We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ

We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1977)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

The classic science fiction story of the 1950’s tells how bold space travellers suffer misfortune out in the void but, through application of scientific skills and raw human courage, they triumph over adversity. Joanna Russ, who has built an entire career out of puncturing stupidity, could hardly let a target like that go begging. Thus her novel, We Who Are About To…, newly re-released by Wesleyan University Press. Samuel Delany, in his introduction to the new edition, explains the set-up far better than I could.

When, in the real world, 95 percent of all commercial airline crashes are one hundred percent fatal and we live in a solar system in which presumably only one planet can support any life at all, from the thirties through the fifties science fiction was nevertheless full of spaceship crashes (!) in which everyone gets up and walks away from the wreckage unscathed — and usually out onto a planet with breathable atmosphere, amenable weather, and a high tech civilization in wait near-by to provide twists in subsequent adventures.

The same, of course, could be said of Star Trek, except that the guys in the red suits often didn’t long survive the crash.

Of course there would not be much of a story if Russ’s space travellers had all been killed in the crash, so let us suppose that some sort of lifeboat system was available and that our heroes somehow manage to land safely on an inhabitable planet. Now all they have to do is survive. To do so they have to come to understand their environment, adapt to it, and most importantly conquer that terrible threat to survival, human nature.

Whereas the typical science fiction story will feature a cast made up of military and scientific types, all convinced of the virtues of order, disciple and cooperation, and possessed of exactly the combination of skills required to allow them to thrive in an alien environment, Russ postulates that her shipwrecked travellers are merely passengers. The crew has bravely gone down with the ship, frantically making last minute attempts to save it before something terminal happens to the engines. Those that are left are rather too used to having things done for them.

The majority of Russ’s characters start out exactly as you would expect from a traditional SF story. They make plans, they talk grandly of colonizing the planet on which they find themselves. They dream of rescue. Only the narrator of the story actually understands just how little they know, and how much trouble they are in. Her attempts to explain the hopelessness of their predicament to her fellow castaways merely get her marked down as a troublemaker who needs to be disciplined by the rapidly developing community.

Then the men sit down and decide that what the colony really needs is more hands. The only way to get that is for the women to have babies, and therefore the women must all agree to allow themselves to be made pregnant as quickly as possible, regardless of the potential risks in the absence of medical facilities, and whether they like it or not. Things go rapidly downhill from there.

No matter how you dress it up, We Who Are About To… is not a pleasant book. The narrator is not at all a nice person, and she very clearly cracks up under the strain of understanding the reality of her situation. Most of the other characters are fairly unpleasant too. And everyone comes to a bad but believable end. There is no happy ending, nor should there be one. It is a book that needed to be written, and Russ did a fine job of producing it. What is more she managed to say what needed to be said in a little over 100 pages. This is, I think, a book that all science fiction fans should read, just to encourage them to ask questions about other books. Once again, well done to Wesleyan for helping it stay in print.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

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The Two of Them, Joanna Russ

The Two of Them, Joanna Russ (1978)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

Some books get to stay in print because they are huge commercial successes. Others because they won awards. But some books ought to say in print simply because of the light they throw on the history of science fiction. That, I suspect, is an important role of the academic press. And if is probably why Wesleyan University Press is re-issuing novels by Joanna Russ.

Why is it so important that Russ stays in print? Because she is a pivotal figure in the development of feminist science fiction, and indeed of feminism. We can learn a lot about history simply by reading Russ.

The interesting question, however, is whether what she wrote is still relevant today. Are her novels simply a product of the 1970s sex war, or do they have something to say to young women today? Bearing in mind, of course, that many young women today claim that feminism has outlived its usefulness.

The Two of Them is very much about the position of women in society. The two characters of the title are Irene Waskiewicz and Ernst Neumann. She is a rebellious tomboy teenager living in 1950s America who decides to run away from home with her family’s mysterious and handsome friend. He turns out to be an agent of the Trans-Temporal Authority, and he offers he a job in the agency.

Ernst’s surname is almost certainly deliberate. He is a “new man”, someone sympathetic to the female cause. And the point of the story, I suspect, is to show that even he has limits.

The bulk of the book is taken up by an operation that takes Irene and Ernst to Ka’abah, a fundamentalist Muslim community. I suspect Russ would have got into a lot of trouble had she written the book today. Ka’abah is an obvious caricature, emphasizing all of the patriarchal aspects of Islam at the expense of anything else. It is the sort of society that Sheri Tepper would create as a source of bad guys. Russ does occasionally point out that it is something of a mockery of true Islam, but I still think the book would cause a big fuss if it were published new now.

That aside, we are in familiar Tepper territory. The men of Ka’abah treat their women abominably, and essentially keep them as pets. Many of the women go along with this because a) they have been brainwashed from birth to believe that this is the way society is supposed to be, and b) because apart from getting slapped around a lot they think that having nothing to do all day except beautify themselves, shop, and watch soap operas is a pretty cushy number. Irene finds a little girl who wants to be a poet, and determines to rescue her.

So far the book is very much over the top. The men of Ka’abah are cartoon villains. But they are not the point of the story. Certainly the complicity of the Ka’abah women in their own suppression is important. But the real meat of the story comes when Irene analyses Ernst’s reaction to the whole affair. Because, the book seems to suggest, when it comes down to it, all men are the same.

So yes, Ernst might be a Neumann. But while he might support Irene’s right to have a job and to not marry and not have kids, his basic attitude to her can be summed up as, “I’m happy to support you, but you have to understand that women are fundamentally irrational and intellectually inferior, so they can’t be let loose on their own.” Of course he never comes out and says that. The genius of the book is that Russ makes Ernst’s attitude clear while doing nothing more than describe ordinary man-woman interaction. Many women readers will recognize aspects of their male partners in Ernst.

So what is Irene to do about Ernst? She kills him.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

The Winterlong trilogy, Elizabeth Hand

The Winterlong trilogy: Winterlong, Æstival Tide and Icarus Descending, Elizabeth Hand (1990 – 1993)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

It is not an easy thing to review the third part of a trilogy when you are fairly certain that most of your readers have never even heard of the first two volumes. However, I will not allow an Elizabeth Hand novel to go unmentioned, so I guess I’ll just have to skim quickly over the first two as well.

We open with Winterlong and find a far future decayed America that is post more holocausts than many people can remember. What government there is resides in the orbiting HORUS colonies, it being deemed better to have an entirely artificial environment than an entirely polluted one. The members of this new nobility are called Ascendants, because at some point or other they managed to get up there (probably massacring the previous inhabitants along the way) and what little law there is is enforced by their space pilot corps, the Aviators.

It soon becomes obvious that the “shinings” are not the only things to have devastated poor Mother Earth. Genetic engineering has also run riot, leading to abominations such as the dog-like Aardmen. The most obvious new lifeforms are called Geneslaves and are treated as such, but many people are not quite people any more either. And so we meet Wendy Wanders, a once autistic empath now on the run from the scientists of the Human Engineering Laboratory (HEL – geddit) in the company of Miss Scarlet, a talking chimpanzee. They end up in the City of Trees, the former Washington now given over mainly to pleasure parlours.

Meet also Margalis Tastanin, Aviator Imperator, the most ruthless of the Ascendants’ generals. He is searching for METATRON, an android AI programmed with the military knowledge of previous Ascendant hierarchies. It would be an invaluable weapon if found, and Washington seems like a good place to start.

Much blood and suffering follows. It is plain that Hand sees this world as ultimately corrupt, and she loses few opportunities to rub the message in. There is also a suggestion of developing mental powers in mankind and possibly a return of Ancient Gods, or at least Powers The Like of Which… Tastanin is killed, Wendy and Scarlet escape with the help of a zoologist called Jane (and there may be some sort of joke intended here).

So to book two, Æstival Tide, where we find Tastanin rescued by some of his Ascendant masters and resurrected as a Rasa (cyborg). It is unclear what role this episode plays in the overall story except to make Tastanin less than human and to reinforce the message of the debased evil of the Ascendants. In particular we are introduced to the practice of Harrowing, the ritual consumption of the brains of victims who were at least living when you started. Yuk! Note also that the scientist in charge of Wendy’s case in HEL was called Emma Harrow.

The action takes place in the domed city of Araboth, one of the few places on Earth deemed fit (thanks to its environmental control) for Ascendants to live in. By the end, of course, it is destroyed, with only Tastanin and a few companions escaping. It was a strange book, but I still loved it if only for the party scene in which we learn that the band are playing a well-loved traditional folk song called Court of the Crimson King.

And so to the final volume, Icarus Descending, which was never published in the UK and has taken me a couple of years to track down.

As we might expect, Wendy and Tastanin are re-united eventually, and both become embroiled in a Geneslave rebellion lead by the resurrected clone of a leading geneticist, Luther Burdock, and the miscreant METATRON. Burdock, whose mind is distinctly flaky, seems genuinely concerned about his “children” (he did, after all, make many of them from his own daughter). METATRON, on the other hand, has an entirely different agenda. And I must admit that choosing an military AI as your embodiment of ultimate evil has a certain elegance to it. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide just what awful denouement Hand manages this time. It is appropriately awful, promise.

There’s a lot of heavy irony in the book. For example, Jane, who was so devoted to her animals, is least able to accept the Geneslaves as fellow humans. And Tastanin, whom we have been lead to think of as the ultimate evil, is slowly transformed into the only possible saviour of humanity, more a victim of the Ascendants than their ally.

These were not easy books to read (unless you like having your stomach churned), nor do they have a hopeful message. The Hand line seems to be that we have done badly by Mother Earth, are likely to continue to do so exponentially, and eventually we will reap our just rewards. In many ways it reminds me of John Brunner’s eco-disaster novel, The Sheep Look Up. You keep reading it, expecting things to get better, and they just get worse. But these things need saying, and if they are going to be said I would prefer them to be set down by a writer of Hand’s elegance and intensity than by some lesser hack. If a book is painful to read, but you keep at it anyway because of the quality of the writing, that speaks volumes for the author.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

See also this SF Mistressworks review of Winterlong.

The Holdfast Chronicles, Suzy McKee Charnas

The Holdfast Chronicles: Walk to the End of the World, Motherlines, The Furies and Conqueror’s Child, Suzy McKee Charnas (1974 – 1999)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

If there is a germinal feminist SF story, then Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast Chronicles are almost certainly it. This is not necessarily because of the quality of writing, though Suzy is very good, but because of the openness and honesty with which she approaches the subject, and because of the breadth of feminist history that the books cover. This is a tetralogy that has been a long time in the making, and the world has changed a lot in the 25 years it has taken to come to fruition. Here is the story of our liberation, encapsulated and writ large.

Before I get stuck in, a few words of warning. I am going to review a whole four-book series here, including a lot of interpretation. It simply isn’t possible to do that job properly without a few spoilers. If you don’t want to know the basics of the plot (and by the way there isn’t that much really surprising in it) stop reading after this paragraph. The two older books are out of print and hard to get hold of, but Tor has taken the sensible step of repackaging them as a single companion book to the final instalment so you should be able to get the whole series quite easily. Male readers should, of course, approach with caution, it ain’t going to be comfortable.

Probably the place to start is to admit that yes, this is another post-disaster novel. David Brin gets very angry about the fact that feminist SF almost always starts with the destruction of the known world and he attributes this to some sort of collective revenge fantasy amongst feminists. A more likely reason is that many feminists believe that it will not be possible to construct a feminist society from one in which men are currently in charge. That again is a debatable claim. You could, for example, employ extreme violence, but that would just be sinking to the level of the opposition. You could espouse separatism instead, but the men would probably resist that. Suzy looks at all these issues and more. The Wasting, as Suzy terms it, seems to be simply a device which allows her to set up an allegorical world rather than deal with the real one. That is a standard SF technique, and it seems to work.

And so to the first novel. Walk to the End of the World is, perhaps surprisingly, not really about women at all. It introduces us to the world of Holdfast, a small, post-holocaust community of men learning to find their way in a world in which all animal life, and most edible plants are extinct. The men, who survived the Wasting in a bunker, are all white. Blame for the disaster is placed squarely on the shoulders of the blacks, browns, yellows, reds, liberals and, of course, the women. Inconveniently, all of those are dead except a few white women needed for breeding stock. Guess who gets to pay the price of their past sins.

So we have a world in which all women, known as “Fems” (short, of course, for Feminists) are despised slaves, used only for labour and breeding. This results in an unusual innovation on Suzy’s part. Despite their WASP origins, the men of Holdfast are avowedly homosexual. Breeding is a duty, not a pleasure, and men who enjoy sex with Fems are looked upon as disgusting perverts. The other unusual feature of Holdfast is that there is a strong age distinction. The old men, the Seniors, are in charge, the young do as they are told and are kept well in their place because they are dangerous. This is exemplified in the Holy Book, for is it not written that the Son rebelled against his Father, preaching all sorts of wishy-washy, liberal nonsense, and was crucified for his sins. In Holdfast, it is an abomination for fathers and sons to know each other, for if they did, nature would surely lead then to try to kill one another.

To understand this strange set-up, we have to remember that the book was written in America in 1974. It comes from the world of Hippies and Vietnam War demonstrations. It is no accident that rebellious young men are known as “freaks”. By finding a logical explanation for why Holdfast should embrace homosexuality (and, indeed, cannabis), Suzy is pointing a none-too-subtle dig at the arbitrary nature of social prohibitions.

It is a time too when feminism, despite the good work of the suffragettes, seemed hopeless. For all their rebelliousness in other areas, Hippy men were just as much unregenerate, chauvinist pigs as their fathers. For those who dared to think rebellion, it was a time of anger.

The main characters of the book are two young men. Servan d Layo is a loafer and a drug dealer, a classic, laid-back, golden-haired surfer boy for whom everything seems to go as he would wish it. His lover, Eykar Bek, is more thoughtful, though no less rebellious. He is also a man with a problem, for he knows who his father is, and is anxious to kill the man before he himself is killed. As it happens, Eykar’s father engineered the situation. He too is a thinker, an engineer and a reader. He has all sorts of grand ideas for Holdfast and, having read a few old books, wants to make sure that he has a son to take over from him when he is gone.

The book is a story of plots within plots. The Seniors wish to use Eykar to kill his father who is threatening to become too powerful. The young men see a potential father-killer as a focus for rebellion. Servan sees the whole affair as a big opportunity for self-advancement. And the Fems see a small chink of hope.

Alldera, a young girl trained as a courier, is inserted into Eykar and Servan’s group as a slave in return for help against the Seniors. The hope is that she can use her running skills to escape as the rebels travel on the edge of the wilds and perhaps reach the mythical “Free Fems”, escaped slaves rumoured to live free in the wilds. In fact what happens is that Eykar and Alldera discover in each other a common passion for intellectual discussion (here Alldera is highly unusual, for their own safety most girl children are not taught speech, and many have their tongues cut out to keep them quiet).

You might think at this point that we are destined for a soppy ending. No such cop out is in store. What happens, of course, is that Eykar finds his father and quarrels with him, significantly over the father’s plans to use Fems for food. In the ensuing chaos, Alldera escapes, and Holdfast is plunged into war.

And so to book two, Motherlines. Alldera, alone, hungry and pregnant (both Eykar and Servan have raped her), struggles across the great desert in search of the Free Fems. On the brink of death she is discovered by a scouting party of Riding Women, a society whose existence Holdfast never suspect.

The Women (so called to distinguish them from Fems) operate a mounted society based on that of some American Indians. They are clones, the result of a pre-Wasting experiment to ensure the survival of the race. Male sperm is required to quicken the child, but any male sperm will do and they choose to use their horses. The Women know how men treat the Fems in Holdfast, and they have a simple solution to the problem. Male humans are killed on sight. Each woman and her clone daughters forms a “Motherline”, hence the title of the book. Naturally, the Women are all lesbians.

(I note in passing and with some amusement that Suzy has chosen pretty much the same method for constructing a feminist society as David Brin used in Glory Season. David chose a biological method of keeping men under control rather than get rid of them, but other than that the idea is the same. Suzy, of course, did it first.)

What Suzy has done here is create a society that is every Rad Fem’s dream. No men, no need for men, even an opportunity to get even with the bastards every now and again. And a social structure that every liberal American could approve of. Were this a Joanna Russ book, the story would probably end there. But Suzy is made of sterner stuff. She is not afraid to examine this “perfect” society and find it wanting.

After a while, Alldera gets to be reasonably comfortable amongst the Women, despite the animosity of the ferocious warrior, Sheel, who thinks the Fem will bring nothing but trouble. However, there are ways in which a Fem simply cannot fit into the Women’s society. To start with, Alldera is not a clone. More importantly, her daughter, now being raised with the camp’s children, is not a clone either. There will be trouble for her when she grows up.

More subtly, Alldera cannot get used to clone society. As clones, the Women place great store on tradition. Everything is done precisely the way it was always done. This suits their tribal society just fine. But, as we have seen, Alldera is a thinker, she is forever seeing ways in which things could be done better. In frustration, she goes off to try life in an alternative society.

For it turns out that the Free Fems do exist. Some women have managed to escape from Holdfast, and now they live on the edge of the plains, growing tea and trading it with the Riding Women. But whilst they might have escaped physically, they have yet to escape from Holdfast’s memes. Once a slave, always a slave. Unable to imagine a society without masters, the Free Fems have created their own, specifically the fat bully, Enola Green Eyes. The Free Fem camp is a hot bed of sedition and intrigue as each person does her utmost to insinuate herself into Enola’s favours, and by doing so demote her rivals. Alldera, who has learned the meaning of freedom from the Women, does not fit in at all. Eventually she is beaten up and expelled.

It is at the Free Fem camp that we first meet the character who is to become the greatest villain of the series. Daya is a Pet Fem, a woman whose beauty had caught the eye of a perverted Senior and who was kept in a harem rather than used for labour. She escaped after a jealous rival caused her face to be scarred. Many readers, I suspect, will see Daya’s role as a villain simply as a case of jealous revenge upon the beautiful, but Suzy is never that crude. Daya’s “crime”, the reason for her evil, has nothing to do with her looks, or her liking for sex with men. It is because she knows no other life but the pleasing of others. Briefly, amongst the Riding Women, she has a taste of freedom and courage, but away from them she immediately reverts to her suspicious, servile lifestyle and her habit of intrigue.

What Daya represents is the traditional role of women in a male-dominated society. She is the schemer, the power behind the throne, the woman who, although clever, cannot act on her own because it is not seemly for a woman to do so. Because she sees her life solely in terms of her relationship to others, she can never be free. It is no accident either that she is an expert story teller. Daya lives in a world of fantasy, convincing herself that all is well, and that others are brave, because she doesn’t have the courage to come forward herself. This is what Suzy is telling us is wrong with women’s lives. This is what we must reject in order to be free.

By the end of Motherlines, egged on by Daya’s mythologizing, the Free Fems have come to believe that Alldera was right all along. They have abandoned Elnoa and come to ask Alldera to be their new leader. What they want, of course, is for her to teach them to be warriors like the Women. Eventually, they want her to lead them home to Holdfast in triumph. Perhaps they are learning freedom at last.

“Men are forked like us, even if they carry different equipment between their legs,” Sheel said. “A man could sit that horse of yours, if he was let.”

The Rois laughed. “I don’t believe they could ride at all, with that tender sex-flesh of theirs stuffed between them and a horse’s backbone.”

“They’d manage, if it was the difference between freedom and slavery,” Sheel said. “You could design a saddle with some kind of special pocket…”

That was in 1978. It took over a decade for Suzy’s friends and fans to persuade her to write the next volume. I’m glad it did, for things changed a lot in the meantime. The Furies was published in 1994 and by that time a lot had changed for feminism. I may be doing Suzy an injustice, in fact I probably am, but there is a danger that if The Furies had been published in, say, 1980, the Free Fems would simply have conquered Holdfast and that would have been an end to it. The 1994 version is an entirely different tale.

Of course Alldera’s army marches. It is the only possible thing for the Free Fems to do. But it is a very different Holdfast that awaits them. The war between the young and old that Eykar started has left the men severely weakened and the social structure all but collapsed. In desperation, the men have started treating women better because they need every hand they can find just to survive. The arrival of Alldera’s warriors is like a group of Rad Fems from the 70s suddenly turning up in a modern workplace and wondering what the hell all those gaudily dressed women are doing in the management offices.

Nevertheless, the condition of Fems is still bad enough for most of them to be grateful for being liberated. A few side with the men against the invaders. Significantly, the army’s first death comes at the hands of a Holdfast Fem. But in the end, the army of liberation triumphs, and with it, brings a whole new set of problems.

The most obvious question is what to do with the men. Some of the Free Fems argue that they should simply all be killed. Clearly this is not feasible. The Fems are not clones. They will die out without men. Besides, many of the Free Fems are getting old, and are desperate to get pregnant while they still can. Alldera, reunited with Eykar, hopes for some sort of peaceful resolution, but her hand is forced when a small group of men escape and wreak bloody vengeance on their captors. The die is cast: Holdfast will survive, but now it is the men who will be slaves.

The other burning issue is one of leadership. Many of the Free are followers of the Cult of Moonwoman. Alldera, an intellectual, frowns on this superstition. This does her no favours with her followers. But the real danger comes from Daya. Now that Alldera is triumphant, it seems that she no longer needs the Pet Fem’s support. Without Alldera to serve, Daya must find another master, and that means Alldera must die.

In the end, it is Eykar, a bright young woman from the newly free, and her old enemy Sheel who save Alldera’s life. Having seen the pent up violence of her own people explode into action, and how readily they revert to the ways of the past, Alldera at last understands why Sheel was so afraid of her. Holdfast has not been liberated, it has been conquered.

“Fems aren’t Riding Women.” Alldera paced away from her, hands behind her back. “Though I’m not sure we’re fems any more, either. We were slaves, isn’t that why you despised us? But we’re not slaves now. Are we Women, if we’re free? Can we be Women of the Holdfast, as you and Nenisi and the rest are Women of the Grasslands? Help me make it so.”

Sheel’s throat felt tight. “You ask too much, and of the wrong person.”

There had to be a resolution, but it was another five years in coming. Now, at last the cycle is complete. The Conqueror’s Child is the story of Alldera’s daughter, Sorrel, and of the fight to make Holdfast a place fit for humans, not just for Fems.

During the liberation of Holdfast, one of the newly freed Fems, Juya was discovered to be pregnant. For her own safety, Sheel had her sent to the Riding Women to give birth. It has never occurred to Sheel that the child might be a boy. Normally he would have been killed, but with Alldera’s daughter living at the camp, no one dared touch the child. Left to care for young Veree because no Woman would touch him, Sorrel tried putting him with the camp children, but it was obvious he was different and he was rejected. In despair, Sorrel took the boy to live with her mother, unaware that she was condemning him to a life of slavery.

Sorrel is not the only Fem with sympathy for the men. Many of the Free Fems have taken partners for breeding purposes and are getting fond of them. Eykar is free to run the city library, and this is seen as a sign of Alldera’s patronage, though in truth there is too much pain between them for them to be lovers. Yet others, led by the implacable Kobba Red Hand, still call for all men to die. The majority are just scared. Given what they have done in the past, how could they dare let men be free?

The answer is that before they can be free, a dream must die. That dream is the macho ideal of conquest and mastery. It is exemplified by the Bear Cult, an underground movement amongst the slave men which preaches that the mythical Sunbear will come and save them. Little do they know that the Sunbear is real. After many years travelling the wilderness with a band of brigands, Servan d Layo is about to return to Holdfast. He has women, he has strange and highly edible animals called goats, and best of all he has a gun. Servan’s dream is of conquest.

We are in allegory land here. Not only does Servan have to die, he has to do so in a way that redeems his fellow men. The key to this redemption must, of course, be Daya. Desperate to revive her position in society after the failed attempt on Alldera’s life, the Pet Fem determines to save Holdfast from d Layo. To do so, of course, she needs an agent, because she would never have the courage to do it herself. In order to get herself into d Layo’s camp, she needs a man.

Daya might be old and scarred, but she has lost none of her old skills. She easily seduces a young runaway called Galligan and persuades him to get her to Servan. Once there she contrives to make him attack her. Galligan rushes to her rescue, and the younger man prevails. Thus the cycle is complete. The Sunbear, and the dream he represents, is dead, killed not by a Fem, nor by one of the alien Women, but by a man protecting the woman he loves.

So at last Holdfast is on its way to being truly free. The Riding Women, the old Rad Fems of our past, have outlived their usefulness and ride away into the west, into legend. Alldera goes with them, leaving Sorrel to guide the new nation into adulthood and Veree as its symbol of hope and unity. Gosh but it is corny stuff, put like that, but remember that I’m extracting all the meaning from the allegory for you. This is no Star Wars, bearing its message on the belly of a 20-mile long Imperial Battle Cruiser just in case you might miss it. Suzy is a great story teller, and for the most part the parable does not interfere with the plot.

I’ve read better books than these, literary-wise, but I don’t think I’ve ever read any more thoughtful books. Suzy has taken one of the defining political questions of our times and has turned it into a tale that is both entertaining and insightful. And she never stops digging, never stops turning the searchlight on our complacency. You see, the women that Servan brought back from the wilds are black. Their welcome in Holdfast is uncertain. No matter how much we grow, we always have something new to learn.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

The Passion of New Eve, Angela Carter

The Passion of New Eve, Angela Carter (1977)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

Those of you familiar with Angela Carter’s work will know to expect something highly symbolic with lots of mythological overtones. You won’t be disappointed. Carter does that sort of stuff very well indeed. Politically, however, The Passion of New Eve is very much a book of its time. It was first published in 1977, an era in which we still believed in revolutionary war and the prospect of feminist commandos, marching under the sign of the toothed vagina to liberate us from male domination. Gwyneth Jones, in her Aleutian Trilogy, gave us a horrific glimpse of what such a war would actually be like. But in 1977 it was still something that people might hope for. Carter at least accepts that the casualties might be enormous (in ’77 we still believed that nuclear war was imminent too), so she considers the need to start anew.

“‘Don’t you think,’ asked Sophia, that the domination of man has caused us all too much pain? Were you ever happy, when you were a man, since you left the womb, unless you were trying to get back into it?'”

Enter Evelyn, the hero(ine) of our story. He is a self-centred English academic who has just got himself a job in New York. Arriving in America, he discovers the USA in the midst of massive civil unrest. Black militias take over the university where he was to teach and blow it up. Without a job, Evelyn decides to see a bit of America before going home.

Unfortunately for him, he hasn’t gone far when he is captured by a group of feminist insurgents. Their leader, known only as Mother, is a surgical genius who has altered herself to obtain the many-breasted appearance of an ancient fertility goddess. Now she intends to alter Evelyn as well, and make him the parent of a new race.

Digression: for years archaeologists believed that the multifariously bulbous chest of the statue of Diana at Ephesus was intended to represent her many breasts. Now some believe that the lumps actually represent the testicles of animals that were sacrificed to the goddess, or perhaps even those of her priests who were required to castrate themselves. Fortunately for Carter, Mother would have been happy with either interpretation.

The plan, then, is for Mother to transform Evelyn into an ideal woman, the New Eve of the title. Eve will then be impregnated with sperm taken from her old body, and this symbolic virgin birth will somehow spark the transformation of the world. Of course this mad plan doesn’t quite come off, and consequently Eve ends up having to fend for herself in an America that is rapidly falling into anarchy. It is a hard way to learn what it is like to be a woman.

“Although I was a woman, I was now also passing for a woman, but, then, many women born spend their whole lives in such imitations.”

I have to say that from an SF point of view the book is pretty sloppy. Like Robert Anton Wilson in Schrödinger’s Cat, Carter failed to research the details of transsexual surgery and thereby misses an opportunity for some quite delicious irony. As for things like people being able to get into a helicopter and fly it safely with no previous training, well, I suppose the plot required it.

But none of that is really germane to the point of the book. The Passion of New Eve is about politics and mythology, not about correct science. There are a number of issues that Carter asks us to consider. The first is very straightforward. She illustrates very clearly both man’s inhumanity to woman, and also, with the story of Zero’s wives, how women are often complicit in their own subjugation.

Theme two is about the nature and wisdom of the gender war. Although Carter shows that women have every right to be angry, Mother and her followers are not painted in a very attractive light. In the end Eve, who is after all half male, chooses not to side with them, but to find her own way in the world. In doing so she is creating a faint precursor of the second half of Suzy McKee Charnas’s superb Holdfast series, and warning us that separatism is not necessarily the obvious solution.

The final theme is the most complex of all and involves the nature of gender and gender roles. Although Mother tries to brainwash Eve into thinking like a woman, the process is by no means wholly successful. Life experiences help, but by the end it is still not clear what gender Eve sees herself as. Furthermore, her story is woven in with that of Tristessa St. Ange, a Garbo-esque film star, the queen of tragedy and most beautiful woman in the world.

In The Female Man (review here), Joanna Russ claims that the vision of the sexy woman is a male creation, and hence holds that women should do away with make-up, pretty clothes and so on. Carter’s argument is much more complex. Yes, Tristessa turns out to be a male creation as well, one man’s ideal made real on celluloid, but Eve too is an ideal woman, created by Mother. And Evelyn is seduced into Mother’s plans by the actions of Leila who uses every trick in the harlot’s book.

Because of the dense mythological treatment it is hard to discern exactly what message Carter wants us to take away from all this. Clearly her ideas are not as simplistic and confrontational as those of Russ are, but I’m not at all sure what direction she intends us to take. The best I can do is to suggest that perhaps we are to conclude that relations between the sexes can only improve when we partake of each other’s nature. Yes, we are different, but we are also both human, and we can learn to understand each other.

Well, anyway, that is what I hope she meant. It is at least a positive interpretation, and hopefully it will encourage people to read the book rather than discard it as shrill ranting. After all, Carter is head and shoulders above most writers, of any sort, that Britain has produced. The mythological stuff is hard work in places, but it is very well done. At the least, every fan of feminist SF should read this book.

The review originally appeared on Emerald City.

China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh

China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

I once quoted Nalo Hopkinson as saying that SF is often about alienated people, but rarely written by them. Maureen McHugh is, at first sight, one of the last people you would think of as alienated, and yet she has written a wonderful book about being an outsider. She’s white, an academic, from a small farming town in Ohio, for goodness sake. How less alienated can you get? She has also lived and worked in China, which is about as far from Ohio as Oz is from Kansas.

I know a thing or two about this. You wouldn’t think that for a middle class white girl, uprooting yourself from Britain and going to work in Australia and then California would be a huge culture shock. But it is. In some ways it is a very nasty one because you don’t start to realise just how different those societies are until you have been there a year or two. China at least is recognisably different from day one. It is also the only society on the planet that can, with perfect justification, look down on Westerners as ignorant, barely civilised barbarians. And it is still avowedly Communist. If you want to feel alienated, it is a good place to go.

And so to China Mountain Zhang which is chock full of alienated people. Zhang, the hero, has it in spades. His mother is Hispanic, but his parents had him genetically altered so that his looks came solely from his Chinese father. In the post-revolutionary America in which the book is set, being a racially pure Chinese is an enormously valuable asset, but Zhang only looks like he is, and he knows it. He is gay too, and whilst that is survivable in his native New York it is still a bullet through the back of the head job in the People’s Republic. If that wasn’t enough, his parents named him after a great Communist hero, Zhong Shan. It is, he tells us, rather like being called George Washington Jones, or Karl Marx Smith.

Zhang isn’t the only alienated character either. San-xiang has a rare bone defect that gives her a face more like a monkey than a woman. Cinnabar used to be a kite racer, but he hurt himself in a crash and is now grounded. Alexi has simply, through no fault of his own, fallen to the bottom of the social pile. He has discovered that whilst Communist America will always find him a job, it will always be one that no one else wants and he will never get a chance to earn enough to work his way back up because he’ll never get an opportunity to use his programming skills. His wife died soon after childbirth, and right now he and his six-year-old daughter have just been relocated to Mars.

It is, I found, a very depressing book to read. All of these characters are put upon by society in some way. All of them seem destined to fail, in a society that is supposed to enforce the dictum that all men are created equal. But of course they are not, and never will be. One of the lessons that McHugh seems to want us to draw is that no amount of Marxist dialectic can make people equal, and if we believe that simply by having a revolution we make them so we are deluding ourselves. Any community which relies on theory rather than care is lost.

There is more politics too, most of which I should probably steer clear off to avoid giving anything away. What I think I can say, because this is definite interpretation and not an obvious message in the text, is that the book is about organic social engineering.

About what? It goes like this. Zhang eventually ends up learning the craft of organic engineering. This is a very eastern sort of thing. It is holistic building design that you can only do in a Daoist or Zen-like trance. It goes with the flow of the world around it, rather than imposing structure on the world as Western engineering tends to do. Politics, I have interpreted McHugh as saying, should be done in the same way. Don’t impose theories on the world, take it as you find it and work with what you have. Very anarchist, though perhaps not very practical. Real life, after all, tends not to have happy endings.

This book has won a heap of awards. It got the Tiptree for having a gay hero without that being the point of the book. It got a Locus Award for Best First Novel. There are Hugo and Nebula nominations in there too. All I can say is that they are thoroughly deserved. But try not to read this book when you are seriously depressed.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

See also this SF Mistressworks review of China Mountain Zhang.

The City, Not Long After, Pat Murphy

The City, Not Long After, Pat Murphy (1988)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

Most of the novels reviewed here concentrate on the dark side of San Francisco. They center on the Tenderloin, on crime and street life. Pat Murphy’s contribution, The City, Not Long After, on the other hand, looks at the bright side of The City. San Francisco is, after all, the capital of Flower Power, the city of free love, of gay emancipation, of anti-war protests and experimental art of all kinds. It is SF, the city of science fiction.

And so, not long after the Plague, the few survivors amongst the people of San Francisco are playing in the ruins. They want for little. There are shops, offices and homes full of stuff that the dead no longer need. There are parks in which they can grow food, and a market where they can trade salvaged goods with the people of the more extensive farmlands of the Central Valley. And having nothing else to do, they make art.

“And she found things, though not what she was looking for. Under the reception desk in the lobby of a downtown office building, she found a tiny village built of mud bricks and pebbles. The huts were thatched with eucalyptus leaves that had long since lost their pungent smell. In an alley off Mission Street, she found a red brick wall decorated with running buffalo and deer. In a vacant lot south of Market, she found a tower constructed of crystal doorknobs, clear glass bottles, window panes, wine glasses, and crystal tableware of all varieties. The ground surrounding the tower was littered with rainbows, broken shards of colored light that shifted with the movement of the sun.”

Jax, the heroine of the story, is the daughter of a famous San Franciscan peace campaigner. The full import of her history does not become clear until much later in the book, and I’m not going to spoil the story for you. However, for reasons that you will discover, Jax’s mother flees the City and ends up on a small farm near Sacramento. For many years she is able to raise her daughter in peace and safety. But then The General arrives.

General Miles, nicknamed “Fourstar”, is determined to rebuild America. To do so, naturally, he must restore order. There must be government, and because of the desperate state of the country it must be a military government. Everyone must work together in the rebuilding effort, and so ensure that they do all forms of dissent must be stamped out. People should not be allowed to read subversive books from before the Plague that talk about freedom and civil rights and other dangerous concepts. And above all, that annoying cadre of lunatics, layabouts and malcontents that has taken over San Francisco must be destroyed.

After her mother’s death, following detention and torture by Fourstar’s men, Jax heads into The City to warn the artist community of the impending invasion. There she meets various colorful personalities: Mrs Migsdale who edits the local newspaper and every day throws cryptic messages in bottles into the ocean; The Machine, who builds robots and thinks of them as his children; Lily, who collects skulls and displays them in department store windows; and Danny-boy, whose ambition is to paint the Golden Gate Bridge blue.

The message of Fourstar’s impending invasion is not new. The artists have heard it often enough from traders, although the news that he might actually be on the march is of some interest. Some, like Snake, the former gang leader turned graffiti artist, recognize that a little planning might be in order. Much to Jax’s horror, however, the San Franciscans decide to fight their war, not with guns, but with art.

“CERTIFICATE OF DEATH

Please consider yourself removed from combat.

Look at it this way – we could have killed you.

If you don’t stop fighting, we really will kill you next time.

Signed,

The People of San Francisco”

Armed with vastly superior knowledge of the terrain, and the surprise that comes from their unconventional tactics, the artists hold out for a long time against the invaders. Many of the troops do defect, as they are encouraged to do. But while this book might be a fantasy (ghosts of San Francisco’s past play a small but vital role in the resistance), it is no naïve Disney fairy tale. Murphy is far too honest to resolve the story without bloodshed.

Overall this is a beautiful, delicate and, as I have come to expect from Pat Murphy, highly amusing tale of the rightness of resistance to violence, and of the inevitable futility of that course of action. Peace is something that we can only achieve at a cost. The question is whether the cost we choose to pay is temporary sadness, or permanent subjugation to the whims of General Miles and his ilk. Furthermore, the more Peace we want, the higher the cost, and sometimes that price is never worth paying.

The irony is, of course, that the people of San Francisco have, in recent months, along with the population of the rest of America, fallen solidly in line with General Miles’ message. Faced with a dangerous threat from Outside, the people of America have freely given away some of their civil rights (and more significantly most of the civil rights of visitors to their country) and have invited armed men into their lives that they might have Peace without any danger to themselves. These days, few publishers would dare run with a book in which the heroes resist the resurrection of America and describe the American flag as ugly. Perhaps we are in need of a heavy dose of art.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.