Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988)
Review by Ian Sales
Zoline is pretty much known solely for ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, a 1967 story which appeared in New Worlds and which is often seen as emblematic of the New Wave. In fact, lists of classic New Wave sf short fiction often place it in the top ten, if not the top three; although such lists with wider remits just as frequently omit it all together. And while yes, that last may in part be due to the fact Zoline is female, it’s also symptomatic of a genre-wide rejection of the New Wave and what it produced. Whether it was that rejection, or a later rejection of feminist sf, which effectively wrote women authors out of science fiction’s history, the end result is the same. Having said that, it’s difficult to describe Zoline as one of this revisioned history’s casualties as she was far from prolific – in fact, Busy About the Tree of Life contains Zoline’s only writing output. Between 1967 and 1988, Zoline published five stories – and one of those, the title story of this collection, was written specifically for this book.
‘Busy About the Tree of Life’ opens the collection. Like ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, it is presented in numbered sections – although each section is much longer, and the numbering scheme begins at 5.16/15 and counts down to 1. The story opens with a young child, Gabriel, and then flits back and forth through time, telling the stories of his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, before revealing that Gabriel is a somewhat special little boy. What a quick summary of the story’s plot fails to get across, however, is that it’s very funny, with Gabriel’s ancestors bordering on grotesques and mostly succumbing to absurdly unlikely fates.
Is there any sf fan who has not read ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’? And if not, why not? The SF Encyclopedia describes the story as “an icon of New Wave sensibility”, and though it may be true, it might also be doing it an injustice. Because, New Wave or not, ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ is an excellent piece of short fiction and a great deal better than the genre typically produces. Even more astonishing, it was Zoline’s first piece of fiction (she was heavily involved with the New Worlds coterie, and also provided illustrations for the magazine; so this likely influenced her). ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ describes the life of an American housewife in 54 numbered sections, and among them are a series of inserts on various topics, such Dada, light, Weiner on entropy, and turtles. The housewife’s day-to-day activities illustrate the inserts, and they in turn provide commentary on her thoughts and actions:
50. Sarah Boyle imagines, in her mind’s eye, cleaning and ordering the whole world, even the Universe. Filling the great spaces of space with a marvellous sweet-smelling, deep-cleansing foam. Deodorising rank caves and volcanoes. Scrubbing rocks. (p63)
You can read the story on the Wayback Machine’s archive of Sci Fiction, which reprinted the story in its “classic sf” section – see here.
‘The Holland of the Mind’ originally appeared in The New S.F., an anthology edited by Langdon Jones and published in 1969. The stories in that anthology appear to have all been by New Worlds regulars – Aldiss, Sladek, Ballard, Moorcock and Disch. Zoline is the only woman. The story, like ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, is structured as a mix of fact and fiction. A couple have flown from New York to Amsterdam to view the city’s sights. The narrative describes their time there, and is interspersed with paragraphs from guide-books, menus and a Dutch language guide.
‘Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire’ was written for The Women’s Press’ only science fiction anthology, Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, published in 1985. A woman engaged in a cloak and dagger exercise, although she doesn’t know how she knows what to do, eventually leads to the kidnap of the young daughter of a French armaments magnate – assisted, improbably, by one of a troop of Shakespearean gorillas in a theme park. The kidnap is, apparently, only one in a global conspiracy. Like the other stories in the collection, ‘Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire’ approaches its premise elliptically – although its opening and closing sections directly address the reader – and its only in the penultimate section that Zoline reveals the purpose behind the protagonist’s actions:
If a nuclear missile aimed at my ‘enemy’ is now, also, by definition, aimed at my children, will it stay my hand? (p 122)
The final story, ‘Sheep’, is from the anthology Likely Stories, an anthology of “experimental” fiction by authors published by the editor’s publishing house, McPherson & Co. (It is the publisher of the US edition of Zoline’s collection, under the title The Heat Death of the Universe, in fact.) ‘Sheep’ certainly qualifies as experimental, but no more so than Zoline’s other stories. It mixes four narratives – an insomniac unsuccessfully trying to get to sleep, a western, a pastoral idyll, and a spy thriller, all of which eventually bleed into each other – with found text, particularly regarding sheep. In fact, the insomniac is counting them, and at the end of each section enumerated sheep jump over a fence and are tallied. As each narrative progresses, so it takes apart the conventions of its genre, occasionally having a little too much fun doing so:
He approached her, and said in a conversational tone, ‘When the sheep call Wolf Wolf, the Shepherdess gives heed,’ and the apple woman replied, ‘The wolf’s great teeth can make the sheep to bleed.’ He continued, ‘So good folk guard your cattle and your brood.’ ‘The wolf prays in a church of bones and blood,’ she concluded. ‘Amen to that, come with me Comrade, Buddy, Amigo, this way.’ (p 136)
Not everything is entirely successful in the story – the redacted lyrics of ‘The Wiffenpoof Song’, for example, don’t really feel like they serve much purpose. Other found texts, the nursery rhymes, for example, seem to exist more to remind the reader of the importance of sheep in the story than to actually progress the narrative.
Zoline’s fiction resists easy review because it demands new ways of reading. These are not linear narratives, with beginnings, middles and ends, and if they do have them they’re “not necessarily in the right order”. Not all of the stories in Busy About the Tree of Life are wholly successful. ‘The Holland of the Mind’ trades too much on its quotidian, ‘Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire’ relies too much on the absurdity of how its plot unfolds, which cheapens the premise. But what Zoline’s reputation, based as it is on ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, appears to have failed to record is that her stories are often quite funny – not just surreal or absurd, but comic and witty. It’s a crying shame these five stories are all we’ve ever seen from her. She was apparently at one point working on a novel; it has never materialised. And, of course, she had a piece of fiction in The Last Dangerous Visions, which will likely never, ever see the light of day.
It’s certainly past time Zoline was “rediscovered” but I don’t think she’s really SF Masterwork material. The stories in Busy About the Tree of Life require too much work to be comfortable reading for those looking for the sort of straightforward ideas-led prose found in the science fiction classics published in that series (at least, that’s true of most of the SF Masterworks). But if you’re looking for challenging science fiction which plays with structure and narrative, that forces you to think about how you’re reading just as much about what you’re reading… then Zoline is a pure hit of the stuff.