Even the Queen by Connie Willis

Connie Willis has won 12 Hugo and 11 Nebula awards

Connie Willis has won 12 Hugo and 11 Nebula awards

In our ongoing quest to find ‘real’ science fiction, this one definitely qualifies. It’s based on a fairly simple scientific advance – a hormone shunt that allows women to avoid the need for menstruation and many of the attendant hassles. The story implies that it somehow gets minimises many of the worst effects of menopause, too, and it’s been widely adopted by women everywhere.

In classic science fiction style, this story uses a simple and familiar story of family conflict to dramatise the social change brought about by a technological advance. The main character’s daughter has announced that she’s joining a cult-like movement called the Cyclists, who have decided to reclaim menstruation as a badge of femininity. Her mother, sister and grandmothers put aside their differences in order to persuade her from joining.

It sounds like a pretty promising classic science fiction story. It also addresses what one might literally and euphemistically call ‘women’s issues’ in a way that’s entirely unique in any of these collections. Unusually, too, the cast is almost entirely female, with the one male character present in a subservient role.

However it shares a another characteristic of classic science fiction: it’s not very well written. It’s not that it’s bad, so much as pragmatic. The characters serve their dramatic purpose but never get much further than stereotypes, while the heart of the situation – bickering but loving intergenerational relationships – is as old a classical comedy. To make matters worse, Willis assays a sassy satirical tone that the pragmatic writing can’t quite sustain.

Let’s be fair, though: it’s no worse than a lot of the classics, particularly from the legion of revered golden age writers whose skill with language never quite matched their conceptual vision. One doesn’t read Asimov, Clark, James Blish or Philip K Dick for their deathless prose. They had their moments, perhaps, but their language was always at the service of the idea.

I think the real problem I have with this story is another carry-over from the golden age: it’s resolutely materialistic approach to its subject matter ends up sounding really right wing.

‘Male domination of women’s bodies began long before the so-called “Liberation”, with government regulation of abortion and fetal rights, scientific control of fertility, and finally the development of ammenerol, which eliminated the reproductive cycle algother. This was all part of a carefully planned takeover of women’s bodies, and by extension, their identities, by the male patriarchal regime.

‘What an interesting point of view!” Karen said enthusiastically.

It certainty was. In point of fact, ammenerol hadn’t been invented to eliminate menstruation at all. It had been developed for shrinking malignant tumours, and its uterine lining-absorbing properties had been discovered by accident.

‘Are you trying to tell us,’ Mother said, ‘that men forced shunts on women? We had to fight everyone to get ammenerol approved by the FDA!’

Now, I’ve never had a period myself so I won’t try and argue that they’re something women should embrace; it certainly doesn’t sound like a nice way to spend one week a month. But the way the counter argument is presented just rubs me up the wrong way. The strident tone of the Cyclist representative is surely intended to parody the kind of second wave feminist rhetoric that we all love to mock.

But this kind of parody feels like a strand of anti-intellectualism to me – while I don’t always agree with the conclusions these kinds of thinkers come to, they often have an interesting insight or perspective to offer. I think it’s worth addressing their observations fairly; that’s surely the natural reaction of the curious mind of the sort that science fiction readers pride themselves on.

It’s taken for granted that of course women are happy to cease menstruating, and the proponents of the other side are crazed New Age psycho-feminists. This story completely shuts down the challenging idea that menstruation can be anything other than a burden. Maybe that’s true, but I’d liked to have seen the opposite point of view honestly debated rather than dismissed with an ad hominen attack that in passing takes a swipe at a group of thinkers willing to put forward awkward questions and challenging answers.

On top of this anti-intellectualism, this is once more a story of the global economic and political elites. It’s almost absurdly American bourgeoisie. The option to skip menstruation and pursue a career in the socio-economic hierarchy is the only logical response for all the characters (including the daughter, in the happy ending). The viewpoint character is that stalwart of the bourgeoisie, a judge. Her mother in law is a diplomat currently running peace negotiations in Iraq, of all places.

I find it somewhat ironic that at the time reading – June 2014 – Iraq was once more erupting into civil war thanks largely to the interventions of Americans in the last two decades or so. This context gave this story a political spin that perhaps didn’t seem evident when it was written in the early 90s, the time of the first Gulf War run by Bush Senior.

There could surely be no more telling indictment of the technocratic free market liberalism that lies at the heart of so much science fiction than current the sorry state of Iraq. Raising the spectre of it here, pushes this story from the kind of tolerant free market exceptionalism that Americans call being a liberal into the dark heart of the imperialist right wing.

Themes: rationalist utopia, women’s issues

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

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