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Red Rose Rages cover

The prison or penal colony setting has featured in a good deal of science fiction. The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding) takes as its viewpoint character and protagonist a specialist in "Rehabilitative Medicine," Eve Escher, who sees herself as a good system woman working within one of the privatised Penco penal institutions in a dystopic near-future (the sinister economics of which are gradually revealed over the course of the story). This is unusual. We might expect the lead to be the political prisoner Sarah Minnivitch, transferred to the facility where Escher works following her subversion of discipline at the less rigorous facility where she was initially incarcerated. Or perhaps Venedra Poole, set up as a political activist who has inserted herself and her skills into the system the better to undermine it. Eve is the character who would normally be at best a supporting, more likely a marginal, character in a story about the prisoner resisting the pressures upon her or the rebel bent on bringing the system down.

Eve Escher scorns politics and believes in what she is doing. She is convinced that it is possible to rehabilitate the felons she works with and that this is a desirable outcome. While she is capable of perceiving problems with particular workings of the system, she tends to assign these to individual incompetence or corruption, rather than taking them as manifestations of much more pervasive rottenness. She believes that she has an understanding of the structures, formal and informal, within which she works; this is not entirely wrong, but she is far from being as on-top-of-things as she imagines. Similarly, her self-knowledge has considerable limits, as does the cynicism she supposes she brings to bear upon her situation.

Like much else about the book, her name is marvellously well chosen. The situation in which she is placed is Escherian, not only in the warped and claustrophobic emotional geometry of the Panoptic institution itself, but in the constant sense of things metamorphosing into other things and back again. The narrative shifts between the first-person immediacy of her journal and a tight third-person viewpoint. "Eve" evokes the quest for knowledge, although ironically the knowledge Escher sets out to gain through studying Minnivitch, with the aim of advancing her ambitions through scientific discovery, is not the knowledge she finally acquires. The ambiguous ending leaves open the question of whether what she has learnt will lead to her departure from a position that may not be Edenic, but is, we can gather from the adeptly touched-in hints about the world outside the facility walls, preferable to many of the alternatives open to her.

Confronted with Minnivitch's bizarre behaviour in "white isolation," Escher recognises that the prisoner is an actor, and that she is acting a series of roles, performing, in order to resist the intended effects of the white, brightly lit cell and solitude. Eve herself is, though she never makes the connection, constantly aware of the roles she needs to play with colleagues, with the other inmates, in particular situations:

Clive Dorner summoned me to his office yesterday afternoon, to brief me on this extraordinary prisoner. (I mean inmate: have got to delete that word from my head. It's always slipping out at the worst times, getting me into deep shit with everyone who counts.) (p. 1)

She sees issues of self-presentation and representation as important:

Eve noticed Figgin's lips moving and wondered whether he knew he moved them while subvocalizing his response to the time-budget request. She had hated being constantly told by her parents during the first two years after receiving her implant that she was moving her lips but was glad now that they had harassed her. How mortifying it would be to discover one had been moving one's lips in public! (pp. 83-4)

As is clear from this passage, in the total institution that is this particular and presumably typical Penco facility, the staff are just as much under surveillance as the inmates. Eve "understood [this] as necessary. . . . [P]ersistent supervision helped establish and preserve the hierarchy." They are nagged every few minutes during the day through their implants for subvocal status reports on what they are doing. Their regular "five days" breaks (mandated by insurance considerations) are spent at spas where their health is monitored and they are "easily cowed into embarrassment" for any "health-destructive behaviour," such as Eve's stressed resort to over-indulgence in gin, though by more subtle means than the "sledgehammer techniques" of shaming deployed on inmates. Privileges are accrued via hierarchy, but even the director, Clive Dorner, may not be "in one of the truly high-status categories" his luxurious office and apparent lack of an implant are meant to imply. The brusque interruption to his interview with Escher suggests further levels to which he, merely the biggest fish in the particular pond of A7, is answerable. (In the epigraph to the novel, Duchamp invokes Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish; Erving Goffman is surely also somewhere in its genealogy.)

The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding) is an intense and gripping read. It is dense with ideas without ever becoming bogged down, as the narrative momentum keeps everything moving. It repays rereading to pick up the hints and clues and recurrent themes and images that the pace of the writing may sweep one past during the first read: for example, "the rose-like designs" of the heat-trace readings on Minnivitch when she is in black isolation, Eve's nightmare of a blood-red flower/wound splitting her foot, the rose preserved in glass on Dorner's austere desk, the "flower of fire blazing within" Venedra Poole. Not a comfortable book, but a compelling and thought-provoking one.

Lesley Hall is an archivist and historian who has been reading (and writing) science fiction and fantasy since childhood.

Lesley Hall is an archivist and historian who has been reading (and writing) science fiction and fantasy since childhood.
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23 Nov 2020

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