[info]limyaael @ 05:44 pm: Moar Book Reviews
Once again, only three paragraphs on each, or I would be here forever.

Octavia Butler, Kindred

This is the kind of book which the “speculative fiction” label fits nicely. It has time travel in it, but there’s no real explanation, either scientific or magical, for the time travel, and the focus is much more on how the time travel messes up the characters’ lives than how it works.

Edana, or Dana, is an ordinary African-American woman in the 1970’s, who’s just moved into her new house with her husband, when the time travel snatches her away to a river to rescue a drowning white boy. She’s threatened by the boy’s parents, and finds herself almost instantly transported back home. That’s the first in a series of strange journeys which can happen at any time—Dana is afraid to drive or leave her house, quite sensibly, for fear of what might happen if she vanished elsewhere—and which each time results in Dana saving the boy’s life. She figures out fairly quickly that the white boy is Rufus Weylin, her own distant ancestor in the 1810’s, when Maryland was still a slave state, and if he dies before fathering her great-grandmother, she’ll never be born. But each time she rescues him, she stays longer, and while minutes or hours pass at home, days or months can pass in Rufus’s time. And of course, Dana’s only way to survive is to pretend to be a slave, which leads to whipping, heavy labor, and the constant threat of rape, sale, and death.

This book is exemplary in the illustrations of what slavery does to human beings, not only to Dana, but also to the slaves she meets in Rufus’s time, to Rufus and his family, and to Kevin, Dana’s white husband, who accidentally comes with her on one trip back in time. It cripples their souls, and even if she survives physically, Dana’s worried, and not without cause, about being changed forever. The story puts the focus firmly on the moral problems of racism, rather than the pragmatic ones that are so often addressed in arguments about it, and reading it was rather like being transported myself. I’ve got to read more of Butler’s work, because she uses exactly that combination of effective characterization and unflinching realism and transformation that captures me in my favorite fantasy writers.

John Crowley, Little, Big

This is one of those books I Kept Meaning to Read. I own a copy of it, but the copy is packed away in storage, so when I wanted to read it, I finally had to fetch it from the library and sit down with it over the course of several days.

The story—insomuch as there is one—starts out focused on Smokey Barnable, who is coming from the City (New York City) to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, one of an odd family who live in an even odder house called Edgewood. The narrative then shifts back into the past to deal with Daily Alice’s ancestors, especially her great-grandmother Violet Bramble, who could see fairies. There’s constant contact between the Drinkwaters and the fairies, but the contact is neither completely fulfilling nor completely inimical; it’s mostly coexistence. If the Drinkwaters do what the fairies tell them, and don’t question it too strongly, they and their children will be part of the Tale that the fairies weave.

One very odd thing about the floating, dream-like way Crowley writes is that, even as the world outside Edgewood shudders into dystopia, it refuses to feel like a dystopia. The despair is muffled. The peculiar things that a woman called Ariel Hawksquill can do with the Art of Memory may indeed be magic, but they don’t feel like it; they just feel like an art. Likewise with Violet’s cards, which her daughter and then her great-granddaughters inherit and use to ask questions about the future. I suppose this is why it left me not knowing how to feel. I had emotional engagement with the story, but I also felt as if my emotional engagement with the story didn’t matter. Perhaps the best word I can find is “artful,” since the notion of the Tale is never far from the surface, and it is a conscious work of art.

Joanna Russ, The Female Man

I enjoyed the hell out of this—which confirmed for me that, while I find most feminist fantasy shrill and annoying (go to hell, Anne Bishop; die in a fire, The Mists of Avalon), feminist science fiction may just be my thing.

Russ writes about several women, including an alter ego of herself, all with the initials J. R. They’re from various parallel worlds, such as a world where the sexes live separated, continually at war, and one called Whileaway that is populated only by women. No one on Whileaway feels a lack because the male sex died out, apparently of a plague, long ago; they have daughters just fine, live in lesbian pairs when they want to, wander the planet at will, and raise their daughters communally after they’re four years old. The men from 1970’s Earth are brought into sharp, and unflattering, contrast with women who can take care of themselves, are highly educated, and see nothing wrong with breaking a man’s balls when he tries to touch them more than they want to be touched.

Some of the sharpest insights of the feminist movement for me are those that take in the small things—such as why, even in “equal” households, it’s still women who end up doing 90% of the housework. Russ focuses on those, which is one reason why I loved this book. The other is that the experimental style has a reason. No other kind of writing will convey exactly what Russ wants to convey, so naturally she turns to the one that will. This is a huge improvement over writers who do it for no reason I can discern, which just makes me want to scream, “Tell a story first and gaze into your navel on your own time!”

Joanna Russ, The Two of Them

This is an even angrier book than The Female Man, which before I read it I would not have believed possible. Its main characters are Irene Waskiewicz, a woman rescued as a teenager from stifling 1950’s Earth to become part of a secret organization which sends its agents from alternate world to alternate world securing economic advantages and plotting sabotage, and Ernst Neumann, the much older agent of the organization, who rescues her. They’re lovers and partners, and fairly well-balanced with each other, until they get sent to Ka’abah, a world established along pseudo-Islamic lines.

Irene promptly meets Zubeydeh, the daughter of their host, who wants to write poetry and is making a stab at it, but will never be allowed to complete her training in art; she will be surgically altered to fit into a beauty mold and then sold as a wife, where she will probably spend her days drugged to the eyeballs like her “nervous” mother and her “mad” aunt. Her own father rips up her poetry, and her mother pushes her towards normality as the only possible refuge for her. Irene promises to take her away, but runs into conflict with Ernst, whose concerns are pragmatic: Will they be able to escape with Zubeydeh? What about the difficulty of convincing suspicious eyes they have a right to her? What are they going to do with her beyond Ka’abah? Irene, who never suspected Ernst would react like this, begins to question her own relationship to him, and especially her “equal” stance, after being sure for most of the novel that she is free and that her life is much better than that of any woman on Ka’abah.

Lately I’ve been seeking “welcoming” fiction: fiction that extends its sympathy to all its characters, rather than manipulating some of them around their roles in the plot or making them into incarnations of simple evil that only exist to torment others. I wouldn’t call The Two of Them welcoming in the same way. It doesn’t exactly love all its characters in spite of their flaws; it sees their flaws, and points them out mercilessly. But it still resonated strongly with me exactly because of that equal treatment of all of them. This is what a feminist novel should be like, I think, rather than putting women on a pedestal or insisting that female characters are only good enough to be “heroines” if they fight like men and never have children or emotions.

I am now wondering if I should start The Virtu by Sarah Monette, the sequel to Melusine, or not. Melusine is unfortunately one of those books I was very enthusiastic about at the time I read it but which I’ve lost the favorable impression of since. Monette having a fundamental misunderstanding about the term slash doesn’t help.


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