Wednesday, December 6, 2023

SSW: "A Game of Vlet" by Joanna Russ (the final Alyx story) THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, February 1974, edited by Edward L. Ferman: Short Story Wednesday

Joanna Russ was perhaps less prolific than she hoped to be, afflicted as she was with distractingly painful back problems in the last decades of her life (she noted she could only write comfortably while standing, and eventually that didn't help, either), and this might've contributed to the relatively few stories (including a short novel and several novelets) in her influential Alyx series of sword & sorcery fantasies (some science-fantasies, as s&s fiction often dances across that line, if rarely into out and out science fiction), some of the earlier examples to feature a woman protagonist (Catherine L. Moore and her Jirel of Joiry stories were among the relatively few predecessors). Nonetheless, her body of work, nonfiction (including a lot of literary criticism) and mostly early poetry along with her fiction, was influential and often controversial, some of it intentionally, some of it simply because there were too many too easily outraged. 

Most of the Alyx stories have been collected in the volumes Alyx (Gregg Press 1976) and The Adventures of Alyx (Pocket Books 1983), but for whatever reason, Russ didn't choose to have today's story, "A Game of Vlet", included in either collection...perhaps because she chose to see the story as a sort of coda to the others, perhaps because she distances even the character in the story from the others by never naming Alyx thus in the 1974 story, though it seems pretty clear we are to understand the trickster and predator on the elite in "Vlet" is Alyx. 

The Library of America has produced an omnibus of Russ's work, this one perhaps most driven by the novel The Female Man and its companion story "When It Changed", and the Alyx cycle, collected here with the novellas On Strike Against God (which in contemporary-mimetic terms deals with some of the aspects of The Female Man, and has been too long out of print) and "Souls", and the novel We Who Are About To... (this last in part a slap at and refutation of insanely antifeminist strands in sf perpetuated by such writers as Randall Garrett ["Queen Bee"] and particularly and most directly Marion Zimmer Bradley [Darkover Landfall]; Russ and Bradley had an exchange of letters about Vonda McIntyre's unfavorable review of the Bradley novel in the early feminist fantasy/sf fanzine The Witch and the Chameleon, and excerpts from the letters can be read here

Russ contributes one of her series of book review columns to this issue as well; the issue can be read here; "A Game of Vlet" follows the review essay.

But it is useful, as LOA editor Nicole Rudick notes, to have all the Alyx stories together, and in introducing "A Game of Vlet" for "The Story of the Week" web-feature, she notes that Russ's friend Samuel Delany was inspired by this story to do his own sword & sorcery sequence of stories, the Neveryon cycle (as well as having characters play Vlet in his sf novel Triton), and that Russ was in turn sparked to write this story by Avram Davidson's historical fantasy The Phoenix and the Mirror, in which Vergil Magus attempts to create a virgin speculum, with certain powers it confers. Rudick doesn't note the degree to which Russ's friend Fritz Leiber, a grandmaster in chess competitions, made chess and chess-like gaming a part of his s&s series of stories, running from vignettes and novels, and vlet if anything is a magically-powerful elaboration on chess (Russ and Leiber also wrote one story each in their sword and sorcery cycles that features the character from the other's...Fafhrd, the Leiber character who is in a few ways based on Leiber himself appears in Russ's "I Thought She Was Afeard Until She Stroked My Beard", and Alyx, based in a few ways on Russ, appears in Leiber's "The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar")...Leiber's and Russ's careers had certain other parallels, as well, quite aside from being two of the most literarily innovative writers in fantastica. As was Davidson, as Delany remains, albeit he's moving, I think, toward complete retirement in re: fiction-writing.

The story is politically charged and cleverly worked out, and brief...Russ noted that she had no more stories to write about Alyx after its publication; had she lived longer and more healthily, she might've eventually found some more to say. Alyx in her late years might've made an excellent study.

Previously to the LOA omnibus, the only Russ volume "A Game of Vlet" was included in was the fine collection The Zanzibar Cat, which saw a small-press-run edition from Arkham House (with a rather ugly cover) and a somewhat better package from Baen Books (I believe I have both editions in the chaotic personal library):

ISFDB is only aware of it having been otherwise reprinted in the French edition (but not the US ones) of Jessica Amanda Salmonson's anthology Amazons! and Joan and Fred Saberhagen's chess fantasy story anthology Pawn to Infinity (the ISFDB doesn't yet have a complete entry on the LOA omnibus). At this moment, the FictionMags Index doesn't have "Vlet" tagged as an Alyx story. We'll see about getting these lacunae filled...

Joanna Russ on Sweet Freedom

For more of today's SSW entries, please see Patti Abbott's blog.


George said...

I was surprised--and delighted!--when the LIBRARY OF AMERICA brought out this Joanna Russ volume. The LOA has other SF author volumes: Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Todd Mason said...

And Lisa Yaszek's anthology, THE FUTURE IS FEMALE, and Gary K. Wolfe's American SF Novels volumes, and, of course, the Kurt Vonnegut volumes all have at least an sf novel or two, and others come close (DeLillo, Lovecraft, et al.). Octavia Butler's is mostly sf, though KINDRED is a horror novel, by me, at least.

And the horror volumes, such as the Poe, Bierce (also some sf in each), Washington Irving, Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub's survey anthology of American horror, are also welcome, even if frequently LOA volumes are more worthy than definitive.

TracyK said...

This is very interesting and informative, Joanna Russ is new to me. I will see if I can find some stories to sample.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Tracy! I have some links to stories above, and I first read her humorous story (in fake nonfiction guidebook form) "Useful Phrases for the Tourist" and her criticism first...any of her collections will serve you well, I'd say, and her early horror stories such as "Come Closer" and "There is Another Shore, You Know, Upon the Other Side" are often brilliant (one of the ways her career has a similar shape to Leiber's, as both wrote horror fiction primarily early on), and her nonfiction books are impressive, as well, though the prose in her last book, WHAT ARE WE FIGHTING FOR?, shows some of the strain her health problems were placing on her.

Todd Mason said...

Also, such humorous Lovecrafian horror and fantasy(!) as the early "'I Had Vacantly Crumpled It Into My Pocket--But, By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!'" and the later "My Boat" are great fun, as well...

Todd Mason said... (parking this here for the moment.)