Alyx Among the Dandelions: Exploring Joanna Russ and Ray Bradbury

Alyx Among the Dandelions: Exploring Joanna Russ and Ray Bradbury

My copy looked like this. A far cry from John's vintage original.
My copy looked like this. A far cry from John's vintage original.

I think our book club should have a name. It’s that cool. It consists of our Mighty Robot Overlord John O’Neill, awesomely chill Chicago author Geoff Hyatt, our own Dread Patty Templeton and myself. Four people make for a nicely balanced book club, in my opinion.

Now, we may not meet in the most consistent fashion ever (our two meetings had a wee gap of four months between them), but we do read SPIFFY BOOKS. Or at least… discussable ones.

I mean, we started out with The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, which was written up by Mr. Hyatt back in May. Then we decided to get our claws into some Joanna Russ and vintage Bradbury. Next we’re going to do Fritz Leiber’s Swords against Death and China Mieville’s Iron Council.

In choosing our latest books, I was mercilessly teased by Mr. Hyatt because I’d been very vocal about wanting to read one book by a male author and one by a female author. You know — MAINTAIN THE BALANCE!!! But then I got all wishy-washy about it. See, I also wanted to read the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books! I’ve had a yen to get in on that Leiber action ever since Howard Andrew Jones waxed so lyrical about his books in an email. Howard wrote that Leiber’s writing was “sophisticated and sparkling,” and warned me that it was also very “male.”

"Summer of Terror and Wonder" it says. John's copy touted this book as "horror."
"Summer of Terror and Wonder" it says. John's copy touted this book as "horror."

Forewarned is forearmed, I say! I’m sure I’ll read a lot of Laurie King’s Mary Russell mysteries in order to make up for any excess of testosterone I find on the page.

But back to our recent book club meeting. Let’s discuss Joanna Russ’s Adventures of Alyx first.

In her own blog about it, Patty thought that Alyx consisted merely of “tufts of plot and violence.” She “liked the Canticle of Leibowitz nature of it,” but “holy ef… whole worlds of activities were in these run-on paragraphs… Russ seemed to be trying to not tell you as much as possible.”

She also mentioned, rightly, that “Cooney liked it.”

Well, I did.

In fact, I loved it! I loved it so hard that, apparently, there was no room left for John and Patty to love it even a little! (Geoff just liked it okay, I think.) Partly my liking this book comes from me having been so well-prepped to like it. I was first told of the Alyx stories by a die-hard Joanna Russ fan with glowing eyes and an articulate tongue, and what can I say? I’m a sucker. I’m easily swayed. I went into this book totally prepared to adore it, and lo! I did! Quelle surprise.

That’s not to say that I loved all the Alyx stories equally, but when John and Patty began slamming “Picnic on Paradise” as utterly boring, I’m afraid I stopped arguing and started staring blankly from one face to the other,  as if my friends had suddenly turned into Martian giraffes.

Here's Alyx PWNing a Sea Serpent!
Here's Alyx PWNing a Sea Serpent!

Surely my colleagues must hail from the widest flung territories of outer space — because anyone even remotely human would totally dig “Picnic on Paradise”! It’s heartbreaking! It’s bizarre! It’s full of eerily recognizable sci-fi ideas (hint: recognizable because some of them are rapidly becoming not-sci-fi), and harsh human behavior. It’s about how people equipped only for the superficialities of life must suddenly learn to survive the harshest extremities of it.

And… just… Alyx in general! I mean, there she is — the doughty thing — swashbuckling, flirting, rescuing, raging, escaping, traveling through time! She’s the COOLEST! I thought Russ’s dialogue witty and her subtleties scintillating. Sometimes, sure, I didn’t understand everything that was going on, but neither did many of the characters. That’s sort of the point, I thought — muddling through weird circumstances on your best guess and your darkest instinct. I enjoyed the heck out of it!

Now, Geoff thought Alyx’s habit of solving her every problem with violence was a bit dreary. “Another example of phallicizing a female character,” he said, which made Patty and me all hot-cheeked and argumentative. (For the life of me I can’t find a great literary definition of “phallicization” but the simpler synonym of “masculinization” keeps cropping up. Bonus though: looking for definitions of “phallicization” brought up some interesting articles on gender mapping!) See, the Dread Patty and I like when girl characters get swords and pirate ships! We think it’s neat! Given half a chance, a blunderbuss and a jolly roger, we might just blow big holes in the whole idea of “phallicizing” females. Eh. But we’re poor writers and blunderbusses are probably expensive. I wonder if you can find them on Ebay?

So that was Adventures of Alyx, in a nutshell. 3 found it mostly boring, 1 found it terrific fun. You get to decide if it’s worth your time.

On to Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine.

See, it totally won the Nebula. But what a weird cover for this story. Characters did a lot of walking in the snow. Brr..
See, "Picnic on Paradise" totally won the Nebula! So I'm not the only one. But what a weird cover for this story. Characters did a lot of walking in the snow. Brr..

It’s a book I’ve been hearing about for years. Dandelion Wine is a lot of people’s favorite summertime read. I remember studying that short section on tennis shoes in my Prose Forms class at Columbia College Chicago. It was always something I felt I ought to read, and indeed, I enjoyed Something Wicked This Way Comes, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy this one, exactly. It’s just that it took me several months to read. I could say that I kept getting bored with it. But I was never bored while I was reading. It was either John or Geoff who compared this book to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I found that remarkably apt, because Márquez’s was the first book it took me three months to read. Me! Who can, conceivably, read three or four books a day if people would just leave me alone! Dandelion Wine was like that.

It doesn’t move like other books. It’s not meant to. It’s like observing an insect in amber from all angles. The insect is not doing anything. It hasn’t done anything for millennia. Yet there are aspects to the fragile vein in the wing, the consistency of the amber, the color, the texture, the sheer wonder of its existence that are worth observing. That’s what Dandelion Wine felt like to me. An examination of a single summer moment in memory, in scrupulous detail, with high poetry and a lot of heart. Paragraph after yummy paragraph presented itself. It’s just that the whole didn’t really… zip along. And often the sweetness of nostalgia was so overpowering that the barbs — not of sarcasm, but of mortality — weren’t as poignant as they might have been.

The sepia tones of this cover well-match the interior prose.
The sepia tones of this cover well-match the interior prose.

I liked the part with the scissors. And the part with the old woman and the young man falling in love. And the part with the witches.

John brought up a fascinating point about Dandelion Wine. He showed us his vintage cover, with the blurbs on the back claiming the book as horror.

In our post-King, post-Koontz, post-Saw era, this was so spectacularly unbelievable that we laughed. But it turned the book on its head for me, and I saw the insect in amber from an entirely different angle. Its alien size. The lethal length of its stinger. It did make me shiver a little, putting myself into the mind of someone who might consider this book a work of horror.

Like most books, you have to read this one in the right mood. You may not like it, but you’ll definitely learn something. Or you may adore it! It may become a seasonal favorite, to be read when the cicadas are drowning out all thought, and the sun is hot on your skin, and this present world is too much with us. A bit of a time machine, is Dandelion Wine.

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John ONeill

A splendid recap, Cooney. I nominate you to take the minutes at all future meetings.

I think I might have enjoyed THE ADVENTURES OF ALYX if I’d read it with the level of understanding you did. I’m still impressed with your insightful explanation of how Alyx knew her lover was given the wrong cure in “Picnic on Paradise.” I thought I was a careful reader, but I’m not on your level.

As for DANDELION WINE, I still thinks it tells us a great deal about how society has changed that my 1958 paperback was marketed as a horror, and your 1990s version as a saccharine-sweet nostalgia trip.

Matthew David Surridge

I read The Adventures of Alyx a while ago, and really enjoyed it. Here’s a heretical thought I’ll throw out: the trek through the snowy wilderness in “Picnic on Paradise” is similar, but superior, to the trek across the icy wasteland at the end of The Left Hand of Darkness.

Generally, though, I liked the book because each of the stories were so different, one from another. The character was notably the same, but the situation and tone and writing style varied so much it maintained a real level of unpredictability. (And I don’t buy the “phallicizing” argument, either.)

John ONeill

Something else we forgot to mention during our book club was that Bradbury eventually DID write a sequel, though it’s not nearly as well known: FAREWELL SUMMER, which was released in 2006

I completely forgot about this until I stumbled across it today on Wikipedia.

Sarah Avery

I missed Alyx the first time around, and always meant to backtrack and read her Adventures. And now I may have an excuse to reread The Left Hand of Darkness, just to compare those snowy treks.

I reread The Dispossessed a couple of years ago, and it was stunning to me how much my worldview had been shaped by reading it back in my teens. As disconcerting as it is to see telephones with landlines in a world with interstellar travel and, eventually, ansibles, the story holds up remarkably well. The structure…one of my blog readers suggested I write a post about structure, so I’ll save my rhapsodizing for that. It’s a long rhapsody.

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