Tag: feminism strikes

Review: The Gate to Women’s Country

TW: homophobia, transphobia.

This review contains spoilers.

It was only as I was leaving my local library with Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country in tow that I remembered that Tepper was responsible for the woeful The Margarets, an unfocused and regressive novel that took me simply ages to finish.

So it was with some trepidation that I opened The Gate to Women’s Country, and with some surprise that I realised I rather liked it.

It’s set in a post-apocalyptic version of what is probably North America, about three hundred years after what was probably a nuclear war. The recovering landscape is dotted with small towns with names like Marthatown and Susantown. In these towns, the women work, learn, practice medicine, grow food, raise children and generally run a functioning, sustainable society (complete with a thriving artistic culture), while the men (mostly) live in garrisons and conduct periodic wars with the garrisons of neighbouring towns.

It’s the kind of over-simplistic social stratification that I usually find deeply suspect. And, to be sure, Tepper makes her society’s views on queer people abundantly, vindictively clear:

“Even in preconvulsion times it had been known that the so-called ‘gay syndrome’ was caused by aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy. The women doctors now identified the condition as ‘hormonal reproductive maladaption’ and corrected it before birth. There were very few actual HRNMs – called HenRams – either male or female, born in Women’s Country, though there was still the occasional unsexed person or the omnisexed who would, so the instructors said, mate with a grasshopper if it would hold still long enough.”

That nasty paragraph, round about page 76, is extremely hard to swallow. (It’s worth noting that The Margarets is similarly homophobic and transphobic – though less explicitly so than here.) And I don’t want to play down the damage it does!

And yet – still I found Tepper’s novel fascinating. Because this isn’t a Hunger Games-style dystopia, where a Chosen One works to bring the system down. No. The Gate to Women’s Country is a bildungsroman of sorts: we watch as Our Hero, the young woman Stavia, grows into her society; as she strains against its apparently arbitrary restrictions and rules, she begins to appreciate their function.

Because one of the big questions the novel is asking is: what price utopia? The novel’s most vertiginous reveal, right at the end, is that the secrecy-shrouded sisterhood that rules this society is basically running a selection programme with the remnants of humanity: they’re striving to breed violence out of the population to avoid another catastrophic war. This, without the consent or knowledge of the people who they’re sterilising or impregnating to get the right results. It’s this sisterhood that Stavia grows into, having experienced first-hand the violence that men can visit upon women when she inadvertently strays into a community of paternalistic fundamentalist Christians which is suffering from a chronic shortage of wives. (Content warning here for rape.)

While the idea that violence is a) exclusively male and b) genetically determined is obviously simplistic, I think the moral picture here is quite interesting. It’s pretty clear that having to make these decisions on behalf of the populace is a curse for these women; and equally clear that they feel it’s necessary to protect humanity from itself. It’s also clear that Women’s Country is, by and large, happy, stable and functioning; there are sacrifices to be made, when sons reject their mothers to join the garrisons; but everyone is reasonably well-fed, everyone is healthy, and though the women work hard they also seem fulfilled. (Garrison culture, on the other hand, is basically toxic. But then that’s Tepper’s point.) So: is this contingent, imperfect utopia – which is getting ever better as the land heals and fewer and fewer boys choose to join the garrisons – worth the price everyone is paying for it?

There’s also a sub-question, here, about what honour looks like. Is it the men squabbling in their barracks, scheming maliciously against the women and punishing the weak – but, oh, how bright their banners? Or is it the women, working steadily to remake the world? I do enjoy Tepper’s examination of women’s work and how fundamental it actually is to a functioning society – it’s something SF doesn’t often consider structurally, and in that respect I can see how this has been hailed as a feminist classic.

Of course if you’re going to do that you also have to acknowledge the limits of its feminism: its exclusion of LGBT+ people, and its gender-essentialist conclusion that women are not capable of excessive violence (and that they’re genetically inclined to its obverse, the work of nurturing and caring). It is, in other words, a massively flawed work – albeit a well-structured one with an unusually coherent worldview and some pertinent questions about what society should look like. I enjoyed it without enjoying its politics, which I think is pretty rare for me. I’ll approach Tepper warily in future, though.

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Review: The Rig

Roger Levy’s The Rig is better than it seems at first; if you’re having doubts, I’d encourage you to persevere if you can.

For much of its 600+ pages it reads like a pretty traditional SF dystopia. It’s set in a hyper-capitalist future in which humanity has spread to the stars, at the cost of longevity, good health and high standards of living. People die in their forties after a life being manipulated by a few powerful rulers. All but the inhabitants of two planets have given up religion. The one thing that gives hope to most of humanity is AfterLife, a programme which allows people to vote on which of the dead should be given a second chance at life, based on what they did when they were alive.

Against this backdrop: a murder happens. A man who’s suffered severe neural damage goes to work on a rig on the aptly-named planet of Bleak. Two children grow up on the fundamentalist Christian planet of Gehenna.

It’s all very grim, and violent; very straight, white and male. (There’s just one major female character, despite this being a world that’s apparently equal-opportunities.) But as the novel unfolds it becomes apparent that it’s quite a complex meditation on memory, story-making and belief. What happens when we no longer have the consolations of religion? Is there a middle way between fundamentalism and atheism?

It’s surprisingly rare for SF to tackle these themes, but The Rig manages it in a way that is not trite, not purely academic, not preachy nor too earnest. It’s also worth noting that it features two neurodivergent characters, though I’m not sure if one of them isn’t too stereotypical. What The Rig is, is a novel that’s a bit out of the way for SF; considered and thoughtful, despite the violence of its world.

Review: Down Under

Down Under is travel writer Bill Bryson’s account of Australia, based on a number of visits over what feels like a year or so. He covers the major cities, crosses the outback by train, plane and car, and makes friends with a range of people in remote places. There is, apparently, Humour.

I have a chequered history with Bryson’s work: while I love Notes from a Big Country, his book of columns about life in New Hampshire, I found Notes from a Small Island, an account of his farewell tour of England, chauvinistic and pompous. And not funny.

Down Under falls, I think, somewhere in the middle. Bryson describes Australia right from the get-go as a kind of earthly paradise:

Let me say right here that I love Australia – adore it immeasurably – and am smitten anew each time I see it…The people are immensely likeable – cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted and unfailingly obliging. Their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water. They have a society that is prosperous, well ordered and instinctively egalitarian…

Which may well all be true, so long as you aren’t queer, female or a person of colour. Australian society is famously homophobic, and the Australian government is famously anti-immigration. (We’ll get to Indigenous Australians in a bit.) But then Bryson is more than a little bit racist himself, which might be why he and Australia get on so well together:

One of the effects of paying so little attention to Australia is that it is always such a pleasant surprise to find it there. Every cultural instinct and previous experience tells you that when you travel this far you should find, at the very least, people on camels. There should be unrecognisable lettering on the signs, and swarthy men in robes drinking coffee from thimble-sized cups and puffing on hookahs and rattletrap buses and potholes in the road and a real possibility of disease on everything you touch – but no, it’s not like that at all.

This book has aged badly, to put it mildly.

At least Bryson does eventually get round to discussing the plight of the Indigenous Australians, although it does take him about ten chapters, and he’s appalled at the way they’ve been treated by white Australians. But at no point does he make the effort to meet, interview or talk to anyone Indigenous; they’re always in the background, presented as sad, damaged figures without agency or narrative.

Which is all to say that Bryson experiences Australia very much as a white straight man, which is occasionally problematic but mainly just a particular lens. It does have the effect of making this not very interesting to me? Bryson isn’t really looking at the things I’d be interested in, or the things I’d need to know about as a queer woman if I visited Australia. And it’s not that funny to me, either – but then humour is a subjective thing, after all. Sometimes books and readers just don’t hit it off, and this was one of those times.

Review: Watchmen

Here’s another classic: Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen was published in 1986, and it’s probably my favourite piece of superhero media. (I’m not usually a fan of superhero stories. They bore me.) It’s about a group of masked vigilantes, the Minutemen, almost all of whom are perfectly ordinary human beings with gadgets and/or extreme psychological quirks – more Batman than Superman, apart from Doctor Manhattan, a former nuclear physicist who gained power over time and space when he was caught in a nuclear accident.

So, yeah. Its key question is: what would late Cold War-era America really look like if a bunch of randomers started doling out vigilante justice? Especially if each of those randomers has a different idea of what justice is and what the world should look like? And if those randomers are granted the support and blessing of the government?

As I’ve said, my understanding of the superhero genre is limited at best – and my reasons for disliking it generally might have more to do with my own greater tolerance for books than films than any actual deficiency in the subject matter. The only superhero film I’ve seen that addresses the same kind of questions as Watchmen does (apart from the film adaptation of Watchmen itself, which I mostly found interminable, running as it does to about two and a half hours) is The Dark Knight, whose focus on just two characters, Batman and the Joker, makes its engagement with those themes more limited than what Watchmen’s wider scope allows it to do. Moore’s expanded cast of vigilantes allows him to explore conflicts within the group around what “good” and “evil” look like, and what they should be fighting for. Is simple superheroing enough? Or should the Minutemen be doing more sustained work towards achieving the greater good?

I did like how the ending dramatises these conflicts to produce something very bleak indeed – it asks us as readers to examine our moral priorities and our expectations for how superhero narratives are “meant” to turn out. It’s a complex novel that gives these vigilantes psychological reality against the backdrop of a world that is itself complex – it allows us none of the black and white moralities of traditional, patriotic American superhero stories.

Something for readers to be aware of is the relationship between vigilante Dan (known as Nite Owl) and his compatriot Sally – a relationship that begins when Sally is sixteen and Dan is definitely Older. Generally, the novel is not kind to its women – there’s only really two of them, for one thing, and one of them exists primarily in order to be sexually assaulted by one of the Minutemen. The other, Laurie, is similarly defined by her relationship dramas, which few of the male Minutemen seem to share.

If that’s something you can overlook, though, it’s certainly worth doing so. Watchmen is a genre-defining novel, one that’s satisfyingly complex even for readers like me who have only a passing knowledge of Marvel, DC and their ilk. Superhero narratives are so prevalent now that their core assumptions and tropes are easily accessible to everyone – and, given their dominance in our mass media today, it’s important to be aware of their history, and of works like this one that have informed their development and their reception.

Review: League of Dragons

So here it is: the last in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, an alternative history of the Napoleonic wars, with dragons.

League of Dragons opens with Napoleon’s forces fleeing through frozen Russia after a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the allied armies. It’s a major victory for everyone who doesn’t want to see Napoleon ruling over Europe, but it’s not the end of the war – especially when Napoleon’s dragon Lien steals a precious egg belonging to Temeraire (the series’ draconic co-protagonist) and fire-breathing Iskierka. The egg, and the creature that hatches from it, could be key to the war effort, and is in any case personally important to Temeraire and Iskierka – so of course it’s up to Temeraire’s Captain Laurence and his crew to get it back.

It’s actually a pretty episodic novel for a series ender. There’s the bitter trek across Russia at the beginning of the book; a stay in a peasant’s house; the rescue expedition itself; a spell in England while Laurence tries to win the allegiance of dragon captains who think poorly of him; and a lot of battlefield action, which involves plenty of military strategy and planning.

The theme running through much of the novel is that of Laurence’s unbending concept of honour: when is it useful, and when is it dangerous? For him, it’s one of the things that keeps military society together: having strict social codes and hierarchies avoids dangerous dissensions in military units, and that’s something Laurence struggles with when multiple dragon captains are placed under his command despite his historical trial for treason. But it can also lead him outside the very social codes it’s established to protect – as when he becomes involved in a duel with a pampered aristocrat; duels are frowned upon for dragon captains because it potentially robs the army of a valuable weapon (one dragon being much more valuable than one person).

This is a discussion that’s been happening throughout the series, though, and I’m not convinced League of Dragons advances it particularly. The episodic form of the novel is potentially more interesting – although, again, previous novels have done this (notably Throne of Jade, one of my favourites). I see lots of Goodreads commenters complaining that League of Dragons isn’t very climactic, but maybe that’s the point? For me, this isn’t a series whose best points are made by big battles and military strategy – it’s about relationships and the different kinds of allegiances people have to each other and their countries and societies, and how and where those allegiances clash. So it makes sense that this last novel would focus on putting its protagonist in all sorts of uncomfortable situations and seeing how he copes with them.

I do think that this novel has less of a focus on colonialism and other social justice issues than the series as a whole does. We see comparatively little of Laurence’s female crew member Emily Roland, and still less of her mother, Admiral Roland. Having said that, we do get flights of Chinese dragons and Napoleon’s wife, the Incan Empress Anahuarque – if not the detailed engagement with their societies that some of the earlier novels have delivered. It’s still great to see these cultures written into Novik’s universe in such a fundamental way, though.

I don’t know that this series particularly stands out for me. I’m fond of it; I love the gentle, caring interactions we get between Laurence and Temeraire (even if I think Novik infantilises the supposedly sentient dragons a little too much to make their case for independence and self-governance entirely credible). And I like the way it engages with Europe’s colonialist history and rewrites marginalised groups into what is in part a military comedy of manners (Laurence’s crew features at various points in the story a Black boy, a female crew member and a canonically gay man). I enjoy its discussion of honour and Novik’s careful depiction of her characters’ various relationships. I think it’s working hard, and largely succeeds in what it’s trying to do. Which – well, I don’t think there’s that much more you can ask for from a series.

Review: American Gods

American Gods is a classic. When you tell people you don’t much like Neil Gaiman’s work, they say, “Have you read American Gods?”

Well, now I have.

It’s not that bad, actually. I liked it more than I liked Neverwhere or Anansi Boys or Stardust – it’s bigger and baggier and more ambitious than those novels, and bigness and bagginess and ambition are all things I respond well to in my reading.

It’s a road-trip novel, basically: a man named Shadow, fresh out of prison, mourning a wife who died before he could see her again, is hired by a mysterious old guy calling himself Wednesday to do various bodyguard-type duties. Wednesday’s work consists of travelling the length and breadth of America to rally its gods – gods from every continent, brought to America by immigrants and blow-ins, from the Vikings to the Ancient Egyptians; gods grown old and dying as people stop believing in them and put their faith instead in the new gods of electricity, the media and the stock market.

The thing is, though…American Gods doesn’t read like a lament. It’s not like The Lord of the Rings, where magic is dying and the gods are passing and remote and the age of machines is coming with slow inevitability. Nor is the dichotomy between old and new so clear-cut as it is in Tolkien’s novel. Gaiman’s gods are old, but they’re also sly. No, this novel isn’t so much a lament for ancient days as it is a work that complicates our understanding of modernity and rationality. Wednesday and Shadow’s travels take in sacred places – which aren’t monuments like Mount Rushmore, or grand places of worship, or natural formations like the Grand Canyon, but roadside curiosities with names like the House on the Rock or Rock City. The House on the Rock boasts the oldest working carousel in America. Rock City boasts a cave full of dolls. They’re places so kitschy and so random that they almost can’t be anything other than sacred: they seemingly have no place in modernity, and yet tourists flock to them. And that’s what American Gods is about: the places where the new gods of modernity cannot go. The places rationality – or the cult of rationality – cannot reach.

That’s what I liked about it, really: its celebration of the glorious, baggy diversity of human experience. In some ways it’s a kind of tour of America’s history: there’s the Vikings, yes, but the Egyptian gods Ibis and Thoth also remember people from the Nile reaching America’s shores (and trading there, I think?) thousands of years ago, and there’s an Algonquian trickster figure (Wisakedjak, Anglicised here as Whiskey Jack) living on a Lakota reservation and bemoaning the fate of the Native American tribes. There’s a gay Omani businessman, new to New York and not liking it much, who swaps lives with a taxi driver ifrit, in one of the tenderest scenes in the novel. Then there’s the fact that Shadow, the novel’s protagonist (and, it turns out, the scion of a major European pantheon), is Black, which shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it is.

Unfortunately, this generosity doesn’t extend to the novel’s female characters. This is a perennial problem with Gaiman’s work: his women have little agency and less characterisation. Take Bilquis, for example, the Queen of Sheba, a sex goddess who – wait for it – eats men with her vagina. Which could go either way, honestly: Gaiman’s portrayal of the scene tips it towards the titillating-horror end of the spectrum, but I’d be happy to go with the reparative feminine-empowerment reading if it weren’t for the fact that he kills her off before she has a chance to do anything very much apart from look sexy for the readers? Like. If you’re going to have a vagina dentata, I feel you should at least do something interesting with it.

Then there’s Shadow’s wife, Laura. There’s something vaguely interesting going on with Laura, in that it slowly becomes apparent that she isn’t as innocent and lovely as Shadow thinks she is. But, again, this doesn’t particularly go anywhere, and in the end her arc is still only all about who she is in relation to her husband, and what she does for him. We don’t really get a sense of her as a person with her own purpose and agency.

Much like its sort-of sequel Anansi Boys, then, American Gods is specifically a male novel: its bagginess conceals a story that at its heart is invested in male lines of succession and inheritance. I guess that fits with Gaiman’s aesthetic – he writes old stories, revivifies ancient narratives, and patriarchy is one of the oldest stories there is – but what irks me is that it’s so at odds with his progressive social media persona. The objectification of female bodies is there in pretty much all his work, over a period of decades: that’s the hallmark of someone who hasn’t done the work to take it out. American Gods is a story of America; it retells the American myth of the melting pot, the meeting of people from all walks of life, all over the world. But Gaiman’s America is not a place for women; or, more precisely, it’s not a place that women contribute to in the same way that men do. It’s a place created by, and for, men. Which is as untrue a myth, in its own way, as the Trumpian one in which America is a place created by, and for, white people. Sure, I want to read novels that capture the wide strangenesses of the world, but also…I want to read novels that don’t specifically exclude me? I enjoyed American Gods, but it feels incomplete to me, as all of Gaiman’s work does. Alas; I don’t think I’ll ever be a fan.

Review: Childhood’s End

This review contains spoilers.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, widely considered an SF classic, is most assuredly Not For Me – and not just because I realised halfway through that I’d already seen half of the Syfy adaptation of the novel and thus already knew what the Big Reveal at its crux would be.

As a piece of SF it feels Extremely 50s (it was published in 1953). An account of the invasion of Earth by a benevolent alien species called the Overlords, it’s more thought experiment than narrative, featuring little in the way of character development or even character continuity: the events of the novel take place over generations, and we experience them through the eyes of several different human characters.

The central conceit of the novel is: what price utopia? Alternatively/additionally, what price evolution? The Overlords are benevolent and under their rule injustice and inequality is eradicated; but at what cost to humanity as a whole?

These questions are pretty much all the book has to offer, but the way they’re examined and dealt with is not at all compelling to me; in fact, I’d call it simplistic. That’s because Childhood’s End centres Western, male, neoliberal, middle-class experience in everything it does, as the basis of its utopia and its discussion of what humanity is and is for. For instance: the Overlords intervene violently in humanity’s affairs only twice, once in Spain to put an end to bullfighting on the basis of animal cruelty (no mention of the massive exploitation of livestock perpetrated by the meat industry), and once in South Africa, where white people are being oppressed by Black people after the fall of apartheid…???!!!! WHAT

Not to mention that a hundred years into the Overlords’ much-vaunted utopia, where everyone is equal, the women are still the ones expected to cook and clean for their (conveniently still nuclear) families. Not to mention that Clarke’s idea of utopia is one in which everyone – globally – speaks English and is culturally undifferentiated. (Clarke belabours the point that nobody pays any attention to a silly thing like skin colour any more in his imagined future society, but I think there is about one, minor, character of colour in the whole book, and everyone is suspiciously American.)

Like. I know this is all “standard” “for the time period”, and context is everything, etc., etc., and additionally that none of this is exactly The Point of the text. But the same kind of oversimplification affects things that are The Point. Clarke asks us to swallow the old capitalist chestnut that resource scarcity and hardship are what give life meaning, that taking those pressures away makes art and the sciences stagnate. I’m sceptical. But I’d be more inclined to entertain the notion if the text were a little more invested in actually exploring it, rather than just…giving it to me as A Thing That Happened. The novel’s final reveal suffers from the same problem: turns out the Overlords are themselves working for a higher power, the Overmind, an omnipotent psychic intelligence that eventually claims humanity’s children for its own. I don’t have a problem with the telepathy stuff, as many readers apparently do (Clarke himself disowns it as a product of heady younger years, in a preface to the novel); I do have a problem with the idea that all of humanity immediately gives up hope and stops having children. What, everyone? Humans don’t work like that, they’re messy and irrational and hard to predict.

Which basically sums up everything I have to say about Childhood’s End: that’s not how people work. That’s not how society works. It’s a novel that flat-out ignores the vast majority of the global population and the invisible forces of power and privilege that cause the problems the Overlords look to solve. And in doing so, it makes solving those problems look simple; it abrogates our responsibility to look for workable compromises that everyone’s happy with.

I can’t help comparing this, anachronistically, to Kim Stanley Robinson’s work, which is the kind of hard, long-horizon SF I think Clarke is aspiring to here, but which doesn’t elide the messiness of humanity, which acknowledges that some people, many people! are not cis straight white men. I know the two authors are a generation apart and come from quite different cultural backgrounds – but I think one of the things I’m struggling with in reading Childhood’s End is this idea that it’s one of SFF’s foundational texts, something that all “real” fans should read; that it’s thus somehow still a relevant, modern text, when it’s so very dated. This is one of the problems with canon, of course: it represents a certain view of what a genre “should” be, and invariably shuts out other histories in the process.

That’s basically a very unfocused way of saying: Childhood’s End has very much not sold me on Clarke, or on any of the other white male authors of “classic” SF. I might read more. I might not. But I don’t think either choice would make me a better or worse reader of SFF.