by Suzette Haden Elgin
I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. It had an interesting premise — in a future where women are subjugated, families of linguists are the only means for humans to communicate with dozens of extraterrestrial species; the United States government tries to usurp their power even as female linguists plan an unconventional rebellion. And there are good things about the novel; structurally, it’s nicely put together, with character and plot dovetailing well. The climax, with its presentation of reality shaped by language, makes for an interesting conclusion. Multiple perspectives are for the most part well-handled (though individual characters are often flat), and bring out different aspects of the theme and setting. But ...
The setting doesn’t really make sense to me. There’s a constant confusion between ‘humanity’ and ‘the United States’ which is really troubling; the US is the only nation that seems to be challenging the linguists’ monopoly on alien communication, and indeed other countries and cultures are only vaguely waved at in passing. Linguists are given the ability to manipulate people by language, which is okay, but the depiction of this process is clunky and unsubtle; it’s impossible to believe in the presentation we get. And the presence of aliens — nearly fifty of whom have dealings with humanity — has apparently not led to any significant change in human society.
This last is particularly odd given the subjugation of women in the novel’s society. Many of the aliens apparently have gender (both biologically and linguistically) — are all of them patriarchal, as human society has become? If not, how does that affect human relations with the aliens?
Crucially, the issue of the subjugation of women is confused. In the novel, women all over the Earth are legally disenfranchised, reduced to the status of children in the eyes of the law. There are references made to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in the US, and to discoveries in the 1990s — the novel was published in 1984 — which proved that women were mentally inferior to men. I get the impression that the reader is meant to assume that the chauvinism which led to the defeat of the ERA led to bogus scientific discoveries buttressing claims of male supremacy, in the same sort of way apartheid-era South Africa churned out studies claiming that White people were superior to Blacks. The problem is, that’s not really what the book actually presents. In the future the book gives us, countries all around the world apparently take these experiments as proven fact, and change their laws to match. Note some countries actually have, or had, the constitutional guarantee that the US voted down. Canada, for example, would have had to radically alter its constitution to fall in line with the kind of society Elgin suggests is normal in the future. It’s inconceivable that the failure of a single piece of American legislation (however regrettable) could have had that kind of global impact. So ... the only way to make sense of the world of the novel is to conclude that in this world, women really were proved to be mentally inferior to men. Which then becomes problematic, if only because there’s no hint in the way the characters think and act that the women are in any way less intelligent than the males, and certainly nothing in the book that examines the implications of the premise.
So, basically, the setting of the novel really doesn’t make a lot sense, and suffers from an annoying America-centric perspective. I get the impression that the novel was written as a reaction to the failure of the ERA; if so, it reads like it needed either one more or one fewer draft. One more, which would have fixed some of the problems with the setting; or one less, which might have allowed the emotion that inspired the book to come through. As it is, it’s an occasionally interesting but fundamentally flawed read.