Fantastic Reviews - Short Story Collection Book Review
Maureen Birnbaum Barbarian Swordsperson Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson by Effinger

Guild America Books, 154 pages
Copyright 1993 (individual stories copyrighted 1982-1993)
cover art by Ken Kelly (left)

Book read in May 2002
Rating: 7/10  (Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

February 1986 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine with cover story "Maureen Birnbaum at the Earth's Core"
cover art by G.P. Lendino (right)


George Alec Effinger:

       George Alec Effinger passed away recently, on April 27, 2002, at the age of only 55.  He made many contributions to the science fiction field over the past thirty years, including the "MarÓd Audran" series beginning with When Gravity Fails, presenting a cyberpunk vision of the future of the Middle East, and his novelette "SchrŲdinger's Kitten", which won the Hugo and Nebula awards.

       But Effinger may forever be best remembered as the creator of the Maureen "Muffy" Birnbaum stories.  Muffy is a young woman swept away from prep school to partake in a series of adventures in locations that seem extremely strange to her, but are readily familiar to science fiction fans.
F&SF magazine Maureen Birnbaum

Review of Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson:

       Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson collects eight of the Maureen "Muffy" Birnbaum stories.  The hardbound edition's cover art by Ken Kelly really captures Maureen - she looks like a warrior princess right out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs story, until you look closely and notice the credit cards and shopping bags.

       Muffy (actually, we should call her Maureen, since in one story she becomes socially conscious and declares that Muffy was her "slave name") has visited Barsoom, Sherwood Forest, the Moon, and many other fantastic venues.  She doesn't mind being sent to these outlandish worlds, because she usually meets a really cute boy while she's there.

       Through Maureen Birnbaum's adventures, Effinger was able simultaneously to lampoon preppy youth culture and to parody famous works of science fiction and fantasy.  Most of these stories are successful on both levels.  The only story that didn't work for me was "Maureen Birnbaum on the Art of War", in which Maureen visits the Horseclans universe of Robert Adams, and perhaps I would have enjoyed even that one if only I gave a damn about the Horseclans universe.  All of the other stories are funny to varying degrees.

       While "Maureen Birnbaum After Dark", a send-up of Isaac Asimov's classic story "Nightfall", may be the best parody of the lot, to my tastes far and away the funniest Muffy story is "Maureen Birnbaum at the Earth's Core":

So I opened my suitcase and took off my winter stuff - you have to picture this in your mind, Bitsy, step-by-step - and I was rummaging around, looking for the right outfit, when out from behind this tree stepped this ape.

Well, I screamed.  You'd scream too.  I was naked.  I'd never been naked in front of an ape before.

He galumphed toward me with his knuckles on the ground, carrying some dead animal in his mouth.  Behind him came maybe twenty more apes.  I told myself not to be terrified; I'd faced bigger monsters on Mars, and these huge old monkeys were probably just as scared of me as I was of them.  That's what they always say on TV.  Marlin Perkins is always going like, "These huge old monkeys of the deep jungle look fearsome, but in truth they are gentle browsers and vegetarians." Then I thought, why the hell does it have this dead thing in its mouth if it's a vegetarian?

I stood very still, wishing I could reach down and pick up my sword, Old Betsy, but I didn't dare move.  The big ape came right up to me and stopped.  He stared at me and, believe me sweetie, I didn't like the evil red eyes he'd got set into his flat little head.  They were going up and down my body like I was Miss Anthropoid of 1980.  I heard Marlin Perkins's voice in my head again: "These harmless cousins of ours are curious by nature, and will rape and pillage anything in their path."

Well, I stood still until that goddamn ape slowly reached out a hand, just like in 2001, and almost grabbed my boob.

Nobody grabs my boob.  That's when I went for the sword.

       If that doesn't make you laugh, you probably should not read this book.

       Effinger does several clever things to keep these stories from getting repetitive.  For one, each story is told by Maureen to her prep school classmate Bitsy Spiegelman, to whom Maureen tosses in hilarious remarks at unexpected moments.  In "Maureen Birnbaum at the Looming Awfulness", a parody of H.P. Lovecraft, Maureen interrupts her own description of the horrors she has faced to interject, "Bitsy, have you noticed that my narrative style has become like, you know, dated, clumsy, and ornate?"  This format also allows Maureen the chance to comment on changes occurring in the world and in Bitsy (Bitsy actually ages and progresses through her life while Muffy remains always a prep school senior) as she is away on her adventures.

       Another key is that Effinger does not make Maureen a dim-witted bubblehead.  She is actually quite intelligent.  She just comes from a culture that Effinger finds strange and endlessly amusing.  Maureen's intelligence adds to the humor.  In "Maureen Birnbaum Goes Shopynge", for instance, she makes Little John squirm by grilling him on the many historical inaccuracies in the story of Robin Hood.

       In a field that sometimes seems exhausted of fresh ideas, Muffy Birnbaum is an original.  How sad to think that her adventures are over, and she can finally go back to chasing college boys.
What do you think? Comments are welcome!
Please send them to:
vanaaron@excite.com

Copyright © 2002 Aaron Hughes
Swan Press edition
131 pages
cover by Peggy Ranson (right)
Maureen Birnbaum Barbarian Swordsperson original cover

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Our book club's web pages for George Alec Effinger books (includes Effinger bibliography):
When Gravity Fails

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 28 December 2010