March 2009 Review by Sean Melican
Duchamp, L. Timmel. Blood in the Fruit, Book 4 of the Marq’ssan Cycle. Aqueduct Press: 2007.
Duchamp, L. Timmel. Stretto, Book 5 of the Marq’ssan Cycle. Aqueduct Press: 2007.
Buckell, Tobias S. Sly Mongoose. Tor: 2008,
Cornish, D.M. Lamplighter, Monster Blood Tattoo, Book Two. G.P. Putnam’s Sons: 2008.
Just before sitting to write this, I read these words from a special issue of The Economist, The World in 2009, p. 16:
The financial crisis coupled with the shredding of America’s reputation over the past eight years has given weight to those people in the [Chinese] regime who argue that Western capitalism and democracy are old, flawed models.
L. Timmel Duchamp is not Chinese, but she is firmly on the side of those who argue that capitalism and democracy are not only old and flawed, but empty of sentiment or value beyond remaining status quo. It is difficult to argue as we watch the new Democratic regime appoint individuals with the same flaws as the old, largely in terms of abusing tax, employment, and immigration laws.
L. Timmel Duchamp argues that governmental structures exist solely for the purpose of existing, however noble their origin; that voting is a means of keeping the populace in line; that only style (how politicians speak and dress) matters; that substance (what they say) is entirely irrelevant.
In the last two novels of the five book Marq’ssan Cycle, Duchamp continues to develop the arguments begun in the first three, attacking the notion of government as fundamentally flawed; starkly arguing that sex is, or can be, a tool of manipulation, control, and torture. The brilliance is that, unlike most utopian visons, Duchamp is aware that not everyone is waiting to greet their liberators—in this case, the Marq’ssan. It is natural that those in power—most notably Elizabeth Weatherall—would continue to maintain power, and even increase theirs. Curiously, Weatherall recreates uses the change brought about by the Marq’ssan to alter the male-dominated Executive government to a more female-oriented government. In earlier utopias, feminist governments are utopia; but Duchamp argues that governmental structure, regardless of who holds power, cannot be anything other than dehumanizing.
Yet contrasting with Weatherall is Celia Espin, a socially active lawyer who endures rape and torture at the hands of the government, the loss of her right to practice the law, and the loss of nearly everything she owns including her dignity and humanity, continues to insist that government must exist—that the rule of law is inherently necessary.
It is this awareness of the varying reactions (and not just a simplistic dichotomy) to such radical change—from government to anarchy (keeping in mind this is not synonymous with chaos, but merely the complete lack of government agency and agencies) that imbues the series with such power. Characters are not merely mouthpieces, but are fully fleshed out and more importantly, their arguments are fully fleshed out. Duchamp does not use straw men and women. She challenges her own thoughts and assumptions. Her novels are the strongest utopias written to date.
While the Marq’ssan cycle follows the structure of political or utopian novels (featuring large chunks of dialogue, for example) Tobias S. Buckell continues to challenge the traditional structure of monolithic space opera, such as the Culture and the Federation. In his previous two books and numerous short stories, he has colored in and out of the lines (along with Samuel R. Delaney, Nalo Hopkinson, Vandana Singh, and others) a whitewashed genre.
What is perhaps his greatest strength is his hyperawareness of the frailties of human society. Sly Mongoose features a hierarchical city, including children who sacrifice their bodies through rigorous exercise and bulimia so that their city can survive and their parents can enjoy the privilege of relative wealth. Yet the city itself is lowest on a hierarchal scale, largely forgotten by what might be considered post-humans. Added to the very messy, very realistic mix are other groups of space-going humans—the League and the Raga—who are at odds with each other despite the threat of alien invasion which should, in an ideal fiction, unite the human race. One need only think of the numerous fragments of our world who have conflicting ideas on how to manage the twin threats of evangelical Christianity and Islamism, or travel between an urban city and suburbia to get a sense of how realistic Mr. Buckell’s fiction is.
The story itself? An plague is about to be let loose on humanity, engineered by malevolent aliens intent on destroying humanity. I’ve mentioned before how refreshing that humans, rather than being the top of the galactic food chain are the universally despised by the much more powerful alien empires. Pepper comes to Chilo (in a neat, beautifully rendered scene) to warn humanity. Humanity, however, is (as we still are) much, much more concerned with its local politics; its pitiful, myopic struggles for power (what matters who is the local leader if the aliens are about to obliterate our race?); it’s defining of the Other as inferior in some way—even the lowest humans, the residents of Chilo, find ways to dehumanize the more powerful post-humans.
I continue to advocate that Tobias Buckell’s vision of the future is much more realistic than most science fiction and realistic fiction, as its concerns are not with the rich and powerful, but the poor and ordinary. He approaches the topic of human and political frailty from a different slant than L. Timmel Duchamp, but their points are very much the same:
Humanity needs to overcome its sectarian politics.
Lamplighter continues the Monster Blood Tattoo series. Much of what I said earlier still applies: this is a world loved and lovingly rendered by the author, complete with glossaries, diagrams, dialect, and so forth. Indeed it is the thoroughness of world-building that earns the book part of its honor. The other is that, while the hero is the orphan figure (see Les Miserables and Oliver Twist for just two of many antecedents) who has unusual gifts, it is not until the end that we learn of them (and the reactions of other characters is atypical of most cookie-cutter fantasies of the type I remember). He in fact is embarassed by his feminine name and his short stature, which makes his chosen profession difficult to master. Indeed, his equipment is shortened so that he can use it.
He is surrounded by various characters from whom he learns valuable lessons and skills, and is fast friends (of course) with the great heroes and the outcasts alike. Granting depth to this hoariness is that the heroes are somewhat unheroic in his eyes, hunting innocent monsters for economic, not spiritual, rewards.
Much of the story meanders, however, as he is sent to a distant outpost along a disused road. Why not simply let the weeds overtake the road and pull the lamplighters closer to cities and safety? I found the answer in an unusual place: The Great Wall by John Man, which argues that the Great Wall of China did not have a physical purpose—it was no more an impediment to the ‘barbarians’ than a few broken stones—but existed as a demarcation between ‘barbarian’ and ‘civilized’. The wall Rossamund and the lamplighters guard is such a demarcation. Importantly, the demarcation is the driving force behind the books: in a world sharply divided between humanity and monsters, is there a definitive break? (The answer is of course no, as some humans act monstrously and the monsters act compassionately, but that the point is an old one does not detract from the sharpness of the book’s focus.)
Lamplighter does suffer from a lack of focus as the story only really develops a thread a third of the way from the end, but the multi-dimensional world, the lovingly crafted structures, and the fully fleshed characters make Lamplighter an excellent series for children and adults alike.
Vandana Singh was born in New Delhi, India, and grew up in a cultural milieu that fostered the traditions as well as creativity and independent thinking. She acquired an early interest in the sciences as well as in writing and art. In her teenage years she was involved in a student environment group, an experience that shaped her life-long interest in the relationship between humans and Nature.
Later she acquired a Master’s degree in Physics from Delhi University and a PhD from the U.S., where she currently resides.
She divides her time between teaching college physics, raising her family, and writing non-Euclidean tales of science fiction and fantasy, as well as children’s stories. Her science fiction and fantasy short stories, deeply rooted in an Indian ethos, have been published in various anthologies and magazines in the U.S. and U.K. Her stories have appeared in “Year’s Best” collections and have been short-listed for the BSFA and Parallax awards.
Her first book for children, Younguncle Comes to Town, was published in India by Young Zubaan in 2004 and in America by Viking Penguin (April 2006). The sequel, Younguncle in the Himalayas, was publishing in 2005 in India by Young Zubaan and Puffin books. Her novella “Love and Other Monsters,” reviewed in this issue of Ideomancer, is available from Aqueduct Press. A collection of her stories will soon be available from Zubaan.
Sean Melican: Though you say “The Sign in the Window” is your only mainstream story, two others (“The Wife”, “Hunger”) would be comfortable under the ‘mainstream’ rubric. Certainly, they don’t have the usual science fiction or fantasy signifiers. Why have you chosen to submit to genre markets, or have they chosen you?
Vandana Singh: I’m obviously not very good at literary taxonomy or don’t care enough about it! “The Wife” is to me a spec fic story and “Hunger” was written after “The Sign in the Window.” (And I don’t update my website often enough). The latter story, by the way, while being mainstream, has something of a spec fic sensibility. You know, the universe being filled with messages that we try to interpret, to fit into our lives and circumstances, rightly or wrongly-all that is to me very spec fic. There has to be some element of the non-Euclidean in every story I write. I am utterly, totally, completely incapable of writing straight mainstream fare.
This is also why I submit to genre markets-I feel at home in genre. I enjoy a lot of non-genre stuff, but I’m a denizen of the spec fic world.
SM: As a corollary, how did you become interested in reading generally, and speculative fiction specifically?
VS: How does one become interested in breathing? : Seriously, though, I grew up in middle class, urban India where education and learning are a VERY big deal and all the kids know the alphabet in at least two languages by age three. I grew up in a house full of books and no TV, and my parents both had master’s degrees in English Literature, and I could read in English and Hindi from a very early age. My mother and my paternal grandmother also told stories to us kids from the old epics: stories about demons and gods, monsters and flying chariots.
SM: While I understand what you mean by ‘non-Euclidean’ writing, how do you go about consciously or unconsciously doing so?
VS: Well, I don’t consciously try to do it but the few times I’ve tried writing mainstream fiction I’ve stopped after a couple of paragraphs because I’ve bored myself to tears. It is not that I find mainstream fiction itself boring-I love a lot of realist writing-but I can’t seem to do it myself. Even if there is no overt magic or science fiction in a story of mine, there is awareness of a subtext that hints that things aren’t as they seem on the surface; that there may be hidden relationships and connections. Which I think gives it a fantastical sensibility. It’s a reflection of the way I look at the world, as a sort of palimpsest. The universe is non-Euclidean. I have an urge to bring that into my writing because I find it exciting. That’s it in a nutshell.
SM: How does being a Hindu, an Indian, and a woman affect you writing and your perception of speculative fiction?
VS: Well, I guess in the same way that a white American writer’s identity and experience might shape their writing. So where it might be natural for an American writer to set his or her story in Boston or New York, for me the natural place is Delhi, where I grew up. I was part of various women’s movements in India in my own small way, and witnessed or experienced the contradictions of being female in Indian society. My own vast family has some wonderfully strong women in it, even where the structure is more traditional, and I learned very early on that human systems are complex, that you can’t easily generalize. Hence my strong allergic reaction to stereotyping. As for Hinduism, I grew up in a Hindu family, listening to myths and legends and being part of various religious festivities and ceremonies. At the same time I was taught to be curious and tolerant, and left free to reject any part of Hinduism that I did not agree with-all of which are very Hindu attitudes. So my Hinduism, as befits a religion that has no founder and no single creed, is personal; I’m religiously an agnostic but I have a sense of the sacred, a sense of being part of a web of existence, of living in a rich metaphorical space. Complexity, connectedness, a blurring of boundaries between (for instance) animal and human, a sense that the universe is changing and staying still all at the same time. The audacity to think big, like the ancient Indian philosophers and mathematicians who came up with names for unimaginably enormous numbers. I don’t know how all that shows up in my fiction; I leave that to interested critics.
I should mention that my background in physics contributes as much (I suspect) to my writing as any of the above. I teach physics at a small and wonderful liberal arts college and although I don’t do research any more I still ponder the great unsolved questions. My writing ties into all this very directly because it can be a vehicle for the wild speculations of my imagination, allowing me an intellectual high or two in a different way from research.
SM: Since you are perhaps the only Indian speculative fiction writer, at least within the Western ghetto, it is dangerously easy to (unfairly) assume that you are not only an individual but speak for Indians in general, to say that the experiences you write about are not simply an individual’s life but represent the lives of all Indian women. Are you aware of any such pressure? How much is autobiographical?
VS: First, I’m happy to announce that there are increasing numbers of Indian or Indian-origin speculative fiction writers now living and writing in the Western world (as well as in India). There’s Anil Menon, for instance, who is brilliant and has been published in many anthologies and also in Strange Horizons, and a whole crop of other talents emerging from Clarion workshops. There are also many writers in India who are writing spec fic of various kinds, and in fact there is a long tradition of science fiction in some Indian languages like Bengali. But when I first started to write this stuff (which was after I came to the U.S.) I didn’t know about most of that. I also didn’t know any other Indians in this part of the world who were into spec fic, and it was pretty lonely. My first writers’ conference (in Portland, OR) I stood out among the science fiction and fantasy crowd. An agent who was one of the guests advised me not to worry about writing SF and told me quite kindly that I was a multicultural writer who should be writing about saris and arranged marriages. That was the first time I realized that some people saw me as an alien in the SF field. This was both annoying and extremely amusing. Later on I became part of the Cambridge Science fiction Workshop and made friends among other writers, so that changed.
But to get back to your question: I don’t know if people take me as representing all Indian women or not; I hope they don’t! What I’d love to see are many more voices than mine in spec fic from Indians, including women, and that is happening slowly.
As for whether any of my writing is autobiographical: to an extent everything I write is, because it is the world as seen through my eyes, through the filters of my own experiences and discoveries. Some stories have a kernel based on actual events but I extrapolate wildly from those to form the story. For example my story Hunger took off from the memory of an old man who lived at the top of the stairs in our apartment building in Delhi, who had been thrown out by his son and who ultimately starved to death despite our attempts to help him. My story Delhi is filled with personal reminiscences of various places in the city of Delhi, although the events that happened to the protagonist certainly never happened to me. I’m also working on a novella set in the far future on a space station at the other end of the galaxy. Among other things it is about a woman’s search for scientific truth and for identity, and I’m no stranger to that sort of thing.
SM: Is there the beginning of a theme with “Hunger” and “Thirst”? Will we see “Exhaustion,” “Desire” or “Fear”?
VS: J Perhaps we can also add “Despair,” “Dyspepsia” and “Love-sick Yearning!” But seriously, no, there is no theme. It is sheer coincidence that I happened to write stories with those titles
SM: On your website, you mention that you “…discovered [you] wanted to be a writer.” Traditionally a writer says she or he has always wanted to be a writer. How did this discovery occur?
VS: Well, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve always been writing, but I never thought of being a writer in the sense of submitting stories and being professional and all that, until much later in life. To me writing, like reading, is akin to breathing: I do it because I can’t seem to help it. (I suppose that makes it some kind of pathological condition).
When I took a nine-year break from academia in order to home-school my daughter, I realized that I wanted to write, not just for myself, but because I thought I might actually have something to say to the world. So it was a discovery. Not a one-time revelation but something that dawned on me over time.
SM: You seem to move easily between adult fiction and children’s fiction, and while you’ve said you don’t have an interest in the taxonomy of fiction, at the very least, they have different audiences. What differences are there in your approach to each? Many writers say they write for a particular person (sometimes persons). Do you have such a person or persons? Are they different for each type of writing?
VS: I still read a lot of children’s fiction. I haven’t outgrown that and hope never to do so! There’s a part of me that is always eleven years old, and I like to honor that when I write. So for me the boundary between children’s fiction and adult fiction is blurred. The only difference is that I limit such things as sex and violence and similar themes that kids may not be ready for. But I do put in things that all kids go through: the pain of having to grow up, the realization of their parents’ fallibility, the realization that security in this world is a fragile, illusory thing. And spades of the whole sense-of-wonder thing, which is how I still remember seeing the world as I grew up.
I don’t have a particular person or persons for whom I write, although my Younguncle stories for children were first told to entertain my daughter when she was sick. To some extent I’m writing for myself, for the eleven-year-old inside me, as well as the alleged grown-up.
SM: Is some of the artwork for Younguncle Comes to Town intended to resemble the art in Curious George books? I realize writers rarely have control over the art, of course.
VS: The American edition has cover art by Sandy Nichols, but the interior art is by the New Delhi artist B.M. Kamath. I am not aware of any deliberate attempt to make the art resemble that in the Curious George books.
SM: What particular impulses have driven you to tell your stories?
VS: Well, the world is a complex and endlessly fascinating place. In various ways my writing is an attempt to help me make sense of this complexity. And to celebrate it or comment on it in some way. I don’t seem to be able to stop myself from doing that.
The things that excite me about the world generally show up in my writing: the quirkiness of human beings, animals, the physical universe, the mental spaces we inhabit. How we impose structure on the world-from sociological expectations, customs and rules to our attempts to scientifically model Nature-and yet, despite these attempts, the world keeps wriggling out from under our various schemes. So people and animals confound our expectations and the universe turns out to be mostly made of dark matter, all of which makes it a lot more interesting than it would be otherwise. The impulse that leads me to ponder scientific questions is at heart the same one that leads me to write: to try to make sense of a gorgeously complex tapestry while being the size of a mite crawling about in it. The green and red threads indicate a sort of pattern, and that works for a while, but then there is this unexpected blue weave. You know? And what can you do but follow one thread or another, and make your little hypotheses and thought experiments, and be hilariously wrong much of the time before you discover another local truth. And you have to step back from it at various times and just celebrate how confoundedly crazy and interesting everything is. The way I choose to do that is to tell a story.
SM: Thank you!
Adams, John Joseph, editor. Wastelands. Night Shade Books: 2008. ISBN: 978-1-59780-105-8
Živkovic, Zoran. Alice Copple-Tošic, translator. Steps Through the Mist. Aio Publishing Company LLC: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-933083-10-0
Singh, Vandana. Of Love and Other Monsters. Aqueduct Press: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-933500-16-4
Mallet, Nathalie. The Princes of the Golden Cage. Night Shade Books:2007. ISBN: 978-1-59780-090-7
First, several caveats:
It is always good to have collections of short stories. They are an endangered species and like all endangered species, the more space available for them and the more of them, the better.
John Joseph Adams deserves a great deal of credit for the extensivity and reach of his research (see my notes on research below), and for picking recent post-apocalyptic stories that have not been heavily anthologized.
But most of these stories have been reviewed elsewhere, including Locus, Tangent, and elsewhere. Therefore, rather than reinforce or refute reviews of these stories on an individual basis, I’ve chosen to discuss the value of, and some of the trends within, the sub-genre.
Having said that, none of the stories in Wastelands is a weak story. Some are better than others, but that is always the case with any collection. It is worth buying.
Why collect post-apocalyptic stories as opposed to, say, favorite stories (these are the best-of-the-year collections) or, well, anything else? Because, ostensibly, post-apocalyptic stories are allowed, even encouraged, to break the rules. Stories in the (real or mythological) past must adhere to economic, physical, geographical, historical, social, or cultural rules. Stories in the future must make an attempt, feeble or otherwise, to connect the imagined future to the past: they can break certain rules—most scientific laws, as it is known as science fiction—but they must maintain continuity with the historical past. With post-apocalyptic stories, however, anything goes. To borrow Larry Niven’s phrase, it is a playground for the mind. It is the opportunity to do thought experiments. Of course this leads to a great amount of apparent but not real (see below) authorial laziness: research is hard. Done well, though, post-apocalyptic stories break the rules (they fracture the speculative fiction mirror, as it were) to reflect upon, well, ourselves. Therefore, I propose renaming the genre after-the-break stories, at least for purposes of this review.
There is an insidious largely unexamined assumption regarding the above-mentioned authorial laziness: many stories reinforce certain implicit lessons, particularly that of the lone hero (abducted from the Western genre) who can, through sheer goodness (and maybe a touch of madness) conquer the overwhelming forces of chaos or evil. Road Warrior, The Postman, and I Am Legend are typical of the cinematic versions. Worse, however, is the reinforcement that democratic republicanism and capitalism are good things, both the apex of modern government, and the glue which maintains order and decency. In the Western canon, there almost certainly has never been an after-the-break story emphasizing, say, the strength of Muslim or African religious, social, governmental and economic structures. This is rather myopic considering that communities (however they are defined) in after-the-break stories are almost certainly closer to the size and structure of a small, tightly knit, highly interdependent tribe or communal group (the !Kung and Bedouins come to mind) than that of a distant, anonymous, capitalistic society. In fact, “The Last of the O-Forms, “Artie’s Angels,” “And the Deep Blue Sea,” “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus,” and “A Song Before Sunset” require capitalism to remain the dominant economic model (sans a fiat money system). Despite all this elbow room for thought experimentation, despite the opportunity to break the dominant paradigms (these are after-the-break stories), the same themes echo in the narrow box of Western ideology.
This is NOT to argue that these stories are BAD stories, but to outline the point that for all the malleability available in after-the-break stories, most maintain a very narrow, very Western view of human societies.
Now, in Dale Bailey’s “The End of the World as We Know It,” Mr. Bailey juxtaposes historic end-of-the-known-world scenarios, such as that of the black plague (which must certainly have seemed like the end of the world) with the anti-hero’s rather blasé actions or lack thereof (what the hell else is he to do?) while the story itself is self-aware, acknowledging well-known tropes. For example:
In the second variety, irresponsible human beings bring it on themselves. Mad scientists and corrupt bureaucrats, usually.
Stephen King’s “The End of the Whole Mess” is a paint-by-the-numbers of this type capped by a ludicrous, painful ending—clearly a riff on the popular ‘it’s in the water’ notion. Sadly, the story never rises above cliché, with cardboard characters (brilliant, mad scientist intent on saving the world and his skeptical but admiring brother) and an ending that is telegraphed from the title—one would expect a surprising twist at the end to undercut, comment on, or offer an ironic interpretation, but the story is exactly what the reader expects. If I have one critique of Mr. Adams, it’s that he chose this story as an example of its type rather than the vastly superior “The World, as We Know’t” from Howard Waldrop. What makes it superior? It takes a single, disproven theory—the ether—assumes that it’s true and extrapolates. And, oh yeah, it’s well-written. Whereas Mr. King has to invent not one but two ludicrous, laughably implausible scientific discoveries. If Occam’s razor holds true, which story is better?
With this one exception, the other selections are excellent examples illustrating a wide range (other than the narrow Western viewpoint) of after-the-break stories.
“Salvage” and “Judgment Passed” (the only original story) are an interesting pair, contrasting the value, durability, and necessity of religious faith in the former with a healthy does of skepticism in the latter. Another common idea (so common, several writer’s guidelines advise readers to avoid it) is that of a man and woman repopulating the world—never mind that it’s genetically impossible. Gene Wolfe’s “Mute” turns the story on its head, so that rather than finding a story of hope, it’s horrific. Mr. Bailey’s story loads the idea with the possibility that if two are left, what if one doesn’t care?
Blame, of course, plays a large part. Stephen King lays the whole damn mess on one man’s shoulders while Richard Kadrey writes:
I wish there had been a war, a plague or some new, grand Chernobyl. Something we could point to and say, ‘That’s it. That’s what killed the world.’ But it wasn’t like that.
while Nancy Kress, in a refreshing counter-extrapolation writes:
And the sociologists came in droves, minicams in hand, ready to record the collapse of the ill-organized and ill colonies into street-gang, dog-eat-dog anarchy.
Later, when this did not happen, different sociologists came in later-model sani-suits to record the reasons why the colonies were not collapsing on schedule. All these groups went away dissatisfied. There was no cure, no cause, no story, no collapse, no reasons.
There is, of course, a reason. But in a reversal of the usual, Ms. Kress creates a working society of outcasts (colonies of victims of a strange disease) isolated from the supposed ‘normal’ world, which is falling apart:
… he talks about the latest version of martial law, about the failure of the National Guard to control protestors against the South American war until they actually reached the edge of the White House electro-wired zone; about the growing power of the Fundamentalist underground that the other undergrounds-he uses the plural-called “the God gang.” He tells us about the industries losing out steadily to Korean and Chinese competitors, the leaping unemployment rate, the ethnic backlash, the cities in flames. Miami. New York. Los Angeles-these had been rioting for years. Now it’s Portland.
(I have to avoid the trap of saying something like, ‘Sound familiar?’ with the intention of drawing attention to the commonalities between the story and today’s news stories—but Ms. Kress is not, as far as I know, a seer. If it’s familiar, it’s because history is strewn with the wreckage of failed societies, cultures, governments—and the causes of failure are very few and quite common.)
Many after-the-break stories assume civilization falls apart when external forces collapses: governmental, legal, religious, etc., systems. Implicitly and collectively, these stories construct the argument that we need either strong agreed-upon structures, such as courts and legislatures, or a single, strong-willed individual to keep us from our ‘natural’ violent, brutal behaviors. To say it differently: savage (I don’t want to say animal, as many animals construct non-violent collectives benefiting the more than just the individual) behavior is our primary mode of behavior; civilized behavior is a very distant second. But Nancy Kress’ story, “Inertia,” argues that while we are savages primarily, civilization alone cannot keep savage behavior at bay. Somewhere, in Umberto Eco’s ‘black box’ of individual thought, behavior is strongly and primarily driven by biochemistry. It can be fixed, but not by laws or Codes (“Artie’s Angels”).
Aside from the previous, the most unusual anti-expectation story (and my favorite) is Jonathan Lethem’s “How We Got Into Town and Out Again.” Gloria and Lewis, reminiscent of Lennie and George, enter a town (again, expectations from the title, but take note, Mr. King) looking for food and shelter after some undisclosed catastrophe has disrupted civilization. Utilizing the after-the-break freedom, Mr. Lethem sets up a world where electricity and virtual reality exist, but are used for vastly different purposes than we would ever expect: to survive, Gloria and Lewis agree to a marathon VR performance, which, according to Mr. Adam’s story notes, are based on the dance crazes of the 1930s. Rather than exploring the cause of the break, or sending us on a somewhat picaresque/horrific tour of the post-apocalyptic world, Mr. Lethem uses the freedom to criticize VR technology. If he were to set it in the present, he would of course be bound by current limitations; if he set in a future contiguous with the present, he couldn’t set up the isolation and desperation of the people who perform or watch what are voyeuristic and pornographic live performances. He would have to account for exactly who these displaced people are, both the performers and voyeurs, as well as the laws or lack thereof. With the after-the-break scenario, he has the template—we already know about how hard survival is in such a world, and the types of people who inhabit it—so Mr. Lethem is free to critique something, in this case VR technology, without overburdening himself or the reader, or tying himself into knots justifying the world.
My other favorite is Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” which is relatively simple superficially—the story of one woman surviving with a gun and maybe a man (how hoary!)—but, like Ms. Kress, hers is a critique of the (supposed/assumed) difference between animal and human.
Finally, and most importantly, Mr. Adams demonstrates the sub-genre is not a static, but is a dynamic, continuously evolving fractured mirror, in dialogue with, and sometimes refuting, its basic assumptions, particularly Mr. Bailey’s story (an amalgam) and John Langan’s direct, brilliant response to “The End of the World as We Know It”: “Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of Purple Flowers,” which takes each old trope—vicious beast, mutant flowers, the last woman and man on earth—and wonderfully inverts them: the man is a fanboy-turned-(literally)-superhero; the woman is already pregnant and not by him; no reason is ever given for the emergence of odd flora and fauna (the world is inexplicable, really, so why should its end be any different?) though the woman wants to study a flower or tooth, even while acknowledging that not only can she not add to their understanding, but that it would be fruitless to even try; and even the writing itself, which is largely a stream of consciousness using sentences fragments as chapter headings.
There are several others I haven’t touched upon, largely for reasons of the length of this review. What Mr. Adams has collected is (with the exception of Mr. King’s story) an excellent cross-section of post-apocalyptic stories well worth reading.
I find it difficult to express the reasons for my delight with Zoran Zivkovic’s writing. His ideas are very old—”Geese in the Mist” has at its core an idea I recall from the original “Twilight Zone”—and the actual sentences (at least those in translation) are fairly short, direct, and without noticeable flair: he does not seem to expect his readers to delight solely in the original fires of his imagination (which has unfortunately forgiven many wooden dialogues and cardboard characters) nor to be (cliché alert!) dazzled by his literary pyrotechnics.
Instead, the strength of his stories is the slow accretion of details, which lead to a profound, emotional, if sometimes inexplicable, conclusion. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Zivkovic, he writes what he calls ‘story suites’, which are essentially short stories linked by a common theme, the final story generally pulling together the threads of the previous stories. Sometimes, this last is inconsistent with the tone of its parts, resulting in a story that, while not exactly thudding, doesn’t quite sing either; however, in Steps through the Mist, Mr. Zivkovic has successfully integrated his components, perhaps because he has inverted the usual order: the first story sets up the following stories.
Each story by itself is a masterpiece in short fiction but the whole, ah the whole! The whole confronts, literarily, nothing less than the notions of fate and free will.
In “Disorder in the Head” we are introduced to Ms. Emily’s class of girls, whose assignment was to record their dreams. One student, Ms. Irena, dreams other peoples’ dreams, so she knows in advance what the other girls have written and describes them in detail. Miss Emily, believing herself to be a whole person and not merely another’s figment, is faced with a terrible choice: walk through the classroom door and discover if there is merely a hallway (therefore she’s not a figment) or discover that there’s only a mist (therefore she’s merely another’s momentary dream). As is typical with Mr. Zivkovic, we do not know what becomes of Miss Emily, whether she opens the door or not, and if she does, what she finds. In a sense, Mr. Zivkovic is creating the textual equivalent of Schrodinger’s cat. (But notice, that there are twin paradoxes: first, Miss Emily has to decide whether to open the door; and second, before the first even occurs or not, there’s a second paradox regarding what lies beyond.)
In “Hole in the Wall,” we are presented with the dream of one of Miss Emily’s students. (So is Miss Emily real, or is Miss Irena creating dreams within dreams? I believe the previous parenthetical statement answers this one.) A young girl in an asylum is convinced that she is not only able to see the future, but that she is able to choose which one of many potential futures is actualized. The proof lies in her final action, which is statistically impossible. But if she is only a figment of a figment… Perhaps, and the text does support this, the girl of “Hole in the Wall” is actually Miss Irena. The mind reels.
In “Geese in the Mist” a girl on a skiing adventure discovers that there are unseen observers (who are made visible for a moment, perhaps through dreams).
‘But what decision? You’ve still got me confused,’ [I said.]
[He said,] ‘Which run you choose to ski down the mountain.’
‘Why is that important? This run or that. They all lead down, don’t they?’
‘That’s right. But what happens afterward is not the same. Each run has its own continuation in the future. It’s the start of a chain of events and each has a very different outcome… You’ve heard the story of the butterfly harmlessly fluttering its wings and ultimately causing a hurricane on the other side of the world? Of course the butterfly is not to blame, but should one stand idly by and do nothing to lead to the chain of events that leads to misfortune?’
Not only does Mr. Zivkovic combine quantum uncertainty with the butterfly effect, but he questions the morality of action or inaction (Supposing you had knowledge outcome of an event before the even itself, what should you do? The question of this unbearable weight is answered in one of the other stories.), and infuses it with a very dark possibility: perhaps she picks the wrong run and to avert a misfortune, he must act.
In “Line on the Palm,” a young man with an abnormally short lifeline confronts a psychic, who guarantees that despite his deficiency, he will live a long life. Appearing to be a weak, unrelated story on first (and second) reading, its strength comes from the inversion of reader expectation: when the psychic is faced with the young man’s challenge to her legitimacy, she breaks down (as we expect) and admits she is a fraud. But the ending leaves us with the question of whether she is a fraud, or if she admits to fraudulent behavior for selfish reasons. Who wants blood on their hands? But the story gains strength when set beside “Hole in the Wall” and “Geese in the Mist.” In “Hole…” a young girl is incapable of bearing the weight of knowledge; however, in “Line…” a young woman bears said weight with nary a shrug of her shoulders; in “Geese…” a young woman knows that some undefined weight rests on her shoulders, but without other information, the weight remains undefined and ultimately irrelevant. If you don’t know which action will lead to which result, then what does knowing that it matters matter? Conversely, if you do, it is impossible to live with the desire to act, as each action, no matter how positive, must lead to a negative result. It is only possible to live with pre-knowledge if one abandons all efforts to decide.
In the final story, “Alarm Clock on the Night Table,” an old woman (notice the obverse to the youth in the previous stories) discovers that her alarm clock doesn’t work. She doesn’t need it to wake. She needs it to sleep. When does an old woman no longer need to sleep? When does she no longer need to wake? I don’t wish to say any more, as the pleasure from the story itself, as well as its relation to the others, comes from the gentle (almost hypnotic) revealing of the importance of the clock and her “…slim collection of love poems that had been with her as long as the clock.”
Others may have more original ideas, but no one more beautifully, lyrically, or subtly uses traditional (in less capable hands: fusty) tropes to illuminate life.
Ever since I read “The Wife,” I’ve been deeply in love with Vandana Singh’s stories. Admittedly, I haven’t read them all, but a collection will soon be available from Zubaan Books. Why do I love them? Partly because her writing is slow and languid, but never meandering, almost always leading to a sharp realization, and partly because even in her most mundane (which isn’t very) stories, her characters are Indian which makes them as, or more, alien than most literary supposed aliens (who tend to share a surprising number of Western cultural values). One example: in Of Love and Other Monsters, the main character’s (sort of) guardian encourages him to, “‘Learn computers and get a proper job, every idiot is doing it.'” Compare this cultural admonition to the characterization of American programmers in Cory Doctorow’s “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” (from Wastelands):
Van was a type-two sysadmin, over six feet tall, long pony-tail, bobbing Adam’s apple. Over his toast-rack chest, his tee said CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON and featured a row of polyhedral RPG dice.
Felix was a type-one admin, with an extra seventy or eighty pounds all around the middle, and a neat but full beard that he wore over his extra chins. His tee said HELLO CTHULHU and featured a cute, mouthless, Hello-Kitty-style Cthulhu.
Tell me again why the U.S. is outsourcing skilled labor to India, among other nations?
Of Love and Other Monsters is perhaps Ms. Singh’s most ambitious story to date, incorporating aliens, a variation of panspermia, mind control, gender/sex issues, shadowy supermen, shadowy conspiracies, and of course love; a heady mix, but she never loses control of her topics, keeping them sharply focused on how they affect the main character Arun, whose name means ‘red’ but may also foreshadow Arun’s identity. (A reference, I think, to Aryan invasions.) Arun awakes in a fire, “… lying on a bed of warm ash, with sharp bits digging into my back.” He had a form of retrograde amnesia, able to remember language, for example, but not his identity. His rescuer is Janani, an Indian woman with (of course) many secrets, which are slowly uncovered through the course of the story. She essentially raises Arun, who discovers that he has the ability to create meta-minds, a weaving of individual minds. Some people are closed to him, which he calls ‘blanks,’ and some, which he labels ‘solitons’ (a rare type of wave) are able to move through a meta-mind, “Taking nothing, leaving nothing behind.” While he never uses his powers for great things, good or evil, he fears blanks and falls in love with a soliton.
In the area of gender issues, two observations arise: first, as I read through, I initially believed Arun to be female, perhaps because of the voice. (Indeed, a number of times in the preceding paragraph, I mistakenly wrote ‘her’ instead of ‘him’ before correcting myself.) Second and related to the first, because Arun is capable of creating meta-minds, his connections with people occur on an entirely mental level: he falls in love with, and has sex with, both men and women and, “But for an accident of gender and the cruelty of convention, I would have married him in a minute.” Coupled (pun intended) with the idea that humanity arose from a coupling of aliens with our progenitor species who have the ability to manipulate and connect with minds, it calls into question the notion of ‘male’ and ‘female’. If love is a meeting of minds, either literally (as in the story) or figuratively (as in presumed real life) what are we to make of the arbitrary notions of ‘male’ and ‘female,’ ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual?’ Indeed, Arun determines there are thirty-four distinct types of minds. So much, says the story, for simple dichotomy.
(A quick primer: ‘sex’ is generally reserved as a designation for the type which has either a penis or vagina; ‘gender’ connects these previous types with secondary characteristics, what we call masculine and feminine traits. For example, sex-designated boys are supposed to be tough, like sports, earn more money, not cry, and so forth while sex-designated girls are supposed to be coy, curvy, emotional, maternal, hate sports and like makeup and Barbie dolls. Total bullshit. For example, in New Guinea, young boys performed fellatio on the elder men, to absorb their masculine traits from their ejaculate. Is this homosexuality? Certain Native American tribes allowed sex-designated women to be gender-designated men, if their dreams led them to it: they wore men’s clothing and performed masculine not feminine duties, and could even marry a woman. The reverse was true, for sex-designated men could be gender-designated women. Again, is this homosexuality as we know it?)
In the course of the rest of the story, Arun loses his soliton-lover to marriage and dissipation, discovers his identity and that of his nemesis Rahul Moghe (are they so different?) I hate to criticize Vandana Singh (her writing is so extraordinary: who am I to say anything negative?) but I wish the story had focused more on the “… dangerous place outside conventional boundaries: man/woman, mind/body,” as the copy on the back cover says, rather than on the cat-and-mouse game between Arun and Rahul Moghe. But perhaps this is not a minor failing. Perhaps it is a success. If, as Wastelands suggests, science fiction, despite its advocates insistence that it is a much less conventional genre than others, is thoroughly tied to the conventions of Western ideology, it may not be possible to discuss contrary and complex notions unless they are cocooned within an identifiable conventional narrative: the thriller, which is in a sense what “Of Love and Other Monsters” is a token of.
Following through on the previous thought, the genre shelves frankly suffer from the weight of the enormous quasi-medieval fantasies which more often than are romantically idealized and painfully naive. (Remember: research is hard.) One caveat: I have not read a great deal of said fantasies in the past decade and a half as I’d had my fill previously. Based on reviews of the more recent novels, not enough has changed. The market certainly seems to suggest that there is a demand for the product. I don’t derive much satisfaction from these books, however, for varied reasons. Put simply: I am the wrong audience.
So, when I saw the vaguely middle Eastern cover for Nathalie Mallet’s The Princes of the Golden Cage and read that there was a Sultan, I had modest hopes. Modest, as it is a first novel and very rarely are first novels brilliant. I didn’t expect Orhan Pamuk quality. I did expect something different, however, and I was disappointed.
It starts promisingly enough: Amir is one prince out of more than a hundred, all kept in a lavish palace so that they don’t tear the Sultan’s kingdom into tiny pieces like so many squabbling ducks over a piece of bread. Near the end of his life, the Sultan will name one prince as the next Sultan. The circumstances invite, of course, all sorts of schemes for fratricide. Amir isn’t the obscure scullery boy whose dirty face hides the clean jaw of the royal lineage. He isn’t interested in the Sultanate, which in this type of novel almost guarantees he will become the Sultan. He’s dedicated his life to science. Ah!
In short order, we discover that some of the brothers are being killed by what appears to be evil magical means and our hero Amir is just the sort of skeptic to defuse the tension running through the palace. Double ah! A scientist and a skeptic of magic! That’s different.
But alas, no. Presented with the evidence of evil magic which could be faked with smoke and mirrors and perhaps a bit of wax, our skeptical hero is converted to a believer in magic faster than you can say road to Damascus.
Worse, not once but four times, Amir learns key pieces of plot information by accidentally stumbling past conspirators whispering details of plans in conveniently full and sequential sentences while then muttering that perhaps it’s better not to talk of such things as the walls have ears. I wished mightily that Amir made some sort of effort to achieve something, but instead everything happens to him. Very little occurs because of his efforts to effect change—he is too much a passive figure in his own life. (That may be true for many of us, but neither are we heroes in epic stories.)
He finds a picture of a visiting princess and naturally falls head-over-heels. Which is fine, of course, teenage boys being largely enormous sacs (NOT sacks) of raging hormones, except that as soon as she and he meet, they are doe-eyed for each other. But alas, she is to marry whoever is named the next Sultan. Ah! So now Amir will throw down the gauntlet and challenge his brothers for the Sultanate!
No? Oh, he’ll mope and hope whoever is her husband is good to her. As terribly, terribly sexist as it is to compete for a woman, it is logical within a hierarchical, sexist society; but it’s impossible to cheer for a hero who gives up so easily.
There are other frustrations. The list of the order to the throne of the brothers is changed multiple times, and though Amir’s name appears, he assumes it must be his paranoid brother of the same name. Not only is he too weak to vie for the throne in the hopes of winning the hand of his love, he’s too stupid to imagine he’s a better candidate for the Sultanate than his severely agoraphobic brother.
I desperately wish I had liked this book better. Between an over-abundance, a glut, of imitation-pale trilogies and a desperate need for a wider, deeper appreciation of other peoples—U.S. Americans really, really need to overcome our irrational superiority complex—I would really like to see a fantasy novel portray a genuine hero (or dare I dream, a heroine?) in a non-Western culture.
L. Timmel Duchamp’s most recent books are Alanya to Alanya, Renegade, and Tsunami, the first three in a five book series, The Marq’ssan Cycle. (The first two were reviewed here in March.) She has also written The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding), Loves Body, Dancing in Time, The Grand Conversation, and A Case of Mistaken Identity. She has published well over thirty short stories. She is also the editor of two anthologies, Talking Back: Epistolary Fantasies, and The WisCon Chronicles, Vol 1. Some of her stories and many of her essays and criticisms can be found at here. She is the founder of Aqueduct Press, which publishes feminist science fiction.
Sean Melican: In Alanya to Alanya, you use the term “feminist” without irony or cynicism. Reading the term, I had two impulses. The first was a feeling of historical quaintness, as if it were equivalent to “abolitionist”,—not that feminism objectives have been achieved or abolished, only the term itself feels archaic—and the second was a feeling that using the term as you do, and freighted as it is, it has the potential of driving away readers. Would you give us both your historical view of feminism and your perspective on feminism today?
L. Timmel Duchamp: The popularity of WisCon, the only specifically designated “feminist” sf convention in the US, has been growing at such a pace that in recent years it reaches its cap of 1000 months before the con. Nonetheless, I’ve noticed that people born shortly before, during, or after I wrote these books have been powerfully affected by the media-assisted backlash of the late 1980s that played the usual language games with terminology as a cheap way of discrediting and smearing large groups of people. While many young women agree with all the objectives of feminism and also with the assessment that they haven’t been fully achieved, they have apparently bought into the misrepresentations of the anti-feminists and despise the word “feminist”; others (usually in their late teens and early twenties) believe that feminism is no longer needed (and then change their mind by their mid-thirties); while still others agree with the objectives but see the problem more narrowly, as one that each individual must solve for herself.
Over the centuries, feminism and proto-feminism has more often been advocated by near-lone individual voices (usually of “exceptional” women) than by broad-based movements. Its broad-based movements have marked the high points of feminist history, but that is not to say that the lone voices speaking out during the times in which feminists are ignored or ridiculed haven’t been important to feminism. The fact is, feminism is as much about figuring out the operations of sexism and how to negotiate power as it is about mounting massive challenges to the system. Although feminism in the US is currently in an ebb-cycle (in contrast to third-world feminisms), I was reminded, reading Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice Sheldon, that we’re not yet as bad off as feminists were in the fifties, when they were reeling and helpless following the post-war backlash explicitly designed to privilege white males in the workplace. Unfortunately, though, we’re pretty much back in a place where women (like pretty much everyone else in this culture) are atomized, and I suspect that that’s why “feminist” sounds so quaint to you. Can feminism exist in a world where it’s every woman for herself? That’s really the question new generations of women must grapple with.
SM: Though the series is set in the future, you also use the terms “hysteria” and “hysterical” in the very old etymological sense: a neurotic condition peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus. What particular value or meaning do you assign to inserting a seventeenth century term in a future setting?
LTD: Forgive my pedantry, but applying neurosis to “a dysfunction of the uterus” is a bit anachronistic. (The concept of neurosis doesn’t go back that far!) Hysteria, though, is a concept that’s been around for more than a millennium. And it’s one of those really important words and conceits that allows one a way into putting one’s hands on persisting, apparently anachronistic (and therefore slippery) ideas, and it came in for a lot of attention from feminist theorists in the 1980s. But before I talk about that, I should perhaps note that ten years before I started writing the Marq’ssan Cycle, as a young, “maverick” (the characterization wasn’t intended as a compliment) graduate student, I undertook a research project that entailed my reading dozens of European gynecological and obstetrical texts dating from the classical Greeks through the eighteenth century. Although pre-modern models of sexual physiology varied, just about everyone agreed that the principal problem with women was seated in the womb, or hyster (or, in 17th century England, the matrix, aka “the Mother,” which is perilously close to the designation “maternal environment” used by some people today when they find it necessary to objectify and remove agency from pregnant women). Some, like Plato, believed that the womb wandered around the body, sometimes choking the woman and rendering her breathless. The most common view, prevalent in the later middle ages and early modern period, followed Galen in holding that women were humorally inferior to men-men, that is, burned hot and dry, while women were cold and moist. The prescribed cure was orgasm or (for peasant women) hard physical labor. “Widows and maids” (i.e., unmarried women) were most susceptible. This presumed weakness in women takes on particular significance when one considers that physicians and moralists were constantly declaring that women were sexually insatiable.
Flash forward, to the early 1980s. Translations of work by French feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément were flooding the US, as well as work by a lot of Lacanians and post- and anti-Lacanians. The subject of Ida Bauer’s resistance to Freud’s patronizing misreading of her hysterical symptoms (labeled by Freud “The Case of Dora”) was hot. “Hysteria” in this later historical sense was all about repression and rebellion in young bourgeois women and girls trapped within tightly prescribed roles and unable to express anger and dissent except through increasingly bizarre and extreme physical symptoms. Many of the theorists took the hysteric as an emblem for the way in which women are trapped in male discourse and claimed the hysteric as a proto-feminist figure of revolt. Although I found their theorizing fascinating, such an unconscious, masochistic, and passive-aggressive tactic as hysteria struck me as a sign of defeat and an emblem of damage, rather than a beacon for some essence of woman that even when forced underground persisted indomitably over the ages, as some of the theorists would have it. From this perspective, hysterics were subversive of the partriarchal order even as they accommodated it: a view I could not support.
Hysteria as a medical (including psychiatric) diagnosis didn’t persist much beyond the turn of the twentieth century. And yet the idea of it lingers (just as the adjective “hysterical,” when denoting crying or laughing uncontrollably and by extension being irrational and unreceptive to reason, still tends to be applied to females more than to males) in all sorts of atavistic and deeply reactionary forms. I would submit that there’s no woman in our culture who is immune to being characterized as “hysterical” when a man wants to shut down a conversation. When I was growing up in the 1950s, married women (most of them mothers) were subject to a variety of problems because of their “female trouble,” ranging from “cracking up” and “nervous breakdowns” to bitchiness to every sort of bad judgment and always, always buckling under stress. Women were universally declared unfit to hold power and unfit for military service. Later, “hormonal imbalances” succeeded “female trouble” as the source of instability in women. In fact, my own mother (who had a career and held positions of considerable responsibility and power in her job) told me time and again (even while I was writing the Marq’ssan Cycle!) that as a woman I needed a superior man “over” me as my husband because of my inherent emotional instability as a woman. You may think that such ideas have vanished, but I assure you, they haven’t! The language has changed, but not the basic idea of inherent physiological weakness in women because of their reproductive functions.
Given that executive men in the Marq’ssan Cycle base their sense of superiority on having shed their sexuality and constantly express the opinion that executive women are emotionally unstable for still being sexual (dogma that is congenial with the Early Modern European view of the sexes), “hysteria” struck (and continues to strike) me as apt. And I regret to say that until our culture ceases to regard the male as the standard and the female as a deviation from standard, the belief of a particular, inherent emotional instability in women will prevail.
SM: Your last statement raises a host of questions. I’ve read that some textbooks are changing the drawings of the vagina and two ovaries so they look less like an outside-in penis and scrotum. Wimbledon announced the women would earn equal prize money. The NFL is sponsoring a football camp for girls. Is it possible to have two legitimate equal standards? Would it be better to regard the standard as a pair, which raises the linked issue of heterosexuality as the standard? Or is there another option?
LTD: The conundrum you sketch here calls to mind the related dispute between “difference feminism” and “equality feminism.” Basically, this dispute centers on the problem that equality that does not take difference into account implicitly subordinates one sex to the other, while the call for separate but equal, as we know, never results in genuine equality. Theorist Joan Scott has written at length on the dispute, which seems hopeless of real resolution, since each position implies a perspective and set of assumptions and facts that overlaps and yet clashes with the other. In the case of sports, separate is probably necessary simply because physical differences between the sexes are so important to athletic performance, though as an sf writer I have to say that it wouldn’t surprise me if sometime in the next few decades body alterations in those who’ve dedicated their lives to sport manage to eliminate some of those differences through surgery, drugs, or genetic engineering. For most areas of our lives, though, I would argue that we need a third option: we need the human option. The problem now is that the particularities of the male are taken as the paradigm of the general, where male=human and female=a deviation from the human to the extent that differences from the male are perceived (nearly universally and often unconsciously) as faults and weaknesses. What we need is a model in which “human” necessarily accepts differences-not just sex (and gender) differences, but ethnic differences, age and other physical differences, and so on. Interestingly, the Americans with Disabilities Act has forced institutions to work practically toward that end vis-à-vis able-bodiedness (which, like maleness, is taken as the standard). While I don’t know how such a shift in redefining “human” might come about, I do know that we’ll be living in a significantly different world when menstruation or menopause or pregnancy cease to be considered illness or deviations from “normal.”
SM: Also, as of this writing (late February to early March 2007) we finally (as you point out, South America has been way ahead of us) have a woman potentially running for president. In addition, for the first time, women have been named presidents of Harvard, Princeton, and Colgate Universities as well as Mercer County Community College (where I teach), as one example so that it doesn’t appear to be an issue only for the elite. Yet at the same time, we see a greater sexualization of young women, which many otherwise intelligent women (mothers as well as daughters) not only passively accept but actively encourage. My wife says that when she was a teenager less than twenty years ago, she would have been horrified to have her bra-strap showing, never mind her underwear, although from my own adolescence I can remember during a sort of town hall for students entering middle school and their parents, one mother asked if girls could still wear short skirts even though shorts were forbidden. The answer was yes, of course. What do such extremes mean for women and feminism? Is the hyper-sexualization of some women—particularly young and attractive—a response to the business, political, and academic successes some women have had?
LTD: The issue of the sexualization of women is a complex one for feminists. To answer your last question first, I’d say: yes, of course, but it’s more complicated than that. A lot of it has to do with the increasingly pervasive influence of the media on our lives, particularly on the lives of the young, who are more steeped in it than people of my generation, and the unprecedented importance of commodification in general and consumption as a means of social definition in particular. One of the most appalling aspects of the Jon Benet Ramsay case (and there are many of them) is the deliberate sexualization of that little girl, probably to make her more competitive in kiddie beauty contests. All we have to do is start thinking about all the components necessary for supporting such a situation, and we realize that it is almost impossible for young women not to become invested in that aspect of the gender system of the early 21st-century US. Of course sexualization, per se, is not at all new; we are, after all, hardwired to seek out sexual partners for all our biologically fertile years, and for many of the cultures that have come and gone in the world, it has often (though not always!) been females who have been sexualized. I’d note also that while some young women and girls are being hypersexualized, we’re seeing more and more sexualization of young men. I first noticed a few instances of this in the late 1980s; I recall hearing some women thinking that this was a positive development in gender politics, but even then I had my doubts. I can’t, myself, see anything positive in the objectification and commodification of bodies, regardless of who they belong to.
SM: In the afterword to Alanya to Alanya, you write, “I decided that I would begin from a dystopian baseline to keep my experiment from becoming an easy fantasy of wish-fulfillment.” But one potential criticism is that setting the events in the future allows you to build a straw-man or -woman world. Someone might say, “Well of course the Marq’ssan and Free Zone methods are preferable or superior; after all, you’ve built the Executive world to order. But you’ve escaped an obligation to critique actual historical periods.” How would you answer such a criticism?
LTD: First, I didn’t conceive myself as under an obligation to critique actual historical periods: my chief obligation was to write an effective story. Second, creating a dystopia required that I work with the tropes that already existed and endow my own version with as much interest and meaning as I was able. And third, my readers have been telling me that far from being a straw-man world, the Executive world is frighteningly close to our own. (The one thing I missed was global warming: and from that point of view, I suppose the future I imagine is impossibly rosy.)
SM: Several characters are revealed to be black but issues of racism seem to have disappeared. Is it possible that the problems of race will have been solved before those of sex and gender?
LTD: Yes, in theory it’s possible—but I wouldn’t say that issues of racism have disappeared from the world I depict in the Marq’ssan Cycle. What has happened, instead, is a full-scale adoption of a social censorship of confrontation with the issue (somewhat analogous to what has happened over the last half-century with class in the US, such that people who were once “working class”-conscious now need to be middle class and see themselves as unmarked by class (even though they of course are). Strong, activist characters like Jo Josepha, of course, would call people out for racist statements and behavior; but someone like Ann Hawthorne, who while she clearly identifies instances of racist treatment is socially very conservative and careful, would find talking about it embarrassing, largely because there are few polite openings for such discussion in the social conventions of the (mostly white) circles she moves in. You might say that I imagined, evolving from the language coming out of the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, a widespread denial that racism continues to exist. And indeed, Reagan and Bush’s having made high-profile appointments of black conservatives who opposed affirmative action and talked “bootstrap” individualist claptrap and accused anyone daring to draw attention to race, gender, or class discrimination as “politically correct” have imposed a pretty widespread denial that institutional racism continues to be a problem. (Indeed, you would swear it is a social crime to draw attention to an instance of racism, given the outrage with which such attention is typically met.) I simply extrapolated from that. Of course it’s a good deal more complicated than that-the complications having to do with executive, professional, and service-tech cultures, the Executive’s control of Birth Limitation technology (which, you may recall from Alanya, resulted in the shrinking population of the nonwhite minority), and my sense that the powerful level of race consciousness that has been imparted to black children by their families in the US from the time of slavery might under certain social circumstances cease to be taught in that way, such that race consciousness could become more similar to gender consciousness. (Ann Hawthorne, by the way, is a viewpoint character in Stretto.)
The Free Zone, of course, is a different matter. The various activist groups that came together to form it at the end of Alanya included several nonwhite groups. That, of course, is key to fighting institutional racism. (Alanya also offers a lesson on what not to do: as exemplified by the US Free Women making a deal with the Executive without consulting non-US Free Women.)
SM: Your writing has always been more aggressive, or more naked, than many contemporary feminist speculative fiction writers—such as Carol Emshwiller, Karen Joy Fowler, Nalo Hopkinson, Kelly Link, Maureen McHugh, and M. Rickert; and I’d include Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing, though neither has published under any genre imprint and Doris Lessing is as aggressive and naked in her fiction as her non-fiction—who couch or clothe or disguise their feminism in more popularly agreeable terms, to varying degrees. When being too nakedly feminist, there is a risk of alienating readers, while too much disguising risks a loss of recognition. How would you characterize the state of feminism in speculative fiction today?
LTD: Sf today is reaping the benefits of thirty years of feminism in work by both feminists and nonfeminists in our field. Most obviously, feminist sf of the 1970s has exercised an enormous impact on the field; moreover, many of the questions raised and the values promoted by second-wave feminists have changed the parameters and dimensions of our collective imagination (notwithstanding the backlash against feminism that arose in the late 1980s and remains with us in US culture today).
As for specifically feminist sf: I think that some of the writers you mention—particularly Fowler, Hopkinson, Link, and McHugh—don’t consciously seek to disguise their feminism as much as they feel free to take it for granted and build critically and artfully on the accumulated body of thirty years of feminist sf. Fowler calls this “swimming in the sea of thirty years of feminism.” These writers do not concern themselves with what feminists commonly refer to as Feminism 101 (i.e., teaching others the rudimentary elements of feminism). In this sense, their feminism is not so much disguised as unfamiliar (and therefore unrecognizable). Which is to say, this is an exciting, promising time for feminists to be writing (and reading) sf.
SM: Are there good feminist writers working outside of genre?
LTD: Certainly! Just to toss out an eclectic few names: Elflriede Jelinek (who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature), Carla Harryman, Carol Maso, Sarah Schulman, Emma Donoghue, Kate Horsley, Stacey Levine, Gloria Naylor, Lynne Tillman, Leslie Dick…
SM: Though Sedgewick has been ‘fixed’ like all executive men, so that he’s capable of but not interested in sex, he still has a physical, if not nakedly sexual, obsession with Zeldin. Are you suggesting that sexual interest or sexual obsession of heterosexual men towards women is as much about power as desire?
LTD: By “desire,” here, I presume you’re referring to what I’d call sexual chemistry and raw physical attraction. Surely power and desire are likely inextricable in human sexual relations. Every person’s first experience of love (i.e., as an infant) is shot through with profound issues of power, and the way in which those issues play out in the individual’s psyche and erotic organization varies tremendously. Though Sedgewick has lost the ability to experience genital pleasure, I would nevertheless characterize his obsession with Zeldin as sexual.
Sexual pleasure is supremely, marvelously physical, yes, but as it has been famously said, the brain is an important sexual organ. Which is to say, executive men in Sedgewick’s world may have had their sexual nerves deactivated, but their brains retain the old patterns of desire laid down and reinforced over all the years before they were “fixed.” (Which is why they must endure extreme behavioral conditioning after they undergo the surgery that deprives them of sexual pleasure and is also the reason that later generations are “fixed” at younger and younger ages.)
As I see it, Sedgewick’s obsession with Zeldin reflects a couple of factors. First, the conditioning didn’t completely “take.” Second, because sexual pleasure constituted such an important part of his personal life, he was reluctant to undergo the surgery and put it off for as long as he could. And here perhaps I should note that I’ve never thought of Sedgewick as “heterosexual,” precisely. First, he was bisexual before his surgery; and second, his sexual relations with women were never exactly “vanilla.” I’d also note that his sexual history suggests that it wasn’t merely the exercise of power over his partners that excited him, but the explicit play of power between himself and his partners, regardless of who played the “bottom.” (More of Sedgewick’s past life emerges in the fourth book, Blood in the Fruit, by the way.)
Your question, though, is not about Sedgewick per se, but is implicitly asking me if I intended through my depiction of Sedgewick to make a generalization about all heterosexual men. I certainly didn’t intend to make Sedgewick (“a deranged alcoholic,” in the words of one reviewer) an exemplar for heterosexual men! If Sedgewick represents any group, it is men who have chosen to put ambition and the quest for power over others above every other value in their lives. And yet, having said that, I’ll reiterate what I said above: that in human sexual relations, power and desire are nearly inextricable. And for some people, sex is more about power than the pleasurable sensations of the body; and in the most extreme such cases, sex amounts to rape (or in Sade’s case, sometimes even murder). I see this as falling out along a spectrum, rather than as a binary of either about pleasure or about power.
SM: In the Marq’ssan books, I was struck by the complexity of various sexual relationships. Zeldin and Sedgewick’s heterosexual relationship is more about power and control than physical gratification, but Zeldin’s search for her husband is evidence of a reasonably healthy heterosexual relationship. Many sexual relationships cannot stand ideological differences, particularly between Martha and Walt, between Martha and Louise, and between Allison and Elizabeth. My initial impulse was to reduce them to pairs of unhealthy/heterosexual and healthy/lesbian, but after a moment’s thought, the complexity doesn’t allow such a simplification. Can you describe how you view the (im)balances and intersections between sexual, ideological, and power-structural relationships?
LTD: Throughout all five books the narrative attends closely to the operations of power in all relationships of every sort. While ideological differences certainly cause Martha and Louise to split, I think Martha and Walt and Allison and Elizabeth split up not because of their ideological differences but because they are unable to harmoniously negotiate the operations of power in their relationships. I don’t think I can make any blanket generalization about the balances and intersections between sexual, ideological, and power-structural relationships-these must always be complicated by an enormous number of variables. Trust and commitment can accommodate a host of differences (including ideological), but personal history and social and institutional alignments are also important. As for Zeldin’s heterosexual relationship with her husband: let me just note that in the Marq’ssan novels, professionals and their social relationships are about the only ones likely to strike readers in our world as “normal”-Zeldin’s marital relationship is familiar and therefore easily comprehensible. Is that why you call it “healthy”? To put it another way: I’m not sure I would be willing to privilege Zeldin’s marriage in that way.
SM: This may sound hopelessly naive and romantic, but I can’t recall an instance where one character told another than she or he loved her or him. In a series that so thoroughly dissects interpersonal relationships, it struck me as unusual. Would you comment on your view of love?
LTD: Now that’s a tough question! In one sense, love would seem to be pretty simple, but really, once you start thinking about it, it’s incredibly complicated. Many of my characters are driven by the desire for power, but probably all of them are deeply motivated by love and the desire to be loved. Right there—the distinction between loving and wanting to be loved—it gets complicated. Sedgewick, of course, sees himself as loving Kay, but what he really wants is to be assured of her unconditional love. And yet even back when she was willing to give him that, he could never quite get enough. Certainly Kay loves Scott Moore, and he loves her, where love is a verb that is respectful rather than demanding. Some readers might, of course, think that her lack of candor with him about her past relationship with Sedgewick damages the credibility of her love for Scott Moore, but in fact her dishonesty extended to herself. Other characters are “in love”—sexually infatuated—with one another. Being in love is exciting and beautiful and wonderful. And always, ultimately, painful, since being in love is a sort of misrecognition. Being in love means being in love with an idea of a person (as well as being absolutely awash in sexual chemistry). How one moves from being in love with the beloved to actually recognizing and loving the beloved is a mystery, I suppose. Some people just can’t do it, perhaps because it involves coming to terms with a certain sort of disillusionment that inevitably occurs when one begins to see the beloved as s/he actually is. Do Elizabeth and Allison get past that point of disillusionment? To a certain extent, they do, even though their sexual relationship ceases. At the end of Tsunami, of course, one of the questions pending is what will happen to Elizabeth and Hazel’s relationship. Martha and Louise’s relationship is more complicated than either of these, because although they did get beyond the infatuation phase, Martha was deceived (maybe even self-deceived) on a very important aspect of who Louise was.
And then of course there are nonsexual forms of love-friendship of various sorts as well as mentoring relationships. (And of course the lines often blur with these, too.) In the early books, for example, Martha wants to be loved and mentored by Beatrice, but hasn’t herself yet come to actively give Beatrice love. Many adults still need to learn to love actively (though others, of course, learn to do this as children). Often they learn to do this with someone they’ve fallen in love with or when they become responsible for nurturing a child.
As far as characters speaking the words “I love you,” I didn’t purposely omit these words. (In fact, I could have sworn I had my characters uttering them, but perhaps not.) These words have become such a cliché that after the first few iterations (which are performative utterances, as a linguist would say), they have a tendency to become either a habit or a significant demand (for continual proof that nothing has changed for the person speaking them). The words lose their innocence, so to speak, and their meaning becomes fraught with a lot of unintended implications. (The declaration’s loss of innocence is the sort of thing nongenre literary stories like to explore.)
SM: Also, many relationships in the executive class (or caste) are lesbian but none of the women desire, even secretly or unconsciously, sexual relations with men. In Renegade, Allison says, “… when everyone knows heterosexuality is loathsome and perverse-” Are sexuality and sexual orientation so elastic? (As a possible counter-example, many incarcerated men engage in homosexual behavior, but only as a temporary substitute for sex with women.) Does this elasticity give credence to the belief of some that today’s gays and lesbians can be “rehabilitated”?
LTD: I would certainly hope that no one would interpret the elasticity I ascribe to sexual orientation as giving credence to the belief that gays and lesbians can be “rehabilitated.” (Horrifying thought, that!) First, I didn’t intend readers to assume that all executive women are sexually active lesbians, though your question makes me realize that I didn’t offer any counterexamples in the first three books. (Emily Madden, an executive who makes her first appearance in Tsunami, is actually a conscious bisexual who occasionally takes male partners, but she doesn’t become a viewpoint character until the fifth book. And it would be a spoiler to mention another instance of bisexuality in an executive woman that emerges in the fourth book.) Second, since executive women are not only heavily conditioned in childhood to find men sexually repellant but also socialized to view heterosexual relations as déclassé, any heterosexual relationships they engage in with non-executive men will be closeted to the extent that they see themselves as “executive” and look down on “sub-execs.”
Although I did not intend to suggest that the sexual desires and identifications of adults can be substantially modified through conditioning or therapy, I did, though, wish to suggest that conditioning from childhood has a great bearing on sexual orientation for most people-most people, but not all. Throughout childhood I knew kids who were, from the age of five or six, gay or gender dysphoric or both; and I understand well that attempts at their “rehabilitation” even by that stage could only have harmed them. The scientific evidence is still not in as to whether sexual orientation is strongly determined by genetic factors (which I suspect that it might very well be in some cases). The complexity of sexual “wiring” as well as my own bisexuality (from childhood) has long inclined me to presume a certain “elasticity” (as you put it) in early childhood. But I certainly don’t imagine that many adults retain that elasticity (since they tend to be inelastic in most other preferences and habits). On the other hand, it does seem that quite a few people may be inherently bisexual, given how frequently sexual partnership are formed in same-sex institutions (including both men’s and women’s prisons).
SM: In the Marq’ssan books, sexuality is tightly controlled. Executive men are fixed, as mentioned above. Executive women see heterosexuality as a perversion but are forbidden from sexual relationships with other executive women. However, sexual relations between executive women and service-tech women are encouraged, to the point that executive parties have service-tech women as prostitutes. Executive women are taught self-defense skills that service-tech women are forbidden from knowing, so that they remain sexually docile: “… defenseless for the sake of preserving the executive system.” There certainly is no end to the historical precedents. Is power over sexuality and reproduction so intrinsic to governmental and social power structures that women not only accept it, but actively endorse those prohibitions?
LTD: I see two issues at play with these prohibitions. On the most fundamental level, it’s a matter of preserving privileges. Every class system requires that the majority of its members feel a sense of privilege that gives them a stake in its stability and preservation even when they’re getting the thin edge of the wedge. If all women were to enjoy the absolute right to bodily privacy—to determine absolutely who will touch their bodies and how, and to what use their bodies are put, including bearing children—the one privilege that all men enjoy would be lost. I recall being outraged in the early 1980s at discovering that attempts to introduce self-defense in girls’ PE classes were being fought tooth and nail. When I discussed this with friends over dinner one night, they shed some light on the issue by noting that because their son had been taught in day care that he had the right to refuse kisses and touches that he didn’t like, he had refused to kiss his visiting grandfather (who was a stranger to him), and my friends were tensely divided on whether the child should be forced to kiss his grandfather goodnight.
In the case of the executive women, part of the point of their enjoying privileges that other women don’t have is to ensure their identification as executives, to ensure they understand viscerally where their own interests lie. And the thing about such privileges is, once people have them, they feel entitled to them—and they are likely not to question their entitlement and will find all sorts of ways to rationalize it.
More generally, though, the answer to your question is that women have always acceded to such control over sexuality and reproduction publicly and done their best to skirt and defy it privately. It’s only with the rise of feminism that women have openly attempted to contest these structures of control.
SM: I mentioned Zeldin’s search for her missing husband, which is a reversal of the usual women-in-jeopardy, or women as merely a plot device. Was this a deliberate choice or an organic outgrowth of the story?
LTD: It was an organic outgrowth of the story. At the same time, once that thread of the story was underway, I appreciated its reversing the convention.
SM: In the afterword to Renegade, you mention rewriting from chapter thirteen onward. It’s not difficult to imagine other stories—something akin to the barricades of Les Miserables or the high-octane chase scenes of The Bourne Identity comes to mind—but it would have been artificially imposed rather than a logical, organic narrative. What issues made it difficult to write and what other story did you have in mind?
LTD: Let me warn readers that if they don’t want to read a major spoiler for Renegade, they would do well to skip down to the next question.
The ending was not the one I had planned to write when I started the second book. I expected that Kay would be able to manipulate Elizabeth and in fact turn her. It never occurred to me that Elizabeth would be so entirely seduced by power or that Kay would be unable to withstand her ordeal. (At the outset of my writing the book, I didn’t understand two things: first, the extremity of psychological torture, which looks mild compared to physical brutality; and second, that although Kay has a forceful personality and powerful mind, never having been a political activist before, she lacks the resources that the most famous dissident prisoners have possessed. And in fact her past experience working for SIC is the lever Elizabeth uses against her.)
The alternative ending I contemplated would have involved preparing a means for Kay’s escape, presumably with help from someone working inside the Rock. Apart from everything else, I decided that Kay’s return to the Free Zone as a hero would fall pat into the classic story of the forging of a great leader: she would emerge wiser and charismatic and full of ineffable moral power based on her personal triumph of resistance and survival. And that was a story that had no place in the Marq’ssan Cycle. The lessons of great change must be collective, not taught and instilled by a new Moses; the kind of change I’m interested in isn’t brought about through the brilliance of a unique individual.
SM: Why did you choose science fiction as the narrative structure, particularly the familiar first-contact story? Are the anarchic methods proposed so antithetical that they must be taught, initially at least, by aliens?
LTD: Actually, the Marq’ssan don’t do any teaching per se. Their role is mainly that of facilitation. They hold the view that the methods and structures of change must emerge from the collective process itself, not be learned and applied like an algorithm. I needed the aliens in my narrative structure not to lead and teach but to open up spaces in the narrative that I couldn’t otherwise create-spaces absent weapons and capital and existing power structures. Interestingly, the Marq’ssan’s presence allowed me to see that once those things are cleared away, simply removing them isn’t enough to bring about desirable change. Unlike many, I do believe that however engrained (and even hardwired) oppressive arrangements might be, humans have the capacity to change themselves.
SM: So anarchism, or negotiation, is possible not only on a small scale but also a large scale?
LTD: Yes, I believe it is. But it would require major changes in our educational system, in the distribution of information, and in how we live as active, responsible subjects in the world. It would require, in short, that as a species, we mature and leave childhood behind (i.e., that we metaphorically speaking develop the part of our pre-frontal cortex that is able to see past the moment and think beyond impulse, as the medical literature tells us happens when individuals mature into adults).
SM: While the writer often doesn’t have much to do with the cover of her book, why is there a picture of Emma Goldman on the front cover? If I understand correctly, she advocated violent anarchism, which is fundamentally not what the Marq’ssan advocate. (I’m not familiar enough with anarchism to name another viable candidate.) For our readers: the covers also show a defiant female prisoner, hands raised though her wrists are cuffed, which is entirely appropriate, especially for Renegade.
LTD: Lynne Jensen Lampe, who designed the covers, consulted me at every stage of the process. Though her design was not even close to what I had imagined, it worked for me, and I approved it. (I especially like the way the covers successively light up with color with each additional volume.) A photo of Emma Goldman was my own suggestion, for one of the Free Zone’s holidays is Emma Goldman day, when the whole city parties-spouting quotations from Emma Goldman’s writings and dancing, dancing, dancing the night away.
Emma Goldman has been an icon for feminists since the second-wave, and given her general philosophy (her advocacy of violent revolution notwithstanding, which I’ll return to in a moment) of life and political activism, no one could have been more appropriate as an icon for the Pacific Northwest Free Zone. Among feminists, her most famous words are probably those she spoke to a male anarchist who rebuked her for frivolously staying out all night dancing: “If I can not dance,” she told him, “I want no part in your revolution.”
Emma Goldman didn’t identify herself as a feminist because the feminists of her day were middle-class, concerned mainly with getting the vote, and for the most part uninterested in challenging capitalism, the church, and the state, and ignored the situation of working-class people. But she worked fearlessly to bring information about contraception to women and to oppose the military draft (and was frequently jailed as a result). The photo used on the covers of the Marq’ssan Cycle shows her speaking in Union Square in 1916 to a crowd of garment workers, both men and women, about contraception. Goldman characterized suffrage as an evil that “has only helped to enslave people, that… has closed their eyes that they may not see how craftily they were made to submit.” She noted that nothing had been done to change the conditions of women and children in countries where female suffrage already existed. She did, however, advocate equal rights for women (which, as we know, women in the US have still not achieved) and that women take control of their own bodies and sexuality, assume responsibility for themselves, and act to change their situation.
This attitude, of course, lies at the heart of what the Co-op in the Pacific Northwest Free Zone is all about. As with Emma Goldman, revolution isn’t simply a question of political discipline, but includes valuing every aspect of life and refusing the compartmentalizations and objectifications that characterize the executive approach to life and politics.
Now, as for the issue of Goldman’s advocacy of violence. I suspect that were it possible to transport Goldman into the Pacific Northwest Free Zone as I depict it, she would align herself not with Louise’s armed contingent but with Martha Greenglass. The fact is, until Gandhi’s exploitation of the tactics of mass nonviolent direct action, such methods were unknown to Westerners. (I exclude civil disobedience like that practiced by Thoreau or the Quakers because such CD [as activists refer to “Civil Disobedience”] was restricted to individual acts of individual conscience.) Until that time, mass activism, particularly working-class activism, always involved a willingness to use violence as necessary (since violence was always, inevitably, used by the state and employers to crush strikes and other actions of opposition). The anarchists of Goldman’s day got an unfairly bad rap, largely because bomb-throwing became an icon of anarchism that just about summed up most people’s understanding of anarchism. Most of the Free Zone activists are working-class women who embrace a philosophy of life and politics very close to Goldman’s (including an understanding of the vote as a tool of the state). And we see them enacting in their day-to-day existence what Samuel R. Delany has called “the repoeticization of life,” which is a vital aspect of the kind of change the Marq’ssan Cycle envisions, a change which is about bodies living together in the world, rather than arid ideology. And that was exactly the kind of change Goldman strove for in her life and activism.
SM: As the vote is a tool of the state, and the state is largely a male structure or institution, is it possible for the United States as it is currently constructed to achieve some of feminism’s goals?
LTD: In theory—if it were possible to imagine a state formation that allowed democratically negotiated relationships without favoring the interests of one small group of people-though it’s unlikely, since it’s very hard to imagine a version of the state that would not exist largely to serve the interests of the economic elite. We’d have to see a major shift in values and a large-scale development of democratic practice. Can you imagine an online city newspaper reporting on the context, content, and goals of an activist rally rather than mentioning it only in a “traffic alert” on their front page? Just this morning I read on the Seattle Times website the headline 11:00 AM downtown rally may clog traffic followed by a long sentence telling people to be prepared for detours near Westlake Park as “hundreds march toward the Federal Building to focus attention on proposed immigrant-rights legislation.” The newspaper, of course, had no interest in advising readers (say, yesterday) that a rally and march was scheduled and what its purpose was. Obviously, policy issues are only of importance when they are discussed by government officials!
If we saw a major development of democratic practices, we would probably see some of feminism’s goals implemented, though certainly not all. In the process of writing the Marq’ssan Cycle, I lost faith that full-scale democracy could co-exist with government, for the dominance of the state implies the continual consolidation and accumulation of routinized, institutionalized power. If you could show me an example of a state that did not assert dominance over the society it serves/rules, I might believe that full-scale democracy could co-exist with government.
SM: You call the series the Marq’ssan Cycle, implying a circularity rather than a linear progression: a revolution or evolution. Without giving too much away, was there a reason for choosing the word “cycle” over, say, “series”?
LTD: Yes. I definitely did not want to imply a linear progression, which would be antithetical to the ideas expressed in the books; but rather than imply circularity, I wanted to gesture toward the reflexive process that the books demand of the reader. I constructed the cycle so that each successive book casts new light on the events—and likely, also, the reader’s understanding—of the previous books. If our collective, public forms are ever to work, it will require a willingness to rethink what is taken for granted and written in stone, a desire to look both forward and back, instead of living (as the world does now) only in the present tense. As for the books themselves, I know from those who’ve read the Cycle several times that each reading is different, just as each succeeding book changes the meanings of the preceding books.
SM: Three other questions about word choices. Where did the term “Marq’ssan” originate, and did you pattern the naming system of the Marq’ssan on any human naming systems? Also, you are one of the founders of Aqueduct Press, an imprint focusing on publishing feminist fiction. Why did you choose Aqueduct as the name of the imprint?
LTD: The term Marq’ssan simply came to me, the way just about everything else in that first volume did. One evening while my partner was at a conference in Barcelona, I sat down at my computer (a big old Sanyo with two 5¼” floppy disk drives and a green phosphorescent screen) and began writing. The people and names came out of my fingers as I typed. I wrote the first three chapters in one sitting and printed them out. And then I sat down with pen and paper and worked out the Marq’ssan’s naming system—which was totally naïve, linguistically.
Aqueduct, though, was a deliberate choice. One summer afternoon over wine, a few years before the actual founding of Aqueduct, my partner and I kicked around possible names for a press. (We’d had a fantasy of starting one for years.) Aqueduct was Tom’s idea: aqueducts are conduits for transporting a vital fluid to those who need it; our aqueduct would be a conduit for texts, and our focus would be on texts that would not otherwise see print. Life by Gwyneth Jones and Mindscape by Andrea Hairston are perfect examples of the kind of texts Aqueduct is intended to bring to readers. These texts may not appeal to everyone, but for some people, they are vital. So I loved Tom’s idea for a name and wrote it down in a notebook. A few years later, I dug out the notebook and found the name, and voilá! Aqueduct was born.
Eskridge, Kelley. Dangerous Space. Aqueduct Press: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-933500-13-3.
Hartwell, David G. and Kathryn Cramer, eds. Year’s Best Fantasy 7. Tachyon Publications: 2007. ISBN: 978-1-892391-50-6.
Lange, Sue. We, Robots. Aqueduct Press: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-933500-11-9.
Kenyon, Kay. Bright of the Sky. Pyr: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-59102-541-2
Robson, Justina. Keeping It Real. Pyr: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-59102-539-9
Apologies to L. Timmel Duchamp for not finishing Tsunami in time to make this issue, and apologies to the writers and editors. I wanted to be able to fit all of them in and so I had to be briefer than I prefer.
I’ve written in the past that various editors attempting to collect and define slipstream, or fabulist, fiction fall into the trap of simply clothing genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror) with a new term, not for the sake of defining or inventing a new genre, but attempting to make genre palatable to mainstream readers, writers, and critics.
But the new anthology from the Interstitial Arts Foundation and distributed by Small Beer Press, Interfictions, is the most successful anthology thus far, both defining its terms and presenting stories that function on those terms. In the Introduction (a version can be found here) Heinz Insu Fenkel writes:
… if an interstitial novel is determined to be Fantasy by its publisher, a reader, having the parameters of the initial text predetermined, might experience it as Fantasy novel exhibiting odd dissonances or interesting novelties in relation to that genre. [italics mine]
It is those odd dissonances or interesting novelties that make a work interstitial, slipstream, or fabulist. Much of genre is derivative, sometimes to the point of approaching the authoritarian structures of Harlequin Romance: in chapter x, y, z, and a, b, c must happen. The evidence is all around: after Harry Potter, the young adult market exploded. Peter Crowther, in the May 2007 LOCUS:
My goodness, but there were some turkeys set free in the less-than-halcyon days that followed the publication of Carrie.
Frankly, to sell a novel, you must write a statement comparing your novel to a bestseller, follow with a but, and finish with a trivial difference from the bestseller.
For example, Christopher Barzak’s “What We Know About the Lost Families of ___ House” follows many of the standard conventions of haunted house stories: weird things happen; people die, disappear or go mad. But the narrator is external to the hauntings (unlike The Haunting of Hill House or The Shining) and thus has blind spots when it comes to the narration-we never learn exactly why the house is haunted, or even who is doing the haunting. It is the effect on the residents, and how they respond to one of their own being absorbed by the haunted house, that is of interest. The narrator (who is the town itself) is not interested in solving a mystery or placating the haunter. And Mr. Barzak is not interested in entertaining us with traditional passages: mindless running, mindless screaming, axes through doors, blood dripping down walls, or the final revelatory moment. The conventions of genre are there, but the perspective and lacunae confound expectations.
Jon Singer’s “Willow Pattern” (re)constructs a culture from a single plate found by an archaeologist. But is the (re)construction a legitimate representation of the dead peoples’ or is it merely the fanciful imagination of the archaeologist? In very few words, it questions both the legitimacy of archaeology (how much can we really know, or guess, from a few isolated pottery fragments and spearheads?) and the legitimacy of sociological or anthropological science fiction (Ursula LeGuin and her many imitators), which often insert sociologists into fanciful cultures with the explicit purpose of analyzing said culture (and through it, in theory, ours) but when the author holds all the cards (shards) the cards are already marked and the fix is on.
Vandana Singh’s excellent “Hunger” is superficially about a little girl’s overly elaborate birthday party, which is not in fact about her at all, but about her father’s efforts to increase his status within his company and community. But it is told by the mother, who despite being the viewpoint is not the central figure, but a nearly silent witness to the cultural machinations, dances, and rituals of both her daughter and husband. She is the alien(ated) sociologist studying two groups of people and attempting to impose some sense and order.
Not surprisingly, ahistorical texts provide the foundation for two stories. Rachel Pollack’s “Burning Beard: The Dreams and Visions of Joseph ben Jacob, Lord Viceroy of Egypt” is an imaginative telling of the Joseph of the famed technicolor robe. The Bible is often (too often) taken as a literal truth, and yet it is rife with inconsistency. If Joseph truly has the gift of prophecy, if he can truly see into the future, when he dreams of his people’s future, what disasters will reign down on the Hebrews and innocent Egyptians, all because he selfishly used his dreams to further his career and provide for his family? And was it worth it? It does not fall into the subset of alternative history – unlike some supposed fabulist, slipstream or interstitial stories – because the historical and archaeological record are in utter conflict with the Biblical record. (As an aside, it does not appear that the Hebrews were ever enslaved by the Egyptians and never fled in a massive exodus. There simply is no record of said exodus, or any record of a pharaoh drowning. They were probably a free working class, and the supposed exodus was a voluntary, unnoticed, unremarked upon trickle of Hebrews from Egypt to elsewhere.)
Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Dirge for Prester John” uses the fictional world found in the medieval manuscript The Letter of Prester John and examines how such a wildly unBiblical world would respond to a man of faith, and how the man of faith would respond to the impossible world. If the fantastic were true, how would the world be different? Again, it is not alternate history (Prester John’s world never existed) but it is not merely fantasy either, because it intersects, and (this is important) does not draw a narrative line anywhere to clarify for the reader that this part is true and this part is fanciful.
Buy this book.
Typically, when I read for a book for review, one part of my brain is dissecting the book, looking for strengths and weaknesses. The other part enjoys the ride. But sometimes a writer just sweeps me off my feet and I forget what I was supposed to be doing. Such is the case with the title story from Kelley Eskridge’s collection Dangerous Space. While the year is less than half over, this has garnered my vote as one of the best stories of the year.
“Dangerous Space” is a Mars story: Mars is a character who appears in three of Ms. Eskridge’s stories. The other two are “And Salome Danced” and “Eye of the Storm.” They are not sequels, they are not tied to time and place—”Dangerous Space” and “And Salome Danced” could occur anytime in the last twenty years, but “Eye of the Storm” is set in a quasi-medieval past, like many fantasies, though it is not a fantasy itself. The common thread is Mars’ gender, or rather the lack thereof. There are never pronouns, and his or her behavior is sometimes ‘masculine’ and sometimes ‘feminine.’ Further, as proof of Ms. Eskridge’s genius, in “Dangerous Space,” the story of an indie band on the cusp of stardom, which feels authentic (the personalities, the conflicts, the late night writing sessions, the groupies), she writes that Mars is a sound guy, but then introduces a woman who becomes Mars’ protégé, another ‘sound guy’ though she’s female. And the love interest in that story is a bisexual male, so Mars’ feeling for him and his feelings for Mars cannot be used to assign gender either. What’s more astonishing is that the sex scenes, while they never become mechanical yet retain a sensual power. In the press materials, Ms. Eskridge says:
… the reader is free to read Mars as male or female, and therefore as straight or gay depending on who Mars is relating to emotionally and sexually in a particular story… [Mars] is a space into which any reader can fit themselves.
The power of the Mars stories is precisely this space, a dangerous space, in which readers will likely become uncomfortable with their assumptions. No matter what gender and orientation the reader assigns to Mars, Mars will eventually behave in a way that challenges the male or female reading, the gay or straight reading. It is an excellent experiment (1) because writing more than one-hundred fifty pages without using gendered pronouns or inadvertently assigning gender based on other characters’ behaviors is difficult and (2) because it explores the meaning (or lack of) and value (or lack of) labels. As our nation struggles to more sharply define gender and sexual roles, these are stories that challenge whether such neat categories are more than empty, arbitrary boxes.
“And Salome Danced” has Mars as a director of a play about Herod, in which one character, either Joe or Jo depending on gender, can physically alter her or his biology (I think) to fit the role of either John the Baptist or Salome.
When I look down, I see that her hand is changing: the bones thicken under the flesh, the muscles rearrange themselves subtly, and it’s Joe’s hand on Jo’s arm, Joe’s hand on mine.
In a story where gender and sexuality are undefined, is this a fantasy story where physical alteration is literal, or is it ‘only’ an issue of perception? Does the hand change because Mars wants Jo to be Joe? Not surprisingly, it doesn’t matter. The reader is left to fill in the (dangerous) space. “Eye of the Storm” plays with the tropes of medieval fantasy with as Mars cannot engage in ordinary sex; instead Mars finds sexual fulfillment in fighting.
Other stories include the powerful “Strings,” a horrific fascist world in which any music other than classical is strictly prohibited. “City Life” explores the effects of the laying on of hands: what are the negatives to such power? While sexuality and gender are foci of Ms. Eskridge, she also distrusts (also possibly, and rightly, fears) an overly powerful government. “Somewhere Down the Diamondback Road” is a heady brew of drugs and legalized murder. It’s unclear why the state should not only condone but encourage random murder, if it is random, but in a world of Abu Ghraib and White House lawyers determining that the U.S. doesn’t have to abide by the Geneva convention, it is a chilling story. “Alien Jane” is a story of Jane told by Rita, who is confined to a mental hospital for refusing to act ‘feminine.’ Jane suffers from congenital insensitivity to pain and is thus literally tortured in the name of science. The state condones.
When David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s Year’s Best Fantasy 7 landed on my doorstep, it was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. (Partially because the much-talked-about Gene Wolfe “Build-A-Bear” now appears in print.) While the editors generally pick more traditional fantasy than other years’ best, because the book is shorter than others, it contains a higher percentage of very short (less than 7000 word) stories, which, when done well, are my preferred size. I say traditional because no less than three stories contain a scene in a village tavern, not that traditional necessarily lacks in quality, nor that the content or style is narrow in scope: “Build-A-Bear” occurs on a cruise ship, Geoff Ryman’s “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)” is set in Cambodia, Lucius Shepard’s “The Lepidopterist” is set in Roatan and written in dialect, and Howard Waldrop’s “Thin, On the Ground” occurs in 1960’s Mexico. M. Rickert’s “The Christmas Witch,” while employing the trope of ‘witch,’ particularly that of the ahistorical witch, delves deep into the meaning of the supernatural through a child whose mother has been murdered, and whose father is abusive. Like many of Ms. Rickert’s stories, it defies easy description or analysis. Robert Reed’s “Show Me Yours” may not be fantasy at all, and though I’ve felt some of his stories suffer from white-room syndrome, this one employs it to logical use. Saying much more would ruin the ending.
Several stories are about unusual children, such as “The Christmas Witch” and Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Sea Air,” about an adopted boy who (well, you’ll guess this halfway through) isn’t a boy at all. Adoption also figures prominently in Ian R. MacLeod’s “The Bonny Boy,” but it’s the parents who are unusual. Although not strictly necessary, the story is better if you’re familiar with the world of The Light Ages and The House of Storms. Ghosts also figure prominently as in Gavin J. Grant’s disturbing “Yours, Etc.,” in which a man walks widdershins round his house until he’s paced a deep trench. Oh, and his wife writes letters to ghosts. Like M. Rickert, Mr. Grant’s stories employ tropes but don’t fall into archetype. The same cannot be said of L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s “Ghost Mission,” which is easily the weakest as it falls prey to too many stereotypes. Greg Van Eekhout’s “The Osteomancer’s Son” has a novel idea, but the ending dissolves into a standard special effects showdown.
Nonetheless, this is an exceptional collection, especially for fans of short fiction. Standouts include Mr. Grant’s piece, Ms. Rickert’s, Mr. Ryman’s, Mr. Waldrop’s, and “Build-a-Bear” as well as Mr. Wolfe’s “Bea and Her Bird Brother,” which on initial reading seems little more than an elaborate pun but after a second reading, it’s a powerful meditation on parenting and sibling rivalry.
We, Robots, a novella, is Sue Lange’s contribution to Aqueduct Press’ Conversation Pieces Series. Avey is a robot purchased to protect Angelina from perverts and drug dealers while walking to and from school, and to perform various domestic chores. While dealers are a real problem in poorer neighborhoods, the prevalence and boldness of sexual predators struck me as rather unlikely (strangers are many times less likely to assault children than relatives or friends). Avey does his robot duty until two weeks before the predicted Singularity. Transhumans (more cyborgs more than of the Greg Egan sort) recall all robots that have not had a pain receptor installed. The theory is that when the Singularity occurs, robots will perceive humans as unnecessary and enslave (The Matrix) or eliminate (Terminator) us, so a pain receptor will allow humans to break the robot spirit, much like a cowboy breaks a wild stallion. A scene in which a child with a baseball bat assaults a robot while the robot recites “I’m in pain” with autistic regularity is disturbing. Naturally, events go awry (although the Singularity is stopped and Regularity continues) when robots discover the twin of pain is love, and humans undergo a pain stoppage operation, resulting in extreme risk-taking. (It’s an interesting comparison to Ms. Eskridge’s “Alien Jane,” and unfortunately ignores the very real problem that insensitivity to pain is often lethal. After all, how do you know if you’ve broken a bone, if it’s ruptured your lung, or if your appendix or spleen has burst, or you’ve sustained such extreme internal or external injuries that you’re bleeding out? But that’s not really Ms. Lange’s point.) The robots can feel pain while humans cannot.
The story suffers from the fact that the human characters, indeed almost every character save Avey, are thinly drawn. Still, this is a funny and disturbing satire, and a refutation of the more facile writings in our genre.
There have been many attempts to logically and scientifically skirt the speed of light restriction, often exploring and giving fictional form to the abstract boundaries of science: negative energy, quantum foam, and so forth. Larry Niven wrote that he and Jerry Pournelle went so far as to solve differential equations for The Mote in God’s Eye. But Kay Kenyon’s Bright of the Sky takes this extrapolation one step further: in its search for shortcuts between the stars, the corporation Minerva has used wormholes, but they tend to be unstable and occasionally destroy entire ships, which is not good for the bottom line. One such ship was destroyed, but its captain, Titus Quinn (a literally big-fisted hero) returns after a long absence claiming there’s another world between which would safely allow ships to make shortcuts. The problem? The world is inhabited. On the other side, Quinn’s wife died and his daughter is lost to him. Returning to Earth, he wants nothing more to do with Minerva, however, and Minerva certainly wants nothing to do with him. After all, that’s crazy talk, right?
Except, it’s not. And Minvera’s figured part of it out. But they (surprise) need Quinn. Quinn doesn’t want or need Minerva, except he’s blackmailed into it. (In a minor subplot, it’s revealed that people’s careers and futures are determined by a single test, and Quinn’s nephew’s results (conveniently, his nephew is about to take the test) can be manipulated by Minerva.) And Quinn decides that he will rescue his daughter. My major problem here is that the people of Minerva, who don’t trust Quinn, are easily convinced by him that he doesn’t need a Minerva employee with him. They need Quinn because he knows the Entire, but the insurance they have he will behave according to their desires is relatively thin. They don’t even have a guarantee he’ll return, and then what?
Through Minerva’s device, he travels to the cleverly titled Entire. Although it is clearly not the entirety of the universe, and the dominant species knows this, it’s an excellent example of cultural manipulation. What subjugated species will argue against them? (The Rose is what the people of the Entire, who obviously know about us, call our universe—roses are an artifact found only in our universe and nowhere in the Entire.) The Entire is ruled by the Tarig, who we quickly learn have built the Entire, and have peopled it with species and cultures artificially derived from earth and probably other worlds. The Tarig are mantis-like, which beggars the question: why are all evil, dominant species giant insects? (Or humanoid.) How come they’re never kittens or nematodes? What is it in our species’ subconscious that so fears giant insects? (Think back to those ’50s and ’60s mutant movies—how many had something giant and cute?)
Quinn’s enters the Entire, is captured, convinces a modest lord to pretend Quinn is his son, has his features changed, and travels through the well-imagined, detailed world of the Entire carrying on paper the idea of enlisting the Inyx in the Tarig’s perpetual war. The Inyx are a sort of mount (beautifully illustrated on the cover) with telepathic powers and a desire to bond with a rider, who must first be blinded. Why? Because Sydney, Quinn’s daughter, is one of those riders. It’s all rather Byzantine, and if there was a good reason for this roundabout route, (rather than simply traveling to the Inyx) I missed it.
Meanwhile, we are treated to a rather lovingly detailed and convincing culture of the Inyx through… well, not Sydney’s eyes, as she’s blind, but through the Inyx’s eyes as revealed by Sydney’s words. The relationship of the Inyx and their riders is a neat inversion of the traditional cowboy-and-horse archetype.
While there are a few structural flaws, most notably a tendency to switch viewpoints midway through a chapter for no reason other than authorial convenience, as well as the spineless of Minerva’s corporate goons and Quinn’s literal heavy-handedness, (C’mon, folks! Can’t we have a pulp, romance hero who’s small, weak, maybe even nearsighted?) this is a novel well worth reading.
I criticized Justina Robson’s first novel for being little more than a mish-mash of tropes. Her new novel, Keeping It Real, is also a mish-mash, but a more successful one.
In 2015, the Quantum Bomb binds the five worlds, including earth (now known as Otopia); Zoomenon, the world of elementals; Alfheim, the world of elves; Demonia (guess); and Thanatopia, the world of death. The borders are maintained either supernaturally or physically: Thanatopia’s gates are pretty much one way while xenophobic Alfheim has closed its borders to all foreigners.
Meanwhile, Zal, the elfin lead singer of the multiple-species band The No-Shows has been receiving death threats. Using a clever reversal of the usual fantastic trope of ‘dominating all life’ (see: Sauron, Lord Foul, etc.) Alfheim wants to separate itself from the other worlds and guess whose blood is needed?
Enter Lila Black, special agent, recently seriously injured and turned into a 21st century update on the Bionic Woman. She’s assigned to protect Zal, only wild magic has caused her and Zal to enter into a Game. Enter sexual tension, stage right.
Keeping It Real is a fun book, full of high- and low-tech battles, but the writing never manages to fully capture the extraordinary mechanisms that Lila has, or to fully distinguish the worlds from one another. Alfheim isn’t terribly alien, only a slightly prettier version of earth… erm, Otopia. And Ms. Robson relies so heavily on the standard fantastic clichés of elves and demons that they never come across as anything more than cardboard cultures.
Still, it’s a more intelligent than average beach book.