Friday, November 16, 2018

Feminist Futures: Alanya to Alanya

Dossier: Duchamp, L. Timmel. Alanya to Alanya [Aqueduct Press, 2005]

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary: When the aliens came in 2076 they announced themselves with a worldwide message stating who they were (Marq'ssan from a distant world), why they came to Earth (to remake human society / culture into a more cooperative and peaceful society, just like the Marq'ssan), what they expected (each nation to provide three women to negotiate on behalf of the nations), and what the Marq'ssan were about to do (block all electronic signals and communication devices on the planet). Then, the Marq'ssan did exactly what they said and a worldwide blackout was in place. The reader experiences this through the eyes (third person perspective) of Kay Zeldin, a history professor in Seattle. The logical first thought was hackers. The second, when the extent of the blackout in Seattle became known, was terrorists. It was the only possible explanation because, after all, aliens aren't real and terrorists are. 

As the story progresses Kay Zeldin is constantly insulted by the members of the Executive, the true leaders of the world and of the United States government. Her former lover is the Executive in charge of all Security in the United States Robert Sedgwick and he recruits Zeldin to be one of the three US women to negotiate. Except that she is not to actually engage in any negotiation because she is not a member of the Executive Class nor is she male. Zeldin is to observe, report back, and let the men negotiate. From Sedgwick and the other Executives who appear in Alanya to Alanya there is a very strong anti-female / anti-feminist viewpoint and it is both insinuated and stated clearly that for Zeldin to be successful she needs to act more masculine and that no male would be subject to fits of emotion or compromise like a woman is.

Feminist Future Outside of a bit of over-the-top female-hating at the Executive level of government / society, Alanya to Alanya does not slap the reader in the face with feminist diatribe (or anti-feminist, which gets the point across just as well). The Sedgwick stuff, in particular, is difficult to read because of just how insulting and degrading it is to women. While it is certainly possible that such behavior exists in America in particular spheres of society (whether government or business), I sincerely hope that such behavior is extremely limited. The problem, I suspect, is that while the overt behavior is limited there is still a symptomatic hierarchy where men have the majority of the most powerful jobs and government positions and while they (we?) can point to examples of women who have achieved such power and position, those women can be used to demonstrate just how progressive they (we) are when, in fact, achieving said position may be more aberration than the general rule. What Alanya to Alanya does so well is make what may be hidden under the surface or flat out denied (yet remaining true) to be out front and over-obvious. 

Beyond this Executive level overt hatred which underlies the core of the story and creates the backdrop which is 2076 Earth, the rest of Alanya to Alanya interacts with that hatred but is not ruled by it. The Marq’ssan envision remaking Earth in the manner in which they were able to remake their homeworld: by completely changing their society. However, the challenge for the Marq’ssan is that on their homeworld they were able to impose changes from within. Their society changed. With Earth they are imposing their will on humanity and even though they strive to have humanity negotiate its own terms and the Marq’ssan just supervise, it is still an imposed change upon the ruling elite. That such a change is not necessarily a bad thing or wrong (unless one happens to be a member of said privileged elite) it would / will result in great social, economic, and political upheaval and the cost will not be cheap. 

Perhaps more than anything else, this is what L. Timmel Duchamp excels at with Alanya to Alanya: She gets that any social change will not come easy and even if the political / social structure of 2076 is an exaggerated dystopian vision of today, changing any entrenched political / social structure will be incredibly difficult and painful. Even if there are aliens with “magic” weapons that can safely turn anything into rubble, the problems caused by upheaval still have to be solved by the people on the ground: i.e. humans. Despite the opening riff with the message from the Marq’ssan and the various forays onto the Marq’ssan ship, Alanya to Alanya is a deeply human story that gets into how people interact and view each other based on gender. The aliens are only a quiet sideshow, the tool in which Duchamp uses to explore behavior and the repression (suppression?) of women.  

Hope for the Future: Alanya to Alanya is, ultimately, an optimistic novel. It's just that the optimism for a better, more equitable and peaceful future is imposed from the outside. Duchamp's suggestion with the Marq'ssan Cycle is that the United States will become more rigid, more dictatorial, not less. Through the narrative of Alanya to Alanya, Duchamp doesn't offer much hope that society changing on its own.

It is only through the alien intervention that real change becomes possible, though clearly the entrenched power structure will fight with everything it has to maintain the status quo. 

I have not read the fifth volume, Stretto, and so I don't know how Duchamp ends the Marq'ssan Cycle, but over the course of the first four volumes there is a measure of hope. There are growing pockets of peaceful and healthy societies that are not under the thumb of the aggressive Executive System. 

LegacyAqueduct Press was founded in 2004 by L. Timmel Duchamp. According to the mission statement, "Aqueduct Press dedicates itself to publishing challenging, feminist science fiction. We promise to bring our readers work that will stretch the imagination and stimulate thought." 

The work published by Aqueduct immediately began receiving critical acclaim, receiving Tiptree Honors, Lambda Award nominations, and the Philip K. Dick Award. Along with Gwyneth Jones' Philip K. Dick Aard winning novel Life, Alanya to Alanya was a foundational novel from Aqueduct Press. In many ways, the legacy of Alanya to Alanya is the legacy of Aqueduct Press. 

Alanya to Alanya does not seem to have the massively wide recognition one might hope, but it remains generally well regarded by those who have read it and the novel continues to pop up here and there as mentioned as an excellent feminist science fiction novel.

In Retrospect
L. Timmel Duchamp has created a compelling and mostly believable protagonist in Kay Zeldin. Zeldin is hyper-competent at what she does (historical analysis, seeking patterns, communication), but that which falls outside her sphere of ability she struggles with (anything physical). Zeldin’s journey through the invasion and her role as an agent of a government which hates her as much as it needs to use here is not only an interesting concept, but well executed by Duchamp. Most importantly Duchamp has written a highly readable and compelling narrative. Compelling is possibly the perfect word for Alanya to Alanya because most readers will feel compelled to keep going, to turn the page, to find out what happens next all the while being told a story which happens to be “challenging, feminist science fiction”. Alanya to Alanya works and works well enough that readers will want to seek out, run not walk, and grab a copy of the second volume of the Marq’ssan Cycle: Renegade.

One thing very notable about Alanya to Alanya, however, is that it is very heavy handed and occasionally didactic. While effective as a narrative tool, it may also be equally offputting to many readers. Because of this, Alanya to Alanya feels somewhat older than a novel only published thirteen years ago would or should. 

Duchamp is directly confronting the politics of misogyny and she is not pulling any punches in either the storytelling or the clear eyed vision of the underpinnings of that sexism and misogyny. Not many novels tackle the subject so openly or effectively. It is that openness that leads to Duchamp's heavy hand with the politics and the increasing societal dystopia. How comfortable a reader is with that heavy hand will generally determine how effective that readers finds Duchamp's storytelling. 


For its time: 4/5
Read today: 3/5.
Wollstonecraft Meter: 7/10

[Note: this dossier has been adapted from an earlier review.]

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.