Review of Helen of Troy by Ruby Blondell

Helen of Troy by Ruby BlondellTitle: Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation
Ruby Blondell
Oxford University Press
 02 May 2013
literary criticism, mythology, feminism, history
review copy via NetGalley

I don’t read much non-fiction, although not for lack of noble intentions. I’ve got a bookshelf packed with philosophy, essays, art theory, literary theory, history, etc. But  most of the non-fiction I’m interested in is fairly academic and demanding, so it takes quite a lot of determination for me to actually read any of it. But I’m inspired to try harder when I come across wonderful books like Ruby Blondell’s Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation.

Combining literary analysis, classical studies, feminism and philosophy, Helen of Troy beautifully bridges the gap between academia and general interest. It’s a scholarly work but you don’t need to be a scholar to appreciate it (although you might be inspired to become one afterwards). Going in, my only knowledge of Helen’s story came from pop culture and a few light books on Greek mythology I read when I was a child. I have never read The Iliad. I didn’t know Helen appears post-war in The Odyssey living comfortably with Menelaus. I’d never even heard of any of the lyric poetry or Athenian tragedy that later re-addressed or revised her story. No doubt I could have gotten much more from this book if I was familiar with these texts, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it anyway, and in my ignorance I was able to learn a hell of a lot too.

Blondell begins with an overview of “Greek gender ideology, focusing on female beauty, the conceptual position of women between objectification and agency, and the intrinsic ambiguity of the female as embodied in the first woman, Pandora.” The Greeks treated beauty as something that could be measured objectively, which is why they can conceive of a character like Helen. In the 2004 movie Troy, Diane Kruger played Helen. I think she’s lovely, but there are more beautiful women who could have played the role. My partner always complains about the casting, because he doesn’t find her especially attractive. But the ideal casting for Helen doesn’t exist (which is why the movie wisely chose political rather than mythical reasons for the war). No woman is so beautiful that everyone would agree she was the most beautiful woman in existence. But that’s exactly what Helen is, and because she embodies the very idea of perfect beauty, she also perfectly embodies male anxieties about female beauty and sexuality. Of which there are many.

These issues are so fraught with paradoxes (then and now) that writers like Blondell are immensely valuable if only for their ability to unpack and discuss them. I barely know where to start, but one of the recurring themes is that of the parthenos – a virginal adolescent girl who is ready for marriage. The parthenos is at the peak of her sexual attraction, which also means she is at her most threatening (because of the effect she has on men) and the most volatile (she may act ‘inappropriately’ on her own desires and is ‘exposed’ as she makes the transition from her father’s house to her husband’s). The parthenos “embodies a feminine wildness that must be “tamed” by sex and marriage”, but Helen is like an eternal, untameable parthenos who brings about the very things that men fear about parthenoi and women in general. Neither her age nor her marital status seem to have any effect on her overpowering beauty; she causes Paris to break the inviolable bonds of guest-friendship by sleeping with Helen while a guest in her husband’s house; Helen then leaves her husband’s household either by inciting Paris to a criminal act of kidnapping/theft or by acting on her own desire and leaving willingly with him (both are bad); her beauty causes the greatest war of all time, but also ensures that neither side can end it prematurely because she is too valuable to give up. And although Helen is the reason men can achieve glory on an epic battlefield, she is also the reason they die by the thousands. In the Odyssey it is generally agreed that she wasn’t worth it.

The problem of beauty isn’t only related to Helen. Paris is a particularly beautiful man and this in itself is considered problematic because physical beauty is considered a feminine asset. Men should aspire to moral and marital beauty, and it’s telling that Paris makes poor moral decisions and isn’t much of a warrior. The goddess Aphrodite promised Helen to Paris if he would declare her to be the most beautiful of the goddesses in a beauty contest. Zeus had already planned to use her for destructive purposes – he wanted to reduce the human population and fathered Helen to cause the war, while Achilles functioned as the principle slaughterer.

This is not the first example of Zeus using a beautiful woman to cause destruction, or of female beauty being portrayed as inherently dangerous. Pandora, “the first woman and prototype of all women” was created by Zeus as revenge for Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to men (who lived in a homosocial paradise at this point). Pandora was so beautiful that even the other gods were impressed, but her beauty was a trick: Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus took her into his home (the first marriage) where she opened the sealed “jar” full of evils.

Like all women, and like Helen in particular, Pandora is a “kalon kakon”, a “beautiful evil”. The term is used frequently throughout the book. Pandora’s very desirability is deceptive and dangerous, the cause of men’s downfall. Caught in such paradoxes, women can’t win, and this problem is hardly limited to ancient times. Our worth is frequently measured by our physical beauty, but that beauty is also cause for distrust (a beautiful woman is more likely to inspire lust and commit infidelities), fear or even hatred. Women have the power to use their beauty against men, can cause strife among men, and are assumed to be morally weaker, and therefore must be controlled by husbands and fathers. At the same time, women aren’t expected too act like dolls. They should express some desire and use their beauty to please men but not to the extent that they appear promiscuous or vain. They should use their allure as if they are innocently unaware of its power. It’s a difficult, if not impossible balance to achieve: “As Hesiod declares, in a strikingly close parallel, a bad wife brings a man utter misery, but even a good one is a mixture of good and evil (Theog. 607–12).”

Given that Helen leaves her husband for another man, she can’t be considered a ‘good woman’, so why fight over her? These issues are raised by Homer, and in fact Blondell identifies Homeric epic as providing the most complex representation of Helen. These chapters were the ones I found most interesting.

For Helen to function as a casus belli (the reason for war) it was necessary for both sides to objectify her. She can’t be thought of as “just a woman” because it’s embarrassing for thousands of men to fight and die over one woman. It just proves how much power she has over them (which she does, of course). Instead, she is considered an artefact, a demi-god, the daughter of Zeus, a perfect thing of such great value that she is worth fighting over no matter the cost. For most, she doesn’t inspire lust or love but awe.

Paris is seen to have stolen her from Menelaus as if she were his property. As a result, pretty much everyone blames him for starting the war, but neither the Trojan nor Greek men can blame Helen. blaming her is like admitting that she’s ‘damaged goods’, and they’re idiots for dying over her. But a perfect Helen is the reason they can find glory in war, and martial prowess was considered a great form of male beauty (making Achilles the most ‘beautiful’ or perfect man). It’s different for the women, who all seem to dislike Helen; they can’t achieve any glory in the war, but they do lose husbands, sons and brothers, and are later brutally raped murdered, so they have every reason to hate Helen.

Helen actually blames herself, although this might be strategic, as Blondell explains. In doing so, she saves the men from having to do it, but more importantly, her self-blame is part of what makes her perfect. In the tangles of Greek gender ideology (and many others…) the best women are “misogynistic, self-policing, and male-identified. They are sensitive to public opinion and embrace their subordinate status, along with the accompanying restrictions on their freedom of speech and movement.” So although the men can’t afford to agree with Helen’s self-blame, her self-deprecation fits neatly into the male idea of a good woman.

There’s another paradox here – it could be that Helen is more powerful than she appears, actively using self-blame to manipulate the way other characters and the audience see her. In that way she’s using her inferiority as a woman against the very people who impose that inferiority. And that’s another male fear about women – that they can create deceptive illusions, that their outwardly beautiful appearances conceal evil, deceptive natures.

The issue of Helen’s culpability is one that frequently made me think of women in the fiction I read, and it’s no co-incidence that I picked up on the issue of women’s agency in Poppet by Mo Hayder, which I read right after Helen of Troy and have already reviewed. A good/virtuous character is a disempowered character if they are good simply because they can’t choose to be bad or if they are not held responsible for bad actions. There are times when I appreciate villainous female characters because they have the power to act, have influence over others, and are held responsible for what they do as free, intelligent agents.

If Helen isn’t responsible for the war then she is virtuous. But being virtuous typically means she has no agency – Paris is blamed for kidnapping her or the gods are blamed for manipulating her and Helen is just a puppet. Some stories actually try to remove her from the war entirely, claiming that she never left with Paris but spent the war in Egypt while a double created by the gods took her place in Troy. She retains her virtue not only because she doesn’t have any choice in leaving with Paris, but because she’s not even present.

Chapter 8 deals with a defence of Helen by the orator Gorgias, the first on record to offer a sympathetic portrayal by defending her elopement with Paris, rather than simply arguing that she never went to Troy at all. But in exculpating Helen, Gorgias strips her of all power – nothing is her fault because she has no real control over her actions. In fact, according to his argument, no human being is ever responsible for their actions whether good or bad. It’s ridiculous, but intentionally so – Gorgia’s defence of Helen is a joke, a common form of entertainment where orators would (paradoxically) display their rhetorical skills by making superficially moving but flawed arguments. In Helen’s case, Gorgias is defending the indefensible. There’s something hopeful in his argument though – if the idea of Helen being completely innocent is a joke, then so is the idea of her being powerless.

There are three chapters on Athenian tragedy, and in one play by Euripides, Helen is, for the first time, given the opportunity to defend herself for leaving with Paris. But she does the same as Gorgias and the opposite of what she does in the Iliad – she blames everyone but herself, rendering herself powerless in order to claim that she is innocent. But there’s a fundamental contradiction here – the very fact that she taking up a male role by using rhetoric to defend herself proves that she is far more powerful than she claims. Again we see the paradoxical ways in which women are simultaneously empowered and disempowered in these texts. And I’m simultaneously frustrated and fascinated by Blondell’s analysis.

These issues aren’t limited to dead societies and ancient literature – they frequently appear in modern fiction, and I see them regularly in opinion columns and on blogs. The recent SFWA sexism scandal (there are so many articles I don’t know what to link; just google it) arose partly because of the tendency for women to be judged by their looks rather than their abilities in ways that men almost never are. This is one of the reasons I found Helen of Troy to be such a fantastic read – it offers ideas that are (sadly) still central to contemporary feminist issues, and it does so with compelling textual analyses of one of the world’s most popular and powerful myths. Not only did I enjoy reading it more than I enjoy most novels; it was an immensely valuable experience.

I’ve only been able to discuss a fraction of what has been packed into this relatively short book. The passages I highlighted are far longer than this review, so I just touched on what was most memorable for me. There’s a chapter on the Odyssey where Helen is seen back in Sparta with Menelaus, and is given a more empowered but less sympathetic role now that the war is over and the characters are more concerned with marriage and community. Blondell goes on to analyse ancient texts that the Homeric epic inspired. The chapter on lyric poetry was my least favourite, but it was nevertheless interesting how dramatically Helen’s character changes in the hands of different authors, and how they manipulate her for their various ideologies. There are three chapters on Athenian tragedy, and here Helen is used for more political ends. Blondell also points out the way in which the stage production highlighted male control of female representation – men write the stories and male actors perform all the roles for an audience that is mostly male. And hey, that’s not very different from contemporary female characters written by men to fulfil the fantasies of mostly male target markets.

In her epilogue, Blondell briefly lists more recent incarnations of Helen (such as the painting – by a female artist – which graces the cover) and ends by stating that “[d]emonized, idolised, allegorized, or humanised, Helen is still here”. At that point, she hardly needed to point that out. I’d love to read a follow-up text on more modern representations of Helen.

And I’ve bought a copy of this book. Just going through my review notes made me want to read it again.

Review of God’s War by Kameron Hurley

Title: God’s War
Series: Bel Dame Apocrypha #1
Author: Kameron Hurley
Published: 18 January 2011
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

God’s War has an opening that should not be ignored. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read, and it continues to impress me. Author Kameron Hurley elegantly weaves an unbelievable amount of characterisation, plot and intrigue into those slick opening lines, and one thing you know for sure after reading them is that this is not conventional sci fi.

Set on the planet Umayma in a post-Earth future, God’s War does not make the usual assumption that, if humans go out and colonise planets, it’ll be western nations that do it. Umayma was settled three thousand years ago by a group of Muslims now known as the First Families. Since then, the world has been divided into two main states – Nasheen and Chenja. Religious differences between the two eventually led to a war that has now been raging for two centuries.

Nyx is a Nasheenian ex-soldier and a bel dame – an elite government-trained assassin. In Nasheen, boys are sent to war at sixteen, and they can “either come home at forty or come home in a bag. No exceptions”. As a bel dame, Nyx has spent the last three years cutting the heads off draft dodgers and deserters. But she also works as a bounty hunter on the side, and now she’s started “selling out her womb on the black market”, using it to grow zygotes for gene pirates. This ‘black work’ gets her in trouble with the other bel dames. She loses her prestigious position and carries on as a bounty hunter with a team of mercenaries, including a magician (not what you think), a shapeshifter, and another hunter who once tried to kill her.

The magician is Rhys – a Chenjan exile. Rhys and Nyx are completely different people – he’s a devout Muslim, she’s an atheist, and that’s just the start – but they need each other and end up forming a bond that’s both comforting and frustrating. Together with their team, they accept a bounty from the Nasheenian queen to track down an alien woman who has the means to end the war, not peacefully, but in one nation’s favour.

There is so much about this novel that I found admirable or at least memorable. There’s the weird bug-tech for example – almost all the technology on Umayma runs on bugs. It sounds stupid and it made me squirm (I loathe bugs) but somehow Hurley makes it work. The magicians in the novel are not the usual fantasy kind, but people with an innate ability to control bugs by altering their pheromones and reprogramming insects at the cellular level. In this way bugs are used for many things, from providing light to screening for bioweapons and regrowing limbs or entire bodies. Even the bakkies (pick-up trucks) run on bugs (and I must say I was delighted to see the word “bakkie”, along with other South African terms, like veldt). It’s scientific rather than magical, and I would certainly call this sci fi, not fantasy, but the term ‘magician’ is apt, because it accounts for the fact that the Umaymans have mastered technology they don’t quite understand.

Attention to little details like this is what makes writing good, and if the opening lines didn’t convince you, then I need to tell you now that the writing is excellent – the kind of word craft that makes me want to buy this novel in hardcopy. I would be a poor reader and a shameful sci fi fan if I didn’t have this on my shelf to re-read a few times. God’s War has almost everything going for it, most notably the characters, who feel so real they’re almost tangible, and a fascinating socio-religious culture clash.

Nasheen and Chenja are two vastly different Islamic societies. In Nasheen, “the queen decreed that God had no place for men in mosques unless they had served at the front”. All boys are sent to war and most don’t come back, so society is ruled and run by women, which has completely altered the way they practice Islam. Few women wear the veil, men and women pray in the same space, technology takes care of any reproductive issues, and there’s simply no culture of submission or modesty among women. Same-sex relationships between women are not only common but celebrated (although still illegal for men), and Nyx, who is bisexual, frequently uses sex both for fun and as a means to cultivate useful relationships. Some of the non-gendered Islamic laws have also been discarded – alcohol is happily consumed, and artworks depicting the Prophet are common.

Rhys’s explanation for this “godlessness” is that Nasheenians have allowed the violence of war to lead them astray:

Chenjan women could submit to god and wield a rifle with equal ease, but Nasheenian women had allowed their propensity for violence to pollute their beliefs. Wielding a rifle, they believed, made them men in the eyes of God, and men did not have to practice modesty or submission to anyone but God. Nasheenian women had forgotten their place in the order of things.

As you can tell, Chenja is a far more conservative nation. Society is divided into “purists” and “orthodox” with a scattering of minority sects. Atheists are killed. Women veil themselves, homosexuality is forbidden, alcohol is banned, as are images of living things, particularly the Prophet (if you’re curious, here’s a Wikipedia article on aniconism in Islam). In Nasheen, Rhys is appalled at the way women stare openly at him, “like harlots” and it’s only when he sees their version of Islam that he truly appreciates why the two nations are at war:

In the mosque, forehead pressed against the floor, Rhys never understood the war. It was only when he raised his head and saw the women praying among him, bareheaded, often bare-legged, shamelessly displaying full heads of hair and ample flesh, that he questioned what these women truly believed they were submitting to. Certainly not the will of God.

It’s a credit to the author’s skill that Rhys is not portrayed simplistically as a hateful fanatic. On the contrary, Rhys is a gentle, likeable character. It’s easy to empathise with him without agreeing with him. In her culture clash with Rhys, you might also expect Nyx to be held up as a paragon of women’s liberation, but she’s as flawed and damaged as anyone else. This is not a book about idols or individuals with unprecedented talents or powers. Rhys is a crap magician, although good with a pistol. Nyx is a skilled assassin, but so is every other bel dame. She can seem manipulative and promiscuous or just comfortable and open with her sexuality, while Rhys seems prejudiced by religion at some points but admirably disciplined and committed at others. My point here is that these character feel real, feel human, because they’re too complex to be easily judged or categorised.

Similarly, Nasheen and Chenja do not fall into black and white categories of utopia and dystopia. Women may have more freedom in Nasheen, but Rhys notes, with sadness, that they have old widows begging in the streets and young women fighting in boxing matches for money. And if women are disempowered by religion in Chenja, in Nasheen it is men who are treated like second-class citizens. Nasheen is also rife with racism – the citizens are not white, but they’re more fair-skinned than Chenjans like Rhys, who is beaten up and discriminated against by Nasheenian women because of his dark skin.

I found the contrast between the two societies fascinating, but I have one criticism – Rhys is the only devout main character, so most of the theology in the novel comes from him. He speaks about both Chenja and Nasheen, but is obviously biased towards his own nation. There is no real voice for Nasheenian theology, which would be so much more interesting because the way they practice Islam is so different. Nyx is a major Nasheenian voice in the novel, but as an atheist she has nothing to say about the way her society reconciles their practices with their religion.

However, there is some compensation in the relationship between Nyx and Rhys, which was one of my favourite things about the novel. They disagree about most things and don’t really get along – he thinks she’s a violent, crude, godless woman, and she thinks he’s a weak, pious dope. Their conversations often include an interesting clash of ideas. Nevertheless, each finds inexplicable solace in the other:

The same woman who could cut the head off a man with a dagger in sixty seconds could ease his mind in the face of a thousand angry Nasheenian women. She could banish all thoughts of God, of submission. Some days she made him feel like an insect, a roach, the worst thing to crawl across the world. And then there were times, like now, when she brought him a stillness he had known only with his forehead pressed to a pray rug.

Nyx is also calmed by Rhys – there are a few instances when she’s stressed or scared and asks him to read to her. She doesn’t like what he reads (poetry or the Quran) but she finds his voice soothing. There isn’t any romance here, just a strange kind of friendship between two people who don’t really want to be friends.

The only real shortcoming of this novel is that the plot doesn’t live up to the brilliant opening lines, and it pales in comparison to other aspects of the book. It’s quite slow, plodding along in the background while culture and character dominate the foreground. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but while some novels are written with plot as a minor feature, this one felt more like the plot was meant to be a strong element but failed. It’s only in the last quarter or so that plot comes to the fore and drives the story. The rest of the time I found it vague and largely uninteresting.

On the bright side, there is a fair bit of intrigue that I’m hoping will be more thoroughly explored in the sequels Infidel (01/10/2011) and Rapture (due 06/11/2012). The alien woman that Nyx and Rhys have to track down is actually human, but is considered alien because she is from another colonised planet, and her pale skin sets her apart from the Umaymans. It’s implied early on that these ‘aliens’ are from a Christian society and there’s a suggestion that Umayma is not the only planet where humans are fighting a religious war. This raises a lot of questions about the nature of the human race when it left Earth to colonise other planets, not to mention the future of Umayma when Islam isn’t the only theory of God being fought over.

God’s War almost instantly got me interested in reading the rest of the Bel Dame Apocrypha series. It combines many of the things I’m most interested in – science fiction, religion, gender, sexuality and good writing – and although I thought the plot could have been stronger, the characters and world-building more than made up for that. I’d recommend this to all sci fi fans, not just because it’s such a damn good book, but also because it brings some variety to a very western, male-dominated genre.


Buy a copy of God’s War at The Book Depository

Nekropolis by Maureen F. McHugh

Title: Nekropolis
Author: Maureen F. McHugh
Publisher: Eos
Publication date: 21 August 2001
My Rating: 6/10

Nekropolis is an unusal sci fi novel. The setting is 22nd century Morocco, but the culture is that of a timeless Islamic state. Aside from a few technological advances, the society of Maureen F. Mchugh’s novel is little different from the Islamic states of the past and present – it’s theocratic, harbours deep sexual divisions, inequality and repression, and shuns the western world, from which it has remained largely isolated.

Various forms of slavery are still permitted, as in the case of the protagonist Hariba, a young woman who feels she has no chance of getting married and thus makes the decision to get herself “jessed” – implanted with biotechnology that makes her loyal to her master. Although the practice is illegal in many societies, here it is validated by a verse in the Koran. Hariba gets paid for her work as a servant, but she is also owned by her master, and running away has potentially fatal consequences, as her body will revolt against the disloyalty.

Which is exactly what happens when Hariba falls in love with one of society’s other slaves – a harni named Akhmim. Harnis are artifical human beings, designed to serve human needs, available to be bought and sold, discriminated against for not being truly human even though, physically, there’s no difference. Because he’s not considered human and therefore isn’t considered truly male either, Akhmim is allowed access to the women’s quarters of the wealthy household in which Hariba works, and the shy, conservative servant girl slowly grows attached to the warm, gentle harni. But when they decide to run away together it becomes painfully clear that love is not enough to overcome the social, personal and biological boundaries existing between them.

The story is told by four different narrators – Hariba, Akhmim, Hariba’s mother and Hariba’s best friend Ayesha. Each of them offer distinct, compelling perspectives on the story, the society it’s set in and each other.  Together they bring a variety of themes to the novel – love, gender, motherhood, friendship – and while the narrative is slow and melancholy it is also a rich, living, breathing tale. As you might have guessed, there isn’t much focus on the science-fictional aspects of the story – technologies like jessing and harnis; the transition from present to future. These things exist in the background, providing the structure for the story and most importantly, the characters.

Nevertheless, as the most sci-fi-ish character in the story, I found Akhmim’s perspective to be the most interesting. He gives us a glimpse of life as a harni. It’s a tragic existence – harni like Akhmim are designed with a dependence on physical contact with other harni, but because they are used as slaves they’re usually forced to live separately. Even the comforts of human contact are unavailable to him, because he lives in a society where men and women are separated, where it’s inappropriate to even hug a woman in public let alone in private, and homosexual behaviour is obviously outlawed. In a sense, it’s impossible for Akhmim to be happy in any way that’s considered legal or even socially acceptable and thus it’s inevitable that he comes to live outside of Morocco’s legal boundaries.

Akhmim  is also designed to put the needs of humans before his own – a fact that’s constantly hovering over his relationship with Hariba. Does he truly love her and care for her, or is it just his biology? Despite being artifical though, Akhmim is the most open-minded, loving character and thus easily became my favourite.

Hariba, her mother, and Ayesha are complex, multifaceted characters, but easier to dislike in their conservatism. It hurts to see the open, friendly Akhmim ignored or berated when he tries to speak to Ayesha or Hariba in public, and Hariba’s mother’s ethical debates with herself regarding the son and daughter who have broken the laws of God and society seem so devoid of love and compassion at times that I wanted to scream at her. But don’t let this put you off; I think McHugh does an elegant job of crafting characters in a society such as this. It’s easier to put rebellious characters in an oppressive society and let them voice the criticisms that most readers would be ready to utter themselves. The beauty of Nekropolis is its ability to make you empathise with characters that frustrate and anger you, the ones who can’t or won’t do what you want them to.

To the novel’s credit, it isn’t as loudly critical of Islamic society as one might expect in a novel by an American author. Religion and culture exist largely in the background of the story in the same way that the futuristic technology does, providing context rather than content. Of course, the characters do struggle with the laws and conventions of society – all them violate the law in some way, for love, family, friendship, happiness while social and religious conventions create constant difficulties for them.  But for the most part the characters accept their society as is and their revolts are more personal than political. No one gets up on a soapbox to give a speech about oppression or religion. No one needs to, because the actions of the characters and the events of the novel speak for themselves.

On the other hand, one the reasons I only gave this book a 6/10 is the portrayal of Western society If McHugh seemed relatively subtle when we’re in Morocco, the tables are turned when it’s compared with a western society. Akhmim and Hariba escape to Spain in what is now known as the ECU, and it is a essentially a social utopia that admits to none of the problems of the western world while making Morocco look like a backward little dump shunning the beautiful light of the modern world. Had McHugh employed a more balanced view, I would have awarded this novel an extra star.

Nekropolis also lost a star for a more subjective reason – it wasn’t the greatest read. I’m by no means averse to slow, contemplative novels, but the best of those leave me in pensive awe, while this evokes something more like a shrug of mild admiration. I wasn’t bored, but anything more than 6 stars feels unfair.

Nevertheless, it’s unusual to find a sci fi novel set in a non-western society such as this, and that alone is reason to check Nekropolis out, in my opinion. As a fan of sci fi, I am often more interested in the way technology affects characters and societies than I am in the technology itself, and Nekropolis certainly caters to that. Those who like their sf on the harder side probably won’t enjoy it, but for those who prefer cross-genre fiction or who seldom read sci fi but enjoy historical or travel fiction, Nekropolis could be a valuable read.

The Book Ferret: The Women of Science Fiction Bookclub

TJ at the speculative fiction blog Dreams & Speculation is hosting a 2011 bookclub/reading challenge focusing on The Women of Science Fiction. The bookclub will read one book and one or two James Tiptree Jr. short stories per month. If you want to participate you can sign up here – it’s not necessary, since you could just follow the discussions on the blog, but TJ is offering prizes and giveaways to those who do sign-up, so why not take her up on that?

I studied a bit of feminist sci fi at university, but since then I’ve neglected the genre, so this opportunity inspired me to get reacquainted with the writers and heroines I admire so much. In addition, I’ve got a bit of a reading challenge addiction, and this is undoubtedly the best one I’ve signed up for so far, as it’s not just a reading guide but a chance to discuss and discover insights to some great sci fi.

The reading list for the year is as follows:

For ease of reference, you can download a .pdf version of the reading list

The bookclub will also be reading the James Tiptree Jr. short stories collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Tiptree isn’t just one of the best feminist sci fi writers, she’s one of my favourite sci fi writers in general, and my favourite short story writer, period. Consequently I’m very happy to get a chance to read, re-read, discuss and contemplate her stories in detail throughout the year. You can find the short story reading schedule on the sign-up page for the bookclub/challenge

The short story discussions will begin in the middle of each month, while the novel discussions will begin on the last day of each month. From what I could surmise from my exploration of Dreams and Speculation, TJ is a very attentive and insightful blogger who engages regularly and comprehensively with those who comment, plus she’s got plenty of followers, so I think this could be a very rewarding bookclub.

And if your preference is for fantasy rather than sci fi, don’t despair! There’s a bookclub for you too – Jawas Read Too! is hosting The Women of Fantasy bookclub for 2011. If I have the time, I’ll be joining that one too.

The Book Ferret is a weekly feature on Violin in a Void that will showcase a cool or interesting book-related find every Thursday. Notable new releases, great bookshops, events, cover art, websites, gadgets and accessories – anything to make bookworms happy.

If you want to join in, grab the Ferret pic, link it and your post back here, and add your name and url to the comments.

Can the burqa ban promote gender equality?

Yesterday the French parliament voted on and approved a contentious bill banning citizens from covering their faces in public. That’s the official description, but around the world it’s become known as “the burqa ban” as if effectively targets the minority of French Muslim women who veil their faces when in public. It’s another bold step in a secular movement that saw the banning of headscarves and other religious symbols in French schools. If the bill is passed by Senate in September, it will become law, making it illegal for Muslim women to wear burqas.

 A variety of reasons have been cited for the ban: security purposes, the improved integration of immigrants into French society, gender equality, the preservation of French secular values. Those who object to the ban argue that it will further stigmatize and marginalise Muslim minorities and that it violates women’s rights to personal freedom and freedom of expression. Legal authorities have pointed out that the ban may be unconstitutional.

My concern regarding this issue is a predominantly feminist one: is an official ban on the burqa an effective means of promoting gender equality? Or is it a form of discrimination in itself, exacerbating the prejudice against Muslims and Islamic culture as well as violating women’s rights to individual choice and freedom of expression?

 If the burqa were merely a personal fashion preference – whatever the wearer’s reasons behind it – I would argue that a ban is ludicrous and unconstitutional. Governments should not be able to tell people what to wear, except perhaps in terms of certain (debatable) standards of common decency. A reasonable exception in terms of face coverings would be in places where security requires that the face be revealed, such as in banks, airports, and casinos.

However, the burqa is not just a sartorial option. It embodies the ideology of hijab which views female sexuality and the female body as corrupting and therefore dangerous. Women must therefore be covered in public to protect themselves, men, and society as a whole from the morally degrading influence of their bodies.

Coincidentally, I recently read Women and Islam (also known as The Veil and the Male Elite) by Fatima Mernissi. She provides a historical analysis of hijab and the status of women in Islam, pointing out that Muhammad believed very strongly in sexual equality and his behaviour reflected this. His wives were active in political and religious life, and he often turned to them for guidance. Muhammad also had an open attitude to sexuality and sexual practice (within marriage anyway). Mernissi often notes the fact that Muhammad’s wife ‘A’isha had quarters leading directly off from the mosque, and Muhammad often went straight from her bedroom to his prayers.

Unfortunately, most of Muhammad’s Companions did not share his egalitarian attitude and did not want to follow his example in the way they treated their wives. They had come from misogynist cultures, and while they accepted most of Islamic doctrine, they objected to its interference in their relationships with women, especially such things as a woman’s right to inherit. In pre-Islamic Arab cultures, women were often treated as objects and constituted part of a man’s wealth. Because Islam treated women as individuals and gave them the right to inherit, the new religion robbed male Arabs of a large portion of their wealth and thus their power. It’s not hard to understand why they objected strongly to women’s rights, and consequently, how the hijab achieved such power within Islamic societies.

Mernissi analyses the famous hijab verse in the Qur’an, stating that it was not an injunction on women to cover up, but rather about creating privacy for Muhammad and his wives. The verse was recited at a time when Medina was on the brink of civil war and in addition many people had questions about the new religion. As God’s messenger, Muhammad was constantly harassed by the public, even in his home, hence the need for some privacy.

The demand that women cover themselves was made in a similar social context. The city was very unstable, trying to cope with conversion to a new religion that promised a better life but had also brought the threat of war to the city gate. Women were being harassed in the streets, sometimes as part of a political campaign against Muhammad. The men who harassed women claimed that they thought they were slaves. Muhammad’s Companions suggested the women cover themselves as a sign of status for the sake of protection. Muhammad was opposed to this, as it contradicted both sexual and social equality. Unfortunately though, he was getting old, he had serious social problems on his hands, so he gave in to his Companions.

Mernissi argues that this was the downfall of women’s rights in Islamic society. The hijab actually legitimates the sexual harassment of women, because it becomes a woman’s responsibility to cover up, not a man’s responsibility to treat women with respect. The unveiled woman becomes a legitimate target for sexual harassment and abuse. In addition, the pre-Islamic, pagan fears of female sexuality as corrupting or polluting survived and dominated the religion’s more egalitarian ideas. The hijab also legitimates the abuse of slaves, which again is a pre-Islamic, unegalitarian belief. Ironically, Mernissi says, the veiled woman has become the symbol of Islam, and yet hijab represents the failure of Islam to overcome pagan beliefs or instill social equality.

Mernissi’s book was a very informative perspective on hijab, but even with this in mind the question of the burqa ban is difficult to answer. There are women who want to wear burqas and whatever their beliefs, I believe in individual choice and I won’t say flat out that they should not be allowed to wear them.

I think what’s more important is that hijab ceases to be a moral requirement or obligation for women in Islam. My conviction is that hijab is a tool of sexual discrimination that itself is veiled in excuses about protecting women and preserving their purity. I have heard many Muslims, male and female, argue that the scarf and the veil protect women from the gaze of men who see them as sexual objects. However, that very idea of the protective veil implies that a woman IS a sexual object. They need to cover themselves because their bodies can ONLY be interpreted in sexual terms. In addition the idea of a protective veil implies that men have so little control over their sexual impulses that the sight of a woman’s hair, or the definition of her figure in fitted clothing drives them into a sexual frenzy. Any crime they then commit against unveiled women could be excused by a lack of control over their actions – a case of temporary insanity caused by the victim herself.

This is a problem that exists within Islam and Islamic society and it should be addressed as such. What is needed is a reform in the way Islam views female bodies and female sexuality. I doubt that a legal ban on the burqa could achieve this. Whether it is appropriate or not, the burqa is considered a symbol of Islam. Banning it will no doubt be interpreted as an attack on Muslims and their religion, and an issue that should be about women’s rights could easily be overshadowed by a debate on religious tolerance. This is not to say that the ban is simply wrong. It’s a criticism of what many see as an oppressive religious practice, and no religion should be protected from legitimate critique. Lets just hope that this particular critique marks the beginning of reform in Islam rather than reinforcing the “us vs. them” mentality that many already adopt.

Why can’t more ‘chick lit’ be like this? Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying

In a recent reading challenge, I read a chick lit novel whose idea of feminism was to avoid men and portray women as either victims of their unhappy marriages or single and thus empowered to almost mythical proportions. Whatever its noble intentions it made feminism look like a new age joke. The best thing I can say about it is that it made me long for something far bolder, more complex, and better written. I’d had Fear of Flying on my shelf for a few years and had started it a few times without finishing. Now I found myself in the ideal circumstances to really enjoy it.

Fear of Flying has a chick lit plot pulled off with more flair, honesty and insight than that normally fluffy genre seems able to muster. Or rather, the novel feels like the strong origins of a genre that has since become watered down and weak. Isadora Wing is frustrated by her unhappy marriage to Bennett and longs for the elusive ‘zipless fuck’ – a ‘pure’ sexual encounter, an indulgence without strings, without power games. She thinks she may have found one in Adrian Goodlove, but in pursuing him she has to face her titular fear of flying – both a literal fear and a fear of freedom, of being single. As imperfect as her marriage might be, Isadora clings to its security and is not devoid of feelings of love and loyalty to Bennett. Also, she is more dependent on men than she would like to be:

“All my fantasies included marriage. No sooner did I imagine myself running away from one man than I envisaged myself tying up with another. I was like a boat that always had to have a port of call. I simply couldn’t imagine myself without a man. Without one I felt lost as a dog without a master; rootless, faceless, undefined” (78).

And it’s true – without a man she does lack definition, at least for herself (less so for the reader). She’s dreamed of finding “a perfect man whose mind and body were equally fuckable” (91) and in this seemingly impossible search for love she’s avoided defining her own identity and desires. “In the mornings,” Adrian tells her at one point, “I can never remember your name” (227).

This seems odd for the narrator of a feminist classic, but this is part of what interests me about Isadora – she’s a mass of contradictions and conflicts. What she has learned from her mother (who is indulgent and loving yet blames Isadora’s existence for her failure to become an artist) is that “being a woman meant being harried, frustrated, and always angry. It meant being split into two irreconcilable halves” (148). However liberated, Isadora has still grown up in a sexist society and been influenced by its dysfunctional ideals. In addition, she happens to be a lustful, heterosexual woman. She’s been a feminist all her life, she says, “but the big problem was how to make your feminism jibe with your unappeasable hunger for male bodies” (88). She wants to be married, but she also sees all the flaws in marriage. Currently, she’s torn between the dull security of her marriage to Bennett and the unstable excitement of an affair with Adrian. Having both passion and security, it seems, is too much to ask. Isadora (like Jong) is also a writer who has struggled for years to find the confidence and discipline to turn her craft into a profession. She may be intelligent and educated, but she can also be terribly immature and irrational. She’s not a heroine I’d aspire to be but I admire the fact that she articulates and struggles with her conflicts, and this is where the novel has its greatest strengths – it’s sincere and insightful in depicting dilemmas some women struggle with.

Jong pulls this off with witty, energetic writing. I love close psychological studies of characters and this one is as fun and inspiring as I’d hoped it to be, rather than being whiny like the watered-down ‘feminism’ of the chick-lit that led me here. However, it occasionally gets slow and dull. Fear of Flying is obviously semi-autobiographical, and Jong seems determined to show off Isadora’s – and by extension her own – intellectual prowess. There is far too much name-dropping and the narrative sometimes gets held up by history lessons, travel impressions and psychoanalysis lectures. This isn’t entirely irrelevant, but it can get long-winded. “I know you’re smart and educated,” I want to say, “so could you cut this short and get back to your sex life?”

This is not because Fear of Flying is a particularly raunchy book. It’s often fun, yes, but it’s the kind of amusement you get from witty rants. The book is about sex, not of it. It’s unabashedly graphic when talking about sexual relationships, but with the exception of the ‘zipless fuck’ fantasy in the first chapter, the sex scenes are brief and perfunctory, not naughty deviations from the plot.

The story follows Isadora across Europe as she vacillates between Bennett and Adrian, and regularly turns to the past as befits the psychoanalytic theme that runs through the novel. We learn about Isadora’s family life, sexual encounters, affairs, therapists, her career, and her first marriage (to a genius who unfortunately turned out to be a lunatic).

Overall I found it inspiring, not because it offers solutions (it doesn’t), not because I thought all Isadora’s problems applied to me or women in general, but because she is sincere and often funny in articulating them, she’s honest about her cowardice, but she also makes the effort to engage the conflicts she finds herself in. It’s the kind of book that promises rewarding rereads, and I’ll definitely return to it.