The Power of Time, Josephine Saxton

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.

Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton

queenofthestatesQueen 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.

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.

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.