Three times a year we welcome interns from all over as part of our internship program. During the start of the year, however, we partner with Bennington College in Vermont to provide an intense six-week internship for students who are looking to learn more about the publishing industry.
This year, we welcome Veda Carmine-Ritchie, Walter Greene and David Hakas! We asked them a few questions so you could get to know them too.
Where are you from/where did you grow up?
Veda: Portland, Oregon
Walter: Born in Brooklyn, NYC, raised in Portland, at school in Bennington, Vermont
David: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
What are you majoring in?
Veda: Creative Writing/Dance
Walter: Literature and Philosophy
David: English Literature and Japanese Language
What first interested you in publishing?
Veda: I was interested in publishing, and Microcosm specifically, because working in this environment exposes you to so many amazing pieces of writing by so many different kinds of people. I think bringing an array of voices into the public sphere is incredibly important in our current climate. So not only do I get to read all the time! (swoon!) but I’m also working for a cause I believe in.
Walter: I first became interested in publishing after sitting in on a class for the literary magazine the “Bennington Review” back when I was a prospective student visiting Bennington College for the first time. During that class, I was introduced to the acquisition process and instantly found myself drawn into the critical dialogue that surrounds selecting pieces of writing for publication.
David: To be honest, initially it was the career opportunities. But I’ve found a lot to love since that time.
What do you like best about interning for Microcosm so far?
Veda: I am really enjoying feeling like such a member of the team! Everyone here is amazing to work with and really values your time and opinions. I feel like the work I do here is not only appreciated by others, but something I feel proud of.
Walter: Interning at Microcosm has blown away any of my previous assumptions about what an internship looks like. Since day one, I’ve been met with the respect and responsibility of an employee and have been engaging in meaningful, rewarding work that has provided valuable insight into the world of publishing. Plus everyone here rocks, it’s definitely a no-bullshit environment in the best way possible.
David: I like being able to help people who aren’t experienced writers bring out their best work.
What will you and won’t you miss about Portland when you go back to Vermont?
Veda: I’m going to miss my dog, walking around the city, the pacific ocean and all the coffee shops. Probably not going to miss the clouds though, I want some winter sun!
Walter: I’ll miss the arts and music scene the most. Don’t get me wrong, Bennington College always has performances, lectures, exhibits, and many other events going on, but the arts and music scene is almost entirely contained within the campus. I love being able to travel around Portland and feeling that real sense of “going out” whenever there’s a show or something else happening.
David: I’ll miss being able to walk everywhere. I won’t miss the rain.
Do you have any pets?
Veda: Yes! One chihuahua mix, he was a rescue. Apparently he lived in Hawaii for two years before meeting my family.
Walter: I have one dog, a Portuguese Water Dog named Willa, which is short for Willamette Stormtrooper (my brother and I got her when we were seven and nine). If you look “Portuguese Water Dog” up online you’ll find that they’re classified as working dogs, which clearly no one told that to Willa because she spends all day sleeping.
David: My family has everything from dogs to chickens, but I travel too much to have any myself.
What do you do in your free time?
Veda: I go on adventures with my friends, and if I’m alone, I tend to spend a lot of time in the dance studio, in the library, or home writing poems.
Walter: When I’m not working, I’m either reading, playing guitar, hiking, drinking tea, or roaming the shadow realm.
David: Read a lot and write a lot. If I’m on break, I’ll also watch professional wrestling and play video games with my younger siblings.
What’s one piece of media you recommend to everyone you meet?
Veda: There’s so much media in the world! I think I’m gonna have to go with the movie Juno, if you haven’t seen it you’re missing out on some prime Micheal Cera and Ellen Page moments.
Walter: While I only found out about it recently, I recommend that anyone involved with music should pick up a copy of She Shreds, a magazine published here in Portland that focuses on women guitarists and bassists. Its articles and artist profiles are fascinating, the graphic design is beautiful, and it has sweet features like guitar gear recommendations based on your astrological sign (I’m a Gemini and this month’s rec was a distortion pedal so I picked up a ProCo Rat)
David: Count Zero by William Gibson, one of my favorite novels and a huge inspiration of mine.
Where can people find you online?
Veda: Follow me on instagram! @callyoutomorrow and if you’re feeling kinda sad, in need of weepy music, check out my spotify @vedsss
Veda: I’m really excited for the rest of this internship and I’m really gonna miss this place when I’m back at school!
Interns are a vital part of our team, helping things run smoothly and getting to learn about what goes on behind the curtain of publishing. If you’re interested in joining our team through an internship, applications for the summer quarter are open until March 1, 2020!
Ariel Gore wanted to see if science could help her be happier. And the more she read, the more she realized that the psychology of happiness is full of studies by, for, and about straight cis white men. She set out to find out why her own experience as a woman and mother isn’t reflected in the research, and how we can do it better. The resulting book is fascinating, lyrical, and profoundly affecting.
The book reflects Shadowhawk’s experience living in a cancer bubble near a manufacturing plant and spending decades researching and honing methods to keep her family healthy by lowering the toxic load of their home.
The Kickstarter project offers pre-orders of Detox Your Place as well as discounted bundles that include Microcosm’s other DIY healthy living and cooking books, such as bestsellers Make Your Place and Making Stuff & Doing Things.
Ever since our operations manager Sid told us about the concept of strengths-based leadership, we’ve been a little obsessed. The basic idea is that instead of trying to identify and improve your (or your workers’) weakest points, you instead identify your strengths and work to make the most of them. Then, for example, if your strength is getting things started and your coworker’s strength is seeing things through to the end… well, that means you find ways to work together instead of trying to change yourselves. It’s kinda utopian that way.
The gold standard test for this is called CliftonStrengths. It’s helpful stuff and they have a bunch of books and resources to help you understand your results. For our unscientific purposes, we took a free knock-off online.
Here are results and thoughts from a couple of our workers and interns, about what their strengths mean to them at work:
Top 5 Strengths:
Believer (An executing type strength)
Empathizer (A relationship building type strength),
Coach (An influencing type strength)
Storyteller (A relationship building type strength)
Peacekeeper (A relationship building type strength)
I first learned about this concept in my freshman year of college (my results haven’t changed too much) and at that time I did exactly what you’re NOT supposed to do which is notice all the categories I had “no strengths” in. I can be a bit of a black and white thinker. However, one thing I’ve come to love about this system as a manager is that there’s no such thing as someone with zero ability in any specific category, only a person who hasn’t been empowered in a way that makes sense to them based on their strengths.
So for instance- I may not be able to lead Microcosm in grand and innovative directions by way of strategic thinking, but when I notice an intern with a lot of strength in that area, I know to empower them by taking the time to communicate a little extra with them about our processes and coach them on how to best take their ideas and put them into action in our workplace. Furthermore, knowing that someone in our organization is super great at something like “consistency” or “activator” means that if I want to take one of those cool ideas and make sure it gets done, I set them up to turn it into a reality with their executing talents. I’m a big ole nerd about this stuff. I recommend it to everyone.
Top 5 strengths:
I was pleased that my strengths reflected what I value in myself and what I’ve always believed my strong suits to be: organization, dependability, planning, attention to detail and listening to other people. I would have been curious to see what I scored lowest on.
Top 5 strengths:
I’m a sucker for any kind of insight into our personalities and ways of being in the form of a quiz. My top 5 makes perfect sense as to who I am, so no surprises there, but it was interesting to dissect further than the surface and see how these all intertwine in various forms of my life, work and personal. There’s always a sense of renewed energy from discovering things about yourself, because it’s like an easter egg, another key or clue into discovering how you operate as an individual and as a team, and how to navigate yourself through the world.
Top 5 strengths:
Thinking about the results of this test has been extremely useful to me as a manager and a human. None of these strengths surprised me, but seeing them all together this way was helpful perspective—it helped me see myself as something more than the collection of shortcomings I’m constantly (and zestfully, per strengths two and five) problem-solving around.
I was also unsurprised to learn that none of my top five skills are in the relationship-building type. Not that I don’t have social skills, but I sure don’t turn to them first. Yet, I manage other people and much as my natural bossiness comes in handy, relational skills really have to be a part of that for it to go well. So Sid lent me her book about strengths-based management and assigned me the task of going through all my direct reports’ top strengths and figuring out how to lead to those, instead of my previous one-size-fits-all approach. So many revelations!
Psychologists have studied this question and come up with many compelling and often helpful answers. But, Ariel Gore noticed when researching this question, the scientists doing the studies and their subjects all had something in common: They’re cis white men.
So begins F*ck Happiness, Gore’s thoughtful, lyrical, thoroughly-researched book about what happiness might mean for women. Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression, and in the studies that do include us, report both greater amounts of joy and greater amounts of struggle. Gore tackles the complexities of emotion and gender in this fascinating book, advocating a shift from positive psychology to what she terms “liberation psychology.”
This book was originally published with minimal fanfare in 2010 as Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, and promptly went out of print without ever coming out in paperback. We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to right this wrong, along with fully updating and expanding the book to encompass new happiness research and contemporary understandings of gender.
And we’re funding it on Kickstarter—you can get $2 off the cover price by pre-ordering the book over there, and there are some reward levels offering nice deals on a bundle of books.
Also, there are seven questions about happiness that Gore posed to her interview subjects for the book, and we’ll be asking them to you in the Kickstarter updates, and asking you to chime in with your own experiences if you feel inspired to.
The zine that took the bookselling world by storm is finally widely available! Danny Caine, owner of Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas chronicles his pro-local, pro-independent bookstore, anti-Amazon activism and shows you a path to fighting the power, too.
When given the task to procure one review per month for Microcosm’s blog of a Microcosm published book, the thought haunted me. Choosing a book each month seemed like such a daunting task because there were too many to choose from. So I went with the classic Sam thing to do, and instead of choosing one thing, I chose many. I decided I wasn’t going to limit myself, at least not in the way of one book a month, but instead in the size of the book. Only the teensy weensy titles would catch my eye. I’m aware this doesn’t make much sense, because I wasn’t deciding to limit myself by the page count (that’s too rational). I decided to limit myself by the overall size of the text. Tiny things are cute, so roll with it.
Moments later I found myself poking and prodding through the metal shelving of the backroom and discovered that there weren’t many titles that fell into this niche search, a handful maybe. So that lead me to decide that I would review ALL the Microcosm mini’s and I would write them mini reviews! Maybe I was too excited to do this. Maybe I wanted to write mini reviews on the mini texts. How much this excited me really awakened me to another level of book nerd status I didn’t know I had. So cool.
The book compiles application photos and documents the editor found while rummaging through city recycling bins. These applications, with the students’ photos attached, were riddled with quotes and comments left behind from professors about each perspective doctoral student. Oh! And it’s from 1965 – 1975, so the comments are sure to astound, causing laughter and irritation. This book had me laughing, loudly, on the bus, (people stared), in anger and in embarrassment for all these students pictured before me.
“She is a female and an attractive, modest one so is bound to marry”.
“He revealed himself to be a very bright underachiever with sharp elbows, and I wondered whether he was majoring in house-keeping and girls”.
A series of feminist bike zines (since 2010), all compiled with special attention to the fact that bike culture, as vast as it is in Portland and around the world, is a heavily white, cisgender, hetero, male dominated hobby, lifestyle, and culture. This then inherently creates a struggle within anyone who doesn’t identify as such in the community. This collection speaks to that. Loudly. Vitally. Sometimes it’s difficult and heartbreaking, but always empowering. Oh! Perk! There’s trigger content warning subheadings to allow you to pick and choose from stories if something may be too much for you.
“This issue is about us, by us, for us”.
“Somewhere on that highway I made peace with the risk of seeming weird to people. There will always be someone to gawk…but the things that make me different are my mountain to climb, and I’m proud of every switchback I’ve hauled myself up. I take pride in my weirdness”.
“I’m not a rider or a walker, not really. I’m the movement in between”.
First beginning as a zine that took the mundanity of a blue collar work place and made the hellish reality a laughable one, this book takes those zines further. With an angle of tone and writing that touches on the stupid reality of being a creative type in a less than creative job to make ends meet, Royal finds a way to the humor in the littlest details, pointing out that if we pay attention, pretty much anything is fucking funny. Bring on the co-workers who are competitive square-dancers, who grow hot peppers and who attend 80’s prom massacre parties. Give me the socialized smoke breaks of analyzing the guy who lives in the van out front or whether or not the pizza joint on the corner is a mafia front. This book had me gawking and giggling all the way through in its mundanity and its outrageous oddities.
“It’s a glorified Kinko’s” (7).
“The shit you uncover with such variety in one stupid place is pretty amazing…because you’re weird, and you love weirdos, and you work with a boatload of ‘em”.
[Discussing Smoke Breaks]: “Initially the breaks were just for the smokers, but that’s obviously unfair, as the people would have to take up smoking just to take a breather. The irony speaks for itself…I found that at the bindery, there are two smoking cliques —the front-door smokers and the side-door smokers. Both groups offer social and cancerous delights in their own separate ways, and I considered myself a part of both contingents, even if I wasn’t puffing away”.
“After work I took my gift card to Target to buy myself some Bagel Bites and a Walkman to listen to mix tapes”.
A zine collection of comics and rants on superficial and weighty topics surrounding the Chicago area. For anyone who admires Chicago, traveling, punk shows, ranting about the ways things change or never change, this is your pocket book full of mini doses of these and so much more. I turned to page two and realized I was in deep. This wasn’t a book I could breeze through; it was gonna make me think. The comics towards the middle-end were my favorite: there’s a caveman, dinosaur, submarine and the Creator (all you need to know). This book made me think critically about my own perspective when experiencing a new place or person and how I internalize that information and project it. Really read this book and you’ll know what I mean. This is one of those books I have trouble explaining, even in a snapshot. If you were my friend, I’d place it in your hand, no words given and you’d just read it.
“In early adolescence, as the idea that I’d one day have to assume the mantle of adulthood reared its ugly head, I began to dream of working for Marvel comics. The nagging reality of the situation was that I’d more likely end up on the distribution end of the comic’s rack”.
“And in the end, everywhere is as much, or as little, like Chicago as you interpret it to be”.
“As good an indicator as any for gauging a cities’ commitment to its citizens’ well-being is to examine that cities’ public transit situation…A good public transit system equals freedom, democracy and liberty”
With a pointed look at the cities all over the nation and world, I found myself nodding along in agreement and laughing out loud at absurdities all the way through. Lines that had me reading and re-reading because they were so good, reading them out loud to those around me so I could get the nods of agreement and validation as we all smirk at one another. With human conditions that are relatable, sometimes gut wrenching and other times laughable, this book is sure to be one to carry with you.
“’Citizenship?’ the border cop asks. “American’ I say. ‘Unfortunately’ I want to add, but I don’t. I don’t mention that I feel more like a dual citizen: American by birth, but un-American by inclination”.
“We talk about the grid, how it moves across the Earth, first as an idea, and then as tract houses and strip malls set in neat rows. Sometimes I wonder if the old world isn’t still there, underneath the hatch lines of enlightened reason. That old, magic world that haunts us, the way the restless dead haunt model homes built on top of Indian burial grounds”.
“In San Diego, strangers don’t talk to each other in person, but leave notes under each other’s wiper blades… some people read the notes, and some people don’t bother. Instead, they drive onto the freeway and let the wind take care of the rest”.
These Microcosm minis were all very different in content and form, yet somehow they worked together in ways I couldn’t have imagined. If you find yourself curious to read these mini marvels as I have, find them on our website here.
This book began as a letter Simone wrote to her future self, with a list of ten steps to take to bring herself back from a state of panic, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. Now it’s a book-length workbook that you can use and customize to suit your own needs. Bring yourself back from the brink with these expert coping skills that you can practice when you feel okay and use any time you need them. With an intro by the one and only Dr. Faith!
Microcosm offers nine paid internships every year, in the spring, fall, and winter. Interns get to work on meaningful projects and learn both practical skills and industry knowledge. Every class of interns, for all their many individual differences, has its own personality. I’d describe our Fall 2019 batch, Micaela, Grace, and Sam, as giving us a run for our money. They’re all three ready to act, learn, and build on what they’ve learned, and so efficient and smart that we need to hustle to stay a step ahead of them.
Fun fall intern fact: two of them were high school yearbook editors, and one went to a yearbook summer camp! That’s legit publishing experience.
Here’s a little more about each of them.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a quietly reliable story and linguistics nerd.
What brings you to Microcosm?
I love books and I want to work in a field that lets me be both creative and analytical.
Where are you from? What do you miss/not miss most?
I’m from West Linn, Oregon and I’m still living there now! I miss all my old friends who live in other parts of the state/country/world. I love being close to my family (and also within walking distance of the library).
What creative or empowering thing do you like to spend your time doing?
I write novels and I also paint and draw mandalas.
What’s your favorite thing to enjoy/watch/read/listen to on TV/the radio/in the world right now?
She/Her, Queer, Feminist, cat ‘n plant lady. I’m a total geek for anything comic/graphic novel related, animated shows/movies (especially ones with gay content), and huge book/movie buff. I like to make friends so we can all be a little less alone in this big spacey thing called life.
What brings you to Microcosm?
I graduated from PSU last year with a BA in English and a minor in Writing and I basically have three goals for myself in professional regards.
1. Be the published poet/author I want to be,
2. Work in the publishing world (specifically indie pub.) and maybe one day open up my own small press geared towards publishing zinesters/poets/playwrights
3. Teach college level writing courses (because I want to be in school forever, I miss it).
So working for Microcosm is basically fulfilling one of those dreams and goals for myself. I have been a long time customer of Microcosm, so it feels really good to be a part of the team and get to take part in such a lovely community of people who are actively creative and motivated to make this world a little more EVERYTHING.
Where are you from? What do you miss/not miss the most?
I’m from all over. I technically was born and raised in southern Oregon for about half of my childhood, but after that my family was relocated just about every year for the remainder of my youth. It was great to see all the new places we lived whether it was in the U.S or out of it, culture and diversity and change became a regular thing, but like everything else it had its cons. On the one hand you’re always the new kind on the block, but one the other hand you’re always the new kid on the block. A chance for reinvention and discovery within the freedoms of no one knows you and you can be whoever you want to me. I’m not sure there’s anything I miss about it in general though, as far as a “home” feeling is concerned. I’ve made a home in my chosen family and they are right here in Portland!
What creative or empowering thing do you like to spend your time doing?
Working on my writings and making it a priority is always empowering. Making sure I’m keeping on top of my never ending to read pile is also a wonderful thing to do and feel.
What’s your favorite thing to enjoy/watch/read/listen to on TV/the radio/in the world right now?
Steven Universe has my heart right now.
What’s your favorite or least favorite thing about Microcosm so far?
It is two answers but they are kind of two fold in the sense that it is the best worst thing. You get thrown into projects head on and are free to just figure it out. I’m used to more guided work. It’s scary but also thrilling.
What do you want to get out of your time here, now that you’ve seen the basics of what we do?
I love how willing and open the people of Microcosm are with giving away projects that mean something. It’s really true, everything is important, there’s no time for busy work. I will leave (or be hired on) with a sense of true understanding into the indie pub. business and community.
Do you have any pets?
Margot and Yolanda (my cats). Two of my exes have them now and we share custody. Gay I know.
Last summer, as I was preparing the Kickstarter project for Bikes Not Rockets, my colleague Jeremy Withers, a professor of bicycle science fiction at Iowa State (sadly, I’m not 100% sure that’s his official job title), sent me an email about what may in fact be my arch-nemesis of books: Car Sinister, a long out-of-print, justifiably obscure 1979 anthology of reprinted sci fi stories from the previous two decades about cars. Every single one is written by a man. And they’re all about men, too! Or as the marketing copy on the back of the book reads, “Man and his machine … Machine and his man.”
“It has no bicycles in it,” Jeremy wrote, “but has some really imaginative depictions of cars, roads, traffic, etc. And as the title suggests, the book takes a pretty dim and dismissive view of the automobile. Most of the stories are 1960s and 1970s SF, with selections by some of the masters of that era (Roger Zelazny, Avram Davidson, Frank Herbert, Harlan Ellison, George R. R. Martin, etc.). Unfortunately, the book is also a proverbial sausage fest: no women writers!”
I expected this review to be a fairly easy mandate—no great nuanced reading would be necessary to find a feminist critique for these stories. And truly, I was not disappointed. Most of the stories in this book contain women as window dressing only. A meter maid, an old lady waving a sign, a girl standing in the crowd. The female characters given larger roles tend to be objects of contempt, attraction, or foils for the male lead’s grandiosity.
The stories that are least critical of cars are the ones steeped in the most toxic masculinity—like Roger Zelazny’s two contributions to the volume, each of which pits a stoical, solo man against against a machine. For instance, in the painfully overwritten “Auto-da-Fé,” women appear only as faceless parts of the crowd cheering on the automotive matador.
But in Zelazny’s other story, “Devil Car,” one of the two main characters is a woman, sort of. This is the very first story in the book, chosen by the volume’s three editors to set the tone and substance of the entire volume. It is the story of a man and his car, whose name is Jenny. Their conversation consists of Jenny nagging him to take care of himself and him snapping at her for it. Later, he apologizes. “‘That’s alright, Sam,’ said the delicate voice. ‘I am programmed to understand you.’”
Jenny is a sentient, state-of-the-art killing machine designed by Sam with the sole purpose of destroying the titular Devil Car. But when the moment comes, she intentionally misfires. She is simply “too emotional” to complete the job. The story ends with her human cargo patting her seat and reassuring her that, despite her faults, she’s “well-equipped” and still desirable.
Processing the experience of reading this story led me down a minor rabbit hole in which I learned that Zelazny is best known for a series in which a bunch of white characters colonize a planet where they lord over the other inhabitants in the guise of Hindu gods.
(See? This review writes itself.)
So maybe I’m feeling conspiratorial, but there is one other story in this volume in which a car is anthropomorphized as female—and it’s the book’s midway point and namesake, Gene Wolfe’s “Car Sinister.” A man takes his sports car into a shop for servicing. But due to a miscommunication, his car gets, um, stud service instead and the car becomes, as the mechanic puts it, “that way.” The man finds his car’s condition greatly inconvenient, expensive, and gross. No human woman appears for most of the story, until a passing mention in the end that after the birth, he drives the new car and gives the old, feminized, one to his wife.
Of course, you don’t need to turn your women characters into objects to strip them of their personhood. In Harry Harrison’s “The Greatest Car in the World,” an automotive engineer travels from Detroit to Italy to drop in uninvited on his childhood hero, a race car driver, now an ailing old man. After bullying his way through the front door, he’s greeted by a girl who asks him why he is intruding in “cold tones unsuited to the velvet warmth of her voice. At any other time, Haroway would have taken a greater interest in this delightful example of female construction, but” … he takes a paragraph to describe her tresses, her bosom, and her lips, and then replies rudely and dismissively. This is pretty standard for the majority of stories in this volume. When women appear, they primarily exist as story devices, coveted but contemptible objects for the male gaze.
I was especially curious to read George R.R. Martin’s entry in this volume. The introduction to his story touts him as “one of sf’s brightest young stars and whose nickname is ‘Railroad.'” This sent me off on an image search for “young George R.R. Martin,” which I discovered many of on the web page he keeps about the conventions he’s been to over the years. It contains lots of photos of him, including this collection (truncated so as to include the text, which speaks a thousand pictures) of himself posing with various ladies who, unlike the people appearing in the other pre-selfie photos on this page, are unnamed:
But much as Mr. Martin seems to appreciate women, his story in this book, “The Exit to San Breta,” detailing a crash with a ghost car, is the only one in the book that contains no women at all; not even as window dressing or a passing aside. The copyright page tells us this story was written in 1971, so I guess that’s before he discovered our existence.
The other still-pretty-famous author represented here is Frank Herbert, whose Dune series tackled gender in big ways that attempted to break free from sexist stereotypes, even if it didn’t always work. Not here, though! His story is called a promisingly feminine “The Mary Celeste Move” but the only female character is secretary who appears briefly. We don’t know her name, but we do learn that she’s a “well-endowed brunette.”
Not all the stories are dehumanizing or dismissive to women. Kenneth Bulmer’s “Station HR972” is an opaquely written description of a day in the life of a futuristic service station on a high-speed (250mph) highway.
I was bemused by this passage on page one: “Libby, the torso technician for whose sake he walked the extra hundred yards for coffee, played it cool, daily less shy, daily more inclined to talk about her own handling of units and less to listen to his accounts of rapid crane manipulations.”
Libby turns out to be a skilled surgeon dedicated to rapidly putting humans back together after the inevitable high speed car crashes. She might be the most (only?) empowered woman in this book. Certainly, she’s the only one with a non-secretarial job.
There are a couple of women in whom we glimpse a more complicated humanity. In H. Chandler Elliott’s cartoonishly colloquial “A Day on Death Highway,” a nuclear family flees a planet with strict automotive safety laws to try out life in a different dimension where the dad can fully indulge his road rage and his belief that no rules should apply to him. The story’s notable because dad’s buffoonery isn’t glorified; the family dysfunction is deftly painted, and while Mom and sister Judy aren’t given a lot of ink, they clearly have their own agency and motives.
(Contrast this with the final story in the book, Harlan Ellison’s “Along the Scenic Route” which depicts in gory detail a road-rage fueled duel in which the driver’s wife cowers in the passenger seat as he escalates a violent encounter to its fatal climax … but she is the one to comfort him after they survive. “You did what you had to,” she croons. Side note, he calls another driver a “beaver-sucker,” an insult now burned into my brain.)
Perhaps best of the lot (in terms of representation… not in writing style) was Robert F. Young’s very long and unpromisingly titled “Romance in a Twenty-first Century Used-Car Lot.” Lone among all these stories, the main character is a woman! At first, we think she’s an anthropomorphized car, but then we discover this is a society where cars must be worn like clothes at all times, even indoors, or you’ll be exiled to a “nudist reservation.” Our heroine Arabella Grille lives in a sexist society, but she’s a complicated person with insecurities and strengths that we get to see played out in the story. Her appearance is equated with her value and her intellectual bent is bemoaned by her abusive family, her image-conscious workplace, and her fascist-consumerist society.
In this story, we see the impact of the behavior and attitudes demonstrated in the other stories. When a car-clad stranger, attracted to Arabella’s new car-dress, bullies her into a date to the drive-in movie, she feels validated. When he tries to assault her (grabbing her headlights and grinding his chassis against hers), she knows everyone will blame her for the crumpled fender that resulted from fighting him off. A 24 hour mechanic helps her fix it, and asks her out more kindly. They fall in love over the course of a few dates, but her attacker finds out and calls the police; they intervene and it turns out that her new love is a secret nudist! After she weathers her family’s reaction, she decides to run away to the nudist reservation, too, where no cars are allowed, and they live happily ever after in a single-family detached home with a swimming pool.
Towards the end of the story, Arabella has a revelation about her would-be rapist. “He hates me because he betrayed to me what he really is, and in his heart, he despises what he really is!” This nugget of wisdom is a contender for the highlight of the book, matched only by the machine-gun wielding old lady pedestrian who manages to take out several passengers in the car that intentionally runs her down in the excerpt from the chronicles of the Car vs Feet wars that is Fritz Leiber’s “X Marks the Pedwalk.”
Car Sinister was easy to critique but hard to read. The stories are fantastical, but reading it today, most of them feel cartoonishly old fashioned, especially in the depictions of characters’ families, work, and expectations. In most of these stories, women are either background noise, helpmeets, coveted objects, or overly emotional obstacles our heroes must overcome. The attitudes towards cars and highways—ranging from worshipful and entitled to skeptical and pessimistic—feel contemporary, perhaps because our current climate crisis resonates with the oil crisis of the late 70s.
But even if the editors couldn’t find any car-oriented stories by the many women writing in that era to reprint, the attitudes toward gender, which are unremarked on in the book’s editorial notes, are what truly date these stories and show why most of these writers are truly no longer relevant. Science fiction authors whose work has held up over the years, like Octavia Butler or Ursula K. Leguin, have stayed readable in part because their capacity for complex cultural imagination transcends the “what if it were like now but the cars did cooler stuff and there were bigger guns” style of worldbuilding reflected in the stories in Car Sinister (and the bulk of their genre). But in part, too, they hold up because they treat all their characters as fully human, whole people. Most of the stories in this book, and in this genre over the years, fail to do this, and as a result they fail all the readers, not just us emotional womanfolk.