This is one of my In Short columns, dealing with Carol Emshwiller’s story from Dangerous Visions. It first appeared in Vector 282, Winter 2015-16.
“The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands & feet Proportion”
Nothing ages faster than iconoclasm. What is intended to outrage today will seem tame tomorrow, and by the third day it will be hard to remember why it was ever considered unusual.
Dangerous Visions, the massive anthology edited by Harlan Ellison which was published in 1967 as the key text of the American New Wave, was certainly intended to be iconoclastic. Ellison’s original introduction began: “What you hold in your hands is more than a book. If we are lucky, it is a revolution” (9). This was meant to be the big break with the science fiction of the past, a (small-c) conservative literature that took few risks either in terms of literary style or ideas. It is hard to see how it meant to do this, given how much of the content was provided by writers who were closely associated with that (small-c) conservative past. The UK paperback edition of Dangerous Visions came out in three volumes; of the 11 stories contained in the second volume, for example, five came from well-established writers like Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson and Damon Knight. Dick had always been idiosyncratic (though not exactly iconoclastic) and Knight was known for championing a literary style of sf; but this was hardly a break with the past. These were, on the whole, good stories (Leiber’s “Gonna Roll the Bones”, for instance, won Hugo and Nebula Awards, though the account of a man playing craps with death wouldn’t really have been out of place in any of host of other venues at the time), but they were hardly revolutionary.
Nevertheless, it worked, at least to the extent that the hard sf that had been the norm in America before this point instantly seemed passé. There was, naturally, a second, even more massive anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions, which came out in 1972, and though the contents were, if anything, more innovative than in the first book, it no longer seemed as if it was a challenge to the established order. (I am convinced that one of the reasons The Last Dangerous Visions has never seen the light of day is not only that it would have been totally unwieldy, but that by the time it could have been published it would have had no purpose; by that time the Dangerous Visions brand represented the sf establishment rather than the upstarts.)
Dangerous Visions, therefore, is an anthology to be admired for its place in the history of the genre, but not necessarily one to be revisited. From our modern perspective, far more of the stories seem to be playing safe rather than kicking against the pricks. But there were a couple of stories that were genuinely revolutionary, and are as challenging today as they were then. One of these is “Sex and/or Mr Morrison” by Carol Emshwiller.
You may have noticed that all of the authors I’ve name-checked so far are men. This is hardly accidental: of the 33 stories included in the anthology, only three were by women. This was 1967, the women’s liberation movement was in full swing, but science fiction was not seen as a place for women, particularly not if you were trying to do something radical. Harlan Ellison’s introduction to Carol Emshwiller very carefully puts her in a domestic context – “Levittown housewife – three kids, bad housekeeper, can cook if she makes the effort and now and then she does” (213) – though I suspect these details were supplied by Emshwiller with a far greater sense of irony than Ellison recounts them. Of course he promotes her as a singular writer who “has her own voice, defies comparison, probes areas usually considered dangerous, and is as close to being the pure artist as any writer I have met” (211), though it quickly becomes apparent that what he means by “pure artist” is someone who doesn’t let herself be guided by the dictates of the market, so this is an Ellisonian circumlocution for “not widely published”. When it comes to this particular story, however, he is rather more equivocal: it is “by no means a failure … easily the strangest sex story ever written … (and) … I recommend it to younger writers breaking in, looking for new directions” (213). A model for others to build on rather than a great work in its own right?
I would guess that Ellison didn’t really know what to make of the story. In truth, I’m not sure I do; but that’s part of the point. He is anxious to stress that it is “functionally science fiction” (213), whatever that means, but it is really only science fiction if you squint at it in a certain light. Which is not to say that it is a mainstream story, rather it is a story that refuses to slot neatly into any genre categories. There is something voyeuristic in reading fiction; we are outside looking in on figures obliviously performing for our pleasure. But this is a story that stares right back at us. It is a story designed to make the reader uncomfortable, conscious that in this work we are the focus of our own gaze. That is why we cannot categorise it, because to do so would categorise ourselves.
It is, in its simplest formulation, a story about voyeurism, about a woman anxious to spy upon the genitals of her neighbour. But then, that hardly accounts for the complexity of the story.
Emshwiller has a deceptively simple style: short, common words, short, simple sentences. The stories she tells are not in the words on the page but rather lie in the gaps between the words, in what we infer from what is not said. Mr Morrison (we never learn his first name, in fact we learn remarkably little about him; this is not a story about the man but rather about what the narrator imagines the man to be) is a large, fat man, though his “moonface has something of the Mona Lisa to it” (214). A curious comparison, one might think, but then the Mona Lisa is known for her enigmatic smile, and this story is all about what our narrator reads into the enigma that is Mr Morrison. Actually we are also told that his smile is “wistful” (214), so not like the Mona Lisa, then; that he has a “clipped little Boston accent” (214), and that the narrator first thinks he is proud then amends that to shy. The later detail that “he shuts the front door so gently one would think he is afraid of his own fat hands” (215), tends to support the notion that he is shy rather than proud. Given the intrusion that she will perpetrate against him, the shyness only exacerbates the damage.
What else do we know about him? He is a man of regular habits: “I can set my clock by Mr Morrison’s step upon the stairs” (214). He is a man weighed down by his vast size: “How many pounds per square inch weighing him down? … All his muscles spread like jelly under his skin” (214) and consequently “The house groans with him and settles when he steps out of bed. The floor creaks under his feet” (215). The heaviness makes him slow of movement, slow of thought, slow of speech. The first words he utters are: “’Heh, heh … my, my,’ grunt, breath. ‘Well,’ heave the stomach to the right, ‘I hope …’” (214, ellipses in the original). This is exactly the sort of vague, meaningless murmur one might make to someone we recognise but don’t know, friendly but not committed. But that is not how the narrator interprets it. Everything we are told about Mr Morrison is from the outside, things we might observe about his size, his smile, his movements, without any degree of intimacy. But the narrator thinks it is more than that, so much more that she can actually intuit his thoughts: “He thinks, if he thinks of me at all: What can she say and what can I say talking to her? What can she possibly know that I don’t know already?” (214).
Of course, the story isn’t really about Mr Morrison, it’s about the narrator; but we know even less about her. About the only definitive thing we do know is that she is a woman; she is single and fairly old – “Why, I’m old enough for him to be (had I ever married) my youngest son of all” (220) even though Mr Morrison is “big enough to be everybody’s father” (217) – and she would appear to be quite small, “almost child-sized” (216); references to fathers, mothers, children, recur significantly throughout the story. She doesn’t work, she spends her days at a park or a museum; she has a limited income, a pension maybe, because “if I’m very careful with my budget, now and then I can squeeze in a matinee” (215). Other than that, nothing. We are not told her name, or given any clue as to her history, her private life, or anything else about her.
What we do know is that she lives in the apartment directly below Mr Morrison. She doesn’t leave the building until he’s gone to work in the morning, and likes to be home before he comes back. She follows the sound of his movements in the room above; sometimes (and this is where we get our first sense of something creepy in her behaviour) “I ape his movements, bed to dresser, step, clump, dresser to closet and back again” (215). And as she does so, she imagines “those great legs sliding into pants, their godlike width (for no mere man could have legs like that), those Thor-legs into pants holes wide as caves” (215). It is tempting at this point to accept Mr Morrison as someone more than human, someone whose bulk makes him godlike, alien. But always we must remember that it is not Mr Morrison we are seeing, but the narrator’s perceptions of him. This is an insight not into the reality of Mr Morrison but into the peculiarity of the narrator’s mind.
And at last we begin to intuit something of that peculiarity as she muses: “Who is he really, one of the Normals or one of the Others?” (215). Though what she means by Normal and Other is something we will have to wait a while to discover. First, she plans an expedition. This isn’t the first, by any means: “recently, I’ve spent all night huddled under a bush in Central Park and twice I’ve crawled out on the fire escape and climbed to the roof” (215-6). In fact, “I was rather saving Mr Morrison for last” (216). Last what? What was she doing in Central Park at night or creeping about on the roof? She doesn’t say, this is one of the many things we have to guess from what she doesn’t say, but it would seem most likely that she is trying to spy on couples making love. But that doesn’t quite explain why she breaks into Mr Morrison’s apartment and seeks out places where she can hide and watch him.
Here, having crawled under a desk because she reckons that his bulk means he won’t see anything low down, she recollects that “I’ve never seen (and doesn’t this seem strange?) the very organs of my own conception, neither my father nor my mother. Goodness knows what they were and what this might make me?” (218). To be honest, this probably doesn’t seem strange to most of us, in fact we probably haven’t paid much thought to the question one way or another. For our narrator however, this perceived strangeness is connected to another thought: “there are only two sexes and everyone of us is one of those … (but) … there must be Others among us” (218). Her nighttime expeditions to Central Park, therefore, are part of a self-assigned mission to discover these Others, a third sex, an alien among us. Whether this is a sign of sexual repression (an elderly spinster), or simple curiosity, or because there actually is a sexual Other among us (the science fictional reading), is never made explicit in the story. Why should it be? We are always the Other, this is how the story stares back at the reader.
For now, she waits, beginning to feel safe in the room, as if “I really did belong in this room and could actually creep around and not be noticed by Mr Morrison at all except perhaps for a pat on the head as I pass him” (218). She has already imagined herself as a lizard scuttling about the room, now she seems to see herself as a pet dog or cat; she may think of herself as on a quest to find the Other, but in her imagination she is the one who seems to be becoming Other.
Then Mr Morrison returns and sits down at the desk where the narrator is hiding. Suddenly we see that the constant descriptions of his bulk, his heaviness, his slowness are all sexually charged. Right now his fat knees become “Mother’s breasts pressing towards me” (219). When she watches him undress, the size of his clothing marks him as alien. “In what factory did women sit at sewing machines and put out one after another after another of those otherworldly items? Mars? Venus? Saturn more likely. Or, perhaps, instead, a tiny place, some moon of Jupiter with less air per square inch upon the skin and less gravity” (219). It is essentially the same thing that marks him as sexually desirable and as alien. And again she transposes the alien onto herself in her imagination: “He is thinking (if he thinks of me at all), he thinks: She might be from another world. How alien her ankles and leg bones” (220) The only way that she can encompass the thought that she is falling in love with his bulk, his Otherness, is to imagine that he sees her as alien and therefore as Other. And with this recognition of love comes a sense of more and more bulk, more and more alienness: “for surely I see only a part of him here. I sense more. I sense deeper largenesses. I sense excesses of bulk” (221).
When he is naked she sees “Alleghenies of thigh and buttock” (220), but she doesn’t see his genitalia, hidden by the pendulous fold of his belly. However, his navel becomes “the eye of God” (221), and “The stomach eye recognizes me and looks at me as I’ve always wished to be looked at” (221). But although she is convinced that he sees her, “those girlish eyes … (are) … as blank as having no sex at all” (221). In this climactic moment, he becomes the Other she has dreamed about, spent her life searching for: he has no visible genitalia, his gender is abruptly fluid and uncertain, “girlish” eyes, “no sex” at all. She has found that alternative to the Normals, and that dawning sexual love is instantly transformed into religious love: “God, I think. I am not religious, but I think, My God” (221). But notice that the focus is not on Mr Morrison now made God, but on what the eye of God is regarding: the narrator.
She flees, running down to her room, hiding under the bed (but, tellingly, leaving the door unlocked), waiting for her God to pursue her (he does not come). As she waits, she questions whether she is herself normal – “How is one to know such things when everything is hidden?” (222) – and we recognise that maybe she is not normal, maybe she is Other. Maybe we are all Other. And it is in this way that the story looks back at us, it is in this way that the story is one of the very few that continues to challenge, to outrage, to disturb, to remain iconoclastic after so many years.
Quotations taken from Dangerous Visions 2 edited by Harlan Ellison, London, Sphere, 1974.