Review: Books One & Two of the Marq’ssan Cycle, reviewed by Sean Melican

Review: Books One & Two of the Marq’ssan Cycle, reviewed by Sean Melican

The intersection of science fiction and politics has always served an important critical function, from George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 and Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness to Robert Heinlein’s ultra-nationalist Starship Troopers, but until now they have always served as a means of analyzing political structures. With L. Timmel Duchamp’s million-word Marq’ssan novel (broken into five books), anarchy is extrapolated. This is not anarchy in its popular sense, but in its truest sense. It is also feminism at its most fundamental level, and neither can be un-twined from the other.

Ms. Duchamp begins with a dystopia that is both specific and allegorical. Society is divided into three almost entirely non-porous levels, classes, or castes. It is extraordinarily rare for someone born into one level to move to another. Executives are the highest level-mostly the executives we see are high-level government men and women-and are collectively known as the Executive, necessarily implying a homogeneity of thought and will. Executive live the Good Life-capitalized in the books: only the best foods, wines, homes, et cetera. Professionals are professors, scientists, et cetera, and service-techs are the lowest level. There are plenty of historical parallels, such as king-priest-peasant. The value, or purpose, of building her own dystopia is that it allows her to build a world recognizable as similar to our own, but does not allow us to assume that it can’t happen because a particular incident or moment in time doesn’t correspond to the fictional world.

It also allows Ms. Duchamp to explore the elasticity of sexuality. Executive men are ‘fixed’, which means they are capable of reproduction but entirely uninterested in the act except as a mean to an end. They derive no physical pleasure from the act, which frees them to pursue their vocations and hobbies without internal conflict. Executive women are almost entirely homosexual, except when it is necessary to bear their executive men children-and it is a distasteful act: in Renegade, one executive woman speaks of the obvious perversion of heterosexuality-but there is a very strong prohibition against executive-with-executive sex: executive women are only to have sex with service-tech women, who are sometimes available during parties much as champagne and caviar are provided. Executive women are also taught self-defense against un-fixed men.

Service-techs provided services of all kinds, and service-tech women are deliberately kept sexually docile, their heterosexuality deliberately heightened for both executive and service-tech needs: they are not taught the self-defense the executives are taught, nor are executives allowed to teach them. Professionals fall somewhere in the middle. Professionals and service-techs are both ‘fixed’ in an opposite manner: sexual desire and pleasure are existent, but the Executive has chemically deactivated their ability to procreate. Which men and particularly women who are allowed to procreate is strictly controlled by law and science, which suggest an obvious but facile parallelism between our world-with its fierce and sometimes violent conflicts over abortion (particularly what separates a fetus from a child) genetic testing, IVF, sperm donation and perhaps soon the ability to choose characteristics-but Ms. Duchamp’s is a world in which women are prohibited from procreating where ours is one in which science currently focuses on treating infertility. But the debates are similar, largely who has the right to decide limits; and at its most basic, it is the continual debate over who has the right to control women’s sexual power-much as marriage was instituted to control women’s (supposedly uncontrollable) sexual desires, so that paternity would not be questioned.

Even names are socially and sexually constructed. Professionally, individuals are referred to only by last name, but in intimate situations, first names are used.

Into this come the Marq’ssan, an alien race who want to divorce humanity from the enormous historical weight of governance: the Marq’ssan are anarchists, such that every decision is made (mostly) by consensus. But because men are always at the apex, and perhaps even hard-wired for hierarchical governance, only women are invited to speak to the Marq’ssan.

Kay Zeldin is a professional (not coincidentally, a history professor) who once worked as a secret agent for Robert Sedgewick. She also had a very violent, very dysfunctional, personal and sexual relationship with him, which she has literally forgotten. She is brought back to infiltrate the Marq’ssan, who are seen as terrorists. Alanya to Alanya explores her slow conversion to the thought patterns (not the ‘side’ as the Marq’ssan take no sides) of the Marq’ssan. Importantly, some Marq’ssan become psychologically poisoned by their interactions with humans such that they can no longer think as Marq’ssan, and as a consequence are, in some ways, no longer Marq’ssan at all.


In Renegade, free zones are established in which government is forbidden: decisions are made by women by consensus, but rather than opting for an easy duality, Ms. Duchamp explores the very complex difficulties of involving men, who typically build hierarchical structures when invited into the meetings and thus are unwelcome, but how can equality and freedom exist when men are dismissed? And while the Executive controlled procreation with chemicals, now that there are free zones, men want access to unlimited procreation, regardless of women’s interests. Kay Zeldin goes in search of her husband only to become trapped and subsequently tortured by Sedgewick’s assistant, Elizabeth Weatherall.

This is easily one of the best science fiction series I’ve read in years. Rather than beginning with what is already known, it strips bare the arbitrary structures of our world (sexuality, gender, government) and rebuilds them in complex, new structures that are strikingly at odds with our experience-homosexuality as the norm, at least among the highest levels, and men willing to forgo sexual pleasure for political power-and yet also strikingly familiar, with classes or castes, torture, war, the designation of the unfamiliar as automatically ‘terrorist’. The arguments for the elasticity of sexuality, and against the hierarchical structures of gender and government are complex, and thoroughly examined-whether you accept or deny the possibilities and premises presented, Ms. Duchamp does not take lightly her responsibilities of presenting a believable, if frightening world; nor does she present a simple dichotomy between men and women, or between human and Marq’ssan.

Three more books will be published; I will have read the third, Tsunami, for the June issue.

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