A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Read: 4 December, 2017

I picked this book up after Lois McMaster Bujold mentioned it in Dreamweaver’s Dilemma. I can’t recall the context, but the mention was favourable, so I thought I’d give it a try.

The book’s synopsis feels a tad heavy handed – a planet of women must fend off encroachment from a patriarchal culture. And, yet, the feminist aspects almost seem to take a back seat to the pacifism. I found the characters were quite varied – the staunchest pacifists have their doubts, the Sharers have individuals who want to fight back, the aggressors doubt the ethics of their mission, etc. The book doesn’t have any simple answers, both between the two dominant sides and within each camp.

The first 2/3rds of the book is a little slow, as Slonczewski builds her picture of the characters and locations. Despite the pacing, the discovery of Shora (largely centred on the planet’s ecology) did keep me from getting bored.

Then it picked up. It so picked up. For the last third, I couldn’t put the book down. And then it ended, very suddenly. It was a bit disappointing, though I’m not really sure how a book tackling such huge impossibilities could have ended satisfyingly.

There are aspects of the book that reminded me quite a bit of Dune. There’s the quasi-feudal space culture, there’s the society of women with a keen interest in genetics, and there’s even an emperor-type figure who has ruled many planets for hundreds (thousands?) of years. But perhaps the biggest similarity is the way that the book tackles Big Questions without providing easy answers.

Despite being very much a product of ’80s feminism, A Door Into Ocean doesn’t feel too dated. And though some of it does feel clunky by today’s standards, there’s more than enough going on to make this a valuable addition to the science fiction canon.

Greed, Lust & Gender by Nancy Folbre

Read: 24 June, 2017

This is the story of economic theory, tracing it from its pre-enlightment proto-forms, right up into the modern era.

It’s also a criticism of that history through a feminist lens. If I had to summarize the main thesis of the whole book in a single sentence, it would be: “But what about the women?”

Over and over again, we see theories of beneficial self-interest and individual economic agency that use the language of universality while, at the same time, footnoting exceptions for women (who, of course, must continue to keep the houses and raise the children of these economists, and to do so for free).

This is a bit of a heavy book, with very few soundbites or easy takeaways. It took me three weeks to read because I had to keep putting it down to process. Because of this, it doesn’t work too as a primer (which I think I would have benefitted more from), and it’s ideas were sometimes a little inaccessible.

But it’s an excellent book full of little epiphanies. And if reading it was a bit of a challenge, the challenge was worthwhile.

Buy Greed, Lust & Gender from Amazon and support this blog!

Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin

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.

Buy Native Tongue from Amazon and support this blog!

Feminist Fantasy

It can sometimes be rather difficult to find good fantasy with strong female characters. Often in fantasy, women are either absent entirely, damsels to be rescued, or prizes for the protagonists.

Enter Keri and FeministFantasy.com to the rescue!

Posts are made a couple times a month, and each features a brief description of why the book would be palatable for feminists. Many of the entries include children’s books, so it’s a great place to build a reading list for the budding feminists in your life!

The Foretelling by Alice Hoffman

Read: 25 September, 2008

I bought this book on a whim. I had never heard of it or of the author, but Chapters was selling it for pennies, so I figured it was worth the risk.

I’m glad I took the chance. It’s a great book. It breaks several of the cardinal rules of writing (telling instead of showing, for an obvious example), but it does it well. The story is interesting and fast-paced, making it a quick read. It would have had to have been hundreds of pages long had Hoffman tried to cover the same amount of ground by “showing,” and I do believe that she made the right choice.

This is obviously a Young Adult novel, but it deals with several mature themes such as sex (both consensual and non-) and war. However, Hoffman treats these subjects as “facts,” without dwelling on them graphically as some authors do. These are just part of Rain’s world. This is not to mention the tough concepts of love, responsibility, compassion, being one’s self, feminism/patriarchy, etc. that are brought up. They are handled in a way that would be acceptable for a young teen or tween to read, while also serving the purpose of opening discourse on such subjects.

This isn’t to say that the book was perfect. There are times when I would have liked certain areas to be explored more deeply. The ending, for example, tells of several important and life-altering events taking place without, I felt, giving them due consideration. The book works, but I feel that it might have been improved a little by slowing down the narrative pace at certain moments and describing certain events in more detail. I also would have liked a context: as the novel is written in the first person, it would have been nice to know who Rain is telling her story to.

Still, these are very minor complaints to a book that, overall, was a very enjoyable rainy-afternoon read with an uplifting message.

Buy The Foretelling from Amazon to support this blog!

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Read: 2006

Offred is a handmaid in a Christian theocracy existing in what was once the United States. Her function is to produce a child for couples who cannot conceive. She is forbidden from reading and must cover her body at all times. She is valued only as a vessel for a potential heir. Her mind is suppressed, her individuality taken.

With all that has been going on these days about evolution being removed from school curriculums and abstinence-only education, Atwood paints a dismal picture of what is increasingly appearing to be a possible future. Most importantly, perhaps, she posits this world coming from a great disaster (albeit one that leaves most men sterile) and some connections may be made to the terrorist paranoia of recent years.

Atwood is a fantastic writer with an easy-to-read style and multi-layered storytelling. This is one of the aspects I’ve enjoyed most about her books. It is possible to read them for their surface story, but if interested, there are all sorts of allusions to discover.

Buy The Handmaid’s Tale from Amazon to support this blog!

Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

Read: 2006

Ruth is a Victorian Social Problem novel about a young orphan working as an apprentice dressmaker. Ruth Hilton is seduced and then abandoned by the wealthy Henry Bellingham. Discovering herself to be pregnant in a society that frowned and even criminalized single motherhood, she enters the home of the kind Thurston Benson and his sister under the assumed identity of Mrs Denbigh, a recently widowed cousin of the Bensons. Soon after, she takes a job as a governess with the tyrannical Mr Bradshaw.

The novel deals with a topic that was very controversial in its time and, in many ways, is still very controversial today. Reading it, I realized how many of the stereotypes her contemporaries held about “fallen women” and unmarried mothers that Gaskell deliberately set out to break are still with us today.

I felt that her treatment of Ruth was very balanced. When dealing with this sort of topic, is so simple to either make the main character too rebellious or too pathetic. But Ruth, who admittedly has a very mild personality (Gaskell trying to paint her as the model ‘angel of the home’), she does come into her own and fight for acceptance.

I was also impressed that Bellingham was brought back into the narrative. It seemed easy for the story to simply end at Ruth, leaving Bellingham off the hook for the “sin” of Leonard. But Gaskell brings him in and she highlights, underlines, and paints in neon the total lack of punishment given to Bellingham by society while Ruth and Leonard are made to suffer so dearly. And again, this sort of unequal gender-based moral standards are very much still with us.

The one topic that had my Victorian Literature class arguing hotly was Ruth’s death. About half of us argued that despite all Gaskell had done in the novel, she still let Ruth have the only fate available to the “fallen women” of Victorian literature – death. The other half of us argued that Ruth was being caste as a sort of Christ figure, sacrificing herself to save all those sick, including Bellingham himself. Rather than dying as a fallen woman or even redeeming herself through death, she had already redeemed herself and, in her newfound self-agency, indulged her innate goodness and self-sacrifice. For my own part, I see a lot of the former, but my understanding of Gaskell leads me to assume she meant the latter. But I will leave that up to better readers than me to decide.

Buy Ruth from Amazon to support this blog!