Limyaael

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10:40 am: Yet More Book Reviews


Octavia Butler, The Xenogenesis Trilogy

These three books--Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago--follow what happens to humanity in the wake of a world war that destroyed most of the species, after which an alien race called the Oankali found them. The Oankali have tentacles, three genders, extremely advanced genetic science, and a biological imperative to mix their genes with any intelligent carbon-based life-form they find. They put humans into suspended animation, study them for two centuries, and finally choose the one they think best suited to represent them and their plans to other humans: a young African-American woman named Lilith Iyapo. Lilith doesn’t understand the Oankali at first (she never completely does) and the other humans hate her and think of her as a traitor. Because the Oankali have modified the human survivors to be sterile if they don’t mate with Oankali, all resistance will die out eventually.

Dawn is Lilith’s story; Adulthood Rites and Imago are stories about her children, some of the first human-Oankali “constructs” to be born. There’re all sorts of interesting gender ideas going on here. For example, Oankali consider human males to be much more violent than human women, so it’s a long time before they permit Lilith to have a son. Human men and women mated to Oankali have to relate through the ooloi, the third Oankali gender, since after the mating they can’t touch each other without feeling an intense disgust. Humans are both incredibly repulsed, thanks to appearance, and deeply attracted, thanks to scent, to ooloi, who can heal any disease and lengthen human lifespans but are just as likely to play around with your genes. Some of the humans manage to grasp that ooloi are a third gender, neither male nor female; others don’t.

I enjoyed these books. I’m always interested in stories of humans and nonhumans coexisting, and the Xenogenesis trilogy is unsparing, as is most of Butler’s fiction, in depicting just how hard it would be. The humans are, of course, understandable in their outrage against the Oankali; on the other hand, the Oankali can literally foresee, thanks to genetic patterns, that humans will just doom themselves to war and eventual extinction again if they’re left alone, so they feel justified in interfering.





Joan Slonczewski, A Door Into Ocean

This book concentrates on two planets, or technically a planet, Valedon, and its “moon,” Shora, which is completely covered with water. The inhabitants of Shora, the Sharers, are all female, and are in fact incapable of heterosexual sex anymore. They also have webbed fingers, no hair, and purple skins, thanks to “breathmicrobes” that grow on them and allow them to retain oxygen underwater. Valedon has ignored them for a long time, but now the inhabitants have become aware that the Sharers might possess dangerous genetic science, and so they invade. Except that the Sharers have never had a war, and so they don’t react to the invasion the way anyone expected.

This is already one of my favorite science fiction books. I love books that concentrate on ecology and the clash of cultural mindsets, and both are strong themes in A Door Into Ocean. The Valedon soldiers keep trying to force the Sharers to act like the terrorists and guerilla warriors they’re used to, and it simply doesn’t happen—and the reasons for its not happening make sense. And the individual people from Valedon who go among the Sharers out of curiosity or love tend to become more like them, not the other way around. They’ve got a better culture than Valedon’s, not perfect and not without problems and conflict, but smarter, saner, more limited, and more balanced.

I did think there was one moment late in the book when the plot seemed to jar, and suddenly certain characters were losing their interest in the war for reasons I couldn’t discern. I’m still not sure if there was something earlier in the book that explained this or not. I’d like to read it again to find out. Not that this is a hardship.





Joanna Russ, To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction

I picked this book up originally because it had several essays in it that looked interesting as outside critical material for the feminist science fiction class I’m teaching, but it’s extremely entertaining in and of itself; I read the whole thing through in one sitting.

Only some of the essays are on science fiction, including one on feminist utopias and one on war-of-the-sexes stories; others are on individual authors, such as Willa Cather, or different genres, such as the Gothic. (The one on the Gothic has the wonderful title, “Someone’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband”). The critical perspective taken on them is feminist, of course, but a much clearer and less jargon-preoccupied feminism than I’m used to seeing in English academia.

The essay that most inspired and enraged me, though, is the seventh, “What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can’t Write.” It’s an examination of basic story structures and how the “exciting” and “normal” ones all, without exception, assume a male character at the center. The heroine gets to be the heroine of a Love Story, and that’s it. Trying to make her the center of an ordinarily male-oriented narrative results in failure in the audience’s eyes, because “success in male terms is failure for a woman, a “fact” movies, books, and television plays have been earnestly proving to us for decades” (83). Trying to use exclusively male characters means a writer “ignores the whole experience of the female culture (a very different one from the official, male culture), all her specifically erotic experiences, and a good deal of her own history” (85). The female writer can use lyric narratives, as Virginia Woolf did in Mrs. Dalloway, or build off her own experience, which usually leads male critics to call the resulting book “structureless.” The solution Russ focuses on is to invent new myths that will put women in the center. This essay says a lot of what I’ve been trying to think about concerning female-centered narratives, and much more clearly and coherently.





George Meredith novels

George Meredith is a British Victorian author, one of those I’m studying for my dissertation, but I’m more familiar with his poetry than novels. In the last few months, I’ve read several of his novels.

The Shaving of Shagpat is a fantasy, Meredith’s only, based on the Arabian Nights. The evil, hairy clothier Shagpat has a magical hair called the Identical on his head, which makes everyone who sees him bow down to him. The semi-heroic barber Shibli Bagarag is destined to shave Shagpat and end his power. First, though, he has to acquire magic, and then a sword sharp enough to shave Shagpat, and find love with the beautiful Noorna bin Noorka, a wise sorceress who advises him on his quest. This is made more difficult because Shibli is vain, a braggart, and not a little stupid, so he keeps disobeying Noorna’s orders and getting trapped, enchanted, and stripped of his acquired magic. Also, the narrative is highly archaic—“Now, things were in that condition with Shibli Bagarag, that on a certain day he was hungry and abject, and the city of Shagpat the clothier was before him; so he made toward it, deliberating as to how he should procure a meal, for he had not a dirhem in his girdle, and the remembrance of great dishes and savoury ingredients were to him as the illusion of rivers sheening on the sands to travellers gasping with thirst”—and it keeps turning aside into poetry and parables that are longer than some of the individual chapters. The Shaving of Shagpat isn’t a novel so much as a romance, and though I enjoyed it, it’s really, really hard to enjoy if you’re not prepared to put up with Meredith violating the strictures of novel-writing whenever he wants.

The Egoist is Meredith’s most famous novel, and with good reason. Sir Willoughby Patterne has already been jilted once, so he’s determined to hang onto his second fiancée, Clara Middleton. Clara quickly discovers, however, that he’s such a monstrous egoist he’ll essentially devour her alive and leave nothing of her own imagination and consciousness behind. But because Sir Willoughby seems to be such a perfect match, no one else can see this, and they treat Clara’s objections to the marriage as ridiculous. The Egoist follows Clara’s attempts to get help and make other people understand exactly what Sir Willoughby is. It’s more than three-quarters psychology, concerning internal changes in the various characters as they side with or against Clara. Once again, it violates the rules of good narrative, plot, and even grammar. Once again, it’s extremely hard to understand at some points. Once again, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The Amazing Marriage’s main character is Carinthia Kirby, daughter of an amazing marriage herself, whom the Earl of Fleetwood promises to marry. Because the Earl of Fleetwood always keeps his promises, he grimly marries her, even though he doesn’t love her. Carinthia attempts to live with her husband, who rejects her, and changes slowly from the dutiful girl who only wanted her husband’s heart into a woman who clearly sees what the Earl is and rejects him. By the time she’s saved his life, proven herself more capable than he is to deal with striking Welsh miners, and made arrangements to defend her son from his father, she’s become one of the most engaging female characters I’ve read in a Victorian novel. The Amazing Marriage isn’t perfect, especially in the characterization of the secondary characters, but it’s my favorite of the Meredith novels I’ve read, because of the way it follows every bit of the dissolution of a marriage and points out exactly why the partners involved don’t understand each other.



Comments

From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 14th, 2007 10:01 pm (UTC)
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This is a great group of reviews, and inspires me to want to pick up all the books -- especially the collection of Russ essays. Thanks!

(sorry, no IJ)
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From:[info]limyaael
Date:December 15th, 2007 08:51 pm (UTC)
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I hope you enjoy them!
From:[info]illidanstr
Date:December 15th, 2007 12:53 am (UTC)

.. why are the popular story strictures a good thing?

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I beg of you (or *someone*, at least) to answer this:

Why are the tried and true methods of story strictures a GOOD thing?

I was reading Jim Butcher's description of stuff (dramatic reversal, resolution, etcetera), only to face an unconscious mental scream:

"ARGH! THOSE ARE THE ANNOYING THINGS THAT DRIVE ME CRAZY IN BOOKS!"

If I know someone's going to fail at something because it's helpful to the plotline, it tends to deep-six my enjoyment (or immersion) into a book. Ditto if I know there's a "good" and "bad" choice, in the sense that one brings Universal Love and Redemption and the other would cement their status as a failed failure left failing behind. My biggest issue was with this:

"The result of the conflict is *always* a SETBACK of one kind or another (also thought of as the SCENE ANSWER)--at least, until you get to the end of the book."

ARGH! Can someone give me some kind of reason why any of these rules could ever be anything but terrible?
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From:[info]limyaael
Date:December 15th, 2007 08:53 pm (UTC)

Re: .. why are the popular story strictures a good thing?

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I think that's a case where it's at least valuable to know what the "rules" of the novels written around you are. The same way that if you assume you know what fantasy's like without reading any fantasy, you won't write very good fantasy novels.

But I didn't say anywhere that these story structures are intrinsically good. What I've ranted about are cases where people tried to deviate from them and ended up producing sub-standard work- like deciding they'd have an "open ending" but writing something that made no sense and had no consistency with the previous work.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 15th, 2007 03:35 am (UTC)
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A Door into the Ocean sounds very interesting, as I love aquatic environments and the cultures surrounding them.

As for the "major" essay, I don't really understand the compliant, but then again, I am a guy. The big thing that usually turns me off of feminism as a whole is that it seems so...I guess "exclusive". Kind of like, "Oh, you have a Y chromosome, you can't possibly understand. I know it's a generalization, and I'm not trying to be insensitive, but what's the big deal?

- Last Servant
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From:[info]limyaael
Date:December 15th, 2007 08:56 pm (UTC)
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It's definitely worth reading.

There's a lot of argument in some brands of feminism about whether there can actually be male feminists, if you mean it's "exclusionary" in that sense. If you mean with that statement about "what's the big deal?" that you don't see the point of feminism...well, then, you really don't understand, for the same reason that whites often don't understand anti-racist arguments, or people who have always been middle-class often don't understand the push for better conditions and wages for the working class. I don't think there's anything inherent in biological males that makes them incapable of understanding feminism. But I don't see any reason to spend time justifying myself to a male (or a woman) who argues that sexism doesn't exist or that I shouldn't be a feminist because "women don't have it all that bad."
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 15th, 2007 09:53 pm (UTC)
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No, no, I meant the "big deal" of the specific essay you mentioned, because I didn't understand the description of the essay. Sorry for the miscommunication, I probably should have made my point clearer, instead of sounding like an ass.

- Last Servant
From:[info]saturnaliac
Date:December 15th, 2007 05:58 am (UTC)
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Butler, Slonzcewski, and the essays sound really interesting. Definitely going on my "to-read" list. :D
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From:[info]limyaael
Date:December 15th, 2007 08:56 pm (UTC)
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Good! I've met few people who've read the Butler books, in particular, so I'd like to talk about them.
From:[info]kaiz
Date:December 15th, 2007 10:54 am (UTC)
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Ah, Door into Ocean. One of my favorite books ever! *happy sigh*
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From:[info]limyaael
Date:December 15th, 2007 08:57 pm (UTC)
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That was one of the few books in a long time that made me really resent the time I couldn't spend reading it.
From:[info]darkredd
Date:December 16th, 2007 06:06 am (UTC)
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About 'Xenogenisis'...
This is the very kind of story I hate. 'Oh no, humanity can't possibly rise above its failings! We need alien super-beings to redeem us a gunpoint!' Please.

About 'What Can A Heroine Do'...
How, exactly, does one make a 'new myth?' My understanding is that myths are built on top of each other; any new story is bound to be influenced by its predecessors. How would one go about making a new mythic pattern? I agree with feminism, but I don't quite understand what the objective is here.

About 'The Shaving of Shagpat'...
That's the very kind of prose that makes my head hurt. :-P
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From:[info]limyaael
Date:December 16th, 2007 08:54 am (UTC)
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Luckily for Butler, her book doesn't make that point at all. The humans think that they're free of the dangers the Oankali foresee for them, and should be free of Oankali manipulation. The Oankali don't at all agree; they think of humans as essentially genetically insane, and won't abandon them for the same reason that you wouldn't let an insane person hold a gun to his head. You're free to choose just about any perspective. Butler doesn't make the Oankali out to be completely sympathetic.

Russ doesn't give a prescription for making new myths. The main point of the essay is to encourage people to try and make them, rather than just saying, "Oh, well, women can write male characters!"
From:[info]dove_cg
Date:December 19th, 2007 01:32 pm (UTC)

I love your reviews almost as much as I love your rants

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I finally decided to get an Insane Account so I could respond to you again. :3

All of these books sound interesting to me, though I worry that George Meredith may hurt my head. Then again, I love Krazy Kat... and that also hurts my head (but I manage to muddle through it every time and feel quite pleased once I'm done.)

I am curious though... "ignores the whole experience of the female culture (a very different one from the official, male culture)" makes me wonder what exactly the female culture is. I mean, I'm female... but then, I had very few close female friends and none of us were "girly" (of those few, we were/are all very, very geeky.) Then again, it's very hard to define "girly" nowadays. Stereotypes for men broaden constantly but those of women remain minimal... or is it the other way around? I don't know. I would love it if you could shed some light on my confusion. :)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 23rd, 2008 03:20 am (UTC)
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I had Slonczewski as a professor for a class called "biology of science fiction" my sophomore year of college, and I think that ruined any of her books for me forever. She's absolutely insane and forced us to read several of her books and the only thing she really had to say about A Door Into Ocean was "look! It's a reverse Dune! The ocean is a desert! Clever, huh?".

I liked Brain Plague a lot better, but again, I can't seem to get past her appalling lack of anything interesting to say about it aside from "look how cool this book is look how cool I am I wrote it!!!"

On a completely different subject, I know you like Steven Brust; have you read To Reign in Hell? I'm trying to decide if I want to. I love his novels about Vlad, but this is a bit different!
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