Doris Piserchia: Critical Overviews.

Introduction to this Website.

This site is dedicated to the writing of Doris E. Piserchia (1928 - ), American author of darkly comic, imaginative fiction, who published thirteen novels and nearly a score of short stories between 1966 and 1983. Perhaps too unpredictable and emotionally intense for the science fiction market where they originally appeared, these tales run the gamut from a metaphysical time travel story (Mister Justice) to genre-defying escapist yarns (Spaceling, Star Rider) to an Appalachian vampire novel (Blood County). Although she stopped publishing in the early '80s after an untimely death in her family, Piserchia's work remains as fresh as the day it was written, and continues to spark Internet commentary and sporadic movie proposals.

Told in a droll, matter-of-fact voice, Piserchia's tales are an odd combination of noir world-weariness and fairy tale awe. In contrast to the sleek technological utopias of classic science fiction, her imaginary worlds abound with quarreling petty officials, mutants haggling over domestic details, and cities collapsing in chaos. Instead of lantern-jawed males saving the world, she alternates between decisive female protagonists (in her "escapist" novels) and a rogue's gallery of unsympathetic characters (in her dystopian novels). Yet in the best visionary tradition of science fiction, she transports the reader to strange, uncanny places: a cold backwater planet where corpses are used as slave labor (I, Zombie), a future Earth where Himalayan-sized trees are locked in global combat (Doomtime), and a variety of hothouse ecosystems, bulging with exotic growth (e.g., Earthchild, Earth in Twilight). She has a flair for the visual, and the weird: if Bosch were a writer rather than a painter, this is what he might produce.

Toward the end of her string of novels, Piserchia published two books under a man's name (Curt Selby). One website suggests that this was an unfortunate concession to science fiction's adolescent male readership, but in a recent interview here, Piserchia refuses to play the victim. "Don Wollheim [of DAW Books] published four of my books that year," she says. "He wanted another name." According to the author, she was on a roll in '82, scouting for new markets. With 20/20 hindsight, it might look like her choice of a nom de plume (an ancestor's name) was economically motivated, but the Selby books are just as eccentric and uncompromising as the rest of her production. If she had continued writing under her own name (as she apparently had every intention of doing) and eventually pushed through to broader recognition (with a movie deal, say), who's to say how history might have viewed her choice of a pseudonym?

Piserchia also says none of her books were "juveniles," but quite a few of her fans were precocious kids (especially girls) who read her work in the '70s and early '80s and then grew up to become teachers, software writers, and feminist book critics. It's somewhat ironic that a "silent generation" author who often wrote skeptically about feminism (in Earth in Twilight, "Naked and Afraid I Go," and elsewhere) should end up being labeled a feminist science fiction writer. Nevertheless, it is the feminine element of her stories--the fecund settings, fluid plots, sympathy for underdog characters, and other sly inversions of a genre dominated by boys and their toys--that gives her work much of its enduring power. Although her books are currently out of print (available through libraries and secondhand booksellers), they remain a fascinating oeuvre, ripe for republication and reappraisal.

--Tom Moody

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From the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, by John Clute and Peter Nicholls (St. Martins Griffin 1995):

Doris Elaine Piserchia, U. S. writer born and raised in West Virginia, served in U. S. Navy 1950-1954. Began publishing short fiction with "Rocket to Gehanna (sic)" for Fantastic in 1966. Her first novel, the remarkable and densely plotted Van Vogt-style revenge drama Mister Justice (1973 dos) appeared after she had established some reputation in shorter forms, one of her stories being included in Best Science Fiction for 1972 (anth 1973) edited by Frederick Pohl. Star Rider (1974) recounts first person adventures in a chokingly vivid universe, versions of which recur throughout her work; events are pellmell and the protagonists' far-flung quest for Doubleluck, a planet of dreams, constantly becomes enmired in that environment. A Billion Days of Earth, 1976, similarly loses energy towards its close, but depicts its far future venue with precision and eloquence; its ratmen with mechanical claws for hands are a particularly resonant notion and demonstrate DP's clear creative preference for aliens, who rarely fail to outshine her human performers. Earthchild, 1977, is similarly set on a far future Earth under a similar threat of termination. Later novels--like Doomtime, 1981, and Earth in Twilight, 1981--likewise tend to subordinate human protagonists to her ornate and sometime animate mises en scene, so that she is at times both daring and a trifle coy in subject matter and style: not even the female protagonists of Spaceling, 1978, or The Dimensioneers, 1982, though enjoying DP's approval, genuinely manage to dominate their texts. Blood Country (sic), 1981, and I, Zombie, 1982, both as Curt Selby, the latter a genuine sf novel about the posthumous revivification--for purposes of forced labor--of suicides, are of interest. In her self-consciousness, and in the sense she conveys that landscape drowns action (rather than vice versa), DP seemed for a period very much a member of the U. S. new wave; but she has not published since 1983, and the course of her further development cannot properly be guessed.

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"Doris," from Strange Words.

The Forgotten Heroes of science fiction come in all flavors, from the one-hit wonders who wrote the only book they had in them, to the tragedies: of suicide, bad health, or a public that just wouldn't listen, to the sturdy footsoldiers who toiled in obscurity and simply faded away. Doris Piserchia falls into the last group. A long career in the magazines, an extensive contract with a major publishing house (DAW), then silence. After 1983, Piserchia might have stepped off the planet.

Why? She was a compelling storyteller, a master of setting, with a firm grasp of the fundamentals and excellent craft. She tended towards the lush planetary cornucopia, with the strangeness and bigness of her background threatening to drown out the narrative, but never quite doing so. Her stories sport a sly sense of humor from unique points of view, her characters often being strange, not-quite aliens in hurly burly environments of great color and complexity. Like many of the woman writers of her time, she didn't directly address the gender issues erupting in Real society, but wedged in pointed metaphors and thinly disguised portrayals of them. She is an Old School craftsman, the last gasp of the standard writer before the flash of Cyberpunk changed everything. One is tempted to imagine that Piserchia was a talent born too soon, in whose style can be discerned the nascent roots of the coming storm of post modern sci fi.

Looking at the wreckage of the men who wrote science fiction in the Bad Old Days, it must have been a Hell of unspeakable proportions to be a woman in the Biz. And to be smart, and have to produce the dreck that the fanboys would buy and that would make Don Wollheim happy and rich. Piserchia's run was good, though, and her legacy contains a lot of books that belie the pit of Misty darkness of forgetfulness into which she has been cast. Her weird, tyranical tree Masters, her Dying Earths, her strange zombie laborers remain like the signs on a road to nowhere. Doris Piserchia was good, and that will always remain, wherever she has gone to. The irony of her writing under a man's name (Curt Selby) at the end of her career rather than the beginning underlines the wrongness of her treatment, the inexplicable silence that surrounds her legacy. She is truly the Forgotten.

--Strange Words

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Introductory Commentary by Liz Henry.

Each Piserchia novel is compact, vigorous, and complex. It's difficult to convey their flavor. Her books are all short, but they are built on a grand scale. Her monsters, like Mordak and the Fluger, burst with life, justly angry like John Gardner's Grendel, howling, romping, raging; the more they destroy humanity, the more likable they are. Her heroines and heroes are common in the best sense of the word. They fall into their hero status by accident, and on the way to the end of their quests, they discover essential truths about life, about themselves; they see deeper into the universe when they are through. Her work is action packed, but thoughtful, exploring good and evil, hope and despair, ambition, war, and love.

Piserchia's female protagonists are strong, independent, and complex. They are frequently orphans, with telepathic dimension hopping companion animals. Star Rider, Earthchild, Dimensioneers, and Spaceling are especially good books for young adults.

For some reason I have never met anyone who has heard of her, I've never seen her work appear in any feminist or women's anthologies, and her books aren't currently in print. Despite this, I am positive that her work will be counted as Literature, transcending whatever stereotypes are put on the genre of science fiction. Her books aren't monumental, all-encompassing future histories or detailed universes; they are more like something you can hold in your hand, but they are no less great than the best. In my opinion she ranks up there with Stanislaw Lem, Ursula LeGuin, Gene Wolfe, J.R.R. Tolkien, Samuel Delany, and Sheri S. Tepper. Somebody please get a clue, get on the ball and get her work back in print.

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