Grokking Karen Joy Fowler

Artificial ThingsI worked in the early 70s as the children’s book buyer for an Austin bookstore called Grok Books. It was the predecessor to Bookpeople, the city’s highly successful indie bookstore, but I’m mentioning it here because of the name, which as the astute SF/F fans among you will recognize as coming from Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

It was not a science fiction bookstore. There was some science fiction on the shelves, but it wasn’t a particular focus of the shop. The name was chosen because Stranger in a Strange Land was one of the books that everybody read and grok – as used in the book – had become current slang.

It wasn’t the only SF/F book that was wildly popular back then. Everyone also read Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (the original three books), Herbert’s Dune (though not necessarily the sequels), and – of course – The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I remember enjoying the books, though truth be told, I can’t remember much about Stranger in a Strange Land. Dune definitely appealed to the psychedelic crowd and I adopted Salvor Hardin’s motto from Foundation: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” I still have the backpack I embroidered it on. I believe I have explained elsewhere that I got through law school by rereading Tolkien every semester during finals.

Here’s what those books didn’t do: They didn’t make me a science fiction and fantasy reader. I don’t mean they made me avoid SF/F; I mean that I didn’t see them as the doorway to other stories I might like.

I got to wondering the other day if one reason I wasn’t attracted by the classic Golden Age SF was because I grew up so close to NASA. What is now the Johnson Space Center was about five miles from my house. I went to church with the head of Mission Control. My sister took gymnastics with the kids of astronauts.

Back in those heady days, I thought of NASA as turning science fiction into science fact.

Whatever the cause, I stumbled into serious SF/F reading much later, and the people who defined the genre for me were not Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, Clarke, or even Ray Bradbury. They were Le Guin, Delany, Tiptree, Russ, Cherryh, McIntyre, Zelazny, and Gibson.

And, a little later, Karen Joy Fowler. I have this memory of being in an SF/F store somewhere in Manhattan in the late 80s and discovering a Pulphouse Author’s Choice Monthly collection of Fowler’s stories. I’m not sure if I already knew her work and was looking for it, or if this was sheer serendipity. I do know that after I found that collection, I went looking for Fowler’s work everywhere.

I’ve been sick for the past couple of weeks, which means that I was scouting the bookshelves for books that I know well to read while lying around. One of the books I picked up was Fowler’s collection, Artificial Things, which contains one of my favorite stories of all time, “The View From Venus.”

Artificial Things is an amazing collection in general. Of the 13 stories in this 1986 book, 8 were reprints, and 7 of those appeared in either Asimov’s Science Fiction or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1985 or 1986. No question that Fowler was a hot author at the time. (Given that she won the PEN/Faulkner last year for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, she’s still a hot author.)

But “The View From Venus” was one of the originals. It’s a simple enough story. Some students, under the guidance of a professor, are “absorbing” the experiences of a young woman in 1969 in Berkeley for their course in Comparative Romance. The story never specifies who the observers (or absorbers) are. They pass themselves off as Venusians at one point, but they could be extraterrestrials from anywhere. Or even time travelers from the far future. Certainly they are well-versed in human culture.

We shift back and forth from watching the budding romance between Linda and Dave and the analysis provided by the professor guiding the student discussion. Here’s a passage in which the professor gives the students some context:

There are four women involved in this next Encounter, four relatively intelligent women, and yet all four share the same basic belief that anyone who looks at them closely will not love them. They feel that their energies in a relationship must go primarily to the task of preventing the male from ever seeing them clearly.

That resonated for me. I bet it resonated for a lot of women. And the story is full of gems like that.

This, to me, was what science fiction was for: a way to bend the rules to show us truth from another angle. This is what hooked me on the genre.



Grokking Karen Joy Fowler — 12 Comments

  1. Yeah, I didn’t get excited about science fiction from those early tales either. They made it clear that the future lay solely in the hands of white men who worshipped math and science. And it seemed such a deliberately ugly future, utilitarian at best, with apparently no place for beauty or surprise (other than monster attacks).

    I think it was Andre Norton (hey, I was in junior high) who got me to shift my path. She gave others besides white boys agency–including, eventually, women. Though at first through the more fantasy-oriented work.

    Later, it was actually fan fiction, written by women in the settings of the male writers’ stuff, that put women as starship captains and fighters and explorers and whatever else they wanted to do that firmly shifted my path.

    (But I never used the word ‘grok’. It had a nasty undertone of consumption, to my ear.)

    • Michael Ventura also writes about discovering Andre Norton when he was a boy in Brooklyn and how many doors she opened for him. I wish I had discovered her work when I was a kid, but my reading was defined by the bookmobile, the school library, and what interested my parents. I don’t recall any science fiction or fantasy coming along before college.

      I don’t think I ever used grok, either, but I always thought of it as meaning “intuit.” And I associate it with the bookstore. It was a wonderful bookstore. A converted house with lots of little rooms full of books. A pot of coffee available. An amazing assortment of books of all kinds. And because I was in charge of buying children’s books — I took over from the owner’s ex-wife, who taught me the ropes — I got to borrow the books and take them home to read so that I would be up on my genre.

  2. I think, if there was a door into SF/Fantasy for me, it was in a collection of short stories called Tomorrow’s Children which I found while shelving books at my school library (I was one of those kids). It had a great range of stories by writers like Zenna Henderson and Bradbury and Jerome Bixby, but the story that utterly riveted me was “The Ugly Little Boy,” where the protagonist wasn’t a white male, or even a youngster, but a middle-aged spinster. I suspect, thinking back, that there are assumptions in that story that would now drive me nuts, but at the time the fact that someone (Asimov) had written a story about a woman who would never be a princess (or a prince) was revelatory.

    I went from there to reading everything I could get my hands on, uncritically. I didn’t care (or at least didn’t feel excluded by) stories with the default White Male–as a matter of fact, I think the Heinleins and Clarkes and Asimovs I read were the only time I ever had the experience of being competent at math. I liked the “science can solve everything” attitude precisely because the world I lived in seemed to need so much solving…

    I haunted the spinner racks at the drugstore, which was, other than the libraries, my only source for SF. I didn’t care for epic Fantasy (I still cannot read Tolkein, although I can enjoy hearing his work read aloud), and other branches of fantasy were not much in vogue (with the exception of McCaffrey’s Pern books, which always felt like an uneasy amalgam of romance and SF). But I discovered Zenna Henderson and Suzette Haden Elgin’s Coyote Jones books, and a weird little book called Space Relations which sort of turns the “slave girl of the empire” trope on its head. I didn’t much care who the protagonist was; if she was female she always seemed to want to do something that was marked Boys Only, and that got old. What, I think, really drew me in those uncritical days was the looking forward, the “if this goes on” forecasting, and the sense that what I saw every day was not the whole of the universe.

    • Your library was better stocked than mine. My grandmother and I used to volunteer at the Friendswood Public Library, which had no paid staff and very few books. But it was a step in the right direction as the town began to grow. I was going to say it beat the bookmobile, but now that I think about it, the bookmobile had a bigger selection.

      • We had land in two townships, so I had access to the libraries in both (as well as the school library, which arguably had the most SF–the town libraries were great for romantic suspense and historical). The more arcane of my SF reading came from those spinner racks, which were filled on Wednesdays (how do I know this? Because I targeted Wednesdays like an opium fiend. “Mom? Do you need anything from the drugstore? Really? Nothing?”)

        • I am so jealous. One grocery store we patronized occasionally had spinner racks of comics, but not books. In high school we could subscribe to a paperback book service, but that was limited to books considered suitable for kids.

          OTOH, my parents’ collection had its good points. I did start reading Shakespeare at about 10. Also Dorothy Parker.

  3. Good gosh, I remember TOMORROW’S CHILDREN.
    I was overseas for much of my youth, in an era when the American presence overseas was dominated by military personnel. Which is to say, young men. So all the books in the PX bookstore were targeted towards them, as were all the magazines, all the records, and so forth. And since the books in the base library were essentially donated by military guys being posted elsewhere (there is very rarely any money budgeted for base libraries anywhere in the world) I have long experience in picking through literature totally unsuited for a preteen girl.

  4. I read all the James Bond novels when I was in junior high school. I think that’s about the right age range for them.

    Don’t remember learning to read, but the first book I remember reading was Waldo & Magic, Inc., by Heinlein. I didn’t have to wrestle with librarians about what was suitable for kids as I would simply read the SF my dad got out of the library.

    Karen’s work is wonderful. We’re of an age (maybe I am a bit older) so I started reading her work as an adult. Very glad that younger readers can read her work as younger readers, and that girls don’t have to transform themselves into boy heroes, which is more or less what I had to do, reading SF in the 1950s.

    • I think you’ve nailed the right age for James Bond novels. And at that age, you just skip the sex, which is better for everyone.

      My problem was never librarians; it was insufficient library selection and a lack of decent bookstores. My parents were big readers, but the only SF either of them ever read was by me.

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