The Birth Machine, Elizabeth Baines

the-birth-machine-bainesThe Birth Machine, Elizabeth Baines (1983)
Review by Joachim Boaz

“Ladies and Gentleman: The age of the machine” (p 11).

Zelda, described by others as a “good girl” who made a good marriage, enters a hospital for what appears to be a routine pregnancy. Her doctor husband Roland, preoccupied with his upcoming membership exam, ignores and dismisses her worries as those attending her imply they want to induce labour with a new machine: “This machine will revolutionise care on these wards” (p 12). She soon discovers that Roland might have a hand in offering her to his superiors as a potential test subject. At the very least he is complicit. But first she must struggle with her own past that rears up as the drugs are pumped in.

Roland is more concerned with her attractiveness than her experiences before and during her C-section birth:

“‘Oh,’ says Roland. ‘Marvellous.’ Marvellous. Especially for Roland. ‘We’re getting it nice and low, below the pubic hair-line.’ Oh, good. This surgeon must consider she wears very brief bikinis. This patient is a very sexy patient. Or so he flatters Roland” (p 77).

And there are past (well-hidden) struggles between the couple, that must be confronted if Zelda is to assert herself.

Beautiful and powerful moments populate the pages. Zelda’s memories of her family feel like memories. They focus on sensory cues and searing images – things you would remember! Her mother prepares a rabbit:

“She pushed it into the mincer, it choked, she churned hugely at the handle, and slapped back the little arms that flailed; purple bits flew off and stuck like leeches. The air was filled with the high metallic stink of blood” (p 17).

In another passage Zelda and her sister attempt to fix a broken doll – a physical state of the doll forms a recurrent image throughout the novel: “The green-brown liquid dripped through the holes in the skewered head” (p 37).

The hospital embodies the impersonal: “The sheets and pillows are grey, these days no longer boiled, but steeped in disinfectant distilled in some industrial laboratory, a process which leaves them antiseptic but grey” (p 10). Baines’s touches, the plastic sheet doors, the condescending child-talk offered by the nurses make these scenes distinctly unnerving.

Chapter 4 features Baines’s most adept weaving of parallel stories. Three strands interlock: Zelda’s dehumanizing experience in hospital, her personal memories that lead up to the traumatic moment, and the experience of birth abstracted out as university lecture. Baines, predictably, links Zelda’s husband’s medical experiments on hormones in rats with the experience of Zelda, also a test subject unaware of the exact nature of her predicament:

“Everyone waits. Zelda waits. Waits for bread and jam. Waits for her husband. Up at the centre for Medical Research a rat technician takes up a pin and drives it through the pale pink palm of the first rat for dissection” (p 22).

I must confess, I was at a loss about many of fairytale elements of the story due to my lack of knowledge about them. Someone else out there should give it a go! However, they provide some of linking themes and images. For example, a large black bird – “like a mechanical bird” with its breast lit up “with iridescent colours, the fluorescent light of underworld” (p 59) – embodies the forces of oppression that beset her. The cover artist, Hannah Firmin, narrowed in on the visceral essence of the story!

In a discussion with Megan, over at From Couch to Moon, she mentioned that SF about birth has the tendency of “alienifying” the woman’s body. For example, Judith Merril’s ‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) and the countless horror films about women giving birth to monsters (ie, 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby)… Baines in The Birth Machine positions her narrative and polemical aims counter to this tendency. Rather than presenting the birth as unnatural, Zelda struggles against attempts to “alienify” her body by the medical establishment, the patriarchal forces in her life, and the growing technological transformation of the birth processes. In addition, she moves past the tendency to blame herself for the flaws and faults of others. And via her resistance to these forces she comes to grips with her personal trauma.

Note: Although described in the SF encyclopedia as “dark semi-surrealist sf,” The Birth Machine takes place in the 1970s. Perhaps an alternate recent past? The machine itself is never described in much detail nor do I know about experimental 1970s machines to facilitate birth, if they existed at all… But the feel surrounding the device is otherworldly, alternate, sinister.

Publication note: I read the original 1983 edition published by The Women’s Press. Apparently Baines was displeased with the ordering of chapters in the first edition and in 1996 released a self-published restored version. I have not compared the two. However, with this in mind I too found the chapter ordering in the beginning of The Birth Machine slightly odd. It did not detract from my overall perspective on the novel.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Advertisements

An Exercise for Madmen, Barbara Paul

madmenAn Exercise for Madmen, Barbara Paul (1978)
Review by Joachin Boaz

Barbara Paul’s An Exercise for Madmen, a retelling of Euripides’s ‘The Bacchae’, follows an established narrative pattern: Stranger enters community with dangerous knowledge. Community reacts with suspicion but soon the stranger, despite claims of goodwill, begins to wield greater and greater influence.

In this case, a priapic-Romance cover “ideal” alien man named Zalmox (masculine to women, feminine to men) gets an entire community to have great sex with him and everyone else… And he brings magical alien apples, apples that cure madness…

Location: the Pythia Medical Project, “an isolated place [far from Earth] where research could continue uninterrupted without any immediate danger to human life”. Experiments on humans and animals abound on Pythia.

The cast: Pythian society falls into four main categories: the scientists, the test subjects, the technicians, and the sentient animal helpers (chimps with human hands). And Jennie Giess does not fit. She is an original test subject of Pythia raised away from Earth, her “parents were a sperm-and-ova bank in New York”. Depressed, drifting, prevented from returning to Earth by manipulative scientists, she is the only non-essential personal on the planet. Jennie spends her time writing about Pythia for Earth audiences and teaches the few children who do not show a propensity for science (a future where the liberal arts are no longer taught to all? perhaps that is why they are utterly unable to assess the morality of their often egregious experiments!). Jennie’s boyfriend and various ex-boyfriends add drama. There’s Sam Flaherty and his webbed feet, and Pythia’s leader Thalia, Jacob the intelligent chimp, children with blue and green cancer resistant skin, Dan the cybernetic man who controls the functions of the station…

And then there’s Zalmox, “an agronomist” who travels, with his space apple plants that cure schizophrenia, across the cosmic reaches bringing his endless libido to all. At first he causes a general fog of pleasantness to seep over the stratifications of Pythian society easing relations between groups, the experimental children and normals, etc. But soon a descent into bacchic chaos begins: a cataclysm of threesomes and other pairings with all genders and combinations and ages… The ramifications of this societal transformation are not as innocent (and “liberating?”) as Pythia’s inhabitants seem to think. But the power Zarmox exudes, seduces.

Two central elements prevent An Exercise for Madmen from failing completely. First, the two main women characters buck standard 70s SF trends. Thalia, the leader of the Pythia settlement, must make the hard decisions when the world is crumbling around her irregardless of her own personal safety. Jennie Geiss, depressed, dependent on drugs, aimlessly moving through a sequence of lovers, is not a traditional SF character – and I found the descriptions of her depression honest and affective: “A careless word, an unintentional snub, a short answer, the casual cruelty of other insecure souls in search of ego—boost almost anything was enough to make her withdraw into her herself even more during the day” [p 42].

Second, although the descent into bacchic chaos laboriously dulls the senses – there are only so many scenes of excess, partying to the cosmic beat of the stars stars piped over Pythia’s communication systems, and piles of naked people doing strange things to each other one can tolerate – the aftermath acts as a form of shock treatment. The tone shifts. The trauma sets in. The characters realize their agency and complicity in causing the chaos. The punch aches.

The novel’s final moments are weakened by a case of over-explanation in the form of Jennie Giess’ self-analysis (that doubles as the author’s statement of intention) as she contemplates her fate. A self-analysis that lays out the work’s allusions to and intellectual descent from classical authors should be apparent to a reader with some grounding in the classics and do not need to be spelled out in excruciating detail:

“Oedipus blinding himself in order to see … Gregory Samsa’s parents pretending they have no cockroach son. Different ways of coping with the incompatible. The healthy, unafflicted body has no need to cope: our long his of “coping” is symptomatic of – what? A terminal case of life? Sophocles, Shakespeare, the Pear poet, Swift, Kafka – five brilliant diagnosticians of human malaise. (We also have quacks: John Fletcher, August Stridenberg, Kurt Vonnegut)” [p 165]

I wonder in what category this novel lies.

My biggest frustration concerns the integration of experimental “meta” passages into the narrative. As the novel “rewrites” the play ‘The Bacchae’, Paul tries to put a more modern spin on the original notion of “script” by creating jarring filmic interludes. In Barry N Malzberg’s The Inside Men (1973) the filmic moments serve to show how the character views his own role, the invented movie as propagandistic filter. In Langdon Jones’ short story ‘The Eye of the Lens’ (1968), the camera lens, as a metaphor for God/an all-seeing entity/the sun, “sees” in a Godard-esque exercise that reduces narrative to a highly fragmented and symbolic sequence drenched with religious (and anti-religious) undertones. Paul’s script chapters, detailing the confrontation between Thalia and Zalmox, do not add to the story’s craft or generate a meaning-rich layer of complexity.

A series of surreal scenes and nonsense paragraphs, for example, one that repeats the letter “p” indicate the final descent into chaos: “I perpetuate the pattern. There’s a positive purpose propelling me – pushing, persuading, prolonging my problem” [p 148]. Yes, it’s a pattern!

As these two examples indicate, Paul moves half-heartedly in many different directions. The ideas unfurl in a logical sequence but do not meld together in meaningful or artful ways.

Not recommended.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other suspect Ruminations.

Three Worlds of Futurity, Margaret St. Clair

three_worldsThree Worlds of Futurity, Margaret St. Clair (1964)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Margaret St. Clair (1911-1995) was a mainstay of the major pulp magazines and maintained a prolific career from 1946 to the late 60s (between the 70s and early 80s she produced only one novel and a handful of stories). Previously, I found myself disenchanted with her work as I struggled through the Wicca-inspired ramblings of Sign of the Labrys (1963). However, I thought I would give her short fiction a try and snagged a copy of the 1964 Ace Double #M-105 that contained her collection Three Worlds of Futurity (1964) and her best known novel Message from the Eocene (1964).

Three Worlds of Futurity contains five stories from her most prolific period – the late 40s-early 60s. Although the majority do not rise above their fellow pulp ilk, ‘The Rages’ (variant title ‘The Rations of Tantalus’ 1954, revised 1964) shows a measured and incisive feminist inspired vision and the unusual subject matter of ‘Roberta’ (1962) suggests St. Clair’s willingness to tackle controversial subjects. Most of the stories contain evocative imagery although the delivery rarely transfixes. Also, although most of the main characters in St. Clair’s stories are men, women scientists and pilots (etc) populate the pages. I suspect one could make a case that her characters do not fit neatly into the pulp mode.

Somewhat recommended for fans of pulp (of which I am obviously not).

‘The Everlasting Food’ (1950): Published originally in Thrilling Wonder Stories, ‘The Everlasting Food’ is a mostly forgettable story with some intriguing, and turbulent imagery. Richard Dekker, Earth-born, employed as a oceanographer on Venus chooses a controversial surgery to save his native Venusian (an “almost-mytheical Sanedrin”) wife Pamir Dekker. The result is catastrophic for Pamir loses her “Seeing” ability. Of course, as is often the case with telepathy in pulp SF/F, the ability to the non-telepathic is beyond basic comprehension. Initially all seems well, Pamir smiles (an empty smile) but claims she no longer needs to eat. Soon Pamir runs away with their half-Venusian son. The story soon devolves into a chaotic quest to find the boy. Standard pulp fair with little to distinguish it from its dime-a-dozen Thrilling Wonder Stories brethren.

‘Idris’ Pig’ (variant title: ‘The Sacred Martian Pig’) (1949): Published originally in Startling Stories, ‘Idris’ Pig’ tells a comical story of a mostly immobile unusual pig-like creature with a rank smell… George, on his friend’s death bed, is bequeathed the object and the mission of its original courier: “he was greeted by a fishy smell and a feeble oink. Inside was a small blue animal, some twenty centimeters long, regarded him comatosely” (p 43). This creature with its comatose gaze soon embroils George in an elaborate plot involving Martian cults and general mayhem. Silly and outrageous, ‘Idris’ Pig’ is very much what you’d expect from a late 40s pulp story.

‘The Rages’ (variant title: ‘The Rations of Tantalus’) (1954): First published in Fantastic Universe, ‘The Rages’ is by far the best story in the collection. Although the premise is a standard one – future over-medicated world – St. Clair’s measured way telling, paranoid undercurrents, and human-centered vision make it worthwhile. Harvy and his wife Mara lead a chaste life – i.e. “they had lain side by side for nearly a thousand nights and, except for a handful of times in the first years of their marriage, nothing had ever happened” (p 76) – controlled by drugs. Harvy, addicted completely to euphoria pills, finds himself excited by his wife, not for her attractiveness, but as her “tunic was the exact shade” of his pills.

The state claims the euphoria pills are completely safe and necessary to prevent rages. However, lab experiments on rats and the mental state of city’s hostels occupants indicate the devastating damage caused by the “final rage”. Harvy spends his time fantasizing about increased allotments of pills however a sequence of events cause him to question their effects. Does he have the willpower to overcome his addiction or will he too turn into a twitching wreck on the hostel floor…

There’s more to ‘The Rages’ than the ubiquitous drugs are dangerous message. Drugs do not only create non-sexual states of pleasure that detached society from the importance of sex but are also used to prevent menstruation (and odor and sweat). Drugs are powerful means to control women. However, St. Clair is quick to point out that Harvy himself is the one who must be controlled, his eventual lusts almost cause him to rape another woman. ‘The Rages’ is the most trenchant of St. Clair’s pulp stories I have encountered. Recommended.

‘Roberta’ (1962): First published in Galaxy Magazine, ‘Roberta’ is a disturbing story of a man from Vega named Mr. Dlag who comes to Earth collect “imitation things”.

“That was what interested me most, you know, when I came to Earth – realizing how many Earth things were imitations. Insects that imitate other insects. Plants that imitate other plants. Plants that imitate plants. Plants that imitate rocks. And half your your artifacts imitate other things. It’s amazing. There are almost no imitation things on Needr, my home.” (p 116)

And the “imitation thing” in this case is Roberta, who used to be Robert. Mr. Dlag paid for Robert’s sex change so he could have her in his collection. And Roberta, who constantly talks her to her “male” predecessor, is compelled to kill the collector. Remember, this is the 1960s treatment of transgender topics… I am not sure whether this is a positive, or negative portrayal, or somewhere in-between. For example the above passage seems to indicate that such “imitations” (obviously not the word we would use today), although occurring in life do not replace the original state. But then again, St. Clair puts those words in the mouth of an alien. And, the story follows this format as Roberta talks constantly with Robert. As a story, the idea of a collector looking for a transgendered individual disturbs. I do not know what to make of it.

Recommended for scholars studying gender and transgender topics in SF.

‘The Island of the Hands’ (variant title: ‘Island of the Hands’) (1952): First published in Weird Tales, ‘The Island of the Hands’ is a story of obsession. Dirk compulsively searches for his wife, who disappeared while talking to him on the radio on her solo flight across an ocean. The search and rescue expedition encounters an island where a simulacrum of Dirk’s wife, with subtle differences, resides. Rather, the simulacrum is his projection of what he wished his wife looked like… All the characters are soon transfixed by the Island of Hands and its miraculous powers. But, will Dirk still be able to find his wife? A fun story, with some cool images, that moves in all the right directions.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Out of Bounds, Judith Merril

otfbnds1960Out of Bounds, Judith Merril (1960)
Review by Joachim Boaz

I have long been a fan of both Judith Merril’s fiction and edited volumes. The eponymous novella in the collection Daughters of Earth (1968) is one of more delightful visions from the 1950s I have encountered. Merril reframes biblical patrilineal genealogy as matrilineal – i.e. humankind’s conquest of space is traced via the female descendants of an august progenitor. The story is brilliant in part due to a remarkable metafictional twist, the story itself is compiled from historical documents to serve as an instructional template for future generations of women. Despite substantial editorial control that forced Merril to include a rather hokey plot on two hokey planets, the story remains memorable for the well crafted feminist message.

After Judith Merril’s divorce from her husband – and fellow Futurian – Frederik Pohl in 1952, she found that her “risky” SF visions epitomized by ‘Daughters of Earth’ were less welcome. Due to financial and personal reasons, she had to tread carefully. In a few cases her radical explorations of gender/sex, such as ‘The Lady was a Tramp’ (1957), had to be published under pseudonyms.

Judith Merril proved (and still is to some degree) to be a polarizing figure. The SF critic and author Algis Budyrs dismissed and ridiculed this volume’s story ‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) as “agrandiz[ing] the steaming-wet-diaper school of SF, which in many examples defines and dramatizes women as beings whose sensitivity and humanism are at constant odds with something inherently messy in their bodies”. Shocking headline: SF that actually focuses on the lives and experiences of women offends a man! Theodore Sturgeon puts forth an ardent defense of her craft and abilities as a “Writer” (with a capital W) in the introduction to the volume.

Out of Bounds contains seven short fictions that demonstrate the range she produced over the course of the 50s: from her terrifying and radical first story ‘That Only a Mother’ to more populist and “acceptable” space operas such as ‘Whoever You Are’. The collection as a whole fluctuates drastically from the masterpiece ‘Dead Center’ to the banal exploration of telepathic vibes in ‘Connection Completed’. Seek out ‘Dead Center’!

Judith Merril should be read by any fan of 50s SF. The deserving omnibus collection Homecalling and Other Stories: The Complete Solo Short SF of Judith Merril (2005) is a must buy.

‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) reminds me of Richard Matheson’s later SF horror story about a mutant child, ‘Born of Man and Woman’ (1950)…. In Merril’s similarly powerful story in a future nuclear world, everyday exposure to radiation might cause devastating mutation. Margaret fixates on this potential via letters to her husband Hank – involved in the war effort – who claims that there is nothing to fear. When he arrives home Margaret has already given birth, and…

What makes ‘That Only a Mother’ so effective is the careful integration of everyday life. This nuclear war does not leave a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Rather, life continues much as it did before with devastating consequences. I am an ardent supporter of epistolary fiction. Merril’s use of letters serve to limit what the reader knows (these are letters between a couple and information is kept from the reader) and thus heightens the psychological tension. The nebulous ending furthers this effect. Worthwhile.

‘Peeping Tom’ (1954). Telepathy. A jungle. A nameless war. Tommy Bender, “a nice American boy”, recovers from an injury. In the jungle dampness he learns about the less than tender thoughts of his fellow wounded comrades who lust after their nurses. When Bender can walk again – remember he’s “a nice American boy” – he pays for sex, with a “disconcertingly young” woman (pimped by her young brother) in the nearby village, with cigarettes.

One day when he seeks to assuage his lusts, he enters the hut of the local sage and begins to uncover his telepathic abilities. His nurse love interest is also one of the sage’s students…. ‘Peeing Tom’ rises above many similar telepathy stories not due to the very predictable twist ending, but the strange commentary on the transformative effects of injury and war. This was written after the Korean War. Tommy Bender is not really “a nice American boy” and is solely motivated by his own lusts and passions.

‘The Lady Was a Tramp’ (1957) is without doubt the most unusual story in the collection. The premise: IBMen plot the trajectories and jumps of spaceships, an especially dangerous job on a merchant ship due to the small crew compliment. The female psychological officer, who holds the rank of Commander, likewise has an important role to play in the microcosm of the ship. A role that the new IBMan Terrance Carnahan does not want to believe exists. Merril purposefully conflates the spaceship, the Lady Jane, and Anita, the psychological officer. Terrance considers both “tramps”.

The pros: The story is psychologically tense. Also, the focus on some elements of life in a spaceship exudes a certain realism. The cons: Merril clearly positions Anita as the power on the spaceship, the woman who holds everything together by having sex with all the male crew members. She uses her sexuality to keep the crew from fracturing. Just as Terrance must conquer space to achieve his dream, he must also put aside his reservations and take advantage of Anita’s role. Really?! I find it rather unsettling in its ramifications especially since Carnahan never puts aside his extreme sexism. Very problematic.

‘Whoever You Are’ (1952). A space opera with a fun twist…. A vast web encircles the solar system manned by the intrepid men and women who are still seduced by the allure of space. The bravest souls – called Byrds – fly from the energy womb off into the bleak expanse setting up colonies, encountering aliens. One of these spaceships returns but the crew is dead, and aliens are on board. Thankfully the ship is encased in the web and does not appear to be a threat. Via the ship logs of the various dead crew members the mystery is slowly pieced together. As most of Merril’s futures, women play central parts in uncovering the mystery. But, it might be too late!

‘Connection Completed’ (1954). A man gazes at a woman through a window. What transpires are a series of thoughts projected by both characters attempting to compel the other act and thus demonstrate the veracity of their telepathic experience. Both are fearful that it is all a delusion. If Merril pursued a SF horror avenue rather than the rather tepid conclusion, the story might have been more intriguing.

‘Dead Center’ (1954) is the best of collection. It might be superior to ‘Daughters of Earth’ which was forced by the editor to follow a particular plot… I still hold that ‘Daughters of Earth’ is the more ideologically relevant story. But ‘Dead Center’ blends both polemical and narratological elements into a more cohesive story.

Shifting from perspective to perspective, ‘Dead Center’ explores the ramifications of a disaster. In this case, losing contact with a spacecraft. Jock Kruger is the pilot and Ruth, his wife, the designed of the spacecraft. As the plot slowly unravels we soon understand the nature of the relationship between all the characters. A son who is tired of the lies his parents tell… The ambitions, the “cult of the astronaut”, the public gaze… Delightful. Highly recommended.

‘Death Cannot Wither’ (1959). The collection ends on a sour note with a supernatural tale which, according to the Author’s note, was heavily edited by Algis Budrys – “the story should properly carry a joint byline” (p 137). Edna Colby lives with her husband Jack on his estate. She spends her time contributing to Better Homes and Gardens and suspects that Jack might be having an affair on his occasional trips to the city. After his death in a hunting accident on the estate, a strange series of events transpire – as he returns three years later dead but alive. The story never maintains a sense of unease and feels half-hearted. Avoid.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Walk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas

walk_to_the_end_of_the_worldWalk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas (1974)
Review by Joachim Boaz

“The men heard, and they rejoiced to find an enemy they could conquer at last. One night, as planned, they pulled all the women from sleep, herded them together, and harangued them, saying, remember, you caused the Wasting” (p 3).

Suzy McKee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World is the first of four novels in The Holdfast Chronicles sequence (1974 – 1999) that charts the slow forces of change in a post-apocalyptical future where women (“fems”) are chattel. Kate Macdonald, in her wonderful review of Ammonite characterized Nicola Griffith’s novel as “instantly […] feminist: not stealth, or muted, or sub-conscious”. Walk to the End of the World falls squarely, and powerfully into this category. Told with intensity and vigor, Charnas brands the reader with her vision, a searing and festering landscape where white men have either exterminated the remaining “unmen” (the “Dirties”) or subjugated them (the fems) after a manmade cataclysm. Complex societal institutions maintain control in a mostly illiterate world via appeals to collective memory, intensive drug facilitated indoctrination, and the deconstruction of the family unit in favor of exclusively homosocial relationships.

Walk to the End of the World does not hold back its punches – this is a serious and disturbing novel. Fems are subjected to horrific violence as slaves to man and are forced to great extremes to survive.

In the grand historical narrative espoused by the men who control the community of Holdfast, a past rebellion facilitated by fems and other unmen overthrew the Ancients, already weakened by the betrayal of their own sons. The survivors blamed the cataclysmic and vaguely understood Wasting that created an impoverished, polluted, and devastated world on the surviving fems. The community the emerges is highly regimented and authoritarian. They espouse a “heroic” and “pioneering” tradition – Holdfast is an “anchoring tendril” that holds back the forces of destruction (p 4). The position of men vs women is reinforced by this narrative: men must hold back the destructive power of women embodied by the destroyed world and the wastelands that surround Holdfast.

Walk to the End of the World is comprised of five sections placed in chronological order. The first three are from the perspectives of the male characters – Captain Kelmz, Servan D Layo, Eykar Bek. The fourth, is from the perspective of the fem Alldera. The fifth and final section is a composite that shifts between the surviving characters and ends, again, with Alldera. The carefully planned structure is wedded to the narratological and ideological aims of the novel. None of the characters fit neatly into the post-Wasting world where rigid binaries – between man vs woman, Senior vs Junior, white vs non-white, man vs animal – dominate the society in which they restlessly inhabit.

The first character Captain Kelmz, blurs the position between Seniors and Juniors by retaining his position into old age over a band of Rovers, “the powerful defenders of the Seniors and their interests” (p 10). More dangerously, Kelmz sees other men in “beast shapes”. More than simply a flight of imagination, “to think of the beast was like willfully calling up the ghosts of dead enemies” (p 8). Man conquers beasts. Men are not beasts. Kelmz’s visions violate this central tenet profoundly troubling his sense of the world.

The second, d Layo the DarkDreamer, “has no company, no order, and no legitimate use to his fellows” (p 7). He also encourages and facilitates drug induced dreams outside of those taught in the Boyhouse (where all boys are taught to develop their manly souls and survive in the regimented world). Rather than “dreams of victorious battles against monsters” (p 45), the dreamer is free to dream what his soul desires. Under d Layo’s guidance, Kelmz dreams that he is emasculated and is but a pathetic perversion of other men (p 46).

The third, Eykar Bek is the Endtendant at Endpath. At Endpath Seniors – and Juniors manipulated by Seniors – end their lives when their “souls [are] ripe for departure” (p 17). To dream a drug induced dream was to “assure the life of one’s name among younger generations” (p 17). However, Eykar Bek has other interests – he seeks to uncover the reason why he knows his father’s name. In Holdfast, the “mass-divison of Seniors and Juniors” is more important than blood-ties. All men are brothers, some older, some younger… In the grand narrative, the Ancients were overthrown by their sons: in a perversion of the Biblical story, “even God’s own Son, in the old story, had earned punishment from his Father” (p 22). Eykar and d Layo were friends at the Boyhouse. d Layo was thrown out into the Wild while Eykar was condemned to serve at Endpath after the scandal caused by his father. The quest for Eykar’s father forms the thrust of the narrative.

The final character Alldera, although perceived because of her gender by the male characters as a beast suitable for bearing sons and working the fields (p 56), is highly intelligent and an important cog in the communication networks between groups of desperate women. She leaves her world where woman are forced to be self-sustaining after drastic reductions of food after previous famines blamed on the fems. In an era of incredible deprivation, fems build up their numbers due to ingenious methods of preserving their own milk and consuming their own dead (p 59). The men who see the process declare that “it was too beautiful, too efficient to be a product of the fems’ own thinking” (p 65). Alldera has ulterior motives for joining the three male main characters in their trek to discover Eykar’s father.

Despite the lack of popular awareness of the novel in comparison to later feminist masterpieces such as Russ’s The Female Man and Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, analysis of Walk to the End of the World does appear in some scholarly circles – for example, Bill Clemente’s article, ‘Apprehending Identity in the Alldera Novels of Suzy McKee Charnas’ in The Utopian Fantastic edited by Martha Bartter.

Feminist importance aside, I will focus on a handful of ideas that really resonated with me and elevate Charnas’ novel to its great heights: the role of songs + chants reinforcing/challenging collective memory and the focus on the ideological underpinnings of the society.

Charnas explores a variety of ways of reinforcing the master values in a mostly illiterate society. One of more prevalent is the notion of a collective memory (at least propagated by men) that reinforces a grand narrative of the past and thus the position of the present in relation to the past. For example, in the Boyhouse the boys recite the three categories of people (unmen) defeated in the post-Wasting world by white man: the Dirties, ie, “Gooks, Dagos, Chinks” etc, the “Freaks”, which includes “Faggas, Hibbies, Famlies, Kids; Junkies, Skinheads, Collegeists: Ef-eet Iron-mentalists” and finally fems known by “beasts’ names,” “Bird, Cat, Chick, Sow; Filly, Tigress, Bitch, Cow […]” The chant ends with a warning about the dreadful weapons of the unmen, “Cancer, raybees, deedeetee” (p 112). Man in the present holds back these forces of destruction.

Each social group has their own chants that play into this narrative. Captain Kelmz in order to fight off his visions silently recites the “Chant Protective” that starts with “a reckoning of the size and reach of the Holdfast and of all the fellowship of men living in it” in order to “remind a man of his brothers and of what they expected from him” (p 8). The ferrymen keep a “Chants Celebratory” which includes the names of the men who dare enter the empty lands to obtain wood for the ferries, “part of a fabric of custom intended to hold ferrycrews together in manly order” (p 33).

The songs of women fall into different patterns although they serve similar functions in creating collective cohesion. For the women who still have tongues – “muteness in fems was a fashion in demand among masters” (p 141) – songs, spoken in obfuscated “fem speak,” serve to transmit news. Work songs are more than entertainment, they tell of the hell wrought by the “wonderful knowledge” of men (p 158). They posit historical narratives counter to those of men: “Those of the unmen who realized what was happening and rose up to fight, the Ancient men slaughtered” (p 159). Other work songs directly mock the songs of men and the heroic founding of Holdfast, “Heroes […] The unmen are not gone; you are more predictable than the thoughtless beasts, though not as beautiful” (p 159). Although the chattel of man, songs sung working for their masters are a powerful medium for rebellion.

Charnas also weaves ancient theories of generation and matter into the ideological underpinnings of her society. This creates an unnerving familiarity of thought between ancient Western Thought and this dystopic future. The male soul is a “fragment of eternal energy” that is fixed inside a woman’s body by “the act of intercourse”. As the soul is alien to the woman, her body surrounds it with a physical form in order for the soul to be expelled. Thus, “a man’s life” is a struggle between the “flesh-caged soul” not to be seduced by the concerns of the fem generated “brute-body” (p 103). Historical narrative combines with pseudo-scientific theories of matter to generate the iron-clad boundaries, enforced by the victors, between genders.

I recommend Walk to the End of the World to all fans of feminist fiction. I fervently hope a more mainstream SF audience will be open to Charnas’ brilliantly conceived world filled with interesting characters, biting prose, and disturbing social systems with twisted philosophical underpinnings. But after reading online reviews and engaging in debates with readers over the years, I cannot help reiterate that a double standard exists when readers approach feminist SF from this era – most readers seem to be fine with other polemical male 60s/70s science fiction authors from across the political spectrum (Robert A Heinlein, Norman Spinrad, RA Lafferty, John Brunner, etc). However, when a woman author takes a dystopic future scenario and weaves a poignant and harrowing experience with a powerful feminist message suddenly it is best avoided. Alas.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Ice, Anna Kavan

iceIce, Anna Kavan (1967)
Review by Joachim Boaz

“Despairingly she looked all around. She was completely encircled by the tremendous ice walls, which were made fluid by explosions of blinding light, so that they moved and changed with a continuous liquid motion, advancing in torrents of ice, avalanches as bid as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world” (p 37)

Anna Kavan’s masterful post-apocalyptical novel Ice (1967) parallels the death throws of a relationship with the disintegration of the world. As the unnamed narrator (N) and the girl (G) traverse an indistinct, interchangeable, world transformed by glacial encroachment, only the same movements are possible: flight, pursuit, flight, pursuit… Repetition reinforces the profoundly unnerving feel of both physical and mental imprisonment: as movements are predicted, trauma is repeated.

Kavan described her own writings as “‘nocturnal, where dreams and reality merge” (Booth, p 69). In the prologue to her earlier novel Sleep Has His House (1947) she explains the reason for this self-description: “Because of my fear that the daytime world would become real, I had to establish reality in another place” (quoted Booth, p 78). Kavan’s fiction is highly autobiographical and informed by her experiences in asylums, heroin addiction (she died the year after Ice was published), and psychiatric treatment (and friendship with psychiatrists) by various proponents of existential psychology.

It is hard not to see similarities with her contemporary JG Ballard (especially the fraught apocalyptical landscapes of The Crystal World and The Drowned World), who was a fan of her work (Booth, p 70). Francis Booth, in Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1980, points out that both Ballard’s early post-apocalyptic novels and Ice operate in ruined worlds both psychological and physical (p 70).

Kavan was a literary author who operated outside of SF conventions. The novels published after she took the name Anna Kavan – from one of her earlier pseudo-autobiographical characters – were highly experimental in nature. It should be pointed out that Kavan did not intend to write science fiction despite the fact that Brian Aldiss voted it the best SF novel of 1967 (Booth, p 97). According to Booth, most likely she had not read any of her SF contemporaries – also, many of the tropes that appear in Ice had appeared in her writing for decades (Booth, p 97).

Highly recommended for fans of literary SF in the vein of early JG Ballard and the more radical experiments of Brian Aldiss.

N (the unnamed narrator) is sent back to his homeland “to investigate the rumors of a mysterious impending emergency in this part of the world” (p 17). Of course, the government would not disclose the facts but he had been privately informed about a steep “rise in radioactive pollution, pointing to the explosion of a nuclear device” (p 38). Whatever the exact nature of the disaster, Kavan is uninterested in laying out lengthy scientific discussions of man-made ecological transformation, a “vast ice-mass” is created that creeps unchecked across the landscape (p 38). This metaphorical agent of destruction mirrors the psychological state of the characters.

N claims that “reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me”. Places which he once remembered are now “becoming “increasingly unconvincing and indistinct” (p 17). This “general disorder” is a pervasive quality (p 17). He soon gives up his aims to investigate the impending emergency and instead seeks an unnamed “girl” (G) whom at one point he had intended to marry.

For N, G is an object to possess: “I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real” (p 19). N’s psychological state is often disturbing. His hallucinations/dreams, which N claims are caused by drugs prescribed to combat his insomnia and headaches (p 2), visualize her crushed by ice, suffering, screaming: “I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in a white face, heard her thin, agonized scream” (p 18). And, N feels no pity for her but rather feels an “an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer” (p 18).

The countless occasions N hallucinates visions her destruction, her erosion, her fragmentation, her brittle limbs cracking like ice, are repetitive, the symptoms of N’s deep trauma, of atavistic desires to possess and control. She too is scarred by her experiences.

“Her face wore its victim’s look, which was of course psychological, the result of injuries she had received in childhood; I saw it was the faintest possible hint of bruising on the extremely delicate, fine, white skin in the region of eyes and mouth. It was madly attractive to me in a certain kind of way […] At the moment, in what I took for an optical delusion, the black interior of the house prolonged itself into a black arm and hand, which shot out and grasped her so violently that her shocked white faces cracked to pieces and she tumbled into the dark” (p 28).

N is caught between two opposite forces. The first, possessing G who flees from all meaningful connections, almost resigned to the destruction of the world. The second, his study of “an almost extinct race of singing lemurs known as Indris, living in the forest trees of a remote tropical island”. He is transported away from the destruction of the world by their melodious voices: “I began speaking to them, forgetting myself in the fascination of the subject” (p 21). N is drawn to them. G is repulsed by them: “To me, the extraordinary jungle music was lovely, mysterious magical. To her it was a sort of torture” (p 25). He wishes to return to the land of the singing lemurs and laments his inability to separate himself from his visions of possession: “She prevented me, holding me back with thin arms” (p 101).

After G flees from her husband, N runs after her possessed by horrific images of her death and destruction: “She escaped from the forest at length only to see the fjord waiting for her. An evil effluence rose from the water, something primitive, savage, demanding victims, hungry for a human sacrifice” (p 71).

Flight, pursuit, flight, capture, escape, pursuit, flight. As if caught up in some post-apocalyptic performance of Ravel’s ‘La valse’ (1919-20), a macabre dance of death, N and G – possessed by primordial forces – move across an imprecise allegorical landscape at the end of the world where powers shift and mutate and realign and decay.

As the destructive dance continues, fragmentation occurs: N cannot separate himself from the captors who hold G “I fought to retain my own identity, but all my efforts failed to keep up apart. I continually found I was not myself, but him. At one moment I actually seemed to be wearing his clothes” (p 131). But they are both trapped in this pattern. The visions of Indris and the melodious lemurs are but memories crushed too by the end.

Filled with unsettling yet gorgeous images, Ice is a triumph of 60s experimental literature with post-apocalyptic undertones. N’s visions of G’s destruction unnerve and cut deep. The dreamlike repetition, the interchangeability of the landscapes, N’s hallucinations and obsessions, are like some second skin you cannot shed. A melodious rumination on destruction…

“Day by day the ice was creeping over the curve of the earth, unimpeded by seas or mountains. Without haste or pause, it was steadily moving nearer, entering and flattening cities, filling craters from which boiling laval poured. There was no way of stopping the icy giant battalions, marching in relentless order across the world, crushing, obliterating, destroying everything in their path” (p 131).

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Picnic on Paradise, Joanna Russ

picnicPicnic on Paradise, Joanna Russ (1968)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Joanna Russ’ first published novel Picnic on Paradise delightfully subverts traditional SF pulp adventure tropes. Although not as finely wrought as The Female Man, And Chaos Died, or her masterpiece We Who Are About To…, Picnic on Paradise is worthwhile for all fans of feminist SF and the more radical visions of the 60s.

Unfortunately, the metafictional implications/literary possibilities of the Alyx sequence of short stories and novels – of which Picnic on Paradise is part – are not realized until the publication of the short story ‘The Second Inquisition’ (1970).

She was a soft-spoken, dark-haired, small-boned woman, not even coming up to their shoulders, like a kind of dwarf or miniature – but that was normal enough for a Mediterranean Greek of nearly four millennia ago, before super-diets and hybridization from seventy colonized planets had turned all humanity (so she had been told) into Scandinavian giants. (p 1).

And so Alyx enters the fray… She’s a Trans-Temporal Agent, snatched from a near death situation and her difficult past (abusive relationship, realities of childbirth in the ancient world, et) in the time of the Phoenicians for a dangerous mission. The mission, extricate a series of “rich tourists” and nuns from a rare surface war on the planet Paradise from point A to point B. Unlike normal wars where the entire surface of a planet would be blasted into oblivion and re-terraformed by the winning side, Paradise is a tourist resort with little financial value other than its gorgeous mountains and vistas. But, there is a hitch: “no fires […] no weapons, no transportation, no automatic heating, no food processing, nothing airborne” (p 10) are allowed as they would be picked up on an infra-red spectrum at levels higher than the local wildlife. Weapons would narrow in and kill them on the spot.

Alyx, from the ancient city of Tyre, would have no problem trekking across the dangerous planet without modern necessities, but the inhabitants of this sterile, technologically dependent, rather coddled future would most likely die within days. Her survival skills and “sheer ignorance” of the modern world is the reason Alyx is assigned to the mission.

She has to contend with an intriguing and varied cast of individuals whose interactions with her and each other critique a range of social/cultural issues. First, there’s Maudey who is obsessed with plastic surgery: “You ought to have cosmetic surgery […] I’ve had it on my face and breasts. It’s ingenious. […] And you have to be careful dying eyebrows and eyelashes, although the genetic alterations are usually pretty stable. But they might spread, you know. Can you imagine having a blue forehead?’” (p 31).

And Maudey’s daughter Iris, who is the rebellious teenager desperate to escape her mother. The nuns are adherents to some vaguely defined Buddha inspired religion using sex and drugs to access the religious experience. Gunnar, an amateur explorer, initially challenges Alyx doubting the diminutive woman has the requisite skills necessary to lead the expedition. He belittles her before she proves him otherwise, “they had never, she supposed, seen Gunnar on the ground before. Or anyone else. Then Maudey threw up” (p 22). Gunnar starts to admire her. The Machine, a normally mute teenager, hides from his past but shows interest in Alyx’s. And then there is Raydos, an artist and “intellectual.” And finally there is Gavrily, a man who holds great influence.

In the first part of the novel the journey from point A to point B goes mostly without a hitch: Alyx learns about each of tourists and reaches some understanding of the foreign world in which she has been plunged. But then they discover that point B has been abandoned, and they must trek into the mountains to find some other way to escape: and unfortunately, “Paradise was not well mapped” (p 44).

At the time of publication Picnic on Paradise was and continues to be a radical vision. Alyx, although 26, is an “middle-aged” in her original time who has seen and suffered more than anyone can in Russ’ future. Her body is prematurely old and in no way adheres to western conceptions of beauty. Those around her are shocked and deeply suspicious of her abilities. But Alyx possesses an incredible drive to survive – the antithesis of the 1960s clichéd pulp woman in distress.

An outsider inserted into a varied cast is one of Russ’s favorite techniques: it is most adeptly used in We Who Are About To…. Despite their unappealing angst and frustration with Alyx, we come to feel for them as Alyx molds them into a group able to survive the planet. Their initial childlike perspectives on the world are perfectly embodied by the following passage:

“I ran away from home,” said Iris, “at the age of fifteen and joined a Youth Core. Almost everyone has Youth Cores, although mine wasn’t a delinquent Youth Core and some people will tell you that doesn’t count. But let me tell you, it changed my life. It’s better than hypnotic psychotherapy. They call it a Core because it forms the core of your adolescent rebellion, don’t you see, and I would have been nobody without it, absolutely nobody, it changed my whole life and my values. Did you ever run away from home?”

Yes, said Alyx. “I starved” (p 31).

Picnic on Paradise is a dense, well-written, and moving adventure. The appealing polemic is neatly integrated into the plot and Russ dismembers some of the more pernicious clichés in SF. Russ continues to impress me. Pick up a copy.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.