Pat Murphy’s first short story collection Points of Departure was one of just two collections to win the Philip K Dick Award. This second collection appears not to have even been reviewed anywhere.
Women Up To No Good contains 16 stories including several reprinted from Points of Departure in six subsections. They range from urban fantasy through psychological sf, fantastic western, and retold legend to Austen-pastiche. Most, perhaps all, are distinctively Murphy above all.
Opener ‘A Flock of Lawn Flamingos’ sets a tone of mischief and moral. In a quiet California suburb a new arrivals, the mysterious Joan Egypt sets cultural ripples in play that challenge and break the dominance of one white male. It isn’t SFF as such but has the sensibility of genre as its effects spread. By the end we are left feeling empowered, knowledge and small actions have restored a harmony to the street. It’s a story where we believe in what can happen next.
That’s a feeling made explicit in the next story, ‘One Odd Shoe’ is a moral tale of male privilege being turned about. It references Coyote, acknowledging but querying his external role in our lives.
“Coyote is a force for entropy. But Coyote is also a force for good (though whose good is always open to question).”
As with many of these stories there’s a layer of telling involved, the narrator is a woman, the agent of the story is a woman. Who is up to no good? Clearly the latter, except that, perhaps the former in her telling is the subversive?
‘On the Dark Side of the Station Where the Train Never Stops’ talks of her heroine the fireborn fey bag-lady Lucy as a different person yet with knowledge that suggests something shared. In the middle of a charming love story are conversations about seeing ‘past one kind of truth to another kind’ and the need of the world to have teeth and pain. It might be my favourite here.
Kari Sperring in her Strange Horizons review of Sisters of the Revolution laments an aspect of community in much feminist SF.
“Western feminism, like much of Western culture, has tended to prioritise individualism over community, and again, most of the stories in this collection reflect that. We have women fleeing, women resisting, women fighting back, but all too often they are alone, marked by their special status.”
Pat Murphy, (represented in that anthology by ‘Love & Sex Amongst the Invertebrates’) is an exception. Repeatedly in this collection Murphy finds ways to stress the strengths of community. Joan Egypt may be an individual with her lawn flamingos, but it is the community that responds, and the baton is handed down. Lucy the firecatcher goes on her star run, but the community shares her story. In ‘A Cartographic Analysis of the Dream State’ a four woman team undertakes a Martian Trans-Polar Expedition. A community of seven old women in the woods looks after a princess in ‘A True Story’ Her stepmother has hidden her away from the paedophile King.
That reimagined Snow White ends with Queen and Princess reunited and the narrator saying “Sometimes, I tell them of Snow White, the true story rather than the storytellers’ lies. I think the true story should be known.”
But the next story, ‘Dragon’s Gate’ “is unruly and difficult. It refuses to conform to any of the traditional forms.” This is often Murphy’s way, knowingly, and openly telling her readers she is subverting their expectations, she then subverts the new, revised version too. ‘Dragon’s Gate’ is one of several stories reminding us that we are told how the world is by authorities and begin to believe it, but if we remember then the truth is revealed. The lost colours sought by ‘Iris versus the Black Knight’ are easily seen as the forgotten women of SF, of Science, of History that were there though we are told they weren’t.
The truth is that Pat Murphy’s Women Up to No Good are in fact up to a lot of good, restoring balance, and supporting each other for the betterment of the world. Murphy’s women are retelling the world their way. They do this in self aware stories of wit, and humour, and charm, but with shadows too. You will hope Joan Egypt moves next door, you will wonder which star is Lucy, smile knowingly at that shoe by the road. and you will start to question the stories we are always told. Joan Egypt, who I keep returning to as touchstone here, and Pat Murphy are akin in setting ripples on ponds. Hopefully you will also seek out more of Pat Murphy’s brilliant SFF.