Postings to the Feminist Science Fiction On-Topic Mailing List, 21 February 2002 to 7 May 2002

Date: Fri, 22 Feb 2002 22:44:27 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: [*FSF-L*] BDG: Illicit Passage
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

I really enjoyed Illicit Passage. Like other people I found the book difficult at first. The profusion of documents and narrators was confusing and Annette was at her most annoying early on. As I read on, though, I became fascinated by the picture of Anastasia Union that was forming, the everyday details and very convincing bureaucratic effluvia of a isolated community under stress. And as the end approached the plot really came to the fore. The worsening conditions in New Town and Mangolia, the sudden quickening of the war and the protests, the spy-games and sabotage, all came to a climax at around the same time and were shown to interrelate in a plausible and compelling way. The denouement of Willing's investigation and Gillie's dramatic exit was, in a different fashion, just as gripping. I loved the review of the suspects on the council; it was almost like an Agatha Christie mystery, only better written. And it all ended with enough hope and ambiguity to keep me engaged. I almost want to read it again right away to see how many more references I can recognize knowing the whole story.

Gillie is the enigma around whom the entire story revolves. Annette and some of the other narrators comment on Gillie's love of life and how everything she did was in pursuit of fun. But I suspect this isn't completely true. There's an awful lot of her time left unaccounted for. At the very beginning of the book we learn that she wrote the first two volumes of "A History of the War", of which this is the third. It's possible she had a ball doing it (after all, we don't know what's in them), but I doubt it. I think Gillie had a serious streak little suspected by most of her associates. In some ways she reminds me of Dorothy Dunnett's hero Francis Crawford of Lymond, who is also seen almost exclusively from the outside by people who take him for trivial, decadent or immoral, but who is really a masterful actor with a genius-level intellect and a heart of gold (more or less). By the end of the Lymond Chronicles the reader knows Lymond very well because certain viewpoint characters have figured him out; the same isn't true for Gillie. She spends a lot of time with the computers, yet none of the other characters (except Dorman and Doll near the end, when it's really too late) seem particularly interested in what she does with them, so we never get the details. In a way, I like the ambiguity, because it focuses the narrative on the wider story rather than the heroic exploits of a single character. But at the same time, I want to know more.

Margaret wondered if Annette's cartoonish resentment of her sister and worship of authority figures might be a trick. I'm not sure. The publisher's note gives the impression that Annette was intimately involved with the editing and production of the entire book, not just her sections of it. If she were really so loyal to Security, how could she involve herself in a lawsuit against them? On the other hand, it seems plausible that all Annette really cared about was a bit of recognition and the possibility of getting ahead in the world, and she thought working on this book would do the trick. In her narrative she seems completely unaware of the contradictions in her own thought process, so it's possible she threw herself completely behind the book as a means of getting herself known without realizing that a reputation as a blinkered brown-nose might not be better than no reputation at all.

In any case, I love the irony that, for all Annette's complaints about Gillie not listening to her point of view, that computer in the basement waited years for her input! And I can see why. When she's not insufferable, she can be very insightful, even poetic. Her reports of conversations and descriptions of life in New Town provide the concrete detail and human angle that many of the other materials lack. My favorite passage in the whole book may be her account (p. 193-199) of nesting in a pile of blankets with her mother and sickly Col, arguing and telling stories and finally wailing a mournful hymn, little knowing that the war has just ended.

I love the fact that this book is about the experience of war "back home", and that the characters aren't all keeping stiff upper lips, thinking always of the war effort. Alice Nunn's speech gives great background on this approach: "My mother isn't usually one to question authority but I suspect, from her way of telling this story, that for once it may have entered her head that the war was being run by idiots." But these idiots can ruin the lives of others, and on a huge scale. The horror of Mangolia at the end was reminiscent of the holocaust. Elimination of undesirables. Secrecy. Mass graves. And the administration responsible for it all is the one Gillie helps to win the war! Of course, it's clear from Cuppard's memos that had they won the CCS might have been even worse. And OSET is far from coherent in its policies; by the end of the war the more oppressive elements are on their way out. But aren't the rest somewhat responsible for what happened? The situation is very complex, and I like how Nunn resists simplifying it, while still finding cause for hope.

In that light, I'd like to respond to something Dave said:
>Why does Gillie's out-of-left-field winning of the war by computer sleight
>of hand lead to the whole society opening up, so that while it is still
>unequal it becomes much more like Australia or America today --
>a place with much more equality of opportunity than before?

Gillie won the war all right, but I don't think that was the single cause of the changes on Anastasia Union. There were a number of factors, among them the investigation of the Council, the protests led by Leeanne, the escape of several people (including Seamus) from Mangolia, and the blurring of the boundary between spid and nowt brought about by their common hardships and the "lax policies" of people like Parkes (and I do think he made a difference, even before the end of the war). That's one of the book's arguments, I think: that every large-scale cultural change is the product of multiple overlapping causes almost unpredictably reinforcing each other or cancelling each other out. Part of Gillie's genius is that she can predict better than just about anyone how things will turn out if she tweaks here and here... Thank Peep that loathsome types like Cuppard weren't as smart!

I think I've said about enough for now, but I do have a few questions that some other people might be able to shed light on:
  • What happened to Rosenbery?
  • Where is Anastasia Union? On the moon? An asteroid?
  • The word "nowt" makes sense as a contraction of the words "New Town" and/or an echo of a dialectical form of the word "nothing". But where does the word "spid" come from?

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
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

Date: Thu, 21 Feb 2002 23:43:04 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] Illicit Passage
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

At 07:10 PM 2/21/02 +0000, Angela Barclay wrote:
>On. p. 236 it says a woman resembling her entered the square, was killed by
>what most likely was a laser missile, but that visibility was not good and
>"no organic matter from her body was recovered." This leads me to several
>questions: Did Gillie, knowing she was going to die as a result of the
>combination of drugs in her system, use the laser she had stolen earlier to
>do herself in?

Hi, Angela. I'm in the process of writing a longer message about Illicit Passage (I finished the book the other morning after an all-night reading session!), but I wanted to reply to this right away.

I have my doubts about your theory that Gillie was drugged by Security. Why would all the testimony make such a big deal about her and Bruno not eating or drinking the offered "refreshment" if they actually did? I thought the background material on the drugs was important to the rest of the story (it was pertinent to the interrogation of Robert Border, Bruno's history of paloramine overdose, and perhaps the testimony of Gravement), but I don't think there was textual evidence that Gillie took any of the drugs. My interpretation of her recklessness near the end is that she had already planned her dramatic exit from Anastasia Union and felt the euphoria of someone who was calling it quits forever.

Which isn't to say that I think she died. Dave mentioned the possibility that it was not Gillie but a robot that was blown up outside the Red Brick Lounge. That's my theory. We know Gillie had access to all kinds of storerooms. Just before her supposed death, Annette mentions that Gillie was "pottering about the basement" and poring over an instruction manual (p. 226). I think she abstracted a robot and was programming it to play its part in her great escape.

As to why she wanted to escape... I think she knew that she had permanently blown her cover. No longer could she hide in New Town little suspected by the bigwigs. Dorman and Doll both had their eyes on her as did more ominous folk like Gravement and Rosenbery. She could never be sure that no one was out to kill her or worse yet recruit her for their cause! So she decided to leave and start anew somewhere else.

>(One thing that nags at me is the mention of the man who rented a room
>near the square the night before- an accomplice? Uncle Mick?)

Wasn't the room rented by Robert Border, the guy with the missile launcher?

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
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

Date: Sun, 24 Feb 2002 18:44:32 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] Illicit Passage
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

At 03:27 PM 2/23/02 +0000, Angela Barclay wrote:
>I'm finding that it's certainly more fun (and fruitful) figuring out a
>complex plot as a group than alone. I never picked up on the robot clues
>and didn't know about the aluminum-laser connection often made in SF.

In the interests of more fun debate (g), I wanted to follow up on this question of the cape. It's true that reflective surfaces can bend or deflect light, but it was my impression that the laser in question was a targeting device, not the weapon itself. The explosion in the square was powerful enough to demolish parts of several buildings; sounds more like a concussive blast (p. 236 mentions a "missile") than a more precise laser-only weapon. It's hard to imagine anyone surviving at ground-zero.

So the cape might just have been a means of concealing the fact that it wasn't Gillie under there.

>I don't know if I'm going to give up on my drug theory, however. I still
>wonder whether Gillie had used Paramethodone, the countermeasure which helps
>"guard undercover agents against giving themselves away (p. 217)." As
>Janice points out, she was very careful not to accept any food or drink from
>Security. This would prevent her from being exposed to "Aronathal" which
>kills the 'victim' at the same time as rendering Paramethodone useless.

If she was never dosed with Aronathal why would she be dying at the end of the book? And if she was dosed with Aronathal why would the security memos not mention it when they clearly stated that they had applied for and received clearance to use it on Robert Border?

My interpretation of her refusing food and drink was that she didn't want to take any drugs if she could help it. And of course Bruno refused because it would be hazardous for him to take Paloramine again after his earlier long-term exposure. Security could have forced the situation (perhaps with injections), but for some reason they decided not to, at least not before Gillie was released.

>maybe we're not supposed to figure out what happened to her.
>This way she remains an enigma.

And a subject of debate! I think you're absolutely right.

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
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

Date: Sun, 24 Feb 2002 20:01:15 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] Illicit Passage
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

Harking back to an earlier post...

At 08:52 PM 2/5/02 -0700, Susan Hericks wrote:
>I got somewhat bored with the denoument after the war ends. I
>actually started skipping, particularly the long section on the interviews
>of the council members and the conjectures on who was the mole. Perhaps as a
>result, I never figured out who it was. Does it ever say?

I am still not sure! It was either Gravement or Rosenbery, not both, but there's evidence against each of them.

Gravement accepted "refreshment" before his interview (so he received a dose of Paloramine), yet his testimony was suspiciously brief and unrevealing. He may have taken the countermeasure drug.

It says on p. 242 that the "chief suspect" had a liaison with Rouseau. I thought this pointed toward Rosenbery, who took no Paloramine before his interview. But further down the page it says that Dorman then picked up Gravement, who reportedly suffered a heart attack on the way to Security. Maybe he had some poison capsules like the ones Robert Border carried?

The fate of Rosenbery is never stated, as far as I know. Dierdre St John-Sightly mentions that something happened to him, but she doesn't say what. Frustrating!

With what little I've been able to put together, I tend toward the theory that Gravement was the CCS agent, but Rosenbery was responsible for the death of Rouseau, whom he really seemed to hate. Does anyone else have ideas about this?

This book is truly a puzzle.

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
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

Date: Tue, 5 Mar 2002 18:36:40 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: [*FSF-L*] BDG: Illicit Passage (was BDG Reminder)
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

At 10:30 AM 3/4/02 -0500, Dave Belden wrote:
>Re: the whole question of Nunn's politics Gillie
>mixes complete irreverence, and a total embrace of joy and of life, with
>embrace of technology, and an ability to connect with 'the enemy'. The story
>as a whole promises that social reform is possible and people at all levels
>of society can come together for the common good. Is this social democracy,
>middle of the road free market capitalism, with a kind of working class
>feminist Dionysian gloss on it, or is it something more than that?

What would "more" be? I guess I am a little confused by your drive to pin down exactly what Gillie stands for in a political sense. The book's approach to Leanne's revolutionary movement and particularly the boring new political newspaper the men begin publishing when they get back after the war seems to indicate a reluctance to be categorized politically, an avoidance of labels that too often become straitjackets. I thought Gillie's final departure was as much an escape from political definition by Parkes, Doll, etc. as it was from possible murder plots. Given her druthers, I think she would have avoided winning the war the way she did because it attracted too much attention to herself. But the death of her brother Seamus forced her hand -- it was just too horrible.

All that aside, if I were to slap a label on Gillie I would probably call her an anarchist. She might tell me to buzz off, though.

>Re: Gillie as a kind of secular saint (snip)
>If Nunn had tried to write even part of the story from
>Gillie's point of view, would she have destroyed that aura of almost magical
>power she had and so made it less believable that she won the war single
>handed, escaped (probably) with her life, attracted many men (to her
>sister's annoyance), stayed friends with a revolutionary like Leeanne, etc.?

I didn't find these accomplishments so very magical. Part of the point of all the interoffice communication in the book was to show us how inefficient the station's bureaucracy was and how easy it was for the nowts to hide their activities in plain sight. Gillie was certainly talented, but if the administration hadn't been at such cross-purposes she would have been much less successful. Her ability to attract people and become friends with them was made much of by several narrators, but once again I didn't find it so very out of the ordinary that it was miraculous. It need not have diminished Gillie's heroism to include some direct testimony from the woman herself; she was quoted so many times by other people that I feel I know her voice already. Now, it might have added another interesting layer to the novel to have her private voice be substantially different from her public one, but as I have said before I think this would have focused the book even more on her individual accomplishments and character and lessened the emphasis on the complex web of interactions that drove events.

Gillie's actions were heroic, but I don't see her as a saint (even a secular one).

-- Janice

Date: Thu, 14 Mar 2002 00:51:36 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: [*FSF-L*] BDG: The Gate to Women's Country
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

I first read The Gate to Women's Country in 1989, less than a year after it was published. It was a revelation. Perhaps because I was unhealthily preoccupied with my own romantic disappointments at the time and had as yet read little feminist SF, I ignored the problematic elements of the book, focusing instead on the authorial drubbing of men who so clearly deserved it, in the book if not in reality. Call it catharsis.

I'm in a very different place now than I was then. I didn't expect to like the book this time. It so clearly stacks the deck, its biological determinism is ridiculous and yes, it erases homosexuality almost entirely. It had served its purpose once; it was history. But I was wrong. Upon rereading, I found it disturbing, but more despairing than angry, more doubtful than righteous. The Council have good reason to do what they do, Morgot and Stavia are sympathetic characters, but in Tepper's fictional world there are only two paths open to them: death or damnation. It's a bitter, but compelling world view, at least to me.

Which isn't to say that the book's faults are unimportant. In fact, they may be its most interesting features. The handwaving explanation of how homosexuality has been eliminated, for example, makes the book's anti-sex agenda very clear. "There is no fucking in Hades," Iphigenia says in the canonical Women's Country play, the final line of which is, "Hades is Women's Country." (A curtsey to Carol and Rose, who already pointed this out.) This is a story of romantic desolation, betrayal and unhappiness. I was struck this time by how much of the book is about Stavia's doomed relationship with Chernon. The reader is shown early on what a rotter he is, but Stavia is left in the dark for the most part until her horrifying experience in Holyland, when it is finally made plain that without the strict social controls of Women's Country, Chernon would be just as monstrous as the Holyland Elders. The progress of their relationship is like a slow-motion car wreck, the opposite of a romance. And very significantly, the sex, when it finally comes, is bad. The message seems to be that "infatuation" and sexual feelings are irrational and dangerous, that women must learn to turn them off or face destruction. There is a complication, though. At least some members of the Council, if not all, have special relationships with their servitors. These men, far from being eunuchs, struck me as almost comically idealized romantic figures. They are strong, smart and sensitive -- to the point of being psychic! -- and have passed the most rigorous test of commitment possible: against all odds, they have come back to Women's Country. In light of all this, I expected there to be more investigation of how these exceptional men fit into the women's lives, romantically as well as economically. But there was very little, so little that some readers don't even notice the sexual aspects of these relationships. (I refer doubters to Chapters 5, 19 & 34 regarding Stavia and Corrig, and Chapter 34 for Morgot and Joshua.) Why is this? I think the answer is that it would have upset the author's purpose to directly portray any romantic fulfillment, homosexual or heterosexual. The focus here is disappointment, the bad relationships that scar you, psychologically, and in Stavia's case physically, forever. This is Hades. Let us not forget it.

The play is crucial to this understanding. Julieanne and Phoebe mentioned The Iliad and Iphigenia at Aulis as source material, and both are applicable. But the closest match is The Trojan Women by Euripides. The setup is the same: the Trojan war is over and the women of the city wait outside its broken walls to be assigned as slaves to their new Greek masters. The sacrifice of Polyxena on the tomb of Achilles, the murder of the infant Astyanax, and the assignment of Cassandra and Hecuba, respectively, to Agamemnon and Odysseus, occur in both plays. Euripides' version, no less than Tepper's, is an indictment of the atrocities of war, particularly as it affects women. But the ghost of Iphigenia, Tepper's invention, argues much more baldly than any of Euripides' women the responsibility of men for these horrors, and the kinship of all women in the face of it. And Hecuba, in her version, carries a knife in her skirts. The problem is clearly stated for all who are in the know: we, as women, understand that men are the perpetrators of these ghastly crimes, that they brought about the desolations; we, as women, must act to ensure that they can never do so again, even if it means our own damnation.

And it does. The Council call themselves "the Damned Few" and stage the Iphigenia play every year to remind themselves of their purpose and the danger of becoming what they abhor -- and to grieve for what they have done. In some respects, they have simply reversed the power dynamic. Women are now the architects of every man's fate, and horrible bloodbaths are orchestrated on a regular basis. The key difference is that the women make their decisions rationally rather than passionately, and they feel guilty afterward. I agree with Sandy and Lee Anne that this is similar to the portrayal of officers in much military fiction, not to mention movies, television, etc. It is a major weakness of Gate that Tepper does not acknowledge that war, as waged by men, is often quite as calculated and removed from the experience of the front line as the Council's version. Instead she presents as a case study the Trojan war, perhaps the most ridiculous and wasteful conflict ever recorded, which in its particulars is likely almost complete fiction! Not exactly the most ironclad evidence for the impetuous bloodthirst of men.

Of course, there are also the actions of Chernon, his mentor Michael, and the despicable Barten to prove the case. But here we come up against another weakness of the book. These men are conditioned to be warlike and aggressive throughout their most formative years. How responsible are they, really, for the way they turn out? Suzy Charnas in Walk to the End of the World and Ursula Le Guin in "The Matter of Seggri" are much more nuanced and humane in their treatments of this question. But given the eugenics theme of Gate, I guess personal responsibility isn't much of an issue. Each man is in essence a dove or a hawk, and his time in the garrison proves which he is. It is all a matter of Fate. And Fate, in turn, applies to the women as well:
      Myra's leaving Morgot's house had been inevitable from the
      moment Myra met Barten. Not that Barten had intended it or Myra
      foreseen it or Morgot known it would happen. No one knew, but it
      was inevitable just the same. (chp. 6)
This book is a tragedy, all right. For men, for women, for everyone. And, appropriately enough, it ends in tears.

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
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: Fri, 15 Mar 2002 03:44:38 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] Gate to Women's Country
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

At 8:59:06 PM on 3/14/02, Rose Reith wrote:
>Stavia really seems to love Corrig at the end there, and yet in order to
>have those children she would have had to participate in carnival for
>intercourse for intercourse's sake in order to justify the pregnancies to
>the outside world - the other women in women's country who believe that that
>is how it happens.

And at 12:36 AM on 3/15/02 -0500, Joy Martin replied:
>Yes, it seems like this is where her new self will be rubbing up against
>Women's Countries traditions. But it may be she could fake an
>assignation, especially since she's one of the councill who knows what's going
>on. Still, what about other women who have the same feelings but aren't in
>the know on the secret?

The new Stavia is all about playing roles, though, isn't she? The first chapter is one extended meditation on how she has split herself into "actor Stavia" and "observer Stavia" because there are things she must do as a woman and a Council member that her innocent child self would find impossible. In this light I find it highly unlikely that she would ever fake an assignation. Just as her mother met up with Michael every carnival, playing the part of his devoted lover while secretly despising him, I see Stavia doing her duty and paying what she sees as an unpleasant but necessary price for the Council's long-term plan.

Joy again:
>Another thing that didn't really convince me was when they tell Stavia
>they've decided to let her in on the secret (in so many words) 'because she's
>been through so much' (or something to that effect). Well, no actually, it's
>because Tepper wants us, the readers to know. The more I think about this
>eugenics twist, the less I like it. Not just because of arguments about its
>ethical or scientific validity, but because of the way it resolves the plot.
>It feels forced . But it does give people a lot to argue about.:>)

I don't agree about that particular scene. It makes sense to me that Morgot would explain the eugenics plan at this point because Stavia has shown that she is bright and responsible but that she does not respect the letter of the law; perhaps an understanding of its spirit and underpinnings will bring her into line. (And it does. Of course, the death threat probably helps too.) There was another scene I found clumsy in the extreme, however: Morgot and Joshua's ambush of Michael and his cronies. The amount of exposition spouted at these guys who had mere minutes to live not only verged on cliche, it completely undermined the pacifist message of the book, in a way that the similar scene in chapter 10 did not. In the earlier incident, Morgot and Joshua were truly acting in self-defense and finished off their attackers with grim efficiency. None of this gloating over how stupid the greedy murdering men are, how they are no one's fathers, etc. It just seemed gratuitous and nasty. Intentional on Tepper's part? An indication of the failings of this would-be utopia? Or an unfortunate lapse? I'm not sure, but it really rubbed me the wrong way.

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
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: Fri, 15 Mar 2002 16:32:36 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] Gate to Women's Country
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

At 2:36:38 AM 3/15/02 CST, I wrote:
><< The new Stavia is all about playing roles, though, isn't she? The first
> chapter is one extended meditation on how she has split herself into "actor
> Stavia" and "observer Stavia" because there are things she must do as a
> woman and a Council member that her innocent child self would find
> impossible. In this light I find it highly unlikely that she would ever
> fake an assignation. Just as her mother met up with Michael every carnival,
> playing the part of his devoted lover while secretly despising him, I see
> Stavia doing her duty and paying what she sees as an unpleasant but
> necessary price for the Council's long-term plan. >>

And at 09:22 AM 3/15/02 -0500, Joy Martin replied:
>I agree she may do this. But once you are playing at the whole thing, it's
>just as conceivable that she would 'play at' having an assignation. Her actor
>self was there to step in when she didn't quite know how to deal with
>something, but felt she must. Often because she didn't quite understand why
>it was being asked of her. But now she knows exactly why, and the whole point
>is to maintain the subterfuge, not at any cost, just at whatever necessary
>cost. It wouldn't be necessary for her to actually have intercourse with a
>warrior, because she already knows the secret. She could just fake it, and
>still preserve the secret.

Fake it how, though? The man must believe that he has actually had sex with her. If they haven't done the deed she has to convince him that they really did but he was too drunk to remember, that it was too dark for him to know who she was, etc. If this happened every carnival it would really stretch believability. On the other hand, the book does say that warriors were occasionally presented with sons they didn't remember fathering, and they just took the women's word on it. So maybe you are right. But I still think it wouldn't fit the book's theme of grim duty and responsibility. Look at Morgot. She could have faked her assignations with Michael, but she didn't. Why not?

>These warriors are awfully trusting and/or conceited in that respect, don't
>you think? They accept, apparently, that all these boys are indeed their
>sons. First time in human history men have been so accepting of such facts.

Well, according to the book's premise, the men who elect to remain in the garrisons are defective in general -- impulsive, selfish, arrogant, and ironically not even very good fighters compared to the Councilwomen and the "special" servitors. How surprising is it that they are stupid, too?

But seriously, why wouldn't they accept fatherhood in this case? It's not as if they are providing for their sons economically or are in any way responsible for them. Rather than being the breadwinners who must support their families, the men of the garrisons are entirely dependent on the food and other necessities that the towns provide them. More sons for the garrison just mean more expense for the women, not for the men.

>This brings to mind another point in the history of Women's Country I'd like
>to revisit. I need to go back and reread the section. But the history was
>that early on, the women were warriors, and then they left it to the men, and
>went inside the walls. Or some women were warriors. I should probably reread
>it before I talk about it, but, that whole scenario is unlikely. It's the set
>up for Teppers story, of course, and close examination or exposition of that
>would have - well, it would have been another story.

Why is it any more unlikely than the other story elements? You've confused me. (BTW, in case you want to look it up, it's in the expository lump I complained of earlier, when Morgot is talking to Michael in chapter 34.) I thought it was a reasonable explanation of how the society was set up in its early days. The women had already planned their male testing ground (the garrison), but didn't yet have a big enough population to begin the selective culling. Once they had enough men, the interim staff of women in the garrison were phased out and the men were phased in. Makes sense to me (in a twisted way). In fact, it reminds me of the situation in Mangolia in Illicit Passage. That began as a legitimate mining operation, but by the end of the war was doing double duty as a concentration camp. Chilling, indeed.

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
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: Fri, 15 Mar 2002 21:22:09 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] Gate to Women's Country
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

At 12:36 AM 3/15/02 -0500, Joy Martin wrote:
>One thing that keeps niggling at me is the line where one character says to
>another, "it's SUPPOSED to be a comedy", chiding the other (I think it was
>Stavia being chided) for taking it so seriously.

No, the opposite. It is Stavia speaking to Corrig at the beginning of Chapter 5. He exclaims his disbelief and she replies, "Well it is, Corrig. The audience laughs." I took this as another indicator of how clueless most of the women are about the realities of Women's Country. The play is like a roman clef for the Council members, a production that has a surface meaning (emphasized by ridiculous costuming, e.g. the giant penis Achilles wears) for the majority of the population, and a hidden meaning for those who are aware of the eugenics plan and the behind-the-scenes negotiations that result in so many warrior deaths. The tragedy of this play for the Councilwomen and the servitors is, I believe, that they see they have in many respects reversed roles. The women are now in control and the men are the chattel. But it is also a reminder that women, in the time of the Trojan war, were given no option to step through a gate into "men's country".

It has struck me that in this book the psychic servitors play the role of Cassandra -- except that they are believed. I am not sure that is a good thing. In chapter 34, Corrig tells Stavia not only that they will remain together, but what the names of their two children will be. What is the point of such specificity? Does the future have to be nailed down? What if Stavia wanted to name one of them something else? Oh well, there's no use resisting prophecy... might as well take his word for it.

The impression I come away with is of a beleaguered, unhappy crew working to bring about a static future they have already mapped out. I guess that future is one they find worthy, but without the uncertainties of real life it seems... scripted. And airless. Almost like Hades. Hm.

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
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: Fri, 15 Mar 2002 23:23:39 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] Gate to Women's Country
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

Thanks to Sherlyn and Rose for pointing out the exchange in Chapter 6 (and sorry, Joy). However, I still maintain that the play is not a comedy. A satire, maybe, but not a funny one. All the evidence Myra cites in her conversation with Stavia is superficial -- costumes and camp -- and is not there on the printed page. It sounds to me as if the Council members play it this way expressly to distract women like Myra from the play's underlying meaning while leaving the clues in there for the more discerning. But maybe I am getting carried away in my extrapolation...

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
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: Sat, 16 Mar 2002 13:31:22 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] Gate to Women's Country
To: feministsf-lit@UIC.EDU

At 09:42 AM 3/16/02 -0800, Laura Quilter wrote:
>I took comedy not as in the "Three's Company" or even "As You Like It"
>sense, but as in tragic comedy ... the comedy is in the irony.

Maybe you could explain this thought a little more, Laura? I still don't see how the presence of irony indicates comedy. Stavia, Joshua and Corrig never find it funny or uplifting. The only people laughing at it are the women like Myra who are reacting to its surface. Her descriptions of its trappings do make it sound almost like an episode of "Three's Company"!

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
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: Mon, 29 Apr 2002 23:11:30 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: [*FSF-L*] BDG: The Dispossessed

After many delays, I have at last finished re-reading The Dispossessed.

What an amazing book! I remembered its strength, the acuteness of its vision, but I had forgotten how beautifully structured and musically resonant it is. Not in a dazzling, showy way, but in complete service to the story and its concepts. Odo is quoted as saying "true voyage is return", and Shevek's General Temporal Theory says, "You can go home again [...], so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been." That is exactly how Shevek's story is structured, a spiral voyage that returns him to a changed Anarres, a revitalized world.

How workable is that world, really? I don't know. One of the great unanswered questions of the novel is how Anarres could come to be, complete with a new language and a million citizens willing and able to speak it. Apart from a few historical notes about Odo, we don't get much background on the revolution and the early years of the colonization. But I found that this wasn't that important to me, because the contemporary society was described with such detail and subtlety that I completely believed in it, warts and all. Less convincing, actually, was the depiction of A-Io on Urras. Perhaps because so many of the events and customs there could be taken straight from our own newspaper headlines, Le Guin seems to have taken less care and invested less emotion there. There is not the same need to make it feel real because it is already depressingly familiar.

Most readers see the novel as a compare and contrast exercise between a capitalist nation-state (A-Io on Urras) and a theoretical utopian alternative (Anarres). The differences between them are highlighted again and again. Urras is fertile and rich, but stratified and secretive; Anarres is comparatively barren and harsh, while also being much more open and egalitarian. But Le Guin takes care to show that the two planets are not independent of one another. Each needs and reacts against the other in a complex economic and ideological system. Near the end of the book, the Terran ambassador Keng says to Shevek:
     Perhaps Anarres is the key to Urras... The revolutionists in Nio,
     they come from that same tradition. They weren't just striking for
     better wages or protesting the draft. They are not only socialists,
     they are anarchists; they were striking against power. You see,
     the size of the demonstration, the intensity of popular feeling, and
     the government's panic reaction, all seemed very hard to understand.
     Why so much commotion? The government here is not despotic.
     The rich are very rich indeed, but the poor are not so very poor.
     They are neither enslaved nor starving. Why aren't they satisfied
     with bread and speeches? Why are they supersensitive? Now I
     begin to see why. (p. 275, Avon edition)
This strikes me as similar to Shevek's idea that there is "a woman in every table top" on Urras -- that by the persistent denial of certain ideas, you only end up thrusting them into the subculture or the subconscious, from whence they will spring again when the time is right. The influence of Jung and Taoist thought is obvious here, as in much of Le Guin's work. In fact, the first description of the wall (one of the book's most pervasive visual images) in chapter 1 can also be seen as one half of a yin-yang symbol written on the face of Anarres. The worlds interpenetrate one another; each is a part of the whole Cetian system.

The system is not balanced or unchanging, though -- far from it. Each nation on Urras is depicted as a political powder-keg (Benbili blows about half-way through the book), and Shevek's Syndicate of Initiative does quite a job of stirring up Anarres. To me, this is the central theme of The Dispossessed: all human society is process, and it is the responsibility of every individual to understand their place and power in that process, to face the walls and know them, to unbuild them where possible, even knowing that the unbuilding cannot be permanent, that it will have to be done again.

It's interesting that the book implies that, if you aren't confronting walls and experiencing pain, there's something wrong, either with society or with you. Life is very hard on Anarres, and the descriptions of the famine years are sad and disturbing. But the luxury of Shevek's life at Ieu Eun is even more disturbing, because it is based on the hidden (at least from Shevek) poverty of others. It is fundamentally dishonest. So is the behavior of any number of people on both planets who hypocritically spout ideals while acting in opposition to them. They are taking the easy, dishonest way out. At the end of chapter 2, Shevek says, "[Brotherhood] begins in shared pain." Logically, then, without pain, there is no brotherhood. This fits right in with Le Guin's other extended exploration of an ambiguously utopian society in Always Coming Home, with its self- limiting, genetically damaged population, but it runs counter to many people's ideas of the perfect society. She's perverse that way, eh?

Petra asked how people engaged with the story, as an exploration of character or an exploration of societies. For me the book is incredibly rich in both. Anarres feels more real to me than many communities on Earth -- even some I've lived in! Urras was less satisfying to me, as I said, but in a way that made sense because Shevek was only there for a year or so and was carefully prevented from seeing much of the planet.

And the people... I didn't remember it being so, but upon rereading I've decided this is Le Guin's most character-driven novel. Shevek alone is an extraordinary creation, not so much because he is an extraordinary individual (though he is that), but because we see so many sides of him, the bad with the good. He is a full human being. Then there are all the other memorable characters: Takver (whom I appreciated much more this time around), Bedap, Chifoilisk, Pae, even minor characters like Desar the hoarder, and Bunub, the neighbor with a persecution complex who coveted Shevek and Takver's room. I felt again and again, "I've met people like this. These are real people." This sense of reality reminded me strongly of Le Guin's stories of Orsinia, a fictional Eastern European country that is the subject of Orsinian Tales and the novel Malafrena. Both books are out of print, but they're well worth tracking down if you are interested in other works by Le Guin that play in the same heart-rending minor key as The Dispossessed.

And I did find it heart-rending. I don't even know how many times tears slipped from my eyes while reading it. Am I just getting old? I don't know, and I don't care. This is good stuff.

Petra also asked, "What are the feminist aspects of the novel?" Well, foremost is the fact that work on Anarres appears to be completely gender neutral. All jobs are equally likely to be held by men or women. And the sexes are not differentiated by clothing or grooming. (Vea asks in chapter 7 how often Anarresti women shave. Shevek's answer is: they don't.) Some of Shevek's earliest intellectual influences, Mitis and Gvarab, are older women, and of course the spiritual founder of Anarres, Odo, is a woman. Marriage, an institution that many radical feminists have objected to, doesn't exist on Anarres, and primary care giving is as likely to be provided by men like Shevek's father as it is by women like Takver or a communal creche. Anarres is truly egalitarian for women. And homosexuals like Bedap are not disapproved of or even seen as unusual. I loved the ease with which Le Guin introduced Shevek's sexual liaison with Bedap, and the fact that it was not a big deal to either of them when it ended. That still seems pretty revolutionary to me.

I was bothered, however, by the scene Rachel mentioned, in which Shevek nearly rapes Vea. I too couldn't understand how he would be excited by her resistance, unless Le Guin was positing a primal male response to women who seem to be "asking for it" (Shevek sees Vea as provocative from the beginning). Takver does mention that there are "body profiteers" on Anarres, but since there is no example of one in the text, Shevek's behavior with Vea comes across as bizarre and horrifying, even given that he is drunk. And there is no follow-up to it, so we are left with the impression that her side of the story doesn't matter. Dated is a charitable way of putting it, I suppose.

I was also bothered by the characterization of Shevek's mother, Rulag. I had forgotten that she reappears at the end of the book as a firm opponent of the Syndicate of Initiative. There is just no way for me to separate this revelation of her repressive politics from her earlier cold approach as a mother; the one seems to be an outgrowth of the other. It comes across as an indictment of the unnatural career woman who lets her child suffer. Grr.

Overall, I think Le Guin was trying to depict complete sexual equality without erasing sex differences altogether... and she botched it now and then. But she mostly got it right. And the book is so well crafted, so intelligent and so resonant otherwise that I still see it as a masterpiece. I could go on and on about the metaphors and patterns in the novel, but I won't. Maybe I'll write an essay one day.

Thanks to Petra and all the voters who prompted me to read this book again. It was marvelous.

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
Listening to: Television – Television
"...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 May 2002 23:30:45 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] BDG: The Dispossessed

At 08:34 PM 4/30/02 -0400, Joy Martin wrote:
>I've been thinking about the drunken sexual scene with Vea off and on
>since my last post about it (way back earlier this month), but haven't
>had the time really to write. Despite it's 'dated' sense, it's a crucial
>scene, really pivotal in the novel, because it's after that scene that
>Shevek changes his course on Urras and begins to refocus on the reasons
>he had come there.

It's no accident that this chapter, number 7 of 13, is the exact center of the novel. I think of this chapter as Gluttony : Vomit : The Nadir. This is the one time when Shevek truly loses his grip, if only temporarily, yet as you said, he is afterwards able to see Urras in a new way and to make his biggest conceptual breakthrough in physics. It is the turning point.

>What really got me thinking about all this was wondering about the possible
>parallels in some current feminist orthodoxy, and in the orthodoxy that had
>become a problem on Anarres. Did the scene with Vea seem dated because we
>have come to see any miscommunication over sex as rape or leading to rape?
>(And always the man's fault?) Is this a case of our own ideas getting
>ahead of actual changes in our society? (snip)
>I had to think back about what the second wave of feminism, esp. the WLM
>part of that, was all about. For example, ending rape, not just improving
>the chances of getting a conviction against a rapist. Idealistic? You bet.
>But also necessary. One of the most important things going on was
>women 'telling the truth' about their lives. And that's easiest done by
>people who are willing to be rebels and be on the 'outside'. As soon as
>the rebels' ideas become accepted, as soon as they, to some extent,
>succeed, the problem arises of people taking the ideas as orthodoxy,
>rather than as part of a process of truth seeking and continuous change.

I'm confused here. You seem to be saying that it is simple orthodoxy to see this as a rape scene, and I couldn't disagree more! It's clear to me that Le Guin intended her readers to see Shevek's behavior as attempted rape. He was ready to force himself on Vea despite her resistance and only stopped, as far as I can tell, because he ejaculated prematurely. We are supposed to be shocked and ashamed of him, just as we are supposed to be acutely embarrassed by his drunkenness and subsequent puking in the middle of the party. Shevek has never behaved so badly in his entire life, and presumably never does so again. This chapter wouldn't be the turning point it is if he wasn't shown to be in such a dark place.

So the fact that Shevek behaves badly is not a problem for me. What bothers me is: 1) the seemingly unquestioned assumption that he would be excited by Vea's genuine fear and struggle; I'm not saying it's impossible, just that I would have liked an explanation (Rachel already said this better than I can); 2) the lack of any sympathy for Vea, who really does come across as a "slut" (though at least an intelligent one). In her more recent writings, Le Guin has shown a lot more sensitivity about the dilemmas women -- even collaborators like Vea -- face in severely misogynistic societies.

>Rulag, whatever else she is, is someone who is clinging very hard to
>orthodoxy and for me she represents that tendency in all of us, far more
>than any 'embittered career woman' stereotype. Part of my admiration for
>LeGuin is that she will give us a character who could be seen in
>stereotypical terms, but then shows us that she/he is not that at all,
>or, is much more than that.

Her reappearance at the end of the book was, for me, exactly what pushed her character into the realm of stereotype. The earlier scene, when she visited Shevek in the hospital, was more nuanced and ambiguous. I wish Le Guin had left it at that, rather than making her into a villain who publicly threatens her own son with violence.

In the characterizations of Vea and Rulag, I think Le Guin made some decisions that betray an underlying conservatism about gender roles and the family that also comes out, to an extent, in the relationship of Shevek and Takver. They have what amounts to a picture perfect marriage (even if it isn't formally recognized as such) that is valorized in a way that other relationships are not. And one could argue that Takver, who is so often identified with nature, water, and animals, is a classic nurturing earth mother. She is not only that, of course -- she is far from a stereotype to me -- but I don't think it is an accident that she is that.

How did other people perceive her?

-- Janice

Date: Thu, 2 May 2002 15:01:38 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] BDG: The Dispossessed

On 4/30/02, Dave Belden wrote (re: the believability of Anarres):
>I felt similarly, and to my great surprise, felt it more now than when I
>first read the novel. How do you explain this - what do you think she is
>doing that makes this stand out from so many less successful descriptions
>of imagined societies (or even of actual societies)? I fail in analytical
>ability at this point and start muttering things like 'great novelist', but
>I would like to understand better, if anyone can go further here.

I'm mostly muttering too, but I do have a few thoughts...

Conflict and genuine, thoughtful argument are an integral part of the Anarres story line from the beginning. When Shevek, Bedap and Tirin are young, they often heatedly discuss the society they see around them. It makes perfect sense for their characters -- they are adolescents, questioning their world. It also functions beautifully as the reader's introduction to some of the issues that will be central to the story. A lot of writers describe their fictional societies in clumsy expository lumps or speeches that are too obviously stuffed into their characters' mouths, but in the Anarres sections, at least, this dual, sometimes triple, purpose is nearly always in harmony, working together rather than seeming forced. The Urras sections are less successful at this (for example, see Pae and Oiie on women in chp. 3, and Atro on Cetian superiority in chp. 5).

Shevek also gets to travel quite a bit and see different areas of Anarres. Once again, the dual purpose: work postings, an integral part of the society, further the character's story while functioning as a narrative tool. Le Guin could conceivably create a work posting for Shevek whenever she wanted the reader to see a new region of the planet, to understand another part of the whole, and in fact she does, but it never seems like an easy authorial trick. It is always plausible.

I also liked the fact that Shevek's friends are important not just as emotional support, but as thinkers in their own right. For all his individual brilliance, he does not have all the right answers, and never will. He needs his community to be a full human being.

Enough for now. Back to muttering.

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
Listening to: Television -- Television
"I've built my white picket fence around the Now,
with a commanding view of the Soon-to-Be." -- The Tick

Date: Thu, 2 May 2002 17:54:01 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] BDG: The Dispossessed

At 03:40 PM 5/2/02 -0400, Joy Martin wrote:
>In a message dated 5/1/02 11:30:56 PM CDT, Janice Dawley writes:
><< I'm confused here. You seem to be saying that it is simple orthodoxy to
> see this as a rape scene, and I couldn't disagree more! It's clear to me
> that Le Guin *intended* her readers to see Shevek's behavior as attempted
> rape. He was ready to force himself on Vea despite her resistance and only
> stopped, as far as I can tell, because he ejaculated prematurely. >>
>I don't think it's at all clear what LeGuin 'intended' here. And I think it
>is probably a form of orthodoxy if we don't think about the scene
>carefully and examine it closely.

Isn't that what we are doing?

(snip overview of chapters 7 and 9)

>Now, one question is, did LeGuin, as you say, 'clearly intend for us to
>see this as attempted rape?'

Let's see if I can clarify this in my own mind. There are two issues here. 1. Did Le Guin think of this as a rape scene? 2. Is it legitimate to talk about it as a rape scene if she didn't?

First off, I want to retract my earlier statement. You're right, it's not clear what she intended, though I certainly don't think that she approved of the way Shevek behaved in this scene. The way Vea is written, the frivolous excess of the party, the lack of any follow-up except in Shevek's mind makes the whole incident seem like a phantasmagoric, sickening revelation of the rot at the center of Urrasti society. Seen in this light, Shevek's behavior is not a reflection of his own immorality, but a warning of how even he might be infected by this sickness if he does not escape this "jail." If we think of rape as a crime that marks a person as essentially bad, forever a rapist, then no, I do not believe that Le Guin thought of it as a rape scene. Shevek was acutely sick, not evil.

As for the second question, yes, I think it is perfectly legitimate, though by that I do not mean that the scene becomes simpler or easier to understand. Rape may be an easy word to throw around, but like all human problems, it is a very complex issue. To argue that Le Guin didn't completely think it through and to discuss the flaws in her thinking doesn't seem unreasonable or repressive to me.

>Rape implies intention, a guilty party.

I'm not sure I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. I guess it depends what you mean by "intention". Full, conscious, intention? (i.e. Shevek thought he was raping Vea and went on regardless.) Partially conscious intention? (i.e. Shevek intended to have sex with Vea despite her resistance, but didn't think of it as rape.) Almost completely unconscious intention? (i.e. He was so drunk and confused that his id took over.)

The first intention was clearly not in Shevek's mind. A combination of the second and third scenarios is closer the mark. So we are allowed some sympathy for Shevek's point of view, but I can't see how you can argue that Shevek didn't intend on some level to take what he wanted from Vea regardless of her own wishes. He noticed her "sudden high tone of fear and her struggle", he was not oblivious to her reaction, yet "he could not stop, her resistance excited him further." Why is that, when his society has taught him from a very early age not to egoize, not to value what he wants above what other people want? Culture clash or not, he is behaving badly. Is confusion and drunkenness an excuse for his behavior? Are confused, drunken rapists on our own planet not still rapists?

He does not rape Vea, of course. He briefly frightens and inconveniences her. Her comment about the dress underlines how little the entire scene has meant to her (this is what I meant when I said Le Guin has no sympathy for her -- with that one line she is made into a trivial person), but the fact that it isn't important to her doesn't mean that Shevek has done nothing wrong. In the next chapter he indeed feels intense shame, but no guilt. He also thinks that Vea has "betrayed him". In my opinion, that overstates her control of the situation and allows him to shift too easily to thoughts of State control and how he has been used. It doesn't quite gibe for me.

>Anyway, some of the questions people have: would Shevek 'really' find Vea's
>struggle 'exciting' if he was from Anarres? Would boys still hang together
>in early adolescence? and so forth, can't be answered definitively.

Even so, a lot of authors put more effort into thinking about these issues than Le Guin did in this book. Done well, it can be a valuable and fascinating line of inquiry.

-- Janice

Date: Thu, 2 May 2002 23:45:56 -0400
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] BDG: The Dispossessed

At 10:40 PM 5/2/02 -0400, Joy Martin wrote:
>I think both on our planet and on these two different ones, some situations
>are far more complex than the word 'rape' or 'attempted rape' implies.

This seems like the crux of our disagreement. I don't think the term "rape" simplifies the situation, and you do.

>I think I very much wanted Vea to become a free woman, but she did not, and
>the dramatic conflict of the book would have been entirely different if she
>had. However, now, I'm not so concerned about whether it was fair to treat
>her unsympathetically, because I'm much more willing to see that her
>particular personality fits the society she was in. And I think that LeGuin,
>by showing us just how unappealing such a woman can be, is honest, and pretty
>accurate, even if we wish it were otherwise.

When I was reading this section of the book, I didn't think or hope that Vea would transcend the constraints of her society. But the author could have shown a more nuanced understanding of why she would choose to play the games she plays, as well as the dangers of playing them. Daya in Suzy McKee Charnas' Holdfast series is an example of what I am talking about. She's what is called a "pet fem" in a post-holocaust, nightmarishly misogynistic society, the rare female who is chosen as a plaything rather than relegated to hard physical labor. In many ways, she is better off than other women, but she faces her own special set of hazards and emotional pitfalls. She's pretty twisted, and not any more sympathetic than Vea is, at least to me, but she's a lot more real.

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
Listening to: Television -- Television
"I've built my white picket fence around the Now,
with a commanding view of the Soon-to-Be." -- The Tick

Date: Fri, 3 May 2002 12:51:46 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: Re: [*FSF-L*] BDG the dispossessed

On 5/3/02, Dave Belden wrote (re: Shevek's behavior towards Vea):
>It's only a big problem to accept, if you harbor what I think is a naive
>hope that human nature is entirely moldable by the right culture.

I'm beginning to think that I have completely failed at expressing myself.

My problem with this scene is NOT that Shevek behaved the way he did. My problem is that he and Vea and presumably Le Guin did not even question his response. Sex roles and the position of women are important topics of this book. My argument is that Le Guin could have taken her investigation further into the realm of sexual behavior itself and the book might have been the better for it. You say that nurture doesn't completely determine who we become; I completely agree. But to imply that Shevek's sexual reaction in this scene is not even worth questioning given the attempts of his own society to equalize gender roles and eliminate sexism seems bizarre to me.

That doesn't mean that I wish she had written a completely different novel. As I've said before, I love this book, and I feel that I have dwelt on this one section way too much. But I must object to the idea that those of us who doubt that all sexual behaviors are hard-wired or think they are worthy of debate are being naive or "orthodox"!

Janice E. Dawley.....Burlington, VT
Listening to: Television -- Television
"I've built my white picket fence around the Now,
with a commanding view of the Soon-to-Be." -- The Tick

Date: Tue, 7 May 2002 17:17:48 -0500
From: "Janice E. Dawley"
Subject: [*FSF-L*] BDG Postscript: The Dispossessed and We

Jenn Martin mentioned Zamyatin's We near the beginning of our discussion. It's been on my shelf for years now; this was the push I needed to get me to read it at last.

As a companion piece to The Dispossessed, it's fascinating. The tone is completely different -- despite being sf, The Dispossessed is a realist novel, whereas We is an exaggerated satire. It's about a future civilization called the One State that has walled itself off in a city of glass. The citizens are called "numbers" rather than people, all of life is regimented and scheduled, there is no privacy except for assigned periods of copulation, even the food is mass-produced from petroleum. (The book is often funny.) On the surface We resembles 1984 a lot more than it resembles The Dispossessed.

But on the level of imagery and detail there are so many resonances that it's obvious Le Guin read We and was profoundly affected by it. There isn't a one-to-one correlation between all the elements. In fact, I found it very interesting that some of the features of the dystopian One State are features of Anarres: marriage doesn't exist, everyone's life is lived in full view of others, names are assigned impersonally and children are raised in communal centers. Le Guin's take on these things is just about 180 degrees opposite Zamyatin's.

But as Jenn pointed out, the two books are in agreement about revolution. The following quote is from the "Thirtieth Entry", relating a conversation between the narrator and his lover, the rebel I-330.
       "Don't you realize that what you're planning is revolution?"
       "Yes, revolution! Why is this absurd?"
       "It is absurd because there can be no revolution. Because our [...]
     revolution was the final one.  And there can be no others. Everyone
     knows this..."
       The mocking, sharp triangle of eyebrows. "My dear -- you're a
     mathematician. More -- you're a philosopher, a mathematical
     philosopher. Well, then: name me the final number."
       "What do you mean? I... I don't understand: what final number?"
       "Well, the final, the ultimate, the largest."
       "But that's preposterous! If the number of numbers is infinite, how
     can there be a final number?"
       "Then how can there be a final revolution? There is no final one;
     revolutions are infinite. The final one is for children: children are
     frightened by infinity, and it's important that children sleep
     peacefully at night..."
Odo's theory encompasses this need for renewal, and The Dispossessed argues that the revolution can come from within, that it need not involve bloodshed and civil war. In that way, it is more optimistic than We, which sets up a totalitarian state so oppressive that it must be entirely swept away before the people can be free.

Having finished We, I idly took Le Guin's collection of essays, The Language of the Night, off the shelf. I thought, "maybe she mentioned it?" Boy, did she! If anyone wants proof of how much she thinks of We and Zamyatin himself, check out her essay "The Stalin in the Soul", in which she says, "I do consider [We] the best single work of science fiction yet written". Her overview of Zamyatin's life makes me wonder if he himself might have been the biggest influence on her characterization of Shevek.

I wouldn't call We the best sf novel ever written -- not by a long shot. But I'm glad I read it, and I do recommend it. Thanks, Jenn. And thanks to everyone else for a great discussion!

-- Janice

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