Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Women Writing SF: Mary Gentle

Mary Gentle's name came up several times, in several contexts, in the discussion that sparked Niall's women in SF project--as an example of a female writer of science fiction who moved to the greener, more inviting pastures of fantasy, and as an example of a female author whose work is overshadowed by men doing similar work--I haven't read Gentle's Ash, but Adam Roberts argued that it did many of the things its fellow Clarke nominee (and later winner) Perdido Street Station did when it combined an SFnal attitude with a fantastic setting.  I have read, and loved, Gentle's historical fantasy 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, and this project seemed like the perfect opportunity to read her science fiction, specifically the Orthe duology--Golden Witchbreed (1984) and Ancient Light (1987).

Both novels are narrated by Lynne de Lisle Christie, a human sent to Orthe as an envoy.  In Golden Witchbreed she represents Earth's first contact wing, hastily erected and stretched thin following the discovery that every habitable planet within reach of Earth is inhabited (a discovery whose full implications are only glancingly addressed in either novel).  Young and inexperienced, Christie is tasked with smoothing relations with the leadership of Orthe's largest nation, and hopefully winning approval for the research team that preceded her to the planet, whose members have been restricted to the capital city, to do their work. The scientists are particularly intrigued by the structure of the society they've discovered, which is simultaneously tradition-bound and socially mobile.  The basic unit of this nation--called The Hundred Thousand for the number of such units it allegedly contains--is the telestre, which functions as home, family, and ethnic group.  Each telestre elects its leader, the t'an, and from these the regional leaders, and the crown--t'an suthai-telestre--are selected, but Orthean society remains fundamentally decentralized, with individual loyalty going to the telestre first, the nation and the self second, and deeply conservative about social change and technological advancement.  Its citizens are allowed great personal freedom precisely because they so rarely choose to exercise it in ways that are not harmonious with the needs of their telestre.  Christie finds herself befriended by the courtier Haltern and the general Ruric, and invited into the inner circle of the current t'an suthai-telestre, Suthafiori, who is amenable to contact with Earth but also needs to appease more isolationist factions.  To this end she sends Christie with Ruric and Haltern on a tour of the telestres, but no sooner have they departed than Christie is seized by an anti-Earth t'an and accused of being Golden Witchbreed--a member of the technologically advanced alien race that once ruled Orthe and enslaved its people, whose cruelty and depredations are at the root of Ortheans' anti-technology bias.  Christie escapes with Haltern and several others, and begins the first of several treks through the Hundred Thousand, along the way learning more about Orthean culture and history, and becoming more and more enmeshed in a plot to unseat Suthafiori and perhaps open the telestres up to attack.

The premise of Golden Witchbreed--ambassador from Earth gets tangled up in courtly intrigue on an alien planet--and a long middle segment in which Christie laboriously crosses a wilderness in order to escape her pursuers, both raise the specter of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.  Like that novel, Golden Witchbreed uses its plot, and the danger in which that plot places its protagonist, as a means of building a fantastically detailed alien society and exploring its sociology, psychology, and philosophy of life, and like The Left Hand of Darkness, Orthean society is shaped by a quirk of their physiology that relates to gender.  Ortheans are born genderless, and develop gender at puberty.  Unlike Russ and Jones, Gentle isn't writing an overtly feminist work, and she isn't as interested as Le Guin in exploring the meaning and implication of gender, but Orthean physiology is the excuse she uses to create a gender-blind society.  "How can you bring up a child if you don't know what sex it is?" Christie wonders when she discovers the Orthean life-cycle, and the answer that Gentle gives is the total absence of gender roles--a child raised without knowing what gender they'll settle into will expect all possible roles in life to be available to them.  It's not an entirely convincing argument (and it's an even greater leap to accept the entirely matter-of-fact attitude of Ortheans to homosexuality), but it's also not belabored.  Once Gentle has established the quasi-scientific reasons for her society's gender equality, she gets on with telling her story, and it just so happens that, though there are important male characters in both books--Haltern, and a mercenary, Blaize, who starts out pursuing Christie and later becomes her friend--most of the movers and shakers, including Ruric and Suthafiori, are women.

Golden Witchbreed's plot is more complicated than The Left Hand of Darkness's, and its last third in particular, in which Christie learns about Orthe's ancient history and is exposed to and altered by the planet's remaining Witchbreed technology, adds a level of complication to its plot that Le Guin never attempted.  Nevertheless, the comparison between the two novels is unkind to Gentle, and not just because Golden Witchbreed's greater length and complication draws attention to the elegance and simplicity with which Le Guin achieved such similar goals with so much less fuss and commotion (while giving up half her page-count to explorations of Gethenian culture which are extraneous to Genli Ai's adventures).  Like its cousin space opera, the planetary romance often seems to transpose the stories and tropes of epic fantasy to a futuristic, SFnal setting.  In his space operas Iain M. Banks often plays the two genres against one another, telling a fantastic story within an SFnal container in order to expose and explode the often reactionary and conservative assumptions that lie at fantasy's heart.  In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin maintains a distance between the quasi-fantastic, pre-modern escapades of the Gethenians and Genli Ai's SFnal, space-age attitude towards them.  Golden Witchbreed doesn't maintain that distance, and instead of exploring the fantasy genre from an SFnal perspective it seems to sink into it.  That Christie goes native on Orthe is to be expected, but that we go native with her isn't, and isn't entirely desirable.

The reason that it's so easy to forget that Christie is an alien on Orthe, and that there exists a wider galaxy in which Orthe, much less the Hundred Thousand, is but a primitive and unimportant backwater, is that Gentle spends so little time describing future Earth.  We're told, very briefly, that the discovery of intelligent life all over the galaxy is a recent one, whose shock waves are still reverberating through human society, but that--aside from the quaintly 80s-ish revelation that China is the world's new superpower--is almost all we hear about Earth.  The other humans on Orthe are only briefly glimpsed, and seem to exist mainly so that Christie can have a reason to petition Suthafiori and become part of her court.  Their inability to make heads or tails out of Orthean society is otherwise inexplicable--it is, for example, utterly impossible that they should have been on Orthe for a year without even figuring out that Ortheans are born genderless, when Christie stumbles upon this fact through idle conversation within a few days of setting out with Ruric.  Christie herself is a rather carefully maintained blank--the better to soak up Orthean culture, of course, but also the better to stand in for present-day Western post-colonial diplomacy while still being, ostensibly, from a much-altered future Earth.  It's a balancing act that Gentle doesn't quite manage.  The plot against Christie and Suthafiori turns out to hinge on the fear that Earth will colonize, interfere with, or just try to take what it wants from Orthe, and though our experience of the world teaches us that this is by no means an unlikely scenario, there's nothing in Golden Witchbreed or its extremely amorphous portrait of Earth and its politics to suggest a particularly urgent or ugly version of interference that might justify, or make sympathetic, the fears that drive the novel's plot.  By leaving Earth out of the equation Gentle allows Golden Witchbreed to collapse into a secondary world fantasy with an engaging plot and rigorous and SFnal wolrdbuilding, and though on this level it is a very fine novel, there were too many hints of the novel it might have been for me to enjoy it without regret.

Happily, Gentle went on to write that novel in Ancient Light.  Set ten years after the events of Golden Witchbreed, Ancient Light pays off the dark mutterings about Earth's overextended diplomatic corps that cropped up occasionally in that novel by bringing Christie back to Orthe as a representative of a powerful corporation, PanOceania, which hopes to weasel its way around the government restrictions placed on contact with Orthe and trade for working Witchbreed technology.  As the Hundred Thousand remain as superstitious of the Witchbreed, and as wary of encouraging their or their technology's resurgence, as they ever were, PanOceania approaches their enemies, the other nations on Orthe: the emperor-in-exile in Kel Harantish, whose people claim to be descendants of the Golden Witchbreed, and the hiyeks, the coastal tribes who survive by using decaying Witchbreed machines to filter water and grow crops, both groups that have been kept in relative squalor by the Hundred Thousand's dominance over Orthe and their determination to stamp out the Witchbreed line and all forms of technology.  Removing the narrative's point of view from the Hundred Thousand and placing it among people whose suffering they have calmly tolerated in the name of protecting Orthe from the Witchbreed legacy punctures Golden Witchbreed's romantic perspective on them, and when it's revealed that much of what Christie fought to preserve in that novel has been allowed to die a natural death--Suthafiori is dead, and the telestres have not felt the need to name another ruler and have abandoned the capital city--it seems that the heroic age of Orthe is well and truly over.

As Ancient Light opens, Christie is older, more seasoned, and more battered-about than she was in Golden Witchbreed--in the intervening years, she's married and been widowed, and suffered some sort of psychological crisis that, we realize sooner than she does, is linked to her experiences with Witchbreed technology--and less willing to give herself wholeheartedly to Orthe and its culture (a minor but important note in the novel is the increasingly frantic status reports Christie receives from her underlings at the civil service job she took leave from in order to return to Orthe, asking her to return before yet another vital government service is co-opted by corporations).  What's interesting is how, despite this loss of innocence, Christie strongly resists acknowledging that she has romanticized the Hundred Thousand, and how thoroughly the novel enables this attitude by stressing the the danger that PanOceania represents.  Christie's mission director, an arrogant, ambitious young woman named Molly Rachel, views the Hundred Thousand's traditionalism as decadence and social regression, the abandonment of their cities as proof that their society has stagnated and perhaps begun to die.  The high-handedness with which she establishes a program trading aid and farming technology for access to the Witchbreed machines does little to conceal her avarice, and Christie rightly fears her thoughtless interference with Orthe's delicate political matrix, especially when the emboldened hiyeks begin attacking the Hundred Thousand.

The events of the novel quickly bear out Christie's concerns.  When a young woman on Molly's team goes native, as Christie did before her, she uses her position to heavily arm the hiyeks.  This leads Molly to call in PanOceania's security forces, led by Corazon Mendez, whose approach--to go in with maximum force and establish herself as the de facto leadership of the planet--is risible but might be the only way to prevent massive loss of life.  Taking advantage of this unrest is Calil bel-Rioch, a Harantish woman who stages a coup and names herself empress, with the end goal of reestablishing the Golden empire (again, notice how all the movers and shakers are women).  Not to contradict myself, but in this novel I occasionally found myself wishing that Earth were a slightly less prominent power.  The thrust of the novel is to show how every interference on PanOceania's part, and every counter-move that Christie makes, only destabilize the situation further, but as a result Ancient Light tends to downplay the role Ortheans play in their own downfall--how the Hundred Thousand's laissez faire attitude to events outside their borders and their indifference to Kel Harantish and the hiyeks' increasing distress created the conditions that Earth destabilized.  Ultimately, however, this doesn't matter.  As justified as the humanitarian reasons for interfering in Orthe's affairs might have been, the consequences of that interference are disastrous.  Christie discovers the true nature of the Golden Witchbreed's legacy, and the reasons behind the Hundred Thousand's bias against technology, but she does so too late to prevent a genocide.

In the immediate aftermath of finishing Ancient Light, I found its ending gimmicky, destruction for destruction's sake.  Now I think my problem was that the book's final chapters are too bound up with Christie's emotional reactions, and specifically her romantic attachments to various Ortheans, which are the weakest aspect in both books.  In Golden Witchbreed Christie starts an affair with a young Orthean called Falkyr which is very lightly described--a brief scene in which it begins, and later an approving comment from Haltern at Christie's happiness.  This is quite refreshing--the acknowledgment that as important as a love affair might be to Christie it isn't important in the grand scheme of things--but when Falkyr's father accuses Christie of being Witchbreed and forces her on her trek through the wilderness and Falkyr, like a true Orthean, stands by his telestre and abandons her to her fate, Christie's shock and betrayal feel unearned, and her grief over what to us seemed like nothing more than a fling entirely exaggerated.  There's a similar disconnect from Christie's relationship with Blaize, which develops into a grudging respect when they cross the wilderness together, but whose leap to deep friendship with an undertone of something more feels groundless.  Ancient Light does a better job building Chrstie and Blaize's relationship--he's angry at her departure and angrier that she's returned as PanOceania's representative, and their slow rapprochement as events unfold around them is the most believable, and the most convincingly romantic, relationship in both books.  So it's a little annoying when, a hundred pages from Ancient Light's end, Blaize informs Christie that she was always in love with Ruric, especially as this means that the disaster at the end of the novel is filtered through Christie's confused feelings for Ruric and her indecision between her and Blaize.  As important as Ruric is to both novels, the anguish Christie feels on her behalf feels, once again, unearned, and gets in the way of appreciating the magnitude of what's happening around her.

Once I got a little distance from the novel, however, I was better able to appreciate the guts it must have taken to write an ending as bleak and hopeless as the one Gentle gives Orthe.  The actual shape of the ending seems to beg a sequel--the novel ends on a very indecisive note, with most of the main characters gathered together as though about to launch into a last-ditch effort to save the day.  But the longer one looks for a loophole to the book's ending, the more obvious it becomes that there isn't one.  What Gentle has left off is only the actual business of death, but it is undeniable.  There is still, I think, destruction for destruction's sake here, and perhaps a little too much finger-wagging at present-day politics, but what Ancient Light's ending manages is to drag both novels decisively into the realm of science fiction.  Valor and tradition aren't going to save the day, and it is no longer possible to bury oneself in a noble warrior culture and forget about bureaucracy and office politics.  Ancient Light's ending is a cold equation--there is no escaping its deadly implications.

Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light appear to have been Gentle's only forays into science fiction, though I've seen Ash described as science fantasy, and part of the White Crow sequence apparently takes place in the near future.  A background in fantasy is apparent in both novels, both in the meticulous construction of Orthean society and in their preoccupations, but if Golden Witchbreed fumbled the balance between the two genres, Ancient Light ultimately masters it.  For all my problems with both volumes, there's no denying their richness and complexity, the irresistible allure of the story Gentle has written and the characters she's peopled it with, and the sophistication with which she handles some heady and tangled themes.  In any genre, she's definitely an author I'm going to read more of.

2 comments:

herewiss13 said...

'Grunts' is set as a fantasy, but as the whole premise is that a band of orcs becomes equipped with 20th century weaponry (and become mystically infused with the esprit of the men who carried them) there is a lot of SFnal stuff going around...and yes, I'm making that argument despite using the phrase "mystically infused"

trixtah said...

Fabulous review of both books. Your examination of the highlights and lowlights of the books is thorough and well-arguedt.

I was eventually disappointed by Ancient Light because of the downbeat ending - I'm "reading for escape" reader - but it was a convincing resolution to the story (although, yes, there seemed to be a whiff of "to be continued..."). I found the romance elements a little more convincing, but agree these elements weren't *shown* in a compelling way.

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