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St Clair, Margaret

Entry updated 6 March 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1911-1995) US author, usually under her married name, though she wrote a series of elegant stories in the 1950s as by Idris Seabright, and had one tale published in 1952 under the House Name Wilton Hazzard. Her sf career began with "Rocket to Limbo" for Fantastic Adventures in November 1946, and by 1950 she had published about thirty stories, most of them vigorous adventures in a strongly coloured idiom, some of them being Planetary Romances; a magazine series, the Oona and Jik tales beginning with "The Soma Racks" (March 1947 Startling), appeared in Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories from March 1947 to August 1949. But, even though this early work seems at first glance conventional enough, and obedient to Pulp-magazine expectations, a singularly claustrophobic pessimism could soon be felt; this work was at times daringly subversive of some of the central impulses of Genre SF: which is to solve problems, to penetrate barriers, to gain control. In St Clair's central work, these impulses are consistently treated in terms of pathos.

The stories as by Idris Seabright appeared almost exclusively in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, beginning with "The Listening Child" (December 1950 F&SF) and "Brightness Falls from the Air" (April 1951 F&SF) (see Exogamy), and ending with "Graveyard Shift" (February 1959 F&SF): St Clair became temporarily better known for these than for the works published under her own name. They were smoother-textured than her pulp adventures and oriented more towards Fantasy, even approaching Slick Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] in tales like "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles" (October 1951 F&SF), and were less confrontational than her signed work. Several of them were republished as by St Clair in Change the Sky and Other Stories (coll 1974) and in The Best of Margaret St Clair (coll 1985) edited by Martin H Greenberg; the latter volume also includes the delicately savage "Wryneck, Draw Me" (in Chrysalis 8, anth 1980, ed Roy Torgeson), the best of St Clair's later anatomies of the underside of progress. The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales (coll 2019) edited by Ramsey Campbell contains mostly early work, all as St Clair. She published no books as Idris Seabright.

Her first novel, Agent of the Unknown (February 1952 Startling as "Vulcan's Dolls"; 1956 dos), is perhaps the definitive St Clair text, packing into its brief compass a remarkably complex plot whose protagonist only seems to represent the typical Hero of Space Opera. Though Amnesia typically blocks his memories before the age of 14, and though his actions enable the human species to experience Uplift through a genetic leap forwards, it is eventually revealed that he is not a Superman in the making but a severely limited Android – a toy of the Godgame maestro known as the Vulcan, who appears in other St Clair tales. The entrapment of the "agent" in a plot he cannot understand until too late, his love for a human woman who is soon killed, and his final realization that his puppet actions have released humans into a state far beyond his comprehension – all generate a sense of extraordinary constriction, to which the elegiac conclusion of the tale adds a powerful emotional glow. St Clair's other early books – The Green Queen (March 1955 Universe Science Fiction as "Mistress of Viridis"; 1956 dos), The Games of Neith (1960 dos), Message from the Eocene (1964 dos) and Three Worlds of Futurity (coll 1964 dos) – sometimes feature female protagonists, who tend to be more vigorous (see Women in SF), but all in their various ways explore similar territories. Published from the very heart of popular sf, these novels represent a fascinating dissent from within.

Her later novels, though ostensibly more ambitious, perhaps lose some of the nightmare urgency of her early work, though both Sign of the Labrys (1963), set in a vast multi-levelled Underground redoubt in a Post-Holocaust world, and The Shadow People (1969), also set in a netherworld of Underground caverns beneath the daylit world, effectively present Pocket Universes without – significantly – moving in the expected manner towards any convincing sort of Conceptual Breakthrough into a wider perspective. The Dolphins of Altair (1967) uses intelligent dolphins as an emblem of humanity's self-devastating relationship with the planet Earth, and The Dancers of Noyo (1973) overcomplicatedly deals with Androids, Post-Holocaust California, Native Americans and Political oppression. Though her production slackened toward the end of her life, her final stories (see above) clearly demonstrated a strong talent, a wise head. [JC]

see also: Mythology; Outer Planets; Perception; Robots; Under the Sea; Women SF Writers.

Margaret St Clair

born Hutchinson, Kansas: 17 February 1911

died Santa Rosa, California: 22 November 1995


collections and stories

about the author


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