Science Fiction is possibly the sexist of all the literary genres.
Although academics argue about the birth of the genre, some citing Gilgamesh, whilst others clutch at straws from the Mahabharatha, most of us will bypass Thomas Moore’s sixteenth century Utopia, ignore the new worlds discovered in Gulliver’s Travels, and plot a course for the birth of the genre with the 1818 publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Is Frankenstein science fiction? Well, it’s a narrative driven by the technological and scientific advances that could make the impossible possible. Is Frankenstein sexist? Well, we have a male scientist wanting to ‘give birth’ to a man of his own creation. That’s not exactly empowering the feminine. By denying woman her rightful place as natural life-giver, Victor Frankenstein is trying to upset the natural order of all humanity. If he’d got his way, and man had been able to create life without need for woman, who would be left to sleep in the damp spot?
Some argue that Shelley’s prototypical science-fiction novel is feminist. But the truth is we have a story of man trying to beget man without female involvement. It is a story where man creates a female creature for the male creature he has created. It is a story where the man kills the creature’s female. And it is a story where the creature kills Victor Frankenstein’s wife. If there is a feminist message behind Shelley’s Frankenstein it is simply that we live in a man’s world where women are either owned or pawned.
I’ve underlined the phrase Man’s World here because that’s the title of the book I am about to get round to reviewing.
So, if we accept that Frankenstein sets a premise for sexism in science fiction, we can also see that this sexism remains a common motif in the genre. Jules Verne excited his readers with titillating stories about masculine adventures onboard phallic shaped submarines. HG Wells wrote about The Invisible Man and The First Men in the Moon. Even when Wells was writing about The Time Machine we note that it was driven by a man. This is probably because it was perceived a woman wouldn’t be able to parallel park the time machine once it reached its destination.
And so the sexism trend continued into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with stories and films that feature phallic-shaped rockets, driven by men who are boldly going where no man has gone before. In truth, the one time a Star Trek spaceship was piloted by a woman it seems she got lost and spent the entire series trying to find a shortcut home.
All of which is mentioned to show that it’s not just a man’s world: it’s a man’s universe. Nevertheless, because Angela Caperton’s excellent book is entitled Man’s World, it might be fair to concede that the man’s universe is made up of many different man’s worlds. And Caperton’s novel takes place on one particular man’s world: the planet of Moulton.
As it says in the blurb for this title:
The battle of the sexes is millennia old, and the subject can be found all throughout humanity's literature. That this perennial topic of Golden Age science fiction should carry over into erotica is a no-brainer, but rarely has it been given as exciting or humorous a treatment as it has in Man's World by Angela Caperton, the latest novel from Circlet Press.
And the story does cover a battle of the sexes. Caperton’s hero is Stella Blue Darter, a courtesan and the ultimate in commodifiable female finesse. In many ways Stella’s prostitution liberates her, gives her financial, spiritual and emotional independence. However, because she’s selling sex to men (or, ostensibly male life forms) this means her femininity is ultimately subordinate to the masculine. And, rather than me spoil the promise of this title with my overly wordy thoughts on feminism, I’ll let Caperton show you her style with this paragraph.
He cupped her breast, bold and quietly demanding more and she acceded without thought, sliding her body against his. He smelled like musk and good spices with just a hint of the burning oil smell that permeated everything. She found she didn’t mind it on him at all.
"You’ve been with a man before, right?” he asked and she loved him for asking.
"Yes,” she answered simply and kissed his throat, her fingers working at the buttons on his shirt.
He lowered the straps of her dress and pulled it from her shoulders, kissing her lips, then her neck, apparently surprised at how easily her garment fell away, leaving her in her bra and panties, almost chill in the cool evening.
Man’s World follows Stella’s adventures as she drifts onto the planet of Moulton, a planet governed by a traditional patriarchal hegemony but on the verge of a female uprising. All together, as the brief sample above shows, Man’s World is a fun romp through unexplored corners of the galaxy, with Caperton treating the reader to out of this world sex. Whilst this title does little to redress the inherent sexism within science fiction, its strength lies in the fact that it embraces this inequality to tell a ripping, raunchy space yarn.
Zenthe is the Earth Mother, the supreme Goddess of fertility and desire. Zenthe is also the volcano that towers over the far-flung lands of Corsinium, from the lush fields of Margate to the desert frontiers at Damtown. The dark waters of Zenthe’s Mirror, the bottomless lake that half-fills the crater, reflect the gleaming spires and halls of her centuries-old temple perched along the volcano’s rim. Within the temple, High Priestess Adita, the latest ever-young incarnation of Zenthe, presides over orgiastic rituals of fleshy bliss and waits for the one true Lover who will claim her forever. Adita struggles against loneliness, resisting the despair that has been the downfall of so many of her predecessors. Meanwhile, the rising power of a violent, paternalistic faith threatens to subjugate and destroy the Goddess and her people.
In Woman of the Mountain, Angela Caperton has created a vividly sensual world maintained by an intriguing mythos. Woman of the Mountain is about religion and sex. It is also concerned with the feminine, nurturing principle, contrasted with the masculine instinct to conquer. As I am personally fascinated by the spiritual aspects of sex, I found Ms. Caperton’s thesis exciting. Unfortunately, she does not completely succeed in realizing the promise of her theme.
One problem (and I’m certain my readers will find this astonishing) is the fact that Woman of the Mountain includes too many sex scenes. Perhaps I should qualify this and say that the book contains too many scenes where the characters couple purely for immediate pleasure, without any deeper connection. In Zenthe’s world, sex should be a sacrament, but all too often, even among the folk of the temple, it seems to be no more than a recreation. Rarely is there a sense of reverence; a sense of communion in the flesh should sanctify Zenthe’s rites.
A second difficulty lies in the characters, who are generally too simple and one-sided to be realistic or to invite identification. Adita, in particular, seemed empty, a sketch of a woman who fills a necessary role in the plot but who never comes alive. Casmin, her loyal captain of the guard, has more depth, with his steadfast faith in the Goddess and his earthly but suppressed desire for Adita, but he is still the archetypal hero, with no flaws to make him real. The scheming, sexually opportunistic priestess Rivah was particularly disappointing. When we first meet her, she is an ambitious novice in Zenthe’s temple. There’s an almost childish glee in the manner with which she blackmails an older Priestess into granting her the boon of ordination. I was hoping that Rivah would prove to be a complex villain, or at least a powerful one. Ultimately, she turns out to be treacherous, but weak and uninteresting in her uninspired evil.
Perhaps the most successful character in this tale is Sul Tarkus, the prophet of the Father-God Kahmudj, leader of the hordes who lay siege to the holy mountain and the body of Adita. With his charisma and his fanatic certainty that he is the incarnation of his god, he is intensely believable (and indeed, familiar). When he finally stands face to face with Adita and is vanquished by his own doubts, the reader feels relief and joy, but also sympathy.
Woman of the Mountain is at its best in the scenes of high drama, when the mysteries of divine power are made manifest. When Sul Tarkus captures and opens the sacred floodgates on the River Sorrow, loosing the torrent to flow into the desert lands even as he dangles the sex-besotted Rivah above the abyss, I hardly dared to breath. I half-expected him to sacrifice her to his brutal god. I half-expected the power of Zenthe to rise in the traitorous priestess, calling her back to fulfill her long-ignored vows. When Sul Tarkus confronts Adita, alone at the pinnacle of Zenthe’s Needle, I knew that a miracle was imminent. And when the volcano/goddess belches lava and steam to fight off her attackers, I became a true believer.
All in all, I found Woman of the Mountain diverting but disappointing. The grand themes of sexual union as a sacrament, of devotion and sacrifice to a higher power, of love as a force transcending death and time, rise in the background, but they are obscured, like Zenthe’s face behind its seductive veil. I have the sense that Ms. Caperton wanted to write a different book, a book of erotic mysteries that celebrates the magic of the flesh. Of course, her audience may prefer the book that she actually produced, full of saucy wenches and lively, superficial rolls in the hay. As for me, I regret the loss of the vision that I sense behind this book, the hints of transcendence that are, for the most part, unrealized.