Posts Tagged ‘a year of reading women’
So that was the best of what I read in 2012 but what about the rest? Well, I didn’t read many books this year; according to my hapzard notes only 33, though I suspect I’ve missed some off my list. This is lower than most other years I can remember and I also failed to finish far more books than usual, either through carelessness (Swamplandia! by Karen Russell left on a train) or disinterest (Wildwood by Colin Meloy, for example). I did, however, manage to achieve one of my two reading resolutions for 2012.
Firstly the one I failed to met though. I planned to read and review on this blog one science fiction novel written by a woman each month, the same resolution I made in 2011 when I achieved ten out of twelve. This year I read four from my list and only managed to write about one: Gwyneth Jones’s excellent Spirit. This is in the context of a year when I reviewed far few novels (six) than any year since I started reviewing. This did includenew science fiction novels by Moira Young and EJ Swift though and two thirds of the books I reviewed were by women.
More positively, I planned to achieve gender parity in my reading and I did. By my count, 18 of the books I read this year were by women which is 52.9%, massively above my previous annual average of 16.9%. It was a very interesting experiment to structure my reading this way and one I feel I’ve benefitted from. I am not going to consciously repeat it this year but I am going to monitor it and see if it has altered my reading patterns.
This post was inspired by Victoria Hoyle’s excellent post on Eve’s Alexandria about the agony and ecstacy of stretching yourself as a reader. So I’d like to take half a leaf out of her book when it comes to a resolution for this year: I’d like to read more, to read more broadly, to read more deeply, to write about more of what I’ve read. We shall see.
Niall Harrison has just completed his second SF Count for Strange Horizons, his survey of coverage of speculative fiction by women. As with last year, it is bad news for women. It is also bad news for me as reviews editor of Vector. The percentage of books by women in the BSFA Review has gone down from 25.6% in 2010 to 18.8% in 2011. Similarly, the percentage of women reviewing for Vector was gone down from 29.8% in 2010 to 25.5% in 2011 (the actual number of individual reviewers has remained the same). Having presided over a decline in what were already weak numbers has been a wake up call for me because for all the fine words I made after last year’s SF Count, I’ve taken my eye off the ball. Which is exactly how these things come to pass; not through malice but the privilege of inattention, disengagement from an issue that harms people other than me. I have taken steps to improve things this year so I hope BSFA members will see an improvement and I also hope they will hold me to account.
As well as being an editor, I am a writer. My own editorials in Vector over 2011 managed gender parity but then I only covered three books. What about reviewing in general? Renay at Ladybusiness recently looked at the balance on individual blogs and I thought I would do the same for my reviews:
Overall since 2001, 22.1% of the books I’ve reviewed have been by women and I’ve only achieved gender parity in 2006 and 2011 (years when I haven’t published many reviews). Most of my reviews have appeared in SF Site (15.8%) and Strange Horizons (23.5%) but I have been closest to parity in Vector (32.4%). It is perhaps a positive sign that for the first five years I was reviewing I averaged 16.7% whereas for the second five years I averaged 25.9%.
Whilst I’ve written a lot about books on my own sites, I’ve excluded blog reviews from these stats as I only started formally considering these as reviews last year and I’m not going back and counting all the informal ones prior to that. However, if the fromal blog reviews were included it would put me up to 26.8% overall and 70% for 2011. This is mostly due to starting the year of reading women last year which shows that even a modest effort like this can have a substantial impact.
How does that compare to my reading in general? Well, in 2004 I started keeping track of everything I read, including the gender of the author. It turns out I am slightly better when it comes to reviewing but not significantly so:
I make that 16.9% for the seven years overall (as an aside, fully a tenth of that total is Pat Barker). I stopped recording these figures in August 2010 when I was on 20.6%. This was when I became an Arthur C Clarke judge and was no longer able to write about most of what I was reading in public; given the well-known gender imbalance in British science fiction publishing, the total figures for 2010 and 2011 are unlikely to be any better than previous and quite conceivably worse. When I stopped being a judge and the responsibility of silence was lifted from my shoulders, I started tallying the figures again. As it happens, I have managed to accidentally achieve gender parity with the eight books I’ve read by choice so far this year. My plan for the rest of 2012 is make a conscious decision to continue this by deliberately reading one book by a woman for every book I read by a man.
(Huge thanks to Liz Batty for helping me wrangle the charts out of Google.)
Usually I have little time for subtitles; if it is that important, stick it on the cover. In this instance, the subtitle, The Princess of Bois Dormant, signals the fact that the novel is a homage to Alexandre Dumas’s The Count Of Monte Cristo. It is not a story I know well – I have seen the 2002 film adaptation but it was at Christmas so I couldn’t tell you whether it was James Caviezel or Guy Pearce who was the wronged party – but the understanding that this will be a story about betrayal and revenge is inescapable. Perhaps the familiarity of the story explains why the back cover synopsis is so unusually detailed, as I will show by quoting from it at unusual length:
After the massacre, Bibi was given a choice: become the General’s concubine, or Lady Nef’s servant. She chose to be a servant and they took here away, from the mediaeval isolation of Cymru to the labyrinthine Great House in Kirgiz; and then to teeming Baykonur, the Enclosed City, Gateway to the Stars.
Bibi had no desire to leave Earth. She certainly had no wish to try the Buonarotti Transit, non-duration ‘starflight’ that could leave you criminally insane, or turned inside out; or both. But circumstances forced Nef and the General to take her with them to Sigurt’s World: on a diplomatic mission that was to end in mayhem and inexplicable betrayal. In the terrible prison of Fenmu, Nef and Bibi found each other again. The great lady, before she died, bequeathed to Bibi her exalted level of Access to the Systems – and the 4-Space co-ordinates of a secret treasure.
There is another paragraph after that but those 150 words manage to cover the first four acts of the novel and take us up to page 255 of 472. What is remarkable about this synopsis is not its casual disregard for its notoriously spoiler-sensitive readership (see current Gollancz publicity director on spoilers) but the fact it barely scratches the surface of this extraordinary novel. Spirit contains more in a single book than most modern science fiction trilogies manage and is easily one of the half dozen best SF novels published this century. I took no notes whilst reading it and as such I cannot really do justice to the novel so what follows is not a review but some thoughts.
Bibi is short for Gwibiwr – Welsh for wanderer or voyager – and Spirit is the story of her rise and fall and rise again. Orphaned at ten by an assault on her home by General Yu, she becomes a servant in his household for his wife, Lady Nef. If this initially seems like slavery, it soon becomes clear it is more akin to adoption. The first act sees Bibi grows to adulthood in this house, the irregularly sized chapters advancing us forward in time and the gaps between them unknown. This is a standard literary technique but also fits with a recurring theme of the novel that time is fluid. So too is gender and Jones presents a fascinating future society hundreds of years in the future following the alien invasion catalogued in her earlier Aleutian trilogy consisting of White Queen (1991), North Wind (1994) and Phoenix Café (1997). As with The Count Of Monte Cristo, I am working from a position of ignorance with respect to these novels – I read North Wind when I was 14 but can remember nothing of it – and, whilst knowledge of them is not necessary to fall in love with Spirit, I can’t help thinking greater understanding of the Aleutians and the Gender Wars and the rest of the future history would have enriched the experience. It is against this backdrop and on the brink of adulthood that Bibi stumbles upon a conspiracy that sees the whole household being banished from Earth.
The second act (Jones terms it an “intermission” but although it is substantially shorter than the preceding part, it has similar heft), sees Bibi make the Buonarotti transit from Earth to the space station Speranza, the capital of the loose federation of alien species. If time was fluid before, it becomes glorious unreal during transit. I was reminded of M John Harrison’s deliberate decision with Light to create a universe where not only was faster than light travel possible, all faster than light travel was possible:
Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything.
There is something fearless about this position and that is a word that encapsulates Jones’s novel. After spending some time on Speranza and adapting to a whole new social order, Bibi and the household are sent on a diplomatic mission to Sigurt’s World and the novel transitions to a wonderfully Banksian planetary romance. Basically, if you love Iain Banks but have been disappointed by his output for the last decade or so, Spirit is the book for you. The mission goes wrong in a bit of alien politicking that is again a novel in itself; in the immediate aftermath of the debacle, the General betrays Lady Nef to save himself and casual condemns Bibi on the grounds that she is the only person who would now this. Unaware of their shared fate, the pair are imprisoned and forgotten in caves on the planet’s moon and, in the face of decades of isolation and despair, Bibi’s soul disintegrates. It is a huge tonal shift and a remorselessly bleak section but Bibi emerges from it, taking the reader with her on each painful step to recovering. When through her efforts she is re-united with Lady Nef, the path is clear for her escape but it remains a hard row to hoe.
So, with indecent haste, that sums up the first half of the novel. The second half is the revenge, although it isn’t really a revenge at all. Lots of reviewers seem to have struggled with the second half of the novel for this reason. These issues are probably best articulated by Paul Kincaid in his review for Strange Horizons:
But here the faithfulness of the copy to its original begins to waver. For a start, the way that Dumas accelerated both the action and the tension throughout this portion of his novel is largely absent from Spirit, and the occasional adventures inserted into the story seem largely artificial additions, not really part of the overall plot… But it is a novel whose strength wanes the longer it goes on. If she had stayed closer to the colour and drama of the original, it might have ended up being even better.
It is certainly radically different from the preceding section but then those sections are each pretty different themselves and the deviation from Dumas is, I feel, a strength of the novel. True, tension is decreased but in its place is something warmer, deeper, more effecting. This is well captured by Duncan Lawrie’s review for The Zone:
Spirit bristles with energy and anger, gradually smoothing into equanimity. A key message of the book is presented in the first few pages: “Believe me, this is the greatest secret I know. Rule your own mind, and you may rule the world. Far more important, you will be happy, no matter what comes. And happiness is all that matters in the end.” (p. 7)
Ultimately, that is what makes Spirit not just a great novel but a book I took to my heart (even if these random scribbles don’t really convey that).
Last year I set myself the challenge of reading and writing about one science fiction novel written by a woman each month.
- Moxyland by Lauren Buekes
- Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand
- Arslan by MJ Engh
- Mission Child by Maureen F McHugh
- The Flood by Maggie Gee
- Maul by Tricia Sullivan (further discussion at Torque Control)
- Woman On The Edge Of Time by Marge Piercy
- Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle
- The Two Of Them by Joanna Russ
- Kindred by Octavia Butler
The eagle-eyed will notice that that isn’t twelve novels. I ran out of steam and vowed to continue this year instead with another batch. Here is what I assembled over Christmas:
Some of those were languishing on my shelves, some were kindly donated by Ian Sales of SF Mistressworks and were picked up from Amazon (and only available secondhand or imported, obviously). Since the Clarke Award shortlist has now been decided (and will be announced at the end of the month), I’ve got the time to think about other fiction so here is the schedule for the year:
- March: Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
- April The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula K LeGuin
- May: A Plague of Angels by Sheri S Tepper
- June: Hav by Jan Morris
- July: Cyteen by CJ Cherryh
- August: Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
- September: The Female Man by Joanna Russ
- October: A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski
- November: Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
- December: Shikasta by Doris Lessing
If any one would like to join me in reading any of those books in those particular months, I would welcome the conversation. And I think we are still due a discussion of Spirit over at Torque Control, aren’t we? In addition, I will be trying to read and review more books by women in general and my review of Blood Red Road by Moira Young is forthcoming at Strange Horizons.
But it isn’t just about what I review. As reviews editor for the BSFA, I also have a big say in what other people review and the books that are covered in Vector. Niall Harrison will be repeating the SF count again this year and, as part of this, I’ve tallied up the coverage of books by men and women in Vector. The ratio is very poor. So it is all very well talking the talk but I’ve clearly taken my eye off the ball and I need to be much more proactive in 2012 in ensuring speculative fiction by women is visible in Vector.
I published my review of Kindred by Octavia Butler at the beginning of November. It was meant to appear in October. I am meant to be reviewing The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin this month. That isn’t going to happen. I am currently deep into the reading for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award and I have neither the time or the headspace to read or review anything else. So I’m putting A Year Of Reading Women on hiatus until next year and will restart with The Lathe Of Heaven in March 2012. This will be followed Spirit by Gwyneth Jones but then I’d like to keep going and cover eight more books over the rest of the year. Some ideas I’ve had so far include:
- Parable Of The Sower by Octavia Butler
- Cyteen by CJ Cherryh
- Infidel by Kameron Hurley
- Silver Screen by Justina Robson
- The Female Man by Joanna Russ
- A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski
Other suggestions welcome in the comments.
Octavia E Butler is a renowned science fiction novelist but I’ve accidentally managed to choose the only one of her novels which isn’t SF for this series of posts on science fiction novels written by women. Whoops. I picked Kindred because it appeared to be the most popular of her novels but, as with so many of the titles I’ve selected for the series, it isn’t in print in the UK. Originally published in 1979, my copy is the 1988 Bluestreak edition (“a paperback series of innovative literary writing, featuring works by women of all colors”) from Beacon Press, featuring an introduction from Robert Crossley (which unfortunately hasn’t been updated since it was originally published).
The thing that misled me into thinking Kindred was science fiction is the fact it is a time travel story. More accurately, Dana, a young black American women living in Seventies California, finds herself flung back in time to the Deep South at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Crossley remarks, perhaps unnecessarily, that “Butler is silent on the mechanics of time travel.” (p.x) That is understandable but it soon becomes clear Butler isn’t even interested in using magic to tell a science fictional story. Dana finds herself pulled back in time because a young white boy, Rufus, is drowning. She saves his life only to find herself threatened by his father. This is enough to snap her back to the present. Here, for reasons of pure plot expediency, she finds mere seconds have passed rather than minutes. This allows Butler to yank Dana back to the past every time Rufus is in danger but whilst he ages, Dana does not.
My wife read the novel earlier in the year and warned me that it as extremely boring. Perhaps that coloured my own reading but I certainly found it a tedious slog. Butler begins her book with the words: “I lost my arm on my last trip. My left arm.” (p.1) It is a great first line, the matter of fact repetition makes the sentence and promises tension and revelation. Unfortunately Butler does everything she can to strip this away, to close down her text as much as possible.
The second time Dana is forced to save the remarkably accident prone Rufus, she realises that he is her great-great-grandfather. This familial connection supposedly sets up a moral dilemma because it means she is tied to him and must be complicit in his sins to ensure her own survival but since this contrived ‘what if’ could never be it lacks any force. Instead, Dana is locked into a cycle of psychological and physical torture from which there can be no escape due to authorial fiat.
Crossley describes the power Rufus exerts as “an irresistible psychohistorical force, not a feat of engineering.” (p.x) It is a similar psychic power that propels Connie through time in Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Verge Of Time, published three years earlier. There are important differences, however. To start with, Connie has at least some agency; she does not have control but she has some influence. Dana has nothing, she is tossed around at random. More importantly, Connie is moving forwards through time which allows Piercy to compare Seventies America to a utopian potential future. Since Dana moves backwards, however, it is only possible to compare two specific periods in the history of the United States. This closes down a huge amount of potential.
Part of the problem is that compared to a straight historical novel, the timeslip removes a lot of the work (and hence engagement) for the reader. Instead of learning the world ourselves, piecing together its differences to our own time, we have Dana standing in the way, relaying it to us through her own filter.
“I never realised how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.” (p.101) If that is the case then Dana isn’t very bright; more likely, Butler isn’t treating the reader with enough respect.
On page 188, Dana goes back to the future once more and I gave up on the book. Recommendations for better Butler novels would be welcomed in the comments.
Although I’ve read quite a bit of Joanna Russ’s non-fiction, I’ve never read her fiction. Aware of this gaping hole in my reading, I picked up a copy of the Women’s Press edition of The Two Of Them in Oxfam a couple of years ago. It has shamefully sat on my shelf until the year of reading women motivated me to pick it up.
The Two Of Them was first published in 1978, although it didn’t make it to the UK until 1986. As such it comes relatively late in her science fiction career; in fact, it is the last SF novel she published. So I wondered if this was a sensible place to start. Although several people re-assured me on Twitter that it was, the more I read, the more I started to have my doubts. By the time I’d reached the end I was both completely captivated and totally confused.
The two of them are introduced in a long descriptive passage this is simultaneously straight forward (their appearance is described in detail) and sideways (their sex is concealed until page 3, their names until page 4). We – the reader – are directly addressed by the author; Russ does not want us to forget that these are her words, that they represent deliberate choices. This becomes increasingly important as the book progresses but for now what matters is the introduction. Irene and Ernst are colleagues, they are lovers, they are student and teacher; they are equals, they are unequal. Russ’s achievement here is to immerse us in a complicated relationship and make us immediately alive to its depth, density and maddening contradictions. However, whilst there connection is clear, the context that brings them to the planet of Ala-ed-Deen is not.
Ernst and Irene work for The Gang. The back cover (which details the whole of the plot from beginning to end) suggests this is the same at the Trans Temp. However, even after reading the book I have no idea what this organisation does or why it exists. To begin with this doesn’t matter since the story is confined to their relationship. As they become more and more involved with the culture of Ala-ed-Deen, however, it is impossible to not to start asking questions and once Irene legal kidnapped a young girl – seemingly part of the day-to-day business of Trans Temp – I was completely lost. Even more confusing is the sudden revelation that Irene was a teenage in Fifties America (making her the same age as Russ). What has initially seemed like a far future space opera setting is revealed to be something more confused and confusing. How have they recruited Irene from across time? More importantly, why? We are never told.
When I finished the novel I therefore did what everyone does these days: I Googled it. One of the first things I came across was Brit Mandelo’s review for Tor.com, part of a series of posts she wrote about Russ’s work. It does shed some light but one sentence stood out in particular:
It’s a messy book, not in its prose, which is flawless as ever for Russ, but in its relationships and its arguments, its breaking of the fourth wall and the rules of narrative to make a point.
Messy is a good word. Wild is another. This has its appeal but, as a male reader though, I found something particularly problematic about the arguments it makes. This is a novel in which – as Mandelo reminds us – the key quote is: “The gentlemen always think the ladies have gone mad.” This is quite clearly a critique; the character voicing it is a young woman trapped by the constraints of a patriarchal society. It serves men, we are intended to read Russ as saying, to characterise women thus because it removes their agency and allows them to be dismissed. So it is surprising that the final part of the novel appears to depict Irene’s descent into insanity. This gentleman does think the lady has gone mad so half of me wonders what trap I’ve fallen into and the other half is wonders what mess Russ hasn’t gotten herself into.
It is at this point I turned to Gwyneth Jones. I don’t own Imagination/Space but fortunately her essay on The Two Of Them from that book is available online. Jones describes the novel as a “kind of postscript to the whole Cinderella story of twentieth century womanhood” and usefully contextualises it within 20th Century feminism and, specifically, the science fiction feminism of the Sixties and Seventies. She also contextualises it within Russ’s other fiction and those of other writers:
It illuminates the background and explains some of the wrinkles in The Two Of Them, when we know that the novel began as a response to a story called ‘For The Sake Of Grace’ (1969) by another feminist, Suzette Haden Elgin. In Elgin’s ‘Islamic-style’ world, prowess in poetry is the only path left open to women who want to achieve greatness, and it is made as difficult and threatening as possible. ‘For The Sake Of Grace’, in its turn, pays homage to the classic proto-feminist story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892), a chilling description of exactly how a talented woman goes mad, when she’s locked up to ‘cure’ her of her talent as a writer.
Although I obviously picked up the theme, the specifics of this was all completely lost on me (Jones is using the Wesleyan University Press with a foreword by Sarah Lefanu, mine was naked). Having remarked on how controversial the ending was at the time it was published (and taking John Clute to task fro this), Jones does provide the counter reading I was hoping for. It is not, however, a reading I recognise. Or rather, I recognise the metaphorical reading that she makes but can’t reconcile it with a literal reading of the book. We are back to the problem I with Woman On The Verge Of Time, that the multiplicity of readings offered up by the text all come into conflict. If something is science fiction, surely it is science fiction for a reason, rather than just an excuse to throw chaff at the reader? To cloak a story of our own world with a colourful, gauzy veil?
These days, I’m better able to understand how a liberal male critic, convinced that women in sf were a well-served special interest group, with nothing to complain about, could have felt so betrayed, and indeed bewildered, by The Two Of Them.
I don’t think liberal male critics who think women in SF are well-served actually exist these days but it is true enough that I am a liberal male critic and I am bewildered by The Two Of Them. This bewilderment has not been dispelled by Jones’s essay; I think I need to read the book again.
In what will become a defining feature of the novel, as soon as one journey ends, another begins. Golden Witchbreed opens with Lynne de Lisle Christie arriving on the panet of Carrick V, know to its inhabitants as Orthe, but she must the take a week long journey by ship to reach the alien Court where she will take up the position of Earth envoy. This provides a sense of scale to the planet and allows Mary Gentle space to begin to reveal her world. Whatever complaints I have about the novel (and I have plenty), it is not thinly imagined; it is a detailed and fully committed world, groaning with geography, history and customs. Groaning, perhaps, to the degree it is over-stuffed.
Before the beginning of the novel proper, we are given a list of the “principal characters” (the scare quotes are because the majority of them are minor characters with only a handful of lines of dialogue). Starting with Christie herself, there follows the stoutly Anglo-Saxon names of the team of xenologists: Huxton, Elliot, Barrat, Thomas, Meredith. Then there are the aliens with whom they are making first contact: Dalzielle Kerys-Andrethe, T’An Suthani-Telestre, Crown of the Southlands, also called Suthafiori, Flower of the South; Sulis n’ri n’suth SuBassasen, T’An Melkathil; Gur’an Alahamu-te O’he-Oramu-te, a barbarian woman. And so on and so on. These two very different sets of names present two very different sets of problems for the reader and potential reader.
Firstly, there are those alien apostrophes. Gentle’s names are almost a parody of the attenuated names science fiction and fantasy so off-puttingly revels in. They all make sense (and are shortened) when introduced within the context of the novel itself but shoved up front they are, well, alienating. It is presumably there as an aid to the reader but not only it is totally unnecessary for this purpose but it can be an active barrier. I read Golden Witchbreed on holiday and a friend commented that given the cover and the character list she would never have given the book a chance. Usually I would blame the publisher for demanding this but the book also contains a wealth of appendices which suggest the author’s hand. Gentle includes a glossary-cum-encyclopaedia (which, as always, doesn’t contain the term you are searching for), the local calendar, instructions for an Orthean board game and not one but two maps. There is an embarrassment of worldbling on display and, even for those of us well-schooled in the protocols of science fiction, such gluttony can be hard to stomach.
Secondly, why are all the humans British? Christie introduces herself as being from the British Isles which makes a sort of sense in a culture which places so much emphasis on geographical heritage but even in 1985 when the book was first published this must have seemed a slightly archaic formulation. After all, Falklands fillip notwithstanding, Britannia didn’t rule the waves. She seems to be doing pretty well in Earth’s space-faring Dominion. At the same time we are cautioned: “The focus of the world has long since shifted east; Asia holds the twenty-first century’s future. Nothing of real importance happens in the declining West.” (p.31-32) Why then are Christie and the whole xeno-team British? And why is no other nationality ever mentioned again? It is evidence of a disharmony between Gentle’s strong interest in the world of Orthe and her weak interest in the universe of the Dominion.
The world of Orthe (or, at least, the two continents we see) is at a relatively uniform level of development, roughly equivalent to 16th Century Europe. Initially viewed as a pre-tech civilisation, it soon becomes clear it is post-tech and that Ortheans are very happy with this state of affairs. The Ortheans themselves are extremely humanoid to the extent that you could easily overlook their sixth digit or nictitating membrane.
The universe of the Dominion is presented with less clarity but we know it is a universe in which intelligent life is abundant. Humanity has discovered FTL and this has opened up extra-solar planets to us, all of which appear to be populated. The fact that Orthe is merely one of a hundred thousand civilisations perhaps explains why the faded empire of the British Isles is free to go off and explore but it doesn’t explain how they possess the ability to do so. Are resources really so little of an issue for the “declining West” that they can arrange for an interstellar spaceship to drop off a single passenger on another planet? Regardless of that, Gentle is at pains to tell us that the planet is, in fact, special. It is: “the first socially mobile pretech world on record” (p.47) Further more: “All societies do some division of labour according to sex – all but this one.” (p.47) But apparently no one but the Brits are interested.
The xeno-team are already in situ but have been forbidden from leaving the capital and so are awaiting the envoy’s arrival. Her role isn’t exactly clear but Christie is told that (unlike the people with actual qualifications) she is free to roam around, immersing herself in this society. So the journey begins again and the novel becomes a rather dull planetary romance. In this it resembles nothing so much as the worst type of epic fantasy: the longeurs, the endless travel, the sight-seeing and, of course, the idiot plotting. To facilitate this, Christie is remarkably ill-equipped for her mission: she is 26 and has little previous experience. We learn that her uncle is “minister for the department” – which reinforces the strange sense of parochialism, that first contact operations are directed out of Whitehall – and that he got her the job:
“That was when I applied for the off-Earth postings… I’d always sworn never to use family influences… That noble resolution lasted until I realised how badly I wanted in to the ET department… Would I be off Earth without that influence? Yes. Would it have happened this soon? Ah, now, that’s another question.” (p.199-200)
It is question with a ready answer. She is not a politician or a sociologist, lacking both the aptitude and training. Her diplomatic style seems to be to go native at the first opportunity whilst retaining a casual bigotry about said natives: “He was a little mad, even for an Orthean.” (p.361) Nor does she seem very practical; she packs formal skirts and jackets but not a cagoule. A Goretex waterproof would be high on my list of items to bring to a pre-tech world. Worst of all, she is utterly incurious. Everything about the Ortheans is mysterious to her but she takes no interest in finding out about them and, even when she does, Gentle without holds this information. Halfway through the novel Christie suddenly discovers that all Ortheans possess psychic memories of their ancestors. “The more I did find out about Orthe, the more I was depressed by my total ignorance.” (p.209) And so she should be – how can she only now have discovered this? What on Earth have the xeno-team been doing? This authorial reticence has its ludicrous apogee when Christie has sex with an Orthean and the whole experience is glossed thus: “Any difficulties we had were habit and not physiological.” (p.129)
In another display of naivete, when she is summoned by a mysterious figure known as the Hexenmeister, she simply pootles off to see him without asking anyone about him. It is hard to begrudge her this though, since, finally, with Chapter 24 (299 pages into the novel) we start to make some narrative progress after the perpetual journeying by foot, beast and ship. Or so it at first appears.
The first reference to the Golden Witchbreed of the title comes in a typical lecture on geo-politics:
Peir-Dadeni and Ymir are pro-Earth. Rimon over the river… uncertain. Roehmonde’s never supported any contact with your Otherworld, nor has Melkathi; but then, nothing good ever came out of Melkathi. Morvren Freeport would trade with the Golden Witchbreeds themselves. (p.36)
Amongst the stodge of secondary world description the casual reference to the Witchbreed is rather thrilling and more is teased out over the course of the novel. They were the highly advanced civilisation whose empire on Orthe fell several millennia ago. (Despite leaving vast examples of technology that surpasses anything that humanity can produce they apparently never bothered with space flight.) They are reviled by the majority of Orthe as enslavers and destroyers but a few still claim ancestral links. It looks at first as if the interlude with the Hexenmeister is going to delve into this history but no, the witchbreed exist solely as an opportunity to slander Christie in a threadbare web of statecraft.
We are repeatedly told of the Orthean love of intrigue and duplicity but everyone is presented as essentially guileless. On page 266 Christie’s servant passes her a message which proves to be an attempt to set her up for the murder of a local dignitary. It is only page 342 that anyone decides to ask the servant who actually gave her the message to pass on. Once this is revealed – with enough drama to end the chapter on a cliffhanger – the named individual immediately confesses. Towards the end there is a shock revelation straight out of a whodunit where the person you least expect turns out to be the bad guy. It is all very tiresome.
In many ways it shares the same fundamental flaw as Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time: to have invented a richly imagined alternative culture and then failed to find a way to convert this into a novel. Niall Harrison calls the novel a “magisterial display of worldbuilding prowess” and it is but I’m not sure that is enough.
In a series of escalating scenes, Marge Piercy plunges the reader into a horror story. Consuelo is a Mexican-American woman in her late thirties living in genteel poverty, haunted by a past trauma but determined to live a just life. Connie’s niece, Dolly, bangs on her door. She has been beaten by her boyfriend, Geraldo, who is also her pimp, because she has fallen pregnant (ironically, this was a deliberate tactic by Dolly to protect herself). Geraldo shows up at Connie’s door with one of his enforcers and a backstreet abortionist. They argue, they fight, Connie breaks Geraldo’s nose with a wine bottle. In response, she is burnt and beaten unconscious. She comes round in the car as they are making their way to the hospital and is brutally beaten again. When they arrive Geraldo’s injuries are treated but hers are ignored and she is held responsible for both; Dolly lies to protect her pimp and condemns the aunt who tried to protect her. Connie is treated as a criminal, drugged, restrained and imprisoned in a mental asylum. The final words of the chapter are: “She was human garbage carried to the dump.” (p.32)
It is a harrowingly unfair opening that plugs directly into a deep human fear: complete powerlessness. Connie has done nothing wrong, she is a victim of circumstances, systems and history. The trauma in her past (which she has been fruitlessly trying to atone for ever since) is the fact she once beat her daughter whilst coming down off a drink and drug binge following the incarceration of her husband. As a result her daughter was taken into care and she was sectioned. She therefore fits a profile and that is enough to remove her humanity. Her pleas of innocence fall on deaf ears. After all: “The authority of the physician is undermined if the patient presumes to make a diagnostic statement.” (p.19)
In a very real sense Piercy has located a dystopia in Seventies America. What in other circumstances we might think of as the welfare state is here presented as an inflexible, illogical, patriarchal, authoritarian bureaucracy. Now, there is no doubting that the state can be all those things, even in supposedly developed countries, and was undoubtedly more likely to be so forty years ago. Equally it is true that mental health provision has had a long and sordid history of failing those it has notionally existed to help. This is particularly true of its failures towards the already marginalised: women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals and the poor as well as the mentally ill themselves. At the same time, it is hard not to think that (as with so many other dystopias) Piercy has her thumb on the scales to make her point.
Everyone is against Connie: her family, her community, her doctor, her social worker, her nurse. Even her ex-employer, a professor of romance languages at CUNY who was also her lover, is against her: “He called them all Chiquita, like bananas.” (p.50) It is so one-sided that eventually the barrage of oppression produces not anger but disbelief. Again, there are many documented examples of horrendous abuses of power within the system but in seeking to dramatise them Piercy has perhaps strayed too far into didacticism. Here is Connie remember her last encounter with her social worker:
The social worker had given her that human-to-cockroach look. Most people hit kids. But if you were on welfare and on probation and the whole social-pigeonholing establishment had the right to trek regularly through your kitchens looking in the closets and under the bed, counting the bedbugs and your shoes, you had better not hit your kid once. (p.26)
This does not sound much like Connie’s voice to me, it sounds a lot more like an authorial insertion of Piercy’s. The immediate “human-to-cockroach look”, fine but the more objective “whole social-pigeonholing establishment”? What is elsewhere a tight third person perspective seems to expand outwards to another, more distant narrator. Connie analyses her situation to a remarkable degree without enacting this analysis in any other way. She is noticeable sharper and more intelligent when reflecting in these passages than elsewhere in the novel, particularly the dialogue. Here is another example of the same thing:
She too, she was sprayed. They had taken out her womb at Metropolitan when she had come in bleeding after that abortion and the beating from Eddie. Unnecessarily they had done a complete hysterectomy because the residents wanted practice. (p.45)
I’ve deliberately chosen this passage because of the unfortunate typo in the first sentence. Woman On The Edge Of Time was originally published in the US in 1976 and was published by Women’s Press in this country in 1979. They re-printed it every year following that until they issued it as a Women’s Press Classic in 2000. Yet despite this honour they do not appear to have re-typeset since it was originally published and the text is blurred and contains more than a few typos. This is no way to treat a classic.
Returning to the meaning rather than the appearance of the text, I believe the angry immediacy of her identification as being spayed but not the detached, final sentence. As I mentioned, this also stands in contrast to the dialogue which is frequently terrible but also far less articulate and reflective:
“I won’t grow up like you Mama! To suffer and serve. Never to live my own life! I won’t.”
“You’ll do what women do. You’ll pay your debt to your family for your blood. May you love your children as much as I love mine.”
“You don’t love us girls the way you love the boys! It’s everything for Luis and nothing for me and it’s always been that way.”
“Never raise your voice to me. I’ll tell your father. You sound like the daughters of the gangsters here.”
“I’m good in school. I’m going to college. You’ll see!” (46)
And so on. This is a good example of the schematic argument that often replaces attempted verisimilitude in the conversations that take place in the novel. It is perhaps unfair to contrast the words of a girl with those of the woman she becomes but, child or adult, her words share a similar register. The tone and texture of this voice is absent from the inner reflections and so I struggle to associate them with Connie. There are, however, suggestions that this is deliberate, that her interior and exterior are radically different, that her personality is not unified:
“Anyhow, in a way I’ve always had three names inside me. Consuelo, my given name. Consuelo’s a Mexican woman, a servant of servants, silent as clay. The woman who suffers. Who bears and endures. Then I’m Connie, who managed to get two years of college – till Consuelo got pregnant.” (122)
Inner and outer life need not mesh and much great literature has inhabited this gap but I find this example problematic on several levels. First, the poetry of the description of Consuelo does not match any of the facets we see of her and again seems to stem directly from Piercy. Similarly, this suggestion of compartmentalisation is another manifestation of a disassociated, intellectualised objectivity that never convinces. Finally, there is the danger of using such a metaphor in the context of a character who is wrongly believed to be suffering mental illness and is punished for this. Connie isn’t sure who she is but I’m not sure if Piercy is any clearer and to open up the question of Connie’s mental state seems ill-advised (she proceeds further down this path as the book progresses).
It turns out that Connie is a special snowflake. She is an “extraordinary top catcher” (p.42) or at least so Luciente, a visitor from the future of 2137 tells her. This is notionally the point where Woman On The Edge Of Time reveals itself to be a science fiction novel but even considering the general difficulties of treating time travel as SF, this is a particularly weak example; Luciente has essentially used astral projection to reach the past. Piercy wants to present a utopia to contrast with her dystopia but has no interest in the mechanisms of presenting such a contrast. Nor is this contrast subtly presented:
“Where you go to study. To get a degree,” Connie snapped.
“A degree of heat? No… as a hierarchial society, you have degrees of rank? Like lords and counts?” Luciente looked miserable. “Study I understand. Myself, I studied under Rose of Ithaca!” He paused for her appreciation, then shrugged, a little crestfallen. “Of course, the name means nothing to you.” (p.53)
Luciente doesn’t seem particularly well briefed. Perhaps she went to the same time travel school as Connie Willis’s character. She does recognise a few of our quaint 20th Century customs though:
Connie lit a cigarette.
Luciente leaped up and backed away. “I know what that is! I beg you, put it out. It’s poisonous, don’t you know that?” (p.53)
Let’s make no bones about this, it is bad writing. This embarrassing false culture-shock continues for several more pages before going on to become a defining feature of the novel. Because not only is Connie an extraordinary top catcher, she can also project herself into the future and interact with all Luciente’s friends. This allows Piercy to walk us through her utopia, its intricacy described through exchanges every bit as hammy, forced and tedious as those found in the granddaddy of all these books: The Socratic Dialogues by Plato.
Piercy’s utopia is a frustrating place (and not just because of the prose). Our world is obviously a deeply unjust place and she has created an alternative world founded on the principles of equality and sustainability with admirable rigour and pragmatism. But it is also liberally dosed with hippy woo. In the future, for example, everyone will apparently realise that cats can talk through sign language. Then there is the astral project, the conquering of illness through mind over matter, the divine revelation of calling: “Those positions are not chosen strictly by lot, but by dream. Ever spring some people dream they are the new Animal Advocate or Earth Advocate.” (p. 151)
The frustration continues when Piercy attempts to inject some ambiguity into the novel without fully committing to it. For the majority of the book, the 20th Century of Connie’s captivity serves chiefly as a frame for the philosophy of the future. We still get quite a bit of the mundane battles of everyday life but the novel (like Connie herself) constantly escapes to tomorrow. Into this is gradually salted the idea that the future is not necessarily The Future: “Yours is a crux-time. Alternate universes co-exist. Probabilities clash and possibilities wink out forever.” (p.177) If alternate universes exist then by their very nature they are infinite; to suggest that the Seventies are a special crux-time simply because that is when Piercy is writing suggests an enormous lack of perspective. It also once more moves the book from the realm of speculation to that of woo. But Piercy goes further than this by suggesting that maybe Connie really is mad and that her future world takes place only in her head. It is the obvious direction to take the story but even given this still manages to disappoint in its execution.
Hinted at throughout, towards the end of the novel we finally get to witness the idealogical war that is taking place in the future. It is a deeply unconvincing war so this could be evidence that we are not supposed to believe it is real or it could be evidence of a paucity of talent on Piercy’s part. This war then becomes a metaphor for Connie’s external struggle against the jailers. Or does it become a metaphor for Connie’s internal struggle against her mental illness? “War, she thought, I’m at war. No more fantasies, no more hopes. War.” (p.338) I can’t find any coherent way of reconciling these readings of the novel with what we know of Connie. The question of her sanity is imposed rather than arising from the text; the ambiguity here is careless rather than enticing. Is she mad, in a coma or back in time? To which I can only answer: who cares?
It feels smooth and heavy and warm when I stroke it because I’ve been sleeping with it between my legs. I like to inhale its grey infinite smell for a while before I pass my lips down its length, courting it with the tip of my tongue, until my mouth has come to the wider part near the tip.
I’ve written at length about the opening chapter of Maul by Tricia Sullivan. Tony Keen has also recently posted a three part discussion of the novel over at Torque Control:
Maul was published in 2003. It was shortlisted for the 2004 Arthur C Clarke Award but lost to Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. I’ve not read Stephenson’s novel but I find the decision suprising simply because I find it hard to imagine a better SF novel than Maul was published that year. It is a superb novel; exhilerating and exciting whilst simultaneously being thorny and challenging. I would suggest everyone read rushes out to their nearest bookshop and buys a copy immediately. But, of course, you can’t. Eight years later, Maul is out of print and Sullivan is out of contract. Does anyone believe there isn’t a problem with that?