30 Sep

The Power: The Fantasy You Didn’t Know You Needed

Thoughts on The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power is a story set in a frame. A man, 5,000 years in the future, pitches this book as a way to help readers visualize history and events that occurred before “The Cataclysm.” His publisher is skeptical that any story suggesting men might have once subjugated women will sell or be read as anything but “men’s literature” or smut. However, the text of this “author’s” story is included, leaving the reader to decide for herself.

This book is a glorious revenge fantasy, which I, for one, particularly appreciated on the heels of Judge Kavanaugh’s hearing and, let’s say, the entirety of recorded history. In The Power, women spontaneously develop the ability to wield electrostatic power. It starts with young women, but the young can awaken it by passing a charge to another woman’s skein, the organ governing this sense. Soon, women around the world are exacting righteous retribution and, in the case of one of our protagonists, Mother Eve, starting religions to usher in the new world order.

Narratives Can Change Us

One of my favorite scenes in The Power was when women in Saudi Arabia realized that they were no longer beholden to the cruel, archaic power structures that had long kept them prisoners in their own homes, with fathers, sons, and husbands their wardens. En masse, the women take to the streets. Armed police advance on them, but what gun can stop the fury of thousands of women holding electricity in their fingertips? Soon, the women begin blowing up cars and rioting in earnest, their tone jubilant.

Of course, women make up half the people on the planet. I read this scene and thought, if women truly exercised their solidarity, could we be stopped? If the whole of Riyadh’s female population today, for example, said we refuse to accept this any longer, could they force a change? Could women in the United States, in a surge of power, prevent another rapist and man who believes women shouldn’t be able to decide what to do with their own bodies from becoming a Supreme Court justice? Just maybe.

Reading The Power made me think about the stories we tell ourselves and the way we frame the world. Adlerman is not the first writer to posit that how we see ourselves in the world can change reality. Another book, and a book I love, is Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin. In Native Tongue, women work together to develop their own language, naming new concepts and creating power in doing so. Although the women in the story are palpably oppressed by the men in their family, deploying their new language tips the balance of power. Soon, the men cannot control women and the power they have unleashed.

Similarly, I thought of a part of the Sandman comics in which Dream, in the form of a cat, tells another feline that cats once ruled the world, saying “We were larger then, and this whole world was created for our pleasure. We roamed it as we would, taking what we wanted.” However, a human pet, in a flash of inspiration, dreamed that the world could be different. He shared the dream with others and “They dreamed … and the next day, things changed.” Humans became the dominant species.

The Power is women’s version of that dream. Perhaps if we all dream the same dream, one day we, too, will wake to find everything changed.

4 comic book panels from "Sandman." A large black cat tells a small white cat the secret to changing the world

Dream, in the form of a cat, instructs a cat in how to change the world.

But Are Women People?

The second half of the book, for me, was not so much a revenge fantasy as a revenge nightmare. Women, mad with power, start paramilitary camps that train young women to use power as soldiers. A European president institutes laws stipulating that men must have a female guardian at all times, men must carry documentation, and men can be sent to work camps for too much surly backtalk. We even witness the graphic rape of a man. That, is, we witness a gang of women raping a man.

The tale’s atrocities ramp up slowly, so when at last a man is ordered (by a woman in power) to lick up spilled alcohol pooled amid shards of glass, you almost wonder how we got here. Almost. In this scene, older women spur on the terror, shouting that men had done much worse in their time—this is no less than they deserve.

What strikes me is how easy it is to see the horror in male refugees, men’s suffering. Really, it’s the crux of the whole book: how simple it is to empathize with men, how easy it is to identify wrongs committed in the name of power and of the status quo are, indeed, wrongs, when applied to men.

It reminds me that society generally sees men as people and women as some other class of human. You know, like a woman writer, or a woman chef, or a “girl boss.” Maybe even a female doctor. We don’t read woman into these neutral words. Nothing about “boss” is inherently male. Except millennia of patriarchy and male power have taught us that, yes, boss is a male job. Men do it. The Power gives us 5,000 years of the opposite. How foolish, the fictional publisher thinks, to see men running gangs and committing violence against women. Women, in this story, are the ones with the right to humanity.

It’s easy to see the horror in men confined to their homes or in (women) soldiers raping (men) victims. How terrifying! But the reality is that this is how women in the real world live now. Women today are afraid to go out at night. Women today, in some countries, can’t leave the house without a male to escort them. Women today are raped (by men) and are the victims (of men’s) violence.

All this happens today, yet we are either too close to it or too fatigued to be shocked by it.

At the end of The Power, we return to the discussion between “author” and “publisher.” The author states, “Three or four thousand years ago, it was considered normal to cull nine in ten boy babies. Fuck, there are still places today where boy babies are routinely aborted, or have their dicks ‘curbed.’ This can’t have happened to women in the time before the Cataclysm.” He goes on to say that “the world is the way it is now because of five thousand years of ingrained structures of power based on darker times when things were much more violent … but we don’t have to act that way now.”

What if we didn’t act that way now?

What if women seized the power of solidarity? What if we dreamed the world into existence? What if the world changed overnight?

 

27 Sep

When Nothing Happens

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have never been the victim of sexual assault or abuse. That doesn’t mean I have always felt safe. There have been many times in my life that could have easily escalated into assault or worse. It is hard, in some ways, to talk about these close calls because, I think, well I wasn’t raped. It wasn’t that bad. That said, here’s the scariest story of a time that something bad almost happened.
 
When I was in ninth grade I lived in London for a year with my (now ex-)step-mom, step-sister, and my actual sister. It was the first and only year I had to wear a uniform for school and I was very naive about how walking around in a city in a school uniform makes girls a target for harassment.
 
The day that nothing happened, I was walking home after school and, a few feet from my house, a car pulled up to me. There was a man driving the car and two women passengers. The women, both adults, kept giggling. In retrospect, they might have been on drugs but I didn’t know how to identify that at the time. I had never seen any of these people before. The man invited me to get in the car with them.  I said no. I don’t remember what else the man said to me, only that was I was scared and upset, and I hurried to the door (but did not run, because running shows weakness). I fumbled with my keys and went into the empty house. I don’t remember if I cried but I remember holing up in my bedroom.
 
I remember being extremely shaken by this incident and I didn’t know how to tell anyone about it—in part because nothing “happened.” But something did happen. That non-event has stayed with me for 17 years. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had gotten into that car. I didn’t know if the man was going to get out and overpower me. I am lucky that I got away and I was close to my house.
 
Even though nothing “happened,” this is one of many things in my life that has taught me that many men see women as objects. Actions like this, or like street harassment, serve to remind women that they are not meant to be in public, that they should not be alone or feel any power or agency in their own lives.
 
I have spent my morning watching Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford be cross-examined in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. I believe her. Republican senators brought in a professional prosecutor to interrogate the details of her story, as if she has anything to gain by making this up. No one wants to relieve the most painful parts of their life. To ask her to do so in front of the whole country and then to answer probing questions about any gaps in her story is cruel.
Dr. Blasey-Ford is a civic hero. She understands her place in the national conversation. She didn’t want to come forward. She didn’t want to do this. She has spent her life trying to forget about the time that Brett Kavanaugh almost “accidentally” killed her, as she stated in her testimony today. Yet, here she is, doing all of us the biggest favor by trying to keep another privileged rapist from joining the Supreme Court.
I wonder if, in some way, Dr. Blasey-Ford also thinks that “nothing” happened. She was terribly violated, but she wasn’t raped. Does she downplay her assault in her mind, despite the clear trauma it left her?
Even though “nothing” has happened to me, enough has happened that I, like most women, think through when and where to be outside alone. I look for exits in buildings. I avoid men who give me creepy “vibes.” These are the subtle accommodations women make for men’s incessant predatory behavior.
It’s strange, the imprint that nothing leaves on one’s life.
17 Oct

Me, You, and Everyone Too

Me, too.

Of course, me, too. I struggle to imagine what sort of woman has never been harassed or assaulted. This theoretical woman would probably be the type to live under some mantle of patrilineal protection: I can only imagine a woman free of harassment if she lives according to the patriarchy’s ever-shifting rules. Even then, is she really free of harassment? If you second-guess yourself into oblivion, contort your whole life to conform to the rules and expectations of the men who surround you, have you really lived a life free of harassment? Or have you merely applied it to yourself, sparing the need for patriarchal sanction?

These discussions surrounding abuse always get me because I have been subject to the leering and dangerous attentions of men, but then I think, well, I’ve never been raped. I’ve never been assaulted. I’ve never not made it home safe. Yet, what I have experienced has stayed with me:

14 and walking home from school, a man pulls his car up to the curb where I’m walking. Two tittering women in the backseat. He invites me in. I can’t remember what he said only that terror overtook me and through the shroud of my naiveté I at least knew to stride purposefully (don’t run, don’t show fear) to my door, lock myself inside.

17 and working a high school job as a caterer. A male patron asks me, “Aren’t you out past your bedtime?” The threat, of course, lurking in the subtext.

19 and working in a mall bookshop. A male customer tells me that it’s cool that I like “reading and stuff.” He follows this statement up with, “How old are you?” and attempts to ask me out.

21 and a man on a bus won’t stop talking to me. He tells me I have a “smile like Malcolm X.” Perhaps this isn’t a true instance of harassment, but it stayed with me. I felt powerless to disengage from this commuter conversation. I still don’t know what about my smile put him in mind of Malcolm X. This mystery lingers.

24 and riding my bike home from work. A man (a youth, more likely) shouts at me from a passing vehicle, “Go eat hamburger, bitch.” Is there truly anything more offensive than a fat woman on a bicycle?

It’s interesting to me that I struggle to recall particular instances of harassment as an adult. Did people stop harassing me? I don’t think so. As I matured and grew confident, shedding my ignorance, I learned how to tell men to leave well enough alone. My male peers started calling me “intimidating.” But something else happened too. I stopped being young. I lost the casual fuckability that men ascribe to young women. I put on weight, shaved my head, became strong. That’s still a woman that men harass, but not the “hey baby” kind of harassment. It’s the “You’re too fat to fuck but I still would and that makes me hate myself and you by extension” brand, which I stopped caring about many years ago.

#MeToo is about sexualized harassment and violence, but I can’t help considering all sex-based oppression. Do I get sexually harassed at work anymore? No. But in my last job, I spent years being seen as some kind of untrustworthy bitch because I refused to do the things women are supposed to do to make men feel comfortable. I am unflinchingly confident. I stopped apologizing for having ideas. I no longer hesitate to correct a man when he talks over me or repeats my suggestions. And you know what? Men fucking hate that. So no, not me too, not lately. Yet, men still hang their expectations on me, and on women everywhere, and behave badly when we refuse to meet them.

Harassment, as #MeToo demonstrates, is not isolated. All women (and some men, sure) experience it. To me though, my experiences seem petty in contrast not only to those of my fellow women, but to those inflicted on us by this system of patriarchal, capitalistic oppression.

Men feel entitled to women. They think they have the right to punish women for not conforming to their “standards” of sexuality. They think they have the right to punish other men for encroaching upon what’s “theirs.”

When I thought about this “me, too” discussion, one of the first things that I recalled was not something that happened to me, per se, but something that happened to my dad.

At eight years old, I witnessed a man smash the side of my dad’s skull with a baseball bat.

My dad had come to retrieve my sister and I from my mom and her boyfriend’s (husband’s? who remembers) house. Some kind of argument ensued. The details I’ve forgotten or perhaps never knew, but can there be any doubt that the nature of this dispute was over who held the rights to my mother?

Dad’s face was covered in blood. We spent the night with my Aunt Ruth and my cousins. I don’t think I understood what was going on but I knew there was a lot of blood involved. My dad lost most of his hearing in one ear.

I know my dad wouldn’t be on team #MeToo, but maybe he should be. This incident wasn’t exactly harassment of me, my sister, or my mom, but it feels like we should think of it that way. What was this other than an act to threaten my mom, to get her in line, to remove a potential suitor and male competitor? Patriarchy is about the violent custody of women as property. Any act to further that system is a part of me, too, in my opinion. So, of course, me too.

12 Jul

Now with 100% More Civilization

Book Review: Three Princes by Ramona Wheeler

Three Princes book cover

Three Princes book cover

Three Princes is a book that seems to be based on the question “What if Egypt never stopped being great?” In Three Princes,The eastern hemisphere is ruled by a civilized, modern Egypt; the western by a fusion of the Incan and Aztec empires. The novel is apparently set in this alternate universe’s early 19th century. There is a bit of a steampunk vibe accompanying the strange melange of speculative fiction that Wheeler has committed to the page. The story itself is excellent, especially if you like espionage, but what I really appreciated were the books concept and its perspectives on gender issues and religion.

The titular three princes are Lord Scott Oken, Professor-Prince Mikel Marbuke, and Prince Viracocha. Lord Oken, the fourth son of a prominent family in the Britannic Isles, is the story’s protagonist. Although not originally from Egypt, he was educated in Memphis and became a part of the Pharaoh’s spy network. Oken is a memoryman—a person with perfect eidetic memory, trained to recall all—and student of and assistant to Professor-Prince Mabruke. Mabruke trains young spies for the Pharaoh and, as his cover, teaches university courses in aromatics. The Pharaoh calls upon Oken and Mabruke to investigate rumors that the Incas are building a craft to fly them to the moon. In the course of their investigation, they encounter the third prince, the good-natured Prince Viracocha, son of the Incan emperor.

Our princes face the rebellious Black Orchid Society whose mission is to bring down Egypt and replace her reign with that of Queen Victoria, at least one insane Incan prince, and various unnamed European nobility. Without giving too much away, I will say their plan for world domination hinges on a scheme to send the aforementioned moon-bound craft into space to rain explosives down on Memphis. The princes’ journey involves a delightful man-powered flying craft called quetzals (the Nahuatl word for feather), plenty of espionage (Egypt’s preferred way of doing business, talking is much more civilized than fighting, as they say), and lots of beautiful people.

a quetzal

A quetzal bird, yes that’s a real thing

I’m realizing that what really sells me on novels is the concept. I loved the concept of Three Princes and not just because I wanted to be an Egyptologist (but also because of that) when I grew up. Wheeler’s alternate universe is a rich one. She does not go into the world’s history or its various details except as the narrative requires it, but I enjoyed thinking through what could have lead to such a world.

Dear reader, if you would indulge me briefly: it seems that Cleopatra and Caesar formed a strong Egyptian-Roman partnership able to withstand time. Lord Oken explains that he is a direct descendant of both Cleopatra and Caesar and that apparently comes with bragging rights in this world. There is also a vast system of roads, presumably inherited from Roman empire-building. With the Egyptians cum Romans running the show, Europe and Saharan Africa were united. This stunted the formation of various European empires like those of Spain and England. This, in turn, either prevented expansion to or discouraged colonialism in the “New World,” allowing the indigenous empires to flourish. The Incan prince Viracocha states that the Aztecs and Incas fused into one mighty empire and he mentions the mysterious “Maya Lands.” In short, Egypt exerts a civilizing force over the entire planet.

I liked how Wheeler dealt with gender issues in Three Princes. The Egyptians, civilized folk that they are, wear kilts or skirts as a regular part of masculine dress. Egyptian men also wear makeup. Not only that, but wearing makeup is an essential part of looking civilized. At one point, the reader is treated to this humorous exchange between two male characters:

“Our makeup must be perfect in the face of disaster.”

“We are Egyptians, sir.”

There is nothing more Egyptian than looking good and turning in out regardless of circumstances.

Wheeler also shows the differences in how women are treated in Egyptian and Inca culture. Although the protagonists are men, there are many female supporting characters. Lord Oken, in particular, is a window into the Egyptian mentality on women. When Oken and Mabruke visit the Inca, they stay in rooms meant for a newly married couple. Mabruke asks Oken which room he would choose for making love to his bride. Oken responds, “Any place my lady pleases. Ever and always.” To which Mabruke comments, “Spoken like a true Egyptian.” They continue their conversation to observe that the women of the Inca seem singularly repressed. “Women as suppressed as these Andean lovelies are surely the weak point of their civilization,” Oken opines.

Later on, one of the Inca degrades his general by calling him a “fool” for taking orders from a woman. In another instance, in reference to childbirth, the Inca prince asks who would take a woman’s word for who the father of a baby is. This shocks the Egyptians who respond, “Who could know better than the woman herself?” The question belies a more progressive attitude than that seen in our society today and I will leave it at that.

The Egyptians see women as humans. Egyptian women attend university, and in fact, Oken and Mabruke accept their mission from the Egyptian queen. Their ability to see women as people is also what wins the day at the end of the story. Their escape from a fairly unhappy situation was made possible by several women whose talents they trusted.

Another cultural aspect I liked was that of religion. In the Egyptian mindset, all faiths are true. When the nefarious Black Orchid Society claims that they have the one true faith, Oken becomes confused, hardly able to understand the allure of a group making such a claim. He muses, “I mean, if all faiths are true, then this Black Orchid thing is true. But if it’s true, then every other is false, which means they’re all false, so this Orchid thing is false. It just doesn’t add up.” For me, as a non-religious person, I feel like it would be a little easier to accept religion if the prevailing cultural norm was “all faiths are true.” Why is one god and more believable than another?

Wheeler also demonstrates how one’s religion can be a civilizing force. When asked what his gods demand of him, Oken replies, “That I learn to be a decent, civilized human being.” Well, gods be praised, sign me up for that religion! A society’s gods say a lot about what the culture values. In the case of Egypt and its Naytures, civilization and being a decent human is foremost. In contrast, the Inca gods demand blood, which is quite specific and not open to interpretation.

Finally, I want to end with two small points that amused me. The concept of a memoryman made me think of the mentats in Frank Herbert’s Dune. There is some difference—mentats were meant to fill the gap created by humanity outlawing thinking machines. Memorymen have perfect recall instead in a world that has never seen computers. The end result is the mostly the same and, for someone like me who values knowing everything, is pretty enviable. The other thing that make me chuckle is that Oken likes to check the “Horus-scopes” for the day’s prognosis. Of course, this is a pun on horoscope. I actually looked up the etymology on this because it seemed a likely derivation, but no, our English word comes down from Greek for “a look at the hours.” I like Horus-scope better though.

In any case, Three Princes is certainly worth reading. I like to pick all the little concepts out of a book. The story is not all about people talking about religion and gender issues, but those are the aspects of a book I like to discuss. The plot advances well and there is plenty of intrique. I recommend it.

Update (from Twitter): Ramona Wheeler approves of this book review. I think that’s pretty cool!

What to read next:

  • Queen of Kings: A Novel of Cleopatra, the Vampire by Maria Dahvana Headley is a story about Cleopatra (yes, of Anthony and Cleopatra fame) turning into a vampire as the result of a malicious god and a botched summoning. The premise is kind of silly, but it was an entertaining read.

  • Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie is my next pick. Did you not read this book after I told you too? Well, here is your reminder. Even though Ancillary Justice is a space opera, what makes me feel these works are kin is that they both situate themselves at the heart of “civilization.” Civilization has fluid gender performance! That is what modern writers are telling us.

  • Dune by Frank Herbert. This is a sci-fi classic. If you haven’t read it, you should read it. It is one of my long-time favorites.

07 Jun

Meanwhile in Civilized Space

Book Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancilary Justice book cover

Ancillary Justice is an awesome book. I know I’m not the only person with that opinion because it won a Nebula Award and an Arthur C. Clarke Award. Instead of focusing much on the plot (although I will address the plot because it is good, too), I want to talk about what makes this novel interesting.

Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen also known as Breq is an ancillary. Ancillaries are human bodies that belong to a space ship. Ancillaries are mentally networked with their ship. Essentially, they are people with AI (artificial intelligence). Large ships, like Justice of Toren of which Breq was an ancillary, have multiple crews of ancillaries who work together to take care of the ship and support the human crew.

The plot hinges on the concept that an AI occupying multiple bodies can have conflicting opinions. Even though the AI’s bodies are technically all the same person, none of them really individuals, they can fragment. Breq belongs to a group of ancillaries called One Esk. Among many other campaigns, One Esk serves planetside during the annexation of another culture by the dominant civilization, the Radch. Events on the planet make One Esk realize that she does, perhaps, have the ability to hold internally conflicting opinions. Later, One Esk Nineteen is isolated from One Esk and Justice of Toren and she must adapt to acting individually.

That is the barest introduction to the story. I like the way AI works in this novel. Holding it together is the ancillary system, whose brutality is barely acknowledged by the Radchaai people. Radchaai seem to find it inappropriate to discuss what ancillaries are, insisting that they are not people, but equipment, part of the ship. Ancillaries used to be people themselves. It seems that most of the bodies ancillaries inhabit were formerly those of enemy combatants or citizens of the Radch who did not fit well into the social order. The origin of the ancillaries is not much discussed, but it does seem like the sort of horror that may be exposed in the series’ next book.

A lot of aspects of Radchaai civilization (this is a redundant phrase since in Radchaai, Radchaai means “civilized”), are like that: intensely brutal, but people work hard to ignore the brutality. The Radchaai people are relentless in annexing as many other civilizations as possible. The novel eventually reveals that the Radch are so focused on annexation because annexation drives the whole economy and the system of wealth acquisition for prominent families.

I appreciate the social structure in the Radch and the detail apparent in the way the culture works. It was different enough that it had a feeling of otherness, but many of the concepts were recognizable. The Radchaai structure themselves into family Houses, with certain families being particularly wealthy and prominent. These Houses participate in a kind of patronage system, called clientage in the book. Houses with less influence can be “clients” of weather houses. Of course, this kind of system puts poor people at a disadvantage, as ever. People with influence can get better placements in the military and are assumed to just be better people. People of “low” birth are at a major disadvantage in this system.

The Radchaai demonstrate their civility through outward symbolism. No Radchaai would be caught dead without gloves, for example. I like the idea of gloves as a marker of civilization, personally. They also make public displays of worship in temples, exchange pins and jewels to affix on their uniforms, and drink tea (like all civilized people in every era, clearly).

Radchaai pins, via http://asakiyume.livejournal.com/711734.html

Ancillary Justice made me think about how I perceive gender when reading. In the Radchaai language, there is no gender binary. Everyone refers to others as “she.” Children are automatically daughters. Women are simply people. There are both men and women, of course, but the civilized Radchaai tongue does not acknowledge them as different. Neither are there explicit performative actions for femininity and masculinity; anyone can present themselves in any (socially acceptable) way. Gender presentation is not tied to propriety. When the protagonist is on a backwater world, she has to use the local language, which includes referring to people with the correct gender pronouns. Our protagonist, as an AI and former part of a ship, finds it difficult to distinguish male from female and she is at constant risk of offending others.

This un-gendering of everyone is awesome. I did not realize how strongly ingrained it was for me to see male as the default. When the author introduced a new character, I considered him to be male. There are a few biases here that made me assume everyone was male: this is a militaristic civilization (many of the main characters are lieutenants, captains, etc.) and much of the story takes place on space ships, which are also stereotypically a male thing. But when a character inevitably referred to other characters as “she,” my brain did a double take. I didn’t even realize I was imagining characters as male until I was confronted with the female pronoun. Of course, the way the novel is set up, any character could be a man (technically speaking), but that person is still referred to as a woman, and that is the civilized thing to do.

I applaud Leckie for writing a civilization that treats gender this way. Seeing how gender can be irrelevant is fascinating. Even though I am educated about many gender-related issues, I still have this male-default bias. I didn’t even know I was doing it. I hope to see more books that play with gender so skillfully. Ancillary Justice challenged assumptions I did not know I had.

What to read next:

  • It is not being released until October, but obviously my suggestions include the next book in the Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Sword. You have four months to catch up. Get on it!

  • Want to read more about artificial intelligence (I do!). Try Our Final Invention by James Barrat. This is a non-fiction book about the coming-soon technologies leading to AI.

  • Somewhat unrelated, but I read this recently and liked it: Lexicon: A Novel by Max Barry. This novel does not challenge the linguistics of gender like Ancillary Justice does, but language and how it is used drives the plot. It was an interesting read and I recommend it.