Skip to content

The Clewiston Test, Kate Wilhelm

October 7, 2015

clewistonThe Clewiston Test, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Nicolette Stewart

The Clewiston Test is a modern, science fictional The Yellow Wallpaper. As taut, tense and claustrophobic as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 feminist short story, The Clewiston Test is physically painful to read, even as it forces you to marvel at the talent that wrought its infectuously uncomfortable atmosphere.

The parellels between The Yellow Wallpaper and The Clewiston Test are uncanny. Not because it is an odd source of inspiration, but because the repetition of the same feminist tale in two (we like to think) drastically different time periods highlights that women have been dealing with the same old bullshit for hundreds of years. Uncanny? How about depressing?

Both stories contain an injured or ill female first-person narrator, confined in the name of recovery. Both women are married to scientists: Gilman’s a doctor, Wilhelm’s the narrator’s partner in pharmaceutical research. Both women suffer because of the confinement of the sick bed, and both of their husbands make the situation worse with a patronizing, “Daddy knows best” attitude. As the two women teeter on the brink of (in)sanity their spouses use their disability in order to disempower them through condescation, infantilization, discredition, and still more horrifically in Wilhelm’s story, rape.

But where Gilman took 6,000 words to examine this dynamic, Wilhlem takes… far more, and this allows her story a depth and complexity for which The Yellow Wallpaper does not have the space.

The Clewiston Test begins with Anne and Clark still in love, though an offhand comment forshadowing the coming rape is the start of readerly unease; this isn’t going to be a happy scientist-on-scientist romance. Anne must remain in bed recovering from severe injuries (car crash) while her colleagues continue to work on the miracle pain killer she discovered. When the project gets government approval ahead of schedule, the team are pressured to forge on without Anne – leaving Clark with the credit for her work, and creating an ideal oppurtunity for Wilhelm to depict workplace sexism. When Clark decides to withhold this information from Anne, their relationship begins to disintegrate. Meanwhile in the lab, moral qualms about the new painkiller’s safety are pushed aside in favor of speed and profit. And they all fall down.

The Clewiston Test is a page turner, and though I was never tempted to put it down – I read the last half in a fury late one night, unwilling to sleep until I knew what had happened in the end—I had a stomach ache for over half of the book. Anne’s confinement and helplessness became my own. This is a deeply uncomfortable book, but it is also an important book because at its core The Clewiston Test is about consent: giving it, taking it, and the fucked up power dynamics involved when informed consent is ignored in favor of force.

There is a rape. A horrible, on-screen rape. (What some people refer to as “marital rape”, though I see no value in qualifying the term, as if to imply that “marital rape” is not really rape.) I am getting tired of seeing rape in fiction, but I have to hand it to Wilhelm: she depicts rape in a way that feels realistic in its horror and emotional consequences while at the same time not making the rape the defining characteristic of the female victim. The rape defines Anne’s relationship to Clark, but never defines Anne, a smart woman with agency. Though we are with Anne for the rape, she disassociates, and we aren’t given any of the lurid, pornographic details that so often make fictional rape scenes feel like they were written with pleasure, not horror, in mind. I repeat: the rape scene is horrible.

But not horribly handled, and Anne immediately calls it by name, pointing out the shudder-inducing “Daddy knows best” attitude that makes Clark think forcing himself on Anne is good for their relationship. He doesn’t understand what the problem is. They’re married aren’t they? He knew her doctor had given her permission to have sex again. What about his needs? What a fuckwad. As she weeps in bed afterwards, she has to explain to him why raping her was fucked up: “It had to be your way. You always know what will be best for me don’t you, and I have to do it that way. If my legs ache, or I get a cramp in my thigh, or whatever, it has to be your way. For my sake, of course.”

Clark, unwilling to face the reality of what he has done, chooses instead to question his wife’s sanity. Because questioning his privelege and his misuse of that power are not an option. As Anne later tells a friend, “… he would rather believe…that I am going crazy, that I’ll become a psychopathic killer, than face the truth. That isn’t love. That’s the wail of a child who’d rather see the end of the world than give up his grubby teddy bear.”

Kate Wilhelm: calling out male privilege since 1976. (At least.)

This would be an important statement of itself, but Wilhelm addresses the issue of consent and force in almost a dozen other situations throughout the novel without ever making the story feel like a mallet.

Anne’s painkiller research team worry about the possibility that they are being used as test subjects for gen modified food another department is working on without their permission or knowledge. The thought really pisses them off (p 69). Animal test subjects – who obviously have not given consent, though it is a credit to Wilhelm’s light hand that she never points it out directly – in their experiments experience horrific side effects from the painkillers, leading to several even more horrific deaths. Meanwhile, at home, Anne coddles a pet kitten (p 81), and she and Clark are very upset when it gets hurt. Though Anne insisted (and was promised) that the human test subjects in the next stage of painkiller testing would be fully informed and fully consenting (because for some reason they need to test pregnant women? I didn’t catch why), the boss man decides that uninformed pregnant women in a local prison will be used instead.

Women as pets, women as test subjects. Animals as pets, animals as test subjects. Women in cages, animals in cages. The anger unconsenting adults feel at being unwitting test subjects. Who is allowed to consent and when and why? Who is forced to participate against their will and when and why?

Do you see how many layers Wilhelm has going here? This book spent at least 100 pages making me nauseous, and I still want to re-read as soon as I can to see just how she managed to put together such a layered, complex tapestry.

Why isn’t Kate Wilhlem on evey single “Best SF” list ever? It is fucking criminal that this book isn’t praised more vehemently, more often. If I hadn’t picked up this massive yellow omnibus at LonCon3 (thanks Gollancz), I may never have read it because Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is the obvious first choice with Wilhelm’s books.

There is so much more to say. I haven’t even mentioned Deena, the office’s “militant (straw) feminist” or the questions of ethics in scientific research or the way shifts between point of view characters give us a wide-frame view of every issue. I didn’t mention my slight dissatisfaction with the ending (which felt too optimistic, too light, to follow the dark contents of the previous pages, though it was a win for feminism) or my annoyance at having to hear about Anne’s dreams. I’ve run out of time. But I will tell you this, The Clewiston Test gets a rating of nine out of ten from me.

This review originally appeared on Bookpunks.

In Conquest Born, CS Friedman

September 30, 2015

in_conquest_bornIn Conquest Born, CS Friedman (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

Although Celia S Friedman proved a reasonably popular author in the UK during the 1980s, her novels seem to have slipped me by. Perhaps because I’d formed the mistaken impression, based on her Coldfire trilogy of Black Sun Rising, When True Night Falls and Crown of Shadows, she wrote fantasy. But the Coldfire books are actually a science fiction/fantasy mix, and In Conquest Born, a sequel to which did not appear until 2004, is pure space opera. Having said all that, I’m not really convinced I missed anything by not reading In Conquest Born when it was originally published…

At some indefinable point in the distant future, there are two antaognistic space empires, the Braxi and the Azeans. The Braxi are warlike, barbaric, and thoroughly bad. They treat their women like chattel, don’t seem to believe in human rights, and are ruled by the Braxaná, a tribe of pale-skinned and black-haired humans who have inbred so much that while they may be tall and strong and good-looking and ruthless, they are also prone to dying of a particular recurring plague. Oh, and there’s not many of them left – far fewer, in fact, than the regular Braxi believe. The Azeans, on the other hand. are the product of genetic engineering, undertaken millennia before so that they might survive the inimical environment of their world. They are golden-skinned and white-haired, the genders are treated equally, and they are more technologically-minded than the Braxi (who, is it said, steal Azean technology). They also embrace psychic powers, and even have an Institute which trains Functional Telepaths and Probes (which are even stronger telepaths).

The Braxi and the Azean have always been at war, and whenever a truce is declared one or the other side breaks it within a few years. Planets change hands frequently, are their populations are usually slaughtered to make room for the other side’s colonists. In other words, neither side is admirable – even if Friedman intended for the Azeans to be the good guys.

The novel’s story focuses on two characters, one from each side. Anzha was born with pale-skin and red hair, and so cannot become a full Azean, despite the fact both her parents were golden-skinned, white-haired Azeans. But the Azeans are racist like that. Zatar, on the other hand, is a purebred Braxaná, albeit a great deal smarter than his peers and he also takes a non-Braxaná woman as the Mistress of his House (ie, housekeeper, chatelaine and occasional companion). In Conquest Born follows these two as they rise up the ranks in their respective empires. Anzha becomes a powerful telepath, but then joins the Fleet and becomes a successful captain during the many Border Wars. Zatar makes lots of money, and then becomes a powerful political figure, eventually taking over as the Braxi emperor (previously they had been ruled by a senate of Braxaná, the Kaim’erate). Occasionally, the book breaks away from these two to tell the story of a handful of ancillary characters, such as Ferian, a half-Braxaná who leaves the Azeans to join the Braxi, or various women who are abused by assorted Braxaná.

For much of In Conquest Born‘s length, Anzha holds the upper hand. She has introduced telepathy to space combat, and the Braxi are struggling. But once Zatar proves himself a complete hero (and completely unlike all the other Braxaná) by capturing an Azean space fighter, the Braxi start winning battles. When an assassination plot by Zatar fails to kill Anzha, he engineers her fall from grace, and she goes on the run through the Barren Space. But the plot then takes a sideways swerve and throws in a plot-twist from the distant past, when an archaeological team discover a potrait of a legendary Braxi leader from millennia previously, before even the Braxaná seized control of the Braxi home world.

There’s no denying that In Conquest Born is a page-turner, and at 511 pages (in my 1989 Legend paperback edition) that’s just as well. However, it’s all very melodramatic, and seems to forever teeter on the edge of ridicule. Both Anzha and Zatar are such racial paragons, it’s inevitable they would end up as the only possible lovers for each other – but given the nature of the setting, it’s equally inevitable any such relationship would be near impossible, and might never even happen. Unfortunately, there’s a nasty line of racial essentialism running throughout the book, and it often leaves a bad taste. There’s also the Braxaná treatment of women, or indeed their complete amorality. Members of the Kaim’erate, for example, can kill anyone just because they feel like it – they call it Whim Death, and it’s perfectly legal. The Azeans are no better, although they do at least seem to have some sort of concept of human rights (albeit perhaps not alien rights). Yet the Azeans still give members of their own race preferential treatment, and consider all others second-class citizens.

The Braxi too don’t really convince as a technological society. They appear to be on a level with the Azeans, and it’s implied much of their technology is stolen from their enemies. But, in a particularly dumb piece of background detail, the Braxi always build their technology reversed, so that handles and switches are on the other side or operate in the opposite way. The story also makes much of the many and complicated “modes” of Braxi speech, as capable of being spoken only by the Braxaná, but no reference is made to the mechanism, there’s no indication why only the Braxaná can speak it, and the whole thing does seem somewhat implausible.

While In Conquest Born‘s universe has all the bells and whistles you could wish for in a space opera, it does often lack rigour. Anzha and Zatar are also probably too vivid a pair of characters, even for so colourful a universe. The amorality also reads badly, more so now that it might have done back in 1986. For that reason, I’m not convinced In Conquest Born has aged particularly well, but there are no doubt science fiction readers who will see nothing wrong in it and might well enjoy its overly rich and melodramatic story.

Labyrinth, Lois McMaster Bujold

September 23, 2015

LabyrinthLabyrinth, Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Review by Adam Whitehead

In his disguise as commander of the Dendarii mercenary fleet, Miles Vorkosigan is dispatched by Barrayaran intelligence to rendezvous with a defector on the anarchic world of Jackson’s Whole. However, it isn’t long before Miles is up to his neck in political intrigue between three feuding houses, with the defector, a mutant and a werewolf to worry about…

Labyrinth is a short novella featuring Lois McMaster Bujold’s signature character of Miles Vorkosigan, once again up to his neck in trouble after a simple mission goes wrong (as they usually do). It’s a fun little piece, featuring lots of Miles getting captured, smart-talking his way through interrogations and then escaping whilst throwing an entire world into turmoil but retaining deniability for Barrayar.

Whilst it’s good, it’s slight. There’s some interesting stuff about genetic engineering, not to mention the first appearance in the Miles timeline of the quaddies, people who have had their legs replaced with arms to better cope with life in zero-gee. Between the quaddie, the werewolf (actually a genetically-altered super-soldier), the dwarf (Miles) and the hermaphrodite (recurring character Bel Thorne), the novella can be said to be about people who are outcast from some societies due to unthinking prejudice. Unfortunately, the novella’s short length prevents Bujold from exploring any of the issues in any real great depth, especially as the fascinating sociological stuff is put on hold for most of the story as we instead follow Miles trying to break out of a prison.

That said, Labyrinth is a fun read which cracks along fairly smartly and packs a fair amount of character development and action into a short page count. It’s just a shame that Bujold didn’t flesh the story out into a full novel, as it feels like the characters and issues being explored could have warranted it. Without that exploration, the novella ultimately feels too slight and disposable. The novella is available now as part of the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus. Oddly, it is also reprinted in the Miles, Mutants and Microbes omnibus as well.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

The Tomorrow People, Judith Merril

September 16, 2015

tomorrow_peopleThe Tomorrow People, Judith Merril (1960)
Review by Ian Sales

Two men flew to Mars, but only one, Johnny Wendt, returned. Now he lives in self-imposed seclusion with his girlfriend, famous dancer Lisa Trovi. For reasons not made entirely clear, although it has something to do with jolting Johnny out of his funk and the suspiciously good psychological health of the people living and working in the USAA (United States of All the Americas) lunar dome, Johnny and Lisa are invited to the Moon.

Meanwhile, General Harbridge is trying to trick a Chilean congressman who is opposed to the space programme into actually backing it, by offering him a free trip to the Moon.

Despite being a science fiction fan – and a member of the Futurians – Merril started out writing for detective and Western pulp magazines and it was a number of years before she tried her hand at sf. Some of her genre short stories and novels now deserve to be considered classics, although she is perhaps best remembered as an editor and anthologist. Her Shadow on the Hearth (1950) is generally reckoned as one of the best post-apocalypse novels of its time, even if it doesn’t have the high profile of similar male-authored works. Some of her short fiction too, particularly ‘Daughters of Earth’, ought to be much better-known than they actually are. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of The Tomorrow People. The pulp style, sort of like Robert Heinlein on speed, tries to carry the story in dialogue, but throws so much speech across the pages it’s often hard to keep up with the plot in among all the phatic conversation.

A few days after Johnny and Lisa arrive on the Moon, they fall out, so Johnny returns on the next flight as planned, but Lisa stays on. While Johnny mopes about on Earth, often drunk, Lisa starts work on a low-gravity dance routine to be performed on the Moon. In order to extend her stay, she is then offered a job as an assistant to the dome’s psychologist. Unfortunately, this only convinces Johnny his girlfriend has dropped him for the psychologist, which makes him even more determined not to reconcile with her.

Meanwhile, Lisa has been spending time observing some “bugs” bought back from Mars and which are currently under study in “the Shack”, an open shelter some distance outside the Moon Dome. As a result, she seems to know things, and understand people, considerably better than anyone else. Something similar is apparently happening at the Soviet dome too with a female pilot. And Lisa is also pregnant – yes, Johnny is the father – so she wants to get back with him, but doesn’t know how to do so…

In a review of the novel in his 1967 work In Search of Wonder, Damon Knight accused the book of being written from the “woman’s-magazine viewpoint” and declared it hard to read because of its “coyness, feminine overemphasis and an unaccountable sprinkling of 1960 jive talk” in the dialogue. While the dated slang does often feel anachronistic – especially given the novel’s clear dateline of 1975 to 1977 – Knight’s other criticism are far from fair. Lisa Torvi is a  strong character, and is perhaps more of a protagonist than Johnny, who actually doesn’t much convince as an astronaut. Although he does as a drunk. And even from 1960, missions to Mars, moon bases, and the unification of all three American continents into one nation by the mid-1970s seems not so much far-fetched as completely fantastical.

However, where The Tomorrow People really does fall apart is in its plot. The book opens with a mystery – what happened on Mars – but then can’t make up its mind if it’s about Johnny and Lisa’s relationship, the politics surrounding the space programme, a Cold War on the Moon between the USAA and Soviet domes, or the strange good-feeling the inhabitants of the USAA dome are experiencing. And it is only after bouncing around between these stories for much of its length that the novel swerves abruptly back on course and resolves the Mars mystery – with a page of flashback and two pages of exposition.

Reading the novel, it often seems the prose style doesn’t quite suit the material. Perhaps at a shorter length, it might have worked better. But page after page of wise-cracking and/or emotive dialogue gets wearying after a while. In fact, The Tomorrow People reads pretty much like a 1940s screwball comedy with a thin, albeit mostly convincing, wrapping of science fiction. Seen in that light, it’s mostly successful… except for the fact it badly overstretches its material.

Judith Merril was an important figure in the history of the science fiction genre, perhaps more important than the bulk of sf fans give her credit. None of her works are currently in print, and her membership in, and contribution to, early fandom is often overlooked. If the genre must choose figures from its past to revere, we could do a lot worse than pick Merril – even if not everything she wrote is worthy of classic status.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr

September 10, 2015

hersmokeHer Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990)
Review by Kate Macdonald

The short stories of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever are grim and powerful reading, committing the reader to new worlds and leaving unsettling characters in the mind. They are about love, sex and death in the future, across species and time. In the original introduction to the 1990 edition John Clute writes passionately about the youth and vigour of Tiptree’s writing, and the masculine use of language that “tells the world what it is, tells the world what to do”. The point of this defence (and no defence is needed, but Clute was recapping the situation from the 1970s when Tiptree was an enigmatic secret) is, of course, that the secretive and impressive sf author James Tiptree Jr was unmasked in 1977 as Alice B Sheldon, also writing as Raccoona Sheldon, a CIA operative, psychology PhD, and explorer’s daughter, aged 62. The revelation of the femaleness of this superb writer must have given huge pleasure (it still does) to those who had bristled at Robert Silverberg’s authoritative statement from a few years earlier that Tiptree could not be a woman because her writing was “ineluctably masculine”, implying that only men wrote great sf. That was just a bit too hegemonic for the late 1970s, even for a grand old man of literature.

Clute calls this Tiptree collection “one of the two or three most significant collections of short SF ever published”. The stories are soaringly futuristic, succeeding so much better than many other works of the period in stepping out of contemporary social and cultural restrictions and inventing spectacularly alien futures. Yet there is a problem, a very serious one for these feminist stories written in “masculine” language. They reach for the stars, but cannot free themselves from a 1950s mindset about women. When Tiptree began to write these stories, in a burst of creative genius between 1968 and 1981, she had turned 50, and had already left several careers behind her, one of them as the US Army’s first photo-intelligence officer. Clute claims youth and vigour for her writing, but he acknowledges the weight of her years: “she burns out old”. Her narrative expectation is dated on what the reader would think about society and human development. This produces a straining of invention, as if a marvellous, powerful flying creature was tied to the ground by a single length of pluckable rope that it couldn’t see to cut. An example of this is in the final story in this collection, ‘And So On, and So On’, a conversation piece between a group of travellers in a space shuttle. One character is identified as female, a “clanwife” and nursemaid. The others are male (or neutral gender), and hold professional posts in a future far away in time. Why was it so hard, given her own history, for Tiptree to make a professional character female?

Even where pilots, engineers or scientists in these stories are female, they are almost certain to be sexually assaulted. Most of the stories in this collection feature rape, or violent sex, as a central aspect of the plot. Reading the stories one after another, this focus on an inevitable masculine brutality becomes numbing, even if the number of words used to give the details represent a very small percentage of the story. Tiptree had a “concern”, as we say in the trade, to talk about women, death and rape, and how stunningly, crucially wrong this was for a civilised society intending to fly out to the stars and spread its morality and social practices elsewhere. Graham Sleight’s 2014 introduction to this new edition of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever quotes Tiptree’s 1983 essay, in which she talks about her childhood on her parents’ explorations and trips, in which “she found herself interacting with adults of every size, color, shape and condition […] and above all, women: chattel-women deliberately starved, deformed, blinded and enslaved; women in nun’s habits saving the world; women in high heels saving the world”.

There is more on that theme in this long quotation: its effect is to suggest how Alice’s experiences in the 1920s and 1930s in Africa and Asia had stayed in her mind. After working in intelligence and training in psychology, she started writing terrifying and brutal stories of women’s oppression, just when the second wave of feminism was happening in the West. What disturbs and impresses me most about these stories is the suffering that Tiptree makes the women characters endure, whether they feel it as suffering or not. We have to read it: that’s her point.

In ‘The Screwfly Solution’ men begin killing women, all the women, often raping them first: the horror comes from how easily this could happen. ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side’ is about man’s desire for alien sex, any sex, and any alien. The title comes from Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (doomed love for a cold fairy) and the theme comes from ‘Tam Lin’ (human loses decades of his life in the faery hill). (Tiptree’s titles are baroque fantasies in their own right, epic and ornate.) ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ is a horrific fantasia on Frankenstein and reality TV that reminded me forcibly of a story by (possibly?) Ray Bradbury in which an abortion is performed live on camera in a speeding car with white leather seats to show how superb its stabilising system was. The kind of gripping story which you don’t want to continue reading but you have to, and you don’t forget it either.

‘The Women Men Don’t See’ is apparently Tiptree’s most famous story (I hadn’t heard of it), and is a little lighter because the women don’t die, but escape rather than stay on a planet with voracious male humans. In Tiptree’s narrative perspectives it seems that masculinity is the default option for “human”, and woman’s default option is to do what masculinity requires. ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read’ considers what would happen if there were no longer men on Earth, and then brings three of them back from the past.

Naturally, rape is attempted, but by now I am getting rather depressed: why does a male-female encounter in a Tiptree story always include sex, whether she wants it or not? Is there really no other option in the future, other than this kind of power play? ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’ is a masochistic escape-from-torture novella that ends in the suffering woman’s epiphany and all the brutalising men dead. ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’ is all about sex, in the biological sense, and yes, there is a flashback of critical importance about child sex too. Oh dear. Are we there yet?

‘Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light’ is about an alternative reality where a happy woman is running freely along a long abandoned highway, a courier for the all-women society that seems to have replaced the one who built the crumbling roads and buildings, but, of course, it’s all in her head, and you can guess what happens under the freeway. ‘We Who Stole The Dream’ varies the rape narrative by making it a pan-planetary colonial nightmare, rather like Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest.

All Tiptree’s stories require attentive reading, and often re-reading. She doesn’t make anything easy, and delivers wonders, even if they’re often unpalatable. The title story, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, is hard work, about time travel controlled by psychic scarring. The event that causes the scarring is, predictably, sex. ‘Love Is the Plan the Plan is Death’ is my preferred story of all in this collection because Tiptree gets right away from the corruption of human (actually 1950s American) social norms, and imagines the life cycle of a devouringly powerful race of giant spiders who feel love and passion in the most erotic terms. This story allows love to dominate, rather than violent lust, and is a linguistic triumph in conveying multiple shades of affection and selfless desire that isn’t based on a male-female binary. ‘Slow Music’, a story of the last potential breeding couple on Earth, does include sex, but in its proper place, as only part of the complicated relationship that people must develop when considering impregnation to restock the Earth with people.

The remaining stories are not about rape, thank goodness, but they are absolutely about deaths that are inevitable but slow. A schlock situation is given grandeur and pathos in ‘On the Last Afternoon’ when a herd of immense breeding lobsters crashes into the bay where the humans’ post-crash settlement is struggling to survive. ‘The Man Who Walked Home’ and ‘And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways’ are so sad, stories of the desolate loneliness of death, tempered with pleasure in new knowledge, but not by enough. One man is rushing through time in the same point in space for centuries, trying to get back home, watched with interest by generations of settlers at the desert spot where the explosion threw him out of time. The other has left home for good to get to the top of the forbidden mountain to see what’s there in his last moments. ‘She Waits for All Men Born’ is possibly the ultimate in powerful, lonely women: a mutant girl who can never be killed, and whose gaze kills everyone. What can withstand that?

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a very dense reading experience. It took me several days, and I needed respite in between, to clear my mind of nightmares and hopelessness. Tiptree’s writing is astonishingly powerful, and reading these stories all in one go is probably not at all what she intended (this collection was assembled after her death). The magazines who bought her stories are also factors in considering why she included so many violent sex episodes in her plots: was this a requirement by the editors? Did New Dimensions 3, Phantasmicon, Nova 2, Galaxy, Stellar 4, Interfaces, Amazing Stories, to list only some of the collections or magazines that published these stories, have a high tolerance for sexual violence, or readers with an appetite for it? Was Tiptree unusual or the norm in her detailed writing about rape in space? I find it interesting that Clute doesn’t mention the stories’ obsessive attention to sexual violence in 1990, whereas Sleight does in 2014. Have Tiptree’s violent lessons in feminist thinking about women, sex and fiction finally percolated through into the cultural norm?

This review originally appear on

Walk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas

September 2, 2015

walk_to_the_end_of_the_worldWalk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas (1974)
Review by Joachim Boaz

“The men heard, and they rejoiced to find an enemy they could conquer at last. One night, as planned, they pulled all the women from sleep, herded them together, and harangued them, saying, remember, you caused the Wasting” (p 3).

Suzy McKee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World is the first of four novels in The Holdfast Chronicles sequence (1974 – 1999) that charts the slow forces of change in a post-apocalyptical future where women (“fems”) are chattel. Kate Macdonald, in her wonderful review of Ammonite characterized Nicola Griffith’s novel as “instantly […] feminist: not stealth, or muted, or sub-conscious”. Walk to the End of the World falls squarely, and powerfully into this category. Told with intensity and vigor, Charnas brands the reader with her vision, a searing and festering landscape where white men have either exterminated the remaining “unmen” (the “Dirties”) or subjugated them (the fems) after a manmade cataclysm. Complex societal institutions maintain control in a mostly illiterate world via appeals to collective memory, intensive drug facilitated indoctrination, and the deconstruction of the family unit in favor of exclusively homosocial relationships.

Walk to the End of the World does not hold back its punches – this is a serious and disturbing novel. Fems are subjected to horrific violence as slaves to man and are forced to great extremes to survive.

In the grand historical narrative espoused by the men who control the community of Holdfast, a past rebellion facilitated by fems and other unmen overthrew the Ancients, already weakened by the betrayal of their own sons. The survivors blamed the cataclysmic and vaguely understood Wasting that created an impoverished, polluted, and devastated world on the surviving fems. The community the emerges is highly regimented and authoritarian. They espouse a “heroic” and “pioneering” tradition – Holdfast is an “anchoring tendril” that holds back the forces of destruction (p 4). The position of men vs women is reinforced by this narrative: men must hold back the destructive power of women embodied by the destroyed world and the wastelands that surround Holdfast.

Walk to the End of the World is comprised of five sections placed in chronological order. The first three are from the perspectives of the male characters – Captain Kelmz, Servan D Layo, Eykar Bek. The fourth, is from the perspective of the fem Alldera. The fifth and final section is a composite that shifts between the surviving characters and ends, again, with Alldera. The carefully planned structure is wedded to the narratological and ideological aims of the novel. None of the characters fit neatly into the post-Wasting world where rigid binaries – between man vs woman, Senior vs Junior, white vs non-white, man vs animal – dominate the society in which they restlessly inhabit.

The first character Captain Kelmz, blurs the position between Seniors and Juniors by retaining his position into old age over a band of Rovers, “the powerful defenders of the Seniors and their interests” (p 10). More dangerously, Kelmz sees other men in “beast shapes”. More than simply a flight of imagination, “to think of the beast was like willfully calling up the ghosts of dead enemies” (p 8). Man conquers beasts. Men are not beasts. Kelmz’s visions violate this central tenet profoundly troubling his sense of the world.

The second, d Layo the DarkDreamer, “has no company, no order, and no legitimate use to his fellows” (p 7). He also encourages and facilitates drug induced dreams outside of those taught in the Boyhouse (where all boys are taught to develop their manly souls and survive in the regimented world). Rather than “dreams of victorious battles against monsters” (p 45), the dreamer is free to dream what his soul desires. Under d Layo’s guidance, Kelmz dreams that he is emasculated and is but a pathetic perversion of other men (p 46).

The third, Eykar Bek is the Endtendant at Endpath. At Endpath Seniors – and Juniors manipulated by Seniors – end their lives when their “souls [are] ripe for departure” (p 17). To dream a drug induced dream was to “assure the life of one’s name among younger generations” (p 17). However, Eykar Bek has other interests – he seeks to uncover the reason why he knows his father’s name. In Holdfast, the “mass-divison of Seniors and Juniors” is more important than blood-ties. All men are brothers, some older, some younger… In the grand narrative, the Ancients were overthrown by their sons: in a perversion of the Biblical story, “even God’s own Son, in the old story, had earned punishment from his Father” (p 22). Eykar and d Layo were friends at the Boyhouse. d Layo was thrown out into the Wild while Eykar was condemned to serve at Endpath after the scandal caused by his father. The quest for Eykar’s father forms the thrust of the narrative.

The final character Alldera, although perceived because of her gender by the male characters as a beast suitable for bearing sons and working the fields (p 56), is highly intelligent and an important cog in the communication networks between groups of desperate women. She leaves her world where woman are forced to be self-sustaining after drastic reductions of food after previous famines blamed on the fems. In an era of incredible deprivation, fems build up their numbers due to ingenious methods of preserving their own milk and consuming their own dead (p 59). The men who see the process declare that “it was too beautiful, too efficient to be a product of the fems’ own thinking” (p 65). Alldera has ulterior motives for joining the three male main characters in their trek to discover Eykar’s father.

Despite the lack of popular awareness of the novel in comparison to later feminist masterpieces such as Russ’s The Female Man and Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, analysis of Walk to the End of the World does appear in some scholarly circles – for example, Bill Clemente’s article, ‘Apprehending Identity in the Alldera Novels of Suzy McKee Charnas’ in The Utopian Fantastic edited by Martha Bartter.

Feminist importance aside, I will focus on a handful of ideas that really resonated with me and elevate Charnas’ novel to its great heights: the role of songs + chants reinforcing/challenging collective memory and the focus on the ideological underpinnings of the society.

Charnas explores a variety of ways of reinforcing the master values in a mostly illiterate society. One of more prevalent is the notion of a collective memory (at least propagated by men) that reinforces a grand narrative of the past and thus the position of the present in relation to the past. For example, in the Boyhouse the boys recite the three categories of people (unmen) defeated in the post-Wasting world by white man: the Dirties, ie, “Gooks, Dagos, Chinks” etc, the “Freaks”, which includes “Faggas, Hibbies, Famlies, Kids; Junkies, Skinheads, Collegeists: Ef-eet Iron-mentalists” and finally fems known by “beasts’ names,” “Bird, Cat, Chick, Sow; Filly, Tigress, Bitch, Cow […]” The chant ends with a warning about the dreadful weapons of the unmen, “Cancer, raybees, deedeetee” (p 112). Man in the present holds back these forces of destruction.

Each social group has their own chants that play into this narrative. Captain Kelmz in order to fight off his visions silently recites the “Chant Protective” that starts with “a reckoning of the size and reach of the Holdfast and of all the fellowship of men living in it” in order to “remind a man of his brothers and of what they expected from him” (p 8). The ferrymen keep a “Chants Celebratory” which includes the names of the men who dare enter the empty lands to obtain wood for the ferries, “part of a fabric of custom intended to hold ferrycrews together in manly order” (p 33).

The songs of women fall into different patterns although they serve similar functions in creating collective cohesion. For the women who still have tongues – “muteness in fems was a fashion in demand among masters” (p 141) – songs, spoken in obfuscated “fem speak,” serve to transmit news. Work songs are more than entertainment, they tell of the hell wrought by the “wonderful knowledge” of men (p 158). They posit historical narratives counter to those of men: “Those of the unmen who realized what was happening and rose up to fight, the Ancient men slaughtered” (p 159). Other work songs directly mock the songs of men and the heroic founding of Holdfast, “Heroes […] The unmen are not gone; you are more predictable than the thoughtless beasts, though not as beautiful” (p 159). Although the chattel of man, songs sung working for their masters are a powerful medium for rebellion.

Charnas also weaves ancient theories of generation and matter into the ideological underpinnings of her society. This creates an unnerving familiarity of thought between ancient Western Thought and this dystopic future. The male soul is a “fragment of eternal energy” that is fixed inside a woman’s body by “the act of intercourse”. As the soul is alien to the woman, her body surrounds it with a physical form in order for the soul to be expelled. Thus, “a man’s life” is a struggle between the “flesh-caged soul” not to be seduced by the concerns of the fem generated “brute-body” (p 103). Historical narrative combines with pseudo-scientific theories of matter to generate the iron-clad boundaries, enforced by the victors, between genders.

I recommend Walk to the End of the World to all fans of feminist fiction. I fervently hope a more mainstream SF audience will be open to Charnas’ brilliantly conceived world filled with interesting characters, biting prose, and disturbing social systems with twisted philosophical underpinnings. But after reading online reviews and engaging in debates with readers over the years, I cannot help reiterate that a double standard exists when readers approach feminist SF from this era – most readers seem to be fine with other polemical male 60s/70s science fiction authors from across the political spectrum (Robert A Heinlein, Norman Spinrad, RA Lafferty, John Brunner, etc). However, when a woman author takes a dystopic future scenario and weaves a poignant and harrowing experience with a powerful feminist message suddenly it is best avoided. Alas.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Borders of Infinity, Lois McMaster Bujold

August 26, 2015

Borders of InfinityBorders of Infinity, Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Miles Vorkosigan, in his guise as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries, has been captured by the Cetagandans and imprisoned on a remote moon, along with thousands of other POWs. Vorkosigan finds a camp in the grip of chaos, with different groups of prisoners fighting amongst themselves and the strong preying on the weak. He has to somehow unite the prisoners before any breakout can be attempted… which is difficult to do when you have bones that shatter easily and no incentives to use.

Borders of Infinity is another short novella featuring the character of Miles Vorkosigan, this time back with the Dendarii (after a break of several stories and books, in chronological order anyway) before being imprisoned by the Cetagandans. It’s a fairly straightforward and entertaining story, basically involving Miles trying to set up a prison break but being confronted by problems with asserting his authority and making enemies who want to kill him, even if it means they never escape.

The story’s slightness works against it, as does a muddled tone. Funny scenes – Miles being forced to walk around naked and working with a crazy religious nut to try to win over the soldiers – are contrasted against some of the darker and more brutal scenes that Bujold has written to date. Making such a juxtaposition work is possible, but Bujold fails to achieve it here.

There’s also the problem of the story being bigger than its word count. The story could easily have been twice as long, but just as it’s getting started it abruptly ends, and in a rather straightforward manner as well (although the fallout does at least get novel-length coverage, in Brothers in Arms).

Borders of Infinity is readable and passes the time, but is again a fairly short and slight story that feels like it’s a novel that’s been truncated almost to the point of non-existence. A story that’s more important for what it does (setting up Brothers in Arms) than what it is, then.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,678 other followers