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Category Archives: 1980s

To say nothing of the cat: “To Say Nothing of the Dog Or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last “by Connie Willis (1998)

Ned Henry is a historian in Oxford in 2067. In this era historian isn’t  someone who spends 20 years producing a monograph on late Phoenician trading patterns which sells 63 copies, earns a luke-warm review in the Times Literary Supplement and is remaindered  within six months. In this era historians are travellers sent back on time trips (or “drops” as they call them) to carry out detailed reconnaisance  and research  on past historical eras and events. Too many drops, though, can give you time-lag, a euphoric state akin to being high.

Coventry Cathedral before the bombing raid

The time travel technology is known as “the net,”  invented by a couple of chancers who hoped to ransack history for priceless artifacts but then discovered that objects from the past cannot be transported through time, only humans can travel back and forth (or so it’s thought). Ned and his fellow historians are working on a multi-million project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was before it destroyed in a Luftwaffe bombing raid on 14th November 1940, Oddly it’s not being built in Coventry,  but in Oxford. The project  is the brain child of Lady Schrapnell, whom I imagine as  a cross between Lady Bracknell and Mrs Thatcher. She is not be brooked over the slightest  minute detail.

 

The story begins with Ned poking around the ruins of the Cathedral days after the raid,   trying to locate the bishop’s bird stump, a hideous Victorian flower ornament which has vanished –  and which Lady Schrapnell has insisted must be found. Unable to locate it he returns to Oxford where he meets  fellow historian Verity Kindle,  who has been infiltrated into the Mering family at Muchings End in Oxfordshire in  June 1888.

a Victorian bird stump

At this point a cat enters the story, Princess Arjumand,  who belongs to Tossie Mering, spoilt daughter of the family with a penchant for babytalk. Somehow the cat returns with Verity to 2067 after she rescues it from drowning.  It is imperative that  Princess Arjumand must be returned to 1888  to close the incongruity. (Ned has fallen instantly in love with Verity, by the way).

Ned is also sent back to  June 1888 and falls in with  a Balliol  undergraduate  Terence St Trewes (who has  an annoying habit of quoting Tennyson at every turn), his bulldog Cyril  and Professor Peddick. Terence is in love with Tossi Meringe,  and  thus the three men and the dog set off  on a boat trip along the Thames to Muchings End with many mishaps on the way. If  you  are thinking that this sounds rather familiar, you would be right. Ned and his party actually pass Jerome K Jerome  and his party on the journey which becomes the book  Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), published the following year.

Arriving at Muchings End,  Ned discovers Priness Arnjumand in his luggage, alive  and well, and meets Verity again who has returned from Oxford.  They now become embroiled in a series of increasingly farcical  events which involve returning the cat to Tossie and stopping  her marrying Terence, which will cause another incongruity as they know from her diaries that she married a mysterious “Mr C” after meeting him on a visit to Coventry Cathedral.  It was Tossie’s diaries, read by her  descendant Lady Schrapnell,  that inspired the Coventry Cathdral project.  A change in history could be catastrophic.

What follows are  nightime assignations, deceptions, impersonations,  coincidences, manipulations  and seances with Madame Iritosky – to say nothing of  Cyril and Princess Arjumand. And  there is still  the question of what happened to the bishop’s bird stump.  At one point  a drop lands Ned and Verity  in  the Cathedral  on the night of 14th November as it  is being bombed;  they barely escape with their lives.

Coventry Cathedral after the bombing raid

It felt like a direct hit. The blast rocked the cathedral and lit it  with with a blinding white light. I staggered off my knees, and then stopped, staring across the nave. The force had  knocked the cathedral momentarily clear of smoke, and in the garish afterlight  I could see everything; the statue above the pulpit engulfed in flames, its hand raised like a drowning man’s; the stalls in the children’s chapel, their irreplaceable misereres  burning with a queer  yellow light; the altar in the Cappers’ Chapel. And the parclose screen in the Smith’s Chapel….

I flung myself through the door and through the tower door and up the firelit stairs, wondering what I was going to say to Lady Schrapnell. In that one bright bomb-lit instant I has seen everything: the brasses on the wall, the polished eagle on the lectern , the blackening pillars. And in the north-side the empty wrought-iron flower stand. 

It had been removed for safekeeping after all. Or donated as scrap. Or sold at a jumble sale.

“Ned”! Verity shouted. “Hurry! The net’s opening!”

Lady Schrapnell had been wrong.The bishop’s bird stump was not there.

As the novel’s  full title suggests,  in the end the mystery is solved.

This is a hugely  enjoyable and entertaining novel which frankly came as a welcome relief after some recent science fiction novels  I have read,  whose plots  – involving  artificial intelligence and  jumps across the universe etc  –  seemed  humourless  and gave me a headache. We need more novels like this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A visitor from Oitar: The Sykaos Papers by E P Thompson (1988)

As a socialist   historian I am naturally  very familar  with Edward Thompson’s contribution to labour history, particularly  The Making of the English Working Class,   which was very  influential  on a whole generation of  young historians  and  political activists in putting working class agency at the centre of his narrative.  In addition  he was very active in the 1980s in the anti-nuclear movement, speaking at countless meetings up and down the country,  stalking the plaform like an C18th  Methodist preacher. He wrote  the pamphlet  Protest and Survive, an evisceration  of the government leaflet on how to cheerily  prepare your home  for a nuclear attack,  Protect and Survive. What I didn’t know was that he had written a science fiction novel The Sykaos Papers, published in 1988.

The full title  is The Sykaos Papers,  Being An Account of  the Voyages of  the Poet Oi Paz to the System of Strim in the Seventeenth Galaxy; of his Mission to the Planet Sykaos; of his first Cruel Captivity; of his Travels about its Surface; of the Manners and Customs of its Beastly People; of his Second Captivity; and of his Return to Oitar.  To which are added many passages from the Poet’s Journal, documents  in Sykotic script and  other curious matters.

Essentially this  lengthy novel  is Gulliver’s Travels  in reverse, a satire on society, language, culture,  science, politics, governments,  the media, sexual mores and much else.  It tells the story of Oi Paz, a poet sent by the planet Oitar (who have established a base on the Moon) to reconnoite Earth (which they call Sykaos and its people Sykotics)  as a possible candidate for colonisation. The story is told through Oi Paz’s  journal, official reports, media accounts and the field notes of Helena Sage.

Oi  Paz crashes to Earth and is promptly run over by a car.  Recovering in hospital,  and bemused by the culture he discovers on Earth,  he is eventually judged an impostor and kicked out into the street after being relieved of his gems. Mistaken for the Emir  for Quotar he  meets Mrs Thatcher  briefly. He is then taken up by a promoter  Nigel Harmer and tours the world as  Sapio the Spaceman with his own television show, kept docile with copious amounts of alcohol

After some months, following observations of activity on the Moon,   the authorities realise Oi Paz  is telling the truth and seize him, keeping him captive at Martagon Hall  in England,  run  by  a top secret  government organisation called FARCES (internal code LUNATIC). They bring in  anthropologist Helena Sage to get to know him  and  to seek to understand Oitarian culture. This is a sample of her first field notes on Oi Paz:

Tall, exceptionally well built. Dark complexion upon  somehat European (Caucasian?) features ..Moves with deliberation and grace, yet in some way distancing himself from the movemnets of his own body as if his limbs were delicate prosthetic tools. All senses seem sound. Hearing remarkably acute (detected mice scratching wainscot, informed me there were three) …Impressive yet passibe peroanlity, almost a “vibe” coming from him, not hostile, yet aloof and alert at the same time …Robes (quite gorgeous!) looked like a hand-weave  but, cldn’t identify with certainty, nor identify material (cottony texture but sheen of silk) Elaborate  belt – seems to contain some instrument (micro-computer?)  at right hip – with large ornamental  gold clasp in which a phallic catch (rt) engaes with wheel-symbol (lft). 

In time Helena and Oi Paz become close, intimate even.

Much of the novel is in a comic vein,  lancing the pomposity of the establishment, but  in the final  part the mood darkens as international political tensions invade Martagon Hall,  and the ending is sombre.

This is  far from a light read, and there are  nearly 500 pages,  but if you feel like taking on the  challenge, this might be the novel for you.

 

 

 

 

E P Thompson

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

 

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.