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Friday, March 27, 2020

Review: The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales by Margaret St. Clair (1 of 3)

Like many SF writers from previous generations, Margaret St. Clair is overlooked. Even all-consuming critics like John Clute miss out on some of St. Clair’s strengths (see his commentary at SFE) although he astutely points out her “work was at times daringly subversive of some of the central impulses of Genre SF.”

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In the past, I’ve taken a look at a few classic story by Margaret St. Clair and hope to do so in the future. She is a writer of economy, rarely overwriting—often writing her best work at the short-short or short-story length, a length that is sadly underestimated in the field, baring just enough ice to suggest the berg below. Reading The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales, one realizes that she can cram in that finite space a fine imagination to boot. She may take the germ of an idea for a lesser story and then takes it into several new directions, sometimes implying world’s from mere suggestions. If that doesn’t impress you, her endings tend to stick although the complexity and ambiguities sometimes tangle with too much to wrestle. Occasionally, she could have used a good editor to hash out the ideas.

Not too too long after St. Clair started published, James Blish initiated his critical article series as William Atheling (see The Issue in Hand). He said that the market was flooded with thirty magazines, publishing a lot of stories without “technique.” This was what he aimed to correct in his series. On the other hand, this created a fine training ground for many writers to grow up in. Undoubtedly, bad writers forever wrote badly, but some improved over time.

St. Clair, in her introduction to her Best of collection—a very humble if too brief recollection of a rough home life highlighted only by two kind uncles (if only she’d shared more so we could compare and contrast her life with her story “The Little Red Owl”)—wrote that the market did not support “humor and characterization,” which may go some length in explaining story defects. But her writing did “mature” through this magazine system.

Her first two stories demonstrate the training-wheels program: “Rocket to Limbo” and “Piety.” The first anticipates the tradition of Galaxy magazine (see also radio programs like X-Minus-One and the popular TV show The Twilight Zone)—projecting the present into the near future in a fun, semi-realistic manner—a now uncommon trend. “Rocket to Limbo” unintentionally photographs its time period more than future, which is most of the story’s pleasure. A woman gets an ad—for her eyes only—that she can get rid of her husband if she follows her instructions. The story begs for a sequel. In fact, despite the ending suggesting something final, it is only starting to get interesting. Observe how the characters behave toward one another. Their response is not the expected one. There’s something intriguing going on between them that is worth investigating in a second tale (plus, we’d learn about this new place). If only I’d been her editor...

“Piety” has a wonderful ending which you may or may not guess, but it goes on too long (despite its brevity) with “human” talking heads who try to pry the secret of immortality out of an alien. You may well guess both endings, which are somewhat satisfying, quelled by a less than stellar technique.

The second pair of stories show promise. “The Gardener” [reprinted by August Derleth and Michael Parry] feels modern. If I supply the initial scenario, you’ll guess the outcome: A gardener chops down one of fifty rare and ancient trees. No one knows why there have always been just fifty. Still, the ending is killer.

“Child of Void” [reprinted by Groff Conklin and Isaac Asimov] has a strong child-like voice about a single-parent family that moves to an area where the laws of physics don’t apply, and the boys find a talking egg. You cannot guess this ending, which explains the problem to a degree. As the story has a too-rich complexity that doesn’t gel, so the ending cannot resonate. It’s interesting, nonetheless, and demonstrates St. Clair’s fertile imagination. Both stories were collected in St. Clair’s Best of.

Some readers may like “Hathor’s Pets” [reprinted by Groff Conklin] because the premise is well set up: In a society where women have lost ground societally, a husband and wife have been transported elsewhere (another dimension?). They see themselves as pets, so they come up with plans that will allow them to return to their home. However, the alien treats them as unruly pets.... But it’s hard to distinguish any of the characters. The intriguing set-up resonates with the ending only thematically since one idea does not flow naturally from the other. “Good” politics may not equate to “good” stories, but it’s interesting, nonetheless.

[This is part one of a three-part review. Part two appears here and part three here.]

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