Blood in the Fruit by L. Timmel Duchamp

Reviewed by Lesley A. Hall

Blood in the Fruit cover

Before saying anything else, what I want to emphasise about this book is that it is an absolutely compelling read: I started it one Saturday and was so gripped that I finished it the following day—and it is a long and dense book—in spite of domestic distractions. It was very hard to put down. This is worth stating at the outset, because it would be very easy to describe what Duchamp is doing with the Marq'ssan Cycle in terms which would make it all sound eminently worthy and improving and provocative of deep thought, and what we all should be reading, while neglecting the absolutely visceral impact of each volume as a narrative which grabs and does not let you go and leaves you breathless at the end.

I was invited to review Blood in the Fruit on the grounds that I had already read the preceding three volumes, Alanya to Alanya (2005), Renegade (2006), and Tsunami (2007) as they appeared. I am not so sure that it matters tremendously that one has read them all and in this order. There is not that sense one sometimes gets in reading multi-volume sagas as each episode appears: of having to work out, even though one has read the preceding volumes, "Who are these people? Why is that such an issue? What are they doing there?" The books that make up the Marq'ssan Cycle work as separate novels about continuing characters, taken at different points in their various trajectories and seen from different angles, as viewpoints shift or new characters appear and interact with them. It is thus plausible, and indeed effective, rather than clunkily info-dumpy, for there to be someone needing to be clued-in on necessary backstory and existing relationships in each book.

It may be significant that the sequence is described as a "cycle": perhaps one could enter at any point? While coming in at Blood in the Fruit would provide spoilers for certain revelations and events in the earlier volumes, it might be an interesting reading experience. It would mean starting with the influence of Kay Zeldin as it manifests here and only later plunging into the backstory we find in Alanya to Alanya and Renegade of her being swept up into the centre of the upheavals created by the advent of the Marq'ssan and their interventions on Earth and her interactions with other characters. The activities of individual characters over the course of the longer narrative create ripples affecting the lives and actions of others in subtle and sometimes slow ways, rather than having immediate, definite, linear impact.

The series demonstrates a deep knowledge of and engagement with earlier works of science fiction. But it is not necessary to the reader's enjoyment to be consciously aware of the conversation that Duchamp is conducting with the genre. Reflecting on the books after reading I am continually struck by various points where such engagement now seems obvious, but it is not done, in the text, in an ostentatious and show-offy way. For example, one does not have to have read any of the fluffier seventies feminist versions of peaceful and harmonious matriarchal or women-only societies to appreciate the far more sophisticated, complex, and realistic depiction of women, social organisation, and the tangled interplay of the personal and the political that we get here.

The Marq'ssan do not conform to common tropes about aliens arriving on a troubled Earth. They are not dangerous invaders who generate oppositional bonding in humanity. They do not bring the McGuffin which will somehow impose peaceful coexistence on the turmoil created by unmodified human nature. They are not a Galactic Police Force imposing a cordon sanitaire around a hopelessly violent and destructive species. What they have done is to intervene in ways which give humanity the space and the potential to work things out for themselves, though hovering in the background is the potential imposition of some kind of quarantine. And the Marq'ssan themselves are not unified and in complete accord. On their home world they have only relatively recently overcome their own issues of power, violence, hierarchical thinking, and unconscious pride in their various ambient identities. These are "morphologically similar to relations on your world," bound up with linguistic divisions, and visible through physical markings when they are in their natural forms. Differences among the Marq'ssan remain and they have not achieved a perfect society. Astrea, newly arrived from Marqueui in Blood in the Fruit, finds the Marq'ssan who have been working on Earth almost as alien as the humans themselves: "they are still, they hold their fields always in tight human form ... they stand clumped together" (p. 215). As she remains on Earth and goes among humans she comes to dissent from the agreed policy of indirect intervention.

As Blood in the Fruit opens, the authoritarian and hierarchical Executive remains in charge of much of the U.S., although it is still recovering from the defection of Elizabeth Weatherall and other high-ranking Executive "career-line" women. Provoked by the glass ceiling that prevented even the most talented woman from being more than Personal Assistant to a powerful man, and disillusioned by the ways in which the Executive males were handling the post-Marq'ssan situation, Weatherall and her allies have fled to a not entirely warm welcome in the Free Zone, after accomplishing significant damage to the Executive system through their intimate knowledge of and access to its intricacies. The power structure responds to the wider political situation and the internal stresses created by this rebellion by becoming even more defensively paranoid and authoritarian in its repressive measures, while internecine tensions between different arms of the Executive deepen. Robert Sedgewick, whose entanglement in the lives of Zeldin and Weatherall formed such a significant element in their trajectories, has returned from his descent into psychosis and alcoholism to some degree of apparent functionality in his former position of Chief of Security Services. Meanwhile the humanitarian activist lawyer Celia Espin continues her attempts to mitigate the rigours of the system through the law. The Free Zone, allied with and learning from the Marq'ssan, is flourishing and developing and even expanding its boundaries.

Two of the main viewpoints in Blood in the Fruit belong to individuals who have reluctantly been drawn into the action through their relationship to particular key players rather than through individual convictions or commitment. We observe Elizabeth Weatherall, Sedgewick's former Personal Assistant, previously a viewpoint character, through the eyes of her service-tech lover Hazel, who has followed her into the Free Zone for personal rather than political reasons. Sedgewick is seen through the eyes of the adolescent daughter whom he has reft away (the allusions to the myth of Persephone are painfully apt) from her expected course as a "maternal-line" woman of the Executive class, to be a substitute both for the son in whom he is disappointed, and for the other women on whom he has depended over the years for psychic sustenance and practical support services. The other main viewpoint characters are Celia Espin, and the recently arrived Marq'ssan, Astrea.

A central theme is the difference between those with the desire for a "nice orderly world" and a trust in systems and hierarchical structures to bring this about, even in the face of experiences of the authoritarian abuses perpetrated in the name of good order; and those who open themselves to the uncertainties and risk of dealing with the complexities of bringing about much broader changes in human life and interactions. In one scene, it's pointed out to Celia Espin that her trust in the possibility of a non-corrupt, non-abusive legal system reveals her to have more in common than she would really like to believe with the renegade Executive women, who don't want to abolish existing systems but believe that they can reform them simply by replacing the people within them. One does, however, wonder whether the "complicated tangle of relations and possibilities" characteristic of the Free Zone and the Coop might prove vulnerable to the emergence of an informal power structure (the danger pointed out in the classic 1970 essay by Jo Freeman, "Joreen," on "The Tyranny of Structurelessness"), or to manipulation for dubious ends by a charismatic individual, less committed to anarchist ideals than Martha Greenglass, "consummate master of strategy and suasion" (p. 54), and less given than her to searching self-analysis and admission of mistakes.

To describe this as a novel of ideas would give an entirely false impression of a static narrative in which people sit around debating their thoughts about things. The ideas are there, but they are dramatised, embodied (sometimes very literally) in the experiences of the characters. We are shown, rather than told, that although Weatherall may have made huge changes in her personal life and inflicted major disruptions on the Executive and the Security Service, in very significant ways she has not changed at all. As observed by the woman who loves her, but is far from accepting the whole of her agenda, there are many assumptions that she fails to question, or whose existence she completely refuses to acknowledge. The way different individuals respond to change and insecurity is brilliantly demonstrated in (among other passages) the interactions between the other renegade Executive women in Weatherall's circle, and with the service-techs who have accompanied their flight, as well as between these service-techs, several of whom cling to former hierarchies and protocols for security in a shifting and bewildering world.

While apparently radical changes are revealed as less revolutionary than they may seem, the process of gradual change and development of political awareness is delicately depicted. In particular Hazel becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the way that Weatherall continues to frame their relationship within the parameters of Executive woman and service-tech "girl" and dismisses any tensions as due to jealousy and petty personal attention-seeking. She cannot help contrasting this with the different attitudes and practices prevailing in the Free Zone which she encounters while acting as Weatherall's go-between. This slow yet profound change, generated through the contingency of Hazel's relationship with Weatherall bringing her into the Free Zone and the consequent opening up of fresh opportunities through this mediatory function, strikes a welcome note of hope.

Blood in the Fruit is not a comfortable read: it goes to some very dark places indeed, although never pruriently lingers on pain and suffering in a gratuitous fashion. But it is a very rewarding one.

Comments

Posted by S.M. Stirling at May 25, 2008 5:44 AM:

There's nothing new in the "ideas" of these books; in fact, to anyone who's read any political philosophy, or history for that matter, they're groaningly, thump-your-fists-on-your-head familiar.

As the poet said, "And the fool's bandaged finger/Goes wobbling back to the fire."

Anarchism, both left and right (libertarian) varieties, are this generation's equivalent of Marxism and Fascism back 'when, say in the 30's; they're dumb ideologies for otherwise smart people.

The common factor is a longing for transcendence, a desire to "break on through to the other side", where all conflicts are resolved, where there is no power, no hierarchy, no clash of interests. Religions generally at least have the sense to postpone this to an afterlife or far-off End Time.

The problem with a severely fact-challenged ideology like this -- one which makes false-to-fact assumptions about human beings, the world, and how they operate or could operate -- is that it virtually compells you to start believing in conspiracies and attributing things going wrong to evil machinations by bad people.

Otherwise you have to admit error, and worse, that you just can't have what you most long for and desire, which is beyond most people's capacity.

It's a small step from there to killing the 'bad people' who are blocking the utopian transformation... all with the best of intentions, of course, and in the service of "ultimately" reaching the land of promise where the State withers away, or whatever the buzzword is.

Oddly, this good day never quite comes. What a surprise.

That's what happens in reality; in a book, you can have a happier outcome.

Where have we heard this song before?

That's why revolutionary-utopian political regimes degenerate almost overnight into murderous tyrannies when they overthrow their predecessors; a mountain of corpses proves the point that they're invariably worse than what they originally objected to, as Lenin outdid the Czars in blood and terror.

If it sounds too good to be true, that's probably because it is.

When Vlaclav Havel was overseeing the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia, he made an extremely good point as to why his effort didn't end in a bloodbath, but instead actually improved things somewhat:

"Ours is a revolution _against_ Utopia; a revolution in favor of a moderate, limited, rational happiness."

You see this Utopian dynamic as a subtext (unacknowledged, for the most part) in the book in question, where the Executive has personnel policies which would get them hauled into court and sued into oblivion in the US in 2008.

Why? Because they're... well... BAD people! Bad! Bad! All sorts of badness!

That punches up the tension between them and the anarchist "Good People". It would look a little different if the Executive were the actual US, with its messy, imperfect, but genuine democracy, never perfect and always improving.

And the "Free Zone" is the sort of thing that can operate quite effectively... in a book, where the author gets to make up the rules as he or she goes along, and you can have total freedom because everyone agrees with the author/God.

Out in the real world (tm), anyone who's ever dealt with getting more than a couple of people to do -anything- recognizes the "iron law of hierarchy" and the inherent tendency of human beings to pick sides, develop in-group loyalties, and compete for status.

A -genuinely- egalitarian group never does anything but sit around and squabble. It can proceed only by consensus, and even consensus invariably requires a strong personality.

As a college student I watched various "collectives" go through this process again and again; feminist collectives, socialist ones, anarchist ones... you name it. Ah, and SF fandom! The Borgias had nothing on it.

At a university or a convention it's just an amusing spectator sport, just as university tribalism (over sports teams, for instance) is an amusing parody of the thing it mimics.

Out in the real world(tm) blood flows. "And the fool's bandaged finger..."

That's how the hunter-gatherer bands in which we evolved operated; consensus via domination by the strongest, whether physically or by symbolic manipulation or by a mixture of both. Face it, we're like chimps that way, not bonobos.

What happens in our world, where we cannot live in the small, face-to-face homogenous groups for which we evolved, is that some individual with more personal charisma takes over and attracts followers, or a cabal forms, or both, and you've got a hierarchy again.

One often more oppressive than the system it opposes, because it's unacknowledged and clandestine and without formal avenues of petition or redress. Utopia doesn't need an ombudsman or an opposition party. Everyone agrees on fundamentals, in utopia.

And if they don't, they're obviously BAD people...

To domesticate hierarchy you have to acknowledge it -- that it's there, you're never going to get rid of it, because politics is part of being human, along with conflict and the lust for power. Ditto violence. You can restrict it, you can limit it, you can formalize and channel it, but you can never, ever get rid of it.

Trying to get rid of politics, power or violence just unleashes them, by breaking the carefully, painfully accumulated limits and barriers.

The Law of Unintended Consequences kicks in.

If you acknowledge the facts, you can find the arragements -- democracy, regulated capitalism, feminism, whatever -- that make the situation "less bad", because the best is the enemy of "good enough".

As Marx said in one of his more felicitous moments, human beings make history -- but they can never make it "just as they please".

They cannot escape their historical context, and of course they cannot escape the constraints of natural law. You can -use- these things but never get rid of them.

That's why utopia is a poisoned fruit. It's a fantasy of escape from history, from limitation.

It's not just unrealistic; it's inherently _bad_, a political regression to infantile delusions of omnipotence and being coterminous with the world, and can lead to nothing but evil and unnecessary suffering.

Ghu knows there's enough suffering of the inescapable kind without adding to it. The slaughterhouse of the past century is an exhaustive testing to destruction of the concept.

And "well, I've got a better version of utopia, so it'll really work THIS TIME" is not real convincing.

Again, we've heard that song before.

Posted by S.M. Stirling at May 25, 2008 6:47 AM:

Or as the Empress Catherine said to Voltaire, when he criticized her for not making more sweeping reforms:

"You write on paper. I have to write on living human skin, which is infinitely more twitchy and ticklish."

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Lesley Hall is an archivist and historian who has been reading (and writing) science fiction and fantasy since childhood.