In many ways, Endurance by Jay Lake (TOR, 2011) is a slightly unusual book for a man to write because, at its heart, it’s an exploration of feminist issues. Not, of course, that this choice of subject matter bars a man. Our culture should always embrace contributions to intelligent debate, no matter what their source. But it’s interesting that a man should elect to explore the persistence of patriarchal power. The theme introduces itself quite innocently in Green, the story of a young woman taken from her home and then groomed to make her suitable as a consort for the Factor. This process assumes men do not find women acceptable in their natural state. Women only achieve value in a patriarchy when they have been taught the behaviour men want and expect. In our own society, there are complex systems for socialising women and teaching them how to dress and behave, and so become attractive to men. The implicit assumption is that women’s primary roles are to give men pleasure and, when the time comes, sacrifice their independence to become homemakers for the children. In the world described by Jay Lake, however, there are layers of divine beings who may, to a greater or lesser extent, interfere in or direct human affairs. Matching the human world, some of these divine beings take on a feminine aspect and, through their presence, empower the women who follow them. Indeed, some of the followers are trained to become the finest of warriors. They are role models for the young and may reach out to society in a policing function. Not surprisingly, this access to physical power is offensive to many men. Indeed, the more women assert the right to independence, the greater the pressure to force women back into a submissive role and bring down the female gods who would support them.
The secondary theme is a discussion of what it means to be a mother. Obviously, Jay Lake cannot write about this from personal experience. I hope he will forgive me for speculating that it might be a way for him to deal with the emotional issues surrounding his cancer. Although there’s a vast difference in outcomes between a benign pregnancy and malignant cancer, both processes involve growth inside the body. As Green describes Federo, “He carried the god Choybalsan as a woman carries a child beneath her beating heart.” I will stop such thoughts at this point. Whatever the motivation, I wish Jay Lake well. He’s a writer of great talent so I hope he endures many more years and produces more interesting books for us to enjoy.
Having begun in Green with what I would consider to be a fundamental misstep, we venture out into the second volume. For now, let’s leave the link between the first and the second books as being nothing more than the question of births. Through her agency, Green has given life to Endurance as a god. She’s a theogenetrix. His presence is as calm and unchanging as the natural world. No words are necessary to capture or explain deep thoughts. As the spirit of an ox grown into something more, there’s only peaceful acceptance. The sun may beat down, but he can be a source of shade to those who stand in his shadow and seek protection. If it rains, a few may sit or lie beneath him and find shelter. He’s the physical embodiment of “endurance” no matter what goes on around him. Green has also begun to take an interest in funeral rites. Preparing the spirits of the newly dead is comparable to the activity of a midwife. It prepares the dead for rebirth into the afterlife.
For Green herself, there’s also a physical pregnancy. Having birthed a god, she’s now readying herself to add another human to the world. This means physical changes. It’s affecting her balance and general mobility. There’s morning sickness and binge eating. She can still fight, of course, but now she’s slightly more cautious. As she goes about Copper Downs, she first clothes herself as an assassin for, as the carrier of new life, is she not also the embodiment of death? For a few hours, she wears more feminine clothing, but still gets into a fight. Her disposition has always been to live in the emotional moment. Given her training as a warrior, she naturally reaches for her knives when any threat is perceived as real. Then she reverts to dressing as a boy. When males are young, testosterone flows, but the ability to fight is limited by lack of strength. Fortunately, Green has her knives to compensate. The male clothing she adopts is not a denial of her femininity as such. Rather it represents an accommodation between herself, the city and the people she must meet. It also represents an evolution of attitude at a metaphorical level. If first she is death, then publicly acknowledges herself as pregnant, the final step is a move into a more indeterminate gender characterisation. To protect the baby, she must temper her aggression, but it’s still more comfortable to see life from a perspective that, when people meet her, they perceive her as male.
In her relationships both with humans and gods, she sits on the fence. She lives across the gender roles as a person and a lover. As between gods, she finds herself in a position to bargain for the greater good. At both levels, she remains a mother. Hence, just as she hopes to live long enough to give birth, she also hopes to see the city of Copper Downs reborn and, through that rebirth, protect the gods who would empower women around the world. In this, there’s also an irony. For any society to not only survive but also prosper, there must be balance. This includes the issue of gender equality. Hence, though it might pain a woman to take up her knives in defence of anything male, she must also fight in defence of any male god under attack. Hopefully, Endurance himself needs no protection as a god because he’s much more tied to the place where he was born into divinity. Other gods may be more vulnerable because they are of older stock and manifest more generally.
So Endurance proves to be a powerful novel as our heroine Green comes to occupy a more maternal role in her relationship to the people of Copper Downs. She accepts the need to think more carefully before she acts. Because she cannot be everywhere, she must trust others and delegate tasks to them. Through this she learns that some problems can be solved without the need for actual violence. Hence, when mustering her forces, she creates priorities in their disposition. Not that this slows her down in any significant way when the need arises. But she is only one and the city has many men and women, tulpas and ghosts, gods and goddesses, all of whom need a good outcome in this conflict. This is a most engaging fantasy and well worth reading!
The artwork from Daniel Dos Santos is suitably dynamic.
Courtship rituals are fascinating to watch but, for us humans, emotionally draining to be involved in. All around us we see song birds. These fly about in the most flashily feathered costumes, showing off their vocal abilities to weave stories about their lives, charming the girls out of the trees and into the nests. But lurking out of sight are the predator birds. In daylight hours, they soar high into the sky, ready to fall on their prey before they have a chance to flee. But it’s the night hunters who are the most deadly. They are the silent killers who fly on muffled wings when all the most vulnerable are blinded by the night. Their breaks and claws will tear a body limb from limb. Whom do they choose for their mates and how do they treat them?
In many ways, Deathless is a slight throwback to a time when female authors embraced more radical feminism and wrapped their campaigns for equal rights in fairy tales. One of the most impressive was Angela Carter whose political leanings informed her passion for puncturing the superiority of men through the use of allegory and magic realism. One of her consistent devices was the use of a city or landscape to define an aspect of the male personality. For example, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman captures the notion that men lie about and hide their pasts. She describes the desire of a city to reinvent itself by pulling down the slums and red light areas. This redevelopment is intended lift it up from its more emotionally primitive past to become a new centre of culture and refinement.
So it’s rather interesting to see a modern author, Catherynne M. Valente, explicitly taking on the feminist role. For better or worse, modern man has been subverting the more radical voices that were encouraging the majority of women to seek practical equality. What was a major social movement thirty years ago, pushing quite aggressively to give women better protection, has been declared a success. With new laws in place, and both governmental and non-governmental organisations tasked with promoting change, the narrative implies the main battles have been won. In our postmodernist world, we are looking for new paper tigers or sacred cows to slay. Yet anyone with unprejudiced eyes through which to see our culture will understand that patriarchy survives. Convincing the modern generation of women that there’s no need for further change is a crude device for removing the impetus for any change in the reality of male domination. Although we all see some progress since the Victorian times when women were not allowed to own their own property, this counts for little when contemporary women have so little access to real power.
In Deathless, Marya Morevna sits in the window of her house and watches birds become men who take her three sisters away in marriage. One night, when she is not watching, an owl turns into Koschei the Deathless and demands she come with him. He treats her as a thing to be fed as and when he chooses, wherever he happens to be. He is, of course, solicitous. If she falls ill, he produces a cure, albeit one that’s painful. But, most importantly, the price she must pay for this relationship is to surrender her voice. He will interpret every instance of silence to understand what she needs. All her needs will then be satisfied as he thinks best. In a way, this arrangement will be successful when the couple are removed from society. They can live in a bubble and, without the ability to make comparisons, the woman can be persuaded this is a normal relationship. The “danger” comes when the woman can meet others.
Of course, when men rule all the roosts the couple visit, the women will all tell the same story of imprisonment by hopefully benign jailor husbands. It’s the consistency that perfects the patriarchy because no woman expects anything better. Indeed, the myth can then be sold that A only punishes B because A loves B, wishing only to correct A and show her the proper way to behave. A only punishes when he will forgive out of love. But let’s keep this real. If marriage is a war and only one party can survive, then it all comes down to the question of control when entering the marriage. Whoever has the power will eat the other up no matter what happens in the world outside. For those women who are subservient and faithless, the only expectation is a life of drudgery and death.
The allegory in this tale draws on stereotypes of failing communism in post-revolutionary Russia. Life is surrounded by corruption and incompetence. Cronyism rules and the interests of the people are subordinated to the needs of the oligarchy. The reality is that no modern state can survive economically without food to put in the bellies of the comrades, and oil to fuel the factories and war machines. Without a balance in the cycle of life and death bringing more people into the world to drive it forward, there can be nothing to share. If too many die, the houses will be empty, the fields left waiting for seeds. So the post-revolutionary state must officially forget the past and look only to the bright new future where everything will be better. There can be no dissent, no criticism when things go wrong. Indeed, nothing ever goes wrong when an official plan is set in motion.
And what does that leave for us? If I’m married, there’s always the risk an Ivan will appear to seduce my wife away. If children are born. . . Ah, here comes the truth. When we are born, our feet are set on the path to death. Indeed, in many cases, children are the path to our deaths. But, perhaps, if the woman’s love is strong enough, she can knock down the defences of her man and then rescue him from defeat at her hands. This may seem paradoxical but, in a world where women must fight to survive, saving their men from themselves is the least they can do. Except, over time, this is a forlorn hope. Everyone dies, sooner or later. That is the nature of death. Even someone apparently deathless cannot hold off the end forever. So when death finally comes to the world and all save one are taken, can she be the redeemer? If the bond between the woman and her man was strong enough, can she call him back from death?
For the most part, the writing is of a high standard and, in its own right, worth reading. But there are several serious problems with the book. First, it’s all rather dispassionate. Although the opening is a fascinating retelling of some traditional Russian folk stories, it soon gets bogged down in the feminist message and the characters become talking heads rather than people we can identify with. Indeed, as the book develops and the fairy story falls away in favour of more about the Russian state in the 1930s and the subsequent siege of Leningrad by the German army, it all becomes rather dour. Unlike Angela Carter who was able to hide her didacticism in the subtext, Catherynne M. Valente abandons the use of myth for the telling of her parable, and allows it to become more realistic. This switch of tone represents a strong element of dissonance between the two parts of the novel, undermining the very qualities that initially made Deathless so attractive. It’s a great shame as, yet again, the quality of writing has not been put in service to a well-developed plot.
For a review of another novel by Catherynne M. Valente, see The Habitation of the Blessed.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For the record, Deathless is a finalist for the Mythopoeic Awards – 2012 and was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.