Posts Tagged ‘a year of reading women’
Earlier in the month, trapped by the weather in a tent only marginally bigger than my own body, I read the first chapter of Tricia Sullivan’s Maul. Entitled ‘!’, it was so remarkable that I wanted to tell someone what had happened. Cut off from civilisation, I instead read it again. Having just read it for the third time, I am again struck by what a fitting, bold and exciting opening it is:
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. This I suck, and blow gently into the hole. It becomes wet in my mouth but doesn’t soften. It remains achingly solid and I put it between my legs. Its tip snuggles around my clit. (p.1)
Yes, it very quickly becomes clear that our narrator is masturbating with a firearm. What better collision is there of humanity’s twin obsessions of sex and violence? Happiness is a warm gun, indeed.
The image is startling enough on its own but it is also so cleverly and skilfully evoked. The languid first sentence is immediately derailed by the “grey infinite smell” of the second sentence. It is an alien intrusion in what we think is a familiar scene (it also conjures up the gun as a physical object with remarkable economy). Having subverted our expectations, Sullivan goes on to subvert the language of pornography. As the narrator fellates the gun, it initially seems to be a straight forward penis substitute. “Courting” is a nice word choice, erotic in its restraint, but the mechanics of the act are familiar. Then we are told that the gun “doesn’t soften” and “remains achingly solid”. Of course not, it is metal after all, but the deployment of this porn cliché has the effect of both ironising the scene and transferring the ache from the gun to the narrator. The gun is not a penis and she aches for it because it is not. (The final sentence doesn’t really need quoting for my argument here but I love the specificity of “around” so quoted it anyway.)
The difference between the gun and a penis is highlighted when, on the next page, Sullivan moves from the mechanics of foreplay to the mechanics of orgasm:
It’s narrow enough that I can slide it into my cunt without breaking the hymen. I grope around for a while trying to find my G-spot but the urge to pee is too great when I press there and anyway I think the whole thing’s gotta be a myth so I go back to where I started. (p.2)
The transgressive word in the first sentence is not “cunt” (which her has the earthiness of the UK usage rather than the porny misogyny of its US usage) but “hymen”. An enthusiastically sexually active woman with an intact hymen is a rejection of traditional narratives about both sex and virginity. Later the narrator explicitly articulates what the opening scene has suggested: “I used to wish I had a boyfriend but now I know better.” (p.3) The word also implies something that is confirmed later: she is an enthusiastically sexually active child. So why is she keeping her hymen intact?
She doesn’t want a boyfriend but is she saving herself for someone? From the mechanics of orgasm, we then move to its depiction:
no. oh no. don’t go.
Hmm. Not bad.
What time is it? (p.3)
This is attempting to capture the ineffable and since I’m never going to directly experience the female orgasm I won’t try and judge its success. I am, however, very taken with Sullivan’s approach: the wild glee of its arrival, the attempt to ride the sensation with that poignant “oh no. don’t go”, the final burst (that last “!”) and then relaxing into lazy, satisfied contemplation. The final line provides a casually dismissive coda which reminds the reader that orgasm isn’t life-changing but it is a fun way to start the day.
We then move straight to a domestic scene, the sort of scene I’d like to see a lot more of in SF. The narrator gets dressed, teases her brother, negotiates her mom’s requests for breakfast. All the time the gun remains an alien, alienating presence, strapped to her leg and accessorised with a pink ammo belt – “It’s heavy, but who said fashion was easy?” (p.4) The narrator – Sun to her mom – is out the door: she is off to the maul.
(Sullivan uses the US homophone “maul” throughout instead of “mall”. The cover strapline describes Maul as a novel of “sex, shopping and terrorbugs” but it is shopping and violence that are inextricably linked by the title. The thematic density of this text is intense.)
Sun meets up with her girlfriend Suk Hee at the bus stop. Suk Hee calls her Katz so the Korean girl appears to have an (absent?) Jewish father; this is not a novel where identity is going to be simple. They talk about wrestling, boys and cosmetics. In the middle of this our narrator starts thinking about the complicity of women in supporting the wars of the patriarchy:
It turns us on when you fight, I thought. That must be why. We get off on it. It’s OK with us if you don’t give head or haven’t historically – we don’t need orgasms as much as we need wars. Otherwise why would you guys fight them? (p.8)
This is leftfield stuff; unexpected, perhaps unwelcome and considered at length. It could be an incredibly awkward scene but then we’ve already established that our narrator is the sort of high school girl who masturbates with a gun. So, instead, it is strange and disconcerting and leads us deep into both the novel’s entanglement of sex and violence and its core concern about gender and itentity. And who are the “guys” she talking to? Who is our narrator narrating for? Again, we are kept off-kilter.
Their friend Keri arrives in her car, a Saab (with a moonroof rather than a sunroof – what is Sullivan up to?). Thoughts of war are replaced by lust for Keri’s car and Sun attempts to translate this lust directly into a sexual fantasy. However, she is unable to do something as natural as this without problematising it:
I tried out several models in my mind but I couldn’t work out what kind of man would be dangerous enough and dark enough and hot enough to be next to me in the car commercial , and yet not be totally repulsed by me. Or for that matter who I’d trust to drive my Saab, if I had a Saab (because it definitely wouldn’t be his Saab). This is the main reason there are never any men in my sexual fantasies. I just can’t seem to construct one that fits. (p.9)
Until now the novel has been concerned entirely with character, mood and tone, now we sense the intrusion of the plot. The girls have been emailed by 10Esha, a “cryptic email”. There is a suggestion of impending violence but actual contents are not revealed. After all, Sullivan doesn’t need plot to hook us, she already has us tangling from her string. Instead the girls keep listening to The Sugacubes and talking about sex. The Sugacubes? Wrestling? Is this the future or the Nineties? Sullivan does everything in her power to keep us off balance. This scene allows Sullivan to sketch out the other two girls but the focus remains on Sun and, specifically her intellectual achievments in unsuccessful pursuit of boys: “Why did you have to take a summer course at Columbia, Sun? And then he goes out with Kristi Kaleri.” (p.11) Given her independence, there in everything we have seen her do or think, there is a seeming contradiction. Does she actually want a boyfriend? Does she subconsciously seek male validation? Has Sun recently come to a new understanding about herself or are these dichotomies still to be wrestled with.
The girls pull into the maul under a bad sign. The chapter ends.
An unknown narrator reminisces about their life in “the earthly city”, a life that preceded – we assume – some catastrophic flood. Where is the earthly city? What is the earthly city? We aren’t told. Instead our narrator immediately disappears and we are introduced to a range of characters from the city. First there is May, a widow, who is reflecting on the soap opera of her family life. Specifically, she is thinking about her daughter:
Yet the choices Shirley made had set the cat among the pigeons. She liked black men. Elroy was black.
Sometimes May felt Shirley had wrecked their lives, because Dirk, May’s son, was still in prison for killing Winston, Elroy’s brother. His own sister’s brother-in-law.(p.12)
Then there is Lottie, “a rich woman”, who owns Edward Hopper’s Morning Sun (which is actually in the Columbus Museum of Art) and believes it perfectly captures her nature. She is indolently lounging in her bed, reflecting on her sleeping husband:
And in certain respects, certain private respects, where Lottie had always had high standards, Harold was very – satisfactory. He satisfied here, every time.(p.15)
May’s quote is frank, Lottie’s is coy but both display an irritating pedantry on Gee’s part. Warning flags are raised. Finally there is Bruno, a Christian fundamentalist. Unlike May or Lottie there is not even an attempt to make him a real person, instead his Travis Bickell-style yearning for a cleansing rain to wash away the decadence of the city establish him as the mouth piece for discussing religion and an obvious conduit for later action. This is obviously going to be a book with a lot of Themes.
The narrative has floated across the city, briefly alighting on these people before moving on. The next chapter opens with more of the same. This time it is Shirley herself, a welcomingly rounded presence, who also demonstrates that Gee is occasionally capable of great lines such as when Shirley’s babysitter is described as being “at the sullen epicentre of her teens” (p.20). Unfortunately we then move on to Dirk, every bit as much a pitiful cipher as Bruno. We discover that the murder was a queer-bashing with more than a hint of suppressed attraction:
…but then the man played with himself, in the dark, and Dirk had to kill him to save himself from the red raw hunger that came upon him.(p.25)
Gee ratchets up the soap opera quotient and continues to chalk up more items in the Themes column: Race, Religion, Redemption, Repression. Also note the use of the word “coloured”. Within pages we have “darkies” and “half-caste”. We might not know where the earthy city is but we now know when; Gee appears to be stuck in the Seventies. (There is something cringeworthy about her treatment of race in general with her stereotypically Black names and embarrassing attempts at slang.)
Then we move on to Faith, mother of Shirley’s babysitter. Are you keeping up? It is at this point that Gee reveals her hand: she is writing a satire. Until now, all her characters – except Shirley – have tended to the functional and schematic; Faith is such a caricature bitch that we realise this was all warm up. This is hammered home by the next two characters.
Firstly there is Delorice, sister of Elroy and Winston and rising star of the publishing industry. This means we are forced to sit in on a painfully contrived decision meeting regarding a book called A Breast In Winter, “an upbeat rural cancer saga”. It becomes evident that subtlety is not one of Gee’s concerns. Secondly, there is Mr Bliss, president of the earthly city, who has a habit of peppering his sentences with an imploring “guys” and is currently planning a pre-emptive strike against a neighbouring city. Hmm, who on Earth could President Bliss be based on?
Christ almighty, this is tiresome stuff. Only 42 pages into the novel, I was in need of reassurance so I went on the internet. The Flood was published in 2004. It was preceded by The White Family (2002) which appears to be the story of May, Shirley and Dirk. Her third novel was Light Years (1985) which appears to be the story of Lottie. Both appear to be set in our world. Rather than reassuring me, I was starting to fear that The Flood was an unholy mash-up of everything Gee had ever written filtered through the Guardian’s comment section.
To make matters worse, you can easily see a much better novel hidden away inside The Flood. Once the book has had a chance to bed in, Shirley and Lottie (if not the other characters) start to develop and take on some of the texture of the real world. Similarly there are moments where Gee perfectly captures the affect she is seeking:
Yet twenty minutes later Gerda was in the water, the clear blue water with its minnows of sunlight, warm as happiness, swimming, swimming, and Davey, on the other side of the pool, cleaved powerfully, blindly through his programme, and Lorna stood on the side and watched them, wishing that she had learned to swim, wishing that she were young again, understanding and forgiving Gerda, and all the knots of passion and pain were dissolved in the moment, and floated away.(p.171)
These moments are few and far between though. More often the are crowded out by ghastly artistic decisions, a convoluted and contrived web of serendipity, baldly re-stated back story, leaden “mediations” on Themes, characters who are relentlessly over-share in the most banal terms and dialogue that clearly issues form the author’s mouth rather than those of the characters. As I’ve hint, there are also far too many characters and most are used merely as props to be wheeled out as appropriate.
Then there is Gee’s use of the fantastic. This mainly consists of over using the definitive article when it comes to naming areas of the city (the Gardens, the Institute, the Towers) and slightly altering the names of countries (Turko, Malai, Anaturia). When Lottie goes to the opera (just called the Royal Opera, naturally) to see Madama Butterfly we are treated to the following exchange:
Pinkerton told the American ambassador about his plan to take a temporary bride from the imaginary country of Japan.
Davey, on Delorice’s other side, told her in a whisper, “America is really Hesperica, of course”
“That’s obvious,” she hissed back. (p.147)
Is this supposed to clever? Or witty? It is neither. So America becomes Hesperica, New York, appallingly, becomes New Work and the earthly city itself is clearly an alternative world version of London. Gee also makes some cowardly decisions to de-fang her satire; the names of political parties are conspicuous by their absence and the newspapers all have joke names like the Daily Bread. But this is an alternative world where everything else stays the same; as well as Hopper and Puccini, Gee proves her street cred (ho ho) by mentioning Jamiroquai and Coldplay. The major religions are all the same and in one typically clumsy scene May is corrected for referring to a Pakistani man as an Indian. Presumably Gee was so caught up by her Theme that she forgot she was meant to pointlessly shuffle the letters of each country. On the other hand, All of which poses the question, why isn’t The Flood set in our world?
At this point, I feel the need to talk about The Year Of The Flood, although it feels faintly disrespectful to compare a writer like Gee to one like Margaret Atwood. Both novels want to have their cake and eat it in similar ways; the straddle realism and farce and use the fantastic as a cloak for refusing to commit to either. I am a huge admirer of Atwood but I found her most recent novel absolutely infuriating for its combination of stellar prose and silly satire. A compendium of my complaints follows:
Atwood’s worldbuilding in all its awesome weakness… geographical incongruity and bloody silly set-dressing… Atwood has upended all her ideas onto the page and left them bunched together there… alas, although Atwood has now started in on the puns, she is unfortunately only warming up and has many more to come… sometimes it is hard to tell which are worse, the puns (implants for bimbos equal “Bimplants”) or just the ugly assaults on proper spelling (a spa called “AnooYou”)… a blush of childlike naivete.
Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes aim at our world whilst remaining true to its own world, The Year Of The Flood buys into the idea that science fiction is essentially a satirical rather than speculative genre. It is a mistaken belief but one that is relatively common amongst non-genre SF writers (the dabblers, as Iain M Banks would put it). Incoherence is not an issue because the writer is deliberately presenting an exaggerated version of our world. Unfortunately this often means that the complexity of reality is traded in for cartoonish approximations.
All of my complaints about The Year Of The Flood could equally apply to The Flood but Maggie Gee does at least have the excuse that she isn’t actually writing science fiction. She certainly has in the past – The Ice People (1999) is set in a dystopian future where the world is in the grip of another ice age – and a skim of the synopsis of this novel convinced me she had again. This assumption was wrong; rather it is a fable, a form that allows even greater scope for incoherence and is a refuge for lazy writers. Shouldn’t I just be able to accept The Flood as a fairytale where coherence is immaterial? I’m afraid I can’t; I find it too close to our world to allow it to function in this way. Personally, I find its incoherence an affront, a fundamental lack of respect for the reader.
The other issue is that Margaret Atwood has the get-out-of-jail-free card of being Margaret Atwood whereas Gee is not so blessed. So much of The Flood is just outright bad, that there is precious little left to enjoy, even if you are inclined to accept that Gee’s world is not meant to make sense.
She saves one last unpleasantly nonsensical surprise for the end. As signalled from the beginning the flood does indeed come, taking the form of a vast tsunami caused by an asteroid hitting Earth. The city is destroyed… and everyone turns up in Kew Gardens. Because Kew Gardens is heaven? Or the book was all a dream? Or Gee likes hanging out at Kew? The narrator of the introductory section – Gee herself? – never returns and we are left to draw our own conclusions. It is a magnificently complacent ending to a magnificently complacent book.
Before I talk about Mission Child I would like to begin by mentioning Maureen F McHugh’s debut novel, China Mount Zhang, published in 1992. This is a wonderful novel, easily a contender for one of the twenty best science fiction novels of the last twenty years. It won the Locus Award for best first novel, the Tiptree and the Lambda and was also nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula. It is out of print. McHugh’s third novel, Mission Child, published five years later in 1998, is also out of print. This issue, the disappearance of the midlist, is right at the heart of the reason why we don’t see more science fiction by woman. We don’t see it because it has vanished.
Janna is the mission child of the title. Her home is the village of the Hamra clan which has formed around a pair of offworld missionaries (ie charity workers from Earth). At one point, Janna’s ancestors were offworlders too; however so much time has passed since their arrival on this alien planet that they now consider themselves to be the indigenous people and McHugh draws deliberate parallels between their way of life and those of real world indigenous peoples such as the Inuit and Sammi. An interest in colonisation is signalled by this but, to begin with, the fact that Janna is a child is much more important than the fact she lives in a mission. The first part of the novel takes the form of a compressed, brutal Bildungsroman.
The very first sentence of the novel announces the arrival of another clan, the Tekse. Notionally they are there to trade with the Hamra; more accurately, they are there to rob the Hamra; ultimately, fuelled by whiskey and resentment, they end up massacring the village. Janna is one of the few survivors and flees with her boyfriend, Aslak. This is a physical and emotional journey for her but it is also almost immediately a journey into womanhood.
I slid my leggings down around my knees and the cold brushed fingers across my privates until he covered me wiuth his own weight. He fumbled and he couldn’t find where to put it in me, and when he raised up the cold came between us. It hurt when he finally put it in me, and I didn’t like it but didn’t say anything.
When he was done I was empty and alone and the only thing I could think to ask was, “Are you my husband now.”
“Yeah,” he said. (p. 42 )
Janna soon becomes pregnant, the baby is born prematurely, it lives, she lives but doesn’t grow, she dies. Janna negotiates motherhood and bereavement whilst also attempting merely to survive. By know they have joined a new clan, one led by Aslak’s grandmother, but their lack of possessions (particularly renndeer) makes them a burden and they find little kinship. Janna experiences a coldness she had not known in her own village (this chapter is evocatively called ‘The Great Cold Room Of The World’).
The Tekse attack on the Hamra was not an isolated incident and the clans start to band together. There is talk of retaliation. However, when confrontation comes, it is utterly one-sided. The Tekse possess rifles and offworld technology and they lay waste to the clans’ camp. Janna and Aslak again flee but this time they are already weakened, food is even scarcer and there is no clan, however unwelcoming, for them to join. They journey through a wasteland and the narrative takes on aspects of the post-apocalyptic story but also of the refugee story (I was reminded of Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When?).
As they travel, Aslak slows and eventually stops. Janna continues on and eventually reaches a refugee camp. She has lost her parents, her sister, her clan, her child and her husband. At the gates of the camp, she is forced to hand over her rifle. Janna is sixteen years old and now officially has nothing.
In fact, it becomes clear that she has even lost her identity. Having learnt to be an adult in the world of the clans, she finds that becoming a refugee reduces her once more to a child. Not only is she dependant on others for survival but as a mission child she is ignorant of the culture in which she finds herself immersed. Although the camp is full of clan folk, the town it abuts is populated by town folk almost as alien as the offworlders. When she leaves the camp and walks to the nearest city, this is only amplified. (This also highlights the cultural differences: when Janna wants to go somewhere, she walks, even if it takes days; it is only later that the concept of a bus is explained to her.)
In the city, she finds her mission-learnt English is an asset and lands a job as a trainee technician. Here McHugh moves from interrogating the life of a refugee to the life of an immigrant: the paternalism of the public sector, the indifference of the private sector and the chaotic, compromised support of other people like her. At the same time, Janna must negotiate the radically different levels of technology and spirituality between the world she inhabits and her own upbringing. She adapts quickly to the AI and VR technology used to teach her but still feels the need for the guidance of the camp’s shaman (a spectacularly irritating man). In negotiating the conflict between them, she ends up estranged from both.
At the same time as wrestling with her cultural identity, she is also struggling with her gender identity. When she arrives at the camp, malnourished and wearing men’s clothes, she is mistaken for a boy. Fearing the predations of the camp, she perpetuates the mistake. Janna of Hamra clan becomes Jan of no clan. (“A lot of us are kin to that clan,” she is told.) Once the need for such subterfuge becomes less pressing, however, she finds it impossible to drop the disguise:
My stomach tightened and ached, and I felt myself breathing. I felt myself draw breath instead and it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be a girl and I didn’t know why, but the thought was terrible. I could not be a girl again. Something would not let me be a girl again. If I was a girl again something terrible would happen to me, I was sure of it. (p.169)
At the camp she makes friends with a boy. Once he discovers her sex, their relationship is completely altered as he tries to impose a girl-boy dynamic on their friendship. Fearing that he will reveal her secret after she refuses his advances, she flees from the town. In the city, she makes friends with a man. This time, despite also enjoying the same platonic relationship as before, she starts to fantasise about having a sexual relationship with him. She reveals herself to him and they do indeed consummate their relationship. But Janna continues to dress and act as Jan. Whilst he is tolerant, he does not understand it, a confusion multiplied by the cultural differences between the pair. He presses her to assert her femininity:
“You don’t look like a boy,” he said. “You’re trying the implant thing to be a boy. Just once why don’t you try to be a girl? You might like it.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You haven’t tried,” he said. “Never with me. Except for sex. You like sex, Jan.”
I did like sex. “The counsellor says my gender is my choice.”
“What is that word,” the shaman asked, “gender?” (p.228)
That last sentence alludes to an area of the book that I found slightly problematic. At a compulsory work medical assessment (conveniently held some time after she started), her sex is finally discovered. The doctor immediately assumes she is trans and refers her to a gender counsellor. Two days later she gets her appointment. The counsellor is equally blithe and briskly outlines the physiological changes she can make. On the one hand, this demonstrates a society more accepting of gender issues; on the other hand, the speed of the process trivialises these issues. This reads like an authorial intervention from McHugh to force Janna’s hand and progress the novel. As that quote makes clear though, Janna maintains her ambiguity. She is adamant that she does not want to be a boy or a girl but rather both. So the second act of Mission Child sees Janna trying to reconcile the different facets of her identity. She is unsuccessful, overwhelmed, and once again flees.
She ends up, several years later, on an island whose inhabitants are descended from Indian and Chinese settlers. Now Janna is ethnically different, as well as culturally different; her blonde and blue eyes mark her out as a barbarous foreigner. This allows McHugh to subvert traditional stereotypes:
“I was supposedly good at soccer, for one thing, because sometimes a foreign team would come and play on the big island. They were foreign, they played soccer. I was foreign, therefore I played soccer, too. I didn’t even know the rules. (p.291)
At the same time, she is much more comfortable in her own skin. For example, early on in the chapter, Janna winks at another character. It is a shocking event for the reader because it represents the emergence of a confidence we have not previously seen. (The many gaps in the chronology of the story allow McHugh to cunningly make these paradigm shifts.) As well as learning herself, she has also learnt the world and she now knows enough to be angry:
She was doing what offworlders did to all of us. It was offworlders who had created the Mission. Offworlders who had made the guns available that killed us. It was offworlders who put us in refugee camps and fed us like pets… Here was an offworlder, faced with a problem, and all she could think to do was throw me a piece of silver. (p. 257)
But she also knows enough to be accepting. In the third and final act, Janna finally finds a reconciliation with identity and peace with her life. The final word of the novel is “home”.
Jo Walton concludes her review of the novel at Tor.com by saying: “I don’t love it like I love China Mountain Zhang, but I admire it.” My view is much the same. It is only in the final section that my love for it emerged as Janna’s personality emerged fully. But, of course, this could exist without the preceeding parts and perhaps I am also falling into the trap of privileging active over passive characters here.
Mission Child remains a fascinating novel; a novel of “chewy ideas rather than shiny ones”, as Walton puts it. It is also not the sort of science fiction novel you see very often. Perhaps that explains the hilariously inaccurate blurb on the back of my copy in which the Orbit sub tries to twist the story into a conventional SF narrative. This is not a story in which a special individual shapes the world, it is a story in which the world shapes an ordinary individual. Mission Child is not the sort of science fiction novel you see very often but I’d like to more of them. It’s like to see new ones but I’d also like it to be easier to see the old ones; where is the Orbit Masterworks list?
I am currently reading A Concise History Of Science Fiction by Mark Bould and Sheryl Vint and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the field. As well as the conventional narrative of each chapter, the book also includes pop out lists designed to stimulate further investigation. In the context of the SF mistressworks and 21st Century SF mistressworks lists, I thought it would be interesting to post their list of twenty works of feminist SF:
Rosel George Brown, Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue (1968)
Monique Wittig, The Guerilleres (1969)
Doris Lessing, Memoirs Of A Survivor (1974)
Kit Reed, The Killer Mice (1976)
Vonda N. McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978)
Joanna Russ, The Two Of Them (1978)
Suzette Haden Elgin, Native Tongue (1984)
Jody Scott, I, Vampire (1984)
Ursula K. LeGuin, Always Coming Home (1985)
Connie Willis, Fire Watch (1985)
Pamela Sargent, The Shore Of Women (1986)
Carol Emshwiller, Carmen Dog (1988)
Pat Murphy, Points Of Departure (1990)
James Tiptree Jr, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990)
Katherine Burdekin, The End Of The Day’s Business (1990)
Rebecca Ore, The Illegal Rebirth Of Billy The Kid (1991)
Marge Piercy, He, She And It (1991)
Melissa Scott, Shadow Man (1995)
Candas Jane Dorsey, Black Wine (1997)
Tricia Sullivan, Maul (2004)
I have read precisely one (the Piercy), though another is scheduled for my year of SF by woman (the Sullivan). Edit: I originally left The Two Of Them off this list, I am planning to read that this year too.
The Gollancz SF Masterworks is usually pretty predictable. Often this is a good thing: you would expect masterworks to be well known and a surprising number of classics have been out of print until Gollancz brought them back. At other times, it is less of a good thing. I am a huge admirer of Philip K Dick but when you see his umpteenth minor work being badged as a masterwork you do think Gollancz could cast their net a bit wider. So I was excited by the announcement of the addition of Arslan, a debut novel from 1976 by an author I’d never heard of previously, to the list. On starting to actually read the novel, however, my excitement curdled.
This edition is copyrighted 2010 so presumably Engh has revised it and it also has a new introduction from Adam Roberts (who, along with Graham Sleight, is writing introductions for all the new Masterworks). In his introduction, Roberts cautions that this is not the most plausible work of science fiction. So it proves.
General Arslan, a twenty six year old soldier from the imaginary country of Turkistan, has conquered the world. China and Russia are in his hands and, as the novel starts, the US government has bloodlessly capitulated to him and turn the country over to his control. This happens with such rapidity that most Americans have never heard of him until he suddenly becomes their commander in chief. So you can sympathise with the reaction of Franklin Bond, the high school principal who is our main narrator, on coming face to face with Arslan:
“I stared at him, amazed as much as disgusted. It was incredible that that a two-bit warlord from nowhere, infected with some out-moded Middle Eastern strain of agrarian socialism, could be kinging it over my town – let alone my whole country.” (p.27)
The reader is likely to share this amazement. Nor is this the end of such amazingly unlikely developments: Arslan travels at the head of his army (why?); he stops in the small town of Kraftville (why?); he commandeers Bond’s school as his base (why?). None of this makes any sense so when Arslan makes Kraftville the de facto capital of his empire (and by extension the world) the reader simply has to take this in their stride.
It is not until page 170 that we have an explanation for Arslan’s meteoric rise to world domination. Unfortunately this explanation takes the form of some guff about a magical Russian missile defence system and Arslan holding a gun to the head of the General Secretary of the Communist Party. As Roberts notes, “not even the most naïve political theorist would believe global realpolitik works that way.” (p.ix) However, he then goes on to say: “The point of all this, though, is not to negate the novel’s plausibility; it is to move it, forceably, to a different arena” (p.ix)
(In this context, it might be worth refering to Rich Puchalsky’s recent piece on Roberts’s own fiction: “The Ideal Author of his books, to revert to how they appear to me to be written, is not someone who wants to write a seamless set-up, believable characters, and realistic plots.” This is a response to a piece by Paul Kincaid which identifies Roberts as a Menippean Satirist. Both are well worth reading.)
I am not convinced that plausibility is so motile. I agree with Roberts that depicting a realistic global revolution is clearly not the point of Engh’s novel but is that enough to allow her to simply dismiss it out of hand? Again, I am not convinced. And if this is not her point, what is? Initially it seems that with Arslan Engh is seeking to give this evocation America a taste of its own medicine by turning its own imperialism back on itself. Or perhaps she is reaching further back; Engh has an interest in Roman history and death of America may be intended as a modern version of decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Both of these are points Arslan makes himself:
“More than a hundred years without war. A strange way of life.”
“What do you mean, without war? My God, we’ve-“
“You have made war, you have not suffered it! Your nation, sir, has been perhaps the happiest to exist in the world. And yet consider its history. The natives despoiled, displaced, cheated, brutalized, slaughtered. The most massive system of slavery since the fall of Rome… The upheaval, the upswelling, of savagery, of violence. Not revolution, sir, for revolution requires coherence. Not eighteenth-century France, but fifth-century Rome… Grotesque, sir, this combination of a primitive puritanism and a frantic decadence; very like the Romans whom you so resemble.” (p.80-1)
In fact, the whole of Chapter 7 is given over to such bluster as Arslan explains his worldview. Ultimately, Engh has little interest in the big picture though; Arslan shows no more interest in political philosophy or geopolitics than realpolitik. Bond tells Arslan that: ”Your little Turkistani wolf pack looks pretty small in the middle of the United States of America, General.” (p.25) He is wrong. It is the United States of America that looks pretty small. In fact, it is nonexistent; Engh has reduced the United States down to a single town. There is no sign of the army or the government and everything functions solely at the county level. Kraftville might as well be an island. What Engh is really interested in – and where she has some success – is people. If America is collapsed down to Kraftville then Kraftville is collapsed down to two individuals, defined by their relationship with Arslan. To discuss these two we must first overcome another stumbling block for the reader though.
On his arrival in Kraftville, Arslan gathers everyone together in the high school, has them bound and gagged and then matter-of-factly rapes two children – a girl and a boy – on the stage in front of them. Faced with an opening that defies reason and ends with such a blatant act of authorial provocation many readers would be tempted to close to book. This was certainly Abigail Nussbaum’s response the first time she read the book. On his blog Roberts commented: “It is worth persevering with. There’s nothing schlocky or cheaply exploitative about it.” She did persevere and I’m very glad she because she has written a wonderful review of the novel. But whilst what Roberts says is true, I’m not sure it is enough.
The majority of the novel is narrated by Bond. He is there from the beginning and the soldiers are billeted around town he finds Arslan under his roof. An honest American – bluff, hollow and provincial – he is set up in opposition to Arslan. The devil gets all the best lines though. Bond has no internal intellectual or emotional life, only a set of morals; he is less a character in his own right than a mirror for others.
No, if it is a book worth persevering with it is because of the second narrator, Hunt Morgan. Hunt is one of the two children raped at the start of the novel (the other, the girl, is never seen from again; see Nussbaum’s review for much more on this absence).
After the rape he is claimed by Arslan as a sort of catamite. Towards the end of the novel, Hunt muses that this period “- if, of course, I could only have known it – had been our honeymoon.” (p.293) This tells you a lot about what you need to know about Arslan; as both Roberts and Nussbaum suggest, “first the rape then the seduction” (p.269) can be taken as the novel’s queasy mantra. What starts as an obvious act of abuse, by an adult of a child, becomes something more complex: “Measuredly, by a gentle graduation of brutal degrees, I was being weaned away from slavery.” (p.176) Here is Nussbaum:
Hunt’s narrative is a brilliant, disturbing, heartrendingly raw description of a rape victim seduced by their rapist. Rejected by his friends and family both for being a rape victim and for accepting the gifts and protection of the only friend he has left, Hunt is confused by feelings of self-loathing and guilt into accepting and eventually returning the love of the man who violated him–because his is the only love on offer. Both Hunt and the supposedly good people around him take it for granted that having been raped makes him ineligible for the love of a better person, and so Hunt clings to the only form of affection still left to him.
The sympathetic depiction of the relationship between an abuser and their victim is always going to be difficult territory but Engh acquits herself well. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some concerns though. In the comments to Nussbaum’s post, Athena Andreadis says:
Many writers adopt the shorthand that a tyrant is particularly abhorrent if he rapes boys — girls and women, after all, “should” expect to be raped routinely in such circumstances. Another common shorthand is the amoral bisexual charismatic trickster who wields sex as one of his weapons and to whom all yield as if bewitched
Although Andreadis hasn’t read the novel and this characterisation doesn’t completely match the truth, there is certainly an element of it. The portrayal of Hunt is presumably intended to subvert our expectations but the relationship developed in much the way I predicted. Indeed, if it had not then there wouldn’t have been any novel. Partially this is because I did not read the book in a vacuum but I think it is also that the book simply taps into a different set of clichés. Hunt’s narrative remains, however, the most intelligent and subtle part of the novel.
Unfortunately we then move back to Bond. With Hunt we can forget (if not forgive) the stupidity of plot, with Bond it is once again brought centre stage. Arslan has fought his fairytale army (which seems to consist of a couple of dozen soldiers) up and down the Americas only to find himself the victim of coup. Given his unfathomable management style the only surprise is that this hadn’t happened previously. Where does he return to seek sanctuary? Why Kraftville, of course. For some reason he envisions a warm reception and this is not far from what he gets. Bond, now mayor of the town and superintendent of the county, welcomes him back into his home and then allows him to once more turn the school into a fort. He justifies this thus:
”Well, the thing is this, Leland. Arslan hasn’t committed any crimes as a private citizen, and we don’t have the authority to try him for war crimes. And even if we did, what good would it do? From here on in, he is a private citizen, and nothing more than a private citizen. He’s entitled to the same rights as anybody else.” (p.271)
Just to recap, Arslan marked his arrived arrival by raping two children and then exported the attractive school girls to work as comfort women in rape camps whilst importing schoolgirls from elsewhere to perform the same function for his men in Kraftville. He also keeps Hunt and a female teacher as sex slaves and then, when he bored of them, sets out to rape his way through the remaining female population of the town:
He wasn’t interested in the esthetic niceties of rape any more, he took whatever the daily dragnet brought him. One of the lieutenants was in charge of picking up a new girl every day and getting rid of the used one. (p.132)
All this is without getting into the routine tyranny, the confiscated assets, the imposed curfew, the summary justice, the executions. History suggests that Arslan would soon find himself strung from the nearest lamppost. Bond would probably find himself up there with him since despite the fact he is notionally the head of the resistance, he more closely resembles a collaborator. The resistance itself doesn’t actually do anything, a fact Bond seems proud of, and its only act of insurrection is planting flowers on the graves of executed townsfolk. Whilst I am sick of so much science fiction and fantasy trading in cheap fantasies of agency the lack of any such agency here is simply fanciful.
Luckily Hunt has the last word. The final chapter sees him hunting a deer, a stag of exemplary maleness:
I counted four points; adding a conservative two for concealed branches, and doubling for the other antler, I could assume a twelve-point buck – old and wise and in all probability master of a considerable harem. (p.290)
In framing the stag in such terms, Engh cannot help but evoke Arslan. The heightened state in which Hunt pursues the deer then recalls his relationship with Arslan as well, complete with moral qualms: “In the end, I could not take him unawares.” (p.297) In eventually slaying the stag – on his own terms and with Arslan’s own gun – Hunt finally kills him, albeit by proxy. Yet as the novel ends we inevitably find Hunt leaving Kraftville to follow Arslan, pursuing him with both love and hate. The whole chapter is infused with such ambiguous intensity that you can almost believe that yes, Arslan was worth persevering with.
But not quite. The portrait of Hunt remains a bright jewel in the tarnished setting of a bad and boring book. Nussbaum concludes her review by wondering if she is simply the wrong target audience. By which she means she is a woman:
To see a male character get raped is an assault on the male reader that a woman’s rape wouldn’t have been, and for the seduction part of the novel to get under that same reader’s skin by confounding all expectations that Hunt will rebel against Arslan and avenge his violation, the object of the seduction must also be a man. The problem with this tactic is that it is aimed exclusively at men. Just as Arslan scarcely bothers to seduce the women he rapes and saves his attentions for Hunt (and just as his seduction of Kraftsville is focused on its young boys, to whom he becomes a mentor), Arslan the novel is only interested in seducing its male readers. The problem with the novel turns out to be its lack of interest, not in its female characters, but in its female readers. We don’t get seduced. The opening rape scene is as much an assault on us as it is on male readers, but the rest of the novel ignores us.
Was I seduced by the novel? No. The opening was not an assault on me, it inspired only indifference and contempt with its ridiculous and manipulative premise. Correspondingly the seduction I required was something other than that I received; the masculinity of Arslan is as alienating to me as it is to Nussbaum. As she says: “If I have ever in my life read a novel that is so dismissive of women’s character, personhood, and agency as this one, I am struggling to recall it.” This is not a book I want to read. If this is a seduction aimed exclusively at men, I wonder what type of men they are.
Sitting down to write this review of Lauren Beukes’s debut novel, my mind kept circling back to the name William Gibson. Partly this is because Moxyland is that rarest of beasts, a 21th Century cyberpunk novel, but I think the connection runs deeper than that.
Allow me a roughshod rehearsal of his career to date. Gibson has produced three loose trilogies which have moved progressively further away from both the future and the centre of the science fiction genre. At the same, his protagonists have made a similar progression; they have moved further away from youth, further away from the street. It is probably not unfair to suggest that this progression mirrors his own increasing age and social status.
So we start with the Sprawl trilogy (1984-1988) and the pointless punkery of Neuromancer where the protagonists are apathetic and criminal and effortlessly connected to the street. Or, to put it another way, youthful. At the other end of the spectrum we have the unfortunately named Bigend trilogy (2003-2010) where the protagonists have grown up and and achieved improbably Jon King-like transformations. If Cayse is a coolhunter then Case is the red meat she is after. These two poles are spanned by the Bridge trilogy (1993-1999) where the protagonists are caught between carefree adolescence and aimless adulthood. These are characters that have grown into jobs but not yet grown out of them. More often than not these jobs involve the knowledge economy and the creative industries.
It is a unique and incredibly distinctive milieu, one that Gibson has carved out for himself, and it is this that Beukes has so confidently plugged herself into. Not only would her characters be at home in Gobson’s world but, as a South African, her own world makes an appropriately cyberpunk setting for his concerns.
Amongst many aphorisms, Gibson is famous for suggesting that the future is here, it just isn’t evenly distributed. This is a great soundbite but is really just another way of saying that wealth is not evenly distributed. If the social safety net seems tenuous in the late 21st Century Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis of the Sprawl then it is virtually non-existent in the early 21st Century Johannesburg of Moxyland.
We are presented with a neat quartet of protagonists – two male, two female; two black, two white – who are safe from the street but for whom it is still very much a day to day reality, either because they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps or because they are slumming. Kendra is an art photographer but has achieved this at the expense of becoming an art dealer’s kept woman. Toby is a spoilt little rich boy playing citizen journalist (I say citizen journalist, his videocast is called Diary of Cunt). Tendeka is a community organiser and social activist who is more in love with direct action than his boyfriend. Lerato was born into a corporate orphanage and has grown into a successful programmer who can’t resist jeopardising her security by dappling in the dark arts.
They are all, to be honest, unpleasant people; each attended with a fatal flaw, be that insecurity, selfishness, righteousness or arrogance. In other words, they are people we might all recognise in ourselves and our peers, particular in our twenties before the world has sanded down some of our rougher edges.
Beukes is 34 now and has an MA in Creative Writing and a decade of journalism under her belt. I think this last fact is present not just in her media-embedded characters but in her writing. It is there in the slice-of-life approach to Moxyland’s plot, it is there in the fascination with communication, it is there in the insertion of ersatz found material in the form of transcripts and the like and it is there in the occasional non-fiction tic to her prose. For example, on the very first page we get this example of the rule of three:
It’s nothing. An injectable. A prick… Art school dropout reinvented as shining brand ambassador. Sponsor baby. Ghost girl. (p.1)
That is Kendra – the soul of the novel – speaking. Both she and Beukes return to the rule in much more knowing style later:
I’m a demo model for their demographic. An angel of aspiration. A guinea pig for an appropriate alliterative beginning with g. (p. 68)
It is self-conscious writing to suit a cast of self-conscious characters. Toby may seem like the ultimate Barleypunk but self-awareness does lurk underneath the front; “like Diary isn’t an exaggerated persona already” (p. 202), he acknowledges at one point. But just because they are aware doesn’t mean they can act on this.
Moxyland follows the characters as, one way or another, they try to escape from their lives, to become involved in something bigger and more exciting. At this juncture I will confess hypocrisy: I’ve often complained that there is not enough science fiction which concentrates on the prosaic stories of the world of tomorrow rather than Earth-shattering, epoch-changing events. Now, when I get just that, I find Moxyland to be lacking a certain narrative drive. Beukes captures her characters lives but the novel sags slightly whilst she fully entwines them. Once she has, the novel gains pace with a fatalistic inevitability. Because, although there may be no ultimate conspiracy here, that is not to say the state and the market are not dark actors.
This is to be expected in a book about real people in the real world. This is a novel where the stakes are very much personal and when these ambitions come into contact with wider, more impersonal forces they are casually and callously crushed. Just as the characters are powerless against their own nature so they are powerless against the state and find that in the end, it is the state that shapes their very nature.
Remember these fine words? Well, I never really followed up on them. Niall Harrison’s focus week on women in SF came and went and, though I voted in his future classics poll, I didn’t take part in any wider sense.
Over Christmas I decided to do something about this: I would read and review one SF novel by a women every month in 2011. I appreciate this sounds pathetically modest but in the context of my current reading I’m afraid it isn’t. There were several SF novels by women already languishing on my shelves, bought but unread and in this state for some time. I rescued these and then topped them up from Amazon. This in itself was an eye-opener; almost all the books I searched for – even those which had only recently been published – were out of print.
These are the twelve books (minus Kindred by Octavia Butler which hasn’t arrived yet but plus a couple of fantasy novels I couldn’t resist):
A few other people had the same idea. First of the blocks was Ian Sales and now Shana Worthen, the new editor of Vector, will be running a monthly discussion group for each of the eleven novels on the future classics poll. So I’d like to treat my year of reading women as a parallel exercise. It won’t be a formal discussion group (although it does overlap with Shana’s list in two instances) but if any want wants to read the novels at the same time as me, here is the schedule I will be working to:
January: Moxyland by Lauren Buekes
February: Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand
March: Arslan by MJ Engh
April: Mission Child by Maureen F McHugh
May: The Flood by Maggie Gee
June: Maul by Tricia Sullivan (discussion at Torque Control)
July: Woman On The Edge Of Time by Marge Piercy
August: Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle
September: The Two Of Them by Joanna Russ
October: Kindred by Octavia Butler
November: The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin
December: Spirit by Gwyneth Jones (discussion at Torque Control)