Online Edition: Summer 1999

Burning Sky

Rachel Pollack

Cambrian Publications ($29)

by Emily Streight

Rachel Pollack is critically acclaimed for her science fiction novels--she has won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the World Fantasy Award, and has been nominated for a Nebula--and she is equally renowned for her expert commentary on the Tarot. Burning Sky rounds up her short fiction, demonstrating yet another genre at which this prolific author has talent. Though "genre" may be the wrong word, as the stories here care less about adhering to conventions, and more about pushing ideas, situations, and language to their natural destinations. To read them separately one might not immediately conclude that these tales came from the same author, but to have that conclusion foregone by the collection yields the extra pleasure of seeing a single author approach her concerns in different ways.

This unified aspect of the book is enhanced by a peculiar strategy: Pollack has written brief afterwords to each story, often locating its genesis, sometimes discussing its themes, but always engaging the reader in the process of constructing the fiction. This intrusion of authorial explanation, as noted writer Samuel R. Delany says in the introduction, by all rights shouldn't work, but I am forced to admit (as is Delany) that it simply does here--Pollack, rather than intruding, merely opens the door to her study with these marvelous anecdotes. One could even argue that Burning Sky is really an autobiographical novel about a writer attempting to thread connections between the 27 stories she's written over almost that many years--and if one did, one would probably be just as delighted by this book. These notes are also gently pedagogical, teaching (and debating) aspects of the writer's craft; were more books constructed like this, writers' workshops might find themselves underenrolled.

The stories themselves are for the most part polished performances of speculative fiction, effortlessly dancing on the tightrope between magic realism, social commentary, psychological portrait, and true science fiction. Through all these the common denominator is Pollack's postmodern feminism, a tone well set in the title story's opening line: "Sometimes I think of my clitoris as a magnet, pulling me along to uncover new deposits of ore in the fantasy mines." It is no stretch of the imagination to read this as Pollack's writing method; in story after story, what is at stake is the creation and ownership of a new and viable sexuality, one that dares to imagine far beyond even current queer politics. Thus, "The Second Generation" examines a future in which people use pills to constantly switch gender, and "Out of the Broom Closet, Up, Up and Away" humorously deconstructs Superman's Clark Kent costume as a transvestite fetish.

There are so many writerly joys to enumerate here as well. Pollack loves to play with form: "Is Your Child Using Drugs? Seven Ways to Recognize a Drug Addict" creates a discomfiting fictional universe using questions from a propagandistic anti-drug pamphlet as cues; the "Fake Dreams" series parodies the overused device of somnambulist reminiscence; and "General All-Purpose Fairy Tale" is an exactly 100-word epic. And of course several stories are derived from Pollack's knowledge and use of Tarot. Yet the pleasures of conventional fiction are here in abundance as well. The fable-like tale of "The Woman Who Didn't Come Back" puts a human face to why "no one who dies has ever returned"; "I'm Not Alone, I've Got the Clone" inverts the stereotypical fantasies about this subject, and the book's closer, "The Bead Woman" is an incredibly moving tale of one woman's struggle to divine her true purpose.

I cannot end this review without a word about the physical book itself, because it is a beautiful tome that contains these tales. Cambrian Publications (http://www.cambrianpubs.com/Pollack/burning_sky.html) has issued this book as a gorgeously produced limited edition hardcover, each signed and numbered by the author, and in an audacious move they are circumventing the retail bookstore and selling it only directly to the public. I hope a more conventionally distributed paperback eventually comes out--Pollack's prose is well worth recommending to all sorts of readers--but meanwhile this first edition of Burning Sky is a fitting repository for her work, giving anyone who truly wants to read speculative feminist fiction at its finest quite a handsome book in the bargain.

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Summer 1999 Table of Contents