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Category Archives: novels by women

The caves of real: The Exile in Waiting by Vonda N McIntyre (1975)

Vonda’s work as a science fiction writer was very  influenced by the American feminist movement and her friendship with other women writers who changed the direction of science fiction, hitherto dominated by male writers. She was  only the second woman to win the Nebula award  for Dreamsnake (1978 and the third to win the Hugo award for best novel.

She was born in Louisville, Kentucky. Having grown up reading science fiction, Vonda started writing herself  and  sold her first short stories in 1969.  In the summer of the following year Vonda  attended the Clarion writers’ workshop at Clarion State College, Pennsylvania, where one of her instructors was science fiction writer  Joanna  Russ.and  studied in Seattle where she  attended the University of Washington, earning a BS in biology but leaving in 1971, part of the way through her PhD  course in genetics to take up writing.

Inspired by her experience at the workshop, she  established Clarion West writers’ workshop in Seattle and helped run it for three years (1971-73), with her  fellow  science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin as one of the tutors. McIntyre lived at Le Guin’s isolated cabin in Oregon which  is where  she completed her first novel, The Exile Waiting (1975).  It’s dedicated to “Ursula and Charles, with fond memories of their Charitable Home for Writers.”

The novel is set on a future Earth, turned into a desert  by some environmental catastophe.  The only surviving city is Center an underground city run by a handful of wealthy families who control the air, food,  power and water.  Many of the inhabitants are little more than slave in thrall to the familiess.

Beyond Earth is the Sphere, civilisations in space spawned by Earth who visit from time to time to trade.

…The Three Hills rose up, as crowded with dwellings as Center’s walls. Their interiors were mazes and warrens, labyrinthine byond mythology. People with no work and no way of to support themelves live dthere, at the core of Center, existing on the city’s paltry charity.

Mischa is a teenager, scraping a living  in the back streets of Center by any means possible, including stealing. She is also an empath who senses the moods of others, including her sister Gemmi with whom she has a strong emotional  link that keeps her trapped in Center.

When Mischa left the city, as she was determined somehow to do, it would be by her own will, her own plan. She had no intention of being driven out because of an ability for which she did not even have a word. Mischa imagined being chased into the deep underground: as a prison, it would lose its beauty and its fascination. And she would be doubly trapped. If she were seen near the city again, she would be killed: if she stayed in the underground  and tried to defy Gemmi’s inevitable call to  return, she would go mad.

Mischa makes her way into the Stone Palace –  home to one of the Families who control the landing field and trade –  in an attempt  to get work but it ends badly when  she angers Lady Clarissa  who  orders her to be whipped which  takes place in a public square, and is brutal.

While Mischa is recovering, looked after by her friend Kiri , Center is invaded by a party of space travellers led by pseudosiblings Subone and Subtwo, who ensconce themselves in the Stone Palace in return for trade.

Mischa  manages to get into the  Stone Palace  and meet Subtwo who discovers that she has remarkable  mathematical powers. He offers her work and the possibility of leaving Earth. She is taught   by one of the space travellers, Jan Hikaru, whom she befriends.  Mischa laps up this new  knowledge:

Every subject she studied came easily. She seldom forgot anything she read. She was happiest with mathematics and theoretical physics; each level of study pulled more facets of reality into an elegant and intricate and consistent  system of natural laws. The new knowledge pleased her  in a way few things ever had, speaking to a sense of beauty and order that she had perceived, yet never had a means of expressing…

Vonda McIntyre

After Mischa’s brother Chris is killed by Subone she goes on the run with Jan, delving ever deeper into the caverns below Center. Here  she makes some startling discoveries that shape the rest of the novel.

Forty years after it was written, the novel seems as up to date anything I have read recently. Mischa is an  engaging heroine, not dependent on men for agency or rescue,  and we  follow her adventures avidly  with the fervent hope that her dreams  of revolution and  escape will become reality. The novel highlights the importance of women’s  friendships, a theme that runs through  Vonda’s  later work.

 

 

The joy of text: “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” by Connie Willis (2018)

In previous posts I have written about Connie’s previous novels: Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the DogBlackout and All Clear.

Jim is in New York doing publicity for his  blog, Gone for Good,  (in which he apparently welcomes the disppearance of things  such as payphones and  VHS tapes). Taking a walk before his next interview, he runs across a second-hand bookstore called Ozymandias Books which  he ducks into to escape a downpour.

The inside was exactly what you’d expect: an old-fashioned wooden desk and behind it, ceiling-high shelves crammed  with books streching back  into the dimness. The store was only wide enough for a bookcase along each wall, one in the middle, and a space between just wide enough for a single customer to stand. If there’s been any customers. Which there weren’t. The only thing in the place besides the guy sitting hunched over the desk- presumably the owner – was a gray tiger cat curled up in one corner of it.

Jim cannot make sense of the way that the books are positioned on the sehelves which seems completely at random with no rhyme or reason. Then he notices a attractive  blonde young  woman  disappearing into the back of the shop, except there is  no back. He finds a door and cannor resist going through,  first  going up and then down into a vast room below street level  awash with books.

The blonde stood next to the carousel with a clip-board, supervising three burly workmen  in overalls who were scooping the books up and piling them onto big metal library carts. But not fast enough. They were working at top speed, but they still weren’t able to keep up. Books were piling up on the carousel adn beginning to fall over the edge. 

The woman is named Cassie and takes a Jim on a tour of  the  facility, which is neither  a bookstor nor a library, as Cassie is at  pains to  inform him

....libraries  are one of the biggest reasons we’re here…they destroy hundreds of thousands of books a year. They don’t call it  that, of course.  They call it ‘retiring books” or ‘pruning” or ‘culling’. Or ‘de-acquisition.’

The books are categorised  in different ways, from hoarders, attics,  garages, closed bookstores and libraries that have been  destroyed by fire or flood. Then there are sections  for  books left on beaches, dropped in the bathtub, torn up by a toddler, scribbled in etc..

Jim  thinks he has grasped what is going on.

It was an endangered -book archive, like those gorillasand elephant sanctuaries or those repositaries for rare type of seeds, to keep them from going extinct. And it was the scarcity of the book that determined its place here, not its collectible value or literary quaiity.

But  he hasn’t quite got it right.  Whereas we, the readers,  by now probably have.  You’ll need to read this novella  to find out for yourself, through.

Connie has written a paean of praise to books in all their scruffy, tattered, coffee-stained, dog-eared glory. Long may they continue.

Oh,  and the ending calls to mind  a short story by H G  Wells, The Door in the Wall.

 

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 Gearhart 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.

Online copy

It’s available on Archive. org here.

Sally Miller Gearhart’s website can be found here.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 (1986)

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: 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 this world down. Surprise, surprise, it’s the Earth.

Fast forward (or possibly fast backwards, I am not too clear about the time-line)  to  the English coast in the C19th where  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 besides. In time we discover who the Star Dancer is, and who  is the Watcher  of the novel’s title.

Overall I  found this an unsatisfcatory  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.

“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 are 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 Athsheans  (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 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Reader I…” “Unwillingly to Earth” by Pauline Ashwell (1992)

Pauline Ashwell was the pseudonym of Pauline Whitby (1928-2015), who  wrote a number of science fiction short stories  and just  two science fiction  novels,  Unwillingly to Earth (1992)  and Project Farcry (1995), both published by Tor.  So far as I know neither has  been reprinted since , which is a great pity.

Unwillingly to Earth brings together  four  of Pauline’s short stories:  “Unwillingly to School”, published by John Campbell  in the  January 1958 issue of Astounding  Science Fiction ;  “Rats in the Moon” published  in the November 1982 issue of Analog; “Fatal Statistics” published in the  July 1988  issue of  Analog;  and finally “The Lost Kafoozalum” published  in the October 1960 issue of Analog Science Fact & Fiction. Despite written decades apart they work perfectly  as a sequence.

The stories all centre on  Lysistrata “Lizzie” Lee,  who recounts her various adventures to us  in gauche, breathless prose replete with  Capital Letters to make sure we get the Point. She’s usually the smartest person in the room, it’s just that the other people don’t know it yet.  I would hazard that her spiritual  ancestors  are Huckleberry  Finn and Tom Sawyer.

The first story “Unwillingly to School” introduces us to Lizzie, the daughter of  a former miner who made a  lot of a money from mining,   and  is now a farmer. They live on a small,  distant  planet Excenus 23 (population 3, 320, 99% men), whose main industry is mining Areopagite. (For some reason I imagine the miners sound like Australians).

Left to her own devices after her father has an accident  and has to go to hospital,  Lizzie gets into a number of scrapes which means she has to leave the planet for a time. With the help of  Dr D J M’Clare, and against  her better judgement, she is shipped off to  Earth to  study  Cultural Engineering at the  Russet Interplanetary College  of Humanities. Cultural  Engineering isn’t just a theoretical discipline involving  the study of  different planetary cultures, it also involves practical fieldwork, as we shall discover.

In the second story “Rats in the Moon” Lizzie goes to the Moon on holiday to visit a friend  and gets caught up in a series of events including  an explosion, being a suspect in a  case of attempted murder, intervening in  interplanetary diplomacy, and taking a court case  in the Piepowder Court.

In the third Story “Fatal Statistics”  Lizzie is sent to do some field work on an obscure planet called Figueroa,  but on landing discovers  that the planet’s society has collapsed and much of the population has left. Those that are still there  – and some visitors  – are in dispute over resources. Lizzie   has to figure how  bring about a peaceful resolution and  also get her and her fellow students off the planet in one piece. At  one point she is chased by a Cybercrane:

..there is a rending Crash as the roof is knocked sideways and I am left crouched in a corner  Staring up at the thing, oh Damn this is a  stupid way to die-

The head suddenly jerks back and I hear the sound which means it is Readjusting  its legs, I suppose this where I should Review my past  life but all I can think of is, I can’t  help closing my eyes but I am not going to Scream. …

Then there is a Flare that burns dazzling white  even through my eyelids and a most godawful Bang! and then nothing happens and goes on happening until I realise I am not Dead after all.

Just the same it is quite difficult to get my Eyes open; when I do, all I can see past the broken edges of the roof is the Sky.

In the final story “The Lost Kafoozalum” Lizzie, her room-mate and  best friend B Laydon (we never discover what the B stands for),  and  some of her fellow students are brought together by Dr M’Clare to solve a problem on a  planet called incognita which has recently been rediscovered. Ingognita was colonised  some centuries by humans who are divided into two sides:

The ship  that  spotted the planet as inhabited did not land, but reported to Central  Governmnet who shipped Observers out to take look….The Observers are not named but stated to be graduates of the Cultural Enginering Class.They put in a few month’s work and sent home unanimous Crash Priority Reports the situation is bad, getting worse, and the prognosis is War.

Brother.

In a group discussion Lizzie comes up with a solution that might  stop the war and plays major role in its implementation. However its execution  goes wrong and  Lizzie has to use every resource at her disposal to put things right, including doing the Dance of the Little Robot. She also comes to a crossroads in her personal life.

This  is a lovely  book which  you should all read  – and soon. I do hope it gets back into reprint along with her other work.