Winter Well: Speculative Novellas About Older Women

ww-coverWinter Well, edited by Kay T. Holt (2013), is a collection of four novellas that certainly run the gamut of genres that might be categorized as “speculative fiction.” The first, “To the Edges” by M. Fenn, is set in an apocalyptic near future United States undergoing social collapse. Next is “Copper” by Minerva Zimmerman, a futuristic tech noir detective story. “This Other World” by Anna Caro is more straightforward social science fiction, set on an alien planet. The final offering, “The Second Wife” by Marissa James, is straight-up fantasy.

What ties these four novellas together is that the protagonist in each is an older woman going through a time of personal change as well as societal upheaval. In each story, the main character must set aside her previous life and discover a reservoir of inner strength and resolve to move forward into an unknown future. The strongly related themes and central narrative voices of each novella tie together these four very different offerings into an interesting, thought-provoking collection of feminist speculative fiction.

While clearly these are new writers just finding their voices, all four of these novellas were absorbing reads with only some rough edges showing. My favorite was the second offering, “Copper,” about a tech-savvy insurance investigator trying to locate her own hijacked uterus; I would definitely read more novels by that author. The third offering, about a revolt on an alien planet, reminded me strongly of Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing and was probably the most polished of the four. The other two novellas didn’t stand out as much in my mind, but definitely showed promise.

I would recommend this unique collection to any reader who is interested in science fiction by women and about women.

First Impressions: Who Fears Death

These are my first impressions after reading Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor; 2010) in March 2016. Many spoilers.

220px-WhoFearsDeathbookOnyesonwu is the mixed-race daughter of a rape with hair and skin the color of sand, despised by both her mother’s and father’s people, who discovers that she possesses great magical powers: shapeshifting, resurrection of the dead, and the ability to transport herself into an alternate reality.

This story is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, so far in the future that the people have forgotten their history and only know what is written in the Great Book, a religious text all children have to study. Only a few vestiges of modern civilization remain–some computers and handheld electronic devices, as well as water capture stations that enable people to live in the desert. (At one point, Onyesonwu and her companions take shelter from a storm in a cave where they discover a mound of dead computers and other electronics, which frightens them for unspecified reasons, hinting at an ingrained fear of the trappings of our modern civilization.)

Onyesonwu’s mother’s people, black Africans called the Okeke, have been murdered, subjugated, and enslaved by Arabic Africans called the Nuru, with the blessing of the Great Book. White people seem completely unknown to either race–perhaps mostly killed off in whatever apocalypse happened?–and Onyesonwu only meets one white character, a sorcerer-mentor whose skin color completely mystifies her. Another race of nomadic red people live in the desert in the center of a gigantic sandstorm; they practice magic routinely and seem to have no modern counterparts.

Onyesonwu’s mother was brutally raped and impregnated by a Nuru soldier. Onyesonwu discovers later that her biological father is a sorcerer who will lead a genocide of the Okeke. She undergoes female genital circumcision at the age of 11, believing that this will make her family more accepted in her village. This causes her to involuntarily transport into an alternate plane, where she attracts her father’s attention. Onyesonwu undergoes training in the magic arts so that she can protect herself from him, and eventually learns that she is prophesied to defeat the genocide.

Sidenote from Wikipedia: The novel was inspired in part by Emily Wax’s 2004 Washington Post article “We Want to Make a Light Baby,” which discussed the use of weaponized rape by Arab militiamen against Black African women in the Darfur conflict. According to Wax: “The victims and others said the rapes seemed to be a systematic campaign to humiliate the women, their husbands and fathers, and to weaken tribal ethnic lines.” Okorafor wrote that this article “created the passageway through which Onyesonwu slipped through my world.”

Onyesonwu is an angry young woman. She is angry at the enslavement of the Okeke based solely on their race, and angry at the Okeke for subjugating themselves to slavery. She is angry at the treatment she and her lover Mwita receive because they are mixed-race outcasts, or Ewu. She is angry at the treatment of women by everyone–rape, prostitution, enforced celibacy of unmarried women via the FGC rite, the refusal of the village sorcerer Aro to take her on as a student at first just because she is female.

Onyesonwu’s story is a subversion of the Christ story. She is prophesied to free her people from enslavement, and she knows that she will have to sacrifice herself as a result. She embarks on her own hero’s journey to confront her father, taking her lover and best friends with her as traveling companions. She enacts several miracles along the way, but these are miracles of vengeance and wrath, not healing and teaching. She blinds an entire village. In another village, she makes all the men disappear and impregnates all the women. She is stoned to death as she has foreseen, but once her body is dug up and reburied, she is able to avoid her execution and escapes from the desert land to a distant paradise.

Because of her anger, Onyesonwu is not an easy savior to admire or like. Not only does she lose her temper frequently and unleash her great powers on everyone around her, but she also is impatient and snappish with her friends and often elects to run away instead of confront conflict. While she comes to regret some of her decisions, such as undergoing the circumcision rite, she doesn’t show remorse for many of her deeds. Her anger is part of her, and justified. Probably she would be unable to accomplish what she does without it.

But Onyesonwu’s anger–women’s anger–often makes us uncomfortable, and we are unused to seeing it as the focus of literature. That, and many other things, can make this a difficult book to read. Onyesonwu turns her critical eye on everyone around her. No one is an innocent in this world–except perhaps the mysterious red tribe, where Onyesonwu experiences a period of learning, growth, and relative tranquility. This book is steeped in magic, unfamiliar cultural references, and an ambiguous history. Sometimes we have to read between the lines; other times, we have to let events flow without questioning the logic too closely. Opening ourselves up to this story may be difficult, but the experience is powerful and rewarding.

The World Has Always Been a Dystopia for Women: A Survey of Feminist Dystopias

Books discussed in this essay: The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood; 1985); When She Woke (Hillary Jordan; 2011); “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” (M. Rickert; collected in Brave New Worlds, 2011); Daughters of the North (Sarah Hall; 2007). Major spoilers abound.

The dystopian novel is one with an agenda. It magnifies an issue in our society so that we can better examine it. The dystopian society–typically set in a future or alternate world–centers around that one issue, which is exaggerated often to the point of unbelievability. But this distortion is necessary so that we can clearly understand the impact.

A clear example is the popular Hunger Games trilogy, which focuses on the very current topic of income inequality. In one memorable scene, the elite of the Capitol gorge on rich food and then make themselves vomit so they can eat still more, while the citizens of the Districts go hungry. The scene is extreme, but that extremeness prompts the reader to think about the issue of food security and waste in our present unequal world.

cropped-margaret-atwoods-the-hand-007-1Feminist dystopias focus on women’s rights, which usually revolve around the thorny subject of reproduction. Becoming pregnant is one of the most private experiences a woman can have, but pregnancy and babies are among the most public of issues a society addresses. The society’s future is bound up in babies: how many, how healthy, are they the kind of babies we want? Since men have always been in charge of society, the issue of paternity–tied up in inheritance, class structure, and all manner of complexities–is also of foremost concern. It’s easy to determine who the mother of any child is, but only the mother knows who the father is (and sometimes not even then).

Society (and men) want to regulate when and how women become pregnant, whether they carry their babies to term, and who is fathering them. As a result, women’s bodies are considered public property, subject to legislation and regulation. Women themselves become objects rather than human beings, property that can be bought, sold, and bartered. Feminism often boils down to the conflict between society’s need to manage reproduction and a woman’s right to recognition as a person and to control her most personal possession–her own body.

The-Handmaids-Tale-Atwood-MargaretThe alpha feminist dystopia, and still the foremost classic, is The Handmaid’s Tale. In Atwood’s seminal novel, fertility has decreased dramatically due to environmental degradation. Those women who are still fertile have been enslaved solely for the purpose of carrying the babies of the elite ruling class. Women have been deprived of all their rights, denied access to money and property, and separated from their families–all justified by the religious authority of this future society’s theocratic rulers. A “handmaiden” is literally required to have sex with her male owner while lying on top of his wife, so that the wife symbolically becomes impregnated with the oh-so-valuable baby.

Obviously, Atwood is exaggerating for dramatic effect, but there is no denying the impact of this image. Her imagined society, Gilead, is an extreme but logical extension of ongoing attempts to control women and their reproduction based on religion. Atwood’s goal is not to get us to believe this could actually happen. Her goal is to get us recognize the insidiousness of religion in controlling people’s lives and to feel the utter deprivation of a woman denied control over her own body, to the point where it is considered the extension of the body of another woman and the property of a man.

Even more than thirty years after the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s warning bell resonates with readers. In looking at the pattern of laws enacted in recent years in the United States to restrict and control pregnant women, it can often feel like we are already living in a version of Gilead. That’s why this story endures, and why it’s important to keep reading and rereading it.

WhenSheWokeJordan’s When She Woke is a direct descendant of The Handmaid’s Tale. This retelling of The Scarlet Letter takes place in a near-future, fundamentalist Christian dystopia where abortion has been outlawed as a result of widespread infertility. Those who are convicted of having abortions awake to find that their skin has been dyed a bright red color. These “Chromes” are released into society, where they face being ostracized, assaulted, and possibly murdered. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, When She Woke exaggerates the current trend of restricting and all but criminalizing the rights of pregnant women in the name of religion.

Rickert’s chilling short story “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” (collected in the John Joseph Adams-edited anthology Brave New Worlds) also envisions an America in which abortion has been outlawed. In this dystopia, women convicted of having abortions when they were still legal are publicly executed. The punishments meted out in these two dystopias for the crime of abortion may seem outlandish, but these authors are simply following the path of current legislation, where women considering having abortions are forced to undergo invasive procedures, inaccurate “counseling,” and other hoops designed to circumvent their ability to choose for themselves whether to be pregnant.

51UwPtWxeLL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Hall’s Daughters of the North (originally published in the United Kingdom as The Carhullan Army) examines the other side of the issue: the actions societies take when they need to reduce the number of babies being born. The end result still curtails women’s reproductive choice by directly controlling their bodies. In a future world decimated by economic and environmental disasters, where resources have become scarce, couples must apply for licenses to have children. All fertile women are required to have IUDs, and compliance may be checked at any time by any enforcement officer, in public, in a manner that is essentially sexual violence or near rape. The protagonist chooses to rebel, joining a commune of women who are training as guerilla fighters to resist this authoritarian regime.

bd00d1efdb871b1977feb1ac2f387126Human history has always been a dystopia for women, who as a group have never achieved full ownership of either their bodies or their lives. Women in Western democracies only gained the right to vote–an acknowledgement that women were actually people–during the last century. Sexual slavery, suttee, honor killings, genital mutilation, foot-binding — these are only a few of the horrors inflicted on women (and are still in practice in many places today).

The struggle for women’s rights and freedom still rages in every part of the world, even in the supposedly developed West. In the United States alone, states have enacted over 200 laws restricting reproductive rights since 2010, a dramatic up-surge. Feminist dystopias remind us not to get comfortable or let our guards down, or we could all too easily lose those rights we struggled so long to obtain. A true feminist utopia, in which women are considered full people whose bodies belong only to them, still exists solely in the imagination of science fiction.

First Impressions: Woman on the Edge of Time

These are my first impressions after reading Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976) in February 2015. This book will be discussed in a future essay.

urlAfter bashing her niece’s pimp with a bottle, Connie Ramos is committed to a mental hospital, where she begins telepathically time traveling to a utopian future.

Published in 1976, Woman on the Edge of Time reminded me quite a lot of two other feminist speculative fiction classics of roughly the same period: The Female Man by Joanna Russ and Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin. All three present idealized anarchist utopias, as well as brief depictions of a dystopian counterpart. These utopian communities are presented as environmentally conscious and sustainable, having achieved equality among the sexes and races (albeit in different ways), where the people live communally and in harmony with nature. (Of the three, I liked Le Guin’s the best, but it is the most recently published and the most fully baked, I think.) These are not novels so much as vehicles for ideas about how people could possibly be, and after reading so many of these–including a few minor versions not mentioned–I feel I’ve exhausted this narrow sub-genre. The ideas are attractive, but having moved well past the Age of Aquarius, they seem much more unworkable, relying on an idealized vision of human nature.

Of more interest in Piercy’s novel is the present-day life of Connie Ramos, who is poor, Hispanic, undereducated, mentally ill, and pretty much a victim of all our social institutions. Connie’s plight, having been committed and then subjected to heinous experiments against her will, almost make us cheer her drastic actions after she accepts that she is at war. She is at war against our systems themselves, and the deck is well stacked against her. It’s never very clear if Connie is literally time-traveling or if she is hallucinating as an escape. Given the epilogue with her medical history, I’m inclined to believe the latter, but I don’t know if that is what Piercy intended as the author. There is a lot here to chew on, but I’m not sure Piercy has assembled it into a cohesive story. She seems to be trying to say so much that nothing comes through as powerfully as she might have intended. If she had focused on Connie in the present, and scaled back all the future scenes, using them more as an indicator of Connie’s troubled psyche, this probably would have been a much more effective novel.

First Impressions: The Female Man

These are my first impressions after reading The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975) in June of 2014. This book will be addressed in a later essay.

51mIMBOx6LL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Four women from alternate universes come together in this work of feminist speculative fiction.

Although The Female Man is billed as a “classic of feminist science fiction,” I hesitate to call it science fiction. It’s barely even fiction. More accurately, it is a feminist stream-of-consciousness rant that employs speculative what-ifs to imagine worlds both better and worse than our own, specifically the positions of women in those worlds.

Russ herself is one of the four women, the “female man” who tries and fails to make herself into a man in order to succeed in what is presumably our world, at least our world of the 1970s, when this was published. Russ’s anger is palpable throughout, although she tempers it somewhat with snarky humor. Several times, I found myself wondering whether we hadn’t moved past all this male-female behavior that Russ is criticizing, but truthfully, you only have to read a few Internet comments to see it alive and kicking in the 21st century. In that sense, Russ’s book is still needed and we are not yet free.

Those readers who come to The Female Man expecting a more straightforward narrative are bound to feel stymied by the lack of plot and the jumping around, without explanation, from one world to the next. Besides our own world, there is Jeannine’s world, where the Great Depression has never ended and women are primarily preoccupied with catching husbands, and there is Janet’s utopian world of Whileaway, where there are no men at all. I was feeling fairly adrift in all this until about three-quarters of the way through the book, when we meet Jael, a woman warrior in a world where men and women live separately and spend all their time literally at war with one another. This is probably the most cohesive section of the book, where Jael explains more or less what’s going on and the plot, such as it is.

Forget it, this book is not concerned with plot. It’s concerned with women, with what we endure and how things can possibly be different. Unfortunately, Russ does not seem able to imagine a world where men and women can live together with women not being subject to oppression. I hope she’s wrong about that.

Is Margaret Atwood a Science Fiction Writer?

Margaret Atwood says “now is not the time for realistic fiction,” but is her writing science fiction? She would deny it, preferring the more nebulous term, “speculative fiction.” Regardless, in many of her novels, even her more mainstream ones, she deals with what-if’s and what-might-be’s, rather than what is.

On the subject, Atwood says:

“I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid.”

Atwood is generally considered a literary writer by critics who wouldn’t dream of dipping into the genre ghetto, but she gets away with writing fiction that could easily be called science fiction. And she wins major awards for it! She doesn’t write only science fiction, though, but also tries her hand at other genres, such as historical fiction. Not many writers can be successful at genre-hopping, but more are trying it. Michael Chabon and Kazuo Ishiguro spring to mind.

handmaidscoverConsider, for instance, Atwood’s most well-known book, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which was nominated for the Booker Prize but won the Arthur C. Clarke Award the very first time it was given out. It is set in a dystopian future, in which the U.S. government has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists and a lot of basic rights have been stripped away. Due to extreme pollution, many people have become infertile. Those women who are fertile are enslaved as Biblical-style handmaids, conceiving and bearing children for wealthy, infertile women. Its dystopian, futuristic setting place it squarely in the science fiction tradition.

I think The Handmaid’s Tale was so successful and has been so widely read because its core message is a frightening warning about how quickly and easily the freedoms we take for granted can be stripped away. What struck me the last time I read it is the method of depriving women of their rights that was used: Their bank accounts were frozen, and electronic access to money was cut off. As we are well on our way to a cashless society, this struck me as an all-too-real danger, one we placidly accept.

the_blind_assassin_by_ekonkThe Blind Assassin (2000), which won the Booker Prize, is not as straightforward in terms of genre, but it does contain science fiction elements. Its structure is very unusual, in that it is a novel within a novel within a novel. The framing structure is a straightforward historical novel about a wealthy Canadian family’s fall from grace during the Depression and World War II. Within this novel is an intertwined story of two unnamed lovers and their clandestine affair. During their meetings, the lovers — one of whom is a pulp writer — tell each other a bizarre fable that takes place on an alien planet, which underscores their unspoken feelings for each other. The fable, titled The Blind Assassin, is turned into a novel by one of the characters and develops a cult-like following. The intricate structure makes this an engrossing novel, but it is questionable whether it can be called science fiction. Regardless, Atwood is comfortable using tropes of the genre in exciting and unusual ways when it suits her.

maddaddam1__140604211942With her more recent MaddAddam trilogyAtwood has a harder time making the case that she is not in fact writing science fiction. The dystopian future she imagines relies on the products of genetic engineering. A genuine mad scientist applies his eugenics research to create a race of people, then releases a bio-engineered virus to bring about the apocalypse. Her most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last, is another dystopia that was originally published in installments on the Internet.

I enjoy it when authors break the artificial boundaries of genre established by publishing companies and bookstores. Atwood’s fiction may transcend labels, but she speaks to those of us who love science fiction and its speculations on what might be.

First Impressions: Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin

These are my first impressions after reading Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985) in October 2008. I will be discussing Always Coming Home in future essays. Spoilers.

Always_pbAt first, I didn’t think I would like this unusually structured book, but it very gradually and completely captured my imagination. It is a collection of writings–poems, songs, stories, and essays–about the life and culture of a group of people living in California far in the future, long after our own civilization has collapsed and been almost obliterated. It is not clear who has collected these writings, but it seems to be a character named Pandora, an emissary from our present time who is perhaps merely dreaming this utopian future society.

The Kesh, as these people are called, are in many ways very primitive, with a Native American-style culture that revolves around seasonal celebrations, growing crops, caring for livestock, hunting and gathering, and taking care of all the work of life. The Kesh’s society is the opposite of capitalism, in that wealth comes through giving things away, not owning them, and everyone shares in the village’s resources.

But the Kesh are not entirely primitive. Though all fossil fuels are gone, they have electricity (sun-, wind-, and water-powered, no doubt), as well as access to a network of computers–a network that extends around the globe and into outer space via unmanned probes and satellites–that store all of human history and knowledge. The Kesh just don’t seem interested in progressing past their idyllic state, and they refer to societies like ours as “people with their heads on backwards.”

Not that life is perfect for the Kesh. They suffer from a high rate of birth defects and early mortality due to radiation and chemical poisoning, leftovers from our defunct civilization, which keeps the population from growing too large. And their stories reveal that they suffer from human nature just like any of us.

One such story–the longest in the collection, almost a novel–presents a dystopian alternative to the Kesh. A warlike society called the Condor people come to the Valley where the Kesh live, and one of the soldiers marries a Kesh woman and fathers a daughter, Stone Telling. When she gets older, she chooses to accompany her father to his home. Her story is the only knowledge the Kesh have of how the Condor people live. They hold slaves, are ruled by a dictator, and worship a single powerful god. The women have no rights and are not allowed to leave their homes without completely covering themselves. They are obsessed with war and building war machines that they don’t have the fuel to power, at the expense of feeding their people. Eventually, Stone Telling escapes back to her own people, but we get the sense that the Condor people are well on the path to self-destruction.

It took me a while to get caught up in the stories of the Kesh. Stone Telling’s long memoir, broken into three parts and interspersed by other writings, helps anchor the book. I gradually found myself enchanted and fascinated by the Kesh as I learned more about them, especially their spiritual practices and the important ritual dances they hold at significant times of the year. Mostly, I admired their approach to life, without judgment or a strict moral code, respectful of both the individual and the whole, which includes the animals, plants, stones, earth, stars, everything.

I have lately felt overwhelmed by depressing world events, our materialistic culture and the problems we felt, particularly our environmental problems. This book offered both an escape and an alternative way of thinking about those problems.

Always Coming Home won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. It was nominated for National Book Award for Fiction, Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and Mythopoeic Fantasy Award.