A short story review: ‘When it Changed’ by Joanna Russ

One thing I really haven’t done enough as part of writing this blog (apart from, um, posting more often) is read more short stories. I also wouldn’t mind spending a bit more time reading the feminist science fictions of the 60s and 70s, when women were entering what was still very much a male-dominated genre in larger numbers and making it their own. So I’m hoping to cover both bases here by starting with “When it Changed” by Joanna Russ.

Published in 1972, the story gives us a glimpse of a society run by women that is neither a utopia nor a patriarchy-in-reverse. The story is set on the planet Whileaway – a colony of Earth where all the men were wiped out by a plague 30 generations ago. The women were left to establish a complex, slowly industrialising society and fight for the survival of their species through a combination of scientific breakthroughs and a determination not to allow ‘nature’ – whether in the form of the dangerous beasts that roam the forests above the 48th parallel, or the once-assumed requirements for biological reproduction – get the better of them.

Now, six centuries later, Janet and her wife Katy are part of a welcoming party that sets out to greet the first ship to arrive from Earth since the colony was abandoned hundreds of years ago. It’s a moment for which their society had thought itself ‘intellectually prepared’. For the first time in centuries, men have come to Whileaway.

I’ve never read anything by Joanna Russ before, but I was struck right away by the sense of inevitability in her description of the descent of both sides – the men from Earth and the women of Whileaway – into the old pattern of domination.

This wasn’t for lack of resistance on the part of Russ’ protagonists, who are all examples of the fact that qualities such as aggression, bravado, fierceness, seriousness and silence are innate to neither gender, and, away from the warping influence of the patriarchy, can belong to women as much as men. To the women, the bodies and mannerisms of the men – the comparative gaudiness of their clothing, the freedom with which their taller, broader bodies impose upon their space – are alien and more than a little ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is the men’s blatant confidence in their own sexual appeal, newly arrived as they are on a planet of women who must surely be ‘missing something’ in their relationships with one another. Yet somehow it is the men who are able to more fully dehumanise Janet and Katy, and to make them ‘feel small.’

“Where are all your people?”

No matter what the women tell them about their society’s achievements, the men are unable to perceive Whileaway as anything but a ‘great tragedy’. They are frank about the purpose of their mission – to ‘use’ the women to deplete a gene pool damaged by radiation – but without any men to speak to, they are unable to recognise the encounter with the women of Whileaway as what it is – a meeting in which it is they who are inadequate representatives for their planet. The women’s words – of cautious welcome, of explanation, of determination to develop their society at their own pace – fall on deaf ears. Without any men to speak to, any official business cannot have begun – and, as we learn later, it is, in the end, settled by the fact that one side has ‘the big guns’ while the other has none.

The story is pessimistic about anything like a clean slate in showing this fraught encounter between the sexes – one that nearly ends in the death of the leader of the men, and ends instead in a sense of foreboding. Janet ‘has fought three duels, all of them kills’ – but she is terrified of the prospect of one day living in a society where she and her daughters are ‘cheated of their full humanity’, and robbed of their own achievements. Janet’s physical strength and fighting skills, her influence with the President of Whileaway, the privilege that she and her wife enjoy on a planet where the majority spend much of their lives working on farms… all of those things make her a mere oddity, a joke, to the men, for whom the punchline lies in the fact that surely either she or Katy must ‘play the man’ in their relationship.

“Take my life but don’t take away the meaning of my life.”

Janet’s words, in one of the closing lines of the story, are an expression of her fears for a future patriarchy that has been hitherto absent from Whileaway. It is this absence, she knows, that has allowed her and Katy and their daughters to grow up as full human beings. Janet is proud of her duels, the brilliant science of her and Katy’s ancestors, Yuriko’s forthrightness, Katy’s fearless driving. Yet none of those things are recognised as accomplishments by the men, who see the women as lacking in all the ways that matter. They do not dress as well as the women on Earth. And most importantly, they do not vie for their attraction, or reward their posturing with any signs of an attraction of their own.

IfWhen it Changed’ is a story about the way that the structures of language can be used to stunt and dominate, then it is also a story haunted by empty words that cannot be trusted.

The men speak repeatedly of the ‘re-establishment of sexual equality on Earth’. Russ’s repetition of the phrase reiterates the fact that the concept of equality means less than nothing when it is an equality in name only… when a group of (presumably?) white men is considered to be an adequate representation of the Earth’s ‘people’, and when ‘nature’ is considered to be the explanation for a world warped by multiple and intersecting hierarchies of oppression.

In the encounter between the men and the women of Whileaway, only the former consider themselves, and only themselves, to be fully and simply people. Across this gap of dehumanisation, neither equality nor true connection are possible. ‘Sexual equality’, ‘exchange of ideas’… these are shown to be just words, and when said to mask the reality of oppression, they hang dead in the air.

Posted in Joanna Russ, Science Fiction, Short Story Review | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Book review: The Other Wind by Ursula Le Guin

It’s been a while between posts. I’ve been working on things that, alas, have very little to do with fantasy, science fiction or books of any kind. But now, it’s time for another review… and though I’ve covered an Ursula Le Guin book pretty recently, I wouldn’t mind revisiting a series that was partly responsible for getting me so very much hooked on fantasy in the first place.

It’s time to revisit the world of Earthsea. Written over more than 30 years, the very different books that make up this series tell much about Le Guin’s development as a writer, and more specifically, as a writer about women.

The earlier books have little to offer feminists, holding fast to the canons of high fantasy and eschewing any hint of a political agenda. In A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin introduces us to a world of action and magic from which women are largely excluded. They can be lords’ wives, village witches, mothers and sisters; they have power of sorts, and minds of their own, but they are still only tools that propel the storyline of the young mage Ged and his encounter with the dark side of his own ambition.

In The Tombs of Atuan, Le Guin introduces us to a more diverse cast of female characters, and in particular, to the character of Tenar, who must choose between filling the role of the First Priestess of the Nameless Ones, and living a life of her own. Though we see this but later, Tenar’s choice has consequences for all of Earthsea, returning an ancient token of unity and peace to a king-less, scattered world.

In the third book, The Farthest Shore, which deals with the making of a king and the final quest of the now-Archmage Ged, Le Guin sidelines women completely. Which is exactly why it is so satisfying to read The Other Wind. Published 10 years after the fourth book, Tehanu, it involves a return to the dry land — the shadowy realm where the dead of the Archipelago live beyond the passage of time and change. But this time, Ged, who is no longer a mage, remains on Gont to “keep the house”, while the struggle to restore the balance between the worlds of the living and the dead falls to others.

These others represent a major shift in the focus of Le Guin’s fantasy writing. Unlike the earlier Earthsea books — in which power and adventure were the province of the figures you’d expect — male wizards trained on Roke, lords and princes and priestesses of rank — this book is all about getting people who do not normally hold power to take centre stage. Which is why Tenar’s daughter Tehanu and an illiterate village sorcerer, Alder, are the ones who must set things right. And which is also why, in this final book in the Earthsea series, women are given a bigger stake in the world of magic.

King Lebannen, who crossed the dry land with Ged in The Farthest Shore, must now rely upon the shy, traumatised Tehanu and the “fearless” Irien to protect his people from marauding dragons. Women living alone (or in relationships with other women) make a living from practicing magic in every part of the Archipelago. Some of these women — like Lily, the wife of Alder — have powers that rival those of men (though I was surprised that Irien, who is part woman part dragon, was the first to stand at the door of the school on Roke, and ask to be allowed to study there).

Yet Le Guin is not only interested in women who can work magic or change themselves into dragons. In Tehanu, instead of simply allowing a few exceptional women into a man’s world of politics, magic and delicate equilibrium, she subverts the traditional preoccupations of the fantasy genre by suggesting that this world is not all there is.

Through the figure of Tenar, who began as a priestess on Atuan and was later recognised by the wizard Ogion as worthy of teaching, Le Guin re-examines her earlier, more conventional, understandings of noble causes and dangerous quests. Tenar’s decision to leave Ogion’s house for marriage and a family is forever a disappointment to Ged, because it also poses a direct challenge to a more conventional fantasy universe in which only the doings of the detached, celibate wizards of Roke are of any importance in the world.

In The Other Wind, it is also Tenar who continues to make this challenge by insisting on the recognition, and inclusion, of the High Princess Seserakh, the daughter of King Thol of the Kargad Lands, in the adventure. Unfortunately, though, it is here that I think Le Guin goes from refocusing her fantasy universe upon women’s experiences, to essentialising them.

Veiled entirely in red fabrics and ignorant of the world beyond her birthplace on the island of Hur-at-Hur, Seserakh does not at first resemble an active participant in a fantasy story. She is described as an object whose fate is yet to be decided — a “package” to be opened, “a bargaining piece to buy advantage with.” To Lebannen’s frustration, though, Tenar insists on treating her as a person, with courage, strength and valuable knowledge of her own. Tenar is frustrated by Seserakh’s initial reluctance to engage with the world she is brought to against her will, describing her and Tehanu as “two scared girls who didn’t know how to take hold of their power.”

While Tehanu does eventually take hold of her power — as the daughter of the dragon Kalessin, and part dragon herself — I was at a loss as to how that line could possibly apply to the princess. Shipped to Havnor and “given” to Lebannen as a token of peace, to either marry or cast aside, the only way that Seserakh can take hold of her power is to attract him and therefore be ‘chosen’. To uncover her face (before which he is unable to acknowledge her as a person); to learn his language; to prove that even she — a “harem woman” — has thoughts and knowledge that he has underestimated.

The idea that Seserakh, for all her limited choices, can still have power of her own is not, of itself, unconvincing. Throughout history, women forced into political marriages have wielded real power, and not only through their husbands and children. But what I find less convincing is the suggestion, made throughout this book, that by making Lebannen fall in love with her (and, conveniently, falling in love herself), Seserakh is the one in control. That whatever power Seserakh might have over the King is somehow stronger — more grounded and more in touch with the stuff of life — than the political and magical powers wielded by the men of the book.

At the end of the book, when the wall surrounding the dry land is finally brought down, Seserakh’s only role is, in Tenar’s words, to “keep the house”. Her courage and strength have no opportunity for expression other than in her love for Lebannen. He wins his kingdom by journeying alongside Ged through the land of the dead (where he makes a repeat visit in The Other Wind). She becomes Queen by sitting by his side and waiting for him to return from his spirit journey.

The men of Earthsea can pick and choose from a variety of identities, spheres and ways of relating to the world (Ged, for instance, is able to inhabit Tenar’s sphere once he is no longer a mage). They hold positions of authority, and cross seas of their own volition. Meanwhile, the women are confined to the local and the personal – and yet the book suggests that they have a power that is all their own. It’s the power to attract, to gain an influence over men (at least when those men are attracted to women). It’s the power to run the daily lives of others (though this is, upon closer examination, more burden than power, given that these women aren’t given the option of running anything else). It’s the power that marks the relationship between mother and child.

These forms of power are all real. But in being dependent upon the formation and endurance of a personal relationship, they are also incredibly fragile. Because to a great extent, they depend on love. And — as we see in Tehanu — the unavailability of any other kind of power to the women in Earthsea renders them incredibly vulnerable when that love’s not there. The scars that mark Tehanu’s face are a reminder of that. So is the fact that, even if Lebannen had not conveniently fallen in love with Seserakh almost as soon as she removed her veil, he would still be the one with the power to decide her fate.

The Other Wind is not a perfect book. It follows Tehanu in centralising women’s experiences in Le Guin’s fantasy universe — but at the same time, reinforces their exclusion from the contests of magic and power that shape that world. Perhaps it’s unrealistic, but I wouldn’t mind another addition to the saga involving a shift in the ground that is occupied by Earthsea’s women. Taking on a broader range of roles, or at least contesting their occupation by men, would give these women more ways in which they could finally “take hold of their power”.

Posted in Book Review, Fantasy, Ursula LeGuin | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Always already perfect: beauty and female characters in fantasy books

What makes a fantasy book? The Wikipedia page contains not so much a definition as a list of the genre’s most common features: magic and other supernatural phenomena, imaginary settings, magical creatures, elements of mythology and folklore.

But there’s another feature that’s missing from this list, at least when it comes to the major female characters in fantasy. I’ve written about this before, but today I felt a Need to Vent, and in any case I think this is a topic that deserves a post of its own. It’s time to talk about beauty – or more specifically, the way that beauty is pretty much compulsory for the major female characters in a fantasy novel.

All too often, you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out who’s who in a fantasy book almost as soon as they are introduced.

“She was beautiful” = enter Main Female Character.

“She would never be pretty, but…[insert actual important thing about her – a thing that has nothing to do with her appearance]” = enter Minor Female Character.

“…” = enter Main Male Character and Main Female Character. Silence will fall when he meets her and sees how beautiful she is.

It’s bad enough that so many writers can’t seem to help pigeonholing the entire appearance of their female characters, whether they’re major or not. Yet on its own, as annoying as it might be to hear the word “beautiful” used to describe every main female character, the word itself could be glossed over. On its own, the word “beautiful” has potential to leave appearance up to the imagination.

But beauty in fantasy is anything but in the eyes of the beholder. For it’s only a certain kind of beauty that has become the standard for what a fantasy heroine is allowed to look like.

The first requirement for the main female characters of a fantasy book is an appearance that I can only describe as conventionally “feminine”. A slim yet curvy body. Medium height. Long hair (it may be braided for practical purposes, but never cut short, let alone shaved off altogether). Unblemished skin. Did I mention the curves? And the slimness? It is important that the female heroine have breasts, but heaven forbid that her curves extend into a “plus size”.

All these things leave little room for diversity. Many Western fantasy writers in particular have little interest in main characters who are not of Caucasian appearance (unless we’re talking about the villains. It is depressing how many fantasy worlds continue to divide personifications of “good” and “evil” along colour lines). The standard for what constitutes “beauty” marginalises characters whose skin is ‘too’ dark, whose hair is ‘too’ curly or kinky, who choose not to wear dresses and riding skirts. And let’s not even start on the age of the average fantasy heroine (the world of fantasy is probably the only one where the fate of empires is best decided by people in their early twenties, and first-time-perfect, never-awkward sex is had by people still in their teens).

Yet beauty, on its own, is not enough, unless that beauty is natural. Female fantasy heroine will rarely spend time modifying her appearance to achieve “beauty” in the eyes of her fellows. But her nonchalance about her appearance is no sacrifice in the name of liberation, for she conforms to the Western standard for “beauty” without even trying. She also never plays with or changes her appearance in any way – or does any of the things that real-world women do to get closer to the beauty ideal. She does not dye her hair or wear make-up…let alone get a tattoo, or cosmetic surgery, or piercings other than in her ears.

The invisibility of women actively altering their looks in fantasy books also stems from the fact that female characters’ relationship with their appearance tends to lack any personal dimension. That is, it’s a relationship that is entirely mediated by the way that others – and particularly men – perceive them. If men think a character is beautiful (and if she’s the main character, and if she’s portrayed as sexually active in the book, then they usually do), then that is good enough. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! If the female heroine knows she is beautiful, it’s because men tell her so.

I know, I know. Part of this is a matter of priorities. Between magic, imaginary worlds and mythical creatures, a typical fantasy adventure just doesn’t have room to also explore the heroine’s fashion sense, or her body image issues. Although it could! Having thoughts about aspects of your appearance and actively experimenting with changing it doesn’t equate to an inability to do anything but prance in front of a mirror.

But I just want to put it out there that writers who think their stories have no room for dealing with these issues shouldn’t deal with them at all.

That means not signposting that a female character is “beautiful”, “pretty”, “stunning” or “attractive” as soon as she enters the scene. That means not regurgitating the same stale stereotypes about a woman’s relationship with her body – the hatred of new breasts and other budding signs of femaleness (until a chance to “use” them — i.e. the main male protagonist — comes ambling by)… The (um, unlikely) obliviousness to her own conformity to the beauty standard, regardless of its recognition by everyone around her. The unconvincing insistence that she too has flaws! — through remarks about her hating her “perfectly straight, silver hair” that “refuses to take a curl”, or the shape of her “nose” — although there’s nothing to suggest that her body might actually deviate from the ideal.

And when it comes to the lack of diversity in body types, skin colour and expressions of gender identity, there is no excuse. That also means aiming for greater diversity in characters whose adventures, friendships and love lives occupy centre stage in your writing.

Ugh. I feel a little shallower writing this post, which is kinda funny, because that’s the exact kind of circular thinking that the beauty standard is meant to engender. We are supposed to be always already perfect, striving to look the way we always already looked. Being seen as caring too much about that imperative to improve ourselves – for example, by writing an entire post about the appearance of characters in genre fiction! – that’s just vanity talking.

But I don’t think it makes one vain (whatever that means), to be annoyed by things like this. And no, I’m not just jealous of the “naturally beautiful” fantasy heroine with her long hair and her supposedly imperfect nose (I like my nose. It is perfect — for making scrunched-up faces when I read about another “beautiful” woman in a fantasy book).

But sometimes she kind of exhausts me. I mean, I know I’m dropping a bombshell here, but WOMEN READ FANTASY BOOKS. All kinds of women. Fat women, thin women, women with breasts and without. Women with long hair and buzz cuts. Women who see beauty in themselves without waiting for its confirmation by anyone else. Women who will hopefully get to the point of seeing it one day. And I don’t know about all of these women, but I do struggle to relate to fantasy heroines to whom amazing things happen as long as they are always already perfect (and have long hair, flawless figures and big boobs).

So maybe, just maybe, we could cut out the lazy (and by all means not universal) pretense that only a (conventionally) “beautiful” woman can be worthy of a fantasy narrative – have special gifts, grapple with political dilemmas, have hot sex, meet the love of her life and, you know, do magic and make friends with mythical creatures. Of course, many writers are already doing that. But maybe one day labelling female characters as “beautiful” will be no more than an instance of bad writing. It will no longer be something that remains almost compulsory in a genre that’s supposed to be about escaping these things, if only for a little while.


Posted in Beyond ranting quietly to myself in my own head, Fantasy | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Book review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

Feminists have been reading, and re-reading, The Left Hand of Darkness for a long time. Ursula LeGuin herself has gone back to the book and its setting more than once, re-conceptualising its portrayal of gender as her feminism developed alongside and through her writing. Now, over four decades after it was first published in 1969, the text itself has become bound up with the history of its various interpretations.

What to say about a book on which so much has been written?

Perhaps I can begin by returning to my own first reading of The Left Hand of Darkness two years ago. Pushing away the image that had imprinted upon my mind’s eye – those two tiny figures, all alone upon the ice – I remember feeling smug and ready to criticise. The book had begun, in LeGuin’s own words, as a “thought-experiment”: she “eliminated gender, to find out what was left.”[i] Yet in insisting so strongly upon a people in whom the masculine and the feminine were blended, LeGuin had made the gender binary – and the very idea of masculine and feminine characteristics – stronger than ever. If there was a radical point to that experiment – that is, the deconstruction of gender, as opposed to its hypothetical elimination – then the experiment had failed.

But reading it now, I feel that the book is not so much about that experiment as it is about impossibilities. The impossibilities created by our insistence upon dualities; the impossibility of representation, by the self and of the other, and also the impossibility of contact between the two. It is about the violence done to the other’s subjecthood in ascribing them to one half of a duality, and the impossibility of exiting a worldview premised on dualities to see an other as they really are.

I do not want to spend too much time summing up the plot; it is sparse and far from fast-paced, but in a good way. A man, Genly Ai, comes as an envoy from Earth to the planet Gethen, seeking to persuade its rulers to join a coalition of eighty-three planets called the Ekumen. Gethen has an Earth-like atmosphere, but a semi-arctic climate, for which, on other worlds, it is known as ‘Winter’. But most of all it is a world set apart by the biology of its inhabitants, who are androgynous and sexually inactive except for an oestrus period each month known as kemmer. During kemmer, the Gethenians can take on the role of either male or female, in sex and also in reproduction. The rest of the time, Gethen is a society without sex.

The effect of the Gethenians’ ambisexuality, we are told, is multiple:

“Anyone can turn his hand to anything… The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be… ‘tied down to childbearing’, implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be — psychologically or physically… Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.”

On Gethen, Genly is seen as a “pervert”, a “sexual freak” whose state of “permanent kemmer” and fixed maleness make him the subject of both suspicion and wonder. When he fails to convince the paranoid, capricious (and pregnant) king of Karhide to form an alliance with planets beyond his own, he decides to try his luck in the neighbouring nation of Orgoreyn, which has a very different government. Arrested and taken to a labour camp in the far north of Orgoreyn, he is rescued by Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who was once Genly’s patron at the court of Karhide. Together, the two of them undertake an incredible eighty-day journey back to Karhide across the Gobrin Glacier.

At first, for all the book’s far-flung setting, this sounds incredibly familiar. The male hero, by going on a physical journey through an unfamiliar and threatening landscape, undergoes a transformation. But for me, the most interesting part of the book is the extent to which that transformation does not, and can never, succeed, due to the effect of symbolically entrenched binaries and hierarchies on Genly’s ability to make connections with others.

When the story begins, Genly has been on Gethen for over a year. Yet he has by no means come to terms with being surrounded by people who, for three quarters of the time, have no sex at all. He insists on labeling the Gethenians he encounters as either “masculine” and “feminine”, despite himself acknowledging that this is a purely artificial game – and one that usually fails. When he asks his building superintendent, whose curvy figure and “prying, spying, ignoble, kindly” nature lends itself to the label “landlady”, if “he” has borne children, he is answered in the negative; the lady has borne none, but sired four.

But the way Genly plays the game also betrays his internalised misogyny. The characteristics he associates with femaleness – in the absence of females capable of serving him as sexual objects – are mostly negative. He admits to disliking and distrusting Estraven’s “femininity”, which he describes as “all charm and tact and lack of substance”. At any sign of shiftiness, spying, intrigue, playfulness – but also, later, softness and vulnerability — in a Gethenian, he categorises them as female (and therefore other to himself). His difficulty with Estraven, then, is one of intimacy. Knowing him better than anyone else in Karhide, he cannot truly call him either a man or a woman without knowing the insufficiency of either label. And yet as long as he is unable to perceive Estraven as “an integral man”, he is also unable to trust him.

To some extent, this changes out on the ice. Genly is forced to confront the violence that his insistence on a gender binary does to the non-conforming subjectivity of his companion. When Estraven goes into kemmer, Genly realises that all along he had been pretending not to see the female in him:

“Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality… I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship, to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.”

But to what extent does Genly — to whom even the women of his own world are “more alien” than the Gethenians — become capable of accepting that kind of “reality”? Reflecting on their journey, Genly later concludes that he and Estraven “had touched, in the only way [they] could touch.” Yet was it only the man (who was also a woman) that he reached out to?

One conversation between Genly and Estraven certainly suggests that it is not possible to transcend thinking in terms that divide and bisect the other, while remaining intelligible to oneself.

“You are isolated, and undivided,” Genly says to Estraven. “Perhaps you are obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.”

“We are dualists too,” Estraven replies. “Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.”

“I and Thou…Yes, it does, after all, go even wider than sex…”

It is impossible for Genly to conceive of wholeness. But then, is it possible for anyone? Genly is unable to conceive of an other as a full person. He can only reach out and touch — the mindspeech between him and Estraven is certainly some kind of connection — but to represent that connection, or the being with whom that connection was made — that’s something else altogether. This connection remains depressingly untranslated, by the end of the book, into the ability to see the Gethenians for who they really are. Or, for that matter, to really see women.

“There are no women in it,” wrote Joanna Russ of The Left Hand of Darkness in 1972.

The absence of women is not only a result of LeGuin’s (later regretted) insistence upon using the masculine pronoun ‘he’ throughout the book. It is also exacerbated by the fact that although the book insists that the Gethenians are manwomen, we see almost nothing of their alleged femaleness (except for the associations made by Genly). We see nothing of childbearing, or child rearing. If no one on Gethen is quite so free as a male anywhere else, or as “tied down” as women elsewhere, we are shown only the freedom, and nothing of the being “tied down”.

The woman-shaped gap in The Left Hand of Darkness seems to be very much a consequence of LeGuin’s commitment, when the book was written, to a bourgeois individualist writing tradition – and to a science fiction that answered questions about what another world might look like only in relation to its male population. It was, after all, written at a time when a major category of science fiction comprised what Russ described as “intergalactic suburbia” – where the world building, however imaginative in relation to things like technology, left unquestioned the gendered division of labour, and replicated on faraway planets the core values of the American middle class.

To be fair, LeGuin’s “thought-experiment” does question the universality of some of these values. For instance, the book does not export laissez-faire capitalism to Gethen (though the precise nature of the economics of Karhide and Orgoreyn is left relatively vague). Gethen is also a planet that has never known war. Yet a comment by Genly makes it clear that the causal link between biological sex and the division of labour is one thing that will not be questioned:

“It’s extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones. Even where women participate equally with men in the society, they still after all do all the childbearing, and so most of the child rearing…”

Genly’s assumption – that women’s biological role in reproduction should also be determinative of the division of labour in the raising of children – is a depressing outlook for what is supposed to be a league of (I repeat, eighty-three!) futuristic worlds. If Gethen is to be the odd one out, it is doubly to be expected that the allocation of responsibility for the raising of children – not to mention the structure of a family – will be a point of interest to an outsider (and certainly to the reader, looking in). There is no excuse for deeming that side of life too matter of course – too humble, too ordinary – to be the subject of a novel.

And yet, for all its shortcomings, The Left Hand of Darkness has a feminist following well beyond the usual readership of science fiction. Perhaps this is not so much because of what the book has to say about gender as it is about the questions that it leaves unanswered – and the questions it inspires.

Perhaps it is also because its shortcomings have been acknowledged by LeGuin herself, who admitted that the book had Estraven doing only “manly things” during his journey across the ice, and regretted locking the Gethenians into heterosexuality. After over 20 years of experience as a feminist, LeGuin admitted that in her early years as a writer, she did not yet “know how to write about women.” Certainly the story “Coming of Age in Karhide”, published nearly 30 years after The Left Hand of Darkness, focuses back on the family, gives an insight into Gethenian child rearing practices, and incorporates same-sex encounters into the story. And LeGuin’s later works – such as the other stories that make up The Birthday of the World (2002), and her latest installments in the Earthsea saga – also focus directly on the perspectives of women, without marginalising their experiences.

The Left Hand of Darkness thus becomes more than a thought-experiment. In being bound up with its many re-readings, it also becomes about the growth and development of LeGuin as a writer, and the journeys traced by her and other feminists in the context of science fiction. It becomes about the growth of the women who read and re-read it, who are inspired to take a new look at gender, and ask questions of their own.


[i] If you’re interested, check out LeGuin’s short essay ‘Is Gender Necessary’ (1976-87) in Ursula K LeGuin, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Place (1989).

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Book review: Everwinter by Elizabeth Baxter

Everwinter begins with the story of an ending. The king of Variss has journeyed up the slopes of a haunted mountain to release the ancient powers that dwell there – powers his ancestors had been charged with keeping safely locked away. He sets them loose, against the advice of pretty much everyone, and unsurprisingly, it is a bad idea. His act takes an army of men to their deaths, causes an avalanche that buries all of Variss and plunges the land of Thanderley into an ice age.

Everwinter is the first book in Elizabeth Baxter’s The Wrath of the Northmen trilogy. Set three years after destruction of Variss, the book does little more than provide a lead-up to the inevitable quest to discover what caused the disaster. The writing, for the most part, is fairly standard epic fantasy fare, with its talk of ancient magic, old gods and their human offspring – but with science added in.

What made me want to write about it, though, was a post by Tansy Rayner Roberts about the use of the concept of historical authenticity to justify sexism in fantasy writing. In “Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That”, Roberts questions the practice of treating history as a uniform repository of truth from which fantasy writers can reliably extract a ‘realistic’ picture of men and women’s lives in historical societies. All too often, this picture is one that prioritises the exploits of men while marginalising women – all because this would, supposedly, be truer to mainstream narratives about the past, or generally about societies that are less technologically developed than our own.

Roberts questions this practice (which I prefer to call lazy world building) by putting the focus on the fact that those narratives are history. If (heterosexual, white, usually wealthy) men tend to be the active subjects of those narratives, that speaks more about the privilege that continues to be afforded to their voices than it does about their relative importance in the actual subject matter of history (and fantasy).

Most epic fantasy writers draw, to varying degrees, upon motifs from real-world histories and cultures to build up the settings of their novels, and Everwinter is no exception.The book is set in the city-states of Ral Tora and Chellin – two very different societies that epitomise (not always subtly) the tensions between science and religion, reason and magic, that lie at the heart of the story. From the beginning, however, Baxter makes it clear that men and women have an equal stake in the resolution of these tensions. While incorporating many motifs from what might have been ancient Roman and other societies, she never lapses into an exclusive focus on the heroics of male fighters and schemers, plus their lusty female love interests, just because this would be more consistent with what “history” tells us about men and women’s social roles.

The more I saw of Chellin and Ral Tora, the more it became obvious that Baxter was taking great pains to avoid replicating ‘sexism as a default’ even when, let’s face it, she could have easily got away with it. Any reader of epic fantasy might be disappointed, but surely not surprised, to open yet another book set in a strongly patriarchal society, where only a few exceptional women manage to distinguish themselves from their passive, vain and man-obsessed peers – by developing magical powers or running away on quests that are, as much as anything else, quests against a life confined to domesticity, marriage and children. These exceptional women do not care about their looks, and talk with disdain about dresses, romance and other supposed trappings of femininity. Almost always, though, they also happen to be naturally beautiful. And it never takes them very long to find true love.

Everwinter is different. In Chellin and Ral Tora, the participation of women in public life is a matter of course – and so is their presence in all lines of work, whether it involves fighting, politics, worship or scholarship. In Chellin, men and women both serve as members of the Senate. Astrid, the Regal of Chellin, and Ravessa, its High Priestess, are serious, ambitious women who worked their way up from the bottom of the social ladder. Their capacity to deal with the demands of leadership are never put in question because of their gender (or, I couldn’t help noticing, because of High Priestess Ravessa’s pregnancy). Women join armies and elite combat units; Commander Alara, a woman, is the leader of Ral Tora’s City Watch. Women work as engineers, scholars and healers; some of them have children, but at no point are their careers treated like something unnatural because of that.

The female characters we see the most of are Astrid and also Falen (an engineer and, as we later learn, the exiled daughter of the king of Variss). These women are very much defined by what they do. They grapple with tactical and logistical problems, pursue their own agendas and are generally portrayed as active subjects of their own lives. They are not perfect, but their mistakes have nothing to do with their relationships with men: Astrid is driven by her desire to be a good ruler and save her people from the Everwinter (rather than by her lingering feelings for High Priest Tamardi), and Falen is too concerned first about her work and then about her homeland to spend much time mulling over the faintly signposted attraction between her and Bram Thornley (an apprentice engineer and one of the book’s unlikely heroes).

This is not to say that Everwinter offers us a radical vision of equality, because it doesn’t. Baxter does not exactly turn the patriarchy on its head, or do away with gender roles altogether. The city of Ral Tora is, after all, ruled entirely by men: no woman can ever hope to rise through the ranks, as Astrid did in Chellin, and join the Council of the City Fathers. And the high level of equality that women appear to have in the world of work (or at least in the Engineering Guild) does not extend to their social behaviour. Baxter makes Bram Thornley seem more human by emphasising traits that are not exactly typical of a born fantasy hero; we see him drinking with his fellow apprentices, often to excess, and nursing hangovers during morning shifts. With only one exception, however, young women are absent from the taverns of Ral Tora – except when they wait at tables, or come to nag their drunken brothers into returning home for dinner. And Thanderley’s version of equality has another obvious missing piece: though the women in Everwinter fill many traditionally male-dominated roles, there are no men who do the opposite. Caring jobs in Chellin and Ral Tora appear to be filled entirely by women (although perhaps we will see this lingering gender divide subverted in one of the later books).

For all these criticisms, I found Everwinter to be a refreshing read. The fact that it does not, in the end, overturn the gendered division of labour altogether is perhaps only to be expected. It is a fantasy book set in a world that incorporates many traditional features of an epic fantasy adventure, and as such, it is never going to be free of the hierarchies that gave shape to them. Yet Baxter tries harder than many other writers in her genre to incorporate these features without also picking up entrenched stereotypes and patriarchal ideas about what women can be and do. The resulting world may not be entirely new, but it is a more imaginative one because of it.

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Book review: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall by Sheri S. Tepper

I haven’t read any other books by Sheri Tepper, and it will be a while before I even think of doing so. It’s not because I don’t like speculative fiction, which can often be at its best (and most disturbing) when its subject matter is closest to home. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (1996) certainly aims for that unsettling effect where a dystopian vision of the near future becomes more than mere fiction, for its roots are already visible in the world all around us.

Unfortunately, this is one of those books that does not achieve its desired effect.

The book starts out in 1959, when seven young women from different parts of the US find themselves sharing a college dormitory and strike up an unlikely friendship. Naming themselves after an old history book that has come to symbolise their bond, they swear an oath to one another. They pledge, above all, to meet once a year, no matter where life takes them… and to each “find a place to stand where she could be as woman was meant to be”, and thereafter “never decline or fall from that place.”

Over forty years later, the original divisions between the women — and there are many — have become unsurmountable gaps. Agnes — now Reverend Mother at the Abbey of St Clare — holds tight to her rigid interpretation of Catholic doctrine, even when its teachings about the role of women lead her to regard her own desires and ambitions as sinful. Faye — a successful sculptor and an “evangelical lesbian” — regards the marriages of her friends, not to mention Agnes’ career as a nun, with disdain. Bettiann’s only son is the result of an affair with Jessamine’s husband Patrick. Carolyn — the lawyer and the group’s most vocal feminist — has come out of retirement to take on the case of Lolly Ashaler — a fifteen-year-old girl who became pregnant as a result of a gang rape, and who is on trial for murder after leaving her newborn baby in a dumpster. The media is turning Lolly into a scapegoat, and Carolyn wants her friends from the Decline and Fall Club to help.

And Sophy has disappeared. Sophy — the traveller and storyteller of their group, whose prophetic tales continue to challenge and inspire countless women. She is the one whom none of them really knew… the only one of them, her friends suspect, to have “declined and fallen”.

So far, so good. Tepper is by no means a bad wordsmith, especially when she focuses on the complicated, challenging relationships between these women. United as they are by their desire to be true to their womanhood, their understandings of what that means are very different, and not necessarily all positive.

Bettiann and Agnes, for example, are both driven and talented, each in her own way — Agnes as a nun, and Bettiann as the head of a charity foundation. Yet they are hostile to any cause that explicitly refers to women’s rights, and doggedly insist on blaming the victim when hearing stories of rape and domestic violence. Each of them is torn by the impossibility of living fully as a woman while continuing to regard women as less than fully human.

They are exasperating characters, their internal contradictions somewhat bluntly drawn. Yet they are also meant to demonstrate the devastating impact of an oppression exerted from within, by a misogyny internalised from childhood. It is this internalised oppression that makes Agnes feel like an impostor in the high-ranking role she has earned through her own devotion and skill as a businesswoman — and that tells Bettiann that she will never be beautiful enough.

It is a shame, then, that the plot of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall soon becomes so laughable. Because a Global Sexual Crisis is afoot. Or should I say “crisis of masculinity”, because while nobody seems to be having sex anymore, it is men who are in deep trouble. Depression is on the rise. Suicide rates are skyrocketing. Brothels and porn shops are going out of business.

The women don’t seem to mind it much. In fact, they are considerably better off: rape, domestic violence, forced marriage and even female genital mutilation are quickly becoming a thing of the past. And they need no longer bother wearing make-up.[i]

When they are not busy killing themselves over their inability to achieve an erection, men all over the world are taking to the streets. Fundamentalist riots rage in all major cities as men call for an end to women’s rights. Women are assaulted in public for failing to cover their faces while the authorities look on. A group known as the Family Values Shock Troops descend on groups of women out in public, hitting them with whips and admonishing them to “go home” to their fathers and husbands.

Coordinating this outpouring of hatred is the Alliance — an unlikely coalition of political and religious groups united only by their misogyny. Led by the devil-like creature Webster, they include most Muslim nations, the Vatican, the KKK, the American Nazi party and, naturally, all of the Republicans. Their plan is (surprise!) to take over the world — and confine women once and for all to their reproductive function.

Men cannot resist their call to arms. Because “where men are many, they fall easy prey to creatures like Webster.”[ii]

Pitted against Webster and his “crowds of marching men” are the women of the Decline and Fall Club. They alone know the source of the “libido-loss epidemic”, and their quest to reverse it leads them to find Sophy’s people in Lizard Rock, New Mexico.

This is where things get more than a little weird (not to mention unsubtle).

Sophy’s people turn out to be (spoiler alert!) a community of parthenogenic lizards who reveal that the persecution of women all around the world has been “planned”. The patriarchy is basically a global conspiracyled by individuals — and personified by Webster himself.[iii]

If this sounds rather simplistic, then Tepper’s portrayal of womanhood is even more so. Her language is unabashedly essentialist, endowing women with a mythical quality through references to their “own ancient wisdom”, their “female principle”, their longing for “communion with the centre of their own nature”.

But even more so than “their own nature”, what unites women across the world is their oppression at the hands, words and symbols of men. Cutting across divisions of race, class, sexual orientation and ability, Tepper rides roughshod over the concept of intersectionality and asserts that misogyny is the one true source of women’s suffering.

On her solitary travels around the world, Sophy gathers the stories of countless women — most of them stories of oppression. Stories of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Stories of girls left to die by parents too poor to feed them, and young village women sold into prostitution by their families. In Tepper’s world, these girls and women are at risk simply because they are female.

Being female is a big part of it. But so is the impact of globalisation on vulnerable communities. So is development of unregulated markets for trafficked women. So are other hierarchies – of race, size, age, sexual orientation, ability and — especially in this book — class. It is easy to attribute Bettiann’s body hatred, her eating disorder, her inability to enjoy sex, to a childhood spent competing in beauty pageants and enduring the sleazy attentions of their male judges. But shouldn’t some of the blame also fall on the society that left her and her single mother without adequate means of supporting themselves, so that the exploitation of Bettiann’s looks was their only ticket out of grinding poverty?

Out of all the members of the Decline and Fall Club, only Faye — the only character who is neither white nor heterosexual — is aware of factors other than gender that stand between her and equality. Yet sexism has caused her to distance herself from the civil rights movement, and her “militant” homosexuality does not extend to activism, but is limited to scoffing at the sex lives of her heterosexual friends. She seems to have been included in the book only to demonstrate that sexism is, in the end, the ultimate form of oppression —  and the struggles of women (in this case, middle-to-upper class, American women) the most important struggles in the world.

Ironically, even Carolyn, in her quest to ‘rescue’ a girl for whom an education, sexual autonomy and a stable home are all “rich people’s things”, continues to think of herself as a conservative on economic issues. Despite being the book’s most vocal spokeswoman for women’s rights — the one who, in the final chapter, is given the power to decide the destiny of the entire world — she is blind to the intersecting factors that make girls such as Lolly vulnerable. She may be aware of sexism, but she is unable to imagine a world in which Lolly is no longer poor.

Ultimately, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall reads like a caricature of a feminist book. Its blatant essentialism, together with its blindness to the multiple dimensions of women’s oppression, undermine whatever insights this book might have to offer.

This blindness is exemplified in the way the world’s women are rescued, in the end, by the Decline and Fall Club — whose members are at no point forced to recognise that they, as relatively privileged residents of the Western world, might also have a share in less privileged women’s suffering. Carolyn and her friends are able to feel good about confronting the patriarchy — while remaining committed to other oppressive structures of power, and hence remaining part of the problem.



[i]According to Tepper, sex — or at least, heterosexual sex — makes women vulnerable to violence at the hands of men, but remains peripheral to their identities. Men, on the other hand, are left with a looming identity gap in its absence. After all, “doin’ sex is all some men have to brag about” — although some of them survive the libido-loss epidemic by turning to hobbies, such as crossword puzzles, and playing the trumpet.

[ii]Throughout the book, Tepper is desperate to prove that this is not what it sounds like: there are some ‘good men’, and anyway, the struggle is not about gender, but about “dominion”. But when the few ‘good men’ in the book are hollow, clueless characters, while “dominion” is associated with “armies of marching men”… well, what it sounds like is ever-so-slightly unsubtle.

[iii]Which is actually a pretty tempting idea, given that Tepper’s version of the patriarchy can be beaten, action movie-style, in the book’s final chapter – and by a ghost, no less.

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Book review: Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga has been described as a feminist take on military science fiction – a fast-paced adventure that remains ever-mindful of its human cost.

The saga revolves around the life of Miles Naismith Vorkosigan – a mercenary, spy and aristocrat born into the militaristic society of Barrayar with a number of physical disabilities following an assassination attempt on his father and pregnant mother.

Published as a combined edition in 1996, the two books that make up Cordelia’s Honor serve as a prequel to the rest of the saga. They follow the story of Miles’ parents – Cordelia Naismith, the captain of an astronomical survey ship from Beta Colony, and Aral Vorkosigan, a military commander from the planet Barrayar.

The first book, Shards of Honor, begins on the planet Escobar, where Cordelia’s survey mission is violently interrupted by a mutiny aboard Aral’s shuttle. Cordelia is taken prisoner by Aral, who must regain command of the shuttle after being left for dead by his men. Very soon, however, the prisoner-captor relationship between the two becomes complicated – first by their growing attraction to one another, and then by the escalating tensions between their home planets.

Forced to choose between betraying (or forgetting) Aral and abandoning her career, family and home on Beta Colony, Cordelia opts for the latter. The second book, Barrayar, follows her after she rejoins Aral at his ancestral home in the Vorkosigan District. There, she does her best to start a new life – and a family – on a planet where women occupy second place, and the disabled have no place at all – a planet that “eats its children”.

For while both Beta Colony and Barrayar began as colonies of Earth, their societies have developed along vastly different trajectories.

Beta Colony was established on a desert planet where human habitation is only made possible in underground cities fed by an artificial atmosphere. Its survival, then, is dependent on two things. The first is tight state control over the distribution of the planet’s limited resources, including air and water. The other is rapid advances in technology. These two sites of progress have together resulted in a remarkably egalitarian society in which poverty – and also gender roles – have largely been eliminated.

From the outset of Cordelia’s Honor, an emphasis is placed upon Betan women’s freedom to take on any variety of occupations and social roles. Their presence in the upper ranks of the Betan Astronomical Survey – both a scientific institution and a reserve military force – is so unremarkable that when the senior members of Cordelia’s research team are introduced to us, their genders are left indeterminate, only later to be revealed as female. Betan society is liberal in its attitudes to sexuality and recreational drug use, and progressive in its approach to the management of both physical and mental health.

Barrayar – a far newer colony with a hospitable climate and an abundance of water – is ostensibly easier for humans to inhabit. Ironically, however, it is on this fertile, long-isolated planet that poverty abounds, while men who live past the age of forty are considered unusual after centuries of virtually ceaseless warfare. The society of Barrayar is highly militarised, with a feudal form of government. It is also a patriarchal society in which women are only beginning to emerge from roles that centre on their reproductive functions – first as prized (and compulsorily virginal) marriage material, and then as wives and, most importantly, mothers.

Barrayar: ‘natural’ reproduction as occupation

As soon as Cordelia arrives on Barrayar, her gender is used to contain and delimit her identity. She goes from captaining her own spaceship to her “new job” of “gestating” and appearing at social events where all she has to do is “show up appropriately dressed…smile a lot, and keep her mouth shut.”

For Cordelia, this is doubly shocking. Not only must she adjust to being defined exclusively as a potential producer of sons to feed the armies of Barrayar, but she must also do so on a planet where medical technology has not advanced sufficiently to free women from the physical inconveniences that accompany their reproductive functions.

She is aghast when she learns that Barrayaran women continue to experience menstruation, “unanesthesised defloration”, pregnancy and the pain and risks of childbirth as a matter of course. On Beta Colony, women are fitted with contraceptive implants at the age of fourteen, periods can be “turn[ed] off till they’re needed” and most babies are gestated in uterine replicators or artificial wombs.

Cordelia, too, once expected to have a baby “cooked up” for her in a uterine replicator, and ready by the time she returned from a survey mission. After her marriage to Aral, however, she must come to terms with the prospect of experiencing physically things that, on her home planet, have long been outsourced to technology – and are thus anything but ‘natural’ or ‘matter of course’.

Making strange: critical distance in science fiction

It could be said that Cordelia experiences life on Barrayar as a kind of alien – a “lady soldier” from a planet scornfully regarded as the seat of both sexual “depravity” and “cold-blooded” rationality. As the repeatedly shocked – yet very much engaged – outsider, she embodies the critically distancing function of science fiction at its best.

For as it immerses us in life on other planets and distant stars, science fiction alienates us from the culture in which we are ourselves embedded. This distancing function is, however, more than just escapism. For those planets and stars, for all their strangeness, are replete with cultural motifs that mirror elements of our own world back to us.

By subjecting these motifs to the critical observation of its characters, science fiction thus makes our everyday both strange and contingent once more. Aspects of life that we might take for granted are thus re-imbued with their own political and historical specificity.

All hierarchies – including the hierarchy between the genders – can be questioned through this kind of critical distancing. Cordelia’s responses to the sexism and ableism permeating Barrayaran culture highlight their contingency to the reader, but also hold out the possibility – however imperfect it might be in the example of Beta Colony – of an alternative. This is both promising and relevant – because while much of what shocks Cordelia as a Betan shocks us too, in many ways we are also still living on Barrayar.

The most obvious similarity between our own world and that of the Vorkosigans is, of course, the “double standard of sexual behaviour” for men and women. To Cordelia, this double standard at first appears to be a “logical impossibility”. On Beta Colony, sexual health and safety are promoted through the distribution of information -and a far broader range of relationship configurations (rather than just ‘the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others’) are given equal recognition. New to the unspoken codes and heavily gendered taboos that govern Barrayaran high society, Cordelia struggles to understand “how it could be done”. For us, however, these taboos appear all too familiar – for even well into the 21st century, discourses around sexuality continue to follow misogynistic, heteronormative lines.

We are still very far from arriving at a point where individual women’s sexualities are not, in some way, being policed by others. Having sex (too young, too soon, with too many partners or a partner of the ‘wrong’ gender), not having sex or just expressing oneself in ways that others insist on sexualising… All of these things remain capable of depriving women of recognition, respect and even safety.

Our culture continues to reward young men (well, as long as they’re heterosexual) for being sexually active, while adopting the language of caution and personal responsibility when it comes to discussing the sexual behaviour of young women. That same language is used to ensure that abortion – and even access to emergency contraception – is not made ‘too easy’ for women who should have been ‘more careful’ – whether that’s more careful in consenting to sex, or, where there was no consent, in venturing out of the house altogether.

Throughout history, this “double standard” has had an impact on women’s reproductive choices. It’s easy to think that we can now consign to the past the centuries when the threat of becoming pregnant out of wedlock (not to mention the many burdens of childrearing) were an effective constraint on women’s behaviour. After all, at least in Australia, we now have access to a variety of options in terms of contraception and, most recently, the abortion pill.

Yet these advances can never be taken for granted as long as politicians are able to insist on viewing women’s bodily autonomy as a legitimate subject of debate and political game-playing. It is no wonder, then, that Barrayar’s hypocritical attitudes to sexuality seem closer to home than Beta Colony’s practical policy of actively limiting reproduction – but facilitating true sexual freedom for all its citizens.

Beta Colony: eliminating the biological division of labour

In 1970, Shulamith Firestone wrote in The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution that gender inequality originated in the biological division of labour in reproduction, whereby pregnancy and childbirth facilitated the imposition of patriarchal social structures upon women. Artificial reproduction through the use of cybernetics, together with the replacement of the nuclear family with community-supported child rearing, could shift these structures and thus ensure that biology, for women, was no longer destiny:

“The ‘natural’ is not necessarily a ‘human’ value. Humanity has begun to transcend nature: we can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class system on grounds of its origins in nature. Indeed, for pragmatic reasons alone it is beginning to look as if we must get rid of it.”

At least in relation to reproduction, the biological division of labour is exactly what has been eliminated on Beta Colony. Choosing to have a child no longer requires women to undertake the physical work of childbearing – and even the structure of the family has taken on a more egalitarian form. Unlike on Barrayar, where daughters are seen as fodder for politically expedient match-making, while sons are prized as the continuations of paternal family lines, Betans raise children as equal “co-parents” whose relationships are formed entirely by choice.

But though it may resemble, at first glance, the fulfilment of Firestone’s radical vision of equality, Beta Colony is no paradise. For the harshness of its climate, and the limited nature of its resources, has forced Betans to do away with the concept of reproductive rights altogether.

On Beta Colony, reproduction is not a right, but a privilege – one afforded only to those who can demonstrate the right kind of family. In order to get their contraceptive implants removed, women must qualify for a “parent’s licence” with a prospective co-parent, as well as satisfy a number of “physical, psychological and economic tests”. This kind of gate-keeping – together with legal restrictions on family sizes – means that while sexual behaviour is a province of individual freedom, reproduction is not.

Critical distance/critical embeddedness

The 1996 edition of Cordelia’s Honor contains a telling afterword by Bujold. From the beginning, she writes, she had known that Aral and Cordelia would have a physically disabled son in the militaristic society of Barrayar, because:

“The birth of a child is the proper climax, after all, of any romance that starts out “boy meets girl”, if the romance is not falsely truncated.”

Some aspects of the books, in retrospect, seem to resonate with this somewhat quaint authorial bias. Having children, for Cordelia, is a secret desire that eventually trumps all other aspirations. The speed and completeness with which she sacrifices a career that previously defined her suggests that her former role as scientist and “Mama Captain” was merely a training ground for her later adopted identity of Mother and Wife. For all the freedoms she enjoyed on Beta Colony, Cordelia has never quite escaped the idea that a woman’s life is not complete unless it includes children.

But for me, Cordelia’s Honor is such a good read precisely because it lends itself to more than one interpretation. .

In Barrayar, Cordelia repeatedly sheds light upon mothers who take great risks in ways that their militarised, male-centric society is not capable of recognising, let alone rewarding. The Emperor’s mother, Kareen, endures a violent marriage and makes dubious alliances to keep her son alive amidst the plots and conspiracies that threaten him. Lady Vorpatril, while firmly embedded in her role of society wife, demonstrates bravery and resilience far outside the contexts within which Cordelia has been taught to expect such things.

Like Barrayar, our own society presents women with some seriously mixed messages about motherhood. Becoming a mother is simultaneously exalted and devalued; it is both the ‘greatest achievement of which a woman is capable’, and a ‘natural order of things’ that deserves no social, let alone economic, recognition.

Cordelia’s Honor distances us from this ‘natural order’, and in the process, repositions motherhood as something that women can – if they so choose – legitimately seek out and fight for. It is a promising beginning to a series that raises some interesting questions – about gender politics, medical ethics and ableism, among other things. I look forward to reading the rest of it.


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Book review: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood’s finale to the trilogy of the same name – has a lot to say about the process of storytelling.

The trilogy revolves around the events that led up to the ‘Waterless Flood’ – a plague engineered by the genius Crake to wipe out most of the Earth’s population and sweep the slate clean for his genetically engineered ‘perfect’ humans. The few survivors of the plague – former gene scientists and the remnants of a disbanded religious order called the Gods’ Gardeners – tell stories to each other and themselves to make sense of their past in a society atomised and finally destroyed by the ambitions of mass corporations.

The process of storytelling is embedded in the very structure of all three novels, which circle, at times frustratingly, between the present and the forever-gone past. The process of telling stories forges a link between humanity’s undoing and its tenuous survival – not only in the novels themselves, but also in the form of the Crakers.

Engineered to live free from ‘faults’ such as sexual frustration, shame and the desire to form hierarchies and amass wealth, these innocent beings in their not-quite-Paradise wilderness still need stories to make sense of the dangers and mysteries of the world around them. Unlike Adam and Eve in the Genesis story, however, the Crakers have a cast of reluctant custodians to teach them what it means to be human. We know they have been taught successfully when Blackbeard, in the final chapter of the trilogy, finally puts pen to paper and takes over as the teller of humanity’s story.

Open-ended questions

The trilogy’s circling between narrated past and immediate present begins at the outset of Oryx and Crake, where Jimmy-the-Snowman’s grief-induced recollections present the reader with a lot of unanswered questions.

How did Jimmy end up in his treetop shelter on the beach, fed fish by perfectly beautiful specimens of sort-of-humanity that regard him as some kind of alien with divine connections? What happened to destroy the world of his reminiscences, with all of its uncomfortable resemblances to the world of today? How did this world come to be manipulated so completely by a small number of biotech corporations whose level of surveillance and social control borders on the absolute? And for that matter, how did the discourses – and possibilities – of science come to be privileged above all other frameworks that might have provided them with a critical outside?

For the most part, these questions remain unanswered at the end of MaddAddam. The world destroyed by Crake never has the chance to redeem itself. And what the new world offers is unclear, beyond the promise that life will go on – albeit in slightly unfamiliar forms that include blue penises, telepathy and the possibility of alliances (as opposed to purely instrumental relationships) between humans and other species.

The open-endedness of the questions raised by Atwood is reinforced through her refusal to lead her protagonists to any kind of epiphany at the end of the trilogy. Characters such as Jimmy and Ren never manage to draw any moral conclusions about, or rise to action against, the injustices around them. Even Toby insists on defining the problems facing first the God’s Gardeners and later their little group of survivors in individualist, practical terms, without recourse to any kind of metanarratives.

At first, this makes the trilogy a frustrating read – especially in Oryx and Crake, where Jimmy never outgrows his nature as a wilfully blind consumer – of pornography, the material perks of living in the corporate compounds, Oryx’s stories. But reading to the note of uneasy hope at the end of MaddAddam, I saw this repeated denial of the expected trajectory of growth and realisation as one of the novel’s greatest strengths.

Atwood’s refusal to provide a clear answer to the questions she asks in the MaddAddam books keeps those questions relevant. Denied a neat sense of closure, the reader cannot relegate these questions into ‘just a story’ – an unpleasant but temporary escape into a world that, we hope, could never become our own.

From equality in exploitation to biology as destiny

Yet the present-tense story of the MaddAddamites and the Crakers is far less open-ended, and also, I think, a lot less original. This is particularly so when it comes to the question of what future the post-apocalyptic world might hold for women.

Before the Waterless Flood, men and women appear to have achieved a kind of mock equality in their mutual exploitation by mass corporations. Their bodies, for the most part, are equally capable of being turned into objects of consumption. Boys and girls are sold by desperate village families to become ‘actors’ in pornographic films, while an entire industry has developed to cook up genetically perfect children for wealthy infertile couples. There are streets in the Pleeblands where scores of brothels cater to every taste, quirk and kink, while the bodies of Pleebland brawl victims and CorpSeCorps enemies are literally fed back to the consumer in SecretBurger patties.

But the most valuable commodity of all is the brain, and in this respect the intellectual – or at least, numerical – abilities of men and women are equally sought after. We see women as high-level scientists and senior corporate personnel – and also as political activists and urban guerrillas. But their near-equality does not equate to liberation. It is merely the mock equality of ultimate commodification, where gender roles and identities join the multiplicity of options to be desired, shopped for and acquired by consumers. Such choices are limitless – so long as they fit within the rubric of compulsory consumption.

Atwood’s vision of the world before the Waterless Flood is a bleak one, but for women at least, it does not exactly improve when its structural trappings – and most of its population – are swept away.

The relationship between women and their biology in Atwood’s writing has often been described as a dystopian one. Atwood portrays women as being caged by their bodies  or at least, as made vulnerable to being caged by patriarchal networks of power.

If this description is true of the world before the Waterless Flood – when the body parts, reproductive functions and aesthetic features of women were all marketable commodities – it applies even more so to the world that comes after. For the women of the series, being plunged into a not-quite-wild wilderness bristling with dangers instantly repositions them as dependents on male protection, potential victims of sexual assault, and (presumably more optimistically) those responsible for the repopulation of humanity.

By the end of MaddAddam, four of the seven female protagonists have become pregnant; the particularly enthusiastic Swift Fox is pregnant for the second time. Perhaps these women’s move to embrace motherhood is understandable in a world where few other kinds of creativity remain relevant or useful. But then, the old MaddAddamites – Swift Fox, Lotis Blue and White Sedge – were once highly qualified gene scientists, whose forays into bio-resistance activism also provided them with at least some degree of political experience. Amanda was a successful artist-activist, while Toby and Rebecca were in the senior ranks of the God’s Gardeners. Presumably these tough, street-smart and educated women have more to offer what remains of humanity than just their capacity to increase its numbers.

Well, not according to Swift Fox, for whom reproductive rights very quickly become synonymous with reproductive duties.

“We owe it to the human race. Don’t you think?” Her question takes a double swipe at the infertile Toby and also, indirectly, at Amanda and Ren, whose unwanted but ultimately accepted pregnancies are the result of a “cultural misunderstanding” with the Crakers that looks and sounds a lot like rape.

Even Toby, who acts as the recorder of the group and the main teacher to the Crakers, is sucked into the tangle of sexual rivalries and petty jealousies that soon comes to dominate the MaddAddamite dinner table.

For Toby, the fear that her lover, Zeb, will be drawn away by the charms of the “voracious” Swift Fox leads her to think – at times consciously – in terms heavily coloured by internalised misogyny. She resents Swift Fox for wanting to “have it both ways” – to be active and assertive in terms of her sexual desire, but also to remind the men that she “isn’t just a pretty body”. She calls her “girl” and “slut”, likening her to “some outdated cut-rate prostibot commercial.”  At the same time, the way she talks about Zeb is also very problematic: there is no possibility of trust, of “truly knowing” what he might have been up to, now that “there is no ownership” in relationships.

But what makes the tensions among the MaddAddamites particularly unsettling is how one-sided they are. Though the men make up the majority of their group, only the women appear to be competing for their favour. In fact, the men don’t even see it, according to Toby – “the silent mud-wrestle in the air.” But then, how could they? “They’re not on the progesterone wavelength.”

I’m all for rounded female characters who are not put on an intellectual pedestal above supposedly petty or base emotions and desires. But by excluding the men from these contests of attraction, Atwood reinforces some very stale stereotypes about the way women behave towards one another, particularly when any eligible male is on the scene.

Just as unsettling is the way the women of the group – with Toby as the sole exception – slip further and further into the role of passive bystanders as the group prepares for its final confrontation with the violent ex-prisoners known as the Painballers.  In the circumstances, this is not exactly a matter of common sense. Both the MaddAddamites and the Painballers are armed with sprayguns; the outcome of the fighting is never dependent on physical strength. The dangers besetting them are serious ones, and greater numbers would clearly have increased their chances of success (and potentially helped avoid the deaths of Jimmy and Adam). So why these women unquestioningly accept their reproductive systems – in early pregnancy for Amanda, Ren and Swift Fox, and during menstruation for White Sedge – as disabling?

Well, perhaps “unquestioningly” is a bit unfair. Swift Fox, in a very short-lived protest against the division of labour in their little group, declares that “gender roles suck” – but neither she nor any of the other women seem able to stop playing them.

Contests of attraction and gender games: will we really never stop playing them?

Ultimately, I found MaddAddam to be a disappointing read. Atwood’s vision of the role of women in a post-apocalyptic world seemed all the more simplistic given the richness of her writing about the world that came before it.

I was particularly unconvinced by the repeated references to biology as the cause of the women’s reversion to gender stereotypes after the Waterless Flood.

There is no clear line between our ‘real’ biological experience and our subsequent articulation of it through the structures of language, with all the gender baggage that they carry. Atwood is very conscious of this, and to some extent, so are her characters.

But all the same, MaddAddam does nothing to refute the conclusion reached by Crake while still a boy, during the nascence of his God complex. The only way to liberate ourselves from our learned, and therefore socially and historically contingent, behaviours is to build a new kind of human. Thus positing symbolically conditioned biological experience as something no more (and perhaps less) escapable than ‘real’ biology, the novel effectively does suggest that biology is destiny. This pessimistic vision is only reinforced by a cast of characters for whom, even in the absence of the structures and institutions that hold up the hierarchies between the genders, character traits – such as preparedness to take risks, competitiveness, jealousy, passivity – continue to be performed along gender lines.

Perhaps this could be called realistic. But to me it seemed like a bit of a failure of the imagination.The complications offered by the human survivors’ burden of learned behaviours did not necessitate a conclusion where – particularly after the death of Toby – there is no character left to deviate from a heteronormative, reproduction-oriented future in which women’s place is very much assured. As part of their education in being human, the Crakers are taught to construct their own narratives – to tell humanity’s story. Yet at the close of the trilogy, there seems to be only one kind of story left to tell.

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Book review: the Sword of Shadows series by J. V. Jones

I first discovered the Sword of Shadows books as a fifteen-year-old with an increasingly serious (and at times, embarrassing) epic fantasy addiction.

Jones’ bleak, wintry landscapes drew me in from the beginning, not least because of the quality of her writing. Jones explores some of the traditional themes of fantasy fiction – including the moral ambiguity of all agendas, even those that profess to be saving the world from ‘evil’ – with an unusual degree of nuance and depth.

But what made the series particularly compelling for me was its women. The Sword of Shadows books are full of complex female characters who are themselves decision-makers, adventurers and potential role models – rather than just accessories to the personal journeys of their male counterparts. For years, that made me recommend the books to friends as examples of fantasy that was, perhaps, just a little bit feminist.

More than ten years down the track, I’m no longer so sure of that.

In her recently republished work on feminism and science fiction – In the Chinks of the World Machine (2012) – Sarah LeFanu asserted that the mere inclusion of strong female characters is not of itself enough to make a book feminist.

This is definitely a disclaimer that I would apply to the Sword of Shadows books.

Whatever their strengths on the character level, they are set for the most part in a patriarchal, violent world in which men are the only visible subjects of history. To what extent, then, are such books even capable of advancing feminist writing in the fantasy genre – or challenging gender stereotypes? Do these books portray the status of women in that world from a critical, potentially subversive angle, or do they portray it with a kind of nostalgia, glorifying the exploits of male heroes and leaving gender stereotypes untouched?

Separate spheres of humanity

In A Cavern of Black Ice – the first book of the series – Jones introduces the reader to a classic high fantasy scenario in which humanity stands at the brink of confrontation with forces so dark that they threaten existence itself. Yet humanity’ in the series means different things for men and women.

Much of the series is set in the ‘clanholds’ – isolated, periodically warring settlements where the lives of men and women follow predictable – and quite separate – trajectories predetermined by tradition. Men’s positions in the clans are determined by a combination of fighting prowess, various skills (like hunting or the capacity to guide the clan’s religious observances) and sworn oath. By pledging their lives to the clan, men gain social standing and earn the right to participate in clan politics.

Women, on the other hand, belong by default to the clans into which they are born or married. Their everyday responsibilities and (officially at least) their identities are tied entirely to their status as maidens, wives, mothers and widows. Only a handful of supposedly ‘exceptional’ women – roundhouse matron Anwyn Bird, head widow Merritt Ganlow and chief’s wife Raina Blackhail – are deemed to have sufficient ‘due respect’ to even set foot inside the Great Hearth of Clan Blackhail when the men are inside making leadership decisions. And even these women risk quickly being put in their place if they dare to step beyond their limited domain: feeding and clothing the clan, and caring for the sick and the bereaved.

Life in the books’ medieval-style cities does not offer women any greater degree of freedom. The lack of any one rigid social code leaves ordinary women vulnerable to the constant threat of violence, while their bodies are treated as marketable commodities and, if they are lucky, means of social advancement. The women of the nobility, on the other hand, are routinely used as pawns to cement their male relatives’ political alliances. It is only in the lands of the Sull – an ancient race who are ‘not human’ – that we see a society that is not organised entirely along gender lines, in which women’s ambitions and skills can play out independently of the men in their lives.

‘Exceptional’ women

Yet for all the restrictions imposed upon women across these different settings, the Sword of Shadows books are full of women who become exceptions in their own societies, because they do not conform to the gender roles imposed upon them.

Two women – Old Mother and Thora Lamb – ride to war with Robbie Dun Dhoone. Chella Gloyal is an expert archer who helps Raina Blackhail learn to use the bow, while Magdalena Crouch is the best-known assassin in the north. Two of the clans – Scarpe and Castlemilk – are led by female chiefs, and among her band of renegade Sull, Yiselle No-Knife has emerged as an ambitious leader.

It is particularly refreshing to see a fantasy series where powerful women are able to want various things, not all of them noble – advantages and protections for their clans, leverage in political struggles between their people, wealth – without at some point reverting to stereotyped portrayals of femininity by revealing motivations that are actually all about their personal relationships.  Though Yelma Scarpe and Yiselle No-Knife are characterised unmistakeably as villains, their purposes are never carried out by way of seduction. Yelma, Yiselle and Wrayan Castlemilk are able to see past and act against the interests of their immediate family. And none of these women act out of that stale motive that continues to be ascribed in popular culture to women who behave cruelly or ruthlessly: being rejected, slighted or otherwise disappointed in love or sex by a man.

The Sword of Shadows series places emphasis on so many exceptions to the dominant roles available for women that these women become not so ‘exceptional’ after all. Yet the best examples of Jones’ refusal to resort to stereotyped representations of women in her books are the two main female protagonists of the series – Ash March and Raina Blackhail.

Like the outcast clansman Raif Sevrance, Ash March is set apart from other people by prophesies and powers that threaten to turn her into a weapon in the war against the Endlords. Yet even when faced with the horrifying knowledge that the very matter of her body is capable of destroying the Endlords, while the powers she can barely control have potential to free them, she decides that she will protect herself and her unborn child ahead of any debt she may owe to the Sull, or to any other party with their own agenda.

In doing so, she resists the pressure to sacrifice herself to a destiny about which she has only snippets of information doled out to her by various male experts and guardians of knowledge. She chooses for herself the Sull Name ‘Mountain Born’– thus re-inscribing her own meanings upon the story of her birth, over and against the interpretation of that story in the prophesies and schemes of others.

I like the fact that Ash is no cardboard cut-out or action figurine. She accepts her need to rely upon the fighting and trekking expertise of others, even as she makes efforts to master those skills for herself. She is also very self-aware. Though she shares a bond of loneliness and shared danger with Raif, she chooses to leave him and become Sull, realising that she needs to belong to something more than any one man or saviour. She is also able to act on her physical attraction to Lan Fallstar without confusing that attraction with romantic love. She thus eludes the tendency of too many fantasy heroines to attach themselves to the first person with whom they might share an emotional or physical bond, and remains refreshingly self-interested and independent throughout the series.

Raina Blackhail is another character who explores what it might mean to claim one’s identity for oneself on her journey to gain legitimacy as Blackhail’s first female chief. Once content to be defined as the helpmate of the old clan chief, Dagro Blackhail, she comes to recognise that neither of her marriages had ever succeeded in fully binding her to her adopted clan. Rather, her lifelong commitment to the clan is cemented through the oath that she makes over the shards of Blackhail’s broken guidestone – the first oath that we hear spoken by a Hailswoman – and also in that tense but powerful moment in the game room, when she tells Orwin Shank and Anwyn Bird that she will be chief.

Raina’s journey brings her into conflict with others – some of them women – who judge her for stepping outside the boundaries within which all Hailswomen are expected to live their lives. At the same time, though, her journey is very much dependent upon the support networks and strengths of women such as Anwyn Bird, Merritt Ganlow and Chella Gloyal, who act as her advisers, mentors, unwilling accomplices and complicated allies throughout the books.

I like the way that Jones never reduces the complex relationships between Raina and these women to essentialist terms; their ambitions, alliances and ideas about the good of the clan are too diverse to allow for an easy ‘sisterhood’. At the same time, Jones also avoids presenting us with the tired and offensive image of one exceptionally skilled woman rising to the male-dominated top despite and above the jealousy of the other, less ‘exceptional’, women around her.

Walking through the roundhouse

Raina’s journey to become chief is also significant because it takes us for a walk through all the levels of Blackhail’s labyrinthine roundhouse – and into the spaces where the women of the clan live and work.

The invisible work that goes into the running of kingdoms, cities, fortresses and roundhouses seems almost beneath the notice of most epic fantasy novels – which focus on more recognisably  ‘heroic’ or at least political spaces. When the setting of such novels is a patriarchal one, they consequently become the stories of men, in which women are either invisible or somehow ‘exceptional’ – more interesting, talented and adventurous than the rest.

The Sword of Shadows series is different. We see far more of the daily rituals and power struggles that go on in Blackhail’s kitchen, storerooms, barn, granary and gameroom than we do of the battlefield – where clansmen fight armed with arrows made in the depths of the Hailhouse by the roundhouse matron, Anwyn Bird. And the tale of the Dog Lord’s escape to the broken tower on the Dhoonewall is not told without mention of Nan Culldayis’ ‘battle’ to make the tower liveable for him and his men.

In focusing on these spaces, Jones makes the physical and intellectual work done by women – ‘exceptional’ or not – visible and important. She lets us know that the history of the clans is being made not only in the battlefield and the throne room. It is also being made in the granaries, when the loyalty of the farming women taking shelter in the roundhouse first makes the prospect of being called ‘chief’ a reality for Raina. It is being made in the game room, when Raina haltingly announces to her audience of two that she will be chief.

Writing out women and others

For all these strengths, the Sword of Shadows series also has its negative aspects.

One thing I found particularly frustrating was Jones’ insistence on pigeonholing the entire appearance of her female characters almost as soon as they were introduced. Chella Gloyal, for example, is definitively ‘not pretty’, while Raif is instantly attracted to Mallia Argola’s ‘beauty’, if not her non-existent personality.* Raina too is first described in terms of her ‘beauty’ by Raif, who, ironically, is aware that it is ‘ridiculous to think of such a thing’ at a time when she is bravely stepping forward to investigate the facts behind the death of her husband and his fellow clansmen.

It feels as if beauty is almost compulsory for the main female characters in Sword of Shadows – particularly when their sexuality is important to the story. In A Cavern of Black Ice, the sixteen-year-old Ash is repeatedly described by herself and others as underdeveloped and unattractive. Yet shortly before her first sexual experience with Lan Fallstar, she bafflingly reassesses herself as someone used to frank attention from men – someone who had ‘even’ been described as ‘beautiful’. For surely only a ‘beautiful’ woman could have been involved in the sex scenes that took place in Lan’s wolfskin tent – scenes that are, in my opinion, quite good precisely because Ash is their eager, inexperienced yet active subject – rather than the passive object of a man’s sexual experience.

Finally, the books repeatedly normalise heterosexual monogamy – which, of itself, is hardly unusual for the genre. However, the absence of homosexual and bisexual characters from the series is made worse by the fact that the sole exception – the ‘half-man’ and sorcerer Sarga Veys – is repeatedly positioned as ridiculous and unnatural, himself repulsed by his own attraction towards other men.

Too deeply embedded in a sexist world?

The Sword of Shadows books are full of contradictions. Jones clearly tries hard to challenge some of the stereotypes that remain prevalent in the high fantasy genre – resulting in some very interesting female characters whose diverse personal journeys do not have a relationship with a man as their main reference point.

Yet in other ways, Jones’ writing seems to sink a little too deeply into the values and cultures that she paints so vividly to create the world of the series. The limited place that they afford to women is not always treated in a sufficiently critical manner. Jones writes women into the history of the lands that form the subject of her novels, only to write some of them out again by focusing on their physical appearance, or consigning them to herd-like groups of ‘clan maids’ and ‘clanwives’, whose identities have no connection with anything they do or might be good at.

It will be interesting to see where the series goes next, particularly with the stories of Raina and Ash. Hopefully Jones will continue to insist upon the growing self-awareness and independence of these characters. More than that, however, I’m hoping that she will do more to endow all her female characters with a greater diversity of roles and identities. Perhaps seeing more of the Sull will show us more of a society where women are individualised, rather than consigned to marital-status-based groups and allowed to become part of the background. That would do more to make this series a feminist one than a focus on a few ‘exceptional’ women – however strong or admirable – could ever accomplish.

* Though perhaps the next book in the series will reveal more about Mallia, who at this point is the only female character that exists solely as a love interest and a means of binding Raif to the Maimed Men. As Raif himself reflected in A Sword from Red Ice… “in what ways was Mallia Argola not whole?”

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