Josephine Saxton has just turned 81, making her one of the oldest living British sf writers. She may also be one of the least well known. Her work often has the quality of a fable, and a disturbing fable at that, which may be why it has so often been overlooked by sf readers. Which is a shame, because her fiction is vivid, curious, engaging, and at its best absolutely unforgettable.
Her career comes in two short bursts, separated by long silences. The first burst began with the appearance of her first short story, “The Wall”, in 1965, one of the more memorable debuts of that turbulent decade. Her fiction at this time had the detached tone and oblique psychological insight that made it seem to be a natural fit with the New Wave. But even so her first three novels, published in successive years between 1969 and 1971, seemed at best tangentially related to the New Wave, they were ambivalent allegories that were pursuing their own path independent of anything else that was going on.
After the third novel, Group Feast , and just as the New Wave in Britain was stuttering to a halt, Saxton fell silent. It would be ten years before she returned to science fiction with The Travails of Jane Saint (1980) followed by her masterpiece, Queen of the States (1986). At this time the predominant mode in British sf was feminist fiction, and again her work seemed to fit the zeitgeist. But again there was something edgy and awkward that made the fit less than perfect. Always interested in psychology, particularly in the work of Carl Jung, these ideas now became even more prominent in her fiction, giving it a quality and a direction that was not quite in keeping with the dominant mode of feminist sf.
By the end of the decade, she had fallen silent again. Apart from an idiosyncratic book about gardening, Gardening Down a Rabbit Hole (1996), she has published no more. There are suggestions that she has complete manuscripts that she has either not submitted, or that no publisher has taken. I suspect that Josephine Saxton is only ever going to be an acquired taste, but for those who acquire it, she is one of the essential science fiction writers of the last half of the 20th century.
For anyone who has not previously encountered Josephine Saxton, these are her key works:
Queen of the States
By States, this wonderfully ambiguous title could (and does) refer to the United States, to states of mind, or more. Magdalen is in a mental hospital, but may not be mad; she is being interrogated by aliens about human sex, but the aliens may not be real; she is living in the present, but could also belong in the past or the future. As the novel wanders tantalisingly through the various realities inside Magdalen’s mind, she becomes the key figure in the fantasies of her husband, her doctor, her lovers and all those she comes into contact with.
The Power of Time
This is a collection of 14 of her early stories, including her debut, “The Wall”; her contribution to Again, Dangerous Visions, “Eloise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon” about the one healthy woman in a world where everyone is sick by law; “The Power of Time” in which Manhattan is moved to England, and others. Sly, witty, perverse, sometimes disorienting, always exhilarating, these really are a great way to discover her work.
The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith
Her first novel is set in a strange post-apocalyptic landscape in which the buildings still stand, food is still available, but there are no animals and virtually no humans. In this curious desolation we follow a young boy who is all alone until he comes across a newly born girl and feels he must learn how to look after her. It’s a novel filled with haunting symbols and ambiguous references to a host of other books, all conveyed in beautifully clear, simple prose.
The Travails of Jane Saint
This novella, and its sequel, Jane Saint and the Backlash, is the most explicit exploration of Jungian archetypes in her work. Jane Saint is an everywoman whose journey through the Collective Unconscious is accompanied by a host of archetypes such as Merleau-Ponty the philosopher-dog, Agatha Hardcastle the Witch of Hepptonstall, and Mr Rochester the cat. What the story suggests is that women see the world very differently to men, but it’s all done as a wicked comedy. The Travails of Jane Saint also includes a selection of her later stories, so it’s worth buying for that alone.
Vector for Seven: The Weltanschaung of Mrs Amelia Mortimer and Friends
There are those who say that this is her best novel after Queen of the States, and I’m not about to argue with them. It starts with two women who have apparently been abandoned at a remote airport. Slowly others join them as they set out to explore an oddly depopulated landscape, finding that coming together as a community is the best way to interact with the world.
The last novel from the first stage of her career features another desolate, depopulated landscape, in this case the Australian outback where a billionaire stages a party in her private pleasure dome, during the course of which the servants rebel, there’s rape and murder, and the billionaire’s father ends up being spit roasted. It’s another haunting satire dressed up as a psychological fable.
Little Tours of Hell
Saxton’s last short story collection isn’t strictly science fiction, but if you love the wayward imagination displayed in her other books there’s no way you’ll be able to resist this. They are stories about food and travel, two subjects that constantly recur throughout her fiction, and as the title suggests they tend to end up in the perverse or the horrific or the just plain strange.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.