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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?

 

 

Fight the power (drain): The Watcher by Jane Palmer

The Watcher was Jane Palmer’s second original novel for the Women’s  Press science fiction series. In a previous post I looked at her first novel, The Planet Dweller.

Opu looked down at the chattering  bundle of  uncoordinated wings, arms and legs, tumbling  about the floor beneath everyon’e feet, and wondered what pitch of evolution she was likely to represent. Her child has just managed to escape  for the fifth time from the play-pen that was supposed to be child-proof, and was about to bite the leg of another of the  control room staff  in in discovery of the different things a beak could be used for.

Opu is a working mother, juggling her important  job in energy with childcare, fretting about her growing  offspring Opuna, whose behaviour she discusses with her partner, Anapa.   Opu is a member of the Ojalie, a hermaphrodite winged race who depend upon capturing  the energy  from their second sun for power and sustenenance, and she  is a controller,  regulating the power around their planet through numerous stations.

The Ojalie’s orderly life is disprupted by the appearance of a Sun  Dancer which sucks the power from their stations, threatening the survival  of their planet. They trace the Sun Dancer back to an obscure planet, Perimeter 84926,  and dispatch an android called the Kybion to track it down.

Fast forward (or possibly fast backwards, I am not too clear about this)  to  the English coast in the C19th when a group of shipwrecked  passengers encounter the Kybion in  a cave. At first  it wants  to kill them,  but then oddly  is persuaded to let them live, in fact to go one better, to extend their life by slowing down the ageing process.

Then we go forward (I am sure about this  at least ) to the 1980s when a young Asian woman, Gabrielle,  goes to stay on her  own in her aunt’s  remote cottage on the coast. She encounters a stranger, Wendle, who reveals  that he is 127, and she becomes involved  in an  increasingly complex series of events involving Wendle  (young and old),   a  young black policeman called Weatherby  masquerading as a butler. somebody nasty called Gunn, telepathic communication, spirits,   a watery planet called  Taigal Rex, and much else. In time we discover who the Star Dancer is, and who  is the Watcher  of the novel’s title.

Overall I  found this an unsatisactaotory novel:   there are flashes of charm and invention,  but much that seems clunky and maladroit and too many  McGuffins to solve knots in the plot. I do love the cover, though.

When a planet falls in love…The Planet Dweller by Jane Palmer (1985)

This  was Jane Palmer’s first novel,  published  in  the  pioneering  Women’s  Press  science fiction series.  It   begins, probably uniquely in the realm of science fiction writing, with a woman discussing her menopause with a male doctor. Diana is asking about Hormone Replacement   Therapy, but he  advises her  against this.  “I’ve heard of of women  losing their fingernails and others being stuck with headaches for weeks – and do you really want to go on having periods until you are past seventy?’

Diana riposts tartly:

‘I’ve already  worn my finger-nails away by climbing up the wall and give my daughter regular headaches by screaming at every animate and  inanimate a thing that gets in my way… And will not live to be seventy if I carry on at this rate.’

Diana is a single mother, has a seven (and a half) year old daughter,  and works in an open air museum of architecture where she take parties of  bored school  children on tours of their iron-age huts.  At night she hears (or thinks she hears) a voice which says, “Moosevan”… “Moosevan”….

She has  an  elderly Russian neighbour, Yuri,  who  spends his time drinking gin  to excess, observing the asteroids,  and making arcane  calculations about their orbits.  Then there is Diana’s  friend Eva, a scientist who work at a huge radio telescope right  next door to the open-air museum,  (I love this juxtapostion  of ancient  and modern). Eva calls Diana  “Mog” , by the way.We never find out why.

Yuri becomes convinced that someone is moving some asteroids to different positions,  which if completed,  will  turn into a new planet and destroy the Earth. Nobody is  paying  him any attention, but he’s right,  of course. It’s part of a plan by  a planet dweller, Moosevan,  to create a new home for herself, unaware that the Earth is inhabited.  Moosevan is being threatened by a thoroughly nasty alien The Mott (we know he is nasty because he has big ears and big teeth),  who wants to evict Moosevan  and colonise her planet. Mott is being aided by renegage Olmuke genius Kulp and his two hapless sidekicks,  Jannu and Tolt.

It had been difficult  for the Mott to accept that the rest of of the galaxy did not love their empirebuilding species, especially as they hasd bestowed  such benefits as advice and bombs in exchange  for their freedom…

Opposing the Mott are two ancient beings who have taken  temporary forms  as Torrans (complete with tails) and temporary names,  Dax and Reniola.

Back on earth  Yuri enters a dazzling portal which  has popped up in the middle of a fairy ring,   and finds himself on Moosevan’s planet.  She tells him:

‘I am old…’ Moosevan tried to rationalise. ‘I am. ..Your touch pleases me…’ she added as that was the most dominant thought in her mind.

  ‘How old?’

‘I must be half as old as this galaxy’.

Yuri looked up again at the sky scattered with the debris of so many stars. Normally he would not have have sniffed  at a show of affection coming from a mature woman, but one ninety thousand million years was in his opinion taking things to far.

I won’t go any further into the details of the plot,  except to say that by the end of the book everything is resolved satisfactorily.

The shadow  of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe surely  looms large over this attempt by Jane  to write a comic science  fiction novel.  Adams succeeded brilliantly,  so much so that Hitchhikers,  like the Goon Show,  is now part of  the mental furniture of anyone interested in surreal comedy. Adams was a genius  and made his writing  look easy, but it’s not, of course.   For me this  novel only partly works, but I still enjoyed it.

The wonderful front cover illustration of the novel  is by Jane herself. She has written  a number  of other science fiction novels,  including The Watcher (1986)  and Moving Moosevan (1990), both also published by Women’s Press, Babel’s Basement (2010) and Duckbill’s Soup (2011), another in the Moosevan series.

“What dreams may come…”:The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (1971)

In a previous post I looked at  Ursula’s Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. In this post I  want to look at  her novel The Lathe of Heaven (1971).

Falling into “a dreamless sleep” is a cliche beloved of romantic novelists as they depict the travails of their heroine/hero as she/he slumps exhausted onto their four posted  feather bed. In fact,  we all dream every night,   as our unconscious churns over our day, our fears and desires,  and much else besides.  And when we awake our dreams usually vanish, like early  morning mist under the  rays of the  rising sun. Usually.

George Orr dreams. George is an ordinary man, who does an ordinary job, lives in an ordinary shabby flat in an ordinary city (Portland) in an America some decades ahead of  when the novel was published  (which  in a time paradox means it is now  in our past as readers). There is  just one extraordinary thing you need to know about George: when he dreams the dreams can  come true.

Doctor William  Haber dreams. He dreams of  a more prestigious job, of  a more impressive set of   offices, of a better world for humanity. Don’t we all?  George is sent to Haber, a sleep specialist, after the authorities discover  he  has been illegally obtaining drugs to suppress his dreams. George reluctantly reveals to Haber  that when he was 17 he dreamt that his aunt Ethel, who had been making unwanted sexual advances to him,  had been killed:

“I had this dream. A very vivid one. I could recall it completely when I woke up. I dreamed that Ethel had been killed in a car crash in Los Angeles, and the telegram hadcome. My mother was crying while she was trying to cook dinner, and I felt sorry for her, and kept wishing I could do something for her, but I didn’t know what to do. That was all. … Only when I got up, I went into the living room. No Ethel on the couch. There wasn’t anybody else in the apartment, just my parents and me. She wasn’t there. She never had been there. I didn’t have to ask. I remembered. I knew that Aunt Ethel had been killed in a crash on a Los Angeles freeway six weeks ago, coming home after seeing a lawyer about getting a divorce. We had got the news by telegram. The whole dream was just sort of reliving something like what had actually happened. Only it hadn’t happened. Until the dream. I mean, I also knew that she’d been living with us, sleeping on the couch in the living room, until last night.”

Of course Haber doesn’t  believe  George,  but is  eventually convinced when he witnesses the changes  for himself. Using hypnotism and  an electronic device called the Accelerator (a dream machine, if you like) he takes control of George’s dreaming, ordering  him what to dream. And the dreams come true. At first Haber makes   small changes in the world around them –  a new flat for George, a research institute for himself  – but then he he grows more ambitious, instructing  George to make  drastic  changes in the wider world . But the Law of Unintended Consequences makes itself known,   and the results are not what Haber envisaged.

Distressed, George  seeks help  from a lawyer, the steely Heather Lelache. She  accompanies him  to a dream session at which  Haber instructs George : “You’re going to have a dream in which you feel uncrowded, unsqueezed. You’ll dream about all the elbow room there is in the world, all the freedom you have to move around.”

Heather feels the change at the moment it happens:

“The woman felt it too. She looked frightened. Holding the heavy brass necklace up close to her throat like a talisman, she was staring in dismay, shock, terror, out the window at the view. He had not expected that. He had thought that only he could be aware of the
change. But she had heard him tell Orr what to dream; she had stood beside the dreamer; she was there at the center, like him. And like him had turned to look out the window at the vanishing towers fade like a dream, leave not a wrack behind, the
insubstantial miles of suburb dissolving like smoke on the wind, the city of Portland, which had had a population of a million people before the Plague Years but had only about a hundred thousand these days of the Recovery, a mess and jumble like all American cities, but unified by its hills and its misty, seven-bridged river, the old forty-story First National Bank building dominating the downtown
skyline, and far beyond, above it all, the serene and pale mountains.”

George  has dreamt of a Plague which has  killed billions of people.  He is appalled,  but unable to stop Haber from  misusing his dreams. Still, Haber is not a power-hungry monster, as George admits to himself:

…he’s not a mad scientist, Orr thought dully, he’s a pretty sane one, or he was. It’s the chance of power that my dreams give him that twists him around. He keeps acting a part, and this gives him such an awfully big part to play. So that now he’s using even his science as a means, not an end. . . . But his ends are good, aren’t they? He wants to improve life for humanity. Is that wrong?
Finally Haber himself enters the dream world,  and George,  faced with the loss  of Heather (now his wife) and his whole world , is forced to act.
The theme of novel  is that the best of intentions can lead to  the worst of outcomes. I am reminded of one of  those tales of Arabia in whch someone is granted three wishes by a djinn,  but things don’t go well.  I very much enjoyed this novel and  thoroughly recommend it.
The Lathe of Heaven was made into a television movie in 1980 by WNET. The film starred   Bruce Davison as  George Orr,   Kevin Conway as Dr Haber, and Margaret Avery  as Heather Lelache. You can watch the film here. The two photographs ab0ve are taken fron this production.
You can watch  an interview here  with Ursula in which she discusses the film and the novel.  and  you can read the novel online here.

Finally,   Ursula took the title of the novel  from from the writings of Chuang Tzu,

“To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the  lathe  of heaven.”

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Fallen Angel…? Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan (2016)

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.

A god of death is born …The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin (1972)

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  name the main  characters after Buddhist terms, including the Mara (“temptation”),  Panna (“wisdom”),  and Anatta (“without self”).    Incidentally 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choose Life or Death? We Who Are About To…by Joanna Russ (1977)

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.

Joanna Russ

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.