I am really proud to have been part of the jury that gave Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku and Greer Gilman’s Cloud and Ashes the 2009 Tiptree award, for science fiction/fantasy that expands and challenges our ideas about gender. The winning texts are very different, and neither fit what would be most people’s first conception of f/sf, but to me that’s what makes them both so exciting. They embody the expansive possibilities of what we can describe as feminist science fiction/fantasy or speculative fiction today.
On the one hand, Gilman’s suite of two stories and a short novel is a beautiful small press hardback where the design is as painstaking as the language, a book dense with labor and allusion that digs deep into the archives of northern European mythology that have shaped fantastic writing so intensely. At a time when I was feverishly speeding through the award-nominated books that were continually arriving on my doorstep, Gilman’s rich language forced me to change my pace.
On the other hand, Yoshinaga’s manga uses the tropes of changing gendered power dynamics that have been beloved of British and American feminists’ imagined worlds since the late nineteenth century, but puts them to work in a very different cultural context: Shogun-era Japan. Although I love graphic novels and comics, I haven’t spent much time with manga, but that didn’t stop me falling in love very fast with Yoshinaga’s crisp images and nuanced storytelling. The premise is that, in isolationist Edo Japan, men have been an endangered species since the onset of a sex-specific plague. Women step into positions of power and keep their fragile men protected, but this isn’t a simple role-reversal story. What I loved most about it was that you could see the patriarchal gender structure that had existed before the plague peeking through all the time: in the interactions of the men in the Shogun’s harem (the Ooku of the title), where much activity takes place; among the women who pay men for sex in the hope of conceiving. And, most fascinating of all, in the trappings of power into which we see the new and feisty Shogun, Yoshimune (a character I can’t wait to see more of in later volumes), being indoctrinated. Much of the action takes place in the homosocial, hierarchical, domestic environment of the Ooku, with only a few glimpses so far into the female worlds of power and politics, but as the second volume delves into history, it seems that we will soon get more. I can’t wait.
I am going to try to make a series of posts about the novels and stories I read for the Tiptree, because there are so many I want to recommend that I may never finish this post if I try to do it all here. So watch this space for more on the honor list and special mention.
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