The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith, Josephine Saxton

heirosThe Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith, Josephine Saxton (1969)
Review by Joachim Boaz

The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith is an experimental (but approachable) science fiction fable set in a world which, at least on the surface, is very much like our own. The buildings remain, food dispensers still dispense food, and undisturbed store shelves are fully stocked. However, the majority of the animals have disappeared and people are almost all gone. Cannibalism is hinted at. A few other individuals flit on the outskirts of the narrative, phantom-like, unsubstantial in their physicality. Are they hallucinations, or external viewers of the spectacle who intrude when needed before vanishing with no evidence of their arrival?

Josephine Saxton deftly utilizes the coming of age narrative, the quest (more character related than goal oriented), and a fabulist’s eye towards metaphor to weave together a touching and alluring tale. The ending (warning: discussed in more depth below) at first glance is too elusive, too unresolved. But on second thought, the ramifications of the slight reveal are so beautiful.

The narrative begins with “the boy” who wanders aimlessly without shoes around the town of Thingy. The environment is so absent of life that the mere sound of a bird “excited him until he had tears running down his face” (p 7). He discovers a hollow where a dying woman lays alone in the final throes of birth: “the belly of the woman was a soft mound of wrinkled skin, with a fan of black hair, all wet with red blood, and her legs lay wide, striped red, and between them lay a tiny baby, wet and streaked with blood and shining moisture […]” (p 12).

The boy is simultaneously repelled yet intrigued by the girl child. He realizes that if he decides to take care of her he will be forced to depart, at least for a while, from his aimless solitary wanderings. He decides to care for the child. He slowly learns how to keep her clean, how to procure cans of milk, how to keep her from getting cold, how to convey her effectively while he wanders…

The boy himself is an intriguing/peculiar character. In a land mostly absent of other life, he is preoccupied with unusual longings to “bathe and decorate himself” (p 25). He carries around a bottle of almond shampoo (p 29), decorates his fingernails (p 32) and spends lengthy periods of time looking for clothes in empty department stores (p 31). Because he feels the drive to move from place to place his own body, becomes the site of intense ritual. For example, disruption of ritual, when he catches himself biting his nails, is looked at with horror and revulsion (p 39).

At certain moments in the narrative the boy and the small girl come across inscriptions on monuments, graffiti in bathroom stalls, spray painted signs that force them to consider certain emotions. For example, his carefree existence is further interrupted by an inscription that reads, “To the memory of those brave men of the town of Thingy, who gave their lives in the First World War” (p 35). He is so overcome with grief that he is forced to consider more carefully the young child in his care – and immediately after this insight, he comes across Universal Stores, Inc. A gigantic department store with all the necessities for the child.

Eventually he decides to cease in his wanderings, stay in the store, and nurture the child (p 58). After a mysterious visitor leaves him a pile of books, the boy spends his time reading vociferously. The child amuses herself soundlessly with toys for the boy has yet to teach her to speak. His need to wander is transferred from the external world to the imaginative world of books. The list is multi-varied (one can’t help but speculate they are books found on Saxton’s own shelves): “the writings of Nietzsche, the Pilgrim’s Progress, the books of Charles Fort, three volumes of the Mathnawi, the published works of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, Nicholl, Bennet, Collin, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Secret of the Golden Flower, the Upanishads, CG Jung, TS Eliot, CS Lewis, James Blish, William Blake, and a most remarkable poet called Dalo Makinen” (p 64). This list is revealing. Ouspensky and Gurdjieff are proponents of higher states of existence – a potential way to interpret the world our characters dwell in. Likewise, Jung’s collective unconscious (a theme Saxton returns to frequently in her work) could be the mental state in which the ritual unfolds. This list has the potential to be mined for other interpretations.

After years go by, the two finally decided that they must leave the store, the fertile ground of childhood. And once again, they begin to wander. A sequence of memorable scenes usher their development: Graffiti in lavatories, naming games, self-naming, The Osborne Palace hotel, the slow realization of sexuality, and the culmination [s] of the ritual. And they return to Thingy, and the place where the skeleton of the girl’s mother lays, undisturbed…

The name of the book, The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith, combined with the final sequence imbues the boy and the girl’s wanderings with added meaning. I recommend not looking up the Greek term “hieros gamos” before you finish. I found the most intriguing aspect of the work the appearance and disappearance of other people. Each, for example the woman who leaves the pile of books for the boy in the store, is a catalyst for an important emotion or unrealized concept. Combined with the textual messages they come across, the reader becomes aware of a voyeuristic quality of looking in on the development of these two characters The uncanny artificiality of the world – completely intact but mostly lacking in people/animals – and how objects appear and disappear all add to the feeling that their lives are part of a complex ritual. The cyclicality is striking as well – most notably, their return to the skeleton of the girl’s mother for another birth.

The power of ritual is a central theme – the boy is obsessed with ritualistically adorning/caring for his body; the girl’s arrival threatens to unbalance this ritual, and eventually the girl is slowly integrated into his ritual of wandering. One of the more gorgeous sequences in the entire work depicts the birthday ritual: The boy is resigned to the fact that the girl will eventually leave, she packs her things, begins to walk away, he calls for her to come back, they embrace, she says she will stay, “Well, I will, just this one year, just this one” (p 100).

I recommend Saxton’s The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith for fans of restrained, fabulist, and well-written science fiction. The prose strikingly conveys with simple phrases and words the landscape, the development of character, and the landscape they traverse. My only complaint is the Saxton’s interest in psychoanalysis provides a series of interpretations that explain away a large portion of the ambiguity of the surreal world. A delightful fable nevertheless…

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

Advertisements

New Eves, Janrae Frank, Jean Stine & Forrest J Ackerman, part 2

newevesNew Eves, edited by Janrae Frank, Jean Stine & Forrest J Ackerman (1994)
Review by Ian Sales

This review follows on from part one here.

If New Eves has excelled at introducing long-forgotten women sf writers from earlier decades, it is less successful in regard to more recent years. Though the lengthy introduction mentions a number of writers whose careers have since ended, the names found in the final two sections of the anthology are likely known to most genre fans. While not necessarily a bad thing – some of these writers are indeed important – it does feel a little like it’s undermining the anthology’s purpose.

The 60s & 70s
‘Sense of Duty’ by Phyllis Eisenstein is phrased as a monologue toward the narrator’s child, and as it progresses it cleverly reveals that the speaker is part of an alien force secretly living on Earth as humans. The final twist is far from unpredictable, but it’s done well nevertheless.

Sydney J Van Scyoc’s ‘Bluewater Dreams’ also appeared in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years (see here), and I said of it there that “Van Scyoc’s strength has always lain in her invention and depiction of alien societies, and ‘Bluewater Dreams’ shows this in microcosm.”

‘Death Between the Stars’ by Marion Zimmer Bradley, on the other hand is less successful. It’s the sort of hand-wavey space opera which was popular in earlier decades. A woman needs to urgently return to her home planet and so is forced to share a cabin aboard a starship with an alien, a Theradin. The starship’s crew are horribly racist towards the alien and it dies through their neglect. The neat sting in the tail comes too late to save a quite nasty story.

James Tiptree Jr is the only male name to appear in New Eves (other than editor Ackerman), but, of course, he was really Alice Sheldon. ‘The Snows Are Melted, the Snows Are Gone’ is a post-apocalypse story and thin on plot. A young woman with no arms leads a healthy male savage a merry chase, so he can be captured to breed vitality back into civilised people with birth defects. The last sentence is “Before them the road stretched away neutrally to the crests above the Rift, in the land that had been Ethiopia.” Perhaps this is meant to be some ironic play on the Great Rift Valley being the birthplace of humanity… but both the young woman and the savage are white.

‘The Last Days of the Captain’ by Kate Wilhelm is another story which did not strike me as entirely successful. A military officer has to oversee the secret evacuation of a settlement on an alien world before the enemy arrive and bomb it into oblivion from orbit. A woman’s husband and son are out hunting and have yet to return. Though the captain and her wait until the last minute, they do not return. So the pair have to make a long journey in a low-flying aircar. As a result, the captain decides his previous contempt for colonists was unwarranted. I didn’t think the change of heart had been set up particularly well.

‘Changeling’ by Anne McCaffrey was apparently written for Dangerous Visions, but Harlan Ellision rejected it. He took another story by McCaffrey instead. I can understand why McCaffrey thought the story suitable for that anthology, and also why Ellison rejected it. A woman and a homosexual man enter into a marriage of convenience (their sexuality is open and public). A third man joins the family as the husband’s lover, and then a fourth man as the wife’s lover. All four are happy and contented and prosperous. The woman then gets pregnant with her husband’s baby and he kidnaps her so… he can deliver the baby himself? The motivations all seemed a little confused.

Pamela Sargent’s ‘Fears’ is another story which also appeared in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years. I didn’t think it was entirely successful when I read it in that book, and rereading it in this one has not led to me re-evaluating it.

‘Gleepsite’ by Joanna Russ is a strange piece. It’s short, it’s set in polluted post-apocalyptic city, and its narrator visits women and sells them a “Circle of Illusion”, which seems to be a device to make dreams appear real. The narrator may or may not be who she says. The title apparently refers to a made-up meaningless word. It doesn’t appear in the story other than in the title.

‘Winter’s King’ by Ursula K Le Guin is, as the title suggests, set on the same world as The Left Hand of Darkness. Each section of the story is introduced using a description of a painting depicting an incident in the titular king’s reign. But the story is far from that simple. The king is kidnapped and brainwashed, but no one knows in precisely what way she has been programmed. So she abdicates in favour of her young son, and travels by NAFAL ship to Hain. Years later, she returns to Gethen… to discover her son has not proven a good ruler. Given the size of her output and its uniformly high quality, it’s difficult to pick favourites among Le Guin’s short stories, but this is one. Unfortunately, it is also marred by some unfortunate typos, like “Her guards fled, her city bums, and now at the end she is face to face with the usurper” (p 315).

The 80s – and Beyond
‘Symphony for a Lost Traveler’ by Lee Killough, although originally published in 1984, felt like a story from the preceding decade. A famous composer is invited to the Moon to meet a reclusive billionaire. He has an unusual commission for her: operatives of his asteroid mining company have discovered an ancient alien starship with a working FTL drive, and he wants her to write a piece to use during his announcement of his discovery. The composer’s music is based on DNA, and it strikes me that four notes are somewhat limiting when it comes to writing music. I disagree with the rich-man-driving-progress trope, though it’s sadly deeply embedded in science fiction. Though most of Killough’s novels were sf, her more recent have been urban fantasy. The sf ones look worth a go.

‘Speech Sounds’ by Octavia E Butler is another post-apocalyptic story. This time, humans have lost the power of speech – all, that is, but a handful of them of which the protagonist is one such person. As a “last person” story, it’s done well, and also manages to somehow read as if it could be set at any time during the late twentieth or early twenty-first centuries.

The more I read by Maureen F McHugh, the more surprised I am she is not held up by everyone as one of science fiction’s very best writers. She has won only three awards during the twenty-four years since her first story was published: a Hugo for best short story in 1996, a Tiptree in 1993, and a Shirley Jackson Award this year for her recent collection. ‘The Missionary’s Child’ is an early work from 1992, but reads like a section of a very good novel. On a low-tech world visited by more advanced humans known as Cousins, a mercenary gets into trouble when hired as a guard for a dodgy deal by a merchant. It’s the mercenary’s background, however, that makes this story – the idea that the Cousins tried to uplift the world’s inhabitants but were blocked the entrenched power structure… and the mercenary is a survivor of one community which accepted the Cousins’ teachings and technology. One of the anthology’s better stories.

Sheila Finch fares poorly at the hands of New Eves proofreaders – the only place her name is spelled correctly, and not as “Shelia”, is underneath the title of her story, ‘A Long Way Home’. An amnesiac with healing powers on a barren world wonders why she is so different and so hated – “… whose two eyes were set evenly in her brow, the ears likewise on either side of her head, neither one larger than the other; whose nose was a slight protuberance on her face, not a beak the size of a fist or a gaping hole” (p 377). In despair, she leaves the village… and meets up with someone she recognises, someone like herself, and so learns the truth of her world and her origin. There’s a bleakness to the world-building that’s perhaps only been matched in recent years by Paolo Bacigalupi, but Finch pulls back from this to deliver a more uplifting, albeit not happy, ending.

It would be a strange anthology of sf by women writers that did not include Karen Joy Fowler, and her ‘The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things’ is typical of her oeuvre. A woman undergoes a procedure which allows her to confabulate encounters with people from her past as reconstructed from her memories. In this case, it’s one particular person – a boyfriend who left her to go fight in Viet Nam. It’s that Viet Nam connection which makes the story feel a little older than its 1985 year of publication, though that’s the only criticism that can be levelled at it. Not Fowler’s strongest work, perhaps, but still extremely good.

A massive earthquake has hit California in Mary Rosenblum’s ‘California Dreamer’, but Ellen was unaffected as the house she shares with Rebecca is outside the affected zone. Unfortunately, Rebecca was in San Francisco when the quake hit and did not survive. Ellen doesn’t think she can carry on without the love of her life. Then Beth, a ten-year-old girl, turns up at the house with her sick mother. Except the woman isn’t the girl’s mother, and who she is provides a way for Ellen to go on living. Though initially not reading like sf, and finally teetering on the edge of genre, this is one of New Eves‘ strongest stories. It has certainly persuaded me to read more by Rosenblum.

Nancy Kress’s ‘Down Behind Cuba Lake’ is an odd choice on which to end the anthology because, well, it’s not sf. A woman trying to reach a married lover’s home gets lost en route, and every road she takes leads back to the eponymous body of water. As a result, the woman realises the errors of her ways.

New Eves opens with a long introductory essay outlining the history of women in genre writing. Though it tries to put a positive spin on events, it does not make for edifying reading. Initially, fiction magazines were seen as family-oriented, and work by women writers was not uncommon in their pages. This carried over to the early pulp sf magazines – Hugo Gernsback, for example, “eagerly welcomed women writers” in his Amazing Stories. However, when he lost control of his magazines, the companies that owned them decided to reposition the titles alongside men’s adventure story magazines. Women were no longer welcome. It wasn’t until the 1950s that some women writers began to reappear in the magazines, and by the 1960s and 1970s they dominated the genre, and have gone from strength to strength ever since…

Except I look around at sf now and I have to wonder, what went wrong? Books by men from those decades are more likely to remain in print, more likely to be judged “classics”, more likely to be recommended to non-genre readers. Male authors from those decades had longer careers. Many are still writing now; but only a handful of the women writers are. I’m not convinced the editors of New Eves entirely believe their own argument. The introduction ends on too self-congratulatory, too positive a note. It seems to be saying, the war is over. Even twenty years ago, it is unlikely the future looked as rosy as the editors would like to have readers believe.

And then there’s the  final section of the introduction which, with painful irony, undermines the entire argument laid out in the rest of the  introduction. Many male sf writers too, it points out, have written strong female characters. This may be true, but is irrelevant. Worse, to suggest writers such as Heinlein, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Niven and Asimov, among others, as examples is to completely miss the point. The section feels like it was added at the insistence of the book’s one male editor. He should have kept his mouth shut – the male authors named have nothing to offer in support of the anthology’s thesis, and, in fact, demonstrate only how badly it has been misrepresented over the decades.

New Eves, Janrae Frank, Jean Stine & Forrest J Ackerman

newevesNew Eves, edited by Janrae Frank, Jean Stine & Forrest J Ackerman (1994)
Review by Ian Sales

Part 1
Hands up if you’ve heard of Francis Stevens, Leslie F Stone, Helen Weinbaum, Leslie Perri, Miriam Allen deFord, Sonya Dorman, or Betsy Curtis? All were popular science fiction writers in the first half of the twentieth century, and regularly appeared in pulp magazines. Sadly, as the magazines repositioned themselves to be sold alongside men’s magazines, their gender, and the gender of their stories’ protagonists, meant they found it increasingly harder to place fiction with the big magazines and were relegated to the lesser-known titles. Few, if any, of their stories are currently in print, or have been reprinted since their original appearances. Even those who wrote novels – such as Francis Stevens – are also mostly forgotten.

New Eves, subtitled ‘Science Fiction About the Extraordinary Women of Today and Tomorrow’, is an anthology of short stories from the 1920s through to “The 80s – And Beyond”. There are number of familiar names among the thirty-two contributions – including, among others, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, James Tiptree Jr, Ursula K Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Karen Joy Fowler. However, where this anthology really scores is in the early decades it covers, reprinting stories that have likely not been seen since the days of All-Story Weekly, Thrilling Wonder or Startling Stories…

“The 20s & 30s”
‘Friend Island’ by Francis Stevens originally appeared in All-Story Weekly in 1918, and it’s very much a product of its time. In a matriarchal world, a curious young man listens to an old sea salt tell a story of her shipwreck on a desert island with a man with whom she “come the nighest in [her] life to committin’ matrimony”. It’s a tall tale, written in a prose style that now seems awkward and over-written, but it offers a glimpse into a world astonishing for the time it was written.

‘The Man of Stone’ by Hazel Heald from 1932 is only science fiction by the very loosest of definitions – and indeed, Heald was better known as a regular contributor to Weird Tales. Tales of strange statues in the Upper Adirondacks lead the narrator and his companion to investigate. But the statues are so lifelike it’s as if they were actually a petrified man and his dog. The cause is later discovered, revealed through the diary of mountain man “Mad Dan”, and it’s more to do with magical formulae than chemical ones. Despite its age, and its strange construction – one half first-person narrative, one-half journal entries – it’s still very readable.

There’s no doubting the sf credentials of Leslie F Stone’s ‘The Conquest of Gola’ from 1931, although there’s much in its science which is doubtful. Humans reach Venus and discover an alien, telepathic and matriarchal society who are not at all interested in trading with them. The humans – all male, of course – return with conquest in mind. They lose. The story is told from the point of view of one of the aliens, and I suspect time has not been especially kind to its prose.

Helen Weinbaum was the sister of Stanley Weinbaum and, after his death, completed one of his unfinished stories, and then went to write several under own name. ‘Honeycombed Satellite’ from 1940 is, like the preceding three stories, pulp sf. A newly-married couple visit Thetis, the eponymous moon, to discover why the supply of blue amber from the moon’s indigenous termite-like aliens has shrunk to almost nothing. Although the wife spends much of the time acting like a typical female pulp heroine, at the end she turns the tables on the villain. That may have been shocking at the time.

“The 40s”
‘Space Episode’ by Leslie Perri was published in 1941 and, while it has all the verisimilitude of a Flash Gordon serial it is astonishing in that the sole female character is the only one to behave rationally – even going so far as to sacrifice herself to save the two men. It may be dated and the writing in it somewhat overwrought, but it still packs a punch.

Leigh Brackett, of course, needs little introduction. ‘Water Pirate’ from 1941 is a typically polished Brackett piece, set in a populated Solar System in 2148. Someone has been stealing tanker ships, and so Jaffa Gray, son of the Chief of Special Duty of the Convoy Fleet, investigates. A Keshi woman leads him to a strange crashed spaceship, but Jaffa is captured and forced to fix it, and so is taken to the pirate’s lair. There’s some great imagery in this story, though for all its spaceships and blasters and “By the Nine Red Hells of Jupiter!” it’s more fantasy adventure than science fiction.

‘Aleph Sub One’ by Margaret St Claire from 1948 is, sadly, the sort of silliness that gives sf a bad name. A ditzy housewife inadvertently causes the “Vizi-Math” to create a spacetime vortex by feeding it a made-up equation for it to work on. As the city is slowly subsumed by the vortex, she realises – for no reason whatsoever – what her mistake was, and feeds in a correction. The vortex disappears.

Miriam Allen deFord was a popular sf writer during the 1940s and 1950s, but is forgotten today. On the strength of ‘Throwback’ from 1952, there’s no real reason she should be. It’s all very Brave New World, though the gender roles are sadly traditional and unquestioned. A young woman in an over-populated future risks all for an unlicensed pregnancy. It’s not especially original, but there’s a good sting in the tail.

“The 50s”
Sonya Dorman is another forgotten writer. ‘The Putnam Tradition’ from 1963 reads a little like Zenna Henderson but also reads like, so far, the most feminist story in the anthology. The women of the titular family had all been special, but the latest may not be because her father is an engineer.

‘All Cats Are Gray’ from 1953 is typical Andre Norton, although it features a strong female heroine. It’s a shame Norton didn’t understand how colour blindness, or indeed colour, works. A man, woman and cat attempt to salvage an infamous derelict, but the woman’s colour blindness fortunately means she can see the invisible monster. But only against a grey background. Pulp tosh.

Zenna Henderson is best known for her stories of the People, though New Eves claims that until the appearance of Le Guin, she was “the leading woman writer in the field”. So it’s a shame that 1962’s ‘Subcommittee’ is a piece of feelgood tosh with fluffy aliens, a fraught housewife, and sternly protective military men.

Of all the stories so far in New Eves, ‘Idol’s Eye’ by Carol Emshwiller probably comes closest to modern sf, despite being published in 1958. A young woman is about to be married off to a man she hates, but she has unknown talents and that results in her being rescued by aliens.

According to New Eves, ‘The Last Day’, also from 1958, was apparently Helen Clarkson’s only piece of published fiction. In fact, Clarkson was a pseudonym used by Helen McCloy, who had half a dozen stories and a novel published under that name. ‘The Last Day’ itself was also expanded to novel length, as by Helen Clarkson. It’s a nicely-written end-of-the-world tale, and would not look amiss in any modern reprint anthology.

I didn’t get ‘The Lady Was A Tramp’ by Judith Merril, from 1957. A young “IBMan” fresh out of the academy joins the crew of a slovenly tramp spaceship. The ships’ medic is an attractive woman who appears to offer more than just medical services to the crew’s five male members. I couldn’t work out if the woman’s role was exactly what was implied, or how Merril felt it was a good thing.

‘A Peculiar People’ by Betsy Curtis from 1951 reminds me of similar stories by male authors, and is unremarkable for precisely that reason. Mars is so underpopulated it has robots who appear entirely human and are treated as such. One of these is now an attaché on Earth but, for obvious reasons, cannot reveal his true nature. But then he gets friendly with an Earth family… only it seems Earth has a secret of its own. In many respects, this story reads like something from an earlier decade, though the prose is perhaps slightly better than its contemporaries.

”The Captain’s Mate’ by Evelyn E Smith from 1956 is a fairly standard piece of 1950s science fiction, although I can imagine the final twist might not have sat well with most readers. A shrlangi – a type of matriarchal insectoid alien with tentacles – has crewed her ship entirely with humans, and they’re now close to mutiny because she doesn’t appear to know how to pilot it. When one of the engines exploding, throwing the ship out of hyperspace, they have to lighten the load, but the captain refuses to give up her trunk… because it contains the pupa of her mate. And then it turns out she’s not exactly who she claims to be.

Few reprint anthologies could be described as important historical documents, but New Eves is, I think, one such anthology. While perhaps not all of the stories in the book’s first three sections deserve to be remembered, their authors certainly should not be forgotten. It’s a shame the book has been so badly proof-read, with every story featuring far too many sentences with typos or words missing. Even the sections themselves seem somewhat arbitrary – they are perhaps based on the careers of the authors, but the stories chosen were often published in other decades. The 1960s section, for example, features two from 1950s magazines.