Apr. 21st, 2008

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One of my favourite books Of All Time is MZB's "The Saga of the Renunciates" which is actually three novels in one volume (and which I initially read in three volumes but that is neither here nor there).

It's on my "favourite books" list because it's the first book I remember read which makes what I think is a very important point. There are other books that make similar points, many are likely better written, less fanciful, more academic, and etc. etc. I have even read some of them. However this was the *first* I read (I was about 11 or 12) and it made an impression.

The novels have plot of course, but I'm not going to discuss the plot details; but you probably need some background to understand; so, these novels are set on "Darkover", which is an alien planet, they are on the boundary of SF and Fantasy (but probably more Fantasy because they are about People not Science, or something) some "Terrans" have shown up in their spaceships but the native Darkovans (who are human, as it happens) are living in your bog standard quasi-mediaeval fantasy world (which has some magic, which isn't very relevant). What most of the Darkover novels are about (as says MZB in the introduction to at least one of them) is the contrast between Darkovern society and Terran society; the conflicts that the contrasts cause and so on.

The "Renunciates" of the title of this trilogy are a society of women who have Renounced the traditional protections afforded to Darkovan women (such as being cared for by husband/father/brother and so on) in exchange for the freedom to run their own lives (Darkovan women get pretty much the same deal Mediaeval European women got, except for the part with the magic) some of these women Kick Butt professionally but not all of them, although they are all trained in Kicking Butt because on Darkover if you can't Kick Butt and don't have anyone to Kick Butt for you then you end up not being in control of your own life.

So what these books are about is the contrast between the way women live on Darkover and the way women live in the Terran Empire (which is a whole lot like 20th century Earth in terms of values and so on; except with spaceships and blaster guns). On the surface the most obvious thing to conclude is that Darkoven women have The Short End of the the Proverbial Stick - because, dur, Mediaeval society; but the thing that MZB does, that really affected me the first time I read this, and still does *every* time I read it - is to take the pov of a Darkovan woman and look through her eyes at why Terran women do *not* have the Long End, at the subtle ways that Terran women have it just as bad.

One of the interesting points (to me) is that in Darkovan society there is no pretence about equality for women - and women have the clear choice between doing what they are told and having the respect of society or of leaving that behind to get freedom for themselves. Whereas in the Terran society women supposedly have equality so they have much less ability to say "screw you guys, I'm outta here" because society would be more confused about why they felt that it was sexist.

Anyway, I think that's an important point about the Real World that I have to live in - that in spite of all our laws about equality and so forth that we *don't* have real equality, that a lot of people are still very sexist, and not always in obvious ways. And that sexism is (to me) much more harmful when it is subtle than when it is obvious - because obvious sexism is easier to shout back at whereas if you shout at someone for being subtly sexist then they are much more likely to claim that they have no idea what you are on about and so forth. And that inability to find an obvious entry point to start arguing back against that more subtle sort of sexism is something that leaves me feeling very trapped - that either I can just put up with all the shit that gets thrown at me; or I can try to fight back, fail miserably and be shouted at for daring to complain about "nothing".

I don't know whether I'm the only person who thinks these things about these books, maybe I am, certainly I'm not claiming to have read MZB's mind. Or maybe I'm just stating the Extremely Obvious. I don't know.

I also think that it is important that these novels have Women Who Kick Butt in them - something sadly lacking in most fantasy novels, especially in those that strive to be more realistic than a D&D campaign. It's an issue I think she handles very well - that of teaching women who are conditioned to rely on men for protection to learn to protect themselves. Some of the characters take the mercenary work like ducks to water, some don't - to me, much more realistic than a bunch of Warrior Women all of whom really like kicking arse. Again these were pretty much the first fantasy books I read where the women didn't just sit around waiting to be rescued but did some of their own fighting - and they are much more realistic than (also cool) things like Xena. (and yes, I have since read much other really cool, shiny fantasy with excellent women - but they still right the bad sort :( )

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