Gender-neutral military service in Elizabeth Moon’s Once a Hero

just look at that space suit: I hope she's on a low grav planet
just look at that space suit: I hope she’s on a low grav planet

Elizabeth Moon writes sf about the space navy, making combat and military command truly gender-neutral: I did a podcast on her back in 2012. I first came across Moon when she co-wrote volumes 1 and 3 of a space trilogy with Anne McCaffrey, called Sassinak and Generation Warriors. I was powerfully struck by these novels because (a) they were a rejuvenation in quality from anything McCaffrey had done on her own, and (b) they brought into being a whole new space navy universe that I really wanted to read more about. I did try one of Moon’s fantasy novels once, from the Paksworld series, but couldn’t be bothered with it: medievalised multi-volume fantasy epics bore me. The depth of Moon’s science fiction imagination is what makes her an outstanding novelist for me.

serrano-sportingchanceOnce A Hero is the central novel of a sequence of seven, called the Serrano Legacy. The structure is a bit convoluted: bear with me here. The first three novels (Hunting Party, Sporting Chance, and Winning Colors) are about a cashiered space navy captain, Heris Serrano, who’s grimly creating a new career for herself captaining a rich old lady’s private yacht as they roam the galaxy looking for bloodstock for the old lady’s stable of racehorses. You’ll have noticed the key words in the book titles that suggest racing, chasing, sport and surviving. The plot thickens into a dark story of a human hunt by navy officers on planet leave. In the course of this, Serrano begins to realise that her cashiering and enforced departure from the Fleet was a set-up, naval security has been compromised, planet pirates are moving in, and it all gets very exciting as she shows her quality and takes command of a navy vessel to beat off the attack. During the last 20 pages of Winning Colors, we hear about a remarkable but unassuming junior lieutenant who got involved in a mutiny to prevent the ship’s captain turning over ship and crew to an enemy force, and ended up commanding the ship, demonstrating seriously effective tactical and strategic thinking on her feet, and destroying the enemy vessel.

serrano-onceaheroThis junior lieutenant is Esmay Suiza, and her story is told in the next novel, Once a Hero, and continues in three more novels. The Serrano characters take a back seat for these, but remain as a a dynasty of powerful and influential high-ranking space navy commanders and admirals (all women), plus one very junior male ensign. The Esmay Suiza novels are a long, leisurely read of high-tech weaponry, addictive storytelling and political intrigue in a military world that I find fascinating because I’ve never served in the military. I know almost nothing about real or plausible military protocol and etiquette, but I do find it interesting that in focusing the narrative on how people relate to each other within ranks, within services, in how they work together, Moon makes sure that we learn vast amounts about how the service works as a whole.

serrano-againsttheoddsThe factor that determines the shape of people’s careers and the sociology of Moon’s universe in Once A Hero, and the whole Serrano series, is the idea of extended life. In John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen, extending women’s lives caused men to sit up and take notice, because this meant a serious change in men’s social roles. In Once A Hero, extending life through biological rejuvenation is expensive and thus limited, but it is gender-neutral: anyone can do it, if they can afford it. It’s also a routine medical and cosmetic procedure. Socially speaking, its effect will be to freeze up career advancement through the institutions and the governing powers at the top end, and in Once A Hero it’s already having an economic effect, as an obvious marker of wealth, influence and power for those who need to make a living. Rejuv becomes an essential in the quality of life, which drives up its value, thus causing unnerving instability in the interplanetary economy, and in galactic politics. Even the barbarian hordes of Aethar’s World want longer life, despite their Viking tendencies to leap joyously into battle to embrace death. These sophisticated repercussions show Moon’s quality as a novelist, in creating wondrous, logic-based worlds by working out the social repercussions of an idea. The hardware of traditional space opera is merely an add-on in her worlds.

Moon puts the idea of a quick-fix physical rejuvenation to meaningful use by applying it to medicine, to rejuvenating the body after injury. In the story, the assurance of rejuvenation appears to discount the effects of serious damage done to characters, but that is when we only think about physical damage. There is hardly any violence in Once A Hero, but what there is, is pretty nasty. When characters receive wounds this is recounted neutrally, and constantly buttressed with reassurances, from the characters to each other, or implicitly to the reader, that the damage will be fixed: rejuv will mend the bones, and the internal organ damage will be repaired after a few weeks in the rejuv tanks. But after the bones have mended, Moon takes a lot of time to show how psychological damage as a result of combat or attack is affecting these serving soldiers, male and female. Rejuv can’t help this damage: this is a matter for the psychonannies, a kind of nurse therapist whom the soldiers regard with dismay and some shame while they’re still denying that they need help, but eventually go to freely. Since I haven’t read any modern war fiction I don’t know how common this is in stories about Iraq or Afghanistan. By setting war-related psychiatric trauma in a sf context Moon has freedom to explore the areas she wants, and to send feminist messages which wouldn’t work so well in a real-life war setting. Esmay is only able to open up about her trauma when she feels she can do good by her disclosure, so she offers her pain as a gift and as an example to a damaged junior colleague who is also struggling with male pride about being tough. Thus she demonstrates leadership, strength, empathy, and does not hang on to egotricity. Is this feminist? Not particularly, but it does show what a cracking good leader this female soldier will be, once she works out what she really wants in her life.

Esmay Suiza’s problem is that she is a phenomenally talented junior lieutenant who should be a command-track candidate, but she has inexplicably shunted herself into technical track service, as if she wanted to bury herself in a job where she would be good and useful but unseen. Why is this? She’s already suffered considerable violence that she is only just beginning to discover in her past, and the novel is largely concerned with her recovering memories, her readjustment of her relationships with those who lied to her, and how she will learn to think of herself from now on.

serrano-changeofcommandIn the universe of Moon’s novels, most planetary civilisations allow the sexes to be equal (she does not mention intersexes, but maybe she will in the future). In Once A Hero and its sequels we get a closer look at two planetary civilisations where they are not, so we can compare them. The first is the really very ludicrous barbarian culture of Aethar’s World, which is nothing more than a high-tech Valhalla: their women are only for breeding and feeding. The other is Esmay Suiza’s own planet of Altiplano, a horse-breeding and agricultural society where women can hold office but are excluded from military role, and are expected to have total responsibility for the home. It’s fossilised, but not necessarily closed, and Esmay has run away from it. What makes Esmay such an interesting hero is that she is a woman excelling in military prowess against the tradition of her family. A woman who left her planet to specialise in technical-track military training, against cultural tradition. Hmm. Why would she do this? What made her leave? Any what has this to do with her very confused ideas about what she is, and what she can clearly do?

Elizabeth Moon’s two sf series, the Vatta’s War books and the Serrano Legacy series, have these characteristics in common: a woman commanding a military or armed force, in charge of teams of men and women; a woman with brilliant tactical and strategic planning skills; a woman happy to have relationships with men lower down the chain of command, but also not stupid enough to let these jeopardise any mission; a woman with empathy for the weak and vulnerable, and no time for the arrogant and stupid; a woman with a goal and a strong sense of her own worth. There will be extended scenes of fighting on- and off-board ship, of the unravelling of deceptions, of nail-biting bluff-heavy interviews, huge amounts of rich technical description that we don’t have to understand if we don’t want to, a strong sense of the bigness of space, and the eternal worry about the consequences of not having enough credit to fix the FTL drive when bits fall off. The economics of flying a space ship are uppermost in the minds of most of Moon’s female characters, because many of them have budget responsibility, as commercial traders, military commanders, or private contractors running their own businesses. This is extraordinarily refreshing (see my grumpy remark about medievalised fantasy epics, above). There is also a very good joke about a fruit cake, but you’ll need to look for it in the Vatta’s War series. Elizabeth Moon is a totally consistent novelist: her quality never falters. Go read her now.


Flying with the brain ships in Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang

anne-mccaffrey 1I’m having a private Anne McCaffrey festival today, since I’m simultaneously posting a review of her son’s memoir of her, Dragonholder, over on Vulpes Libris. This post draws a line under the mini-series of podcast scripts about gentlemanly thrillers that ended here last week, and begins a new series on feminist science fiction. It also follows up on the things I had to say about James Blish last week, by looking at how women writers wrote about science and society in science fiction, even if it’s made-up science. I do enjoy novels where the gender thing is unimportant: where feminism has done its job, or, in the science fiction canon, shows how the job ought to be done to produce a future society, how society ought to be. Fantasy is no good for this sort of speculation, because science has rules, plots have to obey them, and fantasy is so deliciously soggy and woolly, you can’t follow any proposition to its logical conclusion when wizards and magic get in the way.

the edition I read in my teens, a glorious watery cover
the cover I like best, a glorious watery seascape

This time, I’ve been reading one of Anne McCaffrey’s earliest novels, from 1969, The Ship Who Sang. It was first published as short stories in various SF magazines from the early 1960s. The stories are linked episodes in the story of Helva, a woman born with severe birth defects who passed the neurological tests to join the brain ship programme. She is encased in a titanium shell with neurological and emotional links to her spaceship, and travels the galaxies as a working vessel. She can talk to whoever she wants to by tight beam, she can magnify all her senses to know exactly what is going on in her ship at any level, and when she’s without human cargo she has the power to travel faster than any human normally could. Her eyes don’t work, but her visual senses are perfect. Her special talent is singing, which she does multivocally once she’s taught herself how to manipulate her voicebox and larynx with her implanted microphones. The technology McCaffrey invokes to suggest hi-tech solutions and a perfect match of body and machine are vague, but scientifically persuasive.

note the blonde lurking in the middle distance, in case we don't realise the book is about a blonde (which it isn't)
note the blonde lurking in the middle distance, in case we don’t realise the book is about a blonde (which it isn’t)

McCaffrey wrote in the fantasy and science fiction genres simultaneously. Once she became famous for her dragons of Pern books (fantasy) and had developed a canon, she co-wrote science fiction novels with younger writers, mainly to give them a boost, but also, I think, to refresh her own inspiration. I’ll be raving about Elizabeth Moon, the best of these then ‘new’ writers with whom McCaffrey collaborated, in a couple of weeks. Twenty years after the publication of The Ship Who Sang McCaffrey invented a new series of novels about the brain ships, by sharing her old idea with new writers, to give a good old idea new life for new readers (The Ship Who Won, The City that Fought, etc.). The Ship Who Sang is the only novel of the series by McCaffrey alone, and while it’s not the strongest in terms of writing, or emotional impact, it was a trailblazer, and has most of the best ideas and most inspiring science, written in a woman-oriented way.

So, Helva is the ship, but she works with a partner, called a ‘brawn’, a human pilot with whom she can partner till death, or can accept temporarily. This is an obvious analogy to a marriage, but since Helva is permanently sealed away from human touch, and would die if she were removed from her nutrient fluid, her relationships are working partnerships where the partners must be emotionally in tune without the help of physical contact. Partners can be in love with each other: Helva’s first partner dies on a mission, and several of the stories are about her struggling with her grief and desire for suicide. Brawns can develop fixations on their brain partners, which leads to dangerous situations, since they could, potentially, open the shell, with catastrophic results for the people, and for the Company’s investment in brain ship training and medical care. Brain partners like Helva have to be emotionally mature to handle the psychological demands of both physical confinement and separation from the human world, because you can’t run away from your mind. Relationships and how to negotiate them are the main focus in these early stories, using the male-female dynamic to show how characters differ as a reaction to personal trauma. The plots of the stories are very concerned with health: physical health, mental health, drug addiction, the maintenance of good gene pools on distant planets, the effects of unknown viruses, and the threat of psychosis. There is no heavy weaponry in these stories: all conflict is handled and resolved with psychology, and Helva’s manipulation of her own skills and toolkit.

a gorgeous minimalist cover illustration
a gorgeous minimalist cover

The first story is about acceptance: humans accepting the brain ships as responsible adults, rather than indentured slaves of the Central Worlds, who are the equivalent of an intergalactic UN. Helva teams up with her first brawn, he dies in an accident, and she learns that her life is important without him. Helva’s grief is about the loss of a man she loves, but also about her need for companionship in her working life as well. The dynamics of how two people work together in confined spaces, in difficult situations, over time and space, where privacy and personal space are limited: all are tackled in this story, and in most of the others, with remarkable economy. You can’t help but be reminded that McCaffrey knows all this stuff from life. She was divorced, after all.

Mourning continues in the second episode, when Helva takes Theoda, a physiotherapist, to a planet where most of the population have been paralysed by a space plague. Her vision adjustments can detect microscopic reactions from these doomed people to the ancient techniques of rehab applied by the therapist, and this shows the survivors how they can rehabilitate their people, particularly the children who will relearn movement fastest: another triumph of an augmented human-machine response. Whether Helva’s contribution is because she is a woman is not the point. She’s interested in people, and supports the therapist’s mission by participating because Theoda interests her. Empathy, a need to help, a desire to assist, are not solely feminine characteristics, but in presenting them as so important, so crucial for the plot, and so desirable in a well-adjusted and normal person who happens to be female, McCaffrey shows us that women using such skills are highly valuable in society. (This was 1969, remember.)

another cover with an awkward juxtaposition of a woman's head and space hardware
another cover with an awkward juxtaposition of a woman’s head and space hardware

The next story is the one has a B movie plot, and a gratuitous use of Bob Dylan. I really don’t like it when real-world people are brought into fiction. It drags the plot back from imagination to dreary reappropriation, and it dates the story indelibly, producing an impression of lack of imagination rather than enthusiastic hommage. I’m sure I’ve seen this plot on Star Trek several times, and I think it pops up in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well: a deranged brain ship mourning her dead brawn by enslaving the local population with her voice to kill themselves as a sacrifice to He Who Orders. Helva’s new brawn is a woman in mourning because her husband died before they could store their genes, and her disastrous first childbirth killed the baby and prevented her from having more. She and Helva have to pick up donations of embryos in plastic ribbon to repopulate a planet which lost its gene pool, and they are lured to a place where life is an abomination and death is an act of devout sacrifice, all aided by hallucigenic gases from volcanic eruptions. McCaffrey’s focus here is on motherhood and nurturing life: the ethics of creating test-tube embryos are easily upheld by having a very obvious villain object to them. The motherhood / midwife role played by two women who physically cannot have children is a very targeted way to concentrate on exactly what motherhood is, and what the body’s role actually is: another feminist debate.

The fourth story gives Helva more people to play with, a group of actors whom she is transporting across the galaxies to perform Romeo and Juliet to a planet of jellyfish who communicate in the language of physics. How would you enact ‘Soft, what light from yonder window breaks?’ in equations? The actors, and Helva (she has perfect recall, she can play any part required, and it turns out she can act quite well) are transported into jellyfish shells to perform, and find the experience of exchanging energies in the performance of the play almost too overwhelming to survive. This story is about selflessness and ego, about denying your own needs for the benefit of others, or being totally selfish. The snottiest actor is an egotistical madam who specialises in ruining scenes and upstaging others to get her own way, and to prove her skills. (I should mention that McCaffrey used also to work in theatre: she’s writing off some old grievances here, I think.) Trouble is, to survive best in the jellyfish environment, ego is necessary, and what a shame that the egotistical one ends up trapped there, no longer able to use her body and physicality to attract attention, but must rely on her mental and emotional powers, finally forced to play true to her actorly skills.

generic dullness, but nice colours
generic dullness, but nice colours

Torture and sensory deprivation are the subject of the next story, and also attack. Helva gets kidnapped by a deranged brawn and has her synapses disconnected, she can no longer hear or see. She never could smell, taste or touch, so her only senses have been turned off. How she copes, and gets herself out of the situation, are down to strong willpower, inner mental resources, and intelligence, the management and recall of data that will give her an idea to neutralise her attacker, and allow help to come. How would you kill someone if you only had a voice? McCaffrey’s emphasis on self-reliance comes back again here: in this story Helva’s brawn is a total git, an arrogant, patronising male stereotype who thinks of Helva only as a sophisticated computer without a personality, and so she kicks him off her ship, divorcing him not so much for his personal failings and terrible judgement, but for failing to understand who she is and what she needs. If that’s not feminist action I don’t know what is.

The last story gives Helva a kind of closure, because she finally meets her man, her perfect brawn, whom we have encountered in all the stories so far, in a very traditional romance pattern: the one man with whom she is continually arguing is of course the one man for her. I find this disappointing because it’s so predictable. It’s also a reminder that all the authority figures in these stories are men: that is a feminist fail that McCaffrey went on to try to do something about in her later novels, but never really got a grip on. The Ship Who Sang is a great way to set out ideas, and to explore some really important ideas about women and power and strength, but if only she had continued in this way.

Anne McCaffrey, The Ship Who Sang (1969), in many editions.