Swords Against Darkness: A turd in an otherwise excellent punchbowl (#SFWApro)

Having finished Lin Carter’s last Year’s Best Fantasy collections this week, I decided to start rereading Andrew J. Offutt’s Swords Against Darkness anthologies. Offutt launched the series as a venue for sword-and-sorcery when there weren’t many markets, and I remembered the series being good. Based on the first volume, I was right (we’ll get to it in next weekend’s reviews), except for Bruce Jones” “Pride of the Fleet,” the turd mentioned above.
In the intro to the volume, Offutt says he asked four female fantasy writers to contribute a story with a female lead, but got turned down. I give him credit for that, as even now, it wouldn’t occur to some editors to try for a broader perspective. Offutt adds that he doesn’t think most men can write s&s with a female lead—which presumably explains why there are none in this book (later collections, IIRC had some)—but he thinks Jones did okay.
He thinks incorrectly. Very.
Jones’ protagonist, Sheffield, is an incredibly hot and somewhat bitchy Space Patrolwoman (curiously, Jones story is actually SF) stationed on another world who enjoys displaying her body and takes full advantage of how her looks can tie men in knots. At least in her eyes, every man on base wants her, every woman is jealous of her. Her commander sends her out into the wilderness to bring back Leakwood, a tech nerd she’s gone out with a couple of times but regards as a friend to talk to, not a potential lover (Leakwood would very much like to be the latter). He’s gone off with a device that can transform a human into a Rhunk—the planet’s dominant species, an unstoppable juggernaut—and back, which is a smart move as becoming a Rhunk is the only way to survive meeting one.
After having a swordfight with a hunter who’s shown up on planet (Sheffield proves herself an excellent swordswoman), Sheffield confronts a Rhunk and uses her own gadget to transform. Surprise! The Rhunk is actually Leakwood, who smashes the device so she can’t turn back, ever. Now, at last, he has her all to himself, cue the ironically happy ending music.
When I read this story in college, I knew it was wrong. Not so much the ethics, though those were obviously wrong (Leakwood’s success is presented as something to put a smile on readers’ faces), but in the sense it’s a badly written story. Sheffield’s response to realizing she’s become a Rhunk for the rest of her life is to sigh, realize she’ll never be able to wear her sexy uniforms again and let Leakwood get on with mounting her. Which just didn’t make sense: a logical ending would be for her to rip off his mating tentacles and see if one Rhunk can crush another Rhunk.
For that matter, Leakwood’s agenda is kind of well, batshit. Sure, he gets out of the friend zone (the book’s too old to actually use the term but it’s got the concept), but he can’t possibly find Sheffield’s Rhunk form sexy. They can’t speak so even if he loved her for her mind, he can’t look forward to engaging in witty banter. He’s the equivalent of the stalker who’d sooner see his quarry dead than with someone else.
Like I said, the collection overall is good, but it’s really creepy to realize Jones and Offutt both thought this thing was good.

6 Comments

Filed under Reading, Undead sexist cliches

6 responses to “Swords Against Darkness: A turd in an otherwise excellent punchbowl (#SFWApro)

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