So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson: The Complete Stories. George Alec Effinger

This is a funny book in a fan fiction sort of vein. The author takes his main character, Maureen Birnbaum, a Jewish American Princess from a New England finishing school whose values are fashion and marrying well, and sets her in the classic sci-fi settings of authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, and H. P. Lovecraft.

Each story is introduced by Maureen's whiny friend, Bitsy Spiegelman, who she visits between adventures to relate her latest tale. Sword-wielding Maureen, in her jewel-encrusted golden bra and g-string is a stereotypical, yet strong and distinct character who provides a refreshing gender-reversal to these traditionally male-oriented settings.

The first story begins when Maureen accidentally transports herself from a ski slope in Vermont to the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs. She arrives there naked and saves a prince from "big giant things with four arms" by killing them with a sword dropped by one of his fallen warriors. She keeps the sword and he gives her the gold bra and g-string worn by his slain sister. However, even though she has fallen in love with the prince, she can't live with only one outfit on a planet without stores, so she bids him a tearful goodbye and returns to Earth to go on a shopping trip with Bitsy.

Her shopping skills are impecable and she runs up quite a bill on Bitsy's Mum's credit card. She sets off for Mars, but, not knowing how this transporting actually works, ends up in another Edgar Rice Burroughs setting, The Center Of The Earth where the sub-human inhabitants force her to be their High Priestess. She doesn't like the way they treat her and wants to get back to her Martian prince so she once again goes back to Bitsy.

Stories follow where she keeps missing Mars and ends up in various sci-fi settings. The next is Robert Adams' post-nuclear war Earth of the Horseclans series. This is followed by the planet in Isaac Asimov's Nightfall. She then takes on Robin Hood and has a shopping contest with Maid Marian in a contemporary British mall named Sherwood Forest. The last three stories find her, still missing her Martian goal, searching for the Holy Grail, caught up in Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, and taking a trip to a NASA lunar colony.

It is never explained how Muffy transports herself, but the stories are written for fun rather than realism. The saving grace of the stories are their humor and the character development of Muffy and Bitsy. While Bitsy pursues the traditional middle class dream of a successful marriage, kids, and a house in the suburbs, Muffy's adventures bring out a strong feminist philosophy in her. Her description of the Holy Grail as the sacred cauldron of the triple goddess throws the Medieval monks into quite a tizzy. By the end of the series, Bitsy's marriage has gone bad and Maureen has begun to realize that she may never get back to her prince.

This anthology contains the eight Muffy Birnbaum stories that Effinger wrote between 1982 and 1993. I don't know if Effinger wrote any more stories in this series before he died in 2002. While it might seem that only experienced sci-fi readers knowledgable in the sub-genres of the parodied authors would enjoy these stories, they actually have quite broad appeal. These sci-fi settings have become such a part of pop culture, that all readers will enjoy the tales even if they miss some of the deeper references to the classic series.

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