Carmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller

Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019) was an American writer of avant-garde short stories and Science Fiction . She started writing short stories in the 1950s, at about the same time as she started having children. Her first collection was published in 1974 and Carmen Dog, her first novel, in 1988.

The Women’s Press, a London publisher – and not to be confused with Onlywomen Press – was founded by NZ/Australian writer Stephanie Dowrick. Her co-publisher, Naim Attalah (a guy) had some connection with Virago and so as a point of difference, The Women’s Press focused on contemporary fiction, and also, as you see, Science Fiction. All this of course is ‘research’, and I see from Wikipedia that their early writers included Alice Walker, The Colour Purple and Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions.

I own and have previously reviewed from TWP SF The Planet Dweller and Moving Moosevan by Janet Palmer and The Total Devotion Machine by (Australian) Rosaleen Love. I’m not sure why this cover does not have The Women’s Press’s familiar black and white stripes (though, inside is the same jokey logo, an iron and ironing board – see the motto: Steaming ahead).

Carmen Dog is a postmodern romp through Science Fiction, Magic Realism and Women’s Lib. The core of the plot is that women everywhere (ie. New York. I’m not sure Americans understand the difference) are devolving into animals and that female animals are evolving*, in the space of a year or two, into women.

There is not really any science in the SF, but also the fantastical elements do not make it SFF. Instead, the implication is that you must read Carmen Dog as you read SF – accept the premise as possible and think about what events in this altered reality tell us about what we think of as the real world.

‘The beast changes to a woman or the woman changes to a beast,’ the doctor said. ‘In her case it is certainly the latter since she has been, on the whole, quite passable as a human being up to the present moment. There may be hundreds of these creatures already among us. No way to tell for sure how many.’

The principal characters are Pooch, a female pedigreed setter who has partway changed into a woman; a baby, in fact the baby of the woman the doctor is speaking about, who is in the process of changing into a snapping turtle; the woman’s husband, Pooch’s ‘Master’; the doctor; the doctor’s wife, whose name we learn is Rosemary; and half a dozen women changing variously to/from a wolverine, a cat, a duck (or maybe a swan), a python etc.

Pooch finds herself being given more of the housework and babysitting, till one day the baby’s mother grabs the baby in her beak and won’t let go. Pooch rescues the baby, but thinking she’ll be blamed for the wound on the baby’s arm, runs away with it, from the suburbs into central New York. There she realises her dream of attending the opera, Carmen of course, but cannot help herself and begins singing in an untrained but powerful voice over the top of the soprano.

Meanwhile, the doctor has applied for a research grant into these changes to women and has constructed a laboratory in his basement where he can keep six women/animals and conduct tests on them.

Pooch is arrested, along with baby, and is put in the pound, where every seven days those unclaimed are taken away to be euthanized. There, out of compassion, she exchanges identities with Isabel, who is becoming a wolverine, enabling the real Isabel to escape when the Master, too busy to come himself, sends Pooch a travel pass for the subway.

Pooch makes friend with those around her; they are handed over to the doctor for his experiments; Rosemary cares for them; and slowly reveals herself as another changeling, preserving her appearance with a rubber mask.

In another part of town the Academy of Motherhood, an exclusive club for men who are attempting to take women out of the motherhood process altogether, has its own laboratories where women test subjects are inseminated –

The academy uses only the best genes in the nation: from governors, generals (three star or above), atomic scientists as well as the directors of nuclear reactors, presidents of the largest countries, oil magnates and so forth. The men picked are splendid, tall and blonde for the most part and all earning over $100,000 a year not even counting perks. Of course it has taken time for these men to achieve status in their fields, so most of them are, by now, paunchy and bald.

From here it gets more than a bit chaotic. Pooch escapes and is engaged briefly in a love triangle with a (female) cat and a (male) opera lover. She loses her voice and can only bark. A tall blonde man who had seen her sing is also seeking her. Pooch, being a dog, remains loyal to Master, but when finally reunited and she leaps up on him, he french kisses her and gropes her new breasts.

A protest meeting addressed by a range of women all in Rosemary masks is broken up by the police. The women overpower the police and disguise themselves in police uniforms, the police disguise themselves as Rosemarys. The women march on the Academy of Motherhood.

Pooch finds love. Marries. Adopts baby. Has a litter of setters. Did I enjoy it? I loved it, and you would too if it were available which I suppose it is not.

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Carol Emshwiller, Carmen Dog, The Women’s Press, London, 1988. 148pp.


‘Evolving’ is Emshwiller’s (mis)usage. Evolution is of course a process covering generations.

Jennifer Government, Max Barry

AusReading Month 2021

Emma/Book Around the Corner had at least two goes at getting me to listen to Jennifer Government (2002) and to appreciate the SF writing of Australian, Max Barry (1973 – ) as I had heard of neither. So thank you Emma, I appreciated the experience so much that I repeated it. Ok, to be honest, I retained so little first time round, that I had to re-listen to be able to write a review.

Max Barry, research tells me, is a Melbourne marketing type guy, who writes fiction, film scripts, computer games and blogs (here). Jennifer Government was his second novel, after Syrup, which was made into a movie, of which I also had not heard.

The setting for Jennifer Government is a near future when Australia and most other countries have been incorporated into the USA. A near future in which every neo-con wet dream has come true and big business is almost entirely free of the shackles of government. And social services are a pipe dream (except in much-derided Europe) because of course big business doesn’t pay taxes (so, much like now).

I found the book both well written and entertaining. Without any info dumping we discover that employees’ surnames are now the names of their employers; schools are sponsored by corporations (whose names the children bear); during the course of a shooting we find an ambulance can’t be ordered without credit card details; when the victim of the shooting dies, her parents are required to pay all the costs of both the investigation and the subsequent prosecution.

We can laugh, but like much SF, this is a fair analysis of the direction in which our society is trending.

There is a large cast and a sweeping story line. It goes something like this: Hank Nike, just a merchandising clerk, runs into John Nike, guerilla marketer and John Nike his offsider/fixit man. They offer him the chance to join Marketing and wave in front of him a multi page contract with very small print, which he signs, only to find that it calls on him to shoot dead 8 shoppers for the new range of Nike shoes, thus demonstrating how desperate shoppers are to get them. All the stores are stocked up in advance. Consumers are led to expect there are only a limited number available. In fact there are 500,000 pairs at $2,000/pair. A billion dollars.

Hank’s girlfriend Violet – no surname, she’s unemployed, working on a new computer programme/virus – persuades Hank to go to the ‘police’, a sort of Pinkertons (if you read Westerns) and they, for a large fee, agree not to prevent the murders, but to carry them out themselves, though it subsequently turns out they in turn subcontracted to the NRA.

One of the shootings, at Chadstone shopping centre – and it is a joy in this (deliberately) American accented read to so often run into familiar Melbourne place names – is witnessed by a French Australian stockbroker, Buy Mitsui who is traumatised when he fails to prevent the schoolgirl victim, Milly, from bleeding to death.

Jennifer Government has had information that the shootings are to occur and is one of many agents stationed outside Nike stores around the country. She is unsuccessful in stopping the Chadstone shooting and is shot herself, saved by her bullet-proof vest but falling four floors through the atrium to land on the roof of a Mercedes lottery prize.

This is an action story, but with a difference. Violence is not glorified. Jennifer is a single mother, her daughter Kate aged 8 at a Mattel school (and hence, Kate Mattel). JG is forever making promises to Kate which she cannot keep, and when John Nike is promoted overseas and she takes off after him, she chooses to leave Kate in the care of the man whom she met and slept with just the previous day.

Meanwhile Violet, beats up on the second John Nike when he attempts to rape her, and is then taken up by Exxon Mobil who want to use her virus to disadvantage a competitor, Royal Dutch Shell; she leaves Hank who takes up with her sister who in turn introduces him to her protester friends.

The corporations, with John Nike somehow in the lead, go rogue and the government attempts to rein them in. It all comes to head in a meeting in the House of Commons in London, at the end of which John Nike has hired an unwilling NRA gunman to assassinate the President.

SF is often outrageous when it is written, and surprisingly close to the mark a decade or two later, and such is the case here. Read it as SF or read it as Satire, it works either way. But read it.

I don’t know why Max Barry and Jennifer Government haven’t been on my radar. Are they on yours? Maybe they are better known overseas than in Australia. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention. But I am now.

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Max Barry, Jennifer Government, 2002. Audiobook: Audible, read by Michael Kramer, 2004. 9 hrs

see also: from Guy Savage/His Futile Preoccupations, a Max Barry fan –
Jennifer Government (review)
Other Max Barrys (here)
Guest post on Whispering Gums (here)

Can You Feel Anything when I do This? Robert Sheckley

In the past few years we have been flooded with books set in a not too distant future in which everything that we know is going wrong has gone wrong. We are calling these works ‘Dystopian’ because their real name, ‘Science Fiction’ scares the shit out of us (out of you).

SF has a history stretching back centuries, to ETA Hoffman for example, as writers attempted to imagine what the future might be like, how it might be changed, and often, to explore familiar problems in a less familiar setting. But SF was not really SF until after WWII, when it became a platform for pulp fiction adventure, re-fighting the War in spaceships, America to the rescue, taking the Cold War into space, the weapons however futuristic, still just variations on rifles and pistols.

However, right alongside pulp SF came a new generation of young writers, thoughtful, experimental, dealing initially with imagining the aftermath of the nuclear apocalypse, and then in the 60s and 70s with drugs, feminism, politics, the coming collapse of the environment, every human problem you can imagine transposed to a strange setting the better to be examined.

A ‘typical’ SF writer dashed out stories for the pulp magazines on a rickety typewriter production line; mixed with his (they were mostly guys) readers at conventions around the US; formed a community based on conventions and fanzines. The ‘new’ writers were sometimes inside this eco-system and sometimes not, but we took them up anyway.

I’m thinking of JG Ballard, Ursula Le Guin, William Burroughs, Philip K Dick, Doris Lessing, Kurt Vonnegut, John Sladek, Robert Sheckley. I’m not a scholar of SF or of this period, but these are the ones I read, and when I get the chance, still read. Later, beginning in the 1980s, there was The Women’s Press, Sheri S Tepper, William Gibson carrying innovative SF forward as the mainstream collapsed into dragons and magic.

Inside this apartment, all alone and aching of anomie, was a semi-young housewife, Melisande Durr, who had just stepped out of the voluptarium, the largest room in the home, with its king-size commode and its sadly ironic bronze lingam and yoni on the wall.

Robert Sheckley (1928 – 2005) was an American writer. “His numerous quick-witted stories and novels were famously unpredictable, absurdist, and broadly comical” (Wiki). Initially a writer of short stories, his first novel, Immortality Inc. (1958) was published as a serial in the SF magazine Galaxy.

So there she was, standing in her OK apartment, all beautiful outside and unborn inside, a lovely potential who had never been potentiated, a genuine US untouchable … when the doorbell rang… Someone must have the wrong apartment. Nevertheless, she walked over, set the Door-Gard Entrance Obliterator to demolish any rapist or burglar or wise guy..

I’m not sure I ever saw The Jetsons (which failed in US prime time in 1962/63 and was then moved to Saturday mornings where the same one season ran for 20 years) but the idea of 1950s perfection, consumerism, middle class suburbia, perfectly groomed stay at home housewives, extended indefinitely with ever more futuristic consumer products was a staple of American SF, sometimes, as here, examined critically, but often not.

At the door is a deliveryman, a crate, around her height, 5 ft 9″, addressed to her. The crate opens, blossoms out, turns to ash, revealing a machine, a cylinder of metal painted orange and red, ‘four rubber clad wheels, various attachments – longitudinal extensors, prehensile extractors’, “a goddamned vacuum cleaner!”. But she fires it up anyway, it makes its spiel, offers to begin work, removes a stain from her blouse, notes that she is tense, begins to touch her …

“That tickles,” Melisande told [it].
“Only at first. I must also mention this situs as characteristically troublesome. And this one.” A third (and possibly a fourth and fith) extensor moved to the indicated areas.
“Well… That really is nice.”

And so the story proceeds, predictably maybe, it was first published in Playboy. The touching escalates ..

“For example, can you feel anything when I do this?
“Feel anything? I’ll say I feel something -“
“And when I do this? And this?”

They escalate to “cancellation” and then the talking begins. It ends more strangely than you can imagine. Melisande is a women who values control over everything.

Did I say this was a short story collection? A man learns to get hairy-chested with French waiters and US Fuller Brush salesmen, until his fiancee gets upset. The old problem of how do you know when you’re dreaming – a man wakes up terrified from dreams of a world where night follows day, where buildings don’t change shape as you watch them, where skies are blue and grass is green and doesn’t shoot up as you watch. Another man may also be dreaming, he seems to be involved in a game whose rules he cannot recall but at which he appears to be an expert, but like all the other men in all the other stories he goes home to his wife in the suburbs and when she asks how his work went “He said all right, by which they both understood that it hadn’t gone well, not this time, not today.”

A man breeds hybrid animals to wipe out that scourge on the face of the earth, man. And at last, spaceships: a robot perimeter guard interprets its instructions in such a way as to keep the astronauts OUT of the camp. An emissary for the devil grants a man three wishes, on the proviso that the man’s worst enemy will get double. He didn’t even know he had a worst enemy and now he’s going to make him rich and happy. Or is he?

After the War which Ended All Wars all literature was lost, save in the memories of one class of men, the Mnemones, and they were banned. A man from Aldeberan takes in all the sights and experiences of earth, including a wife. She insists he needs therapy.

A lot of the stories are about perception so of course there’s one about LSD. But let’s finish with Plague Circuit. A salesman from the future comes back to Times Square 1968 with a cure for the plague. He gets no takers. What plague? There will be one, the Census Board will see to that. 1960s people had already failed to take advantage of the Hydrogen Bomb, “But humans never see the necessity of thinning themselves out, they never learn. That’s why our plagues are necessary.”

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Robert Sheckley, Can You Feel Anything when I do this?, first pub. Gollancz, 1971 (Wiki). Also published by Pan as The Same to You Doubled. My copy, Science Fiction Book Club, 1973. 191 pp.

You Make Me (do it)

Journal: 072

You make me read/listen to books I might not otherwise have considered or even heard of. Cats Eye for MARM, Aboriginal short stories (Born into This), Liz Dexter’s favourite author who, sadly, turned out not to be mine. This of course is a good thing. I wonder what I would be reading had I not been introduced to blogging. More SciFi? More TV? As an aside, Milly says blogging has been the making of me – a bit late, I was in my sixties when I started. I can’t get her to say more than that. There is no doubt that writing about and discussing books has reconnected me to my academic side, but I think she means that for the first time in my life I am actually connecting with other people.

Most of the side streets I venture down are of my own choosing, pre-Jane Austen English Lit for instance. Others are a consequence of beginning projects – most notably the AWW Gens – whose internal logic carries me in unexpected directions. And some, and maybe even the most interesting, are from your enthusiasms rubbing off on me.

Brona/This Reading Life has designated August as Poetry Month, following up an initiative by Red Room Poetry whose anthology, Guwayu – For All Times, I reviewed recently. I had thought that might do it for me but looking round my shelves I see I have far more (Australian) poetry than I expected, mostly because of my father, from Kendall, through Paterson and Lawson to CJ Dennis, some older Australian anthologies, and of course, his own compilation of WWI poetry, Quiet Flows the Somme Dark Somme Flowing (write in haste, repent at leisure!), and on to my own interests in Alan Wearne and recent Indigenous collections.

This has set me off on a Poetry Month post of my own which I have 27 days to complete. That makes four posts I have on the go – ok, in contemplation – right now, plus my quarterly accounts, which all I hope to get done, having just got home from Melbourne, and back into Iso, before anyone offers me any more work.

For the remainder of this post I want to review/briefly mention books I have listened to, via Audible and Borrowbox, following recommendations from you, my fellows. I said above that left to myself I would probably be reading more SF, and as it happens, Melanie/GTL in particular has been pointing me recently towards US women’s non-violent SF.

First up was The Snow Queen (1980) which you might have thought I had heard of before, but I hadn’t (Son, Lou will probably tell me we read it back in Melbourne in the 1990s. But if we did it didn’t make an impression). I bought it on Audible when Melanie first made the suggestion but didn’t listen to it until last month. I thought it good average SF but I appreciate the different perspective, and better characterization, that women writers bring to SF. To summarize very briefly, The Summer Queen and the Winter Queen each rule for 150 years. The book follows Moon, a young Summer woman who turns out to be a clone of the Winter Queen. Will she become the Summer Queen? There are of course lots of interesting twists and turns (see Wiki).

More interesting, and also recommended by Melanie, is Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series which commences with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014). My feeling is that it is more interesting because it is more modern, but can I explain that? The Snow Queen is your standard adventure epic, though with no or very little shooting, which I appreciate. Chambers’ books are more character studies which happen to have inter-planetary settings.

We follow the multi-species crew of a typical “owner-driver” space craft (there’s a word for this in shipping, but I can’t bring it to the surface). One of the most interesting situations is that the AI, the mind to use Iain M Banks’ term, Lovey, which runs the ship is in love with the ship’s engineer, and he with her. They decide that the next step is to find Lovey a body.

This leads us to the next book in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) which I feel like I am going to have to listen to again because the summaries I’m reading don’t gel with what little I remember. There are two stories running in parallel. Pepper, who lives in a community in the interior of a planet, has the care of an android which contains the mind of a ship’s AI, not Lovey’s because that transfer failed, but with some of Lovey’s memories. And a girl, Jennifer 23, is one of a roomful of Jennifers all aged 10, working in a factory salvaging parts from scrapped spaceships. She escapes to the ‘outside’ and is cared for for years by a the AI of a stranded spaceship. We slowly become aware that Pepper is Jennifer 23, grown up and escaped to another planet.

As you are no doubt aware Liz Dexter/Adventures in Reading, Running etc. has this year been making her way through the works of Anne Tyler. I never seem to be able to borrow a book at the same time as she is reading it, but I do have one in mind, for September I think. Meanwhile I listened to Morgan’s Passing (1980) which Liz reviewed awhile ago. The eponymous Morgan is a fantasist who lives off his wife’s emotional and her family’s financial support. He begins stalking a couple, whom he met by pretending to be a doctor and actually delivering their child, and slowly worms his way into their lives. The young woman of the couple, Emily, is a maths major when we meet her and I expected a lot of her, but she wastes her life/fails to assert her independence, first with her ‘actor’ husband and then, inexplicably, with Morgan. Tyler writes good characters and puts them into interesting situations, but I found Morgan barely believable and totally unlikeable. Only Bonnie, Morgan’s wife, with her self-awareness and common sense, redeems this book.

I like photographing my truck at sunrise, as you may have noticed. I get plenty of opportunities starting work at 5.00 am! The pic below was taken at Nullarbor Station last trip (no Bingo sorry Melanie). It might be my last trip that way for a while, if things turn out. I’ve had one year of isolation and I don’t think I can face a second. I have a tentative offer of work up north which I hope will keep me in WA for a while. But the best laid schemes etc…

I see in compiling the lists below, Regeneration and Station Eleven, both of which you recommended. Sorry, you know, space, time. I of course have reservations about Regeneration, but I enjoyed reading them both.

Recent audiobooks 

Mike Bockoven (M, USA), Pack (2018) – Fantasy
Lee Child (M, Eng), Blue Moon (2019) – Crime
Joan Vinge (F, USA), The Snow Queen (1980) – SF
Ellen Alpsten (F, Eng), Tsarina (2020) – Hist.Fic
Jim Lehrer (M, USA), Top Down (2013) – Hist.Fic
Elizabeth Woodcraft (F, Eng), The Saturday Girls (2018) – Coming of Age
Archie Roach (M, Aus/Vic), Tell Me Why (2019) – Memoir
Pat Barker (F, Eng), Regeneration (1991) – Hist.Fic
Anne Tyler (F, USA), Morgan’s Passing (1980)
Emily St John Mandel (F, Can), Station Eleven (2014) – SF (post-apocalyptic)
Becky Chambers (F, USA), A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014) – SF
Becky Chambers (F, USA), A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) – SF
Isabelle Allende (F, USA), In the Midst of Winter (2017)
Nikki Gemmell (F, Aus/NSW), The Ripping Tree (2021) – Hist.Fic
Kerry Greenwood (F, Aus/Vic), Murder and Mendelssohn (2013) – Hist.Fic/Crime
Andrea Camilleri (M, Ita), The Age of Doubt (2008) – Crime
Margaret Atwood (F, Can), Angel Catbird (2017) – SF

Currently reading

Carmel Bird (F, Aus/Tas), The Bluebird Cafe
Bruce Pascoe (M, Aus/Vic), Dark Emu
Jacqueline Kent (F, Aus/Vic), Vida
Adam Thompson (M, Aus/Tas), Born in to This
George Sand (F, Fra), Laura: A Journey into the Crystal
Norman Lindsay (M, Aus/NSW), Age of Consent
Jeanine Leane ed. (F, Aus/NSW), Guwayu – For All Times

Laura: A Journey into the Crystal, George Sand

No, I didn’t read it in French, I just preferred this French cover. Laura: A Journey into the Crystal (1864) is the 44th of Sand’s 60 odd novels/novellas. I have previously reviewed Sand’s The Devil’s Pool and Elizabeth Berg’s fictionalized and very readable bio, The Dream Lover, if you want more details of Sand’s life. In his 1910 biography, Rene Doumic writes, George Sand wrote for nearly half a century. For fifty times three hundred and sixty-five days, she never let a day pass by without covering more pages than other writers in a month. Her first books shocked people, her early opinions were greeted with storms. From that time forth she rushed head-long into everything new, she welcomed every chimera and passed it on to us with more force and passion in it. Hence the 60 books.

The book’s thesis is that the crystal interiors of geodes have “landscapes” mimicking those of the exterior/real world, and that the story’s narrator Alexis can be transported into these interior landscapes by his cousin Laura. Brona – who kindly sent me her copy of this work – asks is this Science Fiction or is it dreams? (here) The answer is probably that in the early days of SF the two were indistinguishable.

One clue is on p.30. Laura is describing to Alexis what they can see around them

Here is mad labradorite, the reflections from its facets by turn colourless and pearly, and adventurine with silver rain that displays its polished flanks, while the fires of red, warm almandine, whose praises were once sung by a seer called Hoffman, are concentrated around the centre of its austere mountain.

The Hoffman she refers to is ETA Hoffman (1776-1822), a German/Prussian author of fantastical stories (hence Tales of Hoffman). I have been, slowly/intermittently, reading his Master Flea thanks to Jonathon/Intermittencies of the Mind (here).

From Wikipedia I get: Historian Martin Willis argues that Hoffmann’s impact on science fiction has been overlooked, saying “his work reveals a writer dynamically involved in the important scientific debates of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” Willis points out that Hoffmann’s work is contemporary with Frankenstein (1818) and with “the heated debates and the relationship between the new empirical science and the older forms of natural philosophy that held sway throughout the eighteenth century.” His “interest in the machine culture of his time is well represented in his short stories, of which the critically renowned The Sandman (1816) and Automata (1814) are the best examples. …Hoffmann’s work makes a considerable contribution to our understanding of the emergence of scientific knowledge in the early years of the nineteenth century and to the conflict between science and magic.

And further searching (how I wish I had some German) reveals the following

Down in the depths below, hidden in the chlorite and mica, lies the cherry-coloured sparkling almandine, on which the tablet of our lives is graven. I have to give it to you as a wedding present.

ETA Hoffman, The Mines of Falun

The Mines of Falun (Die Bergwerke zu Falun) “is one of the most complex stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Starting from an event recalled in old chronicles [the discovery of a perfectly preserved body in a crystal mine], the writer fantasizes on a story that shares only the ending with the documented one, which allows for an extraordinary incursion in other depths, those of the dreams, hallucinations and obsessions. The whole narration demands a reading from a symbolic perspective, where images constantly refer to what lies beyond the apparent.” Luis Montiel, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2014.

Ok, enough antecedents. Laura is early SF, following on from ETA Hoffman whom Sand had clearly read, and the Hoffman connection may explain why she chose a German setting rather than French. Alexis himself is unsure at times whether he is dreaming or undergoing ‘magic’ or spiritual experience. But that is equally true with ‘hard’ SF today – with concepts like worm holes, faster-than-light communications, telepathy and teleporting being sciency rather than scientific.

Alexis falls in love with Laura (of course) but it soon turns out she is promised to his supervisor whose prospects are more certain.

[Alexis] You laugh, I said, and I suffer; but that is all the same to you, you love neither Walter nor me; you love only marriage, the idea of calling yourself “Madame” and wearing feathers in your hat…

[Laura] Calm yourself, you silly great child! Didn’t I tell you that I love you? Don’t you know that our earthly life is only a vain fantasmagoria, and that we are forever united in the transparent, radiant world of the ideal?

[Note that there are no quotation marks to denote speech. There is no copy on Project Gutenberg so I cannot tell whether this is done by Sand or the translator].

Nasias, who claims to be Laura’s father who has been away many years, appears and wishes to take advantage of Alexis’ ability to materialize inside these crystal worlds. He promises not to marry Laura off and takes Alexis on a voyage – from Kiel in the Baltic, across the North Atlantic, and up the west coast of Greenland (map) – to where they may enter the underworld through a hole in the Arctic.

After months of sledding across ice through the winter dark, guided by the light from a strange diamond, they come to a warm sea and on its far side a volcanic island marking the north pole [Robert Peary’s explorations of north Greenland and the North Pole would not take place until four decades after this book was published].

Eventually the two ascend the mountain at the centre of the island and see beneath them the world’s crystal interior. Nasias plunges onwards, but Laura appears, to rescue Alexis and return him to home

[Laura] … but listen, my dear Alexis: as I leave the crystal world with you, I sense that I am leaving my glamour there. You have always seen me as tall, beautiful, eloquent, almost magical. In reality, you will find me as I am, small, simple, ignorant, a little middle-class, and singing the Ballad from Saul out of key.

A happy ending ensues, of course, and Sand implies a prosaic explanation for all that has gone before, but for 100 pages she has taken us on an imaginative, exciting adventure.

.

George Sand, Laura: A Journey into the Crystal, first pub. 1864. Translated by Sue Dyson, Pushkin Press, London, 2004, 2nd Ed. 2018. 126pp.

Rene Doumic, George Sand: Some Aspects of Her Life and Writings, first pub. 1910. Translated by Alys Hallard. Project Gutenberg (here)

Speak, Louisa Hall

I’m home. I’m bored. I have posts written up weeks ahead. I’m reading almost at random. Georgette Heyer, The Toll Gate; Ann Radcliffe, The Italian, ETA Hoffman, Mr Flea, another chapter of Such is Life – I’m dying to just read on instead of stopping to research and analyze; and this one which appeared lying around the flat one day, which has a Crow Books (local indie) sticker, and which I suspect Milly picked up a year or two ago when we would go across the road to Crow after a meal at the Balmoral and which Lou found in his relentless search for SF he has not yet read.

Yes, Speak (2015) is yet another dystopian novel carefully avoiding the descriptor Science Fiction. But Science Fiction is what it is. The premise of the novel is that dolls with AI were so life-like that girl children loved them to the exclusion of all else, friends and family, and that when mothers forced the government to withdraw them, substitutes made of toxic plastics caused many children to “freeze up”, to suffer a creeping paralysis. This all taking place in an America twenty years in the future where fresh water is scarce and mostly owned by corporations; cities are being lost to rising seas; the Gulf of Mexico is turgid brown from spilled oil; and people who have sold off their rights to movement are trapped in their apartments.

“Louisa Hall grew up in Philadelphia. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Iowa”. She has three novels and some poetry to her credit. That’s all her website says about her. By her photo she might be 35-ish. Is there anyone writing novels today who is not an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing somewhere? It doesn’t seem so. There must be some pressure on all these Assistant Professor/novelists to show some innovation/points of difference in their craft otherwise what is the point of all those years of study (and how else to get to full Professor).

In Speak, Hall has us listen to the voices of a number of different characters, from different times, all linked in some way to these ‘babybot’ AI dolls. It’s a clever and interesting work, but not one I was planning to review, until near the end the author hit on a couple of subjects – which I will get to – which clearly she regarded as personal.

One of those characters is the computer science genius, Alan Turing (1912-1954) who, although Hall does not discuss it directly, proposed a test, now known as the Turing Test, to determine if a computer was ‘intelligent’. Mary, the AI in the novel, we see at various stages of ‘her’ development. As Mary(3) she has absorbed a great deal of material and has been given the ability to ‘grow’ or change in response to what she learns, so that when she becomes the intelligence in the babybots, each babybot is soon unique.

A man I once knew believed I was alive. Another man taught me to speak; the woman he married filled me with stories. A third man gave me my body. One child loved me. They spoke to me and I listened.

The voices who alternate throughout the book are –
Stephen Chinn, the developer of the babybots, in the 2030s and 40s
Gaby White, a girl whose babybot was taken away
Karl Dettman, the developer of Mary in the 1960s
Ruth Dettman, Karl’s wife
Alan Turing, posits the idea of Artificial Intelligence in the 1940s
Mary Bradford, a 13 year old Puritan emigrating from England to Massachusetts in 1663
a babybot, unnamed, which is being shipped out, with hundreds of its fellows, into the desert to run down and die.

As far as I know, only Turing is a real person.

Briefly, Chinn is in gaol in the 2040s where he is writing his memoirs; a transcript of conversations between Gaby and a computer linked to Mary(3) was tendered as evidence in the case against Chinn; the Dettman’s are German Jews who left Germany (separately) for the US before WWII; Turing, largely friendless, writes letters to the mother of a school friend who died; Mary Bradford keeps a diary of her emigration to America with her parents and with the man they have forced her to marry (not consumated during the course of the book). Mary has an unnatural love for her dog and an unusual interest in Copernicus’ proof of a helio-centric solar system.

Chinn’s original interest, as an archetypal nerd, is in writing algorithms for interactions with women which will make him irresistible to them. This works; he turns his discoveries into a financially successful dating site; becomes bored with the subsequent wealth and orgies, marries his housekeeper, they have a child; he invents babybots to distract his daughter so his wife will pay him more attention; she gets sick of him spending all day inventing and divorces him; the babybots are too successful; he goes to gaol.

Dettman too, a half century earlier, spends too much time developing Mary. He thinks he is communicating with his wife but she turns away from him. Her interest is in old diaries which have been published but then forgotten. The breaking point of their marriage is not his inability to understand how she feels about the loss of all her family in the Holocaust, when his family were safely in America, but his fear of what Mary might become and his refusal to include the diary of Mary Bradford in her memory banks.

Hall herself obviously has an interest in ‘lost’ diaries, but also a much greater interest in husbands who assume they know their wives well enough to be able to tell them (their wives) what they are thinking. In the last third of the book Dettman goes off with a leggy grad student and Ruth gets to do the talking.

Turing’s story is well-known but sad nonetheless. Mary(3)’s doubts about her own intelligence will I am sure become less and less as years pass. There’s a fascinating article in today’s (15 Mar 21) New York Times about the white male biases being built into AIs by, of course, Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

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Louisa Hall, Speak, Orbit, London, 2015. 314pp.

Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler

Parable of the Talents (1998) is the ‘science fiction’ story of what it is now clear that millions of Americans are working towards, relentlessly and ruthlessly, an evangelical theocracy. Not a story at all, SF or otherwise, but a clear warning from 22 years ago of what is on the way, as inevitably as death.

Butler posits an ending that is more positive than I think present facts deserve, but my own prediction from the safety of this other side of the world is that the evangelicals chosen weapon, Trumpism, and the futile efforts of liberals to deal sensibly and honestly with opponents entirely devoid of both, will cause the break-up of the United States: into three parts probably – North East, Mid-West and South, and West Coast.

Butler’s central thesis, which was near enough to the truth, was for economic and ecological disasters, caused by decades of greed and misrule, leading to the formation of a vast underclass, and a hollowed-out middle class which in desperation would vote in a President intent on ‘re-establishing’ the United States as a ‘Christian’ patriarchy. Luckily, ‘real life’ hasn’t yet followed her theocracy in uniting the country by going to war with Canada and break-away Alaska.

I have read that … “the Apocalypse” or … “the Pox” lasted from 2015 through 2030 … This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment …

I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises … I have watched education become more a privilege of the rich than the basic necessity that it must be if civilized society is to survive. I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger and disease become inevitable for more and more people.

Like a lot of good science fiction this novel suffers from a surfeit of ideas. Sometimes there is just so much that Butler, or Lauren whose story it is, has to tell us. There is character development, but it is secondary to a plot which is concerned as much with expounding Butler’s ideas about the future of the USA as it is with the main characters’ ongoing survival. And the structure itself intrudes. Each chapter begins with a section looking back from the future to the time of the story, and usually the person looking back is Lauren’s child, a daughter, we discover eventually; and then in the next paragraph the story is being told in the ‘present’ (around 2030) by Lauren, ostensibly through her journals though the stories are too free-flowing to maintain that illusion.

At the end of Parable of the Sower Lauren and Bankole are establishing a small community on farm land Bankole owns in northern California. Lauren is intent on establishing Earthseed as a religion whose ultimate aim is to spread humanity ‘to the stars’. So Parable of the Talents begins with the community, Acorn, prospering and growing. Lauren finally falls pregnant, gives birth to a daughter. Bankole is unhappy, feels exposed, there are still gangs marauding around the countryside, and wishes to practice as a doctor in a nearby town where he thinks they can have a ‘normal’ life. Lauren insists on staying.

But within months of the birth of her daughter, Christian militia encouraged by the new President, Jarret, invade the farm, turning it into a semi-legal internment camp for vagrants and non-Christians. All the children on the farm are turned over to Christian welfare organisations for adoption, and the adults are used as forced labour, subjected to Bible Study, and of course the women are raped.

It’s hard to believe that kind of thing happened here, in the United States in the twenty-first century, but it did. It shouldn’t have happened, in spite of all the chaos that had gone before. Things were healing… Yet Andrew Steele Jarret was able to scare, divide and bully people, first into electing him president, then into letting him fix the country for them. He didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do. He was capable of much greater fascism. So were his most avid followers

Somewhere along the way Lauren has rescued from (sex) slavery her brother, Marcus, left for dead in the previous novel but now a fierce adherent of President Jarret’s church, Christian America. He goes off before Acorn is overrun, to become a preacher, but Lauren later chases him up, hoping for a reconciliation, and he eventually plays an important part in Lauren’s relationship with her long-lost daughter.

In the end this is an optimistic novel, far more optimistic I think than the facts warranted, when it was written or now when a great deal of what Butler imagined has played out, if less extremely than she pictures here. Did I enjoy it? Yes I did. Would I recommend it to my mostly non-SF reading readership? No. Your responses to previous SF reviews have convinced me that ‘hard’ SF has its own conventions of which SF readers and writers are barely aware but which render much of what is being written about difficult for non SF readers.

But hey, be careful all the Literary ‘dystopian’ novels around now don’t take you there anyway, down the slippery path to spacemen firing laser guns Pew, Pew at each other (Claire G Coleman’s The Old Lie for instance).

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Octavia E Butler, Parable of the Talents, first pub. 1998. This edition (pictured), Headline, London. 390pp.

see also, Melanie/GTL’s reviews:
Parable of the Sower (here)
Parable of the Talents (here)

Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Elizabeth Tan

How many writers am I waiting for their next book? I suppose that should be How many writers are there whose next book I am waiting for? I wonder if I can get that for away from the end. How many writers are there for whose next book I am waiting? It feels like it should be for whom’s. Grammar’s not my strong point.

Elizabeth Tan is the only one I can think of I said I was waiting for (sorry, for whom I said I was waiting) but if you said Kim Scott, Claire Coleman, Alexis Wright, Gerald Murnane had a new book out I’d be down the street in a flash – the iso rules for truck drivers in WA permit essential shopping. I wonder who else. There can’t be many.

As it happens the flash was a bit muted for Tan. Smart Ovens has been out about six months.

I could die happy with Tan and Coleman writing (good) Western Australia based SF. I suppose there are others. I wonder what happened to … . DuckDuckGoes “WA SF”. There’s a Western Australian Science Fiction Foundation! With its own radio show!

You might remember Tan’s last (and first) was Rubik, a novel of loosely connected episodes, set in Perth WA, up the surreal end of SF. Smart Ovens is the same but the ‘episodes’ aren’t connected.

A children’s slide ups and runs away; mermaids kept in a restaurant fish tank, in the casino of course, metamorphose, find freedom; long after pens are a thing Ira gives one to a homeless man who scrawls kilometres of ink on the subway walls before stepping in front of a train; Pikelet was born in the Year of the Rabbit after the Year of Unprecedented Ecological Terror, her family moved to New Zealand following the Year of Seven Different Prime Ministers, and she now works at “Eighteen Bells Karaoke Castle, Perth’s premiere karaoke destination, in the heart of the city with a view of Old Swan River”; Tom and Ant are lovers, Tom knows that Ant is a spy but Ant doesn’t; and so the stories go on, lots of them concepts you wouldn’t dream of and yet Tan makes them real, spins them out for 5 or ten pages. In Would You Rather things start to disappear:

What did it look like? A flaw in the morning, a hanging pixel. An iridescent chip in the shape of a rhombus, shimmering in the sky. Unnoticed for days, until all the bicycles lifted up on one wheel, and then the other; turned counter-clockwise in the air, handlebars raised like the antlers of a stag, sliding riders from their seats; floated towards the hole, and then through the hole, and then …

So it’s not just the ideas, it’s the writing; writing and ideas and stories and Perth and young Asian-Australian women and a post eco-apocalyptic future of decay and magic.

And the smart ovens? “After that day at the overpass I was assigned an oven.” That day at the overpass, she of course jumped, and so was assigned an oven for a year to be her friend in the kitchen. With an extra six months if the oven’s end-of-year report was unsatisfactory.

After Neko Oven had been activated for two weeks she [for Neko Oven was programmed with a female voice] sent a recommendation to Biljana to let me return to work…

On my lunchbreak I used the kitchenette microwave to heat up a little plastic container of Neko Oven’s leftovers (some kind of casserole she’d improvised from tinned chick-peas, bacon, and gin) and took it to the food court to eat alone.

When she runs into the guy who chose that overpass, that day, that same minute to jump, they discuss ‘why’.

When people asked ‘How are you?’ did they really mean ‘Why did you?’

Because I was tired.
Because I wanted to die, the same way you might want a drink of water, or want to sleep, or want someone to love you back.

That last is it of course. But with a smart oven life goes on.

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Elizabeth Tan, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Brio, Sydney, 2020. 244pp.


*The SF book I was thinking of [… Hal Spacejock by Simon Haynes. I found it, randomly shelved, when I got home, and he has 12 more, going by ‘images’] involves a young entrepreneur with a bucket of bolts space ship and an android pilot. The name Matt is in there somewhere. I used to know the book’s editor. Fremantle Press. I DDG Fremantle Press, they don’t have SF as one of their genres! They do have a new Dave Warner. One of you is having a crime fiction month soon [Kim/Reading Matters in March], so that’s my book sorted. They’re also still advertising Robert Edeson, so there is at least some SF (here and here). From two or three years ago.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

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Parable of the Sower (1988) is deeply American SF, all guns and God. Well SF when it was written anyway, 3 decades ago, but now just another story of the US’s decline into hell in a handbasket. Trump, and McConnell’s GOP, too busy harvesting the spoils thrown up by the collapse of the once, recently great empire to offer leadership.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006), a Black American woman, is one of the greats of science fiction writing, deeply thoughtful about race, gender, and class, though not as prolific as many of her contemporaries.

In Parable of the Sower she posits the rise of a new religion, with the slogan “God is change”, and a young black female messiah, against the background of climate induced chaos as America falls back into the unregulated capitalism of mass unemployment, zero social services, corrupt police, and indentured slavery, not to mention roving packs of drug crazed pyromaniacs and walled, armed enclaves in the suburbs.

And I say ‘background’ because though economic and social collapse is central to the story there is not the clear economic analysis of the book’s forbears, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Jack London’ s The Iron Heel and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Instead, Butler focuses on what a new religion might look like, what sort of God would make sense of the ever-present danger and disorder of ordinary people’s lives.

A victim of God may,
Through learning adaptation,
Become a partner of God,
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
God’s plaything,
God’s prey.

I don’t suppose only Americans substitute religion for logical economic analysis, though it feels like it sometimes, and the best of them, as here, make their way back to anarcho-syndicalism – that is, self government and equal opportunity – with some sort of synthesis of the teachings of Jesus and Buddha and a non-interfering God which seems to offer them comfort without causing us much harm.

Lauren, 13 when she starts telling her story, has already begun discovering not inventing the religion she calls Earthseed with a God it is up to us to shape. She, her college teacher parents and younger brothers live with four or five other families in a walled enclave in the suburbs on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Throughout the city and by implication, throughout the country, any unprotected building is occupied and ransacked by the masses of unemployed. Gasoline fuelled vehicles are a thing of the past, the internet is mostly down, schools are closed as it becomes too dangerous to leave the enclave, water is scarce and dirty, food is expensive and must be supplemented by home gardens and orchards. Police, fire brigades, ambulances must be paid to attend, are always late and often turn on the people who called them.

With no chance of a college education or employment, Lauren, already sexually active, faces a future of early marriage, constant child-bearing, crowded accommodation and grinding poverty. The father, a Baptist minister, trains the children of his community to shoot and organizes sentries but it is all for nought. By the time Lauren is 18 one brother has joined the gangs and been killed, the father has disappeared, and the enclave is overrun, ransacked, women and children raped, her mother and remaining brothers murdered.

She escapes with Harry (white), a childhood friend and Zahra (black), a wife sold into polygamous marriage by her prostitute mother. And so they join the long trek north, up the west coast to Canada, with tens of thousands of others, preyed on and preying on each other, slowly accumulating a few companions they can trust, children and parents with children.

The danger, shootings and deaths are a given in this brand of dystopian SF, but well done anyway. And the characters and relationships of the protagonists are filled out in a way not generally managed by the writers of boy-SF derived from war and wild west pulp fiction.

Among the people who accumulate in her train is an older black man, Bankole, to whom Lauren, though travelling as a boy, is attracted. They slowly become lovers and he, though sceptical of the religion Lauren is weaving around her little band, offers to lead them to 300 acres of remote farmland he owns in the mountains above San Francisco.

There they find the farm buildings all burnt and the bones of Bankole’s sister and her children in the ashes. And there with seemingly reliable ground water and arable land, remote from the worst of the marauders, they decide to stay. But that, as is always the case with SF, is another story, Parable of the Talents.

Perhaps to make her story more ess-eff-y, Butler gives Lauren and a couple of the lesser characters the ‘talent’, handicap really, of being able to feel the pain of others, so that if Lauren shoots someone she must die, or feel like she is dying, with them. But what is much more interesting is the feeling which people have, at least while they still have jobs and houses, until quite late in the story that this failure of the state is temporary, that after the next election or the one after, life will return to normal.

You get this feeling from America today. That the GOP, captured by the billionaires’ Tea Party, will be stopped from wrecking civilised governance, that the engineered failures of health, education and social security systems, the headlong rush to climate catastrophe, the hollowing out of the middle classes will all be reversed by a Blue Wave in November, when the opposite is clearly true. The Democrats are as captured by Big Money as the GOP; the South is already lost; the American dream is headed for nightmare as SF writers have been fortelling for decades.

 

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower, 4W8W, New York, 1988 (first ed. cover)


*Origin “Going to hell in a handbasket”
The phrase originated in the USA in the mid 19th century and the first print record is in I. Winslow Ayer’s account of events of the American Civil War “The Great North-Western Conspiracy”, 1865  (theidioms.com)

The suggested origin I liked best was being lowered down a gold mine shaft in a basket, which would have been quite common during the gold rushes from the 1840s on.

Moosevan (2), Jane Palmer

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The provenance of second hand books is almost as much fun as the contents. This one has a stamp on the title page saying “Jacaranda Book Exchange, 281 Charters Towers Rd, ph …” so I’m guessing Townsville, 20 years ago. You might remember last time I was there I couldn’t find a second hand bookshop at all.

Twenty years ago was just about the last time Milly and I lived together, and for that matter the last time we all of us lived together. The following year Milly went back to Perth to live with her sister M, and Gee went off to uni. Lou, Psyche and I kept Milly’s house going – sort of. Lou was between school and uni; Psyche was working nights at the local beer barn then carrying on to the casino; and my boss went broke. My mate Chris and I hung on for weeks in case a promised big job came up, two triples to Darwin, but it didn’t and I spent my 50th out of work, then endured bog standard single trailer interstate for a while until another Melb-Nth Qld road train job came up.

The year after that, Milly came back and sold the house, took Gee who was having a break from universities back to Perth, clocking up big miles in her little Daewoo. And I joined her, platonicly, a few months later. Psyche went touring in South America and Lou started his never-ending first year at Latrobe. But that’s another story (or six or seven).

Lou, in Malawi, ‘liked’ The Planet Dweller as soon as I put it up, within seconds, I don’t know how he did that, but my old SF was the background to his adolescence and I guess that one struck a chord. I imagine he had Moving Moosevan read as soon as I’d tossed it on Milly’s enormous circular mosaiced coffee table. (At one stage it was entirely covered in mail and Psyche used as an excuse before a magistrate that she hadn’t paid a traffic fine because it was lost on her mother’s table). Lou would make a much better SF reviewer than I because he actually remembers what he’s read. For ever seemingly. But I can’t talk him in to it.

You do realise I had no idea I was going to write any of this. I’d better finish the damn book and write it up. I only finished unloading yesterday (Tues) and I’m due out again later today, as soon as Dragan rings. So pickings will be thin on the Legend for a while. Again.

Melanie at Grab the Lapels is in to her second year reviewing the Valdemar fantasy series, so I should have some idea how it is done. Moving Moosevan follows on from The Planet Dweller so closely that they might better have been published in one volume. Every now and again Palmer remembers she may have new readers and sticks in a couple of lines of backstory, but not very often and you should really read them in order.

Moosevan, a planet sized entity consisting entirely of thought and energy, has occupied Earth and is engaged in slowly reshaping it for its own aesthetic reasons and out of distaste for all the human-produced pollution. Diana can feel her at the level of her subconscious, but is never sure that Moosevan is listening when she most needs her.

We see not much of the horrible Daphne Trotter, and Moosevan has a new love interest, Salisbury, a solitary lecturer whose family divorced him for pedantry. Yuri is mostly sober, which makes him grumpy, and that’s not to mention his jealousy of Salisbury. Salisbury may be interested in Diana, but Diana is happy to be post-menopausal and single.

There is a plot. I think it goes: Kulp, an ugly green alien , and former employee of the Mott, is constructing a gravity portal in Diana’s rural English neighbourhood. Salisbury who lives nearby, is persecuted by the army who think he is to blame. Two friendly ancient entities Dax and Reniola, who engineered Moosevan’s move to Earth are still around and are meant to be helping. Reniola takes the form of a cat – pictured above – to blend in. The Mott’s android army rebels and uses the gravity portal to invade. Diana and Kulp fight them off. Dax engineers a neat solution involving terra-forming one of Saturn’s moons.

It’s all lots of fun again, a very strange intersection of quaint village life and disgusting aliens. And I look forward to finding the two new sequels, Duckbill Soup (2011) and Brassica Park (2018).

 

Jane Palmer, Moving Moosevan, The Women’s Press, London, 1990