Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Persistence of Blood, by Juliette Wade

[Clarkesworld]
★★★★★ Solid Characters in a Rich, Complex World

(SFF) Selemei’s push for a law to allow women to stop having children when it risks their health upends the complex caste-based society she lives in. (26,506 words; Time: 1h:28m)


"," by (edited by Neil Clarke), appeared in issue 138, published on .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: The main pleasure of the story is watching Selemei’s growth from a dissatisfied mother to a politician with a cause. Even though she’s 37 years old, this is arguably a coming-of-age story. She has help at every stage, but she's increasingly the one in charge. I particularly liked the way she defused the attempt to marry her off after Xeref's death.

Xeref is another great character. He loves his wife so much that he’s willing to push this controversial legislation to please her and to spare her life and health. It's easy to see why she loved him.

Women fighting their way into positions of power is an old story, but what makes this one special is the way it plays out against Varin’s very alien society. They have a caste system, but the different castes seem to be occupied by people who are genetically different—no mention is ever made of interfertility at least. Everyone takes it so much for granted and seems content with it, even though it’s at least as big an inequality as the way women are treated.

The story also does a good job of showing how not all men are unsupportive, how some, like her son Brinx, are just thoughtless—not evil—and how some of the strongest opposition comes from women, not men. Nor is the opposition irrational. The Grobal think they’re facing extinction if they can’t get their birth rate up. In other words, Selemei doesn't face an easy problem with easy answers and only cardboard villains as opponents, and that makes for a powerful story.

Ultimately I didn’t see this as a message story so much as an exploration of how the women’s movement might have played out in a very different world than ours, and the result was fascinating, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting. Bravo!

Con: There are a whole lot of names and titles to try to absorb, so the first few pages are a chore to read.

This is a petty complaint, but I couldn't classify the subgenre of this story. I could interpret it as mannerpunk (high fantasy with no magic), or as a far-future story where humanity has divided into subspecies (either here or on a colony planet) or (maybe) as a story about aliens on another planet. The story doesn’t give us a solid basis to decide. (Not that I saw, anyway.) There is one reference to Xeref having fur that makes the alien scenario seem more plausible, but even that’s inconclusive. “She could feel his soft-furred, warm skin against her side.” There’s enough technology to make it feel more SF than Fantasy, but ultimately I couldn’t classify it. I'd be very interested to hear what interpretations others had.

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7 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I had the same problem (and a lot more). I called it a "mundane secondary world novella." There's nothing necessarily supernatural and it's certainly not mainstream (except that it certainly is), so it's some species of SF but there's no actual scientific speculation. It's the "I wasn't going to be able to sell it to the New Yorker so put it on another world" genre. As I say in my review, the actual story is no more speculative than a 70s country song, despite its overly complicated speculative clothing. As far as "enough technology" to make it "feel like SF," I didn't see any until near the end while there were the sprite/will-o'-the-wisp things earlier, so it really felt more like fantasy to me but I was never convinced it was that, either.

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    1. If I had to pick, I say it was a human colony after 100,000 years of genetic drift. The CRT voting machines (and other tech) dispose me against fantasy, whereas the characters are too human to be aliens.

      I'm hard pressed to see how you'd change this story to remove the speculative element, though. But, yeah, it's definitely not hard SF by any stretch. And not big enough to be space opera.

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  2. It's pretty easy, actually. The core story is just that woman have no control over reproduction and no political power in a society in which they do have servants. It's just Mary Wollstonecraft in England but with fuzzy people, wisps, and skimmers, none of which have anything to do with anything. It's resolved through political maneuvering which doesn't rely on any magic or tech.

    That's a good point about the genetic drift. I didn't take them as alien though they're obviously not "normal" humans so that could explain it. Adaptation to a colony world in which civilization fell so you have the behind-the-times social structure with a barely ahead-of-the-times but quite different tech structure. You've probably got it. :)

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    1. I'd say that's the core message, not the core story. The story is about how Selemei went from being the wife of someone important to being someone important in her own right. The things you're talking about are just some of the obstacles she faces.

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    2. Either way, speculative elements aren't necessary to describe a woman taking her husband's place in politics.

      (Sorry about screwing up the threading on my previous post. There's always a "reply" button but also always a reply box already on the screen, so I usually unthinkingly type into the box.)

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  3. This was an engaging story, though I did wonder why the Grobal are undergoing a birthrate decline when the other castes aren't. (Inbreeding would be the obvious answer, but it's never brought up in the story.) I would also have liked to know a bit more about the castes. Are they separate species/subspecies, or different ethnicities within the same species?

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    1. I figured them to be different subspecies of H. Sapiens but not different species entirely. Hybrids aren't mentioned, so one would gather they either didn't exist or were infertile.

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