Review: Freedom’s Choice

“Necessity breeds solution.”

Anne McCaffrey

TW: rape, enforced pregnancy.

FreedomsChoiceFreedom’s Choice is the second book in Anne McCaffrey’s Catteni series; I read the first, Freedom’s Landing, several years ago and remember nothing about it except that there was alien sex.

Handily, there is a rather dry summary at the beginning of Freedom’s Choice recapping everything that happened in the first book.

The background to Freedom’s Choice, then, is this:

A murderous and conveniently humanoid race called the Catteni, equipped with the usual advantages of superior technology and general alien-ness, invade and conquer Earth. The Catteni’s established method of breaking a rebel population is to round up the population of about fifty cities and drop them on random uninhabited planets scattered throughout the galaxy to colonise. If the colony thrives, the Catteni return after a couple of years and take up ownership of the planet and its newly-established population, neatly killing two birds with one stone.

The main POV character in the novel is Kristin Bjornsen, a member of one such colony group, dropped in Freedom’s Landing on a planet the colonists named Botany after the Australian penal colony. She’s in a relationship with Zainal, a Catteni dropped along with the colonists for reasons that I suspect had more to do with manufacturing tension than anything else; she’s also a prominent member of the several-hundred-strong Botany colony, which includes many humans and a couple of token handfuls of other alien races.

Nine months after Freedom’s Landing, Botany is well-established, with families starting to build permanent houses, but the colonists still haven’t discovered who is responsible for the enormous automated machines which harvest crops from the planet on a regular basis. (It certainly isn’t the Catteni.)

The plot of the book revolves mainly around two central challenges: trying to find out who or what the Farmers are, and trying to ensure that the Catteni don’t rock up and take the colony away from the humans.

It’s very much a pioneer story. Pioneer stories are interesting because they present us, in theory, with a blank slate, as the pioneers in question try to rebuild a society from the ground up. So they’re a great way of looking at what the author thinks is important; what they think is necessary for survival.

This usually means that pioneer stories are either thoughtful and interesting (The Long Earth) or made of fail (Stephen Baxter’s Proxima).

For me, Freedom’s Choice was a fail.

About halfway through the book, Kris returns from a recon mission to find that the women of Botany have voted in a law that requires every human woman of childbearing age to have at least one child in the imminent future, because mumble mumble mumble genetics. (To be fair to McCaffrey, it’s made clear that the women wouldn’t actually have to have sex with anyone if they didn’t want to, but how a colony with only emergency medicine would deal with artificial insemination does not really bear thinking about.)

Kris is deeply shocked and horrified, presumably because being told that you have to shove something the size of a watermelon out of your vagina in nine months’ time without having a say in the matter, in a colony which, again, only has access to emergency medicine, and that your child will have to be with someone other than your partner (Zainal, being Catteni, is obviously not genetically compatible with a human woman) is no fucking joke.

Zainal’s response when he finds her crying? “Stop being so silly. Here, sleep with this guy.” (I paraphrase, obviously, but this is the gist.)

Kris’ response to Zainal? “He’s right, I am being very silly, and I will think about which guy I would like to sleep with.”

I just felt that this was a very superficial (and boring) handling of a serious issue (viz., women bearing the burden of reproduction), and had the additional effect of making me want to stab Zainal every time he appeared onscreen thereafter.

Later on in the book, Zainal is busy flying off on a space mission whose purpose I cannot be bothered to recall, with Kris kept at home by a broken wrist or something. A good (male) friend of hers plies her with grain alcohol, ostensibly for pain relief but actually to get her drunk enough to have sex with him.

One minor male character does call this out as rape; but Kris shrugs it off, because she enjoyed it and thus feels partly responsible. The narrative does not seem to see this as a problem. (As an aside: this is literally a medieval response to rape. Freedom’s Choice is supposed to be a science fiction book. Think about that for a moment.) Inevitably, Kris gets pregnant; she chooses to hide the child’s parentage from her rapist, but when she’s outed by a more or less literal deus ex machina she looks at her rapist smiling and happy about having a child with her and she feels this glow of contentment and everyone is happy and go die in a fire, book.

My point being that the book has some really conservative attitudes about How to Make a Society Work which don’t seem to involve respect for anyone except Manly Men, and, yes, it was published in the 90s but that does not give it a pass.

On a wider scale, Freedom’s Choice centres on the kind of plotlines which are supposed to evoke ideas of the Ingenuity and Freedom of Humanity, as opposed to all the other alien species who have just had to deal with being subjugated. It’s a deeply American story – Botany society is irritatingly managerial – which, of course, also makes it a story with troublingly xenophobic overtones. Humans are intrinsically better than everyone else (Zainal may be Catteni, but culturally he’s indistinguishable from the humans); which, subtextually, reduces down to “Americans are intrinsically better than everyone else”. Not only is this an ideologically suspect approach, it’s also a very boring one. Science fiction should be showing us new worlds, not returning us, ever-recursively, to the same old one.

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