The Mists of Avalon – Pluralism and Feminism

I’ve been spending my summer reading time working on books for my SLA (Specialized Literature Area) Exam, which is focusing on the New Weird (hence all the China Miéville reviews recently). However, I was starting to get frustrated and overwhelmed with the project and allowed myself a “real” summer reading book, something that wasn’t geared toward any project or exam I’m currently working on. I’m not sure how I picked Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, but I got my boyfriend to bring it home from the library and read the first half of the book in about two days. The second half took the rest of the week, but I can now turn back to my exam reading feeling somewhat refreshed and ready to look at the New Weird with new eyes.

I’m not going to try to summarize the plot; suffice it to say that The Mists of Avalon is a retelling of the King Arthur legends from the point of view of the various women involved, mostly Arthur’s half-sister Morgaine and his wife Gwenhwyfar. It is a work of epic proportions: 900 pages, spanning 60+ years. What the story is really about, though, is the rise of Christianity against the worship of the Goddess at Avalon. As Britain becomes a “Christian land” with a “Christian king,” the worship of the Goddess is practiced less and the isle of Avalon fades farther and farther into the mist. Much of this is represented as a power struggle between Morgaine, a priestess of Avalon, and Gwenhwyfar, the Christian queen reared by nuns and ruled by her fear of sin and guilt over her love of Lancelet. These two women hold a great deal of sway over Arthur, Morgaine as the mother of his only child and Gwenhwyfar as his lawfully wedded wife. Morgaine, however, refuses to fully exploit her power, hiding away her son, Gwydion, from Arthur until he is grown.

What I found most interesting as I was reading this book was the way my loyalties changed throughout. The characters in this novel are well-constructed; I both hated and sympathized with almost every one of them throughout the course of the narrative, which I always take as the sign of good characters (this is one of the main reasons I love Battlestar Galactica). I often perceived the women of Avalon as shrewish as they insisted Arthur maintain the status of Goddess worship alongside Christianity, like they were not acknowledging the complicated materialities of Arthur’s position, how he must manage so many people in order to keep peace. I tended to side with the Merlins, Taliesin and Kevin, who argued for plurality: that all Gods are one God no matter what name he is called by, and that the time of Avalon had passed, so the best thing to do was to infuse Christianity with as much of druidism and Goddess worship as possible. Thus, Kevin steals the Holy Regalia of the Goddess in order for it to be in the world, incorporated into Christian worship. What brought me back to the side of Avalon, over and over again, was the reminder that women were getting really and truly hosed under the brand of Christianity that was coming from Camelot (there were other groups of Christians that were finding themselves persecuted for accepting the pluralistic view that Taliesin preached; Kevin is something of a different story, I think). I think that the scene between Gwydion and Niniane toward the end of the novel is very telling, as Gwydion, who does not ascribe to Christianity seeks to police Gwenhwyfar’s sexual liasons in the same way the Christian priests would, but Niniane refuses to participate and Gwydion kills her. The new system of gender hierarchy is not strictly a Christian one, but it is pervasive and unstoppable.

Which leads to my complaints about the end of the novel. Morgaine’s discovery of the Goddess in the small chapel dedicated to Mary and the simple joy that nuns of Glastonbury experience in their lives represents for her that the Goddess lives on in the world in a new form, that her work was not in vain, and that she should have listened to Kevin all along. At the same time, I’m infuriated that Morgaine is okay with the sexual rights of women virtually disappearing, and I’m dissatisfied that the novel’s ending suggests that all has worked out for the best. A pluralist society is not really pluralist when not everyone accepts and acknowledges the pluralism, which is exactly what Morgaine and the women of Avalon argue for when they ask Arthur to protect Goddess worship in his kingdom.

All in all, The Mists of Avalon was a very fun immersion; I had forgotten what it’s like to lose myself in an epic fantasy. I think, though, that the novel’s feminism is beginning to feel a bit dated, and I’m now interested in reading some more recent feminist fantasy masterpieces.

P.S. I tried to watch the TNT movie adaptation, but only got through about 5 minutes. It was unbearably cheesy and I hated how everyone was automatically older than they were in the book.

The Scar – Agency and the Lack Thereof

China Mieville’s 2002 novel The Scar is a loose sequel to Perdido Street Station, set in Bas-Lag several months after the events of the previous novel. Like its predecessor, The Scar won the British Fantasy Award, and it was nominated for the Arthur C. Clark, the Philip K. Dick, and the Hugo awards.

The Plot: Bellis Coldwine, a former lover of Isaac Grimnebulin, has been forced to flee New Crozubon as all of Isaac’s friends and acquaintances begin disappearing, courtesy of the New Crozubon militia. Bellis books passage to a New Crozubon colony by working as a translator, but on the way her ship is commandeered by a New Crozubon spy and then by pirates. Bellis, the passengers and crew, and the ship are taken to Armada, a city constructed of other stolen ships and led by a pair of sinister figures called the Lovers. As this pair constructs schemes within schemes and persuades public opinion to their side, Bellis works with the New Crozubon spy to get a message back home.

I really like novels that feature “constrained cities”: cities that occupy a single (albiet large) building, cities that a hemmed in by external forces like nature, cities that occupy space ships/space stations, etc. So I found Armada completely fascinating, the details about social organization in the confined space, descriptions of living quarters carved out of what were formerly functional ship spaces, the public garden that had been built by raiding parties traveling to shore to steal dirt, and so on and so forth. What I like about these constrained cities is how often we see social structure affecting and being affected by physical structures; for example, what we think of as a family unit changes when there isn’t enough room for each group of husband, wife, and children to have their own quarters. Armada didn’t disappoint; in a city where the primary income is brought in through piracy, the residents have developed particular ways of divvying up the spoils, including those humans who are brought into residency against their will. Each riding has its own rulers and policies since the city has grown too big to be managed as a unified whole, as we see when the Lovers begin trying to do just that.

Bellis Coldwine was an interesting heroine. I found her immediately appealing because of the way she carefully considers her options in various situations: “Bellis sat still. She was not intimidated by this man, but she had  no power over him, none at all. She tried to work out what was most likely to engage his sympathy, make him acquiesce” (14-5). In the same way, she considers how others, especially the Lovers, are using language to persuade others. She is, in short, a rhetorician, weighing her available means of persuasion and analyzing the means of others throughout the novel as she navigates her way back to New Crozubon. If you read my posts about Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, you know that representations of rhetors and rhetoric in fiction is one of my primary concerns, and I really consider The Scar a win for rhetoric.

I kept thinking, though, as I was reading, that this novel seemed to be less political than Perdido Street Station; while the social organization of Armada is interesting, it also seems very tied to a particular physical organization and, consequently, has few implications for “real life”. I’ve decided, though, that this novel is just as political, but in a different way; rather than being a story about people getting together to do something, this is a story about not having agency. Bellis realizes at the end of the adventure (for lack of a better word) that she had been a tool the whole time, first of one man, then another. While she did influence the events that happened, she could not do so in any kind of informed or strategic way, because she never had enough information to really know what she was doing, even when she was very good at doing it. And Bellis was very good at persuading others, manipulating some events to (what she thought was) her advantage. When Bellis realizes that she had no real agency in the events, though, she simply accepts this, since her “service” does ultimately earn her a ride back to New Crozubon (so does that count as agency? I feel so conflicted…). It is Bellis’s reaction to this revelation that made me feel a bit, well, cold toward her; I found that I had been pulled into sympathizing with Bellis more than maybe I should have because I immediately grabbed onto what I saw as our commonalities (“You’re a rhetorician?! I’m a rhetorician too! We should hang out sometime!”). Her utilitarian reaction to being a pawn, though, rankles my sense of justice even as it caters to my cynicism. At the same time, the ambiguity I feel toward her now (she can be a right bitch at moments) makes her even better as a character, and I can think of few female fantasy characters written by men who have impressed me this much.

One last thing that I would like to note is that I think in this novel we see some inklings of Embassytown in Bellis’s work as a translator. She is frequently admonished to pay no attention to what she is translating, to only let the words flow through her, but this is, of course, impossible until she begins translating the abstract scientific language of Kruach Aum. That is, the language can only flow through her if it is language she doesn’t understand in the first place — if it isn’t really language to her at all because she cannot interpret it.

 

Perdido Street Station – Rape, Crime, Identity, and Social Constructions

China Mieville’s 2000 novel Perdido Street Station was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula in 2002 and won several other awards, including the Arthur C. Clark Award and the British Fantasy Society’s August Derleth Award. It also put him on the map for science fiction scholars, and since then, he’s been one of the most-often examined contemporary writers in science fiction journals.

The Plot: Isaac, a scientist studying out-of-mode theories who has a khepri artist as a lover, is approached by a garuda who has had his wings removed with an interesting commission: to make him fly again, whether by wings or some other means. In the course of his research, Isaac inadvertantly releases a brain-sucking parasite onto the city of New Crozubon, a parasite with no natural predators for thousands of miles. In the course of amending his mistake, Isaac gleans allies from several groups, including the New Crozubon criminal element, the wingless garuda, the newly sentient Construct Council, mercenaries, political activists, and a creature from another dimension. Even after Isaac and his crew manage to save the city, the oppressive regime in power and a criminal kingpin continue to hunt him as the perpetrator, and he is forced to flee the city.

I read Joan Gordon’s article “Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship” before Perdido Street Station itself and, consequently, had her ideas about hybridity and social organization in my head as I was reading. It’s true that, as Gordon argues, Isaac’s plan requires many different kinds of people in order to work, but I also saw the novel as examining the many ways in which we construct difference. Much like The City and the City, we see many spaces where differences are upheld on tenuous logics, like the separation of the two khepri neighborhoods, Creekside and Kinken. The residents of Kinken, Isaac’s khepri lover Lin reflects, construct Creekside as a ghetto in order to not be living in a ghetto themselves. Likewise, there is a division between the the cactacae who live within the Glass House, supposedly keeping their traditions alive, and those who live without. But we also see several places where differences are real and not constructed, notably with the Construct Council and the Weaver (and I would like to say that I think Miéville does an excellent job of creating characters that fall outside of human ideologies, here with the Weaver and with the Arakei in Embassytown).

I’d really like to spend some time with the garuda, another place where we see real, as opposed to constructed, difference: first with Yagharek and then with the New Crozubon garuda Isaac meets in the Spatters. Before I started off my summer reading with Perdido Street Station, I did a small project on Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy, and I’ve been thinking a lot about her philosophy that utopias in SF happen too suddenly, that humans can’t get to utopia without a great deal of hardship and resistance. Thus, the Xenogenesis Trilogy shows this resistance as well as the small steps towards a better humanity, while questioning some of the ideologies that inform our ideas of “better” (see, for instance, Zaki and Miller). I think that we see something similar with the garuda; their ideology of the individual results in something of a utopian society, but it’s a society that is completely unworkable in the space of New Crozubon, as we see with the hierarchical structure of the garuda in the Spatters, the need for someone to be in charge in order to keep the others safe. I feel like this is an important reminder of how deeply physical space affect societal construction; what seems to be the best way for the garuda to live in small tribes in the harsh desert landscape does them little good in the city where different resources are necessary for survival.

I found Kar’uchai’s meeting with Isaac deeply affecting for a number of reasons. First of all, I felt like Miéville had somehow broken our writer/reader contract by making me sympathize with a character who turned out to be a rapist. I felt like, in some ways, my choice had been stolen, my choice to reject or accept Yagharek after being given all the information. And I was upset that the closing section of the novel seem to present Yagharek as somehow redeeming himself for his crime by plucking his feathers and not being a garuda any more. At the same time, I realized that I was committing the same mistake that Isaac does, by reading the rape of Kar’uchai through my own ideological conceptions of rape. Really, murder is a much worse crime, but I wouldn’t have felt as upset by finding out that Yagharek had killed someone. More importantly, though, Kar’uchai forces Isaac (and the reader) to reconsider how our concepts of rape interpolate the “rape victim” as somehow different from victims of other crimes. She says, “I was not violated or ravaged […] I am not abused or defiled … or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was … judged […] Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims” (609-10) The one crime of choice-theft for the garuda, with its many possible manifestations, asks the reader to reflect on the underlying logic of our own criminal system and the way that system ranks the severity of crimes.

  • Gordon, Joan. “Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station.” Science Fiction Studies 30.3 (2003): 456–76. Print.
  • Miéville, China. Perdido Street Station. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000. Print.
  • Miller, Jim. “Post-Apocalyptic Hoping: Octavia Butler’s Dystopian/Utopian Vision.” Science Fiction Studies (1998): 336–360. Print.
  • Zaki, Hoda M. “Utopia, Dystpia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” Science Fiction Studies 17.2 (1990): 239–51. Print.

Fire – Women, Beauty, Children, and Risk

Kristin Cashore’s 2009 novel Fire  is a companion to Graceling rather than the sequel I was hoping for. Instead, we travel back in time with Graceling‘s primary antagonist Leck to witness his first attempt to take over a kingdom, this time the Dells, a land separated from the seven kingdoms by an impassable mountain range. While Fire doesn’t continue the story of Katsa, it does pick up on several of the themes from Graceling that I found interesting.

The Plot: The Dells is a kingdom populated with both regular varieties of recognizable animals and people and monster varieties: unnaturally brightly colored creatures with the mental abilities to ensnare regular human and other animals in order to make them easier prey. While monster animals are widely prevalent, monster humans are much more rare; in fact, there is only one, named Fire after her widely colored red hair. Lady Fire lives in relative seclusion in the northern part of the kingdom for two reasons: 1) many people are unable to control their attraction to or strong reaction against her and she must constantly be on her guard, and 2) her father, Lord Cansrel, basically ran the kingdom into the ground through his control over the previous king and insatiable desire for chaos and strife. As much as Fire prefers her quiet life, teaching local children music and how to guard their minds against the monsters and spending her evenings with childhood friend and part time lover Lord Archer and his father, the unrest in the kingdom results in Prince Brigan, commander of the King Nash’s army, escorting her to the King’s City to assist in wartime preparations and spy operations. For some time, Fire resists using her impressive mental abilities to break into the minds of captured spies and enemies, but twins Prince Garan and Princess Clara convince her of her responsibility to the kingdom. As Fire gets more involved with political intrigue, she also gets more involved with Prince Brigan and his daughter Hanna, before finding herself facing young Leck, the ugliest mind she has met yet.

Fire is primarily a romance, and to a certain degree it put me in mind of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls; both feature women who wish they could travel and live without the necessary trappings of their lives, but who both come to understand that “with great power comes great responsibility.” The important difference is, of course, that Paladin of Souls is about a middle aged woman, not a young one, and that plays into the narrative and its critiques. Fire is a more conventional romance with a young beautiful lady and a young powerful prince…who happens to have a five year old daughter. As I skimmed through the reviews on Goodreads, several commented, whether positively or negatively, on the sexual and marriage politics of the novel, and that is a very large part of the novel. However, I would disagree with those who criticized the novel for its pro-casual sex stance; I think it’s more complicated than that. Archer, the most promiscuous character of the novel, is not treated kindly for his choices; as he blames Fire’s rejections of his frequent proposals of marriage for his sometimes unseemly behavior, Fire refuses to take the blame, telling him that he was responsible for his own actions and that those actions made him somewhat distasteful to her, even as she continued to love him as a friend (she ends their relationship as lovers halfway through the novel). Those women who do sleep with Archer face the consequences: both Princess Clara and Mila, one of Fire’s guards, end up pregnant. Brigan’s youthful relationship with a stable girl results in his daughter (the mother passed away shortly after the child’s birth). One of the reasons that Fire does shy away from casual sex, even as she so easily entices so many men, is because she refuses to risk children, who would undoubtedly be monsters as well. In fact, Fire takes herbs that will make her permanently barren, even though she deeply desires children and feels so jealous of Clara and Mila in their pregnancies.

Where the novel does depart from the social mores of some segments of our own society and of some depictions of “courtly” life is in what is at stake with a unexpected pregnancy. When Mila declares, “I’m ruined!”, she is not referring to her chances at getting a good husband or some risk of her being disowned by her family. Instead, because Mila is a soldier who uses her wages to support her sister and her sister’s children, her pregnancy will interfere with her ability to make money. Women are not socially punished for having children out of wedlock, and Mila is found another job that she is able to perform. Even bastards may be declared heirs without anyone batting an eye.

The feminist features of Cashore’s novels are complicated; she neither criticizes women for desiring children or upholds the assumed imperative of motherhood. At the same time, her texts do follow pretty standard, and somewhat disturbing, romance narratives in which young women are unable to fully be themselves, to feel all their feelings, until the right men come along. So I continue to feel ambivalent about this pair of novels, and I guess I’ll have to check out the third one, Bitterblue.

Graceling – Evil Rhetors and Female Survivors

Kristin Cashore’s debut novel Graceling was published in 2008, about two and a half weeks after Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. I make a point of saying this if only to remind myself that there is very, very little possibility that the novels are actually in conversation with each other, and instead they are perhaps reflecting larger cultural shifts. I read Graceling as part of the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge (henceforth the WoGF) since Cashore had been on my radar for a while, but I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I pretty much inhaled the novel; I read about half of it last night while I should have been reading for class, but no regrets.

The Plot: Katsa is the orphaned niece of King Randa and his number one thug. Possessing superhuman abilities, called her Grace, Katsa can kill pretty much anyone or anything with ease; unfortunately, she discovers her power by inadvertently killing an adult cousin when she was six years old because she did not want the man to touch her. Disgusted by her role as Randa’s enforcer throughout the seven kingdoms, Katsa organizes the Council, a group of individuals from lords down to servants who seek to protect citizens in all kingdoms from the power-hunger of their kings. Through her work for the Council, Katsa meets Po, a Graced fighting prince from the peaceful island of Lienid who searches for his kidnapped grandfather. After refusing to do Randa’s dirty work any longer, Katsa removes herself from the court and travels with Po as he seeks more information about his grandfather’s disappearance. What they discover is the underhanded work of the supposedly kind and beneficent King Leck of Monsea, who is himself Graced with the ability to fog people’s mind with his words and make them remember events as he chooses. Po and Katsa’s goal becomes saving Leck’s daughter Bitterblue from her sick, twisted, perverted, evil father.

So, a few quick notes on things that I could harp on and on about — but won’t — and then onto the things that I thought were really interesting.

  • Once again, the character who could be characterized as the Rhetor, using language to shape people’s perceptions of reality, is the villain. But not just any villain; Leck is really sick and despicable. I couldn’t help but think of Baron Harkonnen. Ugh. This, of course, makes me sad because seeing rhetoric get such a bad rap always makes me sad. I mean, Katsa uses rhetoric too, most notably in the scene when she tenders her resignation to her uncle; it is not her actual actions that persuade him; instead, her words about what her actions might be cause him to see the situation in a very different way. Rhetoric.
  • I commented on the connections I saw between Graceling and The Hunger Games earlier, the primary one being that they both feature female protagonists who are buffeted about by various physical and political forces, but who survive through being extremely good at survival skills. Now, I’m all for girls doing traditionally “boy” things, but I’m worried about what these narratives say to and about girls who like to do or are really good at doing “girl” things. Can’t cooking or sewing or organizing a community event save somebody sometime?
  • I’m going to talk more about Katsa and Po’s relationship next, but I really hated how once Katsa found the right man, all of a sudden she’s breaking into tears whenever and wherever, as long as it’s on his shoulder.

So much for that. What I thought was best and really interesting about this book was the way it constructs sex. Throughout the novel, Katsa continually claims that she never wishes to marry and she never wishes to have children. One suitor, upon hearing this, claims that of course she’ll want children eventually because all women do. I really sympathized with Katsa on this point, seeing as I’ve heard the same line a few times myself. Moreover, Katsa’s desire to not marry is culturally situated; as soon as she marries, she will have wifely obligations, and she doesn’t want to have to serve anyone but herself, and given her long tenure under Randa, the reader can understand her want of independence. (Interestingly, Katniss of The Hunger Games also claims to never want children for equally political reasons: she does not want to produce fodder for the Capitol’s games. However, SPOILER ALERT she does relinquish because of Peeta’s own desire for children, and I’m interested to see how Cashore deals with this same issue in subsequent books, given that she’s taken a much more feminist stand concerning inherent motherliness in women in Katsa’s choice than Katniss perhaps made in hers.)

So what happens is this: Po and Katsa fall in love (of course). Katsa kind of hates it because it means that she wakes up in the night afraid he won’t be there instead of being completely sufficient within herself. She wrestles with it and tells Po that it’s all futile because she will never marry and they should really just part ways so they don’t have to deal with their feelings all the time. Po tells her that they can be more than friends but less than married, and oddly enough, Katsa had never considered just taking a lover (I’m guessing because of societal constructs that discouraged women from knowing about such things so they wouldn’t do it). However, instead of being swept away in a fit of passion, Katsa dwells on it a few days, making sure of her own choice, and then, after guaranteeing that they have a form of birth control, she chooses to have sex with Po. And I loved it: the thorough forethought, the arrival at a decision, the conscious responsibility — it’s a model that I wish we saw more of.

The other thing that really struck me as I was reading was the theme of female survivorship. Katsa is extremely good at surviving, and she frequently takes it upon herself to protect other girls, especially from male predators. That her Grace manifests itself when she feels threatened by the untoward advances of her cousin is notable considering what she and Po save Bitterblue from, and Katsa is frequently appalled by the fact that women need to be most able to protect themselves but are taught nothing about fighting or surviving by those who claim to be protecting them. Her choice at the end to hold fighting schools for girls throughout the seven kingdoms suggests that this will be a theme explore in the sequels. At the same time, the novel has little to say about the trauma of abuse (Bitterblue copes quite well in her stoicism) or about structural changes that might bring about greater safety for women.

The Word for World Is Forest – Military States, Translators, and Humans who Change Everything

I wasn’t planning on writing about Ursula Le Guin’s Hugo award winning novella turned novel The Word for World Is Forest, but the 5 hour audiobook fit in nicely to my 6 hour drive to Tennessee. I was struck once again by the connections I see between the work of Le Guin and that of China Mieville, as well as the way this fit into some of the thinking I’d beendoing about representations of the military state.

The Plot: Terran colonists take over the planet Athshe (which means “forest”), calling it New Tahiti, cutting down huge swathes of forest, planting farms, and forcing the indigenous people into “voluntary” labor. The health of these slaves quickly deteriorates because their natural rest cycle is completely disrupted by their human masters; Athsheans sleep rarely and frequently engaged in lucid dreaming throughout the day, which the Terrans punish as laziness. Since they don’t sleep and because they are intraspecies non-aggressive, meaning they do not attack each other and they do not attack the humans whom they recognize as men and women as well, Athsheans (or “creechies” as the Terrans call them) make ideal workers. This happy state for the humans begins to change, however, begins to change when the Athsheans learn murder. Athshean Selver, who served the humans for a time until his wife was raped to death by a particularly cruel and xenophobic human named Davidson, leads a group of Athsheans into Davidson’s camp, killing all the men and burning the buildings. At this point, the off-planet government steps in and orders the humans to have no more contact with the Athsheans unless invited and to free all of the laborers. While most humans comply, Davidson gathers a group of like-minded followers and begins systematically wiping out Athshean villages in his area. In retribution, Selver and his followers attack the main headquarters of the human colonists, killing all five hundred women and many of the men and taking the rest prisoner. Selver orders that the humans remain in the already cleared area of Central until the government spaceship returns, at which point they will leave the planet for good. After Davidson is defeated, the human comply and return to Terra on the next flight.

First of all, I want to call attention to some of the gender issues at play here. For starters, Davidson is, to me, a hilarious character, drawn straight out of the macho-man days of pulp sci-fi; he cares a great deal about being masculine and hates anyone who isn’t. One of the things I really liked about this novel was the fact that Davidson is painted as quite the psychopath, casting into doubt all those previous heroes of sci-fi. Secondly, I wish to call attention to those five hundred women, women who either can to the colony to be brides to men they had never met or to be prostitutes. Having just rewatched 28 Days Later, I was struck by the fact that in our representations of a military state, women become a commodity almost instantly, for both sexual purposes and for reproduction. Women are what allow men to think that their work has some kind of purpose. The Athsheans  quickly realized that the presence of women meant that the humans could establish a permanent settlement; not the guns, not the machines, but the women.

The second thing (and really the more important for the purposes of this project) is the title of the book itself. Raj Lyubov, a scientist studying the Athsheans and their advocate in colonial matters, explicates some of the implications of the word “Athshe.” Terrans are bound to dirt, Athsheans are bound to trees; Terrans imagine themselves as clay, Athsheans imagine themselves as branches. I really appreciate the way this novel highlights the workings of ideology at a word-by-word level. One of the most important words is “sha’ab” which, Lyubov tells us, has many meanings (he explains that many words in the Athshean language are like coins, having two meaning). The primary meaning of “sha’ab” is “god,” and thus Selver is called when he begins fighting against the Terrans. The secondary meaning is “translator,” and it is upon this meaning that Lyubov spends some time ruminating. He comes to the conclusion that the “translator” aspect of the word refers to a individuals ability to translate what they see in dreaming into reality.

After Selver “translates” murder into reality, his people are fundamentally changed, and it is this aspect of the novel that reminds me the most of Mieville’s Embassytown, though the change in the Ariekei is arguably much more extensive than that in the Athsheans. Still, I find this idea of “translating” dreams into realities very interesting, especially since this kind of translating is very much bound up in language. At several points, the narrator notes that a Athshean says, “The whole land with be like the dry beach,” because she has no word for “desert.” As Lyubov examines the word “sha’ab” his mind is immediately drawn to the fact that Selver worked with him as a translator, making Terran-Athshean dictionaries. They spent a great deal of time sharing words to refer to what happens during dreaming. All of this highlights for me the necessity of a word in order to recognize a thing. Athsheans never killed each other until the humans came and gave them both the word and practice.

The Snow Queen – Mysticism and Science

I’m back after a long holiday hiatus with Joan D. Vinge’s 1981 Hugo winner The Snow Queen. I’ve seen this novel compared to Frank Herbert’s Dune a number of times, and being a rather passionate fan of the Dune novels (though I’ve occasionally asked if I could possibly get away with rewriting the sometimes dreadful prose), I was skeptical that Vinge’s universe could live up to Herbert’s; this was, after all, I said snottily to myself and others, the woman who wrote the novelizations for Mad Max Beyond ThunderdomeLadyhawke, and Cowboys and Aliens.

I had to eat every snotty thing I had said.

The Plot: The world of Tiamat has been refused official entrance in the Hegemony for quite some time due to its particular social structure: populated by two clans, the Winters and the Summers, the planet undergoes significant shift in power every 150 years, with each clan alternating rule. This shift in power is caused by the dramatic changes in planetary ecology resulting from the changes in the dual suns’ orbit around a black hole, in fact the black hole that allows interplanetary travel to and from Tiamat. What happens is this: for 150 years the Snow Queen and the Winters rule, indulging in technology and trading with offworlders, while the Hegemony maintains contact and a police force on the planet, located in the city of Carbuncle. Then, the planetary changes begin, the Summers flock to Carbuncle because the equitorial areas where they live during Winter become too hot for habitation, a Summer Queen is crowned, the Hegemony leaves the planet, and all technological progress ceases and even regresses, owing to both the Summers’ primitive lifestyle and refusal to engage with technological devices and the fact that when the Hegemony leaves all the devices that they might have left behind cease functioning immediately.

Of course, the offworlders have their own reasons for wanting Tiamat to make no technological progress: the water of life, the blood of the indigenous sea creatures known as mers that, when taken regular, staves off aging and death. If Tiamat gained technological freedom, they would no longer be forced to trade the water of life at such premiums. But the current Snow Queen, Arienrhod, has a plan, which begins with implanting several Summer women attending the Festival held every 20 years in Carbuncle with clones of herself. Only one of these clones, Moon, survives to adolescence, closely bonded with her cousin and lover Sparks. She and Sparks plan to become sibyls, individual highly revered among the Summers who can go into a trance state and answer any question asked of them through the power of their goddess (the Winters fear and kill sibyls).  However, while Moon is accepted as a trainee sibyl, Sparks is turned away and, because of the popular beliefs concerning contamination in sibyls’ bodily fluids, can no longer be Moon’s lover. He leaves his Summer family for Carbuncle, intent on exploring his offworlder heritage (his unknown father left his mother a medal proving his offworld status). Arienrhod quickly scoops up Sparks with the intention of using him to lure Moon to Carbuncle in order to train her as her Summer replacement so that Moon may continue the revolution that Arienrhod has begun. After receiving a message supposedly from Sparks asking her to come to Carbuncle, Moon sets off, but along the way she becomes involved with offworld smugglers who must make a desperate run from Hegemony police. Hence, though it is very much illegal, Moon ends up on the Hegemony capital planet of Kharemough, where she discovers that sibyls exist throughout the Hegemony without the same stigma that is propagated throughout Carbuncle. In fact, the Hegemony encourages fear of sibyls as a means of keeping the people of Tiamat in the dark, since, instead of communing with their goddess, sibyls are actually connecting to a large database of information put in place before the fall of the previous Hegemony so that humanity would not regress entirely. With this new knowledge in hand, Moon returns to Tiamat, only to find that in her absence, Sparks has become Starbuck, the Snow Queen’s consort, lover, and hunter of mers, something abhorred and forbidden by the Summers. As she rescues Sparks and becomes the Summer Queen, Moon also discovers something Arienrhod never suspected: the database of sibyl knowledge is actually stored on Tiamat, below Carbuncle, and the mers are intelligent, genetically engineered creatures designed to protect and maintain the database. Armed with this knowledge, Moon takes her place as Summer Queen as the offworlders leave, hoping to bring about some kind of change in the relationship between the Hegemony and Tiamat in her reign.

I immediately understood why so many people were connecting this novel with Dune: the water of life is the spice, the Tiamatans are the Fremen, the Hegemony is the Galactic Empire, and so on and so forth. But beyond this superficial plot connections, I found that this novel had a very similar combination of mysticism and science, and I was especially delighted to see that even when the unexplainable is explained in detail by science, such as how the sibyls get their knowledge, the ritual of the thing is not diminished. This is not a novel about progressive science vs. primitive mysticism; rather, it is about the power of hybridity, and even Moon who formerly had no interest in technology, who saw it as having nothing to do with her life, comes to understand the importance of her “primitive” Summer culture changing their attitudes and instead putting technology to use, not against the Winters, but against the offworlders.

In fact, I like this book better than Dune in a lot of ways, and I especially enjoyed the feminist aspects: the matriarchal society, the valuing of “intuitive” knowledge in the form of the sibyls, a focus on the way romantic relationships between two people are also indicative of larger politics, and so on and so forth. But more than that, I liked that line between good and evil wasn’t drawn at all. Granted, in Dune we begin rooting for the Atreides against the Harkonnen but quickly realize that when it comes to the Fremen, both are equally bad. However, the Harkonnens are never not evil. The same might be said for the Emperor. In The Snow Queen, we begin by rooting for the Summers against the Winters, but quickly realize that the divide is superficial in the larger picture; even cold and seemingly heartless Arienrhod has developed her plans in order to better the lives of her people, including the Summers. We might then turn our animosity toward Gaia Jerusha PaleThion, a representative of the Hegemonic police force in Carbuncle, but her story is rife with its own problems, especially concerning her difficult career as a female law enforcement officer in a man’s Hegemony. We then look toward the capital planet of Kharemough and its inhabitants but, though they are nice and smug about their place in the grand scheme of things, their lives are also governed by a complicated social system that frequently demands ritualistic suicide and shuns those who are unable to carry through with such. Even the prime minister of the Hegemony admits that he is only a figurehead for attending Festivals and parades and has no real power. In short, the only thing we have left to hate is the system itself, the Hegemony devoid of any representative individual. And perhaps that is one of the things that is so enthralling about this book: you know that someone somewhere has to be benefiting from this system, but you just don’t know who.

In terms of language, Vinge has a fascinating way of representing languages that are not Tiamatan. While Tiamatan is presented as standard English, other languages are written in English but each with its own idiomatic syntax, as though this is what it would be if translated quite literally. For example, the Sandhi language is characterized by Yoda-like syntax:

Elsevier lifted her hands. “Forgive me, KR — I didn’t come politics to argue, or your time of mine to waste. I’ve to you in your apolitical capacity come; and I’ve brought someone who your guidance needs.” (179)

Klostan features a limiting of be verbs and a lack of verb tenses other than the present:

“You hardly touch your meal. And after all the trouble your finest chefs go to to please us. This canawaba rind be excellent.”

“I not eat many twelve-course dinners in my line of work […] I guess I not be up to the challenge.”

I find this technique of depicting other languages fascinating, perhaps because it seems to simple yet I’ve never seen it done before. Furthermore, it illustrates a place for alternative Englishes in the spec-fic cannon, and I’d like to see more works that embrace alternative Englishes as a means of adding depth to language in the genre.