No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, April 27, 2014

2014/08: The Disestablishment of Paradise -- Phillip Mann

We as a race will make the same mistake as we always have. We will try to control by force what we could perfectly well live with by reason alone.’ [loc.901]

I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

The Disestablishment of Paradise tries hard to be topical, relevant, cutting-edge: it deals with ecological and political conflicts, and with alien lifeforms. The planet Paradise has been settled for several centuries, but evolution seems to be happening remarkably rapidly. Humans have destroyed much of the native life -- which, though neither fauna nor flora, is referred to throughout in botanic terms -- and the planet seems to be fighting back: agriculture has become more difficult, century-old corpses are being expelled from the ground, thickets are actively malevolent. Meanwhile, there are several factions vying for control of Paradise: should it be disestablished as a colony? If so, who'll be first on the spot when profit can be made from the no-longer-inhabited planet?

The novel's protagonist (at least for the first half of the book) is Dr Hera Melhuish, a biologist who is director of the Observation, Regeneration and Botanic Expansion (ORBE) project on Paradise. She is definitely a Strong Woman, and the framing narrative of the novel consists of her sessions with 'Olivia', a children's author whom Hera has personally selected to tell the story of Paradise. There are comfortable vignettes of the two sharing wine and reminiscences. There are also some uncomfortably twee phrases (Olivia writes primarily for children), for instance when a mind-controlling alien being is referred to as a 'naughty little thing'.

However, despite the existence of women in positions of power (ORBE director, spaceship captain, etc) The Disestablishment of Paradise has an old-fashioned feel when it comes to gender. The climax (ahem) of the novel involves Hera and her new lover, illiterate demolition specialist Mack, facilitating the reproduction of a massive native lifeform. Hera (who is in love for the first time in her life, 'awake and enlived') is seen 'soused and gleaming with the sap of the Dendron'; Mack does the heavy lifting. The word 'codds' is used excessively, i.e. at all. It's a very sexualised scene, strongly reminiscent of New Wave SF.

There is, however, a plot-related rationale for all the glistening fluids and interspecies frottage. There's no obvious reason for the strangely archaic and distant ways in which the women in this novel talk about their gender ('it is women’s logic, as old as time' [loc.162]; 'What fools we women are sometimes!' [loc. 724]; 'A woman’s lot, Olivia, to see them into life and out of life' [loc.6838]) or the rather patronising tone of Hera's, or Olivia's, observations ('the captain, who was sitting back in her chair, had undone the top button of her uniform jacket and was now paying attention to her make-up' [loc.570]; 'Abhuradin whistled – a very masculine sound for one so feminine' [loc.1360]; 'wearing a survival suit and pummelled by the wind, she still managed to look elegant' [loc.1778]).

There are some very interesting ideas in this novel, and some fascinating background characters: but in tone and characterisation, and especially in its depiction of women and gender issues, it fell flat for me.

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