Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986)
Review by Ian Sales
Back in 1987, Queen of the States was shortlisted for both the Arthur C Clarke Award and the BSFA Award. It lost the former to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the latter to Gráinne by Keith Roberts. Had the book been published this century, I doubt it would have made either shortlist… which, I think, says more about the way the tastes of awards’ juries/electorates have changed than it does about the book itself. After all, the most overtly science-fictional thing about Queen of the States is the words “science fiction” on the front cover. While the Clarke may have a habit, even in the twenty-first century, of selecting works that are borderline genre, and publishing too has changed such that category science fiction novels tend to be immediately identifiable as genre… it’s hard to see where Queen of the States would comfortably sit in today’s market as a category science fiction novel. Which is, of course, no bad thing. And there was, after all, a reason why the book made it onto both of those shortlists.
Magdalen Hayward is the eponymous queen. Except she’s not really a queen, she’s the wife of Clive, a less-than-faithful university lecturer. But sometimes she’s the queen of the United States and resident in the White House, sometimes she’s a self-admitted patient at a private mental hospital, and sometimes she’s been abductee by insect-sized aliens and is being extremely well looked after by them. But the title does not just refer to the USA, as the aliens helpfully explain to Magdalen:
You have seven concentric selves, all interlocking, making forty-nine states of being, each with seven levels of intensity and each in contact with the original seven at all times and places, and a central consciousness which can freely move about to any point in this network at any one time. (p 39)
The Magdalen of Queen of the States‘ narrative is this “central consciousness” and her story does indeed move freely about, often in the middle of paragraphs, between one “state” and another. What carries this free-wheeling approach to narrative causality, this rejection of linearity, is Magdalen’s voice. It is beautifully presented. Magdalen is dissatisfied with her life and smart enough to know why – but not quite adventurous enough to break free… although, of course, her various states are in fact a form of escape. This is made clear right from the first page, since the story opens with a classic UFO abduction scene – “Elliptical, pearly and fiery, very beautiful … The sound stopped, and her consciousness waned as she was drawn upwards into the centre of the light” (p 2 – 3). And Magdalen stays in that flying saucer for several chapters before she begins to move from state to state, from UFO to White House to her home with Clive… a party in Edinburgh, even into Clive’s POV at times, such as the scene between Clive and one of his students and their discussion of Magdalen:
It did occur to him for a moment he might have been glad to know that Magdalen was alive and well enough to purchase tights in a department store. Instead, he rang two colleagues and suggested lunch out at a country pub renowned for its home-made pies. (p 82)
Although the opening chapters can’t help but remind of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5, Magdalen is a far more likeable protagonist. Queen of the States takes a few pages to get going – those initial scenes inside the UFO (or wherever it is the aliens are keeping her) are somewhat static, and though Magdalen seems to have trouble taking her predicament seriously, it’s all played with a remarkably straight face. It’s only later, as Magdalen skips forward and back through her memories, that Saxton hints there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Because the narrative of Queen of the States can be read in a number of ways. How real are Magdalen’s experiences? Some are plainly labelled as confabulations, some as wish-fulfilment, and some as signifiers of other events in her life. On the one hand, this makes the novel a book that welcomes rereading; on the other, the prose is so effortlessly smooth and witty that it feels so much easier a book to read than any summary might suggest.
It’s probably not hard to spot that Queen of the States is not an easy book to review. I will admit that the first few chapters suggested the novel might not be my sort of thing. I have an aversion of to UFO abductee narratives, especially ones that look no farther than western UFO mythology. But by the time I was a third of the way in, Queen of the States was definitely growing on me, and I finished it with a great deal of affection for the book. While those opening chapters suggested there might be the sort of vague literary science-fictional satire ahead, the novel proved to be something completely different – and it’s carried totally by the character of Magdalen Hayward, who is a marvellous literary creation.
I have previously found Saxton’s short fiction a bit hit and miss – I didn’t much like, for example, ‘The Power of Time’ (1971), but was quite taken with ‘The Triumphant Head’ (1970), from More Women of Wonder (see here) and The New Women of Wonder (see here) respectively. However, now that I’ve read and enjoyed Queen of the States, I find myself wanting to read more of Saxton’s fiction.