I read this while I was at horse camp, where I found it on the shelf and picked it up because I had enjoyed some of Friesner’s comic fantasy when I was in high school. (She is probably best-known for the “Chicks in Chained Mail” series.) This was not comic. I read it in mounting amazement, recounted plot points to a fascinated [personal profile] coraa ([personal profile] coraa: “And then they ate her?” Me: “No, the cannibals show up later.”), and then promptly forgot about it entirely until it came up in conversation recently.

It is a feminist dystopia, which is a genre which has thankfully become less popular of late, but was relatively common up to about fifteen years ago. I’m not saying that it’s a bad genre. Many examples are good. But they are nearly universally awesomely depressing, often with addition Cement Truck depressingness slapped on to an already inherently depressing set-up, and if you read too many of them in a row, you will get the impression that the future is wall-to-wall rape, broken up by cannibalism, oppressive religion, slavery, and sex with horses.

(Before I go any further, I have to note that the book with horse bestiality is not only one of the well-written ones, but is, remarkably, not awesomely depressing. (Though it’s the second in a series of four, and the first one is.) The society of hard-riding lesbian clones for whom sex with horses is necessary to make the parthenogenesis work is surprisingly functional, and the characters even sometimes have fun. But it’s impossible to have a discussion about feminist dystopias without someone saying, “And then there’s the horse cock book!”

Those books are by Suzy McKee Charnas, and if you can get past the slavery and the horse sex, they are actually quite good. The third and fourth books are about rebuilding society, which is an unusual topic and one I like quite a bit.

The Slave and The Free: Books 1 and 2 of 'The Holdfast Chronicles': 'Walk to the End of the World' and 'Motherlines'

The Furies (The Holdfast Chronicles, Book 3)

The Conqueror's Child (The Holdfast Chronicles, Book 4))

I also read I Who Have Never Known Men, in which women are locked up for no reason, then an apocalypse happens and kills all the men, and then everyone mopes around until the heroine, the last woman on earth, ironically gets cancer of the uterus that she never used, having never known men, and commits suicide, and, of course, The Handmaid's Tale (Everyman's Library). Sheri Tepper practically made a career out of writing feminist dystopias.

I read all these because at that time it was more-or-less possible to read all the sf that was published that year or at least was available where I was, and I did. They did not make me feel like the future was anything to look forward to.

On to Esther “Chicks in Chainmail” Friesner’s cannibal apocalypse rape gang book!

The Psalms of Herod

In a post-apocalyptic society largely taken over by a whack-a-doo pseudo-Christian cult, women now can only have penis-in-vagina sex when they’re in heat – if it’s attempted at other times, they bleed to death. In a remarkable display of stupidity – actually, maybe this is why the society is barely surviving – any throwback women who are fertile all the time are killed as work of the Devil. Excess babies are left on the hillside to starve or be eaten by forest animals. And all women must give sacred handjobs or blowjobs (“the Sign and the Kiss”) to any man who requests them.

Becca, our heroine, is in love with a nice guy, but he’s raped and because gay sex (even if you’re raped) is a capital crime, her father kills both him and his rapist. (And is scolded because he doesn’t torture the raped guy to death, as he was supposed to.) Then she’s forced to partake in the annual gang-handjob/blowjob-rape festival when she reaches puberty. At this time she also fails to save her friend who’s being raped by her (the friend’s own) father, and the friend immolates herself, and, at the same rape festival, Becca nearly gang-raped in the way that would kill her, but her father saves her. The rapist then murders her father, takes over her home village, kills all the babies, and rapes her. But Becca has cunningly hidden her baby sister on the Hill of Dead Babies. But, alas, she can’t visit her for a while and her sister’s foot is eaten by forest animals. And then there is cannibalism.

I realize that I used some conjugation of the word rape eleven times in one paragraph, but that accurately conveys a small taste of what it was like to read the book.

These books were part of a fictional rape trend, especially in fantasy. If a female character had a dark secret, it would inevitably turn out to be rape. Even today, especially in TV and movies, a female character’s dark secret is typically rape. (If it isn’t, it’s probably child abuse or a Secret Baby.)

Why all the rape? In some novels, it's a lazy shortcut to trauma: what else bad could possibly happen to a woman other than something sexual? In a few, it's pure exploitation. But in the feminist dystopias, and in many other books, the thought behind seemed neither lazy nor sleazy. These writers are clearly deeply concerned about sexism. The ultimate expression of sexism is rape, so if you're writing a book about sexism... The problem, or one of the problems, is that while the intent of the books individuallly is to say that rape is bad, considered as a group, if practically every fantasy you read with a heroine has her getting raped, what tends to come across was that rape is inevitable.

I eventually made the conscious decision that my female characters’ dark secrets would not be rape, just so there would be some island of sexual safety in the middle of the sea of fictional rape. In my efforts to avoid it, I have resorted to everything from “my sister was killed in an accident and I blame myself” to “I killed someone in a fit of rage when we were both kids and I will never forgive myself” to “I became a cannibal to save my life (and I blame myself.)” I especially like giving female characters trauma which didn’t occur because they were female. Which is not to say that I’ll never write about rape ever. But probably not till I run out of other dark secrets.

On the other hand, Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is one of my favorite books of all time. So is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures). I am a hard sell on fictional depictions of rape, but a soft sell on fictional depictions of trauma and healing. I’m less bothered by rape when that’s a large part of what the character’s journey is about than when it’s just lurking in the background or is a large part of what the setting is about.

One person’s deeply felt exploration of trauma and recovery is another person’s trashy exploitation, of course. But there is a place for rape in fiction so long as it exists in real life. That being said, I am rather relieved that I haven't read much written after about 1995 in which the apocalypse inevitably results in state-sanctioned rape, state-mandated rape, rape festivals, or roving rape gangs.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com

Cordelia is affected much more by her bad earlier relationship than by her attempted rape.

Which is another thing I liked: people don't react to things according to commonly-held beliefs about how people are supposed to react, but according to their own internal logic.

From: [identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com

Yes. And they often explain their thinking, and it's actually interesting when they do.

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