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Somewhere on the outer rim of the universe, a mass of decaying world-ships known as the Legion is traveling in the seams between the stars. For generations, a war for control of the Legion has been waged, with no clear resolution. As worlds continue to die, a desperate plan is put into motion.
Zan wakes with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family. She is told she is their salvation – the only person capable of boarding the Mokshi, a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion. But Zan’s new family is not the only one desperate to gain control of the prized ship. Zan must choose sides in a genocidal campaign that will take her from the edges of the Legion’s gravity well to the very belly of the world. Zan will soon learn that she carries the seeds of the Legion’s destruction – and its possible salvation.
I’m a big fan of Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha and enjoyed Mirror Empire, so when I heard that she had written a new, stand-alone piece of feminist science fiction, I was inevitably very ready to jump on board; thanks to the kind generosity of Penny Reeve at Angry Robot Books, I got to do that a little earlier than most of you…
The Stars Are Legion is in many ways the archetypical Kameron Hurley novel; angrily and unapologetically feminist, grimdark and brutal, and with some very odd biopunk things going on in the worldbuilding. We go in expecting those now, though, so their presence per se is almost not worth commenting on; instead, their specific manifestations are relevant.
The novel as a whole is quite a fast-paced read, powering through a lot of plot very quickly; at times this makes it very choppy, as time is disjointed and unclear (if this was intentional, it isn’t clear that was the case, rather than something approaching carelessness), and at times it founders on repetition of things that were covered earlier being driven home, especially if those things are relevant to the thematic underpinnings. That’s something of a habit for Hurley; this is less choppy in many ways than previous novels, and has a much better approach to concealed information, with Zan’s lost memory and the way Jayn, our other viewpoint character, talks about things feeling naturally avoidant rather than forced for plot reasons. The eventual resolution feels forced though, and doesn’t really fit with the tone of the rest of the novel; whether Hurley or her editors wanted it, The Stars Are Legion wraps up in a way that grinds harshly against what came before.
In terms of character, though, the tight focus of The Stars Are Legion means it’s one of Hurley’s most accomplished books so far. Having only Zan and Jayn as viewpoint characters means we really get into their heads very deeply, and having quite a small ancillary cast to those protagonists allows Hurley to paint them vividly through both interactions with the principals and with each other; across the novel we see a variety of different expressions of personhood accompanied by different responses to the weird world Hurley has constructed. It’s an impressive feat to achieve that kind of variety, and to draw out the characters so powerfully and individually; although Zan’s characterisation seems to falter at the end and her decisions come out of left field, rather than reading as a natural extension of her development up until that moment.
This is a dark novel; The Stars Are Legion, as mentioned above, is hardly out of line with the place in the grimdark movement that Hurley has carved for herself. The worldbuilding is incredibly biopunk-centred, and that means that not only do the sections involving violence towards other people have viscera and gore, but much of the travel does; this is also a book in which we see multiple births, although those are almost sanitised compared to much of the rest of the viscera Hurley provides. It’s an interesting contrast, then, to look at the birthing scenes in contrast with, say, violence done against other people; there’s much more focus on bodily fluids in the latter, much more on noises in the former.
The Stars Are Legion is an all-female novel, set in an all-female world; that leads Hurley to make some decisions which are… arguably problematic, especially for trans people. For a start, no trans people exist in this world; every human is a cis female born with a working womb, for reasons that become clear as the novel progresses, but they still all identify as women, as if there’s some other thing they’re identifying against, despite that clearly not being the case. Furthermore, in this world shorn of trans people, a sincere and deep wish of many trans women, for working womb transplants, is not only possible, but something that happens on multiple occasions; it’s not regular, but it’s clearly doable, which feels a little painful to this queer. However, the feminism of the novel is otherwise very strong, with the cast being clearly marked as not white (and whiteness being noted as an exceptional state in one character) and the approach to culture being to create it virtually wholesale.
In the end, then, while The Stars Are Legion isn’t a perfect novel on either aesthetic or political grounds, I think it is probably Hurley’s best work yet, and a brilliant piece of feminist science fiction.
DISCLAIMER: I am friends with Kameron Hurley and support her writing on Patreon. She has previously contributed two guest posts to this blog. I am also friends with Penny Reeve, publicist at Angry Robot Books, UK publishers of The Stars Are Legion. This review is based on a finished copy sent to me by the publisher.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.
A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary’s mission to Winter, an unknown alien world whose inhabitants can choose—and change—their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. Exploring questions of psychology, society, and human emotion in an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of science fiction.
Some books age well, relatively timeless in their concerns, approach, and writing. Some age poorly, speaking only to a very specific time and place. Most books age somewhere in between, aspects dating badly but others still having a resonance. The Left Hand of Darkness is often considered to be one of the first kind; but on this reread, I wanted to see if that really was the case.
The fact is plainly that it is not. In the introduction, Le Guin explicitly describes The Left Hand of Darkness not as a prediction of where humanity will in future go, but as a reflection of gender and society at the time it was written; given that it was written in 1969, and both our understanding of gender and of society have changed a lot in the intervening four and a half decades, that it has dated isn’t a surprise. But some of the ways in which it has dated are significant, given that (unlike, say, Joanna Russ’ The Female Man) it is still very widely praised for its portrayal of a nonbinary approach to genders. Part of the problem is that the narrator of most of the book is trapped in a very 1960s approach to gender; a very binarist model, with masculine/male superior and feminine/female inferior; public/domestic, forceful/submissive, strong/weak, violent/peaceful, straightforward/dissembling are all read through a male/female binary that reads as singularly outdated to the modern reader. Even those parts of the book narrated by a Gethen native, an “hermaphroditic neuter” as Le Guin describes them, is affected by these things.
A further problem is that these “hermaphroditic neuters” (who enter kemmer, or heat, about four days in twenty-six and only have a dominant binary sex then) are referred to, consistently, as “he”, “him”, “man”, etc; they are gendered, both by Genly Ai and by Estraven, our native narrator, who surely ought to have to hand a gender-neutral pronoun, whether neo or otherwise. As it is, the times they enter kemmer as female become slightly strange, as if there is far more change; this is inconsistent with the actual words on the page, but the implication of the defaulting all characters to male by all the narratorial voices.
The biggest problem from a queer point of view, though, is that queerness is completely erased from The Left Hand of Darkness. Homosexuality is implied as a strange minority act in the Ekumen, and nonexistent on Gethen, the setting of The Left Hand of Darkness, as if given the choice everyone would have heterosexual pairings; sex arises from oppositional sex to the person one is pairing with in kemmer, hence all sexual pairings are heterosexual, even though people are clearly referred to as having preferred sexual characteristics in kemmer. Furthermore, Genly Ai has no experience with anything but an incredibly simple from-birth binary; the only breach of that binary is on Gethen, meaning trans people, nonbinary people, third gender people, agender people, intersex people, etc? None of these people exist in the world of the Ekumen; Le Guin addresses the questions of sex and gender as utterly inseparable except by a subspecies of humanity, and The Left Hand of Darkness makes, of anyone outside the simple binary, an Othered alien. We are not, in the world of The Left Hand of Darkness, people; we are Other, fundamentally alien, fundamentally estranged from humanity, and indeed fundamentally lesser because of it. This is, from that point of view, an incredibly uncomfortable book to read.
As far as a broader review goes, the book has suffered less from the ravages of time. The Left Hand of Darkness includes a look at a something-like-Soviet Communist state and a semi-feudal, semi-anarchist collective state, noting the shortcoming and drawbacks of each; it features a fantastic amount of both politicking and what might be referred to as fantasy-mountaineering, brilliantly balanced with a consistency of characterisation that really works well; and a philosophical strain, drawing on various non-Western philosophies, that requires real engagement with. Indeed, it’s the balance of these elements that works best, but is fundamentally a minority of the book; the mountaineering section is fantastically evocative and by turns claustrophobic and agoraphobic, but still essentially concerned with the questions of gender noted above, which the book is ill-prepared to deal with. The best writing in the book is environmental, evoking the cold, stark beauty of an ice sheet or the strange mixture of slush and ash around a frozen volcano; Le Guin excels at these descriptions, undoubtedly.
The Left Hand of Darkness, then, is a book that challenged views of gender in 1970, undoubtedly, although even then not so radically as one might imagine; in 2016, it is hopelessly dated, and even, for those of us for whom the binary is a poor, uncomfortable, damaging fit, actively destructive.
This review is dedicated to Corey Alexander, who was asking for more reviews of The Left Hand of Darkness by trans and enby reviewers!
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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.
33 outstanding science fiction stories by women
Travel by train to the Moon, discover living spaceships born in gas giants and explore the constellations, alternate universes and post-apocalyptic worlds of this compelling collection of SF written by women.
Whether crossing the stars or constructing the future of our planet, women have always written powerful, important science fiction. This anthology showcases the most exceptional SF stories written by women in recent decades, from classic stars Ursula K. Le Guin and Angélica Gorodischer; science fiction greats Karen Joy Fowler and Nancy Kress; new award-winning talents Elizabeth Bear, Nnedi Okorafor and Aliette de Bodard; and many more.
Alex Dally MacFarlane’s anthology of reprints of science fiction by women sits in a long tradition, including the Women of Wonder series and, of course, Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind. The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, however, includes no story not published in English for the last time in the past two decades, and every writer MacFarlane has reprinted is still alive.
This is a stunningly broad collection. MacFarlane has clearly put a lot of thought into the diversity of her contributors; two of the stories are in translation (‘Invisible Planets’ by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu, and ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’ by Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Ursula Le Guin). MacFarlane has included a wide variety of experiences of the world; where Despatches was overwhelmingly white, …SF Stories by Women takes in post-colonial stories, African-American authors, authors who are also immigrants, and a wide variety of kinds of story, some of which are barely science fiction (although they certainly fit under the speculative fiction category).
The absolutely outstanding set of stories for me are those which are clearly not from a Western perspective, whether it be Nalo Hopkinson’s mythopoetic ‘Tan-Tan and Dry Bone’ written in Jamaican English or Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’, a beautiful, heartbreaking story about the cost of performing one’s culture for those who have colonised it. Loenen-Ruiz is well known as a post-colonialist/anti-colonialist writer, and it is something that comes across powerfully in this story, as a scathing criticism of the idea of the ‘benevolent empire’. MacFarlane’s politics are known to lie in this direction and that affects her choice of stories; no core Baen work here, no Sarah Hoyt to be seen, but rather a selection of stories which are both powerful and beautiful but also have messsages.
That means MacFarlane’s anthology is far more cohesive than Green and Lefanu made Despatches…; the theme of women’s writing as political runs through the selection of stories, as there is ‘[n]o such thing as “just a good story” without a political message’ (Ann Leckie), and women writing is inherently a political act given their social position. The best stories are those that embrace the experiences of their writers, those such as Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘Spider the Artist’, a brilliantly well-written story that is about Africa, but not the usual perspective of SF on Africa; this is urban, modern, and not about exoticisation. It’s what African SF should be, not what white Western writers often make it.
That isn’t to say MacFarlane has assembled a perfect anthology, of course. For instance, I would have liked to see more than two stories in translation, even if …SF Stories by Women draws from across the world for its authors. But there are also stories that don’t stand up to the quality of those around them; Greer Gilman’s ‘Down The Wall’ feels like very typical post-apocalyptic fare that we have seen done much better elsewhere, and Nancy Kress’ ‘Ej-Es’ would be better if it wasn’t trying quite so hard to tug the heartstrings of its reader. Both of these are playing in territory that is heartland SF, but both are playing in that territory without being at the top of their game; there are other, better writers who have accomplished better stories than these.
There are some outstanding stories, head-and-shoulders above the rest of the anthology in my opinion, that MacFarlane has found, though. …SF Stories by Women has the amazing ‘Stay Thy Flight’ by Élisabeth Vonarburg is a stunning story that uses time and Classical tropes to discuss art, life, humanity’s response to the other and more in a most amazing, facscinating way; whereas Carrie Vaughn’s environmentalist romance ‘Astrophilia’ is a paean to the value and importance of theoretical knowledge and a beautiful (lesbian) love story, sweetly and simply told. Both contrast in their slowness to the way Hao Jingfang’s ‘Invisible Planets’ is structured; reminiscent of Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar, it is a series of tales of different planets, interspersed by the responses to interjections from the listener. It’s a beautiful tale, although arguably its conclusion rules it out from being SF and makes it realist fiction; MacFarlane did well to find and include this particular piece, and Ken Liu’s translation is smooth and straightforward, reading very poetically.
In the end, the best thing to say about this excellent-albeit-not-perfect anthology is said by MacFarlane at the end of her introduction to The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women: “Look at what women have written. Enjoy.”
Marvels, myth and microchips from classic writers of science fiction, and a dazzling array of new authors. From farflung planets to Greenham Common, from distant futures to the here and now, the stories explore the myriad possibilities of women’s lives: women under attack, women in control, women alone and women together. With stories set in societies barely recognisable, and societies only too credible, this collection comes from the frontiers and offers a glimpse of what lies beyond.
Published in 1985 by The Women’s Press, Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind is an anthology almost entirely of original work (Joanna Russ’ story is a reprint) by female science fiction authors, many of whom have now faded from view; it’s not a comprehensive overview of the field at the time, but it is a broad look at what was being written.
The absolute stand-out stories are two political ones by significant, and enduring, names in (feminist) science fiction, Joanna Russ and Raccoona Sheldon (who also wrote under another pseudonym as the “ineluctably masculine” James Tiptree Jr). The first, Russ’, is as much parody as itself a story; framed by the idea of possession by an evil spirit, ‘The Clichés From Outer Space’ sees Russ parody the approaches to women taken in much science fiction, ripping to shreds the matriarchal utopia, the matriarchal dystopia, the equalist society and the future-patriarchy of stated-but-unseen equality. Each of these is in itself riotously hilarious, but Russ’ comments at the end of each, and her acerbic framing of the whole thing, raises this above the simply joy of parody to absolutely brilliant brutality.
‘Morality Meat’, on the other hand, is a very downbeat story, a political warning rather than a literary joke. Sheldon’s story is very bluntly about a woman’s right to choose, and about the socioeconomic gap she saw developing in society under Reagan; it’s a fantastic tale, slowly revealing the darkness at its heart that is hinted at from the very opening of the story but doesn’t get confirmed right until the end of the piece. ‘Morality Meat’ is the darkest story in here, and Sheldon carries that darkness off amazingly, and believably.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of stories in the anthology are very political, whether it is Josephine Saxton’s broadside against advertising culture in ‘Big Operation on Altair Three’ or Lisa Tuttle’s environmentalism and anti-nuclear ‘From A Sinking Ship’, with its startling similarity in premise to elements of the 1981 TV adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some take a more broad view of politics, such as the far-ranging ‘The Awakening’ by Pearlie McNeill or ‘The Insurrection’ by Gwyneth Jones, where others are incredibly particular, such as Zoe Fairbairns’ story of Greenham Common, ‘Relics’. They’re not subtle but nor are any simply diatribes, all working their politics into stories that are good in and of themselves.
Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind does have one or two stories that I felt didn’t belong, including the closer of the anthology, Sue Thomason’s ‘Apples In Winter’; trying to be mythic, it ends up simply dragging, in a style that doesn’t seem to suit anything, including itself. Similarly, Pamela Zoline’s ‘Instructions for Exiting This Building In Case of Fire’ has a good core, and some great moments, but on the whole the mix of scale between abstract intentionally-fictional and concrete pseudo-real is a little broken, and the concept at the heart of the story is nearly nonsensical.
In the 1980s, queerness was a big part of feminism, so it is no surprise to see it come up time and again in these stories. The most interesting of these is Tanith Lee’s ‘Love Alters’, which is a brilliant, dark satire on the treatment of gay relationships and the way it is societal norms, not heterosexuality per se, that is the problem. Lee convincingly creates her world in very short order, and proceeds to highlight the extent to which that world is ours, just twisted only a little, and it works incredibly well. Similarly, Mary Gentle’s ‘A Sun in the Attic’ is an interesting little steampunk tale about the dangers of discovery, but it includes a society based on multiple-marriage; bisexuality and polyamory are both completely normalised parts of society, it seems, and Gentle plays with some of the implications of that as the story wends towards its Galilean conclusion.
Despatches From the Frontiers of the Female Mind is, perhaps inevitably, a bit dated now, and some of these concerns seem less relevant; but some of them are shockingly present now, and Green & Lefanu’s selection, whilst including a few duds, is overall excellent. An anthology very much worth your time.
A computer program etched into the atmosphere has a story to tell, the story of two people, of a city lost to chaos, of survival and love. The program’s data, however, has been corrupted. As the novel’s characters struggle to survive apocalypse, they are sustained and challenged by the demands of love in a shattered world both haunted and dangerous.
Elysium is almost the perfect Aqueduct Press book; science fictional, but complicatedly so; queer, unapologetically so; feminist, openly so; and experimenting with all sorts of interesting approaches to narrative in a number of different ways.
Elysium moves through time across its two hundred pages from before the Apocalypse to after it, and the end of the human race, following a series of permutations of relationships between Adrian/ne and Anthony/Antoinette, with Helen/Hector and Thomas as background characters. It’s an interesting concept that is reinforced by Brissett’s use of repetition, whole passages recurring verbatim from earlier points in the novel to drive home the cyclic nature of the novel and the conceit that is hinted at throughout the novel and revealed at the close. This gives a sense of deja vu to those passages that Brissett uses well in Elysium, which to some extent is in fact about deja vu; form and function are matched incredibly well.
The characters are less impressive. The cast of Elysium feels like it consistently falls short of actually being archetypes; that is, each cast member is nearly, but not quite, an archetypical figure but Brissett falls short, in part by making them too individual across different periods and in part by not distinguishing different characters from each other. Insofar as the idea of memorialisation of the human race goes, one might hope that individuality might receive a little more than the short shrift it is given here; characters don’t really come to life or burst off the page in the way one might hope, leaving the story rather flat.
The worst is the brief appearance of Hector, who claims to be transsexual (not transvestite, he makes clear) but despite responding to the name Helen from another character is consistently referred to as Hector by the narrative itself and, apart from some aspects of stereotypical femininity, shows no evidence of being trans – apart, of course, from being locked in a mental institution because of it; this hopefully-unintentional transphobia in Elysium, whose cast are largely people of colour, with a good balance across the gender and an amazing array of queer sexualities, is very frustrating.
That isn’t to say Elysium is devoid of moments when it connects, emotionally, to the reader; indeed, each chapter is a backdrop to and telling of such an emotional moment. Some are more successful than others; the attempt to keep feeling at its maximum height flags and fails at times, in part because some sections of the book just don’t quite keep that emotion there, with relationships feeling deeply untrue. It’s an unevenness that is in part rooted in characters we can’t care about because they don’t exist, and in part in occasional attempts to be too heavy-handed in guiding our emotional reactions; those heavy-handed moments, as perhaps might be expected, tend to fail, but the times when Brissett creates an emotional sense in a lighter manner are much more likely to feel true, and those hit home really effectively.
Elysium, as an experiment in form and style, is a really wonderful novel; the problem is it takes an approach to character that seems equally experimental and fails as often as it succeeds, with Brissett falling into some terrible transphobia.
DoI: Review based on an ARC received unsolicited from the publisher, Aqueduct Press. Elysium is available now.