Locus Magazine Review



R. Garcia y Robertson has been a familiar name to readers of Asimov's and F&SF for the past decade, and except for a handful of novels has seemed to be settling into the role of dependable mainstay of the magazines, the kind of writer who seldom wins awards or ends up in annual "bests," but who once made up the backbone of short-form SF. Garcia y Robertson's collection The Moon Maid and Other Fantastic Adventures seems almost willfully to encourage this assessment, with its pulp-sounding title, story titles like "Werewolves of Luna," and swashbuckling Ron Walotsky cover—but the actual stories reveal a quite distinctive voice, a writer who combines the sophistication of a trained academic historian with an acute sensitivity to characters marginalized by circumstance or culture. His major themes include bigotry and cultural relativism; his characteristic tale is of an outsider faced with a daunting task in an exotic setting. These settings include sixteenth-century Holland, the Third Reich, post-Gold Rush San Francisco, the Bronze Age steppes, Viking Europe, and Little Big Horn; main characters include gypsies, Chinese immigrants, and Crow women (even one Crow transvestite). There is seldom much elaborate fantasy or SF apparatus, and in some of his best stories the fantastic content is minimal. But these days, when historical settings seem to show up more often in SF or fantasy than anywhere else, Garcia y Robertson's meticulous respect for well-researched detail could be a model for other writers who are too often tempted to treat the past as a playground for invention.

Two of the strongest stories in the collection, for example, deal with colorful episodes in American history from points of view that cast them in an entirely new light. "Four Kings and an Ace" describes the experiences of a young Chinese girl, educated by missionaries, as she arrives in turn-of-the-century San Francisco and is promptly sold as a prostitute—until she joins in an elaborate sting to win both freedom and revenge in a climactic poker game. "The Other Magpie" deals with a Crow woman who seeks revenge for her brother's death at the hands of the Sioux—but who nearly leads the U.S. Army captain to whom she is attracted into the battle of Little Big Horn on the advice of her brother's treacherous ghost; the point of view here strikingly presents the U.S. Cavalry as marginal to the lives of the rival Native American tribes. Point of view also lends authority to "The Moon Maid," which despite its Burroughs-like title is actually almost a straight historical tale about a real-life Amazon in the ancient Ukraine; the tale is heroic enough, but its main value may be as a much needed corrective to the comic-book view of barbarian culture that has persisted from Robert E. Howard to Xena, Warrior Princess. "The Wagon God's Wife" is also a heroic tale, retelling a terrific Norse legend in a manner that both recaptures the rhythms of Viking storytelling and explores the anti-Swedish bigotry of the ancient Danes.

When Garcia y Robertson turns to more traditional SF themes, his stories can be equally inventive—or assiduously conventional. In "Gypsy Trade," time-traveling gypsies seek to market original works by Dutch masters in the twentieth century; the tale takes a darker turn when they land in Nazi-occupied Europe. Humans themselves are the despised minority in "Cast on a Distant Shore," set on a humid, oceanic world where the young hero Kafirr (perhaps a deliberate echo of South Africa's "kaffir"?) ekes out a living as a diver, hiring out to aliens who regard him and his kind as completely expendable. "Gone to Glory" and "The Werewolves of Luna" are the more conventional adventure tales, the latter beginning with the hoariest of clichés—a lunar adventurer hopelessly running out of air—and ending in a fantasy role-playing virtual reality environment. The whole tale is fluff, a medley of familiar tunes strung together with more energy than intelligence, and Garcia y Robertson tells us it's one of his most popular stories. If that's the case (and there's no reason to dispute the author's claim), let's hope it's not also a temptation. Garcia y Robertson is always a competent writer, but his space adventures seem far less likely to establish a long-term reputation than his insightful historical explorations. To use a word long beaten senseless by academia, Garcia y Robertson is the most multicultural of contemporary writers of short SF, and at their best his stories offer perspectives that no one else even attempts.

—Gary K. Wolfe, Locus, February 1998



 

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