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The Power of Time, Josephine Saxton

March 18, 2015

poweroftimeThe Power of Time, Josephine Saxton (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

Josephine Saxton is perhaps best-known for her 1986 novel Queen of the States, which appeared on the first ever Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist, but lost out to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. However, her first published piece was ‘The Wall’ twenty years earlier in UK sf magazine Science Fantasy. That story appears in The Power of Time, Saxton’s first collection, which contains fourteen stories, dating from 1965 to 1983, and three original to the collection. Reading Saxton’s short fiction, it’s fairly clear she was a writer with marked New Wave sensibilities, who continued to write using them throughout her career.

‘The Power of Time’ (1971). This also appears in More Women of Wonder, which is where I first came across it. The story is set in the distant future, when only a handful of people remain on the Earth. The narrator purchases Manhattan, and wants it moved in its entirety to East Leake in the UK. Meanwhile, a woman in the twentieth century has won an all expenses paid trip to New York, where she is escorted to museums, restaurants and like by a string of handsome men. Not wanting to fall in love with the men, she chooses instead to fall in love with the city… And it’s her descendant who has Manhattan moved to England. It all ends badly, however. The story’s strength lies in its present-day narrative, which is something Saxton is generally good at – as, indeed, was a lot of New Wave science fiction. The far future part of the story, by comparison, feels a little too whimsical and hand-wavey.

‘Lover from Beyond the Dawn of Time’ is original to the collection. An author’s note reads “Homage to HK Giger, and with respect to HP Lovecraft”. Set in the year 6666, a woman is moved to a new unit in a block in what “was once called Switzerland”, and in her dreams finds herself chosen as consort for the eponymous Lovecraftian paramour. I wasn’t especially convinced by the attempt to reference Giger’s art, but the Lovecraftian visuals were certainly done well. A framing narrative describes the story as a medical health report, which felt unnecessary as the main narrative is an effective sf/horror piece.

‘Food and Love’ (1975). Saxton has written about food elsewhere, in the 1986 collection Little Tours of Hell: Tall Tales of Food and Holidays. In this story, the dinner party described very much revolves around food. But this is just a dream – possibly? – by one of a handful of survivors at the end of the world.

‘Silence in Having Words: Purple’ is also original to the collection, and I really couldn’t get on with it. It felt far too self-indulgent, an attempt at something Delany-esque that went on and on, but without the lushness or inventiveness of a Delany story. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it joke reference to Deep Purple, but it felt like a story that far out-stayed its welcome.

‘New Aesthetics’ is the third and final story original to the anthology. It’s also about food, but scenes of eating paper products – newspapers, magazines, detergent boxes – is juxtaposed with loving descriptions of actual food. Both are a reflection of politics and taste in a near-future world, as if the consumption of opinion has become a stand-in for aesthetic judgement.

‘The Triumphant Head’ (1970). This also appeared in The New Women of Wonder, and while it appears to a describe a woman getting herself ready for the day ahead, it presents the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, as something much stranger, perhaps even alien. The New Wave often featured the quotidian, but it didn’t usually focus on the domestic – Pamela Zoline is the only other such writer who springs to mind. Saxton’s careening prose seems an odd way of telling the story, but it actually works quite well.

‘To Market, to Market’ (1981). This is a flash piece, no more than a page and a half long, about a mother feeding her children in a post-apocalyptic world, and it makes no secret of the fact the food is long-dead human flesh.

‘The Wall’ (1965). A wall across a landscape divides a man and a woman – not the most subtle metaphor ever – but the two manage to find a way through it, and so find a way to live together. While science fiction provides plenty of tools for literalising metaphors, the central premise can occasionally feel a little banal… although in this case that may be a consequence of the story’s age.

‘Dormant Soul’ (1969). Probably the strongest story in the collection. In parts, it reads like a dress rehearsal for Queen of the States. The protagonist is a thirty-five-year-old woman who lives alone. One night she is visited by an angel, who reveals he is actually a visitor from another planet. It seems she is at risk of being possessed, or has been possessed, by demons from another planet, and Armaziel has come to free her. Part of the cure involves getting seven random people to pray for her. So she rings names she has picked from the phone book, and it seems to work. Her life improves. As in Queen of the States, it’s not entirely clear how much of the narrative is real – and genre – and how much is simply a reflection of the protagonist’s mental state.

‘Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon’ (1972). On a planet where “everyone is sick on Pergamon, it’s the law”, a young woman in perfect health is examined by doctors. But then the “Congenitals” and the “Starving” invade the hospital theatre, and Elouise is afraid they will tear her limb from limb. So she psychomatically makes herself ill until she is just like them. Much of the story is taken up with the doctors’ examination of Elouise’s body.

‘The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky (1981). This is a weird one. The staff of a research laboratory throw a party to celebrate a recent discovery, and those who attend have to come as animals, but not in costume, they must mime the animal they are pretending to be. Initially, the party goes well, and the scientists’ stock rises. But at a another party, jealousy in the lab causes each of them to use their discovery – the ability to remotely program people with behaviours to embarrass each other… but, of course, they all play the same trick on each other and it all ends badly.

‘No Coward Soul (1982). An artist performs brain surgery on herself in order to insert a means of self-administering drugs to certain portions of her cerebral cortex. With each step, she either re-experiences or hallucinates an incident, such as being caught trespassing on a farmer’s land, or a meeting with “Vennors the Lizard Lord”. The surgery is unsuccessful – or rather, too successful since she can no longer distinguish between the scenes she hallucinated and reality.

‘Black Sabbatical’ (1971). A family are visiting Morocco as the husband is on sabbatical and researching local mosaics. During a picnic in the desert, the wife screams that she’s leaving him and runs off into the desert. She vanishes completely. After taking the children back to the UK and leaving them with relatives, the husband returns to search for his wife, eventually finding himself involved with a local magician who offers him a devil’s bargain. This is a nicely atmospheric story which slowly but inexorably descends into horror.

‘Living Wild’ (1971). A woman lives alone in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic UK, but it is not until halfway through that the story reveals what caused the cataclysm – aliens stole the planet’s metals. At one point, she befriends an escaped lion, and the pair “went for long walks and scrambled around the hills”. Except the lion is actually a dog, and the narrator may not be living rough in a post-apocalyptic countryside.

While not every story in The Power of Time is successful, and some have not aged especially well, there’s little doubt that Saxton possessed a singular voice and often used it in presenting a particular vision. She writes about women and their lives, and she uses science fiction to bend and reshape the way those women perceive their own existence in order to better emphasise the accommodations they have been forced to make in order to survive or even prosper. It’s not just the narrator of ‘The Triumphant Head’ making herself presentable for her husband, as if the only face she can present is one dependent on artifice. Nor is it just the narrator of ‘Living Wild’ who can only imagine true freedom by recasting reality as an Earth after an alien attack.

The domestic is not something which features often in science fiction, although there have been several women sf writers who have made a point of including it in their stories. In many such stories – ‘That Only a Mother’ by Judith Merril and ‘Created He Them’ by Alice Eleanor Jones spring to mind – the woman is presented with adversity, or a world destroyed, and manages to maintain a facade of normality in spite of it. Saxton, however, turns this on its head, and instead destroys the world inside her protagonists’ heads – or, in the case of ‘Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon’, her body – which twists and bends their perceptions as a means of dealing with, or commenting upon, the real world and the difficulties they face living in it. It seems to me this is a technique which came out of the New Wave, and then vanished as the New Wave was subsumed into the general corpus of science fiction. Which makes the output of writers such as Saxton all the more worth reading and treasuring.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2015 11:48 am

    Great review Ian.

    re your comment about ‘The Triumphant Head’ (1970) — “but it didn’t usually focus on the domestic ” — Kate Wilhelm’s novels and short stories are often focused on the domestic and are New Wave in their sensibilities. For example, her Nebula-nominated novel Margaret and I (1971), and obviously her most famous short fic like The Downstairs Room, When the Moon Was Red, Unbirthday Party, The Infinity Box, etc.

    • March 18, 2015 1:57 pm

      Indeed, and when you look at sf which features the domestic it is almost exclusively by women writers. I really ought to read more Wilhelm, though.

      • March 18, 2015 2:12 pm

        Hmmm, Malzberg often focuses on the breakdown of the domestic sphere — but, he is more focused on the increasingly fraught/confused sexual relations of husband and wife.

        But other than Malzberg I am hard pressed to think of another male author along those lines.

  2. March 18, 2015 1:49 pm

    Odd timing, I just bought a copy last week! Sounds interesting, even if some of it has aged poorly, and I will set my expectations accordingly.

    • March 18, 2015 1:58 pm

      Saxton’s Queen of the States is definitely worth picking up. I thought some of the stories in The Power of Time were a bit too consciously New Wave, and not in a particularly good way, but in Queen of the States a lot of the elements present in the short stories in the collection come together much more effectively.

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