Fledgling and Triton on Sex and Gender

I’ve recently read, in quick succession, two books by prominent speculative fiction authors: Fledgling, by Octavia Butler, and Triton, by Samuel Delany. Although very different on the surface – one book is about vampires; the other a character-driven space opera – they both deal, in a fundamental way, with sex and gender, and families and kinship. More precisely, they’re both about alternative imaginations of sexuality and kinship. Not exactly a subject strange to speculative fiction, to be sure. Yet I think it’s an interesting experiment to compare how these two books dealt with it, and the degree to which they succeeded in doing so.

Fledgling was Octavia Butler’s last published work, published in 2005 (Butler died in 2006). It’s a story about a young (think in her late 50s) female vampire, Shori, who wakes up naked in a cave in the wilderness with amnesia – unable to remember her name, her identity, or how she ended up where she did. Through a series of encounters she begins to reconstitute her sense of who she is – that is, a vampire, a member of a species who evolved on Earth in parallel with humans but is different from them in certain fundamental ways, the most important of which is probably that they need blood to survive. For this reason the vampires (called “Ina”) live with scores of human “symbionts” from whom they take blood on a regular basis. Some sort of chemical compound in Ina saliva makes humans completely enamoured of them once they get bitten, and makes the blood-sucking experience extremely pleasurable. (This of course makes perfect adaptive sense: I guess the Ina whose bites weren’t pleasure-inducing enough to keep humans around them happy got themselves booted from the gene pool pretty quickly.)

Shori’s amnesia is basically there as a plot device to introduce us to the details of Ina physiology and society. But there is an overarching plot as well: Shori is a genetic experiment, a vampire who due to her novel black skin can actually function in sunlight, which certain more traditionalist vampires didn’t take quite well to, and decided to kill her family (she was the only survivor of the massacre – hence the hiding in the cave at the beginning – and the amnesia was trauma-induced). Much of the novel involves Shori piecing together precisely what happened, gaining allies, and re-establishing herself in vampire society. And she succeeds in this very well. She doesn’t back down, but also learns from her mistakes. She’s a great heroine, really, and Butler gives us a very nuanced portrayal of her – from her visceral emotions in feeding and claiming symbionts, to her feelings about her family, to her occasional missteps and lapses in judgment. But she’s confident, and smart, and in the end successful.

The plot and writing of Fledgling may not be the most gripping, but it does very well what the best speculative fiction novels are meant to do: shine a light on aspects of culture and society that we can take for granted, but really aren’t. Imagining a rich, alternative world as a form of oblique social commentary. And it is quite oblique. There’s no escaping the racial themes – the traditionalist vampires opposing Shori’s novel genetic makeup are clearly racists, but they’re also speciesists, considering their human symbionts as not really complete people at all – but another thread that I feel is even more potent is that of alternative sexuality. And alternative kinship.

A lot of Fledgling reads almost like a classic anthropological description of Ina kinship and custom. We learn that they live segregated by gender, as their breeding physiology and psychology make it pretty much impossible for males to survive for very long around females. Vampire mating bears a resemblance to feeding, we’re told – that is, drinking blood from humans – though with much higher stakes. But it has the same overtones of sex and pleasure that feeding and symbiosis carry.

And it’s the symbionts, I feel, that are the most memorable achievement of Fledgling. Feeding, as an alternative source of pleasure, an alternative basis on which to build relationships, is presented so vividly, so sensitively, in a way that seems so thoroughly thought through, that you’re really forced to consider how it would be like if something like it actually existed. Sex is still there, of course; and there’s quite a lot of it, both among symbionts and between symbionts and ‘their’ vampires (though of course for the vampires it’s not a source of pleasure that it is for humans; feeding is). The two are often blended; but they don’t need to be. And it’s a perfectly stable basis for relationship- and family-building. Vampires and symbionts live in something like communes, with a number of vampires (siblings of the same sex, usually) each having their own set of symbionts and co-habiting in a small settlement. (One such settlement in Fledgling even presents itself as a holdout hippie commune to curious outsiders.) Like a group marriage – though not really; rather, a way of living together and building communal relationships built on what is just a rather different physiology from Homo sapiens standard. In that’s sense, it’s much more alien than the customs and practices of many ‘alien’ species in contemporary science fiction.

And now to Triton – AKA Trouble on Triton, in later editions – from 1976. (I have a second-hand copy of what I believe might be the actual first UK edition of the novel; in any case, the cover title (as in the picture above) still only says Triton.) In some ways it’s very different from what you’d expect from typical 70s sci-fi (if there is such a thing). Delany’s writing is… demanding, at the best of times, though for Triton this isn’t actually the main issue; it’s really quite readable. It displays its progressive social and sexual politics quite prominently, but also frames them in a somewhat… unconventional way. And this is why I think it ultimately doesn’t work as well as Fledgling.

Triton is set during a war between Earth, Mars, and the moons of the outer planets of Earth’s solar system – I kept getting flashbacks to The Expanse while reading it, if only because of the setting. The main character, Bron Helstrom, is a self-centred, entitled, and perennially unsatisfied “metalogician” living in the city of Tethys on Neptune’s moon Triton, which boasts one of the most radically libertarian and sexually and socially anti-normative societies in the solar system – and one radically different from Martian society in which Bron grew up (and worked as a prostitute). Bron meets a theatre actor-director-producer named The Spike by chance on one of his random jaunts through the town, instantly falls in love with her, and spends much of the rest of the novel obsessing about her, angry at her for (basically) not loving him back, and ultimately changing sex because… she thinks it might give her a better chance? It’s not quite clear. Anyway, it doesn’t work, and Bron ends the novel just as dissatisfied with life as she began it… All the time while people are dying around him (later, her) in the debris of the aforementioned interplanetary war.

Bron is, quite clearly, meant to be out of place on Triton, with its non-heteronormative communes and post-scarcity economic system. He dresses like the Tritonians, even enjoys some aspects of his social life – though he’s quite unable to cope with what he perceives as come-ons from one of his housemates in his single-sex, “undeclared” commune (i.e., a commune that accepts any man regardless of sexual orientation). And in the second half of the novel, his regressive attitudes towards sex and gender really come to the fore. Bron’s an utter chauvinist, and what we get from Triton is that not even a sex change is able to disabuse him/her of this.

Which is, I believe, ultimately to Triton‘s detriment. The Tritonian society Delany depicts is basically a magnificent utopia of sexual liberation, of non-normativity, where people consciously join religious cults on a temporary basis for formative experiences, where artists get government grants to perform theatre for “unique audiences” of two or three people, where dress codes are more aligned to fashion than gender distinction and where changing your sex takes a few hours (including changing your chromosomal makeup, just in case you were worrying about it being too superficial. But of course you don’t need to do this if you don’t want to.). Introducing this world through a character with what turn out to be rather traditional mid-20th-century Euro-American hetero male attitudes certainly shines a light on the contrast between these attitudes. But… it doesn’t do much more than that. The conflict is simply there, and it persists through every single thing Bron does to try to fit in – even completely transforming himself genetically. It’s a depressing vision – though perhaps a relevant one: if the reader is frustrated with Bron, it’s likely because they recognise something of him/her from the people around them, and it’s a frustration that they need to deal with. Whether through preaching, or retreating, or conversation.

I guess it all hinges on whether the reader believes you can redeem “ignorance” (as Delany puts it in this interview). It’s a complex question, and Triton certainly gives a lot of material to discuss it – apart from being, of course, an amazing, complex, fully realised, completely immersive future world (this article by Jo Walton gives some pretty on-the-mark descriptions on what it feels to read it). It’s a complicated, and important, novel, and was likely even more so in 1976.

But compare this strategy of direct contrast of utopian and regressive values to Fledgling. There are racists and chauvinists in Fledgling, to be sure: Shori has to deal with a lot of prejudice on part of her enemies, who consider her a dirty genetic mongrel, female and thus subject to all sorts of pesky ’emotional instability,’ too young to stand on her own and argue her own case. But it still provides a more multidimensional prism on clashes between sex and kin alternatives than Triton does. Triton has the Triton vs. Bron axis; Fledgling has the Shori vs. vampire traditionalist axis – but it also has a number of other ones: humans unsure about vampire advances, human symbionts uncomfortable with the sexual relaxation of vampire communities, vampire-human speciesism. And, most relevant, the axis developed between the novel’s vampire society and the reader. No matter how glittering, how diverse, how captivating Delany’s utopian future is, it still operates within a very familiar, very human set of coordinates. Fledgling, on the other hand, goes beyond this. It’s slightly more cerebral in its creativity. It expands the possibility space a little bit more. It has sex, but it’s not all about sex. That is why, I think, its alternatives are ultimately more stimulating than Triton‘s.

Fledgling and Triton are two great idea-driven novels – though produced in two very different decades, by two quite different authors, with layers and layers of themes that could all be discussed and dissected. But pitting them against each other does give us some lessons about just what speculative fiction can achieve. And how exciting and durable it can be. For greats like Butler and Delany, I speculate they’ll remain so for a while yet.

Advertisements

Some Reflections on Cities of Salt

A few months ago I finished Abdelrahman Munif’s Variations on Night and Day (Taqāsīm al-layl wa-l-nahār; translated from Arabic by Peter Theroux; Pantheon Books, 1993) the third volume of his “Cities of Salt” pentalogy. This is also the final volume translated into English; the first volume (Arabic al-Tīh, though published as Cities of Salt in English using the name of the series as a whole) and the second (The Trench / al-Uḳdūd) have also been translated, all by Peter Theroux, while the final two volumes – al-Munbat and Bādiyat al-Ẓulumāt – have not. The pentalogy chronicles the transformation of a fictional kingdom on the Arabian Peninsula (named Mooran, but quite clearly Saudi Arabia à clef) from a largely pre-industrial society, via political consolidation and the discovery of oil to being involved in broader geopolitical struggles, with an eye all the while on the effects such changes have on local society.

The translation isn’t stellar (perhaps more another time on this), though it mostly does the job; still, there were more than a few passages where I can’t imagine anybody could make sense of what is going on without guessing at the Arabic original from which they were translated. Now I’ve finally gotten to writing up some thoughts on the book, and the series in general – though a bit scattered I think it’s important for anyone who pretends to engage with Arabic literature of the last century or so to formulate some sort of position on Munif, given his popularity among Arabophone authors and readers if nothing else.

Here they are, then: my reflections on Cities of Salt, in no particular order.

~

1) Munif is excellent at evoking a sense of context – or, rather, one particular sociocultural context: that of the Arabian peninsula in the first decades of the 20th century. This comes through in dialogue, in particular, but also in descriptive passages. Direct communication is often allusive; proverbs speak more than explicit declamations; communicative norms are very much burdened by honour, and the need not to expose oneself too much in terms of one’s sociopolitical resources – not so much saving face as steering interaction in a way that would never require face to be saved, while still making sure that all the relationships of those involved are clearly understood. It might sound quaint to praise the series for being a “realistic” literary representation – but I still think it’s a formidable achievement to (successfully) evoke the sense of a context governed by very particular norms of interaction in a novelistic form. (Some of this might be the source of the “insufficient Westernization” that famously put John Updike off the series and might have killed Munif’s chances of ever ‘making it’ as a name in English translation.)

2) Gender. Well… Maybe I’ve become over-primed to notice this kind of thing, but Munif’s female characters (in Cities, at least) are a pretty stereotypical disappointment. There are very few of them, and they all seem to be cast in very particular molds (“sexually frustrated wife,” “aging manipulator” etc.) which provide for little nuance or narratively catalytic variations in motivation. (This in contrast with male characters, who – although themselves often bland – are much more numerous, varied, and consequential.) Such narrative practice is ‘realistic’ only insofar as ‘realism’ involves a full 50% of extant social history is being erased. Not sure if we should, or could, be expecting more from a 20th century male Arab author; still something to notice, I think.

3) A major concern of the series is to show how broader geopolitical games have real, palpable, transformative effects on local lives. For this purpose, Munif sketches out a few trajectories of local characters, people whose livelihoods have been threatened or who have had to adapt – with greater or lesser success – to a context of autocratic state control beholden to rulers’ and foreign powers’ interests first and foremost and no longer as concerned with ‘local’ scales of interpersonal interaction. With the exception of the ruling royals and a few of their lackeys, these are treated via event-vignettes and cast aside fairly quickly – which gives a good sense of (male, at least) social variability in “Mooran,” but doesn’t provide much emotional or investment. (Though given the satirical undertone that pervades the writing throughout, perhaps this is the point.)

4) The narrative of the pentalogy isn’t linear, and the translation – being incomplete – suffers from it. We get glimpses into certain aspects of “Mooran’s” historical development, but thematic and even personal arcs are truncated rather abruptly. If read in full, the experience might be more satisfying; as it is, concluding a “trilogy” (as Cities is still often misrepresented in English) with a “prequel” (which is what Theroux has characterized Variations on Night and Day as) seems woefully inadequate. Munif is of course not to blame for this – marketers, publishers, and English-language reviewers much more so – but it’s very unfortunate not to have the rest at least available.

~

Munif was a great writer. I’ve only read a few bits of his in Arabic – a couple of his early novels, none of which have been translated into English to my knowledge – and I couldn’t presume to judge whether he was “the greatest” as some have claimed (certainly many Arabophones I know rate him just as well as, and often higher than, the Nobel-prize-winning Mahfouz). The Cities pentalogy, though, for what it is – and for all the reservations I might have had about it and sketched out above – certainly deserves to be better appreciated outside of Arabic-speaking contexts as well. It’s a bit tragic, though maybe not surprising, that contingencies of translation and publication have made this seem like a distant goal.