About A Girl…

Buy Now?   More about the SE Asia books

Deconstructing Divine Endurance

Chosen Among The Beautiful:
Encountering the Object of Desire

"(The horse) was not Gress, it was a tall stranger, so dark she felt rather than saw him. Someone was at his head, holding the bridle to stop it chiming.
     'Please don't be alarmed. I've been watching you, and I thought you might be in need of help. Is there anything I can do?'
The voice was quiet, but something about it made Cho shiver. The rain and the river water beat together on the darkness.
'Who are you?' she whispered...

Imagine that you are the hero of the movie. In my story the hero is female, or at least of ambiguous sexuality, but you don't have to imagine that part if it doesn't suit you. You are tall dark and handsome, brave and wise and physically formidable. You are the Young Pretender, the last survivor of a royal house, struggling to restore your country's independence and throw out the foreign rulers. You have -because this is a modern, or even a post-modern romance- a chequered past, a doubtful claim to legitimacy, and a wry sense of humour about your role. You work in the outer darkness, on the margins of society. But your conscience is clear. You have no personal ambition. Like all the best warrior heroes, especially in the Eastern tradition, you are half a mystic. You'd really prefer to be a hermit, one with all creation in holy solitude. But the just cause must be served.

You are summoned to a meeting at a river crossing. Apparently some minor bad guys have captured a valuable hostage. They're sure that you will pay handsomely to recover this babe. You are intrigued. A tall dark and handsome hero, mystic or not, male or female, has an eye for a pretty girl -or boy. But you haven't mislaid one of those recently. Indeed there is no one with that kind of importance in your life: no love-interest, no wife or child or bosom friend. Like the bruised and cynical misanthropist PI in a Raymond Chandler novel, like the hero of any classic film noir, -except that you don't drink- you are alone in the world. So you wonder, what is going on? You go quietly to the rendezvous, in darkness (of course all this happens at night), to examine the goods.

In this romance of the far future, the setting mimics that of a Third World country in the late twentieth century. The climate is tropical, the native people are dark skinned and poor and beautiful. Neither the peasants nor their feudal rulers have much access to industrial technology. Mechanist culture comes from outside and above, it symbolises and imposes the rule of the foreigners. Wherever the two worlds meet in practice, the effect is depressing. The river crossing is one of these intersections, a scar on the immemorial landscape of rice fields and palm groves: a collection of shacks, the winch-house of a rope-drawn ferry; the thick band of water muddied by traffic. Heavy vehicles, flaring lamplight, inedible food; mud, rotting garbage, heaps of old tyres, the filthy smell of engine fuel.

Naturally, you are at home here. Like that PI roaming the mean streets of LA, you have friends in ugly places. You mingle easily in the midnight company. And there you see her, the girl dressed in white. She seems so innocent and so gentle. You are quickly convinced that she doesn't know that she's the bait in a trap. She shines in this darkness, sweet and pure as a flower. In fact, unless this is your imagination -or due to something you've been smoking- there is, literally, a glow about her... What is this line of silver light, that traces every movement of that slim body? Isn't there something down right uncanny about her perfection, flawless in every detail? The closer you get to this girl -whose name is Chosen Among the Beautiful; and who is going to tell you an impossible story, which you will believe at once because you know she cannot lie- the more you will find to marvel at. Her lips, her eyes, her cheeks her hair, are in a class beyond compare. Her motives are clear as spring water, miraculously simple in this complicated world. Her only desire is to make you happy. And she has the power, you will learn, to do whatever that takes.

Your later discoveries are details, footnotes. The story is told at this first meeting. All beauty is fatal, but as all movie-goers know, there is no beauty more fatal than the girl. She may look cute, but she belongs to Mr Big (all desirable women belong to Mr Big, and all women, in this Social Darwinist world, are desirable). Tangling with her will bring you nothing but trouble. She's wonderful, she's fascinating, she's going to ruin you.

Chosen Among The Beautiful

The girl at the river crossing is one of the main characters in the first science fiction novel I wrote, when I was living in Singapore back in 1978 (though it didn't get published until 1984). She's not actually a human girl. She's a metagenetic gynoid, a kind of marvellous doll, from the Tumbling Dice Toy Factory, in Beijng, Greater Japan: the final product of a magical technology developed far in our future. She's a geisha, or art person -which is what the Japanese word geisha means- (like all sf writers, I love puns) designed to serve and give pleasure as the lifelong companion of a single human owner. These angel dolls, they say, were built with the ability to grant every wish of the human heart. A reviewer once complained that I hadn't explained the science clearly: well, that's because if I could build real metagenetic gynoids, I wouldn't be writing futuristic fairy-stories for a living. (I imagine it might be something to do with a novel fusion between the artificial chromosomes and the quantum nature of reality) But the story in my book goes like this: Cho (short for Chosen Among The Beautiful), and her twin brother Wo, the last angel dolls, were born from the vats of the automated factory long after the collapse of their civilisation. Wo was kidnapped as a newborn, taken away by a tribe of degenerate nomads. Cho grew up alone, with the factory mascot, a toy cat of nearly the same marvellous powers, called Divine Endurance. Cho knows that angel dolls must not leave the factory unless they have been claimed by an individual human owner. But eventually Divine Endurance persuades her she must find her brother, and help him to make the humans happy. That's Cho's purpose in life, her only desire. So off they set, and at last, after wandering over desolate lands that were once teeming with humanity and its creations, they find their way to the Peninsula, known as Malaysia in our day, with an island at the tip which was once called Singapore. Here they find the Peninsulans, a people who have apparently abandoned technology for a peaceful, low-impact, traditional way of life. Cho meets Derveet, the rebel leader, at that river crossing, and Derveet becomes her human. It looks as if the high tech foreign rulers are in trouble. The defender of the green world, the politically correct, ecologically sound option, now has the ultimate dream machine, working on her side. But is it possible to use the ultimate technology to free the world from the dominion of the machines?

The theme of this convention is contact. When I decided to talk about Cho, I thought I was going to talk about contact with exotic technology. But when I looked again at the story, I found I had a wider encounter theme, based on this rich image of the girl and her fatal beauty. How does it feel to be the object of desire? And what happens to us when we meet her?

Science Fiction is a romance. It may be other things, but it is certainly this: and a romance is essentially, fundamentally, a story about getting the girl. Like a bower bird gathering scraps of colour and glitter, like a young stag sprouting his antlers, the young man plunges into adventure to prove himself worthy of the princess: to gain access to the females. Just as in the old mediaeval hero sagas, the adventure (which is more or less different in every story) takes up most of the tale. The original purpose of the exercise, the 'reproductive success' finale, which is always the same, gets so stylised by repetition -like an acanthus bud on a temple frieze- that it almost disappears. You can tell it in a very few words. The king (or the chief scientist) gives the hero half the kingdom and his daughter's hand in marriage, and they all live happily ever after... What we have left, in science fiction, is often a love affair with the tools by which success is won: with technology itself. But the original meaning suffuses the action. Meetings with fascinating artefacts are almost like sexual encounters: full of fear and trembling, preceded by elaborate dressing up and grooming rituals: they describe the frightening awkwardness of grappling an alien body; there are many metaphors of penetration, engulfment, impregnation. I think of Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama; Niven and Pournelle's The Mote In God's Eye; Jack McDavitt's The Engines Of God, Frederick Pohl's Gateway -with its alien machinery that the humans have couple with; and nothing quite fits. High tech is curiously often portrayed as alien, in this literature of technology. Perhaps this is because ordinary people like science fiction writers -and even scientists outside their own specialisms- feel overwhelmed by the dream machines of the late twentieth century. We use them, we need them, we depend on them utterly: but we don't understand them. It's a vulnerable position. Perhaps also these exciting, fascinating, inscrutable objects are stand-ins for alien nature of the girl herself, the real-life desirable but dangerous other who, in her own person, has a very small part to play in the classic science fiction story.

Sometimes getting the girl is completely explicit. If you think the practice of portraying women and girls as game show prizes is a thing of the past, think again. In Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction Collection 1997, a significant round-up of the year's taste and style, one of the keynote stories is Crossing Chao Meng Fu by a writer called G. David Nordley. This is purely an account of an adventure of physical prowess. A party of explorers takes a hike on the cold side of Mercury, for no good reason except to see if they can do it. There's awe-inspiring scenery, spectacular gadgets and two sexy young women: both of them rich, beautiful, phenomenally fit and highly qualified expert scientists. A very nice pair of shiny appliances. The hike hits a snag, the beautiful girls have to be rescued. Having been rescued, they take their clothes off (in lingering detail) and offer sex to their rescuers. That's absolutely all that happens, you couldn't get a more obvious demonstration of 'reproductive success' science fiction... In case you have missed the point that these are prizes, not people, the girl who offers sex to the hero himself can take no pleasure in the act. She's a Kenyan and has suffered a severe form of Female Genital Mutilation. But she wants to do it anyway. She's designed to please... Welcome to the sf twentythird century, where technological progress in our global village permits rock climbing in an environment where nitrogen lies around in liquid pools, while progress in social welfare has been at a grim and shameful standstill.

A romance also means a story written in the vernacular, the language of the crowd. The priorities in Chao Meng Fu reflect the mood of our times, fairly truthfully I suspect. Another decade or another year might produce a more thoughtful access-to-females story, another writer might easily make the guy a woman and the girl a hunky young male. Or have them both male, both female... All sorts of superficial variations are possible, but I don't think there's any way to take the reproductive success agenda out of sf. Success, stories about our success in controlling our environment, is the whole point of the genre: and as we all know by now, reproductive success is the sine qua non: the only triumph over nature that always matters. No matter how the times change, in most sf stories, especially the most popular stories, in some sense the guy will get the girl. That's why science fiction -contrary to popular belief- is and has been generally extremely positive about women and girls, and rarely portrays them in negative roles. Access-to-females, although sometimes marginal to the adventure, is as sacred to science fiction culture as trashing the aliens or controlling the galactic supply of internet navigation software. Getting the girl is the prize at the end of the show. You can't have a prize that's no good. It wouldn't make sense. (This explains why many fans, and writers, of traditional sf are genuinely hurt and puzzled by accusations of misogyny).

However, there are other things you can do with a deeply imprinted pattern, besides simply repeating it with different details. In fact, much of the classic, highly acclaimed science fiction I read in the seventies and eighties was in this sense anti-science fiction: radical reversals where the love affair with technology becomes a tragedy. Ursula Le Guin's The Word For World Is Forest, The Lefthand Of Darkness, Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, Fred Pohl's Gateway (again); Gregory Benford's Timescape. All these are stories which in different ways show the other side of the picture. Technological success is revealed as an instrument of torture, a rape of the natural world, an artificial divinity that corrupts the possessors; an untrustworthy weapon, that cannot defend us from our worse nature. And yet, we can't do without the stuff. Perhaps the best of these anti-science fictions are the ones that simply reveal technology, applied science, without the artificial glamour of tragedy or of wish-fulfillment and just ask you to look, to reflect on the cost/benefit analysis: to face the uncomfortable truth about this beckoning fair one, the dream machine.

What happens to women, the symbols of success, in stories that question the triumph of technology? Well, in all the books I've mentioned, and in many other books and stories that challenge the Prime Directive, you will find women -unusually for the genre- portrayed as victims, as disadvantaged; and women as virtuous defenders of the green world; even women who are not shiny prizes or nurturing angels but ordinary, struggling and fallible human beings. There are also plenty of sad, wounded girls who are literally living dolls, plenty of Stepford Wives and expensive mechanical whores. But Cho, my metagenetic gynoid, is something else again. The girl as nemesis is a Hollywood idea, a femme fatale from a film noir. You don't often find her in our genre. When I tried to think of well known femme fatale stories in sf, the only example I could come up with was Philip K.Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, better known as the film Bladerunner. Even then, I remember the girl as tragically inadequate, rather than being herself the agent of destruction. So how did I come to hit on this rare distortion of the traditional pattern, in my very first sf novel? Of all the classic romance plots in all the world, why did this particular stranger from the past walk into my life? Well, I'll have to confess: I have a reputation for doing things the hard way. Like one of those chicks in the neurological experiments, with the image inverting goggles, I see things wrong way up and upside down first. I don't do it on purpose, I'm not trying to shock, I'm not searching for a new angle: this is how I see the world. I'll probably never be able to prove it, but I'll swear part of my brain is actually wired upside down. But there were other factors. Every story has a situation, personal, historical and cultural, out of which it arises, without which it couldn't be written. I ought to tell you something about the situation of Divine Endurance.

Situating The Story

I was living in Singapore, because my husband had a job at an international school there. We wanted to travel and see the world, we'd both agreed to apply for jobs abroad, as far away from England as possible: Peter had found a job first. So I was there of my own free will. But I was not prepared for the life of an expatriate wife. I had been an independent person, with a salary and a cheque book and a life of my own. Suddenly I was a helpless dependent, with no money, no chance of finding work: nothing to do but mind the house, look decorative and generally keep my husband happy. It wouldn't have been so bad. I was cool about it. But expatriate communities -whether in refugee camps or leafy tropical suburbs, are socially regressive and frantically traditional. I was surrounded by people who didn't see my situation as the dutiful little pleasure-machine as a free, temporary choice. As far as they were concerned it was my natural role, I was designed that way. This was a shock. I'm sure that's part of where Cho came from. There was also my writing career. I'd just had my first book published when we left for Singapore. It was a book for older children, called Water In The Air (long out of print). I was writing another. But I didn't actually want to be writing for children. I had been writing fairytales: modern fairytales, mixing elements from traditional contes des fees -princes and princesses, enchantments, christening gifts with a magical sting- with motifs from science fiction; and contemporary details. A prince in one of these stories -to give you the idea- finds out that he's under a magic curse when goes to university abroad, and read about himself in an anthropology journal. But the magic curse (in my story) is real, and effective. Later, twenty years later, these fairy-stories became the collection Seven Tales And a Fable, that won two World Fantasy Awards. But in 1975, when a friend of mine showed them to a London publisher, the publisher decided at once that I was designed to write for children. Now I'm a good girl. Although I tend to see things backwards I never mean to be difficult. So I had accepted her judgement and there I was obediently writing away. A pattern begins to emerge...

There was a fairytale I had not been able to finish. It was about a cynical cat, a dutiful princess, and the working of inexorable fate. The princess falls in love with a prince, in the proper way, and then discovers the doom that has been concealed from her. She is not human, she is an artificial person: a robot. The story was set in the east, in China or Japan. Cho's fanciful name, and other details, came from my childhood, strictly European images of the mysterious orient: the frivolity of despotism, the marvellously ingenious toys, high tech as exquisite art -so different from the utilitarian machines of western democracy. I knew that Cho was going to have to earn her humanity, painfully, like The Littlest Mermaid. I've always liked Hans Andersen's stories, because of their cruelty. I like the way his magic makes things marvellous without making them any easier. Her personality -her innocent and dutiful nature- was inspired by robot stories in science fiction: Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics (which survive in the final novel); and a story by Anthony Boucher called The Quest For Saint Aquin, where sentient appliances long for human dignity, and tell each other legends of the one, perfect robot who was made human, in the image of the Creator. But I'd never managed to think of a satisfying ending.

I was worried about the prince. The prince in The Littlest Mermaid, if you remember, is one of Andersen's maliciously depressing figures. He smugly accepts the horrific sacrifices that are made for him, pats the Littlest Mermaid on the head, and goes off with someone more reproductively suitable. What role should the prince play in my version of that tale? I'm an equal opportunities story teller. I wasn't going to let him sit and do nothing...

Then I came to live in Singapore. All around me was the world I had been reading about in those anti-science-fictions of the sixties and seventies: the tropical Third World, the rich natural environment under threat; native tradition corrupted by contact with The West; oppressed womanhood. In the empty spaces of my expatriate housewife life, I began to invent an exicting, female affirming science fiction adventure story of my own: with an idealised Third World society struggling to escape from the Masculine Mechanist oppressors, and women in all kinds of strong, positive roles. But I'm a good housekeeper. I really am. I hate waste. So I grafted this politically correct but positive sf romance onto the rootstock of my unfinished fairytale. I didn't know that they were fundamentally at odds with each other.

It seemed obvious to me that Cho, the dream machine, should become the innocent agent of nemesis. In a fairytale, the object designed to make wishes come true always deals out destruction in the end. An object doesn't have intentions, but since I'd made this object into a person, it seemed obvious that she could not be blamed. She would mean well, because that's the nature of a machine. To mean well and do harm is the fate of technology - the whole problem of our addiction is that the stuff is good. But I'm sure there was a personal element in this. None of us likes to give up the delicious drug of social approval, either. When we take revenge on those who have injured us (even harmless, fictional revenge), we prefer to call it justice. I'm sure that Cho's innocent capacity to wreak havoc was closely related to my situation as the young woman secretly furious with the restrictions imposed on her; but at the same time secretly, deeply attached to her role as the good little pleasure machine. So that's how Chosen Among The Beautiful, my Oriental doll-princess, became the profoundly anti-science-fiction figure in the novel: the girl, the original, ur-symbol of success, and technology as poisoned treasure, combined in a single character.

But what happens in the romance?

Well, we have Cho, the last and most perfect product of a civilisation like our own but magnified, science fiction style. She arrives on the Peninsula, and meets Derveet, defender of the anti-technologists, at that river crossing. Opposites attract: it's love at first sight. Derveet can't help but suspect that there is something very strange going on. Like the hero of the film noir, maybe she knows deep down, from the first moment, that the girl is trouble. Later, when she learns the truth about the angel dolls, she discovers that the Rulers, the mechanist-culture foreigners, have had Wo, the other angel doll, in their possession for quite a while. Derveet, who already suspects the worst, quickly realises that there's something ominous, something monstrous about these pretty toys. She tells herself that Cho is different from her evil twin. Cho is innocent: and in any case Derveet will be careful. She will wish for nothing. (Note that word. In a fairytale, words themselves are dangerous). But she's very afraid that there's no escape from the fate that Cho has brought out of the past. The girl can't help it.

But between the meeting, and the ominous revelation, there is an interlude...

The Romance of Two Subjects

When Cho understands that Derveet's whole culture is devoted to getting away from machines, to living without things like Cho, she breaks down in tears, because she's wrong, wrong, the very thing that wasn't wanted... It now seems to me that Cho's predicament is an expression of my distress and inner conflict in the role of expatriate housewife. But there's another source of distress in playing the role of the girl, in real life. It begins at the moment when you look into some boy's eyes, and you realise that he sees you as the bait in a trap. This is the downside of male reproductive strategy. In the first place there's the instinctual depressing knowledge that alpha males are few, (the way big fierce animals are rare). When you see a pretty girl, something in your old animal brain tells you she is not available for the likes of you. The best that you can hope is that you can snatch her for a moment: but you probably won't get away with it. Mr Big will send his heavies around, he may even come himself. You are going to get hurt. And you hate her for it. You hate her for the damage you're going to suffer, you hate her for the fear.

This is the film noir hero's dilemma: the beta male scenario -which is, as I've said, sort of illegal in science fiction, where all heroes are supposed to be alpha (except in the writings of Philip K Dick). But even alpha males have to fear the other Mr Big, looming inexorably in the shadows, armed with a gleaming scythe and a cheesy grin. And he's never caught off guard. Sexual reproduction is a highly successful strategy for the species, but it means death for the individual. When you have spread your seed -or raised your infants, if you're a female- that's the end of you, biologically speaking. No wonder so many men seem to want to leap up and flee in panic, after the act of coitus. No wonder boys are afraid of girls, even more than girls are afraid of boys: at least, if you're a girl, you have a slightly more enduring place in the scheme of things. This is a theme that's been thoroughly explored in anti-science-fiction, in the stories of Alice Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree Junior. When Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death. Tiptree took a very gloomy view. It seems to me that in adopting both male and female roles, she burdened herself with a double dose of an individual's natural fears of the sex-death equation. There are other ways of looking at the problem. I think of my cat, who knows very well (in some sense) that my fingers are not prey, that the fringe of the curtain is not an dangerous enemy. But she attacks anyway, and gains the chemical reward of arousal, energy flow, pleasure: without any danger, without any risk of damage. Take the bait, leave the trap where it lies. That's my plan: and the plan behind the whole invention of sexual romance. If escape is impossible, at least we can delay the inevitable: for a little longer, and then again a little longer...

My favourite part of the book Divine Endurance, the part I lingered over for my own pleasure, is the part right after the river crossing: when Cho and Derveet travel together, innocently, through the forest. It's a courtship idyll, in which -a classic device- the lovers are protected from each other by misunderstanding. Derveet sees Cho as a young girl, almost a child, and so -though same sex relationships are natural in her society- she makes no advances. Cho is an inexperienced angel doll, and isn't sure how she's supposed to respond to the desire Derveet is trying to suppress. Of course it doesn't last, but this liminal stage is very sweet. The idea of shielding two lovers from their reproductive fate is common in romantic writing. I think of the 'breeches' roles in grand opera, the girls disguised as boys in Shakespeare's comedies; and in the more or less trashy historical romances I loved when I was young. There is an interesting version of this phenomenon in the subculture of science fiction, known as Slash/fiction -where the storytellers are women and the fictional lovers are men. What's going on there?

When Cho and Derveet fall in love but don't become lovers they are not literally avoiding their reproductive roles. But I can easily discover that that's what's happening, because I am the heterosexual storyteller. I see myself as Cho, and though I may like to dress my lover as a woman (in this case, a woman who dresses as a man for cultural reasons: these delaying tactics get complicated) I know the real story. Likewise, when Derveet's claim to lead her people is called illegitimate, I make up suitable fictional reasons why this should be so -though she lives in a female-ordered society. But really I know that it's because in this world a woman can't be the prince... or at least, not without a terrible struggle.

In Slash/fiction, the game is to take a pair of science fictional male buddies -classically, Spock and Captain Kirk of Startrek- and get them into a situation where they confess their secret tender feelings for each other. It is important that the buddies are not homosexual, and that the experience will not develop into a normal gay relationship. This is a further rebellion against the facts of life. Slash/fiction writers know what they are doing. They are trying to preserve personhood, for both partners. The lovers are imagined male, because to be male is to be a free agent, a top person: and then they are held, poised, on the edge of pleasure. Slash/fictioneers are willing to give up not only reproduction but the whole actual relationship to preserve this liminal state: love without invasion, love without reduction. It may be impossible, but that's the objective. Similarly, in Divine Endurance Cho is persistently described as a child: although she is ageless, although she is certainly a lot older than her lover! She is a child with a child's asexual autonomy, and draws Derveet back with her into a magical state where arousal and sensual pleasure are unclouded by gender, and the love of another is unclouded by loss of self. To take the pleasure, without crossing the threshold into sex and death- (That was my plan. I once asked my husband how he thought Cho looked. He said he imagined her as about fifteen, because I often describe her dressed only in a pair of white trousers, and he like to think about her tits. So much for authorial control).

I've been working on this problem ever since. Essentially, I see the problem of sexual success and technological success as very closely linked. To find a way to survive technology is a theme for our particular times, but always while I'm doing that I'm also writing love stories, about new kinds of human beings, not bound by gender but free to play with the immemorial roles: some of the stories even have happy endings. In Divine Endurance, Cho and Derveet are not caught in the film noir trap: where, in the final reel, the hero is found helplessly in thrall to the girl he knows is no good. Cho's innocence is not fake. Derveet, my hero dressed as a woman, isn't going to flee in panic. They will forgive each other for the parts they have to play. But the dream machine must bring ruin. Is there any route from here to a happy ending? Will the cold equations of my fable allow it? Well, you'll have to read the book.

Cho The Cyborg

I'm indebted, in writing this essay, to a paper by Liana Borghi, an Italian feminist who writes about science fiction. In her paper, which is called Journey Into Continuum Without Return, she raises a lot of interesting questions about Divine Endurance. In particular she asks what relation does the metagenetic gynoid, the emphatically feminine humanoid machine, have to Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto? (When Divine Endurance came out, no male critic could bring himself to use the term gynoid. They insisted on calling her a female android. It used to make me mad.) If you are familiar with that title, which has been much cited and discussed in cyber-academic circles over the last ten years, you'll know that the Cyborg Manifesto, is an essay in which a US social-scientist examines the emergent technologies of the late twentieth century, and comes up with the view that women should see the new era as an enormous opportunity. The silicon chip and cyberspatial future is much more liberating than the organic, earth-mother visions of the past. In a world where the distinction between human and machine is breaking down, women -who know what it means to be constructed, rather than born- should be poised to take over. Women, who have no original, legitimate territory to protect (historically, they don't even own their own bodies), should be at home in the fluid, post-modern continuum. I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess, is the final rallying cry. Well, I freely admit that in 1978 I had never heard of Donna Haraway. And now, I'm not sure about her vision. Some of her examples, like the fact that female labour is much in demand in silicon chip manufacture, seem to me rather dubious evidence for optimism. In any case, Cho is not that kind of cyborg. Her machine-nature is derived from older models. She's the gold of the Nibelungen, the magic mill presently grinding out salt at the bottom of the sea; she's the Manhattan Project and Tolkien's Ring. And yet (because academics report, they don't invent, and Donna Haraway told the truth about feminist sf in her essay) there is a Cyborg Manifesto in Divine Endurance. Appropriately, it's not in the centre of the plot: it's peripheral, liminal, just coming into being.

In my first treatment of the native society of the Peninsula, I followed the standard liberal sf model. Third world women were oppressed by their menfolk, and the menfolk were oppressed by the foreign rulers: men ruled by super-men, women at the bottom of the heap. The women had some kind of magical powers, but were afraid to use them -until my story came along. Then I decided, fashionably enough, that I didn't want to portray women as victims. In the finished novel women, the veiled women, rarely seen in public, hold the power in the civilisation of the Dapur -a word that means Hearth. It's a role reversal society, where a few men -the brightest and the best- are allowed to reach sexual maturity, but kept locked up in purdah. The majority of male children remain 'boys' -essentially slaves, the labour force that keeps everything going. (Slavery! The alternative to industrial machines: it's cheap and it works.)

Clearly, this is not an ideal situation. One of the reasons these fine ladies resent Derveet, is because she and her revolutionary rebels don't just want to throw out the Rulers. They want all sorts of shocking reforms: freedom of movement for 'studs', civil rights for 'boys'; may be even, in the long run complete equality for the sexes, (though Derveet herself thinks that might be going too far). But the Dapur world, though feudally oppressive, is not as mediaeval as it looks. Long before the arrival of the foreign Rulers, the Dapur used genetic manipulation, callously and ruthlessly, to breed human beasts of burden, human weapons, human gadgets of all kinds. Then something happened, possibly the same disaster that destroyed the angel-doll toymakers, that showed them the error of their ways. Either that, or the intimate technology of genetic manipulation itself carried them beyond a certain threshold. The story of the change isn't told: but the women of the Peninsula are now able to control disease, to change the hormonal development of a baby, to communicate telepathically, by using internalised, biochemical machinery so subtle and insidious it seems like magic. Cho looks human, but she isn't. The people of the Peninsula look human, but that's what they used to be. They are something different now.

(Getting In Touch With My) Machine Nature

Women have fairytales. As Marina Warner points out in her engrossing, exhaustive study From The Beast To The Blonde, this doesn't mean fantasies about cute little humanoids with butterfly wings, sitting on flower-petals. It means fata, stories of the working out of inexorable fate. Men have romance: the adventure of conquest, that ends in triumph but has a secret pact with death. Divine Endurance, like many other science fictions, is an illegal but fertile marriage between these two forms. In A Cyborg Manifesto Donna Haraway argues persuasively that the difference between nature and machine, between fairytale and romance, is an illusion of scale. The immensely powerful miniaturisation of the machine, and magnification of living genetic material, breaks down this illusion and shows that all of us, amino acids, motor cars, human beings, stars, silicon chips, viruses, obey the same laws of chemical logic. We are all, inescapably, governed by the same two great powers, the rulers of all things, seen and unseen: chance and necessity. Does Cho the doll, a mere piece of earth with extraordinarily intricate and ingenious moving parts, have to change into something else in order to become human? I think not. But there is a third law-giver, that humans ought to recognise. We are social animals. Our true 'natural environment', the environment out of which self-awareness was born, is a community of others like ourselves. You may say, the sentimental reading of Cho's relationship with Derveet is an illusion. Derveet falls in love because the machine was built and fine-tuned to satisfy her appetites exactly: and Cho responds because she was designed that way. Yet which of us can claim any different? Or would want to. Personally, now that I've recovered from the trauma of seeing myself as the 'dutiful princess', I value highly my conviction that I was designed, by aeons of pressures and balances far beyond my control, for a life of love and affection.

Cho represents the pinnacle of technology perceived as something out there, separate from ourselves: technology as the other, the feared and desired means of dominion over a world also percieved as out there, and separate from ourselves. Her role in the story comes from my fellow-feeling -as a young woman; my fellow feeling for the machine. But because Donna Haraway is right and there is no division between 'machine' and 'nature', Cho is also an older creature, an elemental spirit: the naiad of the waters, the nymph of the woods, the storm goddess in the North Wind. She is that person whose presence seems so close sometimes in the woods, in the mountains, whenever we are alone with the earth. Derveet falls in love with the girl because she grants wishes, because she is utterly desirable. But Derveet also has her mystical side, and that's how I think she finds in Cho something that the Dapur have left out of their utilitarian equation. And so Cho's coming to the green world is the catalyst that brings the new, already formed, to life. I suggest that there is truth in this fairytale and a lesson in this romance. If all we want to do is reproduce, conquer more territory and die, chance and necessity are the only gods we need. If we want a technology that works from the inside, that cares for the living world instead of destroying it, then we need a third value. We need to bring to our relationship with the machine the tenderness that is built into our human nature, and without which there would be no mind.

We need to fall in love.


This essay was read as a Guest of Honour speech at the Norwegian SF convention "Intercontact"; Oslo, July 1998

back to Essays page