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Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

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Usually I have little time for subtitles; if it is that important, stick it on the cover. In this instance, the subtitle, The Princess of Bois Dormant, signals the fact that the novel is a homage to Alexandre Dumas’s The Count Of Monte Cristo. It is not a story I know well – I have seen the 2002 film adaptation but it was at Christmas so I couldn’t tell you whether it was James Caviezel or Guy Pearce who was the wronged party – but the understanding that this will be a story about betrayal and revenge is inescapable. Perhaps the familiarity of the story explains why the back cover synopsis is so unusually detailed, as I will show by quoting from it at unusual length:

After the massacre, Bibi was given a choice: become the General’s concubine, or Lady Nef’s servant. She chose to be a servant and they took here away, from the mediaeval isolation of Cymru to the labyrinthine Great House in Kirgiz; and then to teeming Baykonur, the Enclosed City, Gateway to the Stars.

Bibi had no desire to leave Earth. She certainly had no wish to try the Buonarotti Transit, non-duration ‘starflight’ that could leave you criminally insane, or turned inside out; or both. But circumstances forced Nef and the General to take her with them to Sigurt’s World: on a diplomatic mission that was to end in mayhem and inexplicable betrayal. In the terrible prison of Fenmu, Nef and Bibi found each other again. The great lady, before she died, bequeathed to Bibi her exalted level of Access to the Systems – and the 4-Space co-ordinates of a secret treasure.

There is another paragraph after that but those 150 words manage to cover the first four acts of the novel and take us up to page 255 of 472. What is remarkable about this synopsis is not its casual disregard for its notoriously spoiler-sensitive readership (see current Gollancz publicity director on spoilers) but the fact it barely scratches the surface of this extraordinary novel. Spirit contains more in a single book than most modern science fiction trilogies manage and is easily one of the half dozen best SF novels published this century. I took no notes whilst reading it and as such I cannot really do justice to the novel so what follows is not a review but some thoughts.

Bibi is short for Gwibiwr – Welsh for wanderer or voyager – and Spirit is the story of her rise and fall and rise again. Orphaned at ten by an assault on her home by General Yu, she becomes a servant in his household for his wife, Lady Nef. If this initially seems like slavery, it soon becomes clear it is more akin to adoption. The first act sees Bibi grows to adulthood in this house, the irregularly sized chapters advancing us forward in time and the gaps between them unknown. This is a standard literary technique but also fits with a recurring theme of the novel that time is fluid. So too is gender and Jones presents a fascinating future society hundreds of years in the future following the alien invasion catalogued in her earlier Aleutian trilogy consisting of White Queen (1991), North Wind (1994) and Phoenix Café (1997). As with The Count Of Monte Cristo, I am working from a position of ignorance with respect to these novels – I read North Wind when I was 14 but can remember nothing of it – and, whilst knowledge of them is not necessary to fall in love with Spirit, I can’t help thinking greater understanding of the Aleutians and the Gender Wars and the rest of the future history would have enriched the experience. It is against this backdrop and on the brink of adulthood that Bibi stumbles upon a conspiracy that sees the whole household being banished from Earth.

The second act (Jones terms it an “intermission” but although it is substantially shorter than the preceding part, it has similar heft), sees Bibi make the Buonarotti transit from Earth to the space station Speranza, the capital of the loose federation of alien species. If time was fluid before, it becomes glorious unreal during transit. I was reminded of M John Harrison’s deliberate decision with Light to create a universe where not only was faster than light travel possible, all faster than light travel was possible:

Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything.

There is something fearless about this position and that is a word that encapsulates Jones’s novel. After spending some time on Speranza and adapting to a whole new social order, Bibi and the household are sent on a diplomatic mission to Sigurt’s World and the novel transitions to a wonderfully Banksian planetary romance. Basically, if you love Iain Banks but have been disappointed by his output for the last decade or so, Spirit is the book for you. The mission goes wrong in a bit of alien politicking that is again a novel in itself; in the immediate aftermath of the debacle, the General betrays Lady Nef to save himself and casual condemns Bibi on the grounds that she is the only person who would now this. Unaware of their shared fate, the pair are imprisoned and forgotten in caves on the planet’s moon and, in the face of decades of isolation and despair, Bibi’s soul disintegrates. It is a huge tonal shift and a remorselessly bleak section but Bibi emerges from it, taking the reader with her on each painful step to recovering. When through her efforts she is re-united with Lady Nef, the path is clear for her escape but it remains a hard row to hoe.

So, with indecent haste, that sums up the first half of the novel. The second half is the revenge, although it isn’t really a revenge at all. Lots of reviewers seem to have struggled with the second half of the novel for this reason. These issues are probably best articulated by Paul Kincaid in his review for Strange Horizons:

But here the faithfulness of the copy to its original begins to waver. For a start, the way that Dumas accelerated both the action and the tension throughout this portion of his novel is largely absent from Spirit, and the occasional adventures inserted into the story seem largely artificial additions, not really part of the overall plot… But it is a novel whose strength wanes the longer it goes on. If she had stayed closer to the colour and drama of the original, it might have ended up being even better.

It is certainly radically different from the preceding section but then those sections are each pretty different themselves and the deviation from Dumas is, I feel, a strength of the novel. True, tension is decreased but in its place is something warmer, deeper, more effecting. This is well captured by Duncan Lawrie’s review for The Zone:

Spirit bristles with energy and anger, gradually smoothing into equanimity. A key message of the book is presented in the first few pages: “Believe me, this is the greatest secret I know. Rule your own mind, and you may rule the world. Far more important, you will be happy, no matter what comes. And happiness is all that matters in the end.” (p. 7)

Ultimately, that is what makes Spirit not just a great novel but a book I took to my heart (even if these random scribbles don’t really convey that).

Written by Martin

23 March 2012 at 12:57

Posted in books, sf

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The Two Of Them

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Although I’ve read quite a bit of Joanna Russ’s non-fiction, I’ve never read her fiction. Aware of this gaping hole in my reading, I picked up a copy of the Women’s Press edition of The Two Of Them in Oxfam a couple of years ago. It has shamefully sat on my shelf until the year of reading women motivated me to pick it up.

The Two Of Them was first published in 1978, although it didn’t make it to the UK until 1986. As such it comes relatively late in her science fiction career; in fact, it is the last SF novel she published. So I wondered if this was a sensible place to start. Although several people re-assured me on Twitter that it was, the more I read, the more I started to have my doubts. By the time I’d reached the end I was both completely captivated and totally confused.

The two of them are introduced in a long descriptive passage this is simultaneously straight forward (their appearance is described in detail) and sideways (their sex is concealed until page 3, their names until page 4). We – the reader – are directly addressed by the author; Russ does not want us to forget that these are her words, that they represent deliberate choices. This becomes increasingly important as the book progresses but for now what matters is the introduction. Irene and Ernst are colleagues, they are lovers, they are student and teacher; they are equals, they are unequal. Russ’s achievement here is to immerse us in a complicated relationship and make us immediately alive to its depth, density and maddening contradictions. However, whilst there connection is clear, the context that brings them to the planet of Ala-ed-Deen is not.

Ernst and Irene work for The Gang. The back cover (which details the whole of the plot from beginning to end) suggests this is the same at the Trans Temp. However, even after reading the book I have no idea what this organisation does or why it exists. To begin with this doesn’t matter since the story is confined to their relationship. As they become more and more involved with the culture of Ala-ed-Deen, however, it is impossible to not to start asking questions and once Irene legal kidnapped a young girl – seemingly part of the day-to-day business of Trans Temp – I was completely lost. Even more confusing is the sudden revelation that Irene was a teenage in Fifties America (making her the same age as Russ). What has initially seemed like a far future space opera setting is revealed to be something more confused and confusing. How have they recruited Irene from across time? More importantly, why? We are never told.

When I finished the novel I therefore did what everyone does these days: I Googled it. One of the first things I came across was Brit Mandelo’s review for Tor.com, part of a series of posts she wrote about Russ’s work. It does shed some light but one sentence stood out in particular:

It’s a messy book, not in its prose, which is flawless as ever for Russ, but in its relationships and its arguments, its breaking of the fourth wall and the rules of narrative to make a point.

Messy is a good word. Wild is another. This has its appeal but, as a male reader though, I found something particularly problematic about the arguments it makes. This is a novel in which – as Mandelo reminds us – the key quote is: “The gentlemen always think the ladies have gone mad.” This is quite clearly a critique; the character voicing it is a young woman trapped by the constraints of a patriarchal society. It serves men, we are intended to read Russ as saying, to characterise women thus because it removes their agency and allows them to be dismissed. So it is surprising that the final part of the novel appears to depict Irene’s descent into insanity. This gentleman does think the lady has gone mad so half of me wonders what trap I’ve fallen into and the other half is wonders what mess Russ hasn’t gotten herself into.

It is at this point I turned to Gwyneth Jones. I don’t own Imagination/Space but fortunately her essay on The Two Of Them from that book is available online. Jones describes the novel as a “kind of postscript to the whole Cinderella story of twentieth century womanhood” and usefully contextualises it within 20th Century feminism and, specifically, the science fiction feminism of the Sixties and Seventies. She also contextualises it within Russ’s other fiction and those of other writers:

It illuminates the background and explains some of the wrinkles in The Two Of Them, when we know that the novel began as a response to a story called ‘For The Sake Of Grace’ (1969) by another feminist, Suzette Haden Elgin. In Elgin’s ‘Islamic-style’ world, prowess in poetry is the only path left open to women who want to achieve greatness, and it is made as difficult and threatening as possible. ‘For The Sake Of Grace’, in its turn, pays homage to the classic proto-feminist story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892), a chilling description of exactly how a talented woman goes mad, when she’s locked up to ‘cure’ her of her talent as a writer.

Although I obviously picked up the theme, the specifics of this was all completely lost on me (Jones is using the Wesleyan University Press with a foreword by Sarah Lefanu, mine was naked). Having remarked on how controversial the ending was at the time it was published (and taking John Clute to task fro this), Jones does provide the counter reading I was hoping for. It is not, however, a reading I recognise. Or rather, I recognise the metaphorical reading that she makes but can’t reconcile it with a literal reading of the book. We are back to the problem I with Woman On The Verge Of Time, that the multiplicity of readings offered up by the text all come into conflict. If something is science fiction, surely it is science fiction for a reason, rather than just an excuse to throw chaff at the reader? To cloak a story of our own world with a colourful, gauzy veil?

These days, I’m better able to understand how a liberal male critic, convinced that women in sf were a well-served special interest group, with nothing to complain about, could have felt so betrayed, and indeed bewildered, by The Two Of Them.

I don’t think liberal male critics who think women in SF are well-served actually exist these days but it is true enough that I am a liberal male critic and I am bewildered by The Two Of Them. This bewilderment has not been dispelled by Jones’s essay; I think I need to read the book again.

Written by Martin

19 October 2011 at 16:55