Note: You can read this story online here. The other Hugo nominations for this year are here.
“Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, contemptible, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.” — J. R. R. Tolkien in the Foreward to the Lord of the Rings
The story begins with the confused ramblings of an elderly woman. We know there’s something about Mars and Kansas… but we’re left collating hints and scraps of information given to us by what is possibly an unreliable narrator. If this actually is serious science fiction… then it must be some sort of alternate history because we are shown some kind Mars Mission from the fifties that was engineered with punch card programs. And yet, the doctor from Kansas is named Dorothy and has an Aunt Em and Uncle Henry… and this is so outrageous I can’t tell if this is satire or a some kind of a joke.
If you keep reading, you soon discover that it isn’t some kind of drug addled hallucination. There is a bit of science folded into the story: a domed colony on mars, an asteroid impact on earth, an inhabitable extrasolar planet…. It’s not a bad little premise there, really… but it is entirely smothered in the details of particularly uninspiring elderly couple. The images and situations are as far from those depicted in Frank Frazetta covers as can possibly get. Instead Dejah Thoris, you get a sixty year old woman’s flabby arms. Instead of gruesome sword fights and pulse pounding action… you have a couple of bureaucrats coaxing a former astronaut to come out of retirement.
The tone of the work is very even… almost elevated. It’s hard not to read it in the cadence of an open mic slam poetry routine. Sometime like this could be on NPR– it seems to hit all the right notes with a bit of panache– but the story ends up grinding on into more and more graphic and disheartening details. There’s nothing warm and familiar like the time that Teller did a Summer Sounds segment. There’s nothing hip or snarky like the stories that Ira Glass would run. You never get to that uplifting moment where you can think of yourself as being smarter and more noble than the average red neck.
There is not one hint of irony in the work, but the strong female character™ that we are presented with here is little more than glorified cargo. Her career is just a convenience for other people that can benefit from the publicity value she brings them. She doesn’t actually do anything to display strength or competence or courage or character. In fact she is shown to be strong only in contrast to her husband who can barely walk and whose bones are so brittle, they can break at the slightest pressure. Early on in her marriage, she chose to sacrifice the chance to have children in the interests of furthering her made up career and that decision haunts her.
Everything about this couple is barren. They argue about whether or not she should take one last mission like a couple of old ladies arguing over who should pay for the bill at a restaurant. She feels guilty about going on a suicide mission before her husband has died from his worsening terminal illness. He insists that she take it because he knows it’s what she wants. He puts his foot down and she responds by showing him mild contempt– she walks out on him in the middle of a spat. I honestly can’t see what he gets out of this relationship and can only wish for him to have a chance to die alone somehow– away from this woman’s condescending pity.
All the plot threads come together neatly in the end. Dorothy will look after the old guy in his last days… and he’ll even write the punch card program that will send the Lady Astronaut to the habitable exoplanet. This reminds me of the movie Gattaca where the guy finally gets to live his dream of going into space… but it’s just a macguffin; it’s no more than people boarding some kind of fancy airplane, really. Why they’re going into space is irrelevant and the calculations that the guy makes for orbital paths at his desk job are as patently ridiculous as the punch card programs of this story. If Gattaca was ultimately a movie about a guy that crosses the street without his contact lenses, then this story is about a woman that cleans up a mess after her husband has an involuntary bowel movement in the kitchen.
The author appears to be extremely aggressive in her attempt to counter female stereotypes in science fiction, but she doesn’t seem to have anything compelling to offer in their place. There is no power here, no virility, no beauty, no passion, and no meaning here. There’s just a woman that strikes me as being an inadvertent reductio ad absurdum to our culture’s dominant views on women and women’s roles. Sure, she gets to be the hero and the astronaut in the end… but her sacrifice is more about her and how it makes her feel than anything else. She’s so myopic… and yet, she really would have been happier if she’d just been a mom and stayed at home. (Everyone else would have been happier, too. She’s strikes me as being the sort of person that you’d never want to do anything for you because she’s such a martyr that you’d never hear the end of it.)
I don’t have anything against this author personally and have no idea what else she’s done. Just based on reading this, I can only conjecture that she’d hate the sort of works that I prefer– Tolkien’s writing, for example. She strikes me as a competent wordsmith, but I don’t know that I can readily forgive her for using her talents to make something that is so intentionally ugly and hollow. Maybe I should feel sorry for her for her lack of imagination? Ah well, I guess this is all that’s left when a person has purged the chainmail bikini from their science fiction and fantasy. At the very least, this piece graphically demonstrates where that sort of idiocy ultimately leads….