Sunday, March 10, 2019

Alastair Reynolds' Revenger | Gender Roles and Liminal Space


Alastair Reynolds' Revenger is a bildungsroman exploring the fluidity of gender roles in liminal spaces. In this book, Reynolds draws heavily on adventure stories of the high seas rather than the westerns that his books normally plunder as source material.


In Revenger, Reynolds pulls from a long tradition of subverting traditional gender roles through mobility. Leaving the hearth is an archetypal first move to coming into one's own, and the sea life has long been a refuge to cross-dressing women who pass as men to escape the confining strictures of their society. But cross-dressing doesn't happen in Revenger, Reynolds imagines a world in which women, attached or no, are just as likely to space as men, but he simultaneously writes a homeworld--Mazarile--that reads as if it were set in Victorian-era England or a society with even fewer freedoms for women. In Mazarile, keeping women locked in the house is acceptable and reinforced by the authorities if one desires. The way to escape the strictures of Mazarile is by crewing on ships, living a dangerous life of adventure.

On their homeworld, Fura and Adrana's father acts as the guardian at the gate, refusing to let his daughters grow up or go out. He employs a Dr.--Dr. Morcenx--to drug them, keeping them docile and physically stunting their growth so that they don't grow to legal age. Interpretation: by refusing to let his daughters leave the home, Ness limits their personal development. Ness wants to crystallize his daughters in a moment in time rather than allow them the independence required to individuate.


Escaping Authority


Because of Ness' controlling nature, the only way that Fura and Adrana can escape the authority and tradition of Mazarile is to leave, taking to the space as bone readers in search of treasure stowed away in baubles. Successful bauble hauls yield extreme wealth. Thus, if a woman succeeds in the adventuring life, she amasses the capital that affords her the ability to make her own way, to live as she will without the need to submit to any outside authority that places limitations on womanhood.

But leaving isn't enough to escape Ness. Fura leaves, and Ness finds her and brings her back home, summarily tightening his grip, reducing Fura's freedoms more than ever.

Fura only finds lasting freedom from her father through his death. Ness dies of a broken heart when Fura escapes his heavy-handed grasp. With no guardian at the gate, Fura is free to become what she will.

In case readers miss his central thesis, Reynolds writes in a third character in Revenger that finds the freedom to develop by leaving the father's protection. On the first ship that Fura and Adrana crew, where they become bone readers, Captain Rackamore nurses the loss of his daughter Illyria to the feared pirate Bossa Sennen. Like Ness, Rackamore dies over the loss of his daughter. He turns his crossbow on himself when he realizes his daughter, Illyria, has become the next Bossa Sennen. The previous Bossa Sennen corrupts Rackamore's daughter, taking from him the joy of teaching his daughter to captain in his manner and to love scholarship as he loved it. He doesn't get to pass the family business onto his daughter; instead, Illyria takes on the psychological profile of Bossa Sennen and leads the most feared pirate crew in the system. 

Bossa is a reminder of the absence of Fura and Adrana's deceased mother. They lost their birth mother when they were young, so they missed out on being mothered, experiencing a mother's unique sympathy and care for her children. 

But Bossa Sennen is also a virus, replicating herself in a chosen successor every generation. Bossa Sennen's successor is always a woman. This is made clear when Fura finds a room on Bossa's ship of the previous Bossas preserved in glass containers.

And Bosa Sennen means business, figuratively at least, representing the call to go and do and evincing the resulting identity that forms in the one that goes and does. The name Sennen importantly is a rearrangement and near anagram of Ness. Sennen and Ness exhibit the same type of control on their charges. Why is this important? Because Sennen is a woman and Ness is a man. Thus, Reynolds makes it clear that matriarchy and patriarchy are both capable of the same abuses of control. Patriarchy isn't somehow more authoritative than matriarchy. And for individuals to develop into individuated selves, they must find freedom from all types of control, including control derived from men or women.

Get your copy of Revenger at Amazon!

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