Despite numerous attempts over the years, imagining a matriarchal society seems to have presented a particular challenge to science fiction and fantasy writers. For all the pride of place that unbridled speculation and the meticulous construction of alternate worlds have within these genres, when it comes to imagining a female-led society authors seem to fall, again and again, into the same traps, depicting such societies as either utopias in which aggression and injustice are defeated by women's naturally compassionate and cooperative nature, or mirror images of patriarchal societies in which gender roles are identical to the ones we know but have been inhabited in the opposite order. Neither approach is particularly satisfying, nor, to my mind, particularly feminist. To assume that women are paragons of virtue is to forget that women are people, and to assume that women are flawed in exactly the same way as men is to unthinkingly accept that "people" means the same thing as "men." Steeped as we are in patriarchal concepts and power structures, it seems to stretch the powers of the imagination to their breaking point to envision the form those power structures might take if women were at society's reins. In her 2007 novel Amberlight and its 2009 sequel Riversend, Sylvia Kelso, a scholar of both feminism and science fiction, takes another stab at this elusive target. Perhaps inevitably, she doesn't hit, but she does achieve the somewhat dubious distinction of falling into both of these common fallacies, one after the other.
Amberlight is told from the perspective of Tellurith, chief of one of the ruling families in the titular city, whose wealth and power are derived from a substance called qherrique. Part stone, part living matter, and perhaps even sentient, qherrique is used to power Amberlight, heat and cool its houses, and drive its weapons and tools. To outsiders its significance is in the statuettes Amberlight sells to foreign rulers, who use them to influence and control their subjects and enemies. (Just how this effect manifests itself, especially in a world in which every major ruler has a statuette, is never sufficiently explained. Kelso's interest seems to have been mainly in establishing Amberlight as a vital and influential player in its local web of power, and in this respect, as in many others, she leaves the world outside the city lightly sketched.) Qherrique can only be mined by women, who as a result have assumed complete control of Amberlight's politics and professions. Men are relegated to the roles of breeders and playmates, and in high-ranking families such as Tellurith's are housed in their own, proscribed quarters where they spend their days making themselves beautiful and practicing the art of being engaging, accommodating companions.
If Kelso's choice to depict Amberlight as the precise reversal of many restrictive patriarchal societies is unimaginative, she is at least to be commended for committing to it whole-heartedly. Amberlight is an unsparing, and at times deeply uncomfortable, examination of the unthinking assumptions that underlie even our allegedly post-sexist society. By highlighting Tellurith's sexist habits of thought—the fact that in every walk of life she deals with, and expects to find, only women, that to her woman is the default form of person, and men's aptitude and roles are defined by their gender—Kelso doesn't simply reflect real world misogyny. Her goal isn't to elicit self-righteous head-shaking over the terrible things that other people believe, but to arouse our discomfort over the things we take for granted, as in this scene, in which we see a lover through Tellurith's eyes:
[His eyes'] darkness, their size accentuated by House men's skill, though rarely exercised on such raw material. And the cheekbones modeled with that subtle drama only expertly used cosmetics can achieve. Now she is closer, there is a tantalizing whiff of musk. . . . in House men's fashion he is bare to the waist, skin subtly oiled to give luster without grease. . . . It is gold. House extravagance. Dusted round his nipples, picking out his collar-bones, a faint but unmistakable mist. Deepening the contrast with the trousers, men's House trousers, loose and banded below the knee to bare the calves, black silk fluid as oil, molding the lines of narrow, elegant hips. Some disengaged part of her brain says flippantly, I never knew he could look so good. (Amberlight, p. 119)
The description is equal parts erotic and uncomfortable. We're not used to looking at men with the objectifying detail that Tellurith is in this scene, and our standard of male attractiveness specifically prohibits this kind of care and attention to their appearance (no matter that men can, and often do, take that care). The sense of wrongness we feel at this description (which in fact is only one of the ways in which this scene is wrong; we'll get to the other shortly) highlights the casualness with which we accept similar descriptions of women, and take for granted the expectation that women should put this kind of effort into their appearance if they wish to be thought attractive. Wrong-footing moments like these are Amberlight's most impressive achievement, but unfortunately they are overshadowed by the novel's plot, which takes a less subtle, and much more melodramatic, approach towards highlighting sexism.
The man being gazed at in the passage above is Alkhes, whom Tellurith discovers on Amberlight's streets, unconscious, beaten, raped, and, once he regains consciousness in her home, missing his memory. He is also clearly a stranger to the city, and quite likely a mercenary or spy in the service of its political enemies. Tellurith finds herself under a great deal of pressure, both from inside and outside her house, to find out his mission, all while the sparks between them become harder to ignore. Kelso is working within the grooves of several well-established romance plots. There is the helpless, injured man nursed back to health by the woman who finds and falls in love with him, who reveals himself to be a figure of power; and the powerful ruler whose equilibrium is shattered by an outsider who challenges their worldview and steals their heart despite rebelling against the gender roles assigned to them (this latter type comes in both male and female varieties). Kelso plays around with the tropes of these stories, and doesn't comfortably settle into any one of them. When Alkhes finally does reveal his true identity, it's not as Tellurith's champion and Amberlight's savior but as its enemy, the general of an army bent on breaking the city's monopoly on qherrique; though Tellurith is challenged by Alkhes's independence and his resistance to her pigeonholing of his gender, it's mostly Alkhes who changes to suit her expectations, as in the scene quoted above. Nevertheless, Amberlight and Riversend are ultimately romance novels.
This is problematic for several reasons. First, because it means that emotions in the novel are constantly at a feverish pitch. People don't speak—they yell, or whisper furiously, or choke out. Eyes are constantly flashing with some sort of passionate, suppressed emotion. However they force out their words, no one actually completes a sentence, because whatever they're feeling, they feel it too strongly to put into words. What they do manage to say, meanwhile, always cuts to the quick. The characters are constantly in agony over not being understood, not understanding each other, not being able to express the fact that they do understand each other, or the fact that everyone around them is so highly strung and over-sensitive. At several points one almost suspects Kelso of writing an extremely dry parody, such as in this scene from Riversend, in which Alkhes and another man, Sarth, are working at an infirmary:
I tore up the stairs, snapping back at him, "Then what is it, for the mother's sake?"
"Sarth . . . !"
The tone swung me round. If he had been scarlet before he was crimson now. "She's all right, she just—I just—oh, gods!"
All too clearly, the crisis was here.
I came back down. Threw the last nose-wipes in. Got flint and tinder.
When I thought he could suffer it, asked quietly, "What is it, Alkhes?" (Riversend, pp. 52-3)
There's about a page and a half of this before we find out that Alkhes's crisis is that he feels uncomfortable taking a female patient a bed pan, but even in less absurd circumstances, Kelso's propensity to dial the emotion up to eleven and paint her characters as constantly on the verge of boiling over into yet another emotional crisis soon begins to grate. To be fair, Kelso is keeping faith with a recognized style, one with an established fan base (the tortured struggle for dominance and trust between Tellurith and Alkhes in Amberlight reminded me mainly of characters trying to get through to the antihero Lymond in Dorothy Dunnett's A Game of Kings, a novel that is certainly not without its admirers), but the second problem with Kelso's choice to emphasize the romance aspect of her novels is that it can start to undermine her feminist ambitions.
For example, in the aftermath of the scene quoted from Amberlight above, Alkhes even thanks Tellurith for "restoring his manhood" (p. 123)—but to accept this, and to root for the consumation of the pair's attraction as the novel seems to be encouraging us to do, requires us to ignore the at-best dubious consent Alkhes grants. Not only has it been just a few weeks since Alkhes was raped, not only has he evinced deep anxiety over physical intimacy as a result, but he comes to Tellurith's bed only after she makes it clear that the other Amberlight rulers want to torture information out of him, and that she can (or at any rate will) only protect him by making him her favorite. If Amberlight is intended to reflect patriarchy, then Alkhes is the equivalent of the romance heroine who is raped for her own good and in accordance with her secret desires.
On the other hand, when Alkhes lays siege to the city and negotiates its surrender with Tellurith, neither one can stop talking or thinking about their lingering attraction to one another, about the "eighteen inches of impossibility" (Amberlight, p. 186) that separate them. There are compelling arguments to be made for Amberlight's destruction—when we meet her, Tellurith is steeped in the privilege of her gender and position, and it takes Alkhes to open her eyes to the fact that the statuettes are being used to prop up tyranny and oppression, to the existence of a disenfranchised underclass within Amberlight who live in squalor and with no hope of bettering their position, and to the barbarism to which the supremacy of women has brought the city, culminating in the upper class tradition of exposing the male children of women who have yet to bear a daughter, which has claimed the lives of Tellurith's three sons—but as Amberlight approaches its end, none of these arguments seem as important to Kelso or her characters as the fact that the war is keeping the lovers apart. Tellurith, who had previously embodied the traditionally masculine virtue of unsentimentally prioritizing duty over romance (and who resumes those priorities in Riversend), suddenly can't seem to stop yearning for Alkhes, though by any rational standard the fact that your boyfriend is sacking your city ought to be a major turn-off.
That it isn't probably has something to do with the fact that Kelso wants Amberlight to burn. The city represents sexist matriarchy taken to its most monstrous extreme, restricting the choices of men and women alike. Its destruction lifts the burden of tradition off Tellurith's shoulders, and leaves her free to start anew under more egalitarian principles. So far, so good, but with Amberlight destroyed, Kelso feels free to ignore the parallel she had previously drawn between it and patriarchal societies, and focus on matriarchy as an ideal. Riversend opens with Tellurith and the ragged remnants of her house settling on the lands of a vassal family, trying to establish a new order in which men have a more meaningful part to play. Unlike the carefully structured Amberlight, Riversend is somewhat shapeless, and seems to suffer from a bad case of middle book syndrome. Its first two thirds are mainly concerned with the efforts of Tellurith, Alkhes, and Sarth, Tellurith's Amberlight-born husband, to form a family unit under conditions which all three of them find foreign and difficult. Then the story shifts gears and becomes a political intrigue, as the trio travel to Riversend, the imperial capital, after Alkhes's political enemies make threats against the new settlement, but after much setup this story fizzles out, and the novel's last fifty pages begin an entirely new one, which will presumably be told in the series's next installment. More frustrating, however, than the absence of a single, clear plot to drive Riversend from beginning to end is its core flaw, an infuriating ideological dishonesty.
With Riversend, Kelso appears to be trying to have the cake she's already eaten in Amberlight. If Amberlight expected and encouraged us to reverse its characters' genders, Riversend relies for its effect on our failing to do so: the same patriarchy in whose stead Amberlight stood in the previous novel is invoked here as a bugaboo to justify only gradual changes to the status quo that do not threaten women's comfort. Indeed, the new settlement in Iskarda resembles nothing so much as the post-Civil War US—a nation which has fought a terrible and costly war to free slaves and then denies those freed slaves and their descendants even the most basic human rights. "They have no vote. They don't choose their wives. Even in [Iskarda] they don't make decisions or sit in council or use cutters or even—take up Crafts" (Riversend, p. 282).
Yet Kelso seems to expect us to side with Tellurith and the women like her: it is Alkhes, rather than Tellurith, who is expected to change. Alkhes whose rigid construction of gender roles is challenged and broken down, Alkhes who is taken to task for his unthinking tendency to work within and try to erect hierarchical structures—"You still try to help like a general. You want to—go in from the top. Give orders, arrange, direct things" (Riversend, p. 21). This last one is a particularly grating joke, since what is Tellurith, whose most prominent, most frequently described qualities are her commanding presence, overpowering will, and natural leadership ability, if not the person at the top of a hierarchy? How is she achieving her ends if not by taking advantage of hierarchical power, essentially ordering her people to change? Alkhes's crime isn't that he wants a top-down power structure, but that he doesn't want to be on the bottom. Tellurith and the other powerful women in her house naturally find this desire threatening, but by siding with them, and with their desire to parcel out rights to men on their own schedule and in a manner that minimizes their own discomfort, Kelso has written the type of story that post-colonialism was supposed to have left at a crossroads with a stake through its heart—a revolution on behalf of, but not by, the disenfranchised, whose ultimate goal is the self-actualization of its privileged leader. Tellurith, who in Amberlight had to be told that she was an agent of oppression, whose adherence to sexist traditions ran so deep that she let her three children be murdered, who still condescends to and undervalues the abilities of men, is now held up as the paragon of progressiveness, while Alkhes is repeatedly exhorted to shed his preconceptions.
It certainly doesn't help that there are so few independent male voices in the novel. The secondary characters are almost exclusively women. The men of the house are for the most part invisible—a faceless, nameless mass whose individual members only come into focus when one of them attacks a house woman. They are being acted upon, and actions are taken on their behalf, but for all their alleged freedom they have no voice in the house's running, and their desires and opinions are never sought. Meanwhile, the two male narrators, Alkhes and Sarth, expressly sublimate their own desires to Tellurith's will. "You are there for the woman . . . What she wants, when she wants" (Riversend, p. 18). This is the lesson Sarth teaches Alkhes, the lesson he learned in the men's tower, the part of the system designed to turn him into an instrument of someone else's pleasure and desires, and yet it's the philosophy that both he and Alkhes espouse as the sole method of making their marriage work. Despite this inauspicious beginning, Sarth's narrative, at least, is one of empowerment, and the novel's most appealing and enjoyable subplot. Raised to be a plaything, and made bitter by his failure to father a daughter with Tellurith, Sarth is overwhelmed by both the hardship and the freedom of his new life, and yet quickly flourishes under both. Over the course of the novel he discovers and learns to use and enjoy his intelligence, his physical strength, and his sexual proclivities, and develops an admirable stubbornness and independence of spirit which enable him to make his own place in chinks of the world-machine.
It is all the more unfortunate, therefore, that Sarth never completely shakes off Tellurith's control, and that Alkhes spends the novel falling deeper under her influence. Amberlight encouraged an at-best ambivalent attitude towards Tellurith, but Riversend paints her as a heroine even as her actions become less sympathetic. Tellurith repeatedly puts her political duties over her responsibilities to her husbands, by which I mean not that she works long hours and forgets anniversaries, but that when faced with a choice between the safety and well-being of the two men (who have no legal standing, no power, and no support within the community except as her husbands) and political expediency, Tellurith chooses the latter every single time. When Darthis, the vassal on whose lands Tellurith's people have settled and who disapproves of Tellurith's more permissive attitudes towards men, demands Alkhes as a human sacrifice in one of her rites, Tellurith hands him over to be tortured and, yet again, raped, which nearly costs him his sanity. When one of her closest advisors attacks and rapes Sarth (yes, there's a bit of a recurring theme here), Tellurith, in order to maintain the peace and avoid losing a valuable member of her house, marries them with only the barest gesture towards asking Sarth's permission. When, in Riversend, Tellurith is approached by an aristocrat offering a princely sum in exchange for citizenship in her house, she considers his offer despite the fact that this man used his status and power in the imperial court to carry out a twenty-five year long campaign of sexual harassment against Alkhes, and that the mere sight of him causes the by now emotionally ravaged Alkhes to fall into a cataleptic fit.
These choices are repeatedly validated, firstly through Tellurith's guilt-stricken deliberations over each (though by the second time such a dilemma presents itself it's clear that she will choose in the colony's favor), secondly by Alkhes and Sarth, who invariably assure Tellurith that they're willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the colony and her supposedly egalitarian vision for it, and finally and most importantly through their consequences, which never fail to minimize the damage done to the two men while maximizing the benefit to the settlement. Alkhes recovers from his ordeal, and his suffering persuades Darthis of his nobility and of the rightness of Tellurith's cause. After Tellurith asks him to do it, Sarth decides that he actually wants to marry his rapist, Zuri, and their marriage turns out to be a positive force in his life, as the contrite Zuri has far more respect for Sarth's wishes and abilities than Tellurith (there is insufficient space here to delve into the relationship between Sarth and Zuri, which is simultaneously the novel's most interesting subplot and, almost certainly, a grossly unrealistic portrayal of rape in a relationship). By granting the aristocrat citizenship, Tellurith not only gains a valuable advisor who proves his worth to her and her house several times before the novel's end, but allows him and Alkhes to set aside their differences and achieve some measure of peace.
If the genders in Riversend were reversed, we would be baying for Tellurith's blood. As it is, by the end of the novel I found myself in the position, quite familiar from many traditional romances, of wishing the two love interests would dump the asshole lead and run off together. For a brief period, it seems as though Riversend is headed in this direction, as Alkhes and Sarth first become friends and then develop a greater intimacy. Before long Alkhes is musing about the things he never knew, or never let himself know, he wanted, and the marriage starts to seem a little shaky on Tellurith's end. When the inevitable actually happens, though, it becomes clear that Kelso is writing the male equivalent of political lesbianism. Sleeping with Sarth is Alkhes's way of dismantling his preconceptions of what it means to be a man—"How in the gods' name can you think—can you admit—can you feel something like this and still be a man? . . . Are you a man because you only do what's allowed for a man? Or can you say, Being a man is whatever I do?" (Riversend, p. 62). Having cleared that hurdle, Sarth and Alkhes go back to focusing on Tellurith, and the first segment of the novel climaxes (pun not intended but inevitable) with what is quite possibly the most milquetoast threesome ever committed to paper.
If Amberlight and Riversend are feminist novels, they are no kind of feminism that I care for—a feminism that takes everything that's worst about patriarchy and proudly makes it its own. It is so staggering to think that an author with Kelso's credentials—she has a PhD in feminism and science fiction literature, and has written for both fannish and academic publications on the intersection between the two—could have written such a reactionary work that I almost hope that there's a thread of disapproval running through the novels that I was too inattentive to catch. For a while, it seemed that Tellurith's pregnancy in Riversend's final third was intended to serve as a rebuke for her ongoing hypocrisy. For Tellurith—who in Amberlight begs Alkhes to give her a female heir, who jealously watches Sarth's closeness to his daughter by another women—to have a daughter would not only validate her prejudice, but reward her ongoing sexist behavior, and reinforce Kelso's positive spin on it, while a son—whom Tellurith would raise, acknowledge, and perhaps even name as her heir—would subtly counteract Kelso's apparent support for Tellurith's actions and priorities. In the end, however, Kelso chooses neither option. The baby is male, but stillborn, which makes for an ambiguous statement (though it is hard not to suspect that if Kelso ever plans to give Tellurith a live child, it'll be a girl). Given the blatant setup for a sequel in Riversend's conclusion—Kelso has said that she plans for the series to span four novels—it is possible that future installments will make greater strides towards a truly egalitarian society. This, however, is far from certain, and nor does the possibility of such an ending justify Kelso's lack of ambivalence towards Tellurith's misandry, which suggests that even her vision of an egalitarian society may be marred by the same unacknowledged sexism that permeates Riversend.
Abigail Nussbaum (email@example.com) works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Vector, and the Israeli SFF quarterly The Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.
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