Occupy Me is a dazzling intellectual tour de force science fiction novel which keeps you reading , even when (as I often was ) you are not entirely sure what is going. So what it’s about? Well, there is a suitcase which is not really a suitcase; an organisation called the Resistance which may or may not exist ; a stewardess called Pearl who is not really a stewardess, nor is her name really Pearl; a doctor from Nigeria called Kisi Sorle who is sometimes himself and sometimes someone else; a millionaire about to die called Austen Stevens; a pterosaur, a Quetxcoatlus ; a double fridge; some eggs, a giant frog (dead); two big dogs (alive), and a vet called Alison who is indeed called Alison and is indeed a vet. The action takes place in the USA, on an airplane, in mid-air, in Edinburgh, in Paris, in Scandinavia, in a scrapyard, in a Cretaceous era rainforest and in a library, to name a few. To know the rest you will simply have to read it. Highly recommended and I am look forward to reading her other novels.
Ursula Le Guin is one of the most important science fiction writers of the twentieth century, whose works such The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossesed continue to be very influential. Ursula was an activist in the USA in the campaign against the Vietnam War, and The Word for World Is Forest clearly emerged from that experience. Much of the war was fought in forests between the Americans, who had vast military techonology, and the guerilla army of the Vietcong, who had no such weaponry, but were armed instead with an unrelenting desire to be free.
The novel is set on Athshe, a planet entirely covered by forests in which live the Athsheans, a small, peaceful, highly intelligent, humanoid race whose bodies are covered with green fur. The planet is colonised by several thousand Earthmen – who rename it New Tahiti – and begin cutting down the forests and shipping the wood back to Earth. They make virtual slaves of the Athsheans, using them as labourers or for sexual gratification as there few Earth women.
The three main characters are the Earthman Davidson, the Earthman Lyubov, and the Athshean Selver. Davidson is a military man who regards the Athseans (or “creechies” as the colonists call them) with contempt: “the creechies are lazy, they’re dumb, they’re treacherous, and they don’t feel pain”. He personifies the masculine mindset, reflecting to himself: “the fact is the only time a man is really and entirely a man is when he’s just had a woman or killed another man”. Lyubov, by contrast, tries to underestand the Athsheans, their culture of singing , their symbiotic relationship with the forest, and the fact that the Athsheans dream when they are awake as well as when they are asleep.
Davidson rapes Selver’s wife who dies. Selver now realises that the Earthmen intend to destroy the forest, and therefore his people, unless they are stopped – and begins to dream of a way of achieving this. He tells his people:
If we wait a lifetime or two they will breed, their numbers will double or redouble. They kill men and women, they do not spare those who ask life. They cannot sing in contests. They have left their roots behind them, perhaps, in this other forest from which they come, this forest with no trees. So they take poison to let loose the dreams in them, but it only makes them drunk or sick. No one can say whether they ‘re men or or not men , whether they’re sane or insane, but that does not matter. They must be made to leave the forest. If they will not go they must be burned out of the Lands, as nests of stinging-ants must be burned out of of the groves of the city…Tell any people who dream of a city burning to come after me..
Selver co-ordinates attacks from thousands of Athsheans on the Earth settlements , killing many men and women, and setting fire to the buildings. His friend Lyubov dies in one of the attacks. Selver pens the survivors into a compound and negotiates a truce. This is broken by Davidson who organises attacks on the Athshean cities in the forest. Finally, Selver captures him alive, and tells him:
Look Captain Davidson..we’re both gods, you and I. You’re an insane one and I’m not sure whether I’m sane or not, But we are gods…We bring each such gifts as gods bring. You gave me a gift, the gift of killing of one’s kind, murder. Now, as well as I can, I give you the my people’s gift which is not killing. I think we each find each other’s gift heavy to carry.
Davidson is not killed, but put on a treeless island, to live alone. Emissaries from Earth and other planets arrive who prepare to evacuate all the surviving Earth colonists. One of the envoys asks Selver whether Athsheans are now killing Athsheans. Selver replies sombrely :
Sometimes a god comes…He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He bring this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretences. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending now, that we do not know how to kill one another.
As well as the background of the Vietnam War, there are clear resonances in the novel of the way that native Americans were treated by European colonists who raped and killed them and took their land; and the similar experience of the Aborigine peoples of Australia, who also talk of a “dream-time”.
While Selver and Lyubov have some complexity as characters, with Selver feeling that what he has unleashed is dreadful but also feeling that he has not other choice, Davidson is one dimensional, a man in thrall to his own needs and desires – and with no empathy for others. Reflecting some years later Ursula acknowledged this flaw in the novel. “….he is purely evil – and I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist. But my unconscious has other opinions. It looked into itself and produced, from itself, Captain Davidson. I do not disclaim him“.
Whether she intended or not, Ursula’s novel is very much a feminist riposte to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) – written against the backdrop of the Cold War – which imagined a future society in which you can only become a citizen by serving in the military. It is in fact a paean to the alleged virtues of the military “code of honour” , a code unpicked by Ursula in this novel to reveal its true reality: racism and murder.
The Word for World Is Forest had some influence on “Kinda”, a 1982 Doctor Who serial written by Christopher Bailey, his first script for Doctor Who. Like Ursula’s novel “Kinda ” is set in a forest with a people confonting colonists and is a psychological, rather than an action serial, with layers of meaning and a number of spiritual reference. Bailey says that he tried to write it without any people being killed, and that he also named many of the characters after Buddhist words, including the Mara (“temptation”), , Panna (“wisdom”), and Anatta (“without self”). Panna was played by the wonderful Mary Morris who, among many other roles, appeared in the BBC science fiction series A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough as the scientist Madeline Dawnay.
On this blog I usually write about my love of science-fiction, but today I am writing about the desperately sad events in Manchester on Monday evening when 22 people were killed in a bomb explosion at the Manchester Arena at the end of a pop concert.
I came to Manchester in 1973 to go to University and, apart from some sojourns in Liverpool and Bolton, have been living in and around the city ever since.
I have so many memories of going out in Manchester: Captain Beefheart at the Free Trade Hall; the Buzzcocks at the Electric Circus; Rock Against Racism in Alexandra Park; Xray Spex at Rafters; Iggy Pop at The Apollo; the Dexys at the Bridgewater Hall; great theatre at the Library, Contact and Three Minute theatres; great pubs like Tommy Ducks (sadly missed); scruffy clubs like The Continental; eating in the legendary Plaza curry cafe on Upper Brook street ; and countless protest marches, against war, against racism… and in favour of a decent society that values people, not profit.
In his utopian novel The Sorcery Shop, published in 1907, Manchester socialist Robert Blatchford dreamed of a future Manchester of sunshine, beautiful buildings, flowers, children, music and poetry. In this passage he talks about the treatment of children:
The children can find homes in a hundred households. They can take food anywhere. Every house is open, every table free to them, and, still more happily, every heart is open to them also. No child here is denied food, no child is denied instruction, no child is denied love… Nearly every child is taught to draw, to model, or to carve, or to do all those things; and every child is taught to sing, and to dance and draw and carve, and can read and write the universal language, as well as English, before they are in their teens. They pick up other things as well; botany, astronomy, geography, gardening – many things…the children, boys and girls, all swim, and row, and play at cricket and many other games.
and in this passage he describes the centre of this future Manchester…
The great square presented an animated picture of rich colour, and noble form, and eager, happy, human life. The place was a garden: a garden of green lawns, and bright spring flowers, and sparkling fountains, and stately trees – a garden surrounded by marble palaces, and canopied by a blue and smokeless sky. Here the people – the beautiful, brave, impossible people – gathered in their thousands – walking, lounging, laughing, talking, as though the square were occupied by troops of friends.
thanks for listening..
Joanna Russ (1937-2011) was one of the most influential science fiction writers of the second half of the twentieth century. This novel – which takes its title from a phrase quoted by Roman historian Suetonius and allegedly uttered by prisoners in the fighting arena “Caesar, we who about to die salute you, ” – was first published in the UK in the Women’s Press groundbreaking science fiction series. (You can find a full list of the novels in the series here).
So you might expect a novel appearing in a science fiction series to be, well, a science fiction novel. Yet the science fiction element starts and stops on the first two pages in which a group of eight passengers – travelling to another planet by some kind of manipulation of the fabric of space – end up on an unknown planet which might not even be in our own galaxy. So far, so Lost in Space. However, this isn’t a cheery tale of plucky humans bonding together to survive in challenging conditions. Far from it.
In the first half of the book the majority of the survivors, who have no survival skills and are relying on strictly limited supples of food and water, decide that they must carry on and build a “civilisation.” The book’s female narrator, a musicologist and a Quaker, (who records the ensuing events on a voice recorder, perhaps for posterity, perhaps not) responds that “Civilisation is doing fine…We just don’t happen to be where it is.” She believes that the others are deluding themselves and that they should prepare to accept their inevitable death. She sums up their situation to herself:
Goodbye ship, goodbye crew, goodbye books, goodbye freight, goodbye baggage, goodbye computers that could have sent back an instantaneous distress call along the coordinates we came through (provided it had them which I doubt), goodbye plodding laser signal, no faster than other light, that might have reached somewhere, sometime, this time, next time, never. You’ll get around to us in a couple of thousand years.
We’re a handful of persons in a metal bungalow: five women, three men, bedding, chemical toilet, simple tools, an even simpler pocket laboratory, freeze-dried food for six months, and a water -distiller with its own sealed powerpack, good for six months (and cast as a unit, unsuitable for anything else).
At dawn I held hands with the other passengers…although I hate them.
O God, I miss my music.
She also objects to the proposal that the younger women must become pregnant as soon as possible, whether they want to or not and whether they like the man or not. The survivors have reverted to male control, sometimes by violence, with the women sidelined, other than as future mothers. The narrator quickly becomes ostracised and decides to leave the others to their own devices. Or so she hopes.
In the second half of the book the narrator, now on her own, slides into a hallucinatory state as she thinks back to her former radical political activity as a Communist in the “twenties riots” and starts to see people from her distant and more recent past. The end is perhaps predictable from the start.
This is an intelligent, extremely well written novel exploring issues around male and female roles in society and how we should die in a good way, but the science fiction element is a merely a mcguffin to launch the narrative, and having served its need, is swiftly dispensed with. The events could just as easily have taken place on a deserted island after a shipwreck.
Pauline Ashwell was the pseudonym of Pauline Whitby (1928-2015), who wrote a number of science fiction short stories and just two science fiction novels, Unwillingly to Earth (1992) and Project Farcry (1995), both published by Tor. So far as I know neither has been reprinted since , which is a great pity.
Unwillingly to Earth brings together four of Pauline’s short stories: “Unwillingly to School”, published by John Campbell in the January 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction ; “Rats in the Moon” published in the November 1982 issue of Analog; “Fatal Statistics” published in the July 1988 issue of Analog; and finally “The Lost Kafoozalum” published in the October 1960 issue of Analog Science Fact & Fiction. Despite written decades apart they work perfectly as a sequence.
The stories all centre on Lysistrata “Lizzie” Lee, who recounts her various adventures to us in gauche, breathless prose replete with Capital Letters to make sure we get the Point. She’s usually the smartest person in the room, it’s just that the other people don’t know it yet. I would hazard that her spiritual ancestors are Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
The first story “Unwillingly to School” introduces us to Lizzie, the daughter of a former miner who made a lot of a money from mining, and is now a farmer. They live on a small, distant planet Excenus 23 (population 3, 320, 99% men), whose main industry is mining Areopagite. (For some reason I imagine the miners sound like Australians).
Left to her own devices after her father has an accident and has to go to hospital, Lizzie gets into a number of scrapes which means she has to leave the planet for a time. With the help of Dr D J M’Clare, and against her better judgement, she is shipped off to Earth to study Cultural Engineering at the Russet Interplanetary College of Humanities. Cultural Engineering isn’t just a theoretical discipline involving the study of different planetary cultures, it also involves practical fieldwork, as we shall discover.
In the second story “Rats in the Moon” Lizzie goes to the Moon on holiday to visit a friend and gets caught up in a series of events including an explosion, being a suspect in a case of attempted murder, intervening in interplanetary diplomacy, and taking a court case in the Piepowder Court.
In the third Story “Fatal Statistics” Lizzie is sent to do some field work on an obscure planet called Figueroa, but on landing discovers that the planet’s society has collapsed and much of the population has left. Those that are still there – and some visitors – are in dispute over resources. Lizzie has to figure how bring about a peaceful resolution and also get her and her fellow students off the planet in one piece. At one point she is chased by a Cybercrane:
..there is a rending Crash as the roof is knocked sideways and I am left crouched in a corner Staring up at the thing, oh Damn this is a stupid way to die-
The head suddenly jerks back and I hear the sound which means it is Readjusting its legs, I suppose this where I should Review my past life but all I can think of is, I can’t help closing my eyes but I am not going to Scream. …
Then there is a Flare that burns dazzling white even through my eyelids and a most godawful Bang! and then nothing happens and goes on happening until I realise I am not Dead after all.
Just the same it is quite difficult to get my Eyes open; when I do, all I can see past the broken edges of the roof is the Sky.
In the final story “The Lost Kafoozalum” Lizzie, her room-mate and best friend B Laydon (we never discover what the B stands for), and some of her fellow students are brought together by Dr M’Clare to solve a problem on a planet called incognita which has recently been rediscovered. Ingognita was colonised some centuries by humans who are divided into two sides:
The ship that spotted the planet as inhabited did not land, but reported to Central Governmnet who shipped Observers out to take look….The Observers are not named but stated to be graduates of the Cultural Enginering Class.They put in a few month’s work and sent home unanimous Crash Priority Reports the situation is bad, getting worse, and the prognosis is War.
In a group discussion Lizzie comes up with a solution that might stop the war and plays major role in its implementation. However its execution goes wrong and Lizzie has to use every resource at her disposal to put things right, including doing the Dance of the Little Robot. She also comes to a crossroads in her personal life.
This is a lovely book which you should all read – and soon. I do hope it gets back into reprint along with her other work.
The Clockwork Century is a series of interconnected novels set in the 1870s in an alternative United States of America. In this USA the Civil War is still raging on, with the Confederacy slowly losing but not yet defeated, while Texas is an independent Republic. In this world technology is more advanced and (as in all the best steam-punk novels ), there are airships whose crew and captains play a key role in several of the novels. There are also zombies, a genre I usually avoid like the plague so to speak, but in these novels I can put up with them as they are not the main storyline.
It isn’t the steampubnk technology or even the alternative history that makes this such an enjoyable series to read, but the ingenious storylines and the engaging array of characters. Many of the lead characters are women, while others are black, Chinese and Native American. The novels are not direct sequels but are set in the same world and characters from one novel often appear in another.
The first novel is Boneshaker (2009), set in Seattle – not the hip city afloat on coffee that we know from Frasier – but a small, barely known city in the wilds of Washington Territories which suffered a devasting catastrophe when a mechanical underground digging machine – the “Boneshaker” of the title – created by Leviticus Blue undermined the foundations of the city, releasing a yellow posion gas known as ” the blight”. This not only kills but also creates zombies (or “rotters” as the inhabitants call them) who prowl the deserted streets looking for victims. The gas can also be turned into a drug called “sap”. The whole city has been isolated by a huge wall to keep the gas from spreading ; the few inhabitants still left live underground with supplies brought in by airship, while fresh air is supplied by pumps run by the Chinese. We meet an array of characters including a young man Zeke Wilkes (Blue’s son), who enters the city in search of the truth about his father; his mother Briar Wikes, who goes in pursuit of him and knows the secret of the gas outbreak; Captain Andan Cly, an air pirate; and Princess Angelina, a Native American. . The book ends with a dramatic battle for control of the city, and revelations about the “Boneshaker”.
The second novel is Clementine (2010) which introduces as to Belle Boyd, a real historical character who was a spy for the Confederacy. In this alternative world she is in exile in the North, widowed and broke, and goes to work for the Pinkerton detective agency in Chicago. She is sent on a mission on behlaf of the Union army to protect their one of the airships – the Clementine of the title – which is being pursued by air pirate and escaped slave Croggon Hainey (one of the joys of the novels is the names Cherie gives her characters). But as is often the way of such things Belle’s mission takes an unexpected direction…
Dreadnought (2010) is the third novel. We meet Mercy Lynch, a nurse working in a hospital in the South where among the wounded she finds an increasing number affected by “sap”. Learning finally that her husband is dead and that her father has been wounded in Seattle she sets off an epic journey across the frontline eof the war to see him. The “Dreadnought” of the title is an armoured Union train on which she travels for part of her journey and which has a mysterious cargo whose true nature she is desperate to learn. On the way Mercy and her fellow passengers are faced with a life and death struggle when they run into a posse of “rotters”.
The fourth novel is Ganymede (2011), which is set in New Orleans. Josephine Early, a black woman, runs a brothel but is also an agent for the North. Her task is to somehow move an experimental submarine, Ganymede, (which really existed, by the way), hidden in Lake Ponchartrain out of its lair and out to sea. To do she calls upon a former lover, Andan Cly (whom we first met in Seattle), to pilot the submarine. There are of course people desperate to find the submarine and stop it getting into the hands of the North…
The Inexplicables (2012) is the fifth novel which takes us back to the gas-blighted city of Seattle, which comes under attack from a gang which wants to seize control of the supply of “sap”. At the same time the inhabitants of the Underground are disturbed by the appearance of a mysterious creature on the streets.
The final novel in the series is Fiddlehead (2013), which begins in Danville, capital of the South before taking us to Washington DC, the capital of the North. Here the ex-slave and brilliant engineer Gideon Bardsley has built an advanced calculating machine – nicknamed “Fiddlehead – financed by the former President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is in a wheelchair after surviving an assasination attempt. Fiddlehead predicts that the greatest threat to the country is not the war, but the “rotters”. Belle Boyd is sent to protect Lincoln and Bardsley and is caught up in desperate race against time against an enemy who will stop at nothing to keep the war going.
In 2017 I will be trying to post as much as possible about science fiction written by women. So far all the books and television series I have posted about since I started this blog have been written by men, which reflects the nature of the genre for much of the first half of the twentieth century. But things began to change slowly in the 1960s.
One example is Memoirs of a Spaceman by Naomi Mitchison (1897 – 1999), published in 1962. At the age of 65 this was Naomi’s first venture into science fiction: prior to this she was known for her many novels, travelogues and frank autobiography.
Let’s imagine for a minute that you are a man in your early 30s who is a science fiction “afficianado” (not a “fan,” much too vulgar). You have read and enjoyed the work of Wells, Wyndham and Hoyle, men who showed you the Earth threatened by Martians, airships, Triffids, “Bathies”, not forgetting an interstellar gas cloud. On television you have watched and enjoyed 1984, the Quatermass serials, A for Andromeda and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough.
Nothing you have read or seen has shaken your view of society or marriage or sex in the slightest. So you buy a copy of Memoirs of a Spaceman, hoping perhaps for a racy tale of ray-gun toting young women in spacesuits and you sit down in your favourite armchair by the fire, with your favourite pipe and a glass of your favourite malt whisky, and you begin reading… and after a while your world starts to slip sideways, like the Tardis caught in a tractor beam.
The novel begins reflectively:
I think about my friends and the fathers of my children. I think about my children, but I think less about my four dear normals than I think about Viola. And I think about Ariel. And the other. I wonder sometimes how old I would be if I counted the years of time blackout during exploration. It would be an alarming thought if that kind of thought happened to alarm me. Then I begin to wonder how many more voyages I should undertake, supposing of course that i don’t get killed.
Mary is a communications expert whose role on her various voyages to other planets is to establish communication with the alien species they encounter, sometime easily, sometimes traumatically. The space travel involve “time blackouts,” so that many years pass before the space explorers return to Terra (Earth), a phenemenon which at first created problems as she recalls:
Naturally we did not realise at once that time blackout was going to make difficulties. It took a few major scandals to clear that up, and after all the Terran incest taboo has a quite sensible biological basis. Nowadays the parent-child relationship is rather strictly organised so we are not tempted to fall in love with our sons, however much they have grown up during our time blackouts; sometimes, I feel, we are over-conditioned, so that we are not even normally attracted to them in an affectionate way. I should hate that to happen to me. but of course there are also one’s friends’ sons.
However, I know as well as the rest that one shouldn’t let oneself be attracted, and at least all my children’s fathers were in my age group or older. One ought to leave the young alone. How many times I’ve said that to myself! And usually, I will say, acted on it.
Her companions on her voyages include Martians – not the death-dealing monstrosities of Well’s vivid imagination, but highly intelligent, sympathetic small humanoids – who communicate mostly through touch, and change gender depending on circumstances. Mary forms a close relationhip with Vly, who rescues her after an explosion on a planet they are visiting;
Dear Vly was communicating all over with his tongue, fingers, toes and sexual organs. I felt so grateful; it was so kind, so kind of him. More especially when one realises that on a mixed expedition the Martians never wish to communicate with the humans except for strictly technical and scientific purposes. It was with this feeling of gratitude towards him, of tensions easing, that I came to waveringly. Or was it only gratitude? Might it have been something more physiological, less ethereal? Difficult to ascertain.
Mary’s interaction with Vly leads to her ovaries being stimulated, and she gives birth on the journey home to a girl she calls Viola. “This happy and delightful small entity, not entirely human, and yet mine – I remember so well the stab of tenderness towards her! And strangely, oddly, the same tenderness towards Vly.”
This is not the only unorthodox child she has. Mary agrees to a scientific experiment involving grafting alien tissue onto her thigh, which grows into a living organism she calls Ariel after the spirit in The Tempest. By now Ariel was over three feet long. It liked to be as close as possible over the median line reaching now to my mouth and inserting a pseudopodium delicately between my lips and elsewhere…its effect on me was somewhat disconcerting. Eventually Ariel separates completely from Mary as though she had given birth. The experiment seems to be a success, but then Ariel dies, and Mary feels grief for the dead organism.
In between her voyages Mary also has children with Terrans, choosing the fathers sometimes for their intelliegence, sometimes for sensuous reasons. She is attracted, for instance, to T’o M’kasi because of his hair :“the delightful heather spring of the different hair tensions tingling against one’s digital nerves as no flaccid blond hair does.”
Mary recounts her exploits on various planets and on Terra in chatty and frank way, as though you were having lunch together in a Cheltenham teashop. Memoirs of a Spaceman is an intellectually dazzling exploration of relationships (human and alien), sexuality (human and alien) and the joys and difficulties of communication (human and alien). Naomi Mitchison’s novel bears almost no relationship to the kind of novels being produced by her male contemporaries: put simply, it’s decades ahead of them and it’s unsurprising that it was reprinted in 1985 by The Women’s Press in their science fiction series. You can find a complete list of the novels in that series here.