What Have the Aliens Ever Done For Us? Some thoughts on Judith Moffett’s Holy Ground Trilogy.

Aliens remain a potent symbol in the literature, usually now in Earthbound stories in which their alienness is intended to cast a satirical, ironic or revealing light upon our selves and our society. — Paul Kincaid, Call and Response p44

Judith Moffett’s Holy Ground Trilogy describes events following aliens called the Hefn coming to Earth and attempting to stop humans destroying the planet. “This book is the record of what happened to some of us because the Hefn came.” writes the character Nancy Sandford in the prologue section of The Ragged World entitled ‘The Hefn on Earth’.

This deliberately simplistic description obscures a salient point. The Holy Ground Trilogy has aliens throughout, they play many significant roles, and yet the trilogy is not really about the Aliens.   It is about relationships. Deeply embedded in Moffett’s work are analyses of religion, sexuality and environmentalism.  The personal is political amidst issues of human to human relationships, and human engagement with the planet.

The trilogy isn’t conventionally structured, book one The Ragged World (henceforth TRW) is a ragged (ahem!) fix-up incorporating five previously published stories   There is a diversity in these stories that whilst some of Moffett’s themes are established here they aren’t intensely foregrounded.  Hindsight from book two Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream (TimeStream) and the prologue change readings of The Ragged World by tying things together more. Then final volume The Bird Shaman (Bird) shifts character emphasis slightly, and theme decisively.  Moffett, having begun with personal stories (of crisis, romance & tragedy) in book one, develops big themes to which she adds sf conceptualisation in book two, and brings the two into symbiosis in book three.  The series’ protagonist gets a passing reference on p263 of the first book but doesn’t actually appear until the second volume.  Nevertheless she becomes a memorable, intriguing character who informs the whole trilogy.

Readers at the time first encountered the Hefn and the events around them in a Nebula shortlisted novella called ‘The Hob’ (Asimov’s Magazine, May 1988).  In book form this became chapter 2 of TRW ‘”Ti Whinny Moor Thoo Cums At Last.”‘

On the North Yorkshire Moors a Hefn named Elphi awakes from hibernation and is seen by a walker, Jenny Shepherd, lost on the moors.  Torn between self-preservation and the urge to rescue the lost human Elphi kidnaps Jenny and takes her to the Hefn hideout.  Thus we learn that a few aliens were abandoned here by their ship 400 years ago as punishment.  The Yorkshire Hefn became the Hob of folklore, secretly helping at ‘good’ farms.  It’s a charming story in it’s own right, cleverly linking alien and folk tale. The details of Jenny on the moors are evocative, engaging the reader in the landscape.  It’s detail shared with a much earlier poem by Moffett “Whinny Moor Crossing” based on her own experience out on the moors.  ‘The Hob’ almost stands aside from the rest of TRW but sets the ground for much that follows. 

Although ‘The Hob’ gained a Nebula shortlisting, it was the next story that garnered most attention. The controversial novella ‘Tiny Tango’ also picked up Nebula and Hugo shortlisting. (Lois McMaster Bujold won both.)  As far as I can ascertain it may be the first work of science fiction to feature an HIV+ heterosexual protagonist  (Thomas M Disch and Samuel R Delany had written gay characters earlier.)  This is the earliest set story in the sequence, beginning in 1985.  Reading in book form we already know that Nancy Sandford is alive in 2023 but on first reading the detail of HIV and AIDS was new and disturbing.  Perhaps more so is Nancy’s reaction & coping strategy.  As a high flying academic she abruptly shifts to a tiny backwater college, avoids social contact, and focuses on her work as a botanist.  She also begins cross dressing and observing men, even fashioning a prosthetic for using urinals.   

‘Tiny Tango’ is not an easy story to absorb.  Nancy’s botanical work is, at points, linked to her illness, to purity and breeding, even to the aliens.  Early on her potato plants develop an aphid-borne virus, and as she destroys the infected to save the healthy she reflects on the AIDS riots of the late 90s.  The inspiration of the monastic Mendel directs her organic gardening.  She watches porn as an unattached woman and even references “certain water sports videos” (TRW p102.)  When circumstances force her to take a young male student assistant she lusts after him in secret.  All of this was shocking in 1989, but interestingly nested together. The cross dressing and cross fertilisation reflect each other.  The ironic hermaphroditism of Nancy Sandford joyfully watching cocks exhibited in public washrooms and the flowering cultivars with male and female flowers entwine.  

We learn more about the original Hefn and their banishment to Earth in ‘Final Tomte’ where the last survivor of a Swedish group is the subject of a search by the returning Hefn Pomphrey.  Up to now the Hefn have appeared largely benevolent but this story changes that.  There are two alien species, the Hefn who we see, and their masters the mysterious Gafr who are altogether more forceful.

As a young man Gunnar Lundqvïst helped the tomte (think the Swedish folkloric variant of a hob) on his family farm.  60 years later, the heavy drinking Gunnar lets slip this story and the Hefn arrive to seek their kin.  Pomphrey reveals a dark, almost fascistic, side to the Hefn as he insists that Gunnar’s feelings are inconsequential in their search. They will use mind control and memory probe techniques against his will. So Gunnar goes on the run.  

The poignant story of a dying alien the last of his group becomes darker and ultimately foreshadows parts of the later books.  

“It’s necessary” replied Pomphrey, “surely what’s necessary is neither right nor wrong.”

And from the other side there are mutterings of resistance and anti-Hefn sentiment.

“What will these Hefn have made us into before they’re through?”

These three intriguing stories together created the circumstances for Moffett’s ultimate story though looking back one wonders how clear this was for her at the time.  A fourth story ‘Remembrance of Things Future’ published in 1989 becomes the first chapter of TRW.  This story sets up events that prove formative for important characters later, but in isolation it works less well.  

The episodic nature of TRW begins to settle with the return to characters from ‘Remembrance of Things Future’ with the blunt & unmitigated tragic events of  ‘The Ragged Rock’.  A massive nuclear power station meltdown at Peach Bottom, Virginia & the personal consequences introduce both Liam O’Hara who will be important in TimeStream but also set up themes of trauma that Moffett will return to.  

If The Ragged World is a mish mash of individual stories setting up what appears to be Moffett’s primary concerns then Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream does something less expected.  The Hefn have put an end to human fertility until we learn to respect the earth and stop destroying it.  (As an aside, this almost inverts her debut novel Pennterra where the conflict is between human settlers and the native environment of a colony planet.)

TimeStream largely rejects the alien deus ex machina solution in favour of a focus on what a few humans are already doing.  

Liam O’Hara comes to the foreground as a mathematical genius credited with discovering vital equations that may identify hot spot ‘holy places’ where man & nature have coexisted in a fundamental way.  Wisely Moffett doesn’t try to explain this in a technical way.  References to ley lines and Holy Ground imply rather than detail a philosophy the Hefn are steering.  

Liam’s friend at the Hefn institution the Bureau of Temporal Physics (BTP) is the young Pam Pruitt alluded to in passing at the end of TRW.  Although seemingly beginning with Liam the lead in TimeStream gradually shifts to Pam.  

At the BTP these young mathematicians work with Hefn to look at key points in the past where things might have changed.  To adopt a term from a different strand of SF, alternate history, they use time transceivers to examine jonbar points and identify ‘fixes’.

We’ve already had an implication that Liam & Pam have an unconventional relationship, when Moffett includes an odd interpolation:

Odd, in part, because it appears out of place and unexplained amidst correspondence between Pam and Liam that is otherwise contextualising the world of 2026 post-Hefn baby ban.  Odd too in the setting up of an overtly asexual character in her 20s.  This is something SF didnt do.  But looking back across Moffett’s other work it fits.  I can’t think of another writer who so routinely & sympathetically incorporated characters with less conventionally depicted sexuality.  Right from her first published story, ‘Surviving’ with its explicit, obsessive relationship she has looked from different angles.  

It is still odd though to see it expressed this way as early as page 6 of TimeStream before we know Pam Pruitt as a person.  In the adjacent letter to Liam though, Pam talks of conversation with her mother.  “I’m going to talk to her about Dad” she says ominously.  

Pam, in fact, has had some kind of breakdown. Her ability to “set coordinates” in her work has caused her to leave the BTP. Her mathematical “intuition” has gone.  So she takes a different approach, writing about her personal traumas, and global events.  Partially framed as a letter to Liam which she admits to oblique ulterior motives over, this sees Pam aged 26 looking back over her teens and early adult years.  Locus magazine’s description quoted on the paperback cover comes from this:

“A cross between Huckleberry Finn and, perhaps, Catcher In The Rye.”  

Certainly there’s a double handed coming of age story here. Pam and Liam, but we already know the latter’s trauma: his beloved best friend died due to the Peach Bottom meltdown; and we saw his tortured attempt to take his own life by hiking into the contaminated zone. 

Judith Moffett with poet James Merrill in 1974

Now we get Pam’s story, but where Liam’s history is told in relatively linear fashion  (a few prescient notes aside) Pam’s is very much an exercise in self-analysis.  Her telling is deliberately disjointed as she views her younger self with questioning hindsight.

Certainly I had a lot of faith that the Hefn would do what the people had refused to — that they would fix things — that when they got through doing whatever they were doing here, the world be a better place.

Now, I think I probably trusted them mostly because they weren’t people.

We learn that Pam is hiding something from herself, but not what.  There are clues but as large parts of the novel are from her viewpoint the truth is ambiguous.  

Eventually Pam ends up at Hurt Hollow, a homestead formerly maintained by Hannah and Orrin Hubbell.  (Note: I typed owned then replaced it with maintained as representing the philosophy of the Hubbell relationship with the land.)  She effectively hides out there, a sort of custodian homesteader.  There are echoes of Walden of course but the real life inspiration for Hurt Hollow seems faithfully transcribed to fiction by Moffett/Pam. 

At this point as Moffett delves deeper into environmental concerns one might think of Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre too.  A story like ‘Muir on Shasta’ offers a deep engagement with the land.  There’s a second similarity to Robinson in Moffett’s comfort writing long discussions arguing through her themes.  

Moffett also uses Pam’s self-conscious memoir to discuss her own novel.  Questions we may have from TRW are deflected by Pam musing on why she didn’t “wonder more about what [the Hefn] were, in fact, doing.”  

Gradually we do learn, we see the Hefn use mind wipe abilities on opposition, the hypnotic Broadcast creates a near global baby ban, and wasteful technology is restricted.  Research using Liam’s equations identifies hot spots but there’s an underlying insistence that no ground is holier than others.  Institutes of missionaries are created, working locally on environmental issues and pushing the Hefn agenda but renamed  Gaians.

There is resistance, as in the bar mutterings in ‘Final Tomte’ through to an attempt to kill the Hefn Humphrey and branding the young Gaian volunteers traitors.  

But this is primarily plot, mostly Moffett is demonstrating the homestead life, modeling the Gaian plan before it ever was a plan.  And she is exploring the response to deep trauma in Pam.  

So, belatedly, we get to The Bird Shaman published a decade later, in part due to personal changes in Moffett’s life and part trends in publishing. 

By now the ban is biting. The Gaian missions are growing but so is the anger. Liam’s sister Brett (married to Nancy Sandford’s assistant Eric in one of the little ties by which Moffett brings strands together) is desperate for a child.  

But in Utah a rare child, Lexi, is the star of a didactic soap drama about Mormon pioneers. Until she runs away and finds her way to the Salt Lake City Gaian mission and Pam Pruitt.  

The Mormon community has, in this novel, an increased antipathy to the Hefn.  As Pam recognises, for the Church of the Latter Day Saints childbearing is not just a biological instinct but a deep theological imperative.  And in Utah they are the law.

So by sheltering Lexi, Pam has challenged senior Mormon leaders.  But Lexi has been abused regularly by her grandfather, an important figure in the church.   Pam cannot avoid involvement, despite the risk to her own psyche.  Her past gradually becomes clearer (and we see too how trauma has impinged on Liam’s relationships as his boyfriend is recognised as his Jeff proxy.)

Bird is a longer, darker novel than its predecessors  (AIDS and meltdown in TRW notwithstanding)  Lexi’s story and Pam’s are examined in depth.  The book opens with the funeral of a character from the earlier books.  This allows a brief reiteration of Moffett’s themes before opposition to the Hefn is thrust to the foreground when Humphrey is challenged.  The undercurrent of violence is therefore present from the start in a way it isn’t in TRW or TimeStream.  

But Pam’s place in Utah begins to have a new meaning.  The lost mathematical intuition of TimeStream Pam is replaced gradually with a shamanic “strong dreaming” that engages the now and the past to create a future.  Study of prehistoric cave paintings gives insight into the Hefn on Earth and human interaction with their lands.  The BTP in TimeStream looked specifically at points where society transitioned, hunter-gatherer to agrarian, agrarian to prevent industrial etc, for balance points.  Pam’s new abilities shift this again but it requires her healing to allow earth’s healing and perhaps, vice versa.  

To be honest, I’m not sure I totally understand the end of Bird or if, in a literal sense, that isn’t deliberate.  It becomes increasingly spiritual as meaning becomes symbol.  

Religion has been a recurrent element for Judith Moffett which I’ve barely touched on. Pennterra is a rare example of Quakers in science fiction, for example. In TRW there are references to different denominations defining backgrounds for good and bad, before Baptist preaching of anti Hefn sentiment almost turns tragic in TimeStream. (We might compare language used here to some of the racist rhetoric of certain leaders past and present.) Chapter titles in TimeStream mostly quote & reference biblical verse.  Including chapter 15 ‘Holy Ground – Exodus 3:5’ where the series takes its name in retrospect.

And Bird looks acutely and with some knowledge it seems, at the structures of the LDS church.  Alongside this are chapters of deep human devotion to the Hefn and a new interpretation of the HefnGafr relationship. 

 Pam certainly isn’t unaware of her feelings for Humphrey in this regard. Liam who has significant reason to owe Humphrey, and despite his haunted obsession with Jeff’s memory, questions this too.  

It was the rising generation that collectively had created the transforming myth Pam had failed to imagine for their parents.  Conjured by intentionality out of the quantum universe, the HefnGafr appeared on Earth to save themselves by saving us...The young humans had invented the version they required, and then chosen to believe it.

Ultimately that perhaps is Moffett’s message.  A young Gaian says at the end “I don’t suppose it was psychologically possible to think beyond that, about there being any kind of bright side to failing.”  Until we learn to see beyond the now, as Pam does by strong dreaming, the paradigm can‘t change. Whether that is personal like Pam’s or Liam’s trauma (and suddenly we see how Nancy Sandford changed her paradigm 50 years earlier) or on the full scale human level, Moffett lays down a challenge.  

It is the way that blunt challenge for humanity to change or die is wrapped in memorable and unique characters that I initially look at. The deep, thoughtful examinations of alternative sexuality on a personal level, and the partial  deconstruction of religion to uncover aspects of faith and spirituality flesh this out.  Moffett offers up ambiguity and certainty in equal measure making The Holy Ground Trilogy a remarkable and important work of modern SF.
** Judith Moffett’s work can mostly be found in e-book form at Gollancz SF Gateway

A collection of otherwise uncollected stories is due soon **  

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About Kev McVeigh

Review of literary matters, mostly but not all SFF , and digressions into music and other arts. Engagement welcomed.
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