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Issue #131 - July 2006

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People in Glass Houses

By Cheryl Morgan

Following up your first Hugo-nominated (and quite possibly Hugo-winning) novel is not an easy thing to do. Charlie Stross, mad impetuous fool that he is, has decided to approach this by doing something very brave. Quite what he has done Iíll leave for a while. First here is the standard Stross novel background that you are all expecting.

Robin, the central character of Glasshouse, has lost his memory. Well, large portions of it anyway. He isnít quite sure how or why he lost it, but he suspects that he may have volunteered for the treatment. You see, he is currently living in a rehabilitation unit for war criminals. And he has these odd flashbacks that suggest that in a past life he may have been a member of the notorious Linebarger Cats mercenaries.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. The Cats were in the forefront of the fight against Curious Yellow, a particularly nasty type of meme virus. In classic Stross style, this thing infected the transporter network, using humans as its transmission vector. Victims not only spread the virus to other gates, they also had their minds edited. If you want a parallel, think of something like The Unanimous Army from Raphael Carterís The Fortunate Fall. If you want to set up a totalitarian society, editing peopleís minds is a good way to make them happy about living there.

The story is set in a typically Strossian future full of what we are learning to call post-humans. These are people who switch bodies almost as carelessly as they switch clothes. Robin was a tank for a while during the war. His new girlfriend, Kay, has four arms. Some of his friends have more extreme mods.

Linn is wearing an orthohuman female body and is most of the way out of rehab; lately sheís been getting interested in the history of fashion ó clothing, cosmetics, tattoos, scarification, that sort of thing ó and the idea of the study appeals to her. Vhora, in contrast, is wearing something like a kawaii pink-and-baby-blue centaurform mechabody: sheís got huge black eyes, eyelashes to match, perfect breasts, and piebald skin covered in Kevlar patches.

Robinís psychotherapist suggests to him that his recovery might be helped by participating in a sociological experiment. A group of scientists have set up a simulation of a Dark Ages society (thatís the 20th and 21st Centuries, Earth time) and are looking for volunteers to live in it for a few years. Participants will be able to earn a living whilst inside the simulation, and will also be well paid on the outside, leaving them nicely rich when they emerge.

It does sound like a good deal, especially as someone who presumably knew Robin before he had his memories wiped is currently trying to kill him. Inside the experiment he will be safe. So he signs up, but quickly discovers that the experiment is a good deal less wholesome than the psychotherapist made out. The sociologists running the project seem to have picked many of the least pleasant aspects of their target period to shape the dominant culture, and their motives for doing so gradually become more and more suspect.

"Obey the rules." Fiore smiles tightly. "The society youíre going to be living in was formal and highly ritualized, with much attention paid to individual relationships and status often determined by random genetic chance. The core element in this society is something called the nuclear family. It is a heteromorphic structure based on a male and a female living in close quarters, usually with one of them engaging in semi-ritualized labor to raise currency and the other preoccupied with social and domestic chores and child rearing."

So much for the set-up, hereís the brave bit. Stross has decided that he wants to write a novel about gender. Perhaps, like David Brin ten years ago (Glory Season), he has his eye on the Tiptree. Perhaps he just had something he wanted to say. So rather than just have Robin slotted neatly into a facsimile of 20th Century small-town America, he puts him in a womanís body as well. "Reeve", as Robin is now known, is expected to choose a husband, obey him as God commanded, turn up at Church every Sunday to confess her sins, and inform upon the sins of her neighbors. Those who manage to live a God-fearing and sin-free life will earn more bonus points in the simulation, and hence get a bigger bonus when the experiment is over. (And by the way, being sin-free includes obeying that directive to go forth and multiply.)

OK, those of you who donít want to hear another Cheryl rant on gender issues, or who simply donít want too much spoilerage, can stop reading now.

The trouble with men writing about gender issues is that it really is like putting yourself in a glass house in the middle of a public park and inviting people to throw stones at you. If that isnít clear already, it should become so in the rest of this review. This is especially so for science fiction writers, because they are expected to pontificate not only on the sociology of gender, but also on its biological underpinnings (or lack thereof). Reviewers are not exactly safe from this either. Iím going to try hard to avoid making firm pronouncements myself, as Iíll only be accused of political incorrectness, and have some earnest young feminist lecturing me about how I know nothing about what transgendered people think and feel and how dare I, etc., etc..

Nevertheless, issues there are, and most of them center around the philosophical concept of Essentialism. Broadly speaking, this simply means that things of a certain type are believed to exhibit certain characteristics because they are things of that type. Oranges are sweet, onions are not. But transfer that into sociology and you get things like this: men are strong, forceful and brave; women are nurturing, irrational and emotional. Or indeed any other piece of 19th Century pseudo-science used to justify discrimination that you might wish to come up with.

Traditionally Feminism has been deeply suspicious of Essentialism. Simone de Beauvoir wrote, "One is not born a woman, but becomes one." (At least I hope she did, online quotation dictionaries are really bad about sourcing their material.) Even more controversially, Kate Millett in Sexual Politics (1972) wrote, "The image of woman as we know it is an image created by men and fashioned to suit their needsÖ" The standard Feminist position, then, at least as per 1970ís Second Wave Feminism, is that the human baby is a tabula rasa on which the idea of manhood or womanhood is imposed by parents and society. Thus there are no essential features of "women" (other than the biologically obvious ones) and therefore no grounds for discrimination on the basis of gender.

The question that then arose was: how do you account for transsexuals? If there is no essential difference between men and women, how can one be "a woman trapped in a manís body" (or vice versa)? The first attempt at an answer was to simply declare that transsexuals did not exist. At best they were simply deluded, at worst they were a deliberate plot by evil male doctors to get rid of women altogether by brainwashing effeminate boys into believing that they are women. They would then truly be Millettís vision of women created by and for men. This argument was put forward by Janice Raymond in a book called The Transsexual Empire (1979). It was also enshrined in the canon of Feminist SF through Joanna Russís The Female Man (1975).

As I mentioned in my blog entries from WisCon, Russ has since disavowed her hardline stance on transsexuals. In addition feminism in general has come up with a less rigid ideology which declares that changing gender is perfectly OK provided that you agree that doing so is merely a lifestyle choice and not the result of any sort of medical or psychological condition. Other Feminists have gone much further and are openly supportive of all forms of transgendered behavior. Nevertheless, there are still many Feminists who insist very firmly that men who change gender can never, ever become women because, well, they are men, arenít they? Some of you may have seen recent posts on Roz Kaveney and Kameron Hurleyís blogs attacking this view.

Did you spot the Essentialist argument in that? Who ever said politics had to be philosophically consistent?

But how does all of this relate to Glasshouse? There are two main aspects of the book that beg to be considered in the light of such arguments (thereís more, but Iím trying to limit the spoilers). Firstly, when the various participants join the experiment, all of the females except Reeve/Robin adapt quickly to their new lives. Iíve never watched Desperate Housewives, but the goings on in Glasshouse closely match my (probably jaundiced) pre-conceived notions about the show. There are lots of lunches, lots of expensive clothes, and there is an enormous amount of bitching.

Now, given that these women (and we appear to be expected to believe that these are all people who chose to present as female before joining the experiment) were all enlightened post-humans not so long ago, how come they slip so easily into this new behavior? Are they under than much coercion? Or is Stross suggesting that they are "reverting to nature"? Knowing Stross as I do, Iím sure he meant to convey the former. But once books are published they are out of the authorís control, and Iím sure many people will read the latter explanation into what happens. They will be encouraged in that belief by the fact that the book seems to suggest that the people who are best able to resist the social programming of the experimenters are people who are in the wrong body for their gender. Those in the right bodies more naturally fall into the roles expected of them.

The killer incident, however, is when Reeve is captured and brainwashed by the bad guys. Remember I was talking earlier on about meme viruses editing people brains? Well, Stross asks us to believe that you can edit a manís mind and turn him into a woman. (Or rather, perhaps, one of Raymond and Russís "made women.")

How can this be? Maybe we need some science.

Political ideology notwithstanding, there is some research being done into differences between male and female brains. Apparently there are some, and the suspicion is that these are the result of differences in how the brain develops in the womb, not of social conditioning. That development would perhaps be different depending on the biochemical environment in male and female fetuses. It is controversial work, in some cases as viciously opposed by ideologues as evolutionary studies. It is also still used as justification for absurd extremes of gender discrimination. One or two people have claimed to have found evidence that the brains of male-to-female transsexuals are similar to those of people born female, but those results are strongly disputed, especially by hardline Feminists.

Again it isnít exactly clear what Stross is asking us to believe. As a result of the mind-editing, Reeveís behavior changes dramatically. She develops a fascination with clothes, hairstyles and make-up. She becomes obsessed with domestic cleanliness. In addition she appears to become selfish, vain and inconsiderate, and she informs on her best friend to the parish priest. Is that what happens when a bad guy doctor replaces the "male" wiring in your brain with "female" wiring. I donít think so.

There are other possible explanations. There are men who have a psychological compulsion to dress and behave like women. This is sometimes tied up with sexual obsessions, and the "women" they ape tend to be porn magazine visions of what women should be like. Such people generally have no desire to live their day-to-day lives as ordinary women, and are therefore not classified as transsexuals. (They are usually classified as transvestites, although of course by no means all transvestites exhibit this behavior.) This might be an easier sort of editing to do, and it could explain much of Reeveís new behavior. Working off some sort of sexual compulsion might fit well with the overall punishment/reward system used by the experiment to coerce participants into the desired form of behavior. But thereís nothing in the book to suggest that this is what has happened. What happens in the book is very much in line with the sort of brainwashing Janice Raymond claimed was being used to "create" transsexuals.

Probably the best explanation is that the brainwashing did not turn Reeve into "a woman", but into "a particular kind of woman". Given the entire purpose of the experiment, that is actually quite legitimate. But the set-up, with Reeve first being a "man in a womanís body" and then becoming "a woman" does encourage the sort of reading that would appeal to your average redneck chauvinist.

I have a feeling that Stross has written himself into a corner here. Much of what he says about the idiocies of "traditional" sex roles and the iniquities that resulted from such beliefs is spot on. Here, for example:

For someone living in the dark ages Sam can be heartbreakingly naïve at times. "Sam, do you know what the word Ďrapeí means?"

"Iíve heard it," he says guardedly. "I thought it had to involve strangers, and usually killing. Do you think ó"

On the other hand, he has also written a book that can easily be interpreted in ways that are very likely to cause Feminists to want to throw things at him. (Probably Le Creuset frying pans rather than stones, they are so much more effective.) I can imagine all sorts of heated debate in the Tiptree jury over this one. There may well be a Glasshouse panel at next yearís WisCon too.

I really like Strossís work, and the future history that forms the backdrop to Glasshouse is up to his usual standard. As for the gender stuff, I guess I shall just shrug and put it down to Charlie being one of those weird alien creatures called men. Iím not sure Iíll ever be able to understand them, they are so irrationalÖ

Glasshouse - Charles Stross - Ace - hardcover

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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