Of Politics and Awards
By Cheryl Morgan
The Lambda Literary Awards are an institution that I follow with passing interest, mainly because they are one of the few self-professed "literary" awards to include a category for SF/F/H fiction. They are also specifically aimed at works with an LGBT character to them, which provides some overlap with the Tiptree. This year the Lambda winners were announced over WisCon weekend. Some surprise was expressed in various quarters that Octavia Butlerís Fledgling was beaten to the SF/F/H prize by a book most of us had never heard of, and which A Room of Oneís Own, Madisonís feminist bookstore, had not bothered to bring to the dealersí room. The winning book was Daughters of an Emerald Dusk, by Katherine V. Forrest. I decided Iíd better take a look.
I wasnít entirely sure what to expect, but conversations at WisCon, and the fact that the store had the book hidden away in their "lesbian interest" section rather than on the SF shelves, had me primed for a rather poor piece of SF with lots of hot lesbian sex. What I actually found was a proper SF book with a political philosophy so utterly abhorrent to me that Iím going to give away the ending to talk about it. If you donít like spoilers, stop reading now.
Initially all of my worst fears looked like they were being fulfilled. The beginning of the book is full of pompous, portentous prose that I had great difficulty getting through. In places it was also just sloppy. For example:
Celeste is prostrate over the reality that her friends, her entire peer group, are suddenly three decades older than she.
Iíve never tried lying on top of a reality myself. I wonder how uncomfortable it is? Or this:
Laurel, and their daughters Emerald and Crystal, are thirty years older than when Megan left Maternas on what we had all believed to be no more than a yearís voyage to visit our sisters on Earth to bring news of the home we had found in the stars, and then return.
That sentence clearly got away from Forrest half way through and could benefit from some of Anneís excellent copy editing.
Other things grate too. For example, I canít believe that real people would say things like this:
"This would be childís play compared to the years of evading Theo Zedera and the role you took the day your Earth changed forever."
By half way through I was really struggling to understand what the judges had seen in this book. But at least by then I had absorbed enough background about the previous books in the series to know what was going on.
What we have here is a tale of a feminist utopia. The women in the book have found a way to produce offspring without the aid of men and have set up a separatist society. Attempts to co-exist with male-dominated societies on Earth have apparently failed, but an idyllic community has been founded on the planet of Maternas (on the continent of Femina ó sigh). The founders of the society, having given up on Earth, have just returned to that world.
And here, suddenly, Forrest gets into her stride. There is a plot, and a story to be told. The pompous prose mostly goes away, and we get action instead. The three viewpoint characters: Minerva the Historian, Olympia the Philosopher and Joss the Heroine, all appear to talk with Forrestís voice, but at least the book is now readable.
In the 30 or so years that our heroines have been away from Maternas, disturbing things have happened. All children born in the first generation of colonists have shown physical differences from normal humans and have been unusually rebellious. The second generation matured unusually quickly, stopped talking around the age of four, and left home to live in the jungles soon after. The colonyís scientists can find no biological explanation for what has happened.
The truth is eventually revealed to Joss (and I do mean revealed, this is not a book in which characters strive and succeed). It turns out that Maternas has a mind of its own. It is a Gaian world. And despite the fact that the colony has done everything it can to manage its interaction with the local environment in a sound and caring way, humans are not welcome. Indeed, humans are not welcome anywhere. It turns out that they only managed to evolve on Earth because our local Gaia-mind had been seriously damaged by meteor impacts. On healthy worlds, creatures as evil as humans are never allowed to evolve.
"That weíre an inferior and malignant species, that we would never have come into existence even on our own planet except that Earth was too weak to rid herself of us ó these are facts we can believe or not, as we wish."
This, of course, is myth-making. It is on a par with saying, "God came to me in a dream and told me that we must all live by the following laws." Forrest has no logical argument to demonstrate that humans are evil; she just has Joss, on behalf of the planetary mind, state it as a "fact." Thankfully she doesnít then immediately advocate genocide. She appears to be willing to let her characters survive in the vastness of space, where they can do no harm to other living beings. But you can imagine how the Pat Robertsons and Osama bin Ladens of a putative Forrestite religion would interpret such ideas.
Which brings us back to the Lambdas. Daughters of an Emerald Dusk is not really a book about LGBT issues. There are a few pages of fairly juicy lesbian group sex, but all of the gender politics appears to have happened in the earlier books of the series. There is a remarkably hard-line Environmentalist message in the book, but that isnít supposed to be part of the Lambda remit. And as far as literature goes, Iím sure that Octavia Butlerís book beats this one hands down.
That in turn brings us back to the Tiptree. This yearís Tiptree winner is a very fine piece of literature. It has won three other major literary awards as well as the Tiptree. Anyone who suggests that Air winning the Tiptree is a triumph of politics over literary quality is liable to get laughed at. There was, it is true, a highly controversial book on the short list, and a work of highly dubious quality on the long list. Thatís how the Tiptree deals with politics. The more a work is politically interesting but of suspect literary quality, the further down the list it goes.
In contrast, Daughters of an Emerald Dusk was not on a short list or a long list. It won a major award, beating out a book by an acknowledged literary genius. So, to those of you out there who have been claiming that the Tiptree has lost all credibility by putting politics above literary quality, for goodness sake have a sense of proportion. If you must go after an award, take pot shots at the Lambdas instead.