Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978)

Dreamsnake sat on my bookshelf for years. I just never seemed to get around to reading it. Then Vonda McIntyre died last year and I thought I should make the effort in her honour.

The novel won the 1979 Hugo, 1978 Nebula and 1979 Locus awards and is still regarded as a classic work of feminist science fiction.

Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, Dreamsnake is the story of a young healer named Snake. While travelling through the desert with her medicinal snakes, Grass, Mist and Sand, Snake is asked to try and heal the sick child of a group of desert dwellers. In a tragic misunderstanding, the dreamsnake, Grass, is killed by the frightened family of the child.

Snake is devastated. Not only has she lost her beloved Grass, she is no longer able to carry out her work effectively. Worse still, she has little chance of getting another Dreamsnake because they are alien creatures, brought to Earth by mysterious ‘Other Worlders’ and are very difficult to breed. But then a chance encounter with a dying woman provides an opportunity to visit the Central City, a closed society of humans who have access to advanced technology and still communicate with the Other Worlders. They may be able to give her another dreamsnake.

Snake begins her journey towards Central City, stopping on the way to help the people of a town, where she adopts an abused and scarred young girl who she hopes to train as a healer. But Snake is also being followed by two people, Arevin, one of the desert dwellers who has fallen in love with her, and a more threatening presence, someone who destroys her camp in the night.

Turned away empty-handed from Central City, Snake discovers there is another possibility when she hears of a dangerous man who may have possession of dreamsnakes. Should she risk everything to try and take some from him, for herself and her people?

And will she ever meet Arvein again?

I loved Dreamsnake. It was one of my favourite books last year. It’s a beautifully written story with an engaging heroine and an interesting world to explore. Snake is perhaps an overly perfect protagonist (everyone loves her; she’s the BEST healer etc.), which is usually a narrative bugbear for me, but I think that by taking away her dream snake, McIntyre gives the character enough internal conflict to make her relatable.

Dreamsnake is committed to anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist values. The “good” people are the ones who live outside the supposedly civilised city. They are mostly kind and generous, live in tune with nature and are generally non-monogamous in their relationships. The people inside the city are isolationist, selfish and small-minded.  They aren’t worth McIntyre’s time. She doesn’t bother to take us into the city, or to meet the Other Worlders. Dreamsnake is a book about people building a new society and leaving the past behind.

A lovely read, which I’m sure I’ll revisit again. Recommended if you’re interested in women’s writing and science fiction.

CN: While not graphic, there are references to child sexual abuse and rape in relation to one character.

The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

Charlie Jane Anders, The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

The Left Hand of Darkness was published fifty years ago, but still packs as much power as it did in 1969. Maybe even more so, because now more than ever we need its core story of two people learning to understand each other in spite of cultural barriers and sexual stereotypes. 

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018)

Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third novel in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series. It follows The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. I absolutely loved the first two books and was very much looking forward to reading this one.

What I most appreciate about the entire series is Chambers’s love for ordinary people and her determination to put their stories at the centre of a space opera. Sometimes I think I would sum the Wayfarers books up as, “Ordinary, average people – like you and me – but in space”.  This is refreshing because, as much as I love science fiction, it does have a tendency to focus on the high achievers! Chambers is more interested in the people in the background who keep everything going: the cooks, the techs, the shopkeepers and miners. In this sense, her world seems more influenced by Firefly (and to an extent Bablyon 5), than Star Trek, although the optimism probably owes a debt to Trek.

Record of a Spaceborn Few takes us “home” to the Exodan fleet mentioned  in the earlier novels. These vast generation ships left a dying Earth centuries ago and wandered through space until they met some helpful aliens, slowly joined the wider galactic community, and settled into orbit around a star, developing into a ship-based civilisation.

“We are the Exodus Fleet. We are those that wandered, that wander still. We are the homesteaders that shelter our families. We are the miners and foragers in the open. We are the ships that ferry between. We are the explorers who carry our names. We are the parents who lead the way. We are the children who continue on.”

Set on the Asteria, the story is told from the point of view of five characters. There’s Tessa, elder sister of Captain Ashby from The Long Way, who is fleet born and bred, but starting to wonder if it’s the right place to stay and raise a family. Then there’s Isabel, an older woman, and the ship’s record keeper, who must deal with a visit from a distinguished alien researcher. Sawyer is a young man from a rough colony world who wants to try to make a life for himself in the fleet. Kip is a bored teenage boy who just wants to get out and go anywhere else. Then there’s Eyas, one of the fleet’s caretakers whose job it is to look after the dead. We receive a sixth perspective from the reports of the Harmagian scientist, Ghuh’loloan, on her impressions of life in the fleet.

The story begins with an appalling disaster, the accidental destruction of one of the other generation ships, an event that results in over 40,000 deaths and causes an existential crisis in the fleet. The tragedy reverberates throughout the novel and touches the lives of each character in different ways, causing them to question their understanding of the fleet as home.

Chambers’s ability to deal with painful, even heartbreaking subjects without ever losing a sense of hope and optimism is what has made her novels so beloved. They’ve helped me a lot over the last couple of years when I’ve been struggling with feelings of meaninglessness and despair. In this respect, Record did not disappoint. I cried several times (in a good way) and finished the book feeling like I’d received a warm hug.

Record is a slower burn and even less plot-driven than the others. Initially I felt that five or six points of view was too many. I struggled a bit to keep up with them all, which may have been partly down to having a cold when I read the book. I still think it might be slightly too many, but I can’t imagine the story without any of them, so I think that’s just the way it has to be. There were less aliens and I did miss them a bit.

If you didn’t like her other novels, you certainly won’t be converted by this one! Personally, I hope there will be many more books in this series.

New Books

I got some expenses back from work and decided to spend it on books, all of which happen to be part of series.

Martha Wells, Artificial Condition: The Murderbot Diaries (Murderbot #2)

I enjoyed the first one and everybody raves about Murderbot.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2) 

I read Ancillary Justice ages ago and keep meaning to continue with the series.

Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightening (The Sixth World #1)

This is a new one. I saw people talking about it online and thought it sounded like fun.

Nicola Griffith, Slow River (1995)

In a final, desperate bid for survival, Frances Lorien Van de Oest, heiress to a vast fortune, escapes from her kidnappers and finds herself thrust, naked and bleeding, onto the cold dark streets of an unknown city. There, she is picked up by a charismatic thief named Spanner and reborn as Lore, someone for whom identity has become a fractured, shifting, untrustworthy thing.

Slow River unfolds gradually. The opening narrative, told by Lore in the first person, is set three years after the kidnap, and a few months after her breakup with Spanner. The second narrative tells the story of life with Spanner, beginning immediately after Lore escapes from the kidnappers. The third follows her upbringing, at two year intervals, from the age of five until she is abducted. This triple narrative structure creates a powerful sense of momentum. Lore’s stories move forward in parallel towards a point of convergence, both in terms of time and self.

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Ursula K Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of my favourite books and this must be at least the fourth time I’ve read it.  On its publication The Left Hand of Darkness was received as a groundbreaking piece of science fiction, winning the Nebula Award in 1969 and the Hugo Award in 1970.  Compelling, atmospheric, sometimes frightening, it offers the reader some exquisite world-building and a story with profound meaning.

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Kate Wilhelm, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976)

Finding themselves faced with economic and environmental collapse on a global scale, a wealthy extended family seeks refuge in the mountains, where they hope to survive and build a new community.  When they realise that radiation and pollution have lead to high levels of infertility, they resort to using their DNA to create clones, who they intend to raise as their own children with the hope that they will be able to reproduce sexually again at some point in the future. However, as the clones grow up, it becomes apparent that they represent a different species of human and have their own ideas about how the community should develop. As you may have already guessed, it doesn’t involve returning to the old ways.

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Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (1995)

To get along with God,

Consider the consequences of your behaviour

Parable of the Sower is one of the most harrowing, intense novels I’ve ever read.  I had a feeling that I shouldn’t read it while in a raw emotional state, but I picked it up one afternoon, started it and couldn’t stop.  Butler has a deceptively simple writing style that hooks you quickly and then grabs you round the throat and shakes you to your core.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across another writer who has less pity on her readers.

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This week’s culture round-up

I didn’t do a round-up last Sunday because I didn’t think I had enough links, so now I probably have too many.

Ursula K Le Guin, ‘The Wind’s Twelve Quarters’ (1975)

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is Le Guin’s most famous collection, bringing together short stories published between 1962 and 1974 in various magazines.  It’s a wide-ranging collection that really showcases Le Guin’s talents and each story is prefaced with an  illuminating and humerous short commentary from the author.

For fans, such as me, it’s lovely to read stories that engage with her other works.  The opening story, ‘Semeley’s Necklace’, is recognisable as the prologue to one her of first novels, Rocannon’s World.  ‘April in Paris’ (the first story she got paid for) is a sweet, funny little piece about an accident of time travel bringing together a bunch of misfits, and also seems to be set in the Hainish Universe.  ‘The Word of Unbinding’ and ‘The Rule of Names’ are set in early versions of Earthsea, the first of which has trolls in it, and the second features a wizard  who isn’t quite what he appears to be. ‘Winter’s King’ revisits the world of The Left Hand of Darkness and in this story Le Guin (partly in response to critiques from feminists) changes the pronouns used to describe her androgynous Gethenians from the masculine to the feminine. This has an interesting effect on the way their society comes across to the reader. The Nebula Award winning ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ tells of the final days of Leia Odo, the woman whose political theories made possible the anarchist colony of Anarres in The Dispossessed.

There are two powerful allegories about science, ‘The Masters’ which is set on a future Earth where the study of mathematics and physics is forbidden, and ‘The Stars Below’ in which an astronomer pursued by some kind of inquisition is forced to hide out in a mine.

There are also some classic stand-alone science fiction stories which involve space ships and missions to other planets and, which like the best science fiction, also ask big questions.  ‘Nine Lives’ is ostensibly about cloning, but reaches into philosophical territory, asking questions about identity and the nature of interpersonal relationships.  ‘Vaster than Empires and more Slow’ tells the story of a mismatched crew of people on a mission to a planet far out on the edge of the galaxy where they find themselves at the mercy of a vast empathic life form that does nothing but transmit its terror at their arrival back to them. It’s a story about facing the fear of the other.  ‘The Field of Vision’ is a story that takes on the nature of God.

Then there are some that are kind of unclassifiable.  ‘The Direction of the Road’ is a story about relativity told from the perspective of a tree – have you ever thought about how people and cars must appear to a tree standing by the side of the road?  ‘Things’ is one of Le Guin’s psychomyths, a dark tale set in an apparently dying world looking at how people face death and the giving up of ‘things’.  ‘The ones who walk away from Omelas’ is a haunting allegory about the ways in which we rationalise the horrific abuses that underpin our society. It deservedly won the Hugo Award for best short story in 1973.

This is essential reading for fans of Le Guin’s writing, but probably isn’t the best place to start for new readers – for that I’d recommend one of the novels.

Women of SF: Private Elizabeth (Dodger) Durman

I like to think of Babylon 5’s  Dodger as one the best female science fiction TV characters that never was.  She appears in exactly two episodes of Babylon 5 and in the second one she’s dead.  Private Elizabeth Durman, or ‘Dodger’, makes her entrance in the Season 2 episode, ‘GROPOS’, which stands for ‘Ground Pounders’ – B5 slang for the twenty-second century ground troops who briefly stop over at Babylon 5, much to the consternation of the more decorous Earth Force Officers who staff the station.

While at the station, Dodger takes a fancy to Security Chief Michael Garibaldi, but when he mistakes her as looking for a relationship and implicitly accuses her of complicating his life, Dodger takes him down with a great speech that demolishes his assumptions about what she wanted from him.  They patch it up before the end of the episode, but Dodger is sadly killed in action along with most of the other Ground Pounders.  The episode feels designed to make a point about the tragedy and waste of war, and is a lesson in the importance of seizing the day, because you never know how long you’re going to be around to enjoy it.  But Dodger is such a strong character that Neil Gaiman resurrects her in the episode he wrote for Season 5, ‘Day of Dead’, when an alien ritual gives some of the characters the chance to talk with dead people from their past.  Garibaldi’s encounter is with Dodger, who remains just as awesome post-mortem.

Despite her character’s short life-span, I think Dodger deserves recognition for her role in the development of female characters in science fiction TV.  She’s not unlike Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck, only without the neuroses and self-loathing.  There’s nothing apologetic or self-pitying about Dodger: she’s totally herself, at ease with her sexuality, has a great sense of humour and is full of life, even after death.

“I didn’t come here expecting to set up housekeeping. I’m a Ground Pounder.  I’m cleaning latrines one day, the next I might be up to my hips in blood hoping that I don’t hear the round that takes me out. You got it? In between I like to see what I can get to remind myself that I’m alive.  Right, it’s not romance, but it’s all I got time for.  I’m so sorry it’s not enough for you”.

Women of SF: Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway from Carl Sagan’s Contact

No 63 in Godard’s list

Dr Eleanor Arroway is the main protagonist in Carl Sagan’s science fiction novel Contact (1986) and the film adaptation of the same name in which she’s played by Jodie Foster.

Ellie is a brilliant radio astronomer who becomes Director of the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestial Intelligence) programme.  After years of searching the skies, Ellie and her colleagues discover an alien radio signal from a star called Vega.  The signal turns out to be a message containing instructions for building a machine, but it lacks any information about the purpose of the machine.  Ellie and her scientific colleagues have to persuade the world’s governments that building the machine and allowing them to activate it is in the best interests of Earth.

The film adaptation makes changes to Sagan’s story, most unfortunately, I think, in shifting the emphasis from the global team effort in the novel, to the exceptional individual in the film, with the result that the film loses the characters from Russia, India, China and Africa who accompany Ellie on the mission in the novel.  But I also think that Jodie Foster is perfect for the role and Contact is one of my favourite science fiction films.

Eleanor Arroway is a great woman of science fiction.  She’s passionate about astonomy, principled, a loyal friend to her fellow scientists, determined in the face of massive challenges, not to mention brave enough to get in a machine that might take her anywhere in the Universe and switch it on.  She’s not perfect: she has problems with her family, she’s argumentative and has a tendency to be impatient with and rude to people who irritate her.  She also has Daddy issues, which could be annoying from a feminist perspective, but since a lot of male characters in science fiction have Daddy issues too, I can’t really claim that it’s a particularly gendered aspect of the story!

You wanna hear something really nutty? I heard of a couple guys who wanna build something called an “airplane,” you know you get people to go in, and fly around like birds, it’s ridiculous, right? And what about breaking the sound barrier, or rockets to the moon, or atomic energy, or a mission to Mars? Science fiction, right? Look, all I’m asking, is for you to just have the tiniest bit of vision. You know, to just sit back for one minute and look at the big picture. To take a chance on something that just might end up being the most profoundly impactful moment for humanity, for the history… of history.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared; an adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it.  Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary.  But the idea was real.  It was important.  For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced.  What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.

The Dispossessed begins when Shevek, a physicist from the arid, anarchist colony of Anarres, leaves his world branded a traitor and travels to the planet of Urras, where the people of Anarres originated over 100 years previously.  Shevek’s story and that of Anarres and Urras unfolds slowly through alternating chapters which move us between the two worlds.

The people of Anarres left Urras in the hope of establishing a utopian society based on the theories of an anarchist philosopher named Laia Odo.  The Odonian society on Anarres functions without social classes, money, property, states, borders, laws or prisons.  It is unified by the individual’s sense of responsibility to the society as a whole, and the society’s sense of responsibility to the individual’s right to self-determination.  Compromises between individual and society have to made, but they are supposed to be made with consent and respect.  Wealthy Urras, meanwhile, remains much closer to the kind of westernised capitalist state we can easily recognise, with a consumer society divided along the lines of economic status, social classes, nationality, and gender.

Shevek, a theoretical physicist, is working on a unified theory of temporal physics that will enable instantaneous communication between different planets. On Anarres he finds that, although his society lacks the apparatus of state control, subtler forms of bullying have developed over time and his ideas are being suppressed by people who crave power.  He realises to his horror that ideas are suppressed not by state laws, but rather by people ignoring the ideas and refusing to change.  He leaves Anarres in the hope that on Urras he will find a society more welcoming to his work, but he soon finds himself treated as something to be bought and sold and realises that he can’t give his work to anyone because, if he does, it will only be used against someone else.  On Urras his theory only has value as property, an investment or as a weapon.  Shevek concludes that his only viable option is to give his theory to everyone freely at the same time, but just how is he going to achieve that?

The Dispossessed is an unapologetic allegory about our own world.  The brilliance of Le Guin’s analysis lies in her using Shevek’s point of view, as someone who has never experienced it, to defamiliarise capitalism and question whether we need the things we think we need in order for a society to function.  As always with Le Guin, the strength is in the world-building, her ability to combine anthropology and literature and make different societies believable.

Odo theorised that a healthy society should let every individual exercise his or her ‘optimum function’ freely, that is enable them to do the work they can do best and therefore offer their best contribution to society (it’s disturbing to think how far we are from living in a society that enables anything close to this ideal).  Although his society hasn’t quite lived up to its ideals, Shevek remains thoroughly Odonian and his time on Urras brings him to an even stronger appreciation of life on Anarres with all its flaws.  Ultimately you feel that Le Guin can’t help but side with Anarres against Urras, although she does allow a character from Earth to question the view that Shevek’s has reached of Urras as utterly irredeemable.

From a feminist perspective, the most important aspect of The Dispossessed is Le Guin’s attempt to imagine Anarres as a world in which women are not the ‘sex class’ and have equal status with men.  She explores this through Shevek’s moving relationship with his partner Takver (again, it’s not an easy thing to imagine, being as our world is still so very far away from such a possibility).  She presents the lives of women on Urras as unremittingly degrading and objectifying, but you don’t feel these women have anything that’s worth being equal to, really, because the men’s situation there is hardly enviable either.  She’s asking some pretty radical questions here – when we talk about women being ‘equal’ to men, what exactly are we wanting to be equal to?

The Left Hand of Darkness remains my favourite book by Le Guin, but The Dispossessed is a great work full of ideas that gets better with re-reading.

Women of SF: Lyta Alexander

No 57 in Godard’s list of 100 women in science fiction

Lyta Alexander enters the TV series Babylon 5 in the original pilot episode as a medium strength (P5) commercial telepath.  She starts as she means to go on with a dramatic storyline in which she gets caught up in the attempted assassination of the Vorlon Ambassador Kosh.   We don’t see Lyta again until late in Season Two when she returns to reveal the identity of a sleeper agent on the station.  She then disappears again until Season 3 when she reappears in the company of the mysterious and powerful Vorlons.

Lyta has one of the most compelling stories in Babylon 5.  She begins as a relatively ordinary telepath.   Like most other telepaths on Babylon 5 she was raised by the sinister Psi-Corps which all telepaths are forced to join.  She’s a nice person, honest, good-hearted and always willing to help people out.   After her close encounter with Kosh, she begins to question the Psi-Corps and goes on the run.  She manages to make it into Vorlon space (something no one else achieves in the show) and ends up working for the Vorlons.  As Season 3 progresses it becomes apparent that Lyta is no longer a P5 telepath, but the extent of the alterations to her abilities are unclear. She eventually turns against her masters and helps to oust them from the station.  She goes on to take a major role in defeating the forces of the corrupt President Clark during Earth’s civil war in Season 4.  In Season 5 she gets involved with the telepath underground and falls in love with a resistance leader only to lose him tragically.  By the end of Season 5, Lyta is royally pissed off with pretty much everyone, which is a problem, since it turns out that she’s probably the most powerful telepath in existence.

I felt a little conflicted about including Lyta in this list because while I do love her character and think Patricia Tallman puts in one of the best performances in Babylon 5, Lyta’s story is based on a narrative convention that I particularly hate, that of the powerful woman who can’t handle her own power and ends up mad/evil/dead (usually all three).  It is a convention which reiterates the idea that women simply can’t handle power.   But thinking about it, I’ve decided that Lyta deserves a place, partly because her complex story subtly undermines this convention.  Her descent into destructive behaviour is not caused by her power so much as by the terrible treatment she receives at the hands of just about everyone.  Lyta is persistently used, abused and dumped on by other characters and her final refusal to take any more crap is actually big relief.   Also, she survives at the end and although I haven’t read any of the post-TV series fiction I’ve heard that she goes on to achieve her aim of bringing down the Psi-Corps and freeing her people.

Quote: “I’ve done a lot for this place. Just once, I think a little gratitude would be in order, don’t you?”

Octavia E. Butler, Lilith’s Brood (1987 – 1989)

Octavia E. Butler (1947 – 2006) is one of the best known African American writers of science fiction.  Her series, Lilith’s Brood, also known as the ‘Xenogenesis Trilogy’, contains three short novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago.

Earth has been all but destroyed by nuclear war. A passing alien race in need of an infusion of new genetic material rescue the few surviving humans, put them in stasis, and set about restoring the planet. These aliens, specialists in genetic manipulation, decide that humanity is doomed by a hereditary conflict between intelligence and hierarchical impulses, a conflict which will inevitably propel the species towards self-destruction. Coming to the conclusion that allowing human beings to continue as they are unaltered would be tantamount to murdering them, the aliens decide to put an end this conflict   When the humans are revived many years later they find that a terrible bargain has been struck without their consent and are confronted with a choice of two horrific options: breed with the aliens to create a new race of beings, or be sterilised and live out long, childless lives.

Having read Butler’s collection of short stories, Bloodchild, and her novel Kindred, I was expecting something challenging and disturbing from Lillith’s Brood and I wasn’t disappointed.  Butler is a totally uncompromising writer who makes no concessions whatsoever to the reader’s feelings.  A lot of people seem to find Lilith’s Brood an uncomfortable read and I think it’s supposed to be precisely that.  Butler is primarily a science fiction writer, but much of her work can also be placed in the horror genre, as she forces us into direct confrontation with social taboos and highly disturbing power dynamics.  She pushes her ideas to their logical conclusion and you get the feeling that she doesn’t care about whether her writing is upsetting you or not; her job is to tell the story she set out to tell.  This is one of the reasons why she’s a great writer.

I’ve noticed in other works that Butler seems particularly interested in exploring how people might respond to being caught in situations they can’t escape from – what kind of compromises might they make?  In the first book, Dawn, a young woman named Lilith Iapo is awoken by the aliens only to be given the job of awakening other humans and preparing them for their fate.  Lilith is utterly trapped – if she refuses, someone else will be chosen; if she agrees, she betrays her own people.  She collaborates in the hopes that some of the people she awakes will resist and that she’ll have a better chance than others would of teaching them how to survive.  The price is that she becomes a scapegoat and is forever viewed with suspicion and loathing by other humans.

A lesser writer than Butler would have focussed on the story of the human resisters who refuse to collaborate with the aliens, because that would have been a much easier story to tell, but Butler is not interested in easy.  By telling the story mainly from the point of view of Lilith and her half-alien children (or “constructs”), she does something much more challenging.  She makes us empathise with those who are, for whatever reasons, unable to resist.  We all like to think we would be the rebels don’t we? But would we, really? She doesn’t allow us the relief of identification with the resisters and makes no effort to romanticise them. Their grievance is acknowledged as justified, but most of them quickly confirm the aliens worst suspicions, descending into murder, rape, theft and the kidnap of the half-alien children.  Perhaps these behaviours are due to their being oppressed by the aliens, but Butler seems to be asking whether these behaviours are inherent to humans.  Nor does she allow us the comfort of reading about aliens who are physically attractive or “like us”.  The Oankali are grotesque, grey-skinned, tentacled beings. Their species has three sexes: male, female and Ooloi, and every marriage (or, as they would call it, “mating”) involves at least five people. They are utterly unable to understand the pain they are inflicting on the humans – it just doesn’t make sense to them because they believe that they are being benevolent.  However, Butler doesn’t represent the Oankali as evil, or allow us simply to hate them – some of them are the most interesting characters in the book, especially Nikanj the Ooloi with whom Lilith has an ambivalent, symbiotic relationship.

The second and third books, Adulthood Rites and Imago continue to work out these themes through the stories of Lilith’s children; first Akin, who with some success attempts to champion the cause of the resisters, and then Jodahs who metamorphoses into the first human/Oankali construct Ooloi.

Lilith’s Brood could be interpreted on several levels.  It could be an allegory about slavery and colonialism, although saying this would probably have annoyed Butler. It may be mainly about her interest in the possibilities of genetics.  There’s clearly a lot going on with gender, since we have an alien race with three sexes. However you read it, it’s very much a product of the mid 1980s, a period during which people really thought nuclear war was imminent and the future of human race seemed highly uncertain.  Butler uses the alien Oankali to ask the then pertinent question of what the hell to do with a species that seems bent on destroying itself?

A classic of science fiction.

Women of SF: Ishka

No. 55 in Godard’s Letterboxes list of 100 Women in SF.

Ishka is the mother of Quark and Rom, two of the main Ferengi characters resident on Deep Space Nine, the space station setting for Star Trek’s first spin-off series.

Ishka enters the show as a comedy character, but develops over the series to become one of the most outspoken feminists in the history of Star Trek.  Ferengi society is uber-capitalist and its females are oppressed, forbidden from wearing clothes, owning property, or, worst of all, earning profit – the activity that gives meaning to Ferengi life.

Ishka rejects these constraints and sets out earning profit for herself in secret, almost getting her son, Quark, into serious trouble in the process.  Not content to stop there, Ishka forms a romantic relationship with the Grand Nagus – the head of the Ferengi financial empire – becomes the power behind the throne and starts to work on changing Ferengi society from within.

Ishka is a lot of fun. She’s resilient, positive and friendly, but ready to defend herself energetically when necessary.  She loves both her sons, but is honest about their limitations.   Her grandson, Nog, inherits her rebellious qualities, refusing to obey the “rules of acquisition” and choosing to join Star Fleet instead of earning profit.

Quote: “I predict that one day, a female will enter the Tower of Commerce, climb the forty flights of stairs to the Chamber of Opportunity, and take her rightful place as Grand Nagus of the Ferengi Alliance.”

Women of SF: Guinan

Guinan is a mysterious alien who works as a bartender on the star ship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  She is a member of a scattered species known as “listeners” who were decimated by the Borg.  The reason for her presence on Enterprise is never revealed beyond reference to her close friendship with Captain Picard.   Star Trek: TNG generally does badly with female characters and the two regular female characters, Beverly and Deanna, are not well served.   In a series as attached to gender stereotypes as TNG Whoopi Goldberg’s cool and androgynous Guinan is therefore a great relief and every scene in which she appears is something to look forward to.   She and Patrick Stewart have some amazing chemistry.   Although Goldberg is known as a comedian, she plays Guinan as a serious character and brings a certain gravitas to the show.   Deanna is the official ship’s counsellor,  but Guinan does the real counselling, usually stepping in to challenge the officers when they most need to be challenged.   If I have any complaints, it’s that they didn’t use Guinan enough and that we never found out about her abilities, which the alien trickster Q suggests are considerable.   She can fight too – beating the Klingon Officer Worf in a shooting match and fencing with Captain Picard.

No 51 on Godard’s Letterboxes’s list of 100 women in SF.

A short post about Ursula K. Le Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness (1996)

I’m not going to say much about Four Ways to Forgiveness because if you already like Le Guin you’ll probably enjoy it, whereas if you don’t, it isn’t going to convert you.

Here we have four interlinked stories set in Le Guin’s Hainish universe.  Werel is a slave-owning oligarchy.  Its colony planet, Yeowe, has recently undergone a revolution ousting the owner class and sending them packing back to their home world.  It looks like Werel will soon go the same way as Yeowe.

The stories in the book are those of people who live through this period in the history of the two planets.  An older woman, named Yoss, has retired to seclusion only to find an unexpected new focus in life when she meets a dishonoured ex-leader of the slave revolution who has betrayed his people.  A young envoy of the Ekumen and her reserved Werelian guard come to understand each other when they are both kidnapped by revolutionaries on Werel. Another Envoy, named Havzhiva, finds a home on Yeowe and a purpose in the fight for women’s rights that has taken the place of revolution.  Finally, Havzhiva’s partner, Rakem, tells her life story from her birth into slavery on Werel to her eventual freedom and self-fulfilment on Yeowe.

This is definitely one of Le Guin’s more overtly feminist books and is filled with the usual high quality writing, detailed world building and interesting characters.

Don’t start here if you’re new to the Hainish Universe, though; start with The Left Hand of Darkness and Worlds of Exile and Illusion

Ursula K Le Guin, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (2002)

This seems to be Ursula Le Guin’s sex book, with a large proportion of the stories exploring the complicated and varied social relationships people might form in order to try and manage sex.  In The Birthday of the World she really gets to grips with the contention, underlying most of her work, that sexual norms are socially constructed, rather than natural, and that sexuality should be experienced as a continuum.  Basically, if you already like her more political, allegorical work, you’ll probably like the stories collected here, which almost all feature the detailed world-building and characterisation that are her strong points as a science fiction writer.

Most of the stories take place in what she calls her “universe with holes at the elbows”:

Honest and earnest people, calling it the Hainish Universe, have tried to plot its history onto Time Lines. I call it the Ekumen, and I say it’s hopeless. Its Time Line is like something the kitten pulled out of the knitting basket, and its history consists largely of gaps.

I really enjoyed ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’ which revisits the planet of The Left Hand of Darkness where everyone lives as an androgyne except during their sexual cycle, “kemmer”, when they are able to choose male or female sex.  As Le Guin says in the introduction: ‘This time I didn’t have a damned plot. I could ask questions. I could see how the sex works. I could finally get into a kemmerhouse. I could really have fun”.  Indeed.

The second story, ‘The Matter of Seggri’, is probably my favourite. On the planet of Seggri women vastly outnumber men.  As a result, a segregated society has developed in which men are forced to live in “castles”, allowed only to compete in games and service women sexually in the “fuckeries”.  They have all of the privilege and none of the power.  The story is made up of documents which reconstruct the history of Seggri and the gradual emergence of a male rights movement.  It’s obvious what she’s getting at here, but it’s very well done and a moving story which draws powerful attention to what’s been done to women in our own society.  For some reason, it’s all the more powerful when you see it from the other side.

The stories ‘Unchosen Love’ and ‘Mountain Ways’ both take place in a society divided into two moieties where all marriages involve four people leading to all manner of interesting complications.

‘Solitude’ is a story about a girl brought up on a planet in which aloneness is valued above all else. She decides to remain there rather than return to the social world of Hain, at the cost of her relationships with her family. Le Guin says she wanted to write a story about introverts.

‘Old Music and the Slave Women’ looks at a slave revolt on a planet through the eyes of a handful of people caught up in it, and ‘The Birthday of the World’ recounts the decline of a radically different civilization.

The final story, ‘Paradise Lost’, is quite brilliant, but made me wish that she’d extended it to novel length. It is the story of a generational ship moving through space on its way to a planet where its inhabitants hope to create a colony.  There’s so much potential here – a self-enclosed world containing people of different ethnicities, with each generation moving further and further away from Earth, losing touch with history, reinterpreting the meaning of their journey.  Will the planet be inhabitable?  After such a long period of institutionalisation, will they be in any condition to colonise it if they do ever get there?  Over time, a new religion arises which radically questions the purpose of their journey, coming into conflict with those who stay faithful to the original objective.  I’m not one of those people who says they don’t like short stories because they always want them to turn into novels, but I have to make an exception in this case.

All in all, a good read for Le Guin fans, but probably not the best place to start if you’re new to her work, in which case I’d recommend The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed or the Earthsea Quartet.

Women of SF: Lwaxana Troi, Star Trek

No 37 in Godard’s list of 100 women in science fiction

Lwaxana Troy is the daughter of the Fifth House of Betazed, the Holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, and Heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed.  She is also the mother of Counsellor Deanna Troy who works on board the star ship Enterprise.

The evolution of Lwaxana Troi is a great example of a talented actress breaking the limits originally set by the Star Trek writers.   From a feminist perspective, her character’s first appearances are not at all promising.  She begins as a figure of fun, the sexist humour being based on the idea of an older woman expressing her sexuality.   But, over the course of the series, Lwaxana becomes something far more interesting, a woman who refuses to conform to the emotionally repressed, well-behaved world of Star Trek the Next Generation, a world in which she cannot be anything other than a highly disruptive force.   As a result, Lwaxana becomes a point at which emotional authenticity can enter the show, loudly expressing anger, grief and desire, as well as implicitly and explicitly criticising other characters for their conformity, insipidity and self-repression.  The only episode of The Next Generation that makes me cry is a Lwaxana Troi episode.   Although she plays an alien, Lwaxana is often more ‘human’ than the human characters; she messes up all the time, but her mistakes are always based on genuine feeling.   By the time we reach Deep Space Nine, Lwaxana has become a figure of dignity and emotional courage.

Plus her outfits are awesome.

Classic quote:  “I’ve lived a full life. Sometimes its overflowed a bit, but I enjoy living”.

Women of SF: Jadzia Dax, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Jadzia Dax is the Science Officer on the Federation station Deep Space Nine.  She is also a joined Trill.  Selected members of her species become hosts to symbiotic creatures who share their planet.  The host and symbiont experience a complete merging of personalities and retain the memories and aspects of the personalities of all the previous hosts.   Jadzia is the eighth host for the Dax symbiont.   Her previous host, Curzon Dax, was the best friend and mentor of the Station’s commander, Benjamin Sisko, and the two remain close friends after the Dax symbiont is transferred to Jadzia.

Terry Farrell is great in a difficult role in which she has to convey complexity while maintaining a coherent character.   She combines the exuberance of a young woman with the maturity of an older woman.   She’s very professional; cool under pressure, wise, as well as being a brilliant scientist.  She’s also one of the most playful Star Trek characters.  Dax likes to party.  She revels in relationships that the more buttoned-up characters find a bit incomprehensible, enjoying the company of Klingons and Ferengi among others.  Her pursuit of the Klingon officer, Worf, is a delight as she cracks through his reserve (he’s by the far the more neurotic partner in their relationship).  Dax and Worf marry during Season 6.

Unfortunately, Terry Farrell left the show at the end of Season 6 and was replaced by the inferior Ezri Dax (who the fans dubbed Ally McTrill), a more conventional character and a disappointingly sexist representation in general.  But let’s not allow that to detract from the achievements of Jadzia Dax.

Classic quote: “Sometimes I like it when the bad guy wins.”