Archives » Science Fiction

Bête by Adam Roberts.

Gollancz, 2014, 320 p. Reviewed for Interzone 255, Nov-Dec 2014.

Bête cover

We know from the epigraph, “You? Better. You? Bête” – attributed to Pete Townshend but given Roberts’s own slant – that we are in for a tale full of word play and allusion; everything from Led Zeppelin lyrics to the riddle of the Sphinx, with nods to previous SF (at one point there is the shout, “Butlerian Jihad!”) as well as Animal Farm.

The novel begins with dairy farmer Graham Penhaligon, who has also trained to butcher his own livestock, having a verbal disagreement with a “canny” cow which does not wish to be slaughtered. This is shortly before such Loquacious Beasts (as the Act has it) are to be legally protected. The encounter makes Graham famous, after a fashion. The advent of speaking animals had come with green activists, “creeping around farms in the dead of night, injecting chips into the craniums (sic) of farm animals.” These bêtes at first spouted authentic sounding phrases, responses of animal rights propaganda, but quickly the chips, by now AIs, develop into something more integrated with their hosts.

It is tempting to find faint echoes in this set-up of Wells’s Dr Moreau but the comparison is too stretched to be truly viable. No vivisection is involved; the chips only have to be ingested to make their way into the host’s brain. Graham reflects that Moore’s Law made this sort of augmentation inevitable but he never believes that the animals are really expressing themselves; it is the computers in their heads doing so. Soon enough bêtes become legal citizens competing with humans for jobs. Along with the almost simultaneous development of synthetic Vitameat, one of the ramifications is that Graham’s farm is no longer viable.

He resorts to a nomadic existence, taking the odd slaughtering job, living (poorly) off the land, his peregrinations bringing him into irregular but recurring contact with Anne Grigson, with whom he falls in love. She has a canny cat, Cincinnatus, which loves its mistress but also exhibits a peculiar interest in Graham.

Graham is prickly from the outset. “Don’t call me Graham,” he tells the argumentative cow – and nearly everyone else whom he meets thereafter. He is especially so with the bêtes he encounters. These internet enabled, wifi-ed animals recognise him instantly, but there is always a hint of menace in it. A shambling incoherent human appears to know Graham but has been chipped; with “higher” animals schizophrenia is the unerring result of such a merger. Dogs, cows, horses are much more suitable.

This scenario gives Roberts scope to comment on humanity’s collective relationship with the biosphere, sometimes through his minor characters, ‘“Animals have feelings and thoughts – it’s just that only now have they been able to bring them out,”’ otherwise through Graham’s thoughts, “Speciesism is more deeply entrenched within us than sexism, and that is deep enough,” “Nature: it’s not nice, it was never nice. Niceness is what we humans built to insulate ourselves from – all that.” Cincinnatus provides the barbed observation, “Misrecognition. It’s what humans are best at.”

At times Bête takes on some of the characteristics of the post-disaster stories associated with British SF of the fifties and early sixties. Also stalking the land and causing AIDS-like panic is the disease, Sclerotic Charagmitis, where mucous membranes scar over, leading to death. The countryside is abandoned to the animals, people huddle together in the larger towns, the regime becomes repressive, but shuts off the wifi too late. There are tales of inter-species war in the north, animals immolated on pyres by the army. In his isolation, Graham does not witness any of this, though.

He makes much of language and his relish of it and notes his is a very English tale. Language is a field, he tells us, and farmers are used to working with fields. A strange aspect of the narrative, though, is its frequent use of archaisms. “And you have brought it me,” wroth, thrice. Sadly, this last appeared only twice.

But Anne dies from cancer, and Graham reflects that the loss of love brings resentment, bitterness, anger, envy. Fair enough, but I don’t quite buy his contention that, for adults, crying is always a performance, intended for an audience. The crux of the novel comes at Graham’s delayed meeting with the leader of the bêtes in the south, an AI in the brain of a very old ewe known (in a piece of somewhat heavy-handed symbolism) as The Lamb, which makes him an offer.

While the essential motor of the plot is that this is a love story, Graham’s relationship with Anne does not come over like a grand passion. Everything is a touch too intellectual; described, not experienced. Bête is good stuff, though, probably enough to ensure Roberts’s usual award nomination.

The following did not appear in the final review.:-
There is reference to a film scene which, though it can be parsed, will only make immediate sense if you’ve actually seen the film. The proof copy I read was absolutely littered with typos, easily averaging one a page. The best of these was “imagining I was in the gondolier of some balloon.” That “gondolier” conveys quite a different image from the one that “gondola” would. We also had “ruptures of the Achilles tension” and riveta for Ryvita. Plus:- lay for lie, apothegms for apophthegms, liquorish (the sweet stuff; not anything to do with alcohol,) and a span.

Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod

PS Publishing, 2008, 304 p.

 Song of Time cover

Love, sex and death.

Oh, I know within these pages there are dead people who are somehow still able to exist, an intelligent kitchen, a crystal field saturating the environment, artificial skin, the last snow melting from Kilimanjaro, computer screens with no visible supports, a nuclear war, the Yellowstone supervolcano blowing up, not to mention a symphony that continually rewrites itself, but these are all just background: at its core Song of Life charts the three literary biggies. And the greatest of these is love.

One day towards the back end of the twenty-first century Roushana Maitland finds a half-drowned man, possibly attempting to enter the country illegally and who does not remember who he is, on the Cornish beach just below her house. She drags him up to safety and shelter. His presence and her imminent transfiguration (not death, she has very recently undergone the procedure which will undo that) trigger memories of her life. Song of Time’s chapters alternate between depictions of her present day with the stranger in her house, whom she dubs Adam but who himself pronounces it Abaddon, and her memories of the unfolding century.

Roushana is of mixed heritage, Indian on her mother’s side, Irish on her father’s. Her brother Leo is a gifted musician but contracts WRFI, Wide Range Food Intolerance, perhaps brought about by an artificial virus targeted on the lactose tolerant, an adaptation mostly found in Westerners. Unable to withstand the debilitation this has caused him, he commits suicide, telling Roushana, It’s up to you now, Sis. She polishes her up to then not particularly good efforts on the violin and, with the later help of famous conductor Claude Vaudin who eventually becomes her husband, parlays them into fame and fortune. Her story is set against the background of a disintegrating world: racial tensions erupt in Britain, unspecified divisions occur elsewhere, a millenarian type of cult arises. In terms of terrorism and world politics this future is like our present, only more so. But technological progress still occurs. The environment becomes enmeshed in the “ever-spreading network of crystal” but no mechanism for the dead to still be around after death is elaborated beyond the “crystal seed of immortality whining its way” into Roushana’s skull.

It may seem counter-intuitive to have classical music as the driver for Roushana’s fame, but pop stardom would have been too clichéd, and a future classical revival of sorts is not too much of a stretch. There is in any case some genre crossing. Claude’s performances in clubs at times read more like those of a jazz musician.

Song of Time contains a profoundly imagined and realised world and Roushana’s voice is an engaging one. That there are doubts over the exact circumstances of Claude’s death ring entirely true, Leo’s continuing influence over her life being a source of jealousy to Claude.

MacLeod has a poignant story to tell, has a facility with language, a poet’s ear at times, scatters out in one book more ideas than many authors would use in a lifetime and the book itself is a lovely object. Roushana’s story is one I’ll remember for a long time. Looking back I see Song of Time won the literary-inclined Clarke Award. However, it didn’t make the nominee list for the BSFA Award for 2008. (The fact that the SF elements can be construed as only background may have told against it.) I have not read three of the four on that year’s list but nevertheless they’d have to be going some to be better novels than this.

I have a caveat, though.

Did anybody proof-read this thing?

Pedant’s corner:- “Pregnancy came as a shock to me…. The sheer alienness of the symptoms…” (But Roushana had been pregnant before – albeit then had an abortion.) Disks (discs,) programs (programmes) – I don’t care even if either of these two were to do with computers – practise (innumerable times as a noun, but the noun is “practice” which strangely also appears correctly at times,) the late 1950s in the search of (in the late 1950s in search of,) “They didn’t have say it” (have to say it,) into him arm (his,) the speed in which (with which,) lineney (lineny,) sung (sang,) would not longer (no longer,) with she as she was (with her as she was,) it was shade (a shade,) Doges’ Palace (Doge’s,) on diet (on a diet,) as goes inside (as he goes inside,) after I’ve I sat him down (either I’ve or I, but not both,) “You where I mean” (You know where I mean,) “For a just a while” (for just a while,) glowing n his (in his,) unfocussed (unfocused, ) “Pakkis” but later, “Paki-girl”, the “the village” (just “the village”,) sewerage (sewage,) lost contact Uncle Indra (lost contact with Uncle Indra,) reforming (re-forming,) I really do have sit down (have to sit down,) St Fimbarrus’ (St Fimbarrus’s,) we took at ride (a ride,) whilst still officially still at war (one still too many here, plus there was another “still” later in the same sentence,) how you were you supposed to deal (a “you” too many,) ignited =in (ignited in,) its commanding view sea (sea view.) Back the kitchen (Back in the kitchen,) Miles Davis’ (Miles Davis’s,) fames (??), has (had,) Blythe Monroe (on all other appearances it was Munro,) I was following what he saying (what he was saying,) in one of pots (one of the pots,) Christos’ (Christos’s) Cholera B (is later Cholera b,) of a return virtuality to paint (of a return from virtuality to paint,) pervious (previous.) Near beside them (Near them? Beside them?) Periphique (Peripherique,) sit ins (sit-ins,) burn-out (burned-out,) I knew that Claude was be out debating (“would be” or “was”, but not “was be”,) virtuality de monde (as I remember my French that’s du monde,) focussed (focused,) if she’s started (she’d,) the orchestra were (orchestra is singular; therefore the orchestra was.) Loose faith (Lose faith,) whether he of she (he or she,) Bezant’s Bay (in most instances it’s Bezant Bay,) one instance of its for it’s, complemented (complimented,) it they haven’t been paid enough (if,) one of periodic eruptions (one of the periodic eruptions,) the early half-life of the radiation had decreased considerably (the radiation level may decrease but the half-life most certainly doesn’t,) softy steaming greenery (softly?) were (where,) so I often with worked with, anything less that whole-heartedly (than,) wintery (wintry,) closer to him that when he was (than when he was,) after I’d laid down (lain,) the least emotion I felt was surprise (the last emotion) I can’t read you mind (your,) with its all lights (with all its lights,) it’s shrunken (shrunk.) The text implies Yellowstone is in Colorado but it is mostly in Wyoming with parts extending into Montana and Idaho.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2014, 360 p.

 Ancillary Sword cover

Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, is still at war with herself through the intermediacy of the countless bodies her persona inhabits. As in Leckie’s previous novel, Ancillary Justice, our narrator is Breq, the sole surviving part of the ship AI Justice of Torren, one of its auxiliaries, now promoted by one faction of the Lord of the Radch to Fleet Captain in charge of the ship Mercy of Kalr and despatched to the Athoek system to protect it from incursion by the Lord’s other faction and a possible threat from the Presger, aliens bound by treaty to the Radch and therefore to all humans. Due to the civil war all gates between systems have been closed – only military ships can jump between worlds. At Athoek, Breq finds various local rivalries, evidence of illicit trade through a “Ghost Gate” of bodies in suspended animation – the type of bodies used for auxiliaries – and indentured labourers who are all but slaves. Had I not read Ancillary Justice this might have been well enough but, given the background of war between the Radch, it all seems to be a bit of a sideshow. Then again, there are human stories to be found in the byways of any conflict and it is possible Breq is being placed to take part in a wider resolution. It does, though, give Leckie the opportunity to explore more of the Radch and its culture(s).

Leckie’s use of the female pronoun to describe all her characters is not problematical here except in one instance where a character’s sibling is referred to as a brother on entering the story. If the pronoun is gender neutral would not the word sister always be used? That males exist within Leckie’s universe is shown in a scene of attempted comedy when Breq arrives at Athoek Station to find its walls bedecked with paper penises, in a festival deriving from a misunderstanding during the Radch takeover of Athoek.

Ancillary Sword won the BSFA Award for best novel published last year. (I’ve now read all but one of the nominees.) It’s good, but I wouldn’t have voted it first.

Pedant’s corner:- Written in USian so among others we get the horrible “off of”. None were (none = “not one” and so requires “was” as its verb,) metric tons (tonnes then,) waked (wakened,) pry the gun (prise?) There are, too, 15 added pages containing an extract of a book written by another author altogether. This is utterly pointless.

Dune Fifty Years On

In Saturday’s Guardian Review Hari Kunzru had an article – the lead article – reflecting on Frank Herbert’s Dune fifty years on, describing its genesis and continuing relevance.

I’ll slip over the contention in the above the piece strapline that Dune is perhaps the greatest novel in the Science-Fiction canon (on second thoughts I won’t slip over that, it simply isn’t) but it certainly spawned a series of gradually diminishing in return sequels.

Of course I reached it in the wrong way. My first contact with it was via Dumbarton Library when I had graduated to the adult shelves and devoured the yellow jacketed Gollancz hardbacks, the Dobson Science Fiction and Hale SF publications but it was Dune Messiah – the first (and best) sequel I read first as I didn’t realise it was a sequel since Dune wasn’t on the shelves – that day at least. This is perhaps why to this day I prefer Dune Messiah to Dune. I simply think it works better as a novel and indicator of what Herbert was getting at.

That, as Kunzru says, Star Wars was ripping off Dune I suppose I noticed subliminally. But then I never thought the film could be original in any way. I still think that SF works best on the page and not on a screen (of whatever size.) Film and TV images could only ever be a poor imitator of the pictures created inside the brain.

One thing that did occur to me on reading Kunzru’s piece though, was that with its championing of the Arabic/Muslim æsthetic in the culture and religion of the Fremen of Arrakis Dune would not – could not – be published today. (At least not by a traditional publisher. And even if it was, say, self-published, it would not meet with the same appreciation.)

Sacrifice on Spica III by Eric Brown

The Telemass Quartet II, PS Publishing, 2014, 81 p.

 Sacrifice on Spica III cover

Still in search of his wife and daughter, Matt Hendrick has arrived on Kallithea, a planet with an eccentric orbit around its two primaries which leads to a five year long winter, but before he even steps off the Telemass platform Hendrick is sidetracked by a chance meeting with Ed Miller, a former colleague in the Amsterdam Police, into tracking down Katerina Nordstrom, wanted for the murder of her lover back on Earth. Nordstrom just happens to have been Hendrick’s first real love, when he was a tyro detective twenty years ago. Also on the trip are Acolytes of the Ice, members of a bizarre cult inspired by Kallithea’s native culture, whereby devotees give themselves up to death in the freezing wastes.

A weird religion, past traumas, a private life tangled up with the mission at hand, are all typical Brown tropes. Once again it is the changes he rings on the ingredients that provide the impulse to keep reading. The details of the immolation cult are strange and Brown renders them well.

In the context of the Telemass Quartet it is perhaps a drawback that Hendrick’s personal quest is a sideshow to this novella’s plot, though. It causes him to take his eye off the greater ball and so his wife and daughter evade him. No spoiler really as of course this serves Brown’s purposes, as Telemass III and IV are still to come.

Pedant’s corner:- as its swung away (it,) epicentre, “I wouldn’t have through Kat” (thought,) the beneficent gaze His Holiness (gaze of His,) what as right (what was right) and a fair few instances of “time interval” later.

Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

Gollancz, 2000, 1114 p.

 Ash cover

The main parts of this compendious novel are framed as a (complete with footnotes) modern academic translation from mediæval Latin of several “found” manuscripts depicting the life of Ash, the female leader of a company of 15th century mercenaries whose emblem is the Lion Azure. These are presented in the form of “Ash: The Lost History of Burgundy” as by “Pierce Ratcliff, Ph D.” Ash, like Joan of Arc did, hears a voice in her head; in her case it transpires this is of a machina rei militaris (engine of military matters or, to put it in modern terms, a tactics computer.) In Ash’s story Gentle evokes the mediæval world marvellously; the power balances, the camaraderies, the techniques of fighting, the blood and guts, the miseries of a siege, the inconsequentiality of the common people – and there are more technical terms for pieces of armour than you might think could actually fit on a human body.

It is clear from early on that this is not our history, though. When religion is invoked it is the Green Christ, Christus viridianus, who is called upon – this religion is some sort of mash-up between Mithraism and what we would recognise as Christianity – and, while the Turks have indeed taken Constantinople, there are no Moors in North Africa and Carthage is a power in the world, a Visigothic Carthage. The manuscripts also refer to clay men – a term thereafter “translated” as golems – accompanying the forces of Carthage in an invasion of Europe.

Neither is it the history of Ratcliff’s world. Discrepancies exist between details of the manuscripts he is translating and history as he knows it, in particular the existence of a Visigothic Carthage in the 15th century. Moreover, those few copies of the manuscripts held in academic institutions round the world have been mysteriously reclassified from history to fiction even while he has been in the process of translating them, placing at risk his chances of publishing his findings. In search of evidence for the city he has joined an architectural dig in North Africa. The discovery there of a Stone Golem (another name for the machina rei militaris,) initially dated as modern but on second examination to mediæval times, and traces of the city corresponding to the Carthage of the manuscripts (in a deep trench in the Mediterranean sea floor not found on Royal Navy charts from the Second World War – Green Christ notwithstanding, there are overwhelming similarities between Ratcliff’s world and ours) also point to the fluidity of the historical record. This strand to the book is revealed in a series of transcribed emails between Ratcliff and his publisher supposedly interpolated in the printed out pages of the translation. Discussing many worlds and quantum theories these exchanges lend a Science Fictional air to what would otherwise be a straightforward Fantasy. As a coda to Ash’s story, a transcribed interview with a previous translator of the Ash documents and afterwords to successive editions of Ratcliff’s publications continue this strand.

All of this elaborates a tale of deeper powers beyond the Stone Golem, the Ferae Natura Machinae, or Wild Machines, silicon intelligences located inside pyramids in the desert near Carthage, who have not only cast the shadow of night over both Carthage and most of Europe (bar Burgundy) by drawing down the power of the Sun but also threaten to extinguish humans from the world. Through the Wild Machines’ influence on the Stone Golem, Carthage has been breeding for the ability to alter reality. The leader of their invasion of Europe, the Faris, is the first to be able to communicate with the Stone Golem at a distance and will be the instrument of their designs. Thus is the old Roman epithet Delenda est Carthago (Carthage must be destroyed) given enduring relevance. Ash turns out to be a by-product of the Carthaginian breeding programme, rejected at birth, who was taken in on a whim by members of the Griffin-in-Gold mercenary company and survived to adulthood merely by chance. The voice she hears is the machina rei militaris.

So why Burgundy and the “Lost History of Burgundy” (which would actually be better rendered as the “History of Lost Burgundy”)? In the story Burgundy has, inadvertently, perpetuated a bloodline that negates the reality-altering ability.

That women were involved in warfare in the mediæval era – as combatants (and surgeons) as well as camp followers – and would be capable leaders, are points worth making into a novel. To my mind, though, it detracts from the possible resonance of that fact that Ash is imbued with “supernatural” powers.

The character of Ash herself is agreeably complicated; accomplished to be sure, decisive, ruthless at times, but also loyal and liable to human flaws. The portraits of others are equally successful.

I’m not sure about that framing device, though – even if it does give us the delight of footnotes and adds the Science Fictional gloss.

Pedant’s corner:- The text flips indiscriminately between the use of ass and arse, and after the Lion Azure’s surgeon is also revealed to be a woman, her name is given equally indiscriminately given as Floria or Florian. The use in the “translation” of modern phrases such as “listen up,” “you bottled it” and “rag-head”- while conveying the essences well enough – jars a little in the context of mediæval discourse. Then we had 2 counts of lay/laying (lie/lying,) sprung (sprang) and sunk (sank,) a snuck (sneaked,) merchant (merchants,) still born up by the welcome (borne up by,) blue slates roofs (slate,) is there proof of your been born from a slave mother (being,) still held prisoned (prisoner?) no one (no-one,) “His took a slow match” (He,) the edges of her armour cuts the hands of men she helps (cut,) force-marched (the phrase is “forced march” so forced-marched,) towards at the head of (either “towards” or “at” but not both,) auxiliary’s’, paying merry hell (playing,) Richard (Rickard,) outside of (outside,) at your Duchesses’s request (but the request had been made by the Duke, now deceased,) deosil for deasil is an variant of deasil I hadn’t previously seen, E pur si muove is usually rendered as Eppur si muove, “to get the stiffness out her neck” (out of,) hung (hanged.)

Tanith Lee

I saw in today’s Guardian Tanith Lee’s obituary.

Despite her prolificity, I don’t recall reading much of her work (SF, Fantasy and Horror in the main) but her name was familiar to me. I may have noticed at the time that she wrote two episodes of Blake’s 7 but it wasn’t something I had at my front of my mind.

She was notable as being the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for best novel (for her book Death’s Master.)

Tanith Lee: 19/09/1947 – 24/5/2015. So it goes.

Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

Tachyon Publications, 2015, 194 p

 Slow Bullets cover

This novella starts just after an armistice in a long war waged partly on religious differences. Each side had its sacred Book, “And I’m sure there is tremendous grace and power in these words. Tremendous wisdom and humanity – as well as ignorance and superstition and foolhardiness,” but Scur was not an ardent believer and her mother, very fond of the enemy’s official war poet, introduced her to the poem “Morning Flowers.” Just before the armistice Scur was captured by an enemy patrol and tortured by a war criminal called Orvin who left her for dead. Yet she mysteriously wakes up on the skipship Caprice along with soldiers of both sides, the ship’s crew and civilians of various sorts.

But things are awry. The skip has gone wrong, they are a thousand years in the future and the ship’s memory is malfunctioning. Not only that but sometime in the intervening years aliens dubbed The Sickening passed through human space. They could change physics, turning down the brightness of suns. No remnant of the civilisation the awakened people on the ship can remember is left.

While Scur’s desire for retribution on Orvin partly drives the story along so also does the rest of the ship’s company’s attempts to discard their differences and to preserve humanity’s knowledge. The slow bullets of the title contain information about their bearers, including personal memories, but can be overwritten. As such they are necessary to the story’s resolution, as is “Morning Flowers.”

The novella length doesn’t really give Reynolds much chance to develop character, most of the inhabitants are there to carry the plot along, but the justice Scur metes out to Orvin is not what we might expect and there is an elegiac tone to the ending.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Canongate, 2014, 592 p

 The Book of Strange New Things cover

Despite having Dutch nationality, Michel Faber, by virtue of living in Scotland for 20 years and being published here, appears on the list of 100 Best Scottish books with his first novel, Under the Skin. That’s gone on my tbr list but I read this as it was one of the nominees for the Clarke Award this year.

Pastor Peter Leigh has been taken on by a mysterious company called USIC to become a missionary to the indigenous inhabitants of the planet Oasis. (This is a strange place with a day, and hence also a night, that each last 72 hours but, as described here, has a not very diverse ecology.) The selection process meant that Peter’s wife Beatrice – also interviewed by USIC – did not accompany him but they are able to write to each other via a communication device known as the Shoot.

Importing material from Earth to Oasis is very costly indeed and the base depends to a large extent on the Oasan crop, whiteflower, which (handily) can be converted to various Earth-like foods when harvested at different stages of its cycle. However the aliens (of whom we only hear of one group) have moved away from the USIC base and Peter has to spend over an Oasan day out of contact in order to further his mission. His immersion in this task leads to a gradual estrangement both from the humans at the base and from Bea.

The religious missionary to another planet concept may be new to mainstream readers of Faber’s work but Science Fiction readers have been on this sort of territory before; most notably with A Case of Conscience and The Sparrow, however here the crisis of conscience that interaction with aliens usually engenders in the missionary is undergone not by Peter but by Bea left at home on an Earth where various disasters – to the Maldives, Guatemala, Pakistan and a Britain falling apart economically and socially (along the way Tesco’s goes bust; I read this book a few weeks after my local Tesco’s closed) – are occurring and the couple’s cat Joshua comes to a sticky end.

Another unusual feature here is that the locals are actually avid to learn about Jesus and to hear from the King James Bible (the Book of Strange New Things as they call it.) The slow unravelling of their need for this good news holds what little SF tension the book provides. Faber is more interested in the aliens’ effect on Peter and the deterioration of his relationship with Bea. Faber renders the Oasans’ inability to pronounce the “s” “t” and “ch” sounds in English by using symbols (easily decipherable in context.) He then gives us Peter’s final speech to them almost entirely in these symbols but I wasn’t engrossed enough to try to decode them.

As a novel of how distance can undermine a relationship this is fine but, despite the aliens, it doesn’t really hit the SF buttons.

Pedant’s corner:- tourniquetted (tourniqueted?) imposter (impostor,) after a some hesitation, “glotch of submersion into the liquid-filled crib” (glotch seems to be a coinage, it doesn’t conform to the definition I found in the urban dictionary.) The text is full of Usianisms – lonesome, Styrofoam, Band-Aids, Caucasian, trunk, Cub Scout rather than just Cub, but uses British spellings, eg foetus. There is a reference to cameras with film in them (to be fair technology seems not to work well on Oasis) and to Georgia being in the Russian Federation as opposed to an independent state. I noted frequent instances of “seconds (or minutes) later” and a few of “within minutes/seconds.”

Queen of the States by Josephine Saxton

Women’s Press, 1986, 182 p

Queen of the States cover

After her car mysteriously conks out one day, Magdalen Hayward wakes up in a strange room to find she has been abducted by aliens who have no concept of time, know next to nothing about humans but can “speak” directly into her head through a meaning transmitter and conjure furniture, fixtures, fittings and fabulous food out of thin air. Neither do they understand gender so she tells them ramblingly that, “Maleness (is) the power to be superior without effort, thousands of years of conditioning having given them (men) that.” The aliens tell Magdalen she has “seven concentric selves, all interlocking, making forty nine states of being, each with seven levels of intensity and each in contact with the forty nine states plus contact with the original seven at all times and places, and a central consciousness which can freely move about to any point in the network. To us this is a very limited experience of consciousness.” Magdalen also has dreams in which she is a patient in a mental hospital where she claims to be Queen of the United States. About her mental states she tells a doctor, “I move about from one existence to another, on several planes at the same time.”

All this is reminiscent of Marge Piercy’s A Woman Out of Time and as in that novel tends to undermine the possibility of this being a work of SF. When a teacher in the mental hospital tells Magdalen she is “writing a science fiction novel… I had thought of doing it from the point of view of a mental hospital patient, so that people could have a choice of realities,” this disjunction is compounded rather than defrayed. (As well as appearing in that quote there were several other references to science fiction. It’s almost as if Saxton is trying to convince us of something.)

To Magdalen the true situation makes no difference. “If this was a delusion it did not matter: it was convincing enough to be real, therefore was real.” Her husband Clive believes Magdalen is not mad, simply in a different state of consciousness from himself. She is, of course, queen of the states.

When the aliens ruminate upon providing Magdalen with a male companion the narrative shifts from Magdalen’s viewpoint and we start to inhabit other people’s consciousnesses; Magdalen’s psychiatrist Abel Murgatroyd, Clive, his mistress Miriam Goldsmith, Royston Hartwell (a dreadlocked psychiatric student,) Louis Sakoian (a man Magdalen met in the US) – all of whom except Royston and Sakoian are disturbed in one way or another. Miriam dreams she is Magdalen, whom she knows thinks that, “There must be a better state of being than this.”

Escaped from her confines and on a motorway, the aliens return to Magdalen and tell her that any possible male companions vibrations’ are “unsuitable for you at present.” But she already knew that. Meanwhile vehicles coast to a halt all round where she is stopped. Towards the novel’s conclusion she disdains the thought of taking up with Louis and thinks, “I’m on my own planet, out to lunch, and I like it by myself.”

Is this an SF novel? The chronicle of a disturbed mind? Take your pick.

Pedant’s corner:- gasolene, terrrified, “The can create things” (they can…) smidgeon, avocadoes (avocados? Inserting an e in the plural of words ending in “o” is not a universal rule.)

free hit counter script