In the past year or so I’ve put together an informal series on the first three published short fictions by female authors who are new(ish) to me and/or whose most famous SF novels fall mostly outside the post-WWII to mid-1980s focus of my reading adventures. So far I’ve featured Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019), Nancy Kress (1948-), Melisa Michaels (1946-2019), Lee Killough (1942-), and Eleanor Arnason (1942). I do not expect transformative or brilliant things from first stories. Rather, it’s a way to get a sense of subject matter and concerns that first motivated authors to put pen to paper.
Today I’ve selected Josephine Saxton (1935-), an author whom I’ve long known about–I reviewed The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith (1969) back in 2012–but never read any more of her work. Due to Rich Horton’s review of Saxton’s Vector for Seven (1970), my interest in an important voice of the English New Wave movement suddenly rekindled. Her 60s and 70s stories appeared in many of the influential New Wave (and adjacent) anthologies–including Judith Merril’s England Swings SF (1969), Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions 1 (1971), Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker’s Quark/3 (1971), and Damon Knight’s Orbit 9 (1971).
In her first three stories, Saxton deploys sculpted landscapes as metaphysical traps that allegorize the internal struggles of her characters. In the language of the New Wave, inner space manifests as a nightmarish landscape that one must try to traverse. Her prose, even in her weakest tales, is measured and poetic. See SF Encyclopedia for discussion of her later fiction.
Let me know which Josephine Saxton fictions–perhaps from much later in her career–resonate with you.
“The Wall” first appeared Science Fantasy, ed. Kyril Bonfiglioli (November 1965). You can read it online here. It also appeared in Saxton’s collection The Power of Time (1985), which is where I read it.
“The Wall” is an auspicious beginning to an illustrious career! Set in a sculpted valley like a shallow bowl that places the human struggle in heightened relief, “The Wall” imagines a landscape split into two halves by “some change in the light, in the atmosphere, in the colours of air and the earth” (97). At closer look, a wall filled with “lumps of glittering faceted hardness” (97) bifurcates the world. Metal rapiers prevent passage over the barrier. But at a single point a small hole pierces through the wall and on either side of the hole lived a man and a woman. He hunts for rabbits and keeps his fingernails “specklessly white” (98). She, a mother in “another life,” carries her the accoutrements of her beauty regime in a bamboo beach bag (99). Very much in love, the couple spend their hours talking through the hole, and, while physically taxing, manage to stretch their hands through the crevasse and touch.
But the can be no physical consummation of their passion. They know the wall cannot be breached. And so they decide to set off to find a new life. As they walk away from the wall up the sides of the valley they can see each other’s identical movements. Each encounter a lover and each give in to their passions. And each feels shame. And each returns to the hole. And those desperately in love will do desperate things. And the cycle resets.
There’s a poetic simplicity to it all. Like Calvino’s adept descriptions of imaginary places in Invisible Cities (1972), Saxton’s sculpted world, as if a stage, allows a concise morality play to unfold. It lays bare the powerful pull that only over the wall can real happiness lay.
“Ne Déjà Vu Pas” first appeared in England Swings SF, ed. Judith Merril (1968). If you have an Internet Archive account, you can read it online here. As Rich Horton points out, England Swings SF was Judith Merril’s “attempt to showcase the [English New Wave movement] for American readers.”
“Ne Déjà Vu Pas” is the most overtly New Wave story of the three (unsurprising as it featured in Merril’s anthology). Replete with typographical experimentation (sentences placed entirely backwards), Saxton imagines a nightmarish “net of an insulating strip” in between the positive and negative half of the universe that does not experience time (33). The space pilot Kitten, “female, young, and full of curiosity,” in her relentless search for new experiences sets of to go anywhere but “where I have been before” finds herself trapped in the net (31). Whenever someone enters the liminal zone the other version of yourself in the other half of the universe is pulled into the net. Kitten, for some reason no longer female, cannot tolerate the other version of herself pulled into the zone. She spends her days increasingly delusional, imagining that they might be the origin of God.
I did not find “Ne Déjà Vu Pas” entirely successful. Unlike “The Wall,” Saxton does not effectively convey the strange liminal zone Kitten finds herself trapped within. There are some intriguing scenes observing those aging backwards in the negative universe. The social commentary–the aimless trapped in the ultimate aimless world–is more of an afterthought.
2.75/5 (Below Average)
“Nothing Much to Relate” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Edward L. Ferman (November 1967). You can read it here. It was not collected elsewhere.
I’m a sucker for science fiction that aims a piercing eye towards the experiences of housewives and the domestic existence. I am fascinated by fantastical transformation of the daily interaction with home and family. Like the maniacal badgering of the sentient home-keeping computer in Clifford D. Simak’s The Werewolf Principle (1967), science fictional extrapolations bring the uncanny into the everyday life. I also have multiple interrelated reasons related to the power of historical narratives. At the most basic level, propaganda in the 50s and 60s proclaimed the white single-family home as a triumphant symbol of capitalist success. Nothing encapsulates this view more than Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev’s hilarious (and terrifying) 1959 “Kitchen Debate” at the American National Exhibition in Moscow. And science fiction became an arena for the dissection of the experience of 50s and 60s life.
And one experience often ignored was that of the housewife. Betty Friedan dissected the widespread unhappiness of post-WWII white women in the monumental The Feminine Mystique (1963). And, in a handful of cases, science fiction from the era embodied many of her arguments: Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967), Carol Emshwiller’s “Love Me Again” (1956) and “Adapted” (1961), Ann Warren Griffith’s “Captive Audience” (1953), Kate Wilhelm’s “The Downstairs Room” (1968), and Josephine Saxton’s “Nothing Much to Relate” (1967) come to mind.
“Nothing Much to Relate,” told with a deliberately uncanny lightness, describes the life of Liz, housewife with a new child, who discovers a mysterious pile of “automatic” writing which she apparently wrote during a séance. She is desperate for any type of escape from her domestic existence characterized by the incisive criticism of her husband wants her to take up swimming to lose weight (she points out that she can’t swim with a baby in her arms) and the responsibilities of keeping house. The ghost that reached out to her was that of a young man, obsessed with alternative ways to live and Eastern mysticism, that discovered a “real” secret. Liz’s friend Rosalind chalks the tale up to post-natal depression or sneaking psychiatric drugs prescribed by her psychiatrist husband. But even Rosalind, newly pregnant and also stuck at home, suggests she “better go round to the address you got, and investigate” (69).
In this instance, I am far more interested in the historical context of “Nothing Much to Relate” than the story itself which is far from Saxton’s best. There are some solid elements: the commentary on life was told with a hilarious snark and incision and the repackaging of Eastern mysticism as exotic suburban escape and solace reminded me of contemporary obsessions with Reiki (“holistic”) healing and Yoga.
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14 thoughts on “Short Fiction Reviews: Josephine Saxton’s “The Wall” (1965), “Ne Déjà Vu Pas” (1967), and “Nothing Much to Relate” (1967)”
After reading “The Wall” I agree that it’s a good debut story. It’s up there with J. G. Ballard’s “Prima Belladona” as two great first stories, though I’d argue Ballard’s second story, “Escapement”, is a little more memorable due to its ending. Back to Saxton, though. I really enjoyed the surreal social isolation of “The Heiros Gamos of Sam and An Smith” and it feels like “The Wall” was sort of a blueprint for that novel.
I agree. A good debut for sure. I am reminded of Kit Reed’s similarly sculpted SF allegorical debut in F&SF — “To Be Taken in a Strange Country” (variant title: “Wait”) (1958): https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2013/07/19/book-review-mister-da-v-and-other-stories-kit-reed-1967/
I found Reed’s story even more powerful although it felt, in some ways, to be more overtly inspired by Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948).
I apparently had fond things to say about Ballard’s “Prima Belladona” although some of the details (other than the musical plants) have faded from memory: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2014/03/10/book-review-billenium-j-g-ballard-1962/
But yes, Saxton, like Malzberg, loves creating scenarios for “surreal social isolation.” “The Wall” and The Heiros Gamos of Sam and An Smith (1969) are great examples.
An eternity of trying to get through The Wall is so enervating, isn’t it. Wear one right down to the cogs and springs. Natasha Pulley’s working that vein of ore with a quantum-entanglement angle nowadays.
The entire story felt like a sinister ritual. Loved it! (did you end up reading it? It’s super short)
But yes, I find myself falling into this trap of thinking that moving to some nostalgic place will bring more happiness.. haha. But simultaneously, we do need to make life-changing choices sometimes!
Life-changing choices aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Remember that other choices are always available after them…something about changing life means our subconscious says to stick to it no matter what.
I read The power of Time some years ago, and hence also “The Wall” – which t I didn’t like that much. The setting had potential, but the dualistic symbolism was too crude and predictable for my taste
But I highly recommend the entire collection. It’s uneven, its best stories are remarkable, some of the best Saxon I’ve read. I’m also a big fan of both Hieros Gamos and Vector For Seven, and would really like to get my hands on Group Feast, but unfortunately it’s not easy to track down, especially in europe.
From your description, “Nothing Much to Relate” sounds like blueprint for Queen of the States, which didn’t completely convince me.
Do you remember which short stories in the collection resonated with you? It’s hard to find Group Feast in the US as well. When I looked it was $30+ with shipping. I have a copy of Vector For Seven and have tried to read it a few times but set it down (my mood swings and it doesn’t relate to its quality).
There were quite a few that I liked, but especially “The Snake who had Read Chomsky”, “The Triumphant Head”, “Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon”, “Living Wild” and “Dormant Soul”.
I would proabably be willing to buy Group Feast for $30 if it wasn’t for the exorbitant extra costs of shipping + custom tax + “special bonus fee for charging custom tax”.
I have a copy so I might get to some of those soon.
$30 is a bit too much for a SF book as I tend to buy a lot of history books (I read far more history than SF in a given year) and need the funds for that account. hah. But I could make an exception.
At first, I thought the Aldiss story was going to be from the perspective of a church: “Through his heavy lids, the church hardly appeared to grow nearer until they were upon it.” Gotta love dangling participles. 😉
I assume you’re referencing the cover for the magazine that the Saxton story appeared in — it’s not Keith Roberts’ best art, that’s for sure. Haven’t read that Aldiss, yet.
Nope. I was referring to the Brian Aldiss story that’s also in that collection (ed. Kyril Bonfiglioli ) you provided a link for. The art on the cover is … interesting.
Yeah, that’s what I meant. I don’t know which story the Roberts’ cover illustrates but I assume it illustrates the Aldiss.
Well, if you read the Saxton, let me know if you enjoyed it! Or the Aldiss for that matter.