randy_byers: (Default)
cover of Gwyneth Jones' LifeI first encountered the fiction of Gwyneth Jones when her novel White Queen was published in the US in 1991. I immediately felt I'd discovered the heir to Joanna Russ and went back and read what I thought were her earliest novels, starting with Divine Endurance, although I see that Wikipedia now list four earlier novels. Her American editor was David Hartwell, and we discussed the rest of the Aleutian Trilogy, which started with White Queen, as it came out. Something about the third book, The Phoenix Cafe, with it's cavalier attitude toward men as an eternal danger to women and children, really put me off, however, and I gave up on Jones after that, although I was still curious enough about her to pick up the first book of her next series, Bold As Love at the Eastercon on my TAFF trip in 2003. I don't think it ever had a US publisher, nor did the rest of that series. I took it off my To Be Read pile not long ago, and bounced off what I found to be a very confusing story about European politics (seemingly very prescient in the post-Brexit world) and countercultural defiance. I switched to another book of hers in the Pile, Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, which I found completely fascinating. Having consulted with Claire Brialey about her own experience reading Jones, I settled on Life as the next novel to try.

Suffice it to say that I liked it a lot better than Bold As Love. In the meantime I also realized that one of the things that makes her an heir to Joanna Russ is her pessimism about the battle between the sexes and the ability of feminism to solve the problem. Life is a very complex meditation on this question. It's a story of gender and genetics, which poses the idea that genetics is what makes the difference an unbridgeable breech. She then imagines a genetic solution to this problem that is probably beyond my ability to describe, but basically it's a non-Darwinian way for genes to be selected. The upshot of this is that genetic sexes (based on Y and X chromosomes)seem to be on their way out evolutionarily.

It's also a novel about life as she is lived, following a group of friends who meet at university, fall in and out of love, and fall in and out of contact later in life. The protagonist, Anna, is a geneticist who discovers the change in the X/Y exchange and spends her life trying to prove it to a disdainful scientific establishment, where her gender is held against her. Spence is her husband -- the apparently ideal house husband and lover -- who still manages to interfere with her research with his emotional neediness. In many ways their frenemy, Ramone, is the most interesting character -- a feminist who despises women and becomes a media star as a pundit, along with her mentor, the mystical old schizophrenic Lavinia. Jones' novels are always sprawling, contradictory affairs, full of crisis and pain, and Life is no exception. Two of the female characters are raped under circumstances in which they are unable to report it without unacceptable repercussions, there's also a heartbreaking miscarriage, and Anna's career seems to be a long series of firings by petty assholes.

What kept me going through all the carnage was the fascinating characters grappling with their messy lives. In her note about the book "Life: an Explanation" Jones writes, "The story of Anna Senoz is not my life story (the scruffy and pugnacious Ramone, Anna's shadow girl, is more like me, if I could imagine myself a feminist media star). But in many ways it's the story of my life as a writer: the experiences that shaped me, the changes that swept over my world, the ideas that made me write the novels I've written, the people who have inspired me; the future I imagine." There's a personal, heartfelt, career-summarizing quality to Life that's refreshing. The science fictional content is relatively small scale, but it has a lot of layers, and I appreciate how Jones confronts the limitations of feminism while tackling the underlying problem with a grand SF concept that ultimately completely reimagines what it means to be male or female.
randy_byers: (Default)
Russ The_Two_of_Them.jpg
She thought that it wasn't David, it wasn't even sex; it was some kind of deeper trouble, not only painful but unbearably, exasperatingly boring, something that would've been a lot better if it had been tragic and easier if it'd been sad.

Something unbearably disillusioning.

And old. Very, very old.

I've been working my way through a couple of different lists of Best/Favorite science fiction by women in Gwyneth Jones' Imagination/Space, mostly recently Tiptree's Up the Walls of the World and McIntyre's Dreamsnake. For Joanna Russ, Jones quite rightly recommends The Female Man, but because the Tiptree and McIntyre were both published in 1978, I chose to re-read The Two of Them, which was also published in 1978 and has long been one of my favorite Russ novels. I've always found it a difficult novel, and it's hard to imagine that I could provide a better reading of it than Jones' "Postscript to A Fairy Tale," which finds in the novel a Cinderella story and a parable of the failure of what's now called second wave feminism to achieve gender equality.

The Two of Them begins with two agents of the Trans-Temporal Agency, Ernst and Irene, arriving on a hollowed out asteroid that houses a neo-Islamic culture where women are treated like ornamental birds in a cage, supposedly for their own protection but really to keep them under control. What Ernst and Irene's mission is, and what the nature of the Trans-Temporal Agency is, is left unclear, but when Ernst and Irene discover the twelve-year-old daughter of the emmisary who greets them and discover that she wants to be a poet but will never be allowed to in this culture (where her aunt Dunya was declared insane for wanting the same thing), we flash back to Irene's adolescence as a bright, awkward, misfit in the USA of 1953. This is pretty clearly an autobiographic element in the story, and I feel that Russ used a similar situation in her Alyx story, "The Second Inquisition." Like the girl Zubeydeh, Irene is unhappy with her options in a culture that is repressive of women like her housewife mother. When a mysterious friend of her mother's named Ernst shows up at the house, Irene is fascinated and soon finds out that he is an agent of a mysterious agency that exists somewhere in an alternative reality. (It seems to me that the agency is not Trans-Temporal so much as Trans-Reality, where Reality conforms to the Many Worlds Hypothesis).

Back in the neo-Islamic asteroid, we find out that Ernst recruited Irene into the agency, rescuing her from the limited future she was facing in her home reality, and that they have been lovers and colleagues in the agency for many years since then. They have a very close, loving relationship, and when Irene decides that she wants to rescue Zubeydeh by recruiting her as Ernst recruited Irene, Ernst is willing. But as Irene mulls the situation, she realizes that rescuing Zubeydeh doesn't accomplish much. What about Zubeydeh's pill-popping housewife mother, who seems to prefer her cage to freedom, or her mad aunt, or Irene's own mother left behind in the home timeline, or her disabled best friend Chloe, who is so socially isolated that she lives vicariously through operas that Irene dismisses as heartless stories about women trapped and killed by social rules while men (especially the morally-ambivalent baritones) are free to have fun while they suffer.

The Two of Them is difficult partly because it's so conflicted. Irene is consumed by guilt for her failures and limitations. She wants women to be as free as men, but she can see that women are often their own worst enemies and complicit in their own oppression. The novel is also self-aware of its own contradictions. This self-awareness starts out as awareness that all stories are artificial, as Irene dissects the cliches of operas and the neo-Islamic poetic fables on TV on the asteroid. Trashy romances that Zubeydeh consumes with a passion and wants to eventually write herself. The fact that Irene and Ernst are moving between probabilities also emphasizes that in some ways they are choosing which story they want to inhabit, which in turn underlines the fact that the one we're reading about is just as arbitrary and full of plot holes as any of the others. Russ takes glee in mocking her own story, in fact, and examining the ways in which it doesn't make sense. Eventually a shocking death occurs, and the novel seems to start unraveling before our eyes, as Irene tries to fix it by imagining that it is a comedy instead of a tragedy.

Yet the nightmare of history won't allow Irene wake up in a comedy. Irene has to face the reality that the oppression of women is deeply engrained in the world and is always working against her, constraining her choices. Ironically, once she cuts herself loose from the agency, which she comes to see as a conspiracy against women, granting freedom to a select few such as herself while abandoning the rest throughout the multiverse, she loses all power of self-determination.

I've always found the end of the novel hair-raising, as Irene dreams of a dream of the mad aunt Dunya, about a valley of dry bones: "Innumerable skeletons are spread from wall to wall, and piled up immeasurably into the half-grey, half-lost rocky ceiling so far from any open love or light, are skeletons lying as they fell long ago in aeons-old attitudes of terror or flight, bones intermingled with bones, heaps of bones choking the dry watercourse and stretching back between the valley walls, a dry, silent carpeting as far as the eye can see." These are pretty clearly the bones of all the women who have died in servitude to men, and nothing in that valley has changed for a very long time. This is an expression of hopelessness and fear that true gender equality can never be achieved in the face of the long history of inequality.

But then, magically, a voice begins to whisper, "Shall these bones live!" and creates a breeze that begins to rustle through the bones, promising new life. I never really understood this ending until a couple of years ago when I discovered that it's a reference to a passage from Ezekiel, where Ezekiel has a vision of a valley of dry bones and then hears the voice of God, '“Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel."'

I'm still not sure what Russ intends with this reference. I don't think she believes gender equality will be wrought miraculously by a supernatural being. It seems more likely that the miracle will be caused by books like The Two of Them, in which women are given a voice, even if only a bare whisper. Of course, while Russ kept writing for a short while after this book was published, she all too soon fell silent herself. But of course Russ was a Jew and would have been well aware that throughout history the people of Israel have never long been free of oppression, enslavement and exile. There's a deep sense of pessimism in this book, for all the agile acrobatics and humor of the narrative. One thing I noticed this time through is that Irene is furious the whole time, but she is also aware that her anger causes her to make strategic and tactical mistakes. Looming over all of this is the question of whether sympathetic men -- such as Ernst -- can be allies in the project of equality, or whether we are doomed by our culture to keep replicating the same power relationships that our culture has stabilized for thousands of years. It's a powerful meditation, if ultimately a gloomy one.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Dreamsnake.jpegI don't find this novel in my book log, which I started in March 1979, which is kind of remarkable. It implies that I had already read it by that time, which is logistically possible because the hardcover was published in March 1978. But I couldn't afford hardcovers back then, so I either got it through the SF Book Club (May 1978) or borrowed it from a friend. The paperback didn't come out until June 1979. I read McIntyre's first novel, The Exile Waiting, in July 1979, and I'm pretty sure I read those two novels out of order. I don't remember for sure, but I probably met Vonda when I came to Seattle for Norwescon in March 1979, so it's interesting to consider that I had probably already read something by her by then.

In any event, my memory is that I had problems with Dreamsnake, although now having read it a second time it's hard to reconstruct what my objections would have been. I think I probably didn't understand some of the subtler things McIntyre was up to, and I probably found it lacking in the kinds of swashbuckling adventure I still looked for in those days. Not that there's no action in Dreamsnake, and in fact the kind of action there is is one of the subtle things McIntyre is up to.

This is above all a novel about snakes and horses. Earth is a post-nuclear holocaust wasteland, and other than one domed city that has contact with offworld aliens or colonists, which is what The Exile Waiting is about, people live an agrarian or nomadic life at very low tech levels, at least on the surface of things. For example, when they travel long distances they travel by horse, so horses are important characters in the story. I was thinking of it as a kind of post-apocalyptic Arcadia, because the nuclear catastrophe provides a kind of civilizational reset that allows McIntyre to explore some utopian or countercultural ideas about how things might bet organized more equitably. The setting is a little reminiscent of Suzy McKee Charnas' Holdfast series, or even Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow.

As we follow the Healer, Snake, through this wasteland, we begin to learn that there's other tech at work, however. The Healers use genetically-engineered snakes to treat disease, specifically by modifying the venom glands to produce healing enzymes that are then injected into the patient via snake bite (ow!). The dreamsnake of the title is an alien life form that produces a venom that seems to be like an opiate in killing pain and causing people to enter a dreamlike state of consciousness. Amongst other things, it's used as palliative care for people who are dying a painful death. The crisis of the novel is that Snake loses her dreamsnake. Come to think of it, the primary use is probably to numb patients before they're bitten by the big snakes with the medicinal venom. Dreamsnakes are extremely difficult to come by, so her career as a Healer is in jeopardy. Snake sets off on a journey to try to solve the problem, and through her journey we learn more about this world.

Along with the genetic engineering, the post-apocalyptic people have also learned to control their own fertility through a mechanism that I'm not sure is fully explained. For men it's a matter of controlling the temperature of their testicles so that the sperm is killed. For women, one supposes they are either able to dissolve the ovum or block it from being released or something along those lines. One of the smart things McIntyre does is explore the ways that useful tools like this somatic self-control and the gentically-engineered snakes can be used badly or mistakenly. For example, people can become addicted to the dreamsnakes. This aspect of the novel reminded me of Sonczewski's A Door Into Ocean, which was published later.

There's also a connection between the two novels in the shared interest in nonviolent solutions to conflict. This is perhaps where my younger self would have been most out of step with Dreamsnake. The thing that McIntyre is inventing here is how to tell a dramatic story about a female protagonist in which the climax isn't the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist. Throughout the novel she shows problems being solved through cooperation and consensus. The brilliant thing she does in the final climax is resolve the overriding crisis of the novel through cognitive breakthrough. Cognitive breakthrough is a common trope in science fiction, but it often comes on top of the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist. McIntyre was part of a movement of New Wave and Feminist writers who challenged this paradigm, and she cleverly points out that cognitive breakthrough -- the scientific Eureka moment -- can work dramatically to replace the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist.

Although I should add here that McIntyre does embrace one conventional heroic -- and indeed traditionally female -- trait: endurance. Like every Andre Norton protagonist ever, Snake is pushed to the limit of endurance and beyond. Her toughness and ability to take the pain is a token of her heroism, alongside her ability to solve the scientific problem.

Without getting into spoilers, the cognitive breakthrough in Dreamsnake also connects the novel to Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, which was also published later. It's a brilliant stroke involving the explanation for how the dreamsnakes reproduce, and again, how human scientists failed to understand it for so long through their own cognitive biases. This is gripping stuff once you're attuned to it.

McIntyre is modifying a very traditional kind of science fiction story here. I can see why it won a Hugo, because it both embraces the conventional and tweaks it for the current moment. For example, group families are at least as old as Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, and McIntyre rings some variations on it based on the counterculture of her time, from the polyamory of the Healers to the way that they don't marry or bear children but only adopt orphans. When one Healer adopts an orphan, the child becomes the responsibility of all Healers, and it will be raised to be a Healer.

On a final, personal note, I have to say that throughout this review I've had to fight the inclination to refer to the author as Vonda rather than McIntyre, because I do know her and consider her a friend. I have one of her awesome bead creatures sitting right here on my desk. [Stops to fondle bead creature.] I was frequently distracted while reading the book by the fact that some of the characters were clearly based on other people I know, or at least people like them. Maybe that's another reason I liked it better the second time around. It's not that I was in it, but my friends were.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Slonczewski A-door-into-ocean.JPGGwyneth Jones writes about this book a number of times in her collection, Imagination/Space. She has a conflicted response to it: "Don't do it! was my cry. Don't claim the moral high ground; the sf guys' club will love you for it; doesn't that tell you anything ...? A woman doing just what she's supposed to do, being gentle and nurturing, looking after our spiritual growth, being moral so we don't have to be ... That's not the revolution. I feel differently now, because these are different times. Best feature: A Door into Ocean works like mainstream sf. Okay, it's about the sixties US under the skin, but the skin is proper, sciffy, rich, and strange sfnal skin." (in "(Re)reading for a Chapter on Feminist SF")

This novel won the John W Campbell Memorial Award for 1986, which is certainly a mainstream SF credential, and it was eventually followed by three more novels comprising the Elysium Chronicles. As The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes it: "The planet (in fact a moon) is in this case a water-covered Utopia inhabited solely by parthenogenetic web-footed aquatic female Shorans ... whose pacific culture suffers a savage Invasion at the hands of the male-dominated rigidly-hierarchical culture from the neighbouring planet of Valedon, whose leader is called the Patriarch." Sloncewski is apparently a Quaker, and her pacifist beliefs are definitely explored in this novel. What's interesting is that the Patriarch is light years away from and thus invisible to the planets he rules through an intermediary called the Envoy, and so he works as a kind of metaphor for the Christian God that the Quakers also worship. Perhaps Sloncewski's willingness to explore her conflicted feelings about her religion is part of why the novel feels so personal and honest, despite the way it stacks the moral deck in favor of the Utopian female society.

Like a lot of '70s feminist Utopias (cf Russ' Whileaway, Charnas' Motherlines, or Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time) Slonczewski's matriarchy reflects the political division within the womens movements of the time, with more militant factions, some that are more spiritual, and some that are more separatist, for example. Nobody gets let off easily, and a lot of the novel is taken up with the anguish various characters (including the militarist males) feel about the decisions they make. The deep history of the novel seems to be that the Shorans are descendants of people they call the Primes who thousands of years ago destroyed their civilization with "fire," probably of a nuclear nature. This forced them to change their culture and their science. Now perhaps the Patriarch is interested in resurrecting that old technology for his own purposes, or whatever other weapon technology the descendants of the Primes are capable of creating with the new science.

As Jones implies, what makes A Door into Ocean particularly fascinating is that the women of the ocean moon Shora are advanced genetic scientists, using only organic means to manipulate genes and cells. Slonczewski's background as a microbiologist shines through in the marine ecology she creates on Shora, where all life forms are interdependent and healing is practiced through enzymes and specially-bred lifeforms rather than pharmaceuticals and scalpels. (The split is reminiscent of Sterling's Shaper/Mech stories, I guess.) It's a work of hard science, and a highly original one. The only similar worldbuilding I can think of is in Varley's Eight Worlds stories and Gaia trilogy. Slonczewski goes much deeper, to my mind, creating a fully-imagined world that brought me that vicarious pleasure of exploring the alien that I remember from my adolescent encounters with science fiction. The sexuality in the novel is interesting too, with the one relationship that we see most closely being between one of the merwomen and a male (or malefreak, as the all-female Shorans think of him) from the planet that is invading their world. They are biologically incapable of having reproductive sex (in fact they are basically toxic to each other on that level), but the sex they are able to have is smoking hot.

Despite the painful subject of genocide and resistance, there is a joy to this novel that is a pleasure to behold: a science fiction writer in her prime hitting on all cylinders of imagination and speculation. Great stuff, highly recommended.
randy_byers: (colma 1987)
The Furies.jpgAs I've mentioned on Facebook, I've really been enjoying the discussion that has exploded around the new Mad Max movie, Mad Max: Fury Road. The link there is to the review I wrote after I saw the film for the first time, and I've since seen it twice more. Yesterday I read a bunch of blog posts and articles about the movie. I was very pleased to see that Liz Bourke, like me, sees Suzy McKee Charnas' fingerprints: "It draws so much of its arc from 1970s/early 80s feminist science fiction I mean it sort of IS Suzy McKee Charnas. Its arc is a compressed version of the narrative arc of her Motherlines series (REALLY HORRIFIC DYSTOPIA) done as an action film with extra added DEATH CAR STUNTS." In particular, when we discover (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) that Furiosa was raised by two mothers in a tribe that Bourke describes as a "lesbian separatist commune," I immediately flashed on Charnas' novel Motherlines. And when the women with their two damaged male partners take the war to the patriarchy, I was reminded of The Furies, which is the savage and exciting sequel to Motherlines.

After I'd gotten through a whole wodge of posts and comments celebrating the feminism of Fury Road, I did begin to feel like I'd eaten too much ice cream. I mean, I obviously love the movie enough to have seen it three times in five days, but still, all squee and no squall make Max a dull boy. So it was good to read Alyssa Rosenberg's typically questioning analysis this morning: "‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and the political limits of action movies". Rosenberg has written about the political limits of superhero stories before, and the analysis here is similar. As she points out, "There might well be a sequel that explores Furiosa and the wives’ attempts to govern the Citadel now that they’ve liberated it. But these would be very different from the tense, spare chase and race that make “Mad Max: Fury Road” such an effective action spectacle." And that reminded me of Charnas' sequel to The Furies, The Conqueror's Child, which for me was by far the least compelling book in the series. I think it's just inherently hard to write about an imaginary post-revolutionary world, although that of course immediately makes me think of Le Guin's The Dispossessed, which does a better job than Charnas' book of conceiving an ambiguous utopia. Charnas tries to explore the contradictions in the ideologies and agendas of the conquering feminists, but my memory is that it felt schematic, cautious, and dramatically flat. It lacked the bravura of Motherlines and The Furies. (The first book in the series, Walk to the End of the World, is very powerful in its own right, but I believe it was her first novel, so it wasn't quite as well written as the middle two books.)

So yeah, it's easy to imagine that if George Miller made a sequel that focused on Furiosa's new government, it might not be as good as the revolutionary Fury Road. The ellipses in the exposition that allow so much room for "speculative reading" (my phrase for the fannish love of creating rationales for what isn't explicit in the text) would probably be filled with the usual fantasyland bollocks. But it's still worth celebrating what it does accomplish: expanding the roles of women in a big-budget action blockbuster, and not coincidentally modifying the possibilities for heroic male roles at the same time. It certainly doesn't solve the political problems of the world, but it still feels like something to savor. We'll see if it still feels that way after the adrenaline rush wears off.

randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Lightspeed_49_June_2014Well, that certainly was invigorating! This book-length issue of Lightspeed is the Book of Honor at this year's Potlatch science fiction convention. This issue was originally published as an e-book only, but it was popular enough that with the help of a Kickstarter campaign they were able to publish a printed "limited edition" -- and, because they raised so much money, will be doing special printed editions of similar collections of fantasy stories and horror stories by women. Because that's what this special issue is all about: science fiction as written by women. It was published as part of a reaction to a growing sense amongst some folks in the field that sexism is still alive and all too well, as evidenced by Hugo-nomination lists and unreconstructed male chauvinists in SFWA and the like.

As at least some of you will have noticed, I've mostly been reading older science fiction in recent years, so this was the biggest dose of current science fiction I've read lately aside from getting caught up with Iain Banks' Culture novels last year. One thing that was interesting to me was that these stories didn't seem all that different than the Golden Age stories I've been reading in the Asimov & Greenberg Great SF Stories/Golden Years of Science Fiction collections that cover stories from 1939 to 1964. I guess that's when modern science fiction matured, and maybe the basic tropes and rhetorical approaches haven't changed much since then. The other thing that struck me is how few of these writers I'd heard of, let alone read before. Two of the reprinted stories, Tiptree's great "Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death" and Maureen McHugh's "The Cost to Be Wise," were things I'd read before, and I've read other things by Eleanor Arnason, although not the story reprinted here. I'd heard of Seanan McGuire, N.K. Jemisin, Charlie Jane Anders, Amal El-Mohtar, and Tananarive Due, but that's it amongst the fiction writers. That makes me feel both that I've totally lost track of what's going on in the field (no big surprise), and that's there's plenty of interesting stuff going on.

I'm not sure that I have a lot to say about specific stories. I didn't think there were any great stories amongst the new ones, but I thought all of them were good. Maybe I should give a particular shout-out to K.C. Norton for "Canth," which combines pirates, coelacanths, sentient ships, and cryptozoology. What I really liked about this as a collection is that it was all over the place in terms of subject-matter and style. It's bristling with ideas and narrative energies. I also really enjoyed the section in which the writers reflected on what they were trying to do in their stories. For me probably the least interesting section was the "Personal Essays," which I thought got a little bit samey after a while. On the other hand, even those were interesting for revealing how many scientists still want to try their hand at science fiction and for creating an unofficial list of influential writers. Le Guin scores highest on that front, probably to no one's surprise, but what did surprise me was how beloved Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is (I was not impressed when I read it in high school) and especially the number of times Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of a Spacewoman was mentioned. I really liked that book when I read it a number of years ago, and I'm pleased that it has been so influential.

Perhaps the greatest tribute you can give a book is that it makes you want to read a bunch of other things. I really should read the whole novel that "The Cost to Be Wise" was excerpted from. I was very happy to learn that Nisi Shawl's Belgian Congo steampunk novel is finally being published by Tor this year, and I'll definitely be reading that. And I just took Memoirs of a Spacewoman off the shelf for another read. Feminism is alive and well in science fiction, and we are all better for it. I look forward to the discussion at Potlatch.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Like Marianne Stokes, Evelyn De Morgan was associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, but unlike Stokes she was directly related to the group. Her uncle, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, was a "second wave" Pre-Raphaelite painter. The Art Magick article about Morgan says of her paintings, "Many do reflect the usual conventions and literary subjects of late Victorian art with its Pre-Raphaelite traces and neo-classical tendencies. However, looking closer, one discovers Symbolist works that employ the language of Christian allegory to reveal the artist’s engagement with the contemporary issues of her time." Art Magick also says she was a practicing spiritualist and feminist, who "sought new heroines with which to construct her own images of Victorian womanhood."

Medea (1889)

Four more paintings ... )
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
It took me at least two years to read this book, partly because it's a collection of short pieces, so it was very easy to dip in now and then rather than just plow through it. I first became aware of it when I read the review in Sandra Bond's fanzine, Quasiquote. The publication of this book in 2007 by Liverpool University Press fulfilled a long time wish of mine that all of Russ' review columns from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction be collected. (David Hartwell used to talk about publishing such a collection.) I'm not sure this book actually collects all of her F&SF reviews, but it certainly has all the ones I remember reading in the back issues of the magazine I sporadically picked up back in the late-'70s and early '80s. There are also reviews from other sources, along with a section of essays and a short section of letters, mostly letters to the editor of various feminist magazines.

I believe I've said here before that Russ is the writer I've most tried to emulate in my own writing, on a style level. There's no way I could really write like her, however, because she's a far different personality. I found myself arguing with her judgementiveness in a lot of these pieces, but that's part of what makes her such a lively read. She's opinionated, she's often angry, she's frequently contemptuous, and she expresses herself very, very clearly and passionately. Even when I'm frustrated by her opinions, her way with words and ideas is a joy to behold. Part of what I've always loved about her style is the sarcastic, bitter sense of humor, which is very much on display in this collection. The phrase "rapier wit" comes to mind. I'm glad it was never aimed at me.

Because it's a hodgepodge collection, the book as a whole doesn't have the cumulative impact of some of her more focused non-fiction collections such as To Write Like a Woman or Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts. But Russ is an important enough writer that she deserves to have even her grocery lists and recipes collected, and it's wonderful to have all these bits and pieces to wander through. I'm glad she's still remembered enough to be honored with such a collection as well.
randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
On the flight back from California, I read Claire Brialey's piece in the latest Banana Wings about feminism and (amongst other things) fandom. Claire was polite enough not to finger me as the unnamed fan who, in worrying about the lack of LOCs from women to his fanzine, attributed Claire's article about the same issue in an earlier Banana Wings to her male co-editor, Mark Plummer. Hoist on my own petard, as I said to Claire when she called me on it here on LJ at the time.

As I was thinking about the issue of female participation in fanzines after reading Claire's piece, I got to wondering about whether the percentages are any better in online communities. I still haven't done a gender count of the Chunga mailing list, but I've just gone through my LJ Friends list. Ignoring communities, people who have died, and people I don't know (and thus don't know their gender), and counting people with multiple accounts only once, I came up with 77 male Friends and 48 female Friends. That's 62% male, 38% female. Well, it's better than the percentages for people who write LOCs to Chunga! (Although I suppose the proper comparison there would be people who comment on my LJ.) I wonder how this compares to other peoples' counts. Anybody willing to do the work on their own Friends lists?

Okay, this is kind of weird: On Facebook I have 115 male Friends and 74 female. That's 61% male, 39% female. Those percentages are scarily close to the LJ percentages.

(And don't worry, Claire (and Mark), I *am* going to try to turn this into a LoC.)
randy_byers: (blonde venus)
Interesting list at the House of Mirth and Movies of a 100 films focused on women. I've only seen 28 of these, but the selections seem very good to me. The blogger, who is only identified as mrsemmapeel, writes:

I’m still not sure what I qualify an “essential” film about women, I hope my list presents a huge cross-section of different kinds of women and experiences, but at the very least I’m looking for films that have at least one female protagonist, which rules out a lot of films that may have interesting or strong female supporting characters and roles unfortunately. I’m also not attempting to paint only a positive portrait of womanhood, I think many of these film reveal many imperfect, even downright cruel women… but that is part of a reality.

This list got me thinking about the Bechdel Test again, although it doesn't seem to be any part of the equation here.
randy_byers: (machine man)
The early years of the film industry in the US were much more open to women directors and producers than it was from the mid-'20s on. Kino has released a set of three DVDs with films by women that explores this nook of history.

Hypocrites (1915) by Lois Weber is the earliest film in the set. I'd previously seen Weber's Too Wise Wives (1921), which is a marriage-problem film in the manner of Cecil B. DeMille. She was a major director in her day. Weber was a moralist, but Hypocrites is interesting in that it almost literally turns a mirror on moralism. The spiritual man who seeks to reveal the Truth to the pious hypocrites of his flock is also shown to be blind to the human needs and affections of those who follow him. The self-reflexive nature of the criticism is wonderfully captured in a close-up of a human eye in which one can make out the reflection of the cameraman shooting the picture. The movie was a bit of a cause célèbre because Weber chose to personify the Truth with a naked girl. "The people are shocked by the nakedness of truth," says one of the intertitles as a statue of the naked figure is revealed. This causes a riot in the film, and apparently the film caused a riot in New York because of the nudity. A lot of the allegory is pretty ham-handed, it must be said, but as an almost avant garde piece of visual film-making with a lot of camera movement (still rare in this era of the tableaux style), Hypocrites has a lot of interest.

The Ocean Waif (1916) by the French emigre Alice Guy Blaché is described in Kino's liner notes as a parody of women's melodramas, but it was hard for me to see the parody. A young woman who was found by the ocean as a baby and raised by a brute of a man runs away from his abuse and takes up in an abandoned mansion. A best-selling writer settles in as well to finish his next book in peace and quiet, and soon his valet is telling him the place is haunted. This ends up pretty much the way you'd expect it too, and the most interesting thing about the film (despite a severely decomposed print) is the delicate visual style. As Alice Guy, the director started working for Gaumont in France in 1896. IMDb says she is considered the first woman director.

49-17 (1917), which is on the same disk as The Ocean Waif, was directed by Ruth Ann Baldwin. Kino's liner notes again describe this as a parody, this time of Westerns. Again, I found the parody hard to detect. A judge wants to relive his past as a goldminer in the West, so he sends his male secretary out to hire an acting troupe to inhabit a ghost town. The secretary falls for the beautiful girl in the troupe, but there's a desperado in the group who has his own evil intentions toward her. There are certainly moments of comedy here, but it's mixed with straight-up melodrama and action, much as The Ocean Waif. The strange title is apparently an amalgamation of 49er, as in goldminer, and 1917, the year the film was produced. Don't ask me why!

Finally there is The Red Kimona (1925), which was directed by a man, Walter Lang, but produced by Dorothy Davenport (as Mrs. Wallace Reid*) and written by Dorothy Arzner, who would go on to be one of the few female directors to work in Hollywood in the '30s and '40s. This is a fallen woman story, based on a real life woman, Gabrielle Darley, who was forced into prostitution by her husband and who later killed him but was acquitted of murder. Darley sued the movie's production company for using her real name in the film, and the suit resulted in new privacy laws being enacted in California. The movie itself is a decent melodrama that does a good job of showing the woman's plight in the face of polite society's hypocritical moralism. We are thumped on the head by Mrs. Wallace Reid herself at the beginning and end of the movie. The title refers to the piece of clothing Gabrielle wears as a prostitute, and the "kimona" was hand-painted red on the film itself -- a strange special effect. This is also possibly the only film of these four that would pass the Bechdel Test.

*Wallace Reid was a major star in early Hollywood who was injured in 1919 while performing one of his famous film stunts and then supplied with morphine by the studio so that he could keep working through the pain. He became an addict, although also of alcohol, and was dead three years later. Aspects of his story seems to have inspired the recent movie The Fall, which is so far my favorite film of the year.
randy_byers: (Default)
A couple of recent posts on feminist blogs alerted me to something that one of them was calling the Bechdel Test, although there seems to be some disagreement on the name of the thing. It comes from a comic strip called "The Rule" from Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For. As stated in the strip, the rule/test is a movie that:

1) has at least two women in it
2) who talk to each other
3) about something other than men.

This is a pretty interesting way to look at movies. In the strip, one of the jokes is that Alien qualifies, because "the two women in it talk to each other about the monster." A movie that doesn't qualify is Hellboy 2, which Denys and I saw last night. Thinking about other movies I've seen recently, Tell No One qualifies, but what about Shall We Dance? I'm not sure that Ginger Rogers ever talks to the other women in the movie, let alone about something other than Fred Astaire. The Fall would qualify, as long as you count the conversations the little girl has with the nurse or with her mother.

One thing that this test gets at is a way of pointing at "dick flicks" (as opposed to "chick flicks"). A lot of action or adventure films, like Hellboy 2, do not satisfy the conditions, and they might be thought of as movies aimed at boys. As someone in one of the other threads pointed out, the LOTR movies don't cut it, because the women (e.g., Arwen, Galadriel, and Eowyn) don't talk to other women. Movies like Iron Man (and like Hellboy) pretty much only have one woman in them to begin with. Then again, Shall We Dance is hardly what I would think of as a dick flick.

It's also interesting to try to figure out if there are movies that satisfy the rule but aren't particularly woman-oriented. I suppose The Fall would be an example. Also the 1939 Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy's conversations with the Good and Bad Witches (and with her aunt, and between the aunt and Miss Gulch) would seem to qualify. Of course, these are both fantasy films with girl protagonists, so maybe they really are woman-oriented. I haven't yet come up with a good example of a dick flick that satisfies the Bechdel Test. Well, maybe Alien, as she pointed out herself.
randy_byers: (Default)
Flint's "The Queen of Life" ends up being a very strange story. I had to read it twice to try to get it straight in my head, but I'm still not sure I understand all the strange twists and contortions. While on the face of it this is a fairly commonplace utopia, lurking beneath its placid, generic surface is an ambiguous battle of the sexes.

What the big idea, wise guy? -- SPOILERS, ho! )


randy_byers: (Default)

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