Strange Ladies by Lisa Mason
Strange Ladies by Lisa Mason (Bast Books, 2013) is my second rather belated look at this author. I read Arachne when it first appeared more than twenty years ago and was not very impressed. Reading this collection suggests I should have persisted. There are some very fine stories on display here. We start off with “The Oniomancer” who was born Suki as the fifth of five children. She was an unwanted accident who can’t help but find things. Now all grown up, calling herself Chinadoll and making a living as a bike messenger, she still finds things. This time it’s a cube and she, well, adopts it. Anyone would do the same. The fact it’s an alien device. That just makes it way more cool to possess it. Of course, life’s bitter experiences have taught her that other people place great value in the ownership of things. And probably aliens are no different. So perhaps she should return it. Or not. Who knows what a girl like Chinadoll will decide. “Guardian” is a delightful tease as we watch the janitor refine his break-in skills, increasingly contemptuous of the security measures installed by the condo ownership, while our heroine in her first home worries herself sick about the risk of a home invasion without realising she has the remedy immediately to hand. And, of course, when she finally makes the connection. . . well that’s what buying protection is all about.
“Felicitas” offers an insight to a prowler’s coming-of-age. You may think of this creature as something prefaced with a were but that’s to lose sight of the growing girl inside the body as it changes when the night comes. She was abandoned as a baby and survived the convent orphanage experience as she grew into a young woman. When she was old enough, she crossed the border into America and found work. Everything was under control as a human. Her periods came and went. There were no consequences. But when she came into heat as a prowler. Ah, now all the males of her nocturnal species were instinctively drawn to her, and the largest and most powerful of them insisted. Well what’s a self-respecting female prowler to do about that? Is she expected to put up with this macho shit?
“Stripper” rehearses the debate about whether stripping or pole dancing objectifies and exploits women, or gives them the freedom to do what they want and get paid for it. According to the patriarchal world view, the women are there to entertain the largely male audience. The feminists characterise the dancers as betraying their gender, pandering to the base instincts of the voyeurs. No matter who’s right, this story sees a woman fighting for her independence while still fulfilling the biological imperative to produce a child. As in all things, this requires a little give and take, a compromise or two, and an outcome that satisfies all interested parties. Now all we need is the time to make it work.
“Triad” pursues this idea of balance between opposites. If debates can never be resolved until semantics can be set aside, what about the underlying genders themselves. It’s convenient to oversimplify the world into male and female, but this ignores the more complex possibilities as different physical and social roles are constructed for each individual by surrounding circumstances. When everything fits and is resolved into a culture, there’s the possibility of truth and harmony — a third way. Unfortunately, the truth about divergences from the gender norms is that the majority are uncomfortable with some devolving into fear and hatred. Elevate the debate into the nature of marriage — is a single-sex union permissible — and when a child comes and there’s a triad, what happens to the emotional balance if there’s a separation? As the afterword to this story says, this is a variation on The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, and a quite remarkable reworking of the theme it proves to be.
“Destination” is a cross-country drive as a woman picks up three random men for company, sharing the driving and paying for the gas. Once you accept the premise, the rest follows the news there’s a serial killer on the loose. I think the ending is tacked on from a different story and rather spoils the effect, but it’s worth reading for the detail of the journey. Finally, “Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis” is all about Alice, she of Wonderland fame, and it details, somewhat gorily, what happened to all and sundry after they emerged from their underground haven and sought to merge back into the human race. It shows a pleasing wit and some malice as the primary characters pass through the looking glass and discover the mirror is a sideshow amusement. Put all this together and you find Strange Ladies a very entertaining collection of diverse stories plundering the genres and showing a nice sense of humour on the way.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.