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The Revolution of Saint Jone by Lorna Mitchell

Women’s Press, 1988, 206 p.

Another Women’s Press book I’ve only just caught up on.

 The Revolution of Saint Jone cover

Newly ordained priest of the Church of the Rational Cosmos, Jone Grifan, has been sent as a Krischan missionary from Strylya to the pagan district of Embra in Skosha, part of the “cold, damp” Yukey Isles off the north-west coast of Yurope. These rather transparent altered spellings do not mean the locations bear more than a tangential relation to anything a twentieth (or twenty-first) century reader might recognise. Even if the text does explicitly refer to the Revelation of St John, Krischan teaching in the book is well removed from Christianity as we know it; though its central tenet – the abjuration of physical contact – is merely a heightened version of the anathemas pronounced by over-zealous adherents of present day patriarchal religions. As one of Jone’s catachumens puts it, “‘it’s “Dinny dae this” an’ “Dinny dae that.”’”…. “‘Aw the time it’s stoppin’ ye daein’ whit ye want.’” Both Jone’s nascent estrangement from the hard line and her willingness to see her new charges as people sow the seeds for her revolution.

As the above quotes demonstrate, the locals’ speech is rendered in Scots dialect, not something I expected to see in an SF book from the 1980s.

In common with other Women’s Press SF books there is a consideration of the rigidity of gender roles, subversion of which is one of the elements of Jone’s revolution. Unfortunately there is also a lot of information dumping in the book – sometimes through an embedded lecture by a character – and a large amount of telling, rather than showing.

Pedant’s corner:- catachumen (the spelling catechumen is more usual for a religious instructee but Mitchell uses catachumen consistently, or employs the contraction cat,) Bablylonianism (x 2; Babylonianism,) “The girls” (girl,) “naebody elses” (else’s,) “Everyone couldn’t run away,” (Not everyone could run away,) “point fifty-five” (oh dear, fifty-five means five more than fifty, anything after a decimal point is smaller than one, designated by a place value: hence point five five,) foreever (forever,) a missing full stop (x 2,) a lower case at the beginning of a sentence, a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) “‘you’re going you have a difficult time’” (to,) “to use if skilfully” (it,) diny (elsewhere dinny,) frist (first,) locted (located,) astronimical (astronomical,) by the cats laziness (cats’) Gannymede (Ganymede – again Gannymede was used consistently,) viscuous (viscous,) casuality (casualty,) “Fear of breaking rules… were blotted out” (fear was blotted out,) instrusions (intrusions,) “opt out the whole rotten system” (opt out of,) caryotid nerve (carotid,) “nebulus exploding” (nebulas – or nebulae!) agglomoration (agglomeration,) “a hot spark to Jones genitals” (Jone’s,) HC1 (HCl,) HSO F’s corrosion (HSOF’s,) “it’s mountain contours” (its,) two ethnic woman (women,) gunjed up (gunged,) she was being lain out (laid out,) scanning Luner’s finger’s (fingers,) “then he proceeded to telling her” (to tell her,) “what’s its criteria” (what are its criteria,) gasses (gases.)

Star Rider by Doris Piserchia

Women’s Press, 1987, 221 p. Another I didn’t catch up with at the time of publication.

Star Rider cover

In Star Rider humans have differentiated into different strains, jaks and dreens. Narrator Lone, or Jade as she becomes, is a Jakalowar (jak.) Along with her dog-ancestried mount Hinx she can teleport easily across space. This is an ability which seems to be mixed in with a sort of telepathy/awareness called jink. All jaks are searching for the lost planet of Doubleluck, finding which would make their fortune. Jade is dogged by Big Jak, who knows where Doubleluck is and wishes to stop her finding it. He traps her but they are attacked by dreens and Jade is imprisoned, without Hinx, on a planet called Gibraltar. Separation from a mount normally makes a jak go mad but Jade manages to stay sane. This middle part of the novel is tonally somewhat at odds with what came before and what is to come. Eventually Jade persuades a dreen mount to let her jink, escapes, finds Hinx again and heads for old Earth where she uncovers Doubleluck inside a mountain. She is chased there by the dreens, whose leader Rulon wants to force her into marriage but who are eventually overcome in a sort of space battle and Jade then reveals to the victorious jaks her ability to jink to other galaxies, a jak goal for millennia.

The twists and turns of the story don’t seem to follow much logic and the text is occasionally embellished with unusual syntax which either I got used to as the novel progressed or, more likely given my attention to the minutiae of text, Piserchia tended to forget about. Neither are the characters very memorable; Piserchia’s focus is more on ongoing plot, with the occasional feminist aside. I would hazard Star Rider is not among the best SF from the 1970s.

Pedant’s corner:- sat (seated, x2.) “As for us humans, we looked at the ground” (I agree “as for us” is the normal phrase but“humans” is the subject of that sentence so it should be “we” humans,) “had showed him” (shown.) “Matbe everything in it was a predator, which meant that everything in it was also a prey,” (not “a” prey, just prey,) grill (grille – is grill a US spelling for this?) “Was sewed up” (sewn,) a missing full stop, abolishment (abolition,) “he removed ten appendixes” (the plural of appendix is appendices,) “there were plenty of game and plant life” (there was plenty,) laid down (lay down.)

The Watcher by Jane Palmer

Women’s Press, 1986, 181 p.

The Watcher cover

A Star Dancer has taken to draining the energy pools of Ojal, threatening the planet’s future. Controller Opu finds the perpetrator retreats to Perimeter 84296 (Earth) on the other side of the galaxy and in “less than seconds.” Opu has to delegate care for her offspring before she can deal with this. She decides to send an android to Earth to try to stop the Star Dancer’s activities. Such a transmission is illegal, a transgression liable to be uncovered by a Watcher.

That aliens have childcare issues too is a neat touch; but that responsibility is shrugged off to someone else, in what may be regarded as an all too human manner, for most of the book.

On Earth the locals include Wendle a youthful looking man who is well over a hundred years old, a black police inspector called Weatherby, a sparky policewoman named Perkins, an orphan of Asian extraction called Gabrielle, and a divorced mother named Penny. Not all of these are as they seem but as with The Planet Dweller the interactions between the human characters are much more convincing than those sections dealing with aliens, which again have a cartoonish element. The search for Opu’s agent by giant cylindrical robots mistaken for sea creatures excites a certain degree of interest but the intrusion is accepted in a phlegmatic, restrained, very English way.

In the course of its endeavours the android manages to convert itself into being human; the first to achieve such transformation. As a further complication its senders are about to destroy it, which would be a further transgression now it’s technically alive. In the end the Watcher reveals herself.

The back cover blurb calls this, “Another joyous send up of the SF genre”. It may have appeared satirical when it was written but now I’m afraid it evokes only bathos. At least to this reader.

Pedant’s corner:- ‘They can’s be that backward’ (can’t,) “they stared in wonderment the needle erratically began to flicker into life (has an “as” missing somewhere,) even less that the intruder (even less than,) vocal chords (cords,) ‘But how well these creatures know it’s a trial run’ (how will,) from whence (the from is redundant; whence means “from where”,) andriod (android,) ‘Why?’ said Annac, had no idea what was going on (said Annac, who had no idea,) “he was adamant she should not. and refused” (has an errant full stop,) “and a possible explanation …… came to him he froze (also missing an “as”.)

The Planet Dweller by Jane Palmer

Women’s Press, 1985, 152 p.

The Planet Dweller cover

Another Women’s Press SF novel I missed out on when first published. Its feminist credentials are established early. I can’t recall reading another Science Fiction novel which mentions hot flushes, certainly not in its first three words as this one does. The sufferer is Diana who also hears a voice in her head, saying, “Moosevan.” She lives near to a radio telescope where a Russian émigré named Yuri works. He has discovered certain patterns in the arrangement of the asteroids which suggest outside interference. The interactions among the characters here are well delineated, Yuri’s tendency to drunkenness and the local toff Daphne’s sense of entitlement being particularly well captured if a little clichéd. However, in chapter three the story takes a sudden lurch into a narrative which contains what I can only call cartoon aliens who have plans to set off a piece of equipment which will destroy a planet. The planet concerned surrounds the intelligence that is Moosevan (a planet dweller) and soon both Yuri and Diana are transported there where they encounter the Torrans who wish to disrupt the plans of the most dangerous species in the galaxy, the Mott, in their quest to possess new worlds.

The idea of an intelligence surrounded by a planet is certainly interesting but is not taken very far. The Planet Dweller is readable enough but in SF terms certainly belongs back in the 1980s or beyond. It is unfortunate that the SF element is its weakest part. The back cover of Palmer’s later novel The Watcher (which I bought at the same time) says “Another joyous send up of the SF genre,” so I assume The Planet Dweller is meant to be read in that vein. Humour in SF is a difficult trick to pull off. From the perspective of 2016 Palmer doesn’t achieve it here.

Pedant’s corner:- alchohol (alcohol,) scintar (as in “scintars and pulsars” which would suggest it’s a kind of star but I’ve never heard of it and can find no definition of one,) “a light shower of carbon dioxide particles floated gently down through the thin air” (CO2 is invisible [but maybe not to cartoon aliens,]) lackies (lackeys,) shute (chute,) court martials (courts martial,) any other species’ (species’s? it could have been species plural though, the text wasn’t exactly clear,) to see one if those creatures (one of those,) “though she was on the track of quark that would solve the riddle of the universe” (?? – Of a quark? Of quark as a type? )

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Women’s Press SF, 1979, 154 p, plus xviii p introduction by Ann Lane and i p notes. First published in 1915.

Herland cover

This is one of the earliest pieces of feminist Science Fiction, an attempt to imagine what a society without men might look like. In its form it is perhaps rooted in its time; on an expedition three men from the US hear rumours of a land of only women somewhere in the upper reaches of “a great river” – a land which no-one has ever seen but was said to be “dangerous, deadly” for any man to go there; and from which no man had ever returned – in other words a similar scenario to “Lost World”s of dinosaurs. That this is merely an authorial device to entice the men (and the reader) into Herland is revealed when they in fact travel by aeroplane into that mythical place, cut off by earthquake in the long ago, and find no danger but rather an initial sequestration along with a tolerant acceptance mediated by a kind of amusement.

As tends to be the way of these things all is couched as a remembrance by one of the three men, Vandyck Jennings, tracking his progress from a belief that there must be men somewhere in Herland and that social organisation without men must necessarily be lacking to an understanding of the dynamics and motivations of this strange country. But there are no men. The women in Herland reproduce parthenogenetically (how this happened is rather skipped over, being more like a miraculous occurrence than a demonstrable process but there would have been no Herland without it.) Social relations in Herland are such that violence and criminality do not occur. In effect they have been bred out. Roles – including childcare and education, though the latter is something of a life-long endeavour – are performed by those who have an aptitude for them and who specialise in that field. The contrast with the outside world is stark, especially in regard to the valuation of each member of society.

Initially the three are bemused by the appearance of their captors, “In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy,” and – a telling aside – “‘Woman’ in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow.”

The three do eventually form relationships with inhabitants of Herland (somewhat oddly the three women whom they first encountered on arrival) but with the difference in societal norms things do not go smoothly. Of the three intruders Terry O Nicolson is the one who thinks women like to be mastered. “His idea was to take. He thought, he honestly believed, that women like it. Not the women of Herland! Not Alima!” This conflict drives the novel’s conclusion and his banishment.

In his explanations of his world to those in Herland, Vandyck realises that, “Patriotism, red hot, is compatible with the existence of a neglect of national interests, a dishonesty, a cold indifference to the suffering of millions. Patriotism is largely pride, and very largely combativeness. Patriotism generally has a chip on its shoulder,” and religion’s “common basis being a Dominant Power or Powers, and some Special Behaviour, mostly taboos to please or placate.” This leads his companion Ellador to envisage sex as Vandyck describes its place in the outside world not, as with animals, for the one purpose of procreation but as specialised to a “higher, purer nobler use”.

Books such as this cannot be subjected to the usual reviewing criteria. The central focus of a novel about a utopia is that of the nature of the society described and how it differs from, and reflects on, ours. The idea is the substance of the novel. Though illumination of the human condition is not, such considerations as plot and character are secondary. Not that there is no character development in Herland: two of the three male adventurers who venture into this world come to their own terms with it. Nicolson the macho man of course does not. (Arguably he cannot, and without his following his instincts the events which led to Jennings providing us with this account would not have occurred.)

It might be argued that Herland is not Science Fiction. But if Science Fiction is the literature of ideas (often a reason for why some SF fails to produce rounded characterisation, but the SF background can be as much of a character as any humans in the story) then Herland definitely counts. Whatever, one hundred years on from its first publication Herland can still be read with facility. It still stands up. It still marks a contrast between what our society is and what it might aspire to.

Pedant’s corner:- lay of the land (lie of the land,) laying low (lying low: there was a “lie low” later,) sewed up (sewn up,) there were a handful (there was a handful,) “‘Don’t talk to be about wives!’” (me makes more sense.)

Passing for Human by Jody Scott

Women’s Press, 1986, 192 p. First published in 1977.

Passing For Human cover

From the publisher and the title of this book it can be inferred that this is a satire. While men may be its principal targets, “Male bodies are incomplete, because of that stunted Y chromosome, hence males lack intuition (which merely means they’re less intelligent, having a closed-off awareness)” and “There should be no lightness in the male life: only a bossy arrogant machismo,” the human race as a whole is found wanting, with all its primitive instincts, sex-obsession and reprehensible customs. “They commit advertising on each other. And as you know advertising is a crime against nature.” Sadly, though, Passing for Human has dated badly since its first publication.

Consider the plot. Dolphin-like creatures from the planet Rysemus are nearing completion of a Rapid transit system, The Mousehole, in the vicinity of Earth. This project might be put in jeopardy by the actions of the Sajorian, Scaulzo, aka the “Prince of Darkness” for, despite his machinations, humans feel well disposed towards him and are said to be easy prey to his evil ends.

The Rysemians have on their ship, Vonderra, a supply of bodies identical in every respect to their originals; bodies into which they can transfer at will. Our main protagonist, Benaroya, appears variously in the book as Brenda Starr, Emma Peel and Virginia Woolf. (I note here that two of these are actually fictional in our real world.) Other Rysemians inhabit the bodies of Abraham Lincoln, George S Patton, Heidi’s grandfather and countless Richard Nixons.

To a modern reading there are several problems with all of this. One is that, despite Rysemians having telepathic powers, none of the human characters ever rises above the caricature, not even Adrian Resnick who is being kept in captivity by Scaulzo and whose consciousness we roam for a while. The other is the pulpy nature of the plot and the treatment – which comes over more like a piece of pulp SF from the 50s or earlier. Both these elements lend the book a cartoonish quality at odds with any claim to seriousness. Moreover, I know the tale is supposed to be picaresque but there is still a certain lack of internal logic when Rysemians excoriate humans for experimenting on and killing animals but have no qualms about contemplating the extinction of humanity as a punishment, have indeed carried out just that sentence on the main life form of the planet Hogue. Yet what grated most was that for a piece pointing out supposed cultural peculiarities the text seems blithely unaware of its own cultural specificity. An Italian refers to a limey, another says “way to go babe” (I also wondered if 7-Up was available in Italy in the 1970s,) there is a comparison to over-civilized field goal kickers and Benaroya’s interminable interjections, “Jeeps! Holy Moses! Holy croakers! Wowzereeno, holy mackerel,” are unmistakably USian. Her reactions are supposed to be a result of culture shock but these authorial tics encapsulate an attitude arising from within (one of) the culture(s) she is supposed to be shocked by.

File under historical curiosity.

Pedant’s corner:- a thick-molecule “water” planet (what on – or indeed off – Earth is a thick-molecule?) deoderant (deodorant,) “can you imagine this is Scaulzo’s hands?” (in Scaulzo’s hands,) Earthie’s (Earthies,) sprung (sprang,) shizophrenic (schizophrenic,) skelton (skeleton,) a gargoyles’s head (gargoyle’s,) envison (envision,) the the (one the is enough,) as done (has done,) Sojorian (Sajorian,) a cluster of crones were (a cluster was,) knawed (gnawed,) aureoles (areolae,) humilation (humiliation,) comfty (comfy.)

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.)

The Wall Around Eden by Joan Slonczewski

Women’s Press, 1991, 288 p

The Wall Around Eden cover

It’s the little things that niggle. One of the families in this book is Quaker, of the strict variety. And they address others as “thee” (except in the possessive when they use “thy”.) This is fine, but…. Bar once, they never use the form “thou” – and in the nominative case they ought to. I found this omission intensely irritating (though I’ll admit that “thou” would require, for example, the verb form “seest” as in “thou seest” rather than the author’s “thee sees.”) Do strict Quakers in the US actually use “thee” in this way? In any case Slonczewski and her characters are clearly aware that the “thou” form exists as in that one instance Daniel Scattergood uses it in the punning phrase “an I for a thou” when he and Isabel Garcia-Chase are exchanging images with an alien artefact. It also occurs in, “She had watched it for too long not to think of it as thou” when Isabel has an apparently wounded keeper at her mercy. Very annoying.

Then too, Slonczewski has her characters reference various works of Science Fiction which, although it provides a means of explaining the topographical relationship of the alien Pylons which link various human settlements together with a central core, comes over more as her demonstrating an awareness of the genre rather than something organic to her creations.

But to the tale. It’s set in the aftermath of an atomic war in which aliens called Keepers may or may not have had some part but where most of humanity and other life failed to survive the ensuing nuclear winter. Those who did now live in domed cities created by the aliens. These have an impenetrable barrier (the wall around Eden of the title) to the outside and also a walled off Pylon at their centre, plus flying aliens (or alien artifacts) called angelbees – who see infra-red – roaming the air inside the domes. There are very few of these environments – none in Europe – the main one is in Sydney, Australia, but ours is in Gwynwood, USA. Courtesy of the aliens the domed cities are kept in touch with each other by a teleportation technology.

Sunlight can penetrate the wall around Gwynwood but snow cannot; nor can animals – the outside is littered with the bones of the dying, humans among them, attracted there by its warmth and light in the days of nuclear winter – but there is weather inside (not to mention bluejays, mice and squirrels.) Despite references to the growing of crops and fruit – and their contamination with radiation via the groundwater – Gwynwood seems rather too small to create that internal weather, and to be self-sufficient. Yes, imports come in from Sydney but these seem to be mostly technological or medical. I did wonder how even the small number who live there managed to survive. Their existence is summed up by one of them remembering Chief Seattle, on being taken to the reservation, “It is the end of living and the beginning of survival.”

No matter; the main story is of Isabel’s quest to escape Gwynwood, join the Underground and eject the aliens from Earth. Somewhere along the way it turns into a voyage of discovery about the nature of the Keepers and their purposes. Slonczewski does the discovery stuff very well and the central message – unusually for a post disaster novel – is of hope but I was left wanting more.

Pedant’s corner:- there was a “sprung” count of one (but sprang was used elsewhere,) the now very unPC, “We’ll watch the poofs at Les Girls.” “But King George (III) was a tyrant” is a very USian sentiment. We had crèche (for nativity scene,) rhinoceri (the word ending is plain wrong; its root isn’t from Latin, the English plural is rhinoceroses anyway,) calling an in unimaginable variety (in an,) polyhedrons (it’s from Greek so the plural is polyhedra,) shined (shone,) could have mowed us down (mown.)

The Book of the Night by Rhoda Lerman

Women’s Press, 1986, 269 p.

Book of the Night cover

A young girl, Celeste, disguised as a boy called CuRoi, is brought by her father to the monastic community on Iona to live her life as a monk. It is Celeste’s viewpoint that carries the novel’s main narrative but this is interspersed with occasional sections told by Generous, one of the monks. Both voices, though, to the syntactically archaic at times have a tendency.

The book also plays tricks with time. Part of the ancillary plot deals with the confrontation between Roman and Celtic Christianity in the 8th century but there are references to the First and Second World Wars, quantum foam, radio, a ferry named the Princess George and the Beatles.

It is not only time that is malleable. So too is matter. Partway through the novel Celeste turns into a cow. A talking, feeling cow, true, but still a cow, with horns, hoofs etc.

The text is also replete with word play. Dense, allusive passages such as, “Michael, Molchu, Mocc-el, Moloch, Melech, King of the Universe, Enoch, eunuch,” or, “an Irish sailor I am, Noe, of the great craft Argo. Noah, Jonah, Iona, I sail with the argot and puns of the Naught to the God Lug of the deluge,” are not uncommon. There is frequent reference to jumping over the moon, animals running away with spoons etc. Indeed Celeste’s last written words, in the book’s final epigram, are, “Hey, diddle diddle.”

But when, “Words collapse, sink, intensify, grow dense. Categories disintegrate. Language trembles. Words remain but the webs of their meanings drift away,” a reader has a devil of a job keeping up.

The idea behind the story, apparently derived from those of Ilya Prigogine (though his Wikipedia entry does not appear to provide support for it) is that matter itself is malleable. The novel’s preamble asserts that, “self-organisation ….. is a property of matter … as if matter has mind, as if the thrust of evolution is will.” In this context the changing of a girl into a cow would not be remarkable. It is doubtful, to me at least, if it is warranted. While it is true that an organism represents a decrease in entropy (at least locally) this is a long way from meaning that the process can be directed.

In this context (and notwithstanding the Women’s Press Science Fiction imprint) the transformation of Celeste into a cow seems to me to belong in the realm of Fantasy rather than Science Fiction.

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