Wednesday, 18 June 2008

New feminist science fiction

A crazy trip to Stockholm last weekend.

The best it produced was enchantment at Junibacken's story train and a visit to Gamlastan's Science Fiction Bookstore.

I found an old short story collection by Ursula Le Guin and an impulse buy that turned out to be the hit I was secretly expecting to find.

Sarah Hall (b.1975) is already author of three novels, out of which the latest, Daughters of the North (2007, in the UK, The Carhullan Army) is closest to the genre of sci-fi. The two earlier novels, seen from a glance at Amazon, seem more like historical magical realism.

Hall's writing is "dystopian", in the sense that it deals with likely futures gone sour and wrong. It is a story of totalitarianism, ecocatastrophes, terrorism, feminism, states of emergency that prevail for years, even centuries. One is reminded of Orwell and Atwood, yet Hall is able to find a style of her own, a voice that is not fan fiction by a copy cat but a genuine new opening in feminist sci-fi.

I would love to teach a course on ecofeminism, based on a reading of Hall. Contrary to many Goddess-inspired thinkers, she doesn't idealize women's closeness with nature, but tries to find a critical stance to analyse current alternative movements.

Hall portrays an isolated community of feminists, who have left the mainstream society that leads a life of national emergency. Britain is filled with trans-Atlantic right-wing Evangelist propaganda. "The brand was Blessed Friends. The American and British flags flew in opposite directions from the same flagpole and there was a small prayer printed next to the ingredients."(32)

The Carhullan women are farmers and they keep a smaller community of men at the outskirts of their farm, with which some women have free relationships and also kids. In the mainstream society, all sexuality is monitored by the state and only the lucky ones win at the baby lottery. Otherwise women are forced to use a primitive coil, which causes complications in most of them. "All I could think about was the doctor, who rubbed cool lubricant inside me, inserting the speculum and attaching the device as efficiently as a farmer clipping the ear of one of his herd." (28)

The Carhullan Army has disappeared from the national census, opted out from healthcare and food packages. They are still able to live a life of relative luxury. This means locally produced food and freedom to choose whether or not to have children.

Ideologically, things start deterioriating also at Carhullan, and the protagonist Sister as a latecomer is the only one able to see clearly the power relations between the women. The novel is primarily about the inner mechanisms of a fringe community, women's power to create and destroy, and political will to oppose a system, whatever that might currently be. It is one of the most political pieces I've read for ages, as it really opens up the question of agency under states of emergency. One is creepily warned, shaken and woken up to think about the years ahead. One should never leave the reading of this novel to private consumption, but this is something that should be shared, discussed and challenged.

The only problem I had with Hall's writing was a tendency I also notice in my own texts. She writes overtly long descriptive passages and uses dialogue only minimally. At times, the narration starts to resemble an overcooked porridge. Otherwise, at the general level, the storyline holds itself together, it manages to create an intensive web of meaning that doesn't let the reader go too easily. I would only expect more rhythm in the weaving of the story. More silences, more pauses, more simple sentence structures.

In a recent interview, Sarah Hall said she wanted to create an alternative to chick lit that is focused on women's obsession with the fat on their thighs. I would claim that in her universe fat is something quite precious - a sign of being pampered and worry-free, but also totally marginal. I am reading this as the food prices are rocketing and at the same time the morning papers are full of panicky stories of Nordic overweight children.

Another form of already existing fascism is a diet camp for schoolkids. The Carhullan Army conditions seem quite innocent and sympathetic if compared to that.

1 comment:

arcadia said...

what an interesting post. although i've covered most of the traditional feminist texts (de beauvoir, butler, greer, dworken, paglia, irigaray)i've had no foray into sci-fi with a feminist stance. what would you recommend? the concept of a fringe community has always been very seductive to me, too.