Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Moon and the Sun: A Different Kind of Sci-Fi – a book review

Science fiction fans will be surprised by Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Moon and the Sun, for it is not your typical science fiction book. Instead of aliens, super-techy intergalactic transportation or the awesome laser gun, The Moon and the Sun, takes place in seventeenth-century France, at the court of King Louis XIV – where court rituals, court intrigue, irksome, ‘all-knowing’ men, romance, natural philosophy, extremely long and cumbersome French titles, and mermaids, I mean, sea monsters, abound. Fans of McIntyre, or simply alternate history fans and romantics who love an intelligent, compassionate heroine will devour this book, all 416 pages, yelling in outrage at the men who belittle our heroine and sighing with delight when she finds love.

The Moon and the Sun, published in 1997 by Pocket Books (a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.), follows twenty-year old Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, lady-in-waiting to Mademoiselle d’Orléans, Louis XIV’s niece. Marie-Josèphe, an ambitious and curious young lady, loves mathematics and finds natural philosophy fascinating. When her brother, Father Yves de la Croix, returns from a scientific expedition, he brings back with him the endangered sea monster, whose flesh is rumored to give immortality – something King Louis XIV would love to take a bite of. Marie-Josèphe gets the chance to be her brother’s assistant, sketching the dissection of the male sea monster and feeding the live female one, which Marie-Josèphe decides she will train and tame. As Marie-Josèphe juggles her lady-in-waiting duties, her chores for her brother and the sea monster, and composing a cantata for the king, Marie-Josèphe finds herself at odds with some members of the court, especially from the men, who try to treat her as a plaything and scorn her for her interests in math, science, and music composition (all things women could never, should never do, let alone excel at). Marie-Josèphe has to endure all of this while trying her best to follow all of King Louis’s complicated rules of etiquette. Thankfully, the respectful Count de Chrétien – one of the king’s most trusted advisors and the epitome of etiquette and refinement – is there to help Marie-Josèphe. Soon, Marie-Josèphe comes to realize the captive sea monster is not a creature, a monster, but a sea woman, one with language, history, intelligence, who yearns to be free. As the only one capable of understanding the sea woman, Marie-Josèphe, with the help of Monsieur de Chrétien, must convince the youth-seeking king to release the sea woman even while others, including her brother, write her off as ridiculous and infatuated with her ‘pet.’ In the end, Marie-Josèphe has no choice but to defy her king, her brother, even His Holiness, Pope Innocent XI, in order to do what is right and save another ‘human’ creature.

One of the major themes in this story is the treatment and roles of women, especially women inclined to the sciences.  Colony-raised and fresh from convent school, Marie-Josèphe is an innocent, a fact that the other men try to take advantage of.  Previously, Marie-Josèphe had thought many men, such as the Chevalier de Lorraine, to be handsome and kind.  Instead, Marie-Josèphe discovers these men are crass, treating her as just another frail object to be played with. The chevalier even holds Marie-Josèphe down as she is bled because she is ‘hysterical,’ though Marie-Josèphe begs him not to let them bleed her. In one particularly horrifying scene, Marie-Josèphe is chased, pinched, taunted, and clothes ripped by three other male noblemen (men Marie-Josèphe had previously thought handsome and kind) while participating in the King’s Hunt. Marie-Josèphe is restrained by the role the court places on women, just as the sea woman is held captive and thought incapable of intelligence beyond base primal instincts. As the Pope says, “Women should be silent and obedient.” That is their lot in life, and Marie-Josèphe is trying her best to not be contained by that belief.

Expanding from that, McIntyre also explores what constitutes humanity and intelligence. The utter refusal of most of the characters to acknowledge the sea monster as an intelligent, conscientious being instead of a dog is astounding. The court’s utter incapacity to accept the sea monsters as another culture and race and give the sea monster due respect is cruel. As a result, the sea monster, once free, declares war on the human race if ever they should cross her path.

This leads us to empowerment from freedom– or the hint thereof. The sea monster character is reflected in Marie-Josèphe herself, a captive in her role as a woman. Marie-Josèphe, though unable to physically fight back at her tormentors, still manages to bring herself to defy them; in doing so, her punishment unwittingly releases her to pursue her dream, leaving her free to explore her love of natural philosophy. Haleed, Marie-Josèphe’s slave, also finds empowerment from freedom, even though she knows not how her life will pan out.

Marie-Josèphe’s fight against the constraints men have placed on her reflects the many other heroines featured in feminist science fiction.  The terrible treatment of women is what many feminist authors are fighting against – what their heroines are fighting against, and what everyone, should be outraged about. McIntyre’s well-researched depiction of the French court shows that the fears of feminists are not unfounded. The undermining of women has happened for centuries; what we need to remember is the immorality of such treatment – of woman and sea people.

McIntyre’s writing and research envelop you into seventeenth-century France.  You have no choice but to be sucked in and laugh at the outrageous fashion of fontanges (Google it, really). Though be warned, the French nobility have long, multiple titles, and though McIntyre tries to abbreviate, using M. and Mme. for Monsieur and Madame, names and characters can become confusing. Thank goodness McIntyre includes a character list of who’s who.

And for those who do not know, The Moon and the Sun has been chosen to be adapted into a movie, starring Pierce Brosnan next year. I, for one, cannot wait.


We’re not here to entertain you

I admire writing as a profession more and more everyday. In a letter to Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany has a brief rant about SF writers who try to be entertaining. He believes that this is a mistake on behalf of the writer because writing that tries to numbly entertain the masses is making a big sacrifice in meaning. Additionally, he thinks that the work of a writer should instead be sought out by the few for whom it is deeply relevant, creating a strong bond between the writer and reader (Delany to Russ, October 26, 1971).

I assume this is a constant struggle working in the humanities, but I feel a similar way about being in the human sciences. The general public often approaches these fields with the hope of learning something novel about the human condition. This can be frustrating because they often don’t see the value in all the hard work we’re putting into the “minutia”. Research in the human sciences is a slow and abstract process, much like that of the “hard” sciences (with which, for some reason, people have a higher tolerance for being boring). I think much of what I study in linguistics would be considered esoteric or useless by the general population. The thing is, however, that we’re not trying to give people some “cute” topic of idle chit-chat for their next brunch parties. We’re trying to push human understanding of these topics forward, and this requires just as much time and patience as it does for any of the other sciences.

Letters from Samuel Delany to Joanna Russ, Coll. 261, Box 3, Folder 1. University of Oregon Archives.


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I’m not even Unprejudiced

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The best-written thing that I have come across is a letter written by James Tiptree to Joanna Russ just when they were beginning to correspond with each other.  I do not think that it stands as a piece of literary genius, but think that it is amazingly well-written because it is both real and complex- I think about its content more than that of any of the other letters.

Throughout his personal writings, Tiptree constantly displays intense prejudices against many ethnic groups like Arabs, Catholics, and Germans.  He rants about them constantly and generally demeans them.

Yet, strikingly, in a letter to Russ from 1973, Tiptree recognizes these faults and admits that he has many prejudices deeply ingrained into his character!

In this letter, he laments about the oppression of friendly groups while simultaneously expressing his own guilt at oppressing certain groups in particular.  This letter is like witnessing the evolution of racism to civil rights in miniature.

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How remarkable that Tiptree achieved a level of self-consciousness that allowed him to reflect on his own weaknesses.  Usually people are never able to admit that they are wrong, let alone critically examine themselves in a negative light.

Because of this demonstrated capability of self-reflection, Tiptree no longer seems to be mindlessly contributing to oppression.  He has gone a step above beyond this in that he has shown that he is capable of looking at himself objectively, comprehending the wrongness of his actions, and demonstrating the ability to overcome social brainwashing.
Russ Papers, in the Joanna Russ and James Tiptree correspondence found in the Special Collections & University Archives, the University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon.  See Box 10, File 26.  Dated 1 September 1973.

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