Life, #4

Having discussed science, feminism, and character relationships in my earlier posts on Gwyneth Jones’ Life, it seems only natural that I should bring this series to a close with some remarks on how the book deals with gender. In many ways, this is likely to be more recap and summation than a substantially new discussion, because gender pervades all the aspects of the book I’ve looked at so far.

The novel’s central sfnal idea – the discovery that Anna spends her professional life finding and demonstrating – is that there a virus has emerged which affects how genes, and the traits associated with them, are “shuffled” during sexual reproduction (198). Usually, only the parents’ X chromosomes take part in this process; the Y chromosome, which (by and large) only males possess, is too small and unlike its counterparts to do any swapping. Genes on the Y chromosome, therefore, are passed only from father to son, whereas X-linked genes can show up in either male or female offspring. Where the phenomenon that Anna calls Transferred Y deviates from this pattern is that it allows the Y chromosome to get involved in gene-swapping. In the long run, according to experiments and simulations run by Anna – and, later, by other teams around the world – TY looks set to lead to the disappearance of the Y chromosome from the human race.

As far as I understand it (and not being a scientist, I’m not completely sure I do…), there is no suggestion, at least from the scientist characters, that this will lead to the end of biological sex differences within human beings; there will still be biologically-male (and fertile) individuals, but they will, like females, have two X chromosomes. Gender, however, is a rather different matter.

Anna steadfastly refuses to spend much time worrying over the implications of all this, focusing on it as a purely scientific issue – a question to investigate in the lab – and ignoring the warnings of colleagues that she could be playing with fire. It is, after all, already happening (indeed, there are already a number of unknowingly-XX males around, living perfectly ordinary lives but for a higher risk of infertility); she is not the cause of the phenomenon, and she had no intention of interpreting it, either. But science does not happen in a vacuum.

It is only late in the book, when her TY investigations have become a media storm – nothing stirs up public fear and anger like a perceived threat to masculinity – and her marital problems with Spence are coming to the surface, that Anna faces what she has learned. Angry and upset over the revelation that Spence is having an affair with insipid Meret (“the not-too-clever sweet feminine younger one” (326), as Anna puts it), Anna finds the temptation to fall back on gendered ways of thinking and fighting about their relationship horribly alluring. “I have become woman”, she reflects; in the Joanna Russ sense, that is: for all her attempts to escape it, she has finally been confronted with her role in the battle of the sexes:

I can be a matriarch like Rosey, who though she loves Wol truly, never forgets to treat him with contempt. Throws him out when he fails to satisfy, allows him back on sufferance. It is what they expect, it is the way relations between the sexes have to be. You have to keep the whip hand, or else they will turn on you. […]

I was afraid of Transferred Y, and I pretended other reasons, but this is why. I didn’t want to think of what it meant for real people because that means me, that means Spence… all that dirt about sexual relations, that I didn’t ever want to handle. (320-1)

I’m not completely sure how to interpret Anna’s thoughts, here (and would welcome suggestions). After some discussion on this point with Niall, my sense is that, regardless of whether or not TY will affect biological sex – or even most of the visible physical traits linked with it – the cultural narratives surrounding gender, and linking gender with sex, are sufficiently powerful that TY is dynamite. Is this Ramone’s “something new”, that will change relations between human beings beyond recognition?

Above and beyond the fact that previously Y-linked (and thus male-only) genes would presumably begin to turn up in females, simply the idea of the chromosomal difference between men and women being ‘lost’ is something that would – and, in the book, apparently does – be profoundly disturbing for some. This is regardless of the fact that, as far as I can tell, there would still be two main biological sexes (my genetics knowledge doesn’t really stretch to speculating upon how this would affect rates or presentation of intersexuality); males and females would all be XX at a genetic level, but nonetheless there would still be as many differences between any given two individuals, regardless of sex, as there ever were.

Consciously and unconsciously, people have so much invested in narratives of gendered thought and behaviour – and, in particular, in narratives of gender and of the battle of the sexes as they shape family life. Rosey, again:

“I used to think Steven and Joe were aggressive because of the childhood they had before they came to us. But boys will be boys. I was so relieved to have a girl.”

If you put a child in frilly ankle socks at birth, thought Anna, by the time she’s three no one will ever know whether genetic predisposition or nurture made her turn out wet as a haddock’s bathing suit. (285)

The possibilities are not spelled out in the book, so I can’t be sure I’m thinking along the right lines, here, and would love to know if anyone has any other suggestions. In particular, does anyone else get the sense from the book that the ‘loss’ of the Y chromosome could make a measurable difference to men – and/or to women – without an accompanying cultural shift? Are there likely to be physical or chemical implications to TY? Or might something like TY itself be enough to prompt a cultural shift? And what about transsexuality and transgenderism?

Life, #3: Roles and Relationships

Following on from my posts on science and feminism in Gwyneth Jones’ Life, it’s time to take a closer look at the two central relationships that shape and define so much of who Anna is and what she does: her marriage to Spence, and her on-off friendship (and more) with Ramone. Both are formed during Anna’s time as an undergraduate, and both send complicated tendrils out through the novel’s various themes.

Neither of them, it has to be said, are particularly easy to like.

Superficially, at least, Spence seems likeable. He’s sensitive, he’s smart, he’s quietly funny; he’s even attracted to Anna’s intelligence. (Well, mostly.)

She had no idea she was sexy. Picture it: Marilyn Monroe is sitting beside you – a brunette Marilyn, which is so much classier, and brainy, which to the male is subconsciously incredibly attractive, resist the dreadful idea as he will. […] He guessed [the other guys] had to be aware, at some level, of her wide shoulders, hand-span waist, and curvaceous little bottom; of the pert, round-as-apples breasts under her clean and modest tee-shirts. (20)

Later in this same reflective passage, Spence goes on to congratulate himself on how his “vintage feminist” mother would be proud of how much he’s not like other guys (“The menfolk of Annandale were an unregenerate lot, stubbornly resistant to the siren lure of female intelligence” (21)). So near, and yet so far; at no point during his panegyric to Anna Apple Boobs does Spence think about his object of desire as a person, whose intelligence is important to her for its own sake rather than as something that exists to attract him, Liberated Feminist Man.

This, I suppose, is the problem with Spence (or at least my problem with him). He has the occasional flash of understanding, but ultimately he never manages to move beyond thinking of Anna as part of his story: the love interest, the adjunct to his narrative arc, the woman that only he can recognise and rescue. Before his writing career takes off and his affair with (young, naive, worshipful) Meret develops, Spence is at his happiest and most focused when faced with Anna’s news of her accidental pregnancy. Oblivious to Anna’s devastation (the knowledge of her pregnancy, coming at such a crucial time in her research and spelling out the ways in which her life is out of her control, is “like a raw bereavement” to her (120)), Spence starts making wedding plans within minutes. This, you feel, is the moment he’s been waiting for: the chance to Do The Right Thing. He never stops to think about whether it is what Anna wants, and Anna is too sunk in her misery and too determined to be self-reliant to tell him, in small enough words, that it is not. This will be the pattern of their relationship.

The fact that Anna has her own story – that, indeed, the nature of Anna’s work means that in many ways Spence is far more a part of Anna’s story than she is of his – is something that he struggles with, throughout. It’s there on the several occasions when he casts himself in the role of house-husband (in Leeds, in Sungai, on the south coast in the final section of the book): he alternates between cheerful ebullience and depressed boredom, frustrated by his lack of purpose. Anna, consumed with her work, is too distracted to need, or be grateful for, his attempts to care for her. Their gender roles are flipped in more ways than the obvious: Spence takes on the job of neglected, long-suffering (whiny, demanding) wife, while Anna is the dynamic husband with her mind on higher things than domesticity (the distant, superior spouse who ignores the household labour – both physical and emotional – she doesn’t see). The problem lies in the roles themselves; the faults of those performing the roles only compound the issue.

Anna’s other major relationship, with gender-challenging Ramone, is less of a constant in her life but still a major influence. Whereas Anna so often takes Spence for granted, she spends a lot of time thinking about Ramone, “this mischievous, erratic guardian spirit” (8). Anna is frequently annoyed with Ramone, cutting off communication with her on more than one occasion, but she is always anxious to understand her: what she stands for, and what she means to her:

Who is Ramone Holyrod? she asked herself. Someone I invented. My exterior soul. The person I wished I could have been; my repository for those parts of my self I couldn’t use or didn’t want in my real life. Ideas that would have made it impossible for me to pursue my life’s work. Truths that would make me an outlaw.

Or a crackpot. (355)

Unlike Spence, Ramone has her own story, which intersects with Anna’s only at intervals: she has a career of her own with as many peaks and troughs as Anna’s does; she has a difficult, devoted relationship with her schizophrenic mentor, Lavinia; she cycles through purpose, despair, desire, turns her words into actions, changes her philosophy of life on several occasions, and adopts new personae for new situations.

Ramone’s story also comments upon Anna’s, both directly – through Ramone’s own, impassioned reflections – and through the implicit contrast between them. Anna knuckles down, Ramone acts out; Anna dresses neatly and unobtrusively, Ramone breaks every rule of cleanliness and self-presentation; Anna marries (in a church, no less) and forms a home with Spence, Ramone goes through a string of complex and sometimes abusive relationships, and has spells of living rough. Above all, Anna absorbs what the world throws at her, as a woman, and tries to make her way through life without rocking the boat too much – whereas Ramone shouts and fights and writes aggressive books and pisses off her closest friends on a regular basis. They make each other think, and deconstruct, and kick out, more than anyone else in their respective lives.

In the end, and quite inadvertantly, Anna does what Ramone never quite manages: she overturns the gender paradigm. Perhaps, anyway; but that will be the subject of the next post.

Life, #2: Feminisms

Gwyneth Jones has talked before about the limitations involved in being labelled as a feminist writer, particularly for women writers; her comments have attracted discussion (to which she has responded in turn). Life, as far as Jones herself is concerned, is her last engagement – to date – with feminist sf, which she understands to mean sf that deals explicitly with, as she puts it, the Battle of the Sexes. While I join with L. Timmel Duchamp in disagreeing that the Battle is all that feminist sf is (or should be) about, there can be no doubt that Life places feminism front and centre. Not just feminist issues, but feminism as an explicit, understood and debated body of thought. (As I was writing this, Niall wondered aloud: what other – if any – feminist sf stories feature characters who identify or are identified as feminists? I’d be interested to know if anyone reading this has an answer.)

Put another way, Life is concerned with feminisms, because the novel presents multiple faces of feminist thought and activism – chiefly the wary, accommodationist approach of Anna, and Ramone’s more aggressive desire to clear the decks entirely and start again.

Anna thinks about feminist issues mostly in the breach – on occasions when she has been reminded, beyond the possibility of denial, that the world is not equal, and that she is not, always, judged on her merit ahead of or instead of her gender. Most of time, feminism does not form a part of her life. As Daz Avriti, Anna’s Malaysian contemporary at university, points out to her, the capacity to assume that there is no longer any need for feminism – or that the sum total of feminism is the fight for women to be taken seriously – is a measure of Anna’s (white, western, [struggling] middle-class) privilege. In fact, feminist issues are a continuum; and elsewhere in the world, the issues are about women’s survival:

“Anna, where you and I live, women’s rights is old news. Intelligent women want to be judged on their own merits and find the whole feminism thing embarrassing and whiney. But here, where I live… it’s a can of worms. If you start applying the concept of ‘human rights’ to women, in Asia and Africa, you uncover a holocaust.” (235)

This privilege brings its own layers of complication and difficulty when things do go wrong; it insulates Anna from knowledge of the problem, not from the problem itself. The way Anna reacts to her rape is telling in this regard. Initially she feels only confusion, and a measure of denial: how could this happen to her; she’d always been so careful; how could her control of the situation and of her body be so comprehensively destroyed? “You’re having an awkward conversation with a fellow undergraduate,” she reflects, “and suddenly he comes at you with an axe, I wasn’t prepared. […] I could’t believe it. I’m the one who failed to read the damned body language” (78). Then, thinking about how and why she stopped fighting him off (“he’d never have left if I didn’t capitulate, didn’t withdraw my objection, let him score the point, agree to his version” (78)), she feels for the first time a kinship with others who have gone through the same, shattering experience. She is able to recognise the broader, systemic reasons rape and other abuses keep happening, because she, now, has become a part of that culture:

This is what happens, she thought. Women lie, they keep silent, because no one likes a whistleblower. This is how it all carries on. Now I am doing it. I am part of the machine that destroys women’s chances. (81)

I mentioned the obstacles she faces at work, and her resistance to efforts to change things (for fear, again, that she was be seen as Difficult), in the previous post. But it does not go away, as she hopes it will, when she is older and more established in her career. It takes a few bottles of wine and a comfortable evening with a trusted old friend, but eventually she is driven to vent about the other pressures – subtler, but in their steady, relentless way almost as damaging – that she is subject to as a woman, and supposed to laugh off as just a joke:

“It gets so wearing. They come on to me relentlessly, these male colleagues of mine. I take it lightly, I flirt and act sassy, what else can you do? But of course I know what it means, and it’s not friendly. I’m supposed to have forgotten what ‘fucking someone up’ usually implies, in a professional context? I’m supposed to have not been listening, when a few moments before they were all crowing over the way they shafted some poor loser?” (281)

Still she cannot bring herself to act against these attitudes; she will never be secure enough to stop playing the game.

For Ramone, by contrast, feminism – even if she periodically rejects the concept, or the baggage that goes with it (“Here she was, a fucking professional feminist, basically a sex-worker, a pornographer, making her living out of being female” (222) – is an awareness, a way of seeing the world, that she lives with all the time. It is an itch she can never quite scratch, but can certainly never ignore. Unlike Anna, Ramone – “the rabid one”, as Spence, tellingly, dubs her – can never bring herself to make nice and play the game, because the game destroys women, bit by bit:

As far as Ramone could see, what these women had in common was the same as any woman struggling to have power in a man’s world. The eating disorders, the mysterious illnesses, the hysteria. If you were Albert Einstein and born female in the fifteenth century, you’d end up in some convent fasting yourself crazy, writing liturgical music, and reforming the Carmelites. (73)

She ridicules the notion of feminist history, of finding the women who have been written out of the generally accepted narrative of human progress: “It’s playing into the hands of the enemy to say, see, we were up to your standards all along.” (224) (I am reminded of the stance taken by Caitlin Moran in her new book, although somehow I doubt she put nearly as much thought into her own statement on women’s history.) Where Anna can be optimistic, most of the time, that things are improving for women and will continue to do so, Ramone has no such hopes. The playing field is not and never will be level; the only answer is to abandon it and find something new, “a whole different paradigm” (224).

Ramone’s commentary is disquieting, and it certainly doesn’t win her any friends; even the people who vaguely like her, or at least continue to meet up with her every so often after they all leave university, wonder “why did she have to be so violent, contentious, and unreasonable?” (217). While at times it is hard to avoid the feeling that Ramone takes her feminism to its logical conclusion quite so mercilessly in part because she relishes playing the villain – it beats trying to be liked and failing, or not being seen at all – her fidelity to a truly independent self leads her into such extremes of suffering that it is impossible to believe she’s faking it. Although she relishes the suffering, too, of course; even Ramone herself entertains the uncomfortable idea that her persona is essentially an elaborate method of self-harm.

I don’t think this invalidates what Ramone says, however; her message is liberating and necessary, even if you don’t follow her all the way and despite her cluelessness when it comes to her involvement in the Malaysian human rights protest movement. Both of the times I’ve read the book, I’ve found myself frustrated with her excesses and self-destructiveness, but also with myself, with my own Anna-ishness. Ramone tears off the veil, and there is more than a hint of The Female Man – capital letters and all – to the militant defiance of her thought and expression when she says:

I want to exterminate women, wipe them from the face of the earth. I don’t want to be liberated, I want to be a monster. He didn’t get it. No one ever got it, and Ramone could have straightened them out by saying nobody is born a woman and that what she hated was the way she COULD NOT ESCAPE from the role of second-class person. No woman could, the only escape was to become SOMETHING NEW that had never existed before. And fuck them all; she’d rather be misunderstood than acceptable… But he was impressed by her anger. She saw the alarm coming up in his eyes. It never ceased to amaze her, that fear. For fuck’s sake, she thought, I weigh fifty kilos, that’s about seven stone twelve, o dweller in the shades of departed empire: what do you think I’m going to do? (153)

Life, #1: Science and Sensibility

In her recent column ‘On Science, Emotions, and Culture (Part 1)’ at Strange Horizons, Vandana Singh offers the following quotation from Albert Einstein:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

This seems to me as good a place as any to begin our discussion of Life (2004) by Gwyneth Jones, the Future Classics book of the month for August (I know, I know). Because whatever else happens – and it really does all happen – to the novel’s protagonist, Anna Senoz, one of her touchstones remains her passion for science:

[W]hy do I work so hard? Why do I dream of doing something important, even if it’s something only another nerd would understand? It was inexplicable.

[…] They call me Mr Spock and think I’m unemotional: but I like marvels. I have a taste for extraordinary things. That’s why I’m here at the Forest University of Bournemouth, instead of in Manchester: why I’m doing Biology Foundation instead of specializing. I wanted to do something different, to see another world. And to know. I want to know my subject, not just get a job. She returned to her reading, thrilled by a romance and a magic that was invisible to Ramone. (33-34)

It’s a presentation of science – of the why of science, of the compulsion and fascination that keeps someone in the lab until anti-social-o’clock every evening – that perhaps isn’t communicated to the non-scientist world enough. For perfectly understandable reasons – on which I’d be very interested to get the input of Torque Control readers – science is so often thought of as the cold fish, the antidote to wonder. One of the things Life does so well, I think, is reminding us that this is not so: that there is an awe to be found in explanation, in understanding. (And also, of course, that such understanding may not always be comforting, or welcome.)

As an academic, albeit within a non-science field, I also found Jones’ exploration of how intellectual passions come into conflict with egos and institutions both telling and familiar. I’m not just talking about smug Charles Craft, Anna’s contemporary and rival at undergraduate level, whose insecure, destructive posturing Jones manages to draw with some sympathy and nuance even while making me want to kick him for every word that comes out of his mouth. It’s also there in the dynamics of every single one of the labs Anna works in later in her life: the hierarchies that must be maintained, the obstructive nonsense that must be obeyed; the supportive camaraderie and the petty backstabbing that both come with trying to pursue the objective among the hopelessly subjective. And let’s just say that the comment on the woeful inability of her doctoral supervisor, KM Nirmal, to provide anything approaching actual, well, supervision, rung far too many bells (“The better you are what you do, the more time you’re doomed to spend doing things you’re no good at” (98)). Not about my own (entirely splendid) supervisor, though, thankfully…

Being a woman in this environment carries its own set of challenges. Most obviously, during her doctorate Anna is sidelined for her pregnancy, which is taken – by Nirmal and others in the lab – to indicate a lack of dedication to Science on her part, a signal that she is on the “Mommy track” and will thus not put in the hours and never become a serious intellectual force. But the impact upon Anna of, as Ramone puts it, “being born female” (109) is felt in all manner of subtler ways. Charles Craft’s overwhelming and frankly undeserving sense of entitlement may make him deeply unpleasant – and unable to deal with competition from lesser beings without belittling mockery or brittle aggression, to boot – but it is hard to imagine him deciding not to defend his corner, and demand respect, when faced with someone else plagiarising his work (as he does to Anna), or the reflection of low status that is Anna’s below-minimum-wage stipend during her doctorate. Yet Anna has been trained not to call attention to herself; she knows, from everything she sees around her, that unlike men, women who rock the boat get remembered not as go-getters but as trouble-makers.

“No one likes a whistleblower, Simon. Not in any business. I’ve been thinking about it, while I walked. The cheating’s trivial, not worth worrying about. If I make a fuss the story might stick with me. I might never live it down; I’d be an awkward bugger.” (79)

It probably doesn’t help that on the occasions she tries to assert herself, and take control of and credit for her own work, she is slapped down; what is Charles’ rape of her, after all, but a reminder of her status – as an attractive object, so beautiful when she’s angry, not an intellectual equal (or superior) whose objections are to be taken seriously. I’ll discuss this, and how Anna’s reaction to such episodes contrast with Ramone’s, in the next post.

This setting of the science fictional – Anna’s personal mission to understand the phenomenon that she comes to call Transferred Y – within its social, human context, is of course central to the book’s purpose. Science does not stand alone, either in the way it is conceptualised and investigated, or in how it is understood and how its effects are felt; not just because there are limits to human rationality but no limits to the human capacity for denial (as the reaction to Transferred Y shows), but also because society is itself a complex organism. I’ll discuss the sfnal specifics of Anna’s discoveries, and the book’s examination of gender, in the last of these posts on Life. But I think there is room to start that discussion rolling now, in outline: how well do these twin aspects of the novel’s concerns mesh? In what ways do the ups and downs of the lives of Anna, Spence, Ramone and the rest reflect and comment upon the Big Ideas that the book sets out to broach?

Above all, does Life offer some answers to the questions that Singh poses at the end of her column?

Are only some emotions permissible in the culture of science[?] […] What is the connection, if any, between the paucity of female scientists and the culture of science? Is the content of science ever affected by the culture of scientific practice?

August: Life

It’s the eighth month of the year already* and we’re still back in 2004 in reading the Future Classics here on Torque Control.

August’s book is Gwyneth Jones’ Life. It is the second of two books from 2004 (the other was City of Pearl) and one of three by Jones on our list this year. It did very well for itself, winning the Philip K Dick award for that year and being shortlisted for the Tiptree Award.

Nic of Eve’s Alexandria, a new poster on Torque Control, should be joining us to discuss the book before the end of the month. I hope you will join us in reading and discussing it!

* It’s almost still the first half of the month, right?

City of Pearl: Recap

The book of this long, lingering July* was Karen Traviss’s City of Pearl, which Niall discussed in a series of posts. It was the first of two 2004 books we are reading here at Torque Control this year as part of the Future Classics series of the best science fiction novels written by women in the previous decade.

Niall examined the difficulty of writing aliens, especially with respect to gender; the role of humans in the context of those aliens, and the problems with the way the book presents scientists; an examination of the main viewpoint character, Shan Frankland; and a look at a few of the book’s other major themes and the way they affect the conclusion.

Continuing the post-9/11 notes, this book too had a plot  thread about terrorism, by that name, in the context of moral ambiguities.

My thanks to Niall for the thoughtful examination of this book, and to all of you who joined in the discussion about it. (There’s always time to do so in future weeks… or months… or years.)

Discussion: Part I (Aliens); Part II (Environment and humanity); Part III (Characters); Part IV (Transparency)

I can’t, offhand, find any other discussions of this novel online from the last month, which is why  I am not providing them for you this month. (I though I did run across another fantastical “city of Pearl” as a result: more in Jeff VanderMeer’s post here.)

* Summer, with all its life disruptions to put us in places we aren’t normally and disrupt posting habits.

City of Pearl: IV

City of Pearl cover


Here’s another quote, from rather later in the novel, just after Lindsay, who managed to get herself pregnant before the mission left Earth, has given birth.

“He could do with some more milk, if you’re up to expressing some.”

Not more tubes. He was too weak even to feed properly. She laid him down in the cot again with a breaking heart. Every instinct in her body said she should forget common sense and take him somewhere quiet to comfort and nurse him. But Hugel was a doctor, and knew better. And Lindsay was an officer, the ranking officer now that Shan was out of action.

“I’ll get on with it,” she said. (311)

This is such a brusque examination of the maternal instinct that it feels little more than functional, a device to remind us that humans are animals, but set up and dismissed in a couple of sentences so that Lindsay, and the narrative, can get on with it. Quite a lot of City of Pearl felt like this to me: it is an almost exhaustingly direct novel, with a quite narrow emotional range; like a more cynical John Scalzi, or a less schematic Isaac Asimov. What’s interesting is how this style dovetails with the novel’s content.

Constantine, we are told, is “a transparent sort of place” (61), not somewhere of great complexity or nuance, with a symbolic fascination with glasswork. More than that, the native life on bezer’ej is often see-through, as a camouflage strategy; the planet, Shan concludes, “was a transparent world” (194). The wess’har, as I’ve already described, are a moral position embodied as its extreme to enable contrast and conflict, and deployed with no ambiguity whatsoever, the dilemmas their laws produce being the equivalent of 24’s ticking bombs, in that they distort a situation beyond all likely reality to justify an extreme response. And the grand climax of Shan’s narrative is an audience with a wess’har matriarch for which she is told that she must speak with absolute directness: “Shan made a conscious effort to remove the automatic tendency to edit what she thought before it escaped her mouth. It had taken many, many years to learn to do that. Now she had to unlearn it” (355).

Not infrequently, this all starts to feel like an indulgence of the worst of sf’s world-simplifying tendencies. Yet running alongside all of the above is a determined effort to complicate choices and confuse boundaries. The wess’har are imposing their morality on others, and are resisted by the isenji. A third group of humans arrive completely without warning, with their own agenda. Constantine turns out to be not just as transparent as glass, but as fragile, an artificial ecology maintained within the native bezer’ej landscape. And – most symbolically – towards the end of the book, Aras deliberately infects Shan with c’naatat to save her life, and Shan begins to change. Judged alone, I think I would have to find City of Pearl wanting; but the dynamics it establishes are so clearly set to evolve over successive books that I can easily believe the series ends up in a more complex place.

City of Pearl: III

City of Pearl cover


We’re presumably meant to see the decision to arrange the execution of the offending scientist as the sort of thing Shan Frankland’s recruiter had in mind when insisting that the expedition needed “a government representative there who isn’t afraid of hard decisions” (16). And if the decision isn’t that hard in the end, it’s a shame not only because it simplifies Aras for our consumption, but because it diminishes Shan, who is otherwise probably the best thing about City of Pearl.

An efficient ex-cop, Shan is – according to Eddie Michallat, the expedition’s rather irritating journalist – “not plump big, womanly big, but tall, athletic, hard big”, and deeply, occasionally comically, cynical about human nature. She is a baseline human, primarily, we a told, thanks to the pagan beliefs she inherited from her mother, giving her — in a world where the unaltered are becoming less common than the altered — a “hint of wildness and savagery”. She has a temper, and a brain; and most important, to me, she is a professional. For all her physical capability, called on several times over the course of the novel, she is a serious person who takes her job seriously: a rare enough type in science fiction at all, but particularly distinctive amongst the impoverished array of contemporary female characters. Her self-confidence makes her an effective counter to the eternally mutable Aras, and in fact makes her somewhat irresistible to his matriarch-conditioned brain: he finds her no-nonsense manner distinctly wess’har, and increasingly has to fight the urge to defer to her will.

Shan’s other important relationship in City of Pearl is with Lindsay Neville, who would have been leading the expedition had Shan not been installed at the last minute. Lindsay is young military authority, Shan is older civilian authority; unsurprisingly they have rather different ways of doing things. For Lindsay, death is “nothing personal […] all neat and sanctioned and under rules of engagement. After you’d killed them, you would stand at memorial parades and say what an honourable enemy they were”; while Shan “got to know her targets far too well, and honor never came into it” (211). Their headbutting, and eventual tentative respect, is rather nicely done.

It’s hard to say that Shan’s interaction with the rest of her expedition’s members is handled as well. That she doesn’t like the scientists she has to look after – describing them almost exclusively as “payload” – is fine, but there is never an equivalent of the detente with Lindsay, or even the potential for one. What’s missing – aside from brief diary extracts at the start of a couple of chapters – is the viewpoint of a scientist, which leaves them little more than ciphers, and makes incidents like that involving the bezeri child feeling even more lopsided. The payload are the ones who cause trouble, the ones who – astonishingly – we are meant to believe see sentient aliens as just a kind of animal, the ones who just won’t follow orders, god dammit. They are, in fact, the villains of the piece; which would be more interesting if they weren’t also the novel’s truest Other.


City of Pearl: II

City of Pearl cover


City of Pearl is, on one level, another entry into the proud tradition of brutal challenges to the Campbellian notion that humanity is a special case. Its particular lens for focusing this argument is ecological: the wess’har, or at least the ones we meet in this novel, are environmental fundamentalists who consider all living things to have equal rights – Aras refers to rats as “people” – and who live with as little imposition on other beings as possible. They’re also possessed of a technology level capable of wiping out large cities – say, those of the isenj – and restoring the landscape left behind to a wilderness state without too much difficulty, which makes them exactly the people you don’t want to have taken custody of a planet when you’d like to settle on it.

The first humans to reach Bezer’ej are spared by dint of the fact that they carry a gene bank of Earthly life, and found the agrarian Christian commune of Constantine. A later expedition of scientists with a military guard, led by City of Pearl’s protagonist Shan Frankland, is allowed to land because Aras is curious; it’s a decision he comes to regret.

The conflict between wess’har and human psychology and morality has strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, having a viewpoint character with such an absolutist worldview as does Aras enables Traviss to throw her readers off balance every so often, to make them question their assumptions – as with the remark about rats noted above, or as when Aras corrects Josh, the leader of Constantine, about humans “detecting” other alien species, rather than “discovering” them; or when Josh himself mentally tuts that Shan only recognises Bezer’ej as “inhabited” when there are sentient aliens in the frame. And the colonists of Constantine, who carried their own ecological morality with them from Earth but have followed the wess’har’s lead, philosophically, during the decades of their tenure, are an interesting bunch that I wouldn’t have minded spending more time with.

But as the narrative (inevitably) heads towards conflict, it stumbles. When he allows Shan and her companions to land, Aras sets some ground rules, of which the most important is “no samples of living material”: not a blade of alien grass. It’s clear almost immediately that for most of the scientists in Shan’s party this is an unacceptable restriction on their research, but it’s not until half-way into the book that one of them manages to pick up what appears to be a dead organism from the shore and bring it back to base camp. When that happens, some of the party do object, but the scientist in question locks herself away and begins a dissection before Shan arrives to stop her.

This, of course, is enough to initiate a diplomatic crisis, and for a few pages it looks like a quite interesting one: the scientist’s actions are against wess’har morality, and though they surely have the right, and the power, to set the local rules, they can’t help seeming excessive to us; while even as we disapprove of the scientist’s actions, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her curiosity. (She has, after all, given up her life for the opportunity to visit another world: with slower-than-light journeys and cryogenic suspension, nobody she knew on Earth is going to be alive when she returns.) But quite quickly it’s revealed that the organism wasn’t dead, after all; and moreover that it wasn’t just any organism, it was a juvenile bezeri; and so the scientist, monstrously, has been dissecting a living child. This, I can’t help feeling, is much less interesting, because it horrifies us as much as the wess’har, which means that when Aras demands the death penalty for the scientist’s crimes, it’s a demand that comes from a recognisable place (even if we abjure capital punishment ourselves). How much more challenging it would have been to empathise with Aras if the scientist’s actions had been a crime by wess’har standards only.


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.