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.

Leviathan Wakes – Knowledge is Power

James S. A. Corey, the collaborative pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, received a Hugo nomination this year for their space-opera-esque Leviathan Wakes, a sweeping novel of multiple sites and genres (for a run-down visit Strange Telemetry). The authors have described it as an attempt to explain what happens between near-future and distant-future science fiction, that is, what pushes man out into the vast reaches of space. The novel alternates between two third-person narrators: “righteous” and somewhat uptight Captain James Holden and fallen, divorced, almost alcoholic Detective Joe Miller. While the relationship between these two was a bromance that at times felt cliched, the universe in which the narrative takes place definitely redeems the strained representations of interpersonal relationships.

The Plot: As this is a detective story along with being so many other things, documenting the twists and turns of the narrative would be time-consuming, and consequently, I’ll keep myself to the bare-bones here. The solar system is populated with human colonies as far as the moons of Neptune, though humanity still remains tethered to Earth and the increasingly Earth-like Mars for some resources. When Holden’s ship carrying water to the Belt (those small colonies found in the asteroid belt and beyond) is destroyed by what seems to be the Martian Navy disguised as pirates, he broadcasts what facts he has far and wide in an attempt to get some form of justice. However, he instead starts a war between the Belt and Mars. Meanwhile, Miller tries to maintain order on asteroid Ceres while being tasked with finding runaway rich girl Julie Mao. As the war escalates, with a Martain vessel being destroyed by what appears to be Earth ships, Miller loses his job as a cop but, obsessed with finding Julie, sets out to find Holden, the last human to have contact with Julie’s former ship. Miller and Holden converge on Eros, discover Julie’s body mangled by some bioweapon of unknown origin, and almost get stuck on the station as evil corporation Protogen (who has been behind starting the war) locks it down to run large-scale testing of their new weapon, which Miller and Holden later discover to be a protomolecule of alien origin hurled at the Earth billions of years ago but waylaid by Saturn. The protomolecule remakes life according to whatever instructions it has been programmed with, but also has a sense of improvisation. Miller and Holden team up with the Outer Planets Alliance, a terrorist/freedom fighter organization, to gain control of the space station from which the Protogen experiments are being managed, then to keep Eros and the bioweapon from falling into inner planet hands. As they begin enacting a plan to knock Eros into the sun, though, Eros demonstrates that the protomolecule has managed to adapt the rock into a space ship and it takes off toward Earth with Miller on its surface. As Miller explores its inside in an attempt to disable it before it destroys Earth, he realizes that Julie, or some mutated form of Julie, is controlling the ship. He finds her, wakes her up, and tells her to direct Eros to Venus instead, allowing himself to become part of the protomolecule’s larger ecosystem (and consequently part of Julie). Eros establishes itself on Venus and begins building things there as the governments of Earth, Mars, and the OPA attempt to reach a compromise.

Authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

I found two things striking as I was reading, the first being the importance of information distribution in the narrative. Holden, who believes firmly that everyone is entitled to the same information, is constantly broadcasting everything he knows under the assumption that secrecy allows injustice to continue. However, every time he broadcasts something, he starts another round of war as people willfully misinterpret the information as justification for killing people they already wanted to kill. Miller, on the other hand, vehemently argues that you can’t release information until you know what it means and what the effects are going to be. He understands that not everyone is going to be so careful about their analysis before they start shooting. These two characters debate this issue a number of times throughout the novel, and at the end of the novel, neither one is vindicated as right. The war only ceases long enough for negotiations because everyone realizes the greater threat of Protogen and the protomolecule, showing that information is powerful. Furthermore, the fact that Protogen was allowed to work in secrecy in the first place allowed them to enact these monstrosities in the first place. At the same time, these final bursts of information and their positive effects do not outweigh the destruction caused by Holden’s first information releases; the human race is still by and large populated with idiots who will twist data to support their own opinions. What doesn’t get discussed is how the information is packaged. It’s merely a case of releasing or not releasing, as though the information itself is somehow devoid from its surrounding context.

Rhetoric is discussed much more explicitly, though, in one of the novel’s more dramatic moments. After capturing the Protogen space station, Miller, Holden, and the OPA forces interrogate Dresden, who has been in charge of planning and deploying the Eros experiment. When asked why he did it, Dresden talks about the alien race who was already god-like enough to design something like the protomolecule and send it toward Earth before humans had even begun to evolve. He describes the ways in which the protomolecule could be used to adapt humans who did not need oxygen or water or any of the resources that had tied them to Earth, putting them on somewhat more equal footing with those god-like creatures who had already attempted one epic bioattack . Miller promptly shoots the man in the head. Holden is shocked and horrified that Dresden was killed without a trial or jury, but Miller argues that Dresden would have gotten away with it because of his money and power. At the same time, it’s clear that Miller felt he had to shoot Dresden right at that moment because Dresden was  persuading them that such atrocities as those he had committed could be justified with the promise of a super-race. Dresden’s rhetoric was powerful and dangerous and the only way to ensure that it did not spread was to kill the man himself. This in combination with the question of information distribution show that in this novel, words are given a great deal of credit as powerful shapers of action. Repeatedly, Holden returns to the words of his initial broadcast, arguing that he never accused the Martians of attacking the Belters, but others point out that he’s not paying attention to how others would hear his words.

One argument that we could take away from this novel is that hiding behind what the words are as opposed to what they mean is an ineffectual way of understanding our position in the many conversations we are a part of. The novel does ask us to seriously consider the ramifications of dissemination of knowledge, and for this reason, I’m looking forward to the other novels in this series.

Startide Rising – The Politics of Dialect

After a long hiatus (the semester began, complete with ridiculous amounts of reading for seminars and 40 freshman writers), I am back with David Brin’s Startide Rising, which won both the Hugo and Nebula in 1984. For starters, 1983 Brin had a much better idea of how to use paragraph breaks than 1980 Brin, and I found myself overall less troubled by the writing. Furthermore, I found Brin’s illustrations of the high stakes of English language politics just down-right admirable.

The Plot: Startide Rising takes place quite a while after Sundiver and features two of Jacob Demwa’s students in primary roles. The novel opens as starship Streaker, crewed by 150 dolphins, seven humans, and one chimpanzee, crashes on a supposedly uninhabited planet after suffering damage from being chased all over the galaxy by hoards of alien races. The crew of the Streaker had discovered a fleet of derelict spaceships, perhaps belonging to the Progenitors, as well as one alien body, and the information that they have collected is both so precious and so dangerous seemingly everyone in the galaxy wants to either claim it as their own or destroy it. As the Streaker‘s crew tries to make repairs to their vessel, dissension breaks out among the ranks, resulting in an attack on the dolphin captain that causes severe neurological damage. Meanwhile, the crew discovers a race of natives who are prime candidates for uplift, which they seek to hide from the warring aliens in the skies above to prevent these little creatures from being unfairly exploited by malicious alien patrons. As those members of the crew who are still loyal to the now-injured captain and the human crew of the Streaker devise a plan for escaping the planet and returning home through the alien armies — a plan that does not guarantee the survival of all — the sinister nature of one crew member is fully revealed.

As I mentioned in my post on Sundiver, Brin establishes English (or Anglic as he calls it) as the official language of Earth, and those species who the humans uplift are genetically manipulated to be able to speak English with varying degrees of proficiency. By the time we get to the events of Startide Rising, uplifted species’ ability to speak English has been much improved. Previously, chimps had trouble speaking English and relied on writing, and dolphins could only manage a few English words; now, chimps are fully capable of English speech, and fins (as dolphins are called now that they have been uplifted) speak three languages with equal proficiency: Primal, or original dolphin whistles and clicks; Trinary, a whistle language that takes the forms of haiku-like poems that humans can construct as well, and Anglic, which dolphins can speak underwater as well as above. These different languages, however, are not created equal. Reverting to speaking Primal is consider a major faux pas, something equivalent to a fin losing his or her mind, completely returning to a primitive state. Trinary is primary used in situations of immediacy, when fins need to communicate quickly with each other, in moments of intimacy, and for its artistic value — that is, both humans and fins craft trinary poems for artistic pleasure. In formal situaions, though, fins are expected to speak Anglic, and very precise grammatically correct Anglic at that, and this kind of speech has a lot of social capital; humans and fins alike frequently comment on how well-spoken the Streaker‘s captain is in Anglic and how conscientious he is about his language construction, a way of reaffirming his position as the captain. Proficiency in Anglic has other, more material, consequences as well. Since humans are still in the process of uplifting and genetically modifying fins, fin reproduction is highly regulated and those fins who do not demonstrate proficiency in Anglic may not be allowed to reproduce.

Given my background in rhetoric and composition, I can’t help but draw parallels between Brin’s novel and the numerous discussions that were going on when the novel was published and continue to go on concerning what language students should be taught. While many scholars advocate recognizing and valuing students’ “home languages” and respecting their right to use it in the composition classroom (see “Students’ Rights to Their Own Language“), other of us can’t get away from the fact that different kinds of Englishes have different assigned values in our society and that it might be a disservice to tell students otherwise. Brin’s novel plays out the realities of this in a way that, to be sure, exaggerates the consequences but also demonstrates the ways in which race (or species) and class work together in language stratification.

Sundiver – Ideological State Apparatus on a Galactic Level

I read David Brin’s 1980 novel Sundiver because the two other novels of the Uplift Trilogy won Hugos in 1984 and 1988. Reading Sundiver was an interesting experience: the world was fascinating, the mystery was intriguing, but nothing I have read for this project has riled up my inner writing teacher so. David Brin in 1980 did not know how to use a paragraph break properly to save his life, and his mixed metaphors were both ridiculous and hilarious — at one point he compared the computer system in the Sundiver ship to both the heart and the bowels, which are, admittedly, both body metaphors, but very incompatible ones. However, I’m willing to forgive Brin his terrible writing since he paints such an interesting picture of Marxism and evolution.

The World: Sundiver takes place in a universe with many, many intelligent alien species (collectively called “sophonts”) which are divided into oxygen and hydrogen breathers. This two groups do not mix, and when they do meet, bloodshed generally follows. All races in this universe have been “uplifted” into intelligence via genetic manipulation and technological aid by “Patrons,” older, already established races. The oldest races in the galaxy were uplifted by the Progenitors, an ancient race that disappeared to another plan of existence. Because any world might one day be the home world of an intelligent race, the rules governing the ecological impact a race may have on a colony world are extremely strict, while the social mores governing the relationship between Patrons and their uplifted Clients are equally strict. Patrons may expect both manual labor, servitude, and social deference from their Clients for many centuries, until the Client race is determined to be mature enough to enter into Galactic matters on their own. The genealogy of ulpift is extremely important in the social structure of Galactic society, with formal introductions of individuals including the uplift genealogy of their own race along with a listing of any Client races. Furthermore, some ancient uplift ancestors count for more than others in the Galactic social structure. What we have, then, is an aristocratic class that essentially creates its own peasants as needed.

The humans on Earth have an interesting place in this structure: no one knows who uplifted them. There are two possible scenarios, each with its own extremist human adherents. The first possibility is that humans uplifted themselves, making them unique among all the races in the galaxy; proponents of this theory are frequently called “Skins” because of their frequent depiction and glorification of human cavemen. The second theory — and the one held by most sophonts — is that a Patron race began the process of uplifting human, then for some reason or another abandoned them, leaving them to make the long journey to space flight on their own. Human adherents to this theory are called “Shirts” and exhibit a marked xenophilia toward non-human sophonts. Humans are looked down upon by a large number of the Galactics as a poorly trained “wolfling” race, young and naïve as a race.

The Plot: Human Jacob Demwa works at the Center for Uplift, where humans have been working to uplift chimps and dolphins for decades before meeting the Galactics. He is asked to come work with the Sundiver project when scientists and pilots encounter beings living in the Sun. Jacob travels to Mercury with Laroque, a human journalist and Shirt convinced that these Sun Ghosts are humanity’s long-lost Patron; Fagin, a Kant and particular friend of Jacob and humanity; Bubbacub, a Pil and the representative of the Galactic Library branch on Earth as well as skeptic of humans’ ability to do research without Galactic intervention; and Culla, a Pring and Client to Bubbacub. Once at the Sundiver Base, Jacob becomes embroiled a number of mysteries: Why do some Sun Ghosts seem hostile and others merely curious? How do the hostile Sun Ghosts replicate human form and gestures without ever having met a human? Did the Sun Ghosts kill chimp scientist Jeffrey and if so, why? Laroque comes under suspicion for Jeffrey’s murder, and in an attempt to appease the Sun Ghosts, Bubbacub and Fagin, as elder sophonts, agree to accompany the human and Culla on a trip to the Sun. On this trip, Bubbacub claims to communicate with the Sun Ghosts via his superb psi helmet. According to him, the Sun Ghosts have ordered humans to never visit the Sun again, and at their next confrontation with the Sun Ghosts, Bubbacub chases them away with another Galactic artifact. Jacob appears to suffer some kind of mental breakdown and makes a suicide attempt. Upon their return to Mercury, Jacob begins to debate his own sanity against the possibility that Bubbacub engineered the whole affair to make humans look silly. Jacob’s sanity is safe though, and he proves that Bubbacub did not chase away the Sun Ghosts; rather he spread a dust through the cabin of the ship that prevented anyone from seeing out the windows, and upon their return to Mercury he stole the recordings showing that the Sun Ghosts were still present. After Bubbacub is discredited, the crew returns to the Sun, where the real perpetrator behind events is revealed.

As I mentioned earlier, this novel really redeems itself with the complex social structures that we glimpse as Jacob works his way through the mystery plot. The Patrons have in place a huge number of ideological state apparatus before Client races even become sentient, such as the Library, which was handed down by the Progenitors and is considered infallible, tradition and institutions to protect it, and those offices that determine when a Client race is sufficiently mature to begin uplifting races of their own.  This conditional evolution strikes me as being not unlike the relationship between first and third world countries, though there is the added insult of being evolved in order to be subservient for some period of time.

There are several interesting language issues that pop-up throughout the novel as well. For example, English seems to be the official language of Earth, though in recent history there was a “accent” movement in which people took up traditional ethnic accents (Jacob was opposed). Galactics who take up residence on Earth learn English, though some need technological devices to aid them (Bubbacub, for example, cannot speak within human’s hearing range and therefore uses a small device in order to be heard). Chimps and dolphins have been genetically manipulated in order to speak English, though chimps continue to find it very painful and generally use a keyboard and screen that they wear on their chests. At one point, Jacob reminisces about the difficulty the Galactics had translating the Library into English because the language is too imprecise and full of metaphors, a criticism that has been frequently leveled against English.

All in all, I’m looking forward to the other novels in the trilogy, though I am hoping that Brin’s writing improves. I don’t know if I can go through a whole other novel fighting the desire to put little red marks all over it.

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.