Monthly Archives: September 2013

Feminist SF Throwdown: Atwood V. Butler

I finished Maddaddam in a plot-fueled daze. Then I immediately began rereading Octavia Butler’s “Xenogenesis Trilogy,” which is conveniently/frustratingly published in one volume entitled “Lilith’s Brood” with cover art that looks like it’s soft core porn.

The thing is, the trilogy is bona fide SF. Aliens, apocalypse, ethics, science. The “nature of humanity.”

If that publisher thought for half a second about how bullshit that cover is, they’d realize that if they pretended Octavia Butler were a dude, and put some flipping aliens and stars on the cover, and a big blobby spaceship that itself is alive, to more accurately represent the book’s actual content, maybe they’d DOUBLE THEIR CUSTOMERS.


Instead, they made the book look like it’s about a skinny black woman having sex.

Which, technically, happens in the trilogy. But only through a gender-neutral being who mediates between her and another’s nervous system in a mandatory threesome, and no one touches anyone. Etc. Science fiction sex. You know how we do.

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Book Reviewlets: Oryx and Crake & the Year of the Flood

Recipe for a Post-Apocalyptic Novel

Apocalyptic Technology: Pick one. Any current ones could wipe us out, given the right combo of corporate, economic, and political forces. Margaret Atwood picked genetic engineering.

Protagonist: Anti-hero, to make his (usually his) salvation of humankind more literary. Atwood made three, so far, across these two books: A boy whose mother’s depression and abandonment gave him a Complex, a young woman who moved from an eco cult into pseudo-elite sex work for totally logical reasons, and an older woman who survived both her parents’ death and the deprivations of a horrifying rapist and torturer (even reviews by Noted Feminists tend not to call this dude a rapist).

Smug Scientific Genius (optional): But how optional is it, really, since the whole premise of the genre is that scientific hubris will do us in? Sometimes (I’m thinking of Butler’s xenogenesis trilogy) this role is played by an alien. In these books, he’s a lonely hacker resolved to engineer humans back to the state of animals, reversing much of what evolution gave us in terms of frontal lobe capabilities etc. Because human emotions are too painful. That sounds like a cliche when I type it, but it didn’t feel like one when I read it.

Impediment to Human Survival: Conflict, right? Something has to happen after the world has ended, because we’re too convinced of our own power as a species to really think that apocalypse is the end. In these books, there’s Blanco, that rapist/torturer/murderer/subhuman, and a few of his co-rapists. There are pigs with human brain tissue. They hold grudges and mourn their dead. There isn’t much food left.

But the biggest impediment to human survival is the potential inability of humans to override decades of programming by the corporate technocracy into creatures of pure consumption.

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I Have No Feelings

Ariel Castro has hung himself.

The sub-human whose crime was to push most of our society’s long-standing messages about women and children into the realm of the absolutely-horrifying-cannot-ignore-it, will no longer breathe our air.

His crimes remind me of Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood, which I recently re-read, and which features a few horrifying sub-humans who commit similar crimes against women.

I’m planning a book reviewlet of this, and its predecessor Oryx and Crake, as soon as I get half a second to type up what’s in my head. But meanwhile, I’ll say that Atwood portrays this kind of violence against women as part of the landscape. As something that makes people uncomfortable, impotent, and near-apathetic.

We know it happens, but what can we do about it? Nothing.

Atwood’s solution is vicariously thrilling. But her solution, alas, is the least realistic part of her portrayal of violence against women. Everything else is too, too close to our world. For every Ariel Castro there are a dozen other cretins, or more, whose crimes against women will remain unknown, let alone unprosecuted.

Or others whose crimes against women will be prosecuted but inadequately punished.

Or others whose crimes against women are loudly defended by glamorous celebrities. And by his own victim.

I cannot begin to speculate if Castro’s suicide was an admission of guilt or contempt. Of understanding or its opposite. I have no feelings about his death. He is gone, his house is now demolished, and his victims are surviving as best they can.

The rest of the world can move on now, and forget that Castro was shaped by our world–the same world that shaped you and me.

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