The planet of Newholme was first settled hundreds of years ago, but that group of violent men vanished mysteriously. The later waves of settlers had their own problems trying to develop a world strangely devoid of metals, with increasing volcanic activity and a 50% death rate amongst baby girls. The female-dominated society that has developed subordinates the men, who must remained veiled in order to prevent arousing lust in the women. Marriage is an expensive business agreement designed to give the men the offspring that they want, whilst allowing women to obtain entertainment and sexual fulfillment from Consorts, sterilized men who are trained to be the perfect companion and to provide ‘compensation’ for the unpleasant business of breeding. Mouche is an only child and, as a boy, he is only a drain on resources, so he is sold to one of the Consort schools where he begins his training. He soon discovers that life on Newholme is not as it seems: another, indigenous, race lives amongst the humans, but their presence is denied, so much so that everyone over the age of seven simply does not see these ‘invisibles’.
The increased volcanic action, strange gender relations and rumors of the indigenes catch the attention of the Questioner. ‘She’ is a bionic construct, including three human female brains, that is tasked with judging societies against a set of ethical standards. She chooses a pair of humans to join her: Gandro Bao, who chose to train as a Kabuki dancer, playing female roles, and Ellin Voy, a cloned Nordic ballet dancer. The Questioner’s arrival causes panic amongst the Hags who rule Newholme and soon Mouche joins the Questioner, Gandro and Ellin on a quest to discover the truth behind all the problems and peculiarities.
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I first read this book several years ago at the recommendation of another book group member, so I was both delighted and a little worried when it was selected by the group. Whilst I was fairly sure that the book’s exploration of gender identity and ethics would be interesting to the group, I was not sure quite how much they would enjoy the experience. Yet again, I have been proven wrong in my estimation of the group members and their ability to go beyond their comfort zones. I cannot express how delighted I am that this book was enjoyed even more than Mr Lynch’s title!
Set in the far distant future, this tale includes some novel concepts, such as the idea that people are cloned, grown and trained to be authentic, living parts of history exhibits. Whilst we are made aware of technologies far in advance of our own, there is very little time wasted on explanations or details of how they function. They are simply a part of everyday life for some of the characters that we encounter and so we are not subjected to a great deal of the boring exposition that sometimes plagues lesser titles in this genre. Indeed, some of the storylines made me wish for a much greater exploration of this world, which was a little frustrating but ultimately I appreciated Ms Tepper’s restraint.
I also appreciated her choice to place Newholme in a pre-industrialized level of development. At first this seemed a little strange for a colony within a giant intergalactic empire, because the colonists were acutely aware that they were not indigenous to this planet. The addition of a space port and regular communication with off-world authorities and entities made this seem even more strange, but the explanation provided was very sensible and eventually this aspect of Newholme society seemed much more likely than if everyone was living in the same sort of environment that we see in Ellin’s life on Earth. It was also a neat way of avoiding too much immersion in a highly technologically advanced society and thus made it much easier for us to identify with Newholme and its colonists.
After all, this book is primarily intended to allow us to explore gender / power relations within societies and the ethical dilemmas that these produce rather than to keep us entertained with pew-pew zap guns and space battles. It includes some pearls of t wisdom that really made me think, and which had resonances with the current debates about gender equality, racism, religious extremism, same sex marriage, gun rights and the function of the police. There were so many instances when I could see direct connections to the current news items that it was almost unnerving. It is not that I think that Ms Tepper had any particular foresight when she wrote this book; simply that she has a profound understanding of the human condition. Indeed, I found it rather depressing that mankind was basically still as dysfunctional as it is now, even all those centuries in the future. This was particularly true of some of Mouche’s training lectures showing that men and women were still incapable of seeing individuals instead of sexual stereotypes. However, I was most disturbed and disappointed by the revelations about the deaths of the Questioner’s three brain donors: I had rather hoped that humans would be able to move beyond such barbaric behavior if given enough time.
Still, the Questioner herself is a truly wonderful creation. Her description is suitably vague and yet she is unlike any other cyborg that I have come across before. Perhaps this is because of the inclusion of her human brains, so that she has all the mechanical benefits of a superior body whilst still displaying a human personality and some emotions. She is grouchy and funny, with a no nonsense attitude and a love of card games. The final scene, where Mouche uses all his skills to offer her ‘compensation’ for her impersonal life is particularly wonderful.
It was also refreshing to come across aliens that were truly different in every way, not just humanoids with bumps on their faces or based upon a form of life that we already understand. The misunderstandings that occur because of these differences show how difficult it is to think outside of our own experience. Whilst I struggled with trying to imagine how the Quaggi evolved their form of reproduction, I was massively intrigued by their life cycle, and I wanted to know more about them. Was this particular incident typical of their matings, or an anomaly? Did Quaggima and his offspring go on to change their society or receive justice for a malicious act? Even more intriguing was the almost Gaia-like life on Newholme. Whilst the planet itself was not alive, it was inhabited by just a single entity with many individual units. Again, this was an idea that I had not encountered before, so it made me reexamine how we assume so much about possible alien entities because we are prejudiced by our own experience.
My only real criticism of this title is that we begin several storylines and then leave them hanging for some time in a way that seems somewhat random at first. For example, we meet Ornery very early on, but then hear nothing more of her for another one hundred pages. This interrupted the flow of the story and was slightly frustrating until their respective roles in the story began to intertwine. However, this is a minor complaint about a generally excellent read.