Monday, June 17, 2019

Feminist Futures: Watchtower

Dossier: Lynn, Elizabeth A. Watchtower [Berkley, 1979]

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary: Watchtower opens with Tornor Keep overrun by raiders, the lord of the keep slain and the heir taken captive. Ryke, one of Tornor's watch commanders, agrees to join the southern invaders in order to protect the life of Errel, the prince and should-be lord of Tornor Keep.

After an eventual escape, Ryke and Errel journey to find allies with the goal of taking back Tornor, but on that journey they find a community offering another way of life, one built on equal contribution and a distinct lack of sexism and classism (unlike the stereotypically feudal Tornor). 

Reclaiming Tornor remains the goal, but much of the story is the evolving discovery of what is possible in this surprisingly small feeling world.

Feminist Future: Despite knowing Watchtower was a feminist fantasy novel, the opening of the novel puts to rest much of the hope for women in this world. Tornor keep, whether ruled by the invaders or the previous lords, is not a welcome place. Women are to be used. Women are not to control their own lives and their own destinies. 

Tornor is not the entire world, though it is representative of the other keeps in the north. It is unclear whether southerners as whole have more open and accepting values or if it that the community collecting themselves are all outsiders looking for a place to belong, and there (and perhaps only there) they can find acceptance and lack of judgment. There are same sex couples and it is no more remarkable than a heterosexual couple. There is opportunity for an individual to contribute to the level of ability, rather than of strictly determined roles of a patriarchal society.

Of course, this isn't precisely a "future" as Watchtower takes place in a world not our own. This isn't a desolate future recovering from some cataclysm and it isn't an alternate timeline.

Hope for the Future: While not offering visions of possible futures for our world and whatever the timeline we happen to be on, Watchtower does offer a glimmer of hope for the future of its own world and for the keep of Tornor. 

This will lead to discussion of the ending of the novel, but Watchtower is a forty year old novel and I think we can be forgiven a bit of the spoilers. 

Watchtower offers an idyllic and somewhat utopian community focused on a level of equality seen nowhere else in the known world, but that's not what the true hope for the future is. The true hope comes at the very end of the novel when Tornor Keep is retaken and Errel is restored to his rightful rule, except that he refuses in favor of his sister Sorren and also offers the regency of a neighboring keep to Ryke. 

This matters because we had previously known Sorren as one of the pair of messengers helping Ryke and Errel to safety. Sorren had fled Tornor years ago because she didn't want the life offered to her as a woman and as a woman who loved another woman. As the new ruler of Tornor and one who lived in that idyllic community for a time, she is likely to offer a cultural shift for both the men and women of Tornor.

Legacy: Watchtower was the winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1980. Also on the ballot that same year, Lynn's follow up novel to Watchtower, The Dancers of Arun. Lynn also won a second World Fantasy Award that same year for her short story "The Woman Who Loved the Moon", first published in Amazons! (reviewed here by Adri Joy).  

Elizabeth A. Lynn is not a very prolific author, with most of her work published between 1978 and 1983 (five novels, a novella, and a story collection). Lynn's work is notable when published, often gaining recognition on the annual Locus Magazine list. 

Watchtower was recognized in 1996 with being listed on the Tiptree Award's Retrospective short list, but it is not an often discussed novel these days. What was daring when Lynn first published is much more commonplace these days, and ultimately that is something worth celebrating. 

In Retrospect:
Though there were hints and themes of gay and lesbian relationships in "golden age" science fiction and fantasy, it wasn't until the second wave feminist novels published in the 1960's where homosexuality became overt in speculative literature. This is a gross simplification, of course, but serves well enough as a high level description to lead into how remarkable it felt to read a fantasy novel published in 1979 with a same sex relationship presented in such a way that was utterly casual and besides the point to the story being told.

All decisions a writer makes regarding the narrative is political and there is no question that Elizabeth Lynn's making the relationship between Norres and Sorren a non-point except that it only comes up through the friendship and hoped for romance between Ryke and Sorren (as in, Ryke is interested in more than a friendship and Sorren is in a committed relationship with Norres). Even better, it is a relationship that Ryke respects and leaves alone despite his feelings. That's rare.

For a forty year old fantasy novel revolutionary in part by the handling of a same sex relationship, Watchtower holds up as a novel worth reading today. It is perhaps not the groundbreaking fantasy novel it was when first published, and any number of novels today are doing the work Watchtower did in 1979, but this is a solid (if sometimes frustrating) work.


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

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.