Friday, September 3, 2010

Sci Fi Friday Review: Nomansland by Lesley Hauge

Found via: the Amelia Bloomer Project

Feminist science fiction has long explored matriarchies and woman-only worlds/societies. When I saw one pop up for the YA set, needless to say, I was excited.

NomanslandSometime in the future, on the island of Foundland, women have established themselves as dominant, and declared men to be the enemy. Trackers are trained in horse riding and weaponry to protect the windswept island in case any men attempt to invade, as greedy, violent men are wont to do. The newest of these trackers are a cohort of teenage girls, who despite having lived all their lives by the strict rules of Foundland find themselves rebelling in subtle and not-so subtle ways. Laing, the leader of the trainees, is constantly trying to invent fashion fads within the strict dress code, from towel turbans after bathing to rolling up her sleeves just so. Keller, our protagonist, longs for friendship, maybe even a best friend, though such relationships are strictly forbidden.

Then Laing lets her fellow trackers in on a secret. She has discovered an underground room, filled with treasures from the Old People of the Time Before. Such objects are supposed to be reported immediately, but the curious girls keep the find to themselves, exploring the strange powdery paints, angled shoes with spiked heels, and glossy pages filled with pictures of people unlike anyone the girls have ever seen. In a society governed by strict rules, what repercussions will the girls' discovery have?

I had high hopes for this one - it seems like it should hit lots of my buttons, but despite Hauge's citation of feminist works as her inspiration, parts of this book actually came off as more anti-feminist. Looking at the Feminist SF wiki, I think feminism anxiety hits my feelings about this pretty closely - the women of Foundland are humorless, sexually frustrated, and uncreative. And the girls' fascination with the trappings of 21st century womanhood struck me as odd. Curious about these objects they'd never seen? Sure. But all of them immediately embracing them as amazing and beautiful struck me as an example of thinking that femininity is an innate trait, rather than a learned behavior (gender is a social construct).

I also felt the world building was extremely shallow. Not only have the women of Foundland separated themselves from men, but the people outside of their borders (and there are apparently both men and women out there) are apparently suffering from some sort of deformity. Were all men and some women effected and that's why Foundland banished men? Also, the jacket copy focuses a lot on the Trackers and their amazing abilities, making this sound like some sort of action adventure novel - but in fact, we only catch a brief glimpse of fully-fledged Trackers, and spend the rest of the time with the teenage recruits who do little more than ride and take care of their horses.

What is excellently done is Hauge's ability to describe objects that are mundane to a 21st century reader, but are utterly foreign in Keller's world. Here's an example:
My eye wanders, eventually settling on two more contraptions, each with two wheels in direct alignment with each other and held together by metal spars and a central inverted triangle of metal, upon which is a tiny, odd-shaped leather saddle. At one end are a pair of curved metal pipes that look as though they are to be held in some way, and at the apex of the inverted triangle is another mechanism flanked on either side by a small block of something solid that surely must provide some kid of propelling force along cogs and a chain that connects to the wheels. -Nomansland, pages 43-44
Passages like this remind me of the old writing exercise - give step-by-step instructions for an easy task, like making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, getting into nitty-gritty questions like baking bread vs. buying a loaf from the store. I thought it was extremely well done.
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