At the Seventh Level, Suzette Haden Elgin (1972)
Review by Joachim Boaz
At the Seventh Level is part of a loose sequence of novels that feature Trigalactic Intelligence Service agent Coyote Jones and his voyages to various worlds. Although this sequence ostensibly has the trappings of SF space opera, Suzette Haden Elgin subverts the genre conventions so that the premise functions as a polemical feminist text with satirical underpinnings. At the Seventh Level is an important instalment in a long line of “women as slaves trapped in vast repressive patriarchy propped up by appeals to tradition and brute force” type novels which, some might argue, culminated in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). It is important to note that there were many novels on similar themes before Atwood’s acknowledged masterpiece hit the bookstands… But many of the women SF voices from the 1970s (and earlier) have been forgotten.
That said, Elgin’s vision is neither as literary as Atwood’s vision nor as structurally inventive and emotionally devastating as Suzy Mckee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World (1974). The linguistic insights and feminist ideology can be convincing but the characterization, narrative, and world-building is often frustratingly vague and almost lackadaisically delivered. Moments of brilliance are overshadowed by humdrum narrative and descriptive tedium. Likewise, Elgin’s tendency to portray the repressive Abbans in a distinctly “Orientalist” culture is problematic.
The novel itself is a fix-up of sorts containing her first published work, the novelette ‘For the Sake of Grace’ (1969) as the Prelude, combined with original material for the rest of the work. The final portion, which acts as an Epilogue, ‘Modulation in All Things’ was published separately from the novel in various later collections after 1975. The sections are not woven together narratively but rather are thematically linked.
The novel operates on a simple, by effective conceit: despite the fact that the planet of Abba was inhabited long before Earth and despite the rhetoric of the most civilized civilization in the entire Galaxy espoused, they treat women worse than animals (animals are not systematically raped). It is only recently “since the Abban conversion to the religion of the Holy Light” that the Abbans even believe that women have souls (p 48).
The previously published Prologue ‘For the Sake of Grace’, is the strongest portion of the novel. The plot follows Khadilh ban-harihn, a functionary on the planet Abba, who returns from his work on Earth due to a family crisis. He is alerted to the crisis despite his distance from his home planet via a device, a “state-being-control”ṕ 9) that monitors the mental state of his wife. The crisis itself involves the conduct of his wife and his daughter, Jacinth. For Jacinth, barely twelve, desires to enter the only profession open to women, Poetry. For the Abbans, the study of poetry is the study of religion.
Khadilh’s family is highly renowned – five of his sons were accepted into the Major of Poetry. In Elgin’s vision, the study of poetry is a religious calling and those who study poetry the most honored members of society. The exact way in which Abban poetry and religion intersect is never developed at length. But, one can assume that the refined and articulate way of organizing through that poetry requires is equated with a purity of mind and a pursuit of the highest power. Likewise more in line with Elgin’s polemical purposes, traditionalist poetry perfectly encapsulates the entrenched ideologies of an “institution” of religion. In Abban society there are strict rules for verse – and thus, strict rules for expression. Poets of the higher levels are required to communicate only in verse.
While away, Khadilh’s eldest son took over the running of the family. And because of Khadilh’s wife’s perceived “misbehaviour” he restricts her to quarters – instead of calling the powerful “Women’s Discipline Unit” that administers heavy drugs to erase all “rebellious” instincts” (p 14). The extent of patriarchal control of women is further exemplified by brief asides related as if they were normal actions: “He remembered very well the behavior of his wife at her last impregnation, for it had required four agents from the Unit to subdue her and fasten her to their marriage bed” (p 21).
For men who apply but are not accepted to the Major they are simply relegated to another profession. For women (of which there have only been three female poets), those who fail are placed in isolation (they are drugged to unconsciousness when their rooms need to be cleaned). Khadilh knows the effects of this treatment for his sister has gone insane locked in his own house. The only way to escape a drugged existence at the mercy of the Women’s Discipline Unit and the sweeping powers of your husband and sons is via religion, albeit a cloistered and controlled existence as well. And of course, the horrific punishment that results from failure prevents most women from pursuing it.
Khadilh even prepares the isolation chamber when Jacinth is away undergoing her testing… But when she returns her minders reveal that she has been accepted at the seventh, the highest, level!
Unfortunately, Jacinth is not the focus of the narrative nor was the more ruminative and ideological plot thread of the previous section the main thrust of the novel. This might be a result of an unfortunate corner Elgin has written herself into – Jacinth can only speak in verse! The brief interlude ‘The Roll of Iambs and the Clang of Spondees’ where a father and son watch a war between the poet Jacinth and a male challenger to her position hints at the difficulties, but also the rewards. The “war” is fantastic – there is no spectacle of fighting, but there is a spectacle of pain as the poet’s “armies” are subjected the pain induced by the War Computer when one of the poet’s verse battles trumps the other.
The main plot, about half of the novel, is completely uninteresting. Coyote Jones, a particularly unintelligent and non-agent like agent of the enlightened and egalitarian Galactic Federation, is assigned to uncover the mysterious poisoning of the poet Jacinth. The Abbans, despite inhuman treatment of women, are important members of the Federation due to their immense wealth and thus heavy taxes. As long as they admit that women have souls, the Federation believes that change will eventually come however long that takes and however many lives are ruined in the process. The actual mystery is straightforward, the answer all to obvious and belabored.
The final portion, ‘Modulation in All Things’ returns to the promise of the first two by focusing on Jacinth and her travails (although, in a rather hokey fashion). Despite the continued sexual chauvinisms shown towards women, the government is forced to consult with Jacinth – due to her immense control of language – when a problem of great import arises regarding the provision of Abban colonies and unusual threatening aliens called “The Serpent People” (p 132). Jacinth saves the day but the government gives her no reward, “she is female, Citizen” (p 141).
Both Suzette Haden Elgin’s formulation of the Abbans and the Galactic Federation serve as a forceful critique of our society. The Abbans, those who support the patriarchy and “what has always been”, proclaim how enlightened they are yet forcefully instil traditionalist views that result in the abuse and subjection of women. And the so-called egalitarian outsiders who do little – besides perhaps lust after The Other and indulge in some enlightened rhetoric – to liberate the downtrodden. All the “tangential” portions of the novel are successful to various degrees – the ideologies effectively illustrated by the societies. However, the main plot concerning Coyote Jones is all to hastily constructed and insubstantial.
Despite the work’s substantial faults, it is still recommended for fans of feminist SF.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.