On several levels this is one of the most original science-fiction series I’ve met in a long time and L. Timmel Duchamp’s The Marq’ssan Cycle rather defies summary or even description. By sheer length, story scope, and because of Duchamp’s obvious feminist ties, the thought of reviewing the series intimidates me, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway, because I’d like to recommend them to wider attention.
The Marq’ssan are an alien race who have determined to interfere in the development of human culture and civilisation in a not-too-distant future setting. Little is known of the Marq’ssan, as, though wishing to effect drastic change in the structure of human interaction and civilisation, they are also hesitant to force humanity into any particular path. Arriving publicly after years of quiet research conducted disguised as human women in counter-cultural, women-only, anarchistic communities, the Marq’ssan spectacularly shut down the world’s governments with an EMP that destroys all electronic equipment not shielded and destroy the various satellites in orbit.
Then the aliens make a strange demand: women are to travel to designated places to come aboard their spaceship for something called alanya. Glass ceiling still firmly in place, the nations of the world are confused and frustrated, feeling the aliens are being naive and childish in refusing to deal with Earth’s male Executives, who are, after all, its caretakers and rulers.
As I said, the series defies summary – what I have described is only the first chapters of the first book in a multi-thousand page, five book epic. It is important to understand that the Marq’ssan are trying to jump-start a different form of relating, a different way of treating issues and reaching conclusions among differing interests. From an interview posted on Duchamp’s website, I believe many of the ideas herein are drawn from feminism, and that as she compares and contrasts the Free Zones, where normal government is suspended and the people choose new ways to rule themselves, and the strictly hierarchical and traditional Executive, Duchamp is discussing at great length the nature of power and hierarchy in human relationships.
This is not a fun read. There is a long sequence in book two, for example, between an Executive female and her Professional prisoner of war telling in gruesome detail the particulars of the prisoner’s brainwashing by intentional psychological torture leading to an ultimate demise due to suicide.
Put to it, I would say the books are an exploration of power in human relationships and the way that sexuality gets all mixed up in power; how hierarchical relationships can become sexual, how sexual relationships convey power to one or both parties, and the ethics of morality in hierarchical and non-hierarchical systems – how responsible are you for your own actions when someone told you to do it? when no one did?
Tactically, the books are overlong and have weird time gaps that are jarring to the reader. Duchamp explains in the interview that she has been cutting these stories for years, and it is true that many sci-fi readers are accustomed to massive epics. The time gaps are more of a problem to my mind; I would turn the page, to a new chapter or perhaps just a double-spaced break, and months would have gone by with no notice until I was struggling with the mention of something having happened and affecting the scene I was reading without ever having been told it happened or even that time passed. I have never really run across this type of step-gap-leap storytelling before, so I am a loss to explain it.
The Marq’ssan appeal to women because they believe that women are more prepared to develop the kind of interdependent, non-hierarchical, government-by-consensus or non-violent anarchic models they have found to work best in their own revolutionary upheavals. It is not quite clear whether the Marq’ssan (and by extension, Duchamp) believe this is nurture, due to the subservient position of women and a cultural tendency to work together to manage the world behind the scenes of male posturing, or whether it is a type of gender essentialism, or both.
I do find the sexuality of the books troubling. Through the end of book three, Tsunami, there aren’t really any stable, happy relationships, at least for POV characters.* This is true even for our erstwhile heroes – unless you count Kay Zeldin who is separated from her husband by his captivity within the Executive and never reunited with him. Many of the women working with the aliens are mostly lesbians, but POV characters do not seem to have successful relationships based on trust or shared goals (including lesbian relationships). If one is discussing sexuality and power, it would be nice to have some positive examples to contrast, although in fairness, perhaps that is yet to come in the fourth and fifth books which I have not yet finished.
I also find the portrayal of almost every female character as lesbian, while showing heterosexual men as rapists (of a lesbian character, as retribution because she wouldn’t date them), sado-masochists (in an ostensibly consensual relationship) and manipulators (of our only bi-sexual female, Martha, who accidentally hooks up with a spy for the Executive and comes to trust him implicitly, to her own pain) as detrimental. Perhaps this is the level of my feminism contrasting that of Duchamp’s, but I find a feminist portrayal that shows almost all of the women either lesbian or regretting their heterosexual forays as unrealistic and bleak, and as a bi-sexual, I find the respected women in the Free Zone ridiculing Martha’s bi-sexuality rather unempowering.
And as a woman, having experienced oppression, I find the implied disgust for men rather disturbing; my ideal society is not ruled by women, even in supposed anarchy; it is one where everyone is really equal, where all voices count, not just women’s anymore than just men’s.
Duchamp’s cross of dystopic and utopic ideals is therefore a mixed bag, in my considered opinion, and worth a critical read, if you can muster the patience.
*Elizabeth and Hazel’s relationship is problematic, to me, because Hazel never wanted to be with an executive and Elizabeth persuaded, maneuvered and cajoled her into it; while they are ‘in love’ and Elizabeth finds the relationship a source of great comfort, the power element is still disturbing.