Swords Against Retcon: The Adventures of Alyx

I’ve been feeling kind of semi-literate in my chosen field lately. So, instead of rereading heroic fantasy I’ve already read (which is one of my big occupations: I strongly believe in rereading), in the last year or so I’ve been having a run at stuff I’m less familiar with.

My discoveries won’t be discoveries to most people–Glen Cook, for instance (whose early work is being reprinted by Tor and Night Shade). Or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy: these books have made a huge splash in the UK and here and don’t need any kind words from me, nor do Sherwood Smith’s fine epic fantasies (the classic YA Crown Duel or her newer series beginning with Inda).

Not all my ventures have been successes: I still haven’t read a significant amount of Karl Edward Wagner’s work; the astronomical prices for used copies of the Night Shade collections sort of chilled my enthusiasm. I’ve tried several times to read Shea’s well-received Nifft the Lean but the layers of embedding around the story keep putting me off. (Also, I wasn’t crazy about his Dying Earth pastiche, A Quest for Simbilis and I may be harboring a slight prejudice.) I also reacquainted myself with Samuel R. Delany’s Neveryon stories, at least to the extent of remembering why I disliked them so intensely. (That may be worth writing about, when I get my thoughts in order.)

One of the most interesting things I read lately was Joanna Russ’ Adventures of Alyx, a collection of loosely related stories that the feminist stalwart published between 1967 and 1970.

What I thought it would be was something like the episodic novels Leiber was cobbling together at the same time from his long-running Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, or the ones Sprague De Camp was assembling from REH’s Conan stories (pastiching over the rather sizeable gaps), or the ones Michael Moorcock would construct from his Elric stories.

But Adventures of Alyx is not an episodic novel at all, and that’s not just because Russ didn’t write bridge passages to connect the stories into a single narrative. No one could. The main character Alyx is more or less the same in all the stories (except the last story in the volume, where she isn’t very obviously a character at all), but her backstory shifts quite dramatically from one tale to another. And in the first three stories (“Bluestocking,” “I Thought She Was Afeard Until She Stroked My Beard,” and “The Barbarian”) Alyx lives in a Bronze Age neverneverland dominated by the Lankhmar-like city of Ourdh. In “Picnic on Paradise” (the only one of these stories I’d read before) she is in the far future, recruited at the point of death by the TransTemporal Agency, and the world of her backstory has become a somewhat more historical ancient Mediterranean. She does not seem to appear in the final story at all, which involves an internal struggle of the TransTemporal Agency, the scene of the conflict being an American home in the 1920s.

If the reader is thinking, “Fafhrd meets the Change War!” I think that’s fair. Russ is pretty frank about her Leiberian influences. In “Bluestocking” (originally published as “The Adventuress” in Damon Knight’s Orbit 2), Alyx even recalls an encounter with a red-haired barbarian: “Fafnir–no, Fafh–well, something ridiculous”. Leiber returned the compliment by including Alyx the Picklock in a catalogue of thieves in “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar”. (She also appears in a dreamlike sequence in a later story, “Under the Thumbs of the Gods”, and intones, “All men are enemies!” Which may be a ham-handed reference to Russ’ intensifying feminism in the 70s.)

But Alyx (Russ’ Alyx) is not just an s&s hero with a vagina slapped on as an afterthought. She’s a genuine, quite plausible female character who just happens to be an action hero. (Her sword is engraved with the motto, “Good Manners Are Not Enough.”) Also, she doesn’t exactly inhabit a fantasy universe: the magic in her world turns out to be advanced science, or maybe I should say a sufficiently advanced technology. Further, it’s an oversimplification to say that Alyx inhabits a universe.

Each one of these stories pretends to be part of a larger saga and each one of them makes it impossible to build a consistent world for the series. So really, each one stands alone. But not really. It’s a little maddening, but in an interesting way. I kept thinking about retcon, that Change Wind of comic book universes, which can sweep though storylines, changing everything… and somehow the audience adjusts. It was as if each story was set in a slightly (or more than slightly) retconned world. Each one is written with vivid, gemlike clarity; each one is imperfect, suggesting other pieces of the story that will never be told; each one contradicts the one which went before and the one that follows. I wouldn’t want a library of books like this, but it is certainly a book worth reading and rereading.

Russ has fallen silent, hardly publishing any fiction in the last 20 years or so. That’s a loss, I think.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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18 Responses to Swords Against Retcon: The Adventures of Alyx

  1. le_trombone says:

    I think that I can predict with confidence that you’ll enjoy Glen Cook’s books. Are you starting with the Black Company or Garrett books, or something else?

    It’s funny, but of the Russ that I have read, most of it hasn’t been the Alyx stories. I probably should remedy that.

    And off-topic, I read in Locus about your sale (and of course now that I’m caught up in messages, I see you announced it too). Congratulations, I’ll look forward to it.

    • JE says:

      I’ve read the first couple Black Company books and liked them. The first of Night Shade’s Dread Empire omnibuses is around the house, too–I might have to take a run at that sometime soon.

      And the sale is never off-topic–thanks for the kind words.

  2. sartorias says:

    Russ has been writing mysteries. That’s an excellent roundup of the Alyx stories.

    • JE says:

      Thanks! I’ll have to check out Russ’ mysteries. Seems like a form she’d do something interesting with.

    • ide_cyan says:

      Has she? I know that Kate Wilhelm’s been writing mysteries, but I haven’t heard anything about Russ writing mysteries. Did you confuse the two, or could you direct me with useful information (titles, publisher?) to the mysteries written by Russ?

  3. Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy

    That’s what I’m reading right now (I just finished The Blade Itself). So compared to me, you’re an early adopter. 🙂

    • JE says:

      Thanks, this is good to hear. Reading an author who’s not actually dead yet is usually as close as I get to the cutting edge.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Yikes! I’m almost tempted to sell my copy of Midnight Sun. I missed out on Gods of Darkness, but I think I have the three novels in paperback.

    • Anonymous says:

      Me again.

      –Jeff Stehman

      • JE says:

        The going rate is pretty surprising. I wonder why Night Shade doesn’t re-issue them–maybe some problem with the estate?

        What do you think of the novels? Are they worth tracking down in old editions?

        • Anonymous says:

          It’s been a while since I’ve read them, but none of them wowed me like some of the short stories. Bloodstone was the first one I found–hard to do before used books came online–and the plot disappointed me. Kane is still very much Kane, but the science fantasy aspect of the story turned me off. In the other two novels, the villains around Kane lessened my enjoyment. (I did, however, really enjoy the opening chapter of Dark Crusade, and Kane isn’t even in it.)

          As much as I love some of the short stories, perhaps I’m not meant to dwell on Kane too long.

          Well, off to church. 🙂

          –Jeff Stehman

          • JE says:

            Good to know. Maybe I’ll hold out for a reprint of “Midnight Sun”, or wait for the price to drop. Something tells me we might be on the same page on this one.

  5. cathydalek says:

    There’s also a novel length version of Picnic on Paradise. It’s one of the few stories where I felt the expansion did not harm the story. In some of her work, Russ’s politics are dropped on the reader like an anvil on the head (see “When it Changed”), but she’s generally a pretty interesting writer. IIRC, jim Baen published a fair amount of her work because her books were in keeping with his libertarian views.

    • JE says:

      I think it’s the novel-version that’s in the collection I read (which is, indeed, a Baen book).

      Though I hold no brief for Baen’s covers (some of the ugliest art in the history of sf/f), I do think they’ve published a lot of great fiction (Bujold’s sf, for instance), and they continue to do great reprint work. I can’t say I’m a big fan of some of their newer stuff (Ringo, Kratman et al.). I wonder if JB may have narrowed his ideological focus in later years–or maybe I have.

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