Vonda McIntyre is not a prolific writer of short fiction, and indeed has only one collection to her name. Drawing together short stories, novelettes, and novellas published between 1971 and 1979, Fireflood and Other Stories nevertheless is a quality selection. Zoning in on McIntyre’s penchant for intense, dark stories with human pain and transcendence at their core, it is a shame the collection is out of print.
Fireflood opens with the title story, and brings to light the strongest theme of the collection: oppression and freedom from it. It tells the story of Dark, a human modified with scales and claws to be able to tunnel and dig. Fleeing her captors at the outset, she attempts to use her talents, as well as cooperate with other modified humans, to not only flee, but escape permanently. The conclusion is as implicating as is possible in storytelling. (A commonly used methodology in the stories to come, McIntyre often truncates the climax, implying the denouement rather than presenting it.) “The End’s Beginning”, though set in an ocean and ostensibly featuring a sentient dolphin, nevertheless finds humanity oppressing a species which likewise desires permanent escape.
The subjugation also occurring in the form of nature, “Wings” and “The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn” feature the same flying species (which may or may not be bio-modified humans) for whom death is a beautiful act that must be enacted according to a certain ritual once a certain point in life is reached. The first story tells of an old, crippled flyer who helps a rebellious youth recover from a broken wing in a temple. The second tells of the species in space ship, searching for a new planet to call home. The oldest flyer, who has lived beyond her years, yearns to fly in real air one last time before dying. The approach of a youth changes everything for her. Both painful, touching stories, they are some of the strongest in the collection.
Later expanded into the award winning novel Dreamsnake, “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” is the emotionally powerful beginning of the story of Snake. A healer in a post-apocalyptic world, she uses her three pet snakes to create cures and medicines. Helping a an ill village boy one evening, a tragic misunderstanding by the boy’s parents turns Snake’s life upside down. Perhaps the best story in the collection, “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” exemplifies the emotional intensity that characterizes the collection, and tells a gripping story in the process.
Fireflood, as with all of McIntyre’s fiction, is written in a brooding, pulsing prose that drops the reader into a setting with little to orient themselves save the words on the page. The following paragraph opens the slave story “Spectra”:
“I am dreaming. I reach out for something I have lost, something beautiful. I cannot remember what it is, but I know that it is there. Sounds echo in the background. My hands are stopped. I push against the barrier, straining, helpless. I open my eyes to darkness, and remember. I am lying in my sleeping place, with my hands pressed hard against the ceiling just above me, as if I could push it away and be free again. My hands move across the smooth cold surface to corners, as far apart as the width of my shoulders, down the walls to the narrow spaces at my sides. My hands stop, and I lie still.”
The story which follows is only a more claustrophobic, unsettling experience.
Keeping with the ‘human in slavery’ theme, the novella Screwtop tells of the Kyris, a prisoner on Redsun working the titular mine. Stephen Baxter’s Raft later borrowing elements of the working conditions, life on the humid, perpetually dark planet is a nightmare, and only her two friends, Gryf and Jason, keep her sane and give purpose to life. The escape of Screwtop certainly more figurative than literal, it is a subtle story that tears at the heart. (See here for a more in-depth review of Screwtop on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.)
The last two stories in the collection examine the manner in which biological enhancement separates the modified from the unmodified, and contrastingly, what human elements remain. “The Genius Freaks” is the story of a test tube baby raised with superior intellect. The advantage not all it’s cracked up to be, the woman looks to escape her creators, meeting with life’s exigencies in the process. The modification described in Aztecs is voluntary, but induces no less pain. Laenae is a woman who wants to be a deep space freighter pilot, but in order to do so must replace her heart with a mechanical one which will survive the rigors of space. The operation successful, adjusting to the transplant, both mentally and socially, proves to require more effort than the decision itself—the novella a strong note on which to close the collection. (See here for a longer review on this blog.)
Though there are several major themes running through the collection, it’s difficult to pigeonhole Fireflood and Other Stories into a particular sub-genre, and at times, even genre. Mood, emotion, and relationships with the self and the others the focus, standard motifs and elements of the genre come second. People and creatures dying to break free from their environments or innate limitations, there is a lot of biomodification (scales, eyes, wings, claws – animal tools) informing the painful storylines. Often possessing an aura of the surreal, each is imbued with melancholy and hurt, empathy simmering even deeper. A writer who would later influence Maureen McHugh (or at least so it appears given the similarities), it’s a shame McIntyre’s collection has faded.The collection comes highly recommended for those who can get their hands on it.
The following are the eleven pieces collected in Fireflood and Other Stories:
“The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn”
“The End's Beginning”
“Only at Night”
“The Genius Freaks”