Dev is a smuggler with the perfect cover. He’s in high demand as a guide for the caravans that carry legitimate goods from the city of Ninavel into the country of Alathia. The route through the Whitefire Mountains is treacherous, and Dev is one of the few climbers who knows how to cross them safely. With his skill and connections, it’s easy enough to slip contraband charms from Ninavel – where any magic is fair game, no matter how dark – into Alathia, where most magic is outlawed.
But smuggling a few charms is one thing; smuggling a person through the warded Alathian border is near suicidal. Having made a promise to a dying friend, Dev is forced to take on a singularly dangerous cargo: Kiran. A young apprentice on the run from one of the most powerful mages in Ninavel, Kiran is desperate enough to pay a fortune to sneak into a country where discovery means certain execution – and he’ll do whatever it takes to prevent Dev from finding out the terrible truth behind his getaway.
Yet Kiran isn’t the only one harboring a deadly secret. Caught up in a web of subterfuge and dark magic, Dev and Kiran must find a way to trust each other – or face not only their own destruction, but that of the entire city of Ninavel.
Schafer is currently running a Kickstarter for the last book in her ‘Shattered Sigil’ series, The Labyrinth of Flame, after the infamous Night Shade debacle left her series in a publishing limbo. Between that, and the long-term popular praise of her books, the time seemed right to ascend The Whitefire Crossing…
If epic fantasy is defined by journeys (as, say, the epics of Tolkein are), then The Whitefire Crossing is almost the archetypical epic fantasy: it is the story, almost entirely, of a single journey through a mountain pass, in the same way as Xenophon’s Anabasis is about a stroll to the beach. Mind you, it is on much smaller a scale than those epics, a much more personal novel about individuals moving in the world, rather than about grand forces shaping and changing it; of course, that’s just how it seems, and one suspects that as the series continues the repercussions of actions in The Whitefire Crossing will expand outwards, with greater and greater impact on a wider world. However, as contained in this novel, the broader international view is obscured, and we are concerned simply with Dev and with Kiran, and their clandestine passage (well, undercover) across a mountain pass to smuggle Kiran into another nation.
Inevitably, this is complicated, not least by the nature of the terrain; Schafer is a proud climber, and this shows in the course of The Whitefire Crossing, from the detailed descriptions (not overwritten, mind) of scaling a sheer rockface and, from a different viewpoint, watching a character leap seemingly into space; to the contrasting experience of a novice and an expert of scrambling across talus as it shifts and moves under them. It’s a brilliant piece of writing that makes the geography as much a secondary character as any of those who breathe; the mountains, valleys and plains are described with an eye for detail and a human touch that, without anthropomorphising them, Schafer gives them a life of their own, a character of their own, however staid and unforgiving that character in fact is. It’s an excellent piece of writing and includes some really detailed thinking about worldbuilding, geography, agriculture, economics and more that doesn’t get fed to the reader whole, but rather shines through by the obviousness of its presence (although I am left with logistical questions about Ninavel!)
The Whitefire Crossing is ultimately about two characters, and their shared – and less shared – experience. Schafer made an interesting choice in picking characters to centre her novel on who are in some key ways very similar, and in others very different; bruised and having just had their trust broken, each is in some sense running from something, in some way taking this job from necessity. While Dev’s necessity is more obvious, what Kiran is fleeing is clearer; similarly, while the betrayal of Dev’s trust is laid out from pretty much the word go, Kiran’s betrayal is implied from early on but what exactly happened to him is held back until quite late in The Whitefire Crossing. Both are interesting characters, and their growing respect for one another is fascinating, especially as Dev tries to maintain a professional distance and detachment from Kiran that strains under the enforced closeness of his task and of his suspicions of what is to come in Kiran’s future.
Because the characters are so interesting, the pain Schafer puts the reader through in the course of the novel is all the greater; from the first page, practically, characters are forced to compromise morally despite wishing to only do what they see as right, and to sacrifice for a personal greater good. The Whitefire Crossing is full of tragedies writ small and large, some of which are overturned later in the novel and others only compounded; some brought on by the foolishness of our characters, some inevitable, and some thrust upon them without any agency whatsoever, inevitable and insurmountable as, well, a mountain. Schafer, by making these characters interesting, human, rounded and engaging, makes that pain strike all the deeper, and the tragedies of the novel – especially the (by my lights) unjust ending – all the more pathetic.
The weakest part of the novel is its human (as opposed to environmental) antagonists. The Whitefire Crossing makes its various enemies for Dev and Kiran rather simplistic in their evil, for the most part; while one is somewhat leavened in some ways, particularly by a sense of family, the other is simply outright evil, with no thought but for his own power, and neither narrative nor character give any actual explanation for or justification of his actions other than “he wants power”. It’s a frustrating lack in a novel that is otherwise very interested in three-dimensional characters, the ideas of debt and obligation, of actions borne from love, of difficult choices made in impossible circumstances between different evils, and similar; yet its antagonists don’t seem to have any meaningful motivation beyond “being the bad guys”, in an almost Tolkeinian darkness that fits poorly with the shades of grey the rest of the novel is painted in.
In the end though, the antagonists aren’t actually that significant a feature of The Whitefire Crossing; it’s about Dev, it’s about Kiran, and it’s about the journey, and that, Schafer makes clear, is enough.
In her vivid and sly, gentle and wise long anticipated first collection, Delia Sherman takes seemingly insignificant moments in the lives of artists or sailors—the light out a window, the two strokes it takes to turn a small boat—and finds the ghosts haunting them, the magic surrounding them. Here are the lives that make up larger histories, here are tricksters and gardeners, faeries and musicians, all glittering and sparkling, finding beauty and hope and always unexpected, a touch of wild magic.
Sherman’s first collection of short stories collects works published in various venues over the course of two and a half decades, but Young Woman In A Garden has, in some key ways, less variety to it than even many themed anthologies do, not that that’s a bad thing.
All Sherman’s stories are simple, small-scale, very human things; Young Woman In A Garden isn’t interested in the shining chrome gleam of space opera or the grand, flashy magics of epic fantasy, but far more on magical realism, to various degrees and in different kinds. Sherman’s collection is interested in interiority, in people’s emotions and feelings, in how we can better expose and understand those by looking at them through a fantastic lens, rather than in novae for their own sake. If fantasy and science fiction literature is the literature of what-ifs, Sherman’s stories aren’t about societal or universal what-ifs, but about very personal, individual hypotheticals, about the ways the interaction of the fantastic in the lives of people might change them.
The titular story, ‘Young Woman in a Garden’, is one of the stand-out works of the collection. Something between an investigation on the idea of art and who produces it, and a polyamorous queer ghost story, it is told from the perspective of a student doing some work on a (long-dead) lesser-known painter who has been invited to the home of the painter to go through his papers. Sherman traces her explorations and slowly builds in and builds up the supernatural elements of the story, dropping breadcrumbs for the reader both about that and the hidden questions about art and creation that it’s asking, questions that have interesting parallels with those raised in Siri Hustvedt’s The Burning World.
At the other end of the spectrum is the fairy story told in ‘The Faerie Cony-Catcher’, Sherman’s foray into historical fantasy. It is clearly fantastical, largely taking place outside the world, but also written in a sixteenth century style and language that is reminiscent, inevitably, of writers like Shakespeare; focusing on the arrogance and growing self-awareness of a jewelry-maker who has finished his apprenticeship. The man thinks himself very world-weary at the start of the story, as a series of run-ins indicate, but is shown to in fact be out of his depth and overconfident, and the extent to which this is the case is only revealed towards the end of the story. However, Sherman does a double-aversion in the end, evoking and then denying something akin to trans panic, not entirely successfully; the story ends up homophilic but transphobic, albeit clearly without that intention.
This isn’t to say all the stories here have queer text, or even queer subtext; for instance, one of the shortest pieces in the volume, ‘Nanny Peters and the Feathery Bride’, deals with a woman whose sexuality is simply left unstated and a general society of heterosexuality. It’s about suitability for marriage, about advice and how sometimes taking it is important, about partnerships and the way people outside a relationship can see better than those in it sometimes, and about the fact that people don’t really change. It’s interesting as a story, in part because of the patois in which Sherman writes it; not gratingly, full of apostrophes, but simply, straightforwardly, honestly, and naturally, which is much better.
I’ve only picked out three here, but they suffice to demonstrate that Sherman’s stories address a range of issues, including racism, sexism, and queer topics, as well as being in some cases stories without explicit interrogation of society; they are all sparkling little gems, and Young Woman in a Garden is a truly spectacular and varied collection as a result.
Mexico City, 1988: Long before iTunes or MP3s, you said “I love you” with a mixtape. Meche, awkward and fifteen, has two equally unhip friends — Sebastian and Daniela — and a whole lot of vinyl records to keep her company. When she discovers how to cast spells using music, the future looks brighter for the trio. With help from this newfound magic, the three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as non-entities, and maybe even find love…
Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns for her estranged father’s funeral. It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, and it revives memories from her childhood she thought she buried a long time ago. What really happened back then? What precipitated the bitter falling out with her father? And, is there any magic left?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal To Noise feels like a vintage novel, in some ways; while it has one timeline in 2009, even that is a kind of historical fiction now, while the older timeline, set before this reviewer was even born, with a focus on vinyl records and landlines the only phones available.
That isn’t to say Moreno-Garcia’s novel is dated, of course, having just come out earlier this month; rather, it is to say that Signal To Noise feels very much of the time it is set in, rather than the time it is written in, while of course having things to say to the present. This novel is so fixed in time that, like a Hilary Mantel novel, it will not date, not being tied to a time other than those specified for its plot. Indeed, the part of the novel set in the 1980s feels very much tied to its time; the death of vinyl in favour of cassettes, later to be replaced by other devices of course; Betamax; and the rise of a punk insurgency in music that dominated the decade. Moreno-Garcia evokes excellently the feeling of growing up in that time period, with the concerns, fashions, ideas and senses of identity and self that dominated the 1980s; her image of Mexico isn’t the one the Anglophone West is typically served, of lawlessness, gangs, drugs and corruption, but of a country like any other, with some run down and poor and some wealthy. Her modern Mexico is similarly recognisable; Signal To Noise shows the differences of wealth that exist, the divides in Mexican society and the way those divides are crossed, and the Catholicism that is so strongly a part of Mexican culture.
Mind you, Moreno-Garcia’s greatest trick is not this evocation of Mexico, either past or more recently; Signal To Noise is best judged through its characters, the people who move through the book, especially the trinity who form the core of the novel. Meche, Daniela and Sebastian are Moreno-Garcia’s core to the novel, Meche especially, and the relationships between them are where the emotional interest here lies; the way those relationships change, shift and morph driven by the events of 1988-9, and how those impact on the characters, and especially Meche, twenty years later once they’ve grown up (or at least aged). Moreno-Garcia doesn’t let her characters off easy, and Signal To Noise is a really punishing book in terms of making the characters suffer the consequences of their actions; like reality, the novel isn’t fair, and to this reader at least Sebastian gets off rather easy and Meche is punished rather severely for her actions by the novel, although others may see it differently. Either way, Moreno-Garcia makes the reader care deeply about what is happening to her characters, whom she puts through the ringer, both from their own actions and from those of others; it’s an impressive emotional turmoil and darkness to convey.
Signal To Noise is a very low-key novel; while magic runs through it as a constant thread, and some unknown but traumatic event, that happened in the 1980s and is revealed at the end of the novel has a huge impact on the thread of the novel that occurs in the 2000s, Moreno-Garcia could really have written this almost identically without the magic and had just as much emotional impact. This isn’t a novel of spells causing explosions and charming legions, but of low-key, small things, and that’s what the plot rests on; it’s a deeply personal novel, about individuals, not about the fate of nations or the world, and makes an interesting shift in pace from much urban fantasy; this is a purely human novel and takes place on a purely human scale. That feeling is bolstered by the way the two time periods weave together, as Moreno-Garcia alternates chapters, each section setting up the events of the next, and changing how we view what has come before; we revise our thoughts on the Meche of 1988 in light of that of 2009, but also vice versa, a balance Moreno-Garcia achieves fascinatingly.
Signal To Noise isn’t a flashy novel, or one that is particularly trying to impress you with its theatrics; it’s a very human, personal novel, a beautiful and painful story about love, loss, family, friendship, and the idea of home. If it weren’t published by Solaris, I would tip Moreno-Garcia’s novel-length debut as a potential crossover novel into the literary mainstream; but hopefully we in the genre can give it the attention it deserves.
When the inhabitants of a peaceful world are conquered by the bloodthirsty yumens, their existence is irrevocably altered. Forced into servitude, the Athsheans find themselves at the mercy of their brutal masters.
Desperation causes the Athsheans, led by Selver, to retaliate against their captors, abandoning their strictures against violence. But in defending their lives, they have endangered the very foundations of their society. For every blow against the invaders is a blow to the humanity of the Athsheans. And once the killing starts, there is no turning back.
Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest is part of her sprawling, massive science-fiction series The Hainish Cycle; each novel can be read on its own, thankfully, since I’ve not read the whole cycle and don’t know where this particular installment fits in with the rest…
The Word For World Is Forest feels, in many ways, like a reply to Little Fuzzy, published a decade earlier; both focus on the use of a planet rich in natural resources being harvested by offworlders, both have furry native species with human-level intelligence whose intellect is believed, by the colonialist forces wanting the aforementioned natural resources, to be far less; and both look at how that harvesting of resources without regard for the indigenous inhabitants of the planet could be ended. The difference is that Le Guin’s version of the story replaces a white saviour applying the rule of law with a violent uprising, coming from within the indigenous inhabitants, the Athsheans.
That, of course, is not the only difference; for a start, Le Guin’s story is told alternating between the perspectives of the colonising and the native people, whereas Piper’s is told entirely from the point of view of the colonising ally of the natives. That gives a certain richness to The Word For World is Forest by giving us a variety of perspectives; a militaristic coloniser who sees the natives as nothing, or less than nothing; a coloniser who sees the natives as primitive but worthy of respect all the same; and a native of the planet, with whom Le Guin’s greatest sympathy lies, but who is still damaged and changed by his encounter with the colonisers. That theme is one of the major ones in the novel; that even after a colonisation has ended, it is impossible to forget the impact that the encounter with a colonising force has on a colonised people. It’s a theme we often see ignored or elided in this field, but Le Guin tackles it head on, with a sort of tragic sadness to her writing about it; while The Word For World is Forest is about resistance to colonialist forces, it is also about the way those same forces cannot be fought without a cost.
As a novel, The Word For World is Forest has a set of virtues all its own beyond the political. Le Guin is well known for both her characterisation and prose, and those are on full display in this work; it’s a lucid, clear, not plain but very much unadorned prose style that changes as we shift from viewpoint to viewpoint, having the same base on which to work but with very different layers on top of that. The sections with the appalling Captain Davidson are full of unchecked rage and hatred, contempt and paranoia, barely held in check by the man; Le Guin shows her contempt for Davidson by using his contempt for the Athsheans, his contempt for other Earth humans, and his contempt for women to paint a portrait of an angry, isolated, egomaniacal sadist with an appalling desire to hurt and control with no compassion. Raj Lyubov’s chapter, on the other hand, tells a rather different story; the xenologist still doesn’t understand the Athsheans or their culture, but at least has empathy for them; The Word For World is Forest has an excellent balance of detached intellectual curiosity and compassion in this section, with that fundamental failure to understand perfectly included.
The worst written sections, or at least those which are weakest, are those in The Word For World is Forest which come from the viewpoint of the Athshean revolutionary anticolonialist Selver. The problem here is that while Selver is passionate, and made out clearly to be far from saintly, he’s not actually all that interesting; he is in many ways a cipher for his countrymen and his culture, with guilty conscience and all. It’s a bit of a problem, because Le Guin doesn’t really make Selver terribly believable or someone we can connect with terribly; it also, of course, puts the position of the colonised into the position of the literally-alien, even while attacking the coloniser.
The Word For World is Forest is certainly a strong novel, and a brilliant effort to attack colonialism and understand the damage that it does; it’s unfortunate that Le Guin’s protagonist falls down a little too much.
The Jackaroo have given humanity fifteen worlds littered with ruins and artifacts. Miracles that could reverse the damage caused by war, climate change, and rising sea levels. Nightmares that could forever alter humanity – or destroy it.
Chloe Millar works in London, mapping changes caused by imported scraps of alien technology. When she stumbles across a pair of orphaned kids possessed by an ancient ghost, she must decide whether to help them or to hand them over to the authorities. Authorities who believe that the visions point towards a new kind of danger.
And on one of the Jackaroo’s gift-worlds, the murder of a man who has just arrived from Earth leads policeman Vic Gayle to a war between rival gangs over possession of a remote excavation site.
Something is coming through. Something linked to the visions of Chloe’s orphans, and Vic’s murder investigation. Something that will challenge the limits of the Jackaroo’s benevolence…
Paul McAuley has long been a stalwart of the British science fiction scene, having published his first novel over a quarter of a century ago; Something Coming Through continues this habit. McAuley is also an alumnus (albeit as staff), like Alistair Reynolds, of my alma mater, the University of St Andrews, so reviewing a copy of his forthcoming book was truly an irresistible proposition.
However, this goodwill was quickly sacrificed in Chapter 7 of the ARC. The Jackaroo only manifest in the world via avatars which are created by some process out of nothing, and which appear to have no physical constraints on their appearance – they are golden-skinned and translucent in appearance, but their outfits vary widely. Something Coming Through is set at some point in the future – McAuley never specifies when but a significant time must have passed between the present and the events of the novel. However, all the Jackaroo are male; McAuley makes a point of having the Jackaroo explain why: “We prefer not to challenge certain societal norms”. After this one line, the issue of whether it is a societal norm that aliens are male, or that men are more respected, or any other such implication of the “certain societal norms” that lead to the Jackaroo manifesting as male are never brought up or discussed; the world we’re immersed in does not appear to be actively patriarchal (women hold a number of senior positions in corporate and civil service roles, although the few politicians we see are all male), yet somehow the societal norm is masculine. Indeed, this is also a rather cissexist world; not a single character has a gender identity outside binary cis identities, reinforcing that patriarchal norm the aliens assert again, but once more without comment.
This is a world in which homosexuality is normalised, and gay marriages are common – a number of the background characters are in homosexual wedlock – but Something Coming Through cannot resist asserting the heterosexuality of its heroes; McAuley has Vic, one of his protagonists, sleep with a woman almost purely in order to reassert it, while the other, Chloe, crushes on various men throughout the narrative, relegating every queer character to background status, a mixed blessing at best.
If there’s one positive political point to be taken from Something Coming Through, it’s McAuley’s distaste for Ukip and the faux-populism of its leader, Farage. Robin Mountjoy is described as “a multimillionare… his PR painted him as a bluff, no-nonsense man of the people whose common sense cut through the incestuous old boys’ networks of the Westminster VIllage” and the Human Decency League, an obvious Ukip-analogue, are presented as policyless, with an empty xenophobia that is truly enviable in its single-minded folly. McAuley has no time for this kind of politics, and doesn’t pull his punches or hide his disdain in those passages when the character or his movement appear.
Of course, Something Coming Through isn’t intentionally about this, much as it may have impacted the experience of this reviewer when reading the novel; it’s about two stories that spiral together, one a simple criminal mystery on another planet, rather pedestrian in its approach (even the emotional shocks of it are muted, because McAuley doesn’t really make Vic or the reader feel them). The other is a little less muted, but that’s mainly because McAuley plays up the extent to which his heroine is something of a damsel in distress, bounced around without much agency in who pulls her strings, and worse still, come the climax of the novel, she is rendered truly useless; it’s a rather frustrating moment where she seems paralysed by indecision and makes some very poor choices.
In the end, the politics of the novel are something of a distraction from what is otherwise a breezy, but somewhat mediocre, piece of work; Something Coming Through doesn’t manage to have a strong plot or characters, and is not worth the time taken to read it.
DoI: Review based on an uncorrected bound manuscript proof provided by the publisher on request. Something Coming Through will come out from Gollancz on February 19th.
Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.
Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.
Elizabeth Bear swung by last week, before I had received my copy of Karen Memory, to talk to us about strong female characters; and what she said was brilliant, setting my expectations of the novel even higher than they had already been. So, how did it live up to those expectations…?
I’m going to talk a bit more personally about how I relate to Karen Memory, if the reader will indulge me. My copy arrived by post on Thursday morning of last week, and I read the first quarter or so of the novel between its arrival and four o’clock that afternoon. At that point, I received a phonecall from my mother, telling me my grandfather had died – suddenly and unexpectedly – the night before. Over the following few days, I had no fixed sleeping pattern, no real motivation, even no motivation at all – except to read Karen Memory, both so I could get this review up today, and because I wanted to. It afforded, by being first-person, escape into being someone else, someone with such different problems, and indeed a different life, to me, but with related problems; Karen is an orphan, and her processing of her grief for her father helped me process grief for my grandfather. It was also a book that took me away from the world; once I started reading, it was hard to drag myself out of the book, because Karen’s voice just drew me along, Bear keeping it smooth and consistent even while varying the pace, and making it very welcoming. The book provided a sort of haven from dealing with the reality of the world; when asked to think about saying something at my grandfather’s funeral, I wrote some brief thoughts and then retreated straight into Karen Memory, looking for the fun and joy that permeates the novel.
What I’m trying to say above is, I am hardly at my most objective when it comes to this novel; between the diversity of it, which I rejoiced in wholeheartedly for that first quarter, and the cloud hanging over me while reading the rest of Karen Memory and which it released me from, I have a huge love for this book, and am intensely grateful to Elizabeth Bear for writing it.
So frankly, Karen Memory surpassed all my expectations. This is an enormously fun book with enormous heart to it, even by the emotionally punishing standards of most of Bear’s output; helped no doubt by the very welcome return to first-person narration that we haven’t seen from Bear in some time. Indeed, the joy of the voice of Karen Memory is one of the best things about the book; our narrator-protagonist is Karen Memery, a seamstress (that article also gives some insight into the inspiration behind Bear’s fictional Rapid City, the setting of the novel) who speaks like a moderately-educated but by no means upper-class American of the 19th century, elided endings, dated terms (Bear doesn’t shy away from the racism of her time period), and a bawd’s sense of humour (innuendo abounds, and on at least one occasion is noted only to be taken back as actually literal). She’s a real delight to read, a joyous presence full of life, even in the darkest moments of Karen Memory; a sort of celebratory presence whose narration itself, by existing, reassures the reader that it will all work out in the end somehow.
Of course, Karen is also an animating presence in another way – it is largely her actions that drive Karen Memory, for better or worse, involving the rest of the cast in one another’s affairs in such a way as to cause the eventual explosion of chaos that concludes the novel. That chaos involves a Singer sewing machine pseudo-mecha reminiscent, intentionally, of Ripley’s xenomorph-slaying lifting suit; dynamite; explosions; a submarine with kraken-like tentacles for crushing ships; devious foreign plans; and US Marshal Bass Reeves as sidekick to Miss Memory, all coming together in the most pyrotechnic and cinematic scene you will ever read. This book, at times, reads like a James Bond film on speed, or run through the mind of a mad steampunk scientist; at others like the best kind of big stupid science fiction blockbuster; and at others, like a sort of steampunk Sex and the City; all the while sneaking in some very subversive messages.
And oh, does Bear ever bring in subversive messages to Karen Memory. This is a novel whose cast includes a number of people of colour, including the aforementioned historical figure of Bass Reeves and a fictional Native American posseman, Tomoatooah, filling the role of Tonto, but without the racism; a woman with disabilities, namely only one arm, and another old woman with movement difficulties; sex workers of various kinds (indeed, the disabled woman is a sex worker); and a trans woman, Francina, who is gendered female throughout, and on the one occasion when she drags up as a man, Karen as narrator is deeply confused. There are also blunt statements about privilege and about who we value (as for instance on p274), where Bear explicitly distances herself from some of the prejudices of her narrator by means of another character pointing them out, a very effective tactic.
Which leads to my summation; Karen Memory is a kick-ass, fun, diverse, and dare I say it spunky novel. It might not be Bear’s most cerebral work, but damned if I don’t think it might be her best to date. Indeed, it’s probably the best book I’m going to read all this year, and it’s barely even February…
Set in the twenty-second century after the repeal of the Nineteenth Amendment, the novel reveals a world where women are once again property, denied civil rights, and banned from public life. In this world, Earth’s wealth relies on interplanetary commerce, for which the population depends on linguists, a small, clannish group of families whose women breed and become perfect translators of all the galaxies’ languages. The linguists wield power, but live in isolated compounds, hated by the population, and in fear of class warfare. But a group of women is destined to challenge the power of men and linguists.
Nazareth, the most talented linguist of her family, is exhausted by her constant work translating for the government, supervising the children’s language education in the Alien-in-Residence interface chambers, running the compound, and caring for the elderly men. She longs to retire to the Barren House, where women past childbearing age knit, chat, and wait to die. What Nazareth does not yet know is that a clandestine revolution is going on in the Barren Houses: there, word by word, women are creating a language of their own to free them of men’s domination. Their secret must, above all, be kept until the language is ready for use. The women’s language, Láadan, is only one of the brilliant creations found in this stunningly original novel, which combines a page-turning plot with challenging meditations on the tensions between freedom and control, individuals and communities, thought and action. A complete work in itself, it is also the first volume in Elgin’s acclaimed Native Tongue trilogy.
Suzette Haden Elgin died last week, and that tragic occurence motivated me to read her most famous novel, that had been otherwise sitting neglected on my TBR. Native Tongue is a very feminist, very 1980s novel that, like Babel-18 and other works, deals with linguistics; Elgin’s marriage of linguistics to feminism, though, is a fascinating one.
There are two themes to the book, which are of course inextricably entwined; language as a way to encode the world, inextricably tied to our physical senses and perception of the world (hence similarities of abstracts across different language groups), and language as means of control and identity. Native Tongue combines these two themes in its use of Láadan , a conlang being developed by the women of the families of Linguists who are the only people trained to speak alien languages. It is, of course, a lot more complicated than that; Elgin doesn’t let the Linguists relax in their monopoly on extraterrestrial translations and negotiations, with the government trying to undercut them and attempting to break the seemingly-insurmountable barrier of non-humanoid communication. That latter, combined with the way the women are constructing Láadan, are how Elgin developes her ideas on the theme of language as determined by physicality; the barrier to communication with a nonhumanoid species is that the perceptual worlds are so different from each other that it is impossible to communicate across them.
The second approach to linguistics is Elgin’s Láadan; Native Tongue refers both to the Linguists’ approach to teaching their children alien languages, and to the construction of a new language for the women by the women, using original concepts not expressed in any other languages. It’s a fascinating idea, of women’s liberation from patriarchy – and in this case, a form of patriarchy far more severe than that of the present day – through first linguistic (hence cultural and psychological, per the linguistic ideas Elgin pursues), and then total, separation from the men; Elgin’s support for female separatism is not uncommon in women’s science fiction of the 1980s, but her willingness to also engage with how that might come about is rarer. It’s a rather fascinating idea, and Elgin treats it seriously and with the intellectual rigour her subject demands; although she also brings about the physical separation of genders by a rather unexpected means in Native Tongue, one that had this reader laughing in surprise when it happened because of the extent to which it is unexpected in feminist SF.
As usual, the plot and characters are worth discussing. The plot is essentially discussed above; this isn’t a fast-paced action-spectacle of a novel, but rather a cerebral novel about concepts and relationships between characters, and all the more interesting for that. Of course, it requires interesting characters for that to work, and these Elgin provides; although the men of Native Tongue share certain characteristics, including a cultural blindness to the capabilities and intelligence of women, they remain interesting and unique characters with different responses to how to deal with those supposed inferiorities. Meanwhile, the women are even more varied, especially as we see Michaela, a non-Linguist with the fear and hatred of Linguists that has been popularised by the government, contrast with the Linguists themselves; Elgin won’t make women into either a monolith or a superior group who immediately get along and see through male lies. Rather, Native Tongue sees something like the development of a feminist consciousness among the women of the novel; it’s an interesting process to watch through Elgin’s narrative, and a well-written one at that, that balances the different kinds of kyriarchal oppression that exist among different people, and deals neatly with subversions of the kyriarchy too (Linguists use some tactics rather similar to those used by mediaeval European Jews, for instance).
Native Tongue is one of those books that makes you think, and make you want to know more; in this case, it sent me delving into nonfiction work on linguistics, especially around language development and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Elgin has written a brilliant and fascinating novel, and I look forward to reading the rest of her trilogy.