John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen

my falling-apart edition, a fairly scary cover if you don't like needles
my falling-apart edition, a fairly scary cover if you don’t like needles

Trouble With Lichen is John Wyndham’s most explicit exploration of the uselessness of modern women’s lives. When I reread it, for what must have been the 50th time, I was surprised to see that it was first published in 1960. It reads at least a decade older than that, maybe even fifteen years, since it shares many of the plot points and social indicators of Josephine’s Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes (1946), also a novel questioning what young women should do with their lives after school, and also wrapped up with murder, biology and jealousy. Trouble with Lichen begins with Diana Brackley’s teachers congratulating her on her success at gaining a place at Cambridge with a scholarship to read chemistry. They are rather startled by her dispassionate argument that society, on the other hand, thinks that a girl is more successful if she’s bedworthy rather than brainworthy. Diana’s mother is resigned to Diana going to university, taking an excellent degree, and getting a very much sought-after job, but, really, she’s got to think of her future: how will she meet men in that isolated research station?

seriously frightening imagery, of a woman scientist?
seriously frightening imagery, of a woman scientist? (ignore price sticker)

Wyndham is reflecting a very conservative society in his alternative present-day, because his plot of altered life expectancy requires a very conservative society to be broken apart by its implications. He had long shown feminist sympathies in his fiction, since the early 1950s in The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes. In Trouble with Lichen he asks, isn’t it time we did something to rethink marriage as an institution?

Diana takes her degree in biochemistry, and goes to work for a private research institution, where, one day, she notices a peculiar result from a stray contamination of some milk by a new sample of lichen just arrived from Mongolia. Her boss, Francis Saxover, says he will work on the sample, but then his ailing wife dies, and he has no interest in his work for a while, and Diana hears no more about the sample from him. She works on it privately, and comes to a very startling conclusion after months of tests and retests. The lichen has arrested the natural decay of the milk’s organic processes, and, in effect, has given it a longer life.

now I get it: women scientists are deranged, of course!
now I get it: women looking old are terrifying, scary monsters

What do you do when you discover the Elixir of Life in the modern world? Wyndham spends the rest of Trouble with Lichen exploring how such a discovery will affect women’s lives, and their expectations of life. He could easily have launched himself on a gung-ho imperialist adventure of takeover and Americans and international intrigue for the secret, but no: he chose the far more interesting route of looking at social structures. There is a lot here about the influence of good women teachers, one of whom gives Diana the clue to her future use of the lichen: simply, to give women more time to do something in their lives. If women are expected to marry and have babies without being able to work as well, or study (for this was 1960, after all), that uses up half of their productive lives. If women didn’t leap into marriage at the age of 18 like lemmings, they might choose a husband (partner, even) more worthy of a longer married life if they knew they were going to be married for 150 years rather than 40. They might also consider studying, training, investing their brains in something more worthwhile and fulfilling than bedroom games and clothes, and increasingly desperate work to hold back the effects of age on their bodies, if they knew this was going to carry on for well over a century. If ‘you’re only young once’ no longer applies, what do you do differently?

Better understanding of the plot
more fear of wrinkles, sigh

Diana’s strategy is to start by offering women the effect of looking younger for longer, setting up in the beauty business as Nefertiti Ltd. Naturally, she doesn’t tell the women she treats with her lichenin products that they are actually, really, being given the opportunity of living longer, because no-one would believe her. It’s also only an opportunity: accidents still happen, illnesses still kill, and with a longer potential lifespan, there is more chance of dying sooner than they might have done otherwise. But the lichenin products work, and Diana begins to build up a carefully selected group of women clients who are enjoying their increased youthfulness, and also beginning to realise their worth and their value in society. Self-esteem is a very powerful political tool. Diana has chosen her women wisely: since the beauty business is a luxury field, her clients are all well-off, and well-connected. None of them work since they are all married, and it’s who they are married to that matters. In Wyndham’s version of 1960 only men appear to have had political power. (Mrs Thatcher does not appear in this vision, naturally, but her early career is contemporary with the plot.) Diana deliberately creates an army of domestic and social influence to be in position to persuade the male government to allow this alarming new child of science to live, once she had been the midwife for its birth.

the infantilised school of cover design?
the infantilised school of cover design?

But she was not the only midwife: there is also Francis Saxover. When Diana left his institute with her secret discovery, neither had told the other that they had both reached the same conclusions about the lichen. Francis decided, in the end, to try the thing out on himself. Once he was assured that it wasn’t going to harm him, he gave his two children, then in their teens, annual implantations of lichenin in their arms, with the result that, 14 years later, the three looked hardly a day older. And this is where the trouble began. Francis had not told his children what the implantations really were, but felt that he now had to, despite the terrible danger, because one of Diana’s clients had suffered an unexpected allergic reaction to her lichenin treatment, and had settled noisily and publicly for a large payoff. Attention had been drawn to the interesting youth-preserving activities, and success, of the exclusive and expensive Nefertiti Ltd, and Francis was afraid that Diana’s jig was finally up. The newspapers were taking notice, and realising that, for all the feminine frivolous nature of the business, it was making a packet, and had made a packet for a very long time in the business, and that Diana had a biochemistry degree. She clearly had a special gimmick. What was it worth?

yay, more needles! or is it a pipette?
yay, more needles! or is it a pipette?

Diana was well prepared, with internal security to guard against leaks, a rigidly clean anti-drugs policy so the police would stay off her back, trusted staff, and a flurry of red herrings to release to the press when needed. Francis, on the other hand, messed it all up by telling his children. In one hour only two people in the world knew what lichenin could do: in the next hour, four did. And one day later, five did, because Paul Saxover felt he had to tell his wife, the marvellously horrible and cold Jane, whose first reaction was fury that Francis would now live for much longer than she had hoped before passing the Saxover inheritance to her husband. And three days later Jane had bullied Francis into giving her an implant, sold the implant to an interested party in part-exchange for a fake, which failed to deceive Paul, and left him for good. This jig was up. Zephanie Saxover, on the other hand, has made a good choice in life partner. Her fiancé Richard does not exploit her, and gets the implant at her request. And then they are kidnapped and severely beaten up until they disclose where the lichenin comes from. By now, things were moving too fast and too aggressively, powered by greed, for the secret to be contained. Diana called a meeting of her clients to tell them what their destiny was, was interviewed on the BBC, and in view of the increasing public hysteria and misunderstanding, asked to make a public statement that evening on air. And on her way to the studio she was gunned down by a fanatic.

Lichen 8Diana was more of an idealist and less canny than Francis: she could only see the benefit to humans in having longer to live. She could not see fully the resistance of the civil institutions (insurance companies were the first to panic), or to the stock market. She knew nothing about how ordinary people would react, and she failed to assess just how much money this discovery could make for those unscrupulous enough to exploit it. She also failed to take religious obsessives into account, and reactionaries who object to women being given this marvellous chance of extended life. That is why this novel is feminist. Women led the way of presenting the discovery to the world, and they do all the work in developing, manufacturing and delivering it. Diana’s best ally among her clients is Lady Tewson, who unexpectedly married into the aristocracy in her fourth year of medical school: she is Diana’s only confederate who understands the science. Francis is the silent, official scientific peer reviewer, whose independent work has validated Diana’s initiative, but the gift to the world was all hers. And it killed her for it. Or did it?

my favourite cover, for colour, caption and design
my favourite cover, for colour, caption and design

I love this novel because of its sheer intelligence, and its intuition about how people operate. Wyndham’s characters are always unforgettably real, and his narration is often through extended sections of dialogue between different groups of people, showing, not telling. The depiction of the press and their battle for scoops and headlines is terrific, the kind of social history I spend my professional life looking for in literature. I studied one year of an undergraduate science degree when I was younger, in an attempt to make me a better editor (this was in another life, you understand), and so Wyndham’s chemistry also seems pretty good to me. I don’t care if it’s all a total invention: it READS well, and that’s what matters. Go read this book, and enjoy it as much I do.


In praise of H P Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

original serialisation, 1941

Has the time come for an Edith Wharton-H P Lovecraft mashup? If it weren’t for casual remarks about cars, trucks and a jazz club, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward could be read alongside any of Wharton’s short novels, or even a Henry James. His prose is elegant, and involved, requiring close attention to read the meaning rather than the words. The families involved are genteel and very settled in Providence, Rhode Island, and discreet about one of their sons who has disappeared from a hospital for the insane. That’s where Lovecraft departs from those who wrote about American aristocracies.

Lovecraft is an extraordinary, bizarre, amazing (in the sense of confusing and wonderment) curiosity whose fiction is unique and whose nightmares have been adopted with enthusiasm by modern writers with a passion for his imaginative grandeur. This story is a simple tale of witchcraft, summoning and involuntary reincarnation. Its edge derives from the casual remarks that remind us that Lovecraft’s world is not our world.

the graphic novel by I N J Culbard
the graphic novel by I N J Culbard

Last winter there was an unusual outbreak of vampirism. The local paper carries calm reports of grave-robbing with no further comment. Prewrapped mummies are ordered from overseas and delivered by the truckload. A man who has not grown perceptibly older in a hundred years makes a bargain with a respected sea-captain to marry his daughter, and begins to throw balls and parties to keep himself in society. A young college student with a passion for family history finds a portrait painted in the previous century which is his exact likeness. The neighbours mutter about strange happenings and odd screams, but no-one does anything about it, until one night a posse goes to investigate the nameless crimes at the Pawtuxet bungalow, and finds massive excavations and serried cellars underneath. When Dr Willetts goes looking to see what young Charles Ward has been up to, he finds himself crawling in the darkness a long way underground trying to not fall into the pit of horrors in which unformed creatures leap and scream, not having been fed for over a hundred years.

There are no tentacles, but there are incantations to Yog-Sothoth. Is it vintage Lovecraft? Though The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was written in the 1920s it was not published while he lived because he apparently didn’t think much of it. Later critics have disagreed. It’s a fine specimen that repays dissection.


The wild romantic haybags of Sarah Maine’s Bhalla Strand

A lot of people must go home from a summer holiday on the Scottish islands thinking, ‘I must write a novel about the Hebrides’. It’s a cliché, and a tempting marketing opportunity. I can imagine that publishers might brush aside their doubts about publishing a rather average novel if it’s set on Skye or Mull or wherever, thinking ‘This’ll be good for the holiday trade’, or ‘This’ll get the romantic Americans’, or (topical!) ‘This’ll mop up the Outlander fans’. I say this having read too many irritating novels about incomers settling romantically and adventurously into Scottish island life, with no idea of the reality of living there, its history, or the hardship in making a living. I need realism in my romantic escapism, so that I can believe in it, and I have high standards for non-Scots writing fantasies about Scotland. Freight Books has, thank goodness, made no such mistake in publishing Sarah Maine’s first novel, Bhalla Strand. It is a galloping page-turner, and a beautifully constructed novel of parallel mysteries and tangled island history.

Bhalla 1I have minor gripes about occasional typos, and the misleading blurb, but you won’t notice those once you begin reading. The story is told along two timelines, a hundred years apart. In our time, Hetty inherits Bhalla House, a dilapidated mansion on a Hebridean island built by her great-grandfather, whose son Theo Blake was an important Edwardian artist. But bones are discovered under the decaying floorboards, and a mysterious vagueness about who owns the land now. One hundred years earlier, Beatrice Blake is brought to Bhalla House by Theo, her new husband, and struggles to understand his connection with the factor’s son Cameron. Theo is struggling to come to terms with the death of his first love, and his feelings for Cameron. Cameron is trying not to be too socialist about land reform to Theo, whom he respects as his father’s employer, and struggling with his feelings for Beatrice. What Hetty uncovers in her increasingly desperate attempts to find out the truth about the estate, Theo Blake’s life, and the ownership of the land, accelerates her growing feelings of irritation with her enjoyably arrogant City boyfriend Giles, who is blithely bringing in developers and marketers to persuade Hetty to redevelop the estate as a luxury hotel and spa. Art dealers, the crofters and schoolchildren using an abandoned cottage are clamouring for Hetty’s attention and her support, when the battle for Bhalla House is unexpectedly taken over by the elements.

The emotional tugs and structural patterns of this novel are excellently handled. Sarah Maine respects historical norms of speech and how her characters would have behaved. The slight slippages that purists will sniff at will not worry readers accustomed to Downton Abbey and other modern retellings of the past. Her dialogue is clean and believable, and the story is gripping, all the way through. I really enjoyed the comic relief from the ghastly Giles and pushy Emma, and I thrilled, with a slightly grumpy sense of having been pushed into it, to the growing attraction between Hetty and the modern Cameron who knows much more about the collapsing house than he ought to. The use of haybags for urgent romantic interludes is obviously a genetic predisposition across the generations. Sarah Maine shows very convincingly how centuries-old land reform politics are still relevant now, even if the land is being saved for birds rather than crofters.

Sarah Maine, Bhalla Strand (2014, Freight Books), ISBN 978-1-908754-42-4, £8.99


Gender-neutral military service in Elizabeth Moon’s Once a Hero

just look at that space suit: I hope she's on a low grav planet
just look at that space suit: I hope she’s on a low grav planet

Elizabeth Moon writes sf about the space navy, making combat and military command truly gender-neutral: I did a podcast on her back in 2012. I first came across Moon when she co-wrote volumes 1 and 3 of a space trilogy with Anne McCaffrey, called Sassinak and Generation Warriors. I was powerfully struck by these novels because (a) they were a rejuvenation in quality from anything McCaffrey had done on her own, and (b) they brought into being a whole new space navy universe that I really wanted to read more about. I did try one of Moon’s fantasy novels once, from the Paksworld series, but couldn’t be bothered with it: medievalised multi-volume fantasy epics bore me. The depth of Moon’s science fiction imagination is what makes her an outstanding novelist for me.

serrano-sportingchanceOnce A Hero is the central novel of a sequence of seven, called the Serrano Legacy. The structure is a bit convoluted: bear with me here. The first three novels (Hunting Party, Sporting Chance, and Winning Colors) are about a cashiered space navy captain, Heris Serrano, who’s grimly creating a new career for herself captaining a rich old lady’s private yacht as they roam the galaxy looking for bloodstock for the old lady’s stable of racehorses. You’ll have noticed the key words in the book titles that suggest racing, chasing, sport and surviving. The plot thickens into a dark story of a human hunt by navy officers on planet leave. In the course of this, Serrano begins to realise that her cashiering and enforced departure from the Fleet was a set-up, naval security has been compromised, planet pirates are moving in, and it all gets very exciting as she shows her quality and takes command of a navy vessel to beat off the attack. During the last 20 pages of Winning Colors, we hear about a remarkable but unassuming junior lieutenant who got involved in a mutiny to prevent the ship’s captain turning over ship and crew to an enemy force, and ended up commanding the ship, demonstrating seriously effective tactical and strategic thinking on her feet, and destroying the enemy vessel.

serrano-onceaheroThis junior lieutenant is Esmay Suiza, and her story is told in the next novel, Once a Hero, and continues in three more novels. The Serrano characters take a back seat for these, but remain as a a dynasty of powerful and influential high-ranking space navy commanders and admirals (all women), plus one very junior male ensign. The Esmay Suiza novels are a long, leisurely read of high-tech weaponry, addictive storytelling and political intrigue in a military world that I find fascinating because I’ve never served in the military. I know almost nothing about real or plausible military protocol and etiquette, but I do find it interesting that in focusing the narrative on how people relate to each other within ranks, within services, in how they work together, Moon makes sure that we learn vast amounts about how the service works as a whole.

serrano-againsttheoddsThe factor that determines the shape of people’s careers and the sociology of Moon’s universe in Once A Hero, and the whole Serrano series, is the idea of extended life. In John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen, extending women’s lives caused men to sit up and take notice, because this meant a serious change in men’s social roles. In Once A Hero, extending life through biological rejuvenation is expensive and thus limited, but it is gender-neutral: anyone can do it, if they can afford it. It’s also a routine medical and cosmetic procedure. Socially speaking, its effect will be to freeze up career advancement through the institutions and the governing powers at the top end, and in Once A Hero it’s already having an economic effect, as an obvious marker of wealth, influence and power for those who need to make a living. Rejuv becomes an essential in the quality of life, which drives up its value, thus causing unnerving instability in the interplanetary economy, and in galactic politics. Even the barbarian hordes of Aethar’s World want longer life, despite their Viking tendencies to leap joyously into battle to embrace death. These sophisticated repercussions show Moon’s quality as a novelist, in creating wondrous, logic-based worlds by working out the social repercussions of an idea. The hardware of traditional space opera is merely an add-on in her worlds.

Moon puts the idea of a quick-fix physical rejuvenation to meaningful use by applying it to medicine, to rejuvenating the body after injury. In the story, the assurance of rejuvenation appears to discount the effects of serious damage done to characters, but that is when we only think about physical damage. There is hardly any violence in Once A Hero, but what there is, is pretty nasty. When characters receive wounds this is recounted neutrally, and constantly buttressed with reassurances, from the characters to each other, or implicitly to the reader, that the damage will be fixed: rejuv will mend the bones, and the internal organ damage will be repaired after a few weeks in the rejuv tanks. But after the bones have mended, Moon takes a lot of time to show how psychological damage as a result of combat or attack is affecting these serving soldiers, male and female. Rejuv can’t help this damage: this is a matter for the psychonannies, a kind of nurse therapist whom the soldiers regard with dismay and some shame while they’re still denying that they need help, but eventually go to freely. Since I haven’t read any modern war fiction I don’t know how common this is in stories about Iraq or Afghanistan. By setting war-related psychiatric trauma in a sf context Moon has freedom to explore the areas she wants, and to send feminist messages which wouldn’t work so well in a real-life war setting. Esmay is only able to open up about her trauma when she feels she can do good by her disclosure, so she offers her pain as a gift and as an example to a damaged junior colleague who is also struggling with male pride about being tough. Thus she demonstrates leadership, strength, empathy, and does not hang on to egotricity. Is this feminist? Not particularly, but it does show what a cracking good leader this female soldier will be, once she works out what she really wants in her life.

Esmay Suiza’s problem is that she is a phenomenally talented junior lieutenant who should be a command-track candidate, but she has inexplicably shunted herself into technical track service, as if she wanted to bury herself in a job where she would be good and useful but unseen. Why is this? She’s already suffered considerable violence that she is only just beginning to discover in her past, and the novel is largely concerned with her recovering memories, her readjustment of her relationships with those who lied to her, and how she will learn to think of herself from now on.

serrano-changeofcommandIn the universe of Moon’s novels, most planetary civilisations allow the sexes to be equal (she does not mention intersexes, but maybe she will in the future). In Once A Hero and its sequels we get a closer look at two planetary civilisations where they are not, so we can compare them. The first is the really very ludicrous barbarian culture of Aethar’s World, which is nothing more than a high-tech Valhalla: their women are only for breeding and feeding. The other is Esmay Suiza’s own planet of Altiplano, a horse-breeding and agricultural society where women can hold office but are excluded from military role, and are expected to have total responsibility for the home. It’s fossilised, but not necessarily closed, and Esmay has run away from it. What makes Esmay such an interesting hero is that she is a woman excelling in military prowess against the tradition of her family. A woman who left her planet to specialise in technical-track military training, against cultural tradition. Hmm. Why would she do this? What made her leave? Any what has this to do with her very confused ideas about what she is, and what she can clearly do?

Elizabeth Moon’s two sf series, the Vatta’s War books and the Serrano Legacy series, have these characteristics in common: a woman commanding a military or armed force, in charge of teams of men and women; a woman with brilliant tactical and strategic planning skills; a woman happy to have relationships with men lower down the chain of command, but also not stupid enough to let these jeopardise any mission; a woman with empathy for the weak and vulnerable, and no time for the arrogant and stupid; a woman with a goal and a strong sense of her own worth. There will be extended scenes of fighting on- and off-board ship, of the unravelling of deceptions, of nail-biting bluff-heavy interviews, huge amounts of rich technical description that we don’t have to understand if we don’t want to, a strong sense of the bigness of space, and the eternal worry about the consequences of not having enough credit to fix the FTL drive when bits fall off. The economics of flying a space ship are uppermost in the minds of most of Moon’s female characters, because many of them have budget responsibility, as commercial traders, military commanders, or private contractors running their own businesses. This is extraordinarily refreshing (see my grumpy remark about medievalised fantasy epics, above). There is also a very good joke about a fruit cake, but you’ll need to look for it in the Vatta’s War series. Elizabeth Moon is a totally consistent novelist: her quality never falters. Go read her now.


Why studying middlebrow matters

HumbleOver on Vulpes Libris, I review Nicola Humble’s book Culinary Pleasures, about cookbooks, food history, how the British learned to cook, and what disastrous food and kitchen fads we have survived.

This was an interesting one to review, because before she published Culinary Pleasures, Professor Nicola Humble was queen of middlebrow studies, author of The Feminine Middlebrow Novel (now quoted by the authors of hundreds of PhD theses, scholarly articles and earnest book chapters, myself included). She moved from the traditional subject of novels to the untraditional research topic of cookbooks, while staying in a now traditional genre: women’s reading. It’s typical of Humble’s approach that she shows how the ordinary and banal are extraordinarily interesting, and socially and culturally relevant for their connections to more academically acceptable themes. This is what middlebrow studies is about: looking again and looking critically at the things we read that had never been considered before.

humble 2The study of English literature has been enlarging its boundaries radically in the past thirty years. My private theory is that the increase in the numbers of people studying at university level in Britain since the 1990s means that we need more and new research subjects for the ever-rolling stream of PhD students. The academy’s capacity for writing dissertations on Shakespeare, Woolf and Hughes was becoming exhausted under traditional terms of scrutiny. Something happened to allow literary criticism to widen its borders. Now, we study not just what people read, but how people read, why they read, what they thought about what they read, and the marginalia printed all around the important things that people read, which they also read, and were changed by, without noticing. The traditional authors and works are still studied, but the overflow is accommodated most creatively through middlebrow studies.

brown and groverFifty years ago, traditional teachers of Eng lit would have boggled to see scholarly books being published about the study of newspapers and ‘print culture’, and would have rejected the ‘reading experience’ as a subject for study. There were strict hierarchies of the authors and ‘texts’ that were suitable for university study, and you had to push hard to be allowed to study the one you wanted if they weren’t conventional. If you were lucky, you found an open mind and a friendly mentor. Isobel Murray at Aberdeen allowed me to study John Buchan for my final year dissertation: David Daniell at UCL leapt at the chance of supervising my Buchan PhD. Yet the rest of the academy, epitomised by the stuffiness of the then English department at UCL, snooted at my subject, and made me feel a pariah. Now, I too am making judgements about which authors my MA students should be allowed to write a thesis for examination, and which they might be better ‘approaching’ in a different way (from a periodicals studies perspective, perhaps, or as a group of writers epitomising a theme) because their prose doesn’t cut the mustard. I won’t supervise an MA on Harry Potter, for example, but I’d be happy to supervise a thesis discussing novels about witches by J K Rowling and other authors. You need something to chew on for literary criticism, and if the writing isn’t chewy enough (which I don’t think Rowling’s is, on its own), then add something else to the mix to see how you can draw out that essential something in an author’s writing that makes people read.

read more about this fine work edited by me
read more about this fine work edited by me

During interminable family holidays I used to sit in my grandparents’ cold front room that was hardly used, while the racing was on in the other room, desperate for something to read. I looked through cupboards containing old prewar newspapers, tatty cheap paperbacks by authors I’d never heard of, Readers’ Digest anthologies of bizarrely truncated novels (teaching me the horror of ‘abridged’) and sepia illustrated Royal Gift Books. This was the beginning of my fascination with the middlebrow reading of the 1930s and 1940s. I always assumed, vaguely, that one day I’d be able to find who these authors were and why these newspapers and books, from all the reading material that had passed through that house, had been kept safely for decades. Middlebrow reading is the unconsidered reading chosen for different reasons and for different purposes, and is as powerful an influence on how we understand life as any great art in the library. The reading we choose when we’re tired, when we’re idle, when we’re in need of comfort, and when we need to learn, all comes under middlebrow. Cookbooks fit this category, as Nicola Humble was perceptive enough to realise, all those years ago. Culinary Pleasures is a fine work of middlebrow criticism, and a jolly good read.

The language of the invaded in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake

wake cover_illustrationThis is the strangest and most powerful novel I’ve read in a long time. The strangeness and power come from its eerie, invented, ghost of early English, positioned some way between the impenetrableness of Anglo-Saxon and the Englishes more familiar to the eye from the medieval period. Even though this is completely inauthentic, because Paul Kingsnorth made it up, the language creates authenticity in telling the story because it is completely separate from modern usage, modern thinking, modern culture and ideas. It uses the only letters that existed in 1066, and only those words that could have existed at that time as well. He doesn’t get it quite right all the time. Occasionally he uses a very modern syntax, something like ‘I don’t need this right now’, that jumps into the eleventh century with a clumsy splash, but most of the time this language experiment works perfectly.

It also slows you down. I’m a speedy reader; I hop and slide over lines catching the gist and drift without paying proper attention to every word. I found reading The Wake hard work at first, because I was forced to look at every word if I was to understand. The vocabulary is small, but my goodness it’s important because each word can alter meaning drastically if you don’t pay it proper attention.

The whole point of inventing a language that might have existed in 1066 is that the invasion of England by the Normans and their takeover of the country was a catastrophe for English culture. The Wake tells how the Norman Yoke arrived in the voices of those who were crushed under their new foreign overlords, who were demanding gold and building freakishly tall castles to keep an eye on the population who resisted the crushing.

illustration of Buccmaster borrowed from The Guardian
illustration of Buccmaster borrowed from The Guardian

Buccmaster of Holland is a Fenland farmer whose sons have disappeared fighting for Harold at Sanlac (Hastings to you and me), and his wife and farm have been burned because he would not pay gold to the ‘frenc’. He turns outlaw, collecting some men (and a boy) on the way, and manages to kill (‘cwell’) a few Normans over several years of hand-to mouth banditry. His crisis comes when he encounters Bishop Turold on his way to negotiate with Hereweard, the ‘grene man’ in the Fens who is leading the guerrilla resistance. Buccmaster is a wayward, lying, dark, merciless creation, and has a terrifying connection with Weland Smith and the old gods, who come to him in visions to drive him further along his way as the ‘ceosan one’.

Reading Kingsnorth’s early English is a little like reading a language you once knew and have almost forgotten. It becomes familiar, and obvious, quite quickly, and thinking of ‘heofen’ as the word for ‘sky’ soon seems perfectly natural. The echoes in the words Kingsnorth chooses make the subliminal links across the borderline between the English we know and this English that might once have been. ‘Cilde’ can mean a child, or a youth, or a man (think ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’), and this matters, since young Tofe, the half-Danish boy who travels with Buccmaster and Grimcell the former cottar, is the cilde with the swine, and he grows into a man during the novel’s course.

‘frogs saes this cilde tofe then and he is laughan frogs he saes locan up at me. He is walcan along with us as we is goan through the holt we is talcan he is lystnan and callan and ciccan his swine to mof them before him.’

The boy laughs and listens as they walk through the wood and talk about the French, and he kicks his pigs to get them moving: it’s perfectly obvious, really.

Paul Kingsnorth in the holt (credit: Kenneth O'Halloran for the New York Times)
Paul Kingsnorth in the holt (credit: Kenneth O’Halloran for the New York Times)

It’s also hypnotic and grim. This is a simple and unprotected society now being brutalised by murder, rape and horse-riding ‘cnights’ who have faces of ‘style’ and shaved heads: they are abominations compared to the joyful celebratory native English life we see on ‘litha’s day’, a very much needed part of the novel that gives relief for characters and readers. Buccmaster’s secret hidden past fuels his murderous and desperate flight from the frenc, but this aspect of the novel is another modern intrusion. Kingsnorth gives Buccmaster modern sensibilities about something he’s done that simply seem improbable for a man of his era and beliefs. I’m dodging spoilers here, so all I can safely say is that weighting his actions with anachronistic moral judgements doesn’t work for me.

But in this large and solid novel, lumbering to a gallop and a crashing, explosive ending, none of that pettifogging detail matters. This is an important novel in the very specialist niche of stories written in invented languages. Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban is the classic example, and The Wake shares its power. It’s a dark romance without romanticism, where the knights on horseback are a brutal, colonising enemy of traditional peasant life. They make a statement about might and right in war and peace that we haven’t seen since T H White’s The Once and Future King.

UPDATE! The Wake won the inaugural Book of the Year award from the British bookselling trade magazine, The Bookseller, on 11 May 2015.

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (2014, Unbound) ISBN 9781908717863, £16.99

Depth and richness in Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite

the cover the copy I still own, a little ragged now
the cover of the copy I still own, a little ragged now

I think this may have been the first sf novel I read that I instantly recognised as feminist: not stealth, or muted, or sub-conscious. It was Nicola Griffith’s first novel, and if she had never written anything again it would still be stunning: it won the Tiptree Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Premio Italia. I did a podcast on it in 2012.

Ammonite is an exploration story set on a male-free planet; they’re not even needed for making babies. The impetus behind this novel seems to be, what would a world be like when there weren’t any men? And the answer is, a perfectly normal world, but with only women, which changes all the social dynamics. It’s a very simple premise, but the result is an outstanding novel. The setting and story stay with you, you want to know more, and to have the story continue.

The world is called Jeep – GP – and it was first investigated by the Company, an Alien-like conglomerate Griffith uses as a useful metaphor for authority and interference on a galactic scale. Company colonists were sent down to explore, and a planetary virus killed all the men, and a fifth of the women. Company promptly quarantined the planet, and set up extreme decontamination procedures for anyone who wanted to leave. This includes the complete removal of the subject’s blood lymph and bone marrow: I can’t see that one being compatible with continuing to live. The women that remained maintained the Company settlement for five years, and when the story opens they’re showing unmistakeable signs of becoming settlers rather than a temporary mission because, of course, they can’t leave.

the ST Masterworks edition, which says it all, really
the SF Masterworks edition, which says it all, really

Marghe the xeno-anthropologist is the newcomer through whose eyes we see the story unfold. She takes the one-way trip to the surface to make closer contacts with the natives, because this is the professional opportunity of a lifetime. The natives are human, living in a collection of communities with different social organisations. They originate from Earth, centuries before, which explains their mixed-up lingua franca of different Earth languages. Now, they’re all illiterate and tribal, some are settled and agricultural and some are nomadic and pastoral; most are peaceful, but one tribe is showing very worrying signs of irrational aggression. Times are not so much hard as fragile: a bad harvest or the death of a leader can tip a group into jeopardy, which is why the social trading and allegiance system of trata is essential for communal survival. Marghe is given help by one group, which puts her, and the Company settlement, in a trata relationship. For the first time, the Company settlement has a stake in the planet’s future, they will be consulted, they will be asked for help, they exist. But Marghe is struggling against her innate suspicion of Company, and her loyalties to her own people. Her instincts are to get away from the confines of the Company enclosure and live among the women of Jeep. It helps that she’s a brilliant linguist, so the first hurdle for understanding goes down quickly, and she heads out into this brave new world to see what she can see, and learn as much as she can.

ammonite 2Naturally, she gets into trouble. She strays into a bad electrical storm, she gets lost on the high plateau, she gets captured by the worryingly aggressive nomadic tribe and is forced into servitude to survive the winter, in a tribe that is clearly malnourished and inbred, and is being influenced by a madwoman who thinks she is the reincarnation of the Death Spirit. Griffiths draws on lots of different Earth societies for Jeep’s different social groups, and her depiction of this nomadic tribe with an unpronounceable faux-Gaelic name is pretty chilling. Marghe’s obstinate refusal to just shut up and keep the fire going is infuriating, because it’s perfectly plain to the reader that she has no chance of surviving the hostile environment and the hostile people unless she learns and listens, but Marghe’s own demons are too noisy for her to listen to anything else going on, a lot of the time. Her eventual escape seems like a miracle, and not one that she earned with prudence or caution.

Ammonite 4Once she struggles over the winter plain with much suffering and several lost frostbitten fingers, Marge is rescued from delirium by the farmers of Ollfoss, and she recovers her mind and her health in a society that less charitable readers might snoot at as being a feminist hippy commune, and lose interest in the novel at this point, but it worked for me. I really like the depiction of a society where children are shared between parental groups (see Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake), and where different skills find different outlets. The village Marghe comes to live in seems like an ecologist’s dream of comfortable subsistence living, with hot tubs, communal gardens, a gong-banging pavilion to echo the electromagnetic pulse of the planet and a very sensible trading ethic. Making things is very important for these people, but the things that are made are not always tangible. Marghe falls in love with Thenike, a travelling story-teller, arbitrator and wise woman, and finds that her anthropologist’s training has given her these skills too, so she can become part of the native economy herself. Their travels put them in touch with news, and with political developments, which come to a head when the terrifying wild tribe of the north starts to raid southwards, killing as they go. The parallel plot, of what the Company settlers are going to do to avoid being blown up by the military cruiser parked in orbit to keep an eye on them, and how they’re going to fit into this world, comes to a head at about the same time. The plotting is very skilful, since the book ends with plenty of loose ends but also with the most urgent plot problems resolved and sorted. It’s all very satisfying, and leaves you wanting much, much more of this world and its richly imagined life. This is one of Griffith’s major strengths as a novelist: her worlds work at all levels, and embed themselves deeply in the reader’s imagination.

the Italian edition
the Italian edition

You may be wondering about how this all-female society breeds. How are the children conceived, if there aren’t any men to do what human insemination requires? Well, it’s all in the mind. The virus enables women to tweak their own gametes and the gametes of their lovers, when they go into a sex-related trance state, so that children (girls) can be conceived as an act of love. This seems perfectly plausible, if you’ve got the ability to work on your own biofeedback, as a kind of meditative extension of yoga or t’ai chi. You can do pretty much anything to your own biology, once you know what you’re doing and have the mental whatnot to tweak the cells. Anne McCaffrey used this idea too, in her telepathy short stories, Pegasus in Flight. Forget about the science, embrace the concept.

ammonite 5One of the consequences of there being no men (though there are male animals: the virus is apparently not a male-hater, just a man-eater) is that society runs itself differently from how we know it. This is the utopian aspect of Ammonite, exploring how a society could develop following only female interests. There are no hierarchies: that’s the most obvious factor. Group leaders lead through common sense, and put the tribe first. The mystical element to how these societies operate does affect their social practice: if you can look back along the generations and see how your great-great-grandmother did something, or dealt with a particular problem, then that naturally throws a wild card into the otherwise logical process of gaining experience and learning how to manage a tribal meeting. It would be like having the lives of all your ancestors on tap for a special consultation, taking the place of written records and archive-keeping that most human societies develop.

Nicola Griffith herself

Without hierarchies, there is a strong focus on fair treatment, equal treatment, and no-one taking advantage of anyone else. Open discussion of disagreements resolves problems, and nobody seems to be angling for personal power, or gain. There are exceptions: the madwoman who wanted to lead the tribe to a bloody killing swathe over the planet was deranged, a result of too much inbreeding. Leifin, the woman who saved Marghe from the winter plains, shows signs of not only developing capitalist tendencies – an obsessive pursuit of trata for its own sake, and trading advantages beyond anything she actually needs – but also hunting for pleasure as well as for the skins of the creatures she kills. This is another of the enticing loose ends that Griffith leaves open: Leifin is hunting goth, a mythical creature whom most people think is an invention, but whom Marghe has seen, and whom Liefin has killed for its pelt. Marghe suspects the goth of being one of the indigenous inhabitants of the planet, a true alien, and also an intelligent one, who made the standing stone circles, and still survives in the forests. This takes the story back to a different level, where we can start questioning colonisation in all its forms, and look more searchingly at the Earth-imported human women who now act as natives.  This is a novel of unfolding imaginative invention, it’s rich and packed, and definitely worth rediscovering.

Nicola Griffith’s site is here. My review of her most recent novel, a historical novel set in England in the seventh century, Hild, is here.