Penguin Worlds

Readers of this blog (if there are any left after months of inactivity: sorry, and hello again) will know that I’m a sucker for a series design. If something in me aligns with what Trinny and Susannah would have called matchy-matchy, then I justify it on the basis that it’s less judging a book by its cover than allowing my eyes to be opened to new things. And the Penguin Worlds series is just that: a mixture of science fiction, horror and urban fantasy from across the 20th century, chosen and introduced by Naomi Alderman and Hari Kunzru. And they come in aptly garish stylishly retro covers by La Boca. These are genres I’ve only ever dipped a toenail into, but the curated approach – and the enthusiasm I heard when I tweeted about them – won me over. I’ve read three of them so far, which I’ll whip through below.


Joanna Russ: We Who Are About To… [1976]
I started with the slimmest of the series (old habits), which also turned out to be perhaps the oddest, and certainly the most subtly unsettling, of the three I’ve read. If the title is the first I’ve seen that contains a cliffhanger, then the opening words of the novel contain its own spoiler: “About to die. And so on.” The we who are about to die (“We’re nowhere. We’ll die alone”) are a group of five women and three men, around the year 2040, whose spaceship has failed and stranded them on an Earth-like planet. “Goodbye, everybody,” continues our narrator, who has less faith than the others that the eight of them can survive on and even colonise their new home (“‘O pioneers,’ I added rather sourly”). She is recording her experiences on a vocoder (“This will never be found”), which enables a certain amount of ‘As you know, Bob’ explanatory dialogue. But Russ’s interest is not in detailing the nature of the new world, but exposing the fault lines underlying society that are exposed in extremis.

The unnamed narrator tries to warn her fellow shipwrecked sailors that the planet may not support life just because it looks like Earth (“like the Australian outback, which looks like New Jersey and can kill you in two hours”). “Civilization must be preserved,” says one, to which she replies, “Civilization is doing fine. We just don’t happen to be where it is.” There are hints that Earth has moved beyond a patriarchal society, only to find it returning among the eight travellers. It’s not long before it all gets pretty Shakespearean, and the teaser in the title proves well-founded. But amid the florid violence there are lighter moments, as when Lori, daughter of two of the other travellers, talks about her love of “serial music. You know, the late-twentieth-century stuff where it goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement.”

We Who Are About To... looks inward and outward at the same time: at damage in society, at the troubled self, and the connection between the two. In particular, it looks at the role of women. One of the survivors suggests that our narrator and one of the men should start work on populating the planet. “‘I can’t see why you and Victor can’t start now, if you like.’ Victor said politely that he certainly wouldn’t mind as long as I wouldn’t mind. I said I would mind.” For Russ, politics, and feminism in particular, were not just present in her writing but essential to it. Her most famous novel was The Female Man, a satire of multiple parallel universes, and her story ‘When It Changed’ won a Nebula Award in 1973. This new edition of We Who Are About To…, uniquely in the Penguin Worlds series, contains introductions by both Alderman and Kunzru, which gives some measure of its value to both editors of the series. And it’s hard to argue with Alderman’s analysis of the book as simultaneously “bonkers” and “brilliant”.


John Christopher, The World in Winter [1962]
I’ve previously written about John Christopher’s novel The Death of Grass, which was conceptually interesting and a bit slapdash in the writing (it took him “a matter of weeks”, and it showed). The World in Winter is, broadly, more of the same. Christopher’s output, under different names, of about 50 books in 25 years tells us that agonising over le mot juste wasn’t his way.

The World in Winter‘s high concept is in its title: a scientist named Fratellini has observed a decline in solar radiation, and the temperature of the Earth is falling. Fanciful as this seems now, when the book was published global cooling had been a fear for some years, and as late as 1970 the Washington Post was reporting “Colder Winters Herald Dawn of New Ice Age.” So, as with The Death of Grass, Christopher shrewdly used real concerns as a springboard for his fantasy. When Britain begins to freeze and fails to thaw, there isn’t much terror: more a very English tutting and eye-rolling. “Once over the initial shocks and discomforts, people got used to the new conditions.”

The narrative focuses on a handful of people framed by a love triangle. Being among society’s fortunate, they manage to leave England and fly to Nigeria, where the climate is still hospitable. This sets up the central thread of the book, where Africans hold the economic and social advantage, and white Europeans are beholden to them. As one local says: “Nigerians have nothing against whites, as long as there are not too many of them, and as long as they keep to their place. You have perhaps heard something like that before?” This seems a relatively progressive satire, though as Hari Kunzru says in his introduction, the book is nonetheless “animated by a sense that racial difference is a kind of abyss, and between black and white there can be no complete understanding or identification.” The plot itself is admirably bleak and uncompromising to the end, which is consolation of a sort.


E. Nesbit, Horror Stories
The most attention-grabbing element of the Penguin Worlds series is the discovery that children’s writer E. Nesbit – The Railway Children, Five Children and It – also published, between 1893 and 1910, four collections of horror stories for adults. This volume collects fifteen from throughout her career.

These are traditional spooky fireside tales, and in every single one, I think (they do tend to blend into one another when read sequentially), someone dies. Sometimes, however, the twist is that they have been dead all along. There are strange drugs, mysterious models and plenty of sinister buildings. Love, thwarted and determined, is a regular visitor.

Similarly frequent is the sort of framing introduction that we might expect from stories like these. In ‘The Violet Car’ our narrator begins by admitting that “I do not know how to weave a plot, nor how to embroider it.” In ‘The Shadow’, we are warned that “This is not an artistically rounded off ghost story, and nothing is explained in it…” This ‘who, me?’ approach both adds verisimilitude and takes it away, because it’s such a common feature. But if all stories require a level of submission, of submergence, by the reader, perhaps none depend on this more than traditional horror stories like these. The reader must approach them willing to be spooked, and is unmovable if they are not willing to meet the author halfway. Come to think of it, that’s a good lesson in how to read generally.

Also in the Penguin Worlds series are Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks [1987], which Naomi Alderman’s introduction describes as a pioneering work of urban fantasy which is also “really good fun”, and Vernor Vinge’s True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier. This is the most structurally unusual of the five books, comprising a 320-page book of which Vernor Vinge’s True Names [1981] makes up only 85. The rest is a series of thirteen essays, stories and afterwords emphasising the significance of Vinge’s novella. Rather predictably, the reason I haven’t read these two books yet is that they’re longer than the other three; but if you have, please comment below.


  1. Vinge is incredibly influential. The term “singularity” comes from his fiction. Don’t know that one though.

    The thing that amused me with Death of Grass is that the main character kept warning everyone how the world would now be dog eat dog with no holds barred and every man for himself, then rather proved his point by preemptively working on that basis. I don’t think Christopher meant to subvert his own protagonist, but I think he did all the same. If it weren’t for people like the hero civilisation might well have made it…

    They are gorgeous covers. Never heard of the Bull so when you do eventually read it I’d be curious to hear what you think.

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