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Are you a feminist? Do you believe women are human beings and that they deserve to be treated as such? That women deserve all the same rights and liberties bestowed upon men? If so, then you are a feminist . . . or so the feminists keep insisting. But somewhere along the way, the movement for female liberation sacrificed meaning for acceptance, and left us with a banal, polite, ineffectual pose that barely challenges the status quo. In this bracing, fiercely intelligent manifesto, Jessa Crispin demands more.
Why I Am Not A Feminist is a radical, fearless call for revolution. It accuses the feminist movement of obliviousness, irrelevance, and cowardice—and demands nothing less than the total dismantling of a system of oppression.
Why I Am Not A Feminist is an immediately gripping title, especially with Jessa Crispin’s chosen subtitle: A Feminist Manifesto. A feminist manifesto from someone who says they are not a feminist? That’s a fascinating idea, and the interviews and coverage around the book really intrigued me, so I picked up the volume…
Crispin’s title is explained in the introduction to the book, and is a theme she returns to throughout the book as a touchpoint: Why I Am Not A Feminist sets up a model of “universal feminism”, to use Crispin’s term, that she says is embodied by people like Laurie Penny: unthreatening to the capitalist kyriarchic system, narcissistic in its focus on individual choice, and losing all meaning by attempting to appeal to everyone (or at least, all women). Having set up this strawman (an interesting one, given the rise of feminists protesting capitalism on feminist grounds, including one Laurie Penny), Crispin sets out a radical feminist (again, her term) manifesto for the rest of the book, consistently centring the discussion on women, and how women take part in their own oppression.
The actual programme Crispin lays out is an interesting one; Why I Am Not A Feminist is very much focused on the role of women in not only dismantling the present patriarchal status quo, but the whole heirarchical and kyriarchic nature of society. Crispin looks at multiple different vectors of the way women are, themselves, complicit in the oppressive nature of society, and the way much modern feminism fails to challenge that: rather than calling for more women in the boardroom, she says, we should be tearing the whole boardroom down. This is especially important when she talks about women as engaging in kyriarchic discrimination against other marginalised groups: she consistently points out racism, homophobia, and an unnamed poverty-hatred as relevant here. It’s a powerful and effective argument that she marshalls strong evidence for, with a series of pointed chapters each focusing on one way “universal feminism” fails to do that.
However, this also reveals one of the flaws of this manifesto: Crispin’s insistence of doing this is very much also about emphasising the rehabilitation of second-wave feminism, and specifically Germaine Greer and Andrea Dworkin. Why I Am Not A Feminist fails to engage with significant modern issues in feminism around gender diversity, and specifically trans issues; trans people are never mentioned throughout the whole book, and the “universal feminism” movement is supposedly attacking second wave feminism purely because of its anger, rather than because it has continued to try to exclude, attack, and rip down trans people.
Why I Am Not A Feminist has an interesting three-page section at the start of its seventh chapter addressing men; this is the only time, throughout the whole book, that Crispin addresses men. Here, she, like Laurie Penny in Bitch Doctrine, talks about the discomfort men may feel reading feminist theory – and states that it is not women’s responsibility to reassure them, or do the emotional labour of helping men through that discomfort. It’s one of the most powerful parts of the book, and strikes an interesting contrast with the rest of that chapter, which is about not making an enemy of men. Crispin has some very fascinating things to say about the importance of not idealising women or demonising men, and the importance of feminism as opening up space for everyone by dismantling the capitalist kyriarchic structures of society.
In the end, Why I Am Not A Feminist would be an absolutely fantastic book, were it not for Crispin’s failure to engage with the trans-exclusionary tendencies of radical feminism and the second wave in particular, which make it a hard book to talk about.
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What does it mean to be transgender? How do we discuss the subject? In this eye-opening book, CN Lester, academic and activist, takes us on a journey through some of the most pressing issues concerning the trans debate: from pronouns to Caitlyn Jenner; from feminist and LGBTQ activists, to the rise in referrals for gender variant children – all by way of insightful and moving passages about the author’s own experience. Trans Like Me shows us how to strive for authenticity in a world which often seeks to limit us by way of labels.
At this ‘trans tipping point’ (thank you, Time), a lot of people still don’t know anything about trans people outside a famous few: Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock. All of them are beautiful, and identify as women. CN Lester doesn’t: like me, they are genderqueer, and want to open up the discussion about trans issues to a more diverse array of genders. Trans Like Me is their book-length attempt to do that.
Trans Like Me is written very much for a cis audience. That is, it’s written with the intention of educating a cis audience about trans issues and trans lives, and the reality, complexity, and diversity of those lives, rather than to a trans audience as a rallying cry or political manifesto. Lester certainly has a political agenda, but it’s one that involves getting cis people to sign up to trans rights; hence, explanations of how dysphoria can feel from the inside, discussions of the reality of discrimination against trans people on an everyday basis, and explanation of the medical and legal obstacles trans people face in getting recognition as ourselves. They lay these things out excellently, while also combining them with calls for change in how the world handles trans people: Trans Like Me suggests how the medical and legal professions can handle trans people better, with concrete ideas for recognition.
Lester’s marshalling of evidence is an interesting combination of scientific data and personal anecdote; much of their argument about gender diversity not being a mental health condition comes from their own personal experiences of having mental health conditions, rather than discussions of psychologists’ research. Trans Like Me does use scientific evidence and historical evidence in other areas though; for instance, Lester makes a very strong argument using historical evidence from a broad swathe of the past to demonstrate that gender diverse people have always existed and been part of (Western) society in varying ways.
One of the key elements of Trans Like Me that distinguishes it from most volumes on trans issues is the way Lester engages with gender diverse people who are not, like themself, binary trans people. Trans Like Me talks about a range of gender expression, from genderfluidity to nonbinary, and how they fit into the discussions of trans issues that we usually see; thus, they open up a space for nonbinary people in the discussion of trans issues and of what needs to be done for a more trans-inclusive society. They are also very clear on the importance of allowing flexibility and change in one’s gender over the course of one’s life; this includes discussion of raising children who are gender diverse, through to late-life transition.
There are weaknesses and gaps in Trans Like Me; Lester unfortunately doesn’t discuss agender people at all, assuming gender is something everyone has, and their discussion of intersexuality (as distinct from the range of trans identities) is both brief and focused largely on undermining the idea of a biological binary of sexes. Lester also at times tends towards the defensive; while necessary when trans people are under attack from a variety of fronts, it would have been nice to see them put forward a stronger argument of itself, rather than strong arguments against trans-exclusionary positions. I would also have liked to see a more clear set of proposals for change: Lester does have some policy ideas, but they don’t really have much of a programme for social reform, or concrete suggestions for action.
Those weaknesses are relatively minor, though; Trans Like Me is an absolutely fantastic book for educating a cis audience about trans issues, as well as opening up the world of nonbinary issues for binary trans people, and I heartily recommend it.
Disclaimer: I am hosting an event with CN Lester and Kaite Welsh at Waterstones Glasgow Argyle Street on August 17th. Please join us!
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The lives of six female superheroes and the girlfriends of superheroes. A ferocious riff on women in superhero comics
From the New York Times bestselling author Catherynne Valente comes a series of linked stories from the points of view of the wives and girlfriends of superheroes, female heroes, and anyone who’s ever been “refrigerated”: comic book women who are killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad, disabled, or had their powers taken so that a male superhero’s storyline will progress.
In an entirely new and original superhero universe, Valente subversively explores these ideas and themes in the superhero genre, treating them with the same love, gravity, and humor as her fairy tales. After all, superheroes are our new fairy tales and these six women have their own stories to share.
Gail Simone’s Women In Refrigerators has spawned, in the years since 1999, one of the most storied and respected careers in superhero comics (that of Simone herself); numerous conversations about feminism and the role of women in superhero narratives; and the very term “fridging“. Now, Catherynne M. Valente has gotten involved in the conversation, with a kind of running together of superhero fridging narratives and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, The Refrigerator Monologues…
The Refrigerator Monologues is essentially a mosaic novel, made up of a series of characters describing how they came to be in the afterlife; essentially, the stories of fridged women, from their own perspective, rather than centring the men. Valente links the monologues with a broad framing narrative, the Hell Hath Club, of the fridged women sitting in a kind of cafe-bar in the underworld discussing what brought them there in a setting reminiscent of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The frame narrative isn’t much, although it’s quite a fun afterlife – Valente makes a lot of the fact that things don’t exist until they’re extinct, and that the dead exist in the clothes they’re buried in.
What this is really about it the narratives of the different fridged women. The Refrigerator Monologues is set in its own superhero continuity, which shares recognisable similarities with especially the DC universe in terms of what superheroes are present, what villains are around, and what powers look like. Valente brings characters like Mary Jane, neck snapped by Spider-Man trying to save her, and Harley Quinn, lover of the Joker, to life in their own right, and gives them their own stories; The Refrigerator Monologues oddly doesn’t really centre them in their own stories though. These are the same stories we get told in comic books, with more anger and more wit, but still tending towards how the deaths of the women have impact on the men.
They’re good stories, though. Julia Ash’s story, ‘The Heat Death of Julia Ash’, is a kind of intimate retelling of the story of Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force, from her own perspective; it refocuses the story on the unfair way Jean Grey is treated by the X-Men, and the way Professor X disposes of her once she becomes inconvenient. ‘Happy Birthday, Samantha Dane’ is the last monologue in the novel, and arguably the titular one; it ends with Samantha dead, stuffed in a refrigerator, recalling the famous Green Lantern #54 scene which gave the trope being sent up here its name, and looks at the effect of the life of a superhero on those around them. Perhaps the least strong monologue is that of Harley Quinn replacement, Pretty Polly; her whole monologue feels very much like it is based on the worst, most abuse-justifying portrayals of Harley, and never really seems to question those portrayals nearly as much as it needed to, instead of just retelling them.
In the end, The Refrigerator Monologues is a fun, angry little novella; it isn’t perfect, but it is enjoyable, and it’s really very much worth reading for every comics fan out there, if only to spot all the references Valente has dropped in to comics and creators!
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With intolerance and inequality increasingly normalised by the day, it’s more important than ever for women to share their experiences. We must hold the truth to account in the midst of sensationalism and international political turmoil. Nasty Women is a collection of essays, interviews and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the 21st century.
People, politics, pressure, punk. From working class experience to sexual assault, being an immigrant, divides in Trump’s America, Brexit, pregnancy, contraception, Repeal the 8th, identity, family, finding a voice, punk, role models, fetishisation, power – this timely book covers a vast range of being a woman today.
Nasty Women is a phrase that, of course, became popularised by now-President Trump during the election campaign, referencing Hillary Clinton, his (more qualified, more honest, BETTER) opponent in the Presidential election; in the wake of the horrifying election of the Misogynist-In-Chief, new Scottish independent press 404Ink decided to put together a collection of essays by “nasty women”.
It’s an interesting collection; Nasty Women consists of 22 essays (although the ARC I’m reviewing only included 20), by a mix of authors from different backgrounds – women of colour, a woman with disabilities, women talking about a variety of religious experiences, and a trans woman (namely, punk rock icon and Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace). As a whole collection therefore, it’s usefully intersectional; rather than focusing on a specifically cis, white, Scottish, Christian/nonreligious experience of being a woman, it contains a variety of different ways of being a woman.
It’s also got a variety of different approaches to essay in it; Laura Lam’s essay, for instance, is genealogical, looking at the history of the women on her side of the family, while Elise Hines’ essay is autobiographical, about her own experiences and history, and Alice Tarbuck’s essay is a historical survey of witchcraft and foraging as feminist praxis. Nasty Women, by taking in all these approaches, creates a more interesting and varied collection than any one form alone would, and allows for a variety of answers to the implied question of the title: what is a nasty woman?
There are some essays I want to single out for specific comment, but with 20 in the book, that obviously can’t be all of them. The one I found most interesting and engaging was Ren Aldridge’s ‘Touch Me Again And I Will Fucking Kill You’, a look at gendered sexual harrassment in the punk community, both the music and activist sides; taking a broad look at sexual harrassment as it is manifested on a community that often hails itself as progressive, and how the perpetrators of it are protected, and how that is changing slowly, it is a fascinating essay on a particular manifestation of a gendered heirarchy. It is also notable for being the essay most concerned with inclusivity; Aldridge puts an asterisk by “woman” throughout to demand the reader considers what the category means, explicitly invokes nonbinary people and trans women, and talks about issues of cisnormative and ciscentric thinking as well as misogyny.
A second essay I really want to pull out for its excellence is that of Claire L. Heuchan, ‘Black Feminism Online: Claiming Digital Space’. A mix of personal autobiography and discussion of racism and misogynoir in online (feminist) discourse, it really brings into stark relief the way so much of feminist discourse is centred around, and assumes, whiteness; and the way misogyny aimed at black women, online especially but hardly absent in the offline world, differs from that aimed at white women. It’s an interesting piece that also talks about carving out a space for oneself; Heuchan talks about the way she came to be a blogger and online presence, to the extent that she is known now for her work as Sister Outrider. I do need to add a caveat to this endorsement, though, and one that stands in stark contrast to the previous essay; while the essay, thankfully, does not reflect this, Heuchan is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, and outspokenly so on the blog this essay is about; for an essay collection with only one trans contributor, her inclusion can be seen as an error in judgement, regardless of the excellence of her essay.
Nadine Aisha Jassat’s essay ‘On Naming’ takes a different approach to looking at being a woman of colour in a white supremacist world; Jassat talks about the way her name is perceived and read by a white-dominated society, the way people make assumptions based on it, often racist ones, and the way it is often mangled by strangers and what that means to her as a person. It’s a fascinating essay on the importance of naming to identity, and the importance of claiming and asserting one’s name as an assertion of identity; one I perhaps overidentify with, albeit along a different and distinct axis.
The final essay that is a display of stand-out excellence is that of Bella Owen, ‘Liberation or Segregation’; it is the only essay in the collection to discuss disability, and it discusses it through a mixture of analysis and personal autobiography in a way that really drives home the ways that Owen has had to deal with an albeist society putting restrictions on her. The specific venue for much of the essay is music gigs, which are a theme running through many of the essays, but Owen’s experience of being a disabled woman at them is obviously different to that of Laura Jane Grace as a trans star, or Elise Hines as a music photographer who is a woman of colour. The specific and the general experiences drawn out in this essay are really noteworthy in that they are also stories we are rarely told, so it is good to have them seen.
No collection will be all gems, though, and two essays just did not work for me. The first felt simply badly written; Alice Tarbuck’s ‘Foraging and Feminism’ appears to be trying to emulate the writing of Nan Shepherd, who it praises, and Robert MacFarlane, which it dislikes rather strongly, but falling somewhere between into a kind of poetic nothing, which while making some strong points along the way, and ending on a powerful note, has a tendency to descend into some very strange romanticisations of the past and of certain historical practices as feminist in a way the evidence presented in the essay doesn’t seem to support.
The other is Chitra Ramaswamy’s ‘After Expecting’; while this is an excellent essay where it limits itself to Ramaswamy’s experiences of pregnancy, when it talks about wider issues of pregnancy, it falls into a couple of (common) errors. The first is a kind of mysticism around pregnancy that it seems to also want to dismiss, as if it is necessary and intrinsic to a woman and a deep secret, even while demanding that it be made more open and understood. The other issue reflects a failing noted above, of a failure to register trans issues; the essay suggests that “while death happens to all of us, birth happens to women.” Either this is suggesting that only women are born or, and it seems this is likely what Ramaswamy means, that only women give birth – which, of course, is not true, and erases AFAB trans people.
A final issue to bring out with the volume is an uneven use of content notes. It is unclear whether these were added by the editors, or requested by the authors, but a number of the essays which talk about sexual violence in various forms have them; however, those which include (necessary and relevant use of!) racial slurs, sexist language, etc, do not, and not all the essays which include passing mentions of sexual violence have content notes. Nasty Women could easily have paved the way and demonstrated an excellent and consistent approach to content notes, it is intead rather a mixed bag on that front.
However, despite some shortcomings, Nasty Women maintains a high standard of excellence across its essays, and has some really good insights into the lives of women; as Margaret Atwood says, it is “[a]n essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now.” I highly recommend it to you, and am looking forward to seeing what 404Ink do next.
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on an ARC of the book provided by the publisher, 404Ink, which does not include essays by Kaite Welsh and Anna Cosgrave. I put money into the Kickstarter that funded this volume, and I helped organise the launch of the book yesterday (6/3) at my place of work. Laura Lam, a contributor to this volume, is a friend.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.
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.
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.