Molly Gloss is one of the best writers you've probably never read. Though she fits, both chronologically and thematically, into a cohort of female genre writers of feminist-inflected, anthropological SF — a group that includes Eleanor Arnason, Karen Joy Fowler, and of course Ursula K. Le Guin — Gloss is probably the least well-known among them. Though by no means the least accomplished.
Top image: Bertknot on Flickr.
One possible reason for Gloss's low profile is that she's not very prolific. In a career that has spanned nearly thirty years, she's published five novels and just over a dozen stories. Another might be her eclecticism: Her novels range from the mimetic (The Jump-Off Creek, 1989; The Hearts of Horses, 2007) to pure genre (Outside the Gates, 1986, a YA fantasy; The Dazzle of the Day, 1997, which takes place aboard a generation spaceship) to a slipstreamy middle ground (Wild Life, 2000, in which a 19th century pioneer woman joins an expedition to find a missing girl, and encounters what may or may not be Bigfoot).
Nevertheless, what draws Gloss's disparate efforts together is her emphasis on place (often the Pacific Northwest, where she makes her home), on community, and on the muted, mundane details of the lives of her protagonists, who often exist on the margins of this community, and struggle with the twin desires to both rebel and be a part of it. Earlier this year, Strange Horizons published "The Grinnell Method," Gloss's first new story since 2002, in which her storytelling powers prove undimmed. And this story is an excellent introduction for readers looking to become acquainted with this very special writer.
"The Grinnell Method" is a story of details. Its first segment is a minute description of the arrival of an ornithologist at her summer camp in the Pacific Northwest in 1943. Some 2000 words follow the scientist, as she makes camp and takes stock of the changes that winter has wrought, but what they are mostly taken up with is an almost overwhelming degree of detail. The mess left behind by the hunters and soldiers who used the camp during the winter ("[they] had left behind a scattered detritus of tin cans, broken fishing line and shotgun shells, had turned the fire-pit into a midden of kitchen garbage, burnt and sodden bones and feathers, clam shells, and the unburned ends of green and greasy sticks"), the work of putting the camp to rights ("There was still a faint, weathered tracing of the ditch she had cut to carry rain away from the base of her tent, and she renewed this with a grub hoe; then, because she was holding the tool in her hands, she quickly dug a hole for her scat at a place chosen not for privacy but for proximity to a blown-down jack pine over which to hang her nether parts.") and most of all the region itself, its geography, flora and fauna, the accumulated flotsam and jetsam on the beaches, the nearby townships. All are painstakingly, and yet dispassionately, described, the heroine observing but drawing no conclusions, and the narrative leaving us removed from whatever emotional responses she might have.
This is all fitting for a scientist, of course. The Grinnell method of the title, named for the naturalist Joseph Grinnell, is a method of scientific note-taking stressing detailed and accurate observation, which also clearly describes Gloss's method with the story.
For the Journal, and for Species Accounts, she created a narrative, free of sentiment or much personal reflection-a scientific document, not a diary, but with the skeleton of facts dressed in the clothes of complete sentences, so as to be readable by any stranger looking over her shoulder. All manner of facts might prove important to a student of the future, this was Grinnell's belief. Nothing in nature should be assumed insignificant.
The heroine — we eventually learn that her name is Barbara Kenney, though the narrative, as if seeking to stress her isolation and the lack of anyone to call her by that name, refers to her exclusively as "she" — finds herself recording increasingly strange events. An eerie storm leaves hundreds of seabirds dead on the beaches, far from their normal haunts, possibly killed by an unidentified substance in their airways. A bear drowns in the sea. A strange blue dust blows in the air. The tides bring in shoals of dead fish, and whales beach themselves by the dozens. Something appears in the sky — "a black flaw stretching out of sight to the north and south, a long, shifting vein of darkness, glossy and depthless" — and birds fly into it, never to be seen again.
Gloss makes the story itself a sort of scientific journal, recording these events through Barbara's dispassionate eyes, and concentrating on the evidence of her senses — the story's narrative stresses these, telling us in great detail what Barbara is seeing, hearing, smelling and touching. The result is nearly sensory overload — with such minute focus on specifics, it's almost impossible to form an impression of the bigger picture. The events that Barbara witnesses — and records in her journal— are taken each on their own, but as a good scientist she doesn't try to weave them together into a narrative or draw conclusions from them (when a child she meets calls the flaw "the hole in the sky," Barbara chides her for making an unsupported assumption). This, as well as the calm tone with which even such events as "extraordinarily high tides gnawed at the beaches and mudflats; roads and paths disappeared; fifty-year-old houses built on bluffs above the sand fell into the sea" are described gives "The Grinnell Method" an apocalyptic undertone, but if there is an end, or a conclusion, in sight, it is not one that Barbara becomes aware of. The story ends with her sending a message into the flaw in the sky, which she is no closer to understanding.
With its focus on an isolated, observant heroine who finds herself in the midst of the inexplicable, "The Grinnell Method" bears more than a passing similarity to Gloss's 2002 "Lambing Season," in which a shepherdess is distracted from her lambing sheep by an alien visitation, and which was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards. But the story it put me even more powerfully in mind of is another 2002 publication, Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See." Fowler, who like Gloss is based in the Pacific Northwest and has written historical fiction, set in the 19th century, with undertones of the fantastic (Sarah Canary, 1991), and who co-founded the Tiptree award, which Gloss won in 2000 for Wild Life, is clearly an author who shares Gloss's preoccupations and concerns — not least, the feminist slant of both their fiction.
An important subplot in "The Grinnell Method" revolves around Barbara's difficulties as a female scientist, her realization that she has to work twice as hard to be thought half as good. When she meets Alice, a girl who is an aspiring naturalist — the person through whom we learn Barbara's name, and the only person whose name she asks for — Barbara gives her mingled encouragement and warning, replying in the affirmative when asked whether any birds have been named after women, but then admitting:
"most of those are named for queens or goddesses, or for the daughters or wives of scientists, not for women who are themselves scientists." She did not say, that in the winter just past she had taken work as a poorly paid assistant to a prominent male professor, trapping birds and preparing their skeletons for his outdated study of the mechanics of bird flight; or that, the winter before, she had resorted to teaching children at a grade school in Calistoga. She did not say: Universities are willing to educate women, but not employ them.
But the similarities between the two stories extend beyond their authors' apparent like-mindedness. Both stories are historical pieces in which women encroach on traditionally masculine territory, leaving the comforts of civilization in order to do so—in Fowler's story, itself a response to James Tiptree Jr.'s "The Women Men Don't See," a gorilla-hunting expedition in 1920s Africa. Both stories center around an inexplicable event — in Fowler's story, one of the women in the expedition mysteriously vanishes. Though the possibility is raised that she was kidnapped by one of the African porters, it seems equally likely that she was carried off by the apes.
Both stories, as well as Tiptree's, are underpinned by their heroine's awareness of the stifling narrowness of the options afforded her in a male-dominated world, and a desire to escape into something inhuman. And both stories are rooted in the unknowable. In the Fowler story, as the title itself suggests, the narrator is absent for the story's central event, the massacre of apes instigated by her husband, who fears that if the men of the expedition aren't given an outlet for their rage and frustration, they will turn on the Africans, and of course the mystery of the woman's disappearance is never solved, just as the nature of the flaw in "The Grinnell Method" is never revealed. Gloss's story has the distinction of being more science-oriented than either Fowler or Tiptree's — where the narrator of "What I Didn't See" is characterized by her lack of sight, Barbara is characterized by her observance — and more overtly fantastic, but the lines of similarity are nevertheless there.
In his recent and widely-discussed essay at The Los Angeles Review of Books, "The Widening Gyre," Paul Kincaid reviews three best-of-year genre anthologies, and comes away from them feeling that science fiction is suffering from a case of exhaustion. "The problem may be," Kincaid writes, "that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended."
The historical setting of Fowler and Gloss's stories might mark them both as having little confidence in the future, and an inability to comprehend the future is at the core of both — including in "What I Didn't See"'s very title — but there is nevertheless a core difference between Fowler and Gloss's approach towards this lack of confidence and comprehension. Both stories are set in the past and both stress the limited options available to certain groups —primarily women — in that past. But Fowler ends her story by reminding us that things changed, recalling female naturalists like Jane Goodall who lived with and studied apes rather than hunting them. Gloss's story is bleaker, and not only because of its apocalyptic tone or wartime setting.
A major subplot in "The Grinnell Method" revolves around Barbara's reminiscences about her brother Tom, who inspired her to become a naturalist and who died on a research expedition. Tom's death, we're told, represented the death of Barbara's parents' "best hopes" for the future, and Barbara herself has chosen to cut off one kind of continuity, resolving never to marry in order to be able to pursue her scientific career. She embarks on another sort of continuity when she guides Alice on her first steps towards becoming a naturalist, but in light of her helplessness and incomprehension in the face of the flaw, it's hard to see this as a hopeful act. If anything, "The Grinnell Method" seems to be trying to work against our knowledge that for all the bleakness of its moment, there are better things to come — that the war will end, and that women like Barbara and Alice will make inroads into the scientific community and pave the way for other women, who will not find themselves forced to choose loneliness in order to become scientists. It is impossible not to feel that in the story's world, none of these things are going to happen—that the world itself may be about to unravel. Kincaid observes that many of the authors in the collections he reviewed seem to be "writing SF as if it were something else," and "The Grinnell Method" often feels like SF as horror.
And yet for all that, "The Grinnell Method" is in no way an exhausted story, and it is impossible to read it and feel, as Kincaid did after reading his best of year collections, "no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing." If anything, it is a story dripping with conviction — in its setting, its main character, and her devotion to science, however incomprehensible the world around her proves to be (it is for this reason, perhaps, that Jonathan Strahan has selected it for his next best-of-year collection). It is not a hopeful story, and that hopelessness can seem contrived, especially when compared with the more historically accurate hopefulness with which Fowler closes "What I Didn't See." But it also serves to drive home the cost of Barbara's determination to remain a scientist.
"The world is hard," she writes in a note that she sends into the flaw, which she conceives of as a message to Tom, "But everything lives on. Even love. Even loneliness." For all that it resonates with many of Kincaid's complaints about the state of science fiction, "The Grinnell Method" is a story about the refusal to become exhausted, the determination to keep going and learn the world, even in the face of hardship, loneliness, and the incomprehensible future.
Abigail Nussbaum is a blogger, reviewer, and editor. She blogs at Asking the Wrong Questions