Sunday, October 8, 2023

A Game of Vlet

Joanna Russ (1937–2011)
From Joanna Russ: Novels & Stories

Three Joanna Russ books: Her first novel, Picnic on Paradise (Ace Books, 1968), with cover art by Diane and Leo Dillon; the 1983 edition of The Adventures of Alyx (Timescape / Pocket Books), with cover illustration by Kevin Eugene Johnson; and the story collection The Zanzibar Cat (Arkham House, 1983), with cover illustration by James C. Christensen.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, inspiration is surely a close second. In 1974, when Joanna Russ published a new sword-and-sorcery tale in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, she could not have imagined that the 4,000-word story would play a significant role in the creation of a suite of books by Samuel R. Delany. Russ’s influence was obvious early in his 1976 science fiction novel, Trouble on Triton, in which several characters play vlet, a complex chess-like board game. As Delany later explained in an interview:
The name comes from a story by Joanna Russ, “A Game of Vlet.” It’s part—or almost a part—of her “Alyx” series. The game in her story is not quite so complicated as mine; but in Russ’s tale, at one point, you realize that the world of the story is actually controlled by the game: you can’t really tell where the game ends and the world takes up. The three books I’ve written since Triton, set in ancient Nevèrÿon, are basically the game of vlet writ large.
Delany informed Russ of his appropriation “and she said it was all right.” He returned the favor the same year Triton was published. The first five Alyx episodes, including the novel Picnic on Paradise, were gathered under the title Alyx in a Gregg Press limited edition, and Delany wrote the introduction, in which he examined how Russ’s series transcends and subverts the traditions of the fantasy genre:
The opening two tales are the swordiest of sword and sorcery; the third is only a few dials and traveling spotlights away from the most sorcerous; and, despite its dials, lights, and the world “machine,” it certainly doesn’t feel like science fiction. In the novel, when our pre-civilised heroine is transported into the future, we have a tale that does feel like science fiction; and the closing novella, while its surface demands to be taken as science fiction, keeps evoking feelings that tend to veer our reading of it toward a psychological fantasy. . . .
He adds, “The largest break with the sword and sorcery tradition is, of course, that there are women in Russ’s tales. . . . Possibly an even larger break is that there is, at least, one—and this is what sword and sorcery banishes entirely from its landscape—husband in the series.”

“Those stories were a breakthrough for me,” Russ told interviewer Larry McCaffery in 1986.
. . . up until that point I had pretty much been following the usual cultural scenario by writing action stories with men as main characters and love stories with women protagonists; naturally, in the action stories the men usually won, while in the love stories the women lost. When I got to Alyx, for the first time I realized I had stumbled upon the chance to create a new story—really a whole series of stories—that could counter those gender stereotypes. One of the most exciting things about working in SF for me, a woman, is that SF is so open-ended—it’s perfectly possible to imagine a world where sexism doesn’t exist, or in which women can be presented in the context of new myths that women can admire or learn from.
In the mid-1980s, the Alyx stories were reprinted (sans Delany’s introduction) as a mass-market paperback with the title The Adventures of Alyx, yet readers will find “A Game of Velt” in neither collection—which is why Delany refers to it as “almost a part” of the Alyx series. The story appeared instead in Russ’s 1983 story collection, The Zanzibar Cat. Just as Delany had borrowed an idea from her story, she too had adapted an element from an earlier work, as she acknowledged in a headnote:
This story was inspired by the fine piece of medieval magic Vergil Magus performs in Avram Davidson’s wonderful The Phoenix and the Mirror [1969]. It’s also the last story I ever wrote about my character Alyx, the last, the last, the last. I’m sorry, readers who want more of her, but there just ain’t no more.
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In Ourdh, near the sea, on a summer’s night so hot and still that the marble blocks of the Governor’s mansion sweated as if the earth itself were respiring through the stone—which is exactly what certain wise men maintain to be the case—the Governor’s palace guard caught an assassin trying to enter the Governor’s palace through a secret passage too many unfortunates have thought they alone knew. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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