Saturday, April 8, 2023

The Woman Who Proved Ursula K. Le Guin Wrong


Rachel Pollack has left this plane of existence. This saddens me more than I can easily express. She knew a tremendous lot about a wide variety of things and had a wicked sense of humor. She was great fun to be with.

And now, well... it's like a reminder from above to value our friends while we can.

Rachel was a Power in Tarot circles and a really interesting and innovative comic book scripter. But it's for two of her books that I love her best: Unquenchable Fire and Temporary Agency.

Both are set in a future after a cataclysmic Revelation showed the world its true shamanistic spiritual nature. Briefly, things were radically different. Then, people being people, they got used to the new world order. Once a month, a man from the electric company comes to read the meter, build a small shrine, and sacrifice a mouse to keep the power flowing. Great spiritual powers manifest themselves, but there are laws and bureaucracies to limit their excesses. The result is an America that's simultaneously extremely strange and recognizably familiar:

She heard a noise outside and walked with her coffee to a front booth where she cold look  A marching band was coming up Market Street, drummers and brass in front followed by a whole line of high-stepping girls in fluorescent red boots. the girls looked beautiful, Jennie thought, with their bare breasts painted in Sun bursts and Moon phases, with stripes running down their arms to their fingertips, like rippling rivers ending in five bright tributaries. The oil on their arms (to prevent Malignant ones fastening on to them) made the muscles flash.

Or, in a scene showing how far the transformed society has fallen from grace:

She stopped for a moment to look through the window of The Benevolent Tongue, the famous restaurant where Jan Willem Singing Rock performed the ceremony known as 'eating the ancestor.' Inside, a group of people sat on velvet cushions around an open space in the blue carpeted floor. Soon the staff would bring out the body, various foods formed into a sculpture of a human being, each finger a different spiced meat, the mouth and eyes dripping with sauces. Jennie made a sound. The original ancestor was made out of minced meat, vegetables, and bread sticks. The people who took part sang afterwards for three days and nights in a stream of languages. These people here, with their silverware designed by Tiffany's, and their souvenir bibs with Singing Rock's picture on them, they looked excited enough, but with the kind of excitement that came from doing something their tourist book had labeled 'an absolute must during your stay in the Eternal Apple. Inside, a couple noticed Jenny looking at them and laughed. Jennie walked away.

These are fabulous books. And they carry an odd (intentional or not, I don't know; I should have asked Rachel when I had the chance) irony. In a very famous essay/speech titled "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," collected in The Language of the Night, one of fantasy's great writers, Ursula K. Le Guin, posited and then proved to her satisfaction that no true fantasy could possibly be set in Poughkeepsie.

Well, Rachel Pollock proved Le Guin wrong. This may not have been her intention. She may have chosen Poughkeepsie simply because she lived near there in Rhinebeck, New York. But these books have the strangeness, the wildness, the otherness of great fantasy. I hope Le Guin had the good fortune to read them when they came out.

And now Rachel Pollack is gone. But her books remain--these and others. You might want to read them, just to see what an extraordinary person you missed knowing.

Or you might, as I first did all those long years ago, just read them for pleasure.

You can read the Locus Online obituary here. And you can read an interview Comics Journal did with Rachel last year here

Above: The cover of The Beatrix Gates, in PM Press's Outspoken Authors Series. A description and ordering information can be found here.



Matthew Sanborn Smith said...

I'm sorry for your loss. I didn't know her, but had a brief and happy email exchange with her after I enjoyed Temporary Agency. I'm sorry for the world as well.

Michael Swanwick said...

Temporary Agency was an astonishing book. I'm glad you got to discuss it with her.

Fran Friel said...

I did not know Rachel or her work, but this is a terrible regret after reading your tribute. The passages you shared are rarified and visceral, niggling into my chest and into my mind with a strange magic. I am very sad not to have known Rachel, but now that I have experienced her words, I will seek out her work. No doubt it will be a feast. Thank you, Michael. And please accept my condolences. I am so very sorry for the loss of your extraordinary friend.