Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Dreamsnake's distancing

Vonda N. McIntyre's Dreamsnake is, as Joanna Russ points out in a quote on the back cover of the copy I read, "that rare thing, a tender and compassionate adventure story." Tender and compassionate, yes: it is about care, for self and others; about the formation of a family of choice (there must be a name for this genre, but I don't know what it is); about the attempt to be a good person and to lead a worthwhile life in a future world both more and less conducive to this attempt than our contemporary one. An adventure story, yes: it tells, after all, of the journey of a woman across deserts and mountains in search of a treasure of a very personal sort--where the personal is, as feminists say, the political.

And here is a problem, potentially an enormous one: how to resolve the conflict between the adventure story on the one hand, and the radically political on the other? For the conflict is real, and enormous.

Samuel R. Delany (it is difficult for me to get through a post without citing Delany and/or Russ), in the essay titled "Quarks" in its Jewel-Hinged Jaw reprint (where it has been cobbled together from editorial notes in various volumes of his and Marilyn Hacker's anthology series, Quark), considers the fact that the sf of the 1950s, written off as "lunatic and not to be taken seriously," was one of the very few places in the culture in which serious critique of the prevailing power structure was allowed (and, indeed, flourished), acknowledging that despite this political commitment the "rather cavalier insult" is to a certain extent justified:

Within the aesthetic structure laid out by "the adventure story" it is impossibe to produce a politically dangerous fiction, no matter how revolutionary the proposed world is, no matter what evils the hero is faced with, nor how congruent they are to the present ones.

The efficacy of "political" fiction, from the point of view of the body politic, is measured precisely in terms of real action it can cause . . . and presumably becomes dangerous when somebody notices this action. The adventure, with its building tensions suddenly relieved, its preoccupation with the physical rather than the psychological, its linearity, simply doesn't leave enough residue of discomfort in the mind to precipitate action. This is what dooms a social criticism set in this form to political inconsequence....

One's only objections to science fiction "of value as social criticism" is precisely that it failed to be dangerous, because of an aesthetic choice by the authors deferring to "popular entertainment."

Delany concludes his essay with a passionate argument for literary experimentation in sf as not only an aesthetic necessity but a political one as well. This, I find, resonates. (I do have my disagreements with some of what he says here, but that is probably best left for some hypothetical future time.)

His primary intention regarding the adventure story is to advise against it, but a restructuring of the adventure story, perhaps in the hands of someone more dedicated to the task than Delany feels able to be,* might answer his complaints just as well as a departure from it. This, it seems to me, is what McIntyre did in Dreamsnake.

*For his may be a more self-directed critique than he realized; in 1969, as he wrote, his rapid-fire string of always (and increasingly) strange but nevertheless recognizable adventure novels--nine published between 1962 and 1968--had come to a stop and he was clearly in a creative crisis; aside from his first venture into pornography (Equinox, aka The Tides of Lust, which I have not yet read and so cannot comment on) he would publish no more long fiction until 1975's sudden Dhalgren and Triton--both definitive rejections of the adventure story structure.

In fact as she avoids the pitfalls of the adventure structure, she also (for the most part) avoids those of the "tenderness" Russ notes. For "tenderness" can easily slide over into that terrible thing, "sentimentality"--a word which, if I can attempt to rescue it from its general use as a boo-word by which men can dismiss women's writing they otherwise can find nothing wrong with, I might define as indicating writing which encourages the reader to identify uncomplicatedly with the emotions of the characters it describes, forgetting that, in that great Modernist phrase, "it's just a book," which in turn leads right back to...all the problems Delany discusses with the adventure story--which is, finally, for all the attempts to genderize the word, an extremely sentimental genre.

So McIntyre writes tenderly of adventure, but without* aesthetically and ethically dangerous sentimentality--but how? Well, the title of the post gives away how I would answer that question--or rather a part of how I would answer the question, because this is a complex novel, one which does not simply do any one thing. But this narrative distance that I am going to discuss is one method by which McIntyre maintains the very delicate, but very real, integrity of her work.

*Again, for the most part. The concluding pages of the novel slide over into an unfortunate simplicity, one which for me contradicts all that comes before them; one has the feeling that McIntyre found herself without a solid conclusion to her novel and, at this still relatively early stage in her writing career, could not find it in herself to give in fully to inconclusiveness.

Those who have read the novel may find it odd to hear me talking about narrative distance in it. Dreamsnake is incredibly intimate, emotional; it is both Romantic and romantic, in many ways. Its central figure, the healer Snake, is the kind of character one would not be surprised to hear readers talking about as though she were a personal friend. Young people could do far worse than to choose her as a role model. She is a textbook "well rounded" and "likable" character, admirable and brave, kind and goodhearted and so forth, but flawed enough to remain believable; creative writing workshops would be very pleased with her. All this is not a bad thing (and is very difficult to do in itself), but again it does skirt all the problems discussed above, and all good Modernists would do well to be skeptical.

There is another view of Snake, one which, were it ours, would be equally problematic. For most of the other characters in the novel, she is a figure of mystery, reverence, fear, and/or longing: an image, an ideal, rather than a person. We are given a more human look at her than this, one that does not allow or encourage us to feel this way about her, and yet we see these other characters reacting to her this way over and over again, which for me at least creates one of those Russ-ian moments of being simultaneously pulled in and pushed out, suspension of disbelief fluctuating, subjunctivity wavering: we are distanced from the world through which we are being led, but perhaps brought closer to the woman we are following through it.

But--and this is for me the essential point--never too close. For even in McIntyre's chosen narrative voice, the third person omniscient which places us very intimately, and for the most part only, within Snake's thoughts, we are never actually allowed to fully "enter" her--and yes, I am aware of the potential creepy sexual implications of using that word.

As so often, I seem to have gotten to a point in my essay where I just want to say QED, but I know nothing's been demonstrated. But all that's left, really, is a list of examples of the ways in which McIntyre does all this: how on very rare occasions we'll suddenly pop over to another character's storyline (always Arevin's) for a brief portion of a chapter; how we in fact first see Snake's home with Arevin rather than with Snake herself; how generic expectations (the Wizard of Oz quest, the man-coming-to-the-woman's-rescue, etc.) are continually raised and frustrated; how, very tellingly, Snake's arthritis comes as something of a surprise more than halfway through the book.

I say "very tellingly" on this last because it is an indication of the extreme degree to which we are not allowed into Snake's body, which considering that another of the things that Dreamsnake is "about" is a very feminist perspective on responsible personal autonomy within society is not insignificant. And perhaps one reason why the sentimental genres discussed above are so antithetical to true radicalism, one reason why they cannot lead to any "real action" (or more to the point, why the "real action" they do lead to might not be so great) is that they present in their very structure the notion that we can, and should, feel free to enter into the bodies of the characters depicted in them, without questioning this ability or this right, and without creating awareness of the difference between characters and people.

Uh, QED?

P.S. Whenever I feel up to it--and I will have to feel up to it, because it is a massive and extremely important subject--I will be writing a "how to suppress women's writing"-style post about the explosion of feminist and other women's sf in the 1970s, and the male backlash against it starting in the early 1980s. When I do so, I may be examining Dreamsnake again, as it is a text central to both parts of the story. I say this partly to disclaim again that I by no means think that I have come close to a comprehensive discussion of this novel. I don't want to give the appearance of being--and, more so!, don't want to be--one of those dudes who elides the feminism from feminist works.

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