At the Seventh Level, Suzette Haden Elgin

seventhlevelAt 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.

Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin

NativeTongueElginNative Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
Review by M Fenn

Suzette Haden Elgin published Native Tongue, the first book in this eponymous trilogy, in 1984. I was 22 in 1984.

I remember Reagan’s election and how many of us on the left (I was already quite at home way over on the left wing) were frightened by the possibilities, many of which have come to pass. I also remember the beginnings of the backlash on feminism, a backlash that just keeps growing 30 years later. So, I get where Elgin’s coming from with her story of a dystopian future USA where women have lost all their rights and are now the property of men in worse ways then they were before the second wave of feminism. My 22 year-old self would have eaten this book up and looked for more.

I’m sad to report, however, that the book didn’t really do much for my 51 year-old self. The story immediately irked me with the premise that the constitutional amendments revoking the 19th amendment and turning women into minors under the law would have happened by 1991. I mean, okay, Reagan and his ilk scared me, too, but 1991? That seems awfully premature.

That’s always a risk writers take, putting events in the super-near future. I’m still miffed that 2001 came and it was nothing like the movie. There was a 33-year gap there. To predict something this cataclysmic happening less than 10 years from when you’re publishing? Might have wanted to think that through a little more.

So, I had to try to push that aside as I read further. Fortunately the rest of the book takes place centuries in the future, the 22nd to be exact. There we discover that not only do women still not have any rights, but society has been divided up into two antagonistic groups: the Linguists and everyone else. The Linguists are the only people capable of communicating with all the alien societies humans have met, so they’re necessary as translators to make all the treaties and do all the negotiating. Regular people hate them, so the Linguist families (the Lines) live in large communal houses buried in the earth away from prying eyes and violent reaction.

One of the reasons that regular folk hate the Linguists is that Linguist women are allowed to work outside the home as translators because, apparently, there’s so much translating that needs to be done, they have to. Then we have all the stuff happening with babies blowing up because they can’t fathom non-humanoid alien languages (no, really). I haven’t even gotten to the Linguist women’s work on creating a language that allows women to express their thoughts better than standard English, French, German, whatever. This, one might argue, is really the point of the book, but it gets lost, to me, amidst all the other stuff.

Oh, and there’s a serial killer. (Who’s actually my favorite part of the novel; her first murder? That chapter would make a great Tales from the Crypt of something.)

I hate to say this, because Elgin’s short story ‘Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me’ remains one of my favorite short stories (Top 10, no question. It’s awesome. And hard to find. I have it in Dick Allen’s Science Fiction: The Future (1983 edition).), but I found Native Tongue to be too bloated and ponderous, too preachy and heavy-handed. While not all the women are saints, by any means (see: serial killer), most of them are and there isn’t one kind man in the whole thing. They’re all stupid, misogynistic assholes, every one of them, which is just bullshit. Even in 1984, I had allies. Still do.

None of the characters are really developed at all; they’re all just game pieces for Elgin’s philosophical/linguistic chess board. And there are so many plot holes. What do the aliens in the Interface do all day when they’re not communicating with (and occasionally destroying) the babies? And what happened to all the kids who’d been fed hallucinogens in an attempt to keep them from blowing up after they were taken to the orphanage? The list goes on.

Things I liked? The serial killer character, as I said. She’s really the only person whose character evolved (however slightly) over the course of the novel. I also enjoyed Elgin’s discussions of language and the linguistic “tricks” that one male linguist in particular would use to win arguments. Those were interesting. And I liked the notion that an academic field such as linguistics would become so powerful. But the negative outweighs the positive for me.

Biggest disappointment? The cover of the edition I read. Nothing like that image happens in the book. I wanted my motherly alien!

This review originally appeared on Skinnier Than It Is Wide.

Star-Anchored, Star-Angered, Suzette Haden Elgin

Star-Anchored, Star-Angered, Suzette Haden Elgin (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

Elgin is perhaps best known as a science fiction poet, the founder of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and for the engineered language Láadan, which appears in her novel Native Tongue (1984) and its sequels. However, before both of those, she wrote a quintet of light-hearted space operas featuring the same central character in the same universe. Star-Anchored, Star-Angered is the fourth of these Coyote Jones books. The first, The Communipaths (1970), appeared as half of an Ace double, and the second, Furthest (1971), as an Ace Special, before Elgin moved across to DAW for the rest of the series.

Coyote Jones, the hero of Star-Anchored, Star-Angered, is an agent for the Tri-Galactic Intelligence Service. He is also mind-deaf. However, he is an extremely powerful mind-projector. He can’t hear, but he can shout really loudly. A new religion, the Shavvies, has appeared on the Novice Planet of Freeway, and the authorities of that world, who use tithing from the laity of the Old Faith to fund their upkeep, are getting worried. So they’ve asked the Tri-Galactic Council to intercede and send an agent to investigate the Shavvies’ leader, Drussa Silver, who apparently routinely performs miracles. Jones has been chosen for the mission, because his mind-deafness means he should be immune to any telepathic trickery Silver is using.

Disguised as a Student – there are only one thousand in the three galaxies, and they are much revered – Jones arrives on Freeway. The planetary set-up is explained to him, and then he goes off to infiltrate the Shavvies. His cover, however, is blown pretty much from the moment he arrived, but it doesn’t matter – the Shavvies welcome him anyway. An attempt to discredit him by drugging him and then putting him in a compromising position with the young daughter of one of the sector rulers fails as the daughter is far too sensible to fall for it or play along. Jones meets Silver and demands she show him a miracle to prove her bona fides. She does. He immediately realises she truly is divine and converts to the Shavvies.

Jones’ presence on Freeway was all part of a plot by a secret cabal of Freeway rulers. First they exacerbated the situation on their world in order to prompt TGIS involvement. Then they had hoped that Jones would arrest Silver and take her back to Mars-central for indictment. En route, she would be assassinated and the TGIS blamed. Once that plan falls apart, they try something different – and yet something that is likely all too familiar to most western readers.

Star-Anchored, Star-Angered is for much of its length light, almost humourous, in tone. Jones arrives at a university asteroid, where he will be briefed on his cover. Student garb exists solely of fake tattoos in the form of fauna and flora:

“If you think I’m strangely dressed, Citizen, you should see some of the others.”
“It doesn’t bother you to have a bee crawling up your penis?”
“What bee?”
Coyote pointed.
“That’s only a tattoo, Citizen, it’s not alive.” (p 8)

The tone remains once Jones arrives on Freeway – his arrival is comic, the world’s faux mediaeval society is shown to be more Disney than Middle Ages, and the various characters he meets are very broadly drawn.

But there are hints throughout Star-Anchored, Star-Angered that more is going on than just a humorous space opera story. It not simply that the final third of the novel positions Silver as a Christ-like figure, and even tries for a Judas-like betrayal. Each chapter is headed by excerpts from “external” texts, ranging from invented nursery rhymes to a poem by “s.e.” (Suzette Elgin, one imagines) to various passages from scholarly works. One of the latter is taken from Woman Transcendent by Ann Geheygan – a book which also features in a chapter of the story – and it discusses “surpassment”:

The state of surpassment, in which the spirit moves beyond its ancient boundaries and can no longer be affected by fear or pain or any other illusory perception, comes only with great difficulty to the male human … It is no wonder, therefore, that primitive man in his consuming jealousy of the ease with which the female could achieve what he did only so rarely and so painfully, did everything he could to conceal her natural abilities away for all time. (p 113)

While never categorically stated, it seems clear that Silver has attained this state (as had rare male messiahs in human history). Unfortunately, the idea is not really explored in Star-Anchored, Star-Angered – perhaps too deep an exploration of it would have sat at odds with the light-hearted tone of the rest of the novel. The ending, however, is far from cheery – Silver is killed but her murderer, who was intended by the cabal to be seen as a conquering messiah, chooses instead a life of penance.

On the strength of Star-Anchored, Star-Angered, I’m not really surprised Elgin’s Coyote Jones series has languished in obscurity for the past three decades. Having said that, worse books than this one have remained popular, or been judged sf “classics”, for much longer. Star-Anchored, Star-Angered is a light, fun sf novel which perhaps doesn’t quite know whether it really should be so light, but is nevertheless an entertaining read.

Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin

Native, Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
Review by Ian Sales

“The natural limitations of women being a clear and present danger to the national welfare when not constrained by the careful and constant supervision of a responsible male citizen, all citizens of the United States of the female gender shall be deemed legally minors, regardless of their chronological age…” (p 7)

In the future of Native Tongue, a series of amendments to the US Constitution in 1991 have repealed all rights for women. By 2179, this situation appears to have become global, though no good explanation for such a practice being adopted by other nations is presented. Earth also has colonies on other worlds, and is in contact with an unspecified number of alien races. In order to communicate with these aliens, several groups of linguists have come into being. Known as the Lines, these are extended families in which every member is trained from birth to be fluent in at least one alien language and a handful of human languages, as well as have working knowledge in many more languages. Nazareth is perhaps the most gifted linguist in Chornyak House, a Line located in North America. At an early age, she displays a talent for “Encoding”, ie, identifying concepts which do not exist as single words in any earthly language. A few samples are given at the end of Native Tongue in an appendix – ralaheb: something utterly spiceless, ‘like warm spit’, repulsively bland and blah” or wonewith: to be socially dyslexic; uncomprehending of the social signals of others”. These Encodings are important because they are the building blocks of a secret language called Láadan the women of the Lines are creating. The men know nothing of Láadan: they think the language the women are working on is Langlish, but that’s a smokescreen. The development and introduction of Láadan is the end point of the narrative of Native Tongue.

Most of the novel is concerned with describing a world in which Láadan’s creation both occurs and betters things for its speakers. And since those speakers are women… It’s not enough that females are second-class citizens, Nazareth is also married to a man she despises. A monstrous secret government project to train a baby to speak a “non-humanoid” alien language – run entirely by men – repeatedly results in the horrible deaths of its subjects. Michaela Landry murders her obnoxious husband and, working as a nurse, becomes a serial killer of old men… but changes her ways on meeting the old women of Chornyak Barren House. A “barren house” is just as the name suggests, a retirement home for women who can no longer bear children. And Chornyak Barren House is also where most of the work on Láadan is being done.

“…never for an instant, lose track of the knowledge that when you interact with a woman you interact with an organism that is essentially just a rather sophisticated child suffering from delusions of grandeur” (p 110)

The true aliens in Native Tongue are the men. There is a disconnect between what we are told the male characters believe women to be – ie, sophisticated children – and how they actually interact with them. Though they denigrate Langlish, and protest at women’s inability to think, in many situations in the book their behaviour towards their wives is no different to how it is to each other. Yes, they are patronising, and arrogant, and in a number of scenes talk as though they had been lifted direct from a Robert Heinlein novel… And yet the paternalism suggested by the above quote never really manifests in their behaviour.

Which is, I suppose, part of the point of Native Tongue. Turning up the chauvinism to eleven, so to speak, renders the male characters less than human, which in turn highlights the plight of the female characters, and so demonstrates the importance of Láadan. In part, this might also explain the thinness of the background. The world of 2179 is assumed to be little different to that of North America, which itself seems mostly unchanged from the USA of 1984. Though colonies on other worlds are mentioned, no explanation for their existence, or indeed how they are reached, is given. Technology does not appear to be much advanced from the mid-1980s.

As Native Tongue builds towards its reveal of Láadan, it remains adamant that the language will improve the lives of women, but never quite says how it will do so. Certainly there is room for improvement – and not simply from a legal standpoint (something, of course, which Láadan cannot affect). Elgin paints a picture of a society in which the treatment of women is criminal, and hints at a solution without actually revealing it. But then Native Tongue is only the first book of a trilogy – it was followed in 1987 by The Judas Rose, and Earthsong in 1993.

There are many things to like Native Tongue. Michaela Landry is a very likable character, despite being a serial killer. The society of Chornyak Barren House is portrayed well (not all of its inhabitants are sympathetic or admirable). The linguistics around which the story is based provides a number of fascinating ideas. And yet… The story all feels a little one-sided, a little too much like an attack against an uncharacteristically token defence. It feels unbalanced thematically and in its world-building. Native Tongue is a book, I think, that needs rereading, and then its sequels need to be read.

Note: Elgin did actually create Láadan – see here.