Dates approximate. Honestly I'm not at all sure I actually read or even really looked like it ... though clearly I checked it out from the library, as...moreDates approximate. Honestly I'm not at all sure I actually read or even really looked like it ... though clearly I checked it out from the library, as I'm holding the check-out slip in my hand.(less)
This has sat on my "awaiting review" shelf for about a year, because I wasn't sure what to say about it the last time I read it. (I initially read it...moreThis has sat on my "awaiting review" shelf for about a year, because I wasn't sure what to say about it the last time I read it. (I initially read it in 2001, for a school project.) It's still a little hard, but I think I have a better handle on it now. This book is such a weird blend of the eutopic and the dystopic: showing kindness and care is a cornerstone of the worldwide social ethos, the Code. Homosexual relationships are the encouraged and supported default, because of population pressure. Heterosexuality is thought to be deviant, though not actually against the code, and heterosexuals are generally not actually persecuted in the sense that they need to fear physical harm. But they are rather thought of as second class citizens, and passed over for the centrally allocated larger living spaces. (Which can be a difficulty when you have children.) Most of them choose to conceal their lifestyles and living arrangements from their colleagues. Heterosexual marriage is still possible, though there are various humiliating roadblocks put in one's way; the option to formalize same-sex relationships doesn't seem to exist.
The generally presented and accepted view of history, even by those on the council, the governing body, is that heterosexuality only existed because of social compulsion, and that same sex relationships were actually preferred, but hidden. Some examples that the book gave: Marx and Engels, Cleopatra and Charmian, Stalin and Beria(!). And in literature, one of the characters apparently seriously believes that Romeo was a girl. Somehow. Maybe she believes that all the actors were women, instead of men? Oh, I don't know. It's hard not to see this part as both sad and silly. Though not silly in the same way that the obligatory futurisms are, like the cooking ray that instantly bakes cookies, and the spray-on clothing. (Or the transformation of the slang "cat" — roughly equivalent to today's "guy" — into a serious term meaning "person." Or the smoking of marijuana as a ritual aid to calmness after the serious work of governing is done. This book was originally published in 1975 and it reflects the counterculture of the time, in much the same way that Star Trek reflects the mainstream culture of its time.)
For the past few decades, there has been little heterosexual reproduction. Instead, population replacement is by cloning of two individuals, one male and one female, who are seen as having saved the world, or at least averting it from the death-by-overpopulation-and-violence path it was on. They are simply referred to as She and He. She was a doctor from the Shetland Islands, and He was a black guy. That's pretty much all we're told about them. But they are seen as the most excellent humans possible, and so almost all babies born are their clones. In their youth or childhood (the book isn't clear) they are put through something called "strengthening" which is designed to make them psychologically like He and She, with their compassion and vision. This is probably something akin to psychological torture of some kind; the clones don't like to talk about it to non-clones, except to quickly say "It's over" when the topic is brought up. (Anticipating the psychogenesis that C.J. Cherryh posits in Cyteen, which is probably why this book reminded me of that one.)
The basic theme of this book is that, as Lois McMaster Bujold put it in Cetaganda, "Monocultures are dull and vulnerable." The genetically engineered superior wheat and fruits are being attacked by a plant disease that gives them yellow spots, and at the same time an expedition is dispatched to Mongolia to find non-engineered bodies of wheat, some members of the Council (the world governing body) are wondering if it wouldn't be good to have some kind of genetic variation among humans, in case other kinds of excellence should be needed. (The Mongolia section is slightly problematic. There's a subtext of "Oh look! These people are so primitive and nature-worshipping and dysfunctional!")
Some of the relationships are slightly disquieting, not because of the homosexuality but because of the dynamics. Council member Jussie prefers younger women — old enough to be considered adult, certainly, as both the women she is (sequentially) interested in have professional careers, and Ric (a male council member) spends a big chunk of the book being interested in Bobbi, one of the clone boys, who is probably in his late teens or early 20s, who doesn't return his affections and clearly sees Ric as too old for that, even if he is too polite to say so. It's kind of creepy, especially when Ric asks Bobbi to take off his shirt. There is one offscreen male-male relationship between equals, and one lesbian relationship which is more onscreen and between equals, and two on-screen heterosexual relationships between equals. By the end there's a suggestion that heterosexuality may be a little more tolerated, at least from the useful — Miryam the scientist, who was on the expedition to Mongolia, is given a larger living space for herself, her husband, and their two children, and if Jussie doesn't understand why she could possibly prefer men to women, at least she accepts that Miryam is happy that way. (Heterosexual deviancy, it's noted early on, is more common among "Professorials", which mainly seems to mean scientists. Mitchison, it should be noted, was the daughter of a scientist and the sister of scientist J.B.S. Haldane, as well as the friend of James D. Watson, so she probably had plenty of opportunity to observe scientists in their natural habitat.)
Hamsuits are kind of a running joke in an MMO I play. When someone reminded me that they originally came from this book, I figured I'd re-read it. Bec...moreHamsuits are kind of a running joke in an MMO I play. When someone reminded me that they originally came from this book, I figured I'd re-read it. Because I'd completely forgotten that.
There were so many things I'd forgotten that frankly I wonder if I actually read this book to begin with. (It was assigned either freshman year or sophomore year of high school, I'm not sure which.)
Miss Maudie was a pleasant surprise. And so was Aunt Alexandra, by the end, though I think that came a little bit out of left field.
Sometimes the pacing seems ... not quite wrong, but lumpy. This book probably deserves a better and more attentive reading than I gave it. I'd forgotten how much of it is really quite sad.(less)