Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison

memoirsofaspacewomanMemoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
Review by Kate Macdonald

For years I’d thought that I had read pretty much everything Naomi Mitchison had published. Oh how wrong I was. I rechecked, and found to my horror that Mitchison herself couldn’t remember how much she’d published, but 70 books or thereabouts would be about right. Swift detour to abebooks.co.uk to order some of the many that I’ve missed.

Right. I’m back. For years I’d thought that Naomi Mitchison was mainly a historical novelist with outbreaks of socialist outrage and feminist memoirs. Her most famous novels are The Corn King and The Spring Queen and The Bull Calves: there are loads more. Then I realised (after reading reviews by Couchtomoon on SF Mistressworks and SF Ruminations) that I hadn’t read her sf novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), so obviously I had to find it. You don’t often get a novelist writing hugely successful and critically acclaimed sf AND historical fiction novels. (Nicola Griffith is the only one I can think of who’s done this, other than one or two of Joanna Russ’s short stories, but I’d like to know of others. There must be some male writers as well.)

It is stunning. Since Mitchison is not only a dead posh white woman and not primarily known for writing science fiction, she isn’t normally cited as a pioneer in feminist sf. However, Memoirs of a Spacewoman moves the date backwards for when science fiction began to depict women as professionals and technical specialists first. It also demolishes the idea that no-one wrote seriously about alien sex in the 1960s, or about a woman’s right to choose her children’s fathers. Yet, this is not a Barbarella romp in plastic spacewear. It is a novel, even though (as the introduction in my edition by Hilary Rubenstein notes) there is no plot, no beginning or end. It’s a slice of life, a rambling, cheerful discussion of her professional and personal life by Mary, a space communications specialist in a profession we would call xenotranslation. She talks to aliens and they talk to her, on her expeditions to their home planets, and during their sojourns in the laboratories on Earth. She also talks to most of the mammalian species on Earth, but this is considered normal, as is probing the minds of other humans (something to do only with permission). Mary’s working life is bounded by professional protocols, of which ‘do not interfere’ is the strongest.

Naomi 2However, ‘interference’ has different meanings depending on the context. Mitchison’s sly and mildly erotic descriptions of Mary talking to her Martian communications colleagues involve all-body tactility, inside and out, in which their sex organs are very communicative. In another episode she volunteers as one of the human colleagues in an experiment to accept an alien graft on her skin. The entity needs a female host on which to grow before it deliquesces in water to enter the bloodstream of the newly fertilised female, and, then what? No-one knows, hence the experiment, and it has some horrifying consequences when the lab realises that female volunteers are undergoing a strange maternal impulse that is overriding their normal behaviour.

Mary chats away about her children by different fathers, and how they had decided with her to conceive a child before, during or after various expeditions. She was voiced perfectly in the recent BBC dramatization of a fragment of this amazing novel as a kind of jolly hockey-sticks county girl, businesslike and perfectly groomed while handling Martian sex organs in a competent, trained manner. Mitchison – a sex education pioneer from the very early days of the Marie Stopes clinics – was in her seventies when she wrote this novel, and she must have had a lot of fun with it.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman is breathtakingly original, and audacious. Mitchison’s maturity as a novelist, a feminist and as a perpetually open mind, make her narrative voice deeply persuasive. We hardly notice that there is no mention of how all the space travel is funded, or how indeed it even happens. Her interest is not in gadgets and technology, merely that these exist and can be used efficiently and effectively to get expeditions out into space for more and better communications with whatever is out there. Mitchison’s real interest is in imagining alien lifeforms, and how they breed and live their lives. The range of her biological speculation is impressive, until one recalls that she is the daughter and sister of scientists, and before the First World War she had herself begun to train as a geneticist.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.

Advertisements

Not By Bread Alone, Naomi Mitchison

notbybreadNot By Bread alone, Naomi Mitchison (1983)
Review by Kate Macdonald

This completely obscure eco-science-fiction novel by Naomi Mitchison from 1983 shares a title with another obscure novel, by Vladimir Dudintsev of 1956. Naomi Mitchison was not a Communist, but staunchly socialist, and had visited Russia in the 1930s. Both novels deal with the paradox of the individual’s intentions being devoured by the forces of the state (Dedintsov) or Big Business (Mitchison). Mitchison’s novel is about genetic manipulation and modification of plant cells to create wheat, rice and other crops that can be distributed free to the world’s hungry to get rid of world hunger for ever. It’s a utopian dream with a predictably dystopian result, since nothing comes from nothing, and nothing in life is ever free.

I could not get my head around the economic argument in this novel, since the premise of the plot is that when people have free food, they are able to work harder, learn faster, and generally pull themselves up by their bootstraps to a better standard of living. Not if they’re farmers or in any way involved in the food business, one would think, since who is paying for the free food? The big corporation who supplies it in the novel, and pays for the scientific research worldwide to produce these new superfoods, has what seems to be an inexhaustible income stream, and does very well with profits once free food has become the norm, but I really could not work out why.

Anyhow: that’s a detail. Not By Bread Alone is mainly concerned with the dangers of rampant scientific invention colliding with social processes, and feels even more relevant now than it was thirty years ago. If people do not have a relationship with the land and the food they grow on it, their food is worth less to them, emotionally and psychologically. Mitchison tells the story of scientists in India working on early GMOs, and contrasts this with traditional life on an invented Aboriginal autonomous territory in Australia’s North-West Territories, whose people refuse the FreeFood as well as alcohol. They nurture their spiritual growth and connections to the land, remaining a whole and healthy people. When a Sikh scientist joins them, his religious beliefs let him find commonality with their spirit-life, as do the ecological beliefs of Neil, the Australian farmer who has abandoned his FreeFood farming to escape the corporation’s clutches.

This novel gives a powerful sense of wide and varied representation at the centre of the world-wide struggle. The USA and North Americans are barely mentioned (this is so refreshing in a genre that the USA has dominated since its earliest years). There are as many female as male characters with speaking roles; there are more non-white protagonists than white. The two leading women characters – a scientist and a lobbyist – are lovers, and the leading Aboriginal character is a pilot and a mother. Naomi Mitchison was over 70 when she wrote this novel, totally in touch with ecocriticism and with gender politics. She wrote with a farmer’s understanding of food production (she’d farmed her land throughout the Second World War) and with a biologist’s understanding of the science (she trained as a geneticist before the First World War). Her narrative style is elliptical and assured, swooping from mind to mind to layer the free indirect speech with dialogue. Her technique is assured and very well-practiced (she published her first novel in 1923, fifty years earlier than this novel, so what she knew about delineating character was probably everything that could be known. Not By Bread Alone is more than an eco-critical curiosity, it’s a serious dystopic novel about a future of food uncertainty and terrifying consequences when the science goes wrong.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.

Solution Three, Naomi Mitchison

soliution_threeSolution Three, Naomi Mitchison (1975)
Review by Kate Macdonald

If you like elliptical, immersive, euphemistic strangeness in your science-fiction narrative, this novel is for you. Published in 1975, Naomi Mitchison’s Solution Three retains some slang that was archaic even then, like “cat” for person, which made this reader jump, and certainly adds to the strangeness in the dialogue. Could you ever empathise with a character who says of another that “this cat told me”? The setting is a strange combination of the modern British National Health Service, Maoist self-denunciation and the insouciant babbling cheerfulness of Brave New World (Naomi Mitchison was great friends with Aldous Huxley in the 1930s). Homosexuality is the social norm for relationships, heterosexuals are more or less tolerated but labelled as “deviants”, and clones are born to surrogate Clone Mums, who have to watch their children carefully for when they start showing “the signs”, at which point the children are taken away from the nursery and “strengthened”. “Strengthening” is such a horrible process for these four and five-year olds that no-one ever asks what it is; they simply accept it as part of Solution Three, which is the Way We Live Now.

This is a post-something society: not post-apocalyptic or post-nuclear, but post-Aggressions. These appear to have been a long-ago total war, after which two far-seeing male and female scientists evolved a social pattern for future society to save humankind, decreeing that homosexual relationships would thenceforth be the norm as this would avoid future Aggressions. Thus the population of the civilised parts of the world is paired off whether they like it or not. Uncivilised areas continue to practice aggressive heterosexuality, which is a cause for concern and stern treatment. The characters in the novel are crop scientists, investigating outbreaks of agricultural viruses and struggling to maintain food supplies for a very crowded planet. This concern about the genetic modification of food sources is something Mitchison would go on to write about more fully in Not By Bread Alone in the 1980s. in this novel, she’s much more concerned about social engineering, the rights of maternity and enforced sexual norms.

The storytelling is engaging and chatty, creating an immersive reading experience, but this is a hard novel to understand. The elliptical dialogue glides across the surface of meaning, so it’s tricky to work out what is going on and what the consequences will be. The subplot about Miryam the deviant and her husband struggling to raise their two children in their one-room flats (they’re not allowed to live together) reaches a happy ending when she is awarded a two-room apartment with a little balcony. Her feelings on being given such riches and forgiveness for her deviancy say as much about the society she’s living in as the actions that lead to this largesse. Mitchison writes from the heart outwards, concentrating on women and who they love, to sketch out an outline of this experimental dystopic future. It really is just an outline: there isn’t enough depth in this novel to produce a solid impression of how this society works, or even how it got to be this way. The details are in full focus, the rest is a bit foggy. But given the rarity of fiction of this period (of any period?) that tackles sexuality and ecology with such fair-minded objectivity, this novel is a literary historical treasure.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Kate Macdonald

Three months ago I had never heard of Kate Wilhelm. Science Fiction and other Suspect Ruminations ran a week of Wilhelm guest reviews recently, which alerted me to her existence. I found Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang in Aberdeen’s fine second-hand bookshop Books and Beans, a week after that, and carried it home in triumph. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo Award in 1977 for the best science fiction novel, as well as the Jupiter and the Locus in the same year. The Jupiter Award for best novel, according to Wikipedia, was only awarded four times, and two of the other three winning books were Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. These three have also won the Locus Award, along with, for instance, Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake. So, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang should be a good indication of the quality of Wilhelm’s 1970s sf.

I read Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang with increasing attention over a day. Though it was highly absorbing, beautifully written and had a good, thought-nagging central premise, it bothered me. Afterwards, in chats with other folks online, it appears the novel was stitched together from a set of novellas, which helped me understand its curious structure, constructed of sections with overlapping character involvement. It’s set in a post-disaster scenario sometime in the future, on the east coast of America (yawn … why do American writers think this is the optimum location for futuristic survival narratives? There are other areas in the world …) in a remote valley somewhere near Washington DC (convenient for a later metaphor on the destruction of the Capitol equalling the Destruction of the Nation).

A tight-knit and frankly rather creepy family, called Sumner after its patriarch, decide that they will pool all their cash and technical training to build a secret underground laboratory and learn to clone human beings. Any day now, the very obvious changes in weather, disease resistance and crop failure will kill off most of the Earth’s population, and they want to ensure some kind of survival.

In the Sumner family all its professionals and technically trained people are male, whereas the women are only allowed to be mothers and cooks. This is disturbing: this speculative novel was written after many other sf novelists had managed to imagine a future society in which social systems had evolved along with science and technology, yet it will not let go of the social norms of the era in which Wilhelm grew up, the 1940s. What was she thinking? Wasn’t she aware of feminism, or civil rights developments in her own society? She creates a conveniently normate group of characters to enhance the lesson her central plot gives – that artificially repressing difference suppresses humanity’s strengths – but it also suggests that she wasn’t interested in drawing a whole society, only an idea.

The big, big futuristic, wildly speculative aspect of this idea that does show Wilhelm thinking totally out of the 1970s box in terms of social evolution is in how she uses sexuality. The clones are encouraged to be sexually active in all possible permissive ways from as early an age as they want, and they evolve a mat-playtime component to their socialising. This is essentially a long group sex session for group bonding and mutual satisfaction and comfort, enhanced by their in-group telepathy. I assume that the germ of this idea came from Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Some other 1970s preoccupations – for instance ecology – also made it into her story of the possible future.

Wilhelm was clearly thinking only about the social effects of cloning on society, since the successive four sections of the novel deal with what happens when cloning has been achieved; what happens to an isolated society when a child is born naturally and grows up outside a clone group; and how cloning reduces imagination and lateral thinking to such an extent that the highly trained clones can’t think for themselves, and are ultimately an evolutionary dead-end. This vision is brilliant, a splendidly-told and enacted extrapolation of a single idea, that works so well as a central thread of narrative. This is why this novel won its awards.

Wilhelm writes with most power when she’s describing how Mark, the throwback human in the community of clones, behaves and acts in opposition to his environment. This is a very effective way of imagining being human as ‘other’, and works so well to add tension to the brave but hopeless expeditions of the clones to try to find new supplies. They can’t learn to find their way in the woods, they don’t understand how to rebuild a mill, they can’t improvise or imagine, they don’t believe what they haven’t been told, they die of exposure and radiation, but not stupidity. The clones are not stupid, they’re just incapable of learning and adapting. Ultimately, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is about what being human means.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr

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 katemacdonald.net.

Ammonite, Nicola Griffith

ammoniteAmmonite, Nicola Griffith (1993)
Review by Kate Macdonald

I think this may have been the first sf novel I read that I instantly recognised as feminist: not stealth, or muted, or sub-conscious. It was Nicola Griffith’s first novel, and if she had never written anything again it would still be stunning: it won the Tiptree Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Premio Italia.

Ammonite is an exploration story set on a male-free planet; they’re not even needed for making babies. The impetus behind this novel seems to be, what would a world be like when there weren’t any men? And the answer is, a perfectly normal world, but with only women, which changes all the social dynamics. It’s a very simple premise, but the result is an outstanding novel. The setting and story stay with you, you want to know more, and to have the story continue.

The world is called Jeep – GP – and it was first investigated by the Company, an Alien-like conglomerate Griffith uses as a useful metaphor for authority and interference on a galactic scale. Company colonists were sent down to explore, and a planetary virus killed all the men, and a fifth of the women. Company promptly quarantined the planet, and set up extreme decontamination procedures for anyone who wanted to leave. This includes the complete removal of the subject’s blood lymph and bone marrow: I can’t see that one being compatible with continuing to live. The women that remained maintained the Company settlement for five years, and when the story opens they’re showing unmistakeable signs of becoming settlers rather than a temporary mission because, of course, they can’t leave.

Marghe the xeno-anthropologist is the newcomer through whose eyes we see the story unfold. She takes the one-way trip to the surface to make closer contacts with the natives, because this is the professional opportunity of a lifetime. The natives are human, living in a collection of communities with different social organisations. They originate from Earth, centuries before, which explains their mixed-up lingua franca of different Earth languages. Now, they’re all illiterate and tribal, some are settled and agricultural and some are nomadic and pastoral; most are peaceful, but one tribe is showing very worrying signs of irrational aggression. Times are not so much hard as fragile: a bad harvest or the death of a leader can tip a group into jeopardy, which is why the social trading and allegiance system of trata is essential for communal survival. Marghe is given help by one group, which puts her, and the Company settlement, in a trata relationship. For the first time, the Company settlement has a stake in the planet’s future, they will be consulted, they will be asked for help, they exist. But Marghe is struggling against her innate suspicion of Company, and her loyalties to her own people. Her instincts are to get away from the confines of the Company enclosure and live among the women of Jeep. It helps that she’s a brilliant linguist, so the first hurdle for understanding goes down quickly, and she heads out into this brave new world to see what she can see, and learn as much as she can.

Naturally, she gets into trouble. She strays into a bad electrical storm, she gets lost on the high plateau, she gets captured by the worryingly aggressive nomadic tribe and is forced into servitude to survive the winter, in a tribe that is clearly malnourished and inbred, and is being influenced by a madwoman who thinks she is the reincarnation of the Death Spirit. Griffiths draws on lots of different Earth societies for Jeep’s different social groups, and her depiction of this nomadic tribe with an unpronounceable faux-Gaelic name is pretty chilling. Marghe’s obstinate refusal to just shut up and keep the fire going is infuriating, because it’s perfectly plain to the reader that she has no chance of surviving the hostile environment and the hostile people unless she learns and listens, but Marghe’s own demons are too noisy for her to listen to anything else going on, a lot of the time. Her eventual escape seems like a miracle, and not one that she earned with prudence or caution.

Once she struggles over the winter plain with much suffering and several lost frostbitten fingers, Marge is rescued from delirium by the farmers of Ollfoss, and she recovers her mind and her health in a society that less charitable readers might snoot at as being a feminist hippy commune, and lose interest in the novel at this point, but it worked for me. I really like the depiction of a society where children are shared between parental groups (see Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake), and where different skills find different outlets. The village Marghe comes to live in seems like an ecologist’s dream of comfortable subsistence living, with hot tubs, communal gardens, a gong-banging pavilion to echo the electromagnetic pulse of the planet and a very sensible trading ethic. Making things is very important for these people, but the things that are made are not always tangible. Marghe falls in love with Thenike, a travelling story-teller, arbitrator and wise woman, and finds that her anthropologist’s training has given her these skills too, so she can become part of the native economy herself. Their travels put them in touch with news, and with political developments, which come to a head when the terrifying wild tribe of the north starts to raid southwards, killing as they go. The parallel plot, of what the Company settlers are going to do to avoid being blown up by the military cruiser parked in orbit to keep an eye on them, and how they’re going to fit into this world, comes to a head at about the same time. The plotting is very skilful, since the book ends with plenty of loose ends but also with the most urgent plot problems resolved and sorted. It’s all very satisfying, and leaves you wanting much, much more of this world and its richly imagined life. This is one of Griffith’s major strengths as a novelist: her worlds work at all levels, and embed themselves deeply in the reader’s imagination.

You may be wondering about how this all-female society breeds. How are the children conceived, if there aren’t any men to do what human insemination requires? Well, it’s all in the mind. The virus enables women to tweak their own gametes and the gametes of their lovers, when they go into a sex-related trance state, so that children (girls) can be conceived as an act of love. This seems perfectly plausible, if you’ve got the ability to work on your own biofeedback, as a kind of meditative extension of yoga or t’ai chi. You can do pretty much anything to your own biology, once you know what you’re doing and have the mental whatnot to tweak the cells. Anne McCaffrey used this idea too, in her telepathy short stories, Pegasus in Flight. Forget about the science, embrace the concept.

One of the consequences of there being no men (though there are male animals: the virus is apparently not a male-hater, just a man-eater) is that society runs itself differently from how we know it. This is the utopian aspect of Ammonite, exploring how a society could develop following only female interests. There are no hierarchies: that’s the most obvious factor. Group leaders lead through common sense, and put the tribe first. The mystical element to how these societies operate does affect their social practice: if you can look back along the generations and see how your great-great-grandmother did something, or dealt with a particular problem, then that naturally throws a wild card into the otherwise logical process of gaining experience and learning how to manage a tribal meeting. It would be like having the lives of all your ancestors on tap for a special consultation, taking the place of written records and archive-keeping that most human societies develop.

Without hierarchies, there is a strong focus on fair treatment, equal treatment, and no-one taking advantage of anyone else. Open discussion of disagreements resolves problems, and nobody seems to be angling for personal power, or gain. There are exceptions: the madwoman who wanted to lead the tribe to a bloody killing swathe over the planet was deranged, a result of too much inbreeding. Leifin, the woman who saved Marghe from the winter plains, shows signs of not only developing capitalist tendencies – an obsessive pursuit of trata for its own sake, and trading advantages beyond anything she actually needs – but also hunting for pleasure as well as for the skins of the creatures she kills. This is another of the enticing loose ends that Griffith leaves open: Leifin is hunting goth, a mythical creature whom most people think is an invention, but whom Marghe has seen, and whom Liefin has killed for its pelt. Marghe suspects the goth of being one of the indigenous inhabitants of the planet, a true alien, and also an intelligent one, who made the standing stone circles, and still survives in the forests. This takes the story back to a different level, where we can start questioning colonisation in all its forms, and look more searchingly at the Earth-imported human women who now act as natives. This is a novel of unfolding imaginative invention, it’s rich and packed, and definitely worth rediscovering.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.

Once A Hero, Elizabeth Moon

onceaheroOnce A Hero, Elizabeth Moon (1997)
Review by Kate Macdonald

Elizabeth Moon writes sf about the space navy, making combat and military command truly gender-neutral. I first came across Moon when she co-wrote volumes 1 and 3 of a space trilogy with Anne McCaffrey, called Sassinak and Generation Warriors. I was powerfully struck by these novels because (a) they were a rejuvenation in quality from anything McCaffrey had done on her own, and (b) they brought into being a whole new space navy universe that I really wanted to read more about. I did try one of Moon’s fantasy novels once, from the Paksworld series, but couldn’t be bothered with it: medievalised multi-volume fantasy epics bore me. The depth of Moon’s science fiction imagination is what makes her an outstanding novelist for me.

Once A Hero is the central novel of a sequence of seven, called the Serrano Legacy. The structure is a bit convoluted: bear with me here. The first three novels (Hunting Party (1993), Sporting Chance (1994) and Winning Colors (1995)) are about a cashiered space navy captain, Heris Serrano, who’s grimly creating a new career for herself captaining a rich old lady’s private yacht as they roam the galaxy looking for bloodstock for the old lady’s stable of racehorses. You’ll have noticed the key words in the book titles that suggest racing, chasing, sport and surviving. The plot thickens into a dark story of a human hunt by navy officers on planet leave. In the course of this, Serrano begins to realise that her cashiering and enforced departure from the Fleet was a set-up, naval security has been compromised, planet pirates are moving in, and it all gets very exciting as she shows her quality and takes command of a navy vessel to beat off the attack. During the last 20 pages of Winning Colors, we hear about a remarkable but unassuming junior lieutenant who got involved in a mutiny to prevent the ship’s captain turning over ship and crew to an enemy force, and ended up commanding the ship, demonstrating seriously effective tactical and strategic thinking on her feet, and destroying the enemy vessel.

This junior lieutenant is Esmay Suiza, and her story is told in the next novel, Once a Hero, and continues in three more novels. The Serrano characters take a back seat for these, but remain as a a dynasty of powerful and influential high-ranking space navy commanders and admirals (all women), plus one very junior male ensign. The Esmay Suiza novels are a long, leisurely read of high-tech weaponry, addictive storytelling and political intrigue in a military world that I find fascinating because I’ve never served in the military. I know almost nothing about real or plausible military protocol and etiquette, but I do find it interesting that in focusing the narrative on how people relate to each other within ranks, within services, in how they work together, Moon makes sure that we learn vast amounts about how the service works as a whole.

The factor that determines the shape of people’s careers and the sociology of Moon’s universe in Once A Hero, and the whole Serrano series, is the idea of extended life. In John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen, extending women’s lives caused men to sit up and take notice, because this meant a serious change in men’s social roles. In Once A Hero, extending life through biological rejuvenation is expensive and thus limited, but it is gender-neutral: anyone can do it, if they can afford it. It’s also a routine medical and cosmetic procedure. Socially speaking, its effect will be to freeze up career advancement through the institutions and the governing powers at the top end, and in Once A Hero it’s already having an economic effect, as an obvious marker of wealth, influence and power for those who need to make a living. Rejuv becomes an essential in the quality of life, which drives up its value, thus causing unnerving instability in the interplanetary economy, and in galactic politics. Even the barbarian hordes of Aethar’s World want longer life, despite their Viking tendencies to leap joyously into battle to embrace death. These sophisticated repercussions show Moon’s quality as a novelist, in creating wondrous, logic-based worlds by working out the social repercussions of an idea. The hardware of traditional space opera is merely an add-on in her worlds.

Moon puts the idea of a quick-fix physical rejuvenation to meaningful use by applying it to medicine, to rejuvenating the body after injury. In the story, the assurance of rejuvenation appears to discount the effects of serious damage done to characters, but that is when we only think about physical damage. There is hardly any violence in Once A Hero, but what there is, is pretty nasty. When characters receive wounds this is recounted neutrally, and constantly buttressed with reassurances, from the characters to each other, or implicitly to the reader, that the damage will be fixed: rejuv will mend the bones, and the internal organ damage will be repaired after a few weeks in the rejuv tanks. But after the bones have mended, Moon takes a lot of time to show how psychological damage as a result of combat or attack is affecting these serving soldiers, male and female. Rejuv can’t help this damage: this is a matter for the psychonannies, a kind of nurse therapist whom the soldiers regard with dismay and some shame while they’re still denying that they need help, but eventually go to freely. Since I haven’t read any modern war fiction I don’t know how common this is in stories about Iraq or Afghanistan. By setting war-related psychiatric trauma in a sf context Moon has freedom to explore the areas she wants, and to send feminist messages which wouldn’t work so well in a real-life war setting. Esmay is only able to open up about her trauma when she feels she can do good by her disclosure, so she offers her pain as a gift and as an example to a damaged junior colleague who is also struggling with male pride about being tough. Thus she demonstrates leadership, strength, empathy, and does not hang on to egotricity. Is this feminist? Not particularly, but it does show what a cracking good leader this female soldier will be, once she works out what she really wants in her life.

Esmay Suiza’s problem is that she is a phenomenally talented junior lieutenant who should be a command-track candidate, but she has inexplicably shunted herself into technical track service, as if she wanted to bury herself in a job where she would be good and useful but unseen. Why is this? She’s already suffered considerable violence that she is only just beginning to discover in her past, and the novel is largely concerned with her recovering memories, her readjustment of her relationships with those who lied to her, and how she will learn to think of herself from now on.

In the universe of Moon’s novels, most planetary civilisations allow the sexes to be equal (she does not mention intersexes, but maybe she will in the future). In Once A Hero and its sequels we get a closer look at two planetary civilisations where they are not, so we can compare them. The first is the really very ludicrous barbarian culture of Aethar’s World, which is nothing more than a high-tech Valhalla: their women are only for breeding and feeding. The other is Esmay Suiza’s own planet of Altiplano, a horse-breeding and agricultural society where women can hold office but are excluded from military role, and are expected to have total responsibility for the home. It’s fossilised, but not necessarily closed, and Esmay has run away from it. What makes Esmay such an interesting hero is that she is a woman excelling in military prowess against the tradition of her family. A woman who left her planet to specialise in technical-track military training, against cultural tradition. Hmm. Why would she do this? What made her leave? Any what has this to do with her very confused ideas about what she is, and what she can clearly do?

Elizabeth Moon’s two sf series, the Vatta’s War books and the Serrano Legacy series, have these characteristics in common: a woman commanding a military or armed force, in charge of teams of men and women; a woman with brilliant tactical and strategic planning skills; a woman happy to have relationships with men lower down the chain of command, but also not stupid enough to let these jeopardise any mission; a woman with empathy for the weak and vulnerable, and no time for the arrogant and stupid; a woman with a goal and a strong sense of her own worth. There will be extended scenes of fighting on- and off-board ship, of the unravelling of deceptions, of nail-biting bluff-heavy interviews, huge amounts of rich technical description that we don’t have to understand if we don’t want to, a strong sense of the bigness of space, and the eternal worry about the consequences of not having enough credit to fix the FTL drive when bits fall off. The economics of flying a space ship are uppermost in the minds of most of Moon’s female characters, because many of them have budget responsibility, as commercial traders, military commanders, or private contractors running their own businesses. This is extraordinarily refreshing (see my grumpy remark about medievalised fantasy epics, above). There is also a very good joke about a fruit cake, but you’ll need to look for it in the Vatta’s War series. Elizabeth Moon is a totally consistent novelist: her quality never falters. Go read her now.

This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald – about writing, reading an publishing.