Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

26 04 2010

I read Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker in anticipation of a trip to Seattle. Even though my Vancouver is still largely unexplored, my LP and I wanted to get out of the city and see something a bit different. Seattle promised good coffee, fascinating underground passageways, and, most importantly, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. With the Canadian dollar near parity, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to track down books I’d been having a rough time finding for my project.

(I wasn’t disappointed. Between trips to the Pike Place Market, the SFM, and a tour of Seattle’s underground, I tracked down Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles, Mystery and Mayhem, Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, James Tiptree Jr.’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, and Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon).

Like many cities, Seattle suffered a devastating fire in the 1800s. Seattle was a lumber town and as such, the original downtown was largely made of wood. After the fire, city officials decided that all future buildings must be made of fire-proof materials, and that the downtown streets, which had been built on a filled-in swamp and were prone to flooding, would be re-graded about a story higher.

The rebuilding of the streets was not a speedy project. It was inconceivable to shut down the city’s entire downtown core for the thirty years or so that the project would take, so the city did its best to work around existing businesses. Shop-owners opened their doors at the historic ground level, while workers built the new roads between high concrete retaining walls. To cross the street, residents had to climb wooden ladders up over the streets and down the other sides. When the streets were finished, the city built sidewalks, inlaid with glass skylights, over the now-underground streets and businesses began to move above ground. Pedestrians, however, continued to use the underground until 1907, when it was condemned because filthy and full of rats, it was the breeding ground for plague which was spreading throughout the city.

Now, visitors can tour the underground, and it has inspired plenty of eerie and fantastic tales. Much of the action in Boneshaker takes place in its dark, convenient passageways.

Boneshaker is a work of Steampunk*, which is a sub-genre of SF that has recently come to prominence. In some ways it is a way of reviving the heroes of the age of imperialism, the Extraordinary Gentleman and their un-named, but equally “enlightened” compatriots, and sending them on nostalgic adventures through an alternative modernity of clockwork and airships, promoting ideas that have long exceeded their best-before dates. I read Jules Verne’s Le tour du monde en 80 jours at age seven with pure joy and fascination. What spirit, what determination, what Da Vinci-esque genius it took to invent wonderful machines and to pilot them around the world! But Verne’s ideas, his wonderful speculations, are the insights of the past. They teach us where we have come from, but no longer predict where we are going.

Since Verne’s time, technology has advanced, and hard-fought human-rights battles have complicated stories of adventure and discovery considerably. Steampunk, with its alternate history and its mad-scientist engineering, allows us to play in that gold-tinged adventure-world of yore, transforming the negative effects of the industrial revolution with its wonderful machines and the age of exploration with its treasures brought from afar on the lower-classes and on colonized peoples into a romantic aesthetic, and addressing issues of class, race, and gender only when expedient. It lets us ratchet the clock back, leaving our current social consciousness behind in the 21st century as we explore the 19th through nostalgia-tinged goggles. Steampunk is to the 19th century as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie is to the Paris I grew up in.

In Boneshaker, we meet Briar Wilkes, whose husband Leviticus Blue, a mad inventor, built a machine that could mine gold from Alaska’s ice, padding the pockets of greedy Russian prospectors. Blue’s premature test of the Boneshaker machine has released a thick, yellow gas from the bowels of the earth. Anyone who breathes in this gas becomes the living dead, ever hungering for the flesh of the living. In response to this, the citizens of Seattle have built a near-impenetrable wall around the city’s core to contain the blight, and a life of poverty and misery continues in its outskirts. Ashamed that her now-dead husband brought about the destruction of the city, Briar avoids speaking of him if at all possible. This proves to have been a bad decision, when her teenaged son Ezekiel, sick of poverty and humiliation, sets out for the blighted city to resuscitate his father’s reputation.

Briar, knowing full-well what Zeke will find inside the city walls, cannot let him go to his death alone. She sets out after him, to catch him and bright him back to safety outside of the dank and filthy walls of downtown Seattle. Therein lies the plot of the story: Zeke runs off, Briar follows, they both meet quirky companions, some of whom are Good, some of whom are Evil, the GM rolls the dice and the story advances. There’s action, there are zombies, there are lengthy descriptions of unlikely steam-powered machines (Da Vinci’s machines were wonderful, but how few of them actually worked!), there are excuses to wear gas masks, and whenever Zeke or Briar faces a challenge, there is deus ex machina in a quirky Steamborg with just the right skills to save the day.

Boneshaker isn’t a bad book. Though the action is slow at first, it gains intensity as Zeke uncovers his family’s history and Briar’s quest leads her toward her son. But it is riddled with inconsistencies, rife with unexplained technologies that could not possibly work, and altogether uncritical in its approach to the material it tackles. Boneshaker is play, a dollhouse world populated by the tropes of yore, and having read it, I can’t say more than that it kept me mildly entertained for a few hours. I have yet to read any of the other books on this year’s Hugo ballot, but I do hope that they are stronger than this one, because if this one wins, it is a sad year for SF indeed.

* This is my still-in-development understanding of Steampunk based on the books and movies in the genre I have read and seen so far. I would be happy to be persuaded otherwise.

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“Sultana’s Dream” by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein

22 04 2010

There’s plenty of furor over Bill 94 in Quebec. This bill will regulate the way in which Quebec institutions and officials respond to minority groups’ religious and cultural traditions and preferences, and it has been suggested to me by Quebecois friends that Quebec is the national leader on this issue; other provinces will soon follow suit.

With this bill following on the heels of the expulsions of two Muslim students from Quebec colleges for wearing niqabs – full-face covering veils – to class, it would be difficult to deny that one of the main issues Bill 94 is intended to address is the question of Muslim women’s clothing.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest says, “the bill is a solution to the need to balance individual freedoms with the values of Quebec society, including the equality between men and women and secular public institutions.” It appears that, beneath the racist rhetoric, this is a bill that is intended to protect women. Certainly, the Taliban forces women to wear the burqa, and we don’t want to support the Taliban in its oppression of women.

But do the burqa and the niqab oppress women, or do the people who would decide how women should dress oppress women? And by forcing niqab-wearing Muslim women to reveal their faces, is the Quebec government protecting them from oppression, or is it putting them in a position in which they are vulnerable to further victimization by male members of their communities, who come from countries in which it is acceptable to treat women in ways that would never be tolerated here? Muslim feminists point out that Islam is not inherently oppressive to women, and that many of the oppressions faced by women in Muslim countries result from too much emphasis being placed on certain passages in the Qu’ran while others are ignored. They oppose the burqa and the niqab as part of a broader system of oppression that limits women’s bodily integrity, their access to education and their right to participate in public life.

By expelling students from government-sponsored language classes for wearing the niqab, is the Quebec government not putting much the same limits on Muslim women? Assuming a cultural vacuum, in which everyone a Muslim woman encounters treats her exactly as they would a white woman, it is easy to say, “If you want access to these services, you can’t wear that outfit.” But no one lives in a cultural vacuum, and chances are good that the decision to remove the niqab will not be an easy one for many women. Especially if she has worn it for much of her life and feels unsafe without it. Especially if – and this is not a generalization, but an if, an in-the-rare-case-when – she is unsafe without it. In that case, the Quebec government has forced her to forfeit her bodily integrity. If she’s afraid to, or not permitted to take off the niqab to attend language classes, there goes her education. And if she doesn’t learn the language that would allow her to integrate into the society she now lives in because she cannot attend language classes, there’s goes her involvement in public life. Someone who does not speak the local language is always extremely vulnerable, and the Quebec government is making it very difficult for immigrant women to overcome this vulnerability.

Canadian society is on its way to becoming one in which men and women are treated as equals. We’re not there yet, but most Canadian women experience a high quality of life with protection from domestic violence, and organizations to help them in times of trouble. It is conceivable that in time, in this environment, an immigrant or refugee woman from a conservative Muslim culture might choose to give up her veil. If she doesn’t, perhaps her daughter will (who doesn’t love Layla in Little Mosque on the Prairie?). But it is not our place as western feminists to force her to do so against her will, denying her a voice. She may have a reason for choosing to wear the niqab. Why don’t we ask her what it is? And listen really carefully?

It seems to me that the Quebec government is hiding racist backlash under the rhetoric of feminism, and making victims of some of our society’s most vulnerable members.

Sultana’s Dream by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein, a Muslim author from Bangladesh, is a wonderful feminist utopia that imagines a world in which men and women’s societal roles are reversed. This reversal results in many of the same effects as in the societies without men in stories such as James Tiptree Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and other classics of the genre.

“Sultana’s Dream” was published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, Madras, in 1905. Muslim women have been imagining freedom from masculine oppression since long before Quebec could even begin to claim they were liberated themselves. And whether or not to wear a veil is only the smallest part of it.





I didn’t like “The Female Man.” It will probably take three posts for me to tell you how much.

21 04 2010

I’ve read about four books since my last post, and I am terribly behind on the blog. If there is any excuse for this, it is that one of them was The Female Man by Joanna Russ, it made me extremely uncomfortable, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about it. The books I read between The Female Man and this attempt to write about it have given me some insight and direction, but I still haven’t come to terms with the book. Perhaps the time has come to force it.

In The Female Man, we meet Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, and Jael, who live in versions of reality in which the conflict between men and women plays out in different ways. Joanna’s reality is the most like ours, that is, the most like ours was around the development of Second Wave feminism. Jeannine lives in a reality in which the Great Depression never ended and women’s role in society is quite restricted. In order to become a whole person, Jeannine must marry and produce children. Though she is not comfortable in this role, her family members remind her of it regularly, and she gives up hope for a better life. Janet is from a planet called Whileaway where all the men died in a plague about 800 years before the story takes place, and the women live a strange, communal lifestyle in which very young children are raised together in nurseries by mothers enjoying the one year of vacation they will experience in their lives, older children roam the world learning, young adults travel and do physically demanding work, and eventually join families, and the older women do sedentary, intellectual tasks. In Jael’s world, men and women are at war with each other – literally – and Jael uses violence in her interactions with men because she has long ago learned that attempts to achieve equality are futile. The book offers us insights into the feminine condition by sharing each woman’s reaction to the lives and difficulties of the others, potentially inspiring us to think about our own experiences as women.

Some critics describe The Female Man as one of the most influential and important works of feminist SF ever written, so it must have made it through to someone. There are certainly many works of wonderful feminist SF out there now, and Joanna Russ is responsible for blazing that trail, I am glad for this book. I don’t know enough about the history of feminist SF to guess at whether or not these claims are exaggerated. But there are other works of feminist SF from the 1970s that are much more radical and that resonate with me today. This one just makes me cringe.

My first minor complaint is a stylistic one. Each J-character takes the role of narrator, sometimes telling the story from an omniscient point of view, sometimes from a more limited first-person one, and it’s not always obvious when these transitions take place. At times, it is difficult to differentiate the narrative voices. This is surely a stylistic device, intended to demonstrate that the characters are in fact the same woman, nurtured by the environment in different ways, proving that women’s apparent weakness is the result of their upbringing, rather than any natural feminine deficiency, but it made it difficult to keep track of where the story was going and, more importantly, why the story was going there. I don’t need an easy-to-follow literature for dummies structure to appreciate a story – there are plenty of postmodernist texts that I adore and have no problem with, but reading The Female Man, I was more frustrated by the deliberately disconcerting structure than enlightened by it.

My second and third complaints – the important ones – are that The Female Man is surprisingly misogynistic, and horrifyingly transphobic. I realize that Joanna Russ is apparently no longer anti-trans, but the incredible, sexist disgust with which Russ portrays trans characters in the book is downright creepy by my standards. The fact that she no longer feels that way and that societal values are different from what they were when she wrote it doesn’t make me like the book any more. But more on both of those topics later; each one deserves a rant of its very own.

Currently Reading: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest