Friday, July 17, 2020

A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer

Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer is one of several novels that I have read over the past few years that center around fictional matriarchies. I had heard about this book and decided to read it as I find the concept behind these stories interesting. I also find it worthwhile to compare the different worlds that these various writers have created. One thing that I find intriguing about these books is that they allow authors to explore issues around gender and culture in unique ways. This was written in 2005. 

I found this novel to be a very good depiction of an alternate world. It had an engaging plot. It has interesting and occasionally complex characters. I disagree with one the book’s primarily underlying themes, which is based on what many are calling blank slatism. However, it is all presented in a thoughtful way. I am OK if an author has ideas that I disagree with. In general, I do not think that this mars a novel unless the ideas are presented in too heavy handed a way or if they are presented unfairly. 

The book seems to take place in an alternate reality Earth. Technological progress appears  to be on the level if the late Eighteenth Century. Most governments are monarchies. Governments have precarious control of the countryside as bandits and rebels are common. The key difference from our world is that female births outnumber male births by about ten to one. Thus, families try to have a lot of children in order to produce some males. Family structures are completely different from our world. Each man is married to a family of multiple sisters.  Usually a lot of sisters as families are large. When a boy comes of age, he is traded or sold by his family,  to another family in exchange for another man who will be a husband to the family trading a brother. Men have almost no legal rights. The world is complex however. Some men have a say on who they will marry and some do not. Some men are treated as near slaves, others treated as inferiors in a benign way, others are treated with reverence and have positions of power within families. 

The protagonist of the book is Jerin Whistler. His family is descended of heroic military women and still maintains martial qualities. They are mostly ethical women and Jerin is often treated as a near equal. However, economics and politics between families are complex and he fears that he will be traded to a family that he considers low class and who are violent. 

There is a dramatic change of events when the Whistlers rescue and shelter a member of the royal family being pursued by rebels. As the royal family and the Whistlers begin to mix, Jerin and royal family member Princess Ren begin to fall in love. Much of the balance of the novel involves the maneuverings of Princess Ren to arrange a marriage with Jerin  over some social objections, and the kidnapping of Jerin by a rebel family who want to forcibly marry him for political reasons. There is also a missing royal sister as well as some past crimes of a  deceased royal husband dredged up. It eventually all ties together. The plot is actually very engaging. 

The strength of this novel lies in its world building. Spencer has fashioned a detailed and complex society here.  Her universe is full of shades of grey. As mentioned above, the status of the men in the book is complicated. Many of the women characters, particularly the Whistlers and the royal sisters want to treat Jaren fairly, but sometimes political, social and economic concerns put them in positions where that is difficult or impossible. Some men, who are disadvantaged by the society’s structure, find ways to thrive and even exploit women. I think that this is a realistic refection of out real world with some of the social conventions flipped over. The author put a lot of thought around how the different standards of society might be turned around.  

At one point the royal sisters along with the Whistler sisters are confronted by the body of a raped and murdered man. They react with much more revulsion and then they react to dead women, 

They’ve killed a man.” It was not enough warning. Ren gagged at what they showed her. Arms tied  behind his back, his trousers down around his ankles to expose scrawny hairy legs, paunchy stomach—no dignity afforded him in death... Blood had clotted on his face and nose, had pooled in his eyes, and his ears…Her women had uncovered the grave, and they stood silent, staring at the body. The younger Whistlers hung back, their fierceness stripped by their shock, unable to even look at the man. Her eyes furious, Eldest knelt beside the corpse and covered his nakedness with her coat. Ren didn’t want to look at the body, even with it decently covered.

In the real world, this is reflective of how people will sometimes react more strongly and differently when atrocities are perpetuated against women. I should mention that most of the novel is not  this grim.  While the book contains some violence and brutality, it is mostly a mix of world building, adventure,  social commentary and romance. 

I mentioned that an underling theme of the book seems to be blank slatist. When it comes to gender, this view is that there is no difference in the behavior of large groups of men verses the behavior of large groups of women that is not caused by culture.  

In this book the women are much more violent then the men. Many women are sexually aggressive. A significant minority of women act like sexual predators who exploit and harass men sexually. The men tend to be coy and generally want to save themselves by avoiding sexual relations before marriage. Women tend to dress plainly where the men adorn themselves elaborately. 

I think that when it comes to many of these role reversals, while presented in an interesting way that the author thought about, the author gets some things wrong.  Evolutionary psychology, as well as the fact that certain differences between the genders manifest themselves universally across cultures and time, indicate that there are biological differences at the root of some of these behavior in the real world. Thus, it seems implausible that women would be so sexually aggressive while men behaved so modestly in this world. The same is true of violence. There are many good sources for this. I would point folks to books such as Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, which I wrote about here, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which I wrote about here, Richard Wrangham’s The Goodness Paradox, which I wrote about here or Steve Stewart-Williams's, The Ape that Understood the Universe, which I wrote about  here. This is not to say that biology and genes are everything. If there was a situation where women outnumbered male births ten to one, then there would be some general differences in behavior, but I do not think that they would manifest themselves as a complete flipping of gender roles. 

I always feel that I must mention, that just because there is a biological difference in the behavior of large groups of men verses the behavior of large groups of women, this says nothing about individuals. The differences only manifest themselves in averages when large groups are compared. Some women are violent. Most men are not violent. Some women are promiscuous. This is all similar to the general tendency for men to be taller than women on average.  Regardless of that fact, some women are tall, some men are short. We cannot say anything about individuals.  Historically, some have used these average differences have been used as an excuse for sexism. Serotyping individuals is illogical and unethical.

I thought that this was a very good book. It is the sort of world building science fiction that relies upon playing with social conventions. It does that well. The characters are not super complex but they show some nuance and are interesting. Jerin is particularly well done. The plot kept my interest. The universe that is created here is very well crafted. My quibbles about blank slatism  did not distract from the book for me.  I recommend this one to fans of social science fiction as well as people who like fiction about gender. 

Other posts about fictional matriarchies.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad

Under Western Eyes is Joseph Conrad’s Russian novel. I found this to be another brilliant Conrad effort. As is typical of Conrad, this book is filled with complex characters, prose and themes. This work was known to be written as a response to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Conrad’s novel has some similar plot devices and characters. This book’s protagonist, Kyrilo Razumov even has a similar name to Dostoyevsky’s Rodion Raskolnikov. Among several objections, Conrad apparently beloved that Dostoyevsky was too sympathetic to the Russian State and Russian autocracy. However, like the Dostoyevsky book, this work is a scathing indictment of radicalism and revolutionaries. 

This novel, like many of Conrad’s works, is narrated by a narrator who interprets and tells the story. The narrator is an English teacher of languages who filters the story through “Western eyes” by reading and interpreting the protagonist’s diary. Thus, there is a lot here about the differences between Russian and Western European political systems, thinking and philosophy. 

Razumov is a young student living and studying in St. Petersburg. He is intelligent but unlike Dostoyevsky’s main character, he seems destined for a bright future and does not harbor radical ideas. Early in the story his views on politics are more or less neutral. Razumov is a good listener and sometimes does not talk much. He tends to elicit the trust of those around him. Sometimes people mistake his way of interacting for sympathy for their own causes when in actuality he is neutral or hostile towards them. 

Razumov’s life is turned upside down when Victor Haldin, a young revolutionary, who has just assassinated a brutal government official, lands in Razumov’s room asking for help. Haldin mistakenly believes that Razumov is sympathetic to his cause. Razumov is beside himself and fears that he will be drawn into revolutionary activities. He secretly turns Haldin in to the authorities. The young revolutionary is quickly executed. The government is happy with Razumov’s actions and Haldin’s fellow revolutionaries erroneously believe that Razumov is on their side and helped in the assassination. The autocratic authorities decide to use Razumov as an agent to infiltrate the revolutionaries since the radicals trust him. They send the protagonist to Switzerland to spy on the community of Russian exiles there. The revolutionary exiles are capable of murder so Razumov is aware that he must carry on the deception in order to survive. All this time he is morally conflicted as to who or what he supports. 

In Switzerland Razumov meets various characters who he interacts with through the remainder of the book. Peter Ivanovitch is an older revolutionary who is famous and held in awe by the revolutionaries but also hypocritical and cruel. Tekla is a young woman who has joined the revolutionaries but who is abused by them. The hypocrisy of the movement is illustrated as the person who mistreats her the most is Peter Ivanovitch who is known to be great “feminist”. There are other revolutionaries of varying morality hanging about the story. 

Razumov also meets Natalia Haldin. She is the sister of Haldin. She is thoughtful and ethical. She has strong ideas which include are integrated with her tendency to be kind and charitable. Mrs. Haldin, who is Nalalia's and Haldin's  mother, is also present. Throughout the story she becomes further and further consumed with grief over her son's execution. 

Throughout the narrative the protaginist navigates between these various characters while trying to conceal the fact that he is actually working for the Russian government. He finds himself falling in love with Natalia who reciprocates the feeling. He begins to slide deeper and deeper into cynicism as he begins to understand the moral vacuity of both the government and the rebels. He also has difficulty coming to terms with the guilt that he feels for betraying Haldin. 

The connection with Crime and Punishment, which I also recently read, is interesting. For his part, though Conrad wrote in English and is considered an English writer, he was born in the Ukraine of Polish nobility. His family had connections with the Polish revolutionaries and ran afoul of Russian authorities. Obviously, this background influenced Conrad and this work. Though Conrad wrote this book as a supposed argument with the Russian novel, both books are biting indictments of radicalism. One way that Under Western Eyes differs, is that this work is also an attack on Russian autocracy. The sympathetic characters in this novel, seem to be caught between the two malicious systems.

The plot, characters and ideas that this book explores are, like other Conrad novels that I have read, complex. But its center, this is essentially a tale of of bad forces in conflict with good people caught in the middle.  Most of Conrad’s writing has a streak of cynicism in it. Here is savagely cynical towards both the autocratic Russian Government as well as toward the revolutionaries. Principled and humane people are stuck between the two. At one point the narrator thinks about Natalia, 

There was almost all her youth before her; a youth robbed arbitrarily of its natural lightness and joy, overshadowed by an un-European despotism; a terribly sombre youth given over to the hazards of a furious strife between equally ferocious antagonisms. 

Conrad does finds morality and good in the world. Here, virtue is found in the characters of both Natalia and Tekla, both are characterized as loyal, compassionate and self - sacrificing. Both are among several characters who have been hurt by the amorality practiced by both sides. The toll that malevolent politics has wrought upon Natalia and her mother, Mrs. Haldin, is spelled out, At the same time the young woman’s compassion shines through, 

Away from the lamp, in the deeper dusk of the distant end, the profile of Mrs. Haldin, her hands, her whole figure had the stillness of a sombre painting. Miss Haldin stopped, and pointed mournfully at the tragic immobility of her mother, who seemed to watch a beloved head lying in her lap. That gesture had an unequalled force of expression, so far-reaching in its human distress that one could not believe that it pointed out merely the ruthless working of political institutions. 

Razumov is a very complex character who is often unlikeable. In the end Razumov, though headed for material calamity, he finds moral redemption when he chooses to be honest with himself and with others. Thus, rising above the conflict between these forces. 

Like other Conrad works, the book is filled with long complex sentences. The characters often engage each other in long, meditative and philosophical discussions over life, morality, gender, politics and all sorts of other stuff.  This novel is full of ideas.

In regards to the Dostoyevsky connection, one does not need to read Crime and Punishment before reading this novel. However, being familiar with the Russian book made the this more rewarding for me. 

I have read multiple Conrad novels now. I have come to appreciate him as a writer. This book, like almost everything else that I have read by him, is filled with interesting and complex characters and ideas. The plot of tis also engaging. The novel also has the added interest of having some connection with the ideas and works of Dostoyevsky. Evan aside from that, this is just a great classic book.