READING ‘AVERAGE’ BOOKS (II): DAVID BRIN’S GLORY SEASON

I came across David Brin’s Glory Season (1993) while looking for a suitable topic for an oncoming conference on Utopian Studies in Tarragona (see https://wwwa.urv.cat/deaa/utopia/international/home.html). This, a low-tech SF novel about a utopian “feminist nirvana” written by a man, sounded promising enough, backed as it was by its Hugo and Locus nominations (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glory_Season). I hadn’t read anything else by Brin and checking the inevitable Amazon.com I learned that Glory Season is by no means his best effort, with top marks going to his multi-award books Startide Rising (1983) and The Uplift War (1987), both saga starters. Anyway, I decided to put the 3,5 star-rating at the back of my mind, brace myself for the disappointing ending most readers complained about and plod on, pencil in hand, for its almost 800 pages. What’s happened finally? Well, I have started re-reading the book at once because now that I am familiarised with the odd workings of Brin’s feminist separatist utopia (or dystopia?), it’s time to enjoy the ride.

This is one problem that science fiction and fantasy inevitably face: each novel, unless it is part of a series, describes a completely new world but, to make it more enticing, writers naturally provide information about it little by little. This means that the complete picture only emerges by the end and much is missed as the beginning, as I have checked myself just by re-reading the first 50 pages of Glory Season. Let’s say that the first reading has been tantalising enough to make me go back again, something I assumed only good short stories and poems could do. The ending, by the way, was, in this reader’s modest opinion, a beauty and I was really moved to see young Maia reach in this bildungsroman the point when she decides to be her own woman, stepping outside the restrictions that her matriarchal, clone-based society imposes.

This is a novel too dense to summarise in just a blog entry without doing an injustice to Brin’s “thought experiment” but I’ll argue to begin with that it’s enjoyable because it’s a nicely balanced cautionary tale about how the excesses of patriarchy can lead to the excesses of matriarchy, with individuals –male and female– suffering much for that. I am myself, despite my feminist beliefs, quite uncomfortable with the separatist, radical feminist utopias of the 1970s onwards (not forgetting Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s pioneering Herland) and this may be why I enjoyed Brin’s tale. I’m not blind to some of his worst misogynistic plot turns nor to the glaring absence of a basic human rapport between men and women, except for a handful of Maia-related exceptions, but I’m all in all satisfied with the energy Brin put into his task.

I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll focus on this novel for my conference paper as my plan-B topic seems more suitable (see my entry for cheeky sci-fi film Battle Los Angeles). Also because I have nagging doubts regarding the status of Glory Season among the SF community. Let’s say that David Brin enjoys a much higher reputation as an SF writer than Rafael Yglesias as a literary author, as attested by the top genre awards he’s got. Yet, Glory Season is not in the same league as the most obvious SF and Fantasy masterpieces and, lacking as many of these do, relevant bibliography about them I’m not sure I should devote my academic efforts to this novel just because I found it very interesting. I know it is not first rank because it often just rambles on, the protagonist gets too many whacks to her head that leave her unconscious and, although still in print, it has not made quite a stir since it was published, almost 20 years ago (nothing in MLA, of course). It’s the kind of novel, perhaps, to be commented on together with others in a discussion of utopian anti-patriarchal fiction by men (gosh!) but not quite justifiably a reason to write a paper focusing mainly on it. Or is it?

Here’s where I think that Medievalists have an advantage over us, specialists in the contemporary: time has sifted through the literary production of the past so thinly that nothing can be left out, whereas for us what kind of sieve we need to use is the first and foremost problem. I might, therefore, leave it at that: Rafael Yglesias’s novel is relevant and enjoyable enough if you’re interested in literary fiction about long-lasting romantic relationships; David Brin’s insightful critique of pastoral, feminist utopia is, likewise, relevant and enjoyable if this sub-genre is your cup of tea. This does not answer my question about what to do academically with ‘average’ books but if I ever write a paper about any of these two I’ll let you know.

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