Postings to the Feminist Science Fiction On-Topic Mailing List, 26 June 2001 to 28 January 2002

BDG: Beggars in Spain | BDG: Always Coming Home | BDG: Always Coming Home | BDG: Brain Plague | BDG: Brain Plague | BDG: War for the Oaks | BDG: War for the Oaks | BDG: War for the Oaks & Very Far Away from Anywhere Else | BDG: A Woman's Liberation | BDG: A Woman's Liberation | BDG: A Woman's Liberation | BDG: A Woman's Liberation



Date: Tue, 26 Jun 2001 16:27:51 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] BDG: Beggars in Spain
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

On Mon, 4 Jun 2001, Misha Bernard asked:
>gut reactions to the novel? Like it, hate it, can't believe it, it was too
>disturbingly real? [...] what do people think of the likelihood of Kress'
>future, or a similar one? Are the Sleepless a potential – or any
>privileged minority that has more access to power?

I had a mixed reaction to Beggars in Spain. On the plus side, I liked that I couldn't guess how the plot was going to unfold – new characters and events kept surprising me. And I found individual moments, like the end of Book I, very powerful. On the minus side, I thought the basic premise of sleeplessness was absurd the way it was presented (sleep evolved to keep animals hidden away from predators? puh-leeease.) and the argument that lies at the heart of the book (the place of "beggars" in society) was poorly developed.

In an interview, Kress says that Yagaiism and by extension the characterization of Sleepers as "beggars" is based on Ayn Rand's objectivism, a worldview which Kress herself "eventually outgrew [...] as many people do". Yet nearly all of the Sleepless in Sanctuary, who are supposed to be so much more smart and productive because they don't need to sleep, still haven't outgrown this philosophy after 70+ years! They continue to make gross overgeneralizations about Sleepers and pursue a rigid "us vs. them" agenda that is out of all proportion to the situation, even later on in the "Liver" stage of history, when most people seem to have forgotten the Sleepless exist. Am I alone in thinking these folks aren't very smart after all?

Maybe part of the problem is the way intelligence is portrayed in the book. Most of the characters seem to assume that "intelligence" is an attribute that merely makes people more efficient and able to work, work, work better than people who have less of it. More discoveries, more inventions in the pursuit of economic growth and a new manifest destiny. (It's so American! No surprise, then, that the world outside of the US plays a negligible role in the book.) I kept thinking, "Who says intelligence has to feed the GNP? Where's the fun? Where's the art? Where's the subtlety?"

The last two books, "Dreamers" and "Beggars", take a whack at these questions, but I didn't find them satisfying. The whole novel seemed to be arguing that the Sleepless weren't actually "better" than the Sleepers, yet along come the Supers, who easily see the flaws in their parents' thinking and appear to be better, more moral people simply because they are subtler, more far-reaching thinkers. Huh? Where does the author really stand here? And the lucid dreaming plot line seemed too little, too late. I couldn't help wondering why none of these geniuses had thought of the possible benefits of dreaming 300 pages ago.

I did enjoy how the book highlighted the relationships between women. Leisha's bond with Alice was intriguing and ultimately mysterious. Were we supposed to believe they had a psychic connection? I wasn't sure. It made me laugh to think of Leisha getting a bouquet of flowers EVERY DAY from her sister – the thoughtfulness that was still somehow aggressive read true to me. And though I was frustrated by Leisha's dryly rational personality and her fear of emotion, I was relieved that her epiphany and optimism at the end of the book was unconnected to a romance.

In sum, I found that despite its flaws the book did engage me and made me want to argue with it, which is a measure of success, I suppose. Now it's time to go home, enjoy some "unproductive" music or television, and eventually drift off to sleep – a refreshing habit I would never want to do without!

-----
Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
http://homepages.together.net/~jdawley/
Listening to: Radiohead – Amnesiac
"...the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected;
the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and
servilities of the other." Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas



Date: Wed, 1 Aug 2001 21:57:11 -0400
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: [*FSF-L*] BDG: Always Coming Home
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

I've been toting Always Coming Home everywhere for a couple of weeks, thinking about what to say about it. It's hard to decide where to begin. This book is a perfect example of what Le Guin was talking about in her essay "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction" (from Dancing at the Edge of the World):
     "I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape
     of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words
     hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding
     things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.
     [...] Science fiction properly conceived, like all serious fiction,
     however funny, is a way of trying to describe what is in fact going
     on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything
     else in this vast sack, this belly of the universe, this womb of
     things to be and tomb of things that were, this unending story."
This essay was published the year after Always Coming Home. Probably not a coincidence. So, in the spirit of Le Guin, I will throw together a "carrier bag" of critical comments about the book.

What struck me most strongly about Stone Telling's story was that it wasn't a happy tale. This is supposed to be a utopia, right? One could argue that Ayatyu's misery in The City serves merely to highlight how ideal her life in Sinshan had been and would be, once she returned. But rereading it for the first time in 15 years, I realized that there is a lot more ambiguity to it than that. North Owl (this woman had too many names!) went off with her father because she was already miserable, and had been so for years. Tensions within her family and ridicule from other children ("half-House") made her feel like an outsider, and as a consequence she latched onto her father more tightly than she should have when he finally appeared. And her "illness", as she called it, was tied to her mother's "illness", and the "illness" of the Warrior and Lamb Cults, which in turn were tied, indirectly, to the Condor themselves. The village of Sinshan, though in many ways beautiful and harmonious, does not come across as the greatest place to live in this story. At one point, Stone Telling comments on the ignorance of people who live in small towns; in the post script to her story, "About a Meeting Concerning the Warriors", Bear Man writes:
     "We avoid talking about sickness when feeling well, but that is
     superstition, after all. Looking mindfully at the things that were
     talked about at the meeting, I have come to think that the sickness of
     Man is like the mutating viruses and the toxins: there will always be
     some form of it about, or brought in from elsewhere by people moving
     and travelling, and there will always be the risk of infection. What
     those sick with it said is true: It is a sickness of our being human,
     a fearful one. It would be unwise in us to forget the Warriors and
     the words spoken at Cottonwood Flats, lest it need all be done and
     said again." (p. 386, Harper & Row edition)
There is tension here, between the general lack of a historical sense in the Valley and the occasional realization by individuals that the study of history and education in general are crucial for avoiding "illness". To study history, Woman Coming Home visits Telina-na, a place of learning, "a town like a bunch of grapes, like a cock pheasant, rich, elaborate, amazing, beautiful." (p. 12) This is the friendly face of the city; the Condor's City is the unfriendly face. I find this tension in much of Le Guin's fiction. The city as freedom and intellectual challenge vs. the village as peer pressure and ignorance. The village as spiritual wisdom and harmony with the land vs. the city as alienation and rapacious consumption. Heyiya-if reversals, maybe?

This isn't to say that I don't think Le Guin feels the Valley is a utopia. It is, no question about it. But it is not a society in stasis. I was struck, this time, by the emphasis on how customs differ from town to town and from past to present. "The Trouble with the Cotton People" in the "Four Histories" section was particularly intriguing. In the course of that story it becomes clear that there are many, many groups of people with distinct languages and customs living along the coast of what used to be California. The Kesh are only one such group. There are occasional "wars" (I found it interesting how this word as it was used seemed to mean something closer to "skirmish" or "feud" than "war" in Modern English), but for the most part people coexist peacefully, trading goods and using TOK, the universal pidgin of the coast (and perhaps the entire world), to communicate where other language fails. The keys to this relative harmony seem to be: 1) low population density, 2) a nearly universal communication tool. This is where the science fiction comes in.

Danny Yee criticizes Le Guin for her "machina ex machina" device of the City of Mind. I don't think this is a valid criticism. This is a work of science fiction, not an anthropological monograph on a historical Native American culture (no matter how much it resembles one). A self-sustaining artificial intelligence is a trope in many, many science fiction works. To say that it doesn't belong in this story is to ignore the story Le Guin is telling. Ditto for his complaint about "possible genetic changes in 'human nature'." The way he has phrased it makes it sound like humanity has magically evolved into a more peaceful species. What Le Guin actually says is:
     "Is it possible that the genetic changes worked by the residues of the
     Industrial Era upon the human race, which I saw as disastrous -- low
     birth rate, short life expectancy, high incidence of crippling
     congenital disease -- had a reverse side also? Is it possible that
     natural selection had had time to work in social, as well as physical
     and intellectual terms? (pp. 380-1)
I took this to mean that humanity, faced with a new set of circumstances, had to change its habits or perish in short order. Which isn't the same as waving a wand and saying that humanity has been genetically improved to become more peaceful. It strikes me as similar to the setup in The Dispossessed: Anarres, the barren, dry planet, is the setting for the cooperative anarchist society; Urras, the fertile paradise, harbors an unbalanced, oppressive regime. Funny how Le Guin's take on utopia seems the opposite of the traditional "land of plenty"; to her, scarcity is what makes people cooperate. (I have a vague memory that this might not be so in The Word for World Is Forest, however.)

This bag is getting quite full enough. But I do want to note some things I very much liked about the book:

* The holidays based on solar and lunar cycles. As an atheist who nevertheless feels the pull of the seasons, I have long found particular meaning in the winter solstice. It gets very dark in Vermont in December.

* The respect accorded to old people in the Valley, and the recognition of the fact that they are not always "well-behaved". I loved Stone Telling's offhand comment in the first section of her story: "My grandmother got drunk and disorderly, and spent the night in the barns, gambling."

* The recognition of the fact that children are not "pure" creatures, "innocent" of sexuality; the celebration and acceptance of both sex and abstinence.

Some things I wondered:

* What happened to the Condor? They seem to have suffered a cultural collapse and completely disappeared. Were refugees taken in by other groups or did they just disappear into a hole in the air?

* How is the Kesh's focus on "sickness" different from the Condor's focus on "impurity"? Isn't the first as likely to be harmful as the second?

That's it for now. Here are a couple of interesting links I found. Put copies in your carrier bags if you want to. Heya.

Green Thoughts Asleep and the Fury of Dreams: Native Shading in the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin
Time Spreading, by David Kolb

-----
Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
http://homepages.together.net/~jdawley/
Listening to: Massive Attack – Mezzanine
"...the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected;
the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and
servilities of the other." Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas



Date: Mon, 6 Aug 2001 20:31:05 -0400
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] BDG: Always Coming Home
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

Thanks for your lengthy and thoughtful reply, Jenn. And thanks for the kind comments, Nike.

At 05:35 PM 8/2/01 +1200, Jenn Martin wrote:
>The essay that has always struck me most in relation to Always Coming Home
>has been 'A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Very Cold Place to Be'.

Yes, I agree that this essay is a very illuminating companion piece to Always Coming Home. In a way it can be read as the challenge to which ACH, published three years later, is the reply. But is that reply really a "yin utopia"? The Kesh do seem to match Levi-Strauss's description of a "cold", self-limiting society:
     The way in which they exploit the environment guarantees them a modest
     standard of living as well as the conservation of natural resources.
     Though various, their rules of marriage reveal to the demographer's
     eye a common function; to set the fertility rate very low, and to keep
     it constant. Finally, a political life based upon consent, and
     admitting of no decisions but those arrived at unanimously, would seem
     designed to preclude the possibility of calling on that driving force
     of collective life which takes advantage of the contrast between power
     and opposition, majority and minority, exploiter and exploited. (p. 91)
And the Condor's "hot" society is indeed destroyed by "Heaven the Equalizer" by the end of Stone Telling's story. But this take on ACH brings me to a thought I had about the book that I couldn't really articulate last time.

Can a yin utopia be said to be better or more healthy than a yang utopia? Both, by definition, are out of balance. (Perhaps I am confusing Le Guin's terminology, and she doesn't equate "cold" with "yin", but I don't think so.) Yin is commonly thought of as the feminine principle, and indeed the Valley is a place where the traditional feminine is privileged, lineage is matrilineal and families are matrilocal. Sex roles are not policed as they are now, but generally the behavior of men and women is strikingly similar to our current norms: women are more domestic and rooted, whereas the men are more restless and sexually promiscuous. But the prestige scale has been tipped the other way, so that traditional female activities are afforded a respect and cultural centrality that is unknown today. It must be another conscious tension on Le Guin's part that, as a downside to this system, men are subtly discriminated against. Milk, one of Flicker's mentors in the life story "The Visionary", is contemptuous of her colleague Tarweed simply because he is a man and she doesn't think he knows his "place" (in this case, the woods and fields, rather than the heyimas). In defense of Tarweed, Flicker exclaims, "Even if he is a man he thinks like a woman!" A somewhat backhanded compliment that ties in with the fact that there are a number of "woman-living men" mentioned in the text, but as far as I could see, no "man-living women". What woman in this society would want to be seen as a man?

This is a version of "difference feminism" that in much fantasy is tied to the worship of a goddess figure, but in ACH the closest we come to that is a female Coyote, rather than the traditional male version. And Coyote, though she is reputed to have birthed humanity in various creation stories, is far from a traditional earth mother. I am grateful for this. There is plenty of room to imagine that this casual sexism will be addressed and dealt with, hopefully before a situation like that in "The Matter of Seggri" develops. Out of curiosity, Jenn, have you read this story? In some ways I think it is a thought-experiment exaggeration of the sex roles in Always Coming Home. I found it very thought-provoking and powerful.

I guess I am coming back to what Jenn said in her message: "There is the tension between thinking you have found utopia and realising that the Kesh are like any society, that being human -is- a sickness." Le Guin is idealistic but also realistic. She believes that it is possible to address the inequalities of human society, but that "human nature" may in fact be constant in certain ways. We must always remain vigilant and look for the balance. Which to my mind would be more "warm" than "cold", but there's plenty of room in this bag for disagreement.

-----
Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
http://homepages.together.net/~jdawley/
Listening to: Massive Attack – Mezzanine
"...the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected;
the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and
servilities of the other." Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas



Date: Wed, 22 Aug 2001 19:50:16 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: [*FSF-L*] BDG: Brain Plague
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

I was surprised at how light and fun Brain Plague turned out to be, particularly in contrast to A Door Into Ocean, the only other Slonczewski I have read. The micros were delightful and I kept laughing out loud at unexpected humor. I do wonder, though, if the overall plot and world-building suffered in comparison.

Things that didn't make sense to me:

Chrys does not act like a starving artist. She is poor enough that she can't pay her rent, even in an unsavory neighborhood, yet she doesn't appear to have considered getting a job to pay the bills (apart from a few idle speculations about becoming someone's mistress). She also doesn't seem to have thought about artistically portraying anything apart from erupting volcanoes. Might that have something to do with her slow sales? Hm. It takes the Eleutheria colony to clue her in that maybe she should try something else. Her subsequent rise to fame and fortune is gob-smackingly quick, yet she hardly seems to notice, apart from all the extra work she has to do. She's either incorruptible or kind of dense, I'm not sure which.

The brain plague is a public health disaster, yet no one seems to be doing much about it. A few clinics and bleeding hearts like Daeren to cover an entire city. Where is the infrastructure?

Endless Light is more organized than is plausible. Given the difference in scale between human and micro response time, life time and size it makes no sense that populations of billions and billions (as Carl Sagan would say), living in separate hosts worlds apart could coordinate their agendas as well as they do.

The Master micro lets Daeren and Chrys go in exchange for her portrait. That is just silly. It reminds me of a list that was compiled on Usenet: What Not to Do if You Ever Become the Evil Overlord.

How are the carriers' "people" reconciled to the deaths of all the master refugees at the end of the book? They are upset enough to drive Daeren to Endless Light, but they suddenly calm down for the happy ending.

Things that were just plain annoying
:

Chrys tripping on uneven ground while running away from danger.

The random insertion of the word "like" into Chrys' sentences.

As soon as the Chrys/Daeren romance is consummated, Chrys' breasts and hair come to the forefront and her artificially acquired muscles are no longer mentioned. And she suddenly decides she wants to have children.

Things that I liked very much:

The concern with the less fortunate. Chrys takes up volunteer work in a soup kitchen, and Eleutheria's upcoming architectural marvel will be a housing complex in the Underworld. The economic thinking is simplistic, but well meant.

The fluidity of sex and gender. Sex changes are common. And people whose romantic tastes are confined to a single sex are thought of as primitive! I would have liked a little more background on this cultural phenomenon.

The diversity of the micros. Every population has its malcontents. Not even Chrys, the "God of Mercy", is immune.

The humor. Early on, Pearl's window port comes loose and starts floating around in her eyeball. The timing of it is hilarious somehow. And the trend continues. At the end of chapter one, we learn that Chrys, who we already know is obsessed with volcanoes, has a volcano alarm clock, which she sets to explode at seven in the morning. It's the punch line to the entire chapter. The micros, when they are introduced, are charming. Their arguments, the cranky opposition of Rose, the perversions of Jonquil, the immortalization of Fern in the first micro portrait, all are wonderful, imaginative fun. And I loved the fact that Zircon, unknowingly colonized, is not infected with the dreaded brain plague, but with a host of accountants: "They keep asking me to let them manage my money, which would be great if I had any. Then they tell me I'm the lord of creation." Great stuff.

----------

In sum, I thought Brain Plague wasn't particularly deep, but it sure kept me amused. I am happy to have read it and will recommend it to friends. Can anyone tell me how Slonczewski's other books in this universe (Daughter of Elysium, The Children Star) compare?

-----
Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
http://homepages.together.net/~jdawley/
Listening to: Massive Attack – Mezzanine
"...the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected;
the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and
servilities of the other." Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas



Date: Thu, 23 Aug 2001 16:32:39 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: [*FSF-L*] BDG: Brain Plague
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

Misha Bernard asked:
>When the carrier group Chrys is introduced into campaign for micro rights
>(at least some of them- Selenite seems to come around some toward the end,
>but probably doesn't support micro rights, just carriers' rights to have
>them), what sorts of rights can they be asking to implement while the
>'bad' micros are still kidnapping hosts? How will justice be implemented
>for the kidnapping and/or death of host bodies by micros? Will carriers'
>losses be subsumed under whether 'they asked for it' by having micros
>willingly? Could anyone ever prove otherwise?

And Petra Mayerhofer replied:
>A Magna Charta for micros? No one can be sentenced to death without a jury
>of one's peers? That might be tough for the carrier that provides the
>environment. If we turn it around and apply it to ourselves: Earth or the
>planetary ecosystems have no say when we "hurt" it. Imagine, Earth would
>kill people off for minor offenses to make a point (like Selenite)!

I wonder about this, too. It seems to me that any micro rights movement will have to be a collaboration between humans and micros. It is impossible for a human to keep tabs on the micro activity in her own head without representatives like Fern, Aster, or Fireweed to inform her. And humans and micros are so different in their perceptions of time that no human could ever police her own micro population – she MUST rely on the ability of the micros to police themselves. Though, of course, she has the power to execute her entire population of "people" within a few minutes.

This scenario reminds me of one of Octavia Butler's favorite themes – the subjugation of one intelligent species to another's biological imperatives. In "Bloodchild", the Tlic need to lay their eggs in human hosts; in the Xenogenesis series, the Oankali need the genetic material of humans to continue to evolve. In both cases, humans are controlled like precious natural resources while at the same time being recognized as the intellectual peers of their captors; a darkly ambivalent mutual exploitation results. Slonczewski's approach is lighthearted in comparison, but the power dynamic between humans and micros is similarly problematic. Micros absolutely need humans (and arsenic) to survive, and have the means to subjugate their hosts if they think it necessary. But humans can commit genocide at any time. It's an explosive situation that doesn't seem to be taken very seriously by most humans in the book. Nor, indeed, by the author. Chrys' work "Mourners at an Execution" and her micros' dubbing of Selenite as "The Deathlord" and Dr. Sartorius as "The Terminator" are more like black jokes than serious commentary. Yet the issues are there.

Perhaps there is another book in the works? I'd be interested to see Slonczewski explore "micro rights" in more depth.

By the way, I found a great web page that provides links to background material for Brain Plague. It's at:

http://www2.kenyon.edu/depts/biology/slonc/bio3/bp-links.htm

-----
Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
http://homepages.together.net/~jdawley/
Listening to: Massive Attack – Mezzanine
"...the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected;
the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and
servilities of the other." Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas



Date: Wed, 5 Dec 2001 23:14:52 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: [*FSF-L*] BDG: War for the Oaks
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

This message is very, very long. I apologize to any who find me tedious. My excuse is that I absolutely love this book.

Terri asked:
>A few questions... Did you find the human characters, the Seelie,
>and Unseelie believable?

In general, yes. However, it did seem a little strange that it was so easy for Eddi and the other human characters to come to grips with the existence of Faerie beings and magic. None of them seriously wondered if they were going crazy? One phouka transformation and it all made sense suddenly? Not likely. But I didn't really care, because that level of psychological realism didn't seem to be the point of the book. What bothered me a little more was the question of why the Seelie and Unseelie Courts decided to bind mortals so they could kill one another. If Eddi's duel with the Dark Queen served the same purpose, couldn't they have arranged something like it before there were so many deaths? I wonder if this is what they call a "maguffin"? A situation that drives the plot, but turns out to be much less interesting or comprehensible than other elements of the story?

>Who did you consider to be the most likable?

The phouka, of course. Clever, funny, a unique fashion sense. And there's something weirdly appealing about a man with no name.

>The most despicable?

Stuart was the most pathetically nasty, but I didn't feel I knew him well enough to despise him. And I give him extra credit for coming up with a hilariously bad band name: InKline Plain.

>How did you feel about the various battle scenes?

They seemed a bit too brief. Like they were supposed to convey a "war is hell" feeling, but didn't have enough heft to pull it off. But once again, to go into it too much would have skewed the tone of the book, I think.

>Did others get the feeling War for the Oaks had a bit of an anti war
>statement to it?

I suppose so, but I don't feel it was that important in the scheme of things.

So what was important to me? A lot, actually. There's a unique chemistry in this book that makes it, at least for me, a revelatory, life-affirming, read again and again experience. I see the clunky bits, but because War for the Oaks does some other things so well, I can overlook the weaknesses.

The City. I once received a survey that asked, "What is most important to you: what you are doing, who you're with, or where you are?" I thought it was a bizarre question, but upon reflection realized that I could actually answer it – I'm a "where" person. The place I live informs my sense of self in a profound way that I don't fully understand, but want to understand, perhaps after a life's work of bonding with and truly knowing a single landscape, a single town. When I read War for the Oaks, I could feel the author's bond with Minneapolis in her descriptions of the streets, the clubs, the rivers and lakes. She's no tourist – she knows and loves that city, and not in a falsely nostalgic or sentimental way. That's rare, and valuable, to me.

The Music. Where would we be without it? And why don't writers talk about it more? Maybe they just don't have the experience, don't know the words. Maybe they just aren't as affected by music as I am. Or maybe I'm not reading the right books. In any case, I love Bull's focus on music. The bad gig at the beginning, the auditions, the exhilaration of playing with an outstanding band, even the set lists and chapter names (did everyone notice that they were all song titles?). And the account of the final performance came about as close, visually, to describing the transcendent experience some songs and performances can be as I've ever read.

Of course, it can't hurt that Bull and I like some of the same music. Boiled in Lead is a real band, in case anyone is curious. I finally ordered their collection "Alloy" a few months ago and loved it. And Emma Bull has her own band, The Flash Girls, which, though pretty much history, did come out with a new CD recently (before she broke her elbows). Good stuff.

The Friends. Eddi's final victory would be impossible without them. Carla and Dan are the loyal support system that anchors Eddi in this world, and damn fine musicians to boot. But there are three special friendships that stand out for me.

Eddi's relationship with Willy is first played as swept-off-your-feet romance, but in surprisingly short order that's over with and they move on to something more interesting. Over the years I've heard a lot of jokes about people breaking up and speaking the deadly words, "We can still be friends." Willy even makes one. But in my experience friendship and romance are a lot more closely tied than the conventional wisdom would have it, and it really is possible for a relationship to change from one to the other (in either direction) or be some weird combination of the two. I liked seeing that in this book, and it made Willy's death all the more sad.

Hedge is a really odd fellow, and his connection with Eddi intrigued me. In a way, Eddi is his mentor. She encourages him, makes him feel safe, and slowly draws him out of his apathetic sullen-teenager persona. But he has his own power too. I love the descriptions of his bass-playing. Bass is the foundation that most rock music is built on, the little-appreciated but crucial instrument that keeps the groove on. And Hedge is a fey embodiment of that principle. He's not showy, but without him on her side, Eddi can't win.

And then there's Hairy Meg, the brownie. So many members of the Seelie Court are described as beautiful, but Meg is the opposite. She's "profoundly ugly", and one of the most valuable friends Eddi could make. She could have come across as a laughable eccentric, but instead she has dignity (despite lack of clothes), she's powerful, and she's profoundly respected, even among the high-born Sidhe. A truly wonderful crone.

The Romance. This is the book's biggest strength. I won't mince words – this is my favorite romance ever. We've argued before on this list about the worth of the romance genre. For my part, I have never read (or wanted to read) a Harlequin, but have always been interested in the conventions and execution of romance elements in the books I have read. It's very easy for an author to put a foot wrong (at least in my estimation), to be too predictable or too sudden, too boring, too pornographic, or too sexist. War for the Oaks makes none of those mistakes.

The phouka is Good Company from the beginning, for the reader, if not Eddi. Eddi's interlude with Willy poses a strong contrast to her relationship with the phouka and adds more spice and complication to the whole. There's plenty of buildup, just as in real life. (People don't suddenly realize they are attracted to one another, then immediately fall into one another's arms. They check each other out first.) There's no shame about the attraction or the sex; they're both ready, whole-hearted and loving. The level of tension and detail is perfect. And, unusually, the point of view is entirely Eddi's as actor and observer. It never ceases to amaze me how romantic scenes, often written by women, treat the viewpoint characters (usually also women) as objects, to be acted upon by the male principle. Maybe I am in the tiny minority and I just don't know it, but this has always frustrated me. At times, when the strangely common rape imagery makes an appearance, it really pisses me off. This book presents a healthy heterosexual alternative. It's not man vs. woman. It's not man making woman whole. The relationship isn't presented as being about NEEDS at all. It's about two people who genuinely respect each other, enjoy one another's company tremendously, and get to have great sex into the happily ever after. Wish fulfillment? Sure thing. And I love it.

What about you?

-----
Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
http://homepages.together.net/~jdawley/
Listening to: Tool – Lateralus
"...the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected;
the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and
servilities of the other." Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas



Date: Thu, 27 Dec 2001 20:16:40 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] BDG: War for the Oaks
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

The month is nearly over, but I've been wanting to respond to a couple of messages in this discussion for weeks. Now I have time, so here goes...

At 02:03 PM 12/7/01 -0500, Dave Belden wrote:
>It would take a musician to write this well about making music, and
>how often have I read fiction that does that this well, or half
>this well, with any kind of music? In fact, I'd like people to name
>any novel that competes.

I second Diane's recommendation of McCaffrey's Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. The main character of those books needs to make music so badly that she is willing to risk corporal punishment and ostracism to do it – very inspiring for teenagers trying to find some way to remain true to themselves. I agree also about Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, but more about that in another message. Another children's book I remember being very moved by was Virginia Euwer Wolff's The Mozart Season, an account of a few months in the life of a 12-year-old violinist. Adult books I can think of include Charles de Lint's The Little Country and... not much else. Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and Donald Keller edited an anthology of stories with musical elements entitled The Horns of Elfland, but I have not read it.

>War For The Oaks does not have as completely new a set of characters and
>concepts as Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, which I find to be the
>most inventive and exciting fantasy I've read in a very long time. It isn't
>as ambitious in the ideas it raises. It does after all deal with the trad
>faerie figures. But it's in there with the best of the books that are
>remaking what fantasy is. I suppose this connects with magic realism...

I love "His Dark Materials"! I agree, it's much more philosophical and daring than War for the Oaks, but then again, I think they were trying for very different things. Bull's book strikes me as a love letter to Minneapolis, a statement about the power of music, and a romance all wrapped up in a realistic novel masquerading as a fantasy. To me, the fantasy elements seem forced, but the rest of it is done so well that the uneasy fit doesn't bother me. In this way, it reminds me strongly of Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, another novel I love (which, incidentally, is also set in Minnesota – what is it about that state? maybe I should visit). By contrast, Pullman takes on the Anglican church and oppressive Christianity in general – he, in the spirit of Blake, is "of the Devil's party", republican (in the old sense), pro-sex, feminist, a radical in many ways. But I get the sense that he is spoiling for a fight in a way that has perhaps harmed his fiction. I was a bit disappointed in The Amber Spyglass, though I certainly respect it. What do you think of it?

>One nitpick. If this is trad European paganism transported to America, what
>happened to the other trad cultures now in America? The band has a black
>guy, but where are the African pagan spiritfolk? The Native American spirit
>people? Too complicated, maybe, to do it, to combine pantheons? It's
>Minneapolis, after all, not New Orleans? It would have worked better for me,
>all the same, if it had been set in Glasgow, for that reason -- not that
>Scotland lacks its immigrants now either...

This is an interesting question. The only Native American character I remember in the book was the sassy girl who lived next door to the motorcycle salesman. Maybe it was intentional on Bull's part? An indication of how few indigenous people are left in North America? Quite a number of fantasy books and computer games I've seen have incorporated the principle that the fewer believers a particular god can claim, the less powerful and well known that god will be. This could be a sad statement about genocide and European colonialism ...or it could be an oversight on the author's part.

In any case, as others have mentioned, Bone Dance and American Gods take different approaches to similar material, as do Charles de Lint's Moonheart and Terri Windling's The Wood Wife. Another interesting take on urban North American gods (in this case, orisha) is Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring, set in a future Toronto.

Thanks for a thoughtful message!

-----
Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
http://homepages.together.net/~jdawley/
Listening to: A Perfect Circle – Mer de Noms
"I've built my white picket fence around the Now,
with a commanding view of the Soon-to-Be." – The Tick



Date: Fri, 28 Dec 2001 15:36:05 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: [*FSF-L*] BDG: War for the Oaks & Very Far Away from Anywhere Else
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

At 06:24 PM 12/11/01 +0100, Diane Severson wrote:
>I just remembered a pretty corny young adult
>romance that Ursula LeGuin wrote, "Very Far From Anywhere
>Else". The way she writes about the girl's relationship to music
>rings very true for me. That shows what a fabulous writer LeGuin
>is, because I don't think she is a musician.

This is another of my very favorite books. I've read it more times than any other Le Guin book, which is saying something, as she's one of my favorite authors, and my shelves are laden with her works. I'd be interested to hear why you thought it was corny. In my opinion, it's the farthest thing from it! It's written in the first person, in a conversational style that's quite different from Le Guin's usual approach, but that I think works marvelously to convey the point of view of a bright, funny seventeen year old boy. Like many teenagers, he feels alienated from his parents and most of his peers. His friendship with the young violinist is a romance; it is also a place where he can work out some of the doubts and existential angst he faces as he ends high school and wonders what to do with the rest of his life.

It's a "coming of age" story, but it deals with the same issues of balance and right action as many of Le Guin's other works. The main character's crisis, in fact, is his forcing of the friendship into a "Man Plus Woman Equals Sex" model, a model that most romances take for granted. Their relationship is nearly ended because of it. So in a way, this book is an anti-romance. But once things are brought back into balance, they do become a romantic couple. Perhaps the right term for it is a revisionist romance. It says some important things about the necessity of true friendship and the recognition of a common humanity beyond gender in romance. But I think it's interesting that the main character's moment of crisis is presented explicitly in sexual terms – he "loses himself", "drowns" in arousal – and this is a bad thing. In contrast, when Eddi is with the phouka, "her thoughts were blurred and broken [...] all her senses failed in light and darkness" – and this is a very good thing.

Very Far Away from Anywhere Else is a young adult book, which might explain the approach to sexuality. But I've found that almost all of Le Guin's work exhibits this same tension. She clearly approves of romance, but it is usually romance drained of any real sexual element. It is about mind and spirit, not body. As a feminist, I understand suspicion about the role of sexuality and the possibility of objectification in male/female relations. Le Guin has written some very moving material about these issues. But even when she is trying to be positive about sexuality, I often feel that she doesn't whole-heartedly believe in what she is doing.

War for the Oaks is a very different beast, and as I said before, that's one of the things I like about it so much. Eddi's sex life is perhaps unrealistically rewarding and free of problems (though she's angry at Willy when she learns that he used his faerie mojo on her, she never appears to regret their tryst), but it's a rare and refreshing portrayal in a sea of literature that often shows sexuality to be dangerous or degrading for women.

-----
Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
http://homepages.together.net/~jdawley/
Listening to: A Perfect Circle – Mer de Noms
"I've built my white picket fence around the Now,
with a commanding view of the Soon-to-Be." – The Tick


Date: Tue, 8 Jan 2002 19:36:54 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] BDG: A Woman's Liberation
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

At 08:40 PM 1/6/02 -0800, Maryelizabeth wrote:
>Were there FEMSF members who looked at the listed stories and read them
>from other sources, rather than obtaining the collection?

Six of the ten stories are included in anthologies I already own (and two have been expanded into novels that I also own), so it didn't really make sense to buy the book. I admit I spent some time in the bookstore "browsing" the introduction and the other stories this afternoon.

>Did readers feel the stories were all suited to the stated tone /
>intention of the collection?

To tell you the truth, I am not sure what the intention of the collection was. There have been other, better, anthologies of SF by women (e.g. the two-volume "Women of Wonder", edited by Pamela Sargent), and there's a lot out there that is more explicitly feminist. Willis' introduction does nothing to explain why the book exists or why the individual stories were chosen (apart from being originally published in Asimov's or Analog).

>Were there any stories you would not have
>included? Are there stories from this area you would have preferred to
>see included instead?

The only story I objected to was Willis' own "Even the Queen". I found it insulting to just about everyone and thought it said nothing of interest about menstruation, its ostensible theme. Then again, I find Willis' "humor" annoying and utterly unfunny and couldn't get beyond the first 20 pages of To Say Nothing of the Dog, while others find her a laugh riot, so maybe I'm not the best judge.

As far as what was missing... there is so much that could have been substituted. Suzy Charnas, Maureen McHugh, Karen Joy Fowler, Kate Wilhelm, and Alice Sheldon (as Raccoona Sheldon) have all published stories in Asimov's or Analog that, in my opinion, are superior to the Kress, Willis, Zettel, MacLean and McCaffrey. But once again, there's the question of why the editors picked what they picked. Given the tone of the introduction, it appears they wanted to avoid the "feminist 'women's issues' ghetto" by including a generous portion of heroic adventure stories – but then they named the collection A Woman's Liberation, after the most explicitly feminist story in it! I am baffled! Where do they stand, anyway?

>Did you feel the collection was truly a "feminist SF" collection, or
>rather a "womanist" SF collection?

They are feminist stories in that many of them take for granted female strength and centrality. Women are (or were, in these often post-catastrophe stories) doctors, lawyers, scientists, or academics, and take responsibility in large or small ways for changing the world around them. Except for the Le Guin story, sexism is either not present at all or is mentioned in passing rather than being dealt with head-on. In many cases, I believe these stories are built on the ground broken by earlier feminist authors, as Willis acknowledges in her note at the beginning of the collection. So I guess I would call the collection "second generation feminist SF", though the Willis story particularly takes a somewhat contrary position to the women's movement.

>Did you read the stories in the order printed in the book? If not, what
>method did you use? Favorite authors? Chronology of publication? More or
>less familiar stories?

I read the unfamiliar stories first, then re-read the others pretty much at random.

>Did you read the collection as a whole in a short period of time, or
>gradually, over a more extended time period?

I took a couple of days to read through it.

>Which situations and / or characters lingered in your consciousness?
>Why?

Well, this requires a little digging through the memory banks... I first read "Rachel in Love" in a bookstore in Harvard Square over ten years ago. I had intended to skim it, but was sucked in and gripped till the final page. Murphy's central idea, of a teenage girl's mind fused with a chimpanzee's body, had incredible metaphorical resonance for me (alienation from one's own body, people treating you a certain way because of how you look, rather than who you are), and the concrete detail of the animal research center was depressingly realistic. It pushed my buttons, and still does.

S.N. Dyer's "The July Ward" was new to me. I love reading about the lived-in details of unfamiliar jobs or environments – too often it's clear that an author has slapped a description together from a few imperfectly understood reference works. Though I'd never read anything by Dyer before, it was clear from this story that she knows her stuff, and has a sense of humor about it. I really enjoyed it.

"Speech Sounds" made a strong impression on me when I first read it in The Norton Book of Science Fiction. The bleakness, the death, and lack of sentimentality about it really shook my tree. Unfortunately, I think I have developed an allergy to Butler since then. I've reread this story a couple of times and find myself irritated by its assumption of a primal human (specifically male) violence, of a world where people wouldn't sort themselves out into "speakers" or "readers" and where gestural language is necessarily less complex than spoken. Grumble.

Le Guin's story, the seed of the collection, was the most emotional experience for me this time around. The early events, particularly, are unpredictable, but described with such clarity that they make perfect sense. The humanity, both bad and good, shines from the page. (The image of Walsu leaping "into her death, into her freedom" brings tears to my eyes as I think of it.) The story falters a bit at the end – to me it is not clear how Rakam's conflicted feelings about sexuality are resolved. For her to have found the Right Man at last seems like a bit of a cop out, though I like Havzhiva very much.

Now I am curious what other people liked. 'Fess up, folks! (And thanks to Diane and Maryelizabeth for your comments.)

-----
Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
http://homepages.together.net/~jdawley/
Listening to: A Perfect Circle – Mer de Noms
"I've built my white picket fence around the Now,
with a commanding view of the Soon-to-Be." – The Tick



Date: Fri, 18 Jan 2002 20:35:27 -0600
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] BDG: A Woman's Liberation
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

At 08:21 PM 1/17/02 +0800, Carol wrote:
>I read the book from beginning to end late at night over about 3 days. The
>story I found most intriguing was Vonda N McIntyre's, _Of Mist, and Grass,
>and Sand_. Is this part of a novel because it seems unfinished?
> I was left asking "What happened to these people?"

As Sandy Cronin pointed out, this story became the first chapter of Dreamsnake. I recommend the full novel. Snake's abilities and training as a healer are developed much more and the variety of people and places she encounters is fascinating. I don't think I'm revealing much by saying that it becomes clear that sometime in the distant past the Earth was irradiated by a nuclear war, suffered environmental collapse, and is now in danger of contamination by extraterrestrial life forms. The surface is a wreck, and is only sparsely populated by people whose knowledge of their own history is fragmentary at best. Still, it comes across as preferable to the insular underground city, Center, which though technologically advanced is inbred and wracked with political struggles. McIntyre wrote another novel, The Exile Waiting that is set in the city. It is really strange! (and out of print, though copies can be bought directly from the author through Basement Full of Books)

>I guess in _Even the Queen_ Connie Willis was attempting to depict a future
>where clever women could control their bodily functions, while the
>Cyclists, not knowing what they were in for, opted to return to a more
>_natural_ state. I don't think the story suits this anthology because, the
>idea that menstruation is a curse is more characteristic of the mindset
>that feminists are challenging, than of the preferred choice of liberated
>women. In this future the technology has evolved, but attitudes haven't:
>Women's bodily functions are still being seen as distasteful, inferior,
>abnormal. Certainly not liberating for me. And if one is going to pick on
>the ickiness of bodily functions why confine the ridicule to women's
>bodies? Why not suggest rectal shunts? Nasal shunts?

The introduction Willis wrote for this story in her collection Impossible Things sheds some light on this question:
     "I've gotten a bunch of flack recently for not writing about
     Women's Issues. You hear a lot of this kind of talk these
     days -- as if we were dogs and cats and parakeets instead of
     people, and had not only different things on our minds but
     different mental processes altogether.

     Shakespeare also gets flack, in his case for being a Dead White
     Elizabethan Male, which apparently limits him to addressing only
     Dead White Elizabethan Male Issues. (Are there any? What on
     earth are they?)

     I hate this kind of literary demagoguery. Anyone who's ever read
     Shakespeare knows he had bigger fish to fry than Elizabethan
     Issues. He wrote about Human Issues -- fear and ambition and
     guilt and regret and love -- the issues that trouble and delight
     all of us, women included. And the only ones I want to write
     about.

     But, as I say, I've been getting all this flack, and I thought
     to myself, "Fine. They want me to write about Women's Issues.
     I'll write about Women's Issues. I'll write about *The* Women's
     Issue." So I did. I hope they're happy."
If the story comes across as insulting, it's no accident. It appears to have been conceived as a "take this and shove it" gesture from the get-go. I wonder who exactly these offensive demagogues were? Judging from the introduction to A Woman's Liberation, Willis seems to be harboring a grudge even ten years later!

-----
Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
http://homepages.together.net/~jdawley/
Listening to: A Perfect Circle – Mer de Noms
"I've built my white picket fence around the Now,
with a commanding view of the Soon-to-Be." – The Tick



Date: Sat, 19 Jan 2002 21:20:08 -0600
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] BDG: A Woman's Liberation
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

At 11:03 AM 1/18/02 -0500, Dave Belden wrote:
>I find I have a lot to say about Le Guin, so please be warned I'm posting a
>long piece here. If this is out of line, I'm sure someone will let me know!

Not at all – it's always a pleasure. I have, however, snipped mercilessly.

Re: the technology on Werel and Yeowe:
>This backwardness is unrealistic, any way you look at it. Some kind
>of technological reversion has happened, unexplained, to a very specific
>late 20th century tech level: she's unapologetic about this apparent flaw.
>Don't get me wrong: I loved the story, but it made me wonder just why
>she is using a far future science fiction setting to tell her story.

It all makes sense when you know that nearly all of Le Guin's SF is set in the milieu of the Ekumen, a sort of galactic federation of immense age whose base is on the planet Hain. Its mission is to locate, observe and perhaps make contact with planets that in the mists of prehistory were discovered and inhabited by humans then forgotten by the galaxy at large. In their isolation these populations may have developed skills unknown today (telepathy on Rocannon's world), may have radically altered biology (the androgynes of Gethen), or may have suffered total collapse and moved in a different social direction than any known on Earth (as in "The Matter of Seggri" or "Solitude"). Since the Ekumen are continually rediscovering worlds, Le Guin has great freedom to go in whatever direction she wants in a particular story, mixing and matching cultural attributes, technological advances or devolutions, and whatever biological variations she finds interesting. Given her oeuvre, the question at this point might be "why NOT set this story in a far future SF setting?"

In this case, as you noted, she couldn't have made her point about the arbitrariness of racial divisions without the particular setting she used, and that's an important part of the story. I think it's also interesting that her mixing-and-matching has resulted in a society (on Werel) that corresponds to our current level of technology but also practices slavery and possesses a fairly rigid caste system. Le Guin doesn't believe in straight-arrow progress technologically or socially. Just because Western Civilization has taken a certain path doesn't mean that another civilization will develop in the same way (unless it is colonized and forced to conform, but even then there is local history). By tweaking one or two elements of a real-world situation, Le Guin can come up with a whole new set of problems and a very different flavor from one story to the next, while connecting them on a macro level and making it clear that all this can coexist – it is all one enormously various reality.

There is a political element to this design. She is saying that there is no One Truth, there are only local truths and the numerous connections between them; there is no One True Economy – Hain itself is a sparsely populated planet scattered with agrarian villages, not a humming metropolitan center; there are no True Eternal Sex Roles, etc. This sounds like a critique of much SF that assumes the future will be white, male, and capitalist – and it is – but more fundamentally I think it is a critique of anthropological models that were discredited in her father's day but have continued to haunt the Western imagination.

>I'm interested in why writers who could and do make it in mainstream
>novels, turn to science fiction. I find that often their sf works
>are some of the best sf around: because they really have something to
>say of deep importance and this is the only way they can find to say
>it. Whereas a lot of sf is written be people who love the genre first,
>and then cast around for what to write about.

I'm curious what mainstream authors you mean when you say this. You seem to be (and please correct me if I am wrong) talking about Le Guin, Russell and Atwood – a diverse bunch whose approaches to the genre are quite different. Le Guin has always written realistic fiction, fantasy and SF and actively resists being pigeonholed. Russell is a newcomer with just two books to her credit, both SF. Can she be called a mainstream writer when she hasn't written any mainstream books? Or are you saying she could write mainstream if she wanted to? If so, couldn't the same be said of any number of SF authors? As for Atwood, I've heard that she denies The Handmaid's Tale is SF, preferring to call it a "dystopia". Presumably that avoids damaging genre associations and puts her in the company of acknowledged classics like 1984 and Brave New World. ‹shrug› As time goes on, I feel more and more that genre distinctions are largely about industry politics and marketing, not about the works themselves. Mainstream is assumed to be the genre anyone would write in if they could – there's more money, more prestige, etc – and SF is for untalented hacks and "message" fiction. I know that is not what you are saying, but I do wonder why you have placed these two genres (and I do think "mainstream" is a genre) in juxtaposition this way.

>I liked Rachel in Love as a fantasy story; I rooted for her and was happy
>there was a happy ending, but it didn't work for me as truth telling in any
>way. Was the purpose of putting the girl's brain in a chimp's body to
>reveal the horrific way we treat chimps in a new way? This is like those
>movies which are about an oppressed group but in order to give us a point
>of contact that we supposedly need, we see it all through a white
>American's eyes like City of Joy, where the best characters were the
>Calcutta slum dwellers, especially the rickshaw driver, but we had to see
>endless footage of Patrick Swayze instead. On animals: Why have humans as
>the measure of all things: can't we yet tell stories straight from the
>chimp's point of view?

I think I understand your criticism, but I agree with what Joy Martin said:

>"can we really [tell something from the chimp's point of view]? when 'we'
>are doing the telling? Even if we claim it's the chimps point of view,
>it's really us imagining that. Not a bad thing to try, but, if we think
>we're really thinking like the chimp, we are kidding ourselves."

It might be more immersive and mind-bending to read a story told from the point of view of a character that is alien, but too often I find that such characterizations are cut from whole swathes of stereotypes the author consciously or unconsciously harbors about real-life Others. SF (particularly sci-fi like Star Trek) often cuts corners and can be very offensive in its stereotyping. With sufficient research and thought I believe the pitfalls can be navigated, but I don't blame Murphy for, in a way, just calling the whole thing off by making her main character mentally half human-American-adolescent-girl to begin with.

I also think the story tried to do several different things, only one of which was to depict the treatment of chimps in American research labs. It trained a spotlight on the bizarre construct of romantic love and the piecemeal way young people learn about it. It metaphorically investigated the mind/body split and the ways it applies to adolescents whose bodies are changing and whose self-image is in constant flux. And it showed the process of discarding cherished ideals as a part of growing up. She really packed a lot in there, now that I think about it! Kudos to Pat Murphy.

Well, this message has gone on much too long. I'd best send it, and hope that it all makes some kind of sense...

-----
Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
http://homepages.together.net/~jdawley/
Listening to: A Perfect Circle – Mer de Noms
"I've built my white picket fence around the Now,
with a commanding view of the Soon-to-Be." – The Tick



Date: Mon, 28 Jan 2002 18:32:48 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] BDG: A Woman's Liberation
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

At 12:29 PM 1/22/02 -0500, Dave Belden wrote:
>I haven't read much anthropology. Would like to know more of what
>you are talking about: models that ascribe a certain kind of social
>structure too rigidly to a certain technological level?

Yes, that's part of it. A rigid hierarchy is another part of it. Lewis Henry Morgan's evolutionary stages of mankind (three levels each of Savagery and Barbarism, but only one of Civilization), were all keyed to a group's technology and assumed a natural progression from one to another -- from imperfection toward perfection -- somewhat like the religious concept of the Great Chain of Being. The first section of Le Guin's story "The Matter of Seggri", "Captain Aolao-olao's Report", strikes me as a humorous reference to this sort of early ethnography that blatantly valued a society more highly the closer it came to Western civilization and that made no attempt to understand how a society came to be the way it was.

Franz Boas' "historical particularism" was in part a critique of evolutionism. It focused on the unique history of each culture and held that most commonalities between groups were a result of cross-cultural exchange rather than metaphysical influence. Le Guin's father, A.L. Kroeber, was a disciple of Boas.

There are other theories out there (ethnoscience, structuralism, etc.) but I don't think I'm stretching when I say that historical particularism was the most influential "paradigm shift" of anthropology's short history, and that most work being done for the past fifty years assumes it as a base. Yet most popular culture is still firmly stuck in the world view of L.H. Morgan, assuming straight-line progression from primitive savagery toward some kind of perfection. Common terms like "pre-industrial" and "pre-literate" make it really obvious. I really appreciate that Le Guin offers an alternative to this sort of thinking.

>Is 'mainstream' a genre? Yes of course, in one way. I think I was half using
>it for something else, though, which is really indefensible of me, but I
>want a word for it: and really it is a word for what 'mainstream' claims to
>be but isn't: the novels that genuinely attempt - and succeed! - in
>illuminating the human condition. Of course we know that lots of sf does
>that (as does much detective or historical fiction) , even that in some ways
>sf deals with massive moral / philosophical / socio-political and other
>questions better than most 'mainstream' fiction which has narrowed its focus
>and scope disastrously since Dostoevesky, Balzac and co. I want best of the
>last century lists that ignore genre altogether. But look at the debates
>over The Lord of the Rings, and whether its literature or not? Ah!
>Literature. I was forgetting that word. How much feminist sf would anyone
>put under the heading: Literature? Or is that not a feminist question?

I have no objection to it, but I do think it's important to realize that some works of feminist sf may not make the cut as "literature" but are still important if what you care about is feminist sf itself. In fact, one could say that the very fact that a novel is feminist means that it will "illuminate the human condition" in a way that a non-feminist work will not. Depends where you stand. ;-)

In any case, there's quite a lot of feminist sf I would call "literature", even given the ambiguous politics of that term. Le Guin, Candas Jane Dorsey, Maureen McHugh, Molly Gloss, Suzy McKee Charnas, Karen Joy Fowler, Marge Piercy, and Joanna Russ have all written challenging, stylistically satisfying books -- and that's just off the top of my head. There's a lot more out there; exploring it is what this listserv is all about!

-----
Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
http://homepages.together.net/~jdawley/
Listening to: Jory Nash -- One Way Down
"I've built my white picket fence around the Now,
with a commanding view of the Soon-to-Be." -- The Tick



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