of the Marq'ssan cycle
for the Old Mole 23 June 2008
The Marq’ssan cycle consists of five feminist science fiction novels by L. Timmel Duchamp. The first four novels—Alanya to Alanya, Renegade, Tsunami, and Blood in the Fruit—are already available through the Multnomah County Library, and by the time you’ve read those, they should have the fifth, Stretto, officially to be released in July 2008, but already available from the publisher, Aqueduct Press.
The novels were drafted in the 1980s, revised in the 1990s, and are set in the late 21st century; but their portraits of an American police state and the political use of torture are all too timely today. It’s a world much like our own, but with hierarchies of class and gender somewhat more clearly visible and certainly more openly acknowledged.
Some years before the opening of Alanya to Alanya, governments—at least of the US and Europe-- have gone through what’s referred to as the Executive Transformation, a consolidation of elite power to stabilize economic and political relations. Working-class Service–techs perform the hands-on work, bourgeois Professionals are the knowledge workers, and the elite Executive class runs the nation.
More precisely, the leading roles are officially held by Executive men. In the world of the Marq'ssan Cycle, Executive level men have been surgically and behaviorally shaped so as not to feel sexual pleasure, so that they will not be distracted by passion. Executive women, who are sharply divided between career track and maternal track, are sexually active only with service-tech women, except for purposes of maternal-track procreation.
All of this information emerges only gradually, however. Alanya to Alanya opens with the alien Marq’ssan
shutting down weapons systems, communications technology, and other electronic devices all over earth, and demanding that each political entity send three female representatives to negotiate.
Their negotiations turn out to be more with each other and their human governments than with the alien Marq’ssan, who have come not to dominate but to liberate the planet from the human government that “prefers the annihilation of the human species to the loss of its own power.”
Our point of view character for most of the first novel is Kay Zeldin, a History professor who formerly worked for the government “security” service. Recruited to act as one of the US negotiators by her former boss and (in his pre-Executive days) former lover, Robert Sedgewick, who is now the head of Security, Zeldin gradually begins to remember the circumstances of their breakup and to reassess her political loyalties.
By the end of Alanya to Alanya, the Pacific northwest has become one of six anarchist Free Zones on the planet, protected by the aliens from major interference by human governments, and developing instead through cooperative negotiation.
But that development is hardly smooth.
In subsequent volumes, Zeldin is imprisoned by Security, now secretly run by Sedgewick’s assistant Elizabeth Weatherall; the Women’s Co-op of the Free Zone confronts their own differences over commitments to nonviolence; a number of executive women and their service-tech lovers go renegade and escape to the Free Zone; and a restructuring of the Executive raises questions about the relations between reforming liberal democracies and dismantling oppressive hierarchies.
Throughout the cycle of five novels, all of the point of view characters are women--well, except for the aliens, who appear as human women, though gender is apparently irrelevant to their own species, which has not long before worked through their own hierarchical structures, so as to develop a non-oppressive way of coordinating their own society.
Although the Marq’ssan’s demand for female negotiators hints at their possible essentialist illusions about women’s greater capacity for cooperation, the human characters are hardly the nurturing angels of, say, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopia Herland.
Still, there’s something refreshing about a portrait of the world being run by women, even –or especially--women who are just as capable of cruelty, deception, and megalomania as any political leader.
Admittedly, “refreshing” would not be the first word to come to mind in describing the scenes of psychological and physical torture that play a large role in the second book, and appear elsewhere in the series as well. But the presentation of the intimacies of power is consistently compelling.
Let me stress that. These books are hard to put down; as a reviewer of the fourth volume put it,
“This is worth stating at the outset, because it would be very easy to describe what Duchamp is doing with the Marq'ssan Cycle in terms which would make it all sound eminently worthy and improving and provocative of deep thought, and what we all should be reading, while neglecting the absolutely visceral impact of each volume as a narrative which grabs and does not let you go and leaves you breathless at the end.”
The books have been praised by other science fictions writers including Samuel Delany and Cory Doctorow, and have been compared to work by HG Wells, George Orwell, Ursula LeGuin, Joanna Russ, and James Tiptree, Jr.
Like works by those writers, Duchamp’s speculative fiction torques our world to make it strange to us, yet recognizable; it investigates the complexities of inseparable political and personal relations; and it recognizes both the necessity and the difficulty of creating fundamental change in human social organizations.
The books aren’t perfect—I wish they engaged more with questions of race than they do, for instance; and I find it a bit trying when, in the fifth volume, one of the characters takes to copying out passages from Friedrich Nietzsche in her diary entries. Still, for most of the cycle’s million-plus words, the philosophy is organic to the story, the characters are not just embodiments of conflicting ideologies but also vivid personalities, engaged in political struggles that offer both intellectual stimulation and narrative thrills.