“[…]’The One and the Other’. But who is the One, and who is the Other, eh? Male or female?”
In “The Moon and the Other” by John Kessel
I feel that there is a big dividing line between good authors and great authors in science fiction and fantasy; I always find that there are loads of books where I enjoyed the characterisation and romped along in the story and had a good time, but very few where you feel that you need two days after finishing it, just to complete appreciating it. Recently, John Kessel is one writer who has reached those moments for me, the same with Dexter Palmer and, in his lovelier works K. J. Parker. Having said that, I would reserve judgment on whether being literary in style means you are actually good. I think there are plenty of writers of what most would consider 'pulp' style genre fiction, who are infinitely more engaging and thought provoking than those involved in intricate lyrical stylings and homages. It's not exclusively one way or the other though; I've enjoyed Murakami just as much as I've enjoyed Stephenson. I grew up with SF, but read less and less of it now. Perhaps ironically, my feelings for the genre are fairly well summed up by Master Ultan's words to the apprentice Severian:
"I began, as most young people do, by reading the books I enjoyed. But I found that narrowed my pleasure, in time, until I spent most of my hours searching for such books".
I gradually stopped reading much SF in my mid-20s, after spending too many hours scouring the SF sections of Bertrand Bookstore and finding far too many re-hashings of the same few ideas, themes and characters.
I'm sure there are still great SF books being written. But it can be infuriatingly difficult to find them among the mountain of juvenilia. I imagine this is because publishers see a lucrative market in escapist SF for teenagers and young adults; a market that re-cycles itself every five years or so, making it less sensitive to repetition.
Nothing wrong with that, of course, but surely there's also a market for intelligent speculative fiction written by and for people who are interested in ideas but who also value good writing and strong characterisation?
What does Kessel bring to SF that others can’t? Well, for starters, he brought me “Corrupting Dr. Nice” one of the finest works of SF ever put on paper. I must write something about it soon. But now, it’s time for “The Moon and the Other”, also one hell of a SF specimen. Some friends of mine who also read SF as a way of living, have been giving the book stick. I’m not sure why. The way some people rant, rave, whine and drool, you'd think "political correctness" meant "execution of the first-born male child in every household" rather than "giving all sections of society a fair crack of the whip". In any case, I fail to see what's so dreadfully "politically correct" about letting an author use reversed character roles with a higher voice and some slightly different genitalia, and playing in a completely fictional Moon-Space-Being... can anyone explain? Listen mate. If you think that a fictional character, from a fictional moon race who has been shown to switch sex when they regenerate should not be a woman (and the inverse would also apply), then you are part of the problem and you have no business reading SF for grown-ups. Men and women? “Two vines, intertwining, never meeting. Men and women, men and men, women and women. The one and the other, the living and the dead, irrevocably woven together, never touching.” Enough said.
Kessel built characters that do not seem at all contrived which is a very tall order when it comes to SF. I can't help feel the following argument permeating so much of today’s SF: "he's a timelord, he can regenerate into any sex" is a bit redundant in era where gender reassignment is increasingly common place. It’s arguably easier for a human to change sex now than it is a timelord; they don't have to nearly die then become a completely different person to do so. With that in mind, what exactly would be wrong with James Bond having a sex change in one of the films? Or a new Sherlock as a woman? Or bring back “Only Fools and Horses” and have Del identifying as female. I don't think any of this should be off the table. Should a writer fret about "How will a female character fight the baddies if she has to keep worrying about her period?" Etc., etc. All I can say is I've watched every episode of 24 and Jack Bauer didn't once get his cock out to clean under his foreskin so have some faith in SF writers to get around issues such as bodily hygiene. It doesn’t matter what each character does as long as it’s credible. That’s the only thing that interests me. As Kessel so rightly puts it:
“I am the one.
You are the other.
I am the other.
You are the one”
And yes, I don't think women are 'naturally' any nicer or kinder than men - which seems to surprise some people! I have always taught my children that an arsehole is an aresehole - they come in all genders, religions, colours, etc. Every individual is responsible for their own behaviour. There's definitely hints of gender swapping and questioning related to broader themes of humanity's relationship to the divine and to nature in the novel. At its heart are themes of “orphan-hood”. see a lot of bad things in modern society – I recently saw a TV piece on vietnamese slaves being used to cultivate vegetable farms in Alentejo. Slaves in 21st century Portugal! There's the occasional piece about FGM. There's pieces on austerity hurting the disabled, etc., etc., etc. To think that any one piece of history is better than another is stupid and fatuous. We tend towards a slow progression (no warlords running the country today, but we do have localised gangsters and organised criminals). What we didn't have back then was identity politics that looks at a couple of issues and uses them as the only bell-weather of progress. "Oh, look, you can be openly gay today" they say (not realising you could be back them too), or "oh look, women can go to work all day like men do" and ignore everything else. I doubt we've really progressed much when some women are locked away all day, and only allowed out dressed in a tent, with a male to make sure she doesn't do anything. Where our kids will never afford a house or career or kids of their own - unless they're on benefits. Where the economic system is so skewed towards the rich in a way they never were before. Yeah, we've made progress... and taken too many steps backwards in the name of looking away from uncomfortable truths. I think the 80s, and the 70s were a lot more honest and fairer than today. By a long way.
How does Kessel’s attempt compare with “The Handmaid’s Tale”? The former is infinitely superior to the latter. I seem to remember reading “A Handmaid's Tale” and thinking “Oh Dear this is what a mainstream author thinks is science fiction.” We'd just been through a complete literary revolution in the early '70s in science fiction writing, led by Harlan Ellison and others, producing ideas and stories against which Atwood's Tale seemed very tame. Unfortunately, the transference of SF from books to video, while increasing its popularity, has led to a regression almost back to the days of Asimov and Pohl among writers seeking the next Star Wars. The real SF is still in books, unfortunately not in “The Handmaid's Tale.”
Kudos to Kessel for writing such frigging good SF in this day and age. One of my best 2017 reads so far, be it SF or other stuff.
SF = Speculative Fiction