' "I do think, myself," I added, "that a girl should shoot her own rapists." '
In "Nights at the Circus" by Angela Carter
Then I thought about it from a different angle. This is a novel written by someone who very strongly holds political and social views, for sure, and a novel which reflects those views in its themes and story, but is it really a Political Novel in the didactic/polemic/instructional sense?
I believe a lot of Carter's writing draws on fantasy and horror traditions; I first encountered her writing via a collection of fairy-tales and folklore and coming in that way to her own fiction meant I was completely fine with abusive puppeteers, winged women and panopticons in the tundra. It's a fantasy and horror world informed by the author's feminism, (arguably in the vein of the very earliest horror-feminism à la Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman et al) and I can't help but think considering it in comparison to, say, Atwood's “The Handmaid's Tale”. Atwood's novel is “mittelmässig”, but I would consider it a book in the "usual" dystopian-activist mould; it creates an imagined oppressive world and depicts oppression to make you stand up and want to do something.
Perhaps that's a reductive reading of a very good novel, but the idea I want to get across is that there's a body of political genre fiction that very plainly states what's wrong and what should be avoided and resisted. “Nights at the Circus” isn't that, and isn't interested in being that. It's depicting a strange world and the women and men within it - it puts across without lecturing what the author believes about feminism, but I don't really feel it a call to action.
I think the most obvious artefact of Carter's feminism is the upending of traditional fairy-tale gender roles. Heroines get the better of big bad wolves, and mothers arrive to save the damsel in place of dashing princes. Carter is essentially offering an alternative, more diverse storytelling legacy... rewriting literary history if you like.
I agree that “The Handmaid's Tale” is sort of activism-by-fiction. Actually, so is "The Blind Assassin". Clickbait as novel almost: you read it to be angered and appalled and come away with a difficult-to-justify sense of injustice. You read Carter with a sense of wonder, barely noticing that anything political has even been proposed, let alone achieved. She was always seen as a contradiction and hence she is able to shine a light on what is perceived and actually show us what is real. Even Edmund Gordon’s biography is titled “The Invention of Angela Carter”. It's quite hard to reconcile how Carter writes with how she apparently came across in public.
Here she wrote three different books in a single volume, each one with its own themes and characteristics. Even the form changes: the first part is basically a dialogue between Fevvers and Lizzie; the second displays a more classic third-person narration; the last is interspersed with clutches of text from Fevvers' point of view. My gripes were with the Siberian act. There's not so much humour, the narrative is way less baroque, the events seem more unconnected and the overall tone is too serious, although paradoxically this is the section that relies more clearly on fairy-tale devices. There are moments the story feels kind of botched, to be honest. But the fantasy elements largely make up for any downsides, and there's a couple of U-turns in the plot that are simply ingenious.
Some contemporary SF women writers could learn one or two things with Carter.