Judgment Night, CL Moore (1952)
Review by Ian Sales
Catherine Lucille Moore is no longer as well known as she once was – a collection of her short fiction in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series notwithstanding – and at the height of her popularity in the 1930s and 1940s she displayed equal facility in both fantasy and science fiction, as is evident in her Jirel of Joiry fantasies and her Northwest Smith sf series. She was a frequent contributor to Weird Tales – in fact, her best-known story, ‘Shambleau’, appeared in that magazine, was her first sale, and was accepted the moment she submitted it: “My own perfectly clear memory tells me that I sent it first to WT because that was the only magazine of the type I knew well, and that an answering acceptance and check… arrived almost by return mail.” Judgment Night was her first novel-length science fiction, originally appearing serialised in Astounding Science Fiction in 1943 but not appearing in book form until 1952. (Previous sf novels had been co-written with husband Henry Kuttner, and appeared under the name Lewis Padgett.)
Princess Juille is the daughter of the Emperor of the Galaxy Lyonese. She is an amazon, a warrior-princess, war-like and hot-headed. But now the savage H’vani are threatening the empire and their horde will soon be at Ericon, the imperial capital world. Juille wants to attack them, but her father would sooner negotiate a peace – a war between the imperial forces and the H’vani would destroy the galaxy. However, before attending an important council of war, Juille decides to visit Cyrille, an artificial moon of Ericon known for its pleasure facilities. She will go incognito, and “see what it it’s like to be an ordinary woman meeting ordinary people” (p 15). And so she does, although not without cost to her identity:
She was no longer the sexless princeling of Lyonese … It was humiliating to admit by that very step that the despised femininity she had repudiated all her life should be important enough to capture now. (p 18)
Also present on Cyrille is Egide, a handsome prince who has a secret. He knows who Juille is, and he’s there to kill her. He believes his people – the H’vani, of course – will defeat the empire if Juille is dead. But he falls in love with her, and she with him. Much to the disgust of Egide’s companion, the warrior Jair.
The emperor, meanwhile, has been offered a weapon which will ensure victory, although its workings and effects are unknown. The alien who designed the weapon offers another to Juille, but this one he explains how to use: if she directs it at a person, it will remain locked on that person no matter where they are, but they will not die until she presses a second button. Juille, who has learnt that Egide is leader of the H’vani, of course uses it on him – even though the two are lovers. But when Egide withdraws from leadership of the H’vani, Jair takes over and the invasion of Ericon goes ahead as planned.
Judgment Night is pure space opera of the sort that doesn’t allow scientific rigour or plausibility to stand in its way. In that respect, it might as well be fantasy – indeed, the weapon given to Juille by the alien designer is to all intents and purposes magical. What technology is mentioned is explicitly identified as technology, and there’s no mention of whatever scientific principles or theories might underpin it. We are told Juille’s father rules a galaxy, but it is only a word – it might as well be a kingdom. And the H’vani, although repeatedly described throughout the novel as a separate race, are as human as the inhabitants of Ericon (yet, there are aliens in the story). It lends the novel a different affect to that of, say, Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories, even though each is as fantastical as the other.
Moore’s prose does not have the muscularity of contemporary woman sf writer Leigh Brackett’s, though like Brackett’s science fictions Moore’s rely on settings boasting deep time and semi-mythical histories. And also like Brackett, Moore’s plots, when you strip away all the sf trappings, are pretty basic. Neither of these factors are necessarily weaknesses. Indeed, both Moore’s and Brackett’s science fiction often work because of the trappings. And some of science-fictional elements are very interesting – in Judgment Night, for example, Ericon is home to a race of enigmatic Ancients who are pretty much living gods. They dwell in a forest over which no aircraft or spacecraft can fly (any that do are destroyed by the Ancients, thus demonstrating that they are quite categorically real). People can visit the Ancients, and some of them receive gnomic advice in return – both Egide and Juille consult them and, of course, the mystic oracles they receive are proven true by the end of the novel.
Moore’s Jirel of Joiry was a popular character and, like Juille, she was female, so plainly readers of the pulp sf magazines were not totally averse to reading stories with female protagonists. Admittedly, Juille is very much tomboyish during the opening chapter of Judgment Night, but then she swings to the complete opposite during her stay on Cyrille. Initially, this felt like cliché, or an inability to maintain a female protagonist without having to fall back on traditional gender roles; but on reflection, I think Juille shows the breadth of characterisations available to women in science fictions. In her introduction to The New Women of Wonder (1978), editor Pamela Sargent asks “why the overwhelming majority of science fiction books limit female characters to traditional roles”, but while Juille revels briefly in her new-found femininity, and falls in love with the antagonist, Egide, she never loses her agency. Moore is not only having her cake and eating it, she is getting away with it too. And that, to me, makes Juille a far more interesting character than she originally appeared to be.
Juille’s development as the story progresses only strengthens this aspect of her character. She starts the novel as a petulant hawk, but despite her relationship with Egide, she never abrogates her responsibilities or ideals. She loves him, but remains committed to destroying the H’vani. Moore manages this clever balancing act throughout Judgment Night and it works well. It’s perhaps the novel’s chief saving grace – the setting may be a somewhat identi-kit space opera, and the plot hardly original, but Juille as a protagonist lifts Judgment Night above what it all too easily might have been.
Islands, Marta Randall (1976)
Review by Joachim Boaz
One of the more effective ways to write about the ennui of immortality is often not from the perspective of the immortals themselves. Works like Raymond Z Gallun’s The Eden Cycle (1974) manage to convince the reader of the sensory overload generated by more and more baroque environments created by immortals desperate for something new and meaningful. But, like the immortal protagonists, by the end of the novel we are mentally exhausted and bored. Randall’s rumination is more modelled on James Gunn’s The Immortals (1962). Gunn’s near-masterpiece is less about mental states of the eponymous humans “blessed” with immortality, and more about the ramifications of their existence on the rest of society not “blessed” with such genetic structures. Randall’s Islands takes this formulation to its furthest point and generates a world where a single individual—the narrator – is the only one not “blessed” with immortality.
Tia is the only non-immortal alive. At seventeen she entered treatment expecting to live the life of an immortal but for some unexplained reason the treatment did not take hold, “You’ll live very well. But not youthfully. So sorry” (p 10). Due to medical advances, Tia can still expect to live at least two hundred years.
Just as the landscape of Earth – a mostly flooded world now (a past cataclysm is hinted at) – has changed from the world of our day, the successful implementation of immortality has irrevocably transformed their society. Intellectual advances have ceased, a profound malaise permeates. The immortals dabble in things like adolescents. They have passing interests in people, and activities, and expect to move on and experience new elements continuously. They obsess over beauty and perfection, and are terrified of decay and reminders that time, at one point, has passed.
All of these traits the immortals proclaim as virtues, Tia eschews. She narrates: “I carefully created a chronology for myself [...] At two hundred I would be shriveled and tucked, seamed and weak and lined and dithering. At one hundred I would be caught between that state and the next one down, between middle-age and senility” (p 89). She is drawn to the dangerous. She observes herself age with obsessive detail.
She recounts how in her youth, before her ability to age became apparent, she ran away from Paul, her immortal lover, in part because of her grief and despair at the failure of the treatment and the fear that she will be rejected. She voyages to Australia where the “damaged” immortals live – those who have suffered horrific accidents and are no longer specimens of beauty and are thus considered outcasts. She then travels to the Moon where groups of immortals, who dare to be intellectually stimulating and create new and wonderful works or art, and even spaceships for the exploration of the stars, reside. But she fears her bond with Greg, her lover on the Moon, would be shattered if she reveals her secret.
At the “current” moment in the narrative, Tia joins the crew of the Ilium, an oceangoing vessel that transports immortals to the submerged islands of Hawaii where they pillage the ruins for knick-knacks and trinkets for their residences. Tia on the other hand, is drawn to the past, drawn to a past where time mattered. And in the ruins she discovers another metaphoric island, a hidden room with a strange promise.
Do not let the atrocious cover art dissuade you from picking up the novel. The covers for both the 1976 and the 1980 edition do not represent the contents in any meaningful way. The 1980 edition suggests a romance-tinged affair – the man in control, clutching the woman. Randall’s book is altogether more chilling, and sinister. Randall could not resist a few snarky comments on her webpage about the “the floating purple turds” attacking the ship on the 1980 Pocket Books cover and the generally horrid luck she had with cover art.
Randall’s title is perfect. Tia is an island among the immortals whose lives and outlook on the world aso much different than hers. The structure of the novel, short chapters never longer than eight or so pages, are non-linear island-like memories, cut apart and reorganized they would form a linear narrative. Separated from each other they form momentary impressions… Likewise, Tia moves from world to world, the strange outcasts in Australia, the facilities on the Moon, the Ilium vessel that voyages to the submerged cities of Hawaii, and the dark room submerged in the ruins, a hidden space, a secret island.
My only qualm, and at some points it was distracting to a fault, is the narrative’s slow descent into metaphysical hoopla. Cringe-worthy passages such as this one – “Touched it. Changed it. Affected its movements. Altered its pace. With my – mind? Consciousness? Spirit? Soul?” (p 152) – weaken the otherworldly feel, they cheapen Tia’s profound, and entirely justified, brooding. Tia’s deepening existential crisis is depicted with all the existential indicators and pseudo-mystical excess that threaten to overwhelm the reader with insincere pathos and melodrama.
But Randall can weave some beautiful scenes. For example, her Ballard-esque sequences of scavenging the remains of a ruined world beneath the waters to disturbing glimpses of Paul’s strange sexual obsession with decay when his own body is unchanging…
Unjustly forgotten, Islands is a solid example of the late New Wave movement. I will definitely look for a copy of A City in the North (1976).
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.
Worlds for the Grabbing, Brenda Pearce (1977)
Review by Ian sales
Of the many science fiction writers of the 1970s who have been forgotten, it’s probably not unfair to say that Brenda Pearce is among the most obscure. A British woman science fiction writer, whose two novels were published only in hardback, it’s hardly surprising she’s virtually unknown today. And this despite being a John W Campbell Award nominee in 1975. But having now read her second novel, Worlds for the Grabbing, her obscurity is perhaps less of a mystery.
Although Pearce had two stories published in Analog during the mid-1970s, Worlds for the Grabbing very much follows a British tradition of science fiction. Rather than harken back to the sf of Heinlein, Asimov or Clarke, it has more of the flavour of that written by Captain WE Johns and Hugh Walters. Although not marketed as a “juvenile”, Worlds for the Grabbing initially reads like one, even though its protagonists are all adult. Perhaps it’s the faintly pedagogical tone the prose possesses; perhaps it’s the fact the novel is structured as four separate stories, with a framing narrative, each of which builds to a finale.
The story opens with Captain Kjell Redmain of the United European Space Service (which, despite its name, appears to be resolutely English), who is tasked with discovering the fate of a missing “daysider” which is believed to have crashed on Mercury’s sunward face. The daysider is a small spacecraft, specially built to survive the hellish environment on Mercury. Redmain’s small crew is European, but the most important member is geologist Dr Christopher Collins, and it is through his actions and scientific insight that the fate of the missing daysider is discovered. As is a substantial quantity of uranium, needed by a power-hungry and climate-crashed Earth. It goes without saying that the Mercury described by Pearce – a volcanic inferno, liable to send molten rock shooting skyward in a matter of seconds – bears no resemblance to the planet visited by the MESSENGER space probe in 2011, although, to be fair, it’s perhaps not so far from the thinking of the 1970s.
After the events on Mercury, Collins is sent to Pluto to learn why the diamond mine there has been unable to meet its (quite reasonable) quota, and why the staff on-site have been suffering from a variety of mental problems. Of course, the cause is a scientific puzzle, and Collins manages to solve it – even though he too is affected by it. Again, Pearce’s Pluto is of its time – for one thing, it’s described by as a “planet”, whereas these days, of course, we known it as a “dwarf planet” – but she throws out some nice turns of phrase while describing it:
Ahead of him, only slightly dimmed by his helmet’s thick faceplate, a skein of light sprawled blindingly across the sky. The skein was the Milky Way. After the closed in, small scale vistas of the Base, Collins was spellbound by its unimaginable energy, its multi-parsec distances, its intolerable glory. (p 98)
After Pluto, Collins is sent to Venus, this time to learn why two research stations on the surface were destroyed – and both destructions were connected with Venus’ vast subsurface reservoirs of oil. Collins is re-united with Redmain, but also part of the team is meteorologist Katherine Harrer, who proves to be an old flame of Collins’s. More than that, in fact, and their split was far from amicable. Once again, Collins solves the scientific puzzle represented by the oil on Venus. While Pearce describes the surface conditions reasonably accurately, the presence of the oil is justified with some adroit science-fictional hand-waving.
Introduced during the events on Pluto was psychologist Dr Rachel Bloch, and she, along with Collins, Redmain and Harrer, are next sent to Saturn, to discover why the crews of skimmers who dive too deep into the gas giant’s atmosphere begin to hallucinate and lose control. It’s yet another scientific puzzle, and requires the ingenuity of all four major characters to resolve. It’s the most science-fictional explanation of the four stories, and certainly has the most shocking ending – which is firmly rooted in the psychology of one of the characters.
The SF Encyclopedia describes Worlds for the Grabbing as a “routine but enjoyable space opera”. It’s not. For a start, it’s hard sf and not space opera. It’s certainly enjoyable, but it’s not especially routine – not in reference to other sf, US especially, of its type. Pearce’s prose bounces from workmanlike to quite good, and while there are no sentences that will take your breath away, neither are there any which may cause pain. However, Pearce’s race-relations are, even for the 1970s, border-line offensive. One of the second-string characters, Simon Litua, a physicist, is black, and he often defuses situations by using racist comments ironically. It’s painfully done. The gender politics in Worlds for the Grabbing are also somewhat backward. All of the major characters, with the exception of Rachel Bloch, are male, and the women seem to be confined to the “softer” occupations and sciences. For all its surface appearance of equality, Pearce’s future maps almost precisely onto the UK of the mid-1970s.
If I see a copy of Pearce’s debut novel, Kidnapped into Space (1975), I will buy it and read it. But the fact that she’s been forgotten in the forty years since her first publication comes as no real surprise. Perhaps she might have gone on to write more interesting books – she was, after all, a Campbell nominee – but we will never know. Worlds for the Grabbing is certainly no lost masterpiece, and reads more like an historical document than a science fiction novel for the ages.
The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
Review by Shannon Turlington
It’s hard to describe the exhilarating sense of emotion I felt while reading this book. I don’t consider myself a religious person, and this book is unquestionably about religion and our relationship with God. I am a spiritual seeker, though, and I found this novel to be one of the most meaningful examinations of our purpose as humans that I have ever read. It is not an easy read, and it offers no easy answers. But despite its horrors – and some truly horrific things happen in this story – it is a beautiful, life-affirming read.
I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, because part of the joy of reading The Sparrow lies in discovering it. Russell parcels out the story in bits and pieces, to prepare the reader for what’s coming. So, just a bare-bones summary, then: a group of people discovers radio signals – recordings of beautiful singing – coming from the Alpha Centauri system. One of these people, Emilio Sandoz, is a Jesuit priest, who interprets the singing as a sign from God. He spearheads a Jesuit mission to travel to the planet of Rakhat, four light years away, and meet the Singers.
Russell tells the story of the expedition mainly in flashbacks, alternating with scenes set in the present, after Sandoz has been rescued from Rakhat, the only survivor of his mission, a broken and despairing man. This structure allows the story to unspool slowly. The reader knows that Sandoz’s ultimate experiences on Rakhat were horrific, that he loses everyone he cares about and is somehow brought to a state of utter degradation, but we don’t know exactly what happened to him (until the end), or why. We are seeking, like Sandoz, for the the meaning of suffering and loss, searching for God somewhere in the universe. Even though it concerns aliens and space travel, The Sparrow is a very human story, a quest that mirrors one of our first stories: the story of the Fall of humankind.
When Sandoz and his friends arrive on Rakhat, it is literally a Garden of Eden, and the aliens they encounter first are like the innocents before the Fall. But Russell doesn’t make it that easy for us. The fundamental mistake that the human visitors make is interpreting this alien world through a human worldview. Russell’s tale of first contact is meant to mirror Europeans’ first encounters with Native Americans. Early on, the narrative includes a historical account of a Jesuit priest who was tortured and mutilated by the Native Americans he tried to convert, was rescued, but returned to America to be recaptured and ultimately killed. This story mirrors Sandoz’s journey in many ways. He is not interacting with primitive humans, though, but with alien species that at a very basic level he does not understand. Russell does a terrific job of making these beings truly alien and showing how the humans’ failure to acknowledge their alienness leads to the downfall of the mission and irrevocable changes on Rakhat.
However, the humans are just as alien to the Rakhat natives, and through their eyes, Russell leads us to question our own sense of morality. Sandoz is judged harshly by almost everyone upon his return, and to me, this is one of the most distressing truths of the novel: the lack of compassion we show our own.
The Sparrow is a book of contrasts. The planet of Rakhat is both incredibly beautiful and the scene of almost unimaginable horrors. The human characters are good, intelligent, loving people, yet the novel doesn’t flinch from depicting humanity’s failings, most especially our capacity to misjudge, misinterpret and, even out of good intentions, make the worst mistakes. And while this story is full of God, it doesn’t definitively answer for the reader the question of what God is or whether God even exists. For its contrasts, its challenges and its beauty, I absolutely loved this book.
This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990)
Review by Chris White
Now, I’ve done a bit of research, and apparently when you review a collection of short stories you have to review each individual story – I’m not going to do that. And it’s not only because I’m lazy – I actually don’t want to ruin any of these beautiful stories for you. You should buy this book, I’m not joking.
James Tiptree Jr was probably one of the best science fiction authors to have ever written. Why am I tagging a bloke called James Tiptree Jr in my year of reading women? Because James Tiptree Jr was actually Alice Sheldon, an intelligence agent for both the USAF and the CIA, who wrote as Tiptree to protect her professional career.
“It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” – Robert Silverberg
Tiptree’s work collected here deals with sex, and violence, and arousal, and death. From the tragic xenophobic xenophile of ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’ to the story that has haunted me since childhood – although I forgot the name of the author, I always remembered ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ to the sad, haunting victory of ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’. Yes, James Tiptree Jr was a master of titles.
I cannot recommend this collection highly enough, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a beautiful, moving exploration of humanity and of real science fiction – our humanity is exposed through our non-humanity, to each other and to the aliens that we conquer and subjugate in her stories. The cold hostility of humanity toward the conquered in ‘We Who Stole the Dream’ and to one another in ‘The Screwfly Solution’ are breath-taking, as is the beauty found in ‘Slow Music’.
What a beautiful collection. Equal parts terrifying, beautiful and tragic. Glorious science fiction.
“Passing in any crowd are secret people whose hidden response to beauty is the desire to tear it into bleeding meat.”
This review originally appeared on Chris White Writes.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
Review by M Fenn
I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
For some reason, now seemed the time in my life to finally read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. I don’t know why I haven’t read it before now. The original Frankenstein is one of my favorite movies from childhood and Young Frankenstein is my favourite comedy. You’d think I would have wanted to investigate the source material.
The question puzzles me. Although I have at least one suspicion that I’ll talk about below.
You all know how Frankenstein came to be, right? Mary Shelley wrote the novel because she and her travel companions were stuck inside during a spate of rainy weather near Geneva, Switzerland in 1816. The group, including Shelley’s lover and future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley; Lord Byron; John Polidori; and Shelley’s stepsister (and Byron’s lover) Claire Claremont, challenged each other to see who could write the best horror story. Polidori came up with the first vampire novel, The Vampyre, and Shelley created what many consider to be the first science fiction novel. The other three? They got distracted, I guess.
I found Frankenstein to be a fascinating, albeit stumbling, read, telling the tale of Victor Frankenstein, a young man obsessed with creating life. When he succeeds, he immediately regrets what he’s done and is revolted by the results. The resulting creature doesn’t take its creator’s disgust well and mayhem ensues.
That basic story, I just love. Mad scientists and monsters are one of my favorite sf tropes, and this is the beginning of that. I also love the monster. The tale of his orphanhood after Frankenstein rejects him is heartbreaking and made me wish that the Karloff character in the Universal film had been allowed to speak. Can you imagine Karloff telling that story?
Several points of the novel give me trouble, though.
The framing story, for example, is kind of iffy. It involves letters from an unrelated character to his sister telling her about the journey to the North Pole that he’s undertaken and the strange man he rescues from icy seas along the way. That fellow is Victor Frankenstein, who is chasing after his creation to exact revenge for all the murderous havoc he’s inflicted on Frankenstein’s family. According to the edition of Frankenstein I own (Limited Editions Club © 1934), Percy Shelley encouraged Mary to expand the original story, and the frame sections are the result. I wonder if the story would have been just fine without them; we spend a lot of time with Captain Walton before discovering that he’s not our protagonist. Kind of irritating.
The next problem I had with Frankenstein may be the reason it took me so long to read it in the first place: the language. Nineteenth-century fiction and I have always had a troubled relationship. Too many words! Can I blame reading Hemingway as a kid for this? I don’t know, I just find a lot of Victorian-era works of fiction to be incredibly verbose. One of the reasons Herman Melville is one of my favorite authors of that time period is because his style moved away from that, heading toward the twentieth century before everyone else did. Mark Twain, too: I like his way of writing quite a bit.
Shelley, on the other hand, breaks no new ground with her prose style. While Sir Walter Scott credited the author’s “happy power of expression”, I found stretches of the book to be clunky and annoying.
Perhaps, though, that’s because I found Victor Frankenstein to be even more annoying, and that rubbed off on everything else. I’m going to make a bold statement here.
Victor Frankenstein is a putz!
Gah! What an aggravating little man!
Now, I get that his unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions is an important part of his character and an important part of the story and his self-loathing comes from that. But why does he have to be such a drama queen about it?
Hm, it just occurred to me that one of my big problems with the story might be another ground-breaking device on Shelley’s part. Let’s think this through. Frankenstein creates a man who is hideous in appearance, and yet extremely strong, hardy, as well as being a bit of a genius who defeats him at every turn. How did our hero, who doesn’t come across as very brilliant at all, do this? That was driving me nuts while I was reading, but I think now of all the robot and computer stories written that show how technology will defeat its creators (us) in the long run. Was Frankenstein the first place this trope shows up, as well? I wonder now.
But that doesn’t forgive Victor for the stupidity that gets his wife killed. When the creature tells Frankenstein that he’ll be with him on his wedding night, Victor assumes he’s going to try to kill him, even though the daemon (as Victor calls him) has already killed several of his loved ones with the admitted purpose to make Frankenstein miserable. It never occurs to our hero that his creation is coming for his wife, until she’s already dead.
I also wonder why, if Frankenstein had the skill to make this brilliant, hardy man he had to make him ugly? Was this strictly to feed the trope that ugly people are inherently evil? It reminds me of Sanjuro, where, before Mifune’s character sets them straight, the young samurai are fooled into thinking that Mutsuta is corrupt just because he’s homely. It’s a dumb stereotype, even 200 years ago.
Okay, enough grumbling. Time to sum up.
I’m glad I finally read Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. While I wish it were better-written (from my twenty-first century perspective), I think the monster Shelley created is fabulous, and I’m grateful for the influence the book gave to so much fiction that I do enjoy. It’s worth the read just to see that influence and to meet the original mad scientist who “tampered in God’s domain.”
This review originally appeared on Skinnier Than It Is Wide.
Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988)
Review by Ian Sales
Zoline is pretty much known solely for ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, a 1967 story which appeared in New Worlds and which is often seen as emblematic of the New Wave. In fact, lists of classic New Wave sf short fiction often place it in the top ten, if not the top three; although such lists with wider remits just as frequently omit it all together. And while yes, that last may in part be due to the fact Zoline is female, it’s also symptomatic of a genre-wide rejection of the New Wave and what it produced. Whether it was that rejection, or a later rejection of feminist sf, which effectively wrote women authors out of science fiction’s history, the end result is the same. Having said that, it’s difficult to describe Zoline as one of this revisioned history’s casualties as she was far from prolific – in fact, Busy About the Tree of Life contains Zoline’s only writing output. Between 1967 and 1988, Zoline published five stories – and one of those, the title story of this collection, was written specifically for this book.
‘Busy About the Tree of Life’ opens the collection. Like ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, it is presented in numbered sections – although each section is much longer, and the numbering scheme begins at 5.16/15 and counts down to 1. The story opens with a young child, Gabriel, and then flits back and forth through time, telling the stories of his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, before revealing that Gabriel is a somewhat special little boy. What a quick summary of the story’s plot fails to get across, however, is that it’s very funny, with Gabriel’s ancestors bordering on grotesques and mostly succumbing to absurdly unlikely fates.
Is there any sf fan who has not read ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’? And if not, why not? The SF Encyclopedia describes the story as “an icon of New Wave sensibility”, and though it may be true, it might also be doing it an injustice. Because, New Wave or not, ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ is an excellent piece of short fiction and a great deal better than the genre typically produces. Even more astonishing, it was Zoline’s first piece of fiction (she was heavily involved with the New Worlds coterie, and also provided illustrations for the magazine; so this likely influenced her). ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ describes the life of an American housewife in 54 numbered sections, and among them are a series of inserts on various topics, such Dada, light, Weiner on entropy, and turtles. The housewife’s day-to-day activities illustrate the inserts, and they in turn provide commentary on her thoughts and actions:
50. Sarah Boyle imagines, in her mind’s eye, cleaning and ordering the whole world, even the Universe. Filling the great spaces of space with a marvellous sweet-smelling, deep-cleansing foam. Deodorising rank caves and volcanoes. Scrubbing rocks. (p63)
You can read the story on the Wayback Machine’s archive of Sci Fiction, which reprinted the story in its “classic sf” section – see here.
‘The Holland of the Mind’ originally appeared in The New S.F., an anthology edited by Langdon Jones and published in 1969. The stories in that anthology appear to have all been by New Worlds regulars – Aldiss, Sladek, Ballard, Moorcock and Disch. Zoline is the only woman. The story, like ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, is structured as a mix of fact and fiction. A couple have flown from New York to Amsterdam to view the city’s sights. The narrative describes their time there, and is interspersed with paragraphs from guide-books, menus and a Dutch language guide.
‘Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire’ was written for The Women’s Press’ only science fiction anthology, Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, published in 1985. A woman engaged in a cloak and dagger exercise, although she doesn’t know how she knows what to do, eventually leads to the kidnap of the young daughter of a French armaments magnate – assisted, improbably, by one of a troop of Shakespearean gorillas in a theme park. The kidnap is, apparently, only one in a global conspiracy. Like the other stories in the collection, ‘Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire’ approaches its premise elliptically – although its opening and closing sections directly address the reader – and its only in the penultimate section that Zoline reveals the purpose behind the protagonist’s actions:
If a nuclear missile aimed at my ‘enemy’ is now, also, by definition, aimed at my children, will it stay my hand? (p 122)
The final story, ‘Sheep’, is from the anthology Likely Stories, an anthology of “experimental” fiction by authors published by the editor’s publishing house, McPherson & Co. (It is the publisher of the US edition of Zoline’s collection, under the title The Heat Death of the Universe, in fact.) ‘Sheep’ certainly qualifies as experimental, but no more so than Zoline’s other stories. It mixes four narratives – an insomniac unsuccessfully trying to get to sleep, a western, a pastoral idyll, and a spy thriller, all of which eventually bleed into each other – with found text, particularly regarding sheep. In fact, the insomniac is counting them, and at the end of each section enumerated sheep jump over a fence and are tallied. As each narrative progresses, so it takes apart the conventions of its genre, occasionally having a little too much fun doing so:
He approached her, and said in a conversational tone, ‘When the sheep call Wolf Wolf, the Shepherdess gives heed,’ and the apple woman replied, ‘The wolf’s great teeth can make the sheep to bleed.’ He continued, ‘So good folk guard your cattle and your brood.’ ‘The wolf prays in a church of bones and blood,’ she concluded. ‘Amen to that, come with me Comrade, Buddy, Amigo, this way.’ (p 136)
Not everything is entirely successful in the story – the redacted lyrics of ‘The Wiffenpoof Song’, for example, don’t really feel like they serve much purpose. Other found texts, the nursery rhymes, for example, seem to exist more to remind the reader of the importance of sheep in the story than to actually progress the narrative.
Zoline’s fiction resists easy review because it demands new ways of reading. These are not linear narratives, with beginnings, middles and ends, and if they do have them they’re “not necessarily in the right order”. Not all of the stories in Busy About the Tree of Life are wholly successful. ‘The Holland of the Mind’ trades too much on its quotidian, ‘Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire’ relies too much on the absurdity of how its plot unfolds, which cheapens the premise. But what Zoline’s reputation, based as it is on ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, appears to have failed to record is that her stories are often quite funny – not just surreal or absurd, but comic and witty. It’s a crying shame these five stories are all we’ve ever seen from her. She was apparently at one point working on a novel; it has never materialised. And, of course, she had a piece of fiction in The Last Dangerous Visions, which will likely never, ever see the light of day.
It’s certainly past time Zoline was “rediscovered” but I don’t think she’s really SF Masterwork material. The stories in Busy About the Tree of Life require too much work to be comfortable reading for those looking for the sort of straightforward ideas-led prose found in the science fiction classics published in that series (at least, that’s true of most of the SF Masterworks). But if you’re looking for challenging science fiction which plays with structure and narrative, that forces you to think about how you’re reading just as much about what you’re reading… then Zoline is a pure hit of the stuff.