Winterstrike by Liz Williams
Metamorphoses by Ovid collects a number of classical myths. The best known is the story of Pygmalion, a sculptor who falls in love with a statue embodying perfection in women. In a culture where holding high status was socially impossible without heavy reliance on slaves, this is the perfect way to reify a woman, converting the inanimate into the animate for breeding purposes. Moving forward to Edwardian times, George Bernard Shaw has Henry Higgins, a patriarchal expert, take a guttersnipe who was no more than dirt under his feet and train her to pass as a duchess. Having done so, Higgins then discovers he had created something he finds desirable. When this was converted into a musical, My Fair Lady, an exasperated Henry Higgins sings, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” By this, of course, he means a man of his class. The more contemporary versions of the original story preserved by Ovid are an indictment of class and gender differences where different groups of people see each other as less than truly human or merely as useful appendages to their lives. Rather than relying on a goddess to solve his mating problems, Higgins breathes a different life into his work-in-progress and lifts a woman up to his exalted level.
Winterstrike by Liz Williams takes us to a distant future where there has been something of a gender revolution. Ironically, the leadership describes itself as a matriarchy which is, as Henry Higgins might knowingly suggest, a misdescription. The normal implication of the word is that women rule over the community including all shades of gender. In this future, women have improved biological and genetic engineering to the point where men have been removed from the reproductive cycle and lifestyle followed by the majority of women. There are still a few men left around but, for the most part, their bodies have been transformed into a wolf-like form, hidden away from public view. The rare males left intact as more obviously human must sometimes be given a female form for safe passage in public.
The action flits between an Earth devastated by global warming and now substantially underwater, and a terraformed Mars where temperatures remain cold through most of the year. On both planets, we are into a post-technological era. Although many of the old systems still work, there is no real innovation. Even the more general use of genetic engineering has dropped out of favour. In previous generations, experimentation was the order of the day and whole new breeds of human were created. Some had essentially benign attributes. Others were more militaristic. Needless to say, there is little love between all the different “breeds” that survive.
The context for this first in a projected trilogy sees political tensions among the dominant female human strain reaching boiling point on Mars. Even though the female of the species is dominant, human nature seems little changed. Wars have been fought and now threaten again. The actual reason for the immediate conflict rises out of the past. The surviving advanced technology is animated by the “souls” of the dead. The extraction process obviously includes killing people where necessary. This blends science fiction with fantasy and, depending on your point of view, horror. Self-evidently, even without the loss of population through climatic change on Earth and hostile conditions on Mars, the number of humans would have been significantly reduced through the development of these machines. In effect, it transforms “people” into a whole new class of slaves programmed to perform repetitive and menial tasks. Not unnaturally, the dead are less than happy about this. Equally, the various marginalised breeds are unhappy. Some hide to avoid the shame and humiliation now heaped upon them by the dominant majority. Others are hunted for experimental purposes.
A crisis is being provoked for, as yet, unclear motives. All we can say for now is that the status quo is under attack from a set of conspirators who are using genetic engineering to encourage or enhance existing “human” abilities. Power-brokers still see added value in the work pioneered by Pygmalion and Henry Higgins. All that changes is the definition of what the statues can do once animated and what one means by “duchess”. After all, with genes more or less under control, leaders can come in all shapes and sizes, and exhibit a fascinating range of different abilities. All you have to decide is which side everyone is on.
As you would expect with Liz Williams, the language is pleasingly dense and occasionally baroque. It is always a pleasure to read someone who so obviously delights in the capacity of language to illuminate ideas. There were odd moments when I found my attention flagging a little but, on balance, the narrative force is maintained to the end which, as the first book in a trilogy, leaves all the players nicely poised to resume in Book 2. For those of you who like science fiction where much of the technology seems like magic to those who have survived a sequence of catastrophes, this is for you.