Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #67 of 107: “The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” by Josephine Saxton

The VanderMeers present yet another horror science fiction story, although the horror in “The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” is very different from the recent stories we’ve been reading. The story I read did not feel like the story they promised in the introduction:

Roz Kaveney, editor of Saxton’s The Power of Time, described Saxton’s work as “a combination of surrealism, occultism, feminism and a sort of bloody-minded Midlands Englishness, and quite wonderful.” John Crowley was inspired by Saxton’s work to write a love story (“Exogamy”) with speculative elements—influenced in particular by The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith. 

“The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” (1981) is classic Saxton: a take-no-prisoners examination of biotech experimentation and the follies of capitalist societies in the grips of decadent extremes. It is sharp, incisive, darkly inventive, and an excellent example of the capabilities of this brilliant but underrated writer.

“The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” didn’t deal with feminism. The woman protagonist, Marvene, is evil and deranged, but then so are the other two main characters. Nor did I feel it was an attack on capitalistic societies in the grips of decadence. It might have been a bit surreal, but not really, and there was no occultism that I noticed, but that comment could have applied to other stories in the collection.

The story was dark. The setting is a future dystopia ruled by elites, that use scientists to control the unwanted population. The story is about three scientists, Selly, the lead researcher, and two assistants, Marvene and Janos. Those two schemes to dethrone Selly in his lab. This group invents ways to control the mass of humanity that is no longer needed by the elites. These three scientists hope their inventions will make them famous and wealthy. However, if you can imagine the inventions Donald Trump would come up with in this situation, then you’ve got the feel of this story. Their most brilliant gadget makes people act like animals, which they turn on each other. Selly becomes a cat, Janos a mouse, and Marvene, our main point-of-view character, a snake.

At first, I rooted for Marvene. I like a character I can root for, but before long she became so disgusting that I rooted for her demise instead. Not to spoil the ending, but I get my wish. Saxton does a good job developing these bad characters and does a satisfying job of storytelling, but “The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” just left a nasty feeling in my head. I’m getting over Covid, and I associate how I feel physically with how the story made me feel emotionally. Why would someone write such a story?

I have to assume Saxton disliked 1981 England and America, although neither are mentioned. She also disliked science and scientists. And she disliked academic politics and competition. Young readers today love dystopian tales because their protagonists take a stand against the status quo. We love those characters because of their blows against the empire. In this story, Marvene basically wants to be the Joseph Mengele of her society, and become rich and famous for her cruel inventions.

By the way, I never got the Chomsky reference. I assume it’s just a 1981 version of clickbait.

James Wallace Harris, 1/1/22

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