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.

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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 New Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent

newwomenofwonderThe New Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

This is the third of the Women of Wonder anthologies published during the 1970s, and while its title would suggest its aim is to introduce new female science fiction writers, only two – Eleanor Arnason and Pamela Zoline – did not appear in either, or both, of the two earlier volumes (see here and here). Unusually, there is no story by Ursula K Le Guin in the book, but Alice Sheldon does make an appearance under her male pen-name, James Tiptree Jr. It’s difficult not to wonder who exactly the “new” in the title refers to. The Women of Wonder series was rebooted in 1995 with two volumes: Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years ( reviewed here and here) and Women of Wonder: The Classic Years.

Once again, Sargent opens the anthology with an introduction, this time 34 pages long. And, sadly, this only demonstrates that nothing ever changes. After a quick history of women in science fiction, she writes:

Even so, most science fiction is to this day has remained conservative in its sociological extrapolations. In pointing out this flaw, one is likely to be accused of seeking to impose an ideological test on the genre, rejecting works that do not measure up. But in fact I am asking why the the overwhelming majority of science fiction books limit female characters to traditional roles. (p xv)

After descriptions of several sf novels which break this mould – Samuel R Delany’s Triton, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, Kate Wilhelm’s The Clewiston Test – Sargent stresses that restrictions on female writers, and what they were allowed to write, still exists, and even notes:

One author of a successful first novel had her second novel rejected by the same publisher because the book was about an all-female world and there were no male characters in it. (p xxv)

While there are several such books now – Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite immediately spring to mind – they are still very much in a minority… and yet sf novels which feature almost entirely male casts (and what few female characters do exist in them are either presented as victims or have no agency) are still relatively commonplace. Sargent identifies a nostalgia “in recent years” for “traditional stories with familiar trappings”. And that, according to the skewed view of the history of science fiction which seems to be the current-day accepted narrative, means science fiction stories for, by and about men. The fact that the three Women of Wonder anthologies were not repeated until almost twenty years later is testament to this. These anthologies were clarion calls, but more than thirty years later the message still hasn’t been heard:

Perhaps the genre as a whole, having often ignored women – as well as the old, the non-white, and the non-Western – does not quite hold together. It is within this context that we can view the role of women in sf. By adding their voices, they enrich the entire fictional system of science fiction. (p xxix)

The original The Women of Wonder anthology opened with a poem by Sonya Dorman, and so too does this one: ‘View from the Moon Station’. It’s a short poignant piece, which is pretty much described by its title – although its imagery is driven by memory. Though the passage of time has rendered its sentiments somewhat clichéd, it still manages to impress with its choice of imagery and its careful build-up to its emotional payload.

‘Screwtop’, Vonda N McIntyre. The title refers to a penal installation in the jungle on the human-settled world of Redsun. The prisoners are forced to labour drilling holes to deep underground pockets of superheated water, which is used to generate power for the various cities on the planet. Kylis is one such prisoner, and she has joined forces with Gryf, a “tetraparental”, and Jason, a new arrival. It’s Kylis who graces the cover art of The New Women of Wonder, although she does possess a disturbing likeness to Karen Carpenter. Kylis is a space rat, a person who travels from planet to planet as a stowaway, but the Redsun authorities caught her and sentenced her to Screwtop. Gryf is a political prisoner – as a tetraparental, a manufactured genius, he is obligated to work on government-chosen projects, but he refused. He only has to agree to the authorities’ demands and he will be set free. The three of them are plotting to escape Screwtop, although this would involve a potentially-fatal trek through hundreds of miles of alien jungle… There actually is not much in ‘Screwtop’ which actually demands it be science fiction. The penal facility could just as easily be on Earth, and the three inmates guilty of crimes against an existing earthly regime. Also, the entire installation itself doesn’t sound right. The inmates must drill a new hole when the last one has emptied itself of steam… Except that’s not how geothermal power works. Usually, water is pumped down the hole to be heated deep underground, and the steam which results is used to generate power. It is then cooled, and pumped back down the hole. Why would they actually siphon off all the superheated water? It makes little or no sense. It seems a shame that a story with such well-drawn characters and a nice sense of place should fail in such a fundamental fashion. ‘Screwtop’ was originally published in The Crystal Ship, a 1976 collection of three novellas also featuring Joan D Vinge and Marta Randall – but edited by Robert Silverberg.

‘The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons’, Eleanor Arnason. I expect that within weeks of the first science fiction story being written, someone wrote a story about writing a science fiction story. Certainly it’s an established tradition within the genre, if not within literature as a whole. The protagonist of ‘The Warlord of Saturn’s Moon’s is writing a story titled ‘The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons’, a pulp sf tale with spaceships, chases across “Titan’s methane snows”, “strange psychic arts from Hindu mystics”, assassins and the fate of the moon(s) in the balance. Unusually for the form, however, her story has a heroine. And the villain of the piece is perhaps not so villainous after all. As she considers her story, the rescue of her partner, 409, by the heroine, so the writer reflects on her own world. It’s a nicely-judged story, gently mocking the conventions of pulp sf while it carefully subverts them. Presenting it as a meta-fictional piece also makes it more thoughtful than perhaps it would have been had it been presented straight – at the very least, doing it this way doesn’t allow for misinterpretation of its subverted tropes. The story first appeared, unsurprisingly, in New Worlds and was deservedly shortlisted for a Nebula Award.

‘The Triumphant Head’, Josephine Saxton. I’m not entirely sure what to make of what little of Saxton’s fiction that I’ve read, and ‘The Triumphant Head’ is a case in point. It describes the beginning of a day for a married woman, as she wakes up, washes, puts on her make-up, and gets dressed. Yet it is presented as if the woman were an alien in disguise – or certainly not human. It feels like too obvious a conceit to bother fictionalising, but Saxton maintains a slight undercurrent of farce to the story, which not only works in its favour but also makes it an enjoyable read.

‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, Pamela Zoline. If there is one story which is often held up as emblematic of New Wave science fiction in Britain, it is this one by US author Zoline. (The introduction to the story mentions a novel, Dream-Work, on which Zoline is working; it was apparently never published. A shame, it would be interesting to read it.) Structured as 54 sections of text, some of which are titled, the story presents episodes – vignettes, almost – in the life of middle-class American housewife Sarah Boyle, juxtaposed with science-fictional commentary and short essays on a variety of topics, scientific and otherwise:

30. Sarah Boyle is a vivacious and witty young wife and mother, educated at a fine Eastern college, proud of her growing family which keeps her happy and busy around the house, involved in many hobbies and community activities, and occasionally given to obsessions concerning Time/Entropy/Chaos and Death.

31. Sarah Boyle is never quite sure how many children she has. (p 110)

A quick check on isfdb.org reveals that ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ has been anthologised 16 times, the most recent in 2010. Zoline wrote a further four short pieces of fiction, the last of which appeared in 1988 in her only collection, Busy About the Tree of Life. I can only wonder what more she might have written had the genre been more welcoming to women who chose to write about women’s lives in a science-fictional mode.

‘Songs of War’, Kit Reed. In Los Angeles, the women decide they have had enough and form their own army, which occupies a farm up in the hills overlooking the city. Over a period of several weeks, women leave their husbands and families and join the army, which has itself already split into several factions. On first pass, this story reads like a criticism of the women’s movement – for all their ambitions, the women who gather at the farm soon begin to bicker and the various factions begin to work covertly and overtly against each other. The radical militants attack a few soft targets – a shopping mall, for example – while the housewives are given housewifely duties (kitchen, creche, etc). The teenagers are more interested in boys than solidarity, and the woman who becomes the army’s unofficial spokesperson would sooner promote her media career than the army’s manifesto. Eventually, the army disperses in ones and twos, although not after some violence, and the wives and daughters return to their homes, changed by what they’ve experienced – as, in some cases, are their husbands and fathers. As a commentary on the frationalisation of movements, especially ones without clear goals and policies, ‘Songs of War’ is a witty commentary, as it also on the quotidian lives of the women in the story. But there’s nothing in it that’s, well, science fiction. It appears to be set in the present day of its writing (ie, 1974), and there’s not a single sf trope to be seen anywhere. Which begs the question, does it get a pass as science fiction because sf is so bad at incorporating the lives of women into its stories?

‘The Women Men Don’t See’, James Tiptree Jr. This is one of Tiptree best-known stories, though personally I think some of her other works are stronger. The narrator is heading to Mexico on a fishing trip, but his charter plane from Cozumel proves to be unavailable. He persuades the pilot to let him hitch a ride on another plane heading south – and the other passengers prove to be a totally innocuous mother and daughter. The plane crashes en route, leaving narrator, pilot, mother and daughter stranded. Running short on potable water, the narrator and the mother leave the other two – the pilot is injured – and head for an inlet about a day’s walk away. Except it’s not really a walk, as they have to struggle through a mangrove swamp. The two of them witness something very strange – and the narrator belatedly realises it is a landing by extraterrestrials… and the mother has taken something from them. She persuades the aliens to return the two of them to the crashed plane, which they do. She then persuades the aliens to take her and her daughter with them on their interstellar travels. While the story is predicated on the (male) narrator’s realisation that such women have never really impinged on his worldview before, and that such women have thoughts, desires, ambitions no different to his own, like many of Tiptree’s stories it makes its point with a thumb heavily pressed on the scales. The central premise – aliens visiting Earth somewhere in the Mexican jungle – is presented without any real commentary, or any interrogation of the trope. Which perhaps weakens the point the story is trying to make. ‘The Women Men Don’t See’ feels like a story which was written as science fiction only because its author wrote science fiction. I don’t really see that as a strength.

‘Debut’, Carol Emshwiller. I would categorise ‘Debut’ as fantasy rather than science fiction, which does make its presence in this anthology somewhat puzzling. A blind princess is taken to the queen after years of being pampered, but the princess is paranoid and tries to stab the queen… who removes the mask blinding the princess so she can now see. But she cannot interpret what she sees and so fails in her assassination attempt. She escapes the palace and takes refuge in a wood… And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in this story. It feels like I’m missing the metaphor. There’s no denying that Emshwiller writes excellent prose, but the obliqueness of her imagination often leaves me foundering.

‘When It Changed’, Joanna Russ. This story describes the time men from Earth arrived on the world of Whileaway thirty generations after the Whileaway men all died in a plague. The Earthmen can’t process an all-female colony, especially one that functions perfectly well without men, and are by turns befuddled or deeply patronising. The narrator shows remarkable restraint. But the women of Whileaway have decided to accept the presence of the men, and reluctantly accept that their way of life may well be over forever. Though the story only suggests the path the future may take for the colony, it’s a far from happy ending – and all the stronger for what it leaves unsaid. This is easily one of Russ’s best short stories.

‘Dead in Irons’, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. This is heartland sf, both in terms of setting, tropes and its politics. Aboard an interstellar starship, stewards look after the passengers, including the frozen steerage ones. The stewards are run like a satrapy by the most brutish and violent steward, and anyone he dislikes or won’t do what he is told is given steerage duty. Shiller has only just joined the ship, and refuses to be Wranswell’s mate, and so is assigned steerage. But she quite likes it there. Wranswell’s previous lover wants to persuade Shiller not to accept Wranswell’s offer and so sabotage’s Shiller’s cold gear, which makes the duty even more onerous and dangerous. Eventually Shiller is waylaid and frozen with the steerage passengers. When she wakes, she discovers the ship is lost and the stewards have eaten all of the steerage passengers. This is not a pleasant read, and it’s, er, hard to swallow a starship crew that is so violent and savage.

‘Building Block’, Sonya Dorman. Norja is a space architect, but has been forced to visit a recall doctor to help retrieve Norja’s forgotten design, the Star Cup, a “radical and innovative” design for a space home. Norja’s business is failing because she is blocked, and even her frequent drinking binges have failed to unlock her memory. But Dr Bassey withholds the tape containing the results of the recall session and demands money for it. So Norja visits a family friend, Dr Moons, and asks for his help in recalling the memory. But once he has a tape of the design, he insists on being paid to hand over the tape. Since she can afford neither person’s demands, Norja decides the Star Cup is lost forever and so throws herself into the design for something new – a multi-occupant space condominium. It proves very successful, and as she leaves it, a contract for a second already signed, she sees a competitor building a Star Cup, and knows that she has just killed the market for single-occupant space homes… I’m not sure which is sillier in this story – that two people would ransom the information they obtained from a memory retrieval operation (and one of them is a medical professional); the whole “space home” thing; or the revelation that one form of space habitat would comprehensively kill the market for other forms. Norja may be a personable narrator, but as science fiction ‘Building block’ is sadly weak.

‘Eyes of Amber’, Joan D Vinge. T’uupieh is a cast-down noble and assassin who has been befriended by a demon, which possesses the eyes of the title. Except it’s not a demon, it’s a space probe from Earth, and T’uupieh is a native of Titan, the moon of Saturn. Although T’uupie’s narrativeh reads like a fantasy – but for the odd details which reveal her to be an alien, such as the mention of wings – Titan’s environment is rendered quite accurately for the story’s time of writing. It’s an impressive piece of worldbuilding. If the male human protagonist, Shannon, who is the sole human capable of communicating with T’uupieh, is a bit wet, that’s a minor flaw – T’uupieh is much more interesting a character. I’m not entirely convinced by the story itself, however. Shannon tries to impose his own morality on T’uupieh, which she roundly rejects. But in the end, she learns a lesson which aligns her moral compass a little more closely with his. But such sentiments were more widely acceptable in the 1970s than they are now – indeed, ‘Eyes of Amber’ won the Hugo Award for best novelette in 1978.

When the conversation turns to influential science fiction anthologies of the past, the ones most usually mentioned are Asimov’s Before the Golden Age series, or some of the New Wave anthologies such as Dangerous Visions or England Swings. I’m surprised the Women of Wonder books are not mentioned in the same breath. It’s hard to say which is the strongest of the three – it’s probably best to get all of them – because they are all very strong collections of short science fiction, and there’s not a dud story in them (though some stories are more successful, or have aged better, than others). It’s only a shame they have not proven as influential as they should have. Perhaps if cyberpunk had never happened, or had been a little more discerning in its choice of inspirations, they might have been. As it is, it took a further twenty years before the series was rebooted. And yet Sargent’s five Women of Wonder anthologies remain outliers in the genre. I have, to date, identified only a further six women-only science fiction anthologies, published between 1976 and 2006 (see here).

That’s not really a record to be proud of.

More Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent

morewomenofwonderMore Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

Why do such a collection at all? Should it not be evident that women can and have written fine science fiction? (p xlvii)

As in the preceding volume, Sargent opens More Women of Wonder with a long and well-argued introduction. The purpose of this book, she tells us, is to showcase longer fiction – novelettes – written by women, as well as include works she couldn’t fit into Women of Wonder. She also gives a potted history of women in the genre, beginning with Francis Stevens and working her way forward through Brackett and Moore and Norton to the careers of “Vonda N. McIntyre, Suzy McKee Charnas, Joan D. Vinge, Marta Randall, Eleanor Arnason, Lisa Tuttle, Brenda Pierce, and Joan Bernott” (p xxiii), one of which appears in More Women of Wonder and only five of which are still writing in the twenty-first century (although Randall had two stories in F&SF in 2007, and McIntyre two in 2005 and a short-short in 2008). While Sargent claims that women were usually readily accepted as writers, the lives of women as a topic for genre stories was far less common, if not actively discouraged:

When one considers the impact that technology has had on human life throughout human history, it is surprising that more writers have not considered the effects such technical tools might have on women’s lives. (p xxxviii)

Sargent then goes on to consider four contemporary sf novels – Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Thomas M Disch’s 334, before veering off to discuss childbirth, the lack of women characters in hard sf – or rather, the lack of women as characters with agency in hard sf – and then commenting on the infrequent mentions of homosexuality in science fictions. It’s not entirely clear what point Sargent is trying to make. That in its early days science fiction did not actively discourage contributions from women? But Norton admits to being told to use a non-gender-specific pseudonym, and both Brackett’s and Moore’s gender is not obvious from their names. That there is still a problem – in 1976, that is – with the role of women in science fiction stories? This is certainly true, and sadly remains true even today. Six of the stories in More Women of Wonder show that it is not wholly true across the genre – which does make you wonder why Sargent chose Brackett’s ‘The Lake of Gone Forever’ – which features two female characters, both of whom are defined by their relationships to male characters. Despite an argument which could have been tighter and more focused, Sargent’s introduction makes a number of valid points and is an interesting read. Indeed, given that so many anthologies’ introductions are just chaff and waffle, Sargent’s are excellent examples of how it should be done.

In the introduction, Sargent quotes CL Moore on the ease with which she sold her first story, ‘Shambleau’: “My own perfectly clear memory tells me that I sent it first to WT because that was the only magazine of the type I knew well, and that an answering acceptance and check… arrived almost by return mail” ( p xxviii), in part to counter claims that women writers in those days found it hard to get published. There is no mention of whether Moore’s covering letter mentioned her gender, or if the editor believed the writer to be male. However, Moore’s ‘Jirel Meets Magic’ (1935) is clearly the product of a woman writer – the title character is a warrior woman, and I know of no male genre writer using female protagonists writing at that time (all of Robert E Howard’s protagonists’, for example, were male). Despite Jirel’s gender, Moore’s first story featuring her was a success and readers demanded more. ‘Jirel Meets Magic’ is the third such, and it’s notable more for the roles men play in it than for its plot or writing. Jirel has sworn revenge on the wizard Guischard after he ambushed and killed some of her men. She storms his castle with some of her soldiers, but the wizard has vanished… through a magic window in a room in a high tower. Jirel follows him, and finds herself in a mysterious land. She immediately stumbles across a sorceress in the act of killing a dryad, and though she doesn’t prevent the murder, the sorceress flees before taking an important talisman – which the dryad gives to Jirel because. Jirel tracks down the sorceress to her lair, where she discovers that her name is Jarisme, and she is extremely powerful, very much more powerful than Guischard who, in a neat role reversal, fawns over her and wibbles fearfully at Jirel’s presence. There then follows a series of dreamlike episodes in which Joiry tracks down Jarisme in a variety of settings and tries to killer her. Because there is a prophecy that Jarisme will die at the hands of someone she let live three times (clue: the meeting over the dying dryad was the first). There’s a sort of fevered colourfulness to ‘Jirel Meets Magic’ – Jarisme, for example, is repeatedly associated with the colour purple – and the prose reads like the sort of cod-olde-time-speeche popular in fantasies of the time: “For a while there was tumult unspeakable there under the archway” (p 3). But there’s also a pulpish relentlessness to Moore’s vision and it’s easy to see why Jirel proved so popular a protagonist. The plot may be straightforward to the point of banality, and the prose style somewhat over-egged for modern tastes, but the story shines in its clever and natural-seeming reversal of gender roles. Jirel does not feel exceptional; nor indeed, does Jarisme.  And that, I think, is this novelette’s greatest strength.

‘The Lake of Gone Forever’ (1949) by Leigh Brackett is, conversely, a very masculine story – as indeed is much of Brackett’s genre output. Rand Conway has persuaded the wealthy Rohan to mount an expedition to the mysterious planet of Iskar. Conway has history with Iskar – his father journeyed to the world, the first and only human to do so, years before and his experiences there made him a broken man, especially something that happened at the eponymous lake. Rohan’s ship finds and lands on Iskar, and Conway leads the way to the nearby village described to him by his late father. But Conway is after the treasure hidden in the Lake of Gone Forever. The Iskarians are not happy to see Conway and his party and initially threaten them, but Conway persuades them to let them stay. Relations quickly sour, Conway sneaks away in the night – with the help of a rebellious young Iskarian woman – and discovers the secret of the Lake of Gone Forever, and a not-especially-hard-to-figure-out truth about himself. ‘The Lake of Gone Forever’ is typical Brackett from start to finish. While the Iskarians do not possess the sense of history with which Brackett managed to imbue her tales of old Mars, and the existence of an unknown – so much so that only one man ever found it – planet in the Asteroid Belt is wildly implausible… Conway is certainly a characteristically two-fisted Brackett hero.

There’s quite a leap in time from the Brackett to Joanna Russ’s ‘The Second Inquisition’ (1970), and much changed in the genre during those intervening twenty years – and not just the role of women in stories, or number of women writing science fiction. For one thing, the Moore stretches the definition of sf well past breaking point, and Brackett’s planetary romances cannot be mapped onto the real Solar System, and by 1970 most science fiction was expected to contain more rigour and more scientific verisimilitude… and certainly not show its pulp roots quite so plainly. So I suppose it must be perversity which led Sargent to choose a time-travel story by Russ which is set in 1925. The narrator is a teenage girl whose parents have taken in a strange lodger, a forthright woman who is allegedly from the circus. She’s not, of course; and it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal she’s from the future. It’s not clear whether she’s a criminal or a rebel, but she is eventually tracked down by a man from her time who tries, and fails, to take her into custody. All witnessed by the narrator. It’s a curiously laid-back story for Russ, and driven not so much by anger as it is by futility. The narrator has seen what the lodger – she is never actually named – can do, has witnessed her independence, her power and intelligence, and rues her own lack of the same. There is a nice conceit throughout the story in which the visitor reads a lurid romance, and encourages the narrator to read it (she, of course, falls in love with the heroine and her lifestyle in the book) – despite the book being banned by her parents, and her mother actually counting the book among her favourites. Whether that’s intended meta-fictionally is open to question, but given Russ’s meta-fictional games in other stories – such as those in The Adventures of Alyx – then it’s likely deliberate. ‘The Second Inquisition’ manages to feel very 1970s without actually containing any details which refer to that decade – in fact, the time-travellers and their equipment manage not to feel at all dated – and which rather than being a weakness only makes it more appealing.

‘The Power of Time’ (1971) by Josephine Saxton also has a very 1970s feel to it, though half of the story is set at its time of writing. The other half is set in the distant future, when some people on Earth possess great power – so much so, in fact, that one of them, the narrator, has decided to transplant Manhattan from the US to Nottinghamshire, just for shits and giggles. Meanwhile, an unnamed housewife in the present day (as was) has won a competition for an all-expenses trip to New York. A succession of male escorts show her about the city, wine and dine her, and engage in sparkling conversation with her. Meanwhile, in the future, Manhattan is shifted in its entirety – including inhabitants – across the Atlantic and placed in the middle of an artificial lake. There’s a lightheartedness to ‘The Power of Time’ which belies the seriousness of its point – the future narrative feels a little flippant, as indicated by the novelette’s opening sentence:

“It shouldn’t present much difficulty if you approach it in a positive way,” I said to the Chief of the Mohawks, Flying Spider. (p 149)

And while such lightness of tone works well for the sections set in the present day (of the story), the flippancy undermines the difficulty of the narrator’s “project” and the seriousness of its consequences. ‘The Power of Time’ reads as though it were written as a comedy rather than a commentary, but it succeeds better at the latter than the former.

It’s near impossible not to think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when reading Kate Wilhelm’s ‘The Funeral’, (1972), even though Wilhelm’s novelette predates Atwood’s novel by thirteen years. Carla is a pupil at an all-girls school in a US very different to the one we know. It’s not entirely clear what happened to create the US of the story – Wilhelm reveals some details in italicised flashbacks, but she leaves much unexplained. Men and women now appear to be separated into different categories by profession. These are “citizens”, who are enfranchised. One such category for women is “Lady”, which is little more than a courtesan. Carla has been made an apprentice Teacher, and the funeral of the title is for Madam Westfall, who invented the educational system which has led to the society depicted in the novelette. Madam Westfall will be buried in state, and Carla is in attendance on the body. But it seems Madam Westfall had a secret, and Carla’s Teacher, Madam Trudeau, who she hates and fears, thinks those girls who waited on Madam Westfall during her last few months – and Carla is one of those girls – know the dead woman’s secret. ‘The Funeral’ is one of those sf stories which impresses more through its world-building than its plot. It’s a stronger piece than others I’ve read by Wilhelm, though some of the vagueness about its setting does work against it.

The ‘Tin Soldier’ (1974) by Joan D Vinge is the first story in More Women of Wonder which might qualify as heartland sf – the Moore is fantasy, the Brackett pulp sf, the Russ is set in the past, part of the Saxton is set in the present day, and the Wilhelm is set in a post-apocalypse USA. ‘Tin Soldier’ has starships and alien worlds and an interstellar human civilisation. It’s also very much about people. Maris, the “tin soldier” of the title, is a retired soldier and a cyborg. He runs a bar also called the Tin Soldier. Because Maris does not age, his bar is popular with crews of visiting starships who travel between worlds AAFAL – Almost As Fast As Light. A trip to another world and back takes them three years, but twenty-five years passes on Oro. Oh, and all starship crew are female, as neither men nor cyborgs (of either gender) can handle AAFAL, as revealed in one of the most egregious examples of info-dumping I’ve come across in sf:

She frowned in concentration. “‘After it was determined that men were physically unsuited to spacing, and women came to a new position of dominance as they momopolized this critical area, the Terran cultural foundation underwent severe strain. As a result, many new and not always satisfactory cultural systems are evolving in the galaxy…'” (p 218)

Because of the time-lag, women cannot form relationships with men on worlds and have a rule of only having sex with a man once – they call them “Tails”. Because Maris is a cyborg, some starship crew occasionally think it is funny to set up new crew with him. As soon as they show interest, he admits to his cyborg nature. Cue laughter. When her shipmates do this to Brandy, she remains interested and Maris privately admits that he’s not wholly a cyborg. Afterwards, the two become friends, and manage to maintain their friendship for almost a century – Brandy visits Oro every twenty-five years, Maris barely ages… though everything else changes. Eventually, their relationship too changes. There is some very nice descriptive prose in ‘Tin Soldier’ and the central relationship is handled well. There’s also a slight Delany-esque atmosphere to the story, though less so in the language used.

‘The Day Before the Revolution’ (1974), Ursula K Le Guin, is actually a short story rather than a novelette, but since in the previous volume, Women of Wonder, Le Guin appeared with a novelette, one of only two in the anthology, that seems fair enough. Back in April of this year at the Eastercon, EightSquaredCon, in Bradford, I was on a panel about older women in science fiction and fantasy, with Rochita Roen-Luiz, Caroline Mullan, Fred Warrington and David Tallerman. I mentioned the story ‘Mab Gallen Recalled’ by Cherry Wilder, which appears in Millennial Women (see review here), but had I known of it I could also have mentioned Le Guin’s ‘The Day Before the Revolution’. Laia Asieo Odo is a famous revolutionary. In her younger years, she wrote a number of seminal revolutionary texts while in prison. Now, she is in her seventies; now, she remembers he husband, who died decades before; now, she remembers the heady days when she was a political agitator. Though there was no revolution, during the story one happens in another nation, and it’s implied that one is about to begin in the city in which Odo lives – and that this revolution eventually leads to the anarchist society on Anarres in Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed. The story is a reflection by Odo on her life, and her thoughts on the position she now holds in the minds of her followers and the public in respect to what she achieved in the past. It paints her as occupying an elder stateswoman sort of role, one she doesn’t really feel she deserves – and she spends much of the story remembering her husband, and how she first met him. It’s a clever juxtaposition of beginnings and endings, but I suspect that putting it last in More Women of  Wonder has done it few favours. Very little actually happens in ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ and it makes for a slow end to the anthology.

In my review of Women of Wonder (see here), I suggested a similar project should be put together now. Of course, it already has been – Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, edited by Justine Larbalestier, published in 2006 by Wesleyan University Press, and containing stories by Clare Winger Harris, Leslie F Stone, Alice Eleanor Jones, Kate Wilhelm, Pamela Zoline, James Tiptree Jr, Lisa Tuttle, Pat Murphy, Octavia E Butler, Gwyneth Jones and Karen Joy Fowler. But that is just one anthology, and published by a university press. Common perception has it that anthologies don’t sell, and yet more than ever seem to be published each year. Admittedly, of late many have used Kickstarter to finance themselves, but even the big publishers put out half a dozen or more themed anthologies each year. Happily, in late 2014 there will be The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, edited by Alex Dally McFarlane. Until then, Pamela Sargent’s five Women of Wonder anthologies – three from the 1970s and two from the 1990s – are worth tracking down. They’re excellent anthologies in their own right, and Sargent’s introductions are worth reading.

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.

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.