Book Review: Sign of the Labrys, Margaret St. Clair (1963)

(William George’s cover for the 1963 edition)

2.75/5 (Vaguely Average)

Margaret St. Clair was one of a handful of prolific women SF authors who started publishing short fiction in the late 40s—her first SF story was “Rocket to Limbo” for the November 1946 issue of Fantastic Adventures.  From the late 50s to the early 70s she published eight slim novels, mostly Ace Doubles (paired with authors such as Philip K. Dick and Kenneth Blulmer).  Regardless of her earlier publishing prowess—by the publication date of Sign of the Labrys (1963) she had four novels in print and somewhere around 125 short stories—Bantam Books felt the need to include the following back cover:

“WOMEN ARE WRITING SCIENCE-FICTION!

ORIGINAL! BRILLIANT!! DAZZLING!!!

Women are closer to the primitive than men.  They are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides.  They possess a buried memory of humankind’s obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely color and flavor a novel.  Such a woman is Margaret St. Clair, author of this novel.  Such a novel is this, SIGN OF THE LABRYS, the story of a doomed world of the future, saved by recourse to ageless, immemorial rites…

FRESH! IMAGINATIVE!! INVENTIVE!!!”

Unfortunately, Sign of the Labrys is a disappointing read.   The post-plague world is dark and creepy and for the first half an uncanny (palpable) tension permeates.  But, ultimately the fantastic setting, revisionist stance on the normal pulp gender dynamics, are weakened by a disjointed (verging on amateur) narrative filled with Wiccan “craft” practices and references.  As other reviewers have pointed out, one could easily substitute the Wicca magic with the pulp SF staple “psi-power” and I agree completely.  I suspect Margaret St. Clair felt more comfortable with the short story form.  Sign of the Labrys has all the same flaws as other works produced by short story writers who tried their hand at novels in the 50s and 60s (Robert Sheckley comes to mind).  Individual scenes are transfixing but the transitions, characterizations, and thrust of the work all verge on inarticulate.

Vaguely recommended for fans of pulp science fiction.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

Sign of the Labrys takes place in a bizarre world at indefinite point in the future wrecked by a serious of yeast plagues that afflicted both humans and plants:  “When the yeast cells escaped from the scientists who had been working with them, and started the great plagues, it was not only the sorts that were deleterious to human beings that escaped.  Our domestic animals died too—the mortality was even higher among them—and our food plants too were affected” (8).

In a world where “nine-tenths” (88) of the population was wiped, either accidentally or purposefully to prevent a nuclear war (this is never entirely clear), a strange society develops.  As if a manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder, the remaining individuals retreat into isolation: our main character, Mr. Sewell ruminates, “it is odd how much we dislike contact with each other nowadays” (1). Large swathes of the country, in fear of nuclear war, had been fitted with massive underground complexes stocked with huge stores of food meant for survivors.  Instead, survivors of the plague often wander the subterranean depths (the surface contains little living matter) consuming whatever canned food pillaged from the stores they wish.  A few work at “jobs” whose sole purpose is to keep people occupied: disposing the dead bodies or moving boxes from one end of a warehouse to the other and back.  Mushrooms harvested from moist clefts in the artificial cave walls, not afflicted by the yeast plagues, provide the sole “fresh food.”

On some of the levels of the underground complexes contain societies of VIPs who had retreated to their shelters early.  They have deluded themselves into believing that the enemy released the diseases and that there is a war going on the surface.  Due to the side-effects of the plague, revulsion for your common man, the VIPs pop pills and while away there days gambling and indulging in sexual experimentation.  While on other levels scientists, who live mostly in isolation, still experiment on the surviving lab rats.

It is into this doomed world that Mr. Sewell lives must find his way.  He lives near the surface.  Occasionally he works burring the bodies or moving boxes—he derives most of his enjoyment from harvesting mushrooms.  His life is transformed when a member of the skeleton governmental body, the FBY, approaches his living space in the fallout shelter and asks if he knows a woman by the name of Despoina.  She is supposedly a witch, or perhaps a sower of a particularly virulent strain of the yeast plague.  FBY’s interest is nebulous and unclear.  Soon Mr. Sewell starts to believe that Despoina might be real—especially after he finds a mysterious ring, and the sign of the Labrys carved in his favorite mushroom hunting area.

He is swept into a quest downward towards the deepest levels of the fallout shelter.  Women move in and out of the narrative who seem to always know slightly more than he does.  Margaret St. Clair purposefully recasts the standard pulp narrative.  Mr. Sewell is not the “I need to change the world” proactive hero, rather he is desperately naive and needs everyone else’s assistance figuring out his part in the puzzle.  The women scientists he encounters, Despoina herself, are the real forces who know what is happening in the world and have a plan to try to fix things.  Soon Sewell realizes that his quest that mirrors a Wiccan ritual of initiation.  But what is his role?  And what will happen after the initiation?

“We Wicca know how to be happy even in a bad world.  But we cannot be content with a bad world” (94).  And Despoina has a plan…

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

 

(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1966 Italian edition)

(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1980 Italian edition)

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Sign of the Labrys, Margaret St. Clair (1963)”

  1. Oh yes. Thanks to my primitive knowledge, I always know when there is going to be a full moon and can tell you the time of the lowest tide anywhere in the world! Sigh. But, dispiriting though that blurb is, I guess it illustrates how far we have come in the past 50 years.

  2. On the positive side, you’ve given us two more beautiful Karel Thole covers to salivate over. Thanks Joachim.

  3. I’m a little late to the party, but my jaw also hit the floor reading that back cover blurb. Absolutely amazing. They can vote and write! Who would have thought?!?! I’m speechless…

    By the way, nice new look to the site.

    1. Thanks! I thought the layout needed some sprucing up — a little “professionalization.”

      But yes, easily the worst thing I’ve seen printed on the back of a novel from that era.

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