Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent

Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women is a dystopian novel written in 1986. It explores both gender as well as religious issues. A Google search finds that this book has been called a feminist classic, a dystopian classic and a science fiction classic. Though perhaps not a classic, I found it to be a worthy story and a thought provoking exploration of important themes. 

Set thousands of years after a nuclear war, Sargent depicts a world divided by gender as well as power. Though the story is plot driven, this is mostly a novel of ideas. 

In the future that Sargent depicts women exclusively live in cities. Their society is high technology and their lives are comfortable. They segregate themselves from men in order to prevent violence and war from encroaching on their civilization. 

At a young age, males are sent out of the cities. The all male culture that exists outside of the cities is primitive. The society consists of small, violent hunting bands. The men adhere to a religion that worships the image of women. This belief is reinforced through a virtual reality system, controlled by the women, that presents them with deistic and sexualized visions of women. All the virtual women that they encounter are seen as Aspects of a single Goddess known as “The Lady”. From time to time men are called to cities where their semen is collected so that the procreation of humanity can continue. 

Laissa is a young woman who begins to question the tenants of her society. Birana is another young woman who is exiled from the cities into the wilderness as punishment for being an accomplice to murder. Arvil, who is Laissa’s brother, is a young man who encounters Birana after she is exiled. Much of the narrative consists of Birana and Arvil coming to understand one another, falling in love and encountering various groups of men and women as they travel. Their encounters provide lots of grist for social commentary. The book is told in first person narrative split between three different main characters. 

This novel tells an interesting story using interesting characters as vehicles. It is a thoughtful exploration of themes that relate to humanity. The book is full of observations on gender, religion violence, etc. 

Arvil’s character presents, among other things, an examination of a person learning to question religion. Even before he meets Birana, he as questions why “The Lady” allows cruelty and suffering in the world. Furthermore he begins to doubt several assumptions of his theology. At one point he ponders the following,

“I tried to silence my questions, knowing that they would only lead to unholiness, but my mind’s voice persisted. Why did the Lady, knowing men were sinful, allow us to live?”

When he first encounters Brianna, Arvil believes that she is a Goddess. He slowly begins to realize that she is a human being like himself as his skepticism reaches a zenith. 

Obviously this story explores gender issues in all sorts of ways. This book is thoughtful. Even when I disagree with Sargent’s speculations, it is clear that the author has thought deeply and carefully about these topics. I think that one thing that the author gets right is her depiction of violence and cruelty as it relates to gender.  The all - female society that is depicted has some violence in it. Furthermore, its leadership is the source of terrible oppression of the male portion of the population.  At times mass murder is even committed against bands of men for various reasons. But this female - only society is still less violent then human societies have been throughout history. Violence between women exists but is rare. There is no war. I think that there are evolutionary biological reasons that support this picture. Large groups of women will be less violent on average then large groups of men, but at times will still display violence and cruelty. This depiction is contrary to those who argue that gender is entirely a social construct. However, I believe that the "social construct" argument is unsupported by both history and science. 

The male society in this book is extremely violent. This depiction also makes sense. Such hunter - gatherer, illiterate and non - technological cultures are almost always more violent then more organized, urbanized and agricultural  based societies. This is contrary to certain theories that can be characterized as belief in the "noble savage". That is, primitive societies are usually non - violent and posses other ethical attributes that more technologically advanced societies lack. I think that such theories are unsupported by evidence. 

Sargent is also saying something controversial about the female - only culture that she depicts.  Though technologically advanced, it is stagnant. There are many references in the text to the fact that there is no longer any collective will to make scientific advances or to explore the universe. 

At several points in the narrative, Laissa and some of the other women speculate that men, and even violence, might be an important part in spurring human progress. At one point, a critic of this society observes, 

“our past achievements in the sciences, the most important ones, took place during times when people were building their most powerful weapons. One might almost say that building the weapons brought about other, more constructive discoveries that otherwise wouldn’t have taken place…You know, most of the physicists in ancient times, before the Rebirth, were men.”

Though at times throughout history military buildups, research and war have prompted social and technical progress, history also shows that as societies become more peaceful, technical and social progress increases. I would point readers to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature to back this contention up. Thus I do not agree with Sargent’s message here. 

Furthermore, I think that there is no reason to believe that a female only society would be technologically stagnant. Of course, it is impossible to know for sure.

However, Sargent’s theme that society works best when masculine and famine aspects are in balance, seems to ring true. 

This book is not perfect. The writing is at points weak. For instance, Sargent relies excessively on description her characters eyes widening or narrowing to express emotion. Sometimes the dialog is a bit wooden. Though he is an interesting character, Arvil thinks too much like a citizen of an enlightened society despite that fact that he grew up in a warrior/hunter band. 

This book is also not for everyone. The lovemaking scenes between Birana and Arvil are extremely explicit. The story depicts many violent incidents including descriptions of both rape and murder. This violence is not gratuitous but it may disturb some readers. 

Despite a few flaws this is a fine work of speculative fiction that is not afraid to tackle all sorts of the ideas. The story and characters are interesting. The themes explored are thought provoking. I recommend this book for both science fiction fans as well as those interested in stories that explore gender and religious related issues.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the famous novel about nineteenth century Nigerian society and Colonialism’s impact on it. The book was written in 1958, in English. 

This short novel follows Okonkwo, an important man in Igbo society.  The story covers a swath of Okonkwo’s life. He is wealthy, respected  and successful. The tale explores the people that he has relationships with, including his multiple wives, children and friends.  When he accidently kills a man he is sent into a seven - year exile to his mother’s home village. During this time European government and missionaries move into the area. The newcomers disrupt the life of the Iocal people. Okonkwo family and friends are divided as some convert to Christianity at the urging of the newcomers. There is violence between the Igbo and the Europeans. At its height, an entire Igbo village is massacred.

This book works on several levels. The author delves into Igbo culture and society. Many pages are devoted to customs and folklore. The story covers such diverse topics as food, religion and marriage, just to name a few. 

The philosophy and message of this book is complicated. The story exposes the arrogance and wrongness of Colonialism. The Europeans bring death and chaos to the local society. 

There is also something ugly going on among the Igbo.  Okonkwo is a brutal man and a murderer. He physically abuses his multiple wives. He devalues woman. Throughout the text, the author seems to be reminding us that within this society there is a streak of brutality, violence, a devaluating of the feminine. We find out that when twins are born they are left in the forest to die. These horrors reach a low point when Okonkwo murders the young boy that he has taken in as son. All of Igbo society is indicted as the killing was ordered by a religious leader.  

At one point, Nwoye, who is Okonkwo son, is shown to be enjoying the stories told be his female relatives. But sexism and the glorification of violence leads him to reconsider. 

“That was the kind of story that Nwoye loved. But he now knew that they were for foolish women and children, and he knew that his father wanted him to be a man. And so he feigned that he no longer cared for women's stories. And when he did this he saw that his father was pleased, and no longer rebuked him or beat him. So Nwoye and Ikemefuna would listen to Okonkwo stories about tribal wars, or how, years ago, he had stalked his victim, overpowered him and obtained his first human head…”

It seems that the author is criticizing both European and Igbo society and actions. This book contains strong anti - violence and anti – misogynistic themes. The tale accomplishes this by shedding light upon the malignant effects of violence and the harmful affects of degrading women. 

There is a lot to recommend this work. In addition to the themes mentioned above, this is a wonderful examination of the positive aspects of Igbo culture. The commentary on Colonialism and religion is also complex and deserves a separate blog post.  Okonkwo, despite his flaws, is a brilliantly crafted character. I recommend this book to those who appreciate serious literature as well as anyone who may be interested in learning about the Igbo culture. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

This post contains spoilers. 

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot is the story of Maggie Tulliver. It is a brilliant character study. The tale starts during Maggie’s childhood. She is very close to her brother, Tom. The relationship between the two siblings plays a key role in this story.  At the book’s beginning, Maggie’s father, a fairly prosperous mill owner, is embroiled in a legal battle with a neighbor, Mr. Wakem, the result of which leaves him ruined. The balance of Tom and Maggie’s adolescence is spent in financial straits.

Maggie is sensitive. She is a free thinker who appreciates art and culture. She is different from those around her. Much of the tale illustrates how her gifts and virtues are underappreciated. This lack of appreciation stems from the unfair way that women and girls are viewed, as well as the fact that the people around her are unimaginative and lack understanding. 

Tom grows up to be dull, cold and unappreciative of culture. At times, his behavior is terrible. He takes advantage of Maggie’s great affection for him and uses these feelings to control her. For her part, Maggie has an almost unnatural connection and love for Tom.

Philip Wakem, a character who suffers from physical deformities, is a member of the rival Wakem clan. He is extremely intelligent and sensitive. He and Maggie develop a great affection for one another. Their relationship falls short of romantic love and can best be characterized as spiritual love. Their potential marriage is opposed by Tom, who forces them to separate.

Later in the story, Maggie and Phillip reestablish contact. But they continue their relationship in an unrequited manner. When wealthy Stephen Guest appears on the scene and establishes a romantic connection with Maggie, the situation becomes very complicated. Much of the balance of the book is devoted to the conflict between Maggie’s spiritual feelings for Philip and her romantic feelings for Steven. 

This novel is a great character study. Maggie is a wonderful literary creation. The book is also filled with wisdom that comes served on platter of delectable writing. In the below passage, the mundane character of everyday life is compared to the old days when things were supposedly grandeur,  

“Journeying down the Rhone on a summer's day, you have perhaps felt the sunshine made dreary by those ruined villages which stud the banks in certain parts of its course, telling how the swift river once rose, like an angry, destroying god, sweeping down the feeble generations whose breath is in their nostrils, and making their dwellings a desolation. Strange contrast, you may have thought, between the effect produced on us by these dismal remnants of commonplace houses, which in their best days were but the sign of a sordid life, belonging in all its details to our own vulgar era, and the effect produced by those ruins on the castled Rhine, which have crumbled and mellowed into such harmony with the green and rocky steeps that they seem to have a natural fitness, like the mountain-pine; nay, even in the day when they were built they  earth-born race, who had inherited from their mighty parent a sublime instinct of form. And that was a day of romance; If those robber-barons were somewhat grim and drunken ogres, they had a certain grandeur of the wild beast in them,– they were forest boars with tusks, tearing and rending, not the ordinary domestic grunter; they represented the demon forces forever in collision with beauty, virtue, and the gentle uses of life; they made a fine contrast in the picture with the wandering minstrel, the soft-lipped princess, the pious recluse, and the timid Israelite. That was a time of color, when the sunlight fell on glancing steel and floating banners; a time of adventure and fierce struggle,– nay, of living, religious art and religious enthusiasm; for were not cathedrals built in those days, and did not great emperors leave their Western palaces to die before the infidel strongholds in the sacred East? Therefore it is that these Rhine castles thrill me with a sense of poetry; they belong to the grand historic life of humanity, and raise up for me the vision of an echo. But these dead-tinted, hollow-eyed, angular skeletons of villages on the Rhone oppress me with the feeling that human life– very much of it– is a narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate, but rather tends to exhibit in all its bare vulgarity of conception; and I have a cruel conviction that the lives these ruins are the traces of were part of a gross sum of obscure vitality, that will be swept into the same oblivion with the generations of ants and beavers."

The writing is so good in the above passages. The imagery of the monumental things and people of the past is very impressive. It makes such an effective contrast with the more modern “dreary” and “ruined” villages. In the above quote, even the villains were magnificent, they were  “demon forces forever in collision with beauty” and “they were forest boars with tusks, tearing and rending.”  The prose also creates such an effective contrast between the mundane aspects of life and the awe-inspiring parts of human existence.

Eliot goes on to observe that the giants of the past also overshadow the story’s current characters. 

“Perhaps something akin to this oppressive feeling may have weighed upon you in watching this old-fashioned family life on the banks of the Floss, which even sorrow hardly suffices to lift above the level of the tragi-comic. It is a sordid life, you say, this of the Tullivers and Dodsons, irradiated by no sublime principles, no romantic visions, no active, self-renouncing faith; moved by none of those wild, uncontrollable passions which create the dark shadows of misery and crime; without that primitive, rough simplicity of wants, that hard, submissive, ill-paid toil, that childlike spelling-out of what nature has written, which gives its poetry to peasant life. Here one has conventional worldly notions and habits without instruction and without polish, surely the most prosaic form of human life; proud respectability in a gig of unfashionable build; worldliness without side-dishes.”

The Tullivers and Dodsons mentioned above are Maggie’s maternal and paternal families. Her aunts and uncles are often jealous, vindictive, braggadocios and constantly bickering. While her father is not without his virtues, he becomes obsessed with vengeance upon the Wakems. Tom can be cold and controlling. He becomes work obsessed. He holds no romantic thoughts at all. 

I think that the above quotes are a key to this novel. Maggie’s life can be viewed as the exact opposite of the “sordid life” lived by her relatives. Her relations often live a “a “narrow, ugly, groveling existence.” These passaes come early in the book. In retrospect, Maggie’s story seems to reach the level of magnificence embodied in the past as described here. Her relatives are often vulgar, but she is not. She strives for sublime principles and experiences romantic visions. She has a strong faith and tries to do what is right. Almost everything mentioned in the above paragraph characterizes positive things about Maggie and negative things about her relatives. One cannot help but to think that Maggie would be better suited had she lived in the times of romance, robber barons and drunken ogres. It is a testament to just how much her character shines and that one could picture her among such heroes and villains. 

The angry, destroying god” that made  “their dwellings a desolation” also foreshadows a terrible flood that eventually sweeps away much of the world depicted in this story. 

This book is also filled with ideas, philosophy and observations on human nature. These ruminations are often tied to the story’s themes. Like Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” this work brims full of references to various art forms. 

The plot develops very slowly. Eliot is more interested in developing characters and ideas than in moving things along. Those looking for a plot driven narrative might be bored with sections of this novel. However, the thoughtful and patient reader will be rewarded. 

There is so much to this book. At its heart, it is a great character study told in magnificent prose. In addition to Maggie, it is also filled with complex and well wrought out characters. It is full of philosophy, wisdom and culture. It is an interesting story. Ultimately it is a brilliantly written exploration of characters and ideas. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

My Comments Section

I want to share a few thoughts about my blog. In particular, I want to talk about my comments section and what it has grown into. On multiple occasions in the past, I have written about how wonderful the book blogging community is and how grateful I am for all the folks who come here and comment on this site. What my comments section has grown into is something truly special.

People come to this blog and leave many comments. Many if these comments are detailed. Many folks clearly think about my posts and put thought into their responses to them. Many introduce a diversity of ideas that surprise me at times. Sometimes folks will come back and continue conversations. 

There are several regular commenters who visit and will challenge my ideas. They will occasionally disagree with me, or they will present ideas counter to mine. As I alluded to above, some come back multiple times and continue to discuss these issues. I not only am fine with this, I am delighted that this goes on. Echo chambers are bad. They foster a form of closed mindedness and are often an impediment to truth and wisdom. I always wanted my blog to be about the exchange of ideas. Any productive exchange must include the questioning and examination of ideas. I will at times delve into controversial subjects.  I am not afraid to express my opinions. I welcome comments that also delve into controversial areas and that express divergent opinions. 

That civility and politeness are keys to good discussion goes without saying.  You all have been extremely civil and polite. This is true even when there is disagreement. This is true even when we have delved into controversial or sensitive subjects. I do not think that there has been a single instance of a regular commenter here issuing an uncivil comment or impolite remark. 

So one again, I want to thank everyone who has ever commented on this blog. I appreciate and value each and everyone who has done so. As I spelled out above, the level of comments and discussion here has been intelligent, reasoned and thought provoking. I look forward to great discussions in the future. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Triton by Samuel R. Delany

This post contains major spoilers. 

Triton, sometimes titled Trouble on Triton,  by Samuel R. Delany  is an odd book by any measure. First published in 1976, this is reread for me. A Google search finds that this book is still talked about a lot. Some consider this a science-fiction classic. Others find it enigmatic and frustrating.  After this reading, I understand both reactions. 

The novel’s main character is Bron Helstrom. Bron is a recent immigrant to the human settlement on Triton. Neptune’s moon is one of many moons within the solar system that has been colonized. The protagonist becomes enamored with a brilliant street theater producer known as the Spike. Much of the book concerns itself with Bron’s interactions with the Spike, friends and work associates. Toward the end of the book, an interstellar war between the solar system’s moons on one side, and Earth and Mars on the other, heats up. The results are destructive, bloody and tragic. At the same time, Bron’s relationship with the Spike disintegrates, leading Bron to take some radical actions. 

Delany’s writing style is unusual. The book falls firmly within the definition of postmodernist literature. The descriptions of objects and people are dense, colorful and, at times, bizarre. 

At one point, a street performance directed by the Spike  is described, 

“Windy, on a large contraption like a rodent’s exercise wheel, bells fixed on his wrists and ankles, rotated head down, head up, head down: A target was painted around his belly button, rings of red, blue, and yellow extending far as circling nipples and knees. The guitar started. As though it were a signal, two men began unrolling an immense carpet across the ground— another mural: This one of some ancient fair with archaic costumes, barkers, and revelers. Verbal disorientation, he thought, listening to the surreal catalogue of the lyrics: The melody was minor, this time rhythmic, more chant than song. “

As the subject of this story is a society that exists more than a hundred years into the future, the weird nature of his imagery makes sense to me. 

There are also numerous references to art, literature, music and philosophy. These references are sometimes obvious, but at other times obscure. There is a heavy bias toward postmodern philosophy and art.  They often tie into the book’s themes. At one point, a calculus formula is included in the text. There are also many references to science, particularly to physics and biology. At times, this becomes extremely technical.  The book includes several appendages that further elaborate on the philosophy and technical aspects of the story.  There is a lot of humor in the book. The absurdity of Bron’s character flaws as well as humanity is poked at. However, there are no stream of consciousness passages that are typical of the Post Modernist style.

The prose also includes a striking number of parentheses. In fact, the author uses more parentheses than any other author that I have ever read.

The early chapters are fairly light on plot. They include a lot of character development, philosophy and prose filled with symbolism and thematic elements.

The later chapters include a horrible escalation of the interplanetary war. They also include Bron making the absurd decision to become a woman and having his sexual preference reoriented from a heterosexual man to that of a heterosexual woman. This decision has nothing to do with the often-cited, twenty-first century motivation of being a woman stuck in a male’s body. His reasoning is irrational and ludicrous. 

There are many things going on in this book. First, Delany is trying to portray what he believes is a better society than our own. He and others have described it as a utopia. In fact, the author has stated that after reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, he revised his draft of this book to present an alternate version of a utopia. I should note that neither this work nor Le Guin’s portrays a utopia as I understand the term. Instead, these works propose societies that their respective author’s believe to be an improvement upon our own.

The world of Triton is strongly libertarian leaning. This is manifested in many ways. People get to choose different options in life. Some enter associations where they pay high taxes and receive a lot of public services. Others pay little taxes and receive little government services. There is an enormous array of family structures and sexual preferences. There are communes of heterosexuals, gays, bisexuals and asexual individuals as well as mixed groups. Monogamous relationships exist, but they are the exception. People are able to change gender, sexual preference and physical characteristics almost at will. Many take advantage of this ability to metamorphose, but many do not. Delany foresaw medical advances that have brought about the current day ability for people to undergo gender reassignment surgery relatively routinely. In this area, he seems prescient. 

Likewise, religion and spiritualty are characterized by profusion of beliefs in this hypothetical society. Sects based on spirituality are everywhere on the colonized moons. These groups range from the benign to the destructive. Diverse belief systems and philosophy abound. 

Much of the philosophy related in the book seems to champion a level of thinking that transcends standardized logic. This is a complex work, and this set of ideas is both advocated and criticized. Bron’s profession is a metalogician, which, as per the story, is the study of ways of deducing truth that goes beyond formalized logic. 

There is a strong feminist theme in this book. At one point, Bron decides that he is the kind of man who is a protector of society. In his own mind, he links this tendency to being insensitive and uncaring to others, particularly women. Furthermore, he expresses his frustration that most women are unable to appreciate this virtue in men. At one point he ponders,

“real men (because there’s no other way to have it; that’s part of what I know), really deserve more than second-class membership in the species . . .” Bron sighed. “And the species is dying out.” “I also know that that kind of man can’t be happy with an ordinary woman, the kind that’s around today..”

The ridiculousness of these views is highlighted when Bron’s friend Lawrence reminds him of the outrageousness of his claims and that the kind of brave men that Bron is championing just killed billions of people in an interplanetary war. 

These ideas are further developed when Bron decides to transform into a woman. He does so because he believes that there needs to be more of the kind of woman described above. The results of his transformation are, predictably, not good. 

There are many other philosophical and thematic threads to this story. There is also a lot more going on with the characters. I have only scratched the surface above. 

This is a challenging book. The writing style makes it a little difficult. Though full of ideas, they are presented in enigmatic ways. Some of the philosophy, science and other aspects of the story are impossible to decipher. In interviews, Delany has said that some of it is indeed intentionally baffling nonsense. Bron is an unlikable character who does all sorts of bad things. Sometimes, he causes harm to others. He is amazingly self-centered and self-deceptive. He is an unreliable narrator. 

There is so much going on in this book. Its style is strange but creative. It is an effective and unique character study of a narcissistic personality. With that, this novel is not for everyone. It is difficult, and many of Delany’s ideas about society and people are debatable. However, this novel of ideas is not afraid to present and examine all kinds of beliefs. Reading it is like taking a trip through an intellectual fun house. I recommend this book to adventurous readers.