Internets! It is time for the January Sleeping Beauties essay!
In the first essay, I discussed the European origins of the fairy tale. In the second essay I made some inflammatory statements about the Grimm brothers and told the sad story of Tchaikovsky yearning for critical approval.In the third, I talked about the Disneyfication of the story with the very pretty movie.
And now, Internets, it’s time to get political, with Sheri S. Tepper’s award-winning novel, Beauty
I quite like a didactic book, a book that tells me to think about things, a book that makes a clear argument for a proposition. I am also pretty obviously happy to include didactic elements in my own work. I mean, the messages in my books are not particularly subtle: The narratives that you are exposed to shape your life, so think about them! Don’t slut-shame people! Please don’t kill yourself!
Sheri S. Tepper is a writer of didactic books, and how. Her messages are also not super subtle: Patriarchy is really bad for everyone, but especially women. If humans keep treating this planet like our personal rubbish dump the species will regret it. And so on!
Tepper’s characterisation doesn’t usually appeal to me, but her ideas and world building certainly do. She’ll come up with a what if, and explore it. What would a gender separatist society look like and how would it function? (The Gate To Women’s Country) What if humans were missing a racial memory, and that caused our frequent bouts of cruelty and sadism? (The Margarets). Interesting questions! Interesting worlds!
Often kind of weirdly formulated arguments.
Because while Tepper is doing all these interesting things, I cannot help having questions about so many of the things that are just assumed to be true as she explores her worlds and makes her points. Such as, what’s with the genetically transmitted personality traits? Where are the queer people? Are you honestly equating people who create porn and cut down trees to actual rapists and murderers? Are you serious about this gender essentialism? For reals? Like… really?
In Beauty, Tepper’s what-ifs go like this: what if the original Sleeping Beauty were born in 14th century England, the daughter to a duke? What if she had an illegitimate half-sister, born the same day, who looked so like her that the two girls regularly swapped clothes and played tricks? What if the curse of the fairy Carabosse was that the Duke’s daughter would prick her finger and sleep on the day she turned sixteen?
And what if it wasn’t Beauty who fulfilled the curse, but her sister Beloved?
While everyone else sleeps in the enchanted castle, Beauty is left to go her own way. She is promptly accidentally kidnapped to the late 21st century by a time travelling film crew, who have come back to film the 14th century; the death of magic.
The 21st is depicted as a horrible place, ruled by the notion of Fidipur (feed the poor), where the billions of people in the world are equally housed in horrific 100 square foot apartment hives and are dispensed tasteless food made from sea algae.
In this Fidipur future, all the forests are gone, all mammals except for humans are gone, all things of beauty and art are gone. People caught trying to get more are sent down the chutes to die. Beauty manages to go back far enough to hit the 20th century, where she can already see signs of Fidipur beginning and learns from other time travellers that after Fidipur, there is nothing – eventually, by about 2114, humanity ends in everyone going down the tubes, because they cannot cope with the grim horror of their lives. So many try to go down that the machines clog and break and the bodies rot.
This is only the beginning of a complicated and involving plot, which includes angels, the Devil, fairies, magical realist adventures in a created world, a trip to Hell, and the revelation that Beauty is personally responsible for a lot of fairy tale figures – she is not only herself, but the mother of Cinderella, the grandmother of Snow White, and the great-great grandmother of the Frog Prince.
But Beauty’s real mission is to make sure that the future she saw never takes places – or that if it does, humanity will survive afterwards. Eventually giving up on her ability to defeat the “gobble-god” of greed and ugliness, Beauty instead manages to create in Westfaire castle a kind of Ark of beauty and art. This place is designed to exist outside time until Fidipur’s time has gone, and the human race can be revived. With, I guess, a feudal political system, because reasons.
The big problem I have with Beauty (well, one of two – a brief follow-up on that tomorrow) is that I think the Fidipur scenario is both too good and too bad to be true.
It’s too good to be true, because the Fidipur future Beauty describes involves everyone getting the same tiny living space and the same bland food substitutes and having to live by the same austerity rules. This assumes that people in power will decide to actually feed the poor and to allocate resources equally. That doesn’t gel with what I’ve seen of human nature. I don’t accept that all the people with enough power to enforce these rules would be satisfied with their own stark little cell and tasteless pap. I just don’t think most relatively rich and powerful people would be overly concerned with feeding the poor. They sure aren’t now.
(And yet, in an environment where this kind of equal austerity is practiced and brutally enforced, the people in charge (who we never hear anything about) do not take measures designed to reduce overpopulation and free up resources, other than killing people who break the rules. They just maintain the austere status quo. I don’t get it.)
This future is also too bad to be true, because I don’t think the mass suicide of the enormous population and the complete destruction of any kind of beauty is a viable projection. Beauty’s idea of the worst possible future is one where everyone has a place to sleep and enough to eat. It’s a grim, squashed-down kind of existence, but people are, right now, surviving in much worse conditions. They shouldn’t have to for a second, but they are. And while suicide and depression are indeed rife among people actually living in grindingly horrible circumstances, they are not universal.
When We Wake is, like Beauty, a Sleeping Beauty story that pays a lot of attention to what the future might bring. In the future of When We Wake, there are dwindling resources. There is overpopulation and due to rising sea levels, less living space than ever before.
These limited resources result, not in equality, but in an even greater disparity between the powerful and the powerless, those with all the advantages and those with very few.
Some reviewers are calling When We Wake a dystopia. I don’t think it is, but bear in mind I’m the same person who wrote about people getting torn in half and someone eating someone else’s brains in Guardian of the Dead, and was then legit surprised when people told me it was a horror novel. When We Wake is just how I think humans might act, extrapolated forward.
I think they will be both better and worse than Beauty tells us. In my 22nd century, art and beauty and music don’t disappear. People can still be wise and honest and brave. But they can also be selfish and cruel.
In When We Wake, one of the questions Tegan has to face is why she’s been brought back to life, at incredible expense, to be another mouth to feed in a world with billions of them. Who is being hurt by her revival? Who stands to profit? Why does she get to live again when thousands of refugees are treated as automatic criminals and kept in huge camps? What are the implications of her revival – what happens if it can be repeated, with the very many relatively wealthy people who have been cryogenically preserved in the century since her own death?
And does she, like Beauty, want to change the future?
The answers to the first questions are yet to be seen!
The answer to the last one is yes.