Sunday, 30 July 2006

Rape in Science Fiction Reading zuzu's complaint about the attention a rape inevitably focuses on everyone but the perpetrator reminded me of something I'd drafted a few months back but didn't post. At the time, I'd just written about rape in comic books literature and didn't want to seem fixated on the subject. I also didn't want to put Adam Roberts—author of the novel I'll be discussing—on the spot. But with Adam vacationing in the southern France and the other post nestled in the archives, I feel more comfortable starting this discussion. Adam's novel Salt describes the colonization of a distant planet by religious fundamentalists. Getting to that planet takes 37 years, during which time tensions between the different religious factions build. After landing, the factions settle on opposite ends of the Great Desert. Despite this distance, the Senaarians—a hierarchical, imperialistic culture—and the Alsists—a radically libertarian culture which, oddly, embraces a recognizably New Left strain of communistic thought—eventually come into conflict. For the first 226 pages, the novel switches from the self-hagiography of the Senaarian dictator, Barlei, and the man who would become a leader in the Alsist resistance, Petja.1 Initially, Barlei's voice dominates, and so the reader's sympathies fall largely with the Senaarians, who seem to lodge just complaints against the free-loading Alsists. Barlei will wax poetic for pages about how the Senaarians labored to find a way to move in open air despite the chlorine gas which hugs the planet's surface; whereas Petja will say "Our solution to the chlorine problem was a mini-mask. It was a clever thing" (43). Knowing Adam's love of Robert Browning, I can't help but consider these dualing dialogues—presumably drawn from the memoirs of both men—as self-serving in the extreme. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but I doubt it. Barlei seems more trustworthy at first, but as his manipulations of even inconsequential truths begin to pile up, his revisionist ethos becomes increasingly troubling. Chapter-by-chapter, the reader's sympathies drift to Petja and his open, non-hierarchical, sexually-liberated society. And when I say "sexually-liberated," I mean it. Alsists frequently walk up to each other, ask if they desire sexual pleasure, and give and/or receive it. As one might guess, this utopian version of the free-love movement is reviled and condemned by the strict law-and-orderists of Senaar. But it works in Als. Everyone seems happy with the hedonistic gender equity they've created. As the details of Alsist life are revealed, Barlei's voice and the strictures it demands become increasingly strident. Here, then, is where the reader's sympathies turn to the Alsist position. (They're the Palestinians in this allegory.) But there's a catch. A Senaarian ambassador is stranded in Als when the war begins. Petja, about to leave Als to wander the Great Desert, agrees to ferry her into Senaarian territory. At this point in the novel, all reader sympathy is with Petja and the Alsists. The Senaarians inch closer to employing a flimsy pretext to invade and slaughter the Alsists, so as Petja leaves, reader sympathy lies almost exclusively...

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