Rants & Raves

By Lynne Murray

Such a Pretty Face is a short story anthology edited by Lee Martindale, published by Meisha Merlin.  These stories are great fun for fans of speculative fiction who have longed for heroes and heroines of size in their stories.  I must confess I haven't followed science fiction and fantasy closely in decades.  This anthology brought home to me the diversity of sub-genres.  This will hardly come as news to hardcore fans.  Just as mystery fiction has splintered into hard-boiled, feminist, humorous, cozy, etc., science fiction and fantasy has evolved into a myriad of types of stories.  Some of the subgenres represented here are the mythical, magical medieval world, where JRR Tolkien's hobbits would fit right in; space travelers of both the alien and human kind; vampires, were-critters; and even an urban neighborhood witches coven. 

An aside, while we're speaking of alternative realities, I have heard reports that science fiction and fantasy conventions can also be very size-accepting places.  (See below for Judy Sullivan's report on the skintight spandex and space travel panel.) 

The Middle-Earth/Middle-Ages setting where some of the stories in Such A Pretty Face take place, reminded me of another refuge from modern life, where guilds and bards and robust role models flourish—the Society for Creative Anachronism.  Anthology editor Lee Martindale is an active member of this group.  I find it interesting that stunningly effective writer, speaker, and publisher of the fat activist magazine Rump Parliament, Martindale finds recreation in visiting other centuries for real-time recreation.

The healing power of submerging in a more size-accepting era is documented elsewhere.  In her autobiography, Wake Up, I'm Fat, Camryn Manheim reports that Renaissance Faires saved her from a major teenage self-esteem crisis.  Taking a little fantasy or time travel break in the midst of the modern anxiety factory has got to be much more therapeutic than sitting down to watch the mainstream media's poster children for anorexia and the hucksters that follow them to sell their collective sickness for profit.

In her foreword, Judy Sullivan points out the situation that led to Such A Pretty Face.  While writers of speculative fiction can imagine worlds and situations on the far edges of reality and beyond,

"...Most seem unable to break the mind-set regarding size.  Reflecting the bias and prejudice of their culture, they devise heroes who are strong, clever, handsome, human, alien, mechanical, pointy-eared, blue, green and/or hairy, but almost never fat. In a genre where humans (and others) of virtually every description are sculpted to capture our minds and challenge our views of reality, they are almost, unless background characters, never fleshed out as fat.

"There are, of course, some central, positively-portrayed characters of size populating speculative fiction. Robert A. Heinlein has given us several, including Jubal Harshaw and Anne The Fair Witness in Stranger In a Strange Land. Heinlein also wrote a man into The Man Who Sold the Moon who was described as being too old and too fat to go to the moon but who did it regardless. Other stories which give fat characters a fair shake include Two To Conquer by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Rosemary Edghill's Sword of Maiden's Tears. But these characters and stories are certainly the exception, rather than the rule.

"When science fiction and fantasy characters are described as being fat, they are almost always based solely on negative stereotypes. Star Wars' Jabba the Hutt is slovenly, greedy and evil, the epitome of wantonness taken to excess. The infamous Dune character, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, is a thoroughly disgusting creature—diseased, ugly, brutal, cruel and crass to the extreme. Neither has any redeeming qualities."

Sullivan goes on to describe a panel at Diversicon (SF Minnesota) in 1999, which addressed the question "Do You Have to Look Good in Skintight Spandex to Explore the Universe?" addressing many issues pertaining to writing fat characters: the definition of "overweight"; why fat people are the target of bias; stereotypes regarding sex; other stereotypes, including lack of self control, laziness, etc.; and the practical aspects for a fat space-traveler.

Editor Lee Martindale further explains the concept behind the anthology in her introduction. 

Science fiction, she says,

"... often takes old ideas and concepts that have fallen out of societal fashion and reintroduces them to readers with enough imagination to appreciate them. I'm thinking here of ideas such as loyalty, honor and courage, and concepts like the hero. I've even heard it suggested that the reason people read science fiction and fantasy is because there are few heroes in real life.

"Which brings me to another theory I once heard advanced by an individual who looked my Venus of Willendorf body up and down and didn't even try to hide her look of disgust: that the reason so many fat people read SF&F is because there are no fat heroes in real life. 'Fat people,' she pontificated, 'simply cannot be heroic.'

"I disagree; I grew up with fat heroes. Among them, the grandfather who raised me and to whom I give a good portion of the credit for the fighter I grew up to be. He was fat, a bear of a man, and a hero every day of his life. And my high school Latin teacher who was very short, very round, more than a bit dotty and who maintained the shelter where sparks of independent thought, creativity and love of learning could survive the educational system.

"I still meet fat heroes on a daily basis. The people who refuse to take 'you're too fat to work here' for an answer. The size issues activists working to change societal attitudes, medical disinformation and the silly notion that body bigotry is 'for our own good.'  The writers who refuse to grab the cheap and easy laugh of 'fat jokes' or use the shorthand of stereotypes. And the thousands upon thousands of fat people who refuse to measure down to the rubber ruler of height/weight charts (or whatever they're being called this week), who pointedly ask 'over WHOSE weight?', who reject societal pressure to be less than they are, and who opt for being strong, healthy and fully involved with life."

Martindale, an accomplished and often-published writer in Fantasy magazines, has put together a fascinating mix of the stories from contributors in a wide range of current speculative fictional flavors.  Once the boundaries of size are broken, these storytellers can come up with a captivating variety of tales of super-sized heroics. 

From Elizabeth Ann Scarborough's Worse Than the Curse, a once-upon-a-time semi-classical fairy tale, where a princess endures a curse and goes on a quest—to "an operatic Valkyrie leading the charge against the Forces of Darkness" somewhere in space in Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Naratha's Shadow.

My personal favorite is Casting Against Type by Jody Lynn Nye, which brings us the glorious idea of a fat man who is a mostly unsuccessful actor, a really nice guy, a genuine hero in a crisis—and when the moon is full he turns into a were-elephant. 

A close second is The Search for a Sipping House by Joette M. Rozanski.  As the intro to that story puts it "What happens when a writer gets tired of reading about "pale, thin, languid twenty-something vampires?  ...What about creatures of the night who looked like the rest of us?  What if they were considered 'second-class' by the more typical undead?"  The resulting story takes a look at class, size and lodging among the undead with charming results.

There are a variety of worlds to explore in this anthology, some even closer to home, as in The Fat Cats' Tale by Martha A. Compton.  Cat lovers will be delighted to discover how fat cats save the universe on a regular basis with no thank-you's required beyond operating a can opener to fill the food bowl in a timely fashion. 

What all the stories have in common is the twist that a positive fat heroine or hero is central to the story and an uplift that will make anyone who reads the anthology feel better after taking the journey.

Meisha Merlin Publishing, a small press located in Decatur, Georgia has put together a beautiful book. Doug Beekman's cover design is lovely and provocative enough that I have heard requests for a poster version.  While the paperback edition displays the same cover graphic, collectors might be interested to know that there will be a limited hardcover edition available, signed by the author, with a full-color wraparound dust jacket. More information is available online at http://www.MeishaMerlin.com.

Buy this book at Powell's


© Lynne Murray