Read: 20 August, 2016
Sometime in the future, women are once again refused legal adulthood, are functionally the property of men, and are denied explicit participation in their society. In this environment, beliefs about women’s supposed low intelligence provides the perfect cover for a quiet revolution.
At this moment, I am sitting at my desk, poised to write my review, with two full pages of notes before me (double-sided). I know my reviews are always a little scattered, but this book really has me going, and I just don’t know how I could possibly impose even the slightest pretence of order onto my thoughts. So, consider this a warning – this review will be both long and meandering.
My first impression of the novel is that the writing style reminded me a bit of Isaac Asimov, in that the characters take a backseat to the story. Nazareth, the woman who has the greatest claim to being the main character, is discussed in the first chapter, seen in the second, and then disappears until chapter nine, 80 pages later.
Yet, at the same time, I found that most of the named characters have a very strong presence, making them memorable and feel like they occupy much more narrative time than they actually do. Any time the story was with Michaela, I really felt like I was reading about Michaela, not about Plot Device #35.
Even in groups, I found the characters to be very well fleshed out. Groups hate each other believably, and there’s a lot of dark humour as the narrator switches sides. In every case, Elgin shows us that there’s a kernel of truth to the stereotypes groups have of each other, but also a lot of projection.
The book is unquestionably stemming from some-wave feminism, but I’m somewhat saddened by many of the reviews I’m seeing. In particular, I keep seeing the claim that this book is “man-hating,” or that all the female characters are good while all the male characters are bad. These same complaints are brought up, and I can only conclude that these reviewers aren’t engaging with the plot, and are burdened with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. It’s a fairly well-studied phenomenon that, as women approach equatable talking time, they are perceived to be dominating the conversation. I think a similar dynamic is in evidence here – when a story centres on women’s experiences, it is perceived as being at the expense of men’s experiences.
In this case, it’s far from true. Nazareth is, perhaps, the only innocent. She is abused, she is isolated, she is oppressed, and she perseveres with an almost saintly serenity. But Michaela, far from being a “goodie,” is in fact a terrible person beaten down by her guilt who seeks redemption in the end by using her sins to serve the purposes of her fellow-women. That’s a complex character, one who is unquestionably bad, yet who also perhaps has a shot to redeem herself a little (only a little, though, because she is never allowed to join the group of women she kills to protect). Beyond Michaela, we have Aquina, who is consistently shown to be rash and overzealous and whose actions hurt and essentially kill other women. Even the other women of the Barren House behave abominably toward Nazareth – believing it to be out of necessity, sure, but they still make the conscious choice not to provide comfort to a young girl who desperately needs it.
As for all the men being bad characters, that’s equally absurd. Where I imagine these reviewers are tripping up is that the “good” men (like Showard, who hates killing babies in the names of economics/science, and who consistently expresses his moral objections) are just as much a product of their environment as the women. They may feel that their society is wrong, but they can’t put that feeling into words and, even if they could, they lack the drive to do so because they, too, benefit from the very structures of oppression that discomfit them. Just as was the case through the very long period of European history where women were – as in the book – not considered legal adults and forbidden from direct economic participation. These good men may treat their own wives well, they may encourage their daughters, they may make half-hearted arguments to other men, but they so rarely press any further. If accurately portraying a very real social arrangement, one that was the standard in the western world for centuries, is “reverse sexism,” we have problems.
We have problems because what we are seeing is men so coddled by literature, so accustomed to being presented with Gary Stu characters who transcend their cultures to be perfectly enlightened in the most unchallenging ways, that they can’t handle an accurate portrayal of socialisation and internalised power structures.
Given how little of the social aspects of the novel are without historical precedent, it really does seem disingenuous to demand that we spend our precious narrative real estate on unrealistic men who magically shed their culture’s mores to go around saving the women from sexism. I can only conclude that, for some readers, anything that isn’t specifically about men must be against men. Because the best way to prove that Aaron Adiness is an ugly caricature is to pantomime him in GoodReads reviews.
Before I leave the subject of sexism, I was wowed by Elgin’s depiction of emotional labour. It’s a concept that I’ve only recently started to encounter, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it highlighted (and certainly not to this extent!) in fiction. The idea is that there’s this To Do list of chores that women are expected to do, and expected to do quietly so as never to attract notice to the doing of it, in order to regulate the emotions and egos of men. We first see this with Michaela, who is prized for the way she listens quietly to her husband as he talks through his problems – essentially acting as his sounding board / therapist. Again and again, Michaela’s ability to make men feel like they are heard when they have problems is remarked upon, and yet never is there any sense that she may also need to feel heard. There’s no sense of reciprocity, no awareness that her gift is anything but men’s due. (SPOILERS: In the climax of the book, women stop performing this emotional labour. They will sit still while men talk because they are compelled to do so, but they stop listening. Only in its absence is emotional labour finally noticed, by which time it’s too late. Suddenly, men are left with the choice of either simply going unfulfilled, or of learning how to perform emotional labour for each other, with reciprocity.)
I have a few complaints about the book, of course. One is the use of “perceive this.” According to one of the characters, phrases like ‘see here’ are “biased manner(s) of expression” (p.13). The idea being, of course, that these dynastic linguists opt for more precise turns of phrase. Except that, on the whole, they don’t seem to. Sure, they will frequently say “perceive this,” but they seem to just use it in place of the old timey phrase “now see here” – rather than specifically when they want someone to actually perceive something. Other than that, the linguists’ speech is indistinguishable from the non-linguists’ speech, using plenty of colloquialisms and other “loose” language. Because of this, it made the phrase “perceive this” feel very gimmicky, used just to remind the reader that it exists. I found it either very annoying or absolutely hilarious, depending on whether Elgin intended it as an in-group / out-group affiliation identifier.
There are essentially two plots in the novel. In the first, we see the women of linguist families developing their own special ‘women’s language’ (called Laadan). The other plot is the government quest to bypass the linguists by developing the technology to communicate with non-humanoid aliens. They only really intersect once (through Michaela’s subplot), though there are some character cross-overs. Both plots are compelling, but they just don’t mesh well. Ultimately, the Government Work plotline feels like filler to beef out the page count.
The plots also relied on certain assumptions that I didn’t feel were properly communicated. For example, if the point is to end the government’s dependency on the linguist families, then why focus exclusively on communication with non-humanoid aliens? They know how the linguists do what they do, so why not simply raise their own crop of linguists, who can speak with the humanoid aliens, and start with that? One of the linguists hints at one point that they plan a union strike if the government were to ever do such a thing, but it seems that the government could easily build up a fairly large army of translators in secret and then unleash them all at once. Sure, they’d lose some coverage, but wouldn’t it be worthwhile if it meant no longer being dependent on the linguists?
Much is made in the story of “interfacing,” though it isn’t really explained until about halfway through. Basically, the idea is that a human baby is placed in close proximity to an alien for several hours a day, until it absorb’s the alien’s language as its own native tongue (“roll credits”). But until that point, I was under the impression that it was something far more tech-y, like a laser brain imprinting or something. Because interfacing, as it actually stands, doesn’t make sense. In the book, interfacing with a non-humanoid alien causes a baby to turn itself inside-out – the explanation is that human brains aren’t equipped to perceive the world in a non-humanoid way, causing the human body exposed to non-humanoid worldviews to explode.
Well, I gotta tell you, I have a cat that my son has been in very close quarters with since he came home from the hospital, and he has yet to explode. In my experience, it’s absolutely true that humans have these experiential walls beyond which they cannot peak. But when babies (or young children, or adults) hit these walls, they merely ignore whatever is beyond them. They filter it out. A baby trapped in a glass box with a non-humanoid alien wouldn’t explode, it would simply be developmentally delayed from the lack of human interaction.
I never understood why the women’s language, Laadan, was taken so seriously by the men, how it was supposed to “change reality.” I understand that they have words to express a more nuanced emotional landscape, sure, but why would the men ever find that threatening? They didn’t take Langlish seriously, so why would they take Laadan seriously – even if it’s a better constructed language? I understand the exploration of the theory that language helps to shape culture, but the whole point of the sexism in the novel is that the men just don’t take the women seriously – so why would they take a women’s culture any more seriously they did the Encoding Project? How does Elgin account for the long history of other women’s languages/scripts, such as Nüshu? Worse, when a character voices my questions, the only explanation offered is: “Never mind why, Michaela. It’s complicated. It’s way beyond you” (p.281). I would have enjoyed the ending more if the men just continued in their assumption that women’s personal lives were below notice, while the women developed a hidden-in-plain-sight culture of their own. It seems like that would have been more plausible, and more interesting.
My last complaint is with the preface, which really bothered me. It establishes the novel to follow as fiction within its own fictional universe, and what the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks was the point of that? All it did was collapse the novel’s meaning, because we know that any impact that the plot might have within its world is a fiction within a fiction. It’s not even meaningful within the realm of suspension of disbelief. And it’s wholly unnecessary. The novel would have been much stronger as a first level fiction, without the silly framing device – particularly as it raised so many unnecessary questions. Did Laadan exist in the real fictional universe? Did the women ever achieve the things they achieve in the end, or was that only in the novel’s fiction? Why even raise the spectre of such questions?
I’m complaining a lot, as usual, but I did love this novel. It had strong characters, a very interesting perspective, a really cool take on the science fiction genre (linguistics!), and it was so so funny, too. It was a very black humour, certainly, but it was wonderful. I found the novel to be very cynical, but also very incisive and perceptive. And while I certainly disagreed with Elgin on a number of points, it was so refreshing just to see her perspective. I’ve just read so many unabashedly misogynistic science fiction and fantasy novels that it was a breath of fresh air to read something that just turned around and confronted those ideas head on.
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