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.

Imagining a World Without Men: A Survey of Feminist Utopias

 

Books discussed in this essay: Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman; 1915), The Female Man (Joanna Russ; 1975), The Gates to Women’s Country (Sheri S. Tepper; 1988), Woman on the Edge of Time (Marge Piercy; 1976), and Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985). Some spoilers.

What does a world look like where women are equal to men?

Women writers have tried to imagine such a utopia. Perhaps not surprisingly, for many of them it was a world without men at all.

herlandCharlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland may be the earliest example of a feminist utopia. In Herland, three male explorers discover an isolated country in the South American jungle populated only by women. It is a perfect place, where women live in harmony with one another, spontaneously reproduce, and have advanced their society due to lack of conflict. The only fly in the ointment is their male visitors, who can’t help their innate sexism, but these confident women mostly just laugh them off. At first blush, Herland seems fairly ideal.

But there are problems with the all-female utopia that Gilman fails to address. For instance, the women all seem asexual, which ignores a fundamental aspect of our nature in favor of combatting the sexual objectification of women. Also, it is difficult to imagine any group of human beings living together without conflict, no matter what their gender. Still, I’d recommend Herland, a quick read, just for its historical value as an early work of feminism, even if does avoid some of the more difficult questions that are raised.

joanna-russ-the-female-manIn 1975, Joanna Russ imagined a similar utopia in The Female Man, this time an alternate world called Whileaway. However, her utopia is not so perfect. Reproduction is handled more realistically, and the women do fight among themselves, often violently. This is one of four alternate worlds Russ presents in the novel. Another, most definitely not a utopia, depicts men and women living separately in a perpetual state of war. Just as in Herland, The Female Man cannot imagine a world where men and women can live together in equality and harmony.

While I admit that I too have spent a happy hour or so imagining a world without men, it’s not practical. We must envision ways women can achieve equality while still keeping men around, if only for the very basic reason that we are one species who are all in this together–or at least, we should be. Also, many women happen to enjoy the company of men.

51I7jyZitGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sheri S. Tepper moderates this vision of a feminist utopia somewhat in The Gates to Women’s Country. In her post-apocalyptic far future, women and men mostly live separately, the women inside a beautiful walled city that hearkens back to the civilization of the ancient Greeks, the men outside the walls in barracks, constantly training for war. Only a few men are allowed inside to serve the women, carefully selected for their submissive traits.

As in the previous two novels, Tepper’s world is one in which men and women cannot live together naturally, due to the innate characteristics of men. The soldiers are basically overgrown children who perceive women as helpless objects requiring protection and impregnation with sons. The servitors are the flip side of the coin: wise, calm, strong, always in control of themselves—the “perfect men” in this women’s fantasy. However, they are not perfect by nature, but by design, and therefore they are not real.

urlA utopian vision where men and women do co-exist can be found in Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. A present-day woman time-travels to the future and is shown what an egalitarian society might be like. Although men and women live together in this utopia, there is virtually no distinction between them. The time traveler sometimes cannot even tell what gender her guide is. The language has changed, as well, so that gender pronouns are no longer used. While at first glance this seems like a desirable way of achieving a perfect communal society, erasing the differences between us again defies human nature. Although our differences often inspire oppression, they are also what make us interesting, and quite possibly what enable us to innovate and adapt so well.

The utopia presented in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home imagines a future of communal living where gender differences have been preserved. This utopia is similar to the one in Woman on the Edge of Time: people live cooperatively in villages, eschewing technology and the trappings of our present-day consumerist society, pursuing their passions and strengths, moving fluidly between relationships, and governing and raising children as a group. Yet even Le Guin has a hard time envisioning such a utopia without rejecting almost all the achievements of the modern day. To be our better selves, we have to return to a more primitive version of ourselves. There is a certain attraction to this simpler life, but is it realistic? Once knowledge has been gained, once technologies have been developed, we don’t let that go. We have to build on what came before, not tear it down.

I have yet to read a utopian vision that posits equality for all and yet society continues to progress along a forward trajectory (the only thing that seems to come close may be the Star Trek universe). I would like to. For forward-thinking writers, though, it is easier–and certainly more interesting–to imagine the dystopias that might be. But that is the subject of another essay.

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First Impressions: Grass

These are my first impressions after reading Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (1989) in March 2010.

Grass-sheri-tepperIt is a trope in science fiction to have far-future humans colonize alien worlds and then cut ties with Earth. This enables the story to be told on an alien planet but with familiar, human characters. Here, the planet is Grass, which is covered entirely with grass and peopled by two groups of humans: the aristocracy, who live on estancias out in the grass and do little but participate in mysterious, dangerous Hunts; and the working classes, who live in the planet’s only town and spaceport, where they are protected by the swamp forest that surrounds the town. To this world come an ambassador family from Earth, on a secret mission to find the cure to a plague that threatens all of humanity, which sets the plot in motion.

Tepper has built an intriguing, complex, and sinister world in Grass, and a lot of the suspense of the novel is in learning about the planet’s native species and discovering the true nature of the Hunts. But some of the secrets, when revealed, strained my disbelief. All in all, this is an entertaining (if long) story, a worthwhile reading that could probably have used a little more editing and focus.

Grass was nominated for both the Hugo and Locus awards in 1990. In 2002 it was included in the SF Masterworks collection. It is the first novel in the Arbai trilogy.

First Impressions: China Mountain Zhang

These are my first impressions after reading China Mountain Zhang (Maureen F. McHugh, 1992) in June 2014.

836964In the 22nd century, when China is the dominant superpower and the US has had a socialist revolution, Zhang is trying to figure out what to do with his life.

Whenever I read futuristic science fiction written during the Cold War that assumes the Soviet Union continued as a superpower, I find myself mentally substituting “China” for Soviet Union, just to keep the story believable for me. Now here’s a book written in the ’90s that actually does posit China as the dominant superpower, and of course, it’s a lot different and more realistic than those Soviet-era books. For one thing, the United States has declined quite a lot, as well as having undergone its own socialist revolution. This version of the near future also brings in questions of race — people of Chinese ethnicity have privilege here — sexuality, and gender as well as politics.

This future is not dystopian, not really (although I’m sure many Americans would consider a socialist USA the worst thing that could ever happen). It’s far too realistic for that. The characters are all ordinary people with ordinary concerns about work, success, love, and community. I think that’s why I enjoyed this book so much–the story is told by real people with the minor concerns of real life, but it maintains a broad scope. The story begins and ends in New York City, but it travels to an Arctic research station, a rich and glittering Shanghai, even Mars.

The characters, however, are all people who don’t quite fit into this new normal. The protagonist, Zhang, is gay and half Latino (which has been obscured by genetic manipulation), who must keep both these aspects of himself secret in order to get ahead. He chafes against these restrictions and longs for community, finally choosing to do something very American: he starts his own business. Other sections of the book are told from the points of view of characters that Zhang meets peripherally. One is a Chinese woman with a medical condition that has rendered her “ugly”; once she has that corrected, she unexpectedly faces the possibly worse problems of pretty girls. Another is a loner who has finally moved to a commune on Mars in order to be left alone, but yet finds herself reluctantly helping to build her new community.

These are quiet stories, and the events that take place are not big ones. Without the technological enhancements, all of these stories could take place today. Through her speculative premise, McHugh shines a light on the persistent tensions that characterize the human species: the tension between conformity and individuality, and the desire we all have to make our own lives and to truly be ourselves.

China Mountain Zhang won the James Tiptree Award, Locus Award for best first novel, and Lambda Literary Award.

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.