Archive for the 'fiction' Category

Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time

March 20, 2023

      This feminist utopia from the 1970s called for a re-read; I explored it thoroughly for my thesis on feminist science fiction in the early 1980s, and returning to it after 40 years has been very interesting. It’s from an era when various women writers were exploring two very different future possibilities: one without men at all, and one where physical and social differences between men and women were being gradually erased, in a move towards androgyny. Woman on the Edge of Time is one of these, and at some level may be compared with some of Ursula Le Guin’s novels.

The androgyny aspect is interesting because it felt at once slightly dated, and at the same time rather prescient, in our days of gender fluidity: the 22nd century inhabitants have solved the pronouns debate rather more neatly than our present, using ‘per’ (short for person) as a non-gendered third person pronoun. And it doesn’t jar too much after a while, given that focus is not primarily on gender.

Many of the 1970s feminist themes are present: male violence, mental health, therapy as growth and a means of problem-solving and conflict resolution; whilst I read I felt that I’d gone back in time, and yet reminded myself that things have not changed that much, and most of what was being said in the seventies sadly still rings true. Those radical visions of half a century ago have faded somewhat, though certain aspects do seem to have been integrated in some people’s lives.

There is pace and intensity to the narrative, and the atmosphere of poverty, violence, mental illness and general hopelessness of the life of Connie the protagonist is swiftly and vividly established. Then arrives the 22nd century interloper in her life and with her help, Connie visits and learns about the utopian society of the future; these visits provide welcome relief from her actual situation of abuse and neglect by her family and in the mental hospital where she is incarcerated.

Piercy creates an authentic-feeling future society and language to go with it (though its actual coming about is unclear), and explores it through skilfully through the interwoven strands. The utopian world in some ways resembles that of both William MorrisNews From Nowhere and Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia novels; the technology Piercy envisions does not seem too silly, out-paced and old-fashioned even 50 years later.

How convincing is the utopia, though? It seems to have come about after some sort of societal breakdown; there are clearly far fewer people for the world to have to support. I can see why Piercy did not go into much detail here, given that it’s the difference in the people and their lives that interest her, the potential for a new society, but I do think that a successful utopian vision needs to take the reader some of the way along the journey there.

Finally, the novel raised the question we often found ourselves discussing in sixth-form English class: which books will survive to be read by future generations, and why? While it was interesting enough, in a scholarly sort of way, to revisit this novel, I can’t see myself wanting to read it again. It has dated, its future vision a little too ‘twee’ and also out of touch with the current age. The issues it raises are important and we must not lose sight of them, but in my judgement, it’s Ursula Le Guin’s treatment of them that stands the test of time.

Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio

March 7, 2023

      I’m really not quite sure where to start with this remarkable novel, and I can’t fathom why it’s taken twenty years and a book group choice to bring it to my attention. Influences: the focus on mediaeval times and integration of philosophy into a novel inevitably reminds me of Umberto Eco’s classic The Name of the Rose. The astonishing plot structure, hooking the reader with a major event and then immediately dropping it reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: a massive explosion in London: how did that happen? The writer teases, and you have to read and piece so many things together to get there and understand. And the interweaving of the three plot strands and the cutting from story to story in such a skilful, cinematographic way…

I was also hooked because of the setting in an area of Provence I’ve known and loved since my student days; I had vivid pictures in my mind as I read. Pears linked in to my interest in Roman history, church history and the Renaissance as well. Two things stretched my credulity just a little too much: the likelihood of Oliver the poet gaining access to the Pope and having such a powerful influence in him, and also the chance encounter between Julia the artist and Picasso.

So three stories are interwoven, from the start, each with a male hero and a significant female: a Roman aristocrat striving to sustain what remains of Roman civilisation in Provence in the mid-fifth century as all around is collapsing; a troubadour poet at the time of the emerging Renaissance and the arrival of the plague epidemic in the mid-14th century; a dilettante French intellectual in the 1930s as Europe lurches towards the inevitable crisis. The similarities in their situations and in their concerns are gradually revealed as the interwoven stories develop, and the 20th century character gradually unearths and pieces together the history of the other two characters.

The women are equally significant: one of the last-surviving Greek philosophers, a woman briefly glimpsed by a poet who instantly is love-stricken, and an artist seeking inspiration and originality.

Where is truth, is one of Pears’ questions, as multiple versions of his characters’ pasts are unearthed, explored, theorised about. How much is lost over time, drifts into myth, or is deliberately distorted for others’ purposes. An even bigger issue is the idea that good people should strive to preserve the values of civilisation while the world around them crumbles into chaos. This is a difficult task, and fraught with compromise and betrayal, as each of the characters must discover; characters who we warm to and come to like have their very dark moments; we may be shocked, and at the same time we much acknowledge our gratitude at never having been tested in that way. Surrendering to barbarism is actually quite easy; it creeps up on you.

Pears digs deeper, though: what, exactly, is civilisation, and is it worth preserving? The perspective of the good or the worthy is restricted by their own time; later generations will look differently, judge differently. Each of the three male characters sells out or compromises himself in order, supposedly, to preserve that which is dearest to him, and in the grand scheme of things the enormous betrayals achieve very little. Interestingly (or significantly), none of the female characters does. In some ways, I found this a profoundly pessimistic novel, because so true to the human condition, it seemed to me.

It is a novel of ideas, and yet the characters are also vividly and convincingly drawn; I was surprised and moved by how Pears developed the initial flirtation between Julien the intellectual and Julia the artist into a powerful relationship, and what it ultimately led to. It’s a very thought-provoking read, at least to me; I shall hope to return to it some time soon, not least to try and unpick what Pears’ imagined characters explore about God, the soul and our purpose as human beings. Anyway, highly recommended.

Natalia Ginzburg: All Our Yesterdays

March 4, 2023

      Until I got halfway through this novel, I really wasn’t sure; I’d been a little put off by Sally Rooney’s gushing introduction and was wondering what on earth she had been on about. There wasn’t any sudden epiphany moment, but a growing sensation that this was good, the perspective was interesting and the message was becoming clearer.

It’s a novel set in Italy in the years of fascism leading up to the Second World War, the compromises people made, and the effect of Mussolini’s collapse and the German takeover. As the story progressed I found myself more and more reminded of Irène Nemirovsky’s astonishing Suite Française. There is the utter confusion of ordinary decent people whose lives are overtaken by war and who don’t know what to do, and a powerful anti-war message about the futility, pointlessness and total insanity of it all; even when war is over, the survivors are still lost. That’s a statement of the bloody obvious, and yet it takes skill to make us see it so powerfully and effectively.

There are so many characters you need to draw yourself a miniature family tree, just as if you’re reading a Russian novel. The gradual buildup to war is very much the background to the family story in the first half, with the focus on the youngest member, Anna, and her somewhat childish fantasies and dreams about revolution; people drift aimlessly, not conscious of what is going on around them or what is about to happen. Life happens to Anna, and this comes through in the evenness of the tone of the narrative, and the writer’s eschewing of reported speech.

Everything sharpens halfway through, with Anna’s unexpected pregnancy, a marriage of convenience to save her honour, and her move to a village deep in the south, in the middle of nowhere; here I was also reminded of Carlo Levi’s stunning Christ Stopped at Eboli, with its picture of dire poverty, isolation, ignorance and hopelessness.

Until I got into the rhythm of the story, I found the monotone, the evenness of the narrative, the lack of variation in pace a little annoying; the use of purely sequential narrative is not a style of story-telling that is much used nowadays. There were no twists in the plot, no subplots, no suspense, and yet it all gradually became a more and more compelling read. There’s not really a lot of story, if truth be told, there are just people, lives and consequences, and the way the effect of it all crept up on me was pretty powerful. I recommend this one.

Books that changed me

February 17, 2023

I have a log of every book I’ve read since I was 18, so for the last half century, and one day I’ll add up the total and horrify myself. But, having spent so much time reading and enjoying reading, inevitably there are books that I recognise changed me and the way I look at the world. I wonder what yours are; here are a selection of mine.

As a child, I plundered Stamford Public Library, and there was a series of children’s science fiction called The Lost Planet, by Angus MacVicar. As I now vaguely recall some sixty years later, the concept was totally devoid of any scientific plausibility: a planet, inhabited by humans who spoke English, that somehow for a few years came within reachable distance of Earth, and was visited a few times by a small group of earthlings, including children, before it travelled ever further away and became unreachable. I was gutted, realising that the imaginary heroes would never see that planet and its people again… and I’d caught the science fiction bug, which has never left me since. (Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was able to track down and download a copy of the first book in the series!) And it strikes me that the members of the Ekumen, in Ursula Le Guin’s marvellous Hainish stories, suffer the same fate as they travel between worlds, leaving their homes and kin behind forever.

I had a Somerset Maugham Tphase as a teenager; the only book I still retain and have any care for is The Razor’s Edge, which I’ve re-read a couple of times, and it opened my eyes to the possibility of a personal spiritual quest, which might involve travel to remote parts of the world; I think it was the legitimising of the quest, an idea which had obviously been germinating in my young self, that was most powerful effect of that novel.

Hermann Hesse came into my ken slightly later, as a student, and now in my later years he still speaks powerfully to my condition, and none of his novels do so more powerfully than the obviously heavily Jungian Narziss and Goldmund. Ostensibly the story of two friends in mediaeval times, whose lives take very different paths, one spiritual and the other secular, it can also be seen as an examination of two parts of a single personality, and how it’s possible for one to be torn by contrary impulses. Whichever way you read it (or both at the same time) the friendship which endures throughout life as both men explore their impulses and yearnings is – for me – incredibly powerful and moving, and it has always lurked somewhere deep in my sub/unconscious, and its ideas have accompanied me on my own quests.

The last book I’ll mention here is not a novel, but a series of essays: Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques, which was on our reading list at university. It was part of a course on the Enlightenment as I recall, and I was strongly drawn to the idea of thinkers demystifying the myths and half-truths of the past, questioning everything in search of rational explanations. And, as I’ve often been told, being an Aquarian, this sort of thing obviously would appeal to me. These essays, and the thinking they led me to, caused me to take the decision to leave the Catholic Church, in which I had been brought up and raised. Back in those days, I thought that the new atheist me had all the answers, but that was not to be, either, since the unrequited spiritual emptiness led me, via the music of Bach, to Quakerism. But that is another story. However, when I last opened my copy of the Voltaire, after many years, I discovered that he had written several letters about Quakers, whose approach to the world intrigued him and earned his respect. Plus ça change…

Forty years on

February 13, 2023

I realised recently that it is now 40 years since I finally stopped being a student, and was awarded my M.Phil, for a thesis entitled Feminism and Science Fiction, which I had researched using the resources of the Science Fiction Foundation. At the time, that establishment was based at North East London Polytechnic (now the University of East London); now it’s based at my alma mater, the University of Liverpool, in the Sydney Jones Library, where I spent a good number of hours as an undergraduate. My researches were supervised in part by Patrick Parrinder, who was the ‘soft man’ at my viva examination; the ‘hard man’ was Professor Tom Shippey. I acquitted myself satisfactorily; a copy of the thesis may be found at the SFF library, the others I have.

All those years ago I was introduced to feminism through a combination of circumstances and found it a necessary and challenging perspective on the world; it remains so. And at the time, many women had turned to science fiction as an imaginative way to explore the possibilities of different worlds, without patriarchy or male domination, worlds where equality between the sexes was actual rather than technical or merely legal. I tried to explore the interface between the theory or the philosophy, and the creative, the literature. It was fascinating.

My thesis has gathered dust on the shelf. I did continue to review novels for Foundation, the academic journal of the SFF for a while, but eventually career, family and other interests meant that I moved on from those days. I haven’t re-read my thesis; I don’t know whether it would speak to today’s conditions, today’s world, today’s readers, and I don’t know whether I would come to the same conclusions today as I did all those years ago. I have no idea, either, whether any readers have found my work of any use subsequently.

I enjoyed the reading, the thinking, the planning, the writing and the revising and correcting; two years of work. In total, I enjoyed eight years of being a student, and, as I used to remind sixth-formers in my care during my teaching career, those years were funded – tuition and living allowance – by the state. I didn’t think twice about that; it was part of a country investing in the future. It gained a teacher who worked for nearly thirty years, and repaid many times over the meagre grants I’d received. Times are so different now. And I think I’d do it all again.

On the impossibility of utopia (final part)

February 8, 2023

Human nature

Most of the utopias I’ve read operate on a relatively small scale; we have a planet with 8+ billion people to look after. It often seems that, as a species, we are pretty capable of being good to each other and co-operating quite effectively on a relatively small scale, but on a macro level, not so much. How intelligent a species are we, in the end? There’s a fairly widespread awareness, at least in the West, of just how badly and terminally we’re fouling our own nest, but do we have the ability to do enough about it, in time? Who, what kind of human, survives the coming collapse, if that’s where we’re heading?

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a fascinating novel in many ways, and we have now reached the stage in terms of scientific and technological development where much of what Huxley envisioned can actually be put into place if we wanted to do so, as Michel Houellebecq notes in one of his novels (Atomised, I think, but I’ll stand to be corrected). Everyone in that society is happy, with everything they want in terms of work, food, entertainment, drugs, sex. There’s a carefully planned reservation to which malcontents can be exiled so they don’t spoil things for everyone else. My students used to be horrified when I pointed out that the novel is a utopia; it took a little longer for them to perceive the real message, which is that the inhabitants of that brave new world are no longer humans as we know them…and is that a bad thing?

Here in the West at least, for better or worse, we prize individualism above pretty much everything else, and in a world of individuals there are misfits, who are exiled to a reservation in Huxley’s novel. I must go back to an important novel I last read some forty years ago when I researched my thesis, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. A feminist utopia is imagined in its pages, of which I remember very little except that a key character explains that those who refuse to fit in, who repeatedly cause problems for everyone else, are executed. Forty years ago I found that statement both chilling, and also blindingly obvious. Even in a utopia, we are back in the times of eliminating kulaks as exploiters of the people…

I have to say, I feel pretty depressed having reached the above conclusions. I do not see how we get out of the mess that we are currently in, although I also accept that we don’t actually need to replace the current mess with a utopia: anything would be better. And, at the same time, we should not delude ourselves with the enormity of the task facing the species.

On the impossibility of utopia (part 3)

February 7, 2023

Taking my reflections on utopias a little further…as I’ve noted previously, some utopias make an attempt to show the reader how we got from our world today to the perfect future state; some don’t bother with this, but just take us there to show us it.

Taking just two examples, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia shows how California and other Western seaboard states secede from the Union, fight a short defensive war which they win, and then proceed to build their ecologically-run society. That’s all very well, as far as it gets, but while your citizens enjoy their utopia, the rest of the world goes to hell on a handcart all around you, and you can’t avoid the deleterious effects. And, were the rest of the US serious about putting you back in your place no matter what cost, they would.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed has rebels secede from an ultra-capitalist society and establish a different one on a conveniently habitable moon. Conditions are much harsher there than on the home planet, but at the time the story is set, the committed colonists mostly put up with this and concert their efforts on making a different, better and fairer world. They are at least physically distanced and separated from what they have fled. But, once again, if it were worth it, I think we are meant to realise that the home planet has the resources to muscle in and take over…

Here is a major dilemma: the utopia needs to be everywhere, if it is not to face ongoing existential threat. And if we start looking at our own home planet, then the odds on building a better society begin to look insuperable.

Marx was right

Capitalism has established a hegemony. It controls the entire planet, to all intents and purposes. There is no real alternative on show, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Yes, Cuba soldiers on, but pretty much ignored nowadays. The so-called communist states were far from perfect, as their disappearance demonstrated, although that collapse was actively sought and helped by the USA and its allies, but while they existed, an alternative system for running an economy and a society was on public view for people to see, read and think about, and judge for themselves; not any more – it’s merely history and a failure now, in the public discourse. There is so much wealth and power and so many vested interests embedded in the current system that imagining how it might be subverted or defeated defeats my imagination. One would need to start by ensuring a state of sufficiency in all essentials for everyone on the planet before looking in other directions, and that isn’t about to happen.


This is – as someone once remarked – the least worse system of government we currently have, but as events increasingly show, it’s very manipulable in the service of vested interests, and a sham in many places. If voting changed anything, they’d have abolished it. Another problem with the token democracies in which we live is short-termism: governments will not commit themselves to the necessary long-term planning and decision-making which might eventually lead to the creation of a better world, because they are constantly looking over their shoulders at the next election, when they might lose power. Then, if we consider the – in many other ways highly flawed and highly controlling — Chinese system, that government can put long-term plans into effect and make things happen, such as the plans they are working on for reducing pollution, or developing far-flung regions for instance. But we in the West are not going to voluntarily adopt such approaches.

Here another problem appears: we are attached to voluntarism and consent, however flawed and manufactured these are. Just supposing a convincing majority in a Western society voted for thorough and radical, far-reaching change, economically and socially. Would the vested interests allow this to take place, surrendering their power and influence, hoarded over centuries? I don’t think so. At this point, the question of ways and means comes into play. Violence to achieve change? It’s arguable that that was what finished the Soviet experiment before it had hardly started.


The United Nations is a great concept per se; we need far more international co-operation if we are to overcome our problems, but the UN is not much more than a talking shop at the behest of the great powers, who use and ignore it as it suits them: look at the history of the last twenty or thirty years. So many nations – over 200 – all wanting and needing very different things, not all starting from the same place.

To be continued…

On the impossibility of utopia (part 2)

February 6, 2023

A tabula rasa helps, and this is the basic premise of one of the most important utopias of the 20th century, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. A planet governed by fairly ruthless capitalism (ie our Earth) has a spare, habitable and yet uninhabited moon, and when rebellion against the system reaches unmanageable proportions, the rebels are allowed to depart from the planet for the moon, where they gradually construct a radically different society, which they have been engaged in doing for several centuries by the time of the novel. What is particularly effective in Le Guin’s novel is the admitted difficulties of working out how to build and sustain a society run on very different lines from our own; she considers the world of work, housing, childrearing, relations between the sexes, and relations with the outside world; it’s clear nothing is easy or straightforward, everything must be fought for and everyone must be constantly vigilant; there are malcontents and misfits. And yet, the society of Anarres (the moon) is definitely utopian, and at the same time does not exist and never actually can; what Le Guin succeeds in doing better than most writers is getting the reader to engage with the ideas and reflect them back on our own flawed world…

The issue of coercion rears its head: what do you do with those who don’t fit in or don’t want to fit in? It’s a long time since I read Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and I have been promising myself for a while to return to it, but the one detail I still recall from the utopia she imagines is that ultimately those who do not fit in and who violently oppose the new society are put to death. Chilling, and yet the logic makes sense when you are inside the text…

Ultimately what comes across is humans’ ability to be nice to each other and co-operate meaningfully on a relatively small scale; the problems arise once you move to the macro level. And I have wondered if some of these difficulties are an inherent consequence of capitalism and the shortages which are an inevitable and necessary part of the societies it creates: capitalism cannot eliminate inequality and shortage per se.

Utopias as presented in fiction are not democratic, at least in the sense in which we currently understand democracy, ie regular voting which changes very little, a veneer of choice and control, relying on experts and individuals having power without accountability or responsibility. Real utopias would seem to require constant vigilance and constant engagement on the part of members, or else an acceptance that there is not the freedom to behave in certain ways or to make certain choices, that famous freedom from and freedom to that Margaret Atwood explores (among other things) in The Handmaid’s Tale.

To be continued…

On the impossibility of utopia (part 1)

February 5, 2023

I’ve done a good deal of reading of utopias (and dystopias) over the years, written about some of them academically and consequently done a fair amount of thinking. The problem always is, how do you get there? Not so much in terms of reaching a physical place as transitioning from the current, awful state of the world to a better one. And writers sometimes just present you with the perfect society without telling you how the inhabitants got there, or else present the change vaguely and unsatisfactorily.

And yet, this is the crucial issue, surely. If you think about it at all, a better society involves quite a lot of individuals and groups losing out in different ways, in terms of wealth and status particularly. Wealthy and high-status people tend to have the power, the organisation and the brute force to sustain their position, for it is always potentially under threat, and they are not likely to give up that wealth and power voluntarily. So the logic of change is potentially violence and bloodshed, and this may negate attempts at bringing change about, representing too high a cost…

There are a number of ways in which ideal societies might come about. There might be a rational decision to arrange things differently, either in one country, or across the world. If one country does this, what is the reaction of others, particularly of the new alternative is perceived as a wider threat. Although not much about the Soviet Union was utopian, the very notion that here was an example of a large nation trying to do things in a radically different way was perceived by many capitalist nations as a threat and they worked tirelessly using a range of different schemes until they finally brought about its demise. As a result, the world is now a worse and far more dangerous place. So, a rational decision might be allowed within one country, or opposed; how one would begin to convince an entire world to do things differently is impossible to imagine. I submit the relative impotence of the United Nations as currently constituted, and the world’s total inability effectively to deal with the climate emergency.

One region might secede and try to arrange their society differently. The best example I can call to mind is in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, and Ecotopia Emerging. The majority of the inhabitants of the state of California feel driven to leave the Union to pursue the construction of a more radical and ecological society. Not everyone within the state agrees; the rest of the USA doesn’t and there is war, which eventually leads to a stalemate and the Ecotopians are allowed to pursue their utopian dream in peace, at least as far as the end of the novel. At some level this is quite a convincing scenario, given that the novel and its premise are rooted in our times (well, the 1980s, but that will do).

Other authors locate utopia in an undiscovered region of Earth, such as Austin Tappan Wright’s masterpiece Islandia, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s rather older and more flawed Herland. With such texts a writer can present their perfect world and how it works, and then have it discovered by outsiders who mentally compare it with their own (ie our) world; ours usually comes off far worse. There is usually some attempt at showing the origins of the new world, but the distancing created by hiding the utopia somewhere, detracts from any effectiveness in the explanation of the changeover.

To be continued…

Anne Enright: The Wig My Father Wore

January 23, 2023

      I’m really not sure what to make of this one…

Enright uses language beautifully, playfully, in a way that to me is particularly Irish, in the sense that it reminds me of James Joyce, and even more of Flann O’Brien; there’s a linguistic levity that conceals a seriousness unless you slow down and look closely, beneath the surface.

There are other aspects that make it Irish, to me: an awareness of and – not quite rejection, but distancing from – a sense of provincialism, primitiveness, smallworldliness of the place, that is also connected with religion. The effect of cloying Catholic pietism pervaded Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and it was the combination of all these factors that led him to permanent exile from his homeland a century ago. Enright also, for me, resembles Joyce in the way she conveys a particular attitude to sex and sexuality, which is also shaped by religion. It was interesting to come across a portrayal of this by a woman writer.

And then there’s the surrealism, both of the plot – Grace, the narrator, has an angel living with her, and she wants to get him into bed, and she works on an Irish TV dating show that struggles with how explicit or not to be in matters sexual – and of the general presentation of people and events; further shades of O’Brien here…

It’s incredibly funny in places, absolutely deranged in others, and yet, sixty pages in (my usual trigger for why am I bothering?) I found myself thinking, what is the point of all this? I was sort of enjoying the plot and the offbeatness of Enright’s style, but what was I getting from the book other than light entertainment, which isn’t my usual motive for persisting.

And I can’t really answer that question. I finished the book and thought okay, Irish person writing about their perceptions of the weirdness of the Irish, and their take on love and sex…well-written, but derivative and basically all done before; enjoyable enough, but nothing new to see here. Have I missed something?

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