Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
Review by admiral ironbombs
“God, I hate this place.
I mean, I love it. It’s home. These are my people. But I hate it. It’s like an island surrounded by sharks—except that sharks don’t bother you unless you go in the water. But our land sharks are on their way in. It’s just a matter of how long it takes for them to get hungry enough.”
As often as she appears on “best SF authors you ought to read”-type lists, I get the feeling that Octavia Butler is not half as well-known as she ought to be. (Probably a perception issue on my part due to her showing up on all those “authors you’ve never read but should” lists… and because I think everyone should have read at least one of her books by now.) It’s a surprise to me; despite any flaws and quibbles with her novels, they’re some of the most thought-provoking and innovative SF out there. I’ve meant to re-read her Patternist and Xenogenesis series, but before doing so, there was one series of hers I’ve yet to read: Earthseed. It started with 1993’s Parable of the Sower, and continued in 1998’s Parable of the Talents, and would have continued with Parable of the Trickster if Butler’s writing career hadn’t been cut short at the age of 58.
Lauren Olamina grew up in the mid-2020s, watching the world deteriorate from the relative safety of her middle-class gated community outside of Los Angeles. Due to catastrophic climate and social change, society is coming apart at the seams. The new presidential administration has cut back investments in the sciences, and removed labor and safety regulations, in an attempt to “restore America to its former glory.” Police show up hours late, if at all, and cost too much for most citizens to use them. The firemen rarely show up at all – there isn’t enough potable water for drinking, so wasting it to put out fires costs an egregious sum. And there are plenty of fires from a new wunderdrug, said to make watching (and setting) fires “more enjoyable than sex” for its users. (Lauren’s addict mother took yet another substance while pregnant, which gave Lauren “hyperempathy,” a kind of mental link where Lauren feels the pleasure and pain of others.) And Lauren sees the first foreign corporations buying up American cities: “company towns” where the wealthy live in safety and security, and others can trade their labor for the privilege of living behind their sturdy walls.
This gated cul-de-sac has become the only family and world Lauren has known, a safe zone nestled in the anarchy, and its inhabitants soldier on against increasing adversity. Things are bad and are only getting worse, but the adults refuse to accept this societal decay as anything other than a temporary setback. Even Lauren’s father – a Baptist preacher and the community’s leader – is reluctant to admit the dark reality of everyday life. But thieves and arsonists keep breaking in; the deaths mount, as do the number of families leaving to work in corporate cities. Laruen’s family begins to collapse; after the community shatters from a series of attacks, Lauren heads forth from the wreckage with a multi-racial cast, reborn through change with new purpose: that of Earthseed.
Earthseed itself is hard to explain; it’s a religion Lauren builds as she struggles to understand it, a new God – a new philosophy – to help understand and guide her through this world. It’s both her construct and an outside force that motivates her. It’s a series of poetic verses which headline each chapter, the meaning of which builds as you progress through the novel. This recurring refrain is both explanation and teaser for the depth of Earthseed: “The Destiny of Earthseed / Is to take root among the stars.” Earthseed is the crux of the novel, somewhat ironic given that it’s given second billing behind the apocalyptic setting and atmosphere. I’m a bit of an agnostic skeptic myself, and found Earthseed too ’90s New Age-y at times, even though Butler handles the subject with a gentle but firm hand. Aside from bringing manifest destiny to the stars, it’s a reaction to the only world Lauren has known, a religion that promotes tolerance and understanding to bind together the remains of a human race fractured along geopolitical, ethnic, and class lines. It raises a fascinating concept: what would the idealistic philosophy of this grim future be?
And it is one grim future, festering in the aftermath of an unexplained catastrophe – Butler is coy with details on how this world messed itself up, perhaps because the narrator herself is coming of age well after the decline started. Prepare for dogs running around with children’s limbs dangling from their mouths, teenage cannibalism, and a depressing amount of background rape (several of the characters in Lauren’s band are former sex slaves). Butler has a very cynical view of humankind, portraying it as willing to destroy itself and spoil its environment in a frantic scramble for self-preservation; her 2026 California is as brutal as Earthseed is optimistic. There’s this rich, intoxicating atmosphere of decay that pervades the novel, humanity clinging to the last vestiges of society. It’s shocking how vivid and plausible this future can feel, a nightmare vision extrapolated from our worst predictions for climate change and income inequality. Yet it also had elements that don’t feel at all realistic – things I wouldn’t hesitate to take a lesser writer to task over. It hasn’t rained in six years, but everyone has thriving citrus/vegetable gardens. In one or two generations, dogs have gone from loyal companion to roving in packs eating children. Society is all but gone, but people still go to work and get paid; everyone is scraping by without enough food and water, but Lauren’s group never lacks supplies since every fifty pages there’s a guy selling food out of the back of a truck. I could go on.
Truth be told, I found myself drawn into this novel, warts and all. I think the epistolary style works against the novel – it’s composed of diary entries written by a confused teenager, but it gives the reader an inside view of Lauren’s thought process. The aforementioned plot holes were nits I couldn’t help but pick. The narrative is distant and detached, as Lauren builds – finds? – her religion and explains it through emotionless journal entries. And the ending doesn’t give finality or closure, as this novel is just a few steps of the journey of Earthseed. Butler had a grand vision for the series, following in the wake of Lauren as humanity’s new messiah; Parable of the Sower is just the first step on a long, six-book journey that ended two books in. There’s a good article on the LA Review of Books that charts the intended progression, and makes me wonder how amazing the full cycle would have been had Butler been around to complete it.
Parable of the Sower tackles complex issues in a rich and disturbing apocalypse, a world that felt more real due to its detailed and diverse cast. While some elements were vivid and realistic, others are awkward and poorly thought out, and the author’s cynical view of humanity is a downer – with enough cannibalism, rape, and so forth to probably deserve a trigger warning. Still, I couldn’t put it down – I found it well-written and very readable; Butler has a strong, sure voice as a writer, and uses it to her full advantage as Lauren founds a new religion for all humankind. Parable of the Sower doesn’t rise to the same heights as Wild Seed or Kindred, but it offers some thought-provoking insight into religion, gender, and race in the dystopic remnants of society. I just wish Butler had been around to complete this series.
This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.
Synners, Pat Cadigan (1991)
Review by Ian Sales
As should be clear from the cover art to the left, Synners is in Gollancz’s SF Masterwork series, which makes Cadigan one of fourteen female authors among the seventy-eight authors in the series so far. Even more remarkable, Cadigan is one of the few female authors to succeed at writing cyberpunk, the subgenre of science fiction which did more to minimise the contribution of women to the genre than any other. As for Synners‘ credentials as a SF Masterwork… It’s certainly an accomplished novel, and there are definitely worse books already in the series. But, perhaps, by 1991 pretty much everything that needed to be said by, and in, cyberpunk had already been said. Given that, it’s not easy to determine what precisely Synners brings to the subgenre, or even genre. This is not helped by certain aspects of its world-building coming across in 2015 as somewhat quaint and dated. But that, of course, is an occupational hazard of writing science fiction, and it’s a remarkable novel indeed which won’t feel dated twenty-five years after being written.
The plot of Synners centres around a new technology, “sockets”, which allows for direct neural interfacing. But rather than in service to computer programming, this is used to experience entertainment media, especially “rock videos”. In the twenty-first century, this seems like an odd place to put the cutting-edge of computing, and from what I remember of 1991, the shine had long since rubbed off MTV. But there is also an Internet of sorts in Synners, and in describing this Cadigan proves almost prophetic in parts. However, the constant references to “datalines”, ie, landlines, feels a little dated in our current wifi world…
All of which is to say that the technology on which the story of Synners sits – and for cyberpunk fiction, this is no open landscape but a fully-populated mise en scène whose every element is important – is not the most convincing aspect of the novel. The aforementioned sockets, for example, are all but magical – no real explanation is given how their filaments might propagate through the brain to exactly the right areas for the sockets to be effective (although there are some convincing discussion of neurology). On the other hand, the computing mentioned throughout has the ring of believability – as of the state of the art in 1991, when 40 MB was considered a pretty hardcore harddisk…
But a science fiction novel is more than just the world of its story. Synners feels like it has… too many characters. It opens in a tattoo parlour in a run-down Los Angeles, and then bounces among a dozen or so characters, before the plot finally kicks into gear about a third of the way into its 475 pages. And even then, the focus is not entirely clear. There’s been a take-over of a video production company, EyeTraxx, by a media conglomerate, Diversifications, because EyeTraxx had a small medical research lab and that’s where sockets came from. In hindsight, this is not entirely plausible, but never mind. But the idea of a company which specialises in enhancing Hollywood studio films through the use of CGI is surely prophetic (rumour has it such firms these days are even used by celebrities for their private videos, such as those they take at birthday and anniversary parties).
In transpires that Diversifications’ takeover of EyeTraxx threatens the datalines. Because the brain of Visual Mark, EyeTraxx’s chief programmer, is somewhat overdeveloped in the areas where the sockets interact, so when he suffers a stroke while connected… and he has spent so much time connected he has pretty much spread out his mind through Diversifications’ many, many computers and computer systems… The stroke takes down parts of the datalines, and a second major stroke inflicts even more damage because it manages to mutate into a semi-sentient virus.
All this is told through the viewpoints of several characters, most of whom have little agency in the world of the book, although they do have agency in the narrative. They are drop-outs and hackers and the sort of people who spend most of their time at raves. But because they’re not driven by a need to increase market share or revenue, they’re the only ones who can see what the problem really is and so take it upon themselves to fix it.
Synners is far from being a bad novel. The prose is taut and well-written, and if the characters tend to blur together that’s more a consequence of there being so many than it is of Cadigan’s failure to make them distinct. The story takes a while before it picks up sufficient speed for narrative impetus to drag the reader along, but once it’s up and running it’s a fast read. It suffers a little because of its insistence that rock videos are where all the computing and artistic rebels can be found. And while much of the technology on display is plausible, if a little dated in places, some of it is a bit hand-wavey.
Synners deserves its spot in the SF Masterwork series – not because it was written by a woman, not because it is cyberpunk, and certainly not because it is a cyberpunk novel written by a woman… but because it snapshots in muscular but well-chosen prose a particular moment in science fiction’s history. And it does so in a distinctive voice. Worth reading.
The Moon and the Sun, Vonda N McIntyre (1997)
Review by Kate Macdonald
You know how it is when you had a favourite author, and millions of years later you wouldn’t be able to name her as a favourite, if asked cold, but if you saw a new book by her, you’d be heading for the cash desk? This could be risky: writers you revere in your teens may not be writing at the top of their game now, and you’d be a different reader as well.
I saw Vonda McIntyre’s name in a catalogue and was clicking Pay Now before I could blink. The premise of this 1997 novel that I had never heard of, The Moon and the Sun, sounded outstanding: Jesuit priest catches sea monsters for Louis XIV. I used to read her hardcore science fiction over and over. Although The Moon and the Sun is a counterfactual historical novel; the presence of sea-monsters reassured me that McIntyre would not be neglecting her speculative strengths. Halfway through, though, the plot had gone flabby because the heroine, Mlle Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, was doing too many things at once. She was feeding the sea-monster, composing music for the King, drawing her brother’s dissections, being a lady-in-waiting to Louis XIV’s niece, avoiding seduction by the wrong man, and falling in love with the right one. Finding enough new dresses to wear, sorting out her head-dresses, riding horses and the secret plot to free her Turkish slave are also on her to-do list. Her life is way too cluttered, and neglects the really strong part of the plot, of how to keep the sea-monsters alive.
This part is very difficult, since Louis XIV and the Pope both think that the sea-monsters contain an organ of immortality in their bodies. Marie-Josèphe has to really work on her language lessons with the sea-monster to find a way to keep them all alive, if only she didn’t have to do all the other court-related obligations as well. And be responsible for waking her Jesuit brother from over-sleeping when he ought to be attending the King’s levée.
McIntyre can write great fantasy, but this novel is not great historical fiction. The plot is good, but the historical clangers prevented me from the immersion I wanted into the world of the court. Louis XIV is far too familiar when he should not be, and since the language of court is French, it makes no sense for Marie-Josèphe to be teaching the sea-monster English: ‘Poissssson’, not ‘Fisssh’, surely? And yet, as if sensing the bagginess, McIntyre gets The Moon and the Stars on its feet to lift its skirts and take flight.
The urgency of the sea-monster’s survival compounds the dangerous political games played by the Comte du Chrétien to keep Marie-Josèphe in favour. The motif of damaged bodies (so many characters have impairments! This is definitely a novel for disability studies courses) transforms into hunting and betrayal, and the last section, which begins when the Queen of Sheba’s leopards are hunting the sea-monster in the Seine (one assumes), is totally gripping. Marie-Josèphe is a good strong heroine, and the sea-monster (who is a mermaid, but not the kind we expect to see in our dreams) is a wonderful, aggressive creation, except when she interrupts the narrative with her own thoughts. That wasn’t such a good idea, because the stranger and more alien she is, the more impressive she is as a character.
The Moon and the Sun has been made into a film, coming out soon, starring Pierce Brosnan as Louis XIV. Looking at the stills online, it seems clear that the film and the book have very little in common, and the film is not very interested in historical accuracy, but hey: it’s only a film, and it’s a good novel. Enjoy them both.
This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald – about writing, reading an publishing.
The Highroad Trilogy (A Path of Stars, Revolution’s Shore, The Price of Ransom), Kate Elliott (1990)
Review by Electra Pritchett
Kate Elliott has spent the 21st century writing epic fantasy, so there are probably quite a few people unaware that she wrote science fiction novels in the 20th. But by dint of ebook distribution, all of Elliott’s SF backlist (some originally published under another name) is now available again: these are the three volumes of the Highroad Trilogy (as by Alis A Rasmussen) and the four Chronicles of the Jaran.
I picked the Highroad Trilogy as my introduction to Elliott’s SF because, unlike the Jaran books (which were published later but come first in terms of internal chronology), the Highroad books are complete in and of themselves, and because the protagonist of the trilogy, one Lilyaka Ransome, dissatisfied daughter of a mining clan on a barren planet in a backwater system, almost immediately leaves said planet on a chase after her kidnapped mentor. Like another more famous protagonist from a galactic backwater pulled off-world by figures from their mentor’s past, Lily quickly finds herself mixed up with a rebellion against an unjust intergalactic government, but over the course of the trilogy she also finds herself coming out the other side of that rebellion, along with the ragtag band of comrades she’s gathered along the way, and taking a more uncertain road.
If it weren’t for the fact that tastes seem to have swung away from this kind of vivid space opera – and the Highroad Trilogy certainly has a lot of verve for a set of 25-year old novels – there’d be very little in these books to date them; they contain all of Elliott’s signature strengths, just at shorter length. Her novels are remarkable for consistent inclusion of protagonists from a variety of backgrounds, many of them women and people of color, as well as for her depth of worldbuilding; in a science fiction setting, this means interesting, truly alien aliens with cultural depth and a variety of human societies with different histories, attitudes, and governments, as well as people within those societies with conflicting views, often to go along with their differing class backgrounds. It also means a lot of action scenes and space battles; Lily is a martial arts expert by long training, as is her mentor, and the friends she gathers around her all have their own, fully fleshed-out pasts, and the skills to go with them.
Another signature of Elliott’s work is her focus on social change, whether by means of violence – a revolution – or otherwise. Lily finds herself by chance and by principle allied with the galactic revolution of one Jehane, who proclaims that he wants to bring equality to the corrupt Central. It’s certainly true that things are bad for many people, including the oppressed human sect called the Ridanis, who are treated as omnipresent pariahs but have their own story of having come “over the highroad” and lost the way back – but with the prophecy among them that Jehane will come one day to lead them home. The support of the Ridani is crucial for the successes that Jehane achieves, but the prejudices against them go deep, and it’s part and parcel of Elliott’s grasp on how social change is actually accomplished that the narrative doesn’t minimize that.
Elliott has remarked that these books were partly inspired by Edmund Wilson’s history of revolutionary socialism, To the Finland Station (1940), which yields another perspective on Jehane’s revolution: he’s Lenin, and Lily and her friends wind up allied with his Trotsky, a true believer and the better man. That association sets them on a path back over the so-called highroad, back to the human galactic empire which the characters of the Jaran books were struggling to free from alien domination. Generations later, after the successful end to that uprising, Lily and her friends, used to violence, iniquity, and war, seem practically barbaric – which opens up a complex narrative dialogue about the use of violence itself, a dialogue the books are too canny to attempt to foreclose.
Overlaying a proletarian revolution onto a science fiction trilogy structure does interesting things to said structure, which isn’t entirely surprising given Elliott’s penchant for arranging plot and emotional beats at less familiar points than many other writers. Quite simply, she’s too good to fall back on the genre’s structural clichés, and this is another factor that makes the Highroad books still feel fresh.
The one dated element lies in the portrayal of Lily’s lover, Kyosti, who gets involved with Lily under false pretences and whose actions are revealed to be, given later revelations about his past, deeply problematic. Although Kyosti is in some ways a deeply romantic figure and the narrative by the end seems to have inflicted a kind of punishment on him for his actions, I didn’t share the full acceptance that Lily comes to. Elliott’s later works certainly contain much more complex deconstructions of this kind of mysterious love interest character.
That aspect aside, the Highroad Trilogy stands on its own without any knowledge of the Jaran books, and the books are well worth reading for their great characters, interesting plotting, and complex thinking about revolutions, violence, and social change – all with spaceships.
Chanur’s Homecoming, CJ Cherryh (1986)
Review by Ian Sales
And so the four books of the Compact Space series comes to a violent and confrontational end – although a fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, appeared six years later. But the jacket flap of Chanur’s Homecoming describes the book as the last of the series, and the story arc was begun in the second book, Chanur’s Venture, which in turn was catapulted from the first (and, I suspect, initially written as a standalone) book, The Pride of Chanur.
Humans have returned to Compact Space, this time in force. And it seems they have may have shot at a knnn ship, the knnn who are the most technologically advanced, the most alien and the most enigmatic. But there is also a battle for supremacy going on between two kif hakkikt, the mahendo’sat have been playing a long game in order to keep their own borders safe, and the ground-based hani are trying to arrest Pyanfar Chanur for various crimes she is alleged to have committed. In the preceding book, The Kif Strike Back, Pyanfar found herself allied with one of the rival hakkikt, Sikkukkut – or rather, a vassal of him – and part of the force which attacked and seized Kefk Station. But Sikkukkut’s enemy, Akkhtimakt, holds Meetpoint Station, which is where the humans may be heading for – or so Pyanfar’s mahendo’sat friend, Jik, believes.
Pyanfar leads another force on an assault on Meetpoint Station, even though she knows victory will force Akkhtimakt toward hani space. But she has no choice, as Sikkukkut has threatened the hani homeworld, Anuurn, if she double-crosses him. And after Pyanfar’s ship successfully take Meetpoint, they have to leave immediately to chase down Akkhtimakt before he reaches Anuurn… and get there before Sikkukkut does. The journey, a series of hyperspace jumps with little time to recover in between is hard on the crew – although, fortunately, they have another hani ship’s crew acting as relief (as that crew’s ship was too slow for Pyanfar’s taskforce).
The closer she gets to Anuurn, the more Pyanfar realises what has been going on. She learns more about the kif – partly from the kif “slave”, Skkukuk, given to her by Sikkukut, and partly by observation and inferences. She also figures out what the mahendo’sat have really been up to. And when it comes to the final battle for Anuurn and Gaohn Station (echoing the battle which ended The Pride of Chanur), Pyanfar manages to defeat Akkhtimakt and then turn on Sikkukut… and she ends the single representative of the hani to all the other races of the Compact.
The plot of Chanur’s Homecoming is predicated on the psychology of the alien races in the Compact. While told from the point of view of the hani, and so making them the most understandable, Pyanfar also has to be able to predict what the kif and mahendo’sat are planning, and so she must also understand how they think. And then there are the humans, who, despite the presence of Tully aboard The Pride of Chanur, are the real aliens in this series. Even for Cherryh, it’s a lot to get across, and her typically brusque prose frequently isn’t quite up to the job. It’s not just the details of the space battles, which work well, but the many scenes of Pyanfar trying to work out who is doing what and how each of the major players think do more to confuse than elucidate the plot. This is not to say that the details Cherryh reveals are not interesting – the kif, who are the main villains of the piece, actually turn out to be the most original of all the Compact races, for example.
All the information Cherryh throws in, the plots and counter-plots, the strategies and conspiracies, serve only to convince Pyanfar there is a single course of action open to her, and which she promptly takes when all the various parties are gathered together after the battle on Gaohn Station to sort everything out. There then follows a nakedly sentimental epilogue, which demonstrates how much the events of the four books have changed the hani.
The four Compact Space novels are good solid science fiction of a sort that doesn’t really seem to be written any more. While the fourth book is somewhat densely packed, and that sometimes gets in the way of its action-packed plot, it’s nonetheless cleverly done. Rereading Cherryh – or, in this case, reading one of her books for the first time – reminds why I was a fan of her fiction back in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps not everything she wrote then has survived the test of time, but the Compact Space novels appear to have weathered the decades pretty well. They’re not twenty-first science fiction by any means, but they’re still readable and enjoyable sf, and probably better than a lot of science fiction published today.
The Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre (1975)
Review by Kate Macdonald
This was Vonda McIntyre’s first novel, published in 1975, about twenty years after the first thalidomide disaster in Germany, the UK and North America, in which around 10,000 children died or were born with malformations. The novel is about disability, and difference, and how society accepts and rejects different differences. It’s also an astoundingly undated speculation on a future society, which she developed further in her 1979 novel Dreamsnake. By using a medical incident from the recent past and replaying it in a future of decay on earth that can only be escaped by space flight, it’s clear that McIntyre is exploring ethics, medicine and society.
The main plot is about Mischa, a teenage sneak thief struggling to make ends meet for herself, her addicted artist brother Chris, and her greedy uncle who is quietly selling off their younger siblings as beggars to keep himself in paid companions and nice carpets. The whole family is impaired in one way or another, but only those children who don’t look human are cast out into the underground caves. The others have to work. A subsidiary plot is how their degenerate and decaying earth city, Center, is going to survive, given that its economy is being strangled by the decadence of the Families who run its necessary services.
Mischa’s forays into Center’s stratified layers of houses and shops and palaces, looking for targets, show the phenomenal imaginative effort that McIntyre put into creating this massively complex society. It’s complicated by the arrival of Subone and Subtwo, two two-metre tall pseudosibs with computations for brains, who plan to effect a takeover of Center, but their private subplot of fracturing bond conditioning disrupts everything. Jan Hikaru, a mathematician travelling with the pseudosibs, has come to Earth with the body of his elderly navigator friend to bury her on her home planet that she didn’t live to see again. He links all the plots together when he discovers Mischa’s mathematical abilities, and Subone lasers Chris, driving Jan and Mischa underground ahead of the pseudosibs’ pursuit, where they find the secrets of Center’s survival.
Yes, it does sound complex. But The Exile Waiting is so rich, the complexity is barely noticeable when you begin to read, because you are immediately beguiled by the detail. From the first page of the novel – Jan Hikaru’s diary – the reader understands that spaceport bazaars are commonplace, that Jan’s father wants him to be ethnically Japanese rather than the blond genes he so obviously also carries, that Jan is running away from purposeless study to find something worthwhile, that the old navigator’s eyes have been destroyed by too much space radiation, that space navigators have care homes and she has a wide acquaintanceship, and that Earth is held to be abandoned and dead.
The second page, which describes Mischa returning home after an exploratory trip underground, tells us that Earth has many old nuclear-age structures still underground, that robot mice still dig tunnels to lay communications webs underground according to an old and forgotten but still running program, that the underground outcasts are used to frighten Center children, but that the cave panthers are more dangerous. Other marvellous discoveries include organic lightcells that you feed with powdered protein to keep glowing, that the mining Family have soft white flabby hands because all their work is done by machines, that baby sister Gemmi can call Mischa and Chris telepathically, relentlessly, which is their uncle’s hold on them, and Chris’s addiction has blown his and Mischa’s last chance of getting away on the seasonal space ships. Their technology is disconcertingly old and new, reflecting poverty and privilege. Crystal knives aren’t picked up by metal detectors, but punishment by sensory deprivation puts offenders into skintight suits suspended in gel. There is passive, indifferent cruelty and rough, unaccustomed affection in a society that is slowly only able to focus on survival, rather than living. It is joyless, and emotionally dead.
Gender divisions, and disability, which are two very fashionable topics now in the study of fiction, are used to drive this novel’s ethics with breath-taking assurance. What really impresses is me is how McIntyre’s prose is pure enough to remain undated (a very rare talent) and also remain precise and clear in what she is saying: that just as society should develop to not care about gender, it should not make exiles and outcasts out of bodily difference. The multiple focalisations, by which the story is told from the perspectives of Mischa the local, and Jan and Subtwo the visiting aliens, gives the reader a kaleidoscopic impression of Center as a place of hopelessness and cynicism from all sides. We become increasingly desperate for Mischa, and the other characters who attract readerly empathy, to escape, and to leave the filth, misery, and crumbling wrongness of this society behind. We do get there, but the adventure is far too complicated to explain here. Go buy a copy.
This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald ~ about writing, reading and publishing.
The Power of Time, Josephine Saxton (1985)
Review by Ian Sales
Josephine Saxton is perhaps best-known for her 1986 novel Queen of the States, which appeared on the first ever Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist, but lost out to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. However, her first published piece was ‘The Wall’ twenty years earlier in UK sf magazine Science Fantasy. That story appears in The Power of Time, Saxton’s first collection, which contains fourteen stories, dating from 1965 to 1983, and three original to the collection. Reading Saxton’s short fiction, it’s fairly clear she was a writer with marked New Wave sensibilities, who continued to write using them throughout her career.
‘The Power of Time’ (1971). This also appears in More Women of Wonder, which is where I first came across it. The story is set in the distant future, when only a handful of people remain on the Earth. The narrator purchases Manhattan, and wants it moved in its entirety to East Leake in the UK. Meanwhile, a woman in the twentieth century has won an all expenses paid trip to New York, where she is escorted to museums, restaurants and like by a string of handsome men. Not wanting to fall in love with the men, she chooses instead to fall in love with the city… And it’s her descendant who has Manhattan moved to England. It all ends badly, however. The story’s strength lies in its present-day narrative, which is something Saxton is generally good at – as, indeed, was a lot of New Wave science fiction. The far future part of the story, by comparison, feels a little too whimsical and hand-wavey.
‘Lover from Beyond the Dawn of Time’ is original to the collection. An author’s note reads “Homage to HK Giger, and with respect to HP Lovecraft”. Set in the year 6666, a woman is moved to a new unit in a block in what “was once called Switzerland”, and in her dreams finds herself chosen as consort for the eponymous Lovecraftian paramour. I wasn’t especially convinced by the attempt to reference Giger’s art, but the Lovecraftian visuals were certainly done well. A framing narrative describes the story as a medical health report, which felt unnecessary as the main narrative is an effective sf/horror piece.
‘Food and Love’ (1975). Saxton has written about food elsewhere, in the 1986 collection Little Tours of Hell: Tall Tales of Food and Holidays. In this story, the dinner party described very much revolves around food. But this is just a dream – possibly? – by one of a handful of survivors at the end of the world.
‘Silence in Having Words: Purple’ is also original to the collection, and I really couldn’t get on with it. It felt far too self-indulgent, an attempt at something Delany-esque that went on and on, but without the lushness or inventiveness of a Delany story. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it joke reference to Deep Purple, but it felt like a story that far out-stayed its welcome.
‘New Aesthetics’ is the third and final story original to the anthology. It’s also about food, but scenes of eating paper products – newspapers, magazines, detergent boxes – is juxtaposed with loving descriptions of actual food. Both are a reflection of politics and taste in a near-future world, as if the consumption of opinion has become a stand-in for aesthetic judgement.
‘The Triumphant Head’ (1970). This also appeared in The New Women of Wonder, and while it appears to a describe a woman getting herself ready for the day ahead, it presents the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, as something much stranger, perhaps even alien. The New Wave often featured the quotidian, but it didn’t usually focus on the domestic – Pamela Zoline is the only other such writer who springs to mind. Saxton’s careening prose seems an odd way of telling the story, but it actually works quite well.
‘To Market, to Market’ (1981). This is a flash piece, no more than a page and a half long, about a mother feeding her children in a post-apocalyptic world, and it makes no secret of the fact the food is long-dead human flesh.
‘The Wall’ (1965). A wall across a landscape divides a man and a woman – not the most subtle metaphor ever – but the two manage to find a way through it, and so find a way to live together. While science fiction provides plenty of tools for literalising metaphors, the central premise can occasionally feel a little banal… although in this case that may be a consequence of the story’s age.
‘Dormant Soul’ (1969). Probably the strongest story in the collection. In parts, it reads like a dress rehearsal for Queen of the States. The protagonist is a thirty-five-year-old woman who lives alone. One night she is visited by an angel, who reveals he is actually a visitor from another planet. It seems she is at risk of being possessed, or has been possessed, by demons from another planet, and Armaziel has come to free her. Part of the cure involves getting seven random people to pray for her. So she rings names she has picked from the phone book, and it seems to work. Her life improves. As in Queen of the States, it’s not entirely clear how much of the narrative is real – and genre – and how much is simply a reflection of the protagonist’s mental state.
‘Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon’ (1972). On a planet where “everyone is sick on Pergamon, it’s the law”, a young woman in perfect health is examined by doctors. But then the “Congenitals” and the “Starving” invade the hospital theatre, and Elouise is afraid they will tear her limb from limb. So she psychomatically makes herself ill until she is just like them. Much of the story is taken up with the doctors’ examination of Elouise’s body.
‘The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky (1981). This is a weird one. The staff of a research laboratory throw a party to celebrate a recent discovery, and those who attend have to come as animals, but not in costume, they must mime the animal they are pretending to be. Initially, the party goes well, and the scientists’ stock rises. But at a another party, jealousy in the lab causes each of them to use their discovery – the ability to remotely program people with behaviours to embarrass each other… but, of course, they all play the same trick on each other and it all ends badly.
‘No Coward Soul (1982). An artist performs brain surgery on herself in order to insert a means of self-administering drugs to certain portions of her cerebral cortex. With each step, she either re-experiences or hallucinates an incident, such as being caught trespassing on a farmer’s land, or a meeting with “Vennors the Lizard Lord”. The surgery is unsuccessful – or rather, too successful since she can no longer distinguish between the scenes she hallucinated and reality.
‘Black Sabbatical’ (1971). A family are visiting Morocco as the husband is on sabbatical and researching local mosaics. During a picnic in the desert, the wife screams that she’s leaving him and runs off into the desert. She vanishes completely. After taking the children back to the UK and leaving them with relatives, the husband returns to search for his wife, eventually finding himself involved with a local magician who offers him a devil’s bargain. This is a nicely atmospheric story which slowly but inexorably descends into horror.
‘Living Wild’ (1971). A woman lives alone in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic UK, but it is not until halfway through that the story reveals what caused the cataclysm – aliens stole the planet’s metals. At one point, she befriends an escaped lion, and the pair “went for long walks and scrambled around the hills”. Except the lion is actually a dog, and the narrator may not be living rough in a post-apocalyptic countryside.
While not every story in The Power of Time is successful, and some have not aged especially well, there’s little doubt that Saxton possessed a singular voice and often used it in presenting a particular vision. She writes about women and their lives, and she uses science fiction to bend and reshape the way those women perceive their own existence in order to better emphasise the accommodations they have been forced to make in order to survive or even prosper. It’s not just the narrator of ‘The Triumphant Head’ making herself presentable for her husband, as if the only face she can present is one dependent on artifice. Nor is it just the narrator of ‘Living Wild’ who can only imagine true freedom by recasting reality as an Earth after an alien attack.
The domestic is not something which features often in science fiction, although there have been several women sf writers who have made a point of including it in their stories. In many such stories – ‘That Only a Mother’ by Judith Merril and ‘Created He Them’ by Alice Eleanor Jones spring to mind – the woman is presented with adversity, or a world destroyed, and manages to maintain a facade of normality in spite of it. Saxton, however, turns this on its head, and instead destroys the world inside her protagonists’ heads – or, in the case of ‘Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon’, her body – which twists and bends their perceptions as a means of dealing with, or commenting upon, the real world and the difficulties they face living in it. It seems to me this is a technique which came out of the New Wave, and then vanished as the New Wave was subsumed into the general corpus of science fiction. Which makes the output of writers such as Saxton all the more worth reading and treasuring.