Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #51:-
ASSORTED NIGHTMARES AND FANTASIES
Midnight and Moonshine, the first collaboration I read between Australian writers Lisa L. Hannett and Angela Slatter, had about it something of the mystical and mythopoeic, a quality of timelessness. Their latest collaboration, a collection of four stories linked by themes of gender identity and the objectification of women, is a far grittier and more polemical work, as the title THE FEMALE FACTORY (Twelfth Planet Press eBook, 160pp, AU$5.95) might suggest.
After an introduction’ by Amal El-Mohtar, the collection proper begins with ‘Vox’ in which young couple Kate and Nick are desperate for a child, so desperate that they seek the help of Dr. Good and his Delayed Gestation Units. When Kate has triplets, two of them have to be surrendered as the couple can’t afford all three. But in this reality the souls of “surrendered” children are kept in corporate storage facilities, and Kate believes that she can talk to the two she has lost, her sense of guilt driving her to seek their attention at the cost of neglecting the baby she actually has. It seems to me that what this story does is combine the plight of a childless couple with the concept of Electronic Voice Phenomenon, the latter here given a scientific and commercial rationale. The idea is a fascinating one, that unused souls can hang around waiting for an opening, and that the living can communicate with them through mechanical devices, though as far as that goes we only have Kate’s word that communication takes place, and it’s established early on in the story that she speaks to inanimate objects. The authority and emotional power of the story lies in the sense of desperation felt by the couple at their childless state, the measures to which they are driven by the desire to conform to some social desiderata, with the subtext that in trying for something more you can lose sight of what you already have. Kate wants a perfect, guilt-free existence, but that is not possible given her actions, the choices she is forced to make, and if she is innocent before then that’s no longer the case as neglect of baby Audra condemns her in the eyes of the reader.
‘Baggage’ is the story of Robyn, who has been taken by the Atwood Corporation and transformed into a glorified brood mare for their rich clientele. Her handler takes her to the estate of an elderly billionaire, where Robyn’s status as little more than a prostitute is brought home to her with full force, prompting an act of rebellion. At times, with the back story of how Robyn is taught to act and dress, given elocution lessons and made to learn social skills, ‘Baggage’ made me think of Pretty Woman, but Robyn’s partner is no Richard Gere and ultimately the story is much harsher than the saccharine sweet portrayal of prostitution served up by Hollywood. This is a story about using people as property, that women’s bodies are not their own; about the dreadful ways in which the super-rich act simply because they can, and at the end I cheered Robyn as she made her escape, even though there is something of duplicity about her too, in that she presumably knew what she was getting into when she signed up with Atwood. Ultimately it’s a pseudo-Marxist tale, a story of the worker taking back the means of reproduction.
‘All the Other Revivals’ is set in a world where people who feel they are trapped in the wrong bodies can change their gender by diving to the bottom of an isolated body of water. When his girlfriend Andrea takes the swim, Jeff can’t help but see her decision as reflecting on him, a judgement that he wasn’t man enough for her, and so the victim for his spite is the weak and effeminate Baron. A gentle person, Baron has always been an outsider, picked on by others and judged as not masculine enough, a disappointment to his macho father. Told from Baron’s perspective, the story explores notions of gender identity, of what it means to be a man or woman, and how superficial such things are, the distinction between primary and secondary/cultural gender differences. Directly confronting issues of abuse and bullying, it is a heartfelt and moving piece, one that pleads for a more fluid idea of gender and a greater toleration for those who do not fit the societal template, or perhaps for an abandonment of such templates altogether.
Finally we have title story ‘The Female Factory’, which is set in an institution that is home to criminals, some of them no more than young children, all under the draconian rule of Matron Welles. While the staff jockey for position and pursue their own obsessions, including the doctor who experiments on corpses, a group of children combine to create a mother figure to head up their new family. This is a fascinating story, one that in its imagery touches on the Frankenstein archetype, and with the ups and downs of fortune that the characters experience is thoroughly engrossing. The Bridewell institution is a singularly minatory environment, a prison camp of sorts with its own unique logic, with rules and regulations that it can be fatal to break, but at the bottom of it all, for the young inmates, there remains a smidgen of hope, a feeling that only the irrational can provide when all else fails. Ultimately, it seems to say, gender identity is what we wish it to be, something summoned forth by our own implacable yearning, and the mothers of our own devising will sometimes have more to offer than those inflicted on us by the tyranny of biology and social constraints.
Similar themes, though less overtly, are explored in Slatter’s solo work OF SORROW AND SUCH (Tor.com pb, 160pp, $12.99), a novella or short novel set in the same world as the author’s Bitterwood Bible and Sourdough collections, a fantasy realm in which magic works and women are the last bastions of scholarship. It fits rather neatly into the overall pattern of Slatter’s invented version of reality, and readers of the previous books will have fun identifying characters and events, seeing how they slot into the grand design, but at the same time it’s a book that works wonderfully well as a standalone adventure, with no previous experience needed to enjoy all its thrills and spills.
“Widow” Patience Gideon lives in the town of Edda’s Meadow and is its wise woman, the one people consult for herbal cures and love philtres, and sometimes more than that. Patience has problems with adopted daughter Gilly, who is going down a path to love that will surely lead her into trouble. Also currently sheltering at Patience’s house is Selke, a wandering witch who is being pursued by those who hate and fear her kind, and Selke’s presence proves fortuitous when her abilities bring about the cure of a wounded shapeshifter. Matters are further complicated by the arrival in town of Balthazar Cotton, a man from Patience’s past. With the visit of ecclesiastical inquisitors and the capture of a shifter who may betray them all, things reach a head, and Patience must take drastic action if those she cares about are to survive. And there are two or three more subplots at least – Slatter does not short change the reader when it comes to narrative complications.
This is very much a milieu in which the lives and actions of women are central, with their role primarily that of preserving knowledge while the men are, invariably, bellicose and humourless, blustering about making everyone else do what they wish for their own good, and never asking anyone what they actually want. We see this in the figure of Pastor Alhgren, wishing to poison his wife so that he can acquire a younger model; we see it in the person of Balthazar Cotton, who always calculates his advantage, even when the life of his brother is concerned; most obviously we notice it in the ecclesiastical men who pursue a personal vendetta wrapped up in protestations of principle. And, in nearly all of these cases, the women are accused not because they have done anything wrong, but for the reason that their ideas on behaviour and rightness do not coincide with those of the men. The Archbishop of Lodellan doesn’t really care that Selke is a witch, though that is the pretext used by those who pursue her in his name; he is offended because she won’t use what power she has in the manner he wishes. Similarly Beau Markham doesn’t really care that Patience is a wise woman, only that her intervention prevented him getting his way with stepdaughter Gilly and caused him to lose face. Not wishing to give you the impression Of Sorrow and Such is anti-men, let me note that not all of Slatter’s male figure are tainted with obstinacy and fake machismo, with the boy Sandor totally loyal to Patience and her daughter, while the town constable, a previous bed partner of Patience, has the sense to feel guilty regarding what he is compelled to do, and one of the other men is capable of redemption. It’s simply that the negative qualities Slatter wishes to dissect are more often the province of men, or of those in positions of power (and in this world, that means men). Similarly, while in Slatter’s scheme of things they show more loyalty to each other, not all of the women are portrayed as saints, with Flora’s self-centeredness putting everyone in danger and prompting Patience’s most violent act. While all of the characters are well drawn and fully rounded, it is in Patience that Slatter excels, allowing us to get to know and like this woman, with her wisdom, and caring, protective nature, her physicality as well as her spiritual side, and then, having done all this, showing that she can also be totally ruthless and her enemies will not be long for this earth. She is a person in whom opposites mingle, compassionate but at the same time possessed of a pragmatism that on occasion can seem indistinguishable from cruelty, and all the more believable for that. Patience is as multi-faceted and rounded as the world in which she is set, like a gem set in a work of ornate metalwork, and in her character she reflects that world, both good and bad, while offering a contrast to the hypocrisy and cant of its ostensible rulers.
Of Sorrow and Such is a superb work of fiction, one that contains within its pages a gripping story, but at the same time has much to tell us about sexual politics and gender identity, and the ways in which bad people behave, the warped logic they use to justify doing so, and I loved every word of it. Without doubt, Slatter is at the top of her game in this story and fast carving out a reputation for herself as one of the most original and rewarding writers on the genre scene.