[info]limyaael @ 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.


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