One of the authors I really wanted to include among those examined in the third book I have co-edited with my friend, Iain McIntyre, Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985, was British writer, Jane Gaskell. In particular her novel, A Sweet, Sweet Summer, first published in hardback by Hodder and Stoughton in 1969. To be honest, as is so often the case, what first attracted me to finding out more about this title was the cover of the 1971 Sphere edition, with its uniquely early 1970s dystopian take on the female juvenile delinquent. It’s a wonderful piece of photographic paperback art, of the sort that the British did so well at the time, no doubt cheaply done (in all likelihood the model was one of the typists in the Sphere office), but very effective.
Plans to include Gaskell in Dangerous Visions and New Worlds were scuppered by the fact that I simply could not find a copy of A Sweet, Sweet Summer anywhere at a price that I could even remotely afford. The book is incredibly rare and has not been republished. Indeed, as I discovered when I posted an image of the cover above on Twitter – long after Dangerous Visions and New Worlds had been put to bed – I just was one of many bibliophiles who had been on the lookout for an affordable second-hand copy of this Gaskill book. The subsequent discussion revealed not only more than a few fans of her work, but also floated various theories about why this particular book is so rare, why it had never been published, and what had happened to Gaskell. It also unearthed a Melbourne writing acquaintance, Simone Howell, who happened to have a copy of the Sphere edition and who lent it to me so I could read it.
As it turns out, Gaskell is probably better described as a writer of fantasy than science fiction. She wrote her first novel, Strange Evil, when she was 14 and it was published two years later in 1959. The story involves a young woman who hosts a long-lost cousin in her London flat. The cousin turns out to be a fairy from another dimension, into which they are subsequently transported. The dimension is ruled by two kingdoms of fairies, one of which the cousin belongs to, at war with each other. China Miéville, who is a fan of Gaskell’s work generally, apparently rates it very highly. Others are not so impressed and describe it as much like one would expect a book by a 14-year-old to be like.
Whatever the case, Strange Evil was the first of eight standalone novels, one of which The Shiny Narrow Grin (1964), has been described as one of the earliest ‘revisionist vampire’ novels. Her output also included four entries in what is known as ‘the Atlan Saga’, a fantasy series set in prehistoric South America and the mythical world of Atlantis, the first of which, The Serpent, appeared in 1963. The only other information of interest in her slender Wikipedia entry is that she worked as a journalist on The Daily Mail from the 1960s to the 1980s and then became a professional astrologer. Her last book, Sun Bubble, was published in 1990.
A Sweet, Sweet Summer is narrated by a young pimp called Rat, who runs a boarding house cum brothel in a dystopian Britain. The science fiction aspect of the tale involves an alien occupation of Great Britain. Giant spaceships appear one day and hover over Britain.
‘The Aliens at this time are still as enigmatic to us as when their craft first appeared hovering over London, Birmingham and Edinburgh two years ago and Wham? Pow! Suddenly we found an enigmatic invisible curtain had descended all around the island and we were cut off from America, Europe, de Gaulle, Jack Lemon, everyone, and any ship or plane that tried to get through to us (or out for aid or escape) simply disintegrated.’
The Aliens are never seen or described but they make their initial presence felt by inviting the entire country to a public execution of who they think is the most popular person in the country, Ringo Starr. The weather can get inside whatever barrier they have flung over the country but nothing else, not even phone of radio messages. Food supplies dry up and the economy is on the brink of collapse until the alien invaders direct things back into a semblance of order, with a particular focus on strengthening the military and police, as well as giving tacit approval to rival fascist and communist gangs who roam the country, doing pretty much as they like.
‘It was obvious what the Aliens were at, even while they were doing it. They wanted us as confused as possible, so we couldn’t find too many ways of looking after ourselves. Nor of getting at their ships – just in case one worked.’
In addition to a sort of orchestrated chaos, the appearance of the mysterious ships throws the country into a deep state of psychological ennui. Both states are fairly typical of a lot of late 1960s and 1970s British science fiction. I have not seen Gaskell’s novel name checked in any of the material I have read about what was for the most part, the very male dominated British new wave movement. Mind you, there is hardly any commentary about the book or Gaskell that I have found, full stop. However, the low-key dystopian tenor of A Sweet, Sweet Summer reminded me of other British new wave SF books I have read, particularly Martin Bax’s 1976 book, The Hospital Ship (which is covered in Dangerous Visions and New Worlds). But it also resonates with a broad swathe of similarly themed material it from around the time: the early entries in Michael Moorcock’s jerry Cornelius series; Dave Wallis’s wonderful but little known 1965 dystopian novel, Only Lovers Left Alive; and the New English Library youthsploitation novels of the 1970s.
The plot of A Sweet, Sweet Summer sees Rat’s brothel/boarding house overrun by a fascist juvenile delinquent gang. One of gang’s leaders, a sullen young man by the name of Connor, takes a shining to Rat’s cousin, Frijja. The ensuring conflict between the various gang members sees Rat, Connor and Frijja flee the boarding house and embark on a journey through a shabby and broken-down Britain, where they have to deal with cannibals and various fascist and communist gangs.
While Gaskell’s book was obviously commenting on developments in late 1960s Britain, the parallel with Brexit are fairly inescapable. ‘Great prophecies there were of course that we would become British, all of us, as never before,’ notes Rat. ‘If not swimming, sinking together.’ But parallel with this are the book’s interesting sexual politics. There is a strange, at times only barely articulated three-way push and push sexual frisson between Rat, Connor and Frijja. Frijja is a particularly interesting character, a fiercely independent, androgynous proto punk, whose sexual ambiguity and assertive personality constantly wrongfoots her two male companions.
I would’ve thought A Sweet, Sweet Summer was tailor made for an outfit like Valancourt Books, an excellent American small publishing house that specialises in reprinting rare, neglected and out of print books. They rescued the Wallis novel I mention above from obscurity. As things turn out, in the swirl of comments and discussion from my initial Tweet on Gaskell’s book, it appears they may have already been looking but stuck problems with locating the reclusive author. But then another person chimed in that they may be able to help on that score. We can only watch this space.