Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote,
Niall Harrison

  • Music:

A conversation about Life

Gwyneth Jone's novel Life, published by Aqueduct Press, was this year's winner of the Philip K Dick Award, as well as being shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr. Award. It's a major novel, a barely-sf, barely-near-future speculation about the interactions between society, biology and gender. It's also a study of science, and of one scientist in particular--Anna Senoz--from her days as a student to the point at which her discoveries are on the brink of causing a social, as well as a scientific revolution.

-- A.M. Dellamonica at Sci-fi Weekly.
-- David Soyka at the SF site.
-- Cheryl Morgan at Emerald City.

Other links:
-- A brief interview with Gwyneth Jones
-- A longer summary of a panel at Wiscon about the book.

Here, despotliz and I discuss the book.

NH: a lot of reviews have found Anna to be a somewhat unsympathetic character. Would you agree with that?

LB: Yes, I would.

NH: In what ways? I think I liked her character, but not her behaviour. If you can separate the two. Or at least I admired her for her intelligence, and her straightforward approach to many things (including relationships). What bothered me was her passivity.

LB: Yes--I was bothered by the way she stands around and lets everything go on around her. Maybe her straightforward approach to relationships is to be admired, but it made me feel a lot more sympathy for Spence than her. I don't think I'm supposed to to feel any sympathy for her, but it makes it very difficult to like the character, which is important when so much of the book is centered around her.

NH: I think her passivity is deliberate on Jones' part. When Anna first meets Ramone, for instance, it's while she's walking around the university campus at night, alone. Ramone asks her if she's afraid of rapists and Anna says she's not--and of course, later on Anna is raped, by another student. And I get that Jones is trying to create this situation, to demonstrate how someone like Anna could feel pressured into not making a fuss, but I didn't really believe in it. It's the most disturbing passivity in the book, because Anna just doesn't do anything about it.

LB: I didn't believe for a minute that she would just sit there and let it happen. Later on with the science parts, she's not depicted as someone who would sit back while events conspire to stop her researching Transferred-Y, and I don't see why she wouldn't go and report Charles.

NH: Exactly. And that's despite all the obstacles that the establishment puts in her path--the patronising supervisor, indifference from the wider scientific community even after she's published, etc.

LB: She's more outraged that Charles tries to steal her work than that he comes round to rape her.

NH: The book, I think, wants to also be a portrait of what it's like to be a woman in science--everything that happens to Anna sounds disturbingly plausible. So do you think it matters that Anna herself is atypical?

LB: I don't know how atypical Anna is with regards to her being a woman in science. She fights to keep her research going because she knows she's on the verge of something world-changing, and I think a lot of people can understand that.

NH: That's true.

LB: She exhibits some of the characteristics of those with autistic disorders – Jones mentioned on her Wiscon panel that she deals with situations by “thinking it out autistically”, she fails to read body language and visual cues, and she becomes obsessed with her work. She's exhibiting traits usually associated with the male brain, which I guess are atypical in women, but often seen in scientists. The problems with her supervisor are, I think, portrayed as a problem of being a woman with a male supervisor from a different culture?

NH: Largely, yes, I think.

LB: And then she thinks she's found someone who will support her, in the form of Dr Gresley, but finds that she's got her own agenda too. So I didn't think of it as being specifically a female issue--it's just that Anna is particularly bad at office (lab?) politics, and playing the games and making the compromises that she needs to.

NH: But do you think sometimes the novel is suggested that she's inherently disadvantaged at those games because of her gender? Sometimes it's just because of who she is, granted.

LB: I think she's bad at playing those games because she's Anna. Is it that women are bad at playing those games because they are women, or that they have to do these things and men don't?

NH: I'm trying to find one of Anna's discussions with Ramone. They talk about biology, and to Anna gender isn't relevant to genetics, whereas to Ramone the whole language of science is unavoidably masculine.

LB: Yes, I remember that.

NH: And at another point Ramone also says that 'the most significant thing in your entire social and cultural life is your assigned gender', and I think the novel largely agrees with her on that point. Which bears on your point that it's not that Anna is a woman, it's that women have to play games that men don't.

LB: Which brings it back a little to Anna's passivity--it's not that she's consciously refusing to play those games, it just doesn't occur to her that it should be different because she's a woman. Shall we move on to Ramone?

NH: Why not? I think it's probably fair to say Ramone is a less nuanced character.

LB: Yes, although she has less of the focus of the book. She's the counterpoint to Anna, mainly.

NH: It's not so much that she's the walking cliche of the angry lesbian feminist, but almost that she is trying to be that cliche, right from when Anna first meets her as a student through to her career as a writer and chat-show pundit. She's the character that makes the bold statements that the novel tests, I think.
Ramone gave her standard answer. Any woman that doesn't hate women is a bleep idiot (it was that sort of show). I want to exterminate women, wipe them from the face of the earth. I don't want to be liberated, I want to be a monster. He didn't get it. No one ever got it, and Ramone could have straightened them out by saying nobody is born a woman and that what she hated was the way she COULD NOT ESCAPE from the role of second-class person. No woman could, the only escape was to become SOMETHING NEW that had never existed before. (p153)

LB: Yes. She brings sex (well, gender :)) into everything she does.

NH: Her position is that you can't have gender equality and still have men and women--that it's a contradiction in terms because the socially-constructed definitions of 'man' and 'woman' are inherently unequal. Which is of course the direction in which Anna's research also goes, towards a situation where genotype is as much of a continuum as phenotype.

LB: Ramone is looking at gender equality from the sociologists's point of view, and Anna goes for the biological.

NH: Absolutely. And what happens--which is in some senses wish-fulfillment, or at least the potential of wish-fulfilment--is that Anna's work makes people realise that as transferred-Y leads to the disappearance of the Y-chromosome, it makes the biology almost as fluid as the sociology.
"I think," said Anna slowly, "that human sexuality will be changed. This thing is not a fashionable fad, affecting only a miniscule number of people rich enough to have their kids' genes messed about with: it's bound to change everything, some way or other. And I think it doesn't matter. That's how I felt a few weeks ago; that's how I feel again now. In the liberal world we already live as if people can choose at whim whether to take on a 'male' or 'female' lifestyle. In nature, before any of this started, many people were sexual mosaics, whether they knew it or not. In time, TY may create a situation where there are no genetic traits exclusive to 'men' or 'women': when sexual difference is in the individual, not a case of belonging to one half of the species or the other. Will that be a lot different from the way we are now? I don't know. Frankly, I'm more concerned with whether I can get back over the Atlantic without the plane falling out of the sky. Or whether the famine in Central Asia is going to get worse. And will the bad guys in Southeast Asia start using nuclear weapons?" (p362)

LB: And Ramone, who is going on TV as the walking feminist cliche and trying to be activist, in the end will have far less effect than Transferred-Y. Anna isn't looking to change the way gender works in society, but she does it anyway, almost by accident.

NH: On that panel at Wiscon, Jones referred to Anna as 'the woman who destroyed men', which actually helped me work out something about the last fifty pages or so of the novel that had me slightly uneasy. The thing is that what Anna runs into is a classic Kuhnian resistance to paradigm shift. It's not a gender-specific thing--I think it would have happened if it had been a man who made the discovery. There are problems with Kuhn, but it seems to fit what happens in the book, and the thing is that I think that hostility would have been there, because the establishment does resist paradigm shifts.

LB: On a scientific level you can see how it works--Anna publishes, and she's an unknown researcher with nothing to her name, and it gets largely ignored, but with the name of her supervisor it gets more recognition, and then all hell breaks loose. Not because her supervisor is male, but because he's the more respected name. And this is not just a new paradigm which will change biology, but society as well. It's going to affect everyone and not just the few people who make science what they do.

NH: I think as science in fiction goes, it's pretty well thought out.

LB: Yes. The scientific methods are spot-on.

NH: And it gives a good sense of why people do science, why they feel it matters--which is something that, oddly enough, you don't get as often as you might think in sf. Most of the time it seems to be more about the engineering, what you do with the science when you've got it.

LB: It definitely gets that sensawunda feeling of cutting-edge science. I like that there's all this research going on under the radar that the public can be unaware of, and the media come in and pick up on it and Anna ends up in the middle of the storm.

NH: So should we try to come up with some conclusions yet, or is there more to take about?

LB: I think we should at least mention Spence. Aside from maybe Ramone, he's probably the most significant relationship in Anna's life, and again they meet at university, as with most of Anna's friends.

NH: Spence was a bit too good to be true, I thought. In the same way, I guess, that Ramone is too bad to be true--they're both extremes of their respective types.

LB: Do we find out if he's one of the XX-men or not? I can't remember.

NH: Yes, he's affected.

LB: Ah, but it doesn't say if he's fully XX, or just carries the TY viroid but his SRY hasn't gone over to the X yet.

LB: Spence and Charles are both examples of how gender is sociological and not biological. Charles is the typical chauvinist controlling male, first to Anna and then to his wife Marat, but he's a full XX male. And Spence is often shown as filling traditional female roles, looking after Jake their son, housekeeping when they're living abroad and wearing a sarong.

NH: Yes.

LB: It's the same with how Anna and Ramone approach gender in entirely different ways, despite being sexually female.

NH: And the difference, I suppose, is that Charles and Spence don't encounter any obstacles in just being themselves, whereas Anna and Ramone do. Actually, I take back what I said about Spence being too good to be true---I'd forgotten that he actually cheats on Anna towards the end of the book.

LB: Yes, and that's partly what triggers Anna's breakdown.

NH: I think it's worth saying explicitly that I think this is a very subtle and complex book. It doesn't shortchange its ideas, it doesn't demonise one gender or santify the other, it doesn't offer easy, clear-cut answers. I think all of these are good things. And I didn't find it as depressing as a lot of reviewers seem to have done--I think that's largely because there's still a sense that Things Can Change.

LB: I think without that sense I would have found it a lot more depressing than I did. There's rapes, prisons, all sorts of relationship problems, breakdowns, cancer, assault ... it's not the most cheerful of books.

NH: And the miscarriage ...

LB: Yes, and the homelessness, and Lavinia's illness.

NH: I'm sure we're really selling this to other people. A worthy award-winner?

LB: Yes, I think so.

NH: Me too. Although of the shortlist I think Air is even better. But we knew that. :)

LB: The more I think about this book the more I like and admire it.
Tags: book review, feminist sf, gwyneth jones

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