Saturday, November 7, 2009

(My) Top 15 Novels by Women, Continued

Sherri S. Tepper, The Gate to Women's Country

Other more recent works in the utopian tradition also tend to include negative as well as positive, providing both darker visions (without becoming strictly dystopian) and more ambiguous visions of Amazonian community and matriarchy. The novel The Gate to Women's Country (1988) by Sheri S. Tepper, for example, postulates a world after nuclear war:

It was men who made the weapons and men who were the diplomats and men who made the speeches about national pride and defense. And in the end it was men who did whatever they had to do, pushed the button or pulled the string to set the terrible things off. And we died, Michael. Almost all of us. Women. Children.

The women of "Women's Country" have taken over what is left of civilization and are embarking on an exceptional experiment to ensure that such destruction never happens again. Men and women are segregated in "town" and "garrison," and while the men are responsible for defense, women control the books and the knowledge, and so the men's access to war technology is limited. In a final twist, it is revealed towards the end of the novel that the women are attempting to breed violence out of men through selection—one of the few technologies they have maintained is genetics.
[From Engendering Utopia by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake, from the Internet Review of Science Fiction, May, 2005]
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Reindeer Moon
Those familiar with the author's landmark study, The Harmless People, will not be surprised at the range of anthropological information she brings to her first novel, or at the lucidity of her prose. What will astonish, engross and move readers in her narrative of a group of hunter-gatherers who lived 20,000 years ago is the dramatic immediacy of the story and the depth and range of character development.

A whole culture is imaginatively and authoritatively illuminated, people who live in lodges observing a complex series of societal rules and taboos built around the interrelationships between families that constitute a lineage. It is a life of privation, in which hunger, danger and violence are pervasive. Survival depends on close observation of and intimacy with the animals they use both as role models and as food, and an understanding of the seasonal rhythms governing the annual migrations. We meet the protagonist, Yanen, as a young girl, living with her family in what is now Siberia. Just a few chapters into the narrative, she dies and becomes a spirit who must serve the members of her lodge by finding food for them, often by taking on the form and behavioral characteristics of animals or birds.

The story proceeds in flashback as Yanen relates the memories of her youth: the death of her mother after childbirth and of her father from hunting wounds, leaving Yanen and her baby sister alone in desolate country; their fearsome trek to rejoin other members of their lineage; Yanen's marriage; the rash deeds that cut her off from the people she loves and the tragic mistake that seals her fate. Thomas never romanticizes her characters, nor does she demean them by arch language or a patronizing tone. Yanen is an enchanting young woman: intelligent and courageous, an excellent hunter, but also headstrong and hot-tempered. Other characters are equally as vivid, and as involving of the reader's emotions. Suspenseful, insightful, poignant, this novel, the first to be issued under the Davison imprint is a remarkable achievement.
[Publishers Weekly, found at Amazon]

Reindeer Moon, reviewed by Danny Yee of

Reindeer Moon
and The Animal Wife are coming of age stories set in Siberia during the Paleolithic. In Reindeer Moon Yanan, a headstrong young girl, survives alone with her younger sister when their parents die, then faces marriage, childbirth, and the struggle for position and status within her group. In The Animal Wife a young man named Kori leaves his mother to join his father's group and begins to learn the skills of hunting and dealing with women — until his abduction of a foreign woman disrupts their lives.

Thomas has produced a superb depiction of a hunter-gatherer community, drawing not just on her background as an anthropologist but on first-hand fieldwork experience. She captures the complexities of kinship relationships and shamanic religious belief as well as the mechanics of day to day life, incorporating them without artifice into her story. Her recreation of the prehistoric setting is equally convincing. (My only query here is that the scale on her map suggests population densities of a few hundred people per million square kilometres, which seems too low.) Thomas even offers an unusual vision of the animal life of the era: in Reindeer Moon she employs the surprisingly effective device of having the spirits of the dead enter into animals, albeit only epiphenomenally to the main story. (This is an interest which also shows itself in her popular works about cats and dogs.)

Thomas makes no concessions to modern sensibilities. A trapped mammoth left with her front legs smashed for later dispatch, the unhappy fate of an orphan without close kin, the lack of ceremony surrounding pregnancy and childbirth, the extremities of hunger — such things are shocking at first, though one is skillfully drawn into accepting them as ordinary. But if the world Thomas portrays is far removed from anything in our experience, the people she describes are nevertheless H. sapiens sapiens, fully human, and she is a first-class novelist by any criteria. Her characters are memorable, distinctive, and convincing — comparable to anything to be found in fiction. Thomas has transcended the confines of genre, leaving her competitors in the "Paleolithic novel" stakes — even writers as good as Golding and Kurtén — looking weak.

If all ethnography is fiction, Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife demonstrate that fiction can be ethnography. As a demonstration of both the extent of human diversity and the universality of central human concerns, I think they are more effective than any ethnographic study or anthropology text.
[Review by Danny Yee]

Kate Wilhelm, Margaret and I
ONE BLUSTERY, GRIDLOCKED SEATTLE evening, a small, white-haired, red-nosed woman opens her door to me. A cold is responsible for the brightness of Kate Wilhelm's nose, and also for the thickness of her voice as she mocks the staggering size of her hotel suite: "It's got a laundry room, for crying out loud. Did you bring your laundry?"

My large shoulder bag contains books, not dirty clothes: Wilhelm's latest hardcover,
Defense for the Devil, sold as a "courtroom drama," plus The Good Children, a new Wilhelm paperback I unboxed at the bookstore just last night. I'm only halfway through Defense for the Devil's eerie hybrid of Shirley Jackson's gothic horror and E. Nesbit's juvenile adventures, but I've already decided it's my new Wilhelm favorite. I've also brought a reprint of Wilhelm's Hugo Award-winning classic on clones, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

I spread my purchases on the coffee table, and sheepishly add two yellowing, older Wilhelm books:
Juniper Time, a maddening thriller about space stations and self-deceit, and Margaret and I -- my first favorite--an erotic tale of Jungian psychology. It's a small but fairly representative sampling of Wilhelm's 41 books. Throughout her wide-ranging oeuvre, Wilhelm's writing spurns superficial descriptions while vividly conveying ineffable essentials. Defense for the Devil completely lacks noirish, metaphor-laden scene-setting passages; protagonist Barbara Holloway never pauses to appraise herself in a mirror or handy shop window. This heroine focuses on action, motives, connections, histories -- subsurface tensions rule her life, as they do the lives of all Wilhelm's characters, whether they're dealing with world-wide ecological disasters or tightly framed domestic tragedies.

That's just the way Wilhelm's mind works. Her husband, she says, can tell you the exact color of an old friend's eyes. "What I recall is the way he walked, how he held his coffee. I'd never be a good romance writer." Too many irrelevant details to keep track of: color of eye-shadow, sleeve-length, hairstyle....

Wilhelm shrugs off these annoyances with the same determined air she shows when dealing with questions of genre. It's a subject I can't help but bring up, though her publicist has warned me against it. I feel like I'm discussing astrology with Carl Sagan. Wilhelm listens patiently and responds carefully, as if only the most thorough answers will satisfy my unhealthy interest.

Fiction is fiction. The public library where she read as a child didn't categorize by genre, and she sees no reason why anyone else ought to do so. Readers who pay attention to that sort of pigeonholing miss a lot of good writing.

On a personal level, she says, "I hate being called a genre writer, and I never think of myself as one. I would be terrifically bored if I had to do one kind of book over and over. I would stop writing; it's that simple."

I bring up Walter Mosley as an example of someone else who's written in more than one genre. Mosley's Easy Rawlins drives around L.A., asks tough questions, gets shot at. But in his new stand-alone, Blue Light, a mysterious ray from outer space animates corpses and makes the hero a telepath. Two different realms of action, two different categories. The classifications must be less confining if you switch around among them, right?

"I just don't think in those terms," Wilhelm explains gently. If science fictional elements appear in some of her novels, it's because sci-fi is a part of the world we live in, a part that happens to apply to these particular works.

But if Wilhelm's writing doesn't arise from any category, it settles down in one when finished. Some publishers print genre labels right there on a book's cover. Others are more subtle, using quotes or comparisons to forge links to Grisham or Jordan or other best-sellers. Bookstores shelve by category first, then by author. Readers often refuse to follow genre-jumpers from section to section, and critics misunderstand their intentions.

Margaret and I
, a case in point, "got a terrible review from someone who said it was bad science fiction." Wilhelm loses her patina of patience. "I never said it was sci-fi at all, nor did the editor, the book jacket, the catalog, the publicity, or anything else."

Well, the book does feature a ghostly physicist and his secret notes on experiments with time travel. But there's also an arrogant politician, and a morally ambivalent but sexually skillful grad student. The protagonist is Margaret's nameless unconscious, and the action centers on her self-integration. It's beautifully written, with several highly arousing passages.
So why judge it by genre standards? Why categorize it out of anyone's reach?

Margaret and I was first printed in 1971. Since then, says Wilhelm, "sci-fi has merged so much into the mainstream in so many ways, that it probably doesn't occur to anyone to ask exactly what Kurt Vonnegut writes, or what he used to write. He's simply accepted as a fine writer."

Kate Wilhelm is another one. Though she's had to try different publishers from time to time while jumping genres, she has always managed to land gracefully on her feet.

[From, May, 1999, article by Nisi Shawl]