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Fowler, Karen Joy

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1950-    ) US author with degrees in political science and north Asian studies, now best known for The Jane Austen Book Club (2004), a non-fantastic comedy of manners; two other late novels – The Sweetheart Season (1996) and Sister Noon (2001) – are also associational. She began publishing sf with "Recalling Cinderella" in L Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Vol I (anth 1985) edited by Algis Budrys, and caused considerable stir in the sf field with the quality of the work assembled in her first collection, Artificial Things (coll 1986), which helped gain her the 1987 John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her short stories – later collections are Peripheral Vision (coll 1990 chap), Letters from Home (anth 1991), which contains separate tales by her, Pat Cadigan and Pat Murphy, and Black Glass: Short Fictions (coll 1998), which assembles stories from the previous two volumes, plus original material – give an entirely deceptive appearance of reticence, but soon reveal steely ironies, an insistence on the essential solitude of her protagonists (which evoke Feminist arguments about alienation but do not dwell upon the specifics of oppression or male-female discord) and an urgent hilarity. Some stories, like "Face Value" (November 1986 F&SF) or "Faded Roses" (November 1989 Omni) (see Apes as Human), are pure sf; others shift into fantasy or Fabulation, giving ambiguous cues as to any "proper" reading. Two of her later tales – "What I Didn't See" (10 July 2002 Sci Fiction) and "Always" (4 May 2007 Asimov's) – won the Nebula award for best short story.

This sure-footed refusal to give her readers much epistemological security, much sense that her worlds could be firmly apprehended, also governs the telling of Fowler's first novel, the remarkable Sarah Canary (1991), which – along with John Fowles's A Maggot (1985) – may be the finest First Contact novel yet written, certainly from a non-genre perspective, though hints of the Western surface alluringly. A strange female figure – woman or Alien, no one knows, or can even formulate the question – arrives in the state of Washington in 1873 and is dubbed Sarah Canary, because of the birdlike sounds she makes. In attempting to deal with her, the Chinese worker to whom she has attached herself is exposed to a long array of those outsider beings that the sciences of the nineteenth century attempted to control through the measurements of "knowledge": Indians, Blacks, the insane, immigrants, women, animals, artists, confidence men. Sarah Canary, who stands for them all in the indescribable melody of her Being, finally disappears, never having said a word. As an emblem of the enigma behind the idea of first contact she is perhaps definitive. As a dramatization of the self-deluding imperialisms of knowledge, Sarah Canary is equally convincing. Wit's End (2008; vt The Case of the Imaginary Detective 2008) plays subtle and complex Equipoisal games in a story involving increasingly threatening interactions between "reality", Virtual Reality, Games and Sports, and hyperbolically overexcited online communities. In the devastating experiment depicted in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013) as a real-life Thought Experiment gone wrong, a chimpanzee and a human girl are raised together until the age of five (see Apes as Human); the human narrator's subsequent life is depicted in terms that lie barely within the possible, though as with all Fowler's best work a closed reading is never preferable.

Fowler received the World Fantasy Award for life achievement in 2020. [JC]

see also: Interzone; Sociology; Writers of the Future Contest.

Karen Joy Fowler

born Bloomington, Indiana: 7 February 1950


collections and stories

  • Artificial Things (New York: Bantam Books, 1986) [coll: pb/Tito Salomoni]
  • Peripheral Vision (Eugene, Oregon: Pulphouse Publishing, 1990) [coll: chap: in the publisher's Author's Choice Monthly series: hb/George Barr]
  • Letters from Home (London: The Women's Press, 1991) with Pat Cadigan and Pat Murphy [anth: could also be described as a collaborative collection, each author contributing six stories: pb/Elaine Kowalsky]
  • The War of the Roses (Eugene, Oregon: Pulphouse Publishing, 1991) [story: chap: first appeared December 1985 Asimov's: hb/Donna Gordon]
  • Black Glass: Short Fictions (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998) [coll: hb/Raquel Jaramillo]
  • What I Didn't See and Other Stories (Easthampton, Massachusetts: Small Beer Press, 2010) [coll: hb/Erica Harris]
  • The Science of Herself (Oakland, California: PM Press, 2013) [coll: in the publisher's Outspoken Authors series: pb/Brett Hall Jones]

works as editor


James Tiptree Award Anthologies

individual titles


previous versions of this entry

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