One of our elders left us this week. Suzette Haden Elgin was a writer of science fiction, a professor linguistics, the founder of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and a feminist, among many other things. Continue reading
Posts Tagged With: Suzette Haden Elgin
In my last WOGF reading challenge review, I remarked on how one of the main points of Native Tongue gets bogged down amidst all the other plot threads Suzette Haden Elgin tries to bring together. That point being the attempt of a group of women Linguists to create their own language, a necessary thing given their oppression. Andrea Hairston brings up a similar point in her 2006 debut novel Mindscape and does so in one sharply written paragraph–one amongst many.
All the thugs is laughin’ at me, but I don’t go off. I take a deep breath, work calm in my center, like Ray Valero do to act. Ethnic throwbacks be like the ole Israelis bringin’ back Hebrew after two thousand years, after so many words was fightin’ against ’em. Why anybody wanna speak the truth, raise they children, know themselves with gas chamber language? Survival be havin’ words to call home, havin’ idioms and syntax to heal the Diaspora. In your cultural rhythm and rhyme, that’s where the soul keep time. — Lawanda Kitt, p. 51
The rest of Mindscape is like that: a lot of heavy things said that, at least to me, doesn’t get lost in a stew of wobbly prose.
Mindscape is a complex tale of a future Earth dealing with the aftermath of the invasion of some sort of alien/magical barrier that has cut the planet into several regions that can no longer interact with each other except for when seasonal corridors open up in the Barrier. All of these regions are constantly at war until a seer/prophet/something named Celestina convinces everyone to sign a peace treaty, ushering in a new era, presumably. She is then assassinated.
So much for the prologue.
The rest of the book concerns the aftermath of the treaty signing. Like I said, it’s complex and Hairston leads us through with the help of five perspectives: Elleni, Celestina’s spirit-daughter who might not be completely human; Lawanda Kitt, an ambassador called upon to interact with the rulers of a rival region; The Major, a man of mixed loyalties, one of which is Lawanda; Ray Valero, a celebrated actor who finds himself in the position of having to be a real hero; and Aaron Dunkelbrot, an entertainment producer with an interesting past.
Through these five people, Hairston shows us a dystopian world where epidemics rage, poor people who don’t have the “right” appearance become Extras in snuff films, “ethnic throwbacks” fight to not be disappeared while gene-art mutations flourish, and a chosen few try to communicate with the Barrier to figure out its plans.
I enjoyed Mindscape quite a bit. Hairston’s prose is delightful and her characters are strong and interesting. The story carried me right along, and her insights into race and culture never felt preachy or heavyhanded. My only complaint might be that the ending felt a little rushed with a ton of plot threads coming together all at once. It’s a minor complaint, though, and I’m looking forward to reading her novel from 2011, Redwood and Wildfire. 4.85/5
Suzette Haden Elgin published Native Tongue, the first book in this eponymous trilogy, in 1984. I was 22 in 1984.
I remember Reagan’s election and how many of us on the left (I was already quite at home way over on the left wing) were frightened by the possibilities, many of which have come to pass. I also remember the beginnings of the backlash on feminism, a backlash that just keeps growing 30 years later. So, I get where Haden’s coming from with her story of a dystopian future USA where women have lost all their rights and are now the property of men in worse ways then they were before the second wave of feminism. My 22 year-old self would have eaten this book up and looked for more.
I’m sad to report, however, that the book didn’t really do much for my 51 year-old self. The story immediately irked me with the premise that the constitutional amendments revoking the 19th amendment and turning women into minors under the law would have happened by 1991. I mean, okay, Reagan and his ilk scared me, too, but 1991? That seems awfully premature.
That’s always a risk writers take, putting events in the super-near future. I’m still miffed that 2001 came and it was nothing like the movie. There was a 33-year gap there. To predict something this cataclysmic happening less than 10 years from when you’re publishing? Might have wanted to think that through a little more.
So, I had to try to push that aside as I read further. Fortunately the rest of the book takes place centuries in the future, the 22nd to be exact. There we discover that not only do women still not have any rights, but society has been divided up into two antagonistic groups: the Linguists and everyone else. The Linguists are the only people capable of communicating with all the alien societies humans have met, so they’re necessary as translators to make all the treaties and do all the negotiating. Regular people hate them, so the Linguist families (the Lines) live in large communal houses buried in the earth away from prying eyes and violent reaction.
One of the reasons that regular folk hate the Linguists is that Linguist women are allowed to work outside the home as translators because, apparently, there’s so much translating that needs to be done, they have to. Then we have all the stuff happening with babies blowing up because they can’t fathom non-humanoid alien languages (no, really). I haven’t even gotten to the Linguist women’s work on creating a language that allows women to express their thoughts better than standard English, French, German, whatever. This, one might argue, is really the point of the book, but it gets lost, to me, amidst all the other stuff.
Oh, and there’s a serial killer. (Who’s actually my favorite part of the novel; her first murder? That chapter would make a great Tales from the Crypt of something.)
I hate to say this, because Elgin’s short story “Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me” remains one of my favorite short stories (Top 10, no question. It’s awesome. And hard to find. I have it in Dick Allen’s Science Fiction: The Future (1983 edition).), but I found Native Tongue to be too bloated and ponderous, too preachy and heavyhanded. While not all the women are saints, by any means (see: serial killer), most of them are and there isn’t one kind man in the whole thing. They’re all stupid, misogynistic assholes, every one of them, which is just bullshit. Even in 1984, I had allies. Still do.
None of the characters are really developed at all; they’re all just game pieces for Elgin’s philosophical/linguistic chess board. And there are so many plot holes. What do the aliens in the Interface do all day when they’re not communicating with (and occasionally destroying) the babies? And what happened to all the kids who’d been fed hallucinogens in an attempt to keep them from blowing up after they were taken to the orphanage? The list goes on.
Things I liked? The serial killer character, as I said. She’s really the only person whose character evolved (however slightly) over the course of the novel. I also enjoyed Elgin’s discussions of language and the linguistic “tricks” that one male linguist in particular would use to win arguments. Those were interesting. And I liked the notion that an academic field such as linguistics would become so powerful. But the negative outweighs the positive for me.
Biggest disappointment? The cover of the edition I read. Nothing like that image happens in the book. I wanted my motherly alien! (2.625/5)
I don’t normally do reading challenges. Not that I’m all superior to them or anything. I just hate taking on obligations I may not be able to meet. That, and, well yeah, I’ll read what I want when I want, thanks very much, is usually how I feel.
That said, this year’s challenge from Worlds Without End caught my eye on Sunday, and I decided to sign on. That challenge is to read 12 books by 12 women genre authors in 12 months. Looking over the list of possibilities, it reminded me that there is still so much to read, and I hadn’t read as many authors on the list as I wish I had.
Time to amend that.
Although for me, it’s going to be 12 books in 6 months, because of the whole just discovering this two days ago thing. Fortunately, I read fairly quickly.
The other aspect of this challenge is that I have to review all 12 of those books. Blog post material!
Here’s what I’m going to read (Note that I’ve not read any of these books before and I made it a point to choose authors I haven’t read before either, for the most part.):
- Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (One of two of these that I own, part of R’s massive collection of older sf.)
Sea Kings of Mars, Leigh Brackett. I decided to change the Brackett book I’d picked because it’s now almost November and Sea Kings of Mars is crazy long. Now I’m going to read…
- The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett
- The Between, Tananarive Due
- Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (Elgin I’ve read, but only one short story. Really looking forward to this and the rest of the trilogy it belongs to; that short story is one of my favorites, “Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me.”)
Outlander, Diana GabaldonThis one’s wicked long, too, so I changed it out for…
- Downbelow Station, C.J. Cherryh (which is also long, but not quite as)
- Half World, Hiromi Goto
- Mindscape, Andrea Hairston
- Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N. K. Jemisin
- The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin (Surprisingly, A Wizard of Earthsea is the only Le Guin book I’ve read, and that was 30 years ago. I love the film of The Lathe of Heaven PBS made, so this is another one I’m looking forward to.)
- Up the Walls of the World, Alice Bradley Sheldon (AKA James Tiptree, Jr.) (Another one from R’s collection. No, that’s not the only reason I hooked up with him. Jeez, people. [It was the record collection that did it, actually.])
- The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente
I’m actually excited to read all of these, not just the ones I commented on. And the first one’s already done; just need to write the review. Oh, Victor.
What do you think of reading challenges in general and this one in particular? Are there books by the authors above you think are better? (I can change what I’m reading any time.)