The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Zhenya Bourova
Feminists have been reading, and re-reading, The Left Hand of Darkness for a long time. Le Guin herself returned to the book and its setting more than once as her feminism developed alongside and through her writing. Now, over four decades after it was first published in 1969, the text itself has become bound up with the history of its interpretations.
I first read The Left Hand of Darkness two years ago. Pushing away the image that had imprinted upon my mind’s eye – those two tiny figures, all alone upon the ice – I remember feeling smug and ready to criticise. The book had begun, in Le Guin’s own words, as a “thought-experiment”: she “eliminated gender, to find out what was left”. Yet in insisting so strongly upon a people in whom the masculine and the feminine were blended, Le Guin made the gender binary – and the very idea of masculine and feminine characteristics – even stronger. If there was a radical point to that experiment – that is, the deconstruction of gender, as opposed to its hypothetical elimination — then the experiment had failed.
Reading it now, I feel that the book is not so much about that experiment as it is about impossibilities. The impossibilities created by our insistence upon dualities; the impossibility of representation, by the self and of the other, and also the impossibility of contact between the two. It is about the violence done to the other’s subjecthood in ascribing them to one half of a duality, and the impossibility of exiting a worldview premised on dualities to see an other as they really are.
The plot is sparse and far from fast-paced, but in a good way. A man, Genly Ai, comes as an envoy from Earth to the planet Gethen, seeking to persuade its rulers to join a coalition of eighty-three planets called the Ekumen. Gethen has an Earth-like atmosphere, but a semi-arctic climate, for which, on other worlds, it is known as Winter. But most of all it is a world set apart by the biology of its inhabitants, who are androgynous and sexually inactive except for an oestrus period each month known as kemmer. During kemmer, the Gethenians can take on the role of either male or female, in sex and also in reproduction. The rest of the time, Gethen is a society without sex.
The effect of the Gethenians’ ambisexuality, we are told, is multiple:
“Anyone can turn his hand to anything… The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be… ‘tied down to childbearing’, implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be — psychologically or physically… Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.”
On Gethen, Genly is seen as a “pervert”, a “sexual freak” whose state of “permanent kemmer” and fixed maleness make him the subject of both suspicion and wonder. When he fails to convince the paranoid, capricious (and pregnant) king of Karhide to form an alliance with planets beyond his own, he decides to try his luck in the neighbouring nation of Orgoreyn, which has a very different government. Arrested and taken to a labour camp in the far north of Orgoreyn, he is rescued by Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who was once Genly’s patron at the court of Karhide. Together, the two of them undertake an incredible eighty-day journey back to Karhide across the Gobrin Glacier.
At first, despite the book’s far-flung setting, this sounds incredibly familiar. The male hero, by going on a physical journey through an unfamiliar and threatening landscape, undergoes a transformation. But for me, the most interesting part of the book is the extent to which that transformation does not, and can never, succeed, due to the effect of symbolically entrenched binaries and hierarchies on Genly’s ability to make connections with others.
When the story begins, Genly has been on Gethen for over a year. Yet he has by no means come to terms with being surrounded by people who, for three-quarters of the time, have no sex at all. He insists on labelling the Gethenians he encounters as either “masculine” or “feminine”, despite himself acknowledging that this is a purely artificial game – and one that usually fails. When he asks his building superintendent, whose curvy figure and “prying, spying, ignoble, kindly” nature lends itself to the label “landlady”, if “he” has borne children, he is answered in the negative; the lady has borne none, but sired four.
But the way Genly plays the game also betrays his internalised misogyny. The characteristics he associates with femaleness – in the absence of females capable of serving him as sexual objects – are mostly negative. He admits to disliking and distrusting Estraven’s “femininity”, which he describes as “all charm and tact and lack of substance”. At any sign of shiftiness, spying, intrigue, playfulness – but also, later, softness and vulnerability – in a Gethenian, he categorises them as female (and therefore other to himself). His difficulty with Estraven, then, is one of intimacy. Knowing him better than anyone else in Karhide, he cannot truly call him either a man or a woman without knowing the insufficiency of either label. And yet as long as he is unable to perceive Estraven as “an integral man”, he is also unable to trust him.
To some extent, this changes out on the ice. Genly is forced to confront the violence that his insistence on a gender binary does to the non-conforming subjectivity of his companion. When Estraven goes into kemmer, Genly realises that all along he had been pretending not to see the female in him:
“Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality… I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship, to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.”
But to what extent does Genly – to whom even the women of his own world are “more alien” than the Gethenians – become capable of accepting that kind of “reality”? Reflecting on their journey, Genly later concludes that he and Estraven “had touched, in the only way [they] could touch”. Yet was it only the man (who was also a woman) that he reached out to?
One conversation between Genly and Estraven suggests that it is not possible to transcend thinking in terms that divide and bisect the other, while remaining intelligible to oneself.
“You are isolated, and undivided,” Genly says to Estraven. “Perhaps you are obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.”
“We are dualists too,” Estraven replies. “Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.”
“I and Thou…Yes, it does, after all, go even wider than sex…”
It is impossible for Genly to conceive of wholeness. But then, is it possible for anyone? Genly is unable to conceive of an other as a full person. He can only reach out and touch – the mindspeech between him and Estraven is certainly some kind of connection – but to represent that connection, or the being with whom that connection was made — that’s something else altogether. This connection remains depressingly untranslated, by the end of the book, into the ability to see the Gethenians for who they really are.
Or, for that matter, to really see women.
“There are no women in it”, wrote Joanna Russ of The Left Hand of Darkness in 1972. The absence of women is not only a result of Le Guin’s (later regretted) insistence upon using the masculine pronoun ‘he’ throughout the book. It is also exacerbated by the fact that although the book insists that the Gethenians are manwomen, we see almost nothing of their alleged femaleness (except for the associations made by Genly). We see nothing of childbearing, or child rearing. If no one on Gethen is quite so free as a male anywhere else, or as “tied down” as women elsewhere, we are shown only the freedom, and nothing of the being “tied down”.
The woman-shaped gap in The Left Hand of Darkness seems to be very much a consequence of Le Guin’s commitment, when the book was written, to a bourgeois individualist writing tradition – and to a science fiction that answered questions about what another world might look like only in relation to its male population. It was, after all, written at a time when a major category of science fiction comprised what Russ described as “intergalactic suburbia” – where the world building, however imaginative in relation to things like technology, left unquestioned the gendered division of labour, and replicated on faraway planets the core values of the American middle class.
To be fair, Le Guin’s “thought-experiment” does question the universality of some of these values. For instance, the book does not export laissez-faire capitalism to Gethen (though the precise nature of the economics of Karhide and Orgoreyn is left relatively vague). Gethen is also a planet that has never known war. Yet a comment by Genly makes it clear that the causal link between biological sex and the division of labour is one thing that will not be questioned:
“It’s extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones. Even where women participate equally with men in the society, they still after all do all the childbearing, and so most of the child rearing…”
Genly’s assumption – that women’s biological role in reproduction should also be determinative of the division of labour in the raising of children – is a depressing outlook for what is supposed to be a league of (I repeat, eighty-three!) futuristic worlds. If Gethen is to be the odd one out, it is doubly to be expected that the allocation of responsibility for the raising of children – not to mention the structure of a family – will be a point of interest to an outsider (and certainly to the reader, looking in). There is no excuse for deeming that side of life too matter of course – too humble, too ordinary – to be the subject of a novel.
And yet, for all its shortcomings, The Left Hand of Darkness has a feminist following well beyond the usual readership of science fiction. Perhaps this is not so much because of what the book has to say about gender as it is about the questions that it leaves unanswered – and the questions it inspires.
Perhaps it is also because its shortcomings have been acknowledged by Le Guin herself, who admitted that the book had Estraven doing only “manly things” during his journey across the ice, and regretted locking the Gethenians into heterosexuality. After over 20 years of experience as a feminist, Le Guin admitted that in her early years as a writer, she did not yet “know how to write about women”. Certainly the story ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’, published nearly 30 years after The Left Hand of Darkness, focuses back on the family, gives an insight into Gethenian child rearing practices, and incorporates same-sex encounters into the story. And Le Guin’s later works – such as the other stories that make up The Birthday of the World (2002), and her latest instalments in the Earthsea saga – also focus directly on the perspectives of women, without marginalising their experiences.
The Left Hand of Darkness thus becomes more than a thought-experiment. In being bound up with its many re-readings, it also becomes about the growth and development of Le Guin as a writer, and the journeys traced by her and other feminists in the context of science fiction. It becomes about the growth of the women who read and re-read it, who are inspired to take a new look at gender, and ask questions of their own.
This review originally appeared on beyondescapism.
For more information about this book, please see the entry on kwerey.com.
Second Body, Sue Payer (1979)
Review by Ian Sales
As I read this book, I began to seriously doubt it was written by a woman. The way Second Body handles its central premise has “male gaze” emblazoned across it. Given that Payer apparently wrote nothing else – at least not under that name – it’s easy to imagine it’s a pseudonym, especially since the book’s copyright is held by its publishers, Tower Publications Inc. And yet there is a comment on the book’s page on goodreads.com by a woman who states Payer was her grandmother. So it seems Payer was indeed a real person, and a woman – and so Second Body is eligible for review on SF Mistressworks (although, to be fair, the mere fact of a woman credited on the cover as author would in most circumstance be enough). Quality-wise, however, perhaps Second Body is less fit for review…
On 28 May 1999, the back-cover blurb tells us, Wendy Anderson went into hospital to give birth to her second child. But the procedure goes badly wrong, and she dies on the operating table. At the same time, the body of Jennifer Bowman is brought into the same hospital. She had tumbled down a flight of stairs, suffered a head injury, and has now been pronounced brain-dead. So the doctors perform a procedure up to that point performed only on animal test subjects: they transplant Wendy’s head onto Jennifer’s body. The operation is kept secret from the press for twelve months in order to give the Anderson family time to adjust. The family also moves south to Florida and cuts all ties with their friends so that no one learns of the transplant. Because Wendy, once petite and “doll-like”, a “cuddle bunny”, now has a voluptuous body more than a foot taller.
So, of course, the novel is about Wendy’s husband coming to terms with a wife he no longer finds as physically attractive as he once did, just as much as it is Wendy getting used to her new height and measurements. To add insult to injury, a colleague at his new workplace is of the same body type – a “cuddle bunny” – that Wendy was before the operation. And if even that weren’t enough, Jennifer’s husband, Jack, coincidentally turns up in the Anderson’s new neighbourhood – and not only is he attracted to Wendy because she is his “type” but he eventually recognises her body as belonging to Jennifer. Which to him makes Wendy his wife:
“What do you want me to do – throw myself in your arms? You keep forgetting I’m Mark’s wife.”
“Part of you, I admit. However, I’ll be fair about it. Mark can have your mind. But give your body to me!”
For a long time I was too stunned to reply. I just sat there staring at Billy Bob’s picture on the wall. I knew, in his own mind, he thought he was justified. I was Jennifer to him, except from my chin to the curls on top of my head. (p 165)
Where to begin? With the fact that Wendy is the subject of the novel but nonetheless defines herself by her relationship to Mark, her husband. Or perhaps that Jack thinks his late wife’s body belongs to him, as if Wendy’s head atop it were no more than an accessory? That the two men in the novel seem attracted to women solely by their body-types seems a minor complaint in comparison.
Later, the neighbourhood wives complain that Wendy is too sexy, and they’re afraid she will ensnare their husbands – because if they philander it will, of course, be the woman’s fault:
“I know you can’t help how you’re built,” Marge continued. “The good Lord gave you your body.”
“It takes a heap of self-control to keep the Lord’s gift in shape,” I sighed. “Oh, for a gooey hot fudge sundae.”
“Actually, it isn’t just your build. It’s that innocent, little-girl face you have on top of all that stacking. An innocent face. A sinful figure. The combination is dynamite.” (p 202)
(I suspect the author was trying for irony here, since it was medical science that gave her Jennifer’s body. And Wendy’s moan about having to diet to stay in shape is a common refrain throughout the narrative – she frequently longs for her original body because she did not have to watch what she ate.)
Eventually, Mark comes to his senses, although not until after he makes pregnant the woman he is having an affair with – but it all works out to everyone’s satisfaction. She goes off to marry a childhood sweetheart who doesn’t mind that she’s about to have someone else’s baby. Jack, however, still presents a problem. So Wendy agrees to go on a date with him, to demonstrate to him that she is not Jennifer. This initially backfires, but then something seems to sink in – and, after some soul-searching, Jack realises that Wendy is not his Jennifer, that just because Wendy now has Jennifer’s body that does not make her his wife. (Wendy, incidentally, suggests Jack look into growing a clone of Jennifer so he can have her back – of course, he’d have to wait twenty years, but…)
So, a happy ending. Wendy and Mark are back together again, Wendy’s parents have been told of the transplant and have taken it in their stride, Jack has accepted that Jennifer is gone, and Jennifer herself even visits both Wendy and Jack as a ghost in order to assure both parties she is now free. An epilogue returns to the doctor who performed the transplant, and he and his secretary muse on the way things have turned out…
By all the laws of compensation, someone like Miss Brown should have acquired Jennifer’s body. He wondered how much it would have changed her life during the last thirty years. Would it have inspired her to let down her hair and become the wanton most men desire? Or would she gone on in the same prim way, living her romances vicariously from a safe distance?
As it was, she didn’t have a sexy bone in her body. S unfortunate, for she would have made some man an intelligent, devoted wife. She was not a homely woman, nor in any way repulsive. Yet one would never, reasonably, have considered making love to her. (p 243)
Second Body is structured as the testimonies of Wendy and Mark in alternating chapters. Neither are well-drawn characters – Mark is defined by his taste in women, Wendy is defined by her relationship with Mark. The setting is supposed to be 1999, but in all respects it resembles the time of writing – other than the whole body transplant thing, that is. The gender politics, however, are more 1950s than dawn of the twenty-first century. Throughout the novel, women’s appearances are highlighted, as if that were their most important characteristic. Even in Wendy’s testimony, she complains about having to diet to keep her figure because she wants to look sexy and attractive for husband Mark – except, of course, he doesn’t initially find her new body at all sexy. And that’s all the men see in their women – sexy bodies.
It’s hard to describe quite how offensive Second Body is. I will admit the cover art and back-cover blurb give some indication, and I wasn’t expecting an especially enlightened read when I picked up the book. In fact, I fully expected it to be bad. Even so, it still managed to surprise me with its deeply sexist treatment of its premise. Definitely one to avoid.
Forty Thousand in Gehenna, CJ Cherryh (1983)
Review by admiral ironbombs
Forty Thousand in Gehenna is set in Cherryh’s sprawling Alliance-Union universe, sometime after the events of Downbelow Station, so a little history first. Through the Earth Company, humanity explored space ever outward from Sol, first building stations and then finding habitable planets. After some centuries of exploration and trade, the farthest colony-planets formed Union and went to war with the Earth Company. Caught in the middle were the spacefaring traders and cargo-haulers, the merchanters. This Company War ended with the forming of the merchanter Alliance, a neutral third-power interested in freedom of movement and controlling trade, leaving Union to its space and abandoning the destitute Earth to its meager Sol system.
Now, Alliance and Union live in an uneasy peace; Union seeds colony worlds with its genetically engineered, psychologically conditioned clones known as azi, claiming ground for when Alliance pushes into Union space. The planet Gehenna II is one such colony planet: over forty thousand azi and a few hundred “born-man” humans are dispatched to form a colony, given the supplies needed to establish a foothold. The planet is primitive, but habitable; the most advanced native species are a range of mound-building reptilians that display limited intelligence – dinosaur-like behemoths called caliban, and graceful smaller lizards termed ariels.
The plan is that the colonists will have three years to establish their settlement, at which point ships will return to resupply and prepare for the installation of birth-labs, the cloning facilities that produce azi. For political reasons unknown to the inhabitants, the ships never return, leaving them to struggle along. As their equipment breaks down, their electronics are eroded by the weather, and the azi fail to undergo their conditioning tapes, the colony must learn to make do with what they have, the forty-thousand azi forming their own civilization and culture out of their own shared experiences. And it turns out the resident caliban are not as unintelligent as believed…
Cherryh does not write easy or simple books; her narratives are rich in characters with multiple points-of-view, with deep, twisting plots that demand a reader’s attention. Forty Thousand in Gehenna is even moreso than usual, because it follows the colony’s development across generations. It’s fascinating to see the colony begin with high hopes and lofty ideals, then see the civilization of Newport along the Forbes River break down into the anarchy of primitive Gehenna Base along the river Styx. The novel tells the story of numerous born-man and azi characters and their descendants, progressing along the major stages of the colony’s life as it evolves and adapts.
Failing to force Gehenna to accept Terran standards of civilization, the colonists adapt and remold themselves over the generations to fit their environment. The theme is clearest with the first generation of azi workers, attempting to understand events beyond their comprehension. While not stupid, they are simple-minded in their obedient programming, and move forward believing that their labour is serving a greater purpose they just can’t see. Meanwhile, the azi struggle at becoming authority figures themselves, and their undisciplined children run wild. Gehenna’s second generation moves away from the hard-working obedience of their parents, moving closer towards the caliban. Some even flee the failing base and live in the caliban burrows, and the azi line begins to evolve and grow.
The azi are fascinating characters to follow. Industrious but lacking free will, the novel shows the growth of azi self-determination, the evolution of vat-grown labour as it’s left to its own devices. I pity the elder azi who arrived at the colony’s founding, as they fail to comprehend that everything they’d ever been taught has come crashing down around them, as they fail to understand the thought-process of their children. The later generations regress into a neolithic society, around the time Alliance gains control of Gehenna and is forced to initiate first contact with its own species.
The novel uses an expansive sense of scale, following some twelve generations of azi-born and mixed human-azi ancestry. We follow some four or five major events in Gehenna’s history, from the founding up through the establishment of a dominant culture, seeing how the generations (and their actions) shape the planet’s later history, learning more about the strange caliban. The azi tend to name their descendants after those who have came before, leading to a dozen Jins and several variants on the same names (Elly/Ellai/Elai, Dean/Dain/Din); a realistic choice as the azi gain a sense of ancestry, but a minor reading annoyance. The progression of time is also bittersweet, in the sheer number of characters who grow old and die – hopefully in that order.
And it’s not just the use of time that gives the novel that sense of scale. Cherryh tells the story in traditional narrative, and bits and fragments from the characters’ world – journal entries, memos, notes, orders and directives. Things like maps, personnel lists, and genealogical lineages start each chapter, marking the dead and the newly born, tracking the growth (or decline, or re-growth) of the colony and its environs. There’s a lot of material here, but not a lot of wasted space; every piece is used with purpose, something that becomes clearer a generation or two later when we see how Gehenna’s civilization progresses.
Forty Thousand in Gehenna is an ambitious work from a writer who does not shy away from complex narratives. Most writers would take the concept – “the first 300 years of an abandoned colony world” – and make it into a 600+ page novel, a trilogy, a series. Cherryh did it in 440 pages, and aside from a few hiccups, succeeds with style. The major theme – following a group of programmed clones over the centuries, bereft of their programming and forced to create their own culture that adapts to their alien environment – continued to impress me with its brilliance. It’s one of the most expansive works in science fiction I’ve read, and highly recommended because of that.
This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.
Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson (1976)
Review by Ian Sales
I was in two minds whether or not to review this for SF Mistressworks, despite it being one of the first feminist science fiction anthologies to be published. This was because three of the contributors – Dave Skal, Craig Strete and PJ Plauger – are male, and this website is about women science fiction writers. But mention of Aurora: Beyond Equality in Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon, persuaded me otherwise. Not only was Strete a confident of “Tip” (as Tiptree was known before “his” unmasking), but Tip was also very supportive of McIntyre and Anderson as they were putting the book together – so much so, in fact, that he recommended a “friend” of his, Raccoona Sheldon. As a result, Sheldon appears in Aurora: Beyond Equality in both of her published disguises.
It’s probably also worth noting that not every story in Aurora: Beyond Equality is science fiction – some are fantasy. Which is another reason it’s not entirely relevant to SF Mistressworks. But never mind. All stories, incidentally, were original to the anthology.
‘Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!’, Raccoona Sheldon. While I’ve read a couple of dozen Tiptree stories, I suspect I’ve read only a handful as by Raccoona Sheldon. Perhaps if I’d not known they were the same person, I might have considered their writing styles very different. As it is, knowing both were Alice Sheldon I see more similarities than I do differences. Having said that, ‘Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!’ is written in the present tense, which I don’t recall Tiptree ever using. It’s also a more stream-of-conciousness type narrative, rather than Tiptree’s more considered prose. The protagonist is a young woman. She is a messenger in a post-apocalyptic USA, but as she travels through a ruined travel she finds people friendly and helpful – although she knows to avoid areas where danger lurks. Except, she isn’t a messenger a post-apocalyptic USA, she’s a young woman with a mental health condition who has not taken her meds and is currently wandering around the city – and who eventually comes to harm. It’s a bitter and pessimistic story, more so, I think, than anything Tiptree wrote.
‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is arguably James Tiptree Jr’s best-known story. It’s certainly emblematic of his fiction, with its dry, caustic tone, its somewhat caricatured male characters, and its ambivalence toward feminism – or at the very least toward a feminist or women-only utopia. A mission to orbit the Sun comes a cropper when the spacecraft is unknowingly thrown into the future – a future which, the astronauts discover after being rescued by a nearby spacecraft, turns out to be women-only… The men react badly, the women inadvertently reveal a few details about their world which do not bode well. As on previous reads, the story feels hamstrung by its caricatured male characters – while the women are well-drawn, more nuanced men might have made the resolution more powerful. Tiptree was certainly capable of writing well-drawn male characters, and did so in other of his stories.
‘The Mothers, the Mothers, How Eerily It Sounds’ by Dave Skal is set in the future after some unidentified disaster. A man and a woman are studying Digger, a mutant, and his people, perhaps in order to use their genetic material – shades of Tiptree’s ‘The Snows are Melted, the Snows are Gone’ – as well as to heal Digger’s people of their mutations. To be honest, there’s not much about this story that sticks in the memory.
‘The Antrim Hills’, Mildred Downey Broxon, is one of the anthology’s few fantasies. The author was apparently a “student of Irish history”, which explains the setting. Maire’s husband, a harpist, has been taken by the Sídhe, and she determines to rescue him. The Sídhe live in a place at the bottom of a lake and, with the help of a magical trout, Maire sets off to win back her husband, Tadhg. But she too ends up trapped up the faery folk, and when the pair do finally escape they discover they are now in the present day. Despite being little more than a string of Irish/Sídhe clichés, the story has plenty of charm, and I rather liked it.
‘Is Gender Necessary?’, Ursula K Le Guin, is actually an essay. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness has been criticised because, among other things, Le Guin used the male pronoun throughout… which somewhat undercuts its point regarding the mostly genderless Gethenians. Asa a result, Le Guin wrote this essay to address some of those criticisms. In part it reads like a defence of the decisions she made writing the novel – expressed through a potted history of the Gethenians, and her thinking behind that fictional history – and yet it also is an apologia, an acknowledgement that perhaps if she were to tackle something similar she would do it differently.
‘Corruption’ by Joanna Russ is an odd story, and feels uncharacteristic of her work. On an alien and inhospitable world, people live in small sealed arcologies. Their occupations are indicated by the colour of their clothing. Alpha, however, is not who he appears to be. He has infiltrated the world in order to destroy it. There is a dystopian uniformity to the world Russ paints, which is reinforced by the commentary embedded in the prose.
Although PJ PLauger has written two novels, both have only appeared in magazines and not book form. He also appears to be more of an Analog writer, which makes him a strange choice for Aurora: Beyond Equality. And his story, ‘Here Be Dragons’, while enjoyable, isn’t noticeably feminist. It’s set on a colony world some centuries after landfall. The colonists have settled one continent and maintain a low-tech agrarian civilisation. The descendants of the crew, however, occupy another continent, and use legends and rumours of monsters – as well as a motor boat tricked out to look like a fire-breathing dragon – to keep the colonists away. But the crew’s civilisation is stagnating and no longer understands how its technology works. The colonists, on the other hand, are slowly discovering science and technology – as is embodied in an encounter between a newly-designed colonist sailing boat and the aforementioned “dragon” motor boat.
‘Why Has the Virgin Mary Never Entered the Wigwam of Standing Bear?’ by Craig Strete is a monologue by a Native American woman about Standing Bear, a warrior, and about white people and what they mean to her and her people. But the woman might also be a goddess, and she revenges herself on those who have mistreated her people – “I am the chief, the warrior who killed Hugh Hefner. I killed him very poetically. I gave him the most beautful body a girl ever had. It was his own.” (p 180).
‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, Marge Piercy, is an extract from the novel of the same title, described as “in progress, soon to be published by Knopf”. Consuelo is a woman of our own time who “hallucinates” her way to some future time. The extract describes a couple of her visits and basically consists of her horrified reactions to the way the near-utopians of the future do things, while they explain to her how everything works.
According to Phillips, McIntyre and Anderson “wanted fiction that explored what the world might look like after equality between the sexes had been achieved” (p 352, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon). In that respect, the anthology fails badly. And yet the editors admit they had trouble finding suitable material: as Anderson writes in the introduction:
As stories began arriving, we soon realized what a difficult assignment we had given writers. Some, alas, hadn’t quite understood our theme. By no stretch of the imagination does a mutated squash story qualify as nonsexist sf. (p 14)
While Aurora: Beyond Equality contains some very good fiction, few of the stories actually meet the theme. Sheldon’s has men being violent toward women, Tiptree’s has the same but in a women-only world. In Skal’s, Broxon’s, Russ’s and Plauger’s stories, gender equality feels incidental to the plots. Le Guin’s essay is about the Gethenians, who have no gender when not in “kemmer”. Strete’s is about a Native American woman revenging herself on white people. Only Piercy’s novel extract is on point – and that has no discernible plot and drops the reader straight into the novel’s world.
Despite that, Aurora: Beyond Equality is not a bad anthology. Its stories are not especially dated – the Broxon almost certainly might appear today, although its premise has been done to death in the decades since 1976. The Plauger too feels somewhat timeless, although its concerns probably wouldn’t interest a twenty-first century reader. Then there’s the Sheldon and the Tiptree, both making their original appearances, which are worth the price of entry alone. And Woman on the Edge of Time the novel, of course, is still in print. Which is a problem – the best stories have been subsequently collected elsewhere, and there’s nothing unique to Aurora: Beyond Equality which makes the book worth tracking down.
The Crystal Ship, edited by Robert Silverberg (1976)
Review by Joachim Boaz
Only a handful of SF anthologies have hit print solely featuring women authors – none were published before 1972 and, surprisingly, few after 1980 (there seems to be a resurgence in the last few years). The Crystal Ship (1976) is one of these. It contains the three novellas by three important SF authors who got their start in the 70s: Marta Randall, Joan D Vinge, and Vonda N McIntyre. The latter two achieved critical success: Joan D Vinge won the Hugo for her novel The Snow Queen (1980) and Vonda N McIntyre won the Hugo for her novel Dreamsnake (1978). Marta Randall, on the other hand, despite her Nebula nomination for the intriguing Islands (1976) remains to this day lesser known.
All three of the novellas feature impressive female protagonists and narratives that subvert many of SF’s traditional clichés. All three protagonists are outcasts, striving against worlds characterized in turn by decadence, colonialism, and sadistic prison systems. Tarawassie in Vinge’s ‘The Crystal Ship’ is cast in the vein of Alvin in Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956). She takes on the mantel of “the one who knows how the world really is”. The eponymous heroine of Randall’s ‘Megan’s World’ is shunned by her fellow humankind due to her mechanical and strangely-coloured body. She is accepted by the natives of a soon to be exploited planet and feels compelled to fight, in the final confrontation, against her own. It takes all mental and physical strength of Kylis in McIntyre’s ‘Screwtop’ – imprisoned for minor infractions including “stealing passage” on a spaceship – to not succumb the hellish environment of the world and the sinister whims of a particularly disturbed guard.
‘Screwtop’ is the highlight of The Crystal Ship. Neither Randall or Vinge can match the raw psychological power, evocative world building, and solid storytelling of McIntyre.
‘The Crystal Ship’ Joan D Vinge: In the past I have found Vinge’s works from the late 70s deeply flawed – for example, Fireship (1978) and The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978). She would refine her style/characterizations in The Snow Queen Cycle of novels from the 80s and 90s. In a far future environ, a vast (mostly empty) crystal spaceship orbits a distant planet. The occupants of the vessel lived a drugged and satiated existence where they end their lives by jumping into a mysterious contraption called a “wishing well” (p 14). Like Alvin in The City and the Stars, Tarawassie sees the sad state of the world after her mother, who lives on the planet’s surface and refuses the life of the crystal ship, seeks to end her life in the wishing well. Tarawassie escapes the “Loom’s catch-spell of light/music” (p 19) and strikes off for the planet’s surface.
On the surface she encounters the “real humans”, ie some new strain of humanity (mixed with the native population?) with pouches, telepathy, and tails. These rat-like creatures believe themselves superior to the inhabitants of the spaceship. With the help of a native named Moon Shadow (*wince*), Tarawassie learns the true history of their peoples, and reason for the strange crystal ship.
‘The Crystal Ship’ is an inarticulate allegory with an intriguing premise but a flawed delivery. Moon Shadow’s “‘What it’ – he grimaced, concentrating – ‘what it – mean?’” (p 29) attempts at dialogue are beyond frustrating for the reader. The unease generated by the world and the hints of past cataclysmic confrontation are the most praiseworthy elements of the story. For die-hard Joan D Vinge fans only.
‘Megan’s World’ Marta Randall: Randall’s novella is on the surface a traditional SF narrative. Engineer Padric Angelo, whose past is filled with ignominy, lands on an alien planet in search of natural resources with an inept ethnologist who knows little about dealing with aliens. The ethnologist believes that it will be easy to convince the natives to desecrate their planet, ie just speak into the universal translator and they will think that the Terrans are gods and thus get whatever they want with superior technology.
And then Randall subverts the paradigm: the feline aliens are far from simplistic naturalistic aliens who are one with nature. Rather, they worship bloodthirsty gods and are stricken with internal political and social dissension. The biggest realignment concerns Padric’s sister, whom he encounters on the planet. Megan is “thin and immensely tall; has gray hair; a second and transparent set of eyelids set above liquid crystal irises that shift colors with changes in temperature and pulse in time to her heartbeat. Her bones are formed of high-impact, stress-resistant biosteel allow, and her bluntly shaped finger- and toe-nails are of a dully gray metal” (p 95). Megan was developed as an experiment in spaceship construction (integration of human with machine) – however, the experiment was a failure. She escaped the ridicule she faced by her fellow Terrans and fled via a stolen yacht. In part because she is accepted by the natives of the planet, she feels closely for their plight and the danger her brother represents.
The story is somewhat bogged down with needless exposition. Most frustrating is the lack of nuance dealing with the key themes of the novel – alienation, colonialism, etc. The frustratingly abrupt ending does little to ram home the more intriguing elements. Recommended with reservations.
‘Screwtop’ Vonda N McIntyre: is by far the most satisfying and evocative novella in the collection. Kylis, a spaceport “rat” who spent her childhood at spaceports stowing aboard ships, is captured for stealing passage and is imprisoned on the planet Redsun. A perpetually hot planet filled with strange parasites, fern plants, and volcanoes, Redsun is powered by some form of geothermal energy (how exactly this works is not altogether clear). Kylis spends her day working with other prisoners removing vegetation and drilling into the planet’s crust. She encounters two disparate characters who become her friends: Jason, an writer, arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy; and a tetraparental, ie a designed super-intelligent individual culled from the DNA of four parents, named Gryf. However, the prison guard named Lizard is commanded to force Gryf to return to the life he escaped and uses Kylis affection for Gryf and Jason as leverage.
There are indications throughout of non-traditional relationships – for example, group living and non-monogamous relationships such as Kylis, Gryf, and Jason. McIntyre’s avoids info-dumps and only carefully reveals each character’s back-story. The narrative is well-told and ultimately, downright heart-rending.
McIntyre’s Dreamsnake is the only Hugo-winning novel published between 1960 and 1980 I have yet to read. After experiencing the refined and psychological power of ‘Screwtop’, I desperately want to get my hands on a copy. Highly recommended.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.
The Incomer, Margaret Elphinstone (1987)
Review by Jack Deighton
I picked this one up in a second hand bookshop in Edinburgh a few months ago. For two reasons. One, it was a Women’s Press SF publication I hadn’t bought at the time so it filled a gap and two, it fitted the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge. The book has the impeccably Scottish word “incomer” as part of its title. Though born in Kent, author Margaret Elphinstone has lived extensively in Scotland – in Galloway when the book was published – and has a professional academic interest in Scottish literature, especially of the islands. (She does have a character say, “Aren’t I?” though.)
As dark is falling a human figure falters through a vaguely menacing forest to a crossroads with a village on its north side. The village has several ruined houses but we are given to understand this is by no means unusual for the times. (Almost incidentally we find out some sort of change has reduced the human population compared to our time and advanced technology is conspicuous by its absence. Despite this, familiar things such as flower pots, nappies and sheep crop up from time to time. Heat is provided by burning wood, which seems to be a precious resource despite the surrounding forest. The North Sea is dangerous, referred to as dead, in contrast to the reviving Irish Sea.)
The figure, a travelling musician named Naomi, finds room at the inn. Her fiddle playing at a gathering a day or so later ensures her acceptance to stay for the rest of the winter. The village is called Clachanpluck (the novel has been republished as The Incomer or Clachanpluck) and holds a secret. A path through the forest leads to an entry into the earth hidden behind a waterfall. (No spoilers.)
Naomi’s presence has an impact on the relationships within the village but the main theme of the novel is mutual incomprehension, the lack of understanding Naomi has of the local norms, the assumed knowledge she doesn’t have, the care with which she has to tread. Her main driving force is her music but during her stay in the village she nevertheless – if somewhat unconvincingly – throws off her long-maintained celibacy in a relationship with fellow fiddle player Davey to whom she teaches tunes that she learned on her travels in Europe. Old, powerful music, written by Beethoven. Despite the almost unspoken matriarchy in Clachanpluck human nature hasn’t much changed. Other misunderstandings take place among those who have lived there all their lives.
This is a quiet, understated novel whose depiction of a restrained, unfussy, reticent lifestyle where people no longer exploit nature unsustainably and have a deep attachment to the land may be nostalgic and idealistic yet resists being idyllic.
This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.
The Revolving Boy, Gertrude Friedberg (1966)
Review by Ian Sales
According to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Gertrude Friedberg published only a single sf novel and three sf short stories (one in an original anthology and two in F&SF). Her novel, The Revolving Boy, was not, I’d been told, especially good. So I was somewhat surprised to discover it was a nicely-written, slightly whimsical, but very much science fiction, novel, with an engaging protagonist and an appealing voice.
Derv Nagy is the boy of the title. He was conceived in orbit during a space mission – one of the novel least convincing elements, it must be said; it’s passed off and hand-waved away with little or no attempt made at plausibility. Initially, Derv’s strangeness exhibits itself in a desire to face in a specific direction whenever possible, or to take routes, or move his body, in such a way as to maintain some sort of specific heading. As he grows older, so the urge becomes stronger, until he is only comfortable when facing in the “Direction”… and this is taking into account the rotation of the Earth, the movement of the Earth about the Sun, and so on. Of course, this makes life difficult for him. Which is not helped by the fact that he and his parents are pretty much in hiding – they fled the publicity and notoriety generated by their space mission, and are now living under assumed identities.
For much of The Revolving Boy, Friedberg describes the development of Derv’s strange talent, and how he learns to fit his life around it. And how his parents learn how to cope with it. He grows up, marries, begins on a career as a chemical engineer… But then the signal, whatever it is that indicates the Direction to him, stops. Derv falls ill as a result, but the only condition the medical establishment seems to think fits his symptoms is a brain tumour. So they schedule exploratory surgery. In desperation, Derv’s wife, Prin, visits Green Bank, a renowned radio telescope facility. They had been listening to a signal from somewhere out in space, origin and purpose unknown but, they suspect, the product of intelligence. Except the project had fallen out of favour years before, and the signal had not been listened to since. Prin’s visit prompts a young radio-astronomer to check the signal, and he discovers it has returned.
Meanwhile, Derv miraculously recovers from his “brain tumour” and discharges himself from hospital. The Green Bank astronomers – who were aware of Derv and his ability – now want his help in conforming the direction and source of the signal. But they can’t find him, as he has been living under a different name for decades…
The SF Encyclopedia describes The Revolving Boy as “a minor classic in the field”. I don’t think I would go quite far, but it’s certainly a novel which doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Friedberg’s prose is good throughout, and while the central premise – ie, SETI – is a real thing and so very much plausible, the story elements wrapped around it are a little too hand-wavey for comfort. Derv’s difference is handled sensitively, and makes for an interesting metaphor. But the lack of explanation, or the feebleness of the explanations which are offered, often work against it.
Read The Revolving Boy for Friedberg’s writing, for Derv’s story… but don’t read it necessarily as heartland science fiction. It works better in the areas peripheral to its central conceit, in the adjustments its cast must make to that conceit, in the way it affects them and their lives. It’s not a classic, but it does deserve a fresh audience.