City of Pearl: I

(With profuse apologies for belatedness, here’s the start of my discussion of the Future Classic for July, Karen Traviss’ first novel City of Pearl. A bit of a curate’s egg…)

City of Pearl cover


Here are a couple of sentences from very near the start of City of Pearl:

Aras mimicked the lettering, copying it into the unspoiled snow beside him with a steady claw. He considered it, then brushed it away. (1-2)

Does anything here bother you? Personally, I’m bothered by that pronoun. From the claw at the end of the first of these sentences, and the fact that we know we’re starting a science fiction novel, we infer – correctly – that Aras is an alien. But for an organism not from our biosphere, how meaningful is the male pronoun likely to be? It would be understandable as the imposition of a human point of view, as in, say, Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed, but there are no human characters in this scene, or indeed on the planet at this point. Later, we are told that Aras’ species, the wess’har, are matriarchal: their women are big and few and occupy ruling positions, while their men are in thrall to the feminine, and have stronger nurturing instincts. But because that initial pronoun is pure narrative imposition, the complication of the pronoun seems like an arbitrary trick. Had Traviss chosen to make Aras “she”, she could have almost as easily described wess’har society as ruled by men with enormous harems. And that bothers me, because it makes the authorial fiat involved in constructing an alien society more visible than I would like it to be.

That aside, the fact that City of Pearl includes a non-human perspective is something to be admired, and the other ways in which it is complicated are more satisfying. Aras is the last of a soldier caste, infected with a virus or micro-organism (it’s not entirely clear) his people call c’naatat that exacerbates the already-high mutability of his genetic code to enable him to adapt rapidly to environmental threats – such as, say, otherwise lethal wounds – and incorporate useful traits from other species with whom he comes into contact. This is junk science, but a very useful fictional device. As soon as Aras has touched a human, we have an excuse for the inevitable humanness of his point of view; and once (inevitably) one of the human characters becomes infected by c’naatat, you have a beautiful model system in which to play out some ideas about the self and the other.

As the first in a series of six, City of Pearl doesn’t push this notion as far or as fast as you might hope, and there are other things in its portrayal of the alien that don’t quite work – including some spectacularly ill-judged names, such as the capital city of F’nar. But by the end of the novel you do believe in the wess’har as an independent species with their own distinct culture and behavioural principles, literal and logical but without the obtuseness often assumed to accompany those characteristics. Moreover there are reasons to believe that the cultures of two of the other three species who claim a stake in the world Aras guards – namely the native, squiddish bezeri and the expansionist, arachnoid isenj – will be further developed to similarly satisfying effect. The fourth species with skin in the game, of course, is us.


10 thoughts on “City of Pearl: I

  1. “Narrative imposition” is a little harsh, surely? Unfortunately I can’t remember the details of wess’har physiology (despite reading the book less than a year ago…I blame Google-induced memory atrophy) but given a species where one gender either lays eggs or carries the young in something analogous to pregnancy, I’d think that one would be called female regardless of who calls the shots. Colonizing insects had queens even back when humans almost exclusively had kings. As I recall, insomuch as City of Pearl engages with gender (it has a lot more to say about environmentalism and ethics in general), it does so on issues surrounding pregnancy.

  2. It’s been a few years since I read City of Pearl, but what I remember most about it is the impression of uneasy coexistence of the science fiction and romance layers. I think what you point out here this is an example of this: the gendering of the alien “is junk science, but a very useful fictional device”–for a traditional romance fiction.

  3. Matt 1/T: I didn’t get a clear picture of how wess’har reproduction works, to be honest. At different times they seemed to be like seahorses, and not. Can anyone who has read the later novels shed any light? But I’m also not sure how meaningful the mobile gamete/male vs immobile gamete/female definition is for a species which can exchange genetic material as adults.

    Matt 2: I didn’t find the mix unbalanced, myself; I’m not a romance reader, so I wouldn’t presume to know how well Shan and Aras’ dance does or doesn’t match the conventions of romance fiction, but I didn’t feel that it dominated the novel. But you might be onto something otherwise — I’m not quite as hardline about the unexamined pronouns thing as perhaps I sound above — I have plenty of time for good Star Trek! — but it’s a marker for me of fiction that isn’t particularly science-fictionally ambitious. Whereas actually City of Pearl is reasonably ambitious in that direction, and I think it’s hindered a bit by that initial choice.

  4. Matt H: Colonizing insects had queens even back when humans almost exclusively had kings

    Given the question of narrative imposition, it may be interesting that the “ruler” in honeybee colonies was assumed to be male through European history until the renaissance.

  5. My initial reaction to the gendering of Aras was similar to Niall’s. More than the pronoun, his desire for Shan as a strong woman bothered me. Yet Matt H has a good point, and it occurs to me that cross-species desire occurs in the real world and even produces offspring.

    In any case, before I had finished reading, this feature of the novel was bothering me less because it seems like Traviss has gone a long way to make gender available as a subject in her novel. Admittedly this availability is generated primarily by the humans rather than the aliens. We are quickly introduced to a police officer, a politician, and a military commander, who are all senior and who are all women — and these facts go uncommented on. Meanwhile the ye olde colony is shown to be ruled by men. It seems like our mission is going to be from a future where women have gained equality, possibly even primacy — and then, a slap in the face, p.141, “If girls want to play boys’ games and get boys’ pay…”

  6. More than the pronoun, his desire for Shan as a strong woman bothered me.

    Oddly enough, this bothered me less. The idea of cross-species sexual attraction, while not plausible as such, has a certain dramatic utility — I was reminded of Tiptree’s “And I Awoke And Found Me Here”, in which human men lose interest in human women because they’re all chasing after an alien that functions as a supernormal stimulus. Traviss’ version doesn’t have the futility of Tiptree’s — it’s surely a given that Aras and Shan will consumate their relationship at some point — but it comes from the same place, I think.

    Traviss has gone a long way to make gender available as a subject in her novel

    This is a fair point. The internal human gender dynamics and relationships seemed well done to me — with a few points of exception, like Lindsay’s post-birth scene. If anything, though, I have the opposite reaction to you: given that Traviss does as much in that direction as she does, it’s frustrating she didn’t go that bit further.

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