Mysterium by Robert Charles Wilson

Taking its cue from a classic SF/F/H trope of isolating a group of people to see how they deal (or not) with extraordinary circumstances, Mysterium (originally published in 1994, when it won the Phillip K. Dick Award) dresses up an old situation under a coating of metaphysics and gnosticism. What it gets right down to is a thinly disguised extremist religious regime taking over a middle American town that’s been plopped down in its territory. It’s not Kansas (er, Michigan) anymore, kids!

A main beef on this site is how, given the possibilities of SF and fantasy, stereotyped American gender roles are fixed as in amber, and rarely change except when the writer and publisher are exceptionally aware of the problem of slotting men and women into particular roles in a future environment. Mysterium doesn’t take the reader to a distant or even a not-so-distant future, and its characters are clearly modern day American towns people. Even with the trappings of science fiction–a town is transported via a mysterious MacGuffin to a parallel world where history shifted from ours a few centuries back–what it really is, is a study of how an American town would fare under a ruthless dictatorship that covets its technology, but has no real use for the actual citizens except to give context FOR the technology. But does that excuse stereotypical treatment of characters roles within the story?

What does all this have to do with the women in the book? Well, imagine a French town overtaken by the Nazis. What would happen there? What sort of stories featuring women would be portrayed? Would they be brave? Would they give in to the military stationed in their homes? The difference between the stories you’d hear from a French town is that some of the women would likely have contributed to an anti-Nazi movement within the town.

Here’s how Mysterium, having created the same circumstances as that theoretical occupied French town, dealt with its women (and children).

Evelyn Woodward, the owner of a bed & breakfast, has a deep fatalistic world view. She refuses to move in with her fiance and leave her house when the commander of the invading forces takes over her home and her. She becomes his mistress. She is forced, through association, to wear the Victorian style dresses he buys her (he “owns” her and wants his men to realize it). Mostly, she accepts this, and is taken aback at how the very snug dresses actually show off more of her body than her American jeans and t-shirts, and how she feels exposed wearing what he gives her. She’s branded a Quisling (after a French traitor in WWII), a collaborator, and withdraws more as the book goes on.

Ellen Stockton is the divorced mother of Clifford, an adventurous young boy. In order to get food for her and her son, she starts working at a bar in the town, and in lieu of payment, sleeps with the soldiers for food ration tickets. That continues until a particular soldier rescues her from that fate, and she becomes his mistress. She doesn’t do a whole lot in the book, except sleep a lot, and drink a lot, until her soldier patron arrives for sex and company. This is convenient for the plot so that her curious son Clifford can bicycle all around town, check things out, and confer with the male resistance leader (such as it is).

Linneth Stone is an anthropologist native to this parallel earth who studies the now extinct peoples and cultures of the American continent. Why are the aborigines extinct? Because her culture used ovens to burn their bodies after mass killings back in the 1800s. No one apparently cares about learning about them, but she does. She’s considered expendable, then, and sent to the town to learn about the citizenry, their history, and whatever she can about their culture.  She eventually figures out what is going on and what her government intends to do with the town and its people, along with the resistant male character (a high school teacher) and helps him. She also becomes his lover.

There is a black section of town that is mentioned here and there throughout the story, but it plays no active role in the story or in a resistance, and none of the main cast of characters or secondary characters, appear to be anything but white American and the alternate world equivalent. To me it was unclear if any of the black citizens of Two Rivers escaped the coup de grace at the end of the book, or if any of them were murdered along with the whites when they protested the new rules the invaders set for the town.

I enjoyed Wilson’s smooth, elegant writing style, and his often oblique method of telling the reader how much nastiness is really going on (did those townspeople really think they were going to new jobs in those trucks elsewhere in that world? really?). He made me flip back to earlier pages to realize exactly what he was actually saying. The brutality becomes explicit later on when the commander, who is on vacation, is told that the Proctor (equivalent to a SS officer) has hung a bunch of children in the town.

Yeah. It’s a brutal novel couched in smooth language and with what I considered scenes that were written to make it into a SF/F novel. But, focusing again on the women, it was disappointing that the only woman with any spunk or mind of her own was from the alternate world, and the women of our world were reduced wholesale to sex objects who thought about their sons, men, relationships to the men. If there was a substantial scene between any two women in the entire town, I don’t remember it!

I suppose I should be glad that in a SF book set in today’s world, that there are any women at all featured in it, experiencing a new world along with the men and boys (no girls at all in the book…none). But no, I’m not satisfied.

Moving along…Sherri Tepper’s The Waters Rising: A Novel up next.


  1. says

    I come across this All. The. Time.

    I would almost rather there be no women at all.

    It’s especially wall-bangery if the author is not even a little feminist-minded, so the women’s forced rapes (because that’s what they are, so matter how you dress them up) are played as straight and natural, rather than showing the brutal effect of patriarchy upon women who have no choice. I MIGHT read THAT book, but even then I’m not sure.

    I’m just so sick of authors and artists going, “Hmm, I have this female character. Well, she has to have SEX with someone! I mean, why have a woman in the story if she’s not gonna have any sex? No one wants to read about some unsexy, non-sex-having woman! OH I KNOW, let’s showcase her character flaws or virtues via the SEX she has! Brilliant! Lofty Madonna sex or filthy filthy Whore sex, either way, it’s a nice handy chart for the reader when HE’S trying to figure these strange woman-creatures out.”

    No, I’m not bitter at ALL about this shit. 😉

  2. Casey says

    Ugh, this sounds like a book I’d read and enjoy in the moment because I’d be taken in by the smooth language, but if I ever came back to it/read a synopsis or review on a site like this, I’d realize what happened and be like “WHAT THE FUCK, THAT WAS BULLSHIT”.

    • says

      That happens to me a lot. That’s also why I have to let a book sit for a few days (or weeks) and then go back and reread it and then take notes. It took me reviewing about one of my favorite supernatural mystery writers to realize WHY although I like his stories, they also bug the shit out of me if I look too deeply at the roles he assigns the women in his books.

  3. says

    “The women of our world were reduced wholesale to sex objects who thought about their sons, men, relationships to the men…I suppose I should be glad that in a SF book set in today’s world, that there are any women at all featured in it, experiencing a new world along with the men and boys (no girls at all in the book…none). But no, I’m not satisfied.”

    You definitely shouldn’t be satisfied with that. As a feminist fan and blogger of speculative fiction (SF&F&H), I take that lack as a challenge =) If you don’t mind some unsolicited recommendations, here are a few of my favorite spec fic books, set in an approximation of today’s world, featuring multiple strong, well-developed, female characters.

    Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews – set in the year 2040, after the magic apocalypse. Not only is Kate is pretty awesome, but there are many strong women in the series like Julie, Andrea, Dali and Aunt B. They all have their own agendas, which don’t necessarily coincide with Kate’s. I especially love this series because it’s hard to find an urban fantasy where the heroine actually has a female best friend the way real women do.

    The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong – set in modern times, dealing with the secret world of necromancers et cetera. The students include Chloe, Liz, Rae and Tori. Chloe wants to go back to film school, Rae wants to find her birth mother, Tori wants her mother to be proud of her. That’s without getting into the adult generation like Aunt Lauren and Mrs. Enright, who also have their own goals. The Summoning is young adult; the sister series for adults, starting with Bitten, is also pretty good about well-rounded female characters.

    Moon Called by Patricia Briggs – set in modern times, dealing with the secret world of werewolves and vampires. The society is sexist, but many of Mercy’s problems come, directly or indirectly, from dealing with that sexism (a.k.a. “chivalry”). Other recurring women include Jesse, Aurora, Mary Jo, Honey and Marsilia. Again, they have their own agendas: Jesse uses Mercy as support for her teenaged rebellion, while Aurora views Mercy as a destabilizing political force.

    Storm Front by Jim Butcher – set in modern times, dealing with the secret world of wizards and vampires. The series focuses on Harry, but other major characters include Karrin, Susan, Molly and Anastasia, all of whom are well-developed and have their own goals (Karrin is a cop, Susan is a reporter, et cetera).

    The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff – set in modern times, dealing with the secret world of witches and leprechauns. The Gales are a strong witch family who usually have lots of daughters and few sons. So besides Allie and her best friend/cousin Charlie, there are hordes of cousins and aunties off in the background. The main plot is Allie trying to figure out what her grandmother was up to before she died under mysterious circumstances.

    The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu – set in the Sahara Desert in the year 2070 after the nuclear and magic apocalypse. The primary plot is Ejii preventing war between the worlds; the secondary plot is Ejii dealing with her conflict with Queen Jaa, who both executed Ejii’s father and sponsored her mother’s rise to power.

    Doppelgangster by Esther Resnick – set in modern times, dealing with the secret world of wizards and demons. Esther doesn’t have any magic herself, but she’s pretty good about getting to the root of magical problems. While this book does okay on the Bechdel test, it’s really the sequel where it shines: Esther takes a teaching job and interacts regularly with a female student, the headmistress, another teacher and a local priestess.

    • says

      Hi Sylvia,
      I’ve heard of Magic Bites, but since I’m not a paranormal romance fan (read too many under the guise of urban fantasy, been disappointed majorly with the lack of world building and reliance of conventional Alpha-Omega wolf tropes, etc etc), I might check it out from the library.

      Moon Called–yup, read the first three books in the series, and again, sure, some female relationships going on, I guess, and the main character was pretty cool…until she was shoved into (oh no!) another AlphaWolf romance. Sure, she fought it, but again, had enough of that trope. My own personal peeve; I hate hate hate that trope with a passion. So tired of the dominant vamp/werewolf guy character getting his way, even with a strong willed woman.

      Storm Front–have all the books so far. ALL of them. The series does have its problems, but at least the women aren’t lie-back and take-it types, and there are, in fact, several very powerful female characters ranging from human to superhuman to supernatural.

      Doppelgangster–heard about that one on John Scalzi’s site, it sounded interesting. I am planning on looking into that one.

      Shadow Speaker–hadn’t heard of this one. Intrigued, to say the least.

      Enchantment Emporium–I haven’t read any Huff. This one’s gotten strangely mixed responses on Amazon and elsewhere. Again, a library look-up, if I have the time. Thanks for the reccs! I’m currently working my through Tepper’s newest.

      • says

        About Magic Bites…if you don’t like alpha wolves, you probably won’t like alpha lions, either. :T Kate’s love interest is very dominant and much of their romance is about negotiating two strong personalities to fit together. I don’t think Kate “surrenders” to him or lets him have his own way, but I know some people have read it that way. So if that’s a pet peeve of yours, the story might not work for you. The world-building is fantastic, though.

        For the Enchantment Emporium, most of the criticisms I’ve observed break into two camps: the writing style is too obtuse (a flaw I noted in my own review but I still recommend it), and there are multiple references to consensual sex between adult first cousins. Some people consider that incest, some don’t, and which side of the cousin marriage taboo you fall on will probably affect your reading of the story. I meant to note the cousin sex thing in my first post, but forgot.

        Glad you found some of this useful. =)

      • says

        I’ve read the Ilona Andrews series (…both series, actually, but specifically the Magic Bites one!) and The Shadow Speaker and will enthusiastically second those recs.

        …I really should review some of the books on my shelf, damn it.

        • says

          I’ll check the Ilona Andrews series out of the library, whenever the library is open. (hours are severely cut down now, thank you California for your sucky budgetary cuts) I’m still leary of the Alpha male trope. It reminds me too much of those romance books that got off on the heroine being raped by the hero and then marrying him. Yech. You don’t need an asshole to be a romantic hero.

          As for the cousin taboo…meh. As long as it isn’t *every generation* that partakes in the interbreeding, I don’t care. I mean, who wants to end up with what the Egyptian Pharoahs evidently did?

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