The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski

wallaroundedenThe Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

Nuclear war has destroyed the Earth, except for several communities around the globe, which found themselves protected by alien force-fields. One such community is the small US town of Gwynwood. Unfortunately, things aren’t going so well now. Outside the force-field, everything is dead as far as the eye can see, the ozone layer has been completely destroyed, and there is little or no hope of rescue. Inside the force-field, the water-table has been contaminated by radiation, the number of children born with disabilities is increasing, and deaths outnumber births. This is the despite the assistance being rendered to Gwynwood by the city of Sydney in Australia.

At the centre of the dome over Gwynwood is the Pylon, an alien construction itself protected by a force-field. The Pylon allows the inhabitants of Gwynwood and Sydney to send supplies to each other. The Pylon is also the source of “angelbees”, which are spherical alien surveillance devices, albeit not especially smart ones. Some people think the mysterious aliens who planted the Pylon and created the force-field were responsible for the destruction of the Earth; others suspect they may be working to repair its damage.

Isabel is a teenager in Gwynwood. Her mother is the town’s only doctor, and Isabel usually assists her. But Isabel is also fascinated by the Pylon, and wants to understand what it is, what it does and what it’s for. When she accidentally discovers a means of penetrating the force-field surrounding it, she learns something about the aliens who built it.

Gwynwood, of course, is no Eden, though it is a protected garden. Through the Pylon, Isabel finds a place much closer to the description of the biblical garden, and while trapped there she learns how to communicate with the aliens and makes a number of – later proven – accurate guesses at their nature.

Despite all this, The Wall Around Eden is neither a first contact novel, nor puzzle-type sf. It is chiefly about Gwynwood and the people in it, and how they react to their situation.  For one thing, the community is religious – but it is a mixture of religions, with Quakerism predominating. They have a Meeting House – not a church – where they worship and hold town councils. Gwynwood is a rural agrarian community whose members can remember the industrialised society prior to the destruction of the Earth outside the dome. And while they rue their loss, they are determined to build something sustainable and fair with what they have.

It is Isabel who carries the story of The Wall Around Eden. Unfortunately, because she is a teenager, with a teenager’s preoccupations, it makes the book read somewhat like YA. A superior YA, it must be said; and certainly one that deserves to be republished as such in today’s buoyant YA market. The Wall Around Eden is an intelligent novel, and remarkably optimistic given its set-up. Isabel is an engaging protagonist, her best friend Peace Hope is equally engaging, and the community of Gwynwood feels like a real living small community. The later appearance of a group of Australian rebels loose in the Pylons can do little to dispel the general good-feeling the novel inspires.

Perhaps that’s another reason why The Wall Around Eden seems like a YA novel – the fact that it is a happy book. It does not describe a happy situation – the Earth has been pretty much destroyed by nuclear war, for one thing – and its cast have no good reason to be especially cheerful… but there is a strong current of hope throughout the narrative, and that gives the story a notable sense of good feeling. It is a story that works through the character of its cast, through the ingenuity of its protagonists, and through their exploration of their situation.

The Wall Around Eden also feels partly like a masterclass in writing a science fiction novel. Here is the opening situation, here are the core characters… now tell a story using them. Here are a list of topics you must incorporate in your narrative. Yet the end result is far from cookie-cutter science fiction, or a novel written by the numbers. I would happily give copies of The Wall Around Eden to people who would like to understand what science fiction is. I would happily give copies of The Wall Around Eden to teenagers who would like to try a book that isn’t about special snowflakes or post-apocalyptic warlordism or middle-class wizardry at secret boarding schools.

It’s certainly past time someone brought out a new edition of The Wall Around Eden. There is a new audience waiting for it.

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A Sweet, Sweet Summer, Jane Gaskell

sweetnessA Sweet, Sweet Summer, Jane Gaskell (1969)
Review by Nic Clarke

Till she came we were all just one big happy family. The summer laid itself like a lover’s sweat over the rooms where we laid on our beds, Szzummer, Szzzummer, went the bright busy bluebottles in our rooms, Connor rooting Sweetness on her old pungent mattress, me in my nice tidy room relaxing with my collection of knives and sea-shells.

Then she had to come.

I first heard about Jane Gaskell’s Somerset Maugham Award-winning A Sweet, Sweet Summer at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2010. China Miéville was a Guest Director that year, and at one of his panels, in a response to a question (okay, my question) about great science fiction written by women, he singled out Gaskell’s novel for praise. Having never heard of Gaskell before, and with the SF Mistressworks project in mind, I resolved to track a copy down.

I’m very glad I did. It’s an odd, spiky, clever little book about people ill-at-ease in their own skin and inclined to take out their insecurities on those around them – one well represented by its cover, which features a sneering young woman brandishing a broken bottle. It took me a little while to settle into the voice, largely because of the narrator – the aptly-named Rat – who in many ways resembles the Dunning-Kruger Effect in human form. He is smarter than he self-presents to the world, but not nearly as smart as he privately believes himself to be. Reading the novel is often, necessarily, an exercise in reading between his savage and sometimes stupid – and sometimes arch – lines. What at first seems like clumsy writing in places gradually resolves into a vector of characterisation, and other sides to the story emerge from under his view of things.

He offers us a crabbed, stunted sort of narration, deliberately (as he eventually confesses, in a brief moment of introspection) constraining his language choices and his range of emotional notes: he writes run-on sentences with minimal punctuation, messes up his prepositions, verbs nouns and adjectives, uses ungrammatical phrasings like “could of” and “should of”, and above all tries to avoid nuance and thoughtfulness at all costs:

Now I shall tell the real reason I hate Frijja. I haven’t put this in this book before. I don’t know really why I am writing this book. It disturbs me to write it. It is a sort of scratching of itches I thought I had deadened and made to rot away through neglect a right time ago.

She started me off on it. She has me picking through the old old feelings again and I am starting up that kind of perceptiveness I thought I had threw out along with the other old rubbish.

I see things with my ribs as well as my brain now. I mean, I can feel a quiver in my bowel when I see a patch of blue petrol spilt on a wet road. […] And then along comes the right word, a nasty senseless habit that should have gone out with the garbage, along with all the things that clutter and soggy your life, and sugar and sticky and freshen it up, and make you waste time and nervous energy and make a fool of yourself over things that don’t farther any ends, only pull us backwards in the race. You find yourself thinking That was not the blue of denim, like a summer sky is, nor the blue of an Admiral’s eyes like a summer sea, it was the blue of mouldy gorgonzola.

Rat is anxious to avoid this sort of thing because he sees it as a signal of weakness, something that potentially undermines his masculinity. He has carefully developed a blustering, bullying and bully-appeasing persona, both as a survival mechanism and because he thrives on it. He runs a boarding house/(very tiny) brothel in the seedy, precarious underbelly of a future Britain that is half-cowering, half-bemused by an alien occupation that is barely-understood, and frankly rather Dadaist (at one point the aliens conduct a public execution of Ringo Starr to cast the populace into despair):

Meanwhile, the huge A craft just hung there casting 1000 foot of shadow across each of the big cities, over the Woolworthses and Dolcises and babies out in their prams for an airing. People rush under them when the rain starts so municipal authorities have erected seats and slot-machine arcades under them and charge you for using them.

This backdrop is cursory, but it is so because Rat’s notion of what is going on consists of anecdotes like this, plus a few shaky theories that mostly pivot around his conviction that certain groups of people (“turban-wearers”, for example) are doing suspiciously well out of the New Alien Order. He is inordinately proud of said theories, which he expounds at length to (female) audiences that he can count on to be impressed. (“Sweetness gazed at me in awe, as I hoped Frijja noticed. I use syntax when I discuss things. I can discuss like a public-bar pro.”)

Rat is, indeed, a performer, and one who performs in strikingly different ways depending on whether he is with men or with women; in mixed company, he plays primarily to the men, manifestly seeing them as higher status. Around women – like the two workers at his makeshift ‘brothel’, more dependent residents whose bodies are offered up as protection money to the local gang of thugs, than prostitutes per se – he flits back and forth, between being ostentatiously solicitous and lashing out to reassure himself that there are at least some people below him in the social hierarchy. When his favourite girl, Sweetness – the infantilised name is a give-away, I think – witnesses his humiliation at the hands of the gang, and attempts to console him, he promptly gives her a dressing down (accusing her of being a drain on his resources, and so on) to exorcise his own feelings of inadequacy. Bludgeoning her, verbally, with the fact of his power over her physically calms him: “I felt better”, he tells us, “when I noted her cringe. I stopped my shaking.”

Later, we get a more direct statement of this dynamic:

If she’s hurt, though I hate her, I’ll go and mother her. I like helping hurt things, the more hurt the better. It’s worth hurting them yourself just to enjoy soothing them after, in fact that’s best of all, because they’re so trembly and distrustful and heart-wounded, and they take a long time to understand you’re really going to cuddle them and make them feel better again now at last.

At which point, he concludes, you destroy that new trust by hurting them again.

Where Rat comes unstuck is with his cousin, Frijja, the woman referred to in such ominous tones in the passage quoted at the head of this post. Frijja is a punk avant la lettre, forthright and uncompromising and aggressive; she’s a striking creation who dominates the novel, despite all Rat’s efforts to cast her in the worst possible light. She upends Rat’s sense of the world because she – much like Rat himself – does not fit into the neat gender binary he imagines. Whereas Sweetness “is all delicious, brown and rosy and smelling of her correct function” (he means, of course, sex), Frijja has short cropped hair, “such cold eyes” and “cheekbones sticking out like a haunted cat’s”. I love that last, vivid phrase: Rat can’t resist the power of his imagination all the time, and here I can’t help but feel that his sense of anxiety and inferiority around his cousin is coming through subconsciously – even a haunted cat could take down a rat, presumably.

Above all, Frijja is gender-ambiguous, something that – coupled with her aggression (also an attribute ‘wrong’ for her gender) and her capability, all of which earns her Rat’s hatred – enables her to face down an attempt by the local thugs to take over the boarding house brothel:

I realised they reckoned she was a boy. She is so slight, like a wisp after the slow time in hospital being patched together, and there’s nothing female about her crop, with the scars still plain under it where her skull was chopped. Her face is not exactly boyish, but it’s not a girl’s face just yet either, all eyes and bones and pallor, and she looks like she’s a sickly kid its mother never expected to live, except for the capable tough matter-of-fact efficient-knuckled thin hands on the ‘gun’.

Said ‘gun’, incidentally – an improvised projectile weapon – gives Gaskell the chance to indulge in some strikingly phallic imagery for Frijja’s one-woman defence:

And there, on the landing below, was Frijja my cousin in her shirt and jeans, her cropped hair fluffing with electricity as she handled the bazooka or whatever you could call it on its small stand, the used magazine jerking out in a gorgeous solid stream of security at her knees.

Rat, meanwhile, gets the feminine-gendered actions and language in the confrontation. Although he puts himself between Sweetness and the invading gang, he does so from the upper floor, making sure he stays well clear of the stairwell where he might be visible. There is perhaps even an element of self-awareness in the way he describes his one contribution to the proceedings: “‘Put those guns away, they might go off,’ I scolded intrepidly, still master of my household.” The gender-clashing juxtaposition of ‘scold’ (something women are assumed to do, not men) and ‘master’, the peevish, pleading tone of his half-arsed attempt to stop the fight, and above all the wonderfully absurdist ‘intrepidly’ gives a strong flavour of irony, although whether this is supposed to be a conscious choice on Rat’s part, or Gaskell’s way of undermining him, is a matter of interpretation.

Around men, Rat is cringingly deferential. Of the group of thugs who spend much of their time at his sort-of brothel – and do, at length, stage a successful invasion – he reflects, “I started off keeping in with them once long ago”. Although they treat him with contempt and abuse, he hovers around them obsessively, entreating them to stay even while he is privately wishing they would leave, and egging them on whenever they select a weaker target than him for bullying. But his fixation on the ringleader, Connor, goes beyond simply self-preservatory appeasement: “I am excited by the idea of Connor,” he tells us, “the brute and unpredictable unmarked clay, difficult and dangerous to touch.” He fantasises that he is useful to Connor – “his right-hand man I am, his point-maker, a loyal creature” – and someone who, being smarter, can give voice to things Connor does not properly understand about himself and his intentions. He imagines that he can use Connor, subtly using him to take down people he cannot reach or threaten on his own.

It goes further than even this, however. Although Rat explicitly insists that he is “not queer for Connor”, he admits that it is Connor he’s thinking about as he writes (“Who am I writing this book for? Connor will never read it”), and he finds Connor’s violent dominance both terrifying and a turn-on. The same behaviour that he deplores in Frijja, because it places her outside the category of ‘woman’ (or rather “girl”, with the obvious subordinate power dynamic that entails), is something he watches with open-mouthed fascination when Connor does it. After one incident, he notes, half-defensive, half-matter-of-fact:

I had to rush away and masturbate after, but do you know it wasn’t that I enjoyed it. My nerves was so terribly jangled by it, I wasn’t right for days after.

In particular – and what makes me think Gaskell has not simply portrayed a stereotypically bitter, unloved gay character, but rather a young man deeply fucked up by confusion over his gendered place in the world – Rat enjoys watching Connor dominate women. His apparent jealousy of Connor’s (unwelcomed) attraction to Frijja (“I don’t want her to get him, that’s all. Why not? Because she don’t want him. Because she don’t deserve him. She don’t understand him”) may indicate he’s in deep self-denial about the queerness of his feelings for Connor, but I think it’s also about gender performance. Rat longs for the absolute, unquestioned masculinity he believes he sees in Connor whenever Connor interacts with – that is, threatens and degrades – women.

Connor is, let’s say, not the healthiest of role models – his habits include wanking over unsuspecting women sitting in front of him in cinemas – but the thought of Frijja influencing him with her entirely unsubmissive femininity fills Rat with horror. “‘You must save him from my cousin, Sweetness. She’s dangerous'”, he says, after Connor’s gang have physically manhandled Frijja into Connor’s room, Connor has repeatedly overridden Frijja’s clearly-expressed boundaries and wishes, and the door has been shut on the two of them with Connor wrenching her away from the window and threatening to handcuff her to the bed (altogether, a very well staged and deeply disturbing sequence). It’s not completely clear whether Connor rapes Frijja: he flatly denies it, ridiculing Frijja’s account of events to the extent that Frijja herself comes to doubt her own recollection, although this closely resembles a classic tactic of abuse and so cannot, I think, be taken at face value. Rat, for his part, is surprised by the denial, and his description of his reaction is revealing: “I don’t know am I disappointed. Or more magnetised than before.” He was excited by the idea that Connor might have raped Frijja, because he longs for Frijja to be reminded of her proper place; she is

not like a proper girl who is fit for one thing and glad of it, her scorn of that function (and of me and you who she was made for and she won’t admit it and looks at you and me her masters with coldness)

Above all, he is worried that she outshines and emasculates both him and Connor, turning their own desire into a weapon against them and demonstrating at every step that power is not something inherent in men, accruing to them simply by virtue of their maleness: power is also something that can be seized, and can be lost. At any sign that Frijja might be defeated, Rat exults: “Now she would be ordinary. She would no longer be a trap of steel and diamonds. She would lose her height and her glitter, and be much less than ordinary.” He is an unbearable little shit, and also a fascinating, complex, pitiable figure; overall, this is an impressive piece of work.

This review originally appeared on Eve’s Alexandria.

Lamarchos, Jo Clayton

LMRCHS6F1978Lamarchos, Jo Clayton (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

It’s not easy being a special snowflake heroine in a space opera. Though such characters are usually gifted with great beauty, special powers, the fastest spaceship in twelve sectors, and so on, it’s also a life filed with rape, sexual slavery, rape, slavery and rape. Take Aleytys, the heroine of Clayton’s Diadem series of nine novels. Born on a backwater planet of an offworld mother and maltreated as a result, she eventually escaped with the help of interstellar master thief Miks Stavver. And with him, she now seeks her mother and her mother’s homeworld. Not only is Aleytys very beautiful, and a loving mother to her baby son, Sharl, but she is also Vryhh. This means she will live longer than other humanoids, is stronger and faster, has a better memory, and a natural affinity with machines. She also possesses the diadem, which gives her mental powers.

Despite all this, she spends some of the time in Lamarchos, as she did in the first book of the series, Diadem from the Stars, in sexual slavery. She is on the eponymous world to assist Stavver in stealing a bunch of poaku stones from the Karkiskya, at the behest of psychopathic mercenary Maissa and a returned native called Kale. The Karkiskya are interstellar traders, who have many worlds, Lamarchos among them, tied up in a monopoly. They trade the prized poaku stones for knives, which the Lamarchans use as a sign of manhood.

Aleytys is assisted in the mission by Lamarchos’ resident gods, the Lakoe-heai, who make her a gikena, a type of wandering healer witch-woman. Disguised as such, with Stavver, Maissa and Kale as her travelling companions, she makes her way to Karkys, where the Karkiskya live. En route, she heals a young native man, learns he was unjustly outcast from his tribe, takes him home, and as gikena proves his innocence. But he must serve her for an unspecified period as payment, and so continues on with her to Karkys.

The heist goes as planned, but then things go awry. Maissa makes off with the swag (and baby Sharl), leaving Stavver and Aleytys to face the music. They con their way out of trouble and set off in hot pursuit. Maissa has the only starship on the planet and has promised Stavver and Aleytys a trip offworld to I!kwasset. Before they catch up with Maissa and Kale, they run into the Horde, a near-mindless, er, horde of brainless savages who strip the countryside they pass though like humanoid locusts. Aleytys is taken prisoner and raped by the Horde’s master, who is enormous – in all respects:

He was naked. As grossly male as he was grossly huge. Aleytys suppressed an inclination to gape and contented herself with wondering what sort of woman could receive that bulk into herself. (p 164)

The answer is apparently herself. And she appears to suffer no physical damage from the act.

But. Maissa caught, booty regained, master killed and Horde vanquished, and it’s finally time to leave Lamarchos. Except here come the Rmoahl Hounds, indefatigable guardians of the diadem who want it back. Aleytys makes on last deal with the Lakoe-heai, and Maissa, Stavver and Aleytys successfully launch. Kale remains behind – Lamarchos is, after all, his homeworld, and the poaku stones stolen from the Karkiskya were really for him all along.

And then an epilogue has Aleytys drugged and sold into slavery by Maissa, ripe for adventure in book three of the series, Irsud.

There seems to be a tendency in some space operas – less so now than was the case in the 1960s and 1970s – for the protagonist to be some sort of super-powered Mary Sue. They are always beautiful, and they spend much of the time naked. To balance this, the author throws all manner of horribleness at them, usually at the expense of both plausibility and the reader’s feelings. Given all that has happened to Aleytys during the first two books of the Diadem series, it’s astonishing she’s not suffering from severe PTSD. Sexual assault is commonplace, yet the author has Aleytys blithely carry on as if each violent rape were no more than a minor plot hurdle. Humanity has apparently found some way to colonise the galaxy, and found itself among countless alien races – and yet every world is populated by barbarians, violence is endemic, and all races practice slavery…

This is not adventure. It may exhibit all the trappings of space opera or science fantasy, but the disregard with which Clayton hampers her heroine’s travails with rape, violence and slavery, and the unfeasible ease with which Aleytys recovers from each such assault, make of this book something far less savoury. It astonishes me the reader is expected to identify with Aleytys. While she certainly possesses agency – she usually saves herself; and others – it’s as if that could not be allowed on its own. There must be balance. Which, of course, is not something which typically applies to male protagonists in space operas and science fantasies.

If the Diadem of the Stars series is mostly forgotten these days, it’s no real surprise. In the twenty-first century, such grimdark genre fiction is typically fantasy rather than science fiction ,and the protagonist is usually the perpetrator of sexual assaults rather than the victim. This is, of course, no improvement.

Summary

Earlier this week saw the end of SF Mistresswork’s first full calendar year. After a small hiatus towards the end of 2011, the website settled into a routine for 2012. I posted two reviews a week from January through to September, but then had to drop to one review a week. Unless I get a sudden huge influx of suitable reviews, I’m afraid I’ll have to maintain that schedule. So the good news is I plan to keep SF Mistressworks going for as long as, well, as long as there are books to review for it. Running this site has changed my reading habits and introduced me to a huge number of twentieth century science fiction authors completely new to me, and I hope it has done the same for others.

For the record, in 2012 SF Mistressworks posted reviews of 72 books, 6 reviews of books previously reviewed by other hands on the site, and a review of one book that has now been reviewed three times on SF Mistressworks (fittingly, it is The Female Man by Joanna Russ). Not all of the reviews were original to SF Mistressworks, but that has never been a requirement.

Those 72 books were by 44 writers. One was an anthology. The most-reviewed author was Sheri S Tepper, with 7 books, closely followed by Andre Norton and Joanna Russ with 5 each, and then Ursula K Le Guin with 4. Writers that were new to me personally included Jayge Carr, Rena Vale, Jo Clayton, Marta Randall, Amy Thomson, Maxine MacArthur, Tess Williams and Phyllis Gotlieb. There were also a number in the anthology New Eves, and I hope to track down novels by them.

I’d like to thanks everyone who provided reviews during 2012: Joachim Boaz, Admiral Ironbombs, Larry Nolen, Martin Lewis, Adam Roberts, Martin Wisse, Cheryl Morgan, SueCCCP, Grace Troxel, Requires Hate, Nic Clarke, Aliette de Bodard and Carl Vincent. I hope you’ll all continue to contribute.

Finally, SF Mistressworks would like to wish everyone a prosperous and happy 2013. Don’t forget, reviews are always needed. And feel free to spread the word about SF Mistressworks. There are still thousands of books to review before we can call this website complete…