fate of Mice, likens the struggles of human beings to the endless mazes rodents run. Palwick provides dramatic commentary with innovative structure, voice, and point of view combinations.  Masterful writing, magical realism, slipstream, and literary fiction are all descriptors that come to mind. Vivid, gut-churning scenes place many of the stories toward the horror end of the fantasy continuum. Where there is humor, it is dark. Any glimmer of hope is a spiritual whisper, not a fait accompli.

Ursula K. Le Guin, in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and in her collection Changing Planes, conceals the punch in poetic, lyrical prose, Palwick’s jagged knife slips under your skin as it's slowly pushed into your heart.

Other feminist writers: Marilyn French in The Women’s Room, Sue Miller in The Good Mother, and Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale kill the reader the same way by presenting situations that are all too realistic, to show better than anyone can tell what human beings are capable of doing to each other.

Pick up the book and the foreboding gaze of a yellow-eyed cat sizes up its prey. It is easy to hold and carry, important because reading this a little at a time might be the best way to fully appreciate the stories, packed with deep messages, clever word play, and studies in allegory, innuendo, and metaphor.

The writing is simple and easy to read but the buried messages keep the reader thinking about the story long after it is finished. I stopped reading before bedtime because my dreams about messages buried in the prose were not pleasant.

The first story shares its title with the collection of eleven equally well-written tales. The Fate of Mice could be a young adult story celebrating numerous literary mice. Rodney, a mouse enhanced to be able to voice respond, has a strange knowledge of all of them. He becomes a vehicle for a child caught in the middle of a joint custody wrangle to make her statement. Pippa befriends the chatty mouse whose first person viewpoint expounds on his world view. It is both a sad commentary on children used as pawns and an affirmation of trust and faith.

Gestella” is a chilling tale of a man and his “bitch.” The unusual second person point of view is well suited to the female werewolf who doesn’t bleed every month so she can have children, but rather transforms into a pet to be taken for walks on a leash, patted on the head, and rubbed behind the ears. When Jesse regains her beautiful human form, Jonathan enjoys her as Stella for “sportfucks.”  Stella puts up with it because Jonathan, after all, understands and cares for her through her transformations. But canine species age faster than humans so the novelty of mating with a feral creature soon wears off.

This story is packed with allusions to the current fixation on youthful appearance, the impossible “ideal” female body, and the way women suffer more from age discrimination than men. There is a clear emphasis on the ridicule women endure due to biological imperatives, in particular menstrual symptoms and menopause. Buried deep are hints that the elderly and mentally ill can be dispatched at will. There are a number of nasty surprises and the end left me gasping.  Jesse and Stella co-exist but the title is Gestella. Ponder the etymology.   

In “The Old World” everyone has been brainwashed into cult-like submission to a single set of ideals and blind adherence to total avoidance of conflict and confrontation. But what happened to those who can’t forget the bad old days? After the “Change” of March 24, 2029, a former investigative reporter is interned with others who have difficulty “adjusting.”  Nate, the son, tells his Dad’s story and the point of view of the “Truth Terrorists” is interspersed with segments from their manifesto. Once you’re finished reading this one, you might never again wish that everyone could just stop arguing and get along.

Jo’s Hair” is one of the stories in this collection that has a deep, spiritual component to it.  Using subtle personification, Jo, and a myriad of other Victorian women, travel full circle together, led by the omniscient storyteller voice.

While far from uplifting, "Jo’s Hair" is still the most positive of the stories, reflecting upon the life path that humans walk, the inevitable hard choices, the ironic tragedies that we experience, and the promise of a divine reward once we reach the end of our journey.

“Going After Bobo” is so close to real life you feel the pain of a young boy whose adventurous cat is lost in a winter storm. We begin in the middle of Michael’s story, and he then takes us back to the beginning of his family’s tragedies. At the end, your heart is broken not only for Michael and Bobo, but also his mother, brother, family friends, and all the rest of us trying our hardest to survive in a very mean world.

Reno, Nevada is the perfect setting for a story that touches on all of Palwick’s themes: love for companion animals, environmental degradation, exploitation of women, greed, debauchery for the sake of money and power, and desperation to escape from your “box” even if it means you may not survive. Slipstream has become mainstream as the use of GPS systems to track human beings has almost come to be routine.

What do the dead want? A second chance at life, revenge, justice? No, just the simple, pretty things the living take for granted.  In the macabre “Beautiful Stuff” Rusty Kerfuffle and the whole group of people with whom he blew up in a terrorist attack undergo corpse revival. Rusty is bribed to be a spokesman at a political rally. And even though he was warned, the “soft spoken politician” who dreamed this up to get support for his hawkish policies experiences a “public relations nightmare.” The third person narrator interprets how Rusty and the other corpses see things, but doesn’t even try to explain what the hell the living were thinking. This story is loaded with dark humor, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see where Palwick got her ideas for this one.

“Elephant” is a short allegory that begins with a woman in labor. We then are whisked into a life where an abused child, now a lonely substance abuser, reveals the circumstances of how the child was conceived. At the moment of the birth, the story ends, leaving us to wonder if the miracle will truly come to pass. Palwick’s themes of struggle and survival run through this story that left the business unfinished, not unlike the experience of those who have been victimized.

“Ever After” gives a contemporary twist to the Cinderella story and blends in the trope of a werewolf, taking two clichés and turning them into something very different. Told from the point of view of the nontraditional fairy godmother, Caitlin is rescued from her scullery duties and meets her prince at the ball. But there are no evil stepsisters in this story; the villains are the adults whose jaded ideas of what love really means take everyone far away from happily ever after.

“Stormdusk” is another slipstream fantasy, told by a poor farmer’s daughter who is worried about her mother’s health. Mystified by the curious way her mother disappears for rejuvenation, Marja discovers the truth: enslavement by an evil sorcerer. Again, subtle allusion to exploitation of women raises the hackles on my neck in this poetic, beautifully descriptive tale.

“Sorrel’s Heart” delves into “freaks” and how they always seem to find each other. A serial killer finds a woman who is living with her heart outside her body, trying to kill herself. Quartz is entranced by the fact that he can see Sorrel’s heart quiver when he describes his evil deeds. They begin a symbiotic life: He protects her exposed heart, and she protects his victims by giving him the power to resist his psychopathic urges. They flee those who seek to destroy the freaks to prevent their misdeeds or reproduction.

No doubt Palwick took the saying that having a child is like learning to live with your heart outside your body and used that imagery to show how love can transform even the most despicable among us.

The novellaGI Jesus” was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, an encouragement for those of us who read and write slipstream fiction and aspire to see it achieve its rightful place in both genre and literary circles. The GI does double duty here, as an American MIA in Vietnam and a body system.

Cece Yodel mourns the loss of her boyfriend to the jungles of Southeast Asia. When her best friend marries another of her former lovers, she gets the position of the maid of honor because the bride’s sister, pregnant and unmarried, was thrown out of the family and the Catholic Church.

Years later, facing her own mortality, Cece finds Jesus in a most unusual place. The excommunicated young woman returns, ruined and dying, having abandoned her baby in a train station. The same priest who ex-communicated her, now giving last rights, again condemns the woman for her deeds. Cece, fed up with despair, abandonment, and hypocrisy, releases the love of Jesus from a very unlikely place. The end proves that spilling your guts is a healing process that can work miracles.

The three pages of endorsements in this collection seemed excessive to me; the cover blurbs are sufficient. Paul Di Filippo’s essay “Lessons in Mortality” is oddly placed as an introduction. His eloquence, as well as his introduction of Susan Palwick to a reader unfamiliar with her work, is appreciated. But Palwick’s writing isn’t obtuse or difficult to understand, and I suggest leaving the introduction until last so you can discover your own truths in her words. I would have much preferred a short introduction written by Palwick herself, though after reading this book, there is no question where she stands on some of the controversial and difficult issues we face as we run the mazes.

The Fate of Mice belongs on the shelf of any feminist reader or writer and indeed anyone who has ever been at a loss to understand the things human beings do to each other. It belongs on the shelf of every reader of speculative fiction as an example of how to write genre work that stands strong and proud next to its counterparts in the literary world.

Publisher: Tachyon Publications (Feb. 2007)
Price $14.95
Paperback: 240 pages
ISBN: 1892391422