It’s the sort of book that I can’t quite get out of my head–I even had a dream about it Saturday, which never happens. Of course, I was most of the way through the book and the only reason I went to bed was because I was tired, otherwise I would have stayed up to finish it. But still! Books usually don’t worm their way into my subconscious like that.
So I clearly need to write some more about this book. This is going to be full of spoilers and I’m sorry, but there is so much COOL STUFF going on in the book that I can’t help myself and I don’t know anyone who has read it and I can only natter on at Sunny so much about her book because after a certain point it just looks like sucking up. (And yeah, I know, I know–a second blog post also looks like sucking up but this book has eaten my brain in a completely awesome way and that doesn’t happen often.)
One of the main themes of this book, for me, was real diversity versus force diversity–it’s all over the place in the book once you start looking for it.
First, you have basically two kinds of humans: the Protectorate and the Bideshi. The Protectorate are carefully cultivated to be perfect both inside and out. Any imperfection or weakness is ruthlessly culled–their entire society is structured around this and even lower-status individuals have been genetically engineered. In contrast to this are the Bideshi. They don’t do much, if any, manipulation of the genome and their medical treatments have a distinctly spiritual component and are aimed at treating the whole person, not just the symptom (aside: I’d love to see a story from the POV of a Bideshi healer). The Bideshi don’t cull those who are different–they accept them as part of the group.
This Bideshi attitude is exemplified in the character of Kae, who is trans* and who insisted on being having his Naming several years earlier than he normally would have in order to access the necessary treatment in order to prevent his body from developing female secondary sex characteristics. And this is one of the places where it becomes clear that while the Bideshi are awesome, they aren’t perfect: if you fail the Naming, you are given a ship and supplies and sent off and it’s implied you aren’t to ever come back. So that’s pretty harsh–but it’s still marginally kinder than what the Protectorate does, which is what happens to Adam: he’s told he needs medical treatment and stripped of his medical benefits and it nearly bankrupts him. The Bideshi seem, to me, to be much more humane than the Protectorate.
So there’s that going on. You also have a couple of botanical metaphors going on, too. Melissa Cosaire, the de facto head of the Protectorate, is an avid gardener. She has a small garden in her office and she seems to spend a lot of time propagating genetically distinct and perfect specimens. She herself is a perfect specimen of humanity–at least according to the Protectorate’s standards. Her kind of perfection is not accessible to everyone.
Contrasted to this is Ixchel, the Aalim of Ashwina. Aalim are teachers who have chosen to give up their physical sight for a kind of internal sight. Ixchel is very obviously imperfect and her garden–as much as it can be called hers–is a cathedral of trees aboard Ashwina. It grows as it will and it is a sacred space to all Bideshi.
Basically what you have here is a group of humans that look perfect but who are terribly flawed–there is a lack of hybrid vigor, so to speak. They are so overbred that the fact that their genetic modifications are inserted by way of a virus is a huge weakness–it leaves them susceptible to genetic degradation that quickly leads to death And then you have another group of humans who have explicitly rejected this way of life and who have embraced the other extreme and who are, as a result, the only hope for the Protectorate.
This tension between artificial and natural runs throughout the whole book and is reflected in the way the Bideshi and Protectorate choose to build their homes and how they’ve structured their society and it’s just fascinating to see it play out through the course of the book–and it will, I think, be even more fascinating to see how Moraine and Soem manage to reunite these two very disparate halves of humanity in future volumes.