Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 Reads in Review, Part 2: Wiscon-Related

Back in May, at the SFRA/Wiscon conference, I presented a paper on reproductive technology & material feminism in C.J. Cherryh's SF, particularly “Forty Thousand in Gehenna” and “Cyteen”. Along the way I revisited a lot of reproduction-related SF including:

  • “The Left Hand of Darkness” (1969)- Ursula Le Guin
    • Rarely is a book so deserving of being called a classic—there's little else in SF/F at quite this level of achievement. “Dune” and “Lord of the Rings”, perhaps. This is a frequent re-read for me. The hook is a good one—planet of cyclic hermaphrodites where there is no sexual inequality to define people—but the book reads as about friendship, and a hundred other themes. Rich in Taoist/Jungian motifs, anthropological sketches, strange and beautiful insights. It also features some danger-cold winter travelogues that you may like if you enjoy Jack London's fiction or Shackleton's account of the Endurance expedition.
  • “The Female Man” (1975)- Joanna Russ
    • Holds up, a good read. It feels a little devoid of detail for my tastes, but I think that's just Russ's writing style. A bit experimental in structure and style, this is a story of four different people who are sort of versions of each other. Explores the radically different ways personality and gender are expressed depending on environment, among other things. The glimpses of all-female Whileaway are the best.
  • “The Boys From Brazil” (1976)- Ira Levin
    • Cherryh's “Cyteen” is answering/elaborating on Levin to a certain extent. This is a sort of techno-thriller pulp about a conspiracy to clone Hitler and then engineer his childhood experiences to create the adult they need. Surprisingly readable, and surprisingly nuanced in its appreciation of nature/nurture issues. Ultimately feels pretty technophobic, and of course put “Hitler” and “Genetic Engineering” together in the popular consciousness. One can't help but think that this story could have been done using Einstein or Turing's DNA instead.
  • “Brave New World” (1932)- Aldous Huxley
    • Also a book that Cherryh is engaged with in her SF. Age has pulled some of the teeth of this dystopia, but it's still a fun read. The world and technology feel quaint, and many of the trends Huxley is trying to get us riled up about seem pretty harmless or at least every-day now. The issues of mass consumerism and desire-programming definitely still resonate, though. The weirdest/funniest part of reading this today, for me, is the way that it doesn't actually come across as a dystopia, the way “1984” or “We” do. This is actually pretty close to a utopia, just one that uses a lot of tech and trends that Huxley finds yicky. There's no villainous overlords, no hate—we even find out at the end that dissenters and outsiders aren't killed or brainwashed, but removed to their own island where they can pursue their individuality.
    • As I was reading a ton of non-fiction on reproductive technologies and related ethical discussions, it was astonishing to me how often “Brave New World” was referenced, with “Boys from Brazil” right behind it. These are two books that have somehow got deep into popular consciousness, like “Frankenstein”, and are used as (fallacious) one-line “arguments” against “unnatural” technologies, just by associating technologies like artificial wombs & cloning with Hitler or horrific fictional consequences. There's only a small minority of writers in the medical & ethical literature on the topic—mostly younger folks who've been exposed to feminist thinking—who draw on the emancipatory ideas of feminist SF or their theoretical expression by people like Firestone.
  • “Ethan of Athos” (1986)- Lois McMaster Bujold
    • Meh. Read this in a “find all SF on cloning and non-standard-gender reproduction” phase. Athos is an all-homosexual-male planet that uses artificial wombs to reproduce; Ethan has to go get some fresh ovary samples on a space station; hijinks ensue. Doesn't actually engage the issues of sex & reproduction, homosexual characters, or the misogyny of of Ethan's home culture, just uses the ideas as a set-up.
  • “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” (1976)- Kate Wilhelm
    • Eco-disaster novel that turns into a warning parable about cloning. Junk science fear-mongering; there's an interesting note in here about individuality, but that's about it.
  • “Virgin Planet” (1959)- Poul Anderson
    • Oh my goodness, Poul Anderson. There's a whole tradition/sub-genre of SF that looks at all-male or all-female worlds, or “last man/last woman” kind of stories. Variations on these themes were put to very good use during the surge of excellent radical feminist SF in the 70s; this is Anderson's (earlier) take on a planet of all women. I quite enjoy Anderson here and there, he's prolific and polished up a lot of golden age SF tropes, and I'm perversely glad he wrote this book, because it's like Exhibit A for sexism in SF. It's like when you're at a party with an acquaintance who starts revealing themselves to hold some horrible political/sexist/racist opinion, and it's so flabbergasting and over the top that you keep watching, like a horror movie you can't look away from. Made all the worse because Anderson's prurience is also Puritanically censored, so most of his sex & sexism come across as winking allusions rather than saying it flat-out.
  • “Woman on the Edge of Time” (1976)- Marge Piercy
    • So glad I finally got around to reading this. More here-and-now than “Left Hand”, more hard-hitting and concrete than “The Female Man”, this is good stuff. I found this emotionally hard to read at points; I've seen firsthand the way that our society can systematically strip rights and options away from people, particularly women, particularly with regards to mental institutions, and Piercy is brutally forthright about it. On the flip side, the vision of utopian Mattapoisset is aching in its clarity: it's “Walden Two” done on deep ecological principles, ethical social engineering, and probably Firestone-inspired destruction of the traditional family and gender norms. I've thought of Mattapoisset quite a lot now in connection to other eco/gender-concerned SF, KSR's “2312” for instance.

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