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Today’s guest is author and historian Kari Sperring! Her first fantasy novel, Living with Ghosts, was selected for the Tiptree Award Honor List, won the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer, and was a finalist for the William L. Crawford Award. The Grass King’s Concubine, her more recent novel, is set in the same world but takes place hundreds of years after her previously published book. She has also written short fiction and nonfiction, and she writes the wonderful Matrilines column at Strange Horizons.

The Grass King's Concubine by Kari Sperring Living with Ghosts by Kari Sperring

By Kari Sperring

Some years ago, I found myself spending an afternoon in a major art gallery, devoted to modern works (predominantly 20th century). It was a fascinating place, well-designed and laid out, and every picture was accompanied by thorough and detailed curatorial notes not only about the artist and provenance of the picture or sculpture, but analysis of the racial, class and social coding of the work itself. Across the gallery, the political acts embodied in the works–identity, ethnicity, race, class, political intent, sexuality–were made clear to the gaze of the viewer, revealing the ways in which we use our arts not only to decorate and inform, but to convey prejudice, be it racist, classist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, or political, or to challenge these. The gallery held work by a number of artists I knew–Picasso, Matisse, Pollock–but also many who were new to me and the detailed commentaries were useful. But at the same time there was something that made me uncertain. In work after work, women’s bodies were paraded for display, dissected, distorted, sliced and twisted, sexualised, used as vessels to suggest suffering or decay, decadence or disgust. Yet not one of the curatorial notes made any reference to this. Women–our bodies, our lives–remained on the same status as inanimate objects, proper subjects for artists to use to convey meaning, and not needing, it seemed, any further analysis than that. There was no way that I could see to enquire of the gallery about this–this was before the days of visitor feedback forms and so forth. I just filed it away in memory, in the very large filing cabinet labelled ‘unthinking patriarchy’.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, when I received a fanzine from friends. And there in the letter column was a reference to a book series I know well and like a great deal, British author Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity, as “robot elf porn”. And, as in that gallery, I found myself thinking, rather sourly, hmmm. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen or heard someone refer to that series in that sort of way. It wasn’t even the worst comment: that would be the man who observed with satisfaction that Robson was finally showing her real colours and writing elf rubbish and wasn’t it a relief that serious readers wouldn’t have to bother with her and how clever she thought she is any more. (She is, I will observe in passing, formidably intelligent and this is reflected in everything she writes, whether or not it contains robots and/or elves.)

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson Selling Out by Justina Robson

The Quantum Gravity series sits somewhere between science fiction and urban fantasy, drawing on the tropes and concerns of both to create something unique and powerful. Set in a future in which a singularity event has occurred, causing multiple places of existence to overlap, it follows the career of Lila Black, a special agent in a mixed-species task force whose job it is to somehow maintain a balance between conflicting inter-species interests, conflicts and rivalries. It has elves and demons, faerie and interstitial dragons, worlds with highly advanced technology and worlds made up of our oldest, scariest archetypes. Oh, and Lila Black, who used to be a secretary, is a cyborg who owns nothing, not even her body and her thoughts. The series is clever, pacey, exciting, complex–and probably one of the most significant works of feminist science fiction and fantasy of the last decade. Robson’s previous novels had all been unequivocally science fiction, dealing with post-humanism, AI, nanotechnology, space travel. The British sff establishment, by and large, loved them (though sometimes wondering why Robson’s work had to be so “difficult”). When Quantum Gravity came along and it contained elves and a romance subplot, there was almost an air of relief to the backlash. Robson had done something that could be labelled girly, and now she could safely be dismissed.

That sounds harsh, and it is. I doubt anyone thought of it in such black and white terms, nor with such overt sexism. But the coding was there, and many male readers of my acquaintance, at least, struggled with Quantum Gravity, worrying that it was a misstep by the writer, or finding it both baffling and superficial. It is, in places, a discomfiting read. Lila is not nice, she is not kind, she is sometimes selfish or self-destructive or both. As a culture, the Anglophone western world is not comfortable with women who aren’t nice. And then, the books are written unremittingly from a female viewpoint, and a viewpoint that refuses to submit to the male gaze. Lila’s cyborg self is strong, fast, vicious, highly functional. It has been designed by its makers to be attractive but it is not always attractive to Lila herself–she was not asked about being cyborgized and the body, controlled by programming installed by its makers, does not always do what she wishes. She is a weapon and a function and a thing, and her behaviour can be and sometimes is directed by others, against her own wishes and judgement. She is, as a character, one of the most powerful expressions in fiction of what it means to be female in a patriarchal culture.

Those of us who are female in much of the western world often enjoy only partial agency over our selves. Our bodies are policed by advertising and social expectations, by fashion and film and music, by embedded notions of what is feminine or appropriate, by public commentary on how we look, what we wear, what we say and what we do. Our rights over what we may do with our bodies–particularly where that involves fertility, for those of us who can bear children–are limited in law in ways biologically male bodies are not, and subject to what seems like endless public debates and representations and demands. The character of Lila Black makes all this explicit. She cannot bear children, but she is a sexual being, and that becomes a matter for her owners to police. She has feelings and desires that run counter to what those owners wish her to do, and sometimes they interfere in her thoughts to ensure her obedience. And when she pushes at her boundaries, damage ensues, to her and to others, damage she cannot control or limit. She is in free fall, in a world (a series of worlds) which seek to exploit and control and manipulate her, while giving her as little agency and respect as can be got away with. And she is perpetually required to demonstrate a gratitude she does not feel to her owners, for letting her live and obey. She fascinates and terrifies me as a reader in equal measure, and her dilemmas cut deep under my skin. To be female in public is always to be under some kind of observation, much of it from within, inculcated from early life by my culture.

Female cyborgs and robots are common in science fiction, just as the kick-ass heroine is a common figure in much urban fantasy. But while the latter is predominantly written by women, the former seems mainly to be the territory of male writers. From Metropolis and Friday, to Lexx and The Wind-Up Girl, male writers have explored female robots–as sexual partners, as threats, as objects to be explored, as vessels via which the writer may express his views on gender. But women writers seldom enter this arena. Off the top of my head, apart from Robson I can only think of Tanith Lee, whose The Electric Forest uses cyborgisation to explore identity and attitudes to the body, and perhaps Anne McCaffrey, though The Ship Who Sang is more an early attempt to address issues of bodily ability. For both Lee and McCaffrey, the robot elements are background to their stories. Robson places it front and centre and she makes it deeply, deeply problematic. There are no cute sexbots here, whether presented straightforwardly (not common in sff after the 1960s) or with an edge or humour or satire (the latter often funnier to male readers than female). Lila is no-one’s toy: she may be property, but she is not content, not fulfilled, not at home with her lot–and nor should she be. There is a powerful analysis of indentured labour at work here alongside the discussion of public femininity. This is an important series, a brilliant series, which cuts to the heart of what is wrong with a world that tells women to work and be nice and run households and be kind and be ambitious but know our place.

And yes, there are elves, and Lila looks at those elves as objects of desire–just as male characters in story after story look at women of all kinds. She looks at demons that way, too. She is a rounded, conflicted, complex person. She’s not just a robot, a thing, a toy, a reward.  And that is the point. This is a series that matters, when we discuss women in sff, and I recommend to everyone, highly. It’s worth the discomfort. And the writing is beautiful.

Kari Sperring Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (DAW 2009), (winner of the 2010 Sydney J Bounds Award, shortlisted for the William L Crawford Award and a Tiptree Award Honours’ List book) and The Grass King’s Concubine (DAW 2012). As Kari Maund, she’s an academic mediaeval historian, and author of 5 books on early Welsh, Irish and Scandinavian history. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: the true story of d’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos.