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Lullabies In an Ancient Tongue

England Swings SF

Edited by Judith Merril 

18 Jul, 2021

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You

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Judith Merril’s 1968 England Swings SF is an anthology of New Wave science fiction.


My teenage tastes did not run to the avant-garde; I was a fan of slipstick-focused hard SF. However, there was one good argument in favour of acquiring this MMPB: I couldn’t be choosy. Less SF was published then and what was published was often erratically distributed. This book turned up in Kitchener before I began making expeditions to Bakka (famous SF store) in Toronto. So, I bought it. 

Each piece is accompanied by ancillary material, often in the form of a to-and-fro between Merril and others. These dialogues cast an interesting light on the historical moment that produced the New Wave. One may get the impression from the title that the New Wave was an English affair, but while publications like New Worlds certainly played an important role in the movement, the editor and several of the contributors to this book were from North America. 

The New Wave embraced style and experiment over coherence or easy comprehensibility. Judging by the works selected, this was difficult to carry off over a long piece. Most of the stories and poems are quite short. On the one hand, one cannot slowly savour the material that appeals. On the other hand, if one does not care for the piece at hand, something new will be along soon enough. 

England Swings SF didn’t include many works by women; only about a tenth of the stories and poems in this collection are by women. 

This is probably as good a place as any to reassure people that while there are references to sex here and there, it’s a joyless, awkward, underbathed sort of coitus. Nobody needs to worry that they might accidentally get titillated.

After having re-read this collection, I must admit that this is still (for the most part) not my thing. But it’s a welcome change of pace to encounter material so stubbornly ambitious. It’s a pity the inexorable march of time means most of the contributors must now be dead or worse, Tories. Ah well, at least this volume documents their efforts. Or it would, if it were in print, which England Swings SF very much is not. 

The contents:

New Wave SF” • essay by Donald A. Wollheim

I thought for a moment that ISFDB listed this in error, as it does not appear in the table of contents of the actual book in hand. In fact, Wollheim’s brief essay appears on the second page, well before the TOC, where it is easy to overlook. 

The piece is a marvel of non-commitment, neither eagerly in favour of New Wave writing nor firmly against it. The important thing is that Ace is going to get their $1.25 per book from readers who are curious what this New Wave kerfuffle is all about. Bear in mind that back in 1970, when the book in hand was published, $1.25 was a lot to ask for a mass market paperback. Presumably the price was dictated by the comparative thickness of the book (over 400 pages in an era when many books were 150 or fewer pages).

Introduction (England Swings SF)” • (1968) • essay by Judith Merril

An artistically delivered short poem about the contents to follow

The Island” • (1965) • short story by Roger Jones

Three men live isolated, regimented lives until the day that forbidden mysteries are revealed. 

Ne Déjà Vu Pas” • (1967) • short story by Josephine Saxton

A deep space explorer travels too far and makes discoveries which they will never be able to share with those at home.

A version of the highly dubious cosmology featured in an episode of Futurama . Surely nobody involved with Futurama could have read this piece? 

Signals” • (1966) • short story by John Calder

Communication between subatomic worlds seems harmless enough… until one world learns how to conquer others.

Scientific accuracy was not mission one for the New Wave, but, that said, this would not have been out of place in a Depression-Era magazine. 

Saint 505” • (1967) • short story by John Clark

An AI’s brief but glorious existence. 

The Singular Quest of Martin Borg • (1965) • novelette by George Collyn

Born in tragedy, a child prodigy surmounts barriers of gender and time to deliver to their parents the happy life fate that fate had stolen from them first time round.

(Despite daddy being the sort of fellow who reacts to romantic disappointment by embarking on a campaign of imperialism, rape, and murder and thus not really a person who deserves anything like joy.)

The First Gorilla on the Moon” • (1968) • poem by Bill Butler

Exactly what it says on the tin.

Blastoff” • (1964) • short story by Kyril Bonfiglioli

As their nation celebrates an impending launch, an astronaut is painfully aware he is but a human sacrifice. 

You and Me and the Continuum” • (1966) • short story by J. G. Ballard

Short snippets of narrative stitched together like a flip-book of storytelling. 

Who’s in There with Me?” • (1968) • short story by Daphne Castell

A journey into the darkest subconscious proves alarming and dangerous.

The Squirrel Cage” • (1966) • short story by Thomas M. Disch

Trapped in a sealed room, the narrator contemplates explanations for his circumstances. 

Manscarer • (1966) • novelette by Keith Roberts

Tragedy helps inspire an isolated artists’ colony to reengage with society, despite the hostile welcome that no doubt awaits them. 

I like to think this was inspired by the outraged news articles referenced in this volume, articles revealing that some of the work in this volume received public arts grants. Horrors!

The Total Experience Kick” • (1966) • short story by Charles Platt

Determined to steal another company’s research, an industrial spy goes to extremes to sabotage a potential romantic impediment. 

In addition to quantities of artistic ambition, these stories also tend to have all too many asshole protagonists. This story is a prime example.

The Silver Needle” • (1967) • poem by George MacBeth

Retelling of myth in SF poem form. Comes with a nude. 

The Baked Bean Factory” • (1967) • short story by Michael Butterworth

Amid what appears to be a humanity-dooming nuclear wars, our faithful automated factories continue grinding out products nobody will ever purchase.

The Hall of Machines” • (1968) • short story by Langdon Jones

An increasingly disturbing tour featuring a menacing sequence of machines. 

The Run” • (1966) • short story by Christopher Priest [as by Chris Priest]

Even as civilization comes crashing down, juvenile delinquents entertain themselves by harassing a senior government functionary. 

I believe this became a Mind Webs radio-drama episode. 

All the King’s Men • (1965) • novelette by Barrington J. Bayley [as by B. J. Bayley]

Forced by the death of his gifted predecessor into the role of intermediary for Britain’s alien conquerors, a bureaucrat witnesses the hapless alien’s betrayal and fall at the hands of ambitious humans.

In stark contrast to the usual run of stories in which humanity unites to drive off alien invaders, the US, SU, and other nations explicitly take the position that the alien issue is strictly an internal affair of the invaded nations. 

Still Trajectories” • [Colin Charteris] • (1967) • short story by Brian W. Aldiss

A new saint appears in war-ravaged Europe. This would seem to foretell new developments in human cognition.

Or the coming age of really good drugs. This story was folded into Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head.

Sun Push” • (1967) • short story by Graham Hall [as by Graham M. Hall]

A soldier in an England now hosting a proxy war between American capitalists and Russian communists staggers towards his inevitable, unpleasant fate. 

Report on a Supermarket” • (1968) • poem by Michael Hamburger

The ideals of supermarkets will always be sabotaged by the fact humans are involved. 

Dr. Gelabius” • (1968) • short story by Hilary Bailey

An amoral eugenicist — but I repeat myself — comes to a suitably unpleasant end. 

The Heat Death of the Universe” • (1967) • short story by Pamela Zoline [as by P. A. Zoline]

A hardworking housewife struggles against the inexorable advance of entropy. 

Her struggle isn’t helped by the fact that her family does not help. In their defense, I don’t think science established that vacuuming, picking up clothing, and dishwashing were not immediately and painfully fatal to children and adult men until some time in the early 21st century. 

The Mountain” • (1965) • short story by Michael Moorcock

Spared by a fluke when radiation swept humanity from the face of the Earth, two men pursue the last remaining woman. She is relentlessly trekking towards a destination about which the men can only speculate. 

Psychosmosis” • (1966) • short story by David I. Masson

A community of primitives assiduously avoids the subject of the mysteriously vanished, lest by acknowledging the missing they themselves disappear. This is a perfectly reasonable fear, for to mention the disappeared is in fact to join them in another realm. 

The other realm is a reasonable pleasant place but there is no way to know that. 

Much New Wave material was obsessed with death or sex or death and sex (or if written by Aldiss, death and sex and drugs). This would be an example. 

The Idea of Entropy at Maenporth Beach” • (1967) • poem by Peter Redgrove

Purity is a sterile trap; seeming contamination may offer novel variety.

Same Autumn in a Different Park” • (1967) • short story by Peter Tate

Two children raised together in isolation end their childhood with a bout of bloody violence. 

Merging Adam and Eve with Cain and Abel will not make the tale told in the book of Genesis any happier, but it will make the story considerably shorter. 

The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As a Downhill Motor Race” • (1966) • short story by J. G. Ballard

What it says on the tin. 

Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” • (1966) • short story by J. G. Ballard

See above. Ballard was the sort of wag whose receipt of arts grants infuriated a certain set.