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It’s a gas, gas, gas….In the Days of the Comet by H G Wells (1906)

In-The-Days-Of-The-Comet-H.G.Wells-First-Edition

In the Days of The Comet takes  us down one path, a narrative of a love triangle, but then half way through unexpectedly   races off down another.

In the short prologue  we are introduced  to an old man who tells  us,  “I have  set myself to write the story of the Great Change, so far as it has affected my own life and the lives of one or two people closely connected with me, primarily to please myself.” The narrative that follows  is therefore peppered with his comments from the perspective of the future.

You must understand--and every year it becomes increasingly difficult
to understand--how entirely different the world was then from what
it is now. It was a dark world; it was full of preventable disorder,
preventable diseases, and preventable pain, of harshness and stupid
unpremeditated cruelties; but yet, it may be even by virtue of
the general darkness, there were moments of a rare and evanescent
beauty that seem no longer possible in my experience. The
great Change has come for ever more, happiness and beauty are our
atmosphere, there is peace on earth and good will to all men. None
would dare to dream of returning to the sorrows of the former time,
and yet that misery was pierced, ever and again its gray curtain was stabbed through and through by joys 
of an intensity, by perceptionsof a keenness that it seems to me are now altogether gone out of life. Is
it the Change, I wonder, that has robbed life of its extremes, or is it perhaps only this, that youth has left me--even the strength of middle years leaves me now--and taken its despairs
and raptures, leaving me judgment, perhaps, sympathy, memories?

The old man is Willie Leaford,  fifty years ago a   young man living in the Potteries, a socialist angry at the world who is love with Nettie. Leaford loses his job while Nettie throws him over for Edward Verrall, a wealthy young man,  and they elope.

I had grown so accustomed to think of Nettie as inseparably
mine--the whole tradition of "true love" pointed me to that--that
for her to face about with these precise small phrases toward
abandonment, after we had kissed and whispered and come so close
in the little adventurous familiarities of the young, shocked me
profoundly. I! I! And Rawdon didn't find me indispensable either.
I felt I was suddenly repudiated by the universe and threatened
with effacement, that in some positive and emphatic way I must at
once assert myself. There was no balm in the religion I had learnt,
or in the irreligion I had adopted, for wounded self-love.

Willie buys a revolver and pursues them to the coast. So far so conventional. But these  personal  events are taking place against a background of two momentous events.

Firstly, the approach  to the earth of a comet:

Comet

...the comet which had been on the first occasion only a dubious speck 
in the sky, certainly visible only when it was magnified, was 
now a great white presence, brighter than Jupiter, and casting a shadow
 on its own account. It was now actively present in the world of human
 thought, every one was talking about it, every one was looking
 for its waxing splendor as the sun went down--the papers, the 
music-halls, the hoardings, echoed it.

Leaford,  in conversation with his fellow socialist Parload,  invokes the comet:

We were presently abroad, walking through the warm summer's night
and talking all the more freely for that. But one thing that I
said I can remember. "I wish at times," said I, with a gesture at
the heavens, "that comet of yours or some such thing would indeed
strike this world--and wipe us all away, strikes, wars, tumults,
loves, jealousies, and all the wretchedness of life!"

Secondly, the outbreak of war with Germany in which battleships fight each other along the  very coast where Leaford is in pursuit of the lovers:

On, on! I groaned with the violence of my effort. I staggered
again and swore. I felt the concussions of great guns tear past me
through the murk.

They were gone! Everything was going, but I kept on running. Once
more I stumbled. There was something about my feet that impeded
me, tall grass or heather, but I could not see what it was, only
this smoke that eddied about my knees. There was a noise and spinning
in my brain, a vain resistance to a dark green curtain that was
falling, falling, falling, fold upon fold. Everything grew darker
and darker.

I made one last frantic effort, and raised my revolver, fired my
penultimate shot at a venture, and fell headlong to the ground.
And behold! the green curtain was a black one, and the earth and
I and all things ceased to be.

The whole of humanity  is put to sleep by a green gas created by the comet. Leaford awakes after several hours:

What was this place? How had I come to be sleeping here?

I could not remember.

It perplexed me that somehow my body felt strange to me. It was
unfamiliar--I could not tell how--and the barley, and the beautiful
weeds, and the slowly developing glory of the dawn behind; all
those things partook of the same unfamiliarity. I felt as though
I was a thing in some very luminous painted window, as though this
dawn broke through me. I felt I was part of some exquisite picture
painted in light and joy.

The comet gas wipes away the desire for violence and war,  for competition  and even for countries. A world state is created, while the old grimy smoke-ridden cities are torn down  and rebuilt for beauty alone.

All these vast cities have given way and gone, even as my native
Potteries and the Black Country have gone, and the lives that were
caught, crippled, starved, and maimed amidst their labyrinths, their
forgotten and neglected maladjustments, and their vast, inhuman,
ill-conceived industrial machinery have escaped--to life. Those
cities of growth and accident are altogether gone, never a chimney
smokes about our world to-day, and the sound of the weeping of
children who toiled and hungered, the dull despair of overburdened
women, the noise of brute quarrels in alleys, all shameful pleasures
and all the ugly grossness of wealthy pride have gone with them,
with the utter change in our lives. As I look back into the past
I see a vast exultant dust of house-breaking and removal rise
up into the clear air that followed the hour of the green vapors,
I live again the Year of Tents, the Year of Scaffolding, and like
the triumph of a new theme in a piece of music--the great cities
of our new days arise. Come Caerlyon and Armedon, the twin cities
of lower England, with the winding summer city of the Thames between,
and I see the gaunt dirt of old Edinburgh die to rise again white
and tall beneath the shadow of her ancient hill;

The gas hasaslo  wiped away jealousy,  and Willie becomes friends with Nettie and Edward. In time Willie begins a relationship with Anna and they have a child. But towards  the end of the novel Nettie comes to him,   and they recognise that they are still in love.  She  suggests a new kind of relationship in which the two couples share a home: “… we four from that time were very close, you understand, we were friends, helpers, personal lovers in a world of lovers.”

This is  the part of the novel that shocked some Edwardian readers, and  even some members of the Fabian Society of which Wells was a  leading figure,

Strip away the love triangle  and In the Days of the Comet  boils down to a vehicle for Wells to advance his critique  of early C20th industrial capitalism and his remedies eg the world state, a notion  that he was to return to in later novels and other  writings. The first half of the novel has life , whereas the second half is curiously lifeless, a common fault of Utopian novels I have discovered.

You can read the novel online here.

Adam Roberts has written a short sequel to the novel called In the Night of the Comet in which a second comet reverses the changes. Oh dear…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The old man i

 

 

 

 

 

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A short holiday in Utopia: Men Like Gods by H G Wells (1923)

Men Like GodsIn Men Like Gods H G Wells takes us to his vision of Utopia. He follows in the wake of a number of other Utopian novels by socialists including  Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy,  News from Nowhere by William Morris, The Sorcery Shop by Robert Blatchford and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

The novel’s hero Mr Barnstaple is a typical Wellsian hero, an ordinary man who gets caught up in extraordinary events like Bert Smallways in Wells’ 1908 novel The War in the Air.

At the start  of the novel Mr Barnstaple is feeling stifled by his family;

He was a man of strong natural affections; he loved his family extremely
so that he knew it by heart, and when he was in these jaded moods it  bored him acutely. His three sons, who were all growing up, seemed to get leggier and larger every day; they sat down in the chairs he was just going to sit down in; they played him off his own pianola; they filled the house with hoarse, vast laughter at jokes that one couldn’t demand to be told; they cut in on the elderly harmless flirtations that had hitherto been one of his chief consolations in this vale; they beat  him at tennis; they fought playfully on the landings, and fell downstairs by twos and threes with an enormous racket. Their hats were everywhere. They were late for breakfast. They went to bed every night in a storm of uproar: “Haw, Haw, Haw–bump!” and their mother seemed to like it. They all cost money, with a cheerful disregard of the fact that everything had gone up except Mr. Barnstaple’s earning power.

He manages to escape  on a holiday on his own, but as he is  quietly motoring along near Windsor  he suddenly  finds himself  plucked into  another world, the result of a scientific experiment  that has gone wrong. A number of other cars have also been transported,  his companions in this new world include a Lord, a Cabinet Minister,  an entrepreneur, a Catholic priest and  a society beauty.

The visitors  dub this new world “Utopia” and the  barely clothed inhabitants “Utopians.”  The Utopians  have advanced technology and live  in a world of mountains, meadows and lakes  from which  war, disease and  poverty have been banished.

As they approached these mountains, broad stretches of golden corn-land  replaced the green of the pastures and then the cultivation became more diversified. He noted unmistakable vineyards on sunny slopes,  and the number of workers visible and the habitations multiplied. The little squadron of aeroplanes flew up a broad valley towards  a pass so that Mr. Barnstaple was able to scrutinize the mountain scenery. Came chestnut woods and at lastpines. There were Cyclopean turbines athwart the mountain torrents and long, low, many-windowed buildings that might serve some industrial purpose. A skilfully graded road with exceedingly bold, light and beautiful viaducts  mounted towards the pass. There were more people, he thought, in  the highland country than in the levels below, though still far
fewer than he would have seen upon any comparable countryside on earth.

Once their guests have been made comfortable, the Utopians –  Urthred, Lychnis, Serpentine and others –  explain the history of their society in a very lengthy  exposition.  It seems they are  thousand years in advance of Earth, having evolved from  what they called “The Age of Confusion”, an era  very similar to Earth in the C20th.  The world is a single entity with no countries,  no central government and no private property.

“We have been through that stage. We found at last that private property in all but very personal things was an intolerable nuisance
to mankind. We got rid of it. An artist or a scientific man has complete control of all the material he needs, we all own our tools
and appliances and have rooms and places of our own, but there is no property for trade or speculation. All this militant property,
this property of manoeuvre, has been quite got rid of. But how we got rid of it is a long story. It was not done in a few years.
The exaggeration of private property was an entirely natural and necessary stage in the development of human nature. It led at last
to monstrous results, but it was only through these monstrous and catastrophic results that men learnt the need and nature of the
limitations of private property.”

After many cycles of  rapid growth followed by decline and  catastrophe, the Utopians evolved a new form of society as a Utopian explains:

 He made it clear that the change over in Utopian affairs had been no sudden revolution. No new system of laws and customs, no new method of economic co-operation based on the idea of universal service to the common good, had sprung abruptly into being complete and finished. Throughout a long period, before and during the Last Age of Confusion, the foundations of the new state were laid by a growing multitude of inquirers and workers, having no set plan or preconceived method, but brought into unconscious co-operation by
a common impulse to service and a common lucidity and veracity of mind. It was only towards the climax of the Last Age of Confusion in
Utopia that psychological science began to develop with any vigour, comparable to the vigour of the development of geographical and
physical science during the preceding centuries. And the social and economic disorder which was checking experimental science and crippling the organized work of the universities was stimulating inquiry into the processes of human association and making it
desperate and fearless.

The  visitors have brought bacteria  with them –  unknown in this world –  leading to sickness  and death among the Utopians. They are  thetrefore placed in quarantine  in a castle on a crag. Here the novel (in which frankly not a great deal has been happening up to now ) changes gear slightly  moving into a satire on  the  colonial reflexes of Europeans. Only Mr Barnstaple has fully accepted what he has seen,   the rest regard the Utopians as weak and decadent, ripe for takeover.  Mr Catskill  (a character apparently based on Winston Churchill) explains  his plans:

“They will not know what to do. Do not be deceived by any outward shows of beauty and prosperity. These people are living, as the
ancient Peruvians were living in the time of Pizarro, in an enervating dream. They have drunken the debilitating draught of
Socialism and, as in ancient Peru, there is no health nor power of will left in them any more. A handful of resolute men and women who
can dare–may not only dare but triumph in the face of such a world. And thus it is I lay my plans before you…We have to turn this prison into a capitol, into the first foothold of mankind in this world. It is like a foot thrust into a reluctant door that must never more close upon our race.”

They intend to take hostages as a first step, but only succeed in killing several Utopians. Mr Barnstaple escapes as the Utopians encircling the crag  with a power cable. As they do so Mr Barnstaple notices something above :

Abruptly something black and spear-shaped appeared beside the little group of Earthlings above. It seemed to jump up beside them, it
paused and jumped again half the height of a man and jumped again. It was a flag being hauled up a flag staff, that Mr. Barnstaple had
not hitherto observed. It reached the top of the staff and hung limp.

Then some eddy in the air caught it. It flapped out for a moment, displayed a white star on a blue ground and dropped again. This was the flag of earth–this was the flag of the crusade to restore the blessings of competition, conflict and warfare to Utopia. Beneath it appeared the head of Mr. Burleigh, examining the Utopian coils through his glasses…

The throbbing and humming in Mr. Barnstaple’s ears grew rapidly louder and rose acutely to an extreme intensity. Suddenly great
flashes of violet light leapt across from coil to coil, passing through Quarantine Castle as though it was not there.

For a moment longer it was there.

The flag flared out madly and was torn from its staff. Mr. Burleigh lost his hat. A half length of Mr. Catskill became visible
struggling with his coat tails which had blown up and enveloped his head. At the same time Mr. Barnstaple saw the castle rotating upon
the lower part of the crag, exactly as though some invisible giant had seized the upper tenth of the headland and was twisting it
round.

And then it vanished.

The imperial  adventure is over.  At the end  of the  novel the Utopians succeed in returning Mr Barnstaple to his own world, and he returns home, wiser and more thoughtful,  where his wife notices that he has grown several inches taller.

She looked up into his eyes. As though she was very glad indeed to have him back with her.

But Mr. Barnstaple remained lost in thought. “It must be the extreme freshness of the air. I have been in some wonderful air….
Wonderful!… But at my age! To have grown! And I _feel_ as though I’d grown, inside and out, mind and body.”…

Mrs. Barnstaple presently began to put the tea-things together for removal.

“You seem to have avoided the big towns.”

“I did.”

“And kept to the country roads and lanes.”

“Practically…. It was all new country to me…. Beautiful….
Wonderful….”

His wife still watched him.

“You must take me_there some day,” she said. “I can see that it has done you a world of good.”

The problem with Utopian novels is that  they are little more guidebooks to an imagined future, and thus  barely function as novels at all, making them quite dull.  Men like Gods  has a little more incident  than most, which is not saying  a great deal.  It’s an unfortunate truth that dystopian novels are usually much more readable eg  Wells’ earlier novel The Sleeper Awakes.  Apparently Aldous Huxley was moved to write Brave New  World  (1932) after reading Men Like Gods, writing to a friend, “I am writing a novel about the future — on the horror of the Wellsian Utopia and a revolt against it. Very difficult. I have hardly enough imagination to deal with such a subject. But it is none the less interesting work.”

In its very enthusastic  review of Men Like Gods  the Manchester Guardian said:

The charm and absorbingness of this novel may be taken for granted. It is most remarkable. No other writer could have achieved a smilar triumph. Mr Wells has always been able to see clearly and with beauty into a  highly sanitary ideal world. He can do this because  of  his really passionate love of human-kind  and desire for the betterment  of its lot. His hatred of contemporary squalors, of the system of greed and squalor and sprawling ineffectiveness  which  makes the world a sprawling mess, is so intense that to  Mr Wells restless and reforming spirit passive endurance is impossible. He must attack and destroy and rebuild – the process being one continuous movement  of his immense vital energy….The author’s passion for education, for knowledge and health have never been more brilliantly expressed. ..It is full of fine thinking and fine understanding. 

You can read Men like Gods  online here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire from the skies: Hartmann the Anarchist or The Doom of a Great City by E Douglas Fawcett (1893)

I had never heard of this novel until I bought a copy a couple of months ago at the Bristol Radical History Festival. It been reprinted by Tangent Books after many years out of print.  Fawcett was just 17 when he write this account of an attack by an anarchist  airship on London.

The novel is set in 1920, the main protagonist Stanley is a reformist socialist, opposed to  the violence of the anarchist groups whose views are gaining  traction. The most notorious is Hartmann  who tried to  blow up  the German Crown Prince when he was in London, but killed 50  passers-by instead. He is believed drowned at sea when trying to escape,  but Stanley discovers he is alive. In the company of the anarchist journalist Burnett he is taken on board an advanced airship the Attila,  built by Hartmann in Switzerland,  and with which  he plans to attack London. Stanley meets Hartmann at last:

Seated before a writing-desk, studded with knobs of electric bells and heaped with maps and instruments, sat a bushy-bearded man with straight piercing glance and a forehead physiognomists would have envied. There was the same independent look, the same cruel hardness that had stamped the mien of the youth, but the old impetuous air had given way to a cold inflexible sedateness, far more appropriate to the dread master of the Attila. As I advanced into the room, he rose, a grand specimen of manhood, stand- ing full six feet three inches in his shoes. He shook hands more warmly than I had expected, and motioned me tacitly to a seat.

Hartmann tells Stanley of his plans:

“But, understand, the day when the first bomb falls will witness outbreaks in every great city in Europe. We have some 12,000 adherents in London, many more in Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere— they will stir the tumult below. Lon-don is my objective to start with. During the tem-pests of bombs, the anarchists below will fire the streets in all directions, rouse up the populace, and let loose pandemonium upon earth. In the confu-sion due to our attack, order and precautions will be impossible.

The Attila runs up a flag “Thus Returns Hartmann the Anarchist” and begins the attack on the Houses of Parliament

Horror of horrors, the great tower had fallen on the crowd, bruising into jelly a legion of buried wretches, and beating into ruins the whole mass of buildings opposite. Every outlet from the neighbourhood was being furiously fought for, hordes of screaming, shrieking madmen were fatting, crushing and stamping their victims into heaps, and with the growth of each writhing heap the ghastly confusion grew also. Of the Houses of Parliament pinnacles were collapsing and walls were being riven asunder as the shells burst within them. But this spectacle, grievous of its kind, was as nothing to the other. With eyes riveted now to the massacre, I saw frantic women trodden down by men ; huge clearings made by the shells and instantly filled up ; house-fronts crushing horses and vehicles as they fell ; fires bursting out on all sides, to devour what they listed, and terrified police struggling wildly and helplessly in the heart of the press. The roar of the guns was continuous, and every missile found its billet. Was I in Pandemonium ? I saw Burnett, black with grime, hounding his comrades on to the slaughter. I heard the roar of Schwartz’s bombs, and the roar of the burning and falling houses. Huge circles of flame raved beneath us, and shot up their feverish and scorching breath. The Attila drunk with slaughter, was careering in continually fresh tracts, spreading havoc and desolation everywhere.

Stanley manages to escape from the Attila  which  in the end is destroyed by Hartmann himself after receiving a letter  from his dying mother and realising that Londoners are not rallying to his cause:

… a crash shattering the window-panes and deadening the car, a shock hurling us both on our backs, broke the utterance. Then thundered down a shower of massive fragments, fragments of the vast ship whose decks I had once trodden. Hartmann, dismayed with the failure of his plans and rendered desperate by the letter, had blown up the Attila ! The news of his failure and the message of a dying woman had done what human hatred was too impotent even to hope for.

The novel finishes thus;

But little more remains to be said. You are conversant with the story of the next few days. You know also how order was once more completely re- established, how the wreckage of that fell twenty-four hours was slowly replaced by modern buildings, how gradually the Empire recovered from the shock, and how dominant henceforth became the great problems of labour. My own connection with these latter was not destined to endure. After my marriage with Lena, my interests took a different turn. Travel and literary studies left no room for the surlier duties of the demagogue. Writing from this quiet German retreat I can only hope that my brief narrative will prove of some interest to you. It has not been my aim to write history. I have sought to throw light only on one of its more romantic corners, and if I have succeeded in doing so, the whole purpose of my efforts will have been accomplished.

Fawcett was clearly a fan of Jules Verne, one of the most popular fantasy authors of the C19th.  In particular it seems to me that Hartmann draws  heavily on Verne’s 1870 novel,   20,000 Leagues Under the Seain which Captain  Nemo commands  an advanced submarine that can travel the world’s oceans unchallenged and on occasions  attacks and sinks ships.

 

 

 

You can read this novel on line here.

A country without men: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

Originally published in the USA in 1915, Herland was published in the Women’s Press science  fiction series in 1986,  with an introduction  by Ann J Lane.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935)  was a suffragist, a socialist, a writer on women in society  eg Women and Economics,   and a  poet,  amongst  many  other  things. She   defied social  convention by leaving her husband and getting a divorce,  earning her own living  by running a boarding house and later  by travelling the country as  lecturer.  a Charlotte  ended her own life with chloroform in 1935  after being diagnosed with cancer.

Herland first appeared in monthly instalments in Gilman’s magazine  The Forerunner which she wrote entirely herself, comprising critical articles, book  reviews, essays, poetry and fiction. It was the second  in a trilogy of utopian  novels  –  Moving the Mountain, Herland and With Her in Outland  -w hich  challenged the social mores of her own time, specifically  the role of women in society,  how they treated by men and what femininity and masculinity really meant when examined dispassionately.

Herland begins with three  male travellers   – Vandyck, Terry and Jeff  – flying by biplane  to a land  of women  that they had  had heard rumours of.  It  is Vandyck’s account of their adventure that we are reading. After landing  they encounter their first women:

We saw short hair, hatless, loose, and shining; a suit of some light firm stuff, the closest of  tunics and kneebreeches, met by trim garters.  As bright and smooth as parrots and as unaware of danger, they swung before us, wholly at ease, staring as we stared, till first one, and all of them burst into peals of delighted laughter.

Making their way  to a town of fine stone buildings, set among tilled fields and tended gardens, they meet a crowd of older  women:

They were not young. they were not old. They were not, in the girl sense, beautiful. They were not in the  least  ferocious. And yet, as I looked, from face to face, calm,  grave,  wise , wholly unafraid, evidently assured and determined, I had the funniest feeling…It was the sense  of being hopelessly in the wrong that I had often felt in early youth…We felt like small boys, caught doing some mischief in some gracious lady’s house.

When they refuse to go into a building  resisting,  and even firing  a shot in the air,  they are  seized  by the women and bundled in. ” We were borne inside, struggling manfully, but held secure most womanfully, in spite of our  best endeavours.” It’s  the first of many  demolitions by Gilman  of male authority, in this  case the supposed superior strength of men.

Held  captive in congenial  surroundings over the next few months they learn the language of the women  – and teach their own to thrree women, Somel,  Zava and Moadine. Faced with a new kind of society they flounder,  with   Jeff observing, “They don’t seem to notice our being men…they treat us – well – just as they do one another. It’s as if being men was a minor accident.”

They learn that  there have been no men in this country for two thousand years, but after they died off the women left began giving birth to girls.  The ideal of “motherhood” is the centre  of the civilisation, the women worship a Mother Goddess. You see, they had had  no wars. They had had no kings, and no priests, and no priests, and no aristocracies. They were sisters – and as they grew  together – not by competition, but by united action.

In these  session the gentle  but  persistent  questioning of the women   exposes the  hypocrisies of the society of 1915, despite the  stuttering  efforts of the men to justify the status quo.   The women  are shocked at the treatment  of cattle,  and the way that dogs  are left to roam the street at will.  They are puzzled that  many women  work and yet are  still poor, and have the most children.  Moadine explains

The children in this country  are the one center and focus of all our thoughts. Every stage of our advance is always considered in its effect on them  – on the race. You see, we are Mothers, she repeated, as if in that she had said it all.

Terry rejects this. “it’s impossible!” he would insist, “Women cannot coooperate, it’s against nature.”…Terry had to learn a good  many  things he did not want to…Terry’s idea of motherliness was the usual one, involving a babe in arms;  a motherliness which  dominated soiety, which  influenced every  art and  industry, which  absolutrely  protected all  childhood, and gave it the most perfect care and training, did not seem motherly – for Terry.

Eventually  the three men are considered  safe enough to be let out to see the country, accompanied by their three  tutors. It is the size of Holland with a population of three million. Vandyck contrasts  the reality of what they see with what they had imagined:

We had expected them to be given over to what we called “feminine vanity”–“frills and furbelows,” and we found they had evolved a costume more perfect than the Chinese dress, richly beautiful when so desired, always useful, of unfailing dignity and goodtaste.

We had expected a dull submissive monotony, and found a daring sociali nventiveness far beyond our own, and a mechanical and scientific development fully equal to ours.

We had expected pettiness, and found a social consciousness besides which our nations looked like quarreling children–feebleminded ones at that.

We had expected jealousy, and found a broad sisterly affection, a fair-minded intelligence, to which we could produce no parallel.

We had expected hysteria, and found a standard of health and vigor, a calmness of temper, to which the habit of profanity, for instance, was impossible to explain–we tried it.

...What left us even more at sea in our approach was the lack of any sex-tradition. There was no accepted standard of what was “manly” and what was “womanly.

…They loved their country because it was their nursery, playground, and workshop–theirs and their children’s. They were proud of it as a
workshop, proud of their record of ever-increasing efficiency; they hadmade a pleasant garden of it, a very practical little heaven; but most of all they valued it–and here it is hard for us to understand them–as a cultural environment for their children.

The three men do succeed  in starting relationships with three women, the women they had  first met on landing:  Jeff  with Celis, Vandyck with  Ellador,  Terry with  Alima. However the women  have a  very different  idea of what is going on, and what the future might hold:

To these women we came, filled with the ideas, convictions, traditions,of our culture, and undertook to rouse in them the emotions which–to us–seemed proper. However much, or little, of true sex-feeling there was between us, it phrased itself in their minds in terms of friendship, the one purely personal love they knew, and of ultimate parentage. Visibly we were not mothers, nor children, nor compatriots; so, if they loved us, we must be friends.

Despite this,  the six are “married” at the  insistence of the men in  a ceremony  they have made up,  attended by a vast,  curious   crowd. The women refuse to change their name those of their  “husbands,” though, and have no concept of what being  “a wife” in the men’s terms means. They  carry on with their work as foresters, and  reject the notion of living with their “husbands” in a separate house.

We ARE alone, dear,” Ellador explained to me with gentle patience. “We are alone in these great forests; we may go and eat in any little
summer-house–just we two, or have a separate table anywhere–or even have a separate meal in our own rooms. How could we be aloner?”

This was all very true. We had our pleasant mutual solitude about our work, and our pleasant evening talks in their apartments or ours; we had, as it were, all the pleasures of courtship carried right on; but we had no sense of–perhaps it may be called possession.

“Might as well not be married at all,” growled Terry. “They only got up that ceremony to please us–please Jeff, mostly. They’ve no real idea of being married.”

Then  there is the question of sex. Vandyck discusses this  with Ellador.

Then I did my earnest best to picture to her the sweet intense joy of married lovers, and the result in higher stimulus to all creative work.

“Do you mean,” she asked quite calmly, as if I was not holding her cool firm hands in my hot and rather quivering ones, “that with you, when people marry, they go right on doing this in season and out of season,with no thought of children at all?”

“They do,” I said, with some bitterness. “They are not mere parents. They are men and women, and they love each other.”

“How long?” asked Ellador, rather unexpectedly.

“How long?” I repeated, a little dashed. “Why as long as they live.” …She was silent, thinking.

…“If I thought it was really right and necessary, I could perhaps bring myself to it, for your sake, dear; but I do not want to–not at all. You would not have a mere submission, would you? That is not the kind of high romantic love you spoke of, surely? It is a pity, of course, that
you should have to adjust your highly specialized faculties to our unspecialized ones.”

Whilst Vandyck reluctantly accepts this comradely  non-sexual relationsship. Terry  will not. “You needn’t talk to me,” he snapped at Jeff one day, just before our weddings. “There never was a woman yet that did not enjoy being MASTERED. All your pretty talk doesn’t amount to a hill o’beans–I KNOW.”   Terry  tries to take Alima by force.

It did not work. I got a pretty clear account of it later from Ellador, but what we heard at the time was the noise of a tremendous struggle,
and Alima calling to Moadine. Moadine was close by and came at once; one or two more strong grave women followed.

Terry dashed about like a madman; he would cheerfully have killedt hem–he told me that, himself–but he couldn’t. When he swung a chair over his head one sprang in the air and caught it, two threw themselves bodily upon him and forced him to the floor; it was only the work of a few moments to have him tied hand and foot, and then, in sheer pity for his futile rage, to anesthetize him.

Alima wants Terry killed but instead, after a trial,   he is sentenced to being expelled from the country. Jeff elects to stay with Celis.  Vandyck also decides to go accompanied by Ellador and what happens  when they go to the USa is recounted in the sequel With Her in Outland.

Herland is an  elegant sustained  attack  by Gilman on the received wisdom of her own  era, the notion that men and women  are destined by their   biology to play very  different roles in society; that men are naturally  destined to rule over women; that men are athletic whilst women are delicate; that men are the explorers, philosophers and   scientists while women are the homemakers and nurturers. It also confronts an ugly truth; that the supposed chivalry shown by men  towards  women  is a charade and can be torn aside  in a moment. Gilman  suggests that “masculinity” and “femininity” are entirely social constructs which could be changed so that we could  become human beings who happen to be  of different genders.

Forgotten for many years, Herland was rediscovered by  the 1970s feminist  movement  as were many of Gilman’s  other writings such as The Yellow Wallpaper.

You can read Herland online here.

 

 

 

 

 

“Mrs Peel, we’re needed”: Passing for Human by Jody Scott (1986)

Passing for Human  was published in 1986  in  the Women’s Press science  fiction series.

This is a roller coaster  of a read, which   hits the road at speed  on page one  with  our  alien heroine   Benaroya racing down a Californian highway  in a stolen Mustang, outrunning the highway cops,  and engaging in a speed  duel with another motorist which ends in her rival’s Lotus  crashing and exploding, “Metal, glass and bits of human flesh rained down for hundred yards in every direction.” Ouch.

Benaroya  is an anthropologist, a member of the Rysemian race sent to Earth to assist in the construction of an intergalactic rapid transit system. Their spaceship  is in orbit above the Earth.

Preparing for this expedition, the Rsyemians had obtained several hundred Earthie movies including “The Godfather,” “Marked Women,”, “Duck Soup” and “You Were Never Lovelier.” They had analyzed and studied these films meticulously. They observed that humanity was epitomized in such specimens as Jack Oakle, Ronald  Reagan, Rochelle Hudson and  Hattie McDaniel. The mannerisms and speech patterns, songs and dances of many celebrities  had been carefully memorized.  and since the Rysemains were telepaths and could awlays probe to find out what was expected, fitting in would be no problem.

The Rysemians, who are large  aquatic dolphin-like creatures,  are able  to  disguise themselves as “Earthies,” changing bodies as easily  as changing a dress. Benaroya thus  spends part of the novel  as Emma Peel from The Avengers (which is why Emma Peel appears on the cover).

They face an enemy,  Scaulzo,  who is planning to takeover the   Earth, a task  which  the Rysemians think will be easy for him. 

Large crude, stupid, barbaric  males with criminal tendencies are worshipped. Flattering movies about them are churned out by the hundreds. They  run government, busines, religion, sport and  crime, which are actually  all the same thing.

The action moves around the globe like a Bond m0vie as Benaroya (now disguised as Virginia Woolf and packing a gun) and Scaulzo  move towards  their final confrontation.

Humour and satire  in science fiction is hard to get right (which is why Douglas Adams was a genius), but  for me this novel works.

 

You’ll believe a woman can fly…The Wanderground by Sally Miller Gearhart (1985)

The Wanderground  was published in Britain  in 1985  in the  Women’s  Press science  fiction series. 

Sally Miller Gearheart was born in 1931 in the Appalachians in Virginia, where she was raised by her grandmother, who owned a cinema.  She received an MA in Theatre and Rhetoric in 1953 and a Ph.D in theatre in 1956. Sally  taught in various colleges in Texas before establishing a women’s studies programme at San Francisco State University, one of the first in the USA.  She was very active in lesbian rights campaigns in the 1970s,  and in the successful  campaign to defeat Proposition 6 which, if passed,  would have barred lesbians  and gay men from teaching in schools.   The Wanderground was originally published by Persephone Press in 1979 in the USA.

The Wanderground is  not a single  narrative,  but a series of overlapping stories, mostly set in the  hills (the Wanderground) which lie at  some distance from an unnamed  city.  The stories introduce us to  a range of different women:  some women  appear in several  stories. The Wanderground is where women fled to several generations ago to escape the violence  and oppression of  men in the city. In the chapter “Pelagine Stretches”  we learn from  an older woman’s reflections on her past  history  that  women in the city who had asserted themselves  were suffering   a male backlash.  In a flashback Vivian tells her friend  Kate  about the stories she is hearing

‘Kate, they’re true. The stories are true. About how  thye’re hunting women, Swear to god. Sue and Sandy  saw them pick them one up. Put her in the wagon. And her doing nothing. Not a hooker. Doing nothing  I hear another story every day and oh, I got to tell you this Kate, I got to to tell you.’..’The men.  All of them was laughing about it yesterday. You know that singer, Gwen Aquarius, the libber? Well you know they took her down to the Hall. They booked her for defacing public property. Because of that midnight mural, on the H.E.W. building.And with attempted murder because she shot the policeman. Well, they could have locked her up for life but they let her go the guy was saying.  And this is true now, because she’s trying to sue the state: they let her go Kate but they cut out her tongue. They said that ought to be plenty punishment because they found out she was a lesbian  They got such laugh out of that. Them and their smut. I  couldn’t laugh Kate. I said  some things I shouldn’t have.!

Kate and other women flee  into the hills,   although they are hunted as they do so, one woman being snatched up in a net by a helicopter.  In The Remember Rooms more stories emerge  of the past, of how women  were labelled as witches, of how polygamy was reintroduced in some  states,  and  curfews and  dress codes  were imposed on women.

Women   became more and more divided.  All the freaky -looking ones were rounded up  – you know, those who wouldn’t wear  even long hippie-type  dresses, or those who didn’t comb their hair, the kind that would rather be with women than men, or the kind who gave their husbands any kind of hard time. God, it wa snightmare. Only the ones who looked and behaved like ladies had a chance…then the misfit women  began leaving the cities, heading off to  the hills, going towards rumours of  country women who lived off the land, isolated  and self-sufficient. Some found these women.  Others probably didn’t. All of them had to get away from police and state militias. All of them had to hide.

This dystopian vision of the  future  predates  Margaret Attwood’s better  known   novel, The Handmaid’s Tale  by some years. Both were  perhaps inspired  by observing the violent  reaction of some men to the assertivemess of the Women’s  Liberation Movement, and also perhaps by observing what happened in Iran after the Revolution when a narrow religious conservative orthodoxy was imposed on women who had previously behaved much as women  in the West had.  This is a video of protest by women in 1979 against the compulsory wearing of headscarfs.

Once in the hills the women change.  They are able to comunicate with each by thought alone,  which is known as “stretching”, they can also communicate with plants and animals.  The women seek live in harmony with nature,  embracing the notion of the earth as a mother.  A number of women  are developing more advanced powers, able to fly even. How this came about is not explained. There is a strong emphasis on woman-centred rituals, with poems and songs and stories at the centre of their lives. In the final chaper they sing:

To work as if the earth, the mother, can be saved.
To work as if our healing care were not too late.
Work to stay the slayer’s hand,
Helping him to change
Or helping him to die.
Work as if the earth, the mother, can be saved.

Reviews

The hill women have escaped from a nightmare vision of a modern city to build an alternative all women  community. Having abandoned techology, the women are so in touch with with nature that animals and even trees talk to them, but the spare simplicity of Gearhart’s prose ensures that this never becomes mawkish.

The women have created a rich culture with songs, ritual and their own language. Gearhart makes subtle use of existing mythology in a feminist interpretation of the Persephone stoty, and, wittily, has the women wordlessly  communicate Poe’s The Raven to their attendant crows.

Femininity is seen as culturally determined. Urban women  wear make-up and high-heels, but the Hill Women wear simple, functional clothes and pass as men when they infiltrate  the city. Yet in meetings with  “gentles” (men who conscioulsy repudiate sexism)  there are indications that it is the intrinsic maleness of men, rather than the socialised attributes of masculinity,  which prevent men and women living together. “Somehow men – even Gentles – found it difficult or impossible to really share power.” Nevertheles Gearhart avoids the simplistic equation: women=gentleness, men= aggression. The women  experience extremely violent feelings: “They were having visions of man-slaying,  of man-mangling.” But by opening themselves individually and collectively to negative as well as  positive emotions they achieve full humanity.

Fantasy  is an important means of prefiguring versions of a feminist future. If, like me, you find the books implicit assumption that all evil emaates  from men’s colonisation of women historically inadequate and have doubts about its blanket dismissal of technology, you may find compensation in this optimistic vision of women working, living and loving harmoniously together.

Pam Johnson, Spare Rib, August 1979.

Sally Miller Gearhart’s website can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Encounters of the seventh kind; “Queen of the States” by Josephine Saxton (1986)

Queen of the States  was published by the Women’s  Press in their science fiction series. Josephine was born in Halifax in 1935, and left school at the age of 15.  She began writing science fiction in the mid 1960s. Her early novels include The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith (1969), Vector for Seven: The Weltanschaung of Mrs Amelia Mortimer and Friends  (1970) and Group Feast (1971).

This novel resembles  an origami paper  flexahedron that constantly changes in your hands. Just when you think you have got the hang of it, it changes shape again. Few  science  fiction novels begin with a quote from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which gives you  a strong hint  that this novel is not going to be space opera. It begins with a road, a car and a driver…

Magdalen Hayward drove the car along a narrow road at a steady forty-five miles an hour. The way became more difficult as she went higher, towards the moors. To her left there were some remarkable rock formations standing out against the evening sky and she decided to explore them. She enjoyed scrambling over rocks. She gained a sense of freedom from being high up in barren country, alone. It was marvellous not to have people restricting, telling her what to do or not…but she would not even think of that.

Magdalen’s moorland excursion doesn’t end in a tea shop, though,  but by  being kidnapped  by aliens. Nice aliens, though, who  are curious  about humans  – as this is their first encounter with our odd species –  and are happy to provide  Magdalen with fine wines and dining.  But then she wakes up in  Twelve Trees, a hospital  for people for mental health problems where she insists she is the Queen of America. Returning to her cosy room  in the alien  craft (they have provided marching carpets and wallpaper), the insect-sized aliens tell Magdalen  that her experiences are objectively true:

You have seven concentric selves, all interlocking, making forty-nine states of being, each with seven level of intensity and each in contact  with the forty-nine states plus contact with the origianl seven at all times and places, and a central consciousness which cas freely move about to any point in this network at any one time.

For the rest of the novel  we follow Magdalen  as she tumbles  from one state to another:  the alien craft; the hospital; the Royal Train crossing Dakota;  herself  as a child in a cot ; a souk in Morocco, a bar  in New York, a party with an attractive lover  provided by the aliens…

We also encounter her accident-prone husband, Clive, attempting to be unfaithful with bi-sexual Moira; nasty Nurse Gerhard, who steals hats from her patients ; Mrs Thornton, conjured up by the aliens to take tea with Magdalen; Dr Abel Murgatroyd, who sees a flying saucer and experiences ecstatic conversion to anti-psychiatry.

And then we meet violet-haired Miriam Goldsmith, married to unfaithful Clive,   who goes to see a psychiatrist  about the dreams she is having, “super-real” dreams in which she is another person called Magdalen:

She thinks things like”There must be a better state of being than this.” and then she sort of floats off into a different if not better  sate of being…She goes elsewhere. Not escaping , just like trying on new clothes. She’s very strong , she’s very good, centrally, I  mean, very. Full of love, but quite often gets herself  ripped off , gets things tolen from her – not objects: acts, feelings, energy… She’s quite crazy at times, believes weird things. Like being Queen of America…

At the end of the novels the aliens  send Magdalen back to Earth,  and she sets off a journey away from her past and into tbe future…

So there we are, a kaleidoscope of a novel that seems to be influenced by R D Laing‘s anti-psychaiatric thinking. Although   aliens pop  up, they are just a MacGuffiin,  this is a novel about inner space,   not outer space. I am not  even sure that is really science fiction, but Magdalen (or possibly Miriam) is a likeable companion  for the length of the novel and I would be happy to read more of Jospehine’s work.

By the way, did I mention  Rupert Bear makes some cameo appearances?