Those of you familiar with Angela Carter’s work will know to expect something highly symbolic with lots of mythological overtones. You won’t be disappointed. Carter does that sort of stuff very well indeed. Politically, however, The Passion of New Eve is very much a book of its time. It was first published in 1977, an era in which we still believed in revolutionary war and the prospect of feminist commandos, marching under the sign of the toothed vagina to liberate us from male domination. Gwyneth Jones, in her Aleutian Trilogy, gave us a horrific glimpse of what such a war would actually be like. But in 1977 it was still something that people might hope for. Carter at least accepts that the casualties might be enormous (in ’77 we still believed that nuclear war was imminent too), so she considers the need to start anew.
“‘Don’t you think,’ asked Sophia, that the domination of man has caused us all too much pain? Were you ever happy, when you were a man, since you left the womb, unless you were trying to get back into it?’”
Enter Evelyn, the hero(ine) of our story. He is a self-centred English academic who has just got himself a job in New York. Arriving in America, he discovers the USA in the midst of massive civil unrest. Black militias take over the university where he was to teach and blow it up. Without a job, Evelyn decides to see a bit of America before going home.
Unfortunately for him, he hasn’t gone far when he is captured by a group of feminist insurgents. Their leader, known only as Mother, is a surgical genius who has altered herself to obtain the many-breasted appearance of an ancient fertility goddess. Now she intends to alter Evelyn as well, and make him the parent of a new race.
Digression: for years archaeologists believed that the multifariously bulbous chest of the statue of Diana at Ephesus was intended to represent her many breasts. Now some believe that the lumps actually represent the testicles of animals that were sacrificed to the goddess, or perhaps even those of her priests who were required to castrate themselves. Fortunately for Carter, Mother would have been happy with either interpretation.
The plan, then, is for Mother to transform Evelyn into an ideal woman, the New Eve of the title. Eve will then be impregnated with sperm taken from her old body, and this symbolic virgin birth will somehow spark the transformation of the world. Of course this mad plan doesn’t quite come off, and consequently Eve ends up having to fend for herself in an America that is rapidly falling into anarchy. It is a hard way to learn what it is like to be a woman.
“Although I was a woman, I was now also passing for a woman, but, then, many women born spend their whole lives in such imitations.”
I have to say that from an SF point of view the book is pretty sloppy. Like Robert Anton Wilson in Schrödinger’s Cat, Carter failed to research the details of transsexual surgery and thereby misses an opportunity for some quite delicious irony. As for things like people being able to get into a helicopter and fly it safely with no previous training, well, I suppose the plot required it.
But none of that is really germane to the point of the book. The Passion of New Eve is about politics and mythology, not about correct science. There are a number of issues that Carter asks us to consider. The first is very straightforward. She illustrates very clearly both man’s inhumanity to woman, and also, with the story of Zero’s wives, how women are often complicit in their own subjugation.
Theme two is about the nature and wisdom of the gender war. Although Carter shows that women have every right to be angry, Mother and her followers are not painted in a very attractive light. In the end Eve, who is after all half male, chooses not to side with them, but to find her own way in the world. In doing so she is creating a faint precursor of the second half of Suzy McKee Charnas’s superb Holdfast series, and warning us that separatism is not necessarily the obvious solution.
The final theme is the most complex of all and involves the nature of gender and gender roles. Although Mother tries to brainwash Eve into thinking like a woman, the process is by no means wholly successful. Life experiences help, but by the end it is still not clear what gender Eve sees herself as. Furthermore, her story is woven in with that of Tristessa St. Ange, a Garbo-esque film star, the queen of tragedy and most beautiful woman in the world.
In The Female Man (review here), Joanna Russ claims that the vision of the sexy woman is a male creation, and hence holds that women should do away with make-up, pretty clothes and so on. Carter’s argument is much more complex. Yes, Tristessa turns out to be a male creation as well, one man’s ideal made real on celluloid, but Eve too is an ideal woman, created by Mother. And Evelyn is seduced into Mother’s plans by the actions of Leila who uses every trick in the harlot’s book.
Because of the dense mythological treatment it is hard to discern exactly what message Carter wants us to take away from all this. Clearly her ideas are not as simplistic and confrontational as those of Russ are, but I’m not at all sure what direction she intends us to take. The best I can do is to suggest that perhaps we are to conclude that relations between the sexes can only improve when we partake of each other’s nature. Yes, we are different, but we are also both human, and we can learn to understand each other.
Well, anyway, that is what I hope she meant. It is at least a positive interpretation, and hopefully it will encourage people to read the book rather than discard it as shrill ranting. After all, Carter is head and shoulders above most writers, of any sort, that Britain has produced. The mythological stuff is hard work in places, but it is very well done. At the least, every fan of feminist SF should read this book.
The review originally appeared on Emerald City.