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Review: Carnival by Elizabeth Bear

Posted by Cyn | Posted in Reading | Posted on 21-03-2008

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Cover of CarnivalEliz­a­beth Bear suc­ceeds where David Brin failed in Glo­ry Sea­son. What would a woman-dom­i­nat­ed human soci­ety look like? How would it come about? Why? What, if any, role would males play? How would that soci­ety inter­act with more “tra­di­tion­al,” male-dom­i­nat­ed human soci­eties?

I don’t real­ly know if she set out to answer those ques­tions when she start­ed writ­ing Car­ni­val, but she did a good job of it, any­way. Her vision is hope­ful, but she doesn’t wear blind­ers. The char­ac­ters of the nov­el move as a mar­velous ensem­ble, the main fig­ures fleshed out believ­ably in their sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences.

Vin­cent Kather­i­nessen and Michelan­ge­lo Osiris Leary Kusana­gi-Jones are a cou­ple sep­a­rat­ed for near­ly 20 years by a repres­sive gov­ern­ment that doesn’t approve of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. They are expert diplo­mats and spies, sent by their gov­ern­ment to New Ama­zo­nia1 to secure impor­tant tech­nol­o­gy by agree­ment or espi­onage. Old Earth and its Coali­tion are ruled by the Gov­er­nors, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gences pro­grammed to con­trol the pop­u­la­tion and its impact. Every­one lives under con­stant threat of being declared “sur­plus” and being “Assessed” — killed. As a result, there is strong pres­sure to migrate out­ward. New Ama­zo­nia is an attrac­tive plan­et with an appar­ent­ly lim­it­less source of clean pow­er, and as such it is a key tar­get for assim­i­la­tion by the Coali­tion.

Cover of HammeredLesa Pre­to­ria is a strong woman from a line of strong women. In her world, women rule and while men are not slaves, they are def­i­nite­ly sec­ond-class cit­i­zens. Men are sep­a­rat­ed into “stud” and “gen­tle” (homo­sex­u­al) class­es, with stud males sent from their fam­i­lies for fos­ter­ing and com­bat train­ing at an ear­ly age. If they per­form well enough in the Are­na to sur­vive, they have a chance at con­tracts with var­i­ous women’s house­holds. The lives of gen­tle males aren’t explained as ful­ly, but they are freer than the stud males. All men must wear their “licens­es” in plain view at all times, and they are sel­dom per­mit­ted to go out unescort­ed. There is no men­tion of men own­ing prop­er­ty or office, or indeed par­tic­i­pat­ing in the gov­ern­ment in any respect.

Cover of ScardownBecause Lesa loves her bril­liant young son, she doesn’t want him sent to the Are­na. But he doesn’t seem like­ly to be gen­tle, and she has few legal choic­es to give him. She’s unusu­al in her world, in that she also has devel­oped a strong emo­tion­al attach­ment to Robert, the stud male who fathered at least two of her three chil­dren. She knows that there are sig­nif­i­cant fac­tions who want all males removed from their world, while oth­er rad­i­cal fac­tions would turn their soci­ety upside-down. She’s left to walk a tightrope, try­ing to pre­serve her fam­i­ly and soci­ety while work­ing for pos­i­tive change.

I great­ly enjoyed the world-build­ing aspects of the nov­el, and would love to read more of Vin­cent and Angelo’s adven­tures — from ear­li­er in their careers, per­haps?

Cover of WorldWiredLesa does ask, at one point, why a gov­ern­ment that is so focused on pop­u­la­tion con­trol would be so anti-homo­sex­u­al. Wouldn’t it make sense to encour­age non-repro­duc­tive pair­ings? Angelo’s response, that peo­ple always divide into “us” and “them,” espe­cial­ly under oppres­sive sit­u­a­tions, makes as much sense as any­thing else.

Bear is one of my favorite cur­rent authors. I also read her Jen­ny Casey tril­o­gy this month. Ham­mered, Scar­down, and World­Wired are every bit as good as Car­ni­val. I strong­ly sug­gest that you have all three, and a good chunk of time to spend read­ing them, before you start the first.


1 When asked about the name of the plan­et, a native says, “What, you didn’t think we had a sense of humor?” so I assume that it is intend­ed as a joke.

Comments (2)

OOooh sounds like a great read!

Have you ever read The Gates to Women’s Coun­try by Sher­ri S. Tep­per? It address­es some of the same issues, and also does it very well.

I’ve read a fair amount of Tep­per, but not that one, odd­ly. I’ll have to check it out 🙂