Sweets from a Stranger coverMore aliens from a dying race, seeking servants! This time, all three hundred million of them are already on Earth (this makes sense by the end of the story), with two of them, Van3 and Masr8, charged with spying on the dreams of children to see what stuff humanity is made of. Only children will do, apparently. “The human mind stops early. Once the early conditioning process is done, the adult human merely lives out its set pattern” (51).

They spy on Sandra, dreaming of stardom as the lead singer in what appears to be a glam-rock band; on a boy dreaming of glory on the football pitch; they skip over a girl dreaming of saving lives as a nurse, and settle for the bulk of a story on 11-year-old Mick Rivers, imaginging himself grown-up as a soldier. There follow some pages of gung-ho blood-and-guts boy’s-own war adventures, during which Lieutenant Mick (unknowing) appears to be making his way back along the psychic link to become a real threat to the aliens. Masr8 gets nervous; Van3 is oblivious: “Oh, but this is the cream! I must have it all” (63). All ends well.

Aside from being another tale in which the experiences of the children it is ostensibly about are framed, commented on by other intelligences, what stands out about the story, reading it in 2010, are the gender dynamics. There are almost always both boys and girls in Fisk’s stories, and in most cases both contribute to solving the plot (which means, given Fisk’s preference for omniscient narrative voice, we generally get the thoughts of both, even if, as noted earlier, the protagonist is almost always a boy, and almost always contributes more). But when it’s deemed relevant, as it apparently is in “Mind-Milk”, boys are given clearly boy roles, and girls are given clearly girl roles. It’s hard to imagine Mick being Mary.

And there’s one other thing. As part of his fantasy, while injured Mick imagines his girlfriend, Val. “She has beautiful, soft, slender arms, brown from the sun. I wish I could feel them round my neck, cool and healing” (63-4). And after the fantasy:

“He’s nice. I’ll marry him when I’m big,” said four-year-old Val. There were big gaps in the garden fence, so her wide eyes could follow every movement of the boy next door, Mick Rivers. She watched him silently, her soft arms cradling the neck of her teddy bear.

Mick Rivers deliberately ignored her. Stupid kid, always spying on him. Girls! “Boring, boring,” he chanted to himself, under his breath. (66-7)

This is, clearly, played for laughs: the young girl idolising her older neighbour, the neighbour’s denial of interest when we know his subconcious knows better. But when you stop to think about it, it’s a very odd dynamic, is it not? On the one hand, you have that “spying”, which creates an uncomfortable parallel between Val, waiting to marry Mick, and the aliens, who had wanted to enslave him. This could conceivably be part of the joke, since we know Mick likes Val deep down, after all, but that just leads you to think (or at least, me to think): Val is four. Nor is she the only very young girl to seek or receive the attention of older boys in Fisk’s fiction. Beth in Grinny is the subject of adoration by a neighbour from down the street (this works substantially better in the sequel, You Remember Me!, when Beth is somewhat older and much more of the story is from her point of view); the youngest character in Trillions is a precocious girl already aware of her feminine wiles, and not afraid to use them to wrap a military officer around her finger.

Can the Vals of Fisk’s fiction be read as an indictment of the effect of growing up in a highly gendered society, of expectations of roles shaping behaviour even from a very early age? Yes; but if it matters to you, even setting against these characters Fisk’s practical girls, like Mee in Antigrav, or Abigail in Robot Revolt, I’d have a hard time arguing it’s deliberate.

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