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Weird Women, Wired Women by Kit Reed (Wesleyan University Press, $16.95, 231 pages, paperback; hardback also available at $40.00. Published 24 April 1998.)

cover scan ''If satire is the instrument of rebellion," writes Kit Reed in her introduction to this elegantly produced collection of short stories, "I was loaded for bear."

Science fiction's greatest strengths are at the same time its most worrying weaknesses. It starts, as all fiction starts, by inventing metaphors from which to construct an argument about how people relate to each other and the world. But the freedom sf affords itself is at once awesome and barren. It's not just a land with nothing in it; it's a land with no meaning, neither. In an invented landscape, it is not enough to build objects anew ­­ somehow those objects have to be given a human significance.

The temptation, in an empty landscape, is to build big and build tall. What would be the point of moving to this wasteland otherwise? Sf metaphors are invariably brash, exuberant, and startling ­­ too startling, indeed, to easily represent anything merely human. A mile-long spaceship, meant to represent the project of human curiosity and enterprise, becomes in the writing, well, one heck of a mile-long spaceship. Ironically, the better the writer's imagination, the worse the problem becomes. The more distinct, particular, vivid, and startling the signifier, the less it can signify anything other than its own glittering self. The plumbing replaces the point.

Enter Kit Reed, loaded ­­ she says, ominously enough ­­ for bear.

As it turns out, Reed's stories ­­ spanning four decades, all represented here ­­ are luridly tinted but not-at-all-distorted mirrors of her sex and times. They are tales of abandonment, love, and terrible betrayal, of monstrous mothers and neighbours from hell. If there is a typical Kit Reed story, it is one in which a housewife is disenfranchised from society by widowhood or divorce, and who, in her desperate desire to belong again, sacrifices her innocent, cumbersome child.

"They were all arranged very artistically in the living room, the dog and the cat curled next to the sofa, Polly Ann looking just as pretty as life in her maroon velvet dress with the organdy pinafore. Her eyes were a little glassy and her legs did stick out at a slightly unnatural angle, but Norma had thrown an Afghan over one end of the couch, where she was sitting, and thought the effect, in the long run, was just as good as anything she'd ever seen on a television commercial, and almost as pretty as some of the pictures she had seen in magazines. She noticed with a little pang that there was a certain moist look about the way Polly Ann was watching her, and so she went to the child and patted one waxen hand."

­­ Cynosure (1964)

These are stories driven by personal demons, not by pre-articulated political arguments. In modern parlance, therefore, they are not 'political' stories ­­ because no-one believes any more that you can be honest and political at the same time. But this is a nasty, complacent, and dangerous assumption, and Reed's work is its articulate disproof: Reed is the premier feminist sf writer of her generation, and, equally, the most humane.

Why do Reed's stories work? Why do they not become, as so many sf stories become, merely exercises in context-free exuberance ­­ follies in the desert? The key is Reed's characterisation. Reed is the only sf writer living to have mastered Henry James's dictum that action is character and character, action. The maguffin in each story is never the end of that story. It is there to push a character into a particular state of mind, and it is the subsequent actions of that character that carry the story's significance.

The effect of reading Kit Reed is similar to the experience of Jacobean tragedy. We may laugh at the farce as it escalates, but our laughter is always cut with terror and pity, because we know that for the characters, what is happening is real and deadly. What for us is farce, for them is hell.

"On the floor, the old Howard had gotten turned on its stomach somehow, and was floundering like a displaced fish. Marnie watched, taut with rage, too stricken to speak. The old Howard flapped a few times, made it to its knees and then slipped on the tissue paper again. Hardly looking at it, Marnie smoothed the coif she had prepared for the Hotchkiss-Baines dinner that night... Dispassionately, she moved forward and kicked a piece of tissue out of the way. She drew herself up, supple, beautiful, and she seemed to find new strength. The old Howard flapped again. 'Oh, get up,' she said, and poked it with her toe. She was completely composed now. 'Get up ­­ darling,' she spat."

­­ The New You (1962)

Kit Reed is a kind of Martin Scorsese of the Kaffeeklatsch. 'The Big Shave' is no more shrieking a metaphor of male anxiety than, say, 'The Cynosure' is of Kit Reed's personal/political horrors, and for forty years she has been hacking at them with an ice-pick no less sharp for its being wrapped in a doily.

Eventually, Reed's politics will become hard to access. The first casualty of Feminism's swift development must be its literature, and many of Reed's early stories have long since had their social contexts ripped out from under them. But Reed will endure: partly because of her literary value; also because she writes fables about how political complacency and domestic conformism reinforce each other. We simply can't afford to be without them.

Review by Simon Ings.

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© Simon Ings 7 November 1998