Posts Tagged ‘a year of reading women’
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?
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.