If you knew there was a chance to change the future, would you take it?
It is 1978, a year after Star Wars, and I am listening on a cold March night on an ancient transistor radio to the first episode of a new Radio 4 series entitled ‘The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ That weekend, determined to find something new to read, I will head to our local library and pluck up the courage to ask for some stories the Librarian thinks would be enjoyable. As an extremely impressionable eleven and a bit year old, I hope for something exhilarating and am not disappointed. The middle aged woman returns with two books of John Wyndham’s short stories: The Seeds of Time and Consider Her Ways. Without the latter, on considered reflection, I would not have begun to question the environment around me.
The narrative is established in an almost perfect storm of carefully crafted, linear exposition: a young woman awakes after having what is, in effect, an out of body experience. It soon becomes apparent that this world is completely out of kilter with what both audience and narrator know to be correct: even body is not her own but that of Orchis, massively obese ‘Mother’ whose sole reason for existence is to manufacture babies. In this state our protagonist discovers that life, such as it is, involves simply eating and reproducing. The other women, in a similar state around her, are happy to do this and remain unable both to read and write.
Finally, after a fall, the reality of her true existence becomes apparent: Jane Waterleigh volunteered as a test subject for a new, synthesised drug which has provided the ability to exist out of body allowing travel through time. Showing a doctor she can write and that knowledge as a physician in another life sets her apart from the other illiterate Mothers, the biggest revelation emerges by accident: this society is bereft of men. The matriarchal society was built from the ashes of Jane’s own past, construction inspired by, of all things, a quote from the Bible:
Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.
The profound and powerful persuasiveness of Wyndham’s first person narrative hooked me immediately. Previous science fiction novels I had read were so very obviously written with women in subservient, secondary roles. Even the HitchHiker’s Guide (which is still also loved after all these years) had two male protagonists: however funny the script was, there was no female heroine to identify with. Written from an almost totally female perspective, both heard and identified as relatable came as a breath of welcome fresh air which promoted unexpected excitement.
It wasn’t just voices and roles however that make Consider Her Ways so compelling: the unfolding horror Jane feels as it becomes apparent the entire fabric of society around her has altered to mimic an ant colony. From the three-foot-high miniature human Servitors to the muscle-bound and servile Workers (whom Jane considers as Amazons) everything could yet be a nightmare or some kind of hallucination. Only when she is on her way to have the truth explained is there a hint of a past only she can remember:
‘Once, we crossed a cutting. Looking down from the bridge I thought at first that we were over the dried bed of a canal, but then I noticed a post leaning at a crazy angle amongst the grass and weeds: most of its attachments had fallen off, but there were enough left to identify it as a railway signal.’
That image has stuck with me for decades, and is a perfect example of how using the familiar to highlight radical change is so effective. It is no different from Charlton Heston discovering a buried Statue of Liberty in the first Planet of the Apes movie, a ‘reveal’ which has now become standard in apocalyptic fiction. When Jane is taken to meet historian Laura the real truth of the matter becomes apparent: an experiment in the past to eradicate brown rats produced unexpected and fatal consequences, effectively eliminating the male population. This conceit ironically was very close to how Hollywood chose to reboot the Planet of the Apes franchise decades after it began.
In order to save humanity, the surviving women in Wyndham’s alternate future picked the ant ‘model’ as that which would most simply preserve their status quo, allowing a realistic chance of survival. It is in the conversations between Jane and Laura that subverts science fiction into the realms of radical feminism: to keep the species alive, a decision was taken not to re-introduce men, even when that option became possible.
As Jane argues that without two sexes, there can be no true love, passion or humanity, Laura presents a version of history where, across the centuries, women have simply been at the beck and call of men, subjugated in the 19th and 20th Centuries by the notion of ‘Romanticism:’ no value to their existence without men to compete for, and easily relegated to the role of second class citizens. The elimination of man from the equation allowed a better version of love and freedom, but required a sacrifice to maintain: hence the caste system was born. The babies of Mothers are graded and then assigned to the most appropriate ‘career’: nobody is unhappy, with each group more than willing to play their part for the advancement of the greater good.
As an exercise in post-apocalyptic science fiction, it is these exchanges that are the most effective: having the opportunity to argue the merits of current society against what could happen were men to be removed makes for some beautiful exchanges, which even now I can recall without the need for book as reference: ‘it was sex, civilised into romantic love, that made the world go round – and you believed them.’ The truth that kept these women alive without men was power, the same power men had used to subjugate them for centuries.
However, as a young girl, as yet really unaware of the place I’d take as a woman in later life, this portion of the book was close to a revelation. Being presented with both sides of the argument, elegantly and persuasively written, was the last thing I’d expected from a story that was supposed to be about a terrible future for mankind. Although nothing within these pages could really be considered as close to a treatise, the concepts were insightful. In my case at least, science fiction made me think, but not in a fanciful or fictional manner.
However, the master stroke comes in the last few pages: told her ‘memories’ of the past would be removed by hypnosis, Jane asks for a repeat dosage of chuinjuatin (drug that caused her to arrive in the future) in the hope she will return to her body. Once successful, she takes it upon herself to track down the doctor whose experimentation caused the disaster. A better example of the predestination paradox (or causal loop) you are not likely to find, and the ambiguity of the ending is hugely satisfying.
Science fiction’s greatest strength is the ability to present an alternative to the established order, and reminds us that, if we will allow it, everyone can become a time traveller. When I look back at my younger self and wonder how much may have been different had there been more novels with strong female protagonists, I understand the significance of films such as the current series of Star Wars and Wonder Woman for a younger audience. Without these key fictional inspirations, which inside we can imagine without restriction, there is no place to examine and dissect key ideas and sensations unique to our own psyches.
Occasionally one comes across a narrative so perfect that you never forget it, and for me this story is perhaps the best example of how to write: build tension slowly to exactly the right point before dropping a bombshell on your reader. I wanted to write stories as beautifully constructed as this (and still do.) In that regard I owe Wyndham a great debt, but not as much as the understanding that it does not matter what sex you are when writing. If the story engages and compels, you can pretend to be whatever you want and it doesn’t matter.
We will look at the rest of the stories in the anthology next week, but for now I would urge this tale be read once, complete, even knowing the outcome. The language used remains very much the product of the 1950’s but the ideas and concepts within have a relevance that, in a world where sperm counts are dropping and sea levels rising, remains both applicable and challenging. Depending on who you believe, an apocalyptic event could be around the next corner… is a future without men really a feminist fantasy, or could we yet come to the point where procreation becomes irrelevant.
More importantly: if you knew there was a chance to change the future, would you take it?