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Thou dost not know me, Holly. Hadst thou seen me but ten hours past, when my passion seized me, thou hadst shrunk from me in fear and trembling. I am of many moods, and, like the water in that vessel, I reflect many things; but they pass, my Holly; they pass and are forgotten. Only the water is the water still, and I still am I, and that which maketh the water maketh it, and that which maketh me what I seem, seeing that thou canst not know what I am.

It is always a great pleasure for me to encounter a classic adventure serial or novel and still be gripped by the narrative. Too often the trickle-down effect caused by plagiarizing and imitative creators robbing the beats of these original tales in the years since its publication lessen the impact. H. Rider Haggard has been a writer I have avoided precisely because of this. ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ has appeared in different guises not only in the writer’s own sequels featuring Allan Quatermain, but the work of J.R.R. Tolkien with the Lady Galadriel and of course in John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey.

As was the fashion of the time with fantastical adventure stories, Haggard plays up the conceit that this is an account of true events. So the story we are reading is in fact a document received by an nameless editor – the author himself – from one L. Horace Holly. The manuscript describes an incredible journey taken by Holly and his charge Leo to Africa, hoping to unravel a dynastic mystery connected to the younger man that stretches back in time to the pre-Christian era and may have led to the death of his father. Accompanied by long-suffering manservant Job, the group follow the directions left to them on a preserved clay shard , only to be shipwrecked and left stranded in a dangerous and unexplored region of the continent.

The group are rescued from certain death at the hands of a hidden civilization of man by the wise and venerable Bilali. Holly and Leo manage to communicate with the old fellow via a corrupted modern day version of his language and are informed that ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’, the white-skinned ruler of these people desires to see them. What unfolds is an adventure that becomes increasingly perilous for these proto-Indiana Joneses – being Cambridge academics that are also a dab hand at fighting off a multitude of opponents when the occasion arises – and one that may cost the young Leo his very soul.

My edition of She comes with an introduction from Margaret Atwood, lampshading the present-day relevance of the book by claiming Ayesha as prefiguring feminism. This feels unnecessarily shallow. The quotation I opened this review with comes from the most interesting section of the book, wherein Haggard flirts with the anti-Christian substance of She Who Must Be Obeyed. Ayesha is fascinated by Christ’s message of peace, because in her eyes this is a typically weak and perilous philosophy for the cruelties of existence. It is a fantastic scene, because Holly is of course merely spouting the party line of what Christianity represents, as opposed to the realities of conquest, occupation and oppression that empowers the Church as an institution.

In that sense Ayesha in fact prefigures the secularist critique of Christianity, albeit in a fantastical way.

Haggard work is of its time, so there remains issues of chauvenism, racism and anti-semitism (towards both Jews and Muslims) in play here. If the modern reader can accept these caveats, the book can be enjoyed as an adventure story with ambitions beyond its seeming rip-roaring escapism.

She by H. Rider Haggard

We were flying in a strange part of the sky,’ said Handsome, ‘and we thought we’d hit a meteorite shower, ship spinning like a windsock in a gale. I took a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree shot of the ship, and I saw that what we were flying through was a bookstorm – encyclopedias, dictionaries, a Uniform Edition of the Romantic poets, the complete works of Shakespeare.’

‘Yeah, I heard of him,’ said Pink, nodding.

It has been a number of years and I am still fuming about Margaret Atwood‘s little rant: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Yes it was years ago. Yes she has been backpedalling ever since and why should I even care?

Really though it comes down to marketability. Science fiction is a publishing ghetto. Literature that dabbles in ‘speculative’ fancies is far more respectable and ensures the authors still get invited to the important parties.

To my mind this is the definition of pretentiousness. A rather literal kind of pretension, but it asserts the dominance of one genre of literature over another.

The Stone Gods opens in a immoral far-future dystopia. Humanity has exhausted their home planet, known as Orbus. The atmosphere is filled with deadly dust-storms. Civilization is completely broken down, with different ideological enclaves controlling their own territories across the globe. The Eastern Caliphate is consumed by religious fundamentalism; the SinoMosco Pact is an extrapolation of the most corrupt form of communism; and finally the Central Power has realized the deepest desires of free market capitalism, with state government replaced by a hierarchy of corporate institutes.

Billie Crusoe is a scientist trapped in a thankless and soul-destroying media job, covering the discovery of a new planet that represents a possible hopeful future for the human race. Completely disenchanted with humanity, Billie can see that if the wealthy elite transfer themselves to this ‘Planet Blue’, history will simply repeat itself. Once the native species of dinosaurs are artificially wiped out, conversion will begin. Injustice against the lower classes will be repeated; the wealthy will sink into even more immoral depravity; and when the planet itself is stripped of all vegetation, humans will simply find another planetary body to infect.

While covering the story Billie meets the robo-sapiens Spike, an emotionless gynoid who is more than capable of reading human emotion. After Billie is forced to return to Planet Blue with a new crew, composed of scientists and a lucky celebrity, she falls in love with Spike.

However, as Captain Handsome reminds them, history has a habit of repeating itself. The book is split into four sections that reveal that these events are being recycled through a form of eternal recurrence. At times Billie becomes Billy, a sailor on Easter island, or a near-future scientist who encounters an account of the destruction of Orbus, titled The Stone Gods.

I mentioned Margaret Atwood above, because like her work, this book treats of a ‘speculative fiction’, scenario that smacks of science fiction tropes, but evidently wishes to be counted among more refined literary fellows. References to Samuel Beckett, including his ‘begin again‘, absurdist nihilism abound. Spike is threatened with being recycled to avoid her falling into the hands of rebel forces. Her knowledge and experience of the Planet Blue is intended to be extracted from her, but as the overall story hints, minds undergo a form of evolution ensuring that they are not simply limited stacks of data. Spike ultimately survives, even as Billie will be reborn, or simply return to life over and over again.

Yet this book apes science fiction, while at the same time pretending to philosophical profundity. A swing and a miss I am afraid, one that leaves the text perilously suspended between two stools. In fact at times it resembles bad sf!

Where the book excels, however, is its shocking description of a futuristic dystopia obsessed with sexual depravity. Genuinely unsettling and disturbing, these early passages of The Stone Gods vibrate with anger towards the sexual domination of women by men. There are also moments of surreal humour, such as Spike’s disembodied head performing cunnilingus. The book swings between extremes of righteous anger, attempted profundities and comical humour.

I could not help but be reminded of David Mitchell’s superior novel, Cloud Atlas, which introduces similar themes to greater effect. A disappointment.

What could I do? Lamentation wouldn’t bring my lovely girls back to life. I bit my tongue. It’s a wonder I had any tongue left, so frequently had I bitten it over the years.

The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Odyssey from the point of view of the hero’s long suffering wife Penelope. Left on the island kingdom of Ithaca to fend for herself while her husband contends with a Cyclops, vengeful gods and witches, Penelope tells of her efforts to confound the many suitors who seek to usurp Odysseus during his ten year voyage. This, after having already waited ten years for the costly Trojan War, fought to secure the return of her stunningly beautiful cousin Helen, to end.

This is also the story of Penelope’s twelve maids and their murder by Telemachus and Odysseus upon his return. The myth describes them as having caroused with the suitors besieging the palace of Ithaca, indirectly making them responsible for the long hours of cavorting and rutting within its halls. Penelope reveals that her maids were in fact spying on the men, delaying their attempts to kill her son Telemachus and forcibly marry her, seizing her husband’s kingdom in the process. The ‘carousing’, the maids died for was in fact rape.

All of this is narrated by the long dead Penelope, now a spectre wandering through Hades. She has been observing the progress of human history and has developed over time a certain arch sense of humour, picking up a few idiomatic phrases over the years. I was startled to see this figure from Ancient Greek myth use the word ‘factoid’ just three sentences in, but there you are. This is Atwood using the character of Penelope as her mouthpiece, with The Penelopiad intended as a corrective to the chauvinism of Homer’s epic.

By having the narration itself take place in the present day, Atwood mocks the pretensions of Homer’s characters, all of whom are still wandering around the underworld. She jokes that the gods have vanished ever since a much more spectacular establishment down the road – fiery pits, wailing and gnashing of teeth, gnawing worms, demons with pitchforks – a great many special effects opened up. Penelope herself never really believed in the gods, as all she observed in her life was random misfortune and callous violence.

Her life was spent in a state of passivity, a quality that is lauded within Homer’s tale, her patience and forgiveness of her husband’s indiscretions elevated as virtues. Atwood reverses this by showing how Odysseus won her hand and took her to Ithaca as his bride in order to weaken her father in any future conflict between Sparta and its neighbours. That she could always see through her husband’s lies and omissions, but chose not to speak up as she knew he enjoyed fooling everyone. In fact, most of her dignified silences from Homer’s epic are retold by Atwood as Penelope furiously trying to repress her laughter at the foolishness of people around her.

Three women rule Penelope’s life. Her mother-in-law, Anticleia, is stern and unloving, treating her son’s wife at all times as a necessary inconvenience. Eurycleia, the palace wet-nurse, replaces her as mother to her own son Telemachus. And finally there is Helen, her cousin, who ruined her life, having ignited the conflict that took her husband away for twenty years and set in motion the events that would lead to the occupation of her home and the murder of the twelve maids. Atwood uses these three women to represent the clichéd archetypes of female identity in mythology – the matriarch, the crone and the whore. By doing so she exports any of these traits from Penelope herself. However, I’m not sure what character her heroine actually possesses, beyond the arch present-day voice we are offered in the narration, as Atwood-manqué. I feel this is an error on the author’s part, as Penelope is reduced to a mere cipher as a result.

There is anger here, with the twelve maids acting as a chorus throughout the book. They speak in verse initially, but later resort to a parody of a mock-feminist academic paper and even a ‘video-trial’ in the style of Judge Judy. Overall I feel the story should have been told solely from their point of view, as Penelope’s sheltered upbringing and passivity made her an aloof narrator (never mind a sarcastic ghost).

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