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August 2010
Short Reviews of Books and Films

Five-Twelfths of Heaven, Silence in Solitude, & The Empress of Earth

According to Melissa Scott's Amazon page she has nineteen published SF/fantasy novels in a writing career which stretches back over 25 years. Wikipedia counts twenty.  I see also that there are some titles I didn't know about — which means I can now look forward to the pleasure of reading them. In her novels, she has gay and lesbian characters or explores aspects of sexuality. They have also been described as 'feminist'. Certainly her writing celebrates and encourages women's rights, and frequently features strong female characters, but she also is a convinced supporter of gay and lesbian rights. For example, on the planet Hara in her novel Shadow Man there are 5 genders, as a result of genetic changes brought about by taking the drug hyperlumin-A which eases the sickness caused by interstellar travel. On all other planets in civilised space, the five genders are free to be male, female or any shade in between, but Hara forces the 25% of the population who are neither male nor female to choose a gender at either end of the spectrum. Like all the best SF, the relevance to our own world and times is obvious.

In the Armor of Light, Point of Hopes and Point of Dreams, written with her partner Lisa Barnett, and set in an alternative 16th century Earth, sexual orientation is irrelevant. I won't call these bisexual cultures, because there are still people who are mostly straight or gay, just as there are in our world. But the logic is inescapable. Once it stops mattering, a significant minority will in fact be personally bisexual, though like American marriage, they may well practise serial monogamy, just with different genders. She was one of the earliest SF authors to take advantage of the freedom offered by the alternative thinking implicit in Science Fiction and Fantasy to introduce alternative sexualities.

In the series Five-Twelfths of Heaven, Silence in Solitude, and The Empress of Earth, her heroine is married to two men, who are also married to each other. The books don't make it explicit but it is nevertheless clear that the men have a sexual relationship with each other and – by the end of the second volume – with her. The men are clearly bisexual (obviously!) — in The Empress of Earth there is a cameo where one of her husbands eyes up a pretty young man and Silence kicks him on the shin. No sulks, no shrill hysteria, no drama — simple acceptance. Stirring stuff for SF (and Baen!) in 1987.

Melissa Scott's idea about interstellar travel – and remember, faster-than-light (FTL) travel is still impossible according to the scientists, so everybody else's ideas remain equally speculative – is remarkably original. In this world, the interstellar spaceships use the music of the spheres to power their flight.

Each ship has a keel made of “base metal impregnated with the Philosopher's Tincture, the only celestial substance that could exist in the mundane world. The tincture in the keel always sought to return to the transcendent, nonmaterial world – heaven – beyond apparent reality, but was bound down by the material substances with which it was surrounded. Only under stimulus from the harmonium, which was tuned to as close an approximation of the music which ruled heaven as was humanly possible, could the tincture rise towards heaven, first fleeing the elemental earth of a planet's core, then rushing faster and faster into the void between the stars, where the barriers between the mundane and celestial were thinnest. The rest of the ship, riding on the keel, was drawn up with it. Because most of the ship was made of material substances, gross matter, it could never reach heaven – but the harmonium could bring it to the crucial point, the twelfth of heaven that was purgatory. Time and space twisted, doors opened, and the ships passed between the stars in minutes rather than in hundreds of years.”

The FTL “space” is called purgatory and heaven (there are many subtle Biblical references in these novels) and when a spaceship powered by a sonar keel is in purgatory it is both everywhere and nowhere. To travel through the space/non-space between the stars, the pilots of these ships use the “routes” developed by brave pioneer pilots in the past, routes where the pilot follows allegorical symbols, some amalgam of “reality” and the pilot's psyche. The pilot requires training in “magic” – i.e., the manipulation of symbols and non-material space (“purgatory”) to “fly” these starships through the void. Both magi and pilots manipulate space, time and matter. Thinking about something in the correct way alters reality. Shades of the observer influencing the outcome of the experiment! The descriptions of these “magical” and allegorical flight paths are themselves fascinating – soaring heights of magical creation, as fantastic and dream-like as any more conventional fantasy.

Everything about the author's alternative explanation of scientific reality is – as it should be – internally consistent. And there are many satisfying touches: in FTL flight, the ship becomes transparent, but so do human bodies, as if they were being viewed through an x-ray machine which can see in all the colours of the spectrum. There is no machinery except the most simple and basic, because it interferes with the celestial harmony. The place of robots is taken by homunculi, which are “grown” by magi, who like pilots can manipulate the substance of time and space. Vehicles are powered by mage-created “machines” which use the perfectly scientific laws of “heaven” and “purgatory” to manipulate energy fields and matter.

In volume one, Five-Twelfths of Heaven (a reference to the speed with which a starship can cross the void), Silence is a rarity: a woman starship pilot. Her grandfather dies and she is left on a hegemony planet. The Hegemony is loosely modelled on an Islamic Caliphate, and in the Hegemonic polity, women have no rights. They must wear a veil at all times in public, can own no property, do not matter legally, and are the property of their fathers or brothers. Silence is about to be done out of her grandfather's ship by a conniving uncle, who suggests to the court deciding how her grandfather's debts are to be paid, that he is her logical guardian, and therefore the owner of her property. Silence rejects him. An off-world stranger offers to be her guardian, and Silence has no choice but to accept, or lose everything. She does lose her grandfather's ship anyway, but at least retains her freedom.

The off-worlder then offers her marriage to him and his lover, so that his lover can get citizenship of the planet Delos. Delos does not recognise same-sex marriage but does recognise multiple marriage. Over the course of the three volumes of this trilogy, the marriage de convenance becomes a real marriage. It would have been fascinating to see how Melissa Scott would have developed the social, emotional, sexual, and reproductive issues in such a marriage. During the course of Five-Twelfths of Heaven, it turns out that her husbands have a secret which gets them all into trouble. They are captured by the Hegemony's soldiers and bound to serve the Hegemon by “magic” – a magus sets a geas on them. The magic is in fact scientific, because the mage uses the laws underlying space-time and consciousness (“purgatory”) to do it. Because the Hegemony strictly observes marriage contracts, even multiple ones, she manages to stay with her husbands and in the end saves them, but only at the cost of promising to take a powerful magus to Earth, which has been lost for millennia.

In book two, Silence in Solitude, Silence studies to be a maga (the feminine of magus) on the special mage-created world dedicated to training new magi. She is the only woman there, the only maga. But the Hegemon gets news of her, and she and her husbands and the mage who helped them have to flee, only to fall into the toils of one of the Hegemon's satraps. Silence is set a task she must complete if she is to be released (freeing the Satrap's daughter from a high-class harem), giving Melissa Scott many opportunities to parody harems and societies which crush women. Great stuff!

In book three, The Empress of Earth, after many vicissitudes, all four make it – just – to Earth, where a myth has grown up that a woman space-farer will one day appear to reconnect Earth with the multitude of mankind in the stars. The last section of the book, where Silence comes fully into her mage powers and achieves the impossible, is wonderfully moving.

These books are over 30 years old, and they have dated somewhat – but in the best way. So much SF written since the seventies is pretentious “literary” tosh. And so much fantasy is derivative unimaginative shlock. These three stories are an exciting mixture of remarkably speculative and original science and gripping and enjoyable adventures. It is a great pity that they are now out of print, but there are plenty of second-hand copies available in good condition. If you like SF or fantasy – and these novels are an intriguing mixture of both – and you are interested in reading about alternative sexualities and different socially-sanctioned marriage patterns and gender relations, you'll enjoy these tales. As well as being breathtakingly original in concept, these novels are also 'rattling good yarns', a goal any author should aspire to. 

Highly recommended.

Halfway Home

Paul Monette's Halfway Home is a book I reread every year or so. It sounds like the kind of book I wouldn't read: depressing, sad, a big downer. When Monette wrote this he was dying from AIDS. Yet it is not depressing – on the contrary. It's marvellous. Wonderful. Empowering. Uplifting.

The narrator Tom Shaheen is dying from AIDS, and a friend has invited him to stay in an old beach house north of Los Angeles. Tom has hated his brother Brian since he was thrown out of home by his father because he was gay, and has had no contact with him for years. Then Brian turns up at the beach house. His business partner — and his best friend from his youth — has been corruptly stealing money from the government in collusion with the Mafia, and planning to put the blame on Brian. Now Brian's on the run for his life. He and his family need a place to stay — and he has nowhere else to turn. Just before it's too late, the brothers reconnect.

Monette's angry criticisms of the church (he was brought up Catholic) are coruscating and excoriating. The Pope is called His Hitlerness; the Church hierarchy is described as the Vatican Nazis; the hypocrisy and inhumanity of the Church's “laws” and views is bitterly and sarcastically rebuked and mocked. Tom Shaheen does (or used to do when he was well) a drag show called Miss Jesus: “Have you noticed that Catholic men prefer to fuck their daughters rather than their sons? Whereas your average priest is much more into diddling boys than girls. This is what's called separation of church and state.” Monette mentions the ruling by the then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) that homosexuality is an intrinsic evil.

Yet ironically this novel is profoundly Christian. Not in the Rev. Pat Robertson way, not in the way of the Christo-Fascists, thin-lipped and judgemental, hate-filled and hateful. It is a radiant and remarkable story of forgiveness and compassion, and the timeless power of love to redeem. Tom and his brother love again, and Tom forgives his brother all the cruelties inflicted on him as a boy, while his brother completely accepts Tom's gayness. None of this happens easily, and Tom's bitter resentment of his brother takes time and several confrontations to dissipate. Brian, who rejected Tom's admiration and love when Tom was young, and who used him and abused him, has to learn to accept his brother's militant gayness. He does. Monette takes you on this spiritual journey of these two men, making you weep and laugh and hold your breath as he guides you along the way. Tom gets to meet his nephew, whom he immediately loves seeing in him a kindred spirit. He finds to his surprise the man he's been looking for ever since he came west. All those random encounters, all those great loves which lasted just a few months, and just before he dies, he meets the man who should have been his life partner, an older man, compassionate and loving and a lesson in just what it really is which defines attractive.

Paul Monette is not just a gay author. He addresses the profundities of human existence: love, hatred, forgiveness, compassion, death, loss, sorrow. These are part of the human condition, gay or straight. While not as sunny as The Gold Diggers – how could it be? – Halfway Home continues to resonate with you long after you've finished reading. As you read the last page you are both weeping and uplifted, knowing what is to come, yet equally resolute to keep fighting the fight that this gay warrior fought. An odd and a compelling morality play, fending off the horrors of life with the weapons of love, respect, compassion, forgiveness and understanding. 

An undoubted masterpiece.

Blossom at the Mention of Your Name

Blossom at the Mention of Your Name, by Fiona Cooper is an odd but beguiling novel. Odd, because it is almost two novels in one, before and after, and after is distinctly magical realist. Beguiling because it is filled with charm and courage and humour, with endearing and unusual characters.

Gerth goes to a gay club with his straight friends to mock gays. Instead he is transfixed by the vision of Callum:

“[Gerth] was in a group of his mates, bunched together with booze and contempt, all geared up for queer-baiting until chucking-out time. Callum wore sandals for chrissakes, Jesus sandals made of turquoise plastic, sandals and loose silky trousers with mickey mouse braces, and pink flamingo earrings. And Gerth couldn't stop staring at him. He was dancing, this will o' the wisp beauty, dancing by himself in the strobe lights like a fairy, a fucking fairy in a glen, Gerth snarled inside. So why did he want to hold him in his arms and stroke that silky hair and run his hands over that slender body?”

It's a love story and like most love stories it ends. The last third of the novel is what happens after, and it's a marvellously demented tale of best friends, of a literally magical but not-quite-there old lady who had green fingers, and of gradual recovery and rebuilding.

Beautifully written, with exquisitely drawn characters, this is a charming work. Prepare to be saddened and angered, and made whole again. At the end, the author has made it clear that Gerth has lost more than any of the people she writes about, a fitting punishment. Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger, across a crowded room. Once you have found him, never let him go ...

Read it. And mourn the fact that this gifted, humane and intelligent author has had so little published in recent years when wall-to-wall dreck makes the best-seller lists.

Rough Music

Patrick Gale has written something like 20 novels which are all still in print, a testimony to his ongoing – and well deserved – popularity. Rough Music involves his trademark entwining of two apparently different stories, one from the past, one from the present.

It's Will's fortieth. He lives alone; looks after his aging parents (his mother has Alzheimer's); and has no significant other, except a married bloke, who loves him, but also loves his wife. For his birthday, his sister Poppy gives him a week at a holiday house in Cornwall. Will takes his parents down with him, but as they arrive the house seems strangely familiar. It takes the whole novel for the present and the past to meet, but when they do all the secrets of the far and near past are devastatingly revealed.

Compassionate, gripping, beautifully written, Rough Music is a must read. Unlike his first few novels, written when he was young and newly in love, Rough Music is infused with – not quite sadness – melancholy, perhaps. But the aging writer sees more deeply into the human heart than the younger one did, and his understanding and insight into families and love and growing up gay are profound.

The many pleasures and incidental felicities in this novel are too numerous to relate here, and the criticisms I have are minor. Lovely.

Nikolaos Thiwerspoon is the author of several romantic m2m and bisexual novels and short stories.  He lives in country Victoria, Australia.

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