Monday, October 22, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Adventuress

A regular refrain of this blog since its inception is the fact that the chasm between "fantasy" and "science fiction" that now exists in the minds of many readers was once not so vast. Consequently, many writers felt no compunction at dropping laser guns or spaceships into their fantasy stories or including vampires or ghosts in their science fiction ones. This looseness carried over into the early days of our hobby, too, as anyone familiar with the Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns can attest (not to mention many others). As a younger man, I generally wasn't comfortable with the blurring of the lines between the two genres. As I get older, though, I find myself not only more comfortable with it, but embracing it, as anyone who's even passingly familiar with my Dwimmermount campaign would know.

I mention all of this as an introduction to "The Adventuress" by Joanna Russ, which first appeared in the science fiction anthology, Orbit 2, edited by Damon Knight and published in 1967. The Orbit series was published between 1966 and 1976 and included twenty-volumes -- roughly two a year. Its authors were an eclectic bunch, but many were newcomers with unusual approaches to their stories, which is why Orbit had a reputation for being "cutting edge" in its day.

"The Adventuress" is a good example of Orbit's content, since its protagonist, Alyx, is cut from the mold of C.L. Moore's Joirel of Joiry or Robert E. Howard's Black Agnes rather than the females in your typical sword-and-sorcery tale. Did I say "sword-and-sorcery?" In an anthology of "the best new SF stories?" As I said, genre boundaries were a lot looser back in 1967 than they would become later, so readers wouldn't look askance at the story of a female thief in the fantasy city of Ourdh being included in Orbit. Besides, it's not entirely clear that Alyx inhabits a fantasy setting anyway. Over the course of her adventures (there are five short stories about her), she flits between a fantasy world, the ancient world of our own Earth, and a more "pure" science fiction setting without little explanation (though the later introduction of the time traveling Trans-Temporal Authority might serve that purpose if one wishes to be kind).

"The Adventuress" begins with Alyx as a follower of a deity named Yp, whose faith preaches "the venomous hatred of inanimate objects for mankind.” Fed up with such nonsense -- and the persecution that goes with it -- Alyx abandons the worship of Yp to become a pickpocket, a vocation she finds much more rewarding (in every sense of the word). In doing so, she eventually makes the acquaintance of a spoiled young woman named Edarra, who is seeking to escape an arranged marriage to a Bluebeard-like widower. Together, the two women leave the city of Ourdh, along the way encountered numerous people, both malevolent and benign, as well as bicker incessantly, owing to their very different outlooks on the world.

What makes "The Adventuress" interesting is not the story itself, which, while engaging enough, isn't particularly ground-breaking. Rather, it's the character of Alyx herself, who, as I mentioned above, is not cut from the same cloth as the women who appear in too many pulp fantasies. Alyx is blunt, driven, and clever, which makes her quite appealing. A good example of what I mean can be found in this exchange between her and Edarra, in which Alyx discusses a brief but passionate love affair she once had:
“Ah! what a man. A big Northman with hair like yours and a gold-red beard—God, what a beard!—Fafnir—no, Fafh—well, something ridiculous. … And we fought! At a place called the Silver Fish. Overturned tables. What a fuss! And a week later,” (she shrugged ruefully) “gone. There it is. And I can’t even remember his name.”
“Is that sad?” said Edarra.
“I don’t think so,” said Alyx. “After all, I remember his beard,” and she smiled wickedly.
In case you're wondering, yes, that's a reference to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd. Leiber obviously thought well enough of Russ and her literary creation that he returned the compliment by including Alyx in not one but two Lankhmar stories. In my book, that's recommendation enough to try and find "The Adventuress" and give it a read.


  1. I assume you're including Picnic on Paradise as one of the five stories. Not to quibble with you, but it's worth mentioning that PoP was published as a novel. You'll have to look through used bookstores as it's sadly out of print, but totally worth it. Awesome, awesome book.

  2. Thanks for sharing about Alyx the Pickpocket. I knew about her from the Leiber side of things (a scant reference or two), and I have read some Joanna Russ before. Now I'm keen to find and read 'The Adventures of Alyx'.

  3. I recall Alyx from Lieber's story The Greatest Thief in Lankhmar - which of course turned out to be Alyx, who outwitted Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Never read the original stories about her, though - sounds like they're worth tracking down.

  4. You are correct. Thanks for pointing that out.

  5. Now THIS sounds like the kind of S&S I'd be into. A lot of genre fiction in those days has some unpleasantly sexist elements, and as a female gamer myself I sort of want to read about some kick-butt heroines to identify with. And the Lieber seal of approval is definitely a plus!