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"After We Walked Away," Erica L. Satifka; Apex Magazine, November 21, 2016
http://www.apex-magazine.com/after-we-walked-away/

A literalised response to Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," this story follows two young people, man and woman, who left "The Solved City" - clearly based on Omelas - because they could not accept the violent magic on which the city is founded, that the deliberately caused unending suffering of just one child could produce a utopia for everyone else. They find our society, where almost everyone suffers, from systematic oppression and cruelty, and in different ways regret their decision. It's a strongly written and emotionally disturbing story, but it misses one very important thing. Le Guin's story is not about rejecting a utopia based on horror for some other existing world; Omelas is our society, or at least an an allegorical reference to it. Those who walk away are the rebels who reject our acquiescence in the very real cruelty and oppression in our world, the comforting lie that the poor will always be with us, with its corollary that therefore we need do nothing for them. They are the ones who would change the paradigm, who would give up their privilege to end the horror others experience.

It's a well-crafted and moving story, but at its heart it is dishonest in setting up a straw man to refute, and disingenuous in using that straw man to argue that the suffering of one is easier to accept than the suffering of many. I would rather remain with the vision given form by Le Guin, that there are those among us who realise that as long as one of us is chained, none of us is free.


"Crocodile Tears," Jaymee Goh; Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/crocodile-tears/

Goh here reworks a traditional folk tale of revenge. In Goh's version, a crocodile brings brings news to a successful man who has abandoned his family, telling him of the fates of his mother, his lover and the unborn child he left behind.


"That Game We Played During the War," Carrie Vaughn; tor.com, March 16, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/03/16/that-game-we-played-during-the-war/

A sparsely written but deeply moving story about war and what happens when war is over and two sides try to make a peace, summed up in the interactions between two veterans, one from each side. Calla is a military nurse; during the was it was her duty to keep Valk - a member of a telepathic race - and other prisoners of war under sedation to dull their abilities. Later in the war, fortunes have shifted and Calla is the prisoner, Valk her keeper. Remembering the games of chess he watched her play with he other staff, he asks her to teach him, and together they find a way to enjoy playing a game of strategy between one who reads minds and one who does not. When a peace finally comes, Valk, recovering from wounds in hospital, asks Cala to visit him and bring 'the game they played during the war.'

Working together on the game creates a bond that can become a bridge, a way of understanding and building a trust that may support the fragile peace. A story of hope, a microcosm of good will between people tired of war.


"Bargain," Sarah Gailey; Mothership Zeta, December 27, 2015
http://mothershipzeta.org/2015/12/27/bargain-by-sarah-gailey/#more-289

"Bargain" is 2017 Campbell Award finalist Sarah Gailey's first professional sale, and it is a fine story indeed, in which old woman offers her soul and her life to a demon in return for health and youth for her dying wife - with such will and love that even the demon looks for a way to subvert the nature of the deal. Told with a surprisingly appropriate light, even humorous touch, it left me with tears brimming in my eyes, and a goofy smile on my face.


"Of Blood and Bronze," Sarah Gailey; Devilfish Review, Issue 17
https://devilfishreview.com/issues/issue-seventeen/of-blood-and-bronze-by-sarah-gailey/

Framed as a steampunk fairy tale, this is haunting and horrifying story of the mechanisms of corruption, and the truth that the ends cannot justify the means because they are changed and tainted by them. An alchemist works a terrible magic to save the life of the innocent and good young bride of a mad old king, so that she may rule the kingdom until the heir comes of age, with the best of intentions, and the unhappiest of consequences.


"The Art of Space Travel," Nina Allen; Tor.com, July 27, 2016
http://www.tor.com/2016/07/27/the-art-of-space-travel/

Thirty years ago, the first mission to Mars ended in tragedy. The second mission is about to be launched, and two of the astronauts are scheduled to spend a night at the Edison Star hotel, where Emily Starr is head of housekeeping. Emily's mother Moolie, formerly a physicist, is mentally impaired and slowly dying as the result of forensic work she did on a plane downed by a dirty bomb. Sometimes she hints that Emily's father had some connection with space, perhaps even with the doomed Mars mission. The only physical link Emily has to her unknown father is a book, The Art of Space Travel, that Moolie says once belonged to him.

While this novelette has a sciencefictional setting, the real story is about daughters watching mothers age and become infirm, about children seeking, finding, and losing parents, about family and secrets and love, and about aspirations followed and aspirations left fallow. The Mars mission stands as a symbol of hope and persistence, but truly there are a hundred things that could have taken its place. Still, the implications of venturing into the unknown add to the poignancy of Moolie's terminal condition. A strong story about families and finding one's place and purpose, well written, but somewhat lacking in the 'what if' one looks for in science fiction.


"Jackalope Wives," Ursula Vernon; Apex Magazine, January 7, 2014
http://www.apex-magazine.com/jackalope-wives/

I read this because I knew I was going to read Vernon's "The Tomato Thief," which takes place in the same setting and shares a key character, and I wanted to know the backstory for that character.

Vernon's writing in this story is poetic and realistic by turns, which is appropriate considering it is a story about those who cross the boundaries of the magical and the mundane. There's wonderful sense of place - the southwestern American desert becomes a fairytale landscape where all sorts of magic are possible, and creatures out of myth are as real as the sun and the dry earth and the animals and plants that make a home there.

One one level, this is a story about making choices, and accepting consequences and shouldering responsibilities, and setting things right. But it's also a commentary on the way that men see women and assume that what they want, they can take - and how the consequences of that fall only on the women.

The key character, Grandma Harken, is a woman who has suffered a great loss at the hands and through the choices of a man, but has learned to accept what came from it, and make the best of her circumstances, and to come to terms with a changed life, making it her own. When given the choice between regaining what was lost, or saving another from the fate she accepted - a loss caused by another man, one she is kin to - she takes on the responsibility for setting right her grandson's wrongs. She is willing to make whatever sacrifice must be made - but though this is presented as a kind of pragmatic heroism, at the root of it, what she is doing is choosing once more to accept the consequences of a man and his unchecked desires.

The story bothers me. Its beautifully crafted, and the characters live and breathe just as the desert cones alive in the mind. It's a really good story. But It leaves me wondering how to respond to what it's saying. In a sense, it's about women who choose to live with the things men do, to clean up their messes and live with the consequences of them, because someone has to do the right thing, and the men in their lives certainly aren't going to do it. Are we to admire Grandma Harken, or pity her, or just to hope that someday men will stop taking from women - and the world around them - without thought for the consequences?


"The Tomato Thief," Ursula Vernon; Apex Magazine, January 5, 2016
http://www.apex-magazine.com/the-tomato-thief/

This novelette is a return to the magical fairytale desert Vernon created in "Jackalope Wives" and to its central character, the shapeshifter-become-human Grandma Harken, with her sense of responsibility and duty. There's a certain similarity of theme here as well, in that Grandma Harken finds herself - grumbling about her age and mortality but still shouldering responsibility for making things right - setting out to save a woman caught in a powerful spell by a man of power.

There are some marvelous touches to the story that show the desert magic as a growing, evolving thing, adapting to the changes forced on it by the encroachment of man. The building of trains to cross and divide the desert has brought about the existence of the train-gods, and fittingly, their priests are found among the descendants of those forced to work on the railroads for the benefit of men of power living in the industrial east, the children of Asian labourers and indentured European workers.

Grandma Harken needs the intervention of the train-gods to find the hiding place of the sorcerer, who has folded the land around himself - and when she enters his domain, she will need all her wisdom and cunning, and the allies she makes along the way, to set things right again, defeat the sorcerer, and undo the damage done to people, animals and land.

Again, I find myself loving the story, the words, the imagery, the worldbuilding, the characters, the skill that went into its creation, while being unsettled by the story's implications. The underlying politics - in the sense of power relations - are clear, as they were in Vernon's earlier story. It's a reflection of the politics of our own world. Men of power, rich men, white men, men who think they can take and use and make everything they want their own, do as they will, which mostly causes distortion and harm to the land, to the creatures of nature and to the people without power. And because someone has to do it, it's the ones who have suffered who do what they can to ameliorate the damage. It's accurate, but I think what bothers me is that as Vernon writes these tales, it's just the way it is. There's no sense that it's not just the actions of the powerful, but the basic underlying dynamic that makes the powerless responsible for the work of mitigating the wrongs of other, is in itself wrong. There's just Grandma Harken, and the train-god priests, and the little girl who will be Grandma Harken's apprentice, who heroically shoulder the burdens that belong to others.

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André M. Carrington's critical assessment of race in science fiction, Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, looks both at what he calls "the whiteness of science fiction" and "the speculative fiction of Blackness," thus examining "racialized patterns in the production and interpretation of speculative fiction" from two complementary perspectives.

In his Introduction, Carrington identifies himself as a Black man who is both a fan of speculative fiction and an academic, a critic of the genre. As such, his chosen focus in this critical work is:

"... what speculative fiction, in the many ways we encounter it and embody it, has to say about what it means to be Black. It is also about how placing Blackness at the center of discussions about speculative fiction augments our understanding of what the genre might be and what it might do."

Rather than taking a survey approach, Carrington selects specific areas of the broad spectrum of works and activities that make up the culture of speculative fiction, and examines these as representations of 'the whiteness of science fiction' or 'the speculative fiction of Blackness.'

"Speculative fiction is as saturated with race thinking as any other variety of popular culture, and it tends to reproduce conventional understandings of race for reasons I explore in this introduction and throughout the book. By analyzing works that represent the production and reception of speculative fiction, I also demonstrate that race thinking is a salient factor in the way actors on the media landscape employ genre distinctions and reproduce genre conventions in practice. Ultimately, I hope to establish a basis in the interpretation of popular culture for a more expansive understanding of what it means to be Black. I also hope to encourage SF readers and critics to acknowledge that race matters in speculative fiction; whether we realize it or not, our engagement with the genre entails a variety of complex relationships with Blackness."

The first aspect of the sff culture that Carrington presents as indicative of the whiteness of sff is fandom itself, which he views through the lens of fan reaction to the 'career' of Black fan writer Carl Brandon - a creation of several fan/writers, primarily Terry Carr.

"I have used Carl Brandon as a lens through which to view a moment in the development of a community around speculative fiction and the creative use of media, and I have reasserted Brandon’s Blackness as an essential feature in my examination of this moment because the fake fan made his participation in the network of relations among fans notable through his self-identification as a Negro. Although Carl Brandon emerged to inoculate fans against the charge of racial exclusion, the fact that he did not exist and disappeared before another fan identified herself as Black left the presumptive Whiteness of science fiction intact. By understanding the means of producing Brandon’s Blackness, however, we can recognize its continuity with the race thinking in science fiction fandom, rather than treating it as a lacuna. Interpreting the first letter that firmly identifies Carl Brandon’s textual persona with Blackness requires us to invoke a chain of correspondence reaching back to August 1954. When Carr made a splash by identifying Brandon as Black, fans were already in the middle, not at the beginning or the end, of a long dialogue about the meaning of Blackness in their community. This dialogue looks backward to James Fitzgerald [the first known black member of sf fandom] and forward to the continuing work of the Carl Brandon Society."

Carrington also interrogates the whiteness of the idea of space travel, a key element of science fiction, through the singular presence of Nichelle Nichols both as Uhura and as a spokesperson for NASA.

"Because of the ways in which Black women have been marginalized in the production of popular culture, including the relative alienation of Black women from the SF genre’s conventional ways of envisioning race, gender, and sexuality, Nichelle Nichols, I argue, has yet to be recognized for her transformative contributions to the public interrogation of questions at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and utopian discourse.

Carrington continues his examination of popular sff genre fiction, through a look at the various ways the Marvel Comics character Storm embodies representations of white ideas about Black womanhood. Staying within the graphic narrative genre, he also reflects on the brief career of Milestone Media, a black-owned comics publishing company, and particularly its flagship title, Icon, which he argues "positioned a highly intellectual Black female protagonist, Rocket, in a critical dialogue with comics fandom." In both examples Carrington situates his discussion of Blackness in speculative fiction, as represented by Storm and by the Black characters Rocket and Icon in the Milestone Media comic, in the midst of a genre that remains conspicuous in its whiteness.

Carrington returns to an examination of black representation in the Star Trek universe with his exploration of the Deep Space Nine character Benjamin Sisko. He places particular focus on the time-travel themed episode "Far Beyond the Stars" and on the novelisation of this episode by black writer Steven Barnes.

"The episode recontextualizes the television series, which was enjoying its sixth season at that point, by presenting a story within a story. Casting Avery Brooks’s Blackness in stark relief against the trenchant White supremacy of the mid-twentieth-century United States, the episode would raise troubling questions about the inspirational rhetoric of science fiction—and Star Trek in particular—by situating the dynamics of racial conflict squarely within the history of the genre."

In his final chapter, Carrington returns to fandom, and in particular the transformative activity of writing fan fiction. He selects as his point of examination the online archive Remember Us, which "catalogs representations of people of color in popular media through fan fiction, fan art, and music video, providing a space in which a variety of critical relationships to Blackness appear possible, now and in the future."

Through critical discussion of these specific topics related to speculative fiction in all of its manifestations, Carrington examines both the history - the past and present - of representations of race, and illuminates possible futures for inclusivity. As he concludes in his Coda:

"Much of Speculative Blackness has concerned how the entrenchment of speculative fiction in the norms of popular culture limits the meaning of Blackness in the genre, but in this work I am also constantly looking forward to what Blackness can do, with the aid of speculative fiction, to transform cultural politics."

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The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays by author and social critic Kameron Hurley on being/becoming an sff writer and being a woman in that profession, on sff and geek culture and being a woman in that culture, and on the ways that sexism and geekdom play out in the broader 'mundane' world. In her Introduction to the collection, Hurley says:

"At its heart, this collection is a guidebook for surviving not only the online world and the big media enterprises that use it as story fodder, but sexism in the wider world. It should inspire every reader, every fan, and every creator to participate in building that better future together."

The essays in this collection range widely: from the important of persistence in becoming a writer to a discussion of Joanna Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing. They are painful, inspiring, rage-honing, insightful, and even funny at times, and include the Hugo Award winning "We Have Always Fought." They are definitely worth reading.

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For those who don't know (and until I read a passing comment on the Internet about her and the book she'd just written, I didn't), Lindy West is a feminist, fat acceptance movement activist. That was quite enough for me to be interested in her book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman.

Shrill is, like Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist or Laurie Penny's Unspeakable Things, a heady combination of personal narrative, political analysis and call-to-arms.

She talks with humour and honesty about growing up as a shy, overweight child, about reaching menache in a culture that seeks to ignore the biological processes of female bodies, about living as a fat woman, about struggling to come to self acceptance and to raise the consciousness of colleagues in the media about the effects of public fat-shaming.

She writes matter-of-factly about her abortion, and I recognised some of my own reactions on having mine. It was no horrible tragedy, no wrenching drama, simply a thing that I chose to have because I was not interested in having a child. What she says about the right to abortion, to control one's body, is short and exactly on the mark.

"The truth is that I don’t give a damn why anyone has an abortion. I believe unconditionally in the right of people with uteruses to decide what grows inside of their body and feeds on their blood and endangers their life and reroutes their future. There are no “good” abortions and “bad” abortions, there are only pregnant people who want them and pregnant people who don’t, pregnant people who have access and support and pregnant people who face institutional roadblocks and lies."

West writes movingly about the psychological consequences of the violent and obscene harassment - often minimised as "trolling" - of women on the Internet. She pulls no punches - she calls it what it is, abuse directed at the marginalised inhabitants of the net:

"Why is invasive, relentless abuse—that disproportionately affects marginalized people who have already faced additional obstacles just to establish themselves in this field—something we should all have to live with just to do our jobs? Six years later, this is still a question I’ve yet to have answered."

One of many interrelated topics she addresses is the idea of socially responsible comedy - comedy that does not make marginalised people, be they women, people with a disability or a socially awkward disease such as herpes, or any other marked status, the punchline of the joke.

"When I looked at the pantheon of comedy gods (Bill Hicks, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Louis CK, Jon Stewart, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld), the alt-comedy demigods (Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, David Cross, Marc Maron, Dave Attell, Bill Burr), and even that little roster of 2005 Seattle comics I rattled off in the previous chapter, I couldn’t escape the question: If that’s who drafted our comedy constitution, why should I assume that my best interests are represented? That is a bunch of dudes. Of course there are exceptions—maybe Joan Rivers got to propose a bylaw or two—but you can’t tell me there’s no gender bias in an industry where “women aren’t funny” is widely accepted as conventional wisdom."

She pays particular attention to the phenomenon of the rape joke.

"Feminists don’t single out rape jokes because rape is “worse” than other crimes—we single them out because we live in a culture that actively strives to shrink the definition of sexual assault; that casts stalking behaviors as romance; blames victims for wearing the wrong clothes, walking through the wrong neighborhood, or flirting with the wrong person; bends over backwards to excuse boys-will-be-boys misogyny; makes the emotional and social costs of reporting a rape prohibitively high; pretends that false accusations are a more dire problem than actual assaults; elects officials who tell rape victims that their sexual violation was “god’s plan”; and convicts in less than 5 percent of rape cases that go to trial. Comedians regularly retort that no one complains when they joke about murder or other crimes in their acts, citing that as a double standard. Well, fortunately, there is no cultural narrative casting doubt on the existence and prevalence of murder and pressuring people not to report it."

I enjoyed reading West's lived experiences - some of which, in certain ways, seemed similar to some of mine - and her strong, bold voice. Not shrill, Lindy, though frightened misogynist men might label it so. Just strong, and true.

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Anyone approaching Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago with the expectations of reading a standard medieval fantasy will quickly find it necessary to revise their expectations. This is not a standard fantasy, and it's not just because the protagonist is a transwoman of colour. (But how wonderful it is to read a novel where the protagonist is a transwoman of colour.)

Robins in the Night is a post-modern, post-colonial fable that takes the Robin Hood mythos as a starting point for an examination of classism, sexism, racism, heterosexism, gender identity and the revolution of the commons. The setting is somewhat ahistorical - castles with dungeons and houses with indoor plumbing - and without strong indications of place - there's a town, a forest, another town that people are born in or visit or pass through, and an island or two which are foreign places that people come from or go to. The style, language and sensibility are very modern. And it is a lot of fun.

There are some awkward passages, some places where the narrative falters, or overreaches, but for the most part, it is a satisfying and often delightful story, told with humour and full of adventure, women with tons of agency, and the romance of two revolutionary women falling in love.

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Invisible 2: Personal Essays about Representation in Science Fiction, edited by Jim C. Hines, is the second collection of essays about the visibility - and invisibility - of people who are not straight, white, cis, nominally Christian, able-bodied, and most likely male in speculative fiction.

I haven't read the first Invisible collection, but I am certainly going looking for it now that I've read the second.

These are essays about never finding someone like yourself in the genre that you love, or only finding yourself rarely, usually as a side-kick or bit player, or maybe a villain, but almost never a real hero. Or finding only caricatures of people like you, stereotypical images that are almost as bad as never seeing yourself at all. And some stories about what it's like to find somebody like you, a fully realised character, a hero.

As Aliette de Bodard writes in her Introduction,

The trouble with stories, of course, is that they don’t exist in a vacuum. They are shaped, too, by the culture in which they were born—and worse than that, by the dominant culture. Stories tell you what to value, and what not to value—they teach you, over and over, that some people get to be heroes and some don’t. That some behaviours like violence are acceptable and heroic; others (like mothers sacrificing themselves to the bone year after year to raise their children) aren’t even worth a mention.

And stories, in the end, shape that dominant culture. Telling the same story that we ourselves have been told, over and over, erases all the others. It tells some people—those outside the dominant cultural paradigm—that they don't deserve to have stories told about them. That people like them never get their own books or their own stories; that they are not worth writing about; which a lesson no-one should have to learn.


These essays remind us of all the people who are all too often invisible in speculative fiction, the people we need to see if we are to have stories that reflect the breadth and depth of the human condition. The people represented - and representing - in this volume include people of colour - not just the generic Latin@, Asian, Black, Indigenous groupings, but Vietnamese and Puerto Rican and Japanese and Cherokee and other members of specific cultures who want to be seen for themselves, not as part of some general non-white conglomerate.

The people writing these essays are queer, and trans, and genderfluid, and asexual, and survivors of abuse rather than victims, and think that they deserve to have their stories told so that others, especially young people growing up without any one who shares their experiences around them, will know they have a right to exist, that they are not alone.

They are Jewish, and pagan, they are immigrants, they are older women, they are disabled and non-neurotypical, they are fat, they are people with life histories and experiences that lie outside the straight cis able-bodied white male paradigm that it so often seems our understanding of humanity is based on.

Some of them are even examples of that paradigm, talking about how they have come to treasure the stories that are not about them. And it's all good reading.

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This is what you need to know about Letters to Tiptree, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce:

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Alice Sheldon’s birth, and in recognition of the enormous influence of both Tiptree and Sheldon on the field, Twelfth Planet Press is publishing a selection of thoughtful letters written by science fiction and fantasy’s writers, editors, critics and fans to celebrate her, to recognise her work, and maybe in some cases to finish conversations set aside nearly thirty years ago. [1]


Either you know who James Tiptree Jr. - the primary pseudonym used by Alice Sheldon in her writing - was, what she did, what she wrote, how she was viewed, or you don't. If you do, you will understand and celebrate this book. If you don't.... Well, I am sorry that you have not yet encountered some of the greatest and most provocative short stories in the canon of science fiction, and that you have missed out on a long, thoughtful and vital conversation on the meaning of gender. I heartily recommend that you join the conversation by reading Tiptree immediately.

The book is divided into four parts:

Section one, “Alice, Alice, Do You Read?”, is composed of letters written to Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr., or Raccoona Sheldon (or all of them). The second section, “I Never Wrote You Anything But The Exact Truth”, presents selected letters exchanged between Sheldon and Ursula K. Le Guin, and Sheldon and Joanna Russ. Sheldon had had a long paper relationship with both women as Tiptree, and this continued well after the revelation of Tiptree’s identity. ... In “Everything But The Signature Is Me”, we have reprinted academic material on Tiptree’s work and identity.

Finally, the editors include their own letters, and their thoughts on the process of editing this volume, in the fourth section, “Oh Joanna, Will I Have Any Friends Left?”

The contributors to the first part of this volume speak to the person, the work and the conversation. They speak to each contributor's personal thoughts on gender, identity and writing, and on how Tiptree's life and work relates to that. They raise questions about the things we cannot know about Tiptree, and speculate on possible answers. They show us where others, touched by the fire in Tiptree's words, are taking us. Each of these letters to Tiptree - or Alice, or Raccoona, or some combination of all the personas - is unique and fascinating, but I must mention Rachel Swirsky's contribution, a marvellous tribute of a poem that draws on the images in Tiptree's story titles to make her own contribution to the conversation.

In the next section, Tiptree's correspondence with Le Guin and Russ opens windows into all three women's hearts, a generous and intimate sidebar to the conversation.

The third section contains introductions to Tiptree's works by Ursula K. Le Guin and Micheal Swanwick, an excerpt from Justine Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction which discusses one of Tiptree's iconic stories, "The Women Men Don't See," an excerpt from Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal discussing the evolution of the James Tiptree Jr. Award, an essay by Wendy Gay Pearson on "The Text of this Body: “Reading” James Tiptree Jr. as a Transgender Writer" and finally, an article on being Tiptree by Tiptree/Sheldon herself.

The final letters to Tiptree from the editors wrap up and revisit the themes expressed in earlier letters in the volume.

When she was outed as being Tiptree, Sheldon wrote to friends, wondering if she would have any friends remaining after the science fiction world learned of her "deception." I, like others, wish she had lived long enough to see this book and know how many friends her work has made, and continues to make.

[1] http://www.twelfthplanetpress.com/products/ebooks/letters-to-tiptree

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Fatima Mernissi's The Forgotten Queens of Islam is framed as a direct response to the outcry against the election of Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988. In telling the story of the women who have previously held political power of the Islamic world, Mernissi is countering both the resistance to women being active in public life, and the tendency of male historians to overlook the contributions of women.

When Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister of Pakistan after winning the elections of 16 November 1988, all who monopolized the right to speak in the name of Islam, and especially Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the then Opposition, the IDA (Islamic Democratic Alliance), raised the cry of blasphemy: 'Never - horrors! - has a Muslim state been governed by a woman!' Invoking Islamic tradition, they decried this event as 'against nature'. Political decision-making among our ancestors, they said, was always a men's affair. Throughout 15 centuries of Islam, from year 1 of the Hejira (AD 622) to today, the conduct of public affairs in Muslim countries has been a uniquely male privilege and monopoly. No woman ever acceded to a throne in Islam; no woman ever directed the affairs of state, we are told by those who claim to speak for Islam and who make its defence their battle cry against other Muslims. And, so they say, since no woman had ever governed a Muslim state between 622 and 1988, Benazir Bhutto could not aspire to do so either.


Because the concept of separation of church and state, of religious and secular authority, is not a uniformly accepted thing in the Islamic world, Mernissi takes care to differentiate between caliph and mulk, between the leader whose authority is divine, who can claim descent from the Prophet, and the leader whose authority is only of the world.

The caliphate is the opposite of mulk in that it represents an authority that obeys divine law, the shari'a, which is imposed on the leader himself and makes his own passions illegitimate. And therein, Ibn Khaldun explains to us, lies the greatness of Islam as a political system. The caliph is tied by divine law, his desires and passions checked, while the king recognizes no superior law. As a result, the caliphate has another advantage that mulk lacks. Mulk deals solely with the management of earthly interests, while the caliphate, given its spiritual nature, is also in charge of the Beyond.


Mernissi goes on to explain that in the Islamic workd, a woman can not be a caliph, but that she can - if she is able to negotiate her society's networks of secular power - become a mulk.

Not just anyone can claim to be a caliph; access to this privilege is subject to strict criteria. By contrast, titles like sultan, the linguistic origin of which is salata (dominate), and malik (king), which has the same connotation of raw power not tempered by religion, are available to anybody. And that is why women can carry them; they do not imply or signify any divine mission. But women could never lay claim to the title of caliph. The secret of the exclusion of women lies in the criteria of eligibility to be a caliph.


But even though there have been no female Caliphs, Mernissi finds examples of many women who have held other titles which speak to their exercise of secular power - sultanas, malikas, al-hurras, sitts, sharifas, amiras, khatuns. But in examining the rise to power, and subsequent fall of many of these women, Mernissi frames the history of female political power in Islam as a struggle between women seeking power and the line of male caliphs, whose claim to spiritual power places them, at least in theory, above any secular leader, male or female.

... this one constant endured throughout the empire and its states: as soon as a woman came close to the throne, a group whose interests she threatened appeared on the scene and challenged her in the name of the spiritual, the name of the shari'a.


In writing this history of female leadership in the Muslim world, Mernissi is not just telling histories of the queens and their deeds. Rather, she is using the history of these women to explore what female power means in the Islamic context, examining how it occurs, what forms it takes and limitations it encounters, how it is understood in the Muslim political tradition of male-led theocratic institutions. In her examination of the meanings of women's political power in the Muslim world, Mernissi's text discusses the instances of secular rule - whether failed or successful - of women across a range of states and eras, begining with the first woman to assume secular authority in a Muslim community - A'isha, the widow of Mohammed.

A'isha was the first woman to transgress the hudud (limits), to violate the boundary between the territory of women and that of men, to incite to kill, even though the act of war is the privilege of men and belongs to territory outside the harem. A woman does not have the right to kill. Deciding on war is the function and raison d'etre of men. 'A'isha, as the first woman who took a political decision by leading armed men, remains forever linked in Muslim memory with fitna (disorder and destruction).


Just as she draws a distinction between the highest position of power, the caliphate, which being both religious and political in nature can not be held by a woman, and the mulk, which is a secular leadership that some women can achieve, Mernissi also differentiates between sovereign secular power and other forms of leadership. In the Muslim state, the primary signifier of true sovereignty is the proclamation of the head of state in the khutba, the Friday sermon.

The Friday khutba is both the mirror and the reflection of what is going on in the political scene. In the case of war, one learns what is happening at the front by listening: the name of the sovereign that is mentioned is the one who currently controls the territory by military means. And the name changes with events in periods of political trouble.


Mernissi notes that very few women have held this level of sovereignty - rather, most who have, by
Western appraisals, indubitably ruled, have done so while invoking the sovereignty of another, a man. A second indicator of sovereignty - the minting of coins with the sovereign's name - has likewise been limited to a very few among the women who have held power. Mernissi refers to the work of another modern scholar, historian Badriye Ucok Un, who identified 16 women who have held sovereignty in Muslim history by both criteria - none of whom ruled in Arab states, but rather held power in Muslim states in Asia (largely in those under Mongol control) Turkey (including Egypt under Mamluk rule) Iran, and Indonesia and other south Asian island states. Mernissi adds to this list two women rulers in Yemen whose sovereignty was proclaimed by khutba, but whose existence appears to have been, not just forgotten, but actively suppressed - not just because they were women, but also because they were Shi'ite monarchs.

After her discussion of women rulers of the past, Mernissi returns to the implications of Benazir Bhutto's election. In the election of a woman to sovereign power, two key aspects of the traditions of leadership in the Muslim world were broken - the assertion of a woman's will, to rule in her own right, and the aristocratic tradition of rule by dynastic elites, gaining sovereignty by association or inheritance (including all of the sovereign queens) or conquest.

That is why, as the fundamentalists well understand, the election of Benazir Bhutto constituted a total break with caliphal Islam. It represented the dual emergence on the political scene of that which is veiled and that which is obscene: the will of women and that of the people.


What began as an exploration of female rule in the Muslim world ends as a question about the future of both universal suffrage and democracy in a tradition that has long vested power in a male-dominated aristocracy in which secular power depends on religious authority.

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Carin Gussoff's novella Three Songs for Roxy is a delicately executed exploration of family, gender, love, identity and being an outsider, told in three parts. This is also the first piece of fiction I can remember reading that featured Rom culture, by an author of Rom heritage.

The first section, Free Bird, is the story of sisters - foster sisters but raised together from infancy - Roxane (Roxy) and Kizzy. Roxy's parents, both Rom, found/were given the infant Kizzy shortly before Roxy's birth, in circumstances that strongly suggesting that Kizzy is not human. Sensing that Kizzy's people would return for her some day, they and their extended family have stayed in the place where Kizzy was left. This section is remarkable in its portrayal of a culture which so values its children that Kizzy comes to wholly identify with her human Rom family and culture, despite any number of obvious and not-so-obvious signs that she is different. But at the same time, this traditional and family-oriented culture leaves the free-spirited Roxy feeling like an outsider as she comes to realise she is a lesbian. The climax of this section comes when the aliens do in fact return for Kizzy, only to find that she does not want to go - but Roxy does, despite her realisation that her lover Natalie, like Kizzy, is not human.

The other sections focus on the two other people present at the moment of return - Katrina survivor Scott Miller, who knows Kizzy through her job at the local mall, and Natalie.

The second section, Across the Universe, features Scott. Divorced with one child, he has fallen in love with Kizzy - only to be shocked and profoundly disturbed by the revelation that aliens have visited earth, and that the woman he was attracted to was one of them. Fearing what the aliens might do now that he knows, his response is to flee - taking with him his son Danny, who he fears may be abducted. This section contained several ambiguities, among them Scott's mental state, what happens to Danny at the end, and whether Danny is a transgender child whose sense of self is being disregarded by one of their parents, or is being misgendered by Scott. The core image for the last of these ambiguities is Scott's early job experience as a chicken sexer - young chickens being very difficult to identify by sex, with even experts getting it wrong from time to time. I've read this section twice, and I am still not certain what happened from an objective point of view - though I know what Scott thinks has happened.

The final section, Seven Wonders, features Natalie's story, from her design and training to search for and retrieve Kizzy, up to the point where she arrives at Roxy and Kizzy's home, her initial contact and courtship of Roxy, and her brief but with Steve, a drag queen and Stevie Nicks impersonator who cannot stop mourning his dead sister and move on. In helping Steve to come to terms with his loss, Natalie herself learns what love and relationship mean in human terms.

All three sections tell stories about families, about identity, about gender and sexuality. They feature characters who are outsiders because of these things. The stories are layered, sometimes ambiguous, often sad. And they are beautiful.

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Ancillary Mercy, the final volume of Ann Leckie's outstanding Imperial Radch trilogy, is a satisfying and fitting conclusion - which is ironic, considering that the story ends in many ways in media res. What makes this somewhat risky choice work perfectly is that Breq's story has always been only a small fragment of the vast web of narratives that the revisioning of a galaxy-spanning empire would require.

The thing to deal with in trying to talk about any of these books is how much is packed into them, at so many levels. The structure of the book itself is a metacommentary on the role of the individual in the history of nations, on the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about the fall of empires and the agency of heroes in those falls. No man - or being - can command the future, I once heard said. But I have also heard that pebbles can become an avalanche. (Quotes from other space operas seem appropriate to what is, after all, a story about a ship who sang.)

Realistically speaking, Breq - or any heroic protagonist - could never bring down an empire the numbers hundreds of solar systems and has lasted for thousands of years by herself, or even with the help of assorted other beings, human, AI, and alien. But she can and does upset the imperial project in a small corner of the gameboard, and what she manages to achieve (with the help of those other beings) may last long enough to spread.

And speaking of AIs, another major theme of Ancillary Mercy - indeed, of the entire trilogy, but brought to a climax here - is the agency and personhood of created intelligences such as Breq and the other ships. After three volumes of listening to Breq's inner thoughts, and observing her interactions with various other AIs, it's clear to the reader what the resolution should be, though the novel ends without a formal settlement of the argument. There's a delightful exchange, however, between Anaander and a representative of the powerful alien species the Presger, whose ultimate decision on the matter will have a significant effect on the future of the Radch - or what follows it. Anaander is arguing that the AIs cannot be Significant Beings - the Presgar term for a species whose group agency allows them to be participants in interstellar treaties and negotiations - because humans have created them. The Presgar representative responds “I’m given to understand that most, if not all, humans are built by other humans."

Ancillary Mercy also carries forward other themes from the previous volumes : the examination of the effects of imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and cultural assimilation on conquered peoples, and the exploration of the meaning of justice and how it may be incorporated into daily lives as well as into overarching social movements and structures. The text provides instance after instance of incidents of subtle (and not so subtle) abuses of power, in interpersonal relationships, in class and colonial interactions, in policing of protest actions, and explores the just - and merciful - way of resolving them through Breq's eyes and developing conscience.

Then there is the whole issue of disability awareness, which had been a running theme throughout the trilogy. There is Breq, who has lost so many of her selves, her former abilities, and who is injured beyond the possibility of full recovery in the first novel when she saves Seivarden's life (she lives with constant pain in one leg from that point on) and who in the third volume is once more injured and spends signficant tine dealing with a temporary prosthetic. There is Seivarden, struggling with drug addiction. And there is Tisarwat, the survivor of a shattering mental trauma, who requires medication to function effectively.

These disability issues are themselves a part of a larger theme of loss, recovery and adaptation - loss of self, loss of place, loss of autonomy, loss of loved ones, loss of cultural identity, loss of trust, loss of personal integrity, and on and on. And yet, most of these characters recover in some fashion and find ways to move on, always bearing the marks of loss but learning ways to cope, to function, and perhaps, from time to time, to transcend.

And of course, there is the choice to avoid gender distinction. When I consider how the lack of gender has influenced my interpretation of the work, I'm reminded of some of the analysis that's been done around the topic of cisgendered heterosexual women who write and read both romance and porn based on same-sex relationships between men. The theory argues that this enables women to explore the emotional dynamics of a relationship without gendered power differentials. That, in a way, is what the lack of gendering in these books has done for me - it makes it possible to consider all these themes - agency, personhood, loss and coping, just and merciful action in personal and public spheres - as human issues, not gendered ones, to see the commonalities in how we as humans do, and could, respond.

And of course, it's a space opera. It's exciting, engaging, entertaining storytelling at its best. There's intrigue, and action, and military encounters and political entanglements and danger and heroism and all that great story material, well organised and presented. There's heroes and villains and all sorts of in-between folks, all multi-faceted and fully realised characters. There's danger, and humour, and tragedy, and triumph, and duty, and hope and even love. Quite simply, there's all you could really want, and it's done very, very well.

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Jo Walton is a fearless writer, which is part of what I love about her work. She's willing to experiment, to explore new themes and subjects and styles, to reinvent herself almost every time she begins a new project.

In The Just City - the first volume of the Thessaly trilogy - Walton combines Greek gods, robots, some judicious time travel, a thought experiment that brings together some of the greatest philosophers in the history of European civilisation and an extensive critique of Plato's The Republic to create a novel that is as narratively compelling as it is thought provoking.

The story begins with Apollo and Athena. Apollo is confused because his latest sexual adventure has ended, not in the enthusiastic compliance he believes all his previous advances have evokes, but in the desperate prayer of his quarry to be transformed into a tree rather than submit to his embrace. Unable to fathom why Daphne would rather give up her life as a nereid than give in to his desires, he seeks out his sister Athena, who tells him: "But she hadn’t chosen you in return. It wasn’t mutual. You decided to pursue her. You didn’t ask, and she certainly didn’t agree. It wasn’t consensual. And, as it happens, she didn’t want you. So she turned into a tree.”

Apollo grasps this at an intellectual level, but fails to fully comprehend the concepts of volition and equal significance behind Athena's explanation. He considers incarnating as human in order to explore the matter as a human. Athena suggests that he take part in her experiment - she is in the middle of creating a city based on Plato's The Republic. He agrees.

It turns out that Athena has drawn together around 300 scholars from many time periods, all of whom have at one point in their lives prayed in her name for the realisation of The Republic. Assisted by highly developed worker robots Athena has brought from the future, these "masters" have worked for five years to plan and build a city, situated well in the past on the volcanic island of Kallisti (and later, after the explosion that destroyed half of it, Thera), that would operate on the principles laid out by Plato. When all is ready, the masters are sent out into various time periods to purchase 10,000 ten-year old slaves to be the experimental population. Apollo arranges to be born as human at a tine and place where he will be one of these children.

As the experiment proceeds, we see what works - and what does not - through the eyes of three people: Apollo, now known as Pytheas; Simmea, another of the children who becomes a friend of Pytheas; and Maia, a master from the 18th century who was drawn to The Republic because of Plato's inclusion of women as full participants in his imagined society, capable of being philosopher-kings.

Indeed, as Walton explores the importance of volition and equal significant in the quest to create a truly just society, the issue of gendered justice and free choice in sex and reproduction becomes an important part of the conversation that runs through the novel. Slavery, misogyny, sexual violence, exploitation, the essence of sentience - all these are a part of the examination of freedom and justice that is the heart of The Just City.

I know it has had some mixed reviews, but for me The Just City was one of those books I couldn't put down until I finished it.

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Ellen Klages' YA historical novel Green Glass Sea is a wonderful read. Set during World War II, it is the story of ten-year-old Dewey Kerrigan, whose mathematician father has been recruited to work on the top-secret program to develop a nuclear bomb.

Dewey's mother left the family when Dewy was a baby, and she has grown up being shuffled between her father and her maternal grandmother - but now that her father is settled for the time bring in Los Alamos and her grandmother has been incapacitated with a stroke, Dewey rejoins her father and tries to make a life with him in the closed community of scientists, engineers, technicians, military personnel and their families that make up the core of the Manhattan Project.

It's not easy for Dewey to fit in. She's short, needs glasses, and wears a shoe with a lift because one leg is shorter than the other due to a childhood injury. And she isn't all that interested in typical "girl" things - she's a born scientist and engineer, and spends her free time tinkering with gears, radio parts, and other useful things she finds at the Los Alamos dump.

Still, Dewey is happy to be with her father - until he's called away on business and she has to stay with the Gordons and their daughter Suze. Suze - tall and solidly built, with a creative mind and an artist's independent spirit - doesn't fit in either, but she wants to. She misses her home in Berkeley, and she resents the time her parents spend working on the project, something that affects her more than most other kids because both her parents are scientists. And she resents having to live with "screwy Dewey."

In Green Glass Sea, Klages portrays the reality of life at the heart of the war effort, where secrecy is paramount and building "the gadget" that it is hoped will win the war is on everyone's mind.

By telling the story through the uncritical eyes of a child, Klages is also able to explore issues of class, gender and race in the late 1940s, amidst the fervour of war. From the social distinctions on base reflected in who is housed where, to war propaganda that is focused on Hitler when referring to the European theatre, but on "Japs" as a group when dealing with the Asian theatre, to the peer pressure on Suze and Dewey to be "normal girls," Green Glass Sea is an unflinching look at wartime society in the U.S.

But it is in the characters Dewey and Suze that the book gives the young audience it is intended for its greatest gift. As they come to know and feel comfortable in the things that distinguish them from the other girls, and develop a friendship that empowers them both, they become role models for every girl who is drawn to a different set of interests and goals from those society sets out for her.

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Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown is a most delightful debut novel. This combination of Regency romance and historical fantasy works very well, and the grounding of the characters and story in the midst of Britain's colonial project, complete with trenchant observations on matters of race, gender and class gives the narrative depth and - odd though it may seem to say - realism.

Zacharias Wythe, the new Royal Sorcerer, is beset with difficulties. The magical power available to Britain's thaumaturges is dwindling, no one has been able to contract with a new familiar in years, the Crown is badgering him to help a foreign ally deal with a rebellious group of - perish the thought - female magicians, the circumstances of his accession to the post have left many of the Society of Unnatural Philosophers suspicious of him, his predecessor is haunting him, he is suffering from a strange malady, and someone is trying to kill him. Oh, and he is the only black freed slave to ever have become a thaumaturge, in a land where the practice of real magic has traditionally been restricted to gentlemen - that is to say, men of family, breeding and wealth, the cream of British society, and unquestionably white.

But there's worse in store for Zacharias, when he learns that the only person who may be able to help him resolve these problems is Prunella Gentleman, a young woman of mixed English and South Asian heritage, who has the potential to become the most powerful sorceress in all England - if only it were permissible to teach women the use of magic.

The interplay between Zacharias and Prunella is delightful, as they move from teacher and student to allies, friends, and more, and as they slowly discover each other's magical and personal secrets.

Deceptively light in tone, this is a story about two outsiders who will come together to save their nation, but in doing so, begin a process that may change it utterly.

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Roxane Gay's collection of essays, Bad Feminist, expertly navigates the intersections between feminism and racism. In many of these essays Gay performs a kind of doubly focused analysis - in exploring issues from the desire for happy endings to the nature of rape culture through cultural elements - books, television and film, pop music, celebrities, art - she also critiques these cultural elements from these intersectional perspectives.

Other essays are personal, indeed intimate narratives about being a black woman, a child of immigrants, in American society, a woman trying to separate the mythology about being a feminist from the reality.

I'm not entirely sure why Gay calls herself a "bad feminist." In one of her more personal essays she says:
At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are—militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better. I’m not proud of this. I don’t want to buy into these myths anymore. I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done.
In the same essay, she talks about feminism as a performance she is failing at, harkening back to comments in another essay about Judith Butler's theory of gender performance and extending that to performance of a feminist identity:
I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist. To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to good feminists. If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong, at least according to the way my perceptions of feminism have been warped by being a woman.
She goes on to list ways in which she "fails" at being a feminist - liking the colour pink and rap culture, wanting a partner and a child, not understanding cars, negotiating relationships that don't seem sufficiently independent and egalitarian... And all I can think is, where did we, the generation of feminists that went before her, go wrong that she has this doubt about her feminism.

She adds:
Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement. I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that consistently places women at a disadvantage, the inequity in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, the repeated attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women, and on and on. I am as committed to fighting fiercely for equality as I am committed to disrupting the notion that there is an essential feminism.
And this us where I find myself saying to her, Girl, this is what makes you a feminist, and a good one. We are all human, and making certain choices in one's private life has nothing to do with fighting for a society in which all people are free to make any of those same choices without gendered baggage and fear of performing one's role wrongly - in which liking pink, or understanding cars, or wanting a family, and feeling like being taken care of, is entirely a matter of personal taste and interest and desire, and not a marker of maleness or femaleness.

Because in what she writes, Gay is a very good feminist indeed, and her insights into our society and culture are very much worth reading.

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When Kate Bornstein wrote Gender Outlaws: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us, back in 1994, trans* issues were still a thing not many people talked about, unless they were, or knew, people who were trans. Bornstein's writing and advocacy was part of the reason this has changed.

Now she has co-edited, with S. Bear Bergman, Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, a collection of essays and personal narratives by people in and around the trans* community today. The editors have made selections representative of the diversity to be found in the global trans* community - those sharing their thoughts and experiences express a range of gender identities - and some decline gender identification all together. While many of the voices come from North America, there are contributors from all around the world - Spain, Singapore, Mexico, Argentina, Kenya among others - and from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds.

The contributions range from the deeply personal to the highly theoretical, from formal essay to autobiographical narrative to poetry to visual art.

Taken together, these works form a kaleidoscope of proudly oppositional images, of all the ways to genderfuck, to trans/scend the rigid boundaries of immutability and binary thinking about sex and gender. They remind us of where we have been, what we still face, and where we are going in the journey to deconstruct the old labels used to control sexual identity and expression, and to create a new world where people can truly become who they know themselves to be.

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Thendara House (pub. 1983) is a direct sequel to The Shattered Chain - it details the events immediately following on Jaelle n'ha Melora's freemate marriage to Terran (but Darkovan born and raised) Peter Haldane, and the entrance into the Thendara Guild House of Terran Intelligence Agent Magda Lorne (known among her guild-sisters as Margali n'ha Ysabet) for six months of training and seclusion.

For both women, it is a time of self-discovery. Jaelle, who has repressed her early life in the Dry-Towns, and who has lived since then among Renunciates, finds that her relationship with Peter raises those early memories. She is faced with an internal struggle between the deep, repressed conditioning that drew her to Peter - who is slowly revealed as a domineering and potentially abusive mate - and her identity as a Renunciate - a struggle that is only exacerbated when she realises that she is pregnant. Meanwhile, Magda is challenged to question her Terran values and sense of privilege, and is brought face to face with the reality that she is more deeply attracted to women than she is to men.

In addition to struggles with conditioning and culture shock, both women are dealing with the adult onset of powerful laran - Jaelle because of the resurgence of her childhood memories, which were shut down along with her laran when she experienced her mother's death while in rapport with her, and Magda as a result of her increased contact with other telepaths, including Jaelle.

Thendara House is not only a sequel to The Shattered Chain, however. It is also part of the story of the Forbidden Tower, in which both Magda and Jaelle will play a part. For both women, the connection that leads them to Armida is Andrew Carr, now known as Ann'dra Lanart.

Jaelle, in her role as cultural consultant in Terran Intelligence, is tasked with helping a visiting Terran official, Alessandro Li. Li is a Special Representative of the Senate, sent to investigate whether Cottman Four should retain its Closed World status or be reclassified, and to make recommendations about a Legation. Li is at first very interested in finding out all that he can about the Comyn and the rumours of telepathic abilities among the Darkovan ruling class. When the wreckage of Andrew Carr's downed plane is discovered and it is learned that Carr survived the crash, Li becomes fixated on finding out what happened to him.

Meanwhile, Magda meets Andrew when, along with a number of other Renunciates, she travels to the Kilghard Hills near Armida to help in fighting a fire. While they do not know each other, she recognises him as Terran - and vice versa. She believes him to be an Intelligence agent in deep cover, and later on, when she meets Alessandro Li, she innocently mentions seeing an agent at Armida. Li makes the connection between this unknown Terran and the missing Andrew Carr, and when all other attempts to contact Carr are thwarted, he sets out alone, unaware of a severe storm coming, to travel to Armida and confront him.

When Jaelle discovers what he has done, she determines to go after him, knowing the danger he is in. Peter attempts to stop her, threatening to have her declared temporarily insane due to her pregnancy, and placed in restraints. Jaelle lashes out and Peter is rendered unconscious (though Jaelle believes she has killed him). Jaelle, in emotional turmoil and psychic distress, heads out after Li, stopping briefly at the Guild House where she tries to see Magda. Magda, unfortunately, is in a meeting with the House Guild-Mother, and doesn't learn that Jaelle was asking for her until much later. Reaching out with her untried laran, she is able to discern where Jaelle is headed and why. Coming suddenly to understand that she is in love with Jaelle, she rides out after her. Magda finds Jaelle just in time for them both to find shelter from a sudden flood, but they are trapped by the rising waters. Jaelle miscarries and once more, Magda's laran enables her to reach out for help. A rescue party led by Andrew arrives, having also found and rescued Alessandro Li. During Jaelle's recuperation at Armida, both women realise that they have grown beyond both the limitations of their respective cultures, and the oppositional renunciations that form the essence of the Guild. Possessed of powerful laran, the next step for them is to join the Forbidden Tower - thus bringing together in Jaelle and Damon Ridenow the parents of Cleindori Aillard.

In Jaelle's experiences, we see through her encounters with other Terrans and with the cultural assumptions inherent in the way life and work are structured in the Terran Zone, the sexism of the Terran culture.

From the Terrans, Jaelle must deal with having her identity elided in a way that goes against her Renunciate's oath - among the Terrans, she is no longer Jaelle n'ha Melora, but Mrs. Peter Haldane. She is Haldane's wife, Haldane's girl, even Haldane's squaw. On the other hand, she encounters men in the Terran Service who accept her competence without question and work beside her without concern that she is a woman.

However, because Peter is Darkovan-raised and (as we are reminded several times) psychosexual development is fixed before adolescence, Peter's responses in intimate relationships are more typical of a Darkovan man who has acclimatised to Terran surroundings, than of a citizen of the Terran Empire. As Peter and Jaelle embark on their marriage, we see how the patriarchalism of Darkovan society affect relationships between men and women. Jaelle herself comes to think that it is the Darkovan in Peter, not the Terran, that creates problems between them: "Maybe it is not the Terran in Peter I find objectionable; maybe it is his Darkovan side which insists I must be no more than his wife and mother of his children… other Terran men are not like that."

Jaelle faces endless criticism from Peter over her inability to behave like a good wife, in either the Terran or Darkovan sense. When she acts "inappropriately" due to culture shock or the need to preserve her sense of autonomy, he lectures her on how this reflects poorly on him:
"I'm working under Montray now, and I'm in enough trouble with him without having him think—" he stopped, but to Jaelle, surprisingly, it was as if he had spoken aloud what was in his mind; think I can’t manage my wife.

As their relationship worsens, Jaelle comes to see that for Peter, love is equivalent to possession, and that he expects her as a matter of course to see to all his needs: "...and suddenly she knew him as Magda had known him, he really believed that he could treat her as valet, comrade-in arms, personal servant, breeding-anima, and somehow repay it all just with the ardor of his lovemaking..."

Nor is Peter's sexism limited his attitudes toward Jaelle. Because her heightened laran enables her to sometimes read his thoughts, Jaelle gains awareness of how he thinks about the new head of Intelligence Cholayna Ares, and his former wife and colleague Magda.
Not fair, dammit, I spent five years setting things up so that when Darkover got an Intelligence service I'd be at its head, and now some damned woman walks in and takes over. Bad enough playing second fiddle to Magda..."
When she finally tells Peter that she no longer wants to remain married to him, he responds that he will not allow her to leave - asserting his belief that she belongs to him and cannot break their connection without his permission, despite the fact that in Terran marriages, a married woman is not property, as she is under Darkovan law.
She detected a glimmer in his mind of logical resentment; women were damned unreasonable creatures, yet a man was at their mercy if he wanted children, and how else could they have any immortality? It almost made her pity him. “Don‟t be silly, Jaelle. I‟m not going to let you divorce me, not with a baby coming. I owe it to my child at least, to protect and look after his mother, even if we‟re not getting along too well.”
Thus in the short space of a few months, the intimate portrayal of the deterioration of their relationship brings into sharp relief the glimpses we have had previously of the traditional Darkovan marriage and the attitudes that shape it.

Magda's experiences in the Thendara Guild House mirror in some ways the early years (late '60s and early '70s) of the feminist movement - in particular the use of consciousness-raising groups to become aware of - and change - internalised sexist conditioning and to examine gender roles, institutionalised sexism, and nature of the differences between male and female. The other significant themes explored through Magda's life as a new Renunciate are lesbianism and transgender issues (through the emmasca character Camilla).

As a newly sworn Renunciate, Madga is expected to go through a period of training and seclusion, during which she may only leave the Guild House with permission of on the Elders of the House. At one of the first group meetings, the Guild Mother tells her and the other trainees "... you will learn to change the way you think about yourselves, and about other women.”

During her time in the Guild House, Magda comes to realise how pervasive same-sex attraction is on Darkover - and not just among Renunciates, although same-sex relationships between women are taken more seriously in the Guild than outside it, where such relationships between women are seen as adolescent fancies or secondary relationships, insufficient to keep a woman from her primary function, to marry a man and bear children.
Men may swear such oaths. And yet for women, such an oath is always taken, it seems, as a thing for untried girls, and means only, I shall be bound to you only so long as it does not interfere with duty to husband and children…”
In this perspective, it would appear that the frequent accusations against Renunciates, that they are all lovers of women and seduce honorable wives away from their husbands, refers not to the fact that many of them are in fact lesbian or bisexual, but that they value such relationships - and indeed, all relationships between women, sexual or not - as highly, or even more highly, than they do relationships between women and men. It is not that they love women, but that in doing so they choose not to be available to men.

Through the struggles of both women to find their true selves and desires, MZB explores much of the feminist analysis and praxis of second wave feminism of the 60s and early 70s. The nature of the patriarchy, the role of cultural conditioning, attitudes toward child bearing and rearing, alternative family structures, instititionalised sexism, the effects of sexism on men, the question of living separate from men as much as possible, even the debates over the role of lesbians in the movement, all have their expression in the inner journeys of Magda and Jaelle. It would be a rare woman of that era who did not see something of her own experiences and struggles somewhere in the pages of this novel.

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The Forbidden Tower (pub. 1977) is the story of the creation of the "heretical" circle of telepaths who, choosing to work outside of the Towers of Darkover, challenge the two most strongly held beliefs that underlie the Tower system - that a Keeper must be essentially asexual, and that only the members of the ruling Comyn caste have enough laran to work in the Towers.

The novel begins where The Spell Sword left off - with the clearing of the catmen and the planned union of Damon Ridenow to Ellemir Alton, and of Terran Andrew Carr to Callista Alton, formerly a Keeper of Arilinn under Leonie Hastur. Much of the main plot of the novel deals with the fusion of these two couples into a fourway bond, linked telepathically, emotionally and sexually. There are two main obstacles to this, and MZB deals with both in great detail. First, the realisation that not only has Callista been conditioned to have no sexual awareness or response, but that early in the training, Leonie performed a kind of psychic neutering on her, so that it would be impossible for her conditioning to ever be undone. Second, the painful misunderstandings and problems of culture shock brought about by the differences between Terran sexual mores and those found in a society of telepaths. In order to overcome the first, Damon must engage in the dangerous discipline of timesearch to find clues to a centuries-old tradition that could restore Callista's frozen sexuality. And only endless love and patience can overcome the second.

At the end of the novel, the four of them, fully bonded, are faced with a telepathic duel to prove Damon's right to namr himself Keeper and to direct the way his Tower will operate according to his own conscience and not the laws of Arilinn.

While largely focused on deconstructing the rigid role of Keeper and the assumption that only the Comyn can be effective telepaths, many of the Darkovan attitudes toward sexuality are clarified through the exploration of the differences between Terran and Darkovan sexual culture.

Darkovan society is to some degree polyamorous, and despite the strongly patriarchal nature of family relationship, women appear to have some sexual autonomy, but on strict class lines. As well, women must be discreet, and if unmarried, must be careful about pregnancy. The greatest shame seems to lie in bearing a child who has no acknowledged father. Some of the contradictions are shown in this account Ellemir gives to Callista about her sexual experience:
“It was that winter,” said Ellemir. “Dorian begged me to come and spend the winter with her; she was lonely, and already pregnant, and had made few friends of the mountain women. Father gave me leave to go. And later in the spring, when Dorian grew heavy, so it was no pleasure to her to share his bed, Mikhail and I had grown to be such friends that I took her place there.” She giggled a little, reminiscently. Callista said, startled, “You were no more than fifteen!” Ellemir answered, laughing, “That is old enough to marry; Dorian had been no more. I would have been married, had Father not wanted me to stay home and keep his house!” Again Callista felt the cruel envy, the sense of desperate alienation. How simple it had been for Ellemir, and how right! And how different for her! “Were there others?” Ellemir smiled in the darkness. “Not many. I learned there that I liked lying with men, but I did not want to be gossiped about as they whisper scandal about Sybil-Mhari—you have heard that she takes lovers from Guardsmen or even grooms—and I did not want to bear a child I would not be allowed to rear, though Dorian pledged that if I gave Mikhail a child she would foster it. And I did not want to be married off in a hurry to someone I did not like, which I knew Father would do if there was scandal."
There is some indication, however, that the circumstances in which women may engage in pre- or extra-marital sex are partly for the convenience of men. There is a reluctance among Darkovan women to engage in sex during pregnancy. As Callista explains, “Biologically, no pregnant animal desires sex; most will not endure it. If your women have been culturally conditioned to accept it as the price of retaining a husband's sexual interest, I can only say I am sorry for them! Would you demand it of me after I had ceased to take pleasure in it?”

While a man may take a concubine or mistress at his pleasure, and it is expected that he will do so if his wife is unavailable or unable to provide sex, it is considered not quite proper if he brings into the household a woman who is not acceptable to his wife. The kinswoman of one's wife is traditionally one of the more acceptable choices in such circumstances.
"This is our custom. If you were one of us, it would be taken for granted that my sister and I should… should share in this way. Even if things were — as they should be between us, if there was a time when I was ill, or pregnant, or simply not… not wanting you… It is very old, this custom. You have heard me sing the Ballad of Hastur and Cassilda? Even there, even in the ballad, it speaks of how Camilla took the place of her breda in the arms of the God, and so died when he was set upon. It was so that the Blessed Cassilda survived the treachery of Alar, to bear the child of the God…”
There is also a sense that men's desire should not be allowed to go unfulfilled, and that women are responsible for seeing to this when they arouse a man's sexual interest.
In both The Spell Sword and The Forbidden Tower, Callista tells Andrew that she is responsible for the fulfilment of desire he feels toward her. “I have been taught that it is… shameful to arouse a desire I will not satisfy."

Despite the suggestion of some choice in sexual expression, it is also clear that women, like children must always be under wardship - except, of course, for the Keepers. Women in the Towers are under the wardship of their Keepers - at one point, Leonie states that it is her responsibility to find suitable marriages for women who have given oath to her as Keeper and have worked in the Tower (this does not include young women who are sent to the Towers for a few years training in the use of laran) if they later choose to leave. Women outside the Towers are seen always as under the authority of father, husband, brother, or other kinsman.

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In The Shattered Chain (pub. 1976), Marion Zimmer Bradley explores both the quality and nature of relationships between women and the dimensions of power, control and equality (or lack of equality) in relationships between women and men in a manner that recalls the consciousness-raising of the early years of feminism. Set after the events of Rediscovery, in which a Terran survey ship finds the lost colony on Darkover 2,000 years after it is founded, The Shattered Chain covers a period of 12 years, and is the first novel to deal in depth with the Guild of Renunciates, or Free Amazons. The novel, divided into three parts, focuses largely on on the relationships of women - Rohana Ardais, Magda Lorne, and Jaelle n'ha Melora - with each other and with the men in their lives, but also provides glimpses into the lives and relationships of other women.

The Shattered Chain opens with a daring rescue of a Comyn woman, Melora, and her daughter, Jaelle. Kidnapped twelve years ago by a Dry-Town chieftain, Melora, pregnant with her kidnapper's only son, is desperate to escape or die before her daughter is chained, as all Dry-Town women are, at 13. She manages to telepathically contact her childhood friend Rohana Ardais, who defies the Comyn and her husband and hires a band of Renunciates, lead by Kindra, to free Melora. The rescue is successful, but Melora dies in childbirth on the way back to the domains, leaving her children in Rohana's care. Jaelle asks Rohana to foster her with Kindra, and Rohana agrees.

The second part of the narrative begins 12 years later, and tells the story of Magda Lorne, a Darkovan-born Terran Intelligence operative who spend most of her field time observing and reporting on the nuances of Darkovan culture from a woman's prospective. When her ex-husband Peter Haldane is held for ransom by bandits who mistakenly believe him to be the son of Rohana and her husband Lord Gabriel Ardais, and her superiors refuse to mount a winter expedition to save him, she turns to Rohana for help. Rohana advises her to pretend to be a Renunciate and deliver the ransom herself. While travelling, Magda's disguise is exposed by group of real Renunciates, led by Jaelle, and she is required to swear the Oath and become one of them in fact. Jaelle and Magda, now oath-mother and oath-daugther, complete Magda's mission but Jaelle is wounded. The three seek assistance from Rohana at the Ardais family seat.

The third part of the novel details the developing love affair between Jaelle and Peter, as they remain at Ardais over midwinter, and the consequences of this relationship for Jaelle, Magda and the others around them. This section of the novel is the most intimately focused, as both Jaelle and Magda examine their feelings for Peter, the relationship they have with each other, and their own needs for autonomy. Meanwhile, Rohana is assessing the costs and rewards of her own sometimes troubled relationship with Gabriel. As winter breaks, Magda, Jaelle and Peter return to Thendara, where Magda enters the Thendara Guildhouse to begin training as a Renunciate while Jaelle and Peter marry as freemates and Jaelle goes to work for the Terrans, in much the same capacity as Magda before her.

In many of the Darkover novels, MZB sets up contrasts between the status of women in different cultures and situations - Terran and Comyn, Comyn and Tower, Comyn and Renunciate, Tower worker and Keeper. This is perhaps the most fiercely feminist of the Darkover books, and takes a close and critical look at the roles, lives and status of women in mainstream Darkovan society.

In the first section of The Shattered Chain, we see the most marked of these contrasts - between the women of the Dry Towns and the Renunciates. The Renunciates dress practically, carry and are trained to use weapons, and unlike other women on Darkover (outside of the Towers), work and mingle freely with men, although not without having to endure sexist comments and jokes, and sexual invitations, polite and otherwise. Dry-Town women, on the other hand, live in chains.
The square was deserted for a while, then some of the Dry-Town women, wrapped in their cumbersome skirts and veils, began to drift into the marketplace to buy water from the common well, moving, each of them, with the small metallic clash of chains. By Dry-Town custom, each woman's hands were fettered with a metal bracelet on each wrist; the bracelets were connected with a long chain, passed through a metal loop on her belt, so that if the woman moved either hand, the other was drawn up tight against the loop at her waist.
Marriage for women in the Dry-Towns - at least as Melora experiences it - is a life of submission in which the man may grant his wives, concubines and other more temporary partners as much or as little freedom as possible. There is no hint of the (limited) possibilities for sexual expression available to women of the Domains, and no alternatives to marital submission, such as exist for other women on Darkover in the Towers or in the Guild of Renunciates.

In the Domains, there are three recognised forms of marriage. The most formal is marriage di catenas, which is the common form of marriage for Comyn women given as primary wives to Comyn men. There is also a legally recognised form of concubinage, in which a woman enters the household of a man as a barragana - her children will be legitimate, but she holds lower status in the household than a wife married di catenas. Finally, there is freemate marriage, which is a form of marriage declared between two people (not just a man and a woman, but also two women, and perhaps two men, though I don't recall any mentions of such in the novels, may enter freemate marriages) and considered legal upon consummation. Freemate marriage can be easily dissolved, unlike marriage di catenas, but as in the other forms, while it endures, the woman is seen as being under the guardianship and protection of the man, and at least to some degree as his property.

In Dry-Town or Domain, marriage of any form is seen primarily as a means of producing children who can be clearly identified as the legitimate offspring of some man. To have no acknowledged father is the most shameful thing possible for a man, to bear a child no man will name as his the most shameful for a woman. For some men, children - and particularly sons - are the only reason for children, and a barren women can expect to be set aside, or to have her husband bring a barragana or mistress into the home, and to be required to bring up his children by other women.

We see this focus on having children as the main reason for marriage, and as the most important function of women, in Kindra's story of how she came to be a Renunciate:
"I bore four children before I had turned twenty. I was given in marriage very young, and my first child died before I could bring him forth; the midwives said I should not try to bear another, but my husband was eager for an heir. My second and third children were daughters both, and he cursed me. I came very near to death with my fourth child-he was three days in the bearing-and this time, instead of curses, when he saw our son, he showered me with gifts and jewels. And then I knew a woman's lot in our world was wholly accursed. I was of no value; the daughters I bore him at risk of my life were of no value; I was nothing but an instrument to give him sons. And so when I could walk again, I left my children sleeping, one night, and cut my hair, and made my way alone to the Guild of Free Amazons, and there my life began."
Even Rohana, who as regent for the Aillard Domain has a seat on the Comyn Council, and who essentially runs the Ardais Domain for her husband, is constrained by the demands of Darkovan marriage, even though she has come to accept it, and to care for him.
"I did not want children, Jaelle. Every time I knew myself pregnant, I wept and raged. You weep because you are not to bear a child, but I cried more when I knew I was. Once I flung a silver bowl at Gabriel's head, and I hit him, too, and I shrieked at him that I wished I had killed him and he could never do this to me again. I hated being pregnant, I hated having little children around to trouble me, I feared childbirth worse, I think, than you feared the sword that gave you this." With light fingers she traced the still-crimson scar across Jaelle's smooth cheek. "Had I been free to choose, I would never have borne a child. And yet now that the children are grown, and I see that they are a part of Gabriel and myself which will survive when we are gone-now, when it would have been too late to change my mind, I find I am glad that the laws of my caste forced me to bear them, and after all these years, I have forgotten-or forgiven-all the unhappiness."
This is the context in which the Guild of Renunciates must be understood. Darkover is a feudal society - everyone has his or her place in the web of allegiances and wardships, loyalties and obligations. In this society, women and children gain their place from relationship to a man, and men from their relationship to a man of higher status, with the exception of men and women in the Towers, who gain their place from their oaths to their female Keeper, who in turn owes allegiance to the Keeper of Arilinn. Ultimately, all people owe their place in society, through this chain of allegiances, to the King (or Regent). This is why a child without an acknowledged father is in such a difficult situation - until they are old enough to marry or to swear allegiance to an employer or overlord, they have no legitimate place in this web.

In this kind of society, any woman who attempted to live outside of the restrictions of the patriarchal family would be without place or status of any kind, and unless she could pass as a man, would be unlikely to survive. Indeed, we hear that many women who do attempt to do so, seek out the normally illegal procedure that turns them into emmasca, enabling them to pass more easily.

The Guild of Renunciates is the only way for non-conforming women to leave the stifling environment of the family and still hold a recognised place in society as a woman. The Guild is a formally organised institution, holding a charter from King and Council. Its members must formally renounce their position as women with rights and obligations within the family structure. While readers of the Darkover novels often interpret the Oath of the Reunciates as a woman's decoration of independence, it is in fact seen within Darkovan society as a disavowal of the protections, rights and obligations that are otherwise legally binding on a woman. It is the price of freedom, not a definition of it.
Oath of the Guild of Renunciates

From this day forth, I renounce the right to marry save as a freemate. No man shall bind me di catenas and I will dwell in no man's household as a barragana.
I swear that I am prepared to defend myself by force if I am attacked by force, and that I shall turn to no man for protection.
From this day forth I swear I shall never again be known by the name of any man, be he father, guardian, lover or husband, but simply and solely as the daughter of my mother.
From this day forth I swear I will bear no child to any man save for my own pleasure and at my own time and choice; I will bear no child to any man for house or heritage, clan or inheritance, pride or prosperity; I swear that I alone will determine the rearing and fosterage of any child I bear, without regard to any man's place, position or pride.
From this day forth I renounce allegiance to any family, clan, household, warden or liege lord, and take oath that I owe allegiance only to the laws of the land as a free citizen must; to the kingdom, the crown and the Gods.
I shall appeal to no man as of right, for protection, support or succor: but shall owe allegiance only to my oath-mother, to my sisters in the Guild and to my employer for the season of my employment.
The Renunciate gives up her right to a secure marriage, and to the protection and support of a (male-governed) family or clan. She acknowledges that if attacked by force, she can expect no aid from men but must defend herself. She has no family, no regular place in society - by taking her mother's name, she announces herself to be fatherless. She is freed of her obligation to bear children into a family, but she also acknowledges that her children will have no automatic right to a position within a family - that they will be fatherless, as she is. The only family she has a place in, the only family she can turn to for anything, the only thing that connects her to society, is the Guild.

For Darkovan women who chafe under the restrictive codes of behaviour they are expected to observe, there is no middle ground other than that which they may be able to negotiate with the man who had wardship over them. Freedom is an all or nothing proposition.

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The Spell Sword (pub. 1974), tells the story of the beginning of the Forbidden Tower, introducing Ellemir and Callista Alton, Damon Ridenow, and Terran Andrew Carr. It begins when Carr, on a four-day layover at Thendara spaceport, goes out into the Trade City for some fun and patronises a "fortuneteller." In her "crystal ball" - probably a matrix - he sees a vision of a young woman which so captivates him that he immediately applies for a permanent posting on Darkover. Following a crash in the Hellers, while on a Mapping and Exploration Survey flight, he is contacted telepathically by Callista, the woman whose image he saw. She is being held captive - where and by whom she does not know, but she is able to help him to survive the storms of the Hellers reach safety at Armida, the house seat of the Altons. Meanwhile, Callista's twin sister Ellemir has called for help from their Tower-trained kinsman Damon after Callista's abduction while on a visit home from Arilinn Tower, where she is UnderKeeper to Leonie Hastur. Damon, having survived an attack by the catmen, sentient non-humans native to Darkover, deduces from the details of the raid on Armida that the catmen have not only abducted Callista and somehow blocked her from contacting them, but are also responsible for a strange blight in the nearby region of Corresanti. When Andrew arrives, his story, once told and accepted as true, fills in the remaining blanks.

Immediate rescue is out of the question, as there are few men-at-arms at Armida and Damon is not a warrior. While they wait for the arrival of Ellemir and Callista's father, the powerful Dom Esteban Alton, the telepathic rapport brought on by their searching for Callista and their attempts to train Andrew's latent laran to the point where he can help them find Callista has led to a deep emotional contact between all three of them, but particularly Damon and Ellemir. Meanwhile, Callista's total reliance on Andrew for any shred of human contact seems to be wearing down the barriers she built as Keeper, and Andrew is falling in love with her.

All seems lost when Dom Esteban is ambushed on his way home by the catmen and severely injured, leaving him paralysed from the waist down. However, Dom Esteban has the Alton gift of forced rapport, and he is able to use this gift to control Damon's reflexes, giving the younger man all the skill and experience of an expert swordsman. With Damon now able to lead Esteban's guardsmen, and Andrew's connection to guide them, Callista is rescued and the leader of the catmen, who has been using a huge unmonitored matrix left over from pre-Compact days, is defeated and the immediate menace ended.

The Spell Sword is a relatively short and plot-focused novel, but like most of MZB's novels, it explores aspects of relationships, sexuality, and gender roles. One theme that runs through much of MZB's Darkover writing is the intense nature of communication between telepaths, and how closely linked it can be to love and sexual desire. Both Andrew and Damon have been reluctant to enter into serious relationships, Andrew because every contact her has had, has seemed somehow lacking in something important, and Damon because he has been fixated on Leonie for years, at least in part because of the close rapport they had when he was a matrix worker at Arillan. Telepathic contact between Callista and Andrew, and between Ellemir and Damon, is enough to create an intense emotional and sexual bond in a matter of days, if not hours.

Interestingly, we see indications that while young Darkovan women are generally treated as though they were untouchable - Damon has to caution Andrew that on Darkover, men do not look directly at young women who are not their kin - this may be more appearance than fact. We have seen that women in the Towers, with the exception of Keepers, enjoy sexual autonomy. It must be assumed that if a woman who has worked in a Tower decides to retire and marry, the possibility of her bearing children with laran outweighs and issues of a possible lack of virginity. But when Damon begins to think of Ellemir as a lover, it is clear that he does not expect her to be virgin.
So young, Ellemir was not. She was old enough to care for this vast Domain when her kinsmen were away at Comyn Council. She must be nearly twenty years old. Old enough to have a lover; old enough, if she chose, to marry. She was Comynara in her own right, and her own mistress.
It may be that Damon's Tower experience has made him less insistent on sexual purity in a potential bride; certainly there are other passages and incidents in the Darkover novels that indicate that a woman who has been raped or who has been sexually involved with a man of a lower social status is often seen as defiled and disgraced. On the other hand, it also appears that a woman who becomes mistress or concubine to a man of higher rank is not, as long as he openly acknowledges her and any children she may have with him.

We also see confirmation of the tradition of group marriage and polyamory that dates from the very beginnings of Darkovan history - at one point Ellemir says "when she [Callista] went to the Tower, and was pledged, I knew we could never, as so many sisters do, share a lover, or husband."

The necessity for the absolute virginity of a Keeper is mentioned several times - an interesting irony since it is these four people, and later the child of one of them, who will prove that such virginity is not necessary at all. Damon tries to explain the tradition of total chastity among Keepers to Andrew:
... it's a matter of nerve energies. People have only so much. You learn to protect your energy currents, how to use them most effectively, how to relax, to safeguard your strength. Well, what uses most human energy? Sex, of course. You can use it, sometimes, to channel energy, but there are limits to that sort of thing. And when you're keyed into the matrix jewels—well, the energy they will carry is limitless, but human flesh and blood and brainwaves can stand only so much. For a man it's fairly simple. You can't overload with sex because if you're too heavily overloaded, you simply can't function sexually at all. Matrix telepaths find that out fairly early in the game. You have to go on short rations of sex if you want to keep enough energy to do your work. For a woman, though, it's easy to, well, to overload. So most of the women have to make up their minds to stay chaste, or else be very, very careful not to key into the more complex matrix patterns. Because it can kill them, very quickly, and it's not a nice death.”
However, the combination of powerful laran and the sensitivity to mesh completely with others that makes a woman so valuable and revered as a Keeper seems to be a liability for a man. Damon suffers from insecurity and concerns about his masculinity so severe that it actually keeps him from being able to allow himself competence in masculine areas such as weapons training because he has been told by Leonie that he could have been a Keeper had he been a woman.
... you are too sensitive, you cannot barricade yourself. Had you been born a woman, in a woman's body,” she added, laying a light hand on his shoulder, “you would have been a Keeper, perhaps one of the greatest. But as a man," faintly, she shrugged—“you would destroy yourself, tear yourself apart. Perhaps, free of the Tower, you may be able to surround yourself with other things, grow less sensitive, less”—she hesitated, groping for the exact word—“less vulnerable. It is for your own good that I send you away, Damon; for your health, for your happiness, perhaps for your very sanity."
This underscores the occasional glimpses seen in this and other of the Darkover novels of a certain degree of contempt shown by Comyn men who have devoted themselves to the Guard or have gained some recognition for weapons skill toward men working in the Towers or lacking inclination or skill to be trained fighters. It is clear that the strict imposition of gender roles impacts men as well as eomen in Darkovan society.

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Darkover Landfall (pub. 1972) is the series' origin story. In this novel, set 2,000 years before contact, a space ship carrying colonists to an established Terran colony is thrown light-years off course by some gravitational anomaly and crash-lands on an uncharted world. The survivors make attempts to repair the ship, but without the ability to recreate the technologies required, even the crew - most of whom are highly resistant to the idea of being planetbound - accept that their only hope is to build a viable colony.

The portrayal of gender roles in this novel is wildly contradictory. There are professional women among both the crew and the colonists, who perform their tasks with competence and autonomy. The society they come from has, at least technically, adopted gender equality - "Do I have to read you the Terran Bill of Rights? No law shall be made or formulated abridging the rights of any human being to equal work regardless of racial origin, religion or sex--" - although we also learn that female colonists are normally required to give up some of this equality for the good of the colony.

Women - at least women on settled planets and in space - appear to have a fair degree of reproductive freedom. Contraception is readily available - indeed, compulsory on shipboard, as FTL flight is apparently harmful to children. While abortion is at one point described as "unthinkable" due to the universal availability of contraception, when it is discovered early on that the standard contraceptives are not working, due to the effects of being on an alien planet, one of the doctors worries "... we've been relying on hormones so long that no one knows much about the prehistoric kind any more. We don't have pregnancy-testing equipment, either, since nobody needs it on a spaceship. Which means if we do get any pregnancies they may be too far advanced for safe abortions before they're even diagnosed!" Later, one of the women who finds herself pregnant feels comfortable in approaching one of the medical staff to request its termination,

However, the attitudes of the men whose viewpoints we are treated to are overwhelmingly chauvinist, to use a phrase that was in common usage when the book was written.

Rafe MacAran, one of several POV characters, on being informed that one of the necessary personnel to accompany him on an exploratory expedition into the nearby mountains is astrogator Camilla Del Ray, protests "May I ask what for?" MacAran said, slightly startled. "Not that she isn't welcome, though it might be a rough trek for a lady. This isn't Earth and those mountains haven't any chairlifts!" Later, after learning two more women will be on the expedition, he thinks "Hell of a way to start a trip! And here he'd been, despite the serious purpose of this mission, excited about actually having a chance to climb an unexplored mountain--only to discover that he had to drag along, not only a female crew member--who at least looked hardy and in good training-but Dr. Lovat, who might not be old but certainly wasn't as young and vigorous as he could have wished, and the delicate-looking Heather." Ironically, MacAran also thinks to himself that he's "no male chauvinist."

As tenuous a concept as gender equality seems to be in this version of the early Terran Empire, it disappears completely under the supposed necessities of establishing a viable colony. Once it is obvious that there will be no way to repair the ship, restrictions on reproductive freedom are imposed based on regulations regarding government-sponsored colonies. When Camilla Del Ray requests an abortion, she is told "Surely you know that in the Colonies abortions are performed only to save a life, or prevent the birth of a grossly defective child, and I'm not even sure we have facilities for that here. A high birth rate is absolutely imperative for at least the first three generations—you surely know that women volunteers aren't even accepted for Earth Expeditionary unless they're childbearing age and sign an agreement to have children?"

Camilla's horrified reaction to being told that she must bear an unwanted child is answered by a patronising set piece that enshrines as "scientific truth" the notion that all women really want babies more than anything else.

"Camilla," Ewen said very gently, "this is biological. Even back in the 20th century, they did experiments on rats and ghetto populations and things, and found that one of the first results of crucial social overcrowding was the failure of maternal behavior. It's a pathology. Man is a rationalizing animal, so sociologists called it "Women's Liberation" and things like that, but what it amounted to was a pathological reaction to overpopulation and overcrowding. Women who couldn't be allowed to have children, had to be given some other work, for the sake of their mental health. But it wears off. Women sign an agreement, when they go to the colonies, to have a minimum of two children; but most of them, once they're out of the crowding of Earth, recover their mental and emotional health, and the average Colony family is four children--which is about right, psychologically speaking. By the time the baby comes, you'll probably have normal hormones too, and make a good mother. If not, well, it will at least have your genes, and we'll give it to some sterile woman to bring up for you. Trust me, Camilla."

Bye, bye, any pretense at gender equality and reproductive autonomy. Of course, it does make sense that a high birth rate and as much genetic diversity as possible would be vital to an isolated community's viability - but can't it be framed in some other fashion than medical authorities and legislators making pronouncements specific to women about forced repeated pregnancies? Why not a general meeting where the issues are discussed and men and women voluntarily agree to contribute as fully as possible to the production of a genetically diverse base population?

Another aspect of sexuality that is a common theme in the Darkover novels is that of polyamory, whether it be the open sexuality of the Towers or the custom of legal concubinage that develops among the Comyn families. In Darkover Landfall, it is the influence of the hallucinogenic pollen from the kirseeth flower that causes several instances of sexual play between multiple partners. However, by the end of the novel, the need for a diverse gene pool means that people are beginning to form polyamorous families and women are bearing children by several men.

Over the course of the series, we see that there are several different views of homosexuality on Darkover. The largest source of homophobic sentiment appears to be found in the teachings of the Cristoforo religious sect. In Darkover Landing, we meet the originator of the Cristoforos, Father Valentine Neville, a Catholic priest of the Order of St. Christoper of Centaurus. In the novel, Father Valentine participates in group sex with six other men while under the influence of kirseeth, and in the fog of recovery, murders the other men because he can't face the enormity of his sin.

The events of Darkover Landfall set the stage for the kind of society that will develop over the next two thousand years on Darkover. The importance of children, the tendency toward polyamorous relationships, the sacrifice of female autonomy to the needs of community survival, the use of matrix jewels to enhance psi ability, relationships between human and non-human inhabitants of the planet - all these will be seen again throughout the series.

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