The Bleeding Man and Other Science Fiction Stories (1974) is a fascinating blend of genre-bending ideas, outsider perspective and misogyny. I simultaneously loved and rolled my eyes at these stories, and while you absolutely must go into Strete’s work aware of his bias, I still think it’s worth reading. A quick look at each story:
“Into Every Rain, a Little Life Must Fall” – bored cop doing surveillance on a rainy night finds a man he can’t arrest because the system doesn’t recognize him. Prescient, for the early 1970s. Sparse, quick writing.
“White Brothers from the Place Where No Man Walks” – I liked the recursive storytelling beats in this myth. It’s strange and won’t appeal to everyone, which is part of what I like about it. You’re not going to read a story like this every day.
“When They Find You” – My favorite piece in the collection. It’s sad, callous, and innovative in turns. Probably the best written story in the book.
“A Sunday Visit with Great-Grandfather” – about the power of not believing in science. If you imagine that magic only works if you believe in it, then perhaps technology works the same way.
“Mother of Cloth, Heart of Clock” – sad, first person perspective tale of a zoo animal (an ape, most likely) who’s about to be put down. Second best story in the book.
“The Bleeding Man” – The government emissary is a heartless woman who doesn’t understand drinking, gambling, or storytelling, and therefore deserves to be cut into little pieces. Oh, and something about a god-being who might be Jesus.
Overall this collection deals with themes of otherness, magic vs. science, and the oppression of living in someone else’s society. Ironically, Strete creates stories of oppression of Native American men which are meant to show how wrong that oppression is, but does so by substituting women as acceptable to denigrate instead.
The main characters are all male, and though females (human, alien, and animal) appear in most of the stories, they’re all one-dimensional. Grandmother, mother, bitch, fuck toy – each woman has a role to play, that of an object that the males move around and influence. There are no women in the first story at all. The mothers in “White Brothers” and “Bleeding Man” are there as containers of a baby and no more – and both are subsequently killed without having uttered dialogue. They’re also named for the men in their lives: “Old Coat’s daughter” and “my sister by law” (also called “the mother” and “his wife”). The Grandmother in “Sunday Visit” is a repetitive caricature, kicking the shins of her cantankerous husband while also making sure to be there in case he has a coughing fit. The narrator’s mate in “Mother of Cloth” is taken away to be experimented on and then put down when her personality changes to violent.
The Riyall woman that Gantry buys for a mate in “When They Find You” is called “Bkaksi” once, by her father, when he’s selling her in exchange for a shirt. (The father doesn’t even wear the shirt; he folds it up and sits on it.) Bkaksi doesn’t speak, is the perfect lover and servant, empathically knowing Gantry’s ever need, but he never falls in love with her. He barely learns not to hate her for being human. She doesn’t complain when he takes her into town to get a surgery that will allow her to bear his children, though he doesn’t ask if she wants it.
Miss Dow, the only named woman to get dialogue in Strete’s stories, is mean, stupid, and might have been attractive if only she’d smile, according to her coworker in “Bleeding Man”. It gets worse from there, as if her insistence on being a person who makes decisions – or at least, enforces them – proves her unworthiness to be cared for or kept alive. I saw what the author was trying to do with the tale but couldn’t get invested in it.
Interestingly, the forward – written by a woman, author Virginia Hamilton – skips over Strete’s treatment of women entirely.
All of that said, the book is still worth reading. Blame the era, blame the author, blame … whatever you want, the book is awful to women and there’s no ignoring that. But the stories are still mostly innovative, and at times uncomfortably emotional. They push the boundaries of genre, remind us that there are more than white Anglo writers in the US, and suggest new ways that we can tell a story. I will look at my own work with new eyes after reading this collection, and I would be very surprised if I didn’t incorporate some of Strete’s ideas about structure into my future writing.