Hm. This "prose poem" is a confusing text, and much less interesting than Poe's other work. It is unclear to me and to literary critics whether this b...moreHm. This "prose poem" is a confusing text, and much less interesting than Poe's other work. It is unclear to me and to literary critics whether this book is meant to be fiction or nonfiction or a combination of the two (and if a combination, where the line is to be drawn). It begins with the narrator quoting at length from a letter dated from the year 2848, but then it goes on to become a treatise (which seems to be from the perspective of Poe himself) on the relationship between God, creation, science, and the universe. He gets some of his science wrong but also predicts a version of the Big Bang theory, a version that depends upon God's divine touch, of course. His basic argument seems to rely on the idea that after this initial diffusion, eventually our universe, which is all part of God, must return to a unified state: "Think that the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness--that Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognize his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life--Life--Life within Life--the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine."(less)
This anthology is a useful collection and contains some wonderful fiction. However, its subtitle, "A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African D...moreThis anthology is a useful collection and contains some wonderful fiction. However, its subtitle, "A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora," led me to expect a collection of texts that really does attempt to represent the last century. Instead, only one third of the book is constituted by stories that were published prior to the year 2000 (ranging chronologically from 1887 to 1999). This places the emphasis of the book less on revealing how much black SF has been written in the past and the traditions of black SF or black writers who venture into SF and more on introducing new voices in black SF and encouraging contemporary black writers of SF. That is a worthy goal; I don't mean to imply that it's not. It's just not what I expected.
The inclusion of the few short critical pieces at the end of the anthology is a nice touch. Featuring essays by Samuel Delany, Charles Saunders, Walter Mosley, Paul Miller (DJ Spooky), and Octavia Butler, the book approaches the question of race in science fiction from a variety of perspectives.
Regarding the stories themselves, there are many that are excellent. I particularly enjoyed (and might like to teach at some point) the following:
**"Sister Lilith" by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers (2000), a re-telling of the Creation story from the perspective of Lilith, Adam's first wife. **"The Comet" by W. E. B. DuBois (1920), which addresses issues of inequality and prejudice in the aftermath of a disaster that kills millions. **an excerpt from Black No More by George S. Schuyler (1931), a story about a scientist who invents a way to turn black people white and what happens as a result. I plan to read the whole novel based on the excerpt included here. **"separation anxiety" by Evie Shockley (2000), set in a future America built on segregation/separation of racial groups. **"Can You Wear My Eyes" by Kalamu ya Salaam (2000). This one is interesting to me because it speaks less directly to racial experience and more to the experience of gender. **"Like Daughter" by Tananarive Due (2000), a story about abuse and second chances that made me cry. **"The Evening and the Morning and the Night" by Octavia Butler (1987). I just always like Butler. **"The Space Traders" by Derrick Bell (1992), a story about politics and race relations in America, centered around a first contact scenario in which an alien race offers America wondrous technology and great riches in exchange for all African American citizens.(less)
It's been a while since I've been as disappointed in a novel as I am in Connie Willis's Doomsday Book. At first I didn't even think I would be able to...moreIt's been a while since I've been as disappointed in a novel as I am in Connie Willis's Doomsday Book. At first I didn't even think I would be able to finish this book because it took so long to get going. I wasn't really interested in any of the characters until I was about halfway through (200-some pages in) and I never cared about some of the recurring characters.
By the end of the novel, the plot had gained some momentum and I found I wanted to keep reading because I wanted to see how Willis would wrapp things up, but, as it turns out, I didn't actually need to read the book to figure that out. With the exception of one plot point, the plot is terribly predictable and I could have imagined the final 150 pages easily enough on my own. And the one plot point that I did not predict felt a bit like cheating--in the way that Agatha Christie detective novels often feel like cheating because there is that one bit of crucial knowledge that is withheld from the reader, preventing him or her from solving the mystery halfway through and then of course once that bit of knowledge is revealed it's all so obvious whodunit (or, in this case, what will happen).
The highest praise I can really give this book is that it was mildly entertaining, especially in the scenes set in the Middle Ages. The scenes set in the near future present are clearly meant to be exciting in a Robin Cook medical thriller way, but they play instead more like endless bureaucratic and academic arguments with a side helping of annoying bellringers and overbearing religious nuts.
I could probably have enjoyed this book more thoroughly if it were cut to at least half its current length, but, as it stands, the book has a slow beginning, predictable middle and end, and adds little in the way of interesting ideas about science or time travel. It works best as a historical novel that happens to include some science fictional concepts; attempting to read it as primarily a science fiction novel, however, leads only to disappointment as the time travel and the technology that allows the time travel are no more than overly elaborate means to the end, which is an exploration of the world of medieval England during the Black Plague. (less)
Dan Simmons' Hyperion drew me in slowly but completely. Once I was drawn in to the world Simmons creates--through the combination of the stories of se...moreDan Simmons' Hyperion drew me in slowly but completely. Once I was drawn in to the world Simmons creates--through the combination of the stories of several pilgrims to the planet of Hyperion and the Time Tombs there (a mysterious and dangerous site)--I didn't want the book to end.
Especially where it did.
I enjoyed the various pilgrims' stories, each quite different in style and genre. Some were moving, some intriguing, and some disturbing, but all added to the larger frame narrative in some meaningful way. This technique adds to the novel's delights in the way of variety, but it also makes it a little harder to get into the overarching narrative and the ongoing pilgrimage since that story is repeatedly interrupted to provide the backstory through the pilgrims' stories.
I am reluctant to even review this book without having read further in the series. Simmons takes us up to the point of present-tense action in this book and then just stops. He develops our interest in the plot and our concern for the characters and then doesn't resolve anything. This is frustrating. But even without this resolution there is a great deal to enjoy in this book (in the pilgrims' stories, in the ideas about religion, in the wealth of literary allusions (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Burroughs, Keats, Mary Shelley, and many more) and in the creation of a fascinating and frightening monster--the Shrike). (less)
**spoiler alert** On my second reading: I don't think I gave Tepper enough credit the first time I read this book.
The treatment of homosexuality stil...more**spoiler alert** On my second reading: I don't think I gave Tepper enough credit the first time I read this book.
The treatment of homosexuality still bothers me. Although, as one commenter has said, it could be argued that this is simply an authorial choice to make it easier for Tepper to explore the specific issues she wishes to focus on, it strikes me as too simplistic to simply say, "Oh, teh gay, we fixed that a while back," especially since the book is so much about questions of biology and essential natures and this particular issue (as opposed to the issues of violence and masculinity) seems to be rather taken for granted where it could be explored in very interesting ways.
Where I think I sold Tepper short on first reading is in her treatment of gender differences and biology. Upon re-reading, her approach to the issue of masculine versus feminine natures is quite complex. Tepper reinforces biological essentialism through the plot mechanic of breeding for nonviolence among the men (and through discussions of women's inherent nurturing natures) but also simultaneously critiques it by painting the actions of the Council as, at the very least, morally ambiguous. In the end, the women seem to be making some progress toward a world with no violence and no war, but, Tepper leads the reader to ask, is that acceptable if, to reach that world, they must engage in violence themselves?
As is said in the play-within-the-novel, Iphigenia at Ilium,
Dead or damned, that's the choice we make. Either you men kill us and are honored for it, or we women kill you and are damned for it. Dead or damned. Women don't have to make choices like that in Hades. There's no love there, nothing to betray. . . . Hades is Women's Country.
The women who are in the know, therefore, are damned by their choices to kill men to save themselves and their sisters; the women who live in Women's Country all unknowing (most of the women there) are in Hades, which is "like dream without waking. Like carrying water in a sieve. Like coming into harbor after storm. Barren harbor where the empty river runs through an endless desert into the sea. Where all the burdens have been taken away." They live in a hell of ignorance, lost choices, and emptiness. This is quite a condemnation.
This is a fascinating exploration of the relationship and differences between men and women. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, The Gate to Women's Country presents a society in which men and women have two very different cultures. The women live inside walled cities, growing food for both the men and the women, doing medicine and art and science and family; the men live in the garrison, outside the city walls, fighting and preparing for war. The women support the men and the men protect the women. Except for some men, who, after spending their childhood (from age 5) living in the garrison and being raised by the men to be warriors, choose to return to the city through the Women's Gate, to becomes servitors who live among the women and to learn to be productive members of that society instead of becoming warriors.
The book sets up several key dichotomies--men/women, warrior/servitor, strong/weak--and then calls them, or at least our assumptions about them, into question. In doing so, Tepper makes an argument for the women's cities as the beginning of a true feminist utopia, a utopia that is not without men but that is without a certain kind of men. Morgot, a powerful leader of the women's community, explains:
"Three hundred years ago almost everyone in the world had died in a great devastation brought about by men. It was men who made the weapons and men who were the diplomats and men who made the speeches about national pride and defense. And in the end it was men who did whatever they had to do, pushed the buttons or pulled the string to set the terrible things off. And we died. . . . Almost all of us. Women. Children. . . . Martha [a founder of women's country:] taught that the destruction had come about because of men's willingness--even eagerness--to fight, and she determined that this eagerness to fight must be bred out of our race, even though it might take a thousand years" (301-2).
Tepper, in this argument combines an argument against war as we know it with an argument for gender equality--for the violence and destruction unleashed by this war is mirrored in the violence and destruction that had existed within human society (e.g., domestic violence, rape, genital mutilation). She is very careful, however, to again make the distinction between types of men and types of society, as Morgot says that it wasn't "that bad as a general rule, I don't think. Love existed, after all. Some men and women have always loved one another. Not all cultures oppressed women" (292).
There are problems with this book, however. One is the essentialism of the argument. Although Tepper does allow for those men who are not warriors, who return to the cities as servitors, she still bases her argument on the assumption that men and women are fundamentally different. Men are, mostly, violent, aggressive, dominating; women are, mostly, cooperative, pacifist, nurturing. The fact that these things are changing as the women attempt to create a new kind of man, replacing the old kind through the process of genetic selection, could either be the saving grace or the final evidence that, in Tepper's world, men and women are fundamentally what biology says they are. The relationship between biology and culture definitely needs to be furthered explored.
Another major problem is the treatment of homosexuality. Basically, it doesn't exist any more. It's explained that "even in pre-convulsion times it was known that the so-called 'gay syndrome' was caused by aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy. The women doctors now identified the condition as 'hormonal reproductive maladaption' and corrected it before birth. There were very few actual HNRMS--called HenRams--either male or female, born in Women's Country" (76). This is troubling for the queer movement because it turns homosexuality into nothing more than a disease to be cured and reasserts the hegemony of heterosexuality. In a world where men and women are segregated, it seems that outlawing homosexual behavior or "curing" homosexuality as an orientation only serves to limit the kinds of love and desire available. Frankly, it seems unreasonable. It's an interesting counterpoint to other feminist utopias (for instance, Joanna Russ's The Female Man) and their treatment of female sexuality.
The other problem I have with the book is less theoretical and more aesthetic. Although I enjoyed the book greatly and found the ideas worth exploring (even if I didn't always agree with the assumptions made by Tepper), sometimes the prose itself grated on me. Mostly, it did this when it felt like Tepper was trying too hard to be artsy or complex. For example, here's the opening paragraph of the novel:
"Stavia saw herself as in a picture, from the outside, a darkly cloaked figure moving along a cobbled street, the stones sheened with a soft, early spring rain. On either side the gutters ran with an infant chuckle and gurgle, baby streams being amused with themselves. The corniced buildings smiled candlelit windows across at one another, their shoulders huddled protectively inward--though not enough to keep the rain from streaking the windows and making the candlelight seem the least bit weepy, a luxurious weepiness, as after a two-hanky drama of love lost or unrequited" (1).
Now while this does get the reader thinking immediately of love, loss, and children (important in the upcoming scene) and also introduces the concept of self-division that Stavia describes occurring to her repeatedly throughout the book, it also creates a rather garbled set of metaphors. There's joy in the gutters, protection in the windows, and sadness in the light--that's a lot of emotion to lay on one street.
One more example to make my point:
"Septemius and his people were in the street when they saw Stavia next, she coming along the walk with her marketing bag on her shoulder, brow furrowed with concentration over something or other, so she almost bumped them before hearing Kostia and Tonia's greeting, a vibrating 'Hello, Medic," which hung on the air like the reverberation of a gong" (170).
The contrived word order and the sheer length of this sentence serve only to complicate what should be a very simple encounter on the street. Not to mention the oddness of the description of Kostia and Tonia's greeting.
I mention the style because it is a recurring issue while reading the book, but it is only an infrequently occurring issue. Most of the time, Tepper's prose is perfectly clear and serves to advance the plot nicely. Some of the time, the style is even good (I particularly like the play-within-the-novel and some of the descriptions of the landscape outside the walls of the city).
In the end, because this is a book that I enjoyed, that raises interesting questions, and that isn't without ideological problems to be discussed and worked out, this would make a great book to teach, especially in conjunction with other feminist SF.(less)
**spoiler alert** Speaker for the Dead, though a sort of sequel to Ender's Game is a completely different kind of story than Ender's Game is. Where En...more**spoiler alert** Speaker for the Dead, though a sort of sequel to Ender's Game is a completely different kind of story than Ender's Game is. Where Ender's Game is a story of one boy's training, a story of education and manipulation, and, finally, a story about the consequences of not seeing or even attempting accurately see the Other, Speaker for the Dead is about mature individuals, connections between people (whether family members, lovers, or community members), and what it takes to get to know and respect the Other. For this reason, I preferred Speaker for the Dead to Ender's Game.
Ender, following his destruction of the buggers in Ender's Game has become the Speaker for the Dead and travels the universe looking for a safe world to install the remaining hive queen who survived his attack. He is trying to atone for his mass murder by giving the buggers a second chance and by devoting his life to truth and understanding instead of to fear and violence. In doing these things, he is brought to Lusitania, where another alien life form has been found. The humans call them piggies because they sort of resemble pigs, but they are sentient, ethical, and even spiritual. The book revolves around the xenological (like anthrolopology, but not focused on humans; instead focused on other species) project that has been established on Lusitania and a series of cultural misunderstandings that lead to death and the threat of more death. Ender is in a unique position to be able to short circuit the logic of fear and retaliation and to create instead a place where "Human and pig and hive queen, here on Lusitania, will be one. All humans. All buggers. All piggies" (335).
The attempt to create this planet where three different species can coexist points to the necessity for understanding the Other and to the only way this understanding can occur. As Human, one of the piggies, says, "You humans grow by making us part of you, humans and piggies and buggers, ramen [a term used to designate intelligent life] together. Then we are one tribe, and our greatness is your greatness, and yours is ours" (338). The species must come together as much as possible, but Ender is careful to avoid turning this coming together into a means of anthropomorphizing the piggies or the buggers (or into a means for the piggies or buggers to change the humans into mimicries of them, either). He says, "we'll ask them to change enough that we can live with them, and no more. We'll change ourselves only enough that they can bear to live with us. . . . [t]hey are what they are. If you want, they are what God made them. So don't try to remake them in your image" (325-6). This is a tricky situation, perhaps too difficult to balance and easy to destroy, but we are led to believe that it will be worth it in the end.
In the end, after all, the humans and piggies have developed a relationship with one another. They respect and even love each other. Not only is it true that "when you really know somebody, you can't hate them" (370), but it is also true that knowing someone can lead to loving that someone. As Ender says about his relationship with the hive queen, "I knew her so well that I loved her, or maybe I loved her so well that I knew her" (371).
Speaker for the Dead also builds on the attitudes toward war and violence that are introduced in Ender's Game. In this book, however, the argument is even more explicit. In Ender's Game, we are encouraged to feel that violence is unjustified because of our identification with Ender and our emotional attachment to the child he is, as well as our horror at the fate the buggers meet (though we are less attached to them than to Ender); in Speaker for the Dead, most of the interactions between humans and piggies are restricted by the xenological standard of noninterference and a fear of repeating the mistakes of the past with this new alien species. Even more explicit than this, however, is Ender's statement near the end of the novel that "[t]here are worse reasons to die . . . than to die because you cannot bear to kill" (378). In this statement we are finally provided a strong counterargument to the militarism and survivalism of Ender's Game as this alternative to killing is articulated within an ethical context of respect for the Other (whether another human being or a member of another species) that clearly values individual morality over survival. (less)
**spoiler alert** A story about the military training of a young boy (from the age of 6), I wasn't sure I'd like Ender's Game. It begins in the vein o...more**spoiler alert** A story about the military training of a young boy (from the age of 6), I wasn't sure I'd like Ender's Game. It begins in the vein of Robert Heinlein's Puppet Masters--a story of military action and the sacrifices that are necessary in order to triumph--and seems to justify the attitude that individual humans are meaningless in comparison to the species as a whole and that violence is a legitimate way of life. One of Ender's teachers tells him early on that "Human beings are free except when humanity needs them. . . . Individual human beings are all tools, that the others use to help us all survive" (35). Even his sister, rejected for the training program Ender is accepted into because she is too pacific, tells him that "Human beings didn't evolve brains in order to lie around on lakes. Killing's the first thing we learned. And a good thing we did, or we'd be dead, and the tigers would own the earth" (241).
As Ender goes through the training, having to fight other little boys to make it through, he realizes some of this for himself:
"It's killers they need for the bugger wars. It's people who can grind the enemy's face into the dust and spatter their blood all over space. Well, I'm your man. I'm the bloody bastard you wanted when you had me spawned. I'm your tool, and what difference does it make if I hate the part of me that you most need?" (118-9)
The book spends so much time on Ender's war games and training, so much time showing him gaining expertise and defeating other teams, that these victories and these skills are glorified. We identify with Ender and so we celebrate with him when he saves himself by beating up other boys or by outwitting other teams.
But Ender himself is conflicted about his abilities, hating the part of himself that revels in them. In this, Card writes a story that is much more complicated than the education of a willing killer. Instead, as the above quote indicates, Ender resists becoming a killer and hates what he is being turned into. He insists, over and over again, that he is not a killer, that he wants people to stop forcing him to hurt them, to just leave him alone. In some ways, this element of the story is much like Spiderman or Harry Potter, the story of a young boy/man who has more power than he knows how to handle, who wishes to be ordinary and powerless instead of having to make decisions that could hurt others, the story of a young man who must decide how to handle that power.
Ender's Game, in its eventual turn away from the endorsement and glorification of violence, begins to sound somewhat like Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun. Ender's Game is not an antiwar novel in the way that Johnny Got His Gun is, but they are both novels about the abuse of power and the way individuals are made tools of and unwillingly sacrificed by a larger system. Graff, one of the teachers, tells Ender, "You had to be a weapon. . . . Like a gun, like the Little Doctor, functioning perfectly but not knowing what you were aimed at. We aimed you. We're responsible. If there was something wrong, we did it" (298). Ender was used. And yet he feels the guilt of having killed and injured, not those who used him. They were shielded from the decisions and the dangers by Ender, who becomes an icon, a hero, but who can never return home to a normal life. In Johnny Got His Gun, Joe Bonham is not a successful war hero, instead being horribly maimed by the war, but the power distribution is much the same. Ender and Joe are both manipulated into position by older people, by a whole society, and they are made to do the dirty work that the men at the top will not or cannot do. And then they must pay for it--whether with guilt or physical disability, they must pay. And neither of them can ever go home again. The final connection between Ender's Game and Johnny Got His Gun is perhaps the most important: both Ender and Joe wish to speak for the dead. Ender becomes a Speaker for the Dead as a way to repay the debt he feels he owes to the buggers he killed; Joe tries to speak for the little guys who are killed in the war as a way to protect those who would be sent off to die next.
Ender's Game is interesting because it combines these very different ideas. It does contain militaristic rhetoric, which is treated ambivalently, sometimes critiqued and sometimes endorsed; but it also, in the character of Ender himself, provides a strong argument against the methods by which the military goals are attained. The central question of this book is whether or not violence is justified, either as pre-emption, self-defense, or an act of aggression. This question's significance is heightened by the emotional resonance of doing all of these horrific things (which are justified by the exigencies of war) to a child, but it still remains. And it does not have a simple answer. Ender does not want to kill, but he does not want to die, either. He, good as he is, will kill to protect himself. But how much of that is artificially forced upon him and how much of it is what might naturally come as part of the human condition? Card leaves these questions to be answered by the reader, but he does provide some clues. After all, in the end, even Peter, the sadistic older brother, is reformed and Ender's final mission in life is to find forgiveness for the buggers so that they can have another chance at life. (less)
I just could not get into this book. The style put me off, I didn't care about the characters, and the plot is somewhat episodic and doesn't really ta...moreI just could not get into this book. The style put me off, I didn't care about the characters, and the plot is somewhat episodic and doesn't really take off even by the end of the book since this is the first in a series. On top of all of that, I didn't really care for the way Wolfe's female characters were presented, either. (less)
**spoiler alert** I'm torn between three and four stars on this one. I greatly enjoyed most of the book, but it does take a long time to set all the e...more**spoiler alert** I'm torn between three and four stars on this one. I greatly enjoyed most of the book, but it does take a long time to set all the events and characters in motion and then, because so much is going on, it takes longer than I'd like to conclude. On the other hand, after the action gets going and before it concludes the book becomes difficult to put down. I decided it deserves four stars because not only was it a fun read but it is a really interesting read in the following ways:
1) Without being overtly political, Vinge makes a feminist statement in this book. The fact that the world of Tiamat is ruled by women could cut both ways, but the Snow and Summer Queens are far from the only strong female characters. The ratio of strong female to strong male characters is probably pretty balanced, actually, which is a rarity in my SF reading up to this point. Prior to the 1970s, to find a strong female character in SF was a surprise and a treat.
2) Vinge raises questions of ethical behavior toward not only other human beings but toward nonhuman creatures as well in the relationship between the mers--intelligent waterdwellers on Tiamat (basically merpeople) who, as it turns out, had been created by the Old Empire as part of a scientific experiment--and the human inhabitants and visitors of Tiamat. The mers are regularly slaughtered for their blood, which has life-preserving qualities that allow the humans who use the "water of life," as it is called, to stay young and live forever--as long as they keep ingesting this substance. Vinge asks us to consider whether this is justifiable, even if the mers are not intelligent creatures, and this echoes real-life issues of animal rights and anti-colonial movements.
3) Although The Snow Queen, based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, is in some ways very much in the tradition of epic fantasy, complete with royalty, palace intrigue, and apparent magic, Vinge refigures the fantastic in favor of the scientific. Here, fantasy is transformed into science fiction by simply providing an explanation for the magic of Tiamat. The sibyls, who are worshipped as specially able to communicate the words and knowledge of the Lady, a goddess, turn out to be able, instead, to communicate with a computer system because they have been genetically engineered to be able to do so. The mers aren't fantasy creatures divorced from reality but are the result of scientific experimentation that have a purpose. And the central issue of the book is that of progress through technology and the rights of the people of Tiamat to improve their lives through technology. The goal is not to return to a primordial time of innocence and wonder but to change the world for the better. As Moon, the protagonist, says, "Change isn't evil--change is life. Nothing's all good, or all bad. . . . What you choose to do with your life doesn't matter, unless you have the right to choose anything" (489).
4) Vinge explores quite thoroughly the various ways in power can change those who hold it. Arienrhod, the Snow Queen, is completely corrupted by her absolute power over her subjects, and Sparks is changed from an innocent and good young man to an executioner and murderer at the hands of Arienrhod and with the power their relationship gives him. Jerusha, the police inspector who becomes commander, is changed by the power she gains as well; although she does not become corrupted herself, she does lose a great deal of herself to the position she has taken on. Even Moon, the most good-hearted, well-informed, and well-intentioned character in the book risks losing that. As she realizes when she becomes Summer Queen, "becoming Queen did not mean absolute freedom, but the end of it" (528). As we see in Jerusha and Moon, however, power does not have to mean corruption. Jerusha resists that corruption and her position and prestige in order to do the right thing and we can only hope that Moon, in the following books of the series, will be able to do the same.
5) The concluding chapter includes a couple of statements that I, quite simply, really liked and was moved by. BZ Gundhalinu, a police inspector, tells Jerusha what he has learned through the painful experiences he has endured and says,
"A man without armor is a defenseless man. . . . But maybe he's a freer man for it. . . . Anything becomes possible, after you find the courage to admit that nothing is certain" (532).
In the same conversation, Jerusha tells Gundhalinu that the real danger of the world is indifference. It is, she says,
"the strongest force in the universe. It makes everything it touches meaningless. Love and hatedon't stand a chance against it. It lets neglect and decay and monstrous injustice go unchecked. It doesn't at, it allows. And that's what gives it so much power" (533).
These two concepts play a huge role already in my personal philosophy and it's nice to have them articulated so well here. (less)
**spoiler alert** Thomas Disch's On Wings of Song is a multi-layered, interesting novel because it addresses issues of power (familial, governmental,...more**spoiler alert** Thomas Disch's On Wings of Song is a multi-layered, interesting novel because it addresses issues of power (familial, governmental, disciplinary), the value of art, the relationship between mind (or soul) and body, and the relationship between appearance and reality.
Power: The protagonist, Daniel Weinreb, has grown up in the repressive society of Iowa. While still a teenager he is arrested for selling forbidden out-of-state newspapers and is sent to jail where he nearly freezes and starves because the prisoners are essentially left to fend for themselves, prevented from running away by having a bomb implanted in them that will explode if they cross the perimeter of the prison. Daniel encounters abuses of power within the prison, within the government and school systems, and in the family of his girlfriend, Boadicea, as her father, a wealthy leader of the community, manipulates the world to his liking. This issue is dealt with directly by Disch. He shows us how pervasive abuses of power are while never leading us to believe that they are completely inescapable or unchangeable.
Art: One major means to escape these abuses is art, specifically singing, and flight. In this world, there are machines that allow those hooked into them to sing their way out of their bodies and into a transcendent state of being. Daniel describes this experience: "The moment one leaves one's body by the power of song, the lips fall silent, but the song goes on, and so long as one flies the song continues" (357). Boadicea, far more intimately acquainted with flight, also describes it: "What other choice can there be, after all [but to fly]? It is, as my father might say, a business proposition. Here one finds, at most, only a little pleasure; there, there is only pleasure. Here, if my body perishes, I must perish with it; when I am there, the body's death will cease to concern me" (332). At first, singing is only meaningful to Daniel as a means to learn to fly. As the narrative progresses, however, singing becomes its only reward. He reaches the point where he could fly while singing, but he chooses not to.
Body & Soul: But why, after a lifetime of wanting nothing more than to fly, why does he choose not to fly once he is able to? Why not abandon the body, the meat, the flesh, that which is accompanied by pain and embarrassment and failure? Why not soar into this transcendent space? A conversation with Mrs. Schiff, a composer and supporter of the arts as well as his roommate for a time, may begin to answer these questions. She tells him,
"Merely to be striving, ever and always, is no distinction. That's what's wrong with German music. It's all development, all Sehnsucht and impatience. The highest art is happy to inhabit this moment, here and now. A great singer sings the way a bird warbles. One doesn't need a large soul to warble, only a throat" (286-7).
In this light, singing is its own end and its own reward. This realization is also, however, the key to flight. Daniel says later,
"It was as Mrs. Schiff had said about music, that it must be a warbling, and willing to inhabit this instant, and then this instant, and always this instant, and not just willing, and not even desirous, but delighted: an endless, seamless inebriation of song. That was what bel canto was all about, and that was the way to fly." (292)
The equation of bel canto [beautiful singing] with flight does more than reinforce the necessity of singing to take one into flight here; it also places bel canto on the same level as flight. In Daniel's mind, bel canto is at this point no longer a means to the end of flight, but an experience as transcendent and meaningful as he'd always hoped flight would be. He acknowledges, during his final concert, that "he was willing, at last, that this [singing] should be his life, his only life. If it were small, that was a part of its charm" (355).
Finally, he chooses not to fly but instead to sing because, as he tells his brother-in-law, "When you're out of your body that long, you stop being altogether human" (355). Although the novel diminishes the body for hundreds of pages, putting a premium on the escape from it, in the end Disch puts the highest value on the full human experience, both body and mind/soul, and on the aesthetic experience, which is able to make people understand:
"It took hold of each soul so, levelling them all to ashes with a single breath, like the breath of atomic disintegration, joining them in the communion of an intolerable and lovely knowledge, which was the song and could not be told of apart from the song" (70).
Appearance & Reality: Perhaps the central theme, that which brings all the others together is that of the relationship between appearance and reality. Daniel repeatedly is told and learns the lesson that reality is created by one's actions. In other words, if you pretend something is true, it is true or will become true. His mother pretends to be a normal Iowan housewife and eventually becomes one; Grandison Whiting, Boa's father, pretends to be larger and more confident than he is (with a fake beard) and eventually becomes a powerful individual who is feared and respected by the entire community; Van Dyke, a Christian speaker and writer, says, "if the way we become the kind of people we are is by pretending, then the way to become good, devout, and faithful Christians (which, admit it, is a well-nigh impossible undertaking) is to pretend to be good, devout, and faithful" (57); Daniel pretends to be black (which is a whole fascinating subplot in and of itself), pretends to be in love with a castrato (another fascinating subplot), and, finally, pretends to fly and these acts create a new self, open new doors for him, and free him to truly sing. Even in Daniel's final performance, he does not actually fly (though he knows he could); instead he pretends to fly. He has made his decision to value the here and now instead of striving for something outside of his body and his self and so he will not fly, but even in this refusal he reinforces the strength and significance of his singing by acting the part of the man having a transcendent experience of flight. The act is, in many ways, the reality.
This truth is an ambivalent one, however, when it comes to the question of flight. If appearances create reality, should not flight be the ultimate reality where what you think you see is more real than the real world? On the other hand, the mechanism of flight requires the appearance of death for the physical body, which creates a different reality altogether.
But--and here's the crux of the matter--the appearance is not the same as the act. Daniel, his mother, Grandison, and Van Dyke do not merely appear to be what they wish to be; they act like the thing they wish to be. It is an active process not a passive one and one that requires an embodied subject, which is something that is impossible in flight. For Daniel, finally, singing trumps flight because in it he is complete, both body and soul, as well as part of a larger community. Boa chooses flight over "real life" and has a very different experience: she experiences pleasure but she is incomplete and isolated by the experience. She does not grow, but only finds a delightful stasis. (less)
In Dreamsnake, Vonda McIntyre tells a captivating and moving story about a healer, Snake, and her quest to find a new dreamsnake after the death of he...moreIn Dreamsnake, Vonda McIntyre tells a captivating and moving story about a healer, Snake, and her quest to find a new dreamsnake after the death of her first, Grass. Along the way, she meets a man, adopts a young girl, travels great distances, and overcomes many hardships, physical and emotional. She proves herself to be honorable, strong, wise, and the kind of character a reader can really care about.
The relationship that develops between Snake and Melissa, the young girl she adopts, is deep and believable enough to have moved me to tears. What's more, so is her relationship with her snakes. I intensely dislike snakes; I am terrified of them, in fact. I am so afraid of snakes that not only will a picture of a snake in a book startle me but that I cannot bring myself to touch even a picture of a snake. However, because of the value the Snake places on her snakes (Mist, Sand, and Grass), I begin to care about the snakes, too. When Grass is killed early in the book, I feel only sadness and loss at the death of this small creature. Creating sympathy for snakes is quite a feat and McIntyre accomplishes it beautifully.
Beyond good storytelling and compelling characters and relationships, McIntyre's novel is interesting because of its focus on biology as well. Snake is immune to her snakes' venom and is able to manipulate their venom to heal others; she also comes from a community of healers that is able to practice cloning and genetic manipulation. Furthermore, the post-nuclear apocalypse setting of Dreamsnakev is only hinted at, for the focus is not on the old technologies or on the "shiny metal machines" that many (e.g., Orson Scott Card) associate with science fiction; the scientific emphasis is instead on biological manipulation. This use of biotechnology will become more important in science fiction in later years, but in 1978 this was fairly groundbreaking. (less)
This book is a complex and fascinating examination of gender roles and ideology. In it, Russ contrasts and intertwines the stories of Joanna (a 1970s...moreThis book is a complex and fascinating examination of gender roles and ideology. In it, Russ contrasts and intertwines the stories of Joanna (a 1970s feminist of a world much like, if not identical to, our own), Jeannine (a young, fairly stereotypical woman of an alternate timeline in which the Depression never ended), and Janet (a woman from the distant utopian future of Whileaway, a world with no men and only women), showing multiple variations on the issue or problem of sex difference alongside multiple responses to inequalities. Joanna is outspoken and sees clearly the inequalities that surround her, even if she is not always certain how to best address them; Jeannine is thoroughly indoctrinated in the ideology that says a woman needs a man and has neither the strength nor the apparent inclination to challenge this ideology; and Janet, from a world without men, doesn't fully understand what the problem is. After all, it has never been a problem for her. She is what all women could be if sexist inequalities no longer existed.
Through Joanna, Russ is able to openly critique contemporary society. For example, Joanna says, describing her education as a woman,
"I love my body dearly and yet I would copulate with a rhinoceros if I could become not-a-woman. There is the vanity training, the obedience training, the self-effacement training, the deference training, the dependency training, the passivity training, the rivalry training, the stupidity training, the placation training. How am I to put this together with my human life, my intellectual life, my solitude, my transcendence, my brains, and my fearful, fearful ambition? I failed miserably and thought it was my own fault. You can't unite woman and human any more than you can unite matter and anti-matter; they are designed to not to be stable together and they make just as big an explosion inside the head of the unfortunate girl who believes in both." (151)
Joanna is the angry woman, and, more importantly, the woman who has every right to be angry. She is "a sick woman, a madwoman, a ball-breaker, a man-eater" who doesn't "consume men gracefully with my fire-like red hair or my poisoned kiss" but who violently destroys them (135). She speaks the anger of all oppressed women when she says,
"Alas, it was never meant for us to hear. It was never meant for us to know. We ought never be taught to read. We fight through the constant male refractoriness of our surroundings; our souls are torn out of us with such shock that there isn't even any blood. Remember: I didn't and don't want to be a 'feminine' version or a diluted version or a special version or a subsidiary version or an ancillary version, or an adapted version of the heroes I admire. I want to be the heroes themselves. "What future is there for a female child who aspires to being Humphrey Bogart?" (206).
Jeannine and Janet each function in very different ways to illustrate the problem that Joanna rails against. Jeannine is lost, unable to stand up for herself, unable to figure out just what she wants or what she should do when the things she should want do not satisfy her:
"She hauls at the valise again, wondering desperately what it is that other women know and can do that she doesn't know or can't do, women in the street, women in the magazines, the ads, married women. Why life doesn't match the stories. I ought to get married. [...] "The lines of her figure are perfect, but who is to use all this loveliness, who is to recognize it, make it public, make it available? Jeannine is not available to Jeannine. . . . If only (she thinks) he'll come and show me to myself (108-9).
Janet, on the other hand, is thoroughly herself, competent and capable (even as an expendable member of Whileawayan society), untainted by the evils of sexism and gender inequality. As a result, she has trouble truly seeing the problem and recognizing why it is that Joanna and Jeannine are the way that they are. She is constantly questioning and challenging the assumptions that underpin contemporary society. For instance, she says,
"Now you tell me that enchanted frogs turn into princes, that frogesses under a spell turn into princesses. What of it? Romance is bad for the mind. . . . After all, why slander frogs? Princes and princesses are fools. They do nothing interesting in your stories. They are not even real. According to history books you passed through the stage of feudal social organization in Europe some time ago. Frogs, on the other hand, are covered with mucus, which they find delightful; they suffer agonies of passionate desire in which the males will embrace a stick or your finger if they cannot get anything better, and they experience rapturous, metaphysical joy (of a froggy sort, to be sure) which shows plainly in their beautiful, chrysoberyllian eyes. "How many princes or princesses can say as much?" (154-55)
Her matter-of-fact approach to the world reveals just how silly and useless sexist ideology is.
The Female Man is challenging not just because of its ideas (which are challenging enough for many readers, to be sure) but because of its structure as well. Russ alternates quickly and frequently between these three perspectives and narrative voices and also includes another narrative voice and perspective that remains mysterious until the penultimate chapter. It can be confusing. Most characters' perspectives are presented in first person, which makes it even more difficult to tell who is speaking. But in the end, this difficulty pays off. It is worth the extra effort in reading to have been able to see the world through so many different sets of eyes.
The experimental narrative style includes intrusions by the author as well, ranging in tone from the defensive to the hopeful. In one passage, Russ includes fragmentary predictions of the criticisms her book will receive:
"Shrill . . . vituperative . . . no concern for the future of society . . . maunderings of antiquated feminism . . . selfish femlib . . . needs a good lay . . . this shapeless book . . . of course a calm and objective discussion is beyond . . . twisted, neurotic . . . some truth buried in a largely hysterical . . . of very limited interest, I should . . . another tract for the trash-can . . . burned her bra and thoght that . . . no characterization, no plot . . . really important issues are neglected while . . . hermetically sealed . . . women's limited experience . . . another of the screaming sisterhood . . . ." (140-1).
And there's still more that I haven't quoted. Here, Russ quite simply beats her critics to the punch. Call me and my book shrill and hysterical and you're making my argument for me, she says, in essence. Dismiss this as merely political, merely feminist (feminist as a bad word here, of course), and you prove me right. The thing is, however, that this is not a mere trick on the part of the author, not simply a way of maneuvering her way to a victory over her critics; this is a clear-sighted recognition of the kind of response this kind of book had received in the past and would continue to receive in the future. She shows the reader just how deeply engrained the ideas she battles are, for only ideas that are in some way important to the culture would be defended so strenuously. If the sexist ideology she criticizes in The Female Man weren't fundamental, her criticisms could be ignored.
In the end of the book, Russ as author returns again, this time to address the book itself, sending it forth upon its mission to "recite yourself to all who will listen" and to "not complain when you at last you become quaint and old-fashioned, when you grow as outworn as the crinolines of a generation ago and are classed with Spicy Western Stories, Elsie Dinsmores, and The Son of the Sheik" (213). She says,
"Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers' laps and punch the readers' noses. "Rejoice, little book! "For on that day, we will be free" (214).
I have heard many people criticize the feminist movement as problematic because it will, of necessity, make itself irrelevant, destroy itself. I've never understood why these people saw this as a problem. That, after all, is the point. The feminist movement is a political movement to create change in a specific arena. Most (if not all) feminists would rejoice if they no longer needed to call themselves feminists because the movement had done its job and Russ reminds us of that truth. The feminism of Russ's The Female Man, even in its anger, is not a feminism of misandry or hatred but a feminism of hope for the future, a future that will require anger and a struggle in order to be reached. This is a criticism that reaches toward utopia, an acknowledgement of the problem in a practical attempt to create something better. Russ writes,
"Remember, we will all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be free. I swear it on my own head. I swear it on my ten fingers. We will be ourselves" (213).
This freedom to "be ourselves" does not require (as in Whileaway or the other future world described in the last part of the book) a world without men; it does, however, require a world without the sexist ideologies that have benefitted men and harmed women. And this world would be, as the allusion here hints, Heaven. It would be utopia. (less)
1. It is not accurately described by the back cover copy on my edition, which says,
"Alldera was a Fem...moreLet's start by determining what this book is not:
1. It is not accurately described by the back cover copy on my edition, which says,
"Alldera was a Fem, and she knew the horrors of the Holdfast, where labor fems and breeding fems were treated worse than beasts.
"She knew the legends of the free fems who roamed the scorched plains beyond the Wild.
"And she knew what she had to do."
This is not a book focused on Alldera or on the experience of the Fems themselves. This is not a book about the free fems living in the Wild (in reality or in legend). This is not a book about Alldera's plan to do "what she had to do." Actually, Alldera doesn't get any real attention until the fourth section of the book and even then the focus is less on her experiences and feelings and more on how she is able to impact one of the male characters. Her plan, hinted at as a major part of the book, is in reality only a minor part of the book and one that comes and goes fairly quickly. I had hoped that the book would be more about Alldera and the fems' situation; it appears that I will have to read Motherline, the next book in the series, in order to get that.
The actual focus of Charnas's Walk to the End of the World is more interesting than the hinted-at adventure story even though it is less about the women of this post-apocalyptic world and more about the men in power and how they struggle with, challenge, or are shaped by the societal rules that give them power and create fems as a separate and unequal class.
"Most of "Walk to the End of the World" is told from a male perspective, but because it is first and foremost a misandryist ideological tract, Charnas forces her male characters into simplistic clichés of what radical feminism believes men to be: violent, hierarchical, and dysfunctional. The ecological disaster of the "Wasting", which sets up Charnas' nightmarish future, was solely the fault of men (specifically white men, of course), as is pretty much every other bad thing that happens in the book. Men fail at everything in the Holdfast, even homosexual love, and most of the time they blame women for these failures. This unrealistic view of men cripples "Walk to the End of the World" by making the male characters one-dimensional and uninteresting. They exist only to oppress the "fems", and the book seems to take an almost perverse pleasure in bringing some new and pointless male atrocity to light in almost every chapter. Instead of exploring the fascinating potential it has for father-son conflict or male friendship with other males, "Walk to the End of the World" dwells obsessively on showing men to be cruel, superstitious, and stupid. In addition, the book presents women solely as eternal victims of men, smarter and more moral because of the oppression they suffer. The only character who is at all interesting is Alldera, whose perspective we only see near the end of the book."
This is only worth bringing up because it is not an accurate description of the book and because this kind of miserading is not limited to this one reviewer. Walk to the End of the World does arise from the radical feminist movement of the 1970s, but radical feminist does not equal anti-men and Charnas's book is far from misandrist.
The situation in which the book is set relies heavily on sexist conceptions of gender roles and abilities, but Charnas actually spends a lot of time throughout this novel complicating the social and cultural divisions that have developed through Holdfast's history. These divisions place men over women, humans over animals, white over nonwhite, age over youth, etc., and are a fundamental part of the belief system of the Holdfast survivors. But many question these fundamentals. Of the major characters (Captain Kelmz, Servan D Layo, Eykar Bek, and Alldera), none wholeheartedly embrace these divisions. Some accept the misogyny of the culture but challenge the division between human and animal or young and old, while others, specifically Eykar Bek, challenge the division between male and female itself. These characters, male and female alike, are more than mere ciphers for Charnas's feminist ideology; they are fleshed out characters with weaknesses and strengths. That is what makes this book truly interesting.
As a final note, and a final quote from the Amazon review mentioned above, I want to consider this book's relation to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. This particular Amazon reviewer says,
"If you want a book that seethes with unproductive rage, "Walk to the End of the World" is just the thing; if you want a terrifying look at misogyny run amuck, I'd suggest Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" instead."
Clearly, I'm not going to agree with this statement, since I don't see Charnas's book as "seeth[ing] witih unproductive rage," but the two books, though they deal with similar situations (a future world in which women have no power and are merely used for breeding and work) approach these worlds in quite different ways. It might be an interesting project to teach the two side by side and ask students which they find more effective and why. Atwood tells her story through the perspective of one of the women in the society and provides little insight into the male mindset; she also incorporates religion into her dystopian world as a means of oppression, where Charnas's means of oppression resemble much more the logic of slavery (dehumanization of the Other, breeding for better workers and more docile slaves, etc.) and does not deal explicitly with religion. The fact that these two authors can make such a similar argument about the possible oppressive future of mid-century gender roles and use such different modes of justification for this future (economic versus religious) says a lot about how widespread these gender attitudes have been in Western culture and how close we may have come (and may yet come) to seeing one of those futures come true. (less)