A new year and a new crop of SFF short stories are eligible for The Hugo Awards! Three months before nominations close, hundreds of eligible stories… Yep that's definitely excitement you can sense, not panic.
Last year, I started our Short Business feature because I wanted to learn more about short SFF fiction in the run up to the Hugo voting period. I've always wanted to spend more time reading short fiction, but like Renay, I find short fiction difficult to navigate alone. I wanted to see if blogging about short stories could motivate me to push through the confusing parts and help me get a better grasp on the short form. And it started to work - after starting the feature I found I could read a confusing short story without falling into a swirling vortex of personal doubt and I could make some sort of sense of what I was reading.
More and more short fiction is being published online, and I have access to a gigantic amount of stories that tweak my interests. It's a little overwhelming, but I'm going to continue trying to work short fiction out with my words. So, before Hugo nominations close in March, I plan to read some of the stories our friends and readers have added to our Hugo spreadsheet.
I'm starting with Marie Brennan's "Daughter of Necessity" - a retelling of Penelope's quest to vanquish her unwanted suitors. I love retellings of Ancient Greek stories so "Daughter of Necessity" seemed like the perfect way to kick off Short Business in the New Year, especially as Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons is on my (long) list of highly anticipated novels.
By day she crafts; by night she unmakes. Surely somewhere, in all the myriad crossings of the threads, there is a future in which all will be well. Marie Brennan offers an intriguing new spin on a classic tale.
Penelope, a character from Homer's classic The Odyssey. In the original tale, Penelope is the wife of the beleaguered Odysseus; the trickster war hero who finds his path home to Ithaka blocked by gods, monsters and terrible adventures. Convinced that her husband is still alive, and that he will return to her, Penelope waits alone for twenty years refusing all offers of marriage. Meanwhile, 108 suitors invade her house and, believing Penelope's husband to be dead, attempt to woo her.
Like Scheherazade, Penelope designs plots to put off the men and gain herself time. "The Daughter of Necessity" deals with Penelope's idea to weave a burial shroud; forestalling rape or forced marriage by telling her suitors that she will choose a new husband once it is finished. In The Odyssey Penelope secretly unpicks the shroud each night to avoid completing it. Brennan sticks close to the original story, but introduces magic in order to make Penelope the author her own fate. At her blog, Brennan says she 'wondered if there was a way for Penelope's actions to be more, well, active. . . and this story is the result.'.
Brennan's Penelope's is 'A queen who can trace her ancestry back through her grandmother’s grandmother to the three daughters of Necessity.'. Essentially, she's related to the Fates (I'm guessing through her father, Ikarios of Sparta). Due to this lineage, Penelope is able to sense magical potential in the threads of the shroud she is weaving. Out of desperation she uses her low level of inherited power to try to make her own fate, but her every attempt points to potential tragedy. So, each day she unpicks the threads and starts again. The story outlines the scenarios she weaves and explains why they would end in catastrophe.
The reader to gain further understanding of Brennan's heroine through the futures she weaves; what she will and won't sacrifice is outlined by the way she reacts to the unsatisfactory unfurling of each fate. And one quickly abandoned path reminds the reader that women like Penelope operated under severe 'damned if she do, damned if she don't' paradoxes and restrictions that could hamper their actions:
A dropped hint here, a frank conversation over too much wine there. Why should a man stay, when he believes another has claimed the place he intended to take? An elegant man, well dressed and better spoken than his rivals—and they will see the proof of it, when she bestows smiles upon him she denies to all others. For him, she will drape herself in rich cloth, adorn her ears and neck with gold. For him, she will play the coquette.
One by one, they will go. Grumbling, disappointed, a few vowing some revenge against Eurymachos for having stolen the place they thought to claim. But they will go, without a fight. Their numbers will dwindle: one hundred and eight, four score, two score, twelve. They will leave, and with each chamber emptied she will breathe more easily.
Until only one remains. Smiling, smooth spoken Eurymachos, to whom she has shown much favor. He will not leave. For has she not made a promise to him, in the absence of her husband, whom all presume dead?
This time she is shaking with rage. To be so manipulated, so trapped . . . she would die before she allowed that to happen.
Penelope's machinations are discovered before she can create a satisfactory future - the treacherous maids of the original story are present in this version too. Stripped of her weaving tools, she makes a final offering of her hair to the Gods and is rewarded with golden threads which show her exactly what path to weave for success. The one concession she must make to achieve success is 'To cloud her own mind, robbing herself of this memory, the knowledge that she has woven Odysseus’ fate and through him, the fate of them all.' This is an interesting narrative choice as it keeps Penelope's story from slipping outside the bounds of its original narrative and yet still allows subtle revision which makes Penelope to be the author of her own (and her famous husband's) fate - in the reader's eyes, even if the memory of her work is kept from Penelope.
Linking female agency with magic can be a tricky proposition, especially when writing about women in historical settings. On one hand, magic can be a quick way for authors to allow women to gain access to power their society restricts. And, as the idea of magic (if not the real substance of it) has a historical tradition of being linked with female empowerment, it can makes sense to give magic to women in historical fantasy when they need a little extra help. On the other hand, including magic can obscure the fact that historical women did have real life agency. And it can encourage readers to view all women born before the 21st century as damsels in distress who need magic if they're to rescue themselves. This is inaccurate, kind of boring and detrimental to the development of stories about women throughout history.
So, when magic was introduced into Penelope's story I was cautious. Luckily, "The Daughter of Necessity" takes great care as it links its heroine with magic and it was that care which won me over. I like that Penelope's magic is tied up with a traditionally female craft, and that her magic has limits. Once she introduced the idea of magic, Brennan could theoretically have given Penelope magical fireballs and allowed her to defeat her suitors in combat. Don't get me wrong, I like stories about magical fighting women who save themselves with flashy powers, but I don't think that kind of magical solution is right for every female character. And, just like I don't think being an action heroine is the only way female characters can be the main dynamic driving force in their own lives, I don't think magical fireballs are the only way women can save themselves with magic. This is yet another call for 'all the stories' - I have my favourite kind of stories, but I don't want all the stories we tell to be the same. I value narrative diversity and I enjoyed seeing Penelope work out her fate in her own particular way.
By giving Penelope magical agency, but requiring her story to come to the same conclusion as it does in The Odyssey, Brennan allows the reader to see how a heroine can have agency while being bounded by restrictions. As recent conversations about 'strong women' highlighted, female characters are routinely judged on their agency and found wanting if they're not breaking out of prison with flaming swords smiting everyone as they go. Once offered a magical version of Penelope who weaves her own fate, it would be easy to dismiss the value of Homer's original Penelope because she is, in some ways, not the mistress of her own fate. In The Odyssey Penelope isn't truly safe until Odysseus returns - her plan keeps the suitors at bay, but it is not a permanent solution. Homer does not allow Penelope to save herself, only to hold on until she can be saved.
Additionally, rather than moving on with her life and taking a new lover, even though, realistically, her husband may well be dead, Homer's Penelope remains unerringly chaste for twenty years. She embodies a chaste ideal cherished by patriarchal society; the woman who waits. A modern feminist reading might say that Penelope finally 'wins' (rewarded by the fortuitous return of her husband) because she waits and spins; she sits suspended in aspic as Homer's feminine ideal, avoiding sex and a new life, while Odysseus is off battling for his life.
And yet, it is no mean feat for this Penelope to keep herself safe from such a large band of lusting men, especially when they have invited themselves into her house (rude). By beating her suitors and getting what she wants, Homer's Penelope proves herself a clever lady; one who is narratively rewarded for her smarts by the return of her husband.
Neither of these readings is absolute. Homer's Penelope is a clever trickster. She is also a female character informed by a patriarchal perspective, and her storyline meshes with an ideal patriarchal vision of women and wives. It's important to understand both contexts, and to acknowledge that multiple valid perspectives can exist about a female character's agency. Characters are created by authors, and an author's writing is informed by their society. However, characters are capable of being more than their authors allow and should not be cast aside solely because her story attempts to limit her. A female character can be the most awesomesauce woman you ever did meet and a woman trapped in a narrative which disempowers her. If you need further illustration, just ask a feminist about Stephen Moffat's Dr Who.
The story of Homer's Penelope is both built around a clever female character and ripe for a little feminist retelling in order to free Penelope from the constraints Homer placed on her. And Brennan's attempt to give her more active agency makes "The Daughter of Necessity" an admirable rewrite, even if I continue to have feels about historical ladies and magic. And although many of the re-tellings I like best change the entire substance of a character's fate, I'm gradually coming to seeing the value of stories like Brennan's which change details but stick with the same ending. I mean, unless we're talking about BBC's Merlin. Just so we're clear, I'll never be over that.
"Daughter of Necessity" is available for free at Tor.com.
Susan Hated Literature