Promised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice

promised_landPromised Land, Connie Willis & Cynthia Felice (1998)
Review by Jack Deighton

After her mother’s death Delanna Milleflores returns to Keramos, the backwater planet of her birth (from where she was sent years ago to get a decent education) to resolve complications over the inheritance. She wishes to sell up but local laws are strict and do not allow this unless the seller has been in occupation for ten years. In addition her pet scarab Cleo falls foul of the quarantine regulations and she finds that a marriage arranged by her long-dead father between Delanna and Tarleton Tanner (known as Sonny,) the man from the neighbouring farm (on Keramos these are called lanzye) who has been running Milleflores lanzye all these years, became legal. At the space-port she encountered local Lothario, Jay Madog, whose attentions she is plagued by from then on.

The apparent urgency with which her Keramos lawyer, Maggie, says she must take up residence in Milleflores in order to comply with the planet’s inheritance laws, necessitating catching the morning train, is somewhat vitiated by the fact that the terminus is still five thousand miles from Milleflores and it takes weeks to get there. The length of the journey would have disqualified her. The delay of course gives the authors plenty of opportunity to describe Delanna’s lack of knowledge of local customs and conditions and her adaptations to them.

From the start, though, we know where this is going. Delanna’s journey from worldly-wise offworlder (or been-to as they are known on Keramos) to falling in love with her childhood home again – and with Sonny – her accommodations to the idiosyncracies of life on Keramos (including a world-wide radio news and gossiping network where her inadequacies are exposed and everybody’s business discussed mercilessly) has an obvious arc which the authors do not eschew. The traffic is not all one way. She is able to contribute some of her expensively learned been-to computer skills to finding the best routes through dangerous salt-flats.

Promised Land is a very Willis kind of story in which her signature narrative technique of delay by interruption, of not getting to the nub of a situation, which so marred To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear, is to the fore. At first I thought her co-author Felice had muted this trait but it becomes increasingly irritating as the book progresses. Another quirk is that the main structural building material on Keramos is tile. (Keramos, you see.). Add in a sub-plot about an over-officious vet, Doc Lyle, and his obsession with protecting the wild-life and livestock of Keramos from contamination, particularly the very rare birds called Royal Mandarins, an obsession which threatens to endanger Cleo, and the indigenous animals known as Fire Monkeys (fascinated by Delanna’s red hair) and the elements are present for all the ends to be tied up.

This review originially appearedon A Son of the Rock.

Advertisements

A Sparrow’s Flight, Margaret Elphinstone

sparrows_flightA Sparrow’s Flight, Margaret Elphinstone (1989)
Review by Jack Deighton

Subtitled on the cover “A Novel of a Future”, A Sparrow’s Flight is set in the same post-apocalypse universe as Elphinstone’s The Incomer and features the same lead character, Naomi. Here, on her last night before travelling across to a tidal island (which internal evidence in the text suggests is Lindisfarne) she encounters Thomas, an exile from the once “empty lands” of the west, and is invited by him to return there with him. The lure is that she will discover there something from the past about music.

The novel covers a span of 29 days in which Thomas and Naomi traverse the country east to west, stay awhile at Thomas’s former home then travel back again. The chapters are of varying length and each covers just one of the days. Elphinstone’s future world is one in which the ruins of the past are feared, only low-tech exists; there is no transport, except perhaps for oxcarts and rowing boats for crossing water. Distance is an alienating factor. Once again the incomprehension Naomi has of the local norms is one of the themes. Complicating things are the fact the empty lands’ inhabitants are mistrustful of strangers and that Thomas himself has a past he wants to expiate.

Again, like The Incomer, this is a book in which nothing much happens, especially if you consider the music element of the story as more or less incidental. But quiet lives led quietly are worthy of record. When Thomas and Naomi return to their starting point they have both found things out about themselves and each other, of the importance of relationships and mutual benefit.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

02_herlandHerland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
Review by Jack Deighton

This is one of the earliest pieces of feminist Science Fiction, an attempt to imagine what a society without men might look like. In its form it is perhaps rooted in its time; on an expedition three men from the US hear rumours of a land of only women somewhere in the upper reaches of “a great river” – a land which no-one has ever seen but was said to be “dangerous, deadly” for any man to go there; and from which no man had ever returned – in other words a similar scenario to “Lost Worlds” of dinosaurs. That this is merely an authorial device to entice the men (and the reader) into Herland is revealed when they in fact travel by aeroplane into that mythical place, cut off by earthquake in the long ago, and find no danger but rather an initial sequestration along with a tolerant acceptance mediated by a kind of amusement.

As tends to be the way of these things all is couched as a remembrance by one of the three men, Vandyck Jennings, tracking his progress from a belief that there must be men somewhere in Herland and that social organisation without men must necessarily be lacking to an understanding of the dynamics and motivations of this strange country. But there are no men. The women in Herland reproduce parthenogenetically (how this happened is rather skipped over, being more like a miraculous occurrence than a demonstrable process but there would have been no Herland without it.) Social relations in Herland are such that violence and criminality do not occur. In effect they have been bred out. Roles – including childcare and education, though the latter is something of a life-long endeavour – are performed by those who have an aptitude for them and who specialise in that field. The contrast with the outside world is stark, especially in regard to the valuation of each member of society.

Initially the three are bemused by the appearance of their captors, “In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy,” and – a telling aside – “‘Woman’ in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow.”

The three do eventually form relationships with inhabitants of Herland (somewhat oddly the three women whom they first encountered on arrival) but with the difference in societal norms things do not go smoothly. Of the three intruders Terry O Nicolson is the one who thinks women like to be mastered. “His idea was to take. He thought, he honestly believed, that women like it. Not the women of Herland! Not Alima!” This conflict drives the novel’s conclusion and his banishment.

In his explanations of his world to those in Herland, Vandyck realises that, “Patriotism, red hot, is compatible with the existence of a neglect of national interests, a dishonesty, a cold indifference to the suffering of millions. Patriotism is largely pride, and very largely combativeness. Patriotism generally has a chip on its shoulder,” and religion’s “common basis being a Dominant Power or Powers, and some Special Behaviour, mostly taboos to please or placate.” His leads his companion Ellador to envisage sex as Vandyck describes its place in the outside world not, as with animals, for the one purpose of procreation but as specialised to a “higher, purer nobler use”.

Books such as this cannot be subjected to the usual reviewing criteria. The central focus of a novel about a utopia is that of the nature of the society described and how it differs from, and reflects on, ours. The idea is the substance of the novel. Though illumination of the human condition is not, such considerations as plot and character are secondary. Not that there is no character development in Herland: two of the three male adventurers who venture into this world come to their own terms with it. Nicolson the macho man of course does not. (Arguably he cannot, and without his following his instincts the events which led to Jennings providing us with this account would not have occurred.)

It might be argued that Herland is not Science Fiction. But if Science Fiction is the literature of ideas (often a reason for why some SF fails to produce rounded characterisation, but the SF background can be as much of a character as any humans in the story) then Herland definitely counts. Whatever, one hundred years on from its first publication Herland can still be read with facility. It still stands up. It still marks a contrast between what our society is and what it might aspire to.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

The Incomer, Margaret Elphinstone

incomerThe Incomer, Margaret Elphinstone (1987)
Review by Jack Deighton

I picked this one up in a second hand bookshop in Edinburgh a few months ago. For two reasons. One, it was a Women’s Press SF publication I hadn’t bought at the time so it filled a gap and two, it fitted the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge. The book has the impeccably Scottish word “incomer” as part of its title. Though born in Kent, author Margaret Elphinstone has lived extensively in Scotland – in Galloway when the book was published – and has a professional academic interest in Scottish literature, especially of the islands. (She does have a character say, “Aren’t I?” though.)

As dark is falling a human figure falters through a vaguely menacing forest to a crossroads with a village on its north side. The village has several ruined houses but we are given to understand this is by no means unusual for the times. (Almost incidentally we find out some sort of change has reduced the human population compared to our time and advanced technology is conspicuous by its absence. Despite this, familiar things such as flower pots, nappies and sheep crop up from time to time. Heat is provided by burning wood, which seems to be a precious resource despite the surrounding forest. The North Sea is dangerous, referred to as dead, in contrast to the reviving Irish Sea.)

The figure, a travelling musician named Naomi, finds room at the inn. Her fiddle playing at a gathering a day or so later ensures her acceptance to stay for the rest of the winter. The village is called Clachanpluck (the novel has been republished as The Incomer or Clachanpluck) and holds a secret. A path through the forest leads to an entry into the earth hidden behind a waterfall. (No spoilers.)

Naomi’s presence has an impact on the relationships within the village but the main theme of the novel is mutual incomprehension, the lack of understanding Naomi has of the local norms, the assumed knowledge she doesn’t have, the care with which she has to tread. Her main driving force is her music but during her stay in the village she nevertheless – if somewhat unconvincingly – throws off her long-maintained celibacy in a relationship with fellow fiddle player Davey to whom she teaches tunes that she learned on her travels in Europe. Old, powerful music, written by Beethoven. Despite the almost unspoken matriarchy in Clachanpluck human nature hasn’t much changed. Other misunderstandings take place among those who have lived there all their lives.

This is a quiet, understated novel whose depiction of a restrained, unfussy, reticent lifestyle where people no longer exploit nature unsustainably and have a deep attachment to the land may be nostalgic and idealistic yet resists being idyllic.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

The Book of the Night, Rhoda Lerman

lermanThe Book of the Night, Rhoda Lerman (1986)
Review by Jack Deighton

A young girl, Celeste, disguised as a boy called CuRoi, is brought by her father to the monastic community on Iona to live her life as a monk. It is Celeste’s viewpoint that carries the novel’s main narrative but this is interspersed with occasional sections told by Generous, one of the monks. Both voices, though, to the syntactically archaic at times have a tendency.

The book also plays tricks with time. Part of the ancillary plot deals with the confrontation between Roman and Celtic Christianity in the 8th century but there are references to the First and Second World Wars, quantum foam, radio, a ferry named the Princess George and the Beatles.

It is not only time that is malleable. So too is matter. Partway through the novel Celeste turns into a cow. A talking, feeling cow, true, but still a cow, with horns, hoofs etc.

The text is also replete with word play. Dense, allusive passages such as, “Michael, Molchu, Mocc-el, Moloch, Melech, King of the Universe, Enoch, eunuch,” or, “an Irish sailor I am, Noe, of the great craft Argo. Noah, Jonah, Iona, I sail with the argot and puns of the Naught to the God Lug of the deluge,” are not uncommon. There is frequent reference to jumping over the moon, animals running away with spoons etc. Indeed Celeste’s last written words, in the book’s final epigram, are, “Hey, diddle diddle.”

But when, “Words collapse, sink, intensify, grow dense. Categories disintegrate. Language trembles. Words remain but the webs of their meanings drift away,” a reader has a devil of a job keeping up.

The idea behind the story, apparently derived from those of Ilya Prigogine (though his Wikipedia entry does not appear to provide support for it) is that matter itself is malleable. The novel’s preamble asserts that, “self-organisation ….. is a property of matter … as if matter has mind, as if the thrust of evolution is will.” In this context the changing of a girl into a cow would not be remarkable. It is doubtful, to me at least, if it is warranted. While it is true that an organism represents a decrease in entropy (at least locally) this is a long way from meaning that the process can be directed.

In this context (and notwithstanding the Women’s Press Science Fiction imprint) the transformation of Celeste into a cow seems to me to belong in the realm of Fantasy rather than Science Fiction.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy

womanontheedgeoftimeWoman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy (1979)
Review by Jack Deighton

After her boyfriend died, Consuelo Ramos descended into grief and alcoholism. As a result of the consequent neglect of her daughter (whom she also injured) she was placed in a mental hospital and her daughter put out for adoption.

Years after her release, she attempts to protect her niece, Dolly, by smashing Dolly’s pimp’s nose with a bottle. His heavies subdue her and she is taken back to the mental hospital rather than to casualty. Her protestations of sanity are ignored.

In the run-up to this incident she had been conversing on and off with Luciente, a time traveling visitor from Matapoisett, a society in the future (or a contingent future.) Once in the hospital she becomes able to travel in the opposite direction and welcomes immersion in this accepting society. In Matapoisett gender is hard to discern and no distinction is made at the level of language; “person” stands in for “he” or “she” and “per” for “him” or “her.” It is a utopia where the population is stable and children cared for by the many. Needs are met on a non-exploitative basis but not denied, resources are husbanded, decisions made in a grand council. Everyone has to spend some time in defence, though, as Matapoisett is at war (against whom and over what is never adequately made clear.)

Most chapters begin and end in the hospital, book-ending episodes in Matapoisett. The travails of mental patients caught in the catch-22 of either accepting treatment or otherwise effectively proving their illness, are exceedingly well conveyed.

At one point Connie escapes incarceration and manages to evade recapture for a few days. Here she exploits Luciente’s knowledge of flora to partially alleviate her sores and bruises. This is the only indication in the book that Connie’s experiences of Matapoisett may be anything other than figments of her imagination. Though written in the third person the viewpoint is hers throughout. Apart from the novel’s title this is the only indicator that her story as presented might be “true” and the narration reliable. Even with that, as neither of the futures are particularly convincing, the simplest interpretation is still that she is in fact mad and her visits to Matapoisett are hallucinations.

Connie is chosen, among others, for an experimental course of treatment involving brain surgery and radio controlled implants. Along with the experimenters, all the staff at the hospital are depicted as cold and uncaring, treating the inmates as subjects, little better than animals.

Despite Connie’s incomprehension of some of the customs in Matapoisett her sojourns there stand in contrast to the inhumanity she is subjected to in her own time. After the surgery she (once) travels forward to a different future, a dystopia where life is harsher and more sexist and which may be the one at war with Matapoisett. After another inmate who has had the treatment commits suicide Connie’s implants are removed and she is able to contact Matapoisett again. Her experiences lead her to a course of action which I shall not spoil here.

Extracts of Connie’s case history are provided at the conclusion where her diagnosis of schizophrenia is revealed.

Woman on the Edge of Time has been interpreted as Science Fiction (not least on the back cover where Connie is described as “heroically sane”) but I must say I find that reading odd. Too much of the incidental detail militates against it. As a study of madness, though, and of a mind utterly convinced of its own rectitude it is admirable.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

Despatches from the Frontier of the Female Mind, Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu

jgslf_despatchDespatches from the Frontier of the Female Mind, Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (1985)
Review by Jack Deighton

This is an anthology from a time when it was thought there had to be a Women’s Press and a collection of SF stories by women writers only. Given the relative rarity, still, of published SF written by women – though the barriers are no longer so high and the practitioners are at least on a par with and often surpass their male counterparts – arguably the desideratum is as important now as it ever was. The avowedly feminist perspective, the didacticism, of a lot of these stories dates them though. Then again most SF from the 80s would be similarly dated.

‘Big Operation on Altair Three’ by Josephine Saxton
On a regressive colony world an advertising copywriter describes the unusual procedure devised to illustrate the extreme stability of a new car.

‘Spinning the Green’ by Margaret Elphinstone
A fairy tale. It even begins, “Once upon a time.” A treacle merchant on his way home from a convention encounters a group of green-clad women in a wood. They demand a price for the rose he has picked for his youngest daughter. Curiously this world has computers, televisions and round the world cruises but the merchant travels on horseback.

‘The Clichés from Outer Space’ by Joanna Russ
Satirises the portrayal of women in the typical slush-pile SF story of pre-enlightened times – like the 1980s – with four overwrought, overwritten examples. (As they no doubt were.)

‘The Intersection’ by Gwyneth Jones
Two space dwellers from an environment where privacy is impossible, “SERVE sees all, SERVE records all,” take a holiday to observe the indigs of the underworld. Bristling with acronyms and told rather than unfolded this is more an exercise in information dumping than a story as such. (And de rigeur ought to be spelled with a “u” after the “g”.)

‘Long Shift’ by Beverley Ireland
A woman who is employed to use her mind to demolish buildings safely is given a priority assignment monitoring a subsidence which turns out to be worse than expected.

‘Love Alters’ by Tanith Lee
Women only have babies with women, and men only with men. This is the right, the straight way to do it. Our female narrator is married to Jenny but then falls in love with someone else. A man.

‘Cyclops’ by Lannah Battley
A space-faring archaeologist discovers Earth was not the cradle of humanity by uncovering an ancient manuscript written by “Aeneas.” It has a clever explanation of why the Cyclops appeared to have one eye. The story’s balance is out of kilter, though.

‘Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire’ by Pamela Zoline
A remedy for the world’s ills involves the kidnapping, and resettlement, of children.

‘A Sun in the Attic’ by Mary Gentle
In Asaria, women take more than one husband. Roslin, head of House Mathury, is married to a pair of brothers one of whom has gone missing. The Port Council does not like his scientific investigations.

‘Atlantis 2045: no love between planets’ by Frances Gapper
In a repressive future society letters are too dangerous to write. Jene is a misfit, earning her family penalty points to the extent that they have her classified as a Social Invisible. Then one day her equally invisible aunt returns from being Ghosted.

‘From a Sinking Ship’ by Lisa Tuttle
Susannah works trying to communicate with dolphins. She is happier with them than with humans; so much so that she is unaware of the impending nuclear war. The dolphins understand the danger; and have an escape plan.

‘The Awakening’ by Pearlie McNeill
In a heavily polluted future world Lucy has doubts about her daughter’s participation in the Breeding Roster.

‘Words’ by Naomi Mitchison
Is about the inadequacy of language to describe new experiences – especially those induced by a device to stimulate brain synapses.

‘Relics’ by Zoë Fairbairns
A woman’s visit to a Greenham Common type peace camp is overtaken by the beginning of a nuclear war. She is placed in a freezing cabinet and woken decades later to be part of an exhibition illustrating her times. The future people get it hopelessly wrong of course.

‘Mab’ by Penny Castagli
A post-menopausal woman who takes a yoga class gives birth – from a lump on her head – to a tiny child. This apparently prefigures the demise of the male.

‘Morality Meat’ by Raccoona Sheldon*
A simple morality tale. Droughts and grain diseases have killed off the supply of meat but as always the rich still manage to get their share. Meanwhile every pregnancy is forced by law to go to full term. Adoption Centres provide a service for those who do not want or otherwise cannot keep their babies. But parents cannot be found for all the children.

*Raccoona Sheldon (Alice Sheldon) is also known as James Tiptree Jr.

‘Apples In Winter’ by Sue Thomason
People from another world interfere with a native culture.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.