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Category Archives: novels by women

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.

 

The Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest

The Clockwork Century is a series of  interconnected novels set in the 1870s  in an alternative United States of America. In this USA  the Civil War is still raging on, with the Confederacy slowly losing but not yet defeated, while  Texas is an independent Republic. In this world  technology is more advanced  and  (as in all the best steam-punk novels ),   there are airships whose crew and captains  play a key role in  several of the novels. There are also zombies, a genre I usually avoid like the plague so to speak, but in these  novels I can put up with them as they are not the main storyline.

It isn’t the steampubnk technology or even the alternative history that makes this such an enjoyable  series to read,  but the  ingenious storylines  and the engaging array of characters. Many of the lead characters are  women,   while others are black,  Chinese and Native American. The novels are not direct sequels  but are set in the same world and  characters from one novel often appear in another.

boneshakerThe first novel is Boneshaker (2009), set in Seattle –  not the hip  city afloat on coffee that we know from Frasier –  but a small, barely  known city  in the wilds of Washington Territories which suffered a devasting catastrophe when a mechanical  underground digging machine  – the “Boneshaker” of the title – created  by Leviticus Blue  undermined the foundations of the city, releasing a yellow  posion gas  known as ” the blight”. This not only kills  but also creates zombies  (or “rotters” as the inhabitants  call them) who prowl the deserted streets looking for victims. The gas can also be turned into a drug called “sap”. The whole city has been isolated by a huge wall to keep the gas from spreading ; the few inhabitants still  left  live underground  with supplies brought in by airship, while fresh air is supplied by pumps run by the Chinese.  We meet an array of characters including a young man Zeke Wilkes (Blue’s son),  who enters the city in search of the truth about his father;  his mother Briar Wikes, who goes in pursuit of him and knows the secret of  the gas outbreak;  Captain Andan Cly, an air pirate;  and Princess  Angelina, a Native American.  . The book ends with a dramatic battle for control of the city, and  revelations about the “Boneshaker”.

The second novel is Clementine (2010)  which introduces as to Belle Boyd, a real historical character who was a spy for the Confederacy. In this alternative world she is in exile in the North, widowed and broke,  and goes to work for the Pinkerton detective agency in Chicago. She is sent on a mission on behlaf of  the Union  army to protect their one of the airships – the Clementine of the title – which is being  pursued by air pirate and escaped slave Croggon Hainey (one of the joys of the novels is the names Cherie gives her characters).  But as is often  the way of such  things  Belle’s mission takes an unexpected direction…

Dreadnought (2010) is the third novel. We meet Mercy Lynch, a nurse working  in a hospital  in the South where among the wounded she finds an increasing number affected by “sap”. Learning finally that her husband is dead  and  that her father has been wounded in Seattle she sets off an epic journey  across the frontline eof the war  to see him. The “Dreadnought” of the title is an armoured Union train  on which  she travels for  part of her journey and which has  a mysterious cargo whose true nature she is desperate to learn.   On the way Mercy and her fellow  passengers are faced with a life and death struggle when they run into a posse of “rotters”.

The fourth  novel is  Ganymede (2011), which is set  in New Orleans. Josephine Early,  a black woman, runs a brothel  but is also an agent for the North.  Her task is to somehow move an experimental submarine, Ganymede,  (which really existed, by the way), hidden in Lake Ponchartrain  out of its lair and out to sea.  To do she calls upon a former lover, Andan Cly (whom we first met in Seattle), to  pilot the submarine. There are of course people desperate to find the submarine and stop it getting into the hands of the North…

fiddleheadThe Inexplicables (2012)  is the fifth novel which  takes us back to the gas-blighted city of Seattle, which comes under attack from a gang which wants to seize control of the supply of “sap”. At the same time the inhabitants of the Underground are disturbed by the appearance of a mysterious creature on the streets.

The final novel in the series  is Fiddlehead (2013), which  begins in Danville, capital of the South before taking   us to Washington DC, the capital of the  North. Here the ex-slave and brilliant engineer  Gideon Bardsley  has built an advanced calculating machine – nicknamed “Fiddlehead – financed by the former President  Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln  is in a wheelchair after  surviving an assasination attempt. Fiddlehead predicts that the greatest threat to the country is not the war,  but the “rotters”. Belle Boyd is sent to protect  Lincoln and Bardsley and is caught up in desperate race against time against an enemy who will stop at nothing to keep the war going.

 

Thoroughly recommended.

 

Loving The Alien: Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison (1962)

memoirs-of-a-spacewomanIn 2017  I  will be trying to post  as much as possible about science fiction written  by women. So far all the books and television series  I have posted about since I started this blog  have been  written by men, which reflects  the nature of the genre for much of  the  first half of the twentieth century.  But things began to change slowly in the 1960s.

One example is  Memoirs of a Spaceman by Naomi Mitchison (1897 – 1999), published in 1962. At the age of  65 this was Naomi’s first venture into science fiction: prior to this  she was known for her many novels, travelogues and frank autobiography.

Let’s imagine for a minute that   you are a man in your early 30s who is a science fiction “afficianado” (not a “fan,” much too vulgar). You have read and enjoyed the  work of Wells, Wyndham and Hoyle, men   who  showed you the Earth threatened  by Martians, airships, Triffids, “Bathies”, not forgetting  an interstellar gas cloud.  On television you have watched and enjoyed 1984, the Quatermass serials, A for Andromeda and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough. 

Nothing you have read or seen has shaken your view of  society or marriage or  sex in the slightest. So you buy a copy of Memoirs of a Spaceman,  hoping perhaps  for a racy tale of ray-gun toting young women  in  spacesuits and  you sit down in your favourite armchair by the fire, with your favourite pipe and a glass of your favourite malt whisky, and you begin reading…  and after a while  your world  starts to slip sideways, like the Tardis caught in a tractor beam.

The novel begins reflectively:

I think about my friends and the fathers of my children. I think about my children, but I think less about my four dear normals than I think  about Viola. And I think about Ariel. And the other. I wonder sometimes  how old I would be if I counted the years of time blackout during exploration. It would be an alarming thought  if that kind of thought happened to alarm  me. Then I begin to wonder how many more voyages I should undertake, supposing of course that i don’t get killed.

Mary is a  communications expert whose role on her various voyages to other planets  is to establish communication with the alien species they encounter, sometime easily, sometimes traumatically.  The  space travel  involve “time blackouts,” so that many years pass before the space explorers  return to Terra (Earth), a phenemenon which at first created  problems as she recalls:

Naturally  we did not realise  at once that  time blackout was going to make difficulties. It took a few major scandals to clear that up, and after all the Terran  incest taboo has a quite sensible biological basis. Nowadays the parent-child relationship is rather strictly organised so we are not tempted to fall in love with our sons, however much they have grown up  during our time blackouts; sometimes, I feel, we are over-conditioned, so that we are not even normally attracted to them in an affectionate way. I should hate that to happen to me. but of course there are also one’s friends’ sons.

However, I know as well as the rest that one shouldn’t let oneself be attracted, and at least all my children’s fathers were in my age group or older. One ought to leave the young alone. How many times I’ve said that to myself! And usually, I will say, acted on it.

Her companions on her voyages include Martians –  not the death-dealing monstrosities of Well’s vivid imagination, but  highly intelligent,  sympathetic small  humanoids –  who communicate mostly through touch,  and  change gender depending on circumstances. Mary forms a close relationhip with Vly,  who rescues her after an explosion on  a planet they are visiting;

Dear Vly was communicating all over with his tongue, fingers, toes  and  sexual  organs.  I felt so grateful; it was so kind, so kind of him. More especially when one realises that on a mixed expedition the Martians never wish to communicate with the humans except for strictly technical and scientific purposes.  It was with this feeling of gratitude towards him, of tensions easing, that I came to waveringly. Or was it only gratitude?  Might it have been something more physiological, less ethereal? Difficult to ascertain.

Mary’s interaction  with Vly  leads to her ovaries being stimulated,  and she gives birth on the journey home to a girl she calls Viola. “This happy and delightful small entity, not entirely human, and yet mine – I remember so well the stab of tenderness towards her! And strangely, oddly, the same tenderness towards Vly.”

This  is not the only unorthodox child she has. Mary agrees  to a scientific experiment  involving grafting alien tissue onto her thigh,  which  grows  into a living organism she calls Ariel after the spirit in The Tempest. By now Ariel  was  over three feet long. It liked to be as close as possible over the median line reaching now to my mouth and inserting a pseudopodium delicately between my lips and elsewhere…its effect on me was somewhat disconcerting.  Eventually Ariel separates completely from Mary as though she had given birth.  The experiment seems to be a success,  but then Ariel  dies, and Mary feels grief for the dead organism.

Naomi Mitchison

Naomi Mitchison

In between her voyages Mary also has children with Terrans, choosing  the fathers sometimes for their intelliegence, sometimes  for sensuous reasons. She is attracted, for instance,  to T’o M’kasi because of his hair :“the delightful heather spring  of the different  hair tensions tingling against  one’s digital  nerves as no flaccid  blond hair  does.”

Mary  recounts her exploits on various planets and on Terra  in chatty and frank way,  as though you were having lunch together  in a Cheltenham teashop. Memoirs of a Spaceman is an intellectually dazzling  exploration of relationships (human and alien), sexuality (human and alien) and the joys and difficulties of communication (human and alien). Naomi Mitchison’s novel  bears almost  no  relationship to the kind of novels being produced by her male contemporaries: put simply, it’s  decades ahead of them and it’s unsurprising that it was reprinted in 1985 by The Women’s Press in their science fiction series. You can find a complete list of the novels in that  series here.