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.