Vector for Seven, Josephine Saxton

Vector for Seven, Josephine Saxton (1970)
Review by Kev McVeigh

Vector for Seven, Josephine Saxton’s second novel, follows a pattern begun with her first, The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith (1969), in having an increasing group of people wander through a dreamlike landscape seemingly detached in time and space from our world. The setting however does resemble our world more closely than previously.

The wonderful opening lines introduce us to Mrs Amelia Mortimer (for whom the novel is subtitled – “The Weltanschaung of Mrs Amelia Mortimer and Friends”) and Sophia Smith, two very different women brought together to await departure on holiday from a remote aerodrome. Their respective transports have deposited them there in isolation, and there appears to be nobody else around.

“There are undoubtedly much worse things that can happen to a person than to be splattered with the shite of swifts,” said Sophia Smith in a rather unsympathetic voice. She was addressing her remark to Mrs. Mortimer, whose first name she did not know because they had only just met.

Mrs. Mortimer was deeply shocked by the use of the word “shite,” but she showed it no way whatsoever. She continued to scrub with the blunt end of a nail-file at the offensive bit of ordure that clung to her hat, which she held in her kid-gloved left hand. The mat felt was marked permanently, there was little doubt of it. She looked upward at the source of the offence, and observed birds flying to and fro from a bunch of nests in the eaves of the wooden building outside which they now sat. It was the only place to sit down, or they would have been sitting elsewhere.

That deadpan tone, formally stylised prose and the dry humour within made Josephine Saxton stand out in the New Wave where much of her otherwise unclassifiable fictions found a home. From 2011, it may seem at first to be dated, but bear with her, as Saxton who admits to being a devotee of Jung, takes her characters on a mysterious voyage through what she called in later books the Collective Unconsciousness.

Mrs Mortimer and Sophia Smith are gradually joined by others, including their driver, who proceeds through a serious of instructions left for him, and the semi-mute, alien-like boychild Septimus. Seven people, of assorted ages, classes and attitudes, set off on what they have seen advertised as a Super Tour. Where to? It is never made clear, to reader or characters, as they travel up and down newly built, near empty motorways, sleep and awake in new countries, in strange unpopulated places. Beyond the seven there are very few other people even viewed at a distance, the cafe waitress, the stewardess, momentary interactions outside of the group.

At some point they find themselves becalmed at sea listening to Messiaen, later a submarine, a plane and a hotel, but at all points effectively in a white room. Existence beyond the characters is blank. Yet they have memories. They have emotions, and needs. Saxton throughout her works excels at depiction of gourmet experiences, and Vector for Seven is no exception. Indeed the food scenes are the principal moments of realism in this otherwise abstract novel. Even the long multi-viewpoint sex scenes take on a rarified intellectual aspect as Martha ponders her orgasm as she has it yet Saxton’s prose is paced to the rhythm of the lovers maintaining an eroticism belied by technicalities. It should be noted that this, very English in many ways, novel has gay and interracial sex, and the older women in particular are seen to embrace it perhaps more than the younger for all their respective airs and pretensions.

For me Josephine Saxton is a clever, witty, even hilarious writer, though her detached style may not be to everyone’s taste. Re-reading her work I am convinced the style is deliberate, it is too thoughtful to be accidental, yet it frequently breaks so many so-called rules. Viewpoints switch mid-sentence, mid paragraph. Scenes fade into each other, and there is an artificiality to everything that will irritate the ‘show don’t tell’ believers. Sentences rumble on through multiple clauses to hundreds of words. Nevertheless, Vector for Seven works as an exploration of the Unconscious, and the prose style effectively conveys the juxtapositions, transitions and abstractions of our minds.

Suddenly, not fifty yards away from the boat, there was an iceberg floating in the ocean, forty feet in height perhaps, and thirty across, shaped exactly like an iceberg, and apparently travelling at a great rate towards their vessel. Amelia came alive again and flung the steering wheel around to no avail, for not only did the lack of speed in the boat make her rapid manoeuvre ineffectual, but she turned it the wrong way, besides which error, of no importance as it happened, the iceberg changed its course and headed directly for the little boat, which was helpless to avoid the impact, which came, not with the crash and crack of ice but with a soft yet mighty thud like the drunken body of a fat man at a party in Leeds one night near Christmas, pushed out of bed by a young student called Amelia, a virgin until her marriage at the age of twenty-five.

Ultimately, as in other Saxton novels, the seven individuals become a group and share experiences. They judge and are judged but they learn and are taught. In its early 60s upper middle class viewpoints Vector for Seven is very definitely of its time, but Saxton also cuts through this. Snobbery is mocked, pretensions are dashed, and barriers (race, gender, class, age, sexuality) breakdown into a collective.

It is an area Saxton returned to in a more feminist focussed way with the Jane Saint novellas, but Vector for Seven remains her best work after Queen Of The States.

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.

Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, Pamela Sargent, part 2

Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, edited by Pamela Sargent (1995)
Review by Ian Sales

This review follows on from Part 1 here.

Part 2
At $15 in 1995 for twenty-one stories, Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years could never be accused of poor value. Given the quality of the contents, that price-tag becomes even more of a bargain. Of course, these days, sixteen years later, only second-hand copies can be found, but the anthology is certainly worth hunting down.

The title of ‘Reichs-Peace’, by Sheila Finch (1986), signals immediately that the story is a “Hitler victorious” type alternate history. Unfortunately, this results in a couple of early inelegant info-dumps in order to explain the history of the story’s world, but ‘Reichs-Peace’ does possess a number of appealing conceits. Greta is a scientist in isolationist USA. She defects to Germany, but rather than be debriefed for the secrets she carries – Germany is technologically superior to the US, but the US leads in biological sciences – she is taken to meet the widow of Adolf Hitler. Frau Hitler – Eva Braun as was – needs Greta’s help because her son, Wolfli Hitler, is one of the astronauts at the Nazi moon base but he has gone on EVA and can’t be contacted and a solar flare is due. Greta is Romany, smuggled out of Germany as a child; she is also Wolfli’s twin. Frau Hitler believes that Greta can psychically contact the brother she never knew she had, and warn him to return to the base before the flare hits. Marrying the most oddball aspects of Nazi science to this type of alternate history story makes it stand out from others of its ilk, and the character of Frau Hitler is handled especially well.

Pat Cadigan is best known for writing cyberpunk, and while ‘Angel’ (1987) borrows some of the tropes of that sub-genre, it is not a cyberpunk story. The narrator has an angel as a lover. The pair of them just about manage to make enough to survive as rent-boys. And then one of the angel’s previous lovers, a rich woman, turns up and tries to abduct him. There’s a half-hearted attempt to explain the angel as an alien exiled to Earth, but it’s the manner in which this story is told, rather than the story per se, which impresses most.

‘Rachel in Love’, Pat Murphy (1987), was nominated for the Hugo for best novelette in 1988, and won the Nebula. It’s easy to see why. Rachel is a chimpanzee, but she has had the personality of a girl implanted in her brain – the daughter of the scientist who invented the procedure, in fact, after she died in a car crash. But when the scientist dies in his sleep, the animal handlers of the Primate Research Centre see only an ape and not the young girl Rachel knows herself to be. So she plots her escape.

‘Game Night at the Fox and Goose’, Karen Joy Fowler (1989), originally appeared in Interzone, and is one of the stronger pieces in an already-strong anthology. Alison, lonely and disenchanted after being abandoned by her lover, and pregnant, visits the eponymous pub in order to cheer herself up. There she meets an enigmatic women who tells of her a parallel world in which the relationship between women and men is very different.

‘Tiny Tango’, Judith Moffett (1989), is perhaps the longest story in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, and is one of Moffett’s Hefn stories. It’s science fiction lite, inasmuch as what few tropes appear in the story only book-end the main narrative. The narrator is an early victim of AIDS, and chooses to maintain a stress-free healthy lifestyle in order to maximise her chances of survival. This includes growing her own fruit and veg, and she decides, as a project, to develop a strain of virus-resistant melon. But then an accident at a nearby nuclear power plant renders the area where she lives uninhabitable. Meanwhile, the alien Hefn have visited Earth, had a look around, and then left. Later they return, and the narrator’s story is one they have asked her to tell as some sort of lesson. ‘Tiny Tango’ is also part of Moffett’s fix-up story about the Hefn, The Ragged World. On the strength of this novella, I plan to track down a copy.

Connie Willis’ reputation rests as much on stories like ‘At the Rialto’ (1989) as it does on her novels. Certainly this story has appeared in numerous “best of” anthologies. It’s a comic piece, set in the eponymous hotel during the International Congress of Quantum Physics Annual Meeting. It’s also not really science fiction. Some of the strangenesses of quantum physics are mirrored in the interactions between the characters – in other words, the congress is pretty chaotic. It’s an entertaining story, but I must admit to being slightly puzzled by the obvious high regard in which it’s held.

Not all of the stories in the anthology have been overtly feminist, and none have been misandrist, though ‘Midnight News’, Lisa Goldstein (1990), comes perhaps closest to the latter. Aliens have arrived at Earth, judged the human race and found it wanting. And selected a representative to make the final decision on the planet’s fate. That representative is Helena Johnson, an OAP… who is being treated like royalty in order to influence her decision. Stevens and Gorce are two of the reporters interviewing Johnson. There’s something slightly old-fashioned about ‘Midnight News’, something which harkens back to the days of Hildy Johnson – including its sexual politics.

‘And Wild for to Hold’, Nancy Kress (1991), is another long piece. The Time Research Institute exists out of time and its role encompasses more than just research. It also identifies in alternate time streams pivotal historical figures and abducts them as “Holy Hostages” in order to prevent the suffering their existence cause. The practice of taking hostages to prevent wars in well-established in the Institute’s reality – there is even a Church of the Holy Hostage. In the past, the Institute has abducted Hitler, Helen of Troy, and a Romanov prince. But now they’ve taken Anne Boleyn – chiefly to prevent the English Reformation. But Boleyn is a practiced schemer and does not accept her new role willingly. The Church too is trying to seize control of the Institute. The sf in this story never quite convinces, though the characters are well-drawn – especially Boleyn.

‘Immaculate’, Storm Constantine (1991), is another story which presents science fiction as another genre – or rather, tries to offer a science-fictional explanation of its tropes. Donna claims she can feel computers dreaming. She is a model for VR-type entertainments by Reeb, who was nearly killed in a freak accident when his data-suit caught fire. Donna tells him he left part of himself “in the wires”. The title refers to the fact that Donna is an “immaculate” birth, though it is not a miracle but a medical procedure available to anyone. This is another story whose strength lies in its prose style rather than in its plot.

Some writers are better at depicting aliens than others. Ore has always been good at it, and ‘Farming in Virginia’ (1993) provides ample evidence of this. Two aliens have been exiled to Earth and are living quiet lives under the protection of the US government. But Earth has decided it’s time to send them back, as the female of the pair is pregnant. She is also an alcoholic. And the male is addicted to a drug. I will never understand why writers think that throwing random apostrophes into made-up names will make them convincingly alien, but Ore does it here. However, she does well with the biology and psychology of her aliens, especially the male alien’s perception of the humans he interacts with.

Worth mentioning is the excellent introduction to the anthology by Pamela Sargent. It gives a quick history of women writing in science fiction, as well as quoting a number of male reactions to their output. The anthology ends with a fifteen-page ‘Recommended Reading: Science Fiction by Women 1979 – 1993’ bibliography. At some point, I will transcribe this and add it as a separate page to the blog.

An excellent anthology, and certainly worth reading. Recommended.

Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, Pamela Sargent

Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, edited by Pamela Sargent (1995)
Review by Ian Sales

Part 1
In 1975, Pamela Sargent edited the first in a trilogy of women-only science fiction anthologies for US publisher Vintage. Fast forward twenty years and it’s time for more, this time published by Harcourt Brace & Company. Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years is subtitled “science fiction by women writers from the 1970s to the 1990s”, and its contents are just that. There is also a companion volume, Women of Wonder: The Classic Years (1995), which contains some of the more notable names who appearing to be missing from this volume’s table of contents.

The title of ‘Cassandra’, CJ Cherryh (1978), references the Ancient Greek doomsayer but this story is set in the near-future. Alis can see ghosts – or rather, everyone she sees has the spectral presence of ghosts. Because she can see their future deaths. That is until she meets someone who does not look like a ghost to her. And then she learns why everyone appears spectral… In terms of subject, this is not your typical Cherryh, though the brusque muscular prose is familiar.

‘The Thaw’, Tanith Lee (1979) is one of those stories which forces a science fictional explanation onto a fantastical conceit. At the tail end of the twenty-second century, those who had themselves cryogenically frozen in the twentieth century are defrosted. Or rather, the first of them, the narrator’s many-times- great-grandmother, is resuscitated to see if the process is actually possible. And so it proves. And os Carla Brice becomes something of a celebrity, her every whim catered for, her every desire met. Except the narrator can’t quite understand this power her ancestor has over everyone. It’s unnatural. In fact, it’s almost as if Carla had made a pact with the Devil. Lee turns this suggestion on its head by providing a science-fictional explanation, though it’s all very hand-wavey. The somewhat irritating voice of the narrator doesn’t help much, either.

Given the title of ‘Scorched Supper on New Niger’, Suzy McKee Charnas (1980), and the fact that Charnas is best-known for her post-apocalypse feminist trilogy which begins with Walk to the End of the World, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that ‘Scorched Supper on New Niger’ is actually a light-hearted space opera. Dee Steinway is a freighter pilot, but the ship she flies – with her uplifted cat, Ripotee – is stolen. Sort of. Her brother-in-law has seized control of the haulage firm her mother founded, and wants Dee hand over the ship and settle down (there is a swing against feminism in the background of the story). Desperate to keep her ship, Dee lands on New Niger, a planet settled by Africans, and does a deal with Helen Nwanyeruwa, head of a rival firm. Except it doesn’t quite go down as Dee expected, or was promised. This is a fun, staunchly feminist space opera, and I’d happily read more stories set in the same universe.

There’s an elliptical quality to Carol Emshwiller’s ‘Abominable’ (1980) which both makes the story a difficult read and yet perversely makes it hard to forget. The central conceit is plain enough: women have become as elusive as the Abominable Snowman, and a group of men have set off to track down and capture the Commander’s wife. The story is too dream-like, for all that its conceit verges on absurd, and while this initially makes for an unsatisfactory read, it is also the reason why the story bears multiple reads.

I’ve been a fan of Sydney J Van Scyoc’s science fiction for many years, and her ‘Bluewater Dreams’ (1981) provides ample reason why. (The story, incidentally, has nothing to do with her 1991 novel Deepwater Dreams.) On the world of Rahndarr, human colonists and native Birlele co-exist peacefully. Except, every now and again, those Birlele which live with humans develop a fatal disease to which there is no known cure. Driven to return to their mountain home, they usually die en route. But human Namir choose to help her Birlele friend Mega journey home to the dreaming pools of her race… only to learn something important about the aliens. Van Scyoc’s strength has always lain in her invention and depiction of alien societies, and ‘Bluewater Dreams’ shows this in microcosm.

‘The Cabinet of Edgar Allen Poe’, Angela Carter (1982), is perhaps the least overtly science-fictional story in the anthology. It is an alternate life of Poe which drifts perhaps more into the fantastical than the alternate history mode. There’s more in there than that just – references to various fairy tales, for one thing; though I am sure I missed many of the references. While Carter certainly belongs in a volume such as Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years, her inclusion here is a puzzle as her career actually began in the 1960s and this story isn’t sf per se.

‘The Harvest of Wolves’, Mary Gentle (1984), first appeared in Interzone and is typical of the magazine during that period in British sf short fiction. It’s the near-future and Britain is ruled by a New Puritan government after the near-collapse of society and the economy – this is the future of Thatcher’s Britain, V for Vendetta territory; and not so very far from what is imaginable now as the future of Cameron’s Britain. Flix is an old woman, an activist in the old days, living in poverty and being helped, and reported on, by a youth on community service. It’s all very grim and very British, and does elicit a sad nostalgia for the days when science fiction used to be an angry genre.

‘Bloodchild’ by Octavia E Butler (1984) must be one of the most anthologised science fiction stories of the 1980s, and yet it is often missing from lists of great sf short fiction. But then it was not written by a white male. Gan is  a young human boy living in a preserve on an Earth dominated by the alien Tlic. The aliens procreate by laying parasitic grubs in human hosts, and Gan has been brought up to be one such host. Except the realities of the process of “birth” have been kept from him. And he rudely discovers them when a man carrying Tlic grubs ready to hatch appears on the family doorstep. Though ‘Bloodchild’ features on of my pet hates, the apostrophe used in “alien” names, it’s a minor quibble.

‘Fears’, Pamela Sargent (1984), is perhaps the least successful of this batch of stories. In a near-future US, the ability to choose the gender of babies before birth has led to a very sharp decline in the number of women. so much so, in fact, that they have once again become highly-prized chattel. The narrator is female, but can disguise herself as male. She lives outside of society and the story recounts one of her visits to a nearby town for supplies, and her conversations with the bodyguard she hires for protection.

The name Jayge Carr was new to me, but on the strength of her ‘Webrider’ (1985) I’m tempted to seek out some of her longer fiction. In the space opera setting of the story, FTL interstellar travel is only possible via matter transmission. But only certain people can survive the process, and even then the odds of lethal failure are extremely high. Such people, known as “webriders”, are feted when they arrive on worlds, and their every whim catered to. But when the companion – groupie – selected by Webrider Tamarisk during her stay proves a little too interested in the web and its workings, his actions have unforeseen consequences. An accomplished sf tale with a cast of aliens and an interesting universe.

‘Alexia and Graham Bell’, Rosaleen Love (1986) suggests that the invention of the telephone by a young Australian descendant of Alexander Graham Bell actually causes the past to change such that it seemed Bell did really invent the device in 1875. Gone is the peaceful alternate present of telegraphs and letters, in which all long-distance communication is written down and so open to censorship. Which has, perversely, led to a peaceful twentieth century, without world wars. The story is played for laughs – which is just as well as the central conceit doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. But it’s an entertaining idea and handled well.

While the modes of science fiction in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years are varied, the quality is not. Some stories are more successful than others, but there are no duds. This is no real surprise – the anthology is, after all, to some extent a “best of” as it is a showcase of science fiction written by women, and its table of contents were chosen accordingly. That there is no discernible difference in quality between sf written by women or sf written by men should be obvious to all, but the fact of the existence of Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years suggests it’s a lesson many still need to learn. They should immediately seek out a copy of this volume and read it.

Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones, part 3

Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones (2001)
Review by Niall Harrison

This review follows on from part 1 here and part 2 here.

Part 3
A confession: I actually came to the Bold as Love series backwards. As part of my Clarke judge duties I had to read the final volume, Rainbow Bridge (2006), and at the time I had no experience of its predecessors. Truth to tell I don’t remember all that much about it, and that which I do remember I should not speak of, but what does seem worth mentioning here is the lingering elegiac impression the book left, crystallised in a self-description by one of the triumvirate, that they are “veterans of utopia.”

And so I came to Bold as Love on the lookout for the possibility of utopia, and was a little surprised by the novel’s darkness. Not the darkness in the stories of its characters — I’d read ‘The Salt Box’ in Interzone — but in its ambience and events. Bold as Love opens in a period of near-crisis, with the authorities struggling to maintain an orderly dissolution against a backdrop of economic and ecological collapse, and the trials don’t let up: an influx of migrants, a failing electronic infrastructure, a small war in Yorkshire. It seems astonishing that this world will ever progress far enough to look back on utopia.

But there is a utopian desire present in Bold as Love, refracted by the triumvirate, and in particular by Ax and Fiorinda. The latter is profoundly pessimistic — the combination of youth and experience, perhaps — and sees no good in the way the world is turning. More than once she comments that everything is going up in smoke, that it’s the end of the world. And on the role of Ax himself, when pestered, she says:

“I think he’s the Lord’s anointed. I think he has the mandate of heaven. I think he is rightwise king born over all England. But still–”

“But still you are the cat who walks by herself, green-eyed Fiorinda–”

“But still nothing’s changed.”

What does that “nothing” denote? Manifestly things are changing through the novel, dramatically so. But we know what Fiorinda means, of course, we know she means that there are still winners and losers and — in the novel’s terms — suits with power. Sage, similarly, is a sceptic. For him, the cross-demographic appeal of the triumvirate, as evidenced by the diversity of their gig audiences, does not seem like a compliment; it seems “like a deeply, deeply mistaken confidence” (p 243).

It’s left to Ax to lead: the only character to deliberately articulate any vision of utopia. In the aftermath of the coup, he rallies his countercultural comrades to that vision, speaking of the potential for something new in history, “a genuine human civilisation. For everyone”, enabled by technology. His goal is “To make this turning point the beginning of civilisation, instead of a fall into the dark ages”; but it’s tempered with pragmatism:

And yeah, before anyone says it, I know it won’t work. If I succeed beyond my wildest dreams, it’ll be partial, fucked-up and temporary. Partial, fucked-up and temporary will be fine. If we can get that going, for just a few years, just here in England, we’ll have made our mark. Something will survive. (p 82)

The grandest of visions an the most modest of terms: that’s the tension that defines Ax, seen later as dedicated to the art of the possible over the good, and seen from inside his head as one who endures. In the warzone, he recognises “a reason for Fiorinda’s mourning, the end of a world, an unbearable loss”, but “he had to bear it. Accept” (p 118); or, later, more than once, he thinks, “If we can just get through this part…” (I started to think of the catchphrase of Kim Stanley Robinson’s much sunnier Phil Chase: “I’ll see what I can do!”) The fragility of it all, the provisionality, is exhausting for Ax, and we sometimes feel that exhaustion. But between the three leads we also scent the elusive spirit of change, the muscular belief that things can get better, slowly.

All of which leads to the curious ending note. Superficially Bold as Love closes on a not entirely unexpected moment of grace, a pause that sees the triumvirate together and comfortable. Stubborn stuff, this world; hard not to retreat from it sometimes. At the same time, Ax’s thoughts, on the final page — “I was not perfectly happy, but now I am, and if I had the power this is where I would make time stop, this is where I’d stay forever. This is it, this moment. This, now” (p 307-8) — make it seem coldly plausible that this is the utopia of which they become veterans: a limited, individual utopia, an impression of the world around them shaped entirely by their personal emotional circumstances. But on reflection, it’s hard to imagine another ending for this quixotic, thorny book.

This review originally appeared on Torque Control.

Midnight Robber, Nalo Hopkinson

Midnight Robber, Nalo Hopkinson (2000)
Review by Shaun Duke

Much like Hopkinson’s other novels, science fiction or otherwise, Midnight Robber is an experiment in Caribbean folklore and consciousness. Set on the colonized world of Toussaint, the novel initially follows Antonio, the less-than-ethical mayor of Cockpit City. When his career turns south after accidentally killing a man (who has been sleeping with his wife), he snatches up his young daughter, Tan Tan, and flees via a dimensional transport to the shadow world of New Half-way Tree. There, Tan Tan must grow up in a hostile world in which the criminal class exiled to New Half-Way Tree have developed their own civilization and where Caribbean folklore is real.

Tan Tan’s journey could be accurately described as a coming-of-age story. Once on New Half-Way Tree, she both has to come to terms with the new world in which she has to live and with the social and physical consequences of teenage life (puberty, sex, pregnancy, and so on). The fact that Hopkinson detours into a story about rape, incest, and exile only amplifies Tan Tan’s journey towards independence and “womanhood” – relayed through her desire to become a folklore character. But it’s the exploration of Tan Tan’s teenage life that offers us a gateway into reading the folklore-heavy novel as outsiders. Perhaps Hopkinson had all this in mind when she re-centered her narrative onto Tan Tan; regardless, Tan Tan’s growth as a young woman and its link to Caribbean folklore is interesting, if not clever. This is, of course, one of Hopkinson’s many strengths.

The use of Caribbean folklore in Midnight Robber does something unique for the narrative: it turns it into a liberative journey. Tan Tan’s exile within New Half-Way Tree (for killing her rapist father) opens her engagement with the indigenous people of the planet and allows her to become a kind of “living legend” in the form of the Midnight Robber (a carnival character who resembles a flamboyant Robin Hood). This journey is one of the more compelling aspects of the novel, not least of all because it provides us, as readers, with a unique view of the power of myths and the kinds of activities that keep them alive. In the case of Tan Tan, mythology can be literally embodied, used as a mask to hide the non-mythical (her pregnancy) and to change the societal dynamic which otherwise would make life impossible (in Tan Tan’s case, this very likely means execution). Hopkinson handles these aspects with dexterity, exploring the mind of Tan Tan with the care appropriate for the character’s age and developing future-Caribbean cultures with remarkable detail

In many respects, Midnight Robber is also linked to the societal project Ursula K Le Guin developed in The Dispossessed. Much as Le Guin explored the formation of civilization in radically different environments, so too does Hopkinson in Midnight Robber. Toussaint and New Half-way Tree are polar opposites: the first a colonized planet governed by a relatively inflexible computer system (Granny Nanny does allow certain human eccentricities, such as the Pedicabs), and the second resembles Toussaint as it once was, with its “dangerous” indigenous species – many of which appear to be creatures from Caribbean folklore – and jungle-like environment. Such explorations are not the most compelling aspect of Hopkinson’s book, but they do provide a visual contrast which at once exposes the colonial traces inherent in any system of empire (Toussaint) and then rejects them through renewed and exiled spaces (New Half-Way Tree). Midnight Robber, effectively, is an amusing exploration of the ways in which colonialism embeds itself even within the very spaces defined as “home” by those who are colonized.

But it would also be fair to say that Midnight Robber is a difficult text. Hopkinson’s narrative is so embedded in Caribbean traditions that it can sometimes be hard to grasp the cultural elements. The first time I read the novel, it threw me for a loop, but only because I had no knowledge of the traditions, folklore, and so on that Hopkinson so frequently uses. Yet I would not consider the inclusion of so much detail in negative terms; as much as the novel focuses on features typically ignored by Western writers, the totalizing nature of the culture of the novel is undeniably fascinating. Reading Midnight Robber as an outsider to Caribbean culture is an exciting and alienating experience, but it is also an experience which both amuses with didacticism and approaches the edges of the sense-of-wonder much loved by SF readers. It’s perhaps because of the above that I chose to write about Midnight Robber in my MA thesis (alongside Tobias S Buckell’s Xenowealth Series). Hopkinson’s narrative is one of the few SF projects which both explores the boundaries of genre and incorporates completely the very myths, legends, and traditions that make the Caribbean an unusual and, perhaps inaccurately, exotic place. Midnight Robber, both through its explorations of planets/empire and character/culture, is, to put it simply, a compelling and charming read.

Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones, part 2

Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones (2001)
Review by Niall Harrison

This review follows on from part 1 here.

Part 2
There is a current in the novel that snakes outside the 1997 – 2001 moment; or at least a character who seems out of step with his surroundings. Ax Preston, guitarist with The Chosen Few, destined (it seems) leader of England, the nearest thing to a hero we’re going to get, “bit old fashioned, bit left wing” (p 23), and most importantly:

Ax would continue to come and go as he pleased. […] Go on living his fearfully public life in this fearfully changed world as if he were a private person with no enemies, and the date some mythical year in the nineteen sixties. (p 206)

The aptness of his particular nostalgia in a novel which springs partially from the nostalgic Britpop moment aside, this is what makes Ax special: this ability to preserve his own private Real Year in the face of the progressive isolation of England, first politically, through dissolution and an ongoing economic and ecological collapse, then culturally and digitally as their internet is collapsed by a virus. This new England is an island England, cut adrift (it seems) from the main line of history (I gather later volumes in the Bold as Love sequence get around a bit more). And Ax is both the moral leader we might wish for England, and a literal dictator: military, temporary, populist.

Ax is also Arthur returned (and updated), although I don’t feel qualified to do very much more than just note the fact. Accompanying him are Sage, the skull-masked “brilliantly commercial techno-wizard” to Ax’s “pure musician with critical and political cred” (p 27) and, I gather from Tanya Brown’s extremely lucid reading of the novel in The Arthur C Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology, Lancelot with a hint of Merlin. I find him the novel’s bedrock, the wall off which other characters can bounce. (I find him a little dull.) Decoding the third of the triumverate, Fiorinda, takes longer, because she’s loaded down with more symbolism. Guinevere, says Tanya; rock royalty, precocious teen, Titania, virgin queen, says the novel; “a phenomenon,” thinks Ax, “where did she get those cold, wise eyes, where did she find that tone of contemptuous authority?” (p 40-1). Fiorinda sees her position more clearly than either of her companions, as when Sage tries to protect her from the darkness of war: “I’m not built to play Red Sonja, so I have to be the lickle princess. There aren’t any parts for me as a human being in this movie” (p 161). Perils of being in a mythic story while female.

Everything real the trio does is also symbolic, and everything symbolic they do is also real. Ax is a soldier, and carries his guitar like an assault rifle as a reminder of that power. In his conversion to Islam midway through the novel, in the fetishization of Fiorinda, in Sage’s abusive past, in their varied class and ethnic backgrounds, and most of all in their shifting relationships with each other, they represent their country in more ways than one, a polymorphousness condensed by an artist, late in the book:

He grinned, envisaging Sage as the big strong mother of the tribe, Ax the father of his people, Fiorinda their shining prince. But any permutation of the roles would be equally valid. (p 282)

Ax nags like a mother, Sage is headstrong like a prince, Fiorinda negotiates like a father. And so on. The self-consciousness of it all could get wearing — seems to get wearing for many readers — but for me the novel’s centre of gravity was elsewhere. The role of the triumverate is to be a prism: to ensure that Fiorinda is telling the truth when, to buck up her band, she insists: “This is England. This is how it feels” (p 244).

”They’re both very brave men and very good officers,” says Richard Kent, ex-regular CCM army commander, with whom they served in that little English pocket-war in Yorkshire last year. “And that’s what counts today: leadership and vision. I don’t know where the rock music comes in.” (p 271-2)

It is Bold as Love’s central strangeness: that it asks us to believe rock stars could really be revolutionaries. It’s not, I think, the exchange of celebrity for political power that’s problematic – not in a post-Governator era, at least; not until after the initial off-screen hand-wave that brings the musicians into politics in the first place, anyway – but the idea that such individuals might make the transition yet retain principles. Even Ax is forced to comment on the implausibility of that.

It’s a potent notion, this belief in the power of music, with enough juice to often obscure the fact that Jones is at her weakest when writing about it, when creating a musical world. She displays an absolute tin ear for band names and song titles, her made-up music journalism is cringeworthy, and there is little sense of the wonder and transformative power of music itself. What she can convey is the ambience of musical events: her gigs are all jagged energy and aftermath, her festivals true worlds unto themselves, right from the start, when Fiorinda stands outside Reading seeking “the mere will to cross that boundary and join that fair field full of folk” (p 2). To enter faerie, with its customs and denizens and magical ways.

Bold as Love is, as Francis Spufford puts it in his review, a novel in which a festival swallows up the whole country. The answer to “where the rock music comes in” is “everywhere”; it has to, to give the idea of the Counterculture some gravitas, to make it a political force, a movement with sufficient cohesion and will to drive events. Ax, with his sixties Real Year, is merely the purest expression of the Counterculture. Music brings him security, and enables him to lead: to inspire, and occasionally placate the masses. And yet despite its pervasiveness, I don’t know that Bold as Love actually presents rock itself as revolutionary. Ax is as much a revolutionary who happens to be a rock star as the other way around, and the meaningfulness of the rockstar part of his identity is constantly challenged, from the quote at the head of this post to a sharp awareness of the sinister side of cultural conformity, to the simple, heavy irony of Sage and Ax’s repeated “Hey rockstar” / “Hey, other rockstar” greeting. Fiorinda certainly sees no glory:

From a distance she could see it happening: Ax’s future, the rock and roll lifestyle written over everything, the nomadic idleness, the emotional excess, the tantrums … she saw no hope in the development. A certain model of human life becomes accepted: once we were manufacturing workers, then we were venture capitalists, now we’re rockstars. The world stays the same. (p 91)

It’s perhaps useful to consider the “we” in this statement. Manufacturing workers, venture capitalists and rockstars are not equivalent classes – each is smaller than the previous – nor can Fiorinda meaningfully lay claim to have ever been the first two. (She is literally born to her position.) It’s tempting to take it as a premonition of the all-famous-now YouTube future, but I think that would be mistaken; I think Fiorinda is imposing a narrative on history whereby power has travelled from the many to the few. A false narrative, mainly, but that’s not the point; what matters is that she can’t believe any of the power is meaningful. Ax, meanwhile, doesn’t know whether he believes the power of rock is meaningful, but puts his finger on the real strength of his government:

Had the country been about the split in two, collapse into civil war, until the situation was saved by rock and roll? This morning the idea seemed absurd. We will never know, he thought. Maybe we made a difference, maybe we didn’t.

It didn’t hurt for the future, however, that a heavy proportion of the forty million seemed quite convinced that the Rock and Roll Reich had saved everyone’s bacon. Again. (p 255)

This, I think, is the closest to a definitive understanding of the role of music that the novel offers, a viewpoint that downplays the importance of music as music. Rather, what’s significant is the potential of music to be a vehicle for belief, at a moment when belief in all other systems of the world has been shattered by catastrophic cynicism.

This review originally appeared on Torque Control here and here.

Correspondence, Sue Thomas

Correspondence, Sue Thomas (1991)
Review by Ian Sales

There is Rosa and Shirley and you and Mr Johnson and Marie. You are a cyborg; you are also the person consuming the fantasy produced by the cyborg. Marie is your guide. Mr Johnson would sooner the fantasy went the way he wanted. Rosa and Shirley are the fantasy; they have been friends for years.

Right from its opening chapter titled ‘Who Are You?’ Correspondence tells us it is not a novel which is going to follow typical narrative forms.

Now, if you look under your seat you should find a starter pack containing guilt, loneliness and desire. It’s there? Oh good, at least someone has been doing their job properly. Now on this trip we are also fortunate to have been givenm a free sample of wish-fulfilment, although I must warn you to use it in single doses only. (p 3)

So says Marie, introducing the reader to the “fantasy” which will follow. And certainly there is plenty of “guilt, loneliness and desire” in Correspondence. And not just in the fantasy featuring Rosa and Shirley. There is a woman who has had parts of her body replaced with machinery, chiefly so she does not have to engage with the world and the people in it, but which also helps her construct a fantasy by plugging into a computer terminal in her home. Both her transformation and her job are attempts to expunge an incident from her past. Her narrative is written in the second person.

The fantasy on which this woman is working features two women called Rosa and Shirley. They are of an unstated age, live opposite each other, and are close friends. That is until Rosa suddenly decides she belongs in the country, and promptly moves there. The two characters are introduced in “Datablocks” A through E, and it is the last which begins the narrative which is the fantasy. Rosa has travelled to Ireland in the company of a man, Conal, she believes to be the love of her life. She is a serial romantic. And like her other affairs, this one comes to an abrupt end. The magic simply evaporates. And so Shirley comes to fetch her.

At intervals, Marie pops up with a *BREAK* to keep the readers on the straight and narrow – Mr Johnson, the only reader named, has a habit of bending the storyline in directions he wants it to go. His changes are not necessarily bad – but they are not Rosa’s story, they are not Shirley’s story. And while it may be implied there is a degree of freedom in the experiencing of the fantasy, the story-line as such is fixed – or rather, it is the responsibility of the cyborg woman.

Correspondence is also interspersed with “infodumps”, mostly about the parent corporation for which the cyborg woman works, Regis, though one does reproduce lines from Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ (p 79).

Science fiction’s pulp adventure beginnings have left it with a preference for traditional narrative structures. The genre has its share of experimenters, true – Samuel R Delany springs to mind – but typical examples of structural experimentation in sf novel-length fiction include Iain M Banks’ Use of Weapons, with its reverse-chronology narrative, or Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, with its non-linear alternating chapters, and neither are especially unconventional. Correspondence is far more adventurous – there’s that second-person, for a start. And not just addressing you as reader, but also you as creator of what is being read.

Correspondence experiments too in its approach to genre and genre tropes. It is not science fiction qua science fiction. Rosa and Shirley’s story, a fantasy created by the science-fictional narrative of the cyborg woman, is closer to magical realism than it is to any other identifiable mode of fiction. When Shirley visits Rosa in her country cottage she finds her friend has become some sort of Earth Mother. While finding this repellent, Shirley is also drawn to Rosa, a turning-over of their relationship up to that point. When her affairs ended badly, Rosa leant on Shirley; now Rosa is Shirley’s balm.

Rosa had ceased to think. Shirley wished that she could do the same, and she knew that she couldn’t, but she also knew that she wished to remain silent for the rest of her life.

And so it was that Shirley crept out of bed, and entered the garden at the dead of night to find a young bloom of a rose which might live for a while. She placed the flower upon the dewy grass, put Joey in the car, and drove seventy miles through the remaining dark until she came to a dawn-lit beach just as the seagulls awoke. (p 123)

But then the two women, and their histories, are fabrications. Their creator is in need of a balm, as she explains to two door-stepping religious evangelists. She tells them her story – her life, not the fantasy she is creating for Regis – and then reveals the transformations that have been wrought on her body. But there is one last transformation she does not discuss: the presence of seemingly-malign code in her machine mind. This code is a virus, and it calls itself Rosa.

So what exactly is going on in Correspondence? We are explicitly asked to identify with Rosa and Shirley by Marie, but what of their creator, the cyborg woman? She has as much guilt, loneliness and desire as her two creations – if not more, given that their emotional landscapes, and the situations in which they find themselves, are her invention. Yet they are also a way of holding onto her humanity, or re-identifying with a race which she feels will no longer accept her. She was driven to transform herself by an incident in her past – a car accident which killed her husband and child. Her grief has made an automaton of her, and she is busy literalising the numbness which has resulted. Yet she creates the lives of Rosa and Shirley, and in them she finds some small form of redemption… but one which she can never herself partake of.

And why “Correspondence“? It is not a conversation between persons by means of letters, it is not an agreement of situations with an expected outcome. One narrative is the output of another, which is in turn glossed and annotated by yet more narratives. Is a fantasy a natural consequence of insulating yourself from emotional pain? Is it a pre-requisite? It is, after all, the cyborg woman’s transformation which allows her to generate the fantasy, it is a consequence of the transformation.

Some books are not easy reads because they ask a lot of the reader. In Correspondence, there is no compact between reader and writer because the relationship is not implied but baldly stated by Maria – especially to Mr Johnson. There is still the cyborg woman, with whom we are asked to identify by Thomas using the baldest possible technique for doing so: the second person. Correspondence is not immersive, it does not present a world which can be unquestioningly experienced. It does not possess a clear linear plot, in which effect follows cause. The reader must do more than parse the words on the page to follow the story. Correspondence is not an easy read, it is a book that demands thought. How rewarding that makes it depends on how closely you engage with it. But it is at least a novel that requires engagement.

Kairos, Gwyneth Jones

Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
Review by Niall Harrison

Kairos is a novel that spends a lot of time refusing to look you in the eye. Very nearly half of its pages (which number 260 in the revised 1995 edition, i.e. not the one pictured; I don’t know if the original 1988 edition is substantially shorter or longer, although Jones’ afterword suggests not) have passed before it actually admits that it’s going to be something more than one of the most grimly hypnotic visions of a real-year-88 near future committed to paper, but the pattern is there from the start. The first person we encounter is Sandy Brize who, on a cold August day, is deciding to leave the lover with whom she has spent her whole adult life. We never see the leave-taking itself: what we get is Sandy’s thought that, “around her failing love affair the failing world had gathered: started and spoiled, tried and failed, until Sandy could scarcely tell the two apart” (p 3), and other cheerfully entropic observations. Similarly, chapter two, a flashback to ten years earlier, doesn’t show us the couple in happier times; rather, it begins with Sandy having visited Otto Murray, who has just given birth, in hospital. Chapter three then opens with Otto Murray alone in a protesting crowd, Sandy having stormed off after an argument. And so on. In each case, the imagined scenes are more powerful than anything Jones could have written, of course; when Otto does visit Sandy, post-breakup, in the story’s present day, it’s something of an anticlimax, although one in which what is not said, what is absent, remains a looming presence — which, for marginalized inhabitants of a United Kingdom falling to pieces, whose inhabitants are only too well aware that the future is being decided elsewhere, even if by war, is only fitting.

The urban gloom that pervades most of Kairos is a peculiarly British drabness, but — another way in which the novel is evasive — conjured predominantly in the corner of the eye, through observations such as Sandy’s that relate a character and their environment. It’s an approach you could describe as street-level, if that didn’t conjure images of the lurid angsts of cyberpunk. Things that would be the meat of a more typical science fiction novel are passed over in brief, or excluded altogether. We are told that the Tories are in power — after one term of a “moderate” Labour government — but the Prime Minister is never named. The first decade of the twenty-first century has apparently seen “the oil crisis, the dollar crisis, the Japanese Rearmament”, and there’s mention of “the Islamic Bomb” and “the Israeli Bomb”, plus various brushfire wars, but Kairos cares about these events only to the extent that they shape the people who have to live with them in the back of their mind. Most characters are introduced in terms of the niches they cling to, of class, race, gender, sexuality, and how those niches constrain and define them. Sandy and Otto are unambiguously poor, but even the better-off characters seem excluded from wherever it is that the decisions are being made. For Sandy, increasingly as the novel proceeds, the only way to live in such a world is to seek a kind of psychic oblivion. Otto, on the other hand, raised in a relatively more liberal time, feels “betrayed […] she had no choice but to consider certain conditions normal and struggle for their recovery” (p 39). At times, it’s almost a cliché of how the eighties in Britain are meant to have felt, but its power remains. For all that Otto, Sandy and their friends try to find a way to deal with the world they find themselves in, Kairos can be as corrosive to the soul, if not the senses, as its inspiration.

The sf plot is, to start with, a conjuring trick. There is an organization, with the slightly cringe-inducing name of BREAKTHRU, which probably started life as a pharmaceutical company, apparently became a millennial cult, and has hung around for reasons not fully apparent to any of the characters. Sandy goes to one of their meetings, and is partly baffled, partly repulsed by their ideology. At the same time, Otto’s young son, Candide — a cruel affliction of a name if ever there was one – reports occasional sightings of things that may or may not be angels. Otto herself ends up in possession of a package, containing something taken from BREAKTHRU, which is barely mentioned until one of Candide’s angels turns up, explains the plot (ta-da!), and then anatomizes Otto and her friends:

“Okay, so we’ll rerun the story so far. The container that has gone astray holds an enormous quantity, relatively speaking, of a very new and potentially very dangerous drug.


“With the concentration that is packed in that little tube, there is no need to ingest it. It affects any contacts like a kind of radiation. Touch isn’t necessary, even: intention is enough.


“It gets right back to the, um, sub-particulate interface between mind and matter. It is operating under Planck’s constant, down where everything turns into everything else. It’s like, you can really play around with things.


“[You] probably think of yourselves as outsiders, dissenters. That isn’t true at all. In fact you epitomise the present state of the world, especially in this country and the others like it; white consumerism. […] You’re very comfortable in your separate ways but deep down it’s all based on denial.” (p 113-5)

It’s difficult to convey how incongruous the twin intrusions this passage represents — the appearance of an angel, kilt and golden breastplate and all, and the sudden, brazen clarity he brings to the story — seem after a hundred densely gnarled pages of Kairos. Whether or not the angel came from heaven, or is simply a kairos-user, he certainly appears to have come from another story, though as the last part of the quote may suggest, he doesn’t herald a dramatic shift in the novel’s trajectory. With kairos loose in the world, what the second half of the book sets out to demonstrate is that denial does you no good if intention is enough.

So the characters set out on journeys that take them deeper into landscapes that they are probably creating. These chapters are, at times, almost unbearably tense; they are also largely superb. Otto finds herself wandering dazed through the ultimate betrayal, a postapocalyptic Brighton — the aftermath of World War, for her, is marked by silence everywhere, the absence of people — then incarcerated in a prison that may be as much mental as it is real, before temporarily losing her identity entirely: one chapter begins, starkly, “The prisoner had escaped. It could not remember how” (p 220). Meanwhile, Sandy journeys with Candide to the headquarters of BREAKTHRU; she was not actually present during the angel’s visitation, but is increasingly conscious that the separation between her mind and the world is breaking down. She may be trapped in a version of the story that Otto has created, refracted through her own psyche. In one of the book’s most striking images, while trapped in a motorway traffic jam Sandy looks up to see “the pale November sun burst into an arc. A multiple arc of white suns spanned the sky. Everyone in all the cars shouted in terror and amazement” (p 150). Whether this is a literal change in the nature of reality, or simply how Sandy interprets the sunbursts of nuclear war, is unclear; as is, for a long time, whether the war itself is real, or caused by the protagonists thinking it so, or simply happens to coincide with the Kairos event. It seems to be the revolution the characters have been yearning for. It is terrifying. It even succeeds, briefly.

Or perhaps more than briefly. John Clute described the end of the book this way:

But Candide joins forces with Sandy, Otto’s working-class lesbian lover who has suffered both the snubs of her circle and most of the wounds an uncaring state can inflict. Sandy’s apocalyptic bitterness now combines with Candide’s natural abandon to impose a convulsive transmutation upon the shattered land. But kairos, which literally means fullness of time, has also a specifically Christian meaning: the moment of Christ’s appearance. Though Jones wisely refrains from attempting to limn an actual Second Coming, the vision that closes Kairos, of an unpatriarchal world in which it is inconceivable that dogs (and humans) might be tortured, rings backwards through her text like a blessing, and justifies it. (Look at the Evidence, p 135; TLS, 6 January 1989).

I’m with him for the first couple of sentences, but although the vision he mentions is in the book I read, it doesn’t close it. This may be what changed between the two editions, because in mine the final chapter of Kairos takes place after the event has ended — after, in fact, it has been made safe to think about, by parcelling it away as some kind of cosmic phenomenon, not a human action at all — in a world which in many ways appears to be going on much as it ever has. Not all: there are echoes of the power that kairos lent its users, and Otto in particular seems to have retained some ability to shape the reality she sees, and in fact worries that “I have to keep imagining things now” (p 259), lest they end. And some characters who had been dead are restored to life. But although there may be more, as Otto puts it, to the kairos event than “a changing of the guard” (p 231), there is also less. Sandy’s new job working on road repairs is purely mundane. Torture remains conceivable, although perhaps it might be more effectively resisted; an absence of dialogue has been replaced by “the ever present murmur of the human ocean”.

If it’s a blessing, it’s a fundamentally pragmatic one. I can’t think of many other novels in which the political and science fictional arguments complement each other quite so carefully; nor many from which the science fiction ultimately evaporates so devastatingly. What is left are people. Essays could be written about the way this novel plays with identity, but they would have to note, as Otto ultimately does, the potential for self-defeat in such considerations. “We would rather be slave owners and slaves,” she declares, “than try to live in the real world” (p 220). And so it seems to me that Kairos ends where it must. More people may have realised that opportune moment — the time of changes – is always right now, but crappy jobs and politics remain. The world remains; and we remain.

This review originally appeared on Torque Control.

The Adventures of Alyx, Joanna Russ

The Adventures of Alyx, Joanna Russ (1968)
Review by Niall Harrison

If, like me before I read it, the only things you know about The Adventures of Alyx (originally published as Picnic on Paradise) are that it’s Joanna Russ’s response to heroic fantasy, and one of the canonical examples (along with CL Moore’s Jirel of Joiry) of introducing a female character into a role perceived (or at least assumed to be perceived) as basically male, what do you expect? I think I expected Xena, or Kitiara; what I found is conspicuously different, and rather elegantly set up. Although the world in which Alyx operates is still, in many ways, hostile to women, the world’s creation myth, in which women were created before men, and men were created from an extraneous body part, creates a space for a hero like Alyx to exist. But more than that, it seems to me that thinking about Alyx as a woman is a red herring. What really differentiates Alyx from the other protagonists I’ve been talking about — at least when reading these stories in 2008 — is not her sex, but her character. Unlike Fafhrd, Alyx is not callow; unlike Elric, there is no doubt Alyx is a hero: tough, smart, practical, competent, brave. (And, notably, explicitly not conventionally beautiful, unlike most contemporary tough, smart, etc, female leads.) And unlike Scafloc, her heroism is not doomed; she wins, convincingly, every time. Nor does she suffer much internal anguish in these tales. In short, unlike her male counterparts, Alyx is not only someone you can root for, but someone you might actually be able to stand being.

The Adventures of Alyx collects four short stories and one short novel, all but one of which revolve around Alyx in the way that the Elric stories revolve around Elric — though it’s worth noting that they are tidily-structured short stories, rather than the overstuffed mini-epics of the thin white duke – and none of which are as memorable as the character they showcase. The first tale (published in 1967; originally ‘The Adventuress’, and here ‘Bluestocking’), establishes Alyx as a “pick-lock” and general adventurer-for-hire, although — again, a difference to the men — not an heir to a kingdom, or a noble line. The descriptions of her are in many ways simply descriptions of an average 30-year-old working woman. She is short, with gray eyes, black hair, and freckles. She has an intellectual bent, but has found that her chosen profession “gratified her sense of subtlety” (p 9). Not that she’s unambitious; she has visions of becoming a Destiny, although what that means is never completely clear. The plot that Russ constructs for her seems inadequate. Ostensibly, it involves Alyx recruited to escort a young lady (never referred to as a girl, though she is only 17 and acts, at least to start with, like a spoiled brat) who wishes to run away from an arranged marriage to a rich boor whose previous wives, the narrator heavily insinuates, died in dubious circumstances; in practice, it’s a story that exists primarily to provide a series of trials which Alyx can overcome, demonstrating her toughness, smarts, practicality, competence and bravery in the process. It is not, in other words, a particularly high-stakes story — a distinguishing factor that persists throughout the book; the fate of the world is never in the balance — and nor is it particularly spectacular. An encounter with a sea-monster is typical:

Then she saw the sea monster.

Opinion concerning sea monsters varies in Ourdh and the surrounding hills, the citizens holding monsters to be the souls of the wicked dead forever ranging the pastureless waves of the ocean to waylay the living and force them into watery graves, and the hill people scouting this blasphemous view and maintaining that sea monsters are legitimate creations of the great god Yp, sent to murder travelers as an illustration of the majesty, the might, and the unpredictability of that most inexplicable of deities. But the end result is the same. Alyx had seen the bulbous face and coarse whiskers of the creature in a drawing hanging in the Silver Eel on the waterfront of Ourdh (the original — stuffed — had been stolen in some prehistoric time, according to the proprietor), and she had shuddered. She had thought, Perhaps it is just an animal, but even so it was not pleasant. Now in the moonlight that turned the ocean to a ball of silver waters in the midst of which bobbed the tiny ship, very very far from anyone or anything, she saw the surface part in a rain of sparkling drops and the huge, wicked, twisted face of the creature, so like and unlike a man’s, rise like a shadowy demon from the dark, bright water. It held its baby to its breast, a nauseating parody of human-kind. (p 16-7)

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is bad, even if some of the tricks used (an extremely long sentence followed directly by a short, abrupt one, for instance) crop up a bit too frequently throughout the book. But it’s not exciting. First, the forward action of the scene is paused to tell us some stuff about what is believed about sea monsters; and most of the description is vague generalities — “huge, wicked, twisted”. Although we’re told that final image, of a distorted tableau of motherhood, is “nauseating”, the emotion isn’t evoked in us, particularly, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the image is more important for its symbolic qualities, particularly when Alyx goes on to kill it in short order.

This is not to say that Anderson and Moorcock’s stories were lacking in symbolism — hardly — but that I think Russ’s goals are somewhat different than theirs. What The Adventures of Alyx has going for it, largely, is voice. I’ve already mentioned the alternate mythology, and the narrator of ‘Bluestocking’ clearly takes some fun in poking at conventional roles, such as the (I presume) heavily ironic comments that Alyx is “among the wisest of a sex that is surpassingly wise”, and that women’s “natural weapons” are “deceit, surprise and speed” (p 19). But there is also a laconic, even mocking element to the voice — and the story construction; although lip service is paid to the idea of Alyx’s charge, Edarra, growing up during their journey together, in fact what happens is that the major part of the journey is elided, and Edarra is suddenly and magically grown up, almost between paragraphs — and a sense that the tone has been chosen not to create a world out of whole cloth, but to subvert one (ours). It’s at odds with the innocent expectation of belief that marks The Broken Sword and the Elric stories, and makes for businesslike, even brusque storytelling.

Russ is also far more impatient even than Moorcock with the boundaries of the type of story she is telling. ‘Bluestocking’, with its nod to Fritz Leiber and all, is actually the only story in the book that could be called straightforward heroic fantasy. Tale two, ‘I Thought She Was Afeard Till She Stroked My Beard’ (also 1967, original title ‘I Gave Her Sack and Sherry’), is an origin story for Alyx that doesn’t mention her by name until the final page — or looked at another way, until Alyx chooses to claim her name. Before then, she is an oppressed wife who escapes from (and, not incidentally, kills) her abusive husband before going out to make her way in the world and train as a fighter. Although she travels for a while with a captain called Blackbeard, and learns some things from him, the narrative is careful to insist that at no time does she need him. ‘The Barbarian’ (1968) looks at first like a return to the format of ‘Bluestocking’. Alyx is approached by a fat man who patronisingly claims to know a lot about her — “‘And now,’ (he pronounced the ‘now’ with peculiar relish) ‘you are getting old […] You’re thinking of settling down’” (p 50) — and who wishes to recruit her to assist him with a series of break-ins. We can tell he’s a bad guy because he’s stupid (the defects of those Russ wishes us to dislike are usually framed as a kind of stupidity, and in this case we are explicitly told his stupidity offends Alyx) and sure enough, on one break-in he tells Alyx to kill a baby, on the grounds that he claims to know she will grow up to be a cruel queen. Alyx refuses — although as much on the grounds that the man should do his own dirty work as anything else; her first reaction is not “no!” but “What on earth for?” — and subsequently tracks the man to his lair, where it is revealed, for anyone who doubted it, that he is a time-traveller, given to tinkering with history. “My hobby is world-making” (p 63), he says to Alyx, who kills him, and then smashes his machines.

And ‘Picnic on Paradise’, originally published in 1968 as Russ’s first novel, appears to be even more straightforwardly science-fictional. It picks up on the time-travel theme, revealing that Alyx has been brought forward 4,000 years in a sort of temporal archaeology accident, and recruited as an Agent. As the novel opens she’s been dispatched to the planet Paradise, a popular tourist destination caught in a “commercial war”. In an echo of the plot of ‘Bluestocking’, she’s recruited to escort a group of civilians, of varying degrees of uselessness, from A to B — quite literally, from station A to station B, in an example of Russ’s dry humour. Of course, B turns out to have been destroyed when they get there, necessitating a longer and increasingly dangerous journey through cold, mountainous, treacherous terrain to the next-nearest station, at the planet’s pole. In other words, it’s the sort of story that could comfortably be told in a fantasy setting (indeed, the level of sfnal invention on display, with humans having interbred sufficiently so that everyone is a pleasing shade of light brown, and treatments such as “Re-Juve” on offer, is in all honesty not far above what you’ll get in a middling episode of Doctor Who), which perhaps is intended as a comment on the separability (or not) of the two genres. You could even argue that the imposition of the mission on Alyx from higher up the chain of command is The Adventure of Alyx‘s equivalent of the sort of godgames that make Scafloc and Elric’s lives so miserable.

In some ways, ‘Picnic on Paradise’ is not actually very good. For an adventure story it’s baggy, featuring a crowded party of sketchily-differentiated characters, and perhaps a little too much commitment to conveying the mind-numbing tedium that polar expeditions probably come with in real life. Predictably, members of Alyx’s group start falling by the wayside one by one, and equally predictably Alyx grows from being more than a little frustrated with her charges, thinking of herself as a teacher saddled with a class of small children, to considering them to be “her people”. Somewhat to my surprise, I found the most interesting element of the novel to be the relationship that develops between Alyx and one of the male civilians, known as “Machine” and initially introduced as “an idiotic adolescent rebel” (p 74) – and not just for the contrast it presents to the relationships in the other books. ‘Bluestocking’ (very weirdly) ends with Alyx and Edarra finding some men, and the one that Alyx pairs off with may be the new husband we get a glimpse of at the end of ‘The Barbarian’; but of the nuts and bolts of Alyx in a relationship, this is our only sight. Like Scafloc and Elric, she is older than her partner; unlike them, thankfully, there is no suggestion that her attraction to Machine stems from his youth per se, although they do start calling each other “dear” and “darling” with alarming speed, and it’s not actually entirely clear what the attraction does stem from, other than, perhaps, the fact that he’s the only not-entirely-obnoxious, vaguely competent man within several hundred miles. But the scenes of them together are largely thorny and convincing. This is particularly true when Russ is dealing with the collision between Machine’s serious attitude to sex — who has what can only be described as a mechanical dedication to making sure his partner enjoys herself — and Alyx’s rather more passion-led approach. Interestingly, in this Russ positions Alyx as the child: “When you do something, you do it right, don’t you?” asks Machine, trying to explain his approach, to which Alyx promptly says “No,” before explaining that the only reason to do it is “because you want to”, as “any five-year-old child” should know. It’s an interesting exchange, because Alyx’s temper frequently gets the best of her elsewhere in these stories — not always, in fact rarely, for the worst, but not entirely admirably, either.

The collection’s final story, ‘The Second Inquisition’ (1970) changes setting, tone and style yet again — in the process making clear exactly how much control Russ has over those elements of her writing — relocating to 1925, and the narrative of a young woman still living with her parents. She describes an unusually confident visitor who is staying with them, who seems fairly clearly to be one of the tall, indefinably mixed-race people of ‘Picnic on Paradise’s time, and who sure enough turns out to be a time traveller, one of a number of agents trained by Alyx and engaged in a temporal conflict. It’s a story that picks up on one of the most moving exchanges in ‘Picnic in Paradise’, when Alyx is trying to convey to one of the civilians what the world she comes from is like, and what time travel feels like to her:

“Think of that, you thirty-three-year-old adolescent! Twenty-six and dead at fifty. Dead! There’s a whole world of people who live like that. We don’t eat the way you do, we don’t have whatever it is the doctors give you, we work like hell, we get sick, we lose arms or legs or eyes and nobody gives us new ones, we die in the plague, one-third of our babies die before they’re a year old and one time out of five the mother dies, too, in giving them birth.”

“But it’s so long ago!” wailed little Iris.

“Oh not it’s not,” said Alyx. “It’s right now. It’s going on right now. I lived in it and I came here. It’s in the next room. I was in that room and now I’m in this one. There are people still in that other room. They are living now. They are suffering now. And they always live and always suffer because everything keeps on happening. (p 127-8)

This works on several levels: it conveys the shock of transition which Alyx experienced, moving between times; it is metafictionally true, in that just before and just after this exchange we are indeed reading about the people in those other rooms; and of course it’s a reminder that geographical inequality in the real world, today, is as significant as the temporal inequality Alyx is describing. This last is, I think, reinforced by the collection’s overall trajectory from stories about a world that is remote and separate from ours, to stories about a world that is directly and intimately linked to us.

The first four Alyx stories all end with the same line, or a variation on it: “But that’s another story.” ‘The Second Inquisition’ ends with the narrator isolated, having witnessed extraordinary events and a glimpse of a world from which she is excluded, in favour of having to live in reality. “No more stories,” she says, echoing the finality of Stormbringer rather than the ongoing tapestry of The Broken Sword. The sadness of it contrasts with the upbeat expansiveness of all the other endings, but it works better. And there is a sense, too, that the stories say all that Russ wanted them to say. Others — Mary Gentle, Samuel Delany – may have found other routes into the same seams of ore, but I think Russ got the gold she wanted from this mine, and was ready to move on to others.

This review originally appeared on Torque Control.

The Big Jump, Leigh Brackett

The Big Jump, Leigh Brackett (1955)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Leigh Brackett’s The Big Jump is a solid (if predictable) pulp sci-fi adventure with a few delightful poetic moments. Although Brackett is primarily known for her numerous short stories from the 40s and 50s and screenplays (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Empire Strikes Back, etc) her novels deserve to be read as well.

Despite The Big Jump‘s positives it often feels like a short story and the by-the-numbers plot might frustrate modern readers. The work suffers from an extreme case of brevity (128 pages) and as a result lacks substantial character development. Brackett also has the unfortunate tendency to complete important actions between chapters (along the lines of “…and after the landing”). However, Brackett’s prose is adept at creating haunting sequences, poignant images, and genuine excitement.

Across the gulfs between the worlds, from end to end of a Solar System poised taut and trembling on the verge of history, the rumors flew. Somebody’s made it, the Big Jump. Somebody came back.

Comyn, cut from the working man heroic mode (brawn, street smarts, no-nonsense talk), chases rumors of the first interstellar flight, christened the Big Jump. Comyn seeks to uncover information about his friend Paul Rodgers who didn’t return from the small expedition to Bernard’s Star. Ballantyne, the only crewman to return, is more dead than alive and posses a manipulated body chemistry.

Comyn tracks down Ballantyne and hears his “last” words about the planet and the crew’s discoveries. Various people attempt to kill Comyn because of the information he now possesses. Our hero soon falls in with the ultra-wealthy Cochrane family who have cornered space travel within Earth’s solar system and constructed palatial establishments on the Moon and Mars. The Cochranes and Comyn do not get along due to Comyn’s impulsive nature. However, Comyn pretends to know more than he does inorder to rescue his friend.

The Cochranes decide to quickly equip a second vessel to preempt their rivals and hope with Comyn’s help find the rest of the crew. Of course the Cochranes have ulterior economic motives and Comyn suspects one of his new crew wants him dead.

Despite the simplicity of The Big Jump‘s plot and the work’s extreme brevity there’s much to admire: the excitement, the moments of beautiful prose, and just enough technological interjections about spaceships, the mechanics of interstellar travel, etc to keep the reader hooked. Despite the dearth of character development Comyn’s likable yet impulsive nature and drive to rescue his friend manages to come across.

Worthwhile for fans of 40s and 50s science fiction. A fun, fast, and exciting read.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.