Book Review: The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith, Josephine Saxton (1969)

(Jack Faragasso’s cover for the 1970 edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith (1969) is an experimental (but approachable) science fiction fable set in a world which, at least on the surface, is very much like our own.  The buildings remain, food dispensers still dispense food, and undisturbed store shelves are fully stocked.  However, the majority of the animals have disappeared and people are almost all gone. Cannibalism is hinted at.  A few other individuals flit on the outskirts of the narrative, phantom-like, unsubstantial in their physicality.  Are they hallucinations, or external viewers of the spectacle who intrude when needed before vanishing with no evidence of their arrival?

Josephine Saxton deftly utilizes the coming of age narrative, the quest (more character related than goal oriented), and a fabulist’s eye towards metaphor to weave together a touching and alluring tale.  The ending (warning: discussed in more depth below) at first glance is too elusive, too unresolved.  But on second thought, the ramifications of the slight reveal are so beautiful.

The Hieros Gamos is the first of Josephine Saxton’s works I’ve read and I’ll be on the lookout for her novels Vector for Seven (1970), Group Feast (1971) and her short story collection The Power of Time (1985) among others.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (some spoilers)

The narrative begins with “the boy” who wanders aimlessly without shoes around the town of Thingy.  The environment is so absent of life that the mere sound of a bird “excited him until he had tears running down his face” (7).  He discovers a hollow where a dying woman lays alone in the final throes of birth: “the belly of the woman was a soft mound of wrinkled skin, with a fan of black hair, all wet with red blood, and her legs lay wide, striped red, and between them lay a tiny baby, wet and streaked with blood and shining moisture […]” (12).

The boy is simultaneously repelled yet intrigued by the girl child.  He realizes that if he decides to take care of her he will be forced to depart, at least for a while, from his aimless solitary wanderings.  He decides to care for the child.  He slowly learns how to keep her clean, how to procure cans of milk, how to keep her from getting cold, how to convey her effectively while he wanders…

The boy himself is an intriguing/peculiar character.  In a land mostly absent of other life, he is preoccupied with unusual longings to “bathe and decorate himself” (25).  He carries around a bottle of almond shampoo (29), decorates his fingernails (32) and spends lengthy periods of time looking for clothes in empty department stores (31).  Because he feels the drive to move from place to place his own body, becomes the site of intense ritual.   For example, disruption of ritual, when he catches himself biting his nails, is looked at with horror and revulsion (39).

At certain moments in the narrative the boy and the small girl come across inscriptions on monuments, graffiti in bathroom stalls, spray painted signs that force them to consider certain emotions.  For example, his carefree existence is further interrupted by an inscription that reads, “To the memory of those brave men of the town of Thingy, who gave their lives in the First World War” (35).  He is so overcome with grief that he is forced to consider more carefully the young child in his care — and immediately after this insight, he comes across Universal Stores, Inc.  A gigantic department store with all the necessities for the child.

Eventually he decides to cease in his wanderings, stay in the store, and nurture the child (58).  After a mysterious visitor leaves him a pile of books, the boy spends his time reading vociferously.  The child amuses herself soundlessly with toys for the boy has yet to teach her to speak.  His need to wander is transfered from the external world to the imaginative world of books.  The list is multi-varied (one can’t help but speculate they are books found on Saxton’s own shelves):  “the writings of Nietzsche, the Pilgrim’s Progress, the books of Charles Fort, three volmes of the Mathnawi, the published works of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, Nicholl, Bennet, Collin, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Secret of the Golden Flower, the Upanishads, C. G. Jung, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, James Blish, William Blake, and a most remarkable poet called Dalo Makinen” (64).  This list is revealing.  Ouspensky and Gurdjieff are proponents of higher states of existence — a potential way to interpret the world our characters dwell in.  Likewise, Jung’s collective unconscious (a theme Saxton returns to frequently in her work) could be the mental state in which the ritual unfolds.  This list has the potential to be mined for other interpretations.

After years go by, the two finally decided that they must leave the store, the fertile ground of childhood.  And once again, they begin to wander.  A sequence of memorable scenes usher their development: Graffiti in lavatories, naming games, self-naming, The Osborne Palace hotel, the slow realization of sexuality, and the culmination [s] of the ritual.  And they return to Thingy, and the place where the skeleton of the girl’s mother lays, undisturbed…

Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)

The name of the book, The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith, combined with the final sequence imbues the boy and the girl’s wanderings with added meaning.  I recommend NOT looking up the Greek term “hieros gamos” before you finish.  I found the most intriguing aspect of the work the appearance and disappearance of other people.  Each, for example the woman who leaves the pile of books for the boy in the store, is a catalyst for an important emotion or unrealized concept.  Combined with the textual messages they come across, the reader becomes aware of a voyeuristic quality of looking in on the development of these two characters   The uncanny artificiality of the world — completely intact but mostly lacking in people/animals — and how objects appear and disappear all add to the feeling that their lives are part of a complex ritual.  The cyclicality is striking as well — most notably, their return to the skeleton of the girl’s mother for another birth.

The power of ritual is a central theme — the boy is obsessed with ritualistically adorning/caring for his body; the girl’s arrival threatens to unbalance this ritual, and eventually the girl is slowly integrated into his ritual of wandering.  One of the more gorgeous sequences in the entire work depicts the birthday ritual:  The boy is resigned to the fact that the girl will eventually leave, she packs her things, begins to walk away, he calls for her to come back, they embrace, she says she will stay,  “Well, I will, just this one year, just this one” (100).

I recommend Saxton’s The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith for fans of restrained, fabulist, and well-written science fiction.  The prose strikingly conveys with simple phrases and words the landscape, the development of character, and the landscape they traverse.  My only complaint is the Saxton’s interest in psychoanalysis provides a series of interpretations that explain away a large portion of the ambiguity of the surreal world.  A delightful fable nevertheless…

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29 thoughts on “Book Review: The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith, Josephine Saxton (1969)

  1. I skipped past the fuller review so as not to have any spoilers since you have interested me greatly with what you wrote as an intro. I like the idea of the ‘sinister edge’ to the story and it sounds like one that I need to add to my ever growing list (thanks to you and others) of books I am on the lookout for when I hit used bookstores. Great opening thoughts, you’ve sold me!

          • It was the fact that you mentioned something to the effect that cannibalism is just hinted at or isn’t known that kept me reading. I’m not big on that kind of fiction but the idea of it can be nicely creepy.

            And I don’t always mind if the ending of a book is a little elusive or unresolved if the course of getting there combined with the ending makes it all worthwhile.

      • Haha, I put the comment back in. Saxton references cannibalism once but never returns to that idea. It’s almost an afterthought. AHH, now I know why!

        It all has to do with constructing a world — a ritualistic landscape — replete with the necessary pitfalls and fears. It has lest to do with existing and more to do with testing the mental strength of our characters.

  2. Thanks for this post, Joachim. This book is one that I would have passed over on account of the obscurity of the author and the weird title. Now I’m inclined to give it a second look.

    • My only warning concerns its prevalent use of psychoanalysis a la Jung and yogi sorts like Ouspensky and Gurdjieff…. higher planes of existence / collective unconscious etc — stuff like that. She’s highly influenced by it. Very 60s/70s I guess (certainly not as prevalent as all the psychoanalysis in Pohl’s Gateway — it’s more of a way to interpret the novel/understand the world). However, the fable itself, the fascinating world, the characters, and the other major themes — rituals, coming of age etc — are all delightfully drawn and explored.

  3. Pingback: The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith, Josephine Saxton « SF Mistressworks

  4. This is certainly a unique and challenging book, and one I think a lot of readers today unfamiliar with the New Wave might have a hard time with, unfamiliar with that movement’s artistic aims (examinations of inner landscapes as opposed to outer space). There’s much in this book, though, that’s simpatico with what PKD or Ballard or Delany were up to. If it were published today you’d have to label it New Weird and shelve it with Jeff VanderMeer.

    It’s daring to do such an allegorical tale that deliberately leaves you with questions, in a genre where readers typically appreciate concrete answers. But one aspect of the book I found fascinating was how Saxton, championed in the 1970s by feminists, shows her characters sliding naturally into traditional gender roles as they approach adulthood, without the apparent influence of any cultural messaging. As a boy, Sam painted his nails and liked perfume, but he abandons this as he grows older, and An even insists upon cutting his hair short once it’s longer than hers (long is how he likes it). An discovers cosmetics. I suspect a writer pursuing this story today might make a point of breaking their characters free of gender conformity. But is Saxton saying that the reason gender roles and gendered behaviors exist is because most people slot themselves into them naturally? Would a character who doesn’t conform to these roles find a different landscape of symbols to wander in their journey to find themselves?

    • I would posit an alternate argument. The mythological ritual of adolescence — the “otherness” of youth is transformed into a cookie-cutter domestic experience. Is that a positive portrayal of gender roles? Is she suggesting that after the fascinating bizarre nature of adolescence the predetermined outcome is a good thing?

  5. I have finally read the book. I didn’t realize it was so short!

    It really is a striking novel, and very original indeed. It seems to me that SF readers may approach it differently — the beginning seems an almost cliched post-apocalyptic setting, until we realize that things are still intact — the stores are still stocked — electric doors work, etc.

    I agree with your advice about the meaning of “hieros gamos” — I took your advice and I’m glad I did.

    I think Saxton a truly original writer who is really unassignable to any genre. (Though I think the short fiction fits more cleanly into SF.) In that way — but not all all in style or theme! — she reminds me of Anna Kavan.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. It’s a wonderful little volume. The short fiction that I read seems similar in the liminal connection to SF — especially her first short story “The Wall” that takes place in a similarly artificial landscape that’s not overtly science fictional.

      Thank you again for your post on Vector for Seven as it inspired me to track down her first three short stories. I plan on tackling the next three short stories when I manage to breath a moment after restarting teaching this August…

  6. What an interestingly odd little book. I quite enjoyed it, especially the internal monologue when he’s a boy. It was (perhaps unintentionally?) hilarious a lot of the time. The spare prose worked really well for me. I don’t think knowing what heiros gamos meant negatively impacted the read for me, it gave a nice frame for the work.

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